Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 11 December 2023

Sealed Knotfree

(act. 1653–1659)

Sealed Knotfree

(act. 1653–1659)
  • Stephen K. Roberts

Sealed Knot (act. 1653–1659), was the name adopted by a group of six royalist partisans to describe their secret committee working on behalf of the exiled king of England and Scotland, Charles Stuart. They saw themselves as facilitators of co-ordinated royalist uprising, and the group probably came into being in November 1653. The initiative was personally approved by Charles, but seems to have originated in England. Charles's invitations to form the Knot were couched in the coded commercial language usually adopted by royalist intriguers, and spoke of the absent king's interest in making 'another venture in trade' (Clarendon State Papers, 2.282). Unlike Charles himself, the six were still living in England. They were John Belasyse, first Baron Belasyse of Worlaby, Henry Hastings, Baron Loughborough, Sir William Compton, Sir Richard Willys, first baronet, Colonel John Russell (c.1620–1687), and Edward Villiers (1620–1689).

The phrase they adopted as their collective title was used by Villiers in a report of 2 February 1654 to Sir Edward Hyde, Charles's secretary of state, who shared his master's exile. 'The sealed knott still meete, with an intention to designe somewhat' in the interests of the king, asserted Villiers, providing the first recorded use of the title (Thurloe, State papers, 2.64). A sealed knot is obviously a secure one, and the phrase fitted well with the royalists' preference for commercial idioms. The phrase had been used before, however, and was not coined by the English royalists. In 1635, for example, in a funeral sermon for Elizabeth, wife of Henry Hastings, fifth earl of Huntingdon (and the mother of Lord Loughborough), the preacher described God's promises as a 'firme and sealed knot' (I. F., Sermon, 7). As employed to describe a tightly knit group it appears in Richard Knolles's The Turkish History of 1687, where it is said to have been employed in 1646 by Turkish merchants at Galata to describe a committee they formed to resist the claims of the Levant Company under Sir Sackville Crowe. The echo of the words of the funeral preacher in the later plotting of one of the chief mourners in 1635 is doubtless a coincidence, and merely indicates that the phrase had currency long before the 1650s.

The immediate background to the Sealed Knot's formation was the royalist diaspora following the battle of Worcester of 3 September 1651, which drove Charles abroad, put paid to monarchical aspirations for a season, and consolidated the ascendancy of radicals in the new republic. The disaster of Worcester was the culmination of Charles's alliance with the Scots in which his interests as a ‘covenanted king’ became bound up with those of the kirk party in Scotland. His experience of Scotland between June 1650 and August 1651 had included the nadir of a humiliating failed escape from his kirk party ‘protectors’ followed by the zenith of his coronation. During these episodes the English royalist partisans found themselves sidelined, the king's attention being more focused on the western remonstrance of the extreme covenanters in Scotland than on the western association, a gathering of the most important royalist families in the south of England. There were embryonic associations in other parts of England, ready to follow the western association model, but Worcester brought a chapter of royalist plotting to an end. The alliance with presbyterians in Scotland was destroyed, and networks in England had to be rebuilt against an unpromising domestic background of heightened radical protestantism in religion and reforming republicanism in politics.

The Sealed Knot represented the resumption of a pattern of domestic royalist politics familiar from the civil war period of the early 1640s. Alliances with Scots and presbyterians were eschewed in favour of looking to the great county families. With the exception of Sir Richard Willys, the son of a lawyer, each of the members of the Sealed Knot was from an aristocratic house. The Hastings family was of major importance in Leicestershire, the Comptons in Northamptonshire and Warwickshire, the Russells in Devon. Belasyse, a peer and the son of a peer, commanded social authority in the north of England. Villiers was a son of Sir Edward Villiers, half-brother to George Villiers, first duke of Buckingham, and the favourite of Charles Stuart's father, the late king. In terms of family history, what united the six was that each was a younger son, whose capture, sequestration or, worse still, execution, would not jeopardize the family he represented. Only Belasyse was a Roman Catholic, albeit of a closet variety, which had not prevented his sitting in both the parliaments that assembled in 1640. As far as Hyde was concerned, they represented the best of those left alive 'who had had the most eminent Charges in the war' (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 2.15). Extensive military experience in the cause of the late king was a feature of three of the six, Belasyse, Loughborough, and Willys. Their volunteering or selection seemed like an endorsement of bedrock royalist support but in fact a number of the Knot's members associated with those close to the heart of the ruling party in England. Belasyse's nephew Thomas Belasyse became Lord Fauconberg in 1653 and in 1657 married the daughter of Oliver Cromwell. Russell counted among his brothers-in-law Robert Greville, second Baron Brooke of Beauchamps Court, and William Grey, first Baron Grey of Warke, both parliamentarians, and his brother, William Russell, fifth earl of Bedford, could not be relied upon by the royalists. In fact these links are less evidence of a subtle plan to suborn or infiltrate the dominant regime than an indication of how by the mid-1650s royalist families in provincial England had been forced to compromise with the interregnum governments.

The members of the Sealed Knot considered themselves above all to be realists. In their manifesto of aims and objectives, a draft of which evaded Cromwell's intelligence service to reach Hyde in Paris, they vowed to avoid the futile and quixotic adventures that marked an earlier conspiracy of young cavaliers, the Swordsmen. Instead, they would wait for 'the first rational opportunity' for a decisive, general rising, subject to the king's approval, which they foresaw would come as factions grew within Cromwell's army. The irony of their hopes of profiting from factionalism among their enemies would not have been lost on Hyde, who knew only too well how royalist politics, even during the first civil war, had been riven by faction, jealousies, and preoccupation with social parity and precedence. The membership of the Knot had been shaped by a recognition that social status mattered. Its members asked that they should be accountable only to Hyde and to James Butler, marquess of Ormond, and in effect proposed a veto on rival schemes for rebellion that might be put to the royal court. Charles readily assented to their proposals, and under this agreement, Hyde was later able to write, 'many unseasonable Attempts were prevented, and thereby the Lives of many good Men preserved' (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 2.24). Hyde writes of this restraining influence of the Knot as if it were its greatest achievement, and it is indeed hard to find evidence of any effective offensive planning on its part. Though the families from which they came were reasonably spread across England, in practice the property of these younger sons was heavily concentrated in eastern England and they were unable to act as a leaven in the lump of passive royalist sentiment across the country. Royalist agents in England, only notionally under the Knot's control, seem to have enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. The most active of these agents were Nicholas Armorer, a former governor of High Ercall in Shopshire, and the double agent Colonel Joseph Bampfield. Their efforts to animate the king's supporters seem not to have been built upon by the Knot, whose members were denied freedom of movement by a watchful government.

Whatever its paper constitution neither the Knot nor the exiled king's council was in practice able to control all of the hotter heads among the supporters of the monarchy, who looked for encouragement to Charles's cousin, Prince Rupert. Two plots in 1654, known by the surname of Charles Gerard, first Baron Gerard of Brandon, and his cousin, John Gerard, were hasty, ill-advised disasters beyond the reach of the Knot. These conspiracies were in gestation at the same time that the Knot was formed, but only Lord Loughborough was associated with the Knot and with the Gerard plots, and he was connected to Gerard merely by rumour. In the wake of the inevitable round-up of suspects following the breaking of the plots by John Thurloe, Cromwell's secretary of state and intelligence chief, Willys and Villiers were detained for a few months in mid-1654. Willys suspected Belasyse to be his betrayer, Hyde writing subsequently of 'a fatal Quarrel' (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 2.25) among two principals of the Knot that compromised its authority still more. Within months of the Knot's formation, Hyde's preference for co-ordinated resistance and rebellion under the unquestioned direction of scions of the great English families seemed hopelessly idealistic. The initiative passed to the ‘action party’, which cast its net wider and more pragmatically to include an assortment of disaffected groups. Loughborough and Villiers were privy to the plans of the action party, whose roots were more broadly spread than those of the Sealed Knot. Rivalry between the groups was immediate and damaging.

With the release of Willys and Villiers the Knot sought to strengthen its authority and to improve its efficiency by appointing a secretary, William Rumbold, a former clerk in the household of Charles I. In the opinion of the exiled king what the Knot needed was an infusion of younger, more energetic blood rather than an improved communications network. The improvements in the management of the Knot brought with them no change in the cautious outlook of its members. In February 1655 Russell, Belasyse, and Compton attempted to veto efforts to fan the embers of disaffection in Cromwell's navy as it sailed to ignominy in the Caribbean ‘western design’. At the same time the action party moved in March towards the catastrophe of Penruddock's rising, the only one of a number of regional plots under its auspices to reach an open rebellion. Penruddock was a failure that resulted in executions and transportation for its participants, a plot that had matured under a persistently negative commentary from the Knot. Charles Stuart, like his father, seemed to prefer to send out mixed messages than to adopt a firm stance, with the result that Knot members like Compton had to promise to fall in with action party plans, albeit very reluctantly. The immediate aftermath of the failed risings was the militarization of England and Wales under the major-generals and a redoubling of activity by Thurloe, which deprived Rumbold, Compton, Willys, Russell, and Villiers of their liberty and drove Belasyse into exile.

The Knot's members could not be accused of indifference to the king's cause. By the end of April 1656 they were back in touch with Hyde, anxious to vindicate themselves from the disaster of Penruddock. Villiers and Willys led the way, and recruited Major Philip Honywood as a courier and Alan Brodrick, a contact of Villiers and Willys who had kept aloof from the fighting in the 1640s, as secretary to the Knot. Belasyse and Loughborough remained unenthusiastic, but Russell and Compton soon rededicated themselves. New figures joined as associates and correspondents of the Knot, notably William Maynard, second Baron Maynard (1623–1699), a presbyterian peer, and Sir Simon Fanshawe, a Hertfordshire gentleman known to Charles. The outlook of the Knot remained cautious, but the volume of traffic between its members and Hyde increased, there was talk of a rising in Wiltshire, and a plot was planned for Suffolk. Arrests were made before anything came of these. Quite apart from its inherent limitations, the Knot was finally paralysed by Willys's defection in the second half of 1656, to become a double agent in the pay of Thurloe. Hyde attributed Willys's treachery to alienation at the squabblings among the royalists or to despair at the interminable rounds of arrests and interrogations, rather than to mercenary considerations, a verdict that is broadly endorsed by modern historians. Once again the vanguard of royalist offensive plotting passed from the Knot to a second action party, and in 1658 the Knot's members were once again reduced to dampening the ardour of more enthusiastic plotters while suffering imprisonment for actions that they deplored. A few months before Cromwell's death in September 1658 Compton, Russell, and Willys were released from the Tower of London under notice from Thurloe that future plotting would cost them their lives, which was enough to deter Russell and Compton and to keep Willys bound to Thurloe.

In March 1659 Charles invested his full confidence in a new organization, known as the Great Trust, which sought to include the original members of the Knot except Villiers, whose poor judgement and eccentric proposals—for instance that Charles should marry Cromwell's daughter—had alienated Hyde. The Knot was unresponsive, offended by the Great Trust's duplication of existing commissions and courting of the presbyterians, who had been excluded on principle at the initiation of the Knot in 1653. Both the Knot's hegemony and reluctance were largely and perhaps deliberately neutralized by the inclusion in the Great Trust of eight new individuals, one of whom was Rumbold, who had long since ceased to act as an agent for the Knot. The key figure in the Trust was John Mordaunt, first Viscount Mordaunt of Avalon. The circumstances for a rebellion in 1659 were much more auspicious than in 1655, as Richard Cromwell's downfall was leading towards political instability and put paid to Thurloe's career as a powerful intelligence chief. Even so, the contribution of the Knot was to pour cold water on the Trust's intentions. In a repeat of events in 1654–5 the Knot was volubly sceptical of plans for a general rising and effectively destroyed the hopes of a local revolt in its own heartlands in eastern England. Sir George Booth and his supporters in Lancashire and Cheshire took to the field having missed the messengers from the Knot, who were urging that their venture be aborted. The episode ended on 23 August 1659 in the arrest of Booth, disguised in women's clothing, at Newport Pagnell. The Knot was in any case thoroughly discredited, as placards exposing Willys's treachery appeared in London on 3 July. By this time Loughborough and Belasyse were outside the circle of the Knot, but Compton and Russell initially refused to accept the news of Willys's betrayal and Villiers stood out for Willys until March 1660, further destroying his own reputation with the cavalier high command in so doing. The Sealed Knot thus played no practical part in the restoration of the monarch, to which end it had dedicated itself in 1653–4.

Even if judged strictly on its own terms of reference, the Sealed Knot was a failure, as it never exercised the authority nominally vested in it by the king, was unwilling to plan any significant activity on its own, and was unable to deter other groups from chancing their arms. None the less an aura of romantic defiance clung to the name, which was appropriated by Peter Young in 1968 for a society devoted to re-enacting battles of the civil war, which he called the Sealed Knot Society of Cavaliers and Roundheads. Beyond the faint echo of the original in its name and interest in the general period, the twentieth-century society was not modelled in any sense on the group of 1653–9.


  • D. Underdown, Royalist conspiracy in England, 1649–1660 (1960)
  • D. Underdown, ‘Sir Richard Willys and Secretary Thurloe’, EngHR, 69 (1954), 373–87
  • Calendar of the Clarendon state papers preserved in the Bodleian Library, ed. O. Ogle and others, 5 vols. (1869–1970), vols. 2–4
  • The Nicholas papers, ed. G. F. Warner, 4 vols., CS, 3, 4 (1886–1920)
  • CSP dom. (1655)
  • The letter-book of John, Viscount Mordaunt, 1658–1660, ed. M. Coate, CS, 3rd ser., 69 (1945)
  • D. Scott, ‘John Belasyse’, HoP, Commons, 1640–60 [draft copy]
  • M. Hollings, ‘Thomas Barret: a study in the secret history of the interregnum’, EngHR, 43 (1928), 33–65
  • J. G. M[uddiman], ‘Sir Richard Willys's defence’, N&Q, 12th ser., 10 (1922), 123–4
  • C. H. Firth, The last years of the protectorate, 1656–1658, 2 vols. (1909)
  • S. R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and protectorate, 1649–1656, new edn, 4 vols. (1903), vol. 3
  • G. Smith, The cavaliers in exile, 1640–1660 (2003)
  • I. F. [John Fletcher], A sermon preached at Ashby de-la-Zouch in the countie of Leicester (1635)
  • R. Knolles, The Turkish history from the original of that nation (1687)
  • The life of Edward, earl of Clarendon … written by himself, 3rd edn, 3 vols. (1761), vol. 2
  • R. Hutton, Charles the Second: king of England, Scotland and Ireland (1989)
  • R. Hutton, The Restoration: a political and religious history of England and Wales, 1658–1667 (1985)
  • private information (2009) [A. Michelli]
Page of
Notes and Queries
Page of
J. Thurloe, ed. T. Birch, 7 vols. (1742)
Page of
Camden Society
Page of
English Historical Review
Page of
Page of
E. Hyde, earl of Clarendon, , 6 vols. (1888); repr. (1958); repr. (1992)
Page of