“The Faction, amongst the many Instances they have so frequently given of their Spleen and Hatred to the Government, hardly ever showed their Malice more in any one particular, than in the Business of the Black Box, which furnish’d a Pretext to a Libel, call’d The Perplex’d Prince; which, tho’ but poorly writ, yet the malignity of the Design being to poyson Peoples Minds with an Opinion of some Probability and Truth in this Matter. It was thought fit in Return, to shew the World one of their Principal Heroes, in his true Colours.”
So – the Earl of Shaftesbury. We really do need to consider the Earl of Shaftesbury before we consider the Exclusion Crisis, and we really need to consider the Exclusion Crisis before we consider The Fugitive Statesman. Such is the nature of the literature of the late 17th century.
Briefly, then (or as briefly as I can manage), Anthony Ashley Cooper was a major political figure throughout the Interregnum and the reign of Charles II. He was a member of the Convention Parliament, which agreed that monarchy should be restored, and for the first years of Charles’ reign he was a strong supporter of the king. During this time he was in great favour with Charles, being created Earl of Shaftesbury and serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer and as Lord Chancellor of England.
However, a rift eventually began to grow between the two over the question of the succession. In 1669, Shaftesbury was amongst those who urged Charles to dissolve his fruitless marriage to Catherine of Braganza. Nothing came of this at the time, but in 1673 the Parliament passed the Test Act, under which all those holding military or civil office were required to take Anglican communion every year, and to renounce Catholic doctrine. There had been rumours about James’s conversion to Catholicism for years (he had in fact converted in 1667), and a month after the passing of the Test Act, he failed to take the Easter communion. Six months after that, he married Mary of Modena.
Until that moment, the question of James’s own religion was tempered by the fact that his daughters and heirs, Mary and Anne, were Protestants; but now there was the threat of a Catholic prince. Shaftesbury and others again urged Charles to dispense with Catherine and remarry, and a motion was passed in the House of Commons condemning James’s marriage. This was the beginning of Shaftesbury’s fall from grace at court, and his emergence as a leader of a new political party that (after a flurry of mutual name-calling) would eventually be known as the Whigs.
The question of the succession and the role of Parliament under monarchy were two of the dominant issues that defined this new Opposition, and throughout the 1670s a series of bitter political battles was fought on both these fronts, with Charles repeatedly proroguing or dissolving Parliament in order to stop the passage of bills. During this time, various attempts made either to exclude James from the succession, or to impose conditions upon it, such as demanding that his children be raised Protestant.
In the middle of 1678, the Popish Plot broke, bringing the already prevailing mood of anti-Catholicism to a new fever pitch. Shaftesbury was active in the ensuing investigations, and began to win a reputation amongst the English people as a defender of the Protestant faith. Over the following years he campaigned vigorously for James’s exclusion and the legitimising of Monmouth, who had begun to agitate on his own behalf – and was sent into exile by his father for his pains. Shaftesbury also tried to have the Duke of York indicted as a recusant, and while he failed at that, he did succeed in convincing Monmouth to return to England, where his arrival was greeted with widespread celebration by the general population.
However, all of the measures taken to remove James and secure Monmouth’s position eventually came to nothing. The final blow for the Exclusionists was the dissolution of the so-called Oxford Parliament of 1681 – the last Parliament of Charles’s reign. In the wake of this, Shaftesbury was arrested and charged with high treason. He was subsequently acquitted, courtesy of a combination of weak evidence and a stacked jury, but his days were numbered. During 1682, Shaftesbury put much effort into urging an open rebellion led by Monmouth, but when this failed he fled England for Amsterdam, where he died in December of that year.
It is not difficult to understand why much of the literature of this time is highly political in nature. Supporters of both factions took advantage of a comparative freedom of the presses to sway the reading populace to their cause. In terms of the quality of these productions, however, Dryden’s Absalom And Architophel is an extreme exception: most of them are political to the exclusion of literary merit. We’ve met one example already, in the form of The Perplex’d Prince, which was published at a time when the Popish Plot’s chief instigator, Titus Oates, had been exposed as a perjurer (although not charged or convicted) and expelled from Whitehall, and yet matter-of-factly asserts the reality of the Plot and openly accuses James of trying to murder his brother. And on the other side of the political fence we find the self-explanatory The Fugitive Statesman, In Requital For The Perplex’d Prince, which was published in 1683.
In requital is almost understating things. The Fugitive Statesman copies its inspiration’s use of the roman à clef, and produces a one-sided account of the Exclusion Crisis in which all of the characters are given fictitious identities; fictitious identities with which we are already quite familiar – as by this time were many of England’s readers. In short, The Fugitive Statesman steals the metaphorical language of John Dryden: the English people are the Jews, Charles is David, Monmouth is Absalom, Shaftesbury is Achitophel, the Catholics are the Jebusites, and so on. It also steals pieces of Dryden’s poetry and twists them into prose. For example, Achitopel working on Absalom’s ambitions and ego – “Not that your father’s mildness I contemn; But manly force becomes the diadem” – is turned into, “Not that David’s Gentle Temper is to be despised, but it is a greater Virtue in a private Person, or an Ecclesiastick than a Soveraign, and a Masculine Soul is certainly fitter for a Throne.” And there are many more instances of this kind of thing. Whether the passing reference to Absalom And Achitopel in the preface to The Perplex’d Prince put this approach into the author’s mind, whether it was intended as a tribute to Dryden, or whether it was a shameless attempt to ride the coattails of Dryden’s success, I really couldn’t say – although my money’s on the latter.
Reading The Fugitive Statesman is rather a chore. Its author doesn’t write about his subject so much as beat it into the ground, employing a ranting, Oh, and another thing – !! style that becomes perversely funny even as it becomes more and more tiresome. The pamphlet also has a habit (evidently assuming a thorough knowledge of the details of the Exclusion Crisis and of Absalom And Achitophel) of throwing name after name at the reader with a minimum of context, which not only makes for a confusing read, but in the end very nearly defeats the author’s purpose: you just can’t be bothered with it. In The Perplex’d Prince, cracking the code seems like a game; here it feels like homework. This is a sample:
“Thereupon taking his leave he went to the Rendezvous, where he found Absalom, Zimri, Nadab, Shimei, Corah, Ishban, Belial, Rabsheka, Judas, Phaleg, Ben-Jochanan, Balack, Og and Doeg, with many others of all sorts and Conditions…”
Still…if you can stick with it, there are some real insights here into the thinking of the time. The author, obviously a hardcore royalist, takes the position that kings are divinely anointed and that interfering with the succession is therefore blasphemous as well as treasonous. In its presentation of Charles, this pamphlet outdoes even The Perplex’d Prince: the king is no longer merely “valiant, wise and religious”, but quite literally “God-like”. In their opposition to the king’s will, then, Shaftesbury and his followers were perceived as doing the devil’s work – also literally. In Absalom And Achitopel, there is a reference to Shaftesbury as “Hell’s dire agent”; the author of The Fugitive Statesman latches onto this, referring to his Achitopel repeatedly as “Hell’s Minister” and “the hellish Contriver”, and speaking of his “Devilish Machinations”.
In this version of events, although Achitopel and his ilk intend to enrich themselves by taking over the estates and properties of those who remained loyal to David, once they have succeeded in overthrowing him (it was for the same reason that they rebelled against David’s father, and provoked civil war), for the most part they seem intent upon anarchy for anarchy’s sake. As for Achitopel himself, it turns out that a major motivation is that he thinks acting against David will help to get him into one particular’s woman’s—well, whatever it was that women wore under their dresses in 1683.
In pursuit of his ends – and her end – there is nothing so vile and dishonest that Achitopel will not stoop to it. It was he, for instance, who devised the Popish Plot, and bought the services of Titus Oates:
“I once made him pretend himself a Jebusite, that so getting Acquaintance with those of that Sect, he might be the more able to varnish with probability the Matters he is to attest. This Fellow’s Livelihood must depend on his evidence; and he shall…swear, that the Queen and the next Heir are in the Plot against the King.”
And it was he who invented the story of Absalom’s legitimacy:
“He likewise gave out that there was a certain Instrument preserved in a Black Box, being the Contract of Marriage between David and Absalom’s Mother, and a settlement of the Crown upon the Issue he might have by that Lady.”
And it was he who started that ridiculous rumour about David undertaking secret negotiations with “Pharaoh” (Louis XIV), as well as the one about Solomon’s Jebusitism…
One of the more interesting aspects of The Fugitive Statesmen is its refusal to accept that James was actually a Catholic, preferring instead to see assertions to that effect as merely a piece of mud-slinging, something Shaftesbury and his followers made up to suit their purposes. At the same time, there is a note of uncertainty in the author’s handling of this that is noticeably absent from the rest of the pamphlet: his protestations that James is not, not, NOT a Catholic tail finally off into, And even if he was, he could easily be brought back to Protestantism…
But without doubt, the aspect of this pamphlet that resonates most strongly today is its bitter reaction to the one piece of legislation successfully passed while all this political brawling was going on: the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. Although today we regard habeas corpus of one of the cornerstones of law, the author of The Fugitive Statesman saw things a little differently:
“…a Law the Seditionaries had taken care to have pass’d some time before the breaking out of the Plot, by this Law in case of Bail offered no Man could be detained in Prison… Thus Law and Justice were perverted in these wicked Men’s hands…”
The Fugitive Statesman exults over the downfall of Achitopel and his party after the “Baharim Parliament”, and Achitopel’s consignment to the Tower of London, but is not the least little bit happy over his subsequent acquittal. It has an explanation for the jury’s verdict, however:
“Were not they themselves as well engaged as he in the Conspiracy? …And people of their Mould and Principles always make Conscience, give way, and submit to Self-Preservation and Interest… Thus was the Arch-Traytor again set at Liberty…”
But this is only a temporary reprieve:
“…to find all his Devilish Wiles and Practices display’d and expos’d to the eyes of all People, to find he was become the abomination of all the sound and honest part of mankind, Achitopel laying all these things to heart, I say, put an end to his loathed Life in such wise as the World well knows.”
(I should perhaps mention that while the biblical Achitopel committed suicide, his real-life counterpart did not.)
Despite the limitless evil ascribed to the Exclusionists by The Fugitive Statesman, the fact is, they lacked teeth. For one thing, although they used it as a threat, most assuredly they did not want civil war. However, from their own point of view, probably the bigger problem was that, although they did not want James, they didn’t really want Monmouth, either: he was just the lesser of the two evils, where there was no third option – or so it seemed. At the time, it did not occur to anyone to do anything so desperate as “invite” an invasion. The dissolution of the Oxford Parliament of 1681 was really the end of this particular crisis: when James did succeed his brother in February of1685, there was barely a ripple of reaction.
Of course, the overriding irony here was that once James took the throne, he began to do exactly what the Exclusionists had warned he would – whether or not they only said it to scaremonger – changing the laws around religious practice, appointing Catholics to important positions, building a standing army, and trying to remove himself from the control of Parliament. Even the hard-line Tories who had fought to protect the royal line weren’t prepared to stand for all that, and another crisis began to build. However, long before that, indeed only four months into James’s reign, the next upheaval to impact significantly upon the literature of the time occurred: the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685.