05 April 2014

'The dangerous fruits of a discontented mind'

On Saint Valentine's Day in 1585, Sunday, 14 February, Doctor [William] Parry wrote to Queen Elizabeth from the Tower of London: 'Your Majesty may see by my voluntary confession the dangerous fruits of a discontented mind, and how constantly I pursued my first conceived purpose in Venice for the relief of the afflicted Catholics [in England], continued it in Lyons and resolved in Paris to put it in adventure for the restitution of England to the ancient obedience of the see Apostolic'. To the Earl of Leicester and to Lord Burghley, once his employer, he emphasised just how special he was: 'My case is rare and strange, and, for anything I can remember, singular: a natural subject solemnly to vow the death of his natural Queen ... for the relief of the afflicted Catholics, and restitution of religion'.

A week later he was tried for treason in Westminster Hall. The clerk of the crown set out the facts and stated that Parry had been seduced from his true allegiance by the Devil. Yet Parry did his best to control even his own trial; he refuted as well as confessed, saying that he wanted to die; he was determined to explain his thinking, volunteering to read to the court his own confessions and letters. Words he had written to Burghley and Leicester became part of the public record: 'My cause is rare, singular and unnatural'.

For William Parry the desire to play a great part both in secret and in public was a powerful and compelling one. His treason was, of course, sensational news. Even the trial of John Somerville in 1583, after which Somerville hanged himself in Newgate prison, had nothing like the performance of a star like Parry: with Parry being as self-possessed and fluent as ever, the crown's lawyers had found it difficult to keep him quiet [...]

The official account, produced by the queen's printer, was particularly savage. Carefully edited copies of documents were used to prove Parry's vile treasons. The pamphlet demolished his character (especially his 'proud and arrogant humour') and the insulting pretensions of good family and gentility of such a 'vile and traitorous wretch'. Burghley hated a traitor, more so one who was also a social upstart [...]

Parry was executed in Westminster Palace yard on 2 March, the only serving member of the English House of Commons ever to have been arrested for high treason. On the scaffold he maintained his innocence, denying any plan of even having thought to have murdered the queen:

I die a true servant to Queen Elizabeth; from any evil thought that ever I had to harm her, it never came into my mind; she knoweth it and her conscience can tell her so ... I die guiltless and free in mind from ever thinking hurt to Her Majesty.
Perhaps he really believed that the lie was in fact the truth. If so, then William Parry had yet another reason to feel that his service to Elizabeth and Burghley, for so long unrewarded, had once again abused. He died a traitor's death, hanged till he was almost dead, disembowelled, beheaded and dismembered, his head and limbs put on display throughout London to warn others of the cost of treason.

- Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, London, 2012, p191-2.

See also:
History: Jane Austen's history of the monarchy, 6 March 2014
History: A new duke for an old title, 30 April 2011
BlogA royal garden party, 9 July 2008
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