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THE vexed question of the authorship of the famous anonymous letter deserves, without doubt, the closest attention from all students examining into the history of the Gunpowder Treason, for several important reasons, one of which is (even if we cannot ascertain the name of the letter's writer) that it sheds some light upon the part played in both the preparation and the discovery of the plot by Lord Mounteagle. But, before concerning ourselves again with the doubtful position of Mounteagle, it will be as well to deal first with those persons who have been named by various historians as having been concerned in the compilation of this letter. The list of those accused of the authorship may, I think, be said to comprise the following persons:—Thomas Percy, Christopher Wright, Father Oldcorne, Mrs. Abington, Thomas Tresham, Anne Vaux, and Lord Mounteagle himself.

Why the flimsy claims of Thomas Percy to be the author should ever have been seriously advanced it is difficult to imagine, for his conduct subsequent to its delivery shows that he was the very last person likely to have sent warning to Lord Mounteagle, and thence to the Government He knew that no quarter would be given to him once the secret was out, and so soon as all was up, after the visit of the two lords to the underground chamber, he fled away to the Midlands,[1] without making any attempt to obtain mercy from the Government. Had he been the writer of the letter, he certainly would have pleaded that fact to save his life, instead of which he broke into open rebellion, and refused to surrender under any terms. In common with Christopher Wright, there is not a scrap of original evidence to support the theory that he may have written or dictated the letter.

That Father Oldcorne, S.J., was the author is another theory equally unsupported by evidence, and contrary to all probability. Had he written it, he would not have been severely tortured and then hanged. The letter, moreover, is not in his handwriting.

Mrs. Mary Abington's name has been freely mentioned by several writers as the authoress. Her relationship to Tresham and Mounteagle, and her friendship with Oldcorne, are facts quoted by some authorities as evidence that she must have been 'in the know.'

Anne Vaux has been thought by some to have been the author, and her handwriting, to my mind, is by no means unlike that of the actual document, but when examined in the Tower she seems to have been treated, to a certain extent, as one who did not clearly know what had been secretly going on at Westminster, although she had been living for the last two years on terms of close friendship with nearly all the conspirators.

The claims of Francis Tresham to the authorship are very much stronger. 'That the writer of the letter,' says Dr. Gardiner, 'was Tresham there can be no reasonable doubt. The character of Tresham, the suspicions of his confederates, his own account of his proceedings, all point to him as the betrayer of the secret. If any doubt still remained, there is the additional evidence in the confidence which was after his death expressed by his friends, that if he survived the disease of which he died, he would have been safe from all fear of the confidences of the crime with which he was charged. This confidence they could only have derived from himself, and it could only have been founded on one ground.'

Dr. Gardiner's opinion is also shared by Lingard, who states, 'I will relate what seems, from Greenway's manuscript, to have been the opinion of the conspirators themselves. They attributed it to Tresham,[2] and suspected a secret understanding between him and Lord Mounteagle; and that such understanding existed between the writer and Lord Mounteagle can be doubted by no one who attends to the particulars. They were convinced that Tresham had no sooner given his consent than he repented of it, and sought to break up the plot without betraying his associates. His first expedient was to persuade them to retire to Flanders in the ship which he had hired in the river. He next wrote the letter, and took care to inform them on the following evening that it had been carried to the Secretary, in hope that the danger of discovery would induce them to make use of the opportunity of escape. In this he would undoubtedly have succeeded, had not his cunning been defeated by the superior cunning of Cecil, who allowed no search to be made in the cellar.'

My own opinion is that if Tresham did not actually pen the letter himself, he dictated its contents, but did so with the full approval and cognisance of Lord Mounteagle, who arranged with Tresham the farcical comedy of its reception at Hoxton and transmission to Cecil.

Now, as to Lord Mounteagle; that he knew about the preparation of the plot I have not the faintest doubt, and I base my opinion on the following grounds, which seem to me to furnish conclusive proof that he possessed a guilty knowledge of the Gunpowder Treason, and saved himself by betraying his confederates.

1. That he gave Sir Edward Baynham some letters to carry to Rome. (He was a party, therefore, to sending Baynham to the Pope.)

2. The extraordinary rewards received by him for taking the warning letter to Cecil.

3. Garnet's reluctance to mention Mounteagle's name, when examined by the council.

4. Garnet's remark (overheard in the Tower), 'I see they will justify my Lord Mounteagle of all this matter. I said nothing of him, neither will I ever confess him.'[3]

5. His relationship to the Winters, Tresham, Percy, Catesby, and others.

6. He had been concerned in former treasons with the Winters, Grant, Tresham, Garnet, Oldcorne, Greenway, and Christopher Wright.

7. His secret meeting at Fremland (Essex), in July, 1605, with Catesby, Garnet, and others.

8. The Government made every attempt to suppress his name during the various examinations and the trial of the conspirators.

9. He seems to have been with Catesby, at Bath, shortly before Michaelmas, 1605, i.e. some six weeks before the 5th of November.

10. Popular contemporary opinion favoured the notion that Lord Mounteagle was concerned in the plot, for Cecil in his secret instructions to Coke, concerning the trial of the conspirators, confessed: 'It is so lewdly given out that he (Mounteagle) was once of this plot of powder, and afterwards betrayed it all to me.'

11. Thomas Warde, the 'confidential gentleman' employed in Mounteagle's household, was a friend of several of the plotters, and gave them warning as to their danger.

12. Mounteagle's evident apprehension lest Tresham[4] (when in the Tower) should explain the secret relations existing between the pair during October (1605).

13. Mounteagle was an ally of the Jesuit faction among the English Romanists.

In face of these fatal thirteen reasons, therefore, strong as they are, it seems idle to pretend that Lord Mounteagle had no connection with the plot. His receipt of the warning letter was no sudden surprise, but the last act in a 'little comedy,' which he, Cecil, Tresham and (evidently) Warde, had been busily rehearsing for days past. Such a subtle method of clearing himself and currying favour with the Government was entirely in keeping with the character of this man. All his life he seemed to be sailing under false colours. He was untruthful and unfaithful in all matters of both public and private import. At heart a Roman Catholic, he, nevertheless, implored James to believe that he was a good Protestant.

It is possible that the handwriting of the mysterious letter may never be identified, but there need be no doubt that it was drawn up under the personal supervision of Lord Mounteagle or Tresham. As I have hinted above, a third party, probably a priest, may have assisted in its concoction. Who this priest was it is a little hard to establish. That Tresham may have mentioned intentions to Garnet in confession is very possible, and the Jesuit Superior may have thought the plan proposed a good way out of the terribly difficult situation wherein he was placed. It certainly would never have occurred to any priest (as it never occurred to Tresham himself) that the plotters would be such fools as to stay on in London after the delivery of the letter to the King. Their crass folly in refusing to leave London till all was lost was an act of incomparable madness which was never contemplated by Warde, [5] Tresham, and Mounteagle. 'Those whom the gods wish to destroy they first turn mad! 'is a proverb certainly applicable to those of the gunpowder conspirators who refused to listen to the urgent warnings given to them by Thomas Warde.

Lord Mounteagle must, in any event, be deemed a very fortunate person to have been treated with such marked favour and liberality by the Government after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. It must have been some extremely important service secretly rendered to the Government that enabled him to wipe out the stain of his past treasons, and bask in the sunshine of the royal favour. He had, perhaps, been for months past (prior to November, 1605) employed by Cecil as a spy upon the plotters. There is every reason to believe that about Michaelmas (1605) he was staying with Catesby and Percy at Bath. It was probably an additional stroke of fortune for him that Catesby was killed at Holbeach, for that arch-conspirator, 'the deare Robine' of Mounteagle's affection, must have become at the last pretty well acquainted with his friend's intrigues. Percy, slain at Holbeath, might have revealed something, for he also was with Mounteagle at Bath. It is noteworthy, too, that after being at Bath Catesby admitted into the conspiracy, Rookewood, Sir Everard Digby, and Tresham. In fact, it was resolved at Bath by Catesby and Percy, in consultation, to appeal to the trio just mentioned with a view to getting them to join the plot. Why, then, should not Percy and Catesby have taken Mounteagle, with whom they were staying, into their confidence regarding their idea of approaching Rookewood, Digby, and Tresham, all three of whom were known to their host, and one of whom was his relative? Moreover, Baynham seems to have been sent to Rome as the result of the deliberations of Garnet, Catesby, and Mounteagle, when meeting together at Fremland (Essex), in July, 1605.

Thomas Winter, in his confession, refers explicitly to this meeting at Bath in September, when he says, 'abought this time did Mr. Catsby and Mr. Percy meet at the bath wher they agreed tt the company being as yett butt few Mr. Catesby should have the others authority to call in any two whom he thought fit, by which authority he called in after Sir Everatt Digby, though at what time I know not, and last of all Mr. Francis Tressham.'

To sum up: the whole of the case against Lord Mounteagle seems strong in the extreme. That a man with such bad antecedents, and connected by such close ties with the principal plotters, could have been ignorant of what was going on, it would seem futile to conjecture. That he was a party to writing the famous letter addressed to himself can no longer be disputed; and the evidence circumstantial though it be in favour of his having been an accessory both to the compilation of this letter and to the betrayal of the plot to Cecil, appears to me beyond all doubt.

That Lord Mounteagle's connection with the plot was not openly revealed by the conspirators, when imprisoned in the Tower, was due to two considerations: (1) all attempts to incriminate him were checked by the Government, and (2) a lingering hope was entertained by some of the conspirators that Mounteagle (if not accused by them) would intercede for their lives. As to the first of these considerations, proof is fully forthcoming when we notice that, in some cases, the agents of the Council refused[6] to write down Mounteagle's[7] name in the depositions, and in other cases they calmly erased or papered over his name if entered in the prisoner's confessions. As to the second of these considerations, ample proof is to be found by reading the report of the conversation (overheard in the Tower) on January 25, 1606, between Guy Faukes and Robert Winter.

  1. The Government offered 1000 reward to anybody who would take him alive.
  2. 'He it was that wrote the letter to my Lord Mounteagle (Goodman's Court of James I.)
  3. On March 27, 1606, Garnet, however, confessed that 'Mr. Catesby did shew them (the Pope's Breves) to my Lord Monteagle at the same time when Mr. Tressam was with him at White Webbs.'
  4. Tresham is thought by some writers to have been poisoned by Mounteagle.
  5. 'One Thomas Warde, a principal man about him (Mounteagle), is suspected to be accessory of the treason ' (Letter from Sir E. Hobart to Sir T. Edmonds, November 19, 1605).
  6. On more than one occasion Garnet was given a very broad hint not to mention Mounteagle's name on any account whatever.
  7. In one very important instance Mounteagle's name is altered to 'Montague.' There was a Romanist peer called Viscount Montague, but this special confession certainly refers only to Mounteagle. Lord Montague was fined £4000 after the failure of the plot.