Fatal Vexation

We must cherish joy where we find it in these dark times. For me, today, that has meant savoring the fact that David Hume, in his magisterial six-volume History of England (1754-61), records no fewer than seven people in English history as having died from vexation and / or disappointment. 

These are their (somewhat abrupt) stories.

  • “Aldred, archbishop of York, who had set the crown on William’s head, had died a little before of grief and vexation.”
  •  “The affliction for this disaster, and vexation from the distracted state of his affairs, encreased the sickness under which [King John] then laboured; and though he reached the castle of Newark, he was obliged to halt there, and his distemper soon after put an end to his life.”
  •  “Harris, an alderman of London, was indicted, and died of vexation before his trial came to an issue.”
  • “The high-spirited nobleman [Southampton] retired from the council, and soon after died from vexation and disappointment.”
  • “Drake himself, from the intemperance of the climate, the fatigues of his journey, and the vexation of his disappointment, was seized with a distemper, of which he soon after died.”
  • “[Walter Devereux, first Earl of] Essex died of a distemper, occasioned, as is supposed, by the vexation, which he had conceived, from his disappointments.”
  • “That gallant Englishman [Sir John Norris], finding that he had been deceived by treacherous promises, and that he had performed nothing worthy of his ancient reputation, was seized with a languishing distemper, and died of vexation and discontent.”
  • And, just to end on a high note, a non-fatal case of vexation:
    • “But though he [Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, son of Walter—so genetic predisposition to fatal vexation] affected to be so entirely cured of his aspiring ambition, the vexation of this disappointment, and of the triumph gained by his enemies, preyed upon his haughty spirit, and he fell into a distemper, which seemed to put his life in danger.” But then, Elizabeth I sent him “some broth” and “a message” and Essex was “restored in his health”!!! (True, he is executed the following year, at age 34, having “given reins to his ungovernable passions, and involved, not only himself, but many of his friends, in utter ruin.” But still.)

Detail from engraving by Jean-Baptiste Simonet, illustration from Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther


One thought on “Fatal Vexation

  1. I had a wonderful record of Claire Bloom reading Beatrix Potter stories when I was a kid; in the Tale of Two Bad Mice, i remember her rolling the phrase “Then there was no end to the rage and frustration of the mice.” It’s shocking that Hunca Munca and her mouse husband did not die of it!

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