As Bad as Poisoned

Blair Worden

In the politics of Shakespeare’s time and its sequel, life not so much imitated art as competed with it. The ostentatious theatricality of royal rituals and masques was complemented by the visceral excitements of public events. Which of the stage’s countless trial scenes can have equalled in dramatic effect the moment during the arraignment of the Earl of Essex for treason in 1601 when the earl’s antagonist, the queen’s leading minister Robert Cecil, secretly present in the court, stepped from behind an arras to deliver the impassioned speech that ruined the earl’s defence of his rebellion? Which of the assumptions of disguise by beleaguered or lovelorn dramatis personae can have been as sensational as the escapade of 1623 – an occasion ‘worthy’, as a royal adviser said, ‘to be put in a new romanso’ – when the future Charles I and his father James I’s leading minister the Duke of Buckingham donned false beards, assumed the names Tom and John Smith, and journeyed to the Spanish court to woo the infanta for Charles? Incognito travel, a commonplace practice of the age, produced a succession of improbable adventures, among them (as if in compensation for the Puritan closure of the theatres) the escape, on the eve of the second civil war in 1648, of Charles’s teenage son, the future James II, from Parliamentarian captivity in a ‘very pretty’ female costume, and the exposure beneath a maid’s petticoat of the masculinity of Sir George Booth, the fleeing leader of the rising against the republic in 1659.

Art might have its prerogatives of invention and distillation, but life had the advantage of its real consequences. In hereditary monarchies the stability of realms rested on the survival of rulers and heirs. Just as the private lives of princes and princesses, that standard theme of playwrights, determined the future of dynasties, so royal murders plunged kingdoms into crisis. Politics may not have produced as many corpses as Hamlet or Jacobean tragedy, but there were enough of them and of attempted assassinations – the murders of William the Silent and Henri III and Henri IV of France; the attempt to poison Queen Elizabeth; the numerous plots, in both his kingdoms, on the life of James VI and I – for threats and rumours of regicide to place nations on recurrent high alert. In life and art alike, there was a special frisson to death by poison. In 1612 the death of James’s heir, Charles’s elder brother Henry, was ascribed to poison. The charge was false, but in the following year the political world was rocked by the poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury in the Tower by agents of the wife of the king’s then leading minister, Overbury’s enemy the Earl of Somerset. The stories that came out, of the drugging of tarts and jellies and wine smuggled into the Tower, roused an intensity of interest beyond the resources of the stage.

Thirteen years later, the death of James I in March 1625 brought the allegations of poison that are the subject of Alastair Bellany and Thomas Cogswell’s book. The king’s demise was attributed to Somerset’s successor in the royal favour, Buckingham. James’s practice of raising attractive and low-born young men to high office and influence gave a carrying wind to a persistent theme of the plays of the time: that of the upstart royal favourite who manipulates and betrays the king’s friendship. If the theatre drew on politics for its motifs, life turned to art for political explanation. Buckingham’s ascendancy was understood in terms familiar from plays and poems, though also from their close partner in the formation of political perceptions – history. He was another Piers Gaveston, or another Sejanus, the favourite of the Roman emperor Tiberius. Sejanus, his evils immortalised by Tacitus, was given an anglicised face in Ben Jonson’s play about him. He had done what Buckingham was alleged to have done: sacrificed the public good to his restless ambition; monopolised and sold offices of state; bribed his way to personal supremacy; usurped the public role of the ancient nobility; and twisted his royal master into misrule. An essential instrument of Sejanus’ advance had been poison, a method of dispatch that in England, as Bellany and Cogswell observe, ‘was often seen as the crime of the restlessly ambitious’ courtier ‘with neither blood nor virtue to sustain him’.

Reportedly a significant proportion of the present population believes that Princess Diana was murdered by the royal family. At least the accusation against Buckingham had something to build on. He had been at the king’s deathbed in the royal palace of Theobalds, where the 58-year-old James, his health long impaired by his disorderly life and diet, unexpectedly succumbed to a ‘tertian ague’, or fever. During his decline the duke and his mother, contrary to the wishes of the royal doctors, got odorous plasters applied to the king’s body and gave him a drink of their own concoction. Buckingham had a conceivable motive for murder, arising from a power struggle at court. After the humiliating failure of the expedition to Madrid, the duke had reversed his policy and embarked, in alliance with the prince, on an anti-Spanish course which offended James’s pacific instincts and subverted his control of the regime. The king’s resolve to reassert his authority threatened not merely Buckingham’s policy but his political survival.

Yet art, for all its correspondences with the facts of political life, is not to be confused with them. Even in a period when the correspondences were so close, intelligent people knew the difference. Historians need to know it too. Buckingham was not a Sejanus and not a poisoner. Despite their disagreements the bond of friendship between king and minister held firm. James, a difficult patient who ‘laughed’ at his doctors’ remedies, had offered his own prescriptions to Buckingham during the duke’s serious illness of 1624 (which rumour as usual attributed to poison) and was glad when Buckingham in turn circumvented the professionals during James’s own illness. The remedies supplied by the duke, who followed the advice of a reputable physician of his own choosing, were the innocuous ones of treacle on the plaster and herbal properties in the drink. Nonetheless there were serious difficulties for Buckingham. Reports spread that the smell from the plaster had been suspicious. Medical theory in any case maintained that even prescriptions harmless in themselves could be nocuous if applied at the wrong stage of a fever. It seemed that the king’s condition had declined after the second of the two occasions when the plaster was applied – whether or not as a result of the application – and that he had never recovered. There was also the awkward fact that a succession of the duke’s political rivals or potential rivals had died, also unexpectedly, in the year before the king’s own demise.

Although stories of poison circulated immediately after James’s death, it was only a year later, in the spring of 1626, that Buckingham’s actions at Theobalds were widely discussed. The fullest portion of Bellany and Cogswell’s long volume covers the two developments which then highlighted the episode. One was the publication of a scurrilous and sinuously worded pamphlet which made the allegation, The Forerunner of Revenge against the Duke of Buckingham. It was written by George Eglisham, an embittered Roman Catholic Scot, part physician, part poet, part tutor, and perhaps a forger of coins. He had flourished on the edge of the Jacobean court in the early 1620s, when the anti-Catholic policies of the government were relaxed, only for his fortunes to plunge when they were reimposed in 1623-24. Through assiduous and resourceful research Bellany and Cogswell trace the origin of the tract to the exile community in Brussels to which Eglisham had fled and to Habsburg backers of the Spanish cause. They explore the impact of the pamphlet after it had been smuggled into England and trace its influence through reprints and quotations over a quarter of a century and beyond.

The other development was the Parliamentary impeachment of Buckingham, who had preserved his ascendancy in the new reign. The opening years of Charles’s rule were a period of catastrophic mismanagement and of a mounting sense of national crisis, born of military, naval and diplomatic blunders, economic depression, religious polarisation and anxieties about both the international situation and the survival of Parliamentary liberties. The blame, and with it intense obloquy, fell on Buckingham. Leading MPs, determined to remove him from power, turned to impeachment to secure his imprisonment. Yet concrete evidence of treason or illegality or corruption proved impossible to establish. In despair the Parliamentary managers, who at the outset of the Parliament had decided not to include accusations about James’s death among the charges, resolved to play that card and added what became the 13th and last of the impeachment charges, though the addition split the Commons. There followed days of intense debate, during which Charles, affronted by the speeches of two MPs, sent them to the Tower. Buckingham’s fate remained uncertain until the king’s decision to dissolve the Parliament ended the impeachment proceedings.

The Murder of King James I is a work of imposing learning, imaginatively conceived and adroitly organised, by two fine scholars who identify an unjustly neglected subject and bring it enjoyably to life. Why then are its claims unconvincing? Bellany and Cogswell seem to me captivated by investigative approaches which in their earlier, separate writings they fruitfully helped to pioneer, but to which professional fashion and habit have given too uncritical a credence. The result is a curious disjunction, or crossing of currents, between the authors’ shrewd and scrupulous inspection of the evidence and the deductions to which their prior assumptions lead them.

In tune with our age of outreach, which chafes at the long-held assumption that Stuart political life was the preserve of the aristocracy and gentry, Bellany and Cogswell have long been interested in the social breadth of 17th-century engagement with public events. They place the influence of Eglisham’s pamphlet within ‘the new media politics’, which through print and ballads and circulated manuscripts brought information and argument before a growing and diverse audience. The old elite politics, we are invited to infer, adjusted to the novel inclusive ones. The two authors long to establish links between Eglisham’s tract and the proceedings against Buckingham conducted by the nation’s elite at Westminster, whom the publication urged to act against the duke. Yet what happened in Parliament illustrates the institution’s surviving degree of distance from publicity and polemic outside it. It may be that public awareness of the impeachment debates raised the sales of the pamphlet, just as it may have increased public interest in Tacitus, but there is nothing to indicate the influence in the opposite direction that the two authors seek to show.

In their earlier work on public perceptions of politics, Bellany and Cogswell, again in the historiographical spirit of the times, emphasised the potency of literary and popular images in shaping public opinion – or anyway the conspicuous components of it. In this book image matters more to its authors than reality. It becomes evident that they do not suppose that James was murdered: ‘what matters’ about the allegations is ‘not whether the poisoning claims were true’ – though, if they had been, we might suppose the murder of a 17th-century king by his leading minister to be a moment of some significance – but ‘whether, how and why contemporaries claimed or believed them to be true’. The trouble is that the hold of images on the authors’ minds distorts their representation of the claims and beliefs themselves.

According to Bellany and Cogswell the speeches of leading MPs ‘clearly revealed how images of the favourite-as-poisoner could be connected to deeper anxieties about royal power, court politics and national decay’. Certainly members were swayed, in their perceptions of the duke’s misrule, by emotions of the kind to which literary representations of politics gave incessant voice. The impeachment charges and the speeches in support of them used language ubiquitous in plays and poems. Buckingham – with his driving ambition, his affronts to ancient virtue, his meteoric ascent, his acquisition of parasitic wealth, his control of his two kings – was alleged to be what royal favourites were in plays, a ‘moth’ or else a ‘comet’, whose control of the court had ‘eclipsed’ the majesty and authority of kingship. Yet feelings were one thing, facts another. MPs were not fooled by ‘images of the favourite-as-poisoner’. Their leaders included men who had worked with Buckingham and, even though they had come to despise and detest him, knew him too well to think of him as a murderer.

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Bellany and Cogswell scan the Parliamentary debates for suspicions and imputations of poison. Some MPs, it’s true, wanted to believe that Buckingham’s medical intervention could have been or even was fatal. Yet there seems to have been a standard assumption in the debates that he had had no ‘ill intention’. The committee’s first move was to interrogate the royal doctors. Their testimony, Bellany and Cogswell acknowledge, didn’t ‘unambiguously’ support the murder charge. Not for the only time in the book a gratuitous adverb clouds the issue. Nothing the physicians told the committee cast an imputation of murder. Their professional pride was affronted by the duke’s invasion of their sphere, but the question raised by their evidence was not whether James had been deliberately slain but whether Buckingham’s intervention had, inadvertently, been counter-productive. According to Eglisham one of the doctors, John Craig, protested after Buckingham’s ministrations that ‘the king is poisoned.’ The most he actually said was that the duke’s medication had ‘as good as’ – or, in another version, ‘as bad as’ – poisoned James: in other words, not that Buckingham had intended the king’s death but that he might as well have done. Craig anyway denied his statement before the committee.

The Commons accepted its committee’s conclusion that Buckingham had perpetrated an act of ‘transcendent presumption’ and ‘dangerous consequence’. But those words didn’t impute murder either. The ‘consequence’ was the rash jeopardising of the king’s life, not (as far as anyone indicated) the purposeful ending of it. The ‘presumption’ was Buckingham’s interference in the ministrations of the professional doctors, a class with whom MPs found themselves displaying an unaccustomed solidarity. The interference was enough to incense MPs, and in their eyes to justify severe punishment, whether the ministrations had been damaging or not. Sir Christopher Wandesford, who was given the task of expounding the 13th article when the Commons’ impeachment charges were brought before the Lords, claimed that the duke’s ‘judgment’ had been warped, in this as in everything else, by his boundless power. ‘Transported by the passions of his own will’, he had ‘ventured upon the doubtful sickness of the king with a kind of high, sole and single counselling’. Yet in emphasising the extent both of the ‘presumption’ and of the ‘dangerous consequence’ of Buckingham’s medical ‘experiments’ Wandesford was not implying that murder would have been a more fitting charge. He wanted to nail Buckingham with the existing one. It was with the same purpose that MPs hunted precedents, though with doubtful success, to demonstrate that a layman’s interference in the treatment of a patient, or anyway of a king, who subsequently died was a felony even if prompted by good intentions.

Bellany and Cogswell’s case rests heavily on their reading of Wandesford’s speech and of those speeches delivered in the same cause by the two MPs whose words landed them in the Tower, Sir Dudley Digges and Sir John Eliot. None of the three addresses, the authors concede, made the poison charge ‘directly’, but each of them ‘alluded to Eglisham’s accusations’. They did so, we gather, through rhetorical techniques that recent scholarship has again made familiar. The speakers quoted passages of classical literature in which the audience would have discerned historical parallels too risky to be spelled out; and they drew attention to unmentionable subjects by professing to avoid them. The techniques gave room for deniability were the Crown to act against the speakers. On the face of it that is a plausible thesis. Recent work has shown how widespread such methods were in plays and poems as a means of escaping censorship or other forms of retribution. Why would we not find parallel tactics in Parliament, where the conventions of debate required frequent gaps between what was said and what was meant?

Yet our interpretative antennae, by now so accustomed to the detection of veiled meanings, can miss the possibility that people meant what they said. As read by Bellany and Cogswell, the most obviously provocative of the three speeches was Wandesford’s – the one that provoked no royal complaint or retribution. ‘Rather than directly accusing Buckingham of poisoning James’, Wandesford relied on ‘hints and queries’. If so the main hint was far from subtle. Wandesford was moved by the duke’s reckless provision of physic, which ‘might hurt … one that he so loved and affected’, to recall the dying words of Julius Caesar: ‘Et tu Brute? Et tu filii?’ To Bellany and Cogswell the words carried an ‘unmistakable’ implication: that James’s death was an ‘assassination’. If Eglisham’s charges had been in Parliament’s mind, the ‘implication’ would indeed have been obvious and inflammatory. Yet no one remarked on it. It was even missed by the king and his representatives in Parliament, who were so alert to seditious or disrespectful purposes in MPs’ speeches. Wandesford’s listeners evidently took the analogy for what, on a straightforward reading, it was: a pointer not to assassination but to Buckingham’s betrayal of the ties of friendship with James that, to the duke’s defenders, justified his medical intervention.

The role allotted to Sir Dudley Digges was to introduce and summarise the impeachment charges. He did so under four heads, the deathbed charge being the last of them. He then explained to the peers that the Commons had instructed him to say nothing that might affront the ‘honour’ either of the king or of his father. Bellany and Cogswell take him to have meant that the article about James’s death could not be glossed without damage to the reputation of the present king, whom strict convention exempted from Parliamentary criticism. After all Charles had witnessed the events at Theobalds; the doctors had asked him to dissuade Buckingham from his interventions; and the king was now seeking to protect Buckingham from the impeachment charges. Yet Digges’s statement, as is clear from his amplification of it, had nothing to do with the deathbed article, from which his speech had moved on. His words introduced general concluding remarks about the duke’s relationship with his royal masters. Well before the introduction of the 13th article Charles had warned Parliament not to make accusations aimed ostensibly at Buckingham but really at the ‘honour’ of the two kings on whose behalf the favourite had acted. Digges’s words were an attempt to skirt that hazard by explaining that, whatever power Buckingham’s kings might have entrusted to him, they bore no responsibility for his abuse of it. Here as often in the book, Bellany and Cogswell misread the evidence because they too readily elevate the deathbed issue above the other accusations levelled at the duke. Having drawn a circle round their subject they find their subject at the centre of it.

It was Eliot’s job to conclude the Commons’ presentation. The authors tell us that he managed to ‘hint that Buckingham had murdered the king without saying so outright’. Conflicting versions survive of both of the two passages in his speech where Bellany and Cogswell discern that tactic. It is hard to tell whether the first passage was about the death scene or not, but even if it was, we have no reason to infer that Eliot, who may indeed have implied that Buckingham had caused the death of his king, wished it to be understood that the result had been intentional. It was Eliot’s speech that compared Buckingham to Sejanus. The parallel was wide-ranging. It was also selective, excluding needlessly provocative points of comparison. In the second of the two passages Eliot explicitly avoided any analogy with those ‘veneries’ (sexual wantonness) and ‘venefices’ (poisonings) which the Roman favourite had committed but which were beyond the speaker’s scope. Bellany and Cogswell regard the words as a ruse to draw attention to the subject they ostensibly avoided. Again if Eglisham’s accusations had been in Parliament’s mind the words might have had that purpose. As it is they are readily intelligible at face value.

What is true is that the Crown and its Parliamentary followers swooped on the words of Digges and Eliot that attract Bellany and Cogswell. Digges’s remark about the Crown’s ‘honour’ seems to have been genuinely misunderstood. The king, having read notes on the speech taken by Digges’s hearers, recognised the error and had him released from the Tower. Eliot remained there. His insulting tirade, which affronted Charles by its ‘whole manner’, had been offensive enough whether it alluded to the deathbed episode or not, but the over-sensitive king characteristically read more into it than was there. He inferred that Eliot, in portraying Buckingham as Sejanus, intended to equate Charles with Sejanus’s evil master, the emperor Tiberius. He also imagined a sinister intent in a quotation Eliot took from Cicero. Bellany and Cogswell’s reading of the debates is essentially an enlargement of the Crown’s. Yet Parliament was bewildered by the royal reaction. The assembly had the dispirited air of a classroom gravely rebuked by a misinformed teacher. Bellany and Cogswell’s reading could work only on the assumption that the Parliamentary response to the Crown’s accusations was a front: that a body which had been divided over the introduction of the 13th article came together in pretending that it had noticed no veiled allusions in the speeches. The record supplies a less improbable picture.

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How much of the Crown’s misunderstanding was genuine? Its evident tactic was to expose what Charles regarded as the factious if not seditious purposes of leading MPs and to drive a wedge between them and the rest. Though the ploy failed, the Commons’ inclusion of the 13th article did Buckingham’s enemies no good. After the dissolution of the Parliament the Crown continued to keep the article in the public eye. It embarrassed MPs by inviting them to submit any new evidence that might give plausibility to their previous charges, as they could not. The Commons learned its lesson. In 1628, when the next Parliament met and when the detestation of Buckingham had reached new heights, the subject of James’s death was prudently avoided.

Though the book centres on the 1620s, it also gives much of its space to the 1640s, the decade of civil war, when Eglisham’s accusations were repeatedly recycled. Buckingham was by now long dead, but the memory of his misrule was a polemical weapon for Parliamentarians who pursued either or both of two tactics: the blackening of the king, whom they were now fighting, as the duke’s fellow criminal; and the presentation of Charles’s reign as a long popish conspiracy which the favourite’s ascendancy had promoted. Bellany and Cogswell make heady claims for the impact of Eglisham’s tract, which had a lasting ‘influence on the British political imagination’ and took ‘deep root in popular political consciousness’. In the 1640s his claims ‘had a real impact on revolutionary events now convulsing the British Isles’. The murder charge, around which, ‘to a remarkable degree, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary politics took shape’, supplies ‘remarkable new insights into some of the key dynamics of the English Revolution’. Again the authors would like to bring Parliamentary proceedings together with Eglisham’s propaganda. Yet in 1642, as they acknowledge, Parliament ordered a new version of his pamphlet to be burned. In any case how wide or deep was Eglisham’s ‘popular’ impact? In the 1620s his tract circulated only illicitly and was expensive. In the civil wars, when the collapse of censorship produced a torrent of print, its allegations doubtless found a wider readership, but only among myriad polemical claims about myriad other issues.

In 1648 the revolution took the sharply radical turn that would bring Charles to the scaffold a year later. The propaganda war stepped up accordingly. Tracts written to vilify the king were increasingly ready to claim or hint that he had not merely covered up the murder of his father but been party to it. As we approach the regicide Bellany and Cogswell’s claims become headier still. Eglisham’s charges came to ‘dominate political discourse’; they exercised a ‘powerful hold’ on ‘the English political imagination at the very climax of the revolution’; they ‘hung over the debates’ about Charles’s trial. Those are huge overstatements. It’s true that in 1648 Parliament republished the 13th article of the impeachment and added a sentence of slyly ambiguous innuendo against the king, though it said nothing that need have come from Eglisham. Again the Crown’s supporters pounced, and again Bellany and Cogswell are misled by the royal emphases. Royalist propaganda dwelled on Parliament’s accusation partly because of the need to assure foreign powers, from whom the king’s party was seeking support, of its falsity; and partly, as in the 1620s, to expose Parliamentary divisions about the rectitude and wisdom of examining the circumstances of James’s death and to highlight the evil purposes of the more radical members. With royalists, Bellany and Cogswell exaggerate Parliamentarian uses of the issue. Pace their claims the Cromwellian army made nothing of it in demanding justice on the king. The prosecuting solicitor at Charles’s trial did think of alluding briefly – and slyly – to the deathbed episode (along with other misdemeanours in the reign’s early years) but dropped the idea. There would be more shameless innuendo, not least from John Milton on behalf of the new republic, in the marketing of whose cause truth was a low priority. It was desperate stuff, which can rarely have convinced its peddlers. There is nothing to support Bellany and Cogswell’s assertion that ‘many’ prominent politicians of the Interregnum ‘regarded James’s murder as a matter of fact’.

The normally agreeable prose of The Murder of King James I, which the grant-application language of the book’s bolder claims disfigures, is also impaired by the worn phrasing of portentous historiographical self-positioning. This is a ‘post-revisionist’ volume that aims to ‘revitalise’ studies of the era by, among other moves, adopting the insights of ‘the “cultural turn”’. The authors deploy a ‘diverse set of methodologies and narrative strategies’ and, in exploring England’s ‘rich and volatile political culture’, put ‘new sources’ in ‘productive conversation with the old ones’. There is in fact no original method to the book, which does what historical scholars have always done: tell a story from the documents available for it. The historiographical earnestness is enhanced by long endnotes telling us which articles to read on topics contiguous to the authors’. Procedural and professional self-consciousness has become a compulsory and expanding presence in historical training. It may bestow the sensation of intellectual dignity, but its prescriptions are much less demanding than the ancient challenges posed by the empirical reconstruction of the past.