1603: The men of the Bye Plot, but not those of the Main Plot

1 comment December 9th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1603, priests William Watson and William Clark were executed for a dramatic (that is, harebrained) plot “to take away ‘the KINGE and all his cubbes.'”

The year was 1603, the first in the reign of James I. (However, he’d been James VI of Scotland since the tender age of 13 months, when his mother Mary, Queen of Scots had been forced to abdicate. He made himself quite a reputation for witch-hunting.)

With the death of the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and all her schismatic Anne Boleyn mojo, hard-pressed English Catholics greeted Jamie’s ascension hopeful of relief from official persecution. Although raised Protestant, both his parents had been Catholic.

Watson was one of these hopeful adherents, and hastened himself to Scotland as Queen Elizabeth lay ailing to extract from the future English monarch the soothing blandishments of good favor that future monarchs make.

When toleration was not extended to Catholics upon the new king’s elevation in late March 1603, the disenchanted Watson almost immediately embarked on a preposterous scheme to

assemble force and strengthe, and on Midsommer-day last, in the night, to come to the Parke pale at Grenewich, to enter in by the gardein with a key, that should be borowed; and when the numbers were come in, there should be a watche set at the dores of principall persons, and at the passages; and then to goe up to the KING’S loding. And when they cam to the KING, they should surprise his person, and carry him to the Tower, and they would move him for 3 things: — 1, for there pardon; 2, for tolleration of relligion; 3, for assuraunce thereof, to preferre Catholiques to places of credit, as WATZON the priest to be Lord Keper; GREY, Erle Marshall; GEORGE BROOKE, Lord Treasorer; and MARCAM, Secretary. They concluded to cutt of many of the Privy Councill, and to have made a Proclamation, purporting howe the KING had bene misled, and to have had many things reformed. They determined to have possessed the principall ports of the realme, and to have kept the KING in the Towre a quarter of a yeare.

The Bye Plot was ironically busted by other Catholics — Jesuits, as distinct from “secular clergy” (clergy not affiliated with an order) like Watson. Jesuits and secular clergy were at loggerheads in this period over tactics, church structure … more or less everything. The need to steal the thunder of whatever restore-the-Church scheme the Jesuits might be cooking up might have helped precipitate Watson into such immediate and desperate disaffection.

At any rate, these other more respectable fathers of the church blew the whistle on the Bye Plot lest it provoke anti-Catholic pogroms, and you’d have to concur with their estimate that taking the king hostage is the sort of thing that would have prompted some blowback.

In the course of rolling up the now-exposed Bye Plot, investigators also caught wind of the parallel Main Plot, courtesy of one conspirator who was involved in both and unable to hold his tongue under torture.

The Main Plot was a sketchier affair to a similar end, allegedly among Catholic-sympathizing nobles to depose James for his cousin. As befits its title, the Main Plot implicated much bluer blood than Watson’s: Lord Cobham,* Baron Grey, and the knighted soldier Griffin Markham.

Oh, and a guy you might have heard of by the name of Walter Raleigh.

All these Main Plot gentlemen were likewise condemned to death. December 9, 1603 was the date appointed for Watson and Clark to expiate the Bye Plot in the grisly manner that commoner priests were wont to suffer in that age — they as the undercard to the beheadings of Cobham, Grey, and Markham. (Raleigh was on deck for a later date.)

The drama that unfolded on the Winchester scaffold that day was wonderfully narrated in the correspondence of Sir Dudley Carleton and well worth extracting at length.

The two priests that led the way to the execution were very bloodily handled; for they were both cut down alive; and Clarke, to whom more favour was intended, had the worse luck; for he both strove to help himself, and spake after he was cut down. They died boldly both … Their quarters were set on Winchester gates, and their heads on the first Tower of the castle.

Warrants were signed, and sent to Sir Benjamin Tichborne, on Wednesday last at night, for Markham, Grey, and Cobham, woh in this order were to take their turns … A fouler day could hardly have been picked out, or fitter for such a tragedy. Markham being brought to the scaffold, was much dismayed, and complained much of his hard hap, to be deluded with hopes and brought to that place unprepared. One might see in his face the very picture of sorrow; but he seemed not to want resolution … [and] prepared himself to the block. The sheriff, in the mean time, was secretly withdrawn … whereupon the execution was stayed, and Markham left upon the scaffold to entertain his own thoughts, which, no doubt, were as melancholy as his countenance, sad and heavy. The sheriff, at his return, told him, that since he was so ill prepared, he should yet have two hours respite, so led him from the scaffold, without giving him any more comfort, and locked him into the great hall … The lord Grey, whose turn was next, was led to the scaffold by a troop of the young courtiers … and thereupon entered into a long prayer for the king’s good estate, which held us in the rain more than half an hour; but being come to a full point, the sheriff stayed him, and said, he had received orders from the king, to change the order of the execution, and that the lord Cobham was to go before him … he had no more hope given him, than of an hour’s respite; neither could any man yet dive into the mystery of this strange proceeding.

The lord Cobham, who was now to play his part, and by his former actions promised nothing but matiere pour rire, did much cozen the world; for he came to the scaffold with good assurance, and contempt of death. … [he] would have taken a short farewel of the world, with that constancy and boldness, that we might see by him, it is an easier matter to die well than live well.

He was stayed by the sheriff, and told, that there resteth yet somewhat else to be done; for that he was to be confronted with some other of the prisoners, but named none. So as Grey and Markham being brought back to the scaffold, as they then were, but nothing acquainted with what had passed, no more than the lookers-on with what should follow, looked strange one upon the other like men beheaded, and met again in the other world. Now all the actors being together on the stage (as use is at the end of a play,) the sheriff made a short speech unto them, by way of the interrogatory of the heinousness of their offences, the justness of their trials, their lawful condemnation, and due execution there to be performed; to all which they assented; then, saith the sheriff, see the mercy of your prince, who, of himself, hath sent hither to countermand, and given you your lives. There was then no need to beg a plaudite of the audience, for it was given with such hues and cries, that it went from the castle into the town, and there began afresh, as if there had been some such like accident. And this experience was made of the difference of examples of justice and mercy; that in this last, no man could cry loud enough, ‘God save the King;’ and at the holding up of [the previously executed] Brookes’s head, when the executioner began the same cry, he was not seconded by the voice of any one man, but the sheriff. You must think, if the spectators were so glad, the actors were not sorry; for even those that went best resolved to death, were glad of life … Raleigh, you must think (who had a window opened that way), had hammers working in his head, to beat out the meaning of this strategem. His turn was to come on Monday next; but the king has pardoned him with the rest, and confined him with the two lords to the Tower of London, there to remain during pleasure.

Turns out that James wanted to do only the minimum amount of butchery necessary to establish his bona fides, and it sure seems like the mercy play proved a public relations triumph.** Raleigh was left by this reprieve languishing in the Tower for years, before his own final adventure saw him to the block after all in 1618.

Would you like some bootless speculation that Raleigh’s being caught up in this mess led him to nurture during his imprisonment a decade-long grudge against William Shakespeare and eventually murder the playwright? Of course you would.

In the world of more demonstrable historical consequences, the failure of these plots and continuing frustration with Catholics’ lot under a new boss who seemed a lot like the old led two years later to the ne plus ultra of English sectarian terrorism, Guy Fawkes‘s Gunpowder Plot to blow King James and his court straight to kingdom come.

* Cobham was a descendant of John Oldcastle and is supposed to have forced Shakespeare to redact the family name in his Henry V plays — giving us, instead, the character of Falstaff.

** One is obliged to notice Carleton’s disquieting footnote indicating that the entire affair was staged so well that someone almost actually lost his head:

… there was another cross adventure; for John Gib could not get so near the scaffold, that he could speak to the sheriff, but was thrust out amongst the boys, and was fain to call out to sir James Hayes, or else Markham might have lost his neck.


Topical sourcing: Mark Nicholls, “Treason’s Reward: The Punishment of Conspirators in the Bye Plot of 1603″ The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, No. 4 (Dec., 1995).

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Last Minute Reprieve,Lucky to be Alive,Mock Executions,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Religious Figures,Terrorists,Torture,Treason

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