Brother Fountain and Brother Heron
Here is an extract from a letter from Oliver Cromwell to Robert Hammond on 6 November 1648, in which he calls Sir Henry Vane the younger by a nickname:
Tell my brother Heron I smiled at his expression concerning wise friend’s opinion, who thinks that the enthroning the King with Presbytery brings spiritual slavery, but with a moderate Episcopacy works a good peace.
And here is an extract from a letter from Sir Henry Vane the Younger to Oliver Cromwell a few years later on 2 August 1651:
Brother Fountain can guess at his brother’s meaning … many other things are reserved for your knowledge, whenever it please God we meet, and till then let me desire you upon the score of ancient friendship that hath been between us not to give ear to the mistakes, surmises, or jealousies of others, from what hand soever, concerning your brother Heron, but to be assured he answers your heart’s desire in all things, except he be esteemed by you in principles too high to fathom, which one day I am persuaded will not be so thought by you’.
Cromwell is Brother Fountain; Vane is Brother Heron. Cromwell and Vane were certainly close but quite what this set of nicknames means is intriguing.
Early in the twentieth century, J. B. Williams (a historian of seventeenth century journalism) guessed that it might be from when Cromwell lived in King Street (now Whitehall), where there was a tavern called the Fountain. Perhaps this is right, but given that every point of interpretation of Williams that I have ever explored has turned out to be wrong, I am inclined not to believe it. And it is stretching it a bit to assume that Heron must also relate to another tavern or meeting place given the lack of evidence.
Vane’s most recent biographers, Violet A. Rowe and Ruth E. Mayers, don’t shed any light on it and I don’t recall any recent biography of Cromwell mentioning it either. Part of me wonders, perhaps, whether like many nicknames they came out of nowhere and were just silly, affectionate names that stuck.
I couldn’t agree with you more about Williams’ surmise. It is utter nonsense and totally ignores the religious component of the Parliamentary factions.
Surely the reference to Cromwell as Brother Fountain is biblical in nature in reference to “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness,” Zechariah 13:1, he that drinketh of the water that flows from Christ, this living Fountain, shall thirst no more, John 4:14. and other passages of similar nature. This is quite apt as a description of Cromwell’s leadership.
Given Vane’s education, religious beliefs and skill gained in government administration it is not surprising that Vane would be referred to as Heron. In the Physiologus, a beastiary combining physical and allegorical characteristics, the heron is described as a contented bird which does not run hither and thither after game. Christians were advised to emulate its feeding habits rather than chasing after false doctrines to feed their hungry souls. Such a description matches Vanes beliefs with respect to ceremonies and rituals preferring that one should follow his conscience unadulterated by doctrines contrived since the primitive Christian church. During medieval times, herons were thought to fly above the clouds to avoid getting rained on. This supposed habit led them to become symbols of the righteous who avoided the storms of this world by placing their hopes and treasures in heaven. The heron was an image of discretion, and the wisdom obtained through the Christian practice of silence. The heron connoted contemplation, vigilance, divine or occult wisdom, and inner quietness which I believe is a good description of Vane’s religious beliefs.