In the wake of the hegemonic Whigs’ political legitimacy crisis following the 1720 financial implosion of the South Sea bubble, supporters of the exiled Stuart dynasty rekindled* hopes of resuming the English throne.
The “Atterbury Plot” — so named for its sponsor and most prominent adherent, the Tory Anglican bishop Francis Atterbury — proposed to orchestrate a coup that would seize the persons of the usurping Hanovers and key points in London and Westminster, coordinated with both an internal Catholic/Tory rising and a landing by forces loyal to James Stuart. (He’s known as “the Pretender” or as King James III, depending on where the speaker’s treasons lie.) So particularly were the Tory ambitions developed that lists of expected supporters for each of England’s counties had been drawn up, the framework of a hypothetical replacement state.
This plot was broken up by 1722 and has been ridiculed as fanciful by outcome-oriented observers, but the government at the time took a plan by disaffected elites to kidnap the royal family — a plot which had only been betrayed to them by one of the conspirators’ French contacts — very seriously indeed. Paul Kleber Monod characterizes the 1714-1723 period (which compasses more than just the Atterbury scheme) as “the most widespread and the most dangerous” of “three great waves of Jacobite activity.”
Responding vigorously, the newly ascendant Prime Minister** Robert Walpole used anti-Jacobite security measures to lay his firm hand on the helm of state. A Dutch envoy in 1723 wrote that one of its progenitors, Sir Henry Goring, “had formed a company out of the Waltham Blacks for the Pretender’s service” and that this perceived Jacobite association of skulking soot-faced poachers and potential guerrillas “led to the bringing of the Waltham Black Act into Parliament.”†
In a conspiracy of disaffected nobles, Layer might have been the least august participant — and perhaps this explains why he was the one to pay the highest price.
A successful Middle Temper barrister of strictly commoner stock, Layer’s successful practice earned him the confidence of Lord North and Grey, one of the other chief Jacobite conspirators.
Himself a ready adherent of same, Layer communicated directly with the Pretender, even traveling to Rome in 1721 to brief him personally on the plot. The volume of incriminating correspondence thereby produced, some of it in the hands of a mistress who would shop him, brought Layer his death sentence — albeit only after dramatically attempting an escape. His severed head would cast a rotted warning mounted atop Temple Bar.
Many died for the Stuart cause down the years but in the present affair only Layer would quaff the cup of martyrdom.
For others involved, who had been more circumspect about their paper trails and associates, treason would meet with less lethal revenge. Held in the Tower of London for two years, Atterbury himself proved elusive for a proper prosecution despite having corresponded directly with the Pretender with suggestive but discreet language (e.g., “the time is now come when, with a very little assistance from your friends abroad, your way to your friends at home is become safe and easy” in April 1721); instead, the Commons voted a bill of pains and penalties depriving him of his office and exiling him. Lord North and Grey followed him to the continent; like combinations of dispossession and disgrace befell all the other conspirators too.
Plaque to Christopher Layer in Aylsham, where he once practiced.
Poet Alexander Pope,‡ a Catholic, was close with Bishop Atterbury and wrote him an epitaph upon his passing.
For Dr. Francis Atterbury,
Bishop of Rochester,
Who died in Exile at Paris, in 1732.
[His only Daughter having expired in his arms, immediately after she arrived in France to see him.]
Yes, we have liv’d — one pang, and then we part!
May Heav’n, dear Father! now have all thy Heart.
Yet ah! how once we lov’d, remember still,
Till you are Dust like me.
Dear Shade! I will:
Then mix this Dust with thine — O Spotless Ghost!
O more than Fortune, Friends, or Country lost!
Is there on earth one Care, one Wish beside?
Yes — Save my Country, Heavn’,
— He said, and dy’d.
** Walpole is often regarded retrospectively as the first Prime Minister, but this was not an official rank in his time: indeed, it was a defamation used against him and which Walpole rejected. (“I unequivocally deny that I am sole or Prime Minister and that to my influence and direction all the affairs of government must be attributed.”)
† Quote from Katherine West Scheil in Shapeskeare Survey 51.
‡ In other Atterbury-related celebrity litterateur brushes, Edward Gibbon’s Stuart-sympathizing grandfather was obliged by the Jacobite scandal to retire to his estate, “disqualified from all public trust.” The erudite historian would recall that “in the daily devotions of the family the name of the king for whom they prayed was prudently omitted.”