Wednesday 16 June 2010

The Death of Essex

Arthur Capell, earl of Essex, was one of the senior figures arrested in the wake of the Rye House Plot of 1683. He had no involvement in the botched scheme to assassinate Charles II and his brother James, but his opposition to the Stuarts was of long standing. His subsequent death in prison, immediately attributed to suicide, was a cause of much speculation.

Did he kill himself or was he murdered? One should begin, I suppose, by taking the mantle of Cicero- Cui bono?-who benefited from Essex's death? In other words, what political purpose did it serve? Well, the evidence against the Plotters was very weak. Essex supposed suicide was taken by a good many people as a direct admission of guilt. In the trial of Lord William Russell, two of the prosecutors, Francis North and the infamous George Jeffreys, immediately argued that it proved the guilt of the accused. On that basis, and on that basis alone, Russell was convicted and condemned to death.

Essex, moreover, had formerly been involved in the highest reaches of government, a royal minister and servant of the king, and thus not at all in the same class as the conspirators with whom he was associated. It is possible that a trial would have revealed dealings of the inner workings of government, which would hardly have been welcome to Charles or his brother James. It is also not entirely immaterial that Essex's servant, Paul Bromley, who served him in the Tower, and was the first to discover the earl's body, was paid £50- a huge sum at the time- after the inquest delivered a verdict of suicide.

But more than anything else the manner of Essex's death helped to discredit the Whigs, even those who had no association at all with the Rye House Plot. One has to remember the horror with which 'self-murder' was viewed at the time. But for the king's clemency, Essex's body could, by practiced custom, have been buried outwith hallowed ground, usually by a cross-road or on a highway, with a stake driven through his heart.

The Whigs immediately raised questions, saying that the earl could not possibly have committed so loathsome an act, and looking for royal complicity. Pamphlets began to circulate in London saying that Essex had been murdered, and documents were intercepted accusing James of ordering the crime in person. None other than John Locke, a close associate of Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, the greatest of the Whigs, wrote a paper promoting the murder theory. Robert Ferguson, another Whig exile, wrote a pamphlet detailing supposed irregularities at the inquest, which was published in 1684 and smuggled into England. The government was so alarmed by this that it took the unusual step of publishing a transcript of the inquest in full.

After the Glorious Revolution in 1688 the victorious Whigs began a serious search for evidence that Essex was murdered, a quest approved by the Convention Parliament and supported by Gilbert Burnet. One Captain John Holland was arrested and accused of participating in the crime. It is likely that, in the political circumstances of the day, the verdict of the 1683 inquest would have been overturned but for the intervention of the dowager Countess of Essex, who asked that proceedings be stopped. Thus the official inquiry ended, though the speculation did not. Burnet himself began to doubt that Essex had been murdered; and when his History of My Own Times was published in 1724 he supported the suicide theory.

This is a matter that will never be resolved. It still continues to divide historians, right down to the present day. Do I think he was murdered? No, I do not; but then I am no Whig. :-)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ana, What is it about Earl's of Essex? Tudor or Stuart, there is history in this name.