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Monteagle, William Parker, Baron / The Identification of the Writer of the Anonymous Letter to Lord Monteagle in 1605
file was produced from images generously made available
by The Internet Archive/Canadian Libraries)


"A strange letter, from a strange hand,
by a strange messenger; without date to
it, name at it, and (I had almost said)
sense in it. A letter which, even when it
was opened, was still sealed, such the
affected obscurity therein."

FULLER'S _Church History_, x. 32.


[Transcriber's note:
[***] denotes an asterism, that is, a triangle comprising three asterices.
A carat symbol ^ indicates that the ensuing letters of the word are
superscript letters.]


One of the great mysteries of English history is the anonymous letter to
Lord Monteagle, warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament,
appointed for the Fifth of November, 1605, which is popularly supposed
to have led to the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot. The writer's
identity was carefully concealed by the Government at the time; the
intention being, as explained by Lord Salisbury, "to leave the further
judgment indefinite" regarding it. The official statements are,
therefore, as unsatisfactory as might be expected in a matter that, for
State reasons, has not been straightforwardly related. The letter,
however, remaining and in fair preservation, there was always the
possibility of the handwriting being identified; and this, after the
lapse of over three hundred years, is now accomplished.












1. The anonymous letter as delivered to Lord Monteagle, October 26,
1605, warning him not to attend the opening of Parliament
appointed for the Fifth of November (From the original letter in
the Museum of the Public Record Office) _Frontispiece_

2. A page of the MS. entitled "A Treatise against Lying," etc.,
formerly belonging to Francis Tresham, of which the handwriting
was attributed by his brother, William Tresham, to William
Vavasour. Now in the Bodleian Library. (Laud MSS. 655,
folio 44) [1]

3. William Vavasour's handwriting in the letter to the Earl of
Salisbury, dictated and signed by Francis Tresham when dying in
the Tower, December 22, 1605 ("State Papers, Domestic," James I.,
ccxvi. 211) [1]

Stated by Vavasour to have been written by Mrs. Tresham.
On March 24, 1605-6, he confessed that he wrote it and signed
a note to it to that effect.

4. William Vavasour's handwriting in his _untrue_ statement, written in
the presence of the Lieutenant of the Tower, that No. 3 was
written by Mrs. Tresham. Dated March 23, 1605-6 ("State
Papers, Domestic," James I., ccxvi. 207) [1]

[***]To avoid detection of his falsehood, he writes a hand
quite different from his ordinary writing in Nos. 2 and 3, thus
producing a hand which is in itself identical with his former
disguised writing as seen in the anonymous letter (No. 1).

5. George Vavasour's handwriting on the last leaf, which he renewed
for Francis Tresham, of the MS. entitled "A Treatise against
Lying," etc. (Laud MSS. 655, folio 61) _To face page 26_

The Identification of the Writer of the Anonymous Letter to Lord



Francis Tresham, of Rushton, in Northamptonshire, has recently
(September 11, 1605) succeeded his father, Sir Thomas Tresham (a great
sufferer for the Roman Catholic religion), in an inheritance of at least
five thousand a year, in present money; after having, as he says, spent
most of his time overburdened with debts and wants, and resolves within
himself to spend his days quietly. His first cousin, Robert Catesby,
being hard-up with funds exhausted in financing the scheme known as the
Gunpowder Plot, seeing in Tresham the chance of obtaining a further
supply (though previously distrusting him), induces him, in the
interests of their religion, to join the conspiracy, of which he thus
becomes the thirteenth, and last, sworn conspirator (October 14, 1605).
Catesby is careful to impose the oath of secrecy before fully disclosing
the plot; of which Tresham, on hearing, entirely disapproves, and
endeavours to dissuade his cousin from, or even to defer it; meanwhile
offering him the use of his own purse if he will do so. Finding he
cannot prevail with him, he is very urgent that the Lords Monteagle and
Stourton, particularly the former, may be warned, each having married
Tresham's sisters; but Catesby can give no definite assurance. Tresham
then intends, as he says, to get the conspirators shipped away, and to
inform the Government by some unknown, or anonymous, means.

Tresham has a serving-man named William Vavasour, who attended Sir
Thomas Tresham, and who, with his elder brother, George Vavasour (whose
education Tresham has particularly encouraged), and their sister Muriel
(gentlewoman to Lady Monteagle who is the daughter of "Muriel" Lady
Tresham) are favoured dependants of the Tresham family, being the
children of an old and much valued Catholic servant. Both George and
William are confidentially employed by Tresham as amanuenses, in
transcribing religious, or treasonable, treatises of the time.

Lord Monteagle unexpectedly orders a supper to be prepared (October 26,
1605) at his house at Hoxton (belonging to his brother-in-law Tresham),
and where he has not been for some months. As he is about to go to
supper, a letter is handed to him by his footman, to whom it has been
given in the street by "an unknown man of a reasonable tall personage,"
who knows that he will find him at so unfrequented a residence.
Monteagle opens the letter, which is anonymous, pretends he cannot
understand it, and shows it to his secretary, Thomas Ward, who, he is
aware, is familiar with some of the conspirators; whom Ward, the next
evening, tells of the receipt of the letter, which Monteagle at once
takes to Whitehall, about three miles away, where he finds the Earl of
Salisbury (Principal Secretary of State) with other lords of the Council
together assembled, "ready for supper." The Government censor, or
suppress, the name of the place where the letter was delivered. The
conspirators and the Jesuit priests, who are involved in the plot
through the confessional, at once suspect Tresham; and Catesby and
Winter directly charge him with having betrayed them, which he denies,
while urging them to escape to France, and giving them money for the
purpose. Although Tresham is a sworn conspirator, he alone remains
behind and at large, after Fawkes's arrest (November 4-5, 1605), and
flight of the others into the country, and offers his services to the
Government. A week later he is taken to the Tower, where being ill, his
wife and serving-man, William Vavasour, and a maid servant constantly
attend him; an indulgence _never under any circumstances_ permitted to
anyone who was really a prisoner and upon a capital charge there.
Becoming worse, he dictates a letter for Vavasour to write to Lord
Salisbury, retracting a statement that he has been induced to make
respecting Father Garnet, and dies (December 23, 1605). This letter, or
dying statement, being misunderstood, is considered to be so incredible
that the writing is particularly inquired into. Vavasour thereupon, in
the presence of the Lieutenant of the Tower, writes an _untrue_
statement (consequently using a hand quite different from his ordinary
writing and, _in itself, identical with the writing of the anonymous
letter_), asserting that his master's dying statement was written by
Mrs. Tresham (though in every way proper for Vavasour to have written),
which she at once repudiates and says that Vavasour wrote it. He is then
examined in the Tower by Chief Justice Popham and Attorney-General Coke,
when he confesses that he wrote the dying statement at his master's
dictation; and had denied it "for fear." Fear of what? In case the
writing should bring into question some other and less innocent letter
written by him for his master.

Upon Tresham's death in the Tower, the Lieutenant writes to Salisbury
(December 23, 1605) of the "marvellous" confidence shown by Tresham and
his friends that had he survived, they feared not the course of justice.
Later, having left no male issue, his inheritance passes to his brother,
who is described as of Rushton, when created a baronet on the
institution of that Order by James the First, the very king whom the
plotters intended to destroy; and although a baronetcy at that time was
merely a monetary distinction or transaction, _some_ discrimination was
no doubt made in the bestowal or disposal of that dignity, which
probably would not have been conferred upon Catesby's son, who was then
living, even if he had been able to afford it after the forfeiture of
his family inheritance.

The Attorney-General, at Father Garnet's trial (March 28, 1606),
pronounces Vavasour as being, in his opinion, "deeply guilty" in the
treason; yet he is not even brought to trial, while other serving-men
are tried and executed; although Lord Salisbury expressly declares that
he will esteem his life unworthily given him, when he shall be found
slack in bringing to prosecution and execution ALL who are in any way
concerned in the treason; and his exertions in the matter are accounted
to be so successful, that he is rewarded with the Order of the Garter.

Francis Tresham's inheritance remains in the family; and his
serving-man, the "deeply guilty" William Vavasour, goes free.


[Footnote 1: _These facsimiles are issued separately in order to
facilitate comparison._]



The authentic, or rather the official, story of the delivery of the
letter, as published by the Government at the time, states that on
Saturday, October 26, 1605, Lord Monteagle "being in his own lodging,
ready to go to supper, at seven o'clock[2] at night, one of his footmen
(whom he had sent on an errand over the street) was met by an unknown
man, of a reasonable tall personage, who delivered him a letter,
charging him to put it in my lord his master's hands; which my lord no
sooner received, but that having broken it open, and perceiving the same
to be of an unknown and somewhat unlegible hand, and without either date
or subscription, called one of his men[3] to help him to read it. But no
sooner did he conceive the strange contents thereof, although he was
somewhat perplexed what construction to make of it (as whether of a
matter of consequence, as indeed it was, or whether some foolish devised
pasquil, by some of his enemies to scare him from his attendance at the
Parliament), yet did he, as a most dutiful and loyal subject, conclude
not to conceal it, whatever might come of it, whereupon notwithstanding
the lateness and darkness of the night in that season of the year, he
presently repaired to his Majesty's palace at Whitehall, and there
delivered the same to the Earl of Salisbury, his Majesty's principal

Neither the official version nor any State paper mentions the place
where the letter was delivered, which in such a mysterious matter would
be the first inquiry. "Own lodging" at that time signified a person's
house. Hoxton is generally stated to have been the place of delivery,[4]
which was then a single street in the outlying suburb on the great north
road; at a house which Monteagle is known[5] to have occupied, belonging
to his brother-in-law, Francis Tresham; and this ownership may have been
Salisbury's reason for not naming it, which so curious an omission seems
to imply. The letter is as follows:

"My Lord out of the loue i beare[6]; to some of youere frends i haue
a caer of youer preseruacion therfor i would aduyse yowe as yowe
tender youer lyf to deuyse some excuse to shift of youer attendance
at this parleament for god and man hathe concurred to punishe the
wickednes of this tyme and thinke not slightlye of this
aduertisement but retyre youre self into youre contri wheare yowe
maye expect the euent in safti for thowghe theare be no apparance of
anni stir yet i saye they shall receyue a terrible blowe this
parleament and yet they shall not sei who hurts them this cowncel is
not to be contemned because it maye do yowe good and can do yowe no
harme for the dangere[7] is passed as soon as yowe have burnt the
letter and i hope god will give yowe the grace to make good use of
it to whose holy proteccion I commend yowe."

(Addressed) "To the ryght honorable
the lord Monteagle."

It was the opinion of the other conspirators, as well as of the Jesuit
priests who became involved in the plot through the confessional, that
the warning letter originated with Francis Tresham, whose sister was
Lady Monteagle, and another sister had married Lord Stourton; and
Tresham had been most earnest with Catesby that those two lords,
particularly Monteagle, should be warned. In each instance, Catesby was
careful to impose the oath and engage the faith of the conspirator,
before disclosing the plot; and Tresham, the thirteenth and last, sworn
conspirator, on hearing the particulars, entirely disapproved of the
conspiracy, from which he tried to dissuade Catesby, offering him the
use of his own purse if he would even defer it.[8] Tresham could indeed
have desired nothing less than to become involved in such a matter. His
father had recently died, and he had succeeded to a considerable
property,[9] which alone induced his first cousin Catesby to bring him
into the plot. As Tresham wrote when in the Tower:[10] "I thank God I am
owner of such a fortune as is able to afford me what I desire, the
comfort whereof is so much the sweeter unto me, as I have spent most of
my time overburthened with debts and wants, and had resolved within
myself to spend my days quietly."[11] He acknowledged that his
intentions with regard to the other conspirators were "to ship them away
that they might have no means left them to contrive any more ... then to
have taken a course to have given the State advertisement by some
unknown means."[11] He was consequently the only conspirator who
remained behind and at large after Fawkes was taken and the others had
fled. There can be no reasonable doubt that Tresham, though not the
writer, was the sender of the letter; and upon this hypothesis all
investigators must go, as there is none other at all likely.


[Footnote 2: Salisbury, in his letter to Sir Charles Cornwallis,
Ambassador at Madrid (November 9), gives the hour as six o'clock.]

[Footnote 3: This was his secretary, Thomas Ward, who was known to
Monteagle as a friend of some of the conspirators (as Monteagle himself
was), and one of whom, Ward, the next morning told of the receipt of the
letter. "As a plan concocted by Monteagle and Tresham to stop the plot,
and at the same time to secure the escape of their guilty friends, the
little comedy at Hoxton was admirably concocted" ("What Gunpowder Plot
was," by S.R. Gardiner, D.C.L., 1897, p. 124).]

[Footnote 4: Father John Gerard (1564-1637) gives particulars of the
delivery of the letter at Hoxton in his contemporary "Narrative of the
Gunpowder Plot," published in 1872.]

[Footnote 5: "Calendar of Tresham Papers," p. 132.]

[Footnote 6: The word "yowe" (you), here cancelled in the original,
indicates the writer's first thoughts, and, no doubt, his real meaning.]

[Footnote 7: Various attempts have been made to explain the nature of
the danger alluded to, which the King and Salisbury at the time, and
others since, have understood as in allusion to the danger of the plot.
Jardine describes it as "mere nonsense" ("Gunpowder Plot," 1835, p. 73).
But the meaning clearly is the danger of the letter being discovered.
The counsel may do him good, and can do him no harm, except through the
danger of keeping the letter, which being burnt, the danger is past.
There is no allusion intended to the danger of the plot, as that, unlike
the danger of the discovery of the letter, could not be affected by
burning the letter.]

[Footnote 8: Tresham's statement made when in the Tower ("State Papers,
Domestic," James I., xvi. 63).]

[Footnote 9: The rental of the Rushton Hall estate alone, as given in
the "Return of Owners of Lands" in 1873, is 5,044 yearly. The Tresham
family also owned property at Hoxton and elsewhere.]

[Footnote 10: He died in the Tower six weeks after writing that letter,
aged thirty-seven.]

[Footnote 11: "State Papers, Domestic," James I., xvi., 63.]



The style of handwriting of the letter, as seen in the facsimile, is not
in this writer's opinion, from a familiarity of thirty years with old
scripts, apart from the disguise, the hand that an educated person would
write at the time, but is essentially a commonplace and, no doubt
intentionally, rather slovenly style of handwriting. The use of small
"i's" for the first person seems, in view of modern usage, to suggest an
illiterate writer; but educated writers, even the King,[12] then
occasionally lapsed into using them. In the letter, however, they are
consistently and may have been purposely used, to avert suspicion from
being the work of an educated person; though an illiterate appearance
would rather cause such a letter (if genuine) to be disregarded, than to
deter a nobleman from attending the opening of Parliament, for which
leave or licence was required.

The handwriting has been variously ascribed, but the direction of this
inquiry is indicated by the incautious admission made by Sir Edward
Coke, the Attorney-General at the trial, respecting the real manner in
which the plot was discovered. Salisbury's careful instructions to the
Attorney-General for the trial are with the State papers, in which he
says: "Next, you must in any case, when you speak of the letter which
was the first ground of discovery, absolutely disclaim that any of
these" (the conspirators) "wrote it, though you leave the further
judgment indefinite who else it should be."[13]

Salisbury thus, in effect, requires Coke by absolutely disclaiming that
any of the conspirators wrote (he does not say "sent") the letter to
Monteagle, and by which alone the treason was discovered, to declare in
Court, as upon the authority of the Government, that therefore none of
the conspirators divulged the plot; which, in any case, could be true
only so far as the disclosure to the Government was concerned. Coke,
however, for some reason--perhaps because he was not fully in
Salisbury's confidence respecting the letter--describes the real manner
of the discovery, according to his own knowledge. Towards the close of
his speech for the prosecution, he said: "The last consideration is
concerning the admirable discovery of this treason, which was by one of
themselves who had taken the oath and sacrament, as hath been said
against his own will;[14] the means by a dark and doubtful letter to my
Lord Monteagle." This, together with Salisbury's statement that none of
the conspirators wrote the letter, shows that the divulging of the plot
preceded the sending of the letter,[15] which was not, therefore, as is
popularly supposed, the means by which the plot was discovered, except
to the general public.

Hitherto those who have attempted this identification have invariably
sought amongst such as are likely to have written the letter for a
handwriting _resembling the disguised writing_, which seems a strange
method of investigation, as surely the object of a disguised hand[16]
would be to make the general appearance as unlike the writer's ordinary
hand as possible?

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