The pen is mightier than the stick

As Prince Charles reflects on the recent attempt by protestors to force their way into his car, he may not realise that his namesake and ancestor had a similar encounter.

At about ten o’clock on the morning of 5 January 1642, Charles I set out from his palace at Whitehall to the Guildhall, the seat of the Lord Mayor and Corporation of London. The day before, he had made his famous, abortive attempt to arrest the Five Members: arriving at the Commons only to find, in his own words, that ‘all the birds are flown’. Believing that they were in hiding somewhere in the City, Charles’s intention was to demand that the Common Council of the Corporation assisted him in tracking down the rogue MPs.

As Charles’s carriage trundled along the Strand, up Fleet Street and towards the Guildhall, sat next to him were four members of the nobility: the Duke of Hamilton, the Earl of Essex, and the Earl of Holland. One account states that a rumour spread that Charles was taking them to the Tower. At any rate, the carriage soon attracted attention, and a crowd was waiting for Charles when he arrived at the Guildhall.

Once there, he addressed members of the Council and demanded their assistance in tracking down the Five Members. John Rushworth gives this account of his speech:

Gentlemen, I am come to demand such persons as I have already accused of High Treason and do believe are shrouded in the City. I hope no good man will keep them from me; their offences are Treason and Misdemeanour of a high nature. I desire your loving assistance herein that they may be brought to a legal trial. And whereas there are divers suspicions raised that I am a favourer of the Popish Religion, I do profess in the name of a king that I did and ever will and that to the utmost of my power, be a prosecutor of all such as shall any ways oppose the laws and statutes of this kingdom, either papists or separatists; and not only so, but I will maintain defend that true Protestant Religion which my Father did profess and I will continue in it during life.

Despite leavening his words in this way, Charles got a mixed reception. Robert Slingsby, who was in the train of carriages following the king to the Guildhall, wrote this account to Sir John Pennington:

After a little pause a cry was set up amongst the Common Council, ‘Parliament! Privileges of Parliament!’, and presently another, ‘God bless the King!’; these two continued both at once a good while. I know not which was louder.

Leaving the Guildhall, Charles then dined at the house of one of the Sheriffs of London, Sir George Garrett, before emerging at about three o’clock and climbing into his carriage. As he got in, the crowd surged around the carriage, taking up the Council’s cry of ‘Privilege of Parliament’.

Amongst the crowd was Henry Walker, an ironmonger turned bookseller and pamphleteer, who over the previous twelve months had published a steady stream of anti-episcopal pamphlets. Seeing his chance, Walker pushed his way through the crowds towards the coach. He got close enough to throw a copy of a self-authored pamphlet entitled To Your Tents, O Israel into the coach. One account also states that he shouted this slogan out loud.

No copies of To Your Tents survive: few may have been printed, and those that were may have been confiscated and destroyed afterwards. But even from the title we can deduce the pamphlet’s message, which would have been obvious to any contemporary. It was a reference to 1 Kings 12:16, which tells the story of how King Rehoboam introduced heavy taxes and arbitrary punishment to Israel. The ten northern tribes of Israel rebelled and formed their own nation:

So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them, the people answered the king, saying, What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David. So Israel departed unto their tents.

Although at his trial he tried to disown authorship of this pamphlet, saying he had bought it for 2s. 6d. from a scholar in Westminster Hall, it seems pretty clear that Walker did write it. This was not his first scandalous pamphlet. In March 1641, he was hauled before the House of Lords for publishing scurrilous verses about Lord Keeper Finch and Bishop Wren. He was imprisoned in the Fleet and only released after pleading poverty and apologising for his actions. In April, Walker and a number of booksellers and printers were summoned once again to the Lords for publishing a fake petition claiming to be from the people of Cheshire. One of them, Thomas Bates, seems to have fallen out with Walker while in custody. According to a later account by Walker, Bates borrowed his bible and pawned it to buy alcohol. Whether or not this is true, they were certainly not friends by December 1641. On the 20th of that month, Bates testified to the House of Commons that Walker was the author of another scandalous pamphlet, A terrible outcry against the loytering prelates. The Commons ordered that Walker be arrested and brought before them.

When Walker hurled his pamphlet into Charles’s carriage, then, he was a wanted man who had previous form. This may be what inspired him to be so reckless. Perhaps he was also motivated by frustrations with his inability to engage with the political process: mass petitions to Parliament from across England had not produced the political and religious settlement that the godly wanted, and the attempt on the Five Members seemed to confirm that Charles could yet revert to behaving like Rehoboam. The chance to directly petition a king who had largely withdrawn from his people during the Personal Rule may have seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

Walker’s accomplice was a printer called Thomas Payne. Eight years later, when the king was dead and the political climate had altered, Payne received a gratuity of £20 from Parliament for his role in the events. In the aftermath of Walker’s actions, however, both Payne and Walker were wanted men. As Walker’s pamphlet landed in the coach, it was picked up by the Earl of Essex, who on the next day sent for the Lord Chief Justice to track down anyone involved with it.

Both were arrested the same day. Walker stuck to his story about a mysterious encounter in Westminster Hall; but Payne seems to have known the game was up. He confessed that Walker wrote the pamphlet, and that he had used Payne’s wife’s bible as a reference. Both were sent to the King’s Bench prison in Southwark as a result. They were then scheduled to be transferred to Newgate prison and tried at the sessions. However, in an extraordinary mobilisation by sympathisers in the London crowd, they were rescued after crossing the river and landing at Blackfriars. A group descended on them, overpowered the guards and spirited them away.

From then on, Walker played a game of cat and mouse with the authorities. He was spotted at the house of a barber called Edward Fisher – who acted as a clearing-house for separatist manuscripts – but escaped. He was then discovered in a tavern called the Castle in St. Martins, but again escaped thanks to the intervention of some apprentices. Finally he was tracked down to an upholsterer’s house near the Tower of London. Running from his apprehenders, he tried to get into a boat and across the river. No watermen would take him; but the officers pursuing him did not want to risk clashing with the water bailiff’s jurisdiction. So Walker sat there until the officers fetched the Lieutenant of the Tower, after which he was chased across the river and eventually caught.

Walker then tried his best to make amends. In early May he petitioned the House of Lords, claiming that he had spent the most part of what little estate he had on funding the cost of imprisonment, and protesting that he had no ill intent to Charles I in presenting his pamphlet to him. He added that his wife, Mary, was ‘bigg wth child, and a young infant besides’.

The petition did not do him much good. On 5 July, it was ordered that he be transferred to Newgate and tried before the sessions at the Old Bailey. Luckily for Walker, though, Charles had intervened and ordered that he only be tried for a misdemeanour, and not for treason. If the latter charges had gone ahead, and Walker had been found guilty, he would have paid for his petition with his life. Instead, he got away with being sentenced to stand in the pillory in Cheapside. By March 1643 he was once again in trouble, summoned to the Lords to account for publishing a fake declaration of Parliament, and for writing a critical ‘remonstrance’ against the Commons.

I have cheated ever so slightly with the image: it does show a coach belonging to Charles I outside the Guildhall,  but is a depiction of Charles’s meeting with Marie de Medici in 1639. It is an etching by an unknown artist that was one of the illustrations in Jean Puget de la Serre’s Histoire de l’entrée de la Reyne Mère dans la Grande Brétaigne (1639). AN260314001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

8 Responses to “The pen is mightier than the stick”

  1. Great story and interesting to think how close the public could get to their monarchs in the 17th Century. Access to Charles II was notoriously open at the start of his reign. Walker comes across as a kind of celebrity agitator that Charles, presumably, thought was more dangerous martyred than alive, hence dropping the charge of treason?

  2. Now whenever you comment I’m going to think you’re doing it out of sympathy! :D

    Yes, I think Charles probably did decide that executing Walker was probably not worth it – although Charles had left London by the time he came to trial, he presumably envisaged going back at some stage, and perhaps didn’t want hordes of angry citizens confronting. He had seen the opposite with the triumphal entry of Burton, Bastwick and Prynne into the city.

    Given how vulnerable Charles was it’s interesting this didn’t happen more often. You could go right up to the gate of Whitehall in King Street and the Banqueting House, with its neoclassical facade and big windows, was the wrong side of the gate…

    • Not at all! I’m singlehandedly bringing back blog commenting ;)

      ‘Regicide by mob’ doesn’t seem to have been very prevalent in this period. there seems to have been a flurry of assassination attempts on monarchs early in the 17th century, the Guy Fawkes attempt on Elizabeth and France’s Henry IV, are the only one’s that I can think of. I’m not counting the execution of Charles as an assassination attempt. Although death of first ministers by mob happens a fair bit (Buckingham, De Witt brothers). That said, I might be wrong.

  3. To Mercurius Politicus: thank you, thank you, thank you! I just sat a university paper on early modern British history this afternoon and this pamphlet came in very handy in one of my answers! Thank you so much for this excellent blog :)

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