History is populated by extraordinary people who have pushed up from the masses to stand out as someone special. Such people come from all walks of life, and they come in many forms, these individuals emerging from obscurity to become tales that earn their place among history. One such person was one of very small stature, what one would call today a dwarf or a midget, and he would have been lost to time if it weren’t for his adventures. And so here we look at perhaps the most well-known dwarf in history, who went from a plaything of the Queen of England, to a war hero, to murderer, slave, and outcast, leaving a strange legacy that has stood the test of time.
The one who would go on to be called “Britain’s Smallest Man” was born in 1619 in Oakham in Rutland, England. When Jeffrey Hudson was born there was no clue as to how small his stature would be, as he had two normal sized parents and four siblings, all of usual dimensions, but as he grew it seemed that he was forever to remain small, never advancing past the height of a mere toddler and at the age of 7 he stood just 18 inches tall, not growing much beyond that even in his later years. However, he was very well proportioned, looking to be of completely normal proportions despite his miniscule, petite size, and this drew much wonder from passerby. In 1626, he was presented to the Duchess of Buckingham as a sort of gift, described as a “rarity of nature” and a “wonder of the age,” and from there his rather strange journey would begin.
Shortly after joining the household of the Duchess, Hudson made the acquaintance of none other than King Charles I and his young French wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, who were surprised when he popped out of a large pie in a diminutive suit of armor as entertainment during a lavish banquet. The King and Queen were completely enamored with the delightful little man, and so the Duke and Duchess offered Hudson to them as a gift. While this all might seem shocking now, at the time none of this was particularly strange, as it was quite common for royal families to keep a contingent of dwarfs and midgets on hand for entertainment and amusement. Philip IV of Spain was known to have had around 100 dwarfs in his court, and these little people were often assigned various tasks and jobs, but mostly they were looked at as a constant source of wonder. Historian Dr. John Woolf has said of the attitude towards dwarfs and midgets at the time:
Dwarfs were around in the courts of Ancient Egypt, China and West Africa. Alexander the Great gathered a whole retinue of dwarfs. The Romans collected dwarfs as pets, placing some in gladiatorial rings to fight with Amazons, and tossing others across the amphitheater for entertainment. By the Middle Ages, dwarfs were kept side-by-side with monkeys, sometimes travelling between royal households in birdcages. The value of a dwarf was akin to jesters, slaves, eunuchs and pets. They were an extension of the royals’ Wunderkammer or Cabinet of Curiosities which, from the sixteenth century, contracted the world’s wonders into a collection that enhanced the virtue of the owner. Theoretically speaking, dwarfs belonged to the broad category that embraced ‘monsters’, ‘marvels’, ‘wonders’ and ‘prodigies’, terms that denoted something or someone out of the ordinary, but within God’s great scheme. They were grouped with phoenixes, werewolves, portents and miraculous natural occurrences. They were God’s creation. And they were united by the experience they engendered: the shock and awe at the unexpected and the pleasure at seeing nature’s eccentricities; they signified the allure of the strange, the exotic and the novel.
By all accounts, the Queen treated Hudson as her own child, constantly preening over him and completely besotted by him. In exchange for his kind treatment, Hudson served as a friend, companion, and confidante to the Queen, appearing with her wherever she went and never far from her side, taking on a bizarre position as sort of a friend, advisor, plaything, and pet all at once. He was nevertheless very well cared for, receiving a proper education and even given his own servants, horse, and the finest clothes, as well as a handsome salary for his services. His roommates at the Denmark House in London were other oddities, such as a very smart monkey called Pug and a man named William Evans who was the opposite of Hudson, being 7 feet 5 inches tall, a giant and one of the tallest men alive at the time. Hudson would strike up a touching friendship with Evans, and the two would often perform acts together, amazing audiences with the juxtaposition of the extreme difference in their heights. By all accounts the witty and charismatic Hudson amused people wherever he went, and gained a level of fame that was rare among his kind.
Through all of this the Queen and her dwarf were inseparable, and when the English Civil War broke out in 1642 and she was forced to flee London, she brought her dwarf along with her. At one point the two found themselves in Holland trying to gather funds and ammunition, and on the return journey Hudson would prove his bravery when he rushed out ready to fight the enemy in the face of a barrage of cannon fire at the small fishing port of Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast, armed with nothing but a sword and pistol. Although at this point no fighting actually went down, Hudson had proven his courage and would engage in battles later on, becoming a “Captain of the Horse” and eventually even supposedly earning a knighthood. His bravery and valor were without reprieve at this point, but this also drew mockery and bullying about his tiny size. People just didn’t take him seriously as a warrior, and this led to the next chapter of his odyssey.
After the Queen and Hudson fled to France, there would be some drama when Hudson challenged Charles Crofts, the brother of the queen’s master of horse, to a duel. It is unclear what instigated this, but it is thought to have been a jab at Hudson’s height that had gone too far. The two met upon horses and armed with their pistols, but if anyone thought this was a spectacle and a joke they were quickly sobered and silenced when Hudson promptly shot Crofts dead. At the time dueling was very illegal in France, and so Hudson was arrested and imprisoned, later being sentenced to death for murder. If it were not for his close connection to Queen Henrietta that would have certainly been the end of his story, but she managed to bail him out and have him freed. However, things did not exactly go back to normal, as Hudson was sent into exile in England in 1644, yet his journey was not over yet.
On his way back to England, Hudson’s ship was raided by Turkish pirates, who captured Hudson and brought him to Barbary, in North Africa, where he was then sold into slavery. Details of his life are hazy at this point, but it seems that Hudson spent many years in slavery before finally being granted freedom and heading back home in 1669. Oddly, it was found that he had grown considerably in his captivity, still short but a full 45 inches taller than he had been when he was captured, for reasons that remain unknown. If Hudson had expected a warm welcome back, he was mistaken, because he was promptly arrested by the new King Charles II, and his Queen died the same year he returned. He spent some time in prison and was eventually freed to live out the rest of his life as a no one and dying in obscurity in 1682, buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. We are left with an incredible story of a person from history who managed to transcend his physical boundaries to go on to be a fascinating historical oddity.