The Parry Plot


In the 1580s, fears were redoubled that Queen Elizabeth might be assassinated. The attacks increased in numbers and in gravity, prompted by a macabre fashion for political assassination on the continent and by the violent and uncertain climate of the age.

Wax replicas of the queen and two of her councilors were found in the house of a Catholic priest, who meant to use them to end her life by magical means. One of her chamber ladies was accused of trying "by witchcraft" to discover Elizabeth's life span; from there it was but a small step to shortening it.

In Oct 1583, a young Warwickshire man, John Somerville, fell into a "frantic humor" and started off, glassy-eyed, for the court where he meant to shoot the queen. Elizabeth was a "serpent and viper", and he wanted "to see her head set upon a pole", he told to anyone who would hear him. Catholic animus had shaped his thinking - a priest was sheltered in his household - but what pushed him to undertake his desperate mission is less clear. When captured and tried, he strangled himself in his cell.

The reaction to the Bond of Association had been all that the Council could have wished, but they conceived of it as being no more than an interim measure, which would be superseded when its principles were translated into statute. At the end of Nov 1584, Parliament assembled, and three weeks later a bill designed to avert violence against the Queen was given its first reading in the Commons. In some respects the Act of Association was a milder measure than the original Bond, for while the heir of the individual who inspired an attack on the Queen was still debarred from acceding to the crown, there was no obligation to pursue him to the death, as the Bond had required of its signatories. Yet even this diluted version was too strong for the Queen's liking. With the visit to England of the Master of Gray there were grounds for thinking it wise to make a distinction between Mary and her son, and certainly this was a far from opportune moment to try and menace James. At Elizabeth's request, the clauses under which a claimant's heir could be penalized were "clean dashed out".

Against Mary, however, the same stern temper prevailed. Even while the bill was being redrafted to take account of Elizabeth's objections, the need for deterrent legislation was underlined when another murder plot carne to light, causing all the more sensation because this time a member of the House of Commons was accused of being behind it, and in fact his connection with the intelligence network of Cecil and Walsingham makes his guilt somewhat problematical. Today it seems obscure whether the welsh Dr. William Parry really did intend to kill the Queen.

Son of Harry ap David of Flintshire, a man of good family, and his second wife, Margaret, daughter of the Archdeacon of Sr. Asaphs. His original name was William ap Harry. According to his testimony, his father died about 1566, aged 108, leaving fourteen children by his first marriage and sixteen by his second. No date is known for William's birth. He was educated at a grammar school in Chester, from which, after several attempts, he escaped and went to London. Here he married a widow, Mrs. Powell, who brought him some wealth. He entered the household of William Herbert, the fírst Earl of Pembroke, with whom he remained until the Earl died in 1570, when Parry entered the Queen's service. A second marriage with a widow, Catherine Heywood, brought him several manors in Lincolnshire and Kent, which involved him in some litigation in 1571. He was a profligate and extravagant young man and he very soon squandered all his resources and was being pursued by creditors. He therefore applied to Burghley to be employed as a spy abroad, doubtless in order to elude the creditors. He tried to ingratiate himself with the English Catholics abroad, to worm out of them their secrets which he could send on to Burghley. He returned home in 1577 and was constantly applying to Burghley for financial help. In 1579 he suddenly disappeared overseas without a licence to leave the country: he was home again in 1580. Pestered again by creditors, Parry violently assaulted one of them, Hugh Hare, for which he was convicted and sentenced to death, although he complained that the Recorder 'spake with the juey and the foreman did drink'.

Pardoned by the Queen, Parry in 1582 asked leave to travel abroad. He continued to pretend that he was searching out the secrets of exiled Catholics, but in fact he was beginning to take the Catholic side. He urged a more lenient policy towards them in England and he pleaded for a pardon for some of the best of the exiles. Then he fell in with Charles Paget and Thomas Morgan, agents in París of the Queen of Scots. After reading some of the writings of Cardinal Allen, Parry allegedly began to ponder on the lawfulness of murdering princes for the sake of religion, with special reference to Queen Elizabeth. But he still played a double game: on 10 May 1583 he wrote to Burghley, 'if I am not deceived, 1 have shaken the foundation of the English Seminary at Rheims and utterly overthrone the credit of the English pensioners at Rome'.

The Pope certainly believed that he was acting on Mary's behalf, as did her agent in Paris.

Cardenal Wiliiam Allen

In Jan 1584 Parry was again in England. He went straight to Court and had an interview with Elizabeth. To her he confessed that he had had dealings with the Pope, Paget and Morgan to attempt 'somewhat' against her life, but he protested that he had done this only in order to 'discover the dangerous practices devised and attempted against her Majesty by her disloyal subjects and other malicious persons in foreign parts'. In Mar he received a letter from Cardinal Como which gave some colour to this story. This letter Parry showed to the Queen, who pardoned his offences, rewarded him with a pension and provided him with a seat in Parliament (1584). He at once got into trouble for violently opposing an anti-Catholic bill and he Was imprisoned for a few hours until released at the command of the Queen.

Plagued by debt, he once again resorted to spying for the Government's. He sounded out an associate, his "cousin" Sir Edmund Neville, as to whether he would be willing to despatch the Queen, possibly intending to gain kudos by denouncing the fellow if he expressed any interest in the project. As it turned out, however, it was Parry himself who was entrapped after his suspicious activities were reported. Neville denounced him, telling how the two of them had decided to surprise the Queen as she rode in her coach. They would ride alongside her, one on each side, and shoot at her head; she would be an easy target, either out of doors or in the palace, where Parry as a trusted royal servant could assault her during the course of a private audience.

One version of the story tells that at the end of the year, Parry hid in the garden of Richmond, with the intention of assassinating Elizabeth as she took the air, but when she appeared, he 'was so daunted with the majesty of her presence, in which he saw the image of her father, King Henry VIII, that his heart would not suffer his hand to execute that which he had resolved'.

Another story was told later that Parry had actually gained his private audience, and had come to it with a knife hidden in his sleeve. He lost his courage, otherwise there would have been regicide and chaos.

The attempt provoked outrage, and the govemment were in no mood to give Parry the benefit of the doubt. 'It makes all my joints to tremble when I consider the loss of such a jewel', wrote one Member of Parliament. When Parry was examined by Sir Francis Walsingham, he passionately protested that he had never mentioned such a matter to anybody since his return from France. He spent the night at Walsingham's house: next morning he asked for an interview and told Sir Francis that he now remembered that he had mentioned to a kinsman of his a statement he had read in a book about the lawfulness of killing princes for the sake of religion.. Confronted with Neville, he denied again that he had talked of murdering the Queen. Examined a third time, Parry made a full confession, wrote it out and confirmed it ina a letter to Elizabeth. The Commons urged the Queen to let them devise some worse penalty than the terrible death already meted out to traitors, and there were more calls for Mary to be brought to justice. Elizabeth refused to take either course, although in Feb 1585 she agreed to send Parry to the gallows. Though at his trial he fiercely proclaimed his innocence, Parry was convicted and executed on 2 Mar 1585, hanged at Westminster. Parliament passed a new law ordering all seminary priests to leave England within forty days or suffer the penalty for high treason, and Sir Francis Walsingham was raid to recruit more secret agents.

In the overwrought atmosphere caused by Parry's arrest, the revised bill for the Queen's safety had an easy passage through Parliament. In its final form it established the legal machinery by which Mary Queen of Scots was subsequently tried, stating that if Elizabeth's life was sought "by or for" a claimant to the throne, not less than twenty-four commissioners were to examine the evidence against that person. If they reached an unfavourable judgement, the individual concerned was to be disabled from inheriting the throne, and if found to be assenting and privy to the plot then it would be incumbent upon all subjects "by all forcible and possible means [to] pursue to death every such wicked person".

Although Elizabeth thanked Parliament for its 'safe-keeping of my life, for which your care appears so manifest', Elizabeth remained apparently impervious to the danger of her isolated position and the threat of further assassination attempts. She showed herself in public as often as before, and when she went for country stroIls with her courtiers, she would only permit the gentlemen to be 'slenderly weaponed'. And she would not listen to Leicester's suggestion that anyone with papist leanings be forbidden access to the court. Her councillors therefore existed in a state of permanent anxiety for her safety, although they could not but be impressed by her courage. 'He who is on high has defended me until this hour, and wiIl keep me still, for in Him I do trust'., she told a delegation from the English colony in Newfoundland which had been founded in 1583.


Duchein, Michel: Elisabethe Iº d´Anglaterre

Erickson, Carolly: The First Elizabeth

Routh, C.R.N.: Who´s Who in Tudor England (Who´s Who in British History Series, Vol.4)

Smith, Lacey Baldwin: Treason in Tudor England: Politics and Paranoia

Somerset, Anne: Elizabeth I

Weir, Alison: The life of Elizabeth I

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