This letter was written by the playwright Ben Jonson on 8 November 1605, three days after the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. In the letter, addressed to Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury (1563–1612), Jonson apologises and explains that he has been unable to find the unnamed man he has been tasked to search for. He reassures Cecil that he will, however, continue the search.
This intriguing correspondence is the result of the Privy Council’s warrant, sent to Jonson, who was a Catholic, on 7 November. The warrant instructed Jonson to find a specific Catholic priest to help coerce Guy Fawkes into giving up his fellow conspirators and the details of the plot.
What was Ben Jonson’s involvement with the Gunpowder Plot?
On 9 October 1605 Jonson attended a dinner party at the Irish Boy, a tavern on the Strand, with Robert Catesby and some of the other conspirators. This ill-timed meeting has provoked much debate over the exact nature of Jonson’s involvement with the Plot – was he a member of the conspiracy, an innocent bystander or a double agent working for Cecil? No records survive to provide concrete evidence for any of these theories.
In this letter Jonson writes in humbled yet passionate terms, and repeatedly asserts his loyalty to England, the King and the Privy Council. While this demonstrates his awareness of the serious danger he faced, it does not tell us whether his anxiety is due to his potential involvement in the plot or, more generally, because of the suspicion placed on all prominent Catholics at this time.
What was the Gunpowder Plot?
The Gunpowder Plot, or the Jesuit Treason as it was known at the time, was a conspiracy to blow up the House of Lords at the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605.The plan was to kill King James I of England and VI of Scotland (1566–1625) along with much of the aristocracy. In their place the nine-year-old Princess Elizabeth was to be installed as a puppet queen.
The plotters consisted of a group of 13 devout Catholics who were upset by the persecution of their faith. The group was led by Robert Catesby, a charismatic country gentleman, and included Guy Fawkes (a former soldier and explosives expert), Thomas Percy (a distant cousin of the powerful Earl of Northumberland) and Sir Everard Digby (brother to Sir Kenelm Digby, a close friend of Jonson’s).
The Plot did not succeed. Lord Monteagle, a Catholic member of the House of Lords, received an anonymous letter warning him to stay away from Parliament on 5 November. Westminster was subsequently searched and Guy Fawkes was found guarding a huge stash of gunpowder. After days of questioning Fawkes eventually gave up his co-conspirators. They were swiftly rounded up, found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered – a gruesome end to a plot that shocked the country and is commemorated to this day on Bonfire Night.
My most honorable Lord. /
May it please yo[u]r Lo[rdship] to understand, there hath bene no want
in mee, eyther of labor or sincerity in the discharge of this busines,
to the satisfaction of yo[u]r Lo[rdship] and the state. And wheras, yesterday,
upon the first Mention of it, I tooke the most ready Course (to my
present thought) by the Venetian Ambassadors Chaplin, who not
only apprehended it well, but was of mind w[i]th mee, that no Man of
Conscience, or any indifferent Love to his Countrey would deny to
doe it; and w[i]thall engaged himselfe to find out one, absolute in all
Numbers, for the purpose; w[hi]ch he will’d me (before a Gent[leman] of
good Credit, who is my Testemony) to signifie to yo[u]r Lo[rdship] in his
Name: It falls out since, that that Party will not be found,
(for soe he returnes answere.) upon w[hi]ch I have made attempt
in other Places, but can speake w[i]th no one in Person (all being
eyther remov’d or so conceal’d; upon this present Mischeife) but
by second Meanes, I have receav’d answere of doubts, and
difficulties, that they ^ will make it a Question to the Archpriest, w[i]th
other such like suspensions: So that to tell yo[u]r Lo[rdship] playnly
my heart, I thinke they are All so enwean’d in it, as it will
make 500 Gent[lemen] less of the Religion w[i]thin this weeke, if
they carry theyr understanding about them. For my selfe,
if I had bene a Preist, I would have put on wings to such
an Occasion, and have thought it no adventure, where I
might have done (besides his Maiesty, and my Countrey) all
Christianity so good service. And so much I have sent to
some of them./
If it shall please yo[u]r Lordsh[ip] I shall yet make
farder triall, and that you cannot in the meane time be pro=
vided: I do not only w[i]th all readynesse offer my service, but will
p[er]forme it w[i]th as much integrity, as yo[u]r particular Favor,
or his Maiesties Right in any subiect he hath, can exalt.
Yo[u]r Ho[nour] most perfect
servant and Lover
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