INTRODUCTION

1.The story of the conversion to Catholicism of the Cambridge poet-playwright William Alabaster [1568 - 1640] is well documented. NOTE 1 As stated in a lengthy autobiographical memorandum, preserved at the English College in Rome, entitled Alabaster’s Conversion, and also in a short interrogatory document also posted in the Philological Museum under the title Six Responses, Alabaster describes his conversion to Catholicism in 1596. In the following year he was arrested and sent to London. D. F. S. (p. xxiii) argued that he had attracted the government’s attention because he had sent the Earl of Essex a copy of his theological tract Seven Motives in an attempt to convert him to Catholicism (Alabaster’s Conversion 7.2; together with John Donne, Alabaster had served as chaplain to Essex during the 1596 Cadiz expedition). In 1598 he escaped from the Clink and made his way to Rome via the Netherlands, France and Gerrmany, where he presented himself at the English College, petitioning for admission. He then became involved in what at least in retrospect seems like a wildly improbable scheme of promising Essex (now Lord Deputy of Ireland, and involved in suppressing the Tyrone Uprising) Catholic support for gaining the throne of England after Elizabeth’s death in exchange for an accommodation with Spain.
2. Returning to England at least ostensibly to put this plan into action, traveling by way of Spain, Alabaster was arrested by local authorities at La Rochelle in the summer of 1599 and was transferred to London, where he was kept imprisoned, first in the Tower and then at Framlingham Castle in Suffolk, until September 1603, when he was pardoned, the beneficiary of a royal amnesty granted by the newly-enthroned James I. In the course of his testimony in London he had been interrogated, in July 1600, and in his deposition the Essex scheme came to light. On the strength of his testimony, and some corroboratory documentation in his possession, a bill of indictment against Essex for high treason was drawn up. NOTE 2 Albeit this indictment was not brought against Essex, it would be difficult to underrate the historical importance of Alabaster’s testimony, since it must have done much to strengthen the hand of the Earl’s enemies (Cecil, above all) and destroy Elizabeth’s confidence in him. His strange inability to come to grips with the Earl of Tyrone could be attributed to something far more sinister than ineptitude, and it was impossible to ignore the fact that he was governing a nearby island as a virtual potentate, in command of an army, some of the elements whereof had great personal devotion to him. In short, especially with all of this transpiring against the impending death of Elizabeth and great uncertainty about succession to the throne of England, Alabaster’s evidence was political dynamite.
3. Several years ago, Professor Cyndia Clegg of Pepperdine University discovered the present unsigned document (Public Records Office State Papers (Domestic) 12/271 85LH, text on fols. 2 - 5). It is dated to June 1599 by an endorsement on the front and lacks an addressee, although Cecil certainly 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), D. F. S. was able to confirm this ascription: for diagnostic purposes, the idiosyncratic capital A and the use of the long s only at word-beginnngs, but not in the middle of words, are the most significant shared features. NOTE 3 In the record of his July 1600 interrogation it is stated that Alabaster:

…confesseth that Tichborne NOTE 4 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.

We are convinced that the document discovered by Prof. Clegg is the letter stolen by Tichborne.
4. Although our primary aim is to place the text of this document (as transcribed by J. S. A.) on the record, we cannot forbear to make some interpretative observations concerning the implications of its initial statement:

After I was come to Rome and had abode there som time being desirous to shew my loue and dewty to her Ma<jes>ty I sowght meanes whereby I come into fauour and trust with the Spaniardes thereby to learne such intelligens as might be beneficiall for her Ma<jes>tie to knowe.

While some readers may think otherwise, we think it extremely unlikely that Alabaster’s initial conversion to Catholicism was no more than an elaborate ruse designed to place him as a spy at Rome and in Spain. The deliberate creation of such a “legend” would mean that the cycle of pietistic sonnets he wrote at Cambridge over the months following his conversion, and perhaps even the very obvious signs of political disaffection visible in his earlier tragedy Roxanna, were bogus, which seems improbable. Then too, if Alabaster had been a genuine spy working for the English government by prearrangement, the protracted and clearly harsh imprisonment he suffered after his return to England would be inexplicable. Far likelier, once he arrived at Rome his initial enthusiasm cooled off. He suggested to the Jesuit Father Persons, head of the English College there, that he should visit Essex in Ireland and see whether he would be likely to favor Catholics. NOTE 5  This provided a plausible reason for a return to England, and as he made his way through Spain he collected further items of useful intelligence (and a couple of these nuggets, such as that Spain was not about to launch a new Armada against England, or send troops to Ireland in support of Tyrone, are indeed substantial). Evidently the idea was that during his journey his ability to produce this document would protect him from arrest (cf. the words of the 1600 deposition, “which he did to the end that he might the better and more safely passe into England.”) In London he would hand it in to the government, perhaps to Cecil himself, thereby earning trust and forgiveness for his past defection.
5. Obviously Tichborne’s theft of the letter dashed whatever hopes Alabaster had placed in this document. Even more, while no doubt the enemies of Essex found what he had to say balm to their ears, and while the Earl may have received substantial damage from it, clearly the English government could not quite bring itself to trust Alabaster, and one doubts that his ability to produce the present document would have done much to alter that. In 1600 an indictment against Essex was drafted but not brought as a true bill, probably because the authorities deemed Alabaster would be an insufficiently credible witness at a treason trial and were unimpressed by whatever corroborative documentary evidence he had to offer. And because they mistrusted him, they thought it best to keep him imprisoned.

 

Notes

NOTE 1 Cf. most recently John S. Alabaster, A Closer Look at William Alabaster (1568 - 1640), Poet, Theologian, and Spy? (Alabaster Society Occasional Monograph 1, Oxford, 2003) 27 - 89 and Dana F. Sutton, Unpublished Works by William Alabaster (1568 - 1640) (Salzburg Studies in English Literature: Elizabethan and Renaissance Studies 126, 1997) xvii - xxx. D. F. S. publishes Alabaster’s Conversion. Older studies (which do not benefit from recently-published documents) include L. I. Guiney, Recusant Poets: More to Jonson (New York, 1939) 335 - 42 and G. M. Story and Helen Gardner, The Sonnets of William Alabaster (Oxford, 1959) xii - xxi.

NOTE 2 The full text of Alabaster’s deposition of 22 July, 1600 (P. R. O. State Papers (Domestic) cclxxv nr. 32 ) is printed by Guiney pp. 337f., and the most substantial items are quoted by Sutton pp. xxvf. Both Guiney (pp. 338 - 40) and Sutton (pp. xxvif.) print the text of the Essex indictment (P. R. O. State Papers (Domestic) cclxxv nr. 35). Both the deposition and the indictment speak of corroboratory documents furnished by Alabaster, but, as far as we are aware, these have never come to light. J. S. A. (pp. 59 - 63) cites and quotes from other documents pertinent to Alabaster’s arrest, imprisonment and confession.

NOTE 3 J. S. A. has also compared this document with Alabaster handwriting samples and observed similarities. It is true that the present document is somewhat more relaxed and cursive, but these variations are probably to be explained by differences in the various documents’ circumstances and purposes of writing. Similar differences are to be observed by comparing, say, William Gager’s autograph ms. of his Gunpowder Plot poem Pyramis (clearly written as a presentation copy) and his last will and testament: while the hand is obviously the same, the latter document is less formal, perhaps more hastily written, and hence some letter shapes are written in a somewhat more cursive style.

NOTE 4 Tentatively identified by J. S. A. (p. 137 n. 41) as the Catholic Sir Robert Tichborne. On the same page (n. 42) he identifies the “Squires Book” mentioned below as, probably, Sir Francis Bacon’s 1599 pamphlet A Letter Written Out of England to an English Gentleman at Padua, discussing Edward Squire’s 1596 plot to assassinate Elizabeth.

NOTE 5 On the other hand, it may be wrong to think that Alabaster himself had invented the scheme of winning over Essex. D. F. S. (pp. xxviif.) has argued that both in his Alabaster’s Conversion and in his 1600 deposition (in which he had a convenient memory lapse concerning this one subject) he seems to have exerted himself to minimize the importance of Father John Wright, a Catholic priest living in England, no doubt to protect the man from prosecution. It is possible, maybe even likely, that Wright was at minimum a co-author of this plan.