Henry Welby was a gentleman of fortune, education and popularity in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth who suddenly secluded himself from all public life – not as a hermit off in the wilderness but right in the middle of London. His irrevocable resolution to live a solitary life followed an incident in which his younger brother, displeased over some trifle or another, attempted to shoot him at close range, certainly with the intent to kill.
To fulfill his resolution, Henry took a house at one end of Grub Street, known primarily for bohemians and impoverished hack writers. He occupied three rooms himself – one for dining, one for sleeping and one for study. The rest of the house was given over to his servants. A technical quibble here perhaps: can a man truly be a hermit with servants? But it would seem that he managed. While his food was set on his table by his cook, he would wait in his bedroom. And while his bed was being made, he would retire into his study, and so on – thus avoiding any actual contact with his servants.
He ate only a salad of greens and herbs in the summer and a bowl of gruel in the winter. He drank no wine or spirits, only water or an occasional cheap beer. Occasionally, on a special day, he might eat an egg yolk, no white, or a piece of bread, no crust. Yet he provided a bountiful table for his servants.
And in these three rooms, he remained – for forty-four years, never ever leaving them until he was carried out on a gurney. Not one of his relatives or acquaintances ever laid another eye on him – only his elderly maid Elizabeth ever saw his face. And she didn’t see much of it because it was overgrown by hair and beard. Elizabeth died just a few days before Henry’s death on October 29, 1636.
Books were his companions for those forty-four years, and not once did one of them shoot at him.