329 Oaths and Libels


By the time parliament met again in 1606, James’ government was dominated by the men he laughingly referred to as his ‘Trinity of Knaves’. And the foremost of those by some way was Robert Cecil, a chip off the old block. Cecil took full advantage of the Gunpowder plot with a massive subsidy – and James’ Oath of Allegiance.

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Let me take you back to 1606, and to parliament. As you know, the representatives of the people had been sent home in the aftermath of the Gunpowder treason. Well when they are re-assembled, they were treated to the sight of a rat disappearing up the drain of state so fast, that the speed of light lay in ruins around them, shattered. The rat was called Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, 5th Creation.

You know how when COVID appeared, nations around the word rallied around their leaders and sang for she’s a jolly good fellow? Well, for a while anyway until they realised what a mess they were making. Well, Salisbury was a sharp knife, a bright spark, and he knew full well that there’d be a wave of sympathy for a king whose bottom had almost been blown sky high. Well, along with a fair number of parliamentary bottoms to be fair. So he slipped in a request for a grant of taxation; and darn me if after all that cussedness in 1604, didn’t they just grant the king a whopper – enough to raise £400,000 which was more than they’d granted Good Queen Bess, except once, and fair dos, that had been in the middle of a war.

Before the royal fist had stopped pumping the air, Bob Cess had slipped another fatty through the sausage grinder. Given that it had been Catholics who had objected so strongly to all those bottoms, parliament passed a measure allowing James to seize 2/3rds of the total estates of recusants if he wanted, 2/3rds ladies and gentlemen, rather than going through all the schlepp of levying the £20 a month fine for non attendance – the idea being that if the Catholic gentry were a bit more impoverished, they’d not be able to support all these priest running around the countryside. Actually, James and indeed the Privy Council remained rather moderate about the whole thing; fines were rarely pursued to the extent they could have been people were frequently let off, and the 2/3rd thing was hardly ever applied, even when priests were caught and were incorrigible, refusing to leave the country according to the law of the land, James’ instruction was

No torrent of blood: penalties to the few

Except he said it in Scots and Latin. However, rather more significantly – parliaments passed legislation which produced a new Oath of Allegiance.

Now, there’s a bit of a story about this Oath of Allegiance, so here first of all is the Oath, suitably truncated on Nelly’s advice:

I, David Crowther, do truly and sincerely acknowledge that our Sovereign Lord King James, is lawful and rightful King of this realm; And that the Pope neither of himself hath any power or authority to depose the King, or to dispose any of his Majesty’s kingdoms…or to authorize any foreign prince to invade or annoy him, or his countries, or to discharge any of his Subjects of their allegiance and obedience to his Majesty. And I do further swear that I do from my heart abhor, detest, and abjure, as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position – that princes which be excommunicated by the pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects or by any other whatsoever.

Now, in the pitching and glossing process, James said to anyone who would listen that he was a nice bloke, kind to small children and a lover of fluffy animals – especially if they were hunting hounds who could kill a deer in a jiffy – and the purpose of this oath was that it was impossible for Catholics to take the existing Oath of Supremacy in good conscience. So here, the oath of allegiance, was an act of accommodation, of not making windows sort of thing; as far as James was concerned, this oath wasn’t after a Catholic’s conscience, no no no, the only thing important to him was to render unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, which in this case meant undivided loyalty. Now it has to be said, that some very influential Catholics bought this line with some enthusiasm – so the Archpriest of England, George Blackwell, reassured Catholics they could take the oath.

But hold on a minute there, Bald Eagle, let me just put a hitch in your Giddy, as I believe they say over the pond. Maybe it wasn’t quite so easy. Maybe actually, James was looking to divide and rule – maybe what he wanted was to split the Catholic vote in two? To create a division, the wills and the won’ts. And right on cue, the Pope as ever played went for a cross batted swipe and tried to cart the ball all over the ground, got no more than a nick and was caught behind. He objected very much – what are you talking about you blithering idiot, of course Popes are able to depose mere secular rulers. We are God’s representative, earthling. Blackwell was reprimanded. Lancelot Andrews, one of the Arminian English bishops, testily wrote that if the Pope removed temporal rulers, that would have condemned him as being a character in John’s Revelations in the bible, namely the Anti Christ. Which I think qualifies as testy.

Blackwell’s reaction was indicative that if James was seeking to create division he’d done a good job; to continue the cricket analogy, poor old Archpriest Blackwell didn’t no whether to go forward or back but after being assured by James he did take the oath – and was duly replaced in his archpriestness by the Pope. For ordinary catholics, they unsurprisingly faced something of a clampdown after the Gunpowder plot, as you’d expect really, and there was a short term but dramatic increase in convictions for recusancy; but then over £28,000 of recusancy fines remained uncollected, which is hardly the sign of a relentless programme to destroy the Catholic community.

Now there are other interpretations; some think James was just showboating, doing the Henry VIII thing as saying hey look at me I’m a theological expert; others that he was asserting his theological authority over his kingdom. But the main matter of debate does seem to be between whether it was persecution, targeting those who owed allegiance to pope first and king second; or conciliatory – providing an oath based on loyalty to the king rather than theological dogma. The oath would continue to be used right to the end of the century to trap the unwary, and is anyway a version of the dreaded question that interrogators had used under Elizabeth. But it had some impacts James was less keen on, the law of unintended consequences essentially. James essentially thought that he and his fellow rulers should rise above religion; that their role as Christian Princes was more important than dogma or doctrine. This attitude would show very strongly in his foreign policy – he wanted to promote peace, and having his son marry a Catholic Spanish Princess was therefore fair game. But the immoderate nature of the anti-papalism of the oath was bound to be objectionable to Catholic rulers; and they rather agreed with the Pope when he pointed out that James promised much in terms of toleration – and delivered nowt. Relationships with some fellow countries, therefore, such as the Venetians for example, definitely suffered.

While we are on this religious thing again – sorry we can’t seem to get away from it, but you know there’s a message about the attitudes of time in that. Well I guess there might be a complaint that all these persecutions of the Catholics is a terrible tyranny of the state, boo horrid state aren’t they awful, not like good clean ordinary folks like us, it’s all the politicians’ fault. Well, James was very much at the reasonable end of the spectrum as it ‘appens – all he wanted to identify was the

Other Papists as in their hearts maintained the like violent bloody Maximes’

Of the Gunpowder plotters. Well, parliament probably supported the Oath of Allegiance because they thought Catholics would not be able to sign up to it and therefore be soundly punished. As far as the silent and not so silent protestant majority was concerned, to be Catholic was to be inherently treasonous. Do not for a moment suggest that this is an English prejudice thing, or indeed even a Protestant thing – as I may have mentioned before, this is a way of the Christian world thing.

Anti Catholic prejudice will however be a feature of English life and politics for some time, and indeed Scottish life and politics in spades. There will be multiple flare ups, from the good solid honest burgers of England, Wales and Scotland, major panics about the dangers of popery, riots, parliamentary barneys the works – look up the Gordon Riots as late as 1780 for example. And historians have found it all rather difficult to deal with; it’s been seen as irrational, daft passions and prejudices; on the supposition that surely not everyone could be so passionate about their religion  and some have therefore blamed the fanaticism on small groups of zealots – the Puritans, protestants of the hotter sort, the Jesuits and extreme recusants – dragging everyone into madness by the process of shouting louder than everyone else. In the end it’s been wearily described as simply an anti thing, irrational prejudices.

But it’s been pointed out that by understanding why in the north Atlantic archipelago the Scots and the English in particular were united by this visceral terror of the threat of the Papacy, actually we might understand a little about what they valued about their own religion; there is buried in those fears, a positive set of values, how they thought of their beliefs, and what they valued about them. At base, that led back to a fundamental difference. Protestants felt that the old church had allowed mere human authorities, traditions and practices to take over the church; Protestantism rejected the authority of man, in the form of the claims of the church, and focussed entirely on what they believed was the word of God in the bible. The most obvious objection was the Pope’s usurpation, in their view, of Christ’s role as head of the church. No longer, they argued was Christ’s sacrifice on the cross at the centre of belief; instead they saw the worship of idols in the use of saints as intercessors, a doctrine of transubstantiation – which they described as ‘bread worship’ – and the mass itself was compared to a conjuring trick or magic. This focus on removing the works of man as opposed to the word of God therefore also struck on the idea of justification by good works – a trick, they claimed, guilt could not be assuaged by some external religious observance or act of clerical absolution.

Catholicism, or Popery as it’s constantly referred to at the time and I have tried t avoid generally, was therefore an anti religion to them, an inversion in the minds of most observing protestants, just as Protestantism was nothing more than a perversion in the minds of Catholics. One of the signs of that anti religion was the claim by the Pope to be able to set aside the laws of God and nature; such as for example, for the requirement of celibacy for some roles, which set aside marriage which had been established as an honourable estate. The Pope had trampled on the rights and liberties of bishops and Christian Princes, in engaging on a huge confidence trick to convince the world of this false religion, which used the illusions of images and idols and magic to achieve its aims; all of which relied absolutely on maintaining the ignorance of the laity. They believed the Popes strategy relied on removing the light of the gospels from ordinary people, knowing that once it shone into peoples’ lives, the illusion would vanish.

Few! So I said positive, and I can feel Catholics bristling with fury at the stream of criticism and negativity, sorry about that, obviously I am simply recording the views of the time. And if you want a reasonably simple way of really seeing a list of these objections, then I recommend the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 – which is essentially a list of iniquities. Of course, in their increasing move to Presbyterianism and closer alignment with the teaching of Calvin, the Scots went a step further, seeing any hierarchy among the clergy as an emanation of the Pope’s tyrannical rule over the church. [1] So, to justify all this negativity, I must go to what this says about what Protestants then valued about their own religion, the values that underpinned it, and then, why this matters, so that it drives so much political engagement.


First up, they believed that their religion was based on the simple, unvarnished truth as revealed by the scriptures, and therefore sought to free all Christians from illusion. Associated with this, they believed therefore that their faith was rational and coherent, based on the word rather than the accretions of centuries of tradition; theirs was a word based vision of rationality, enlightenment and knowledge. This enlightenment was by definition a popular enlightenment; which had implications also for the rights of Princes. According to John Bridges, for example, Princes could hardly denounce Papal power as tyrannical without some form of consent from the ruled; in that balance and consent, relied the strength of the system, the liberties that delivered the vital defence of property. Conformists and Arminians in particular, when challenged by Puritans about the strength of hierarchical secular authority implicit in Bishops and Supreme Governors, pointed to the success of Elizabeth and James in removing Catholicism, restoring the gospel, and keeping England from all the confessional strife which racked so many countries on the continent – it seemed to them like God’s providential care for the English.

Protestantism was also essentially a movement which was national, free of foreign power; Protestants saw themselves very much as part of an international movement, the links with protestants all over Europe was very strong, the idea that the break from Rome was in any way cutting England off is a modern invention of the anti Brexiteer looking for historical gotcha’s; but Protestantism required no allegiance to a foreign ruler – unlike Catholicism in the form of the Pope. Catholicism therefore becomes othered as a foreign thing; as I said earlier, it means Catholicism was often seen as inherently treasonous. And of course the experiences of Marry and Elizabeth’s reigns had associated Catholicism with threat to freedom; and thus Catholicism became seen as a tyranny as opposed to English liberty.

So why does all this matter, politically speaking? Well, it makes foreign policy a matter of intense debate and importance, as we’ll find out with the Spanish Match. Furthermore, the philosophy emphasised the balance between a king and his subjects; in that relationship lay strength, peace, stability. So as conflict appeared in politics under James and Charles, this was a grievous disappointment – the system was failing to deliver the required harmony, and this gave Stuart England a basic problem; when conflict began to be a feature of politics, it interrupted the rules everyone held, the need for agreement between king and people.  Into this, the perceived threat of Catholicism and the Papacy operated as an explanation – this conflict was being caused by conspiracies from this foreign faith called Popery. Furthermore of course this wasn’t just about politics, but the soul – the Pope was seeking to trick the English with a false anti-religion and subvert their souls to damnation. And don’t for a moment think that the English in their Protestantism therefore believed in the idea of England as an Elect nation as has sometimes been said; that whole idea was theological nonsense as far as Protestantism was concerned; it was certain that in the end the Antichrist would lose and Christ would win [2]– but it was an open question about whether England would triumph with Christ or be destroyed with the Antichrist.

So all of this is very active isn’t it, very immediate, very real? There is a threat politically and to the very stuff of eternity. This allowed all the disparate beliefs and objections to come together into one unifying force – it’s all about Popery, stupid. In here lies the hysteria, the extreme nature of the rhetoric about Catholicism; it was inherently a foreign threat to the liberties, property and effective working of the English state, seeking to divide and corrupt, explaining all sorts of inexplicable social and political dispute and deviance. It was a threat to their very souls. And whether England survived with Christ or perished with the antichrist depended on how the English responded to God’s commands – and interpreting those of course was a matter of debate, and concern the very fabric of society and daily life as much as politics, or foreign affairs.

I’m not saying it sounds fun, but it was and would remain very powerful indeed.  Meanwhile it’s worth mentioning that Puritanism began to acquire, in the minds of some, a similar divisive reputation. Among Arminians and Conformists in particular, the Calvinist division between the Godly and Ungodly was deeply divisive to society; their insistence of the primacy of preaching seemed to undermine the structured and solemn role of the church, and potentially feed an inbuilt sense of anti clericalism among the laity. So when we get to Archbishop Laud and his impacts on England, his belief that Puritanism was intrinsically dangerous to respect for authority will play a big part; and James would probably have agreed with him – certainly, he fought hard in Scotland to the end of his reign to maintain the Bishops in the face of Presbyterianism.

So, I hope I am bringing home the point of just how fundamental was the fear, prejudice and antagonism towards papal power among Protestants – in England and Scotland in this case, but across the water too; it wasn’t simply a them and us situation brought on by dynastic politics, it was a fundamental difference of faith, the soul, society, liberty, the defence of property. For James also, the increasing ubiquity of a rabid anti papal public opinion was anathema; it represented for him a real limitation on the Crown’s autonomy; and you will see a good example of this when James tries to organise a Spanish marriage for his son. It led to a national panic attack of truly industrial proportions. No monarch could happily accept such a restriction on their traditional prerogative to make and unmake foreign affairs as they saw fit, this was not in James’ view a matter for parliament. As such, the Arminian and Laudian rhetoric which equated Calvinism with populism would become deeply convincing to James’ son, which would have, you know, consequences.

One more thing before we move away, just to flag a topic we’ll surely come back to. Another consequence was the beginning of a separation between Court and Country, a concept beloved of historians which as also fed the fire of a full and frank exchange of historiographical views over the years. The basic idea is, to reduce it to essentials, that the goings on at court seem increasingly out of kilter with the priorities and values of the country – country meaning in this sense your locality, your region. Anti Popery played into this; James demanded that his will was law, his prerogatives were paramount and he would have no limit set by populist demands and notions. He appeared to show a distressing liberality and restraint towards Catholics, and employed Crypto Catholics in key roles on the Privy Council with real influence. A writer called Thomas Scott complained that the court, with all its wealth, could not help but attract the ambitious and self seeking rather than safely religiously conformist – but also foreign catholics such as foreign ambassadors walked its corridors of power and influence. Increasingly, Parliament began to be seen as a bulwark and restraining force on this potential source of corruption from court, poisoning the national body politic.

Phew well that’s enough on that. One of the Crypto Catholics on whom suspicion fell was the Earl of Northampton, Henry Howard. Northampton was one of a triumverite that dominated the Privy Council and government; himself, his Howard relative Thomas Howard the Earl of Suffolk, and the leader of them all, Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, Bob Cess as he was almost never known. James referred to them all laughingly as his ‘Trinity of Knaves’. Northampton was a bit of a comeback kid through his calculated risk to communicate with James while still in Scotland before Elizabeth’s death, and he’d had his due rewards. He’d been made an earl, he was an active parliamentarian sitting on 57 committees during his time, despite a poorly concealed disdain for the Commons. He remained duly grateful to James which manifested itself in oiliness towards his king, which creeping behaviour earned him the nickname ‘his Majesty’s earwig’, which I don’t know, may not be entirely laudatory, what do you think? James was fond of royal twitting of his faithful servant, but said twitting did not always fall into the ‘bit of fun category’; they had a serious falling out when James accused Northampton of ‘innate hatred to me and all Scotland for my cause’, and ‘cruel and malicious speeches against Baby Charles and his honest father’. Which maybe why Northampton was in the end disappointed with his career and never got the big posts which all went to Salisbury – though as we’ll hear, he did make a bob or two in the process.

James did quite a bit of teasing as it happens; another of the knaval trinity was the naval hero, arf arf, Thomas Howard, who also received his just deserts, made Earl of Suffolk, but was much more trusted by the king than Northampton; James twitted him about being a bit of a porker ‘honest big Suffolk’, how we laughed, and ragged him about his wife, Catherine Howard, born Knyvett, which was a little more close to the bone to be honest.

Now look, I am gossiping here, frankly, but obviously I would claim, like the Screws of the World on search for a bit of extra circulation, to be acting in the public interest. Catherine Howard was born in about 1564, married Richard Rich, and then remarried Thomas Howard. She was a player was Catherine; very beautiful, and lively, entertaining, vivacious, charismatic; she used the influence of her husband and of her, ahem, ‘friend’; Salisbury to gain an excellent position in Queen Anne’s household, and was obviously a bit of a hit there, with major jobs at Anne’s court and dancing in Anne’s famous masques.

But she was also avaricious, unscrupulous, and ultimately corrupt. She appears to have had a series of affairs – which was what James ragged Suffolk about, which I would say is unkind, you know, not really funny when it comes down to it.  She used the power her relationship gave her – which I have to say is entirely standard in court life, I mean there was none of this modern stuff about equality and equity, you created networks to wield power, influence and make yourself rich, that was the way of the world, not just West 1. But she went a bit further than that – demanding kickbacks. Let me give you a couple of examples – all of this came out in a later trial, by the way. In one instance, an unnamed citizen was due to pay a bond of £500; so, Catherine said she’d use her influence to get it cancelled, in return for £83 and a sable muff. I have to say that sounds a little like the 2p and a pencil that an unnamed primary schoolboy of my previous existence offered for a kiss to one of the girls at school, which was of course refused, and is all wrong of course, sorry to have mentioned it, but £83 and a sable muff is amusingly specific isn’t it? Sorry. In another she was given £1900, which is mucho spondulikes, when she procured the security for a debt of £20,000 owed by one Mr Turner. Tragically for Catherine, an attack of smallpox in 1619 destroyed the beauty which she had also used to advantage. Clearly sympathy for her was not universal; Lady Anne Clifford ate a lemon and then remarked that the attack

‘spoiled that good face of hers which had brought to others much misery & to herself greatness which ended with much unhappiness’

Anyway, Catherine’s story is not finished but we’ll come back to it; she had 12 children, which must have interrupted all that corruption and goings on. One of them was Frances Howard, who was to cause mother and father much embarrassment and more. Nudge, and if you will, nudge, to which we might add a wink or two.

Anyway, the greatest by far of the Three Knaves was Salisbury, and by a country mile at that. While Suffolk and Northampton were close in the king’s ear, James knew a good administrator when he saw one, and Salisbury was the real deal, a chip of the old block without any doubt – although his reputation in history is a little more disputed, as well see. Salisbury reaped many rewards; made Viscount Cranborne, then Earl of Salisbury; he acquired an extraordinary collection of the most powerful offices – lord treasurer, Secretary of State, Lord Privy Seal for a while, and Master of the wards. You can see why Northampton, desperate for formal office, might be a little miffed.

Salisbury was a smallish man at 5 foot 4, and a hunchback. He was a hunchback in an age where physical beauty was even more prized than it is now, and when people did not shy away from pointing out your physical defects, with maximum force. Elizabeth referred to him as “my pygmy”, and King James VI and I nicknamed him “my little beagle”, demonstrating that wit and royalty are not always bedfellows. Salisbury suffered all his life from jibes; I believe we have mentioned the high art form of libels before? These are popular and often vicious poems and notes, often constructed by ordinary people in pubs and taverns and pinned to the gates of the mighty, a small measure of resistance to the status quo. But often far from gentle. ‘Here lieth the Toad’ was scrawled on Salisbury’s doorframe lintel when Essex fell, another cruelly featured him as ‘the Camel’ with its hump, and another declaimed him a ‘’Dissembling smoothfaced dwarf… I know your crookback’s spider-shapen’.

Still, Salisbury was indeed a great power in the land, there was not much more upward you could punch if punching is your thing. Although James was thoroughly determined to retain control of foreign policy, seeing it as his prerogative, yet he was always off hunting the great pudding, and so everyone recognised the realities of power and getting things done – and came to Salisbury. Actually, James in his finer moments recognised how much he owed his workaholic servant. When Salisbury fell ill, James came to his bedside, a remarkable honour in itself, and I sincerely hope Bob Cess hadn’t left any dirty hose lying around. Anyway, James begged him to get better, saying

for if he should once fail there were no more safe hunting for the King of England

Which seems a little self-centred to be honest – please don’t die of COVID because you’ve not done the washing up yet sort of thing – but hey, it’s something I guess.

The Venetian ambassador saw the reality of his position

No-one seeks but to win his favour. It is thought that his power will last, for it is based not so much on the grace of His Majesty, as on an excellent prudence and ability which secures for him the universal opinion that he is worthy of his great authority and good fortune.

Which is nice. There are many similarities with his dad, Burghley then – in his talent, his relentless hard work. Also in his love of the magnificence and outward show of success and power; so out of all the various honours it might be that the one Salisbury loved most was his elevation to the Order of the Garter in 1606; not so lucrative as the earldom, not the source of power as the offices. But the honour, the kudos – well, that was something else, and that was what made your early modern family tick; foreign Princes like the king of Denmark grumbled that folks of the provenance of the Cecils really shouldn’t had such honours. Salisbury was having none of that – he spent weeks preparing the ceremony, and the same Ambassador reported

A few days ago the Earl of Salisbury went to Windsor for the solemn reception of the investiture of the Garter. The pomp was such that the like is not in the memory of man; indeed all confess that it surpassed the ceremony of the very King’s coronation; so great is the power of this minister.

There are other parallels between Robert and his Dad; one of them, that both had trouble with their elder sons – Burghley with his lad Thomas who didn’t quite measure up, and Salisbury with his son William. But Salisbury was maybe just one notch down on the lineage and house building thing; Burghley had spent eons trying to prove his descent from a royal Welsh source, further evidence that the idea that Welsh culture was denigrated by the English is a modern myth. Salisbury wasn’t so bothered about proving his lineage; Burghley had made his house at Theobalds one of the grandest in England, fit to entertain royalty – Salisbury agreed to swap Theobalds with the king for the much smaller Hatfield house; though true enough that might have been forced on him, and he spent a deal of time beautifying Hatfield to boot. Salisbury though, seemed more comfortable with his position as a bureaucrat, not troubling to convince the world of some ancient lineage.

Now despite all these good things – hard working, powerful, valued for his enormous talents – Salisbury cannot be said to be universally popular with the world at large. Principally, this is simply the curse of the powerful politician; it is part of the job description that you’ll have to make tough decisions which a lot of people will

  1. Dislike and
  2. Think only an idiot could have done such a thing despite having only the information from a Google search at midnight on a Saturday night after a boozy session at the annual bellringer’s ball and
  3. Said decision is probably motivated by pure evil, and if not, certainly by personal gain and corruption

To be honest, Salisbury was not on his own – libels were effectively the Twitter of the 17th century. Religion mattered, being considered not sufficiently Protestant was a red rag to the Libel merchants, so The Earl of Northampton was lampooned as ‘the great archpapist’; even AB Whitgift was accused of being ‘the Jesuit’s hope’. Salisbury came into flack for his relatively lowly origins, not the last time nor likely to be the last

First did thy sire and now thy self by Machivillian skill

Prevail and curb the Peers as well befits your will.

It’s a venomous libel, calling Salisbury

‘Proud and ambitious wretch that feedest on naught but Faction’

You get the idea. Overall, Salisbury gets it in the neck for two other things really. One was his social life. It was rumoured that he had an affair with Audrey Walsingham, but also with Lady Suffolk, his ahem fiend Catherine Howard nudge, nudge, wink wink. So another libel appeared on his death

Oh ladies ladies howl and cry, For you have lost your Salisbury

He that of late was your protection, He is now dead by your infection

Come with your tears bedew his locks, Death killed him not

It was the pox

Now we have arrived back at Catherine Howard then, as night follows day. Was Salisbury really having an affair with her? Salisbury never remarried after his wife and mother of their two children Elizabeth Brooke died in 1597. But given that he and Catherine’s old man The Earl of Suffolk worked very well together, and James even ragged him about it, it would have had to be a sort of comfortable menage a trois really were it to involve the beast with more than one back. Catherine’s daughter married William Cecil, Salisbury went out of his way to praise old man Suffolk, calling him his warmest and dearest friend – the relationship appears genuinely warm. This was not the way with the third of the Trinity of Knaves  by the way; Northampton, although working with Salisbury effectively, hated him on a personal level, probably detesting his pre-eminence. In letters he described him as ‘the little lord’ or contemptuously as ‘itself’. In another remarkable moment Northampton actually wrote to James I insinuating that Salisbury was in hell with Queen Elizabeth,

Where he kneels before his olde mistress by an extreme hot fire side

Ah Politics, such a noble art, I mean you’d really want to recall that email wouldn’t you? Anyway back to Salisbury and the Suffolks; you have to- suspect, given the general warmth of their family relationship, that Salisbury and Catherine were not lovers; more likely that Salisbury valued her political and operational skills, used her as a go between, and valued her knowledge of the day’s political current, and used her as a confidente. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

The other thing for which Salisbury was in receipt of the crucio curse, then and among historians, was for corruption Here’s one of many examples of libels riffing on this very point:

Oppression’s praiser,

Taxation’s raiser …

The country’s scourger,

the cities’ cheater,

of many a shilling


The king’s misuser,

The parliament’s abuser,

Hath left his plotting,

… is now a-rotting.

Not a positive obit, I think you’ll agree. And some historians have agreed, and there is no doubt Salisbury made a lot of money – a bit like his dad of course. Things were of course different back then; there really was no tradition at all of the career bureaucrat or politician who must keep his nose clean and resist conflicts of interest; Salisbury was a big investor in land around St Martins in London, a major landowner in the Strand and used his influence to open a grand shopping centre called the New exchange on the Strand, called ‘Britain’s Bourse’ to please the boss – all part of a plan to tease business away from the city of London to where the Cecils had their land. When he died he’d amassed a fortune of £49,000, a massive sum – and although there were significant debts, they were soon cleared and his heir lived a high old life. Meanwhile during his life he spent vast amounts on the splendid gardens that surrounded all his houses, and on sophisticated, elaborate interiors; he built up a major collection of paintings, was a notable musical patron, added extensively to his father’s library and commissioned Ben Jonson for the masques staged at his houses for the royal family. So in short, he’d done alright for himself the lad.

To set against that – Salisbury will take the action that was required to run the ship effectively, which we’ll start talking about a bit more next time; and he’ll do that even if it gets in the way of his money making – so he offered a reforming deal with regards to wardship that would have significantly reduced his income from his post as Master of the Wards. Most notoriously he accepted a pension from the Spanish Ambassador, which really would be a no no these days obviously – and yet there’s no sign he amended policy accordingly, he stitched the Spanish up like the proverbial kipper at the peace negotiations and the Spanish secretly viewed the pension as at best making Salisbury less antagonistic than he already was.

And then, the expectation of the time was that ‘d you’d make a bit of cash from the job – salary wasn’t really the thing at the time, it was all the other stuff. So lets look at the Earl of Northampton just for example. Northampton had a monopoly in starch, making such outrageous profits that complaints in the 1610 parliament led to its revocation. But never mind, James gave him an annual pension of £3000 and a lump sum of £6000. Plus, he was granted some lucrative wardships, and he also had a Spanish pension, of £1000 a year – plus the odd precious gift. From having been a rather impecunious minor scion of the mighty Howard clan he died with £80,000 in his pocket.

Actually, what the libels show more clearly was not that Salisbury was an over mighty oppressor; what they really reveal is a public that had no real understanding of the parlous state of royal finances, and the absolute necessity of repairing them – which Salisbury worked tirelessly to achieve, with some success. Despite having one of the lowest tax bills of any European country, the English libellers saw none of that – they just saw corruption and noses in troughs. There is nothing new under the sun. And anyway, there was without doubt a kernel of truth; positions of power did indeed make you rich at a time of crashing inequality. And the way the King spent public money and taxation was anything but responsible. And it is to public finances that we shall turn next time, though after discussing the relationship between a man and his currants.

[1] Lake, P ‘Anti-Popery: The Structure of a Prejudice’, in Cust & Hughes, eds ‘Conflict in Early Stuart England’, p77

[2]   Lake, P ‘Anti-Popery: The Structure of a Prejudice’, in Cust & Hughes, eds ‘Conflict in Early Stuart England’, p82




2 thoughts on “329 Oaths and Libels

  1. The episodes on James and now his knaves are fascinating, thanks so much.
    I wonder whether James et al. Should seem slightly more squalid than Elizabeth and her staff, who used largely similar methods?
    Nice to see Salisbury get some praise for his skills; perhaps it’s an advantage that he was too young ever to have committed “the sin of being mean to Mary Queen of Scots”?
    Interesting also that James’ nicknames were so much less kind than Elizabeth’s (though “Pygmy” is not much better than “Beagle”). Her nicknames were largely signs of esteem and intimacy: Spirit, Eyes, Lids. “Royal chaff” seems to be much more amusing to the Chaffer than the chaffee, up to the present day.

    1. Yes, its interesting. I hoe that I am not responsible for imbibing unconsciously Anthony Weldon’s (or whoever wrote as him) 17th century attitudes. But there does seem to be more scandal; Elizabeth kept a tighter reign on the morals of her court. We have a scandal on the way actually – on which I have spent waaaaaay too much time! I think you are quite right about James’ attitude to the way people treated her mother!

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