An early modern letter-bomb

by Nick

treason.jpg

I’ve been reading David Cressy’s England on Edge recently. At one point Cressy mentions an attempt on John Pym’s life in October 1641, carried out by the unusual means of a letter containing an old bandage from a plague victim. I hadn’t ever heard of this before so looked up the pamphlet that mentions it.

A Damnable treason by a contagious plaster of a plague-sore wrapt up in a letter and sent to Mr. Pym [EEBO] gives a detailed account of the incident. The “Dunghill, filthy” culprit paid an unsuspecting porter twelve pence to deliver the letter to Pym in the Commons. If Pym was absent, the letter was to be left with the door-keeper to pass on once he returned.

Pym then opened the letter, theatrically, in front of the assembled Commons. Inside was a “filthy clout, with the contagious plaster of a Plague sore upon it”. There was also a letter:

Mr Pym, Doe not thinke that a Guard of men can protect you, if you persist in your Traytorous courses, and wicked Designes. I have sent a Paper-Messenger to you, and if this does not touch your heart, a dagger shall, so soon as I am recovered of my Plague-Sore: In the mean time you may be forborne, because no better man may bee indangered for you. Repent Traytor.

The porter and a boy who’d also seen the culprit directed the Commons to an inn. Lighting a candle, they saw the man with a wart on his nose and a red bribond on his arm. He was then sent to the Gatehouse prison.

Simonds D’Ewes also recorded the event in his journal: here’s his take on it.

The serjeant, receiving a letter at the door of a porter, directed to Mr Pym, brought it into him, who, openingit, there fell down before him, out of the letter, an abominable rag, full of filthy abominble matter. Mr Pym, finding the letter, upon the perusal of the beginning of it, to be a scandalous libel, informed the House of it, where upon it was carried up to Mr Rushworth, the clerk-assistant, to read. The porter was then called into the bar who brought the letter: who answered, plainly and clearly, that he received it that morning from a man on horseback, whom he knew not, on Fish-street-hill, who gave him twelve-pence to deliver it with great care and speed.

A letter from Edward Nicholas to the king confirms the details, including the payment of twelve pence, but adds that the horse-riding assassin was wearing a grey coat.

Cressy wonders whether this incident was staged to stoke up anti-Catholic propaganda, and I have to say I agree with the doubts he has. It’s true that there were to be other attempts on Pym’s life not soon after (someone in Westminster Hall who was mistaken for him was stabbed) – but the incident came just after the reopening of Parliament on 20 October in the midst of crucial tussles with the king’s party. It all sounds a bit too good to be true: the warty assassin, the convenience of opening it in front of the Commons, the hastily produced pamphlet singing Pym’s praises with a huge great woodcut of him…

Incidentally the woodcut of Pym seems to have been in fairly common use by pamphleteers at this time – a cursory trawl of EEBO reveals quite a few pamphlets that use, including an autobiography published after his death. When I have a bit more time I will do some digging about who the undertaker (W.B.) was, whether he had any prior connections to Pym, and where the woodcut originated from.