Curator's Choice: Nick Booth discusses a print about George Abbot, the unwanted Archbishop

Nick Booth interviewed by Richard Booth | 19 May 2011
a photo of a seated man looking at a print
Nick Booth with the print of George Abbott's House© Guildford Museum
Curator’s Choice: In his own words... Nick Booth of Guildford Museum talks about a Print of the Legend of George Abbot’s Birth. Abbot was Archbishop of Canterbury under James I and Charles I.
“The object I have chosen is more of a collection of objects than one single one. They are copies of a print showing a scene from the life of Alice Abbot who was the mother of George Abbot, Archbishop of Canterbury under James I and Charles I. He also helped translate the King James version of the Bible.

The story goes that when Alice was pregnant, she had a dream that if she ate a baby pike the son she was carrying would be a great man. She awoke and apparently went down to the River Wey in Guildford to draw some water. When she dipped a bucket in, the fish she’d dreamt about swam in. 

The caption under the picture reads; ‘She took up the most desired Banquet, dress’d it, and devoured almost the whole’. The print image shows Alice standing outside her house, half turned away from the viewer with her hands thrown up in shock, and if you look closely you can just see the head of the suicidal fish poking out of the bucket.

We have Victorian pictures of the house which match the print, so the depiction of the house is fairly accurate. The story then goes on to say that this event caused some stir in the town and several people offered to be George’s sponsors through school and university, which the family gratefully accepted.

a print with text at the bottom depicting a woman outside an old cottage
© Guildford Museum
Unfortunately this story is almost certainly false as George Abbot’s family weren’t poor and in fact the five other Abbot brothers were well known, one being the Bishop of Salisbury and another the Lord Mayor of London. The story doesn’t appear until about 130 years after the event and so was probably just part of a local legend.

To me, they represent the story of a man whose history tends to be overlooked but who I think had a interesting life. Even his biography is called ‘George Abbot: The unwanted Archbishop’. He was present at King James’ death and is also the only Archbishop of Canterbury to have accidently killed a man.

He also survived an assassination attempt; apparently by a Papist agent sent by the Jesuits, a Catholic organisation of priests. George Abbot is also responsible for introducing George Villiers to court, ‘The handsomest bodied man in all England’, who became the favourite of King James I and his son Charles.

Villiers and James’ relationship has led many to suggest they were homosexuals and I would love to know how the puritan George Abbot got involved in that.

The actual origin of the object is interesting. The creator was called Thomas Russell and was the brother of John Russell, another one of Guildford’s famous sons.

John was a portraitist well known in his day whose sitters included royalty and royal mistresses. Thomas wasn’t nearly as well known as his brother and limited himself to more local scenes.

The print is rarely displayed so some of the public are probably not aware of it. However, people will almost certainly have heard of George as there is a large statue of him at the top of Guildford High Street, and a pub named after him at the bottom.”

Nicholas Booth is the assistant collections officer with Guildford Borough Council Heritage Service. His chosen object will soon be appearing as part of the exhibition George Abbot: A Guildford Man, llustrating the Life and Legacy of George Abbot at Guildford Museum, from June 5 - September 17 2011.
More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
  • Back to top
  • | Print this article
  • | Email this article
  • | Bookmark and Share
Museum Crush digest sign up ad
We are culture24