‘A hailstorm of sweets’: a Huygens family wedding feast by Hugh Aldersey-Williams
The astronomer and physicist Christiaan Huygens was not greatly fond of festive gatherings. Once, on a visit to London, for example, he missed a chance to be in the audience for the coronation of King Charles II, preferring to meet with a local telescope maker in order to observe the transit of Mercury.
There was no avoiding his only sister’s wedding, however. The twenty-three-year-old Susanna Huygens married her first cousin Philips Doublet on 20 April 1660 in the new church by the Delft Canal in The Hague. To a mathematician friend in Paris, Christiaan complained about the ‘solemn follies’ and ‘compulsory merriment’ of the day, although he was happy enough to pass on his correspondent’s congratulations to the newlyweds.
Christiaan’s widowed father Constantijn, the sometime secretary to the leaders of the House of Orange, was far more excited to see the first of his children married off. He wrote a long letter two days later to his good friend Béatrix de Cusance (the long separated wife of Charles IV, Duke of Lorraine), who had wished to be present at the occasion herself. In it, he provides a colourful account of the ceremony, which he mock-heroically introduces as an ‘histoire d’importance et de grande consideration au service de l’Etat’. Describing the sequence of events in delicious detail, his letter does indeed amount to a significant record of a ‘society wedding’ during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. Elsewhere, Huygens even left a sketched seating plan, a list of the meats consumed, and a record of what it all cost, to complete the picture.
The sun shone brightly after the preceding day’s storm as the family and guests gathered, Constantijn wrote in French to his friend. The groom and the groom’s father arrived first, their hair heavily curled and powdered, in an open carriage so all the townsfolk could see them. Then Susanna, ‘the beautiful victim of the sacrifice’, wearing a crown of diamonds, was led in to the church by a young gentleman ‘decked out like the sun at midday, and floured with at least two or three pounds of powder’. Other family members followed them into the church. Christiaan accompanied his aunt while the younger ones enviously eyed one another’s companions. After the sermon, the congregation ‘risked arm and leg’ to climb onto the pews in order to see the couple kneel for the blessing.
Huygens describes the significant moment of transformation, ‘without which the whole pottage would be spoiled’, as groom becomes husband and his daughter becomes his wife:
Strange metamorphosis, deplorable catastrophe! that in a moment the servant, Valet and Slave become lord and master of the mistress; mistress cajoled, mistress waited upon, mistress honoured, mistress adored until this sad moment. Your Highness will tell me . . . that no matter the divine and human laws on the duties of female obedience, that despite rhyme and reason, women are women, misses remain misses, husbands husbands, that is to say, fine little imaginary sovereigns. To all this, Madame, I beg Your Highness to find it well that I merely respond with a shrug of the shoulders . . .
When the congregation left the church to pile into carriages to go back to Huygens’s house on the Plein, the scene was ‘as when my cows go into the fields’. As the newlyweds arrived at the house, ‘a hailstorm of sweets’ issued from the windows. Huygens describes the chaotic scene in his normally decorous home, with ‘women disheveled [decoiffées], girls head over heels [culbutées]’, and the feast brought forward to begin at four in the afternoon because it was anticipated that the forty-two guests would be seven or eight hours at the table.
In the kitchen, four French cooks and five boys laboured under the direction of the chef, ‘our Illustrious Maître Jacques’, according to Huygens’s papers. They prepared a meal comprising a wild boar and a boar’s head, seven pigs, four sheep, twelve hares, thirty-three partridges, fifty-four chickens, ten fat capons and five turkeys, this all donated, according to custom at the time, no doubt as a reward for Huygens’s loyalty to the Oranges, by Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen and Amalia, the Dowager Princess of Orange, as well as various civic dignitaries. Huygens recorded the remaining wedding expenses with exactitude elsewhere: 3644 florins, 6 sous, 8 deniers, of which the catering came to 103 florins, 13 sous.
Five hours later, the guests were relieved to withdraw from ‘the smell of meat and the heat of the crush’. Now there was dancing in the perfumed and torchlit hall until four in the morning. Long before then, though, Susanna was dragged off to the bridal chamber, ‘notwithstanding the odd little drop of virginal tears, of pity or joy (reader, he or she be the judge)’. The couple were pursued by the entire wedding party, who enthusiastically removed her crown, ribbons, garters and shoelaces, leaving her as ‘plucked as master Jacques has done to the poor birds he was about to skewer’. The guests then busied themselves inspecting every detail of the room, reluctant to leave until the groom put on a nightcap and dressing gown over his clothes as a signal that it was time for them to go.
‘The following day, Madame,’ Huygens concludes his tale to Béatrix, ‘I carefully observed the Bride’s walk, and not finding her to be limping to one side or the other, as one finds in the Bible that Eve, our good grandmother, doesn’t, I felt my soul return to rest, as she awaits what may happen in some half-dozen and a half lunar months.’
Hugh Aldersey-Williams is the author of Dutch Light: Christiaan Huygens and the making of science in Europe (Picador, 2020), published in Dutch as Een Eeuw van Licht (Thomas Rap).