Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1533-1603); Parry, William (d. 1585)

A True and plaine declaration of the horrible Treasons, practised by William Parry the Traitor, against the Queenes Maiestie. The maner of his Arraignment, Conuiction and execution, together with the copies of sundry letters of his and others, tending to diuers purposes, for the proofes of his Treasons. Also an addition not impertinent thereunto, containing a short collection of his birth, education and course of life. Moreouer, a fewe obseruations gathered of his owne wordes and wrytings, for the farther manifestation of his most disloyal, deuilish and desperate purpose.

London: By C. Barker, 1585


Quarto: 18.4 x 13.5 cm. [2], 53, [1], 7, [1] p. Collation: A-H4

FIRST EDITION, one of three issues.

Bound in 19th c. boards, with light wear. A very fine, complete copy with the four page supplement "A prayer for all kings, princes, countreyes and people, which doe professe the Gospel" (sig. H). Aside from some light soiling and a small adhesion scar and a tiny repair to the margin of the first leaf, a crisp, bright copy with wide outer margins. Provenance: the 18th c. book collector John Towneley (1731-1813), bookplate with arms, “Exlibris Bibliothecae Domesticae Joannis Towneley, De Towneley. In Agro Lancastrensi Armigeri” (Ellis, British and American Bookplates, 5957)

This is an extremely scarce work. The last complete copy to appear at auction was in the Parke Bernet sale (1978), sold to Stirling Maxwell.

A fascinating, contemporary report of William Parry’s plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, with an account of his discovery, imprisonment, confession, and execution (in March 1585), together with the following documents: the confession of Parry’s fellow-conspirator, Edmund Neville, outlining in detail Parry’s plans to kill Elizabeth with his dagger in her private gardens or, failing that, to shoot her at St. James; and Parry’s own confession, written with his own hand before Walsingham in the Tower. This is followed by two more letters of confession by Parry, the first addressed to the queen; the next addressed to Burghley and Leicester.

The volume also includes documents that further incriminate Parry and provide details of the early stages of his plotting. The first of these is a letter, written by the Jesuit William Crichton -who was at the time imprisoned in the Tower for his role in a Jesuit plot to assassinate the queen- recalling a conversation with Parry concerning the lawfulness of assassinating the queen. Next we have Ptolomeo Galli, Cardinal of Como’s letter to Parry, in which he approves a letter that Parry had written to the pope, allegedly offering to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, and that the pope granted him a plenary indulgence for his efforts.

Following the account of Parry’s trial and execution by hanging on March 2, 1585, the printer has added “A few observations gathered out of the very wordes and writings of William Parry, the traytour, applied to prove his trayterous coniuration, with a resolute intent, imagination, purpose, and obstinate determination to have killed her Maiestie.” This account of Parry’s machinations implicates the Jesuits, English recusants and seminarians, and the pope himself. The revelation that Parry conceived of his plan by reading the works of William Allen prompts this editorial note:

“See how the smoothe wordes of that Catholique booke are enterpreted and conceived. One Spirite occupieth the Catholique reader with the Catholique writer, and therefore can best expound the writers sence in his readers mouth, even to bee a booke fraught with emphaticall speeches of energeticall perswasion to kill and depose her Maiestie, and yet doeth the hypocrite writer, that traitour Catholique, dissemble and protest otherwise.”

William Parry: Spy and Conspirator

“Parry was supposedly educated at Chester with John Fisher, who ‘had some small skill and understanding in law’, and at the grammar school (Holinshed, 1392). Like his social standing, his education was later denigrated to make a mockery of his continental doctorate. Supposedly, he went to London about 1560, perhaps for some further legal training. Parry married the widow Powell (d. in or before 1571), daughter of Sir William Thomas of Carmarthenshire, and served William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke, until 1570, when he managed to attach himself to the royal household. By March 1571 he had married Katherine, widow of Richard Heywood, a king's bench official, and acquired lands in Lincolnshire and Kent worth £80 per annum to add to his Flintshire inheritance of £20 per annum. In his own account in 1582, Parry, who had serious debts, doubled this landed income to £200 per annum. John Somers wrote after Parry's arrest that he had ‘known him ever since he married old Mistress Haywood, my neighbour in Fleet Street, of whom he made as much as he could, besides abusing her daughter’ (CSP Scot., 1584–5, 585).

“In early 1577 Parry travelled to Rome and Siena, sending unsolicited letters to William Cecil, Baron Burghley, whose patronage he continued to seek on his return. By early 1580 Parry had fled his creditors and reached Paris. He tried to rehabilitate himself with Burghley by sending intelligence, but incongruously took it upon himself to recommend pardons for individuals as notorious as the rebel Charles Neville, sixth earl of Westmorland. Burghley was willing to consider Parry fit company for his nephew Anthony Bacon. Parry was agreeable to this and willing to borrow money from Bacon; according to a later account, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, used this acquaintance as a reproach against Burghley, which led to the latter ‘engaging that his nephew should not be shaken either in religion or loyalty by his conversation with Parry’ (Birch, 1.13). The ambassador, Sir Henry Cobham, wrote doubtfully to Burghley that he would consider Parry suspect except that ‘he pretendeth to depend on your lordship's good favour’ (Salisbury MSS, 2.331).

“Parry returned to financial troubles in England. After an altercation in the Inner Temple with his creditor Hugh Hare on 2 November 1580 involving a scuffle and a broken door, he was sentenced to death for burglary and attempted murder, complaining ‘that the Recorder spake wyth the jury, and that the forman did drinke’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 43, fol. 124r). He received a royal pardon, only to land in debtors' prison (the Poultry), with bonds of £2000 to keep the peace added to Hare's debt of £1000. Parry's sureties included Sir John Conway, Sir William Drury, and Edward Stafford. In July 1582 he left the country, this time licensed.

Spy or traitor, 1582–1585

“If Parry had been recruited as a spy it could explain his ambiguous behaviour. That, or debts. He was received into the Roman Catholic church at Paris and became involved in the politics of Catholic exiles in France. He claimed, hyperbolically, to Burghley in May 1583 to have ‘shaken the foundacon of the English semynary in Rheyms and utterly overthrowen the credite of the English pensioners in Rome’. Allegedly, ‘if I were well warranted and allowed I would either prevent and discover all Romayne and Spaynish practises against our state, or lose my life in testymony of my loyalty to the queens maiestie’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 39, fol. 128r). It is difficult to determine whether or not he was an English spy or a traitor. From whatever motive, he declined ‘to be troubled or tyed to th'advertisement of ordynary occurrents’ to the privy council (BL, Lansdowne MS 40, fol. 55r). For Catholic consumption meanwhile, finding it useless to deny that he had ‘a project assigned to me’ by the English government, Parry rejected it as ‘little to my honour’ and resolved ‘to employ all my strength and industry in the service of the Catholic Church’ (Hicks, 348).

“Parry ‘conceived a possible meane to relieve the afflicted state of our Catholikes’ and in the second part of 1583 went to Italy to tell people about it (Holinshed, 1385). He wrote to the Spanish ambassador at Rome, Enrique de Guzman, count of Olivares, to Giovanni d'Aragon, duke of Terranova, governor of Milan, and to Ptolomeo Galli, cardinal of Como and Gregory XIII's secretary of state, from whom (after a brush with the Milanese Inquisition) he sought a safe conduct to go to Rome. By the time he got it, he was returning to Lyons, meeting there the Jesuit William Crichton. Parry seemed keener to get into correspondence with Galli than to use the safe conduct and then asked the cardinal for a plenary indulgence in view of his ‘dangerous enterprise … for the restoration of England to its ancient obedience to the apostolic see and the liberation of the queen of Scotland [Mary, queen of Scots], the only true and undoubted Catholic heiress of the crown of England’ (Hicks, 352).

“It is unknown whether these early discussions related to Elizabeth I's assassination, though Parry's conversations with Crichton certainly centred on tyrannicide. Crichton said in 1611 that he had agreed that the pope might authorize assassination, but Parry might not kill Elizabeth speculatively in the hope of subsequent approval. When Parry and Crichton were both in English hands in 1585, they concurred that the latter had opposed tyrannicide. Crichton—like Girolamo Ragazzoni, the nuncio in France—wrote to Galli, warning him against Parry; but Crichton conceded he had ‘very good qualities’ (Hicks, 358). Parry's published confession was that on returning from Lyons to Paris he still proposed ‘killing the greatest subject in England, whom I then … hated’—he probably meant Leicester, whose enmity had appeared in the matter of Bacon—and that Thomas Morgan suggested Elizabeth as a better target.

“At the beginning of 1584 Parry, having acquired a doctorate of law in Paris, returned to England, followed by the indulgence sent by Galli and an encouraging, but soon notorious, letter. Although it is not recorded how Parry explained his intentions, Galli accepted the prospect of Elizabeth's assassination and there is no reason to suppose he would have objected to any such proposal of Parry's. Parry showed the letter to the queen, doubtless to indicate his aptitude as a spy and future prospects for infiltration.

Parry then suggested ‘yt were a small matter for the quene to avow my service’ with the mastership of St Catharine's Hospital and no other candidate would ‘adventure more then I have done in her service’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 43, fol. 13r). According to Sir Christopher Hatton ‘the qweene offered Parrey a pension of a hundred powndes by yere which Parrey refused’ (Hartley, 2.88). Such a refusal would have been so uncharacteristic that the True and Plaine Declaration (1585) thought it best to assume he had taken the pension, while Phillip Stubbes believed that Parry was ‘no doubt bountefully rewarded’ for success on behalf of ‘her grace over seas in very waightie affaires’ (Stubbes, sig. A2v). Stubbes carelessly forgot to claim that Parry's dealings, if officially prompted, had been pursued in earnest and tacitly accepted he had only started to conspire afterwards.

“Parry was still in debt and probably expected greater reward from the queen. In summer 1584 he resumed discussions as to the desirability of assassinating Elizabeth, this time with Edmund Neville (b. before 1555, d. in or after 1620), a putative accomplice. He had supposedly missed opportunities to do the deed himself but now planned his subsequent escape. Arguably Parry had taken upon himself the role of agent provocateur to revive his languishing career as intelligencer; if so, it was literally suicidal to let treasonable discussions drag on without proceeding to denunciation. The attempt to incriminate Neville, whom Parry called cousin, might seem a bid to please Burghley—Neville had an inheritance claim against Burghley's son, Thomas Cecil—unless of course Parry was sincere and chose an opponent of the Cecilian status quo.

“Parry later explained his next, parliamentary, folly as an experiment as to whether, if he protested in the House of Commons, Elizabeth might ‘be wrought to deale more gratiously with Catholikes’. Parry was elected in November 1584 as MP for Queenborough, on the strength of the Heywood Kentish lands, with the support of Sir Edward Hoby and probably with the concurrence of William Brooke, tenth Baron Cobham. On 17 December, ‘to the offence of the whole companie’, Parry denounced ‘the bill of Jesuits … ex abrupto, sainge that it caried no thinge with it but bloud, daunger, terror, dispaire, confiscation and that not to the queene's commodytie, but to other men's’. The wrath of the Commons was increased by Parry's pretension to explain himself to Elizabeth alone. A lone claim was noted that they should ‘suffer men freelie to utter their conseites of both sides’, but Parry spent the night in the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. He saw the privy council, not the queen: she declared herself satisfied with Parry's secondhand explanations but he had to apologize kneeling at the bar of the house, and to profess parliamentary inexperience (Hartley, 2.158–60).

Arrest, trial, and execution, 1585

“Neville finally denounced Parry on 8 February 1585. Sir Francis Walsingham, the principal secretary, allegedly suggested Parry reveal anything he knew of plots against Elizabeth and even, specifically, whether he ‘himself had let fall anie speech unto anie person (though with an intent onely to discover his disposition) that might draw him into suspicion, as though he himself had anie such wicked intent’. Parry's vacillations became fatal. He confessed too late and then repudiated the confession as induced by threats of torture. The Commons punningly voted on 18 February that he should be ‘dismembred’, that is expelled, and then pressed for ‘more severe punishment’ than hanging, drawing, and quartering (Hartley, 2.116, 184). On the 25th Parry was finally tried in Westminster Hall. He had suggested to Burghley and Leicester that his ‘rare and strange’ ‘enterprise upon such ground & by such a warrant’ might be a dangerous example, better hushed up (BL, Harley MS 787, fol. 107r). He also wrote to Elizabeth that he hoped ‘most graciously (beyond all common expectacion) to be pardoned’, concluding: ‘Remember yor infortunate Parry, chiefly overthrowen by yor hard hand. Amend yt in the rest of yor servantes, for yt is past with me yf yor grace be not greater than I looke for’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 43, fols. 117v–118r). He was indeed executed on 2 March in Westminster Palace Yard. Parry made a few gestures towards the expected admission of guilt, but denied much of his confession. He proclaimed Elizabeth's graciousness, but required her to answer for his blood. Officially—his Catholicism having apparently been sufficiently underlined—he died without any religious sign, ‘like an atheist and a godlesse man’ (Holinshed, 1392). It was an unpublished account that had him asserting ‘no salvacon but onelie in the free meryte of Christ’; later, still alive ‘when his bowelles were taken out, he gave a great groane’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 43, fol. 127v).

“Parry's self-contradictions have made him a historical conundrum. Catholic writers especially, noting his indubitable involvement in government espionage and the suspect nature of his continental discussions in 1583, have declared all his plots bogus. Robert Persons believed that finally Parry plotted in earnest with one of his friends to kill the queen. Crichton—doomed if Parry had implicated him—thought Parry, abandoning spying, sought ‘to atone for the wrongs he had done to Catholics’ by removing Elizabeth and letting in Mary (Pollen, Mary, 165). In fact, however, Parry became an anti-Marian cause célèbre in the passage of the bill for the queen's safety; and, though Elizabeth failed to have Morgan extradited, at Mary's eventual trial the charge reappeared of ‘favoring and mainteyning’ Morgan, ‘the principall perswader of Parry to attempt that most wicked act’ (Read, Bardon Papers, 73).

“Parry prayed that Elizabeth would not regret executing him. Not content to be an agent, he perhaps aspired to be a Walsingham and expose conspiracies on his own. His letter scrawled to Elizabeth from the Tower of London had an excursus (cut from the printed accounts) didactically advising a reconstruction of foreign policy: the queen could not trust France, was ‘dishonoured’ by supporting Philip II's enemies, and should ‘cherish’ Mary, her ‘undoubted heyre in succession’ (BL, Lansdowne MS 43, fols. 117r–118r). He made a last announcement on the scaffold:

he had wrytten to the queene and councell, who was lawfull successor to the crowne of England, that place was not fytt to name the partie in. It sufficed her majestie and the councell knewe it and their tytle whom he had named to them was just and lawfull. (ibid., fol. 127v)

“Officiousness as a spy seems to have ended in megalomania. Perhaps he was really confused as to his own loyalties, but his willingness to admit technical guilt to treason in ‘persuading’ Neville though ‘never intending to kill Queene Elizabeth’, might also be true (Holinshed, 1394). Parry got no second royal pardon, but the government need not have been surer of his motives than later writers have been.” (Julian Lock, ODNB)

STC (2nd ed.), 19342a