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Sir Balthazar Gerbier (1592-1667)
Born: 1592 in Middelburg, Zeeland, Netherlands
Artist & Architect

Master of Ceremonies
Died: 1667 at Hamstead Marshall, Berkshire

Sir Balthazar was born in 1592 at Middelburg, in Zeeland, the son of Anthony Gerbier, by his wife, Radigund Blavet, protestant refugees from France. ‘My great grandfather,’ he gave out, ‘was Anthony Gerbier, the Baron Doully,’ and he at one time assumed in England the title of Baron Douvilly, though his claims are doubtful. His father dying, he accompanied one of his brothers into Gascony, where he picked up a knowledge of drawing, architecture, fortifications, and ‘the Framing of Warlike Engines,’ which brought him the favour of Prince Maurice of Orange. The prince recommended him to Noel de Caron, the Dutch ambassador in London, with whom he passed over to England in 1616.

Gerbier entered the service of King James I’s influential favourite, George Villiers, afterwards Duke of Buckingham, and was employed ‘in the contriving of some of the Duke of Buckingham's Houses,’ particularly overseeing the remodelling New Hall in Essex and York House on the Strand. He was appointed keeper at the latter and was delighted when his great architectural rival, Inigo Jones, Surveyor of the King’s Works, showed considerable jealousy of his work there during a visit. Only his water gate on the Thames still survives. Gerbier was also employed in collecting art and in painting miniatures for the Duke. In 1623, he followed Prince Charles and Buckingham to Spain in their pursuit of a suitable marriage for the former, He made a portrait of the Infanta there, which was sent back to King James. In 1625, he also went, with Buckingham, to Paris. He was equally ready to design machines for the mines ‘which were to have blown up the dike at Rochelle,’ and to conduct state intrigue at foreign courts. He kept the ciphers of the Duke's foreign correspondence; and his pamphlets contain numerous allusions to his frequent missions abroad. His first public employment was in Holland, probably in connection with the negotiation carried on by Richard Weston in Brussels in 1622. Later, when the latter he been made Earl of Portland, he advised him on the building of Putney Park in Roehampton.

In 1625, Gerbier met the Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, in Paris, and the two became good friends. Rubens supported the idea of a peace with Spain and proposed such to both Gerbier and the Duke of Buckingham. While ostensibly on an art buying expedition, Gerbier was sent to Brussels to carry out the negotiations. These, however, failed and Gerbier thus shared in Buckingham's increasing unpopularity. A bill for his naturalisation was even in danger of being thrown out by the House of Commons in the summer of 1628. On 3rd December 1628, however, Gerbier took the oath on entering the service of the new king, Charles I, following Buckingham's assassination, and was knighted in the same year. In 1629 and 1630, his name is mentioned in connection with contracts for pictures and statues, the former date being when Rubens visited London and lodged with Gerbier, painting the large family portrait that now hangs in Windsor Castle.

In 1631 Gerbier was appointed ‘his Majesty’s Agent at Brussels’ (more or less equivalent to a consul) and on 17th June he sailed with his wife and family. Charles put special trust in him, and sent him direct orders, occasionally in contradiction to those sent through the secretary of state. But in November 1633, Gerbier betrayed, to the Infanta Isabella for the sum of twenty thousand crowns, the secret negotiations of Charles with the revolutionary nobles of the Spanish Netherlands.

During 1636–7, the court at Brussels, at the instigation, as he thought, of the ‘Cottingtonian faction,’ asked for his removal; but Rubens supported him, and Charles' confidence remained unbroken. While in London towards the end of June 1641, having, without the King's leave, let himself be drawn into a lawsuit before the House of Lords, he accused Lord Cottington of betraying state secrets, and, though his commission was signed for his departure to Brussels, he was detained and examined by the Lords. The charge broke down and Gerbier was replaced in Brussels. Upon the death of Sir John Finet, he succeeded to the office of Master of Ceremonies, which had been granted to him by patent on 10th May 1641. He was impoverished by debts incurred abroad and could only, with difficulty, bring over his family from Brussels. He was accused of giving shelter to papist priests; and, in September 1642, his house at Bethnal Green was attacked by a mob. He immediately published a pamphlet entitled ‘A Wicked and Inhumane Plot … against Sir Balthazar Gerbier, Knight,’ in which he declared himself a protestant. After repeated petitions for the money due to him, he obtained, from the King at the suit of the Elector Palatine, permission to retire beyond the Seas, together with letters to Louis XIII of France, who unfortunately died before Gerbier landed in Calais.

In May 1641, Gerbier had made proposals to Charles for the erection of ‘mounts’ or banks, combining pawnbroking with banking. He made similar proposals in Paris in three pamphlets published in 1643 & 44. Gerbier states that he was favoured by the Duke of Orleans, who, along with the old Prince of Condé, were to be protector-generals of the establishment. He received a patent under the great seal of France, but this caused the queen regent to be accused of protecting a protestant. One ‘Will Crofts immediately whipped in,’ alleging that Gerbier was not the father of his own children but had made them protestants by force. Gerbier's project was stopped. Three of his daughters were carried to the English nunnery of Sion (in France), and he himself was obliged to quit the country, but his papers and money were seized between Rouen and Dieppe by seven cavaliers and he had to remain. Crofts continued to spread rumours about Gerbier in both countries and Sir Balthazar printed two rambling papers in his defence. Copies were even sent to the Speaker of the House of Commons in Westminster. Eventually, however, his daughters do appear to have been returned to him.

In 1649, while he was in France, Gerbier’s house at Bethnal Green was broken into by order of the Parliamentarians, and his papers relating to his foreign negotiations carried to the paper room at Whitehall. On 12th November of the same year, it was agreed by the Council that those of Gerbier's papers ‘taken to be used at the trial of the late King,’ which do not concern the public, be re-delivered to him. He appears to have returned to England shortly after the execution of the King. He now proposed a scheme for an ‘Academy’ on the model of Charles I's ‘Museum Minervæ,’ which had ceased with the Civil War. He issued a prospectus in some four or five different forms. It was to give instruction in all manner of subjects, from philosophy, languages and mathematics, to riding the ‘great horse,’ dancing and fencing. It was opened on 19th July 1649 at Gerbier's house in Bethnal Green. Many of the lectures were printed, covering subjects such as cosmography, geography, foreign languages, arts, science, navigation, military architecture, justice and ‘well speaking’. Walpole says of one of these tracts that ‘it is a most trifling superficial rhapsody’ which seems to have been equally true of all Gerbier's writings. Gerbier was the object of many unfavourable reports, absurd and undeniable. He protested that he was an honest patriot, in a little book entitled ‘A Manifestation by Sir Balthazar Gerbier, Kt’ (1651) containing some autobiography. His ‘academy’ however ultimately failed and he turned to publishing political pamphlets, including the attribution of an attack on the late King. In 1652, an order was passed by the Committee for Trade & Foreign Affairs to request the Council to give Gerbier a pass to go beyond the Seas, and to bestow £50 on him, because he had waited on them for such a long time ‘to acquaint them with some particulars relating to the service.’ The following year, he was in the Hague engaged in a project concerning a gold and silver mine in America. He also made some proposals to the English Committee for Trade & Foreign Affairs, but they would grant him no monopolies. In 1658, he offered his assistance to the English Government during the war with Spain, promising to get start a revolt in the towns of the Spanish Netherlands. He now obtained a patent from the States-General, and styling himself ‘Patron & Commander of the Colony of Guiana, sailed from Texel to carry out his mining schemes in South Americaa, with his wife and family and a number of colonists. He touched at Cayenne, where a mutiny took place among his followers on 7th May 1660. They killed his daughter, Katherine, and wounded another. He was only saved by the arrival of the Governor. On 9th September 1660, he had returned to Amsterdam, where he made depositions of the murder before the magistrates there and published two tracts.

Upon the Restoration in 1660, Gerbier resolved to return to England, sending before him a pamphlet he printed at Rotterdam, concerning plantations and other profitable ventures to be made in the Americas. He also addressed to Charles II, on 5th December 1660, ‘An Humble Remonstrance concerning expedients whereby his sacred Majesty may increase his revenue, with great advantage to his Loyal Subjects.’ On 10th December 1660, a warrant was issued to suspend him from the office of Master of Ceremonies. In 1661, he came to England and petitioned the King for the restitution of this appointment, and the payment of moneys owing to him by Charles I, at the same time, presenting various schemes for increasing the revenue and beautifying London.

Being unable to regain his position at Court, he once more turned to architecture, and in 1662 supplied the designs for Lord Craven's house at Hamstead Marshall, in Berkshire. In the same year, he published ‘A Brief Discourse concerning the Three Chief Principles of Magnificent Building,’ and, in the following year, 1663, ‘Counsel and Advise to all Builders,’ the most interesting of his pamphlets from incidental references to English architecture in the 17th century. He died at Hampstead Marshall in 1667 while superintending the building of Lord Craven's house, and was buried in the chancel of the church there.

He had three sons, George, James and Charles, and five daughters, Elizabeth, Susan, Mary, Katherine and Deborah. George Gerbier wrote a play and other literary pieces, and seems to be identical with George Gerbier D'Ouvilly. Three of Gerbier's daughters, in great distress, petitioned the King for the payment of £4,000 owing to their father by Charles I.

Edited from Leslie Stephen & Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1890).


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