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Reference group
Rye House plotters (act. 1683) were a group involved in a supposed conspiracy to kill Charles II and his brother, James, duke of York, on their return from Newmarket in March 1683 near the Rye House at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, and to raise an insurrection.

The plotters

The aristocratic, and in some cases somewhat dilettante, personalities who came into at least part of the Rye House scheme included the whig leader Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury, James Scott, duke of Monmouth (the eldest illegitimate son of the king), William Russell, Lord Russell, and Arthur Capel, first earl of Essex. William Howard, third Baron Howard of Escrick, Algernon Sidney, Sir Thomas Armstrong, Lord Grey of Warke [see Grey, Ford, earl of Tankerville], Thomas Grey, second earl of Stamford, and John Hampden, the grandson of the notable parliamentary politician of the same name in the 1630s and 1640s, also figured at various points in the conspiracy.

On a lower level were other, perhaps more dangerous, plotters, such as the former soldier Richard Rumbold, commonly called ‘Hannibal by reason of his having but one eye’ (Copies of the Informations and Original Papers, 38), and John Rumsey; Thomas Walcott, who in his youth had been a lieutenant to the regicide Edmund Ludlow, was another of these, while Richard Goodenough was a former under-sheriff in London. Robert West, a London and Oxfordshire lawyer, was also closely involved, as was the Scottish-born professional conspirator and clergyman Robert Ferguson, who managed in his long career to conspire against Charles II, James II, and William III, acquire the sobriquet ‘Ferguson the Plotter’, and die in his bed after a very adventurous life.

Roger North, one of the counsel for the prosecution of Russell and Sidney, later called these men's actions ‘dissolving the government with a touch of a trigger’ (North, 392). As it emerged from June 1683 through the many interrogations of the suspected participants, the scheme became divided into two parts—the murder plot and the wider insurrection—the connection between which was always obscure and has sometimes been denied. As with any historical non-event—the king did not die and there was no rising in 1683—historians have struggled to establish the extent and scope of both schemes and have called into question many of the details, not the least, who was involved. Some historians have doubted the plot's very existence. Still others have argued that it was provoked or even fabricated by a frightened government intent on destroying its whig rivals. Whatever the truth of this, it is clear that the informers involved were keen to save their own necks in treason trials where guilt was, in general, already assumed. Given that the undoubted exaggerations in the existing evidence have obscured the conspiracy so much, little can be done to untangle the problem today, yet its context is clear enough.

Context

Fresh in the public memory was the so-called Popish Plot, ‘revealed’ by Titus Oates in the summer of 1678, in which Catholics were alleged to be conspiring either to assassinate Charles II and his brother, or to kill Charles only and replace him with the Catholic James. Dramatic depositions and the sensational ‘murder’ of examining magistrate Edmund Berry Godfrey followed, but Oates's story disintegrated through successive court hearings in 1679 and 1680; by 1681 his claims were generally disbelieved and protestant fears of the imminence of a ‘popish’ monarch were allayed. In the wake of its failure that year in the Oxford parliament to secure James's exclusion from the succession to the throne, the whig ‘party’, which had principally evolved round this cause, began to dissolve. For the next two years Charles II and the anti-exclusionist tories used the law to prosecute their opponents and began quo warranto proceedings to seize control of the corporations of towns and counties and through them any future House of Commons. The culmination of this campaign was intended to be the capture of the City of London's charter. Faced with this pressure and with no House of Commons to use as a vehicle for their struggle, the whig leadership had turned to plotting or (at the very least) to talking about resistance by other means. It was Shaftesbury who was undoubtedly a prime mover in these schemes. Although much of the evidence for his part in the plot was only revealed when he was safely dead and therefore unable to defend himself, it is clear that in his last days Shaftesbury's greatest fear was that the tories would take control of the government of London, where the former ‘republican’ Slingsby Bethel and the nonconformist Henry Cornish had used their joint shrievalty of 1680–81 to advance the whig interest, only for the shrievalty to pass to the loyalist Sir William Pritchard in the bitterly contested shrieval election of 1682. The tories seemed poised to capture London's juries, paving the way for Shaftesbury's trial and death. Frustrated with his fellow whigs, suffering from increasing ill health, and facing arrest, he eventually fled to the Low Countries, where he died in January 1683. As a result the so-called council of six (Monmouth, Russell, Essex, Howard of Escrick, Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden) was formed and took over the leadership of the whigs. Rumours soon began to emerge that secret meetings were taking place.

On 12 June 1683 Josiah Keeling, a London oil merchant and nonconformist, and a minor intriguer, ostensibly overcome by remorse, or by plain fear of the consequences, finally revealed the plot to the government and the arrests began. Over the next month or so a number of those arrested either turned king's evidence or sought a pardon and began implicating as many of their fellows as possible. Even if some of the evidence of the Rye House plot, and the doings of its plotters, are dismissed as fallacious, there seems little doubt that in 1683 plotting was in many senses the only solution left to the whigs' difficulties.

The murder plot

The alleged murder plot seems to have been the most serious element of the business. While this involved the rather junior ranking conspirators, how far they were united in their views is still debatable. Among them were experienced men such as the old Cromwellian soldiers Rumbold and Rumsey, who had also fought in Portugal; some had a long history of conspiracy behind them and most had held onto the idea of the ‘good old cause’ since at least the 1650s. They were fearful of Stuart ‘slavery’ and to combat it, the military men alone were more than capable of acts of violence. West was the probable point of contact with Shaftesbury, while Armstrong and Lord Grey of Warke provided other links. They were also aware of the secret meetings in the summer of 1682 between Shaftesbury and Archibald Campbell, ninth earl of Argyll, at which a rising in Scotland was mooted.

A series of meetings subsequently took place in taverns and elsewhere, with cant language used to disguise the plotters' intentions. Some plotters feared that killing Charles II and replacing him with his protestant heir, Monmouth, would provoke the latter into taking revenge on his father's murderers, while others declared that assassination was itself dishonourable. On the other hand, some conspirators advocated not only murder but also the recall of Edmund Ludlow to lead the inevitable rising that would follow. There was also much talk about whether or not the king and the duke of York should be the only targets and whether the weapons used should be consecrated. Ultimately, amid much drink (another characteristic of plotters of the day), the place eventually appointed for the killing of the king and his brother was the Rye House, a building owned by the former soldier, now a maltster, Richard Rumbold.

The ‘lopping point’

The plan was to ambush the king's coach as it returned from Newmarket races. In a narrow lane the killers would shoot the postillion and the carriage horses with blunderbusses and block the passage with a cart. Some members of the assassination group would then fire directly into the coach, with Rumbold deputed to kill the king, while others would fight it out with the king's guards.

It was an eminently practicable scheme, reminiscent of conspiracies alleged to have been launched in the past, whether against Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s, or against Charles II in the 1660s and later 1670s. It also prefigured the plot to kill William III in 1696. Ambushing or overtaking the victims as they travelled in coaches lay behind the assassinations of James Sharp, archbishop of St Andrews, in 1679 and of Thomas Thynne in February 1682, just after he had dropped off his passenger, Monmouth. However, the plotters of spring 1683 were still in a state of uncertainty when their opportunity passed. A major fire at Newmarket meant that the king and his brother left the town earlier than anticipated.

Insurrection

A wider insurrection was also envisaged, but here the planning was, if anything, still more nebulous. It may have been considered as part of the assassination plot but could also have been totally divorced from it. What is clear is that this part of the scheme was to have been led by the principal whigs, including, until his death, Shaftesbury, and that their talk (their tongues loosened by wine) had been of seizing the king rather than killing him. This is not surprising given that, in contrast to the murder plotters, they were gentlemen and aristocrats. Monmouth, the impetuous Russell, Sir Thomas Armstrong, Lord Grey, and sometimes others like Ferguson and Howard of Escrick were later said to have had a series of meetings from summer 1682 into 1683 in order to discuss the right of resistance and possible risings in London, Cheshire, and the west country. It was alleged that Monmouth and some others had even sallied forth one dark night to assess the vigilance of the king's guards around Whitehall. For the most part these meetings remained an impractical and inconsequential talking shop, much to the distress of the increasingly hysterical Shaftesbury, who averred that 1000 men from Wapping, his so-called ‘brisk boys’, would join an insurrection and talked of seizing the Tower of London. In his wilder moments he may have also encouraged the more hot-headed elements of the murder plot. Once Shaftesbury had fled, leadership passed to the council of six, but the priorities of the members diverged markedly. While Monmouth, concerned to establish and maintain his position as a potential heir to the throne, played a relatively cautious role, Sidney was a convinced republican.

Disclosure

Keeling's revelation of the plot led to a series of arrests of some of the alleged conspirators. Rumsey, West, and a merchant called Thomas Sheppard then gave contradictory information against their fellows. Sheppard, for example, confirmed the involvement of both Russell and Sidney, but may have obscured other men's participation in the plot. Charles II personally examined some of the testimonies and refused to allow the informers to expand on their evidence as Titus Oates had done. Sir John Reresby claimed the conspiracy was made up of ‘such as had been disappointed of preferments at Court, and of protestant dissenters’ (A. Browning, ed., Memoirs of Sir John Reresby, 2nd edn, ed. M. K. Geiter and W. A. Speck, 1991, 304); persecution of nonconformists duly followed. On 23 June orders were given for the arrest of Rumbold, Walcott, and others. On 26 June, Sidney and Russell were sent to the Tower. Rewards of £500 a piece were offered for Monmouth, Lord Grey, Armstrong, and Ferguson. Monmouth had fled the scene; Grey was arrested and then escaped. Many of the others fled abroad to the Low Countries. On 8 July, Hampden and Howard of Escrick were seized and then the earl of Essex was sent to the Tower. Howard (who had a long history of surviving conspiracies) gratefully accepted a pardon in return for informing on his fellow conspirators, and trials swiftly followed. During Russell's trial news came in of Essex's suicide (he had slit his own throat in his cell, or some said, had been murdered at the behest of the government). Despite this Russell was convicted on the evidence of Sheppard and Howard. Attempts to obtain a pardon for him failed and on 13 July he was sentenced to death. The ever egotistical Sidney eventually came to trial in November. Lacking sufficient evidence against him, Judge George Jeffreys trapped Sidney with his own manuscripts on the rights of resistance and he was condemned to death and executed on 7 December 1683. Meanwhile Monmouth had surrendered on pardon on 24 November. As George Savile, first marquess of Halifax, attempted to mediate reconciliation between the king and his son, Monmouth denied the assassination plot, although he signed a document confessing to conspiracy to insurrection under the condition that it would not be used as evidence. However, his demands finally exhausted the king's patience and he was forced into exile. As a result he was not available at the trial of Hampden, who was tried for a misdemeanour and fined £40,000.

Aftermath

Speculations as to the reality of the Rye House plot continue to this day. A number of the plotters escaped only to resurface in the Monmouth and Argyll rebellions of 1685. Some of them suffered for their cause then, while others, such as Ferguson, escaped yet again. Following the revolution of 1688 and through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries some of those previously punished for the plot, most notably Russell and Sidney, were fashionable as whig martyrs, generally celebrated as noble founders of the parliamentary eighteenth-century British state, free of the house of Stuart.

Alan Marshall

Sources  

[T. Sprat], Copies of the informations and original papers relating to the proof of the horrid conspiracy against the late king, his present majesty and the government (1685) · The secret history of the Rye-House plot: and of Monmouth's rebellion (1754) · R. North, Examen, or, An enquiry into the credit and veracity of a pretended complete history (1740) · Rye House plot papers, TNA: PRO, SP 29/426 · L. G. Schwoerer, ‘William, Lord Russell: the making of a martyr, 1683–1983’, Journal of British Studies, 24 (1985), 41–71 · P. Milton, ‘John Locke and the Rye House plot’, HJ, 43 (2000), 647–68 · D. J. Milne, ‘The Rye House plot with special reference to its place in the exclusion contest and its consequences till 1685’, PhD diss., U. Lond., 1949 · J. Scott, Algernon Sidney and the Restoration crisis, 1677–1683 (1991) · K. H. D. Haley, The first earl of Shaftesbury (1968) · J. Ferguson, Robert Ferguson the plotter: the secret of the Rye-house conspiracy and the story of a strange career (1887) · The last words of Coll. Richard Rumbold, Mad. Alicia Lisle, Alderman Henry Cornish, and Mr. Richard Nelthrop [1685] · R. Ashcraft, Revolutionary politics and Locke's two treatises of government (1986) · M. S. Zook, Radical whigs and conspiratorial politics in late Stuart England (1999)

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TNA: PRO, SP 29/426