1. In looking around Cambridge in the mid-1590’s it would be difficult to discover a young divine with brighter prospects for an ecclesiastical career than William Alabaster. Born of an impeccably Protestant mercantile family of allegedly ancient pedigree, NOTE 1 nephew by marriage to John Still, Master of Trinity College at the time when Alabaster went up to Cambridge, and then Bishop of Bath and Wells (who, incidentally, has sometimes been thought to be the “J. S.” who wrote Gammer Gurtons Nedle), he came to Cambridge holding a prestigious Queen’s Scholarship, and rapidly progressed though the academic ranks, being elected a Fellow of Trinity in 1589. Signs that he was a marked man abounded: somehow, perhaps having to do with the fact that Essex was a former Trinity man, he had gained the Earl as a patron, and served as his chaplain during the 1596 Cadiz expedition. He had also been presented to the Queen on some unspecified occasion when he had given her a copy of the first Book his epic poem Elisaeis (destined never to be completed), and had preached at Court (1.7). No wonder, therefore, that in 1596 he felt free to refuse the living of Brettenham in Suffolk offered him by Lord Ellesmere, Keeper of the Privy Seal, on the grounds that it was insufficient to maintain himself in his accustomed manner of life: NOTE 2 he could rely on Essex to give him a better one (4.1). On the strength of these bright prospects, at the time of his conversion he was on the verge of marriage. Here was a man who could be counted on to go far, and to help himself liberally to the career rewards which the state religion had to offer its talented loyal sons.
2. For career prospects, literary achievements did no harm. It has been written that, if one examines the cases of academics who indulged in literature, NOTE 3
…there [emerges] a pattern of motivation that must have characterized academic literary production in the whole of the early seventeenth century. Very often this motivation will appear as a strong Realpolitik. To the modern reader in a republican society, the idea of making poetry the instrument of promotion in court and ecclesiastical circles might suggest corruption. There is no doubt that it did to some seventeenth century Puritans. But the evidence indicates that such was the practice. And the practice gave us the poetry we have.
What has been written about Oxford in the next generation applied with full force to both Universities under Elizabeth: NOTE 4
Jacobean Oxford was not only the seminary of the Church…it was also — like the Jacobean court to which it was an annexe or waitingroom — a literary and particularly a dramatic centre, and a market, or at least a shopping queue, for clerical office.
The writing of poetry, particularly in Latin, provided a vehicle whereby one could display one’s erudition, piety, and orthodoxy, and attract the attention of the powerful. Alabaster’s literary activities, and especially his virulently anti-Papist Elisaeis, dedicated and personally presented to Elizabeth, neatly illustrate these generalizations.
3. And then something went dreadfully wrong. Alabaster’s career, no less smooth-running than the river that glides past the back of Trinity College, was thrown into turmoil as he plunged into twenty years of repeated religious tergiversions, oscillating between Catholicism and Anglicanism; he became enamored of Cabalistic mysticism, and earned for himself the sobriquet of “double or treble turncoat.” NOTE 5 The observation has been made that “even a compressed account of his life reads like a melodrama.” NOTE 6 His eccentricities drove him across the face of Europe as an exile, and got him equally in trouble with Anglican and Catholic authorities, so that imprisonment, enlivened by occasional jailbreaks, became a strong leitmotif in his life. A second recurrent theme — which we shall encounter in Alabaster’s Conversion — consists of doubts voiced by his contemporaries about his sanity. NOTE 7
4. Guiney has patiently traced the torturous course of his religious evolutions.NOTE 8 After his escape to Rome in 1598, detailed towards the end of Alabaster’s Conversion, he returned to England in the following year and was promptly imprisoned. The beneficiary of a general royal pardon of Catholics soon after the accession of James in 1603, he offered to return to the Continent and spy on the activities of Catholic émigrés. Then he passed several years at Douay and Brussels until the publication of his theological tract Apparatus in Revelationem Iesu Christi (Antwerp, 1607), over the objections of Robert Persons, Rector of the English College. This got him in trouble with the Holy Office at Rome because of its interest in esoteric interpretation of Scripture, and so he was imprisoned by the Inquisition, and his book was placed on the Index. He managed to escape and get back to England, suffering a spell of imprisonment at Amsterdam along the way. Taken in English custody in 1611, he recanted and was received back into the Anglican church. NOTE 9 Gradually he returned to favor: in 1614 he was created a Doctor of Divinity at Cambridge by royal command and given the living of Therfield, Herts. In 1618 he was admitted to Gray’s Inn and was described in the Admission Register as a Chaplain to the King. At about this time he married Catherine Fludd (thus acquiring the alchemist Robert Fludd as his stepson), and received the firstfruits of the parish of Little Shelford, Cambs. He lived out the remainder of his life as a sedate Anglican vicar, devoting himself to Semitic philology combined with his peculiar brand of mystic theology, having learned one of the great truths about the Anglican religion: for those willing to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, it is a very latitudinarian denomination indeed. He died in 1640.
5. Here we are only concerned with his life’s first pivotal experience, his initial conversion to Catholicism, as detailed in the document entitled Alabaster’s Conversion. This is preserved in the Library of the Venerable English College, Rome. Through the kindness of the College and of its Archivist, R. F. E. Whinder, I have been supplied with a photocopy of a typewritten transcript of the manuscript in question made in 1978 by J. F. A. Bertram, at that time College Archivist, prefaced by the following note:
In the English College Archives the manuscript now known as Liber 1394 (though once as z 136) is entitled “Alabaster’s Conversion” and is attributed to Robert Persons, though it is clear from the text that is was written by Alabaster himself. There is an note on the first page that there was an original in R. Person’s own hand surviving in 1697; this was probably Christopher Grene’s opinion: the original or whatever manuscript Grene saw is now lost. The surviving manuscript is clearly not the autograph, as it has many copyist’s errors, but seems to date from the same period. There is another manuscript, Liber 1395 (olim Z 139) which is a Latin translation of the first seven chapters of the English version: this translation is plausibly attributed to Persons, though the surviving MS would seem to be a later copy. It breaks off halfway through a sentence: presumably it was intended for publication and was abandoned when Alabaster apostasied. It is however invaluable as it provides a clue to filling the gaps in the English text occasioned by the serious decay of the first sixteen pages of the MS. The English MS was rebound in 1960, when the decay was arrested, though unfortunately several fragments were misplaced or even placed upside-down in the first sixteen pages. The following transcript therefore depends heavily on the Latin and on conjecture for these pages. During the rebinding a scrap of parchment was found (now Scritture 118:15) which is dated 1602, a terminus ante quem for the original binding.
The document, which consumes 168 manuscript pages, is entitled Alabaster’s Conversion, probably by the 1697 copyist rather than the author himself. It is ostensibly written as kind of open letter to an anonymous friend, a contemporary of his both at Westminster and Trinity College and also a kinswoman of his former betrothed (5.3). In all probability this nameless individual was Hugh Holland [d. 1633], a lifelong friend who had been with him both at Westminster and at Trinity. NOTE 10 Holland was responsible for the translation of poem XVI that circulated most widely in manuscript, and contributed gratulatory verses for the printed version of Alabaster’s tragedy Roxana (an interesting experiment since, although written in Latin, it adheres to the format of a fourteen-line vernacular sonnet). He also wrote gratulatory verses to preface The Passions of the Minde in generall (1604) by the same Father Thomas Wright who figures in the present document. But Holland is far better remembered for supplying a prefatory epigram for the First Folio. and also one for Ben Jonson’s Sejanus his Fall. NOTE 11 He proceeded M. A. in 1597 and went abroad, where he promptly went to Rome and converted, and his own Catholicism helps understand what would otherwise be difficult to comprehend — how Alabaster could continue to count on his friendship after having jilted his female relative. He may have been at Rome when Alabaster’s Conversion was written.
6. If this identification is correct, it is significant that Alabaster conceals the fact that the addressee of Alabaster’s Conversion is himself in exile. Surely the work was written as propaganda for English consumption. It is only partially an autobiography, as it frequently swerves into lengthy doctrinal discussions. Alabaster seized on accounts of various attempts to dissuade him from defecting from Anglicanism as a pretext for spelling out the theological assertions he made at the time, so that the intermittent autobiographical portions serve as a framework upon which they can be hung. When he first arrived at the English College in November 1598, he was required to submit to a process of formal questioning, and his answers are preserved in a memorandum (included in The Philological Museum under the title Six Responses). NOTE 12 Coutts observed that this interrogatory procedure had recently been introduced by Persons as a means of flushing out informers and other undesirables, and suggested that Alabaster was the first newcomer to be subjected to this requirement. NOTE 13 The brief account of his conversion Alabaster gave then factually agrees with that of Alabaster’s Conversion, and it looks as if either Persons or Alabaster himself had the idea of fleshing out the original memorandum with further circumstantial detail, as well as a liberal helping of doctrinal matter, to produce a document useful for propaganda purposes back home in England. Then the project was abandoned. J. F. A. Bertram, in the notes reproduced above, suggested that this was because Alabaster “apostasied,” which is extremely improbable since his defection from Catholicism did not occur for nearly a decade. More likely work on the document and its Latin translation was broken off in May of the following year, when Alabaster resigned from the College because of ill health NOTE 14 (and perhaps because of cooling enthusiasm about joining the Jesuits, which he had informed Father Gerard was his original intention). NOTE 15
7. Although there is no visible reason for doubting Alabaster’s veracity in other respects, it is likely that the consideration that he was writing a propagandistic work destined to be read in England led him to streamline the truth in a couple of ways. First, as he tells the story, there was no political dimension to his conversion. As I point out in my Introduction to that work, his tragedy Roxana displays outspoken disaffection with royalism generally, not just the Protestant variety (and this is why I am inclined to date the play considerably later than previous authorities, who put it much closer to the energetically orthodox Elisaeis). What remains unclear is whether an original phase of generalized alienation from Establishment values subsequently crystallized into a religious one, or whether the religious and political disaffection went hand in hand. Second, since Alabaster was writing for English consumption, had he been fully candid about his contacts with Catholics in England, he would have endangered the security, and even the lives, of the individuals he named. Thus, most demonstrably, when he was debating whether to escape from prison he received advice from certain Catholics still at large (12.1), and in the same paragraph he states that his actual escape occurred when a Gentleman Catholique shold come and accompanye me to an howse provided for me. From another source we know that the person who hid him for some time after his escape (and probably the person who counseled him while he was meditating escape) was the prominent Jesuit John Gerard. NOTE 16 Likewise, by an account that may well be less than entirely truthful, the one Catholic he acknowledges having met, the imprisoned Father Thomas Wright, seems to have made no great impression on him (4.4), and he says his conversion was brought about by reading a book by William Rainolds that he borrowed from Wright (there can be no doubt that Rainold’s book made a deep impression on him, since he mentions it in his brief interrogatory declaration). This invites the reader to view Alabaster as an autodidact who, on the basis of no contact with genuine Catholics and with no guidance or supervision from a spiritual advisor (this is the picture he paints at 5.4), read himself into a conversion. Thus his conversion looks like an assertive act of individual conscience, precisely what he himself (2.4) decried as that prorogative which all protestantes supporte…(to witt) to be able to iudge of all matters alone. Likewise, it appears as if, acting entirely on his own initiative, he conceived the quixotic notion of converting Essex.
8. This impression is, up to a point, undeniably accurate: Alabaster scarcely came from a Catholic family or a region in which Catholicism remained strong, and his conversion was a kind of spontaneous combustion. In reading Alabaster’s Conversion one cannot help being impressed by his brash self-confidence in lecturing some of the chief men in the Anglican church and aspiring to make a Catholic out of Essex. Possibly he was acting in conscious imitation of the great Oxford-educated Jesuit Edmund Campion, who in 1580 had issued a challenge to the Privy Council in which he offered to engage in a series of public defenses before the Council, the leading theologians of the two Universities, and the leading lawyers of the land. Coutts (p. 143) observed this too, when she wrote “Obedience Alabaster may have known about, and studied, but it was never really part of his faith, and humility is the one quality which seems to be almost entirely lacking in his character.” Likewise in his reminiscences about Alabaster, Father Gerard pointedly observed that he was a man used to having his own way, and his boastful assertion of an ancient pedigree in his initial deposition to the English College points to the same conclusion (although this boast may have had an immediate purpose: to convince College authorities that he was a “catch” and thus increase the warmth of his reception). Alabaster’s head-on approach to religion finds a close parallel in the writing of the Elisaeis. His first original literary effort was designed to be a Great National Epic in twelve Books, and in it he is very explicit about planning to write an Aeneid for his times. Vergil himself started out small with the Eclogues and worked his way up. It is instructive that his plunges into epic poetry and Catholicism both ended in failure: in neither case could he sustain the performance.
8. But the impression one receives of Alabaster’s willfulness is exaggerated by his failure to mention the influence of Anglo-Catholics on himself, especially that of Father Wright. A contemporary of Alabaster’s at Cambridge, and thus very likely in a position to know, attested that: NOTE 17
…by meanes of private conference with a certain seminary priest, whom in prision he laboured to convert, was by the same priest perverted, so that of a perfect Protestant, hee is nowe become an absolute papist, and is for the same imprisoned.
This agrees with Wright’s own account that while in prison he had engaged in frequent doctrinal debates with Alabaster. ΝΟΤΕ 18 A letter of September 10, 1597 of Secretary Cecil to Essex’ secretary Anthony Bacon, quoted here in a later context, tends to substantiate this contention. Alabaster’s reticence about Wright’s evident instrumentality in the formative stages of his conversion makes him seem not an actual Catholic so much as a self-appointed one operating in vacuo, and wishing to come forth as a Campion-like spokesman for a Church into which he had in no way been received. But it is not unlikely that he introduced this distortion into his account — even at the cost of damaging his own image — to avoid incriminating Wright. But why, the reader might ask, would he have feared to betray a man who was already under arrest, and whose instrumentality in his conversion was already known, or at least strongly suspected? An answer can be proposed.
9. In reading Alabaster’s account of the attempts of Anglican authorities to dissuade him from his conversion, one cannot help being impressed by the number of big guns that were wheeled up to assist in the effort. Likewise, it is patent that the authorities bent over backward to avoid having his defection become a cause célèbre: NOTE 19 Alabaster himself acknowledges that it grew increasingly clear to him that he was not to be tried and executed, and also that, although he was ostensibly being kept under close confinement, he was afforded plenty of opportunity to make his escape (12.1). He gained the impression that the authorities actually wanted him to flee, and even that their attempts to hunt him down afterwards were something of a sham. Reading between the lines, the fact that he could communicate with unnamed “Catholics abroad” — probably including Father Gerard — while in prison also suggests that his confinement was less close than it could have been.
10. These facts are, to be sure, partially to be explained by the consideration that the Church of England wished to avoid the embarrassment of losing a talented and well-connected young clergyman situated at the heart of the Establishment. But when this consideration is duly acknowledged, it remains difficult to shake off the impression that all these official exertions seem grossly disproportionate. The Bishop of London — virtually the primate of England because of Archbishop John Whitgift’s current infirmity — was in charge of the case. A second Bishop, of Bath and Wells, was brought in, because he was Alabaster’s uncle by marriage. So were the Masters of two Cambridge colleges, two Regius Professors, the Dean of Westminster, and Alabaster’s old Westminster headmaster (other Church dignitiaries were recruited for the effort as well: see the commentary notes on 8.4 and 11.4). When it came time to strip him of his position, equally lofty civil authorities became involved: a member of the Privy Council (who was also Chancellor of the University of Oxford) and the Attorney General. Was the defection of a young Cambridge don really worth all this attention? It seems as if something more serious was at stake.
10. Alabaster himself thought he knew what that was (10.1): and partly or rather cheefly because they had some dowt of mi Lord of Essex lest he did secretly favor me. He was alluding to the possibility that Essex might intervene with Elizabeth on his behalf. In the event Essex did so, but only to obtain easier conditions for Alabaster during his confinement (10.5 6). No doubt the royal wrath was a factor which the Bishops could not afford to neglect. But it appears that this was not the only consideration they took into account, for it was probably no coincidence that Alabaster’s increasingly visible eccentric behavior at Cambridge was tolerated until a copy of his treatise designed to convert Essex, Seven Motives, came to light and the Privy Council was made aware of it. Swiftly, orders for his arrest were issued by the Archbishop of Canterbury, presumably after the Council had brought the matter to his official attention. NOTE 20 In the same way, it scarcely seems coincidental that Father Thomas Wright, another Essex protégé, was imprisoned simultaneously. On September 10, 1597, Cecil wrote to Essex’ secretary, Anthony Bacon: NOTE 21
The Priest Wright by letters Intercepted by the Archbishop is discovered to be a notorious seducer and an Arch Enemy to this state of Religion now established. It appeareth in a letter to one Alabaster containing the Matter. The Archbishop hath committed him, and I have also committed Wright.
On the basis of this evidence, previous biographers have thought that it was the intercepted letter from Wright to Alabaster that led to the arrest of both. But the most important new historical fact to be gleaned from Alabaster’s Conversion is the author’s statement (7.2) that the very cause indeed came from the Councell uppon the spredding of my reasons prepared for the Earle of Essex as afterwardes I understood. Alabaster himself was of the opinion that Seven Motives was the principal cause of his arrest. Although some of Alabaster’s previous biographers thought it likely that Seven Motives was written, or at least put in circulation, in 1598, when he was hiding with Father Gerard after his escape from the Clink,NOTE 22 the present document demonstrates that this treatise was written in summer 1597 (5.6), and Alabaster’s remark at 7.2 presupposes that the work was already circulating to the extent that it could come into the wrong hands.
11. All of which raises some interesting questions. Why precisely did Cecil wax so choleric against Wright and regard him as an archenemy of established religion? What was “the matter” of which he wrote? What was there about the correspondence between Wright and Alabaster that provoked their arrest? Previous biographers (most of whom had not read Alabaster’s Conversion, under the impression that it was by Father Persons rather than Alabaster himself) NOTE 23 assumed that Cecil was motivated by general suspicion of Wright. But Alabaster’s remarks suggest something more specific: that governmental and church authorities took alarm when they became aware that Alabaster, perhaps with Wright’s encouragement, was attempting to convert Essex to Catholicism.
12. Wright [1561 - 1623] was born into a Yorkshire Catholic family and made his way to Rome in 1578, where he joined the Society of Jesus.NOTE 24 But because he was a doctrinal maverick and something of a troublemaker, his career as a Jesuit was not a happy one, and he repeatedly fell afoul of Claudius Aquaviva, the General of the Order. Despite Father Persons’ interventions, it looks as if he would have been thrown out of it if he had not voluntarily resigned. Adopting a conciliatory and anti-Spanish posture, he cherished the hope that:
…the sufferings of the English Catholics would not be lessened by a successful invasion, but greatly increased by a failure. Instead, the Catholic authorities should promote a consistent policy of submission to the Crown, and of loyal opposition to any threat of outside domination, which alone would produce the desired relief and result in all English Catholics being allowed “liberty of conscience.”
Having written a tract to this effect, and desiring to return to his homeland as a secular priest to enact this program, he had the good fortune to discover a means:
An Englishman [serving as a spy] showed him friendly letters from the Earl of Essex, under whose protection two Catholic laymen were known to be prospering. Reports of their “liberty of conscience” must have led the refugees to question the necessity for enduring homesickness and deprivation in Spain. One of Essex’ subordinates may well have suggested that Wright enter England, not secretly like all other priests, but openly, under the protection of the Earl — a veritable test case.
Taking advantage of these prospects, he entered England in 1595 and came under Essex’ personal protection; on the Earl’s recommendation Elizabeth granted him permission to move openly, and he attempted to increase his credibility and value by informing the English of a Spanish invasion projected for the next year. There was, however, a major obstacle to his aspirations:
It is ironical that the very news [of this invasion] which made him welcome also committed him to the struggle between Essex and Secretary Cecil to control the government of England, and thereby occasioned the frustration of his plans to secure toleration.
It was the Alabaster affair that afforded Cecil the opportunity to arrest him. When his letter to Alabaster and the latter’s Seven Motives were brought to the attention of the Council, quite likely by Cecil himself, both were taken up simultaneously. Because of their connections with Essex, Alabaster’s conversion became a matter of high politics. Clearly, Alabaster was so wrapped up in his own spritual adventure that he gave no thought to its dangerous implications for his noble patron.
13. In a deposition made taken on July 22, 1600, after he had come back to England and been arrested, Alabaster explained the purpose of his return. Here are the relevant points: NOTE 25
The examination of William Alabaster taken before us Sir John Peyton knight lieutenant of the tower and Edward Coke her Majesties attorney generall at the tower.
a. He confesseth that after gerrard the priestes escape out of the tower he had conference with him and that this examinante received in Brusels thirtie pounds by ordre and the credit of gerrard, and that from thence he went to father Persons in Roome and from thence to Barsilona in Spaine and conferred that with father cressey [Creswell] and don Juan Idiaques.
b. And sayth that he heard Wright himself confesse and heard it also in Roome that Wright had wrigghten to father Persons that he had had conference with the earle of essex about divers matters the certeintie whereof he saith he remembereth not…
d. And he confesseth that he had a message to deliver to the Earle of essex from the duke of Cessye and father Persons, don John Idiaques and father Cressey.
e. And that he was instructed by them to persuade the Earle to maintaine the title of the infanta for divers reasons. First that Spaine was able to defend him in it and to reward him according to his merite which no englishe competitor could doe. And that the earle was to greate to live under any of the other peti competitors and further it was demaunded that if the earle would undertake the title for the infanta he should deale for peace between Spaine & England upon these condicions that Irleand should be quiet, that the low countries should not be assysted against Spaine, and that Spaine should have the Indians free.
This deposition was taken in connection with an abortive attempt to try Essex for treason in July 1600. A bill of particulars was drawn up, in which Alabaster figured prominently: NOTE 26
The Erle of Essex is charged with high treason, namely, that he plotted and practised with the Pope and King of Spaine for the disposing and settling to himself as well the crowns of England, as of the Kingdome of Ireland.
This is proved fyve wayes:
1. By Valantines report from the mouth of Alabaster which is in two natures.
First. Concerning the proceedings of Wright the Jesuit; for the effecting of this Treason.
That Alabaster at his being at Rome, dyd understand How Wright being Prisonner in Bridwell, dyd certify the Pope that the Erle of Essex and Wright had conference together; before the Erle’s going into Ireland.
That the conference betwixt Wright and the Erle, was about the crowne of England.
That in that conference among other speaches, the Earle of Essex said to Wright. If I could be persuaded that the church did not seeke my blood I could lyke your Religion well. And that Wright dyd presently persuade the Erle, that for himself there was no such matter.
That then the Erle said, seing it is so, I am resolved, and I am going into Ireland; certify to the Pope as you think good for me, and what as cometh to your hands, in the meane for me, keepe untill we meete againe.
Secondly, Concerning the proceedings of Alabaster himself for the furthering of this Treason.
That Alabaster had letters from the Pope and king of Spain, unto the erle of Essex, of that effect.
That in the same letters were divers covenants, whereof some he doth partly remember.
1. That the erle of Essex, should not deale against Tyrone, but surcease and take him as his frend. And to lett him rule as head under the Pope in Ireland, untill such tyme as the Erle of Essex were fully confirmed to the crowne, and reconciled to the Pope and that then by the Popes commandement, Tyrone should yeald his obedience with his contry to the Erle as under the Pope.
2. That the Erle should geve consent, that the Archduke should enjoy the Low countreis, wholy to himself, as head under the Pope.
[the text of the following paragraph is mutilated]
2. By Alabasters owne declearation; which is lykewise in two natures.
First. Concerning the report of Wright the Jesuit and of others, plainely discovering this practised Treason.
That Alabaster dyd heare Wright himself confess, and herd it also in Rome. That Wright had written to father Persons how he had conference with the Erle of Essex about divers matters: The certainty of which he saieth he remembeth not.
[The remaining paragraphs provide a reasonably accurate summary of Alabaster’s deposition.]
14. It is clear, by the evidence of his own depositions as well as Alabaster’s,NOTE 27 that in 1599 Father Wright strove to win Essex to the Catholic cause, and offered Catholic support, perhaps leading to the throne of England, as incentive. This by itself would have supplied Alabaster with a powerful reason for not drawing attention to him in Alabaster’s Conversion. Wright’s biographer suggested that the priest may have done so out of desperation, when he saw the rift growing between Essex and the queen in 1599.NOTE 28 But the fact that Alabaster was trying to achieve the same thing two years earlier raises the possibility that Wright was standing behind Alabaster’s attempt; evidently Cecil was of this opinion, either because he genuinely thought it was true, or at least because he found it convenient so to believe. With or without Wright’s involvement, Alabaster’s attempt to convert Essex was fraught with dangerous possibilities: its success, improbable as that might have been, would have entailed incalculable results; a far more likely outcome would be that it would provide ammunition for Essex’ enemies. Alabaster appears to have been so enamored with his new religious beliefs that he may not have perceived the political mischief of his attempted conversion. But, whether or not he realized the political implications of his acts, they had made him at least potentially a very dangerous young man. The Anglican authorities may well have appreciated this.
15. What exactly was the scheme? This is clarified by a 1594 treatise “published by R. Doleman at N.” entitled A Conference About the Next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland (repr. Menston, 1972, available here), NOTE 29 significantly dedicated to Essex, which advanced the claims of the Infanta of Spain. This work was discussed by William Camden in his Annales Rerum Gestarum Angliae et Hiberniae Regnante Elizabetha for the year 1594, beginning at § 5, which begins:
5. Mutua haec inter reginam et regem benevolentia, immota eius in religione constantia, quae pontificiorum nec pretio, nec precibus, nec promissis, nec subdolis artibus expugnari poterat, severae leges contra Iesuitas et id genus hominum latae, supplicium de Grahamo Fentraeo inter Hispanicarum partium studiosos promptissimo sumptum, suprema in rebus ecclesiasticis authoritas regi ab ordinibus delata, et associatio contra pontificios, ita omnem spem pontificiam religionem in Scotia et Anglia restaurandi excusserunt, ut nonnulli eorum in Anglia qui matris iuri imprimis faverant, de pontificio Anglico in Angliae regno substituendo cogitare coeperint.
6. Cum de idoneo ex ipsorum numero convenire non posset, in Essexium, qui supplicium in religionis causa nunquam probavit, oculos coniecerunt, ius a Thoma Woodstochio Edwardi tertii filio a quo genus repetiit, commentati.
7. Verum profugi infantae Hispaniae studuerunt, etsi vererentur ne regina et regni ordines parlamentaria authoritate iureiurando singulis proposito hoc praeverterent, satisque habuerunt si Scotorum regem et Essexium commiterent, et hoc quidem consilio liber est editus, et Essexio dicatus sub ementito Dolmani nomine, non sine insigni Personii Iesuitae in Dolmanum sedato ingenio sacerdotem malitia (si sacerdotibus credamus); authores enim erant Personius Dolmano adversarius infensissimus, Alanus, et Franciscus Inglefeldus. In hoc, spreto natalium iure, antiquas leges patrias de hareditaria in regno Angliae successione immutandas, novas de electione inducendas, neminem nisi Romano-catholicum quacunque sit sanguinis propinquitate in regem admittendum disserunt.
[“5. This mutuall love and amity betwixt the Queene and the King [James VI of Scotland], his immoveable constancy in Religion, which could not bee overcome with bribes, nor intreaties, nor promises, nor subtill practises of the Papists, his strict Lawes made against Jesuites and such kinde of men, the execution of Graham of Fentre, the forwardest of all those that affected the Spanish party, the granting of supreme authority in matters Ecclesiasticall to the King by the Estates, and the Association agains the Papists, all these (I say) did so dash all hope of restoring the Popish Religion in Scotland and England, that some of them in England which most of all favoured his Mothers Title began to cast in minde to substitute some English Papist in the Kingdome of England.
“6. When they could not agree upon a meet man of their owne number, they cast their eyes upon the Earle of Essex (who never approved the putting of men to death in the cause of Religion), feigning a title from Thomas of Woodstock, King Edward the third's sonne, from whom hee derived his Pedigree.
“7. But the Fugitives favoured the Infanta of Spaine, although they feared lest the Queene and the Estates would by Act of Parliament prevent it by offering an oath to every one, and they held it sufficient if they could set the King and the Earle of Essex at enmity. And indeed to this purpose there was a booke set forth and dedicated to Essex, under the counterfeit name of Dolman, not without the remarkeable malice of Persons the Jesuit against Dolman a Priest of a quiet spirit (if we may give credite to the Priests), for the Authors of the booke were Parsonsm a most deadly adversary of Dolmans, Cardinall Allen, and Sir Francis Inglefield.” — tr. Philemon Holland]
The idea, presumably, was that the Infanta was to occupy the English throne with Essex as her consort. It is interesting that as early as 1594 the Catholics had identified the Earl as their target for their enterprise, no doubt because his vainglory and ambition made him an attractive candidate. What was needed was a conduit to Essex, and when Alabaster came along he seemed to be a suitable man for the job.
16. It may be asked why Alabaster made no mention of Father Wright in his interrogatory deposition of November 1598. The probable answer is given by Coutt’s observation that “There is no indication at all [in this document] who Alabaster was going to for direction and advice; had it been a Jesuit in good standing, he surely would have mentioned this in the Interrogatory. It may well have been Thomas Wright.”NOTE 30 But Wright was a lay priest and a lapsed Jesuit, and at least until he was sure of the reception he was going to get at Rome, Alabaster may have thought it discreet to conceal the relationship. And in any event, it would be unwise to attach any importance to silence about any circumstantial details in the context of such a short document (he does not mention Father Gerard either). A second problem is posed by a tradition that Alabaster was converted to Catholicism in 1596 in the course of the Cadiz expedition. This story, which is found in his old biographies (those of Fuller and Wood, in a history of his home town, NOTE 31 and in the Dictionary of National Biography) can be traced to a 1601 governmental document, when he was examined after the suppression of the Essex Uprising: NOTE 32
For the examination of Alabaster, late Chaplain to the Earl of Essex, who revolted at Cadiz, viz. by whose means he committed his apostasy there, and what other Englishmen besides himself were there or elsewhere reconciled with the Pope. Whether the Earl in that voyage did not have conference with priests and Jesuits, and what he knows touching the matters and plots of their rebellions.
Very possibly this story was simply a mistake. In quoting these words, Coutts suggested that they were written by Sir Edward Coke, the Attorney General. This proposal seems unlikely, since Coke had personally been involved in the Alabaster affair (10.8), but other government officials may not have been so well informed. It may also be possible that this is a piece of deliberate misdirection. After the Essex Uprising, the evidence of Alabaster and Wright was no longer necessary for Essex’ enemies; on the other hand, the government may have wanted to divert attention from Wright. In the final years of Elizabeth’s reign, under Cecil’s leadership the English authorities briefly undertook a project to create division among Anglo-Catholics by sponsoring the so-called Appellant Priests, loyalists who petitioned the Pope to recall the Jesuits from England and otherwise cease Catholic interference in English domestic affairs. NOTE 33 Understandably, Wright became recruited in this abortive effort and in 1601 was enjoying a certain degree of governmental protection. NOTE 34 Just at this moment, therefore, English officialdom would have had sound reason not to create reminders of Wright’s previous subversive behavior.
17. To summarize, then, in 1597 Alabaster conceived a harebrained scheme for converting Essex, and it seems highly likely that Wright was involved, if indeed he was not the author of the idea. Then, after Alabaster’s return to England in 1599, the same two men represented to Essex that they were authorized to negotiate on behalf of the Pope and the Jesuit Order, and made an offer to support him in an attempt to seize the crown in exchange for tolerance for Catholics at home and a pro-Catholic policy abroad, if not actual conversion. What remains less than wholly clear is whether in representing themselves as having any such plenipotentiary powers, Alabaster and Wright were truthful. Evidently no published documents exist pertinent to the Vatican’s part in this affair, or that of the Jesuits. If one may be permitted a guess, it would seem entirely characteristic of Alabaster that when he arrived at Rome he gave an exaggerated account of his influence on Essex and of the likelihood of his working a conversion on the Earl, both out of an excess of enthusiasm and as a means of enhancing his own value as a new convert. It seems equally plausible that Father Persons, ever the optimist and so deceived by such representations, placed the weight of his considerable authority behind the enterprise by sending Alabaster back to England as a kind of personal emissary to Essex. But it must be emphasized that these suggestions are purely speculative; further archival research may illuminate Rome’s role. NOTE 35
18. It may seem easy for a historian to shrug off these attempts to convert Essex on the grounds that they came to naught; nor did they play any visible part in the Earl’s ultimate downfall. But some points deserve to be raised. First, in the event this earlier attempt to indict Essex on a treason charge was not pressed, and it is easy to see why: there is insufficient evidence that the Earl had entered into a conspiracy, and so far his conduct was insufficiently equivocal to raise suspicions about his motives. But although these accusations were not pressed, surely they were not forgotten. For those in the know, both his eagerness to gain command of the army in Ireland and his subsequent failure to come to grips with Tyrone would have a dreadful inner significance: rather than simple overweening ambition coupled with fumbling military incompetence, Essex’ behavior could easily have looked — or been made to look — like the first steps of a scheme to gain the throne of England. Second, the reader must bear in mind that this abortive episode was played out against the background of the unresolved and increasingly urgent question of the royal succession. Initiatives and proposals that in retrospect seem merely fantastic, perhaps pathetically so, may well have struck contemporaries as substantial and portentous. Third, although there is every reason to conclude that Essex had the good sense to steer clear of these overtures, one cannot help wondering about the psychological effect they produced on him: did they perhaps feed the overweening ambitions that ultimately led to his rebellion and downfall? Fourth, although I do not wish to pursue the subject here, I cannot help wondering if there is any connection between this initiative and the fact that a number of the accomplices in the Essex Uprising of January 1601 were Catholics: did knowledge that such overtures had been made affect their calculations that Essex on the throne would pursue milder policies towards their their coreligionists? Finally, in the introduction to her recent book on the Gunpowder Plot, Lady Antonia Fraser remarked that the Plot exhibited two forms of terror: that of freedom fighters and other guerrilla groups acting in aid of what they regard as a higher cause, and governmental terror directed against dissident minorities. NOTE 36 True enough, but Catholics at home — and even more those abroad — did plenty to bring such governmental terror down on themselves: one only has to mention the 1570 papal bull Regnans in Excelsis, the machinations and writings of Cardinal Allen, or, looking further back, the Marian persecutions. Especially to the degree that it had Vatican or Jesuit support, the scheming of Alabaster and Wright fits into the same provocative pattern. Their attempt to convert Essex was predictably, but still tragically, counterproductive, in that its only consequence was to provide another helping of fuel for governmental repression. By their own testimony — there appears to be no reason for doubting its validity on the grounds that it was extracted under torture or uncommonly harsh terms of imprisonment — Alabaster and Wright were guilty of high treason. Surely such ill-advised initiatives served to impart substance and validation to the English authorities’ suspicions, and plausibility to their darkest prejudices, and therefore had the ultimate effect of encouraging a hard-handed policy towards domestic English Catholics.
19. So far, what has been written here is substantially identical to what I wrote in the Introduction to my 1997 printed edition of Alabaster’s Conversion. Since then, Professor Cyndia Clegg of Pepperdine University has discovered an unsigned document (Public Records Office State Papers (Domestic) 12/271 85LH, text on fols. 2 - 5), dated to June 1599 by an endorsement on the front. It lacks an addressee, although Cecil comes to mind as a likely possibility. On the basis of its contents Clegg tentatively ascribed it to Alabaster. By comparison with Alabaster’s 1596 letter in the Huntington Library’s Ellesmere Collection (EL 428). I was able to confirm this ascription: for diagnostic purposes, the idiosyncratic capital A and the use of the long S only at word-beginnings, but not in the middle of words, are the most significant shared features. This document appears in The Philological Museum under the title Intelligence Report. In the record of his July 1600 interrogation it is stated that Alabaster:
…confesseth that [the Catholic Sir Robert] Tichborne did robbe him and that he found a letter as to himselfe wherein was intelligence of a greate fleete from Spaine, superscribed for her Majesties affaires which, together with Squires Booke was found & Sent to the King of France, & from him to the Queen of England, which he did to the end that he might the better and more safely passe into England.
In all probability, this is the letter stolen by Tichborne. It raises the question: was Alabaster’s initial conversion to Catholicism no more than an elaborate ruse designed to place him as a spy at Rome and in Spain?
20. While no doubt some readers will disagree, I am inclined to doubt this (as is Alabaster’s descendant and recent biographer John S. Alabaster, who joined me in presenting this document). In the first place, the contents of the spy letter are not exactly golden nuggets of intelligence information. Had there been newspapers in the 1590’s, it contains little that could not be gleaned from their headlines, and, on its showing, Alabaster’s value as an espionage agent would have been small indeed. Much likelier he concocted it and carried it with himself on his return in the vain hope that, were he arrested, he could produce it and make a spurious claim to have been a spy rather than a genuine Catholic convert, thus avoiding further imprisonment. In the second place, what John S. Alabaster wrote in his biography (although written prior to the discovery of this letter) about the general improbability of this idea holds good with full force: NOTE 37
It has been suggested [to me] that William was all the time a Protestant spy, infiltrating the Jesuits in Rome, and that his conversion was part of an elaborate deception. If so, it would have been at considerable self-sacrifice — the loss of a good living, a promising career and a wife, as well as the esteem of his family and some of his friends. This I find hard to accept, for it would have involved so much deception of his family (some of whom he is reported to have converted) and close friends…but also his teachers and tutors, such as Goodman and Overall, not to mention Catholics such as Gerard and Persons. It would also have had to involve the penning of insincere devotional sonnets, which seems to me most unlikely. In terms of loss of liberty, the price had already been high for him, having been imprisoned or on the run in England for about a year and then having been put in the Tower on return to England for a further two years: was all this suffering endured simply to keep up a pretence of Catholicism?
Third, if (to use the jargon used by modern espionage, if one can rely on John le Carré), if his conversion to Catholicism was no more than an elaborate “legend,” and if Alabaster were indeed a dedicated enough Protestant agent that he was willing to indulge in deceptions and suffer the sacrifices enumerated by his biographer, one can imagine only one point of the exercise that would make the game worth the candle — that Alabaster was Cecil’s catspaw in an elaborate and ultimately successful scheme to bring down Essex. At least from Cecil’s point of view, such an enterprise would make excellent sense, and it is easy enough to imagine the clever and devious Mr. Secretary devising such a scheme. But this theory fails to explain why, once he had discharged his mission, Alabaster was not rehabilitated and taken back into the Protestant fold as soon as decently could be done after Essex was destroyed, or at least after the accession of James. Surely after the Earl had been executed Alabaster’s usefulness as a spy would have been greatly diminished and would not have justified postponing his rehabilitation until 1614. Nor does this theory serve to explain why Alabaster would have been willing to alienate Catholic authorities and run afoul of the Inquisition by swerving into Cabalistic mysticism, which presumably destroyed whatever remaining value as intelligence agent he may have possessed.
21. I am more prepared than was John S. Alabaster (pp. 123f.) to accept the possibility that Alabaster indeed was a spy in later life. In 1614, his rehabilitation was nothing short of spectacular (he was presented with an ecclesiastical living in March, two months before his reconsecration as a member of the Anglican clergy, and a month later Cambridge saw fit to confer a D. D. on him). NOTE 38 It is impossible to imagine Alabaster being the recipient this shower of rewards had he not regained James’ confidence, and although some of the poetry he wrote during this period of his life is obviously meant to demonstrate his loyalty to crown and Church, it seems improbable that such literary stuff would by itself produce such impressive results. It appears considerably likelier that James was rewarding him for his past work as a spy. But it seems improbably in the extreme that he was already engaged in such activity at the time he wrote the present document.
22. The text presented here can scarcely be called a scientific edition of what Alabaster wrote. It is based on J. F. A. Bertram’s 1978 typewritten transcript of the extant 1697 copy of Alabaster’s original text (English College Liber 1394). The first sixteen pages of that copy are in poor condition, and Bertram conjecturally supplied many words on the basis of the incomplete Latin version. In Unpublished Works by William Alabaster (1568 - 1640) (Salzburg Studies in English Literature, Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies 126, 1997), pp. 101 - 169 I have already published a diplomatic transcription of the Bertram’s 1978 typescript, with his supplements duly enclosed in square brackets. Here I have omitted them, since these square brackets would seriously impede what ought to be one of the prime advantages of an electronic text, the ability to be searched; the reader with a deep interest in the details of the text is referred to the published diplomatic transcription. Also, I have corrected errors present in the 1978 transcript, but in most cases I am unsure whether I have corrected ones committed by the 1697 copyist or Bertram’s own typewriting mistakes.
23. I am grateful to the Rector of the Venerable English College, Rome, for granting me permission to reproduce Alabaster’s Conversion, as well as access to other documents pertinent to Alabaster’s period as a member of the College, and more particularly to R. F. E. Whinder, Archivist of the College, for his assistance. I am also grateful to Nina Green for calling A Conference About the Next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland and Peter Holmes’ article about it to my attention.
NOTE 1 He claimed Norman ancestry at the beginning of his 1598 interrogatory declaration to the English College at Rome, and had family connections to the Puritan Winthrops of East Anglia. Entries pertinent to his conversion and attempts to convert kinsmen are quoted by Story and Guiney from the diary of Adam Winthrop, Alabaster’s uncle. His mother, née Brigit Winthrop, was aunt to John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts. (One cannot help reflecting that, given his alienation from orthodoxy, had Alabster been born a generation later he would probably have gone to New England rather than Rome.)
NOTE 2 Huntington Library ms. Ellesmere 428 (from which poem XI is extracted).
NOTE 3 Philip Clarence Dust, Carmen Gratulans Adventu Serenissimi Principis Frederici Comitis Palatini ad Academiam Cantrabrigiensem: An Edition with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary (two vols., published collectively as Vol. 8 of the Salzburg Studies in English Literature: Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies, Salzburg, 1975) I.xviii. Dust was writing specifically about contributors to academic anthologies, but his observations have a more general application.
NOTE 4 J. A. W. Bennett and H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Poems of Richard Corbett (Oxford, 1955) xii.
NOTE 5 Sir Dudley Carleton, P. R. O. State Papers (Domestic) of James lxxvi:.2. A second contemporary borrowed a tag from Apuleius (Metamorphosis IV.x) and called him bipedum nequissimus (“the scurviest man on two feet”): see the letter of Mr. Dickenson to Sir Ralph Winwood, Aug. 11, 1610, quoted by Coutts, p. 20, n. 12.
NOTE 6 Antigone by Thomas Watson, Roxana by William Alabaster, Adrastus Parentans sive Vindicta by Peter Mease: Prepared with an Introduction by John C. Coldeway and Brian F. Copenhaver (Renaissance Latin Drama in England Series II.4, Hildesheim - New York, 1987), p. 7.
NOTE 7 Although evidently he changed his mind, at one point King James thought him insane: Mark Eccles, Brief Lives: Tudor and Stuart Authors (Studies in Philology Texts and Studies 79, 1982) 4. Likewise, in 1612 a Catholic writer was moved to expostulate that “Alabaster goeth on in his fooleries”: cf. the document printed by Foley, XII.853f.
NOTE 8 Guiney pp. 335 - 42; cf. also Story pp.xii - xxi.
NOTE 9 If I am right in my tentative suggestion that poem XVIII was written on the death of Jane Dormer, Countess of Fiera, in 1612, this would be his latest Catholic poem. But the date is awkwardly late, and perhaps some other subject can be identified for the poem.
NOTE 10 For a biographical sketch cf. Guiney, pp. 361 - 7.
NOTE 11 Significantly, Jonson seems to have been converted to Catholicism by the same Father Thomas Wright who was evidently instrumental in Alabaster’s conversion, and probably that of Holland as well, as discussed below. Cf. T. A. Stroud, “Ben Jonson and Father Thomas Wright,” English Literary History xiv (1947) 277 - 9. Ben Jonson was the moving force behind the assembly of the First Folio, and it would appear that their shared Catholicism and association with Father Wright (as well as their shared Westminster School education) was the reason why Holland was invited to contribute gratulatory verses for this volume.
NOTE 12 English College library Scritture 24.1.1 (ORS 54; 1 13). An English translation of Alabaster’s responses to interrogation has been printed by Foley I.67. But Foley eliminated the examiner’s questions and combined Alabaster’s individual responses into a continuous discourse, thereby disguising the document’s actual nature.
NOTE 13 Coutts p. 156.
NOTE 14 According to the College’s Liber Ruber (liber 303, fol. 60v) discessit valetudinis causa Maii 1599.
NOTE 15 So Coutts p.157.
NOTE 16 Story p. xvi, quoting John Gerard: The Autobiography of an Elizabethan (tr. Philip Caraman, London, 1951) 140f.
NOTE 17 Quoted from John Racaster, William Alabaster’s Seven Motives Removed and Confuted (1598) by Coutts p. 5.
ΝΟΤΕ 18 John Pollen S. J., “William Alabaster, a Newly Discovered Catholic Poet of the Elizabethan Age,” Month cii (1904) 426 - 30.
NOTE 19 A sign of their success in hushing up this ecclesiastical scandal is that the Alabaster affair has managed uniformly to elude the attention of historians of the Church of England, including the vigilant John Strype in his Annals of the Reformation and Establishment of Religion and Various Other Occurrences in the Church of England during Queen Elizabeth’s Happy Reign (Oxford, 1824, reprinted New York, n. d.).
NOTE 20 Historic Mss. Commission Hatfield House vii.394.
NOTE 21 Ms. Harl. 292, fol. 79.
NOTE 22 Guiney p. 336, followed by Coutts p. 143.
NOTE 23 Story knew better, but did not devote much space to the present subject.
NOTE 24 The facts in the following paragraphs are taken from Theodore A. Stroud, “Father Thomas Wright, A Test Case for Toleration,” Biographical Studies I:3 (1951) 189 - 219 and Coutts, op. cit. 100 110. Wright must have had a special appeal for Alabaster, not only because of their mutual association with Essex, but also because he had briefly been Professor of Hebrew at the University of Milan. (The following quotations come from p. 194, 195 and 197 respectively.)
NOTE 25 The full document is printed by Guiney pp. 337f. (P. R. O. State Papers (Domestic) cclxxv no. 32).
NOTE 26 Ib. no. 35, printed by Guiney pp.338 - 40 (Valentine’s report, whatever it may have been, is lost).
NOTE 27 Calendar of State Papers (Domesic) Elizabeth cclxxviii, 64.
NOTE 28 Stroud p. 202.
NOTE 29 See Peter Holmes, “The Authorship and Early Reception of a Conference about the Next Succession of England,” The Historical Journal 23 (1980) 415 - 429.
NOTE 30 Coutts p. 129.
NOTE 31 H. Pigot, Hadleigh: The Town, The Church and the Great Men Who Have Born In or Connected With This Parish (Lowestoft, 1858) 141.
NOTE 32 Coutts p. 124, quoting Calendar of State Papers (Domestic) Elizabeth cclxxviii, 92.
NOTE 33 The Appellant movement is described by Foley I.10 - 17.
NOTE 34 Stroud pp. 204f.
NOTE 35 In his massive collection of contemporary documents about Jesuit activities, Foley may or may not have have followed a policy of suppressing evidence tending to show that members of the Order participating in genuinely treasonous activities (he likewise presents no documentary evidence of Jesuit complicity in the Gunpowder Plot). The individual reader must make his own estimate of the probative value of the absence of pertinent documents from his collection: are they non-existent, or did Foley omit them?
NOTE 36 Lady Antonia Frazer, Faith and Treason, The Story of the Gunpowder Plot (New York - London, 1996) xvii.
NOTE 37 John S. Alabaster, A Closer Look at William Alabaster (1568 - 1640), Poet, Theologian, and Spy? (Alabaster Society Occasional Monograph 1, 2003).
NOTE 37 For the chronology of his rehabilitation, cf. Story p. xxi.
Works Frequently Cited
Coutts, Eleanor “The Life and Works of William Alabaster, 1568 - 1640,” diss. Madison, 1957.
Foley, Henry, Records of the English Province of the Society of Jesus (London, 1877).
Guiney, L. I., Recusant Poets: More to Jonson (New York, 1939).
Story, G. M. and Helen Gardner, The Sonnets of William Alabaster (Oxford, 1959). In this work, Story was responsible for the introductory biography and Gardner for the edition of the sonnets.