On 26 October 1605 William Parker Lord Monteagle (sometimes rendered Mounteagle) was sitting eating dinner with guests at his home in Hoxton, London, when a servant handed him a letter that a tall, mysterious stranger had just delivered to his door. Lord Monteagle broke the seal and then handed the letter back to the servant to read it out. The letter was anonymous, but supposedly from one of the gunpowder plotters, and started as so:
My lord, out of the love I beare to some of youere frends, I have a care of youre preservacion, therefore I would aduyse you as you tender your life to devise some excuse to shift youer attendance at this parliament, for God and man hath concurred to punishe the wickedness of this tyme.
Monteagle was a Catholic member of the House of Lords, a man of divided loyalties – on the one hand to the old religion of England and the severely put upon Catholic community, and on the other hand the protestant English state whose patronage he enjoyed, albeit tentatively. Monteagle reached a decision immediately. He delivered the letter himself into the hands of Robert Cecil Lord Salisbury, who happened to be in a meeting with some other important lords. When the King James returned from his hunting trip three days (!) later, Cecil informed him of the great danger that seemed to be abroad, and James, according to the official version, intuited that an attack was being planned on the state opening of parliament. Thanks to James’s quick-thinking, or, more likely, thanks to Salisbury’s, the great Gunpowder Plot was averted the night before it was meant to be carried out, as Guy Fawkes was accosted in a cellar under the parliament by some barrels of gunpowder, matches in his pocket.
Fawkes was interrogated and executed, his accomplices hunted down and shot, or brought in and executed, and their most audacious, murderous plot against the government and king foiled. The government were, understandably, ruthless in their dealings with the plotters, and the recusancy laws against Catholics were tightened – the plotters did the remaining Catholics of England little favour by their deeds. But there was no general punishment of Catholics in revenge for the plot, no wholesale murder, no Protestant version of ‘The St Bartholomew’s Massacre’. The state distinguished between Catholics loyal to the crown and those not, and this was in no small part thanks to the fact that it had been a loyal Catholic who had helped to foil the plot.
One man who felt particularly thankful to Monteagle was the poet and playwright Ben Jonson. Jonson – like Monteagle – was a Catholic at the time of the plot, and knew some of the main plotters well. He had been drinking and eating with some of the plotters only days before in one of London’s ordinaries. Perhaps, without Monteagle’s intervention, he might not have escaped so easily guilt by association with his co-religionists. In fact, after the plot and the inevitable backlash against Catholics (not as bad as it could have been, but pretty uncomfortable), Jonson turned his back on Catholicism and conformed to the Anglican Church. But he felt grateful enough to Monteagle to pen this epigram…
Lo what my country should have done (have raised
An obelisk, or column to thy name,
Or, if she would but modestly have praised
Thy fact, in brass or marble writ the same)
I, that am glad of thy great chance, here do !
And proud, my works shall out-last common deeds,
Durst think it great, and worthy wonder too,
But thine, for which I do’t, so much exceeds !
My country’s parents I have many known ;
But, saver of my country, THEE alone.
Since England has not seen fit to leave a memorial of Monteagle’s great act, Jonson is glad to do so, in verse. He brings up the contemporary idea, a well-worn idea in 16th and 17th century poetry, that poetry grants its subject, and its author immortality, only to argue that Monteagle’s act is more immortal still. Even as complimentary epigrams go, this is effusively positive. The last couplet is extremely complimentary ‘THEE alone’, Monteagle alone is the saver of England, next to whom no one can stand. This is the sort of language usually reserved for great military leaders, kings, or even God. But perhaps, knowing what we do about Jonson’s own situation, this is understandable. Jonson is as much thankful to Monteagle for saving his own skin as for saving the country.
Mind, there is more to Monteagle’s story than Jonson acknowledges here. First there is the question of Monteagle’s motivation. One theory is that the letter was written by Monteagle himself, acting alone or in collusion with Salisbury, either to scare the plotters off course, or to flush them out; perhaps Salisbury knew something was afoot, but wasn’t quite sure what. The delivery of the letter seems rather staged – Monteagle had the letter read out at the table, and, without pausing to confer with other Catholic lords, took the letter straight to the secretary of state who just happened to be in a meeting with other important people of state. If this was part of a grand eleventh hour ruse to stop the plot, it worked. And, while other Catholic lords struggled to retain their prestige, Monteagle’s career flourished. But perhaps this is churlish to point out given the lives he saved – and whoever said public benefit had to conflict with private gain?
And I was going to finish the post with that question. But then it struck me: What if I had got the poem wrong? All that gushing praise, even by the standards of the time, even in a world of patronage and respect for social betters – wasn’t it actually suspiciously over the top? To claim a column or obelisk should be raised to the man, – who got celebratory obelisks in the 17th century? – to put his act next to the work of the greatest poets, to call him the only saver of the country – ‘Nay, that were a bit much’ as Volpone, Jonson’s greatest comic creation, once said. Jonson was after all a satirist… and he was well-connected too: could he somehow have got wind of what many historians have since suspected, that Monteagle was merely a pawn, albeit a lucky one, in Salisbury’s great web of espionage? Could Jonson have resented his subsequent success, and the plaudits he won through the official story of his role foiling the plot? Is it possible that the epigram is mockery disguised as flattery?
Note: My source for the details of the plot was The Gunpowder Plot, Alan Haynes. The letter itself can be found on the UK National Archives.