Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Vermuyden, Cornelius

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VERMUYDEN, Sir CORNELIUS (1595?–1683?), engineer, born probably about 1595, was son of Giles Vermuyden of St. Maartensdyk, in the island of Tholen, Zealand, by his wife Sarah, daughter of Cornelius Warkendyk of the same place (Visit. London, 1633, ii. 310; Van der Aa, Woordenboek, xix. 184). His native place afforded him exceptional facilities for studying the principles and practice of embanking and reclaiming lands from the sea, and his skill in this profession apparently led to a demand for his services in England. He is improbably said to have noticed the possibility of reclaiming Hatfield Chase in Yorkshire when in attendance on Prince Henry, who died in 1612; but the earliest authentic mention of him in England occurs in 1621. In September of that year the Thames had broken down its banks near Havering and Dagenham in Essex, and Vermuyden was employed to repair the breaches and drain the marshes (Sir W. Dugdale, Hist. of Imbanking, p. 82). In the following year he professed to have accomplished his task, and spent 3,600l. on it; the commissioners of sewers for the county, however, declared that he had accomplished little, and that the land was in a worse condition than before (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619–23, pp. 470, 475). They accordingly refused to pay his charges; but in July 1625 the king granted him a considerable portion of the reclaimed land as compensation (Dugdale, p. 82; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1625–6, p. 63). In February 1621–2 Vermuyden had also undertaken to drain three hundred and sixty thousand acres of fen land in the counties of Northampton, Lincoln, and Cambridge, of which he and his colleagues in the venture were to receive fifty thousand acres in free gift, and twenty thousand more to which was attached the obligation of keeping the rest dry (ib. 1619–1623, p. 353).

In 1626 Vermuyden undertook to drain Hatfield Chase in the isle of Axholme; on 13 June 1628 he was granted 2,600 acres in Missen Levels, and on 11 July Hatfield Chase and other lands at a rent of 150l. a year. These were supplemented in 1629 by a grant of a third of the lands he had reclaimed for a fine of 16,000l. (ib. 1628–9, pp. 160, 206; Gardiner, viii. 292). The undertaking was financed by capitalists in London, Amsterdam, and Dordrecht, and workmen were imported from Holland. From the first it met with great opposition. The foreign workmen were unpopular, the reclamation of the marshes proved injurious to many who had earned a living by fishing or snaring ducks, and their resentment took the form of cutting the embankments and attacks on the Dutch workmen. The latter were, moreover, bitterly annoyed when Laud refused to allow them to worship after their own fashion in chapels which Vermuyden had in the contract been empowered to erect. Vermuyden endeavoured, by offering to compensate those who suffered by the draining of the fens and to employ English workmen, to calm the agitation. The matters in dispute were submitted to the arbitration of Wentworth and Hutton; they drew up an award by which the rights of the commoners were guaranteed. It was confirmed by the court of exchequer, but did not end Vermuyden's difficulties. Many hostile criticisms were passed on his engineering methods, and his disagreement with Sir Philiberto Vernatti and others of the adventurers eventually led him to part with his interest in the undertaking and sell Hatfield Chase (Manuscript History of Hatfield by Abraham de la Pryme [q. v.] in Lansd. MS. 897, ff. 191–3). He was, however, knighted on 25 Sept. 1628, or on 6 Jan. 1628–9, and on 10 July following granted an addition to his arms; in 1633 he was naturalised as ‘Sir Cornelius Pharmedo’ by the Scots parliament (Acta Parl. Scot. v. 58).

This disappointment did not prevent Vermuyden from engaging in similar ventures. About 1629 he was concerned in a contract for draining Malvern Chase in Worcestershire (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. pt. iii. vol. i. p. 457), and in that year the commission of sewers entered into a contract with him for draining the ‘Great Fens,’ afterwards called the Bedford Level. The same difficulties recurred, and the commissioners persuaded Francis Russell, fourth earl of Bedford [q. v.], to undertake the work. He appointed Vermuyden engineer, and in 1637 the work was declared completed. This was far from being the case, and eventually after much wrangling Charles I took the matter into his own hands. For his information Vermuyden drew up in 1638 his ‘Discourse touching the Great Fennes;’ it was not printed until 1642 (London, 4to, ordered to be printed 25 Feb. 1641–2), when Andrewes Burrell immediately replied with his ‘Exceptions against Sir Cornelius Virmudens Discourse’ (London, 1642, 4to), in which he accused Vermuyden of misrepresentation, and attacked his methods of engineering. His criticisms have been endorsed by modern writers, and it has even been said that subsequent engineers had to begin by unlearning all that Vermuyden taught and practised (see Wells, History of Bedford Level, 1830, i. 92–289, for an elaborate account of the undertaking, and a severe condemnation of Vermuyden's methods; a more favourable view is taken in Smiles's Lives of the Engineers, i. 19–45). Charles, however, reappointed Vermuyden to the post of engineer. In the opposition which the scheme met with from the commoners, Cromwell is alleged to have sided with the latter (Gardiner, History, viii. 297; cf. art. Cromwell, Oliver), and the outbreak of the civil war put a stop to the progress of the undertaking.

As soon as the war was over, William Russell, fifth earl and afterwards first duke of Bedford [q. v.], resumed his father's project for draining the fens; and again, in spite of the opposition of a rival engineer, Westerdyke, Vermuyden was appointed to direct it. The work was recommenced in 1649, and brought to completion in 1652. The reclaimed land was, however, only dry in the summer, and remained of comparatively little value until the end of the eighteenth century (Journal Roy. Agric. Soc. 3rd ser. ii. 124). The ‘southern level’ still remained to be drained, and Vermuyden continued to act as director-general; he also attended meetings of the company, with his son, until 4 Feb. 1655–6. He was then ordered to account for sums of money received by him to expedite the works; he failed to do so, and his share of the lands was sequestered to meet the demand (Wells, i. 256–7).

Meanwhile, ‘on 23 Sept. 1653 one of Cromwell's confidants—probably Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, the drainer of the Fens,’ was sent to Holland with ‘the most astounding proposal ever made by an Englishman to the minister of a foreign state’ (Gardiner, Commonwealth and Protectorate, ii. 349; Thurloe, ii. 125; another paper, however, addressed to Cromwell, extant in the Rawlinson MSS., and printed in Thurloe, iii. 652, on the possibility of the Swedes taking up the cause of Charles II and invading England, is attributed to Mr. John Vermuyden). The proposition was for a perpetual alliance, offensive and defensive, between England and Holland, mutual admission to civil rights, war against all princes maintaining the inquisition, and the partition of the remainder of the globe between the two powers, the whole of Asia falling to the Dutch, and the two Americas, with the exception of a portion of Brazil, to the English. The project originated with Vermuyden, but it met apparently with the approval of Cromwell and his party in the council of state (Gardiner, ii. 350–1; Verbael, pp. 149–53; Geddes, i. 364). The Dutch somewhat naturally declined this extraordinary overture, and the negotiation dwindled down to a question of alliance between the two powers.

Henceforth Vermuyden sinks into obscurity; his projects had resulted in great pecuniary losses, and he was compelled gradually to sell almost all his land, his last days being spent in poverty. The most various dates are assigned to his death. Wells (Hist. Bedford Level, i. 256–7) maintained that Vermuyden died in February or March 1655–6, soon after the appropriation of his lands by the Bedford company; but in the summer of that year he had turned his attention to Sedgemoor, which he was endeavouring to drain (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. App. p. 76; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1655–6, pp. 132, 337–8), and a bill enabling him to make an arrangement with the commoners was introduced into parliament on 27 Dec. (Burton, Parl. Diary, i. 259). Either he or his son was elected F.R.S. on 20 May 1663 (Thomson, Royal Soc. App. p. xxiii), and according to one account Sir Cornelius died on 27 Sept. 1665. Colonel Chester, however, identified him with the ‘Cornelius Fairmeadow, eques auratus,’ who was buried at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, London, on 6 April 1683, letters of administration being granted to his widow on the 20th (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. ii. 35, 8th ser. iii. 478).

Vermuyden married, about 1625, Katherine, daughter of Allsaints Lapps (sic) of London, and had a numerous family. He had seven children before 1635, all born in the parish of St. Dionys Backchurch (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1635, p. 593); the baptisms of six and burials of five are recorded in the registers of that church between 1628 and 1638 (Harl. Soc.). Cornelius, the eldest, born probably in 1626 in some other parish, is said to have been the colonel in the parliamentary army; he married Mary, daughter of Sir Compton Reade (Notes and Queries, 8th ser. iv. 152), was a shareholder in the Bedford Level Company, and was elected conservator in 1663; he had, however, left England before the Restoration, and his shares were eventually transferred to others. Before the end of the century Abraham de la Pryme [q. v.], the son of one of Sir Cornelius's original colleagues, was unable to trace the fortunes of the Vermuyden family (Pryme, Diary, Surtees Soc., pp. 126 sqq.; a Cornelius Vermuyden was, however, resident in Middlesex in 1690. Cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 13th Rep. App. v. 14). Another son, Charles, baptised on 22 Dec. 1637, graduated B.A. from Christ Church, Oxford, on 14 June 1661, was admitted a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians on 22 Dec. 1662, and married in 1667 Mary Upton of Hendon, Middlesex (Munk, Royal Coll. of Phys. i. 308; Foster, Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Chester, Lond. Marr. Lic. col. 1385; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. iv. 152). Descendants of Vermuyden's daughters, one of whom, Deborah, married Sir Francis Bickley, and another, Elizabeth, Sir Thomas Peneystone, still remain (ib. 6th ser. ii. 99, 8th ser. iii. 429, 478, iv. 152). In his old age Vermuyden seems to have married a second wife, Dionysia Stonhouse.

The Colonel Vermuyden who was active on the parliamentary side during the civil war was not Sir Cornelius, nor, as has always been assumed, his eldest son Cornelius, who was only seventeen in 1643. His christian name began with B, and possibly he was a younger brother of Sir Cornelius. He led a forlorn hope of dragoons at Winceby on 11 Oct. 1643 (Markham, Life of Fairfax, p. 120), was colonel in command of five troops of horse, and was quartermaster-general to Manchester, and in this capacity probably commanded his second line at Marston Moor (Mr. C. H. Firth in Trans. Royal Hist. Soc. 18 Nov. 1898). In May 1645 he was detached from Fairfax's army with 2,500 troops to reinforce the Scots, rejoining Fairfax near Newport Pagnell in June. Just before the battle of Naseby he obtained leave to go to Holland on urgent private matters (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1644–5 passim; Hist. MSS. Comm. 6th Rep. App. pp. 57, 65; Lords' Journals, vii. 452, 456, 463; Rushworth, v. 282; Vicars, Gods Ark, p. 42; Sprigge, Anglia Rediviva, 1854, pp. 23, 29, 32; Gardiner, Civil War, ii. 211, 237).

[Vermuyden's Discourse, 1642; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619–56 passim; Lansd. MSS. 205 art. 24, 899 ff. 53 sqq.; Rawlinson MS. A. 12, ff. 109, 119; Hist. MSS. Comm. 9th Rep. App. p. 398, 11th Rep. pt. v. pp. 3, 6, 12th Rep. App. pt. iii. vol. i. p. 457, ii. 17, 20, 29, iii. 149; Commons' Journals; Thurloe's State Papers; Rushworth's Collection; Ludlow's Mem. ed. Firth, i. 120; Baillie's Journals (Bannatyne Club), ii. 276; Diary of Abraham de la Pryme (Surtees Soc.); Sir W. Dugdale's Hist. of Imbanking, 1662, pp. 82, 145; Samuel Wells's Hist. of the Drainage of Bedford Level, 1830, i. 92–289; Hunter's South Yorkshire, i, 160; Stonehouse's Hist. of Axholme, 1830; Carlyle's Letters of Cromwell, i. 217; Masson's Milton, iii. 327, 334; Markham's Life of Fairfax, pp. 120, 201, 205, 207; Van der Aa's Biographisch Woordenboek der Nederlanden; Smiles's Lives of the Engineers, ed. 1874, i. 19–45; Clarke's ‘Agriculture and the House of Russell’ in Journ. Roy. Agric. Soc. 3rd ser. ii. 124–6; Wiffen's Mem. of the House of Russell; J. S. Burn's Foreign Refugees, p. 101; Cunningham's Alien Immigrants, 1898, pp. 208–11; Gardiner's Hist. of England, Civil War, and Commonwealth and Protectorate, passim; Chambers's Journal, x. 213; Visitation of London (Harl. Soc.), ii. 310; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. iv. 21, 4th ser. i. 484, 5th ser. vii. 429, 6th ser. ii. 55, 99, 8th ser. iii. 429, 478, iv. 152, 297; Notes supplied by Mr. C. H. Firth.]

A. F. P.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.270
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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259 i 24-25 Vermuyden, Sir Cornelius: for Stonhouse's Hist. of Asholme read Stonehouse's Hist. of Axholme