A history of the gunpowder plot/Chapter 13
SIR EVERARD DIGBY'S LETTERS FROM THE TOWER
OF intense interest and importance is the correspondence, that has been preserved to us, of Sir Everard Digby when a prisoner in the Tower of London. He found means, probably by bribing his gaolers, to smuggle letters out of the Tower of London without detection. These letters were scribbled on scraps of paper, and were generally left unaddressed and unsigned, whilst they were often written with lemon juice in lieu of ordinary ink. They were not discovered until seventy years after his death, when they were found amongst the papers of his famous son, Sir Kenelm, and were published by a contemporary writer, from whose original edition I reprint them below.
These letters have been ignored, as much as possible, by Jesuit writers, for the good reason that they reveal, on the whole, their favourite, Digby, in a not very pleasant light.
As will be seen by their perusal, Digby, notwithstanding the clever way in which he fenced with the Lords of the Council, had frequently been, during the nine months preceding the plot, in the company of Fathers Garnet and Greenway, as well as of Gerard. Moreover, he does not seem to consider that his share in the plot was a crime, and expresses his intense surprise that the majority of his co-religionists regarded the proceedings of himself and his friends with horror. Beyond all doubt, too, he seems to have thought that the English Jesuits not only knew of the plot, but secretly approved of it, for he writes of his ' certain belief that those which were best able to judge of the lawfulness of it, had been acquainted with it, and given way unto it. More reasons I had to persuade me to this belief than I dare utter!' When, therefore, the Jesuit apologists pretend that Father Garnet did not receive a fair trial, and was unjustly condemned, they should remember that had this paper of Digby's, from which the above extract is taken, been produced at Garnet's trial, it would have afforded damning evidence against him, in regard to his being absolutely possessed of certain information as to Catesby's conspiracy.
'The Several Papers and Letters of Sir Everard Digby which are (as we have been credibly informed) the Original Papers and Letters written by him, concerning the Gunpowder Treason, were found by us, Sir Rice Rudd, Baronet, and William Wogan, of Grays Inn, Esquire; in the presence of Mrs. Ursula Giles, and Mr. Thomas Hughes, about the month of September, 1675, at the House of Charles Cornwallis, Esq.; who was Executor of Sir Kenelm Digby (Son and Heir to the said Sir Everard) tied up in two Silk Bags, amongst the Deeds, Evidences, and Writings of the said Sir Kenelm Digby.'
'I have not named any either living or dead, that should have hurt my Lord Salisbury: and only intended these general informations to procure me access of some friend, that I might inform my knowledge, for I never intended to hurt any creature, though it would have gained me all the world. As yet they have not got of me the affirming that I know any Priest particularly, nor shall ever do to the hurt of any but myself.
' At my first examination, the Earl of Salisbury told me that some things should be affirmed against me by Gerrat the Priest, who (saith he) I am sure you know well. My answer was, that if I might see him, I would tell him whether I knew him or no, but by that name I did not know him, nor at Mrs. Vauxe's, as he said I did, for I never saw a Priest there. Yesterday I was before Mr. Attorney and my Lord Chief Justice, who asked me if I had taken the Sacrament to keep secret the plot as others did. I said that I had not, because I would avoid the question of at whose hands it were. They told me that 5 had taken it of Gerrard, and that he knew of the Plot, which I said was more than I knew.
'Now for my intention let me tell you, that if I had thought there had been the least sin in the Plot, I would not have been in it for all the world: and no other cause drew me to hazard my Fortune, and Life, but Zeal to God's religion. For my keeping it secret, it was caused by certain belief, that those which were best able to judge of the lawfulness of it, had been acquainted with it, and given way unto it. More reasons I had to persuade me to this belief than I dare utter, which I will never, to the suspicion of any, though I should be to the rack for it, and as I did not know it directly that it was approved by such, so did I hold it in my conscience the best not to know any more if I might.
'I have, before all the Lords, cleared all the Priests in it for anything that I know, but now let me tell you, what a grief it hath been to me, to hear that so much condemned which I did believe would have been otherwise thought on by Catholics; there is no other cause but this, which hath made me desire Life, for when I came into prison death would have been a welcome friend unto me, and was most desired; but when I heard how Catholics and Priests thought of the matter, and that it should be a great sin that should be the cause of my end, it called my conscience in doubt of my very best actions and intentions in question: for I knew that my self might easily be deceived in such a business, therefore I protest unto you that the doubts I had of my own good state, which only proceeded from the censure of others, caused more bitterness of grief in me than all the miseries that ever I suffered, and only this caused me with life till I might meet with a ghostly friend. For some good space I could do nothing, but with tears ask pardon at God's hands for all my errors, both in actions and intentions in this business, and in my whole life, which the censure of this contrary to my expectance caused me to doubt: I did humbly beseech that my death might satisfy for my offence, which I should and shall offer most gladly to the Giver of life.
'I assure you as I hope in God that the love of all my Estate and worldly happiness did never trouble me, nor the love of it since my imprisonment did ever move me to with life. But if that I may live to make satisfaction to God, and the world where I have given any scandal, I shall not grieve if I should never look living creature in the face again, and besides that deprivation endure all worldly misery. I shall not need to clear any living body either private or public, for I never named any body, but reported that those that are dead did promise that all forces in those parts about Mr. Talbot would assist us, but this can hurt nothing, for they openly spoke it. You must be careful how you send, for Mr. Lieutenant hath stayed the . . . book, but take no notice of it. Let my Brother see this, or know the contents, tell him I love his sweet comforts as my greatest jewel in this Place, if I can, I will convey in the tables a copy of a letter which I sent yesterday; it is as near as I can understand the meaning of the instruction. I perceive it works with the Lords, for I shall be sent to them. Oh how full of joy should I die if I could do anything for the cause which I love more than my life! Farewell my'
'Besides the trunk of armour which was sent to Mr. Catesbye's I did carry but one other trunk with me, which had in it cloathes of mine, as a white satin doublet cut with purple, a jerkin and hose of de-roy colour satin laid very thick with gold-lace; there were other garments in it of mine, with a new black winter gown of my wife's, there was also in the trunk £300 in money, and this trunk did I see safe at Mr. Lyttleton's house after the blowing up of the powder.
'Since that Mr. Addis cannot spare time from his business to sell such goods as shall be necessary to defray the expense of my Wife, children, and family, and my own charges, my desire, therefore, is that one Andrew Knight of Newport, dwelling near the house where these goods are, should have power given him to make sale of such things as shall be thought necessary for these purposes.'
'by me Everard Digby,
'W. Waad, locum ten. turris.
'Since the writing of the other which I sent you, I have been with the Lords, whose chiefest questions were what I meant by the message, which I should send you to Coughton, about laying up that which I delivered, which, said the Lords, were either a Priest or money, but I denied the sending of any such message; they asked me of Father Wallies being there, which I denied; also they asked me what letter Mr. Catesby did send to him, but could tell them of none: it seemeth that Bate hath confessed thus much, whether he hath been tortured or no I do not know; they asked me what company I kept the Sunday sevenight before the day: to which I could not answer, for I did not remember; but they told me I was in the company of Father Walley, Father Greenway, and Father Gerrard at Mrs. Vauxe's; I told them I had been in their companies, but not there, or anywhere else with others but myself; they said Mr. Greenway came to Huddington when we there, and had speech with Mr., but I told them it was more than I took note of, and that I did not know him very well, that he would be very careful of himself; my lord of Salisbury told me he had received my letter, but if the King should propose such a course he had no need of me. I was not much pressed in these matters, and so they dismissed me for this time. Farewell my dearest.'
'Since my late writing, I have been examined about the knowledge of Foster and Hamon. I give my Brother many thanks for his sweet comforts, and assure him that now I desire death; for the more I think on God's mercy the more I hope in my own case: though others have censured our intention otherwise than I understood them to be, and though the act be thought so wickid by those of judgment, yet I hope that my understanding it otherwise, with my sorrow for my error, will find acceptance at God's hands. I have not as yet acknowledged the knowledge of any Priest in particular, nor will do to the hurt of any but myself, whatsoever betide me. I could give unanswerable reasons both for the good that this would have done for the Catholic cause, and for my being from home, but I think it now needless, and for some respect unfit. I do perceive the Lords will come hither no more, which caused me to write, which copy I send you. I have some guess that it worketh, but the Lieutenant maketh all show to me of the contrary; for, saith he, the Catholics are so few in number as they are not to be feared on any terms, for on his knowledge there were not above 4000 in all England. Besides, he said, they were easily pacified. I would not at all argue the matter with him, but if the number should be objected by the Lords unto me, why may I not answer it thus, that it is certain that there are at least 400 priests in England, therefore by all consequence there must be more Catholics : if there be inconvenience in it let me know and I have done. If I be called to question for the Priest, in my letter I purpose to name him Winscombe, unless I be advised otherwise.
'I do desire my brothers advice for Sir Oliver, for his rents I never received any, and only owe £200, which I kept in my hands for the good of the best cause, out of which I had paid £30. There is £100 yet to be paid to my cousin John to him, and the bonds for that and three more he hath paid, are in my gilt-box, at least there I left them: I durst not make a perfect note for his estate, because I know not his course, and whether it would be hurtful for me to put it from myself to him, as.'
'I do not well conceive my brother, for I did never say that any other told me but Mr. Catesby about the Lords' particulars; and for affirming that a priest in general said something of Intentions of redress, I did understand Tar: notice to give approbation, I have not been asked his name, which if I had, should have been such a one as I knew not of. Howsoever my brother is informed, I am sure they fear him for knowledge of the Plot, for at every examination I am told that he did give the Sacrament to five  at one time, who they say have confessed it—I do not know who they may be; sure I am that I never yet did confess to know him nor any of the three. I do it not in regard of myself, as it shall appear at the bar, for whatsoever I could do for him or any of his, I would do it though it cost me never so much sufferance; but I have been sparing in that, because I may do more in public, which will, I think, be best, as you wish I will do, and what else may clear me from scandal, not with any hopes or desire of favour; my little friends' courtesy is very comfortable, entreat them to pray for the pardoning of my not sufficient striving against temptations since this business was undertook. Farewell, God send you can read.'
'You forgot to tell me whether Winscombe be a fit name: I like it, for I know none of it. You need not fear this lord, for he never looks in the tables, nor dare shew them to any. Tell my brother I do honour him as befits me, but I did not think I could have increased in so much, loving him more as his charitable lessons would make me. Your information doth much comfort me, but I pray you after my death, let me not want good prayers, for my need is great, though my trust in God is not small, as occasions fall out you will know. Farewell.'
'I have found your pennywares, but never that in the waistcoat till this night. The substance of my last writing was strictly examined about Mr. Darcy, who they said, the first time, was Blackwell, but after they told me it was Walley or Garnet. I told 'them it was more than I knew, for I did not take him to be a priest. They also urged me with Brooke, Fisher, and Browne, and said they were priests, and that Brooke was Gerrard, but I answered I did not know so much; they told me that I had been at Mrs. Vauxe's with this company, and that I knew Gerrard there, but I denied it. They did in a fashion offer me the torture, which I will rather endure than hurt anybody, as yet I have not tried it . . . the next time I will write more, I could scarce.'
'You shall find in this paper with . . . the reasons of my not acquainting an inward friend with the business, was not for any particular wilfulness, or ill end; but I thought it not best for the Cause, nor did not think it ill, which was to be done, since necessity compelled, as I thought somewhat to be done. I saw the principal point of the case, judged in a latin book of M.D., my brother's father-in-law, I neither can nor will draw in suspect for a world, but if he were deceived in that point by a prefixed day, let him think I had more cause than he.'
'My Dearest the ... I take at the uncharitable taking of these matters, will make me say more than ever I thought to have done. For if this design had taken place, there could have been no doubt of other success: for that night, before any other could have brought the news, we should have known it by Mr. Catesby, who should have proclaimed the Heir Apparent at Charing Cross, as he came out of Town; to which purpose there was a Proclamation drawn; if the Duke had not been in the House, then there was a certain way laid for possessing him; but in regard of the assurance, they should have been there, therefore the greatest of our business stood in the possessing the Lady Elizabeth, who lying within eight miles of Dunchurch, we would have easily surprised before the knowledge of any doubt: this was the cause of my being there. If she had been in Rutland, then Stoaks was near, and in either place we had taken sufficient order to have been possessed of her; there was also courses taken for the satisfying the people if the first had taken effect, as the speedy notice of liberty and freedom from all manner of slavery, as the ceasing of Wardship and all Monopolies, which with change would have been more plausible to the people, if the first had been than it is now. There was also a course taken to have given present notice to all Princes, and to associate them with an oath answerable to the League in France. I have not uttered any of these things, nor ever thought to do; for my going from Dunchurch I had this reason. First, I knew that Faukes could reveal me, for I must make choice of two besides Mr. Catesby, which I did of him and Mr. Winter. I knew he had been employed in great matters, and till torture sure he carried it very well. Secondly, we all thought if we could procure Mr. Talbot to rise that . . . party at least to a composition . . . that was not little, because we had in our company his son-in-law,who gave us some hope of, and did not much doubt it. I do answer your speech with Mr. Browne thus. Before that I knew anything of this plot, I did ask Mr. Farmer what the meaning of the Pope's Brief was; he told me that they were not (meaning Priests) to undertake or procure stirs: but yet they would not hinder any, neither was it the Pope's mind they should that should be undertaken for Catholic good. I did never utter thus much, nor would not but to you; and this answer with Mr. Catesby's proceedings with him and me, give me absolute belief that the matter in general was approved, though every particular was not known. I dare not take that course that I could, to make it appear less odious; for divers were to have been brought out of the danger, which now would rather hurt them than otherwise. I do not think that there would have been three worth saving that should have been lost; you may guess that I had some friends that were in danger, which I had prevented, but they shall never know it. I will do as much as my partner wisheth, and it will then appear, that I have not hurt or accused one man, and howsoever I might in general possess them with fear, in hope to do the Cause good, yet my care was ever to lose my own life, rather than hurt the unworthiest member of the Catholic Church. Tell her I have ever loved her and her house, and though I could never shew it, I will not live to manifest the contrary. Her Go: I hope will remember me, who I am in temporal respects indebted to: your sister salute from me, whose noble mind to me in this misery I will never . . . my lord of Arundell may do much with the Lord and the Queen. One that you write of which dearly loveth him, and is dearly loved of him again, can tell him that I love him, and did manifest it in his fight, and he might have found it; last time as I saw him, was in his company, as I think. I am sure when this was, he was there. If your mother were in town you should . . . Farewell, and where you can understand, send to me by your next, and I will explain.'
In addition to the above there were also found among the papers of Sir Kenelm Digby a letter by Sir Everard to his children, dated 'from my prison this 23. of Jan. 1605,' and two poems, evidently by the same pen. As these three contain, however, no matter of any importance touching upon the plot, there is no need to insert them here.
In Digby's third letter (Paper III.), he mentions 'my lord of Salisbury . . . received my letter.' Of this letter I reproduce the greater part below, as its contents decidedly merit reproduction. Before doing so, however, it is only fair to state that so great an authority as Dr. S. R. Gardiner ('What Gunpowder Plot Was'), considers that this letter was not sent by Digby whilst in the Tower, but was written by him at some unknown date, between May 4 and September, 1605. This view is also held by Father John Gerard, S.J., in his 'What Was the Gunpowder Plot?' I, however, humbly beg to agree with Mrs. Everett Green (Editor, Dom. S. P. James I.), that this letter must have been despatched from the Tower early in December, 1605, and penned, therefore, whilst Digby was a prisoner. The whole tone of the text seems to bear upon the recent plot and the terrible position of the writer, who, in evident reference to his impending fate, says, 'I shall be as willing to die as I am ready,' etc., and signs himself, 'Your Lordship's poor Bedesman, Ev. Digby.' Father Gerard's statement that it cannot have been written by a prisoner, because 'it was sealed with a crest or coat-of-arms,' is absurd in the extreme. Digby was lodged like a gentleman in the Tower, finding means to write to his friends, to buy good food, and to wear fine clothes; why, therefore, in the name of common sense, should he have been deprived of the use of so simple and usual an article in those days as a signet ring, or ordinary seal? Moreover, only as recently as November 23, he had been allowed to write direct to Salisbury, asking, inter alia, that the royal clemency might be extended to his family.
'. . . I do assure myself that His Holiness may be drawn to manifest so contrary a disposition of excommunicating the King that he will proceed with the same course against all such as shall go about to disturb the King's quiet and happy reign; and the willingness of Catholics, especially of Priests and Jesuits, is such as I dare undertake to procure any Priest in England (though it were the Superior of the Jesuits) to go himself to Rome to negotiate this business, and that both he and all other religious men (till the Pope's pleasure be known) shall take any spiritual course to stop the effect that may proceed from any discontented or despairing Catholics. And I doubt not but his return would bring both assurance that such course should not be taken with the King, and that it should be performed against any that should seek to disturb him for religion. If this were done, there could then be no cause to fear any Catholic, and this may be done only with those proceedings (which as I understand your lordship) should be used. If your lordship apprehend it to be worth the doing, I shall be glad to be the instrument, for no hope to put off from myself any punishment, but only that I wish safety to the King and ease to the Catholics. If your lordship and the State think fit to deal severely with the Catholics, within brief time there will be massacres, rebellions, and desperate attempts against the King and State. For it is a general received reason amongst Catholics that there is not that expecting and suffering course now to be run that was in the Queen's time, who was the last of the line, and last in expectance to run violent courses against Catholics; for then it was hoped that the King that now is would have been at least free from persecuting, as his promise was before his coming into his Realm, and as divers his promises have been since his coming, saying that he would take no soul money nor blood. Also, as it appeared, was the whole body of the Council's pleasure when they sent for divers of the better sort of Catholics, as Sir Tho. Tressam and others, and told them it was the King's pleasure to forgive the payment of Catholics, so long as they should carry themselves dutifully and well. All these promises every man sees broken, and to trust them further in despair most Catholics take note of a vehement look, written by Mr. Attorney, whose drift, as I have heard, is to prove that the only being a Catholic is to be a traitor, which look coming forth after the breach of so many promises, and before the ending of such a violent Parliament, can work no less effect in mens' minds that every Catholic will be brought within that compass before the King and State have done with them. And I know, as the Prince himself told me, that if he had not hindered there had somewhat been attempted "before our offence," to give ease to Catholics. But being so prevented, and so necessary to avoid, I doubt not but your lordship and the rest of the Lords will think of a more mild and undoubted safe course, in which I will undertake the performance of what I have promised and as much as can be expected, and when I have done, I shall be as willing to die as I am ready to offer my service, and expect not nor desire favour for it, either before the doing it, nor in the doing it, nor after it is done, but refer myself to the resolved course for me. …'
Further proof in favour of my contention that this letter was written from the Tower is supplied by Digby's own words (Paper III.), to the effect that Lord Salisbury had received his letter, 'but if the King should propose such a course, he had no need of me.' The answer to Digby's offer of 'service' was, therefore, in the negative, which is not surprising, when we read his bold, but only too true and just comments on the broken promises of James to the persecuted Romanists in England, made prior to his succession to the southern throne.
That the importance of the matter contained in Digby's letters from the Tower has hitherto been underestimated by writers dealing with the Gunpowder Plot need not be questioned. Had the letters been stopped by the Lieutenant and produced at Garnet's trial they would have established the impossibility of the accused having only heard of the Plot through the medium of the confessional. Digby's statements that he had the very strongest reasons for believing that 'those who were best able to judge,' i.e. the Jesuit Fathers, tacitly approved of it, clearly explain and sum up the whole situation. In the event of the Plot proving a success, the Jesuits would have taken all the credit for themselves at Rome, and would have claimed that it was worked under their direction. In the event of the Plot proving a failure, the Jesuits were prepared to denounce it, and to deny all knowledge of its construction. As for Digby himself, he seems to have been a mere silly puppet in the hands of Fathers John Gerard and Henry Garnet. 'My brother' so constantly referred to by Digby in his correspondence, is, of course, Father Gerard, who (in his autobiography) often refers, in his turn, to 'my brother Digby.' 'He was' says Gerard, 'a most devoted friend to me, just as if he had been my twin-brother. And this name of brother we always used in writing to each other'
- They were printed in the Appendix to Thomas Barlow's (Bishop of Lincoln) account of the Gunpowder Treason, published at the Bishop's Head, St. Paul's Churchyard, February, 1679. In a later edition, published in 1850, no less than five of the letters are omitted.
- John Talbot, of Grafton.
- The original MS. was here imperfect.
- This letter was evidently despatched with the sanction of the Lieutenant of the Tower.
- On his own admission, Greenway actually said Mass for the conspirators at Huddington.
- Evidently Catesby, who introduced Greenway to the conspirators as 'A gentleman who would live and die with them!'
- The text of this letter will be reproduced later in this chapter.
- This estimate of the number of the English Roman Catholics is, of course, far too low
- Sir Oliver Manners, son of the fourth, and brother of the fifth and sixth Earls of Rutland. He was received into the Church of Rome, and became a priest.
- Father Gerard, SJ.
- Of the conspirators.
- Father George Blackwell, Archpriest of the Romanists in England. He was a mere tool of the Jesuits, and his appointment as Archpriest, together with his relations with the Jesuits, produced great dissensions amongst the English Romanists, especially among the Secular priests. He was deprived of his office by Pope Paul V. in 1608. The Secular clergy sent reprentatives to Rome to appeal against the tyranny of Blackwell and his Jesuits.
- Father Martin del Rio, SJ.
- Charles I. (then Duke of York).
- The Catholic Powers on the Continent.
- Thomas Winter.
- Robert Winter had married Talbot's daughter.
- Father Garnet, SJ. In spite of this decisive evidence against him, Jesuit writers have pretended that Garnet never used the alias of 'Farmer'!
- Father Garnet was then the Superior of the Jesuits in England but he was subservient to Father Parsons, who resided abroad, and was the real head of the English Jesuits.
- i.e. the later period of Elizabeth's reign.
- Father of the conspirator.
- Sir Edward Coke.
- The words 'before our offence' must naturally refer to the Plot. It is curious that Dr. Gardiner should have overlooked this sentence, which proves my contention that the letter must have been written from the Tower, and not before November 5.
- In the Dictionary of National Biography, the writer of the Memoir of Sir Everard Digby never even once mentions the existence of these letters, and terms Sir Kenelm Digby 'the younger son' of Sir Everard, instead of, as he was, the elder.