Felton, The Political Assassin by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

Felton, the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham, by the growing republican party was hailed as a Brutus, rising, in the style of a patriotic bard,

Refulgent from the stroke.–AKENSIDE.

Gibbon has thrown a shade of suspicion even over Brutus’s “god-like stroke,” as Pope has exalted it. In Felton, a man acting from mixed and confused motives, the political martyr is entirely lost in the contrite penitent; he was, however, considered in his own day as a being almost beyond humanity. Mrs. Macaulay has called him a “lunatic,” because the duke had not been assassinated on the right principle. His motives appeared even inconceivable to his contemporaries; for Sir Henry Wotton, who has written a Life of the Duke of Buckingham, observes, that “what may have been the immediate or greatest motive of that felonious conception (the duke’s assassination) is even yet in the clouds.” After ascertaining that it was not private revenge, he seems to conclude that it was Dr. Eglisham’s furious “libel,” and the “remonstrance” of the parliament, which, having made the duke “one of the foulest monsters on earth,” worked on the dark imagination of Felton.

From Felton’s memorable example, and some similar ones, one observation occurs worth the notice of every minister of state who dares the popular odium he has raised. Such a minister will always be in present danger of a violent termination to his career; for however he may be convinced that there is not political virtue enough in a whole people to afford “the god-like stroke,” he will always have to dread the arm of some melancholy enthusiast, whose mind, secretly agitated by the public indignation, directs itself solely on him. It was some time after having written this reflection, that I discovered the following notice of the Duke of Buckingham in the unpublished Life of Sir Symonds D’Ewes. “Some of his friends had advised him how generally he was hated in England, and how needful it would be for his greater safety to wear some coat of mail, or some other secret defensive armour, which the duke slighting, said, ‘It needs not; there are no Roman spirits left.’”[246]

An account of the contemporary feelings which sympathised with Felton, and almost sanctioned the assassin’s deed, I gather from the MS. letters of the times. The public mind, through a long state of discontent, had been prepared for, and not without an obscure expectation of, the mortal end of Buckingham. It is certain the duke received many warnings which he despised. The assassination kindled a tumult of joy throughout the nation, and a state-libel was written in strong characters in the faces of the people.[247] The passage of Felton to London, after the assassination, seemed a triumph. Now pitied, and now blessed, mothers held up their children to behold the saviour of the country; and an old woman exclaimed, as Felton passed her, with a scriptural allusion to his short stature, and the mightiness of Buckingham, “God bless thee, little David!” Felton was nearly sainted before he reached the metropolis. His health was the reigning toast among the republicans. A character, somewhat remarkable, Alexander Gill (usher under his father, Dr. Gill, master of St. Paul’s school), who was the tutor of Milton, and his dear friend afterwards, and perhaps from whose impressions in early life Milton derived his vehement hatred of Charles, was committed by the Star-chamber, heavily fined, and sentenced to lose his ears,[248] on three charges, one of which arose from drinking a health to Felton. At Trinity College Gill said that the king was fitter to stand in a Cheapside shop, with an apron before him, and say, What lack ye? than to govern a kingdom; that the duke was gone down to hell to see king James; and drinking a health to Felton, added he was sorry Felton had deprived him of the honour of doing that brave act.[249] In the taste of that day, they contrived a political anagram of his name, to express the immovable self-devotion he showed after the assassination, never attempting to escape; and John Felton, for the nonce, was made to read,

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Noh! flie not!

But while Felton’s name was echoing through the kingdom, our new Brutus was at this moment exhibiting a piteous spectacle of remorse; so different often is the real person himself from the ideal personage of the public. The assassination, with him, was a sort of theoretical one, depending, as we shall show, on four propositions; so that when the king’s attorney, as the attorney-general was then called, had furnished the unhappy criminal with an unexpected argument, which appeared to him to have overturned his, he declared that he had been in a mistake; and lamenting that he had not been aware of it before, from that instant his conscientious spirit sunk into despair. In the open court he stretched out his arm, offering it as the offending instrument to be first cut off; he requested the king’s leave to wear sackcloth about his loins, to sprinkle ashes on his head, to carry a halter about his neck, in testimony of repentance; and that he might sink to the lowest point of contrition, he insisted on asking pardon not only of the duchess, the duke’s mother, but even of the duke’s scullion-boy; and a man naturally brave was seen always shedding tears, so that no one could have imagined that Felton had been “a stout soldier.” These particulars were given by one of the divines who attended him, to the writer of the MS. letter.[250]

The character of Felton must not, however, be conceived from this agonising scene of contrition. Of melancholy and retired habits, and one of those thousand officers who had incurred disappointments, both in promotion and in arrears of pay, from the careless duke, he felt, perhaps, although he denied it, a degree of personal animosity towards him. A solitary man who conceives himself injured broods over his revenge. Felton once cut off a piece of his own finger, inclosing it in a challenge, to convince the person whom he addressed that he valued not endangering his whole body, provided it afforded him an opportunity of vengeance.[251] Yet with all this, such was his love of truth and rigid honour, that Felton obtained the nickname of “honest Jack,” one which, after the assassination, became extremely popular through the nation. The religious enthusiasm of the times had also deeply possessed his mind, and that enthusiasm, as is well known, was of a nature that might easily occasion its votary to be mistaken for a republican.

Clarendon mentions that in his hat he had sewed a paper, in which were written a few lines of that remonstrance of the Commons, which appeared to him to sanction the act. I have seen a letter from Sir D. Carleton to the queen, detailing the particulars; his lordship was one of those who saved Felton from the swords of the military around him, who in their vexation for the loss of their general the duke, which they considered to be the end of the war, and their ruin, would have avenged themselves. But though Felton, in conversation with Sir D. Carleton, confessed that by reading the remonstrance of the parliament it came into his head, that in committing the act of killing the duke he should do his country a great good service; yet the paper sewed in his hat, thinking he might have fallen a victim in the attempt, was different from that described by Clarendon, and is thus preserved in this letter to the queen by Sir D. Carleton. “If I be slain, let no man condemn me, but rather condemn himself. Our hearts are hardened, and become senseless, or else he had not gone so long unpunished.[252] He is unworthy the name of a gentleman or soldier, in my opinion, that is afraid to sacrifice his life for the honour of God, his king, and country. JOHN FELTON”.[253]

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Felton’s mind had however previously passed through a more evangelical process: four theological propositions struck the knife into the heart of the minister. The conscientious assassin, however, accompanied the fatal blow with a prayer to Heaven, to have mercy on the soul of the victim; and never was a man murdered with more gospel than the duke. The following curious document I have discovered in the MS. letter.

Propositions found in Felton’s trunk, at the time he slew the duke.

“1. There is no alliance nearer to any one than his country.

“Except his God and his own soul, said the divines.

“2. The safety of the people is the chiefest law.

“Next to the law of God, said these divines.

“3. No law is more sacred than the safety and welfare of the commonwealth.

“Only God’s law is more sacred, said the divines.

“4. God himself hath enacted this law, that all things that are for the good profit and benefit of the commonwealth should be lawful.

“The divines said, We must not do evil that good may come thereon.”

The gradual rise in these extraordinary propositions, with the last sweeping one, which includes everything lawless as lawful for the common weal, was at least but feebly parried by the temperate divines, who, while they were so reasonably referring everything to God, wanted the vulgar curiosity to inquire, or the philosophical discernment to discover, that Felton’s imagination was driving everything at the duke. Could they imagine that these were but subtle cobwebs, spun by a closet speculation on human affairs? In those troubled times did they not give a thought to the real object of these inquiries? or did they not care what befel a minion of the state?

There is one bright passage in the history of this unhappy man, who, when broken down in spirits, firmly asserted the rights of a Briton; and even the name of John Felton may fill a date in the annals of our constitutional freedom.

Felton was menaced with torture. Rushworth has noticed the fact, and given some imperfect notes of his speech, when threatened to be racked; but the following is not only more ample, but more important in its essential particulars. When Lord Dorset told him (says the MS. letter) “Mr. Felton, it is the king’s pleasure that you should be put to the torture, to make you confess your accomplices, and therefore prepare yourself for the rack:”–Felton answered, “My lord, I do not believe that it is the king’s pleasure, for he is a just and a gracious prince, and will not have his subjects tortured against law. I do affirm upon my salvation that my purpose was not known to any man living; but if it be his majesty’s pleasure, I am ready to suffer whatever his majesty will have inflicted upon me. Yet this I must tell you, by the way, that if I be put upon the rack, I will accuse you, my lord of Dorset, and none but yourself.”[254] This firm and sensible speech silenced them. A council was held; the judges were consulted; and on this occasion they came to a very unexpected decision, that “Felton ought not to be tortured by the rack, for no such punishment is known or allowed by our law.” Thus the judges condemned what the government had constantly practised. Blackstone yields a fraternal eulogium to the honour of the judges on this occasion; but Hume more philosophically discovers the cause of this sudden tenderness. “So much more exact reasoners, with regard to law, had they become from the jealous scruples of the House of Commons.” An argument which may be strengthened from cases which are unknown to the writers of our history. Not two years before the present one, a Captain Brodeman, one who had distinguished himself among the “bold speakers” concerning the king and the duke, had been sent to the Tower, and was reported to have expired on the rack; the death seems doubtful, but the fact of his having been racked is repeated in the MS. letters of the times. The rack has been more frequently used as a state engine than has reached the knowledge of our historians: secret have been the deadly embraces of the Duke of Exeter’s daughter.[255] It was only by an original journal of the transactions in the Tower that Burnet discovered the racking of Anne Askew, a narrative of horror! James the First incidentally mentions in his account of the powder-plot that this rack was shown to Guy Fawkes during his examination; and yet under this prince, mild as his temper was, it had been used in a terrific manner.[256] Elizabeth but too frequently employed this engine of arbitrary power; once she had all the servants of the Duke of Norfolk tortured. I have seen in a MS. of the times heads of charges made against some members of the House of Commons in Elizabeth’s reign, among which is one for having written against torturing! Yet Coke, the most eminent of our lawyers, extols the mercy of Elizabeth in the trials of Essex and Southampton, because she had not used torture against their accomplices or witnesses. Was it for the head of law itself, as Coke was, to extol the mercy of the sovereign for not violating the laws, for not punishing the subject by an illegal act? The truth is, lawyers are rarely philosophers; the history of the heart, read only in statutes and law cases, presents the worst side of human nature: they are apt to consider men as wild beasts; and they have never spoken with any great abhorrence of what they so erroneously considered a means of obtaining confession. Long after these times, Sir George Mackenzie, a great lawyer in the reign of James the Second, used torture in Scotland. We have seen how the manly spirit of Felton, and the scruples of the Commons, wrenched the hidden law from judges who had hitherto been too silent; and produced that unexpected avowal, which condemned all their former practices. But it was reserved for better times, when philosophy combining with law, enabled the genius of Blackstone to quote with admiration the exquisite ridicule of torture by Beccaria.

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On a rumour that Felton was condemned to suffer torture, an effusion of poetry, the ardent breathings of a pure and youthful spirit, was addressed to the supposed political martyr, by Zouch Townley,[257] of the ancient family of the Townleys in Lancashire, to whose last descendant the nation owes the first public collection of ancient art.[258]

The poem I transcribe from a MS. copy of the time; it appears only to have circulated in that secret form, for the writer being summoned to the Star-chamber, and not willing to have any such poem addressed to himself, escaped to the Hague.


Enjoy thy bondage, make thy prison know
Thou hast a liberty, thou canst not owe
To those base punishments; keep’t entire, since
Nothing but guilt shackles the conscience.
I dare not tempt thy valiant blood to whey,
Enfeebling it to pity; nor dare pray
Thy act may mercy finde, least thy great story
Lose somewhat of its miracle and glory.
I wish thy merit, laboured cruelty;
Stout vengeance best befits thy memory.
For I would have posterity to hear,
He that can bravely do, can bravely bear.
Tortures may seem great in a coward’s eye;
It’s no great thing to suffer, less to die.
Should all the clouds fall out, and in that strife,
Lightning and thunder send to take my life,
I would applaud the wisdom of my fate,
Which knew to value me at such a rate,
As at my fall to trouble all the sky,
Emptying upon me Jove’s full armoury.
Serve in your sharpest mischiefs; use your rack,
Enlarge each joint, and make each sinew crack;
Thy soul before was straitened; thank thy doom,
To show her virtue she hath larger room.
Yet sure if every artery were broke,
Thou wouldst find strength for such another stroke.
And now I leave thee unto Death and Fame,
Which lives to shake Ambition with thy name;
And if it were not sin, the court by it
Should hourly swear before the favourite.
Farewell! for thy brave sake we shall not send
Henceforth commanders, enemies to defend;
Nor will it ever our just monarch please,
To keep an admiral to lose our seas.
Farewell! undaunted stand, and joy to be
Of public service the epitome.
Let the duke’s name solace and crown thy thrall;
All we by him did suffer, thou for all!
And I dare boldly write, as thou dar’st die,
Stout Felton, England’s ransom, here doth lie![259]

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This is to be a great poet. Felton, who was celebrated in such elevated strains, was, at that moment, not the patriot but the penitent. In political history it frequently occurs that the man who accidentally has effectuated the purpose of a party, is immediately invested by them with all their favourite virtues; but in reality having acted from motives originally insignificant and obscure, his character may be quite the reverse they have made him; and such was that of our “honest Jack.” Had Townley had a more intimate acquaintance with his Brutus, we might have lost a noble poem on a noble subject.

[Footnote 246:
Harl. MSS. 646. ]

[Footnote 247:
One of the poems written at the time begins:–

The Duke is dead!–and we are rid of strife
By Felton’s hand that took away his life.

Another declares of his assassin:–

He shall sit next to Brutus!

[Footnote 248:
The fine, fixed originally at L2000, was mitigated, and the corporal punishment remitted, at the desire of the Bishop of London. ]

[Footnote 249:
The MS. letter giving this account observes, that the words concerning his majesty were not read in open court, but only those relating to the duke and Felton. ]

[Footnote 250:
Clarendon notices that Felton was “of a gentleman’s family in Suffolk, of good fortune and reputation.” I find that during his confinement, the Earl and Countess of Arundel, and Lord Maltravers, their son, “he being of their blood,” says the letter-writer, continually visited him, gave many proofs of their friendship, and brought his “winding-sheet,” for to the last they attempted to save him from being hung in chains: they did not succeed. ]

[Footnote 251:
Rushworth, vol. i. 638. ]

[Footnote 252:
The original reads “It is for our sins our hearts are hardened.” ]

[Footnote 253:
Lansdowne MSS. No. 203, f. 147. The original paper above described was in the possession of the late William Upcott; he had it from Lady Evelyn, who found it among John Evelyn’s papers at Wotton, in Surrey. Evelyn married the daughter of Sir Richard Browne, who had married the only daughter of Sir Edward Nicholas, Secretary of State, and one of the persons before whom Felton was examined at Portsmouth. The words on this remarkable paper differ from the transcripts just given, and are exactly these:–“That man is cowardly, base, and deserveth not the name of a gentleman or souldier, that is not willinge to sacrifice his life for the honor of his God, his Kinge, and his countrie. Lett noe man commend me for doinge of it, but rather discommend themselves as the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sinnes, he would not have gone so longe unpunished.” ]

[Footnote 254:
Harl. MSS. 7000. J. Mead to Sir Matt. Stuteville, Sept. 27, 1628. ]

[Footnote 255:
The rack, or brake, now in the Tower, was introduced by the Duke of Exeter in the reign of Henry VI., as an auxiliary to his project of establishing the civil law in this country; and in derision it was called his daughter.–Cowel’s Interp. voc. Rack. ]

[Footnote 256:
This remarkable document is preserved by Dalrymple: it is an indorsement in the handwriting of Secretary Winwood, respecting the examination of Peacham–a record whose graduated horrors might have charmed the speculative cruelty of a Domitian or a Nero. “Upon these interrogatories, Peacham this day was examined before torture, in torture, between torture, and after torture; notwithstanding, nothing could be drawn from him, he persisting still in his obstinate and insensible denials and former answer.”–Dalrymple’s “Memoirs and Letters of James I.” p. 58. ]

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[Footnote 257:
Z. Townley, in 1624, made the Latin oration in memory of Camden, reprinted by Dr. Thomas Smith at the end of “Camden’s Life.”–Wood’s “Fasti.” I find his name also among the verses addressed to Ben Jonson prefixed to his works. ]

[Footnote 258:
The allusion here is to Charles Townley, Esq., whose noble collection of antique marbles now enrich our British Museum. He was born 1737, and died January 3, 1805. The collection was purchased by a national grant of 28,200 l.; and a building being expressly erected for them, in connexion with Montague House, then converted into a national museum, was opened to the public in 1808. ]

[Footnote 259:
This poem has been collated afresh from the original in the Sloane MS. No. 603. It concludes with the four lines forming the duke’s epitaph, as printed in p. 369. ]

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