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ON the morning of Saturday, 23 August 1628, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, beloved favourite of two English kings, was stabbed and mortally wounded as he prepared to leave his lodgings at the Greyhound inn in Portsmouth. In the confusion that followed the stabbing, the Duke's assassin had both time and opportunity to slip away undetected. But he chose not to run, instead wandering off to the inn's kitchen before giving himself up to the Duke's frantic men with the words, 'I am the man.' He was a melancholy army lieutenant who had served with the Duke during the Ile de Rhe fiasco the previous year. His name was John Felton. (1)
Historian have long agreed that Buckingham's assassination marked a watershed in early Stuart political history. Felton's knife removed at one stroke the most important and controversial political actor of the 1620s, and the structure and dynamics of court politics, indeed of Caroline politics tout court, were fundamentally transformed by the murder. (2) Historians have been much slower, however, to recognize that the Duke's assassination was also the subject of widespread contemporary debate. (3) This debate--between, to simplify brutally, those who vilified the assassination and those who celebrated it--was conducted in various public and semi-public media before a variety of audiences from across the social spectrum. The debate might be said to have begun with the carefully chosen words, both written and spoken, of the assassin himself, most of which soon became items of public consumption in the form of manuscript copies. The debate was then joined in the legalistic and ritualized language of the trial and execution that followed somewhat belatedly upon Felton's arrest, in which the authorities offered their interpretation of the crime to the wider public. The debate continued for months, indeed years--from the alehouses and college butteries where labourers and students raised toasts to the assassin, to Westminster Abbey and Portsmouth where the favourite's grieving patron and family erected monumental memorial scupltures lauding the victim's virtues. Most important of all, the debate raged in the literary underground of manuscript newsletters, separates, poetic libels and counter-libels that circulated beyond the grasp of effective censorship, in London and the provinces, spreading information, speculation and political argument to the literate classes, and, occasionally, through squib and song, to their illiterate tenants, servants and neighbours. (4)
This debate centred on the meaning of Buckingham's life and death, but it came to encompass much more. Indeed, I want to argue that analysing this debate allows us to take the ideological temperature of England in the late 1620s, to evaluate the health of the body politic on the eve of the Caroline personal rule. By exploring the dynamic interaction among competing perceptions of the assassination, the victim and the murderer, we can, I suggest, identify some of the rifts that Buckingham's political ascendancy had opened in English political culture. Divergent and ultimately incompatible attitudes towards the Duke and his assassin grew out of, and exacerbated, very different perceptions of the political dangers facing the country in the late 1620s. As the gulf separating these different perceptions widened, writers hostile to the Duke were pushed towards implicitly radical speculations. Buckingham's friends, meanwhile, became increasingly likely to mistake all attacks on the departed favourite as evidence of the dangerous pervasiveness of such radical ideas.
This paper illustrates some of these political dynamics by focusing on one of the most interesting--and certainly the most learned--of the surviving contributions to the debate on Buckingham's assassination. The document in question, which survives in a marvellous poetical miscellany now owned by the Bodleian Library (Bodleian MS Malone 23), is a lengthy, meandering letter in praise of Felton, from an anonymous author to an unnamed correspondent, written sometime between Felton's arrest in August and his trial and execution in late November. (5) This type of epistolary essay- a political version of a widely practised literary genre--was a relatively common form of scribal news publication in this period: a letter from Thomas Alured to Buckingham was widely disseminated and copied during the Spanish Match crisis earlier in the decade, and during the 1630s bishop Joseph Hall used a similar letter to 'explain himself' to his contemporaries. (6) But without evidence of further copies, and with only limited information about the miscellany's provenance, we can only suggest that our document was also intended to be circulated and copied. We cannot know, for instance, whether the copy that survives is the author's own, or the original recipient's (if there was an original recipient), or whether it belonged to a collector of news who transcribed the letter into his news-book along with the other scribal news material--in this case, mostly libellous poetry--that he had received from friends and relatives. (7) We can be more confident, however, in suggesting that if this letter was intended for circulation its audience was relatively circumscribed. The letter is filled with quite complex and learned allusions and contains large swathes of unattributed and untranslated extracts from classical and patristic authors. The intended readership was an educated one.
If we cannot be absolutely certain what type of document it is, can we nevertheless track down its author? The document is anonymous, but we can hazard, very tentatively, a few guesses about the person who wrote it. The text itself offers some clues. Our author is well-educated, seems to know both Latin and Greek, and fancies himself a translator of Greek poetry. He is well informed about current events and is presumably connected to a scribal news circulation network: he copies out not only the two-part self-defence that Felton had sewn into his hatband and that subsequently circulated widely in newsletters and manuscript separates, but also the less widely circulated list of 'Fower Propositions' supposedly discovered by the authorities in Felton's trunk (pp.166-67). Our author has read--and can quote lavishly--a wide variety of other texts: he uses several classical works (Pliny the Younger's Panegyricus, Sallust's Catiline Conspiracy, and Hesiod's Works and Days being the most prominent), the Bible (both the Vulgate and the King James Version), Patristic texts (Tertullian and Chrysostom as well as the more obscure Synesius of Alexandria), and medieval writings (Saxo Grammaticus and Gerald of Wales).
The last of these texts, by Gerald of Wales, yields what is perhaps our first direct clue--for the source used, Gerald's Speculum Ecclesiae, was a rare one, unprinted and, in the early seventeenth century, surviving probably in no more than two or three (and perhaps just one) manuscript copies. The only copy now known to have survived was owned in the 1620s by Sir Robert Cotton. (8) This possible Cotton library connection does not, of course, immediately narrow the list of potential suspects. Cotton was well and widely connected; many men used his library and could have had access to his copy of Gerald's Speculum; furthermore, we know of several other people who had access to that copy before Cotton acquired it. But among Cotton's known associates, one candidate does stand out, a man we know both to have translated Greek verse into English and to have studied Gerald of Wales' Speculum Ecclesiae, including the passage used in the letter--Cotton's librarian, and a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Richard James (1592-1638). (9)
A number of other circumstantial clues, none conclusive but all suggestive, support this very tentative identification. The first is a report, unfortunately not corroborated by any official or other unofficial records, that James was arrested and interrogated in 1628 on suspicion of penning a verse in praise of Felton. The Scot James Balfour recorded in his Annals that 'one Mr. James, ane attender one Sir Robert Cotton, a grate lover of his countrey, and a hatter of all suche as he supposed enimes to the same, was called in question for wretting some lynes, wich he named a statue to the memorey of that vorthey patriot S. Johne Feltone.' (10) The verse that Balfour attributed to James survives in a number of copies (including one in Malone 23) and fits nicely with the letter's sentiments about the assassin: there is even one direct linguistic echo--both sources refer to Buckingham's domination of the country as a form of 'enchantment.' (11) It is thus entirely possible, based only on internal evidence, that the man who wrote the poem also wrote the letter. But is Balfour's authorial identification plausible? Could Richard James have written that particular poem? Certainly someone very like him did. The poem is clearly the work of a well-connected or well-informed literary man. For a libel, the verse is of unusually high poetic quality. It also appears to have been written by someone who had seen--or had information about the iconographic schemes of--the portraits of Buckingham by Rubens and Gerrit Van Honthorst that were hung in York House, the favourite's London residence, and in the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The sentiments of the poem and the letter also fit Balfour's assessment of James as a 'grate lover of his countrey,' a political diagnosis confirmed by other evidence. James's personal relationships, for instance, are revealing. James was a friend and intellectual collaborator of the leading anti-Buckingham Parliamentarians, John Selden and John Eliot. Another of James's friends, the Oxford Professor of Divinity Sebastian Benefield, transcribed antiBuckingham and pro-Felton scribal material, in verse and in prose, into the spare pages of a manuscript commentary on the Book of Amos. (12) In 1629, James, along with Cotton and others, was imprisoned by the Privy Council for circulating a supposedly seditious tract on the suppression of parliaments. And although the godly Simonds D'Ewes described James as an 'atheistical, profane scholar, but otherwise …