Yesterday I blogged about the scandal of Lady Margaret Stanley nee Clifford plotting against Elizabeth I by using astrology to predict the queen’s death. Dr Randall, the physician who drew up the star chart was hanged for his pains whilst Margaret spent nearly twenty years under house arrest.
Margaret’s son Ferdinando Stanley the 5th earl of Derby was much less lucky. Ferdinando became earl in 1593 after his father’s death. The following year the fifth earl died rather unexpectedly following a sudden and violent illness. At the time witchcraft was mentioned but poisoning was the more generally accepted reason – as this extract from Camden’s history reflects:
Ferdinand Stanley Earle of Darby… expired in the flowre of his youth, not without suspition of poyson, being tormented with cruell paynes by frequent vomitings of a darke colour like rusty yron. There was found in his chamber an Image of waxe, the belly pierced thorow with haires of the same colour that his were, put there, (as the wiser sort have judged, to remove the suspition of poyson). The matter vomited up stayned the silver Basons in such sort, that by no art they could possibly be brought againe to their former brightnesse… No small suspicion lighted upon the Gentleman of his horse, who; as soone as the Earle tooke his bed, tooke his best horse, and fled”.
Different sources suggest poisonous mushrooms whilst a writer in The Lancet speculates on an early English use of arsenic.
The story began when a man called Richard Hesketh had approached Ferdinando on behalf of the Jesuits on 27 September 1593. He had travelled from Prague via Hamburg to England for his meeting. Hesketh wasn’t a random Catholic he was an ex-retainer of the Stanley family. Daugherty goes so far as to identify him as a step-brother.
The earl was a direct descendent of Henry VII, there was no question about his legitimacy and more importantly he was of Catholic stock. It seems that Stanley had two meetings with the man as well as going off to London to talk things over with Lady Margaret Stanley before turning Hesketh over to the authorities for interrogation. This, despite the fact that Hesketh had warned him that if the plot was divulged then Ferdinado wouldn’t have long to live. The plot involved placing Ferdinando on the throne and the usual possibility of a Spanish invasion just to ensure that Catholicism gained the upper hand.
Hesketh was executed in November 1593 in St Albans having implicated Ferdinando’s brother William in the plot. To add to the chaos several of Ferdinado’s servants had sought shelter in the household of the Earl of Essex during Ferdinando’s life time and there was a suggestion that Essex also had a hand in Ferdinando’s demise. There was also some doubt expressed about Ferdinando in that he had first received intimations of treachery at the end of September but did not inform the Crown of the plot until October.
Unsurprisingly the fact that Ferdinando had betrayed Hesketh to the Crown did not go unremarked. A text published in Antwerp entitled A Conference on the Next Succession to the Crowne of England, by Robert Parsons, under the pseudonym Robert Doleman, backed away from supporting Ferdinando as the heir apparent. Parsons suggested that some english Catholics thought that William Stanley might make a better successor to Queen Elizabeth.
If being rejected by conspirators wasn’t bad enough Ferdinando now found himself being marginalised at court. He had hoped for more recognition given his loyalty. Instead an important role in Chester was given to someone else rather than to him. It led him to comment rather bitterly that he had lost out both at court and in the country. Ferdinando’s wife, Alice Spencer, wrote to Cecil asking for help. The scandal of the plot was making life difficult for a man who had demonstrated his loyalty.
It has been suggested that Robert Cecil and his father lay at the heart of the conspiracy in that their agents can be found lurking at the edges of the plot. If this was the case it was a sham-plot perhaps designed to entrap Ferdinando or perhaps to entrap bigger political fish. There are those who believe that the first letter that Hesketh gave to Ferdinando in September 1593 did not come from Prague at all but from a certain Mr Hickman. The murky world of Elizabethan spying provides associates of Christopher Marlowe (and remember that Ferdinando was a patron of Marlowe) who were prepared to suggest that Cecil had been involved in the poisoning. Henry Young explained that the governing elite had decided that it was time to get rid of possible contenders for the throne.
The idea of manufacturing plots was nothing new – the Babbington Plot had required a bit of light forgery before Mary Queen of Scots incriminated herself and the so-called Lopez Plot which saw Elizabeth’s doctor rather unpleasantly executed was manufactured by the Earl of Essex so that he could demonstrate his effectiveness in the murky world of espionage.
For those who like a bit of spice it should be noted that the new Earl of Derby – who was Ferdinando’s brother Willliam now acquired a wife Elizabeth de Vere – she was the grand daughter of William Cecil. If nothing else this suggests that Cecil knew that William hadn’t had a hand in poisoning his brother to gain the title. It should also be noted that the Cecil already had ties of kinship with the Stanleys and it may have been that, as well as loyalty to the throne, that prompted Ferdinando to reveal information about the plot as swiftly as he did. It could also be hypothesised that in 1595 whilst James VI of Scotland was in receipt of a pension it wasn’t necessarily true that he was the only candidate for the English throne – perhaps, rather on the other end of the spectrum to the previous paragraph, Cecil rather liked the idea of a grand daughter sitting on the throne he’d served so loyally for his entire life!
Breight. C. Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era
Daugherty, Leo. (2011) The Assassination of Shakespeare’s Patron: Investigating the Death of the Fifth Earl of Derby Cambria Press
Edwards, Francis. (2002) Plots and Plotters in the Reign of Elizabeth I. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
Nicholas, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe