Theophilus Levett

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Theophilus Levett, Esq.
Born1693
Austerson, Cheshire, England
Died1746
Lichfield, England
ResidenceSt John's House, Lichfield
Occupationbarrister
Known forTown clerk (Steward) of Lichfield 1721–1746
Spouse(s)Mary Levett (née Babington)
ChildrenZachary Levett, John Levett, Thomas Levett
Parent(s)Arthur and Anne (née Elton) Levett

Theophilus Levett (1693–1746) was an attorney and early town clerk of Lichfield, Staffordshire, a prominent early Staffordshire politician and landowner, and a member of a thriving Lichfield social and intellectual circle which included his friends Samuel Johnson, the physician Erasmus Darwin, the writer Anna Seward and the actor David Garrick, among others.

Life[edit]

Theophilus Levett was married to Mary Babington, the daughter of Zachary Babington,[1] a lawyer, High Sheriff of Staffordshire and influential early figure in Lichfield history.[2] Levett and his wife later inherited Babington properties at Curburough, Whittington and elsewhere in Staffordshire. The Babington family had been prominent in the Lichfield Cathedral for two centuries and as local barristers.[3] Dr. Zachary Babington, great-grandfather of barrister Zachary, was precentor of Lichfield Cathedral, as well as diocesan chancellor, and died at his estate Curborough Hall in 1613.[4][5]

An early friend of Samuel Johnson's before the author went off to Oxford, Levett later assumed the mortgage on Johnson's mother's Lichfield home for £80 on 31 January 1739, when Johnson was 31 years old, a debt that Theophilus Levett's son John continued to carry after his father's death.[6] Hardpressed for cash, Johnson and his mother had only one substantial asset after the death of his father, who had invested in a parchment-making operation that failed. Levett offered Johnson favourable terms and advanced him ready money in return for holding the mortgage, easing Johnson's financial bind. Theophilus Levett and Johnson were frequent correspondents, and they remained lifelong friends, despite Levett's occasional inquiries about overdue payments.

Theophilus Levett had St. John's House (later Yeomanry House) opposite St. John's hospital built for himself before 1732. Levett's new home "replaced a house known in 1577 as Culstubbe Hall, the home of the physician Sir John Floyer in the late 17th century," according to the Victoria County History of Staffordshire. The Levett home was demolished in 1925.[7]

Descendants[edit]

Theophilus Levett's daughter Anne was, according to Anna Seward, the early paramour of actor David Garrick. Garrick, wrote Seward, "was the lover of her early youth. When he quitted Lichfield to become a theatrical adventurer, he had her promise to be his the instant his situation became profitable." The romance was not to be: Anna Levett ultimately married her cousin Rev. Richard Levett of West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.[8] The episode prompted Seward to pen her poem Portrait of Miss Levett about the fickle Lichfield beauty.[9]

Samuel Johnson home on Lichfield's Market Street. Theophilus Levett loaned his 31-year-old friend Johnson £80 secured by a mortgage on the home where Johnson's mother lived

The descendants of Theophilus Levett and his wife Mary Babington went on to become prominent in Lichfield and Staffordshire for more than two centuries, serving as High Sheriffs of Staffordshire, Members of Parliament, investors in Matthew Boulton's Soho Manufactory at Birmingham, as well as rectors of the local church at Whittington and elsewhere. Several streets in today's Lichfield are named for the early town clerk and his family. The family is of Anglo-Norman descent and originated in Sussex, arriving in Staffordshire from Cheshire.[10] Theophilus Levett was named for Theophilus Hastings, 7th Earl of Huntingdon, whose wife the Countess of Huntingdon was Levett's godmother.[11][12]

Career[edit]

Theophilus Levett served as Steward (town clerk) of Lichfield from 1721–1746, during which time he was a prominent player in the town's political affairs, occasionally narrowly averting political disaster. In 1718 and 1721 Levett narrowly escaped prosecution for sedition after declaring his Jacobite sympathies. After Levett retracted his statements, the matter was dropped but not without a storm of controversy.[13]

The imbroglio began in 1718 when Levett prevented the Town Clerk from saying 'amen' to the final 'God Save the King' when a brief was read in church. Levett, according to testimony, had "clapt his Hand upon the Deponent's Mouth," and the Clerk "Blubbered" to the bemusement of the congregation. Three years passed before Levett again stirred up controversy. A candidate for coroner and Town Clerk, Levett was accused of wearing white roses on 10 June, as well as drinking toasts to the Pretender "with other Gentlemen who were reconned the Jacobites of the Town."[14]

Subsequently, all Levett's accusers retracted their statements, and he was elected to office as Town Clerk. Levett's accusers claimed they had been manipulated into testifying against him by local Whigs. One accuser, a "poor servant girl" named Alice Hayes, even claimed that one prominent local Whig gentleman had promised to marry her if she swore falsely against the aspiring politico.[15] Shortly afterwards, a petition was sent to the King, signed by 185 Lichfield worthies, including Michael Johnson, the father of Samuel, a favour that Levett later repaid when he arranged a tutor's job for Samuel Johnson at the home of Thomas Whitby in Great Haywood, near Lichfield, after Johnson's father's death.[16]

Alabaster monument to Theophilus and Mary Levett, St Giles Church, Whittington, Staffordshire

Because of his position, Levett became a major powerbroker in LIchfield. In a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth and the Deputy Lieutenants from 1745, Levett gives a snapshot of the influence he wielded, and showed there was little doubt about where he stood on the question of the Monarchy. "By command of Lord Gower," Levett wrote, "I beg to call a meeting for 9 October to consider whether it will be more for his Majesty's service and the ease of the county, to call out the militia or to raise some companies of foot and a troop or two of horse, by virtue of commissions to be granted by Lord Gower, with a declaration that they shall be disbanded as soon as the present troubles are over."[17]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Zachary Babington, Whittington & District History Society, wdhs.org.uk Archived 14 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ Plantagenet Roll of the Blood Royal: The Isabel of Essex Volume, Marquis of Ruvigny, Raineval Staff, republished by the Genealogical Publishing Company, 1994
  3. ^ Sampson Erdeswicke, Thomas Harwood, A Survey of Staffordshire: Containing the Antiquities of that County, J. B. Nichols and Son, London, 1820
  4. ^ A History of the County of Stafford, Volume 14, Victoria County HIstory of Staffordshire, M.W. Greenslade (ed.), British History Online, british-history.ac.uk
  5. ^ The Staffordshire Babingtons were distantly related to Sir Anthony Babington of Dethick, Derbyshire, who was convicted of plotting the assassination of Elizabeth I of England and conspiring with the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. Babington was hung, drawn and quartered on Tower Hill in 1586 for his role in the plot.
  6. ^ The Gentleman's Magazine, F. Jefferies, 1869
  7. ^ A History of the County of Stafford, Volume 14, M. W. Greenslade, 1990, British History Online, british-history.ac.uk
  8. ^ Letters, Vol. I, David Garrick, David Mason LIttle, Morrow Kahrl, Harvard University Press, 1963
  9. ^ Portrait of Miss Levett, The Poetical Works of Anna Seward, Anna Seward, Walter Scott, Vol. I, James Ballantyne & Co., London, 1810
  10. ^ Theophilus Levett was the son of Arthur Levett of Austerson, Cheshire and his wife Anne (Elton) Levett. Arthur Levett was buried at Acton, Cheshire, 3 December 1722. Arthur Levett was the son of William Levett of Littleworth, West Sussex, the youngest of nine sons.
  11. ^ Samuel Johnson, Walter Jackson Bale, Basic Books, 1998
  12. ^ Theophilus Levett was also descended from the Aston family of Tixall. In his Lichfield home was a portrait of Sir Edward Aston inscribed 'Sir Edward Aston, knight banneret, Anno Domini 1573.[1]
  13. ^ Samuel Johnson: Literature, Religion and English Cultural Politics, J.C.D. Clark, Cambridge University Press, 1994
  14. ^ The reason for Levett's sympathies for the Scottish cause are unclear, although Lichfield was a hotbed of Jacobite sentiment at the time. Clearly, there was an element of Whig party politics involved, but the story of Levett's actions, for which he was not ultimately prosecuted, seems to have some basis in fact. Levett's sympathies for the Scots cause may trace back to the family's close involvement with the Earls of Huntingdon, who were sympathetic to the Scots cause and distrustful of King William III. On the other hand, Levett's sympathy for the Stuart cause may suggest an underlying strain of populism in the otherwise straitlaced Levett clan.
  15. ^ Jacobitism and the English People, Paul Kleber Monod, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1993
  16. ^ Samuel Johnson in Historical Context:, J. C. D. Clark, Howard Erskine Hill, Macmillan, 2001
  17. ^ The Manuscripts of the Earl of Dartmouth, William Walter Legge, Great Britain Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, Eyre & Spotiswoode, London, 1896

References[edit]

  • The Levetts of Staffordshire, Dyonese Levett Haszard, Milford Hall, Staffordshire, privately printed
  • Victoria County History of Staffordshire, M. W. Greenslade, (text also at British History Online)

Further reading[edit]

  • Uglow, Jennifer (2002). The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-19440-8. (see John Levett, MP)