…and the case for the prosecution

Perhaps the most interesting example of the “sham prince” literature of 1688 is a boadsheet issued late in the year bearing the (not particularly grammatical) title, The Sham Prince Expos’d. In A Dialogue Between The Popes Nuncio And Bricklayers Wife. Nurse To The Supposed Prince Of Wales., which in spite of its brevity manages to cover a surprising amount of pertinent ground.

The content of this single sheet consists, as we would expect, of a mock conversation between two of the major players in the faux-drama surrounding the Prince of Wales: the papal nuncio, Ferdinando d’Adda, who everyone was determined to believe was behind the conspiracy in one capacity or another, and the woman who was either simply nurse to the fake prince, or the self-sacrificing Catholic who gave up her baby to play the role of the spurious James Francis Edward, according to which version of events you chose to believe.

The two conspirators have met together to mourn the miscarrying of their scheme (so to speak), and the bad way things are going in England generally for Catholics.

The nuncio remains optimistic – the Catholics have, after all, the Mother of God and a whole battery of saints on their side – but the nurse thinks their moment in the sun has passed:

Nurse:  Well, you may flatter yourself with Restitution, &c. but your satisfaction is likely to be no greater than a Hungry Mans Dream of a plentiful Supper. Your late short Scene of Glory was like the last Blaze of a Candle, spent in the Socket; and the unmannerly Whigs think it has left as bad a stink behind it too.

But Father d’Adda remains convinced that their production of a prince on cue has spiked their enemies’ guns:

Nuncio:  Come, come Children, we have a reserve yet left, what, do you think a Council of Jesuits can be out-witted by a Dutch man. I can but laugh to think what a thorn in their Sides our young Prince Prettyman will prove.
Nurse:  O Lord Sir, Now the whole Kingdom laughs at the Sham; and there’s never a Joyner in Town but has a pattern of the Bed Stead: Nay, next Bartholomew-Fair they intend to have a droll, call’d, The Tragedy of Perkin Warbeck; you have read the Story of that Perkin, Sir, have you not?

While I’m amused by the suggestion that beds modelled on Mary of Modena’s (with or without secret compartments for hiding babies) had become a fashionable collector’s item by late in 1688, the important reference here is of course that to Perkin Warbeck; particularly in the contradictory context of a “tragic droll”.

Perkin Warbeck was a pretender to the throne of Henry VII; his claim was that he was Richard of Shrewsbury, the son of Edward IV and one of the infamous “Princes in the Tower”. His claim was supported by Margaret of York, Edward’s sister, and for some time he gained ground, being received at various courts, using the title the Duke of York, and marrying into the nobility. He found his strongest ally in James IV of Scotland, who (mostly for his own purposes) raised a force and invaded England on Warbeck’s behalf, but retreated when the anticipated support failed to materialise. On his own account, Warbeck raised a force in Cornwall and was declared “Richard IV”, but when he heard that Henry VII’s troops were on the way, he panicked and fled. Warbeck was captured, confessed – under duress – to being an imposter, and was executed in November 1499.

There was, evidently, some resemblance between Edward IV and Warbeck, and some people did believe he was Richard; others that he may have been Edward’s illegitimate son; although in many cases it was undoubtedly a matter of people choosing to believe. The majority opinion has always been that Warbeck was a “pretender” in more ways than one, the word at this time taking on the double meaning. Over time, his name became shorthand not just for a sham, but a sham in high circles.

During the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715, Queen Anne applied the nickname “Perkin Warbeck” repeatedly and scornfully to her half-brother, who would of course go down in history as “the Old Pretender”. In The Sham Prince Expos’d, we see that the association was nothing new, but that the prince had been the target of such references from the time of his birth.

(There is, by the way, a whole body of literature about Perkin Warbeck, some for and some against. We shall probably stumble across it sooner or later.)

“Prince Prettyman”, meanwhile, is an allusion with both literary and political roots (which doubtless would have been a lot easier to dig up if Prince had never recorded a song called “Prettyman”, sigh): Prince Pretty-man is a character in  The Rehearsal, a play written by George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, in 1671. As a work, it is (like Tristram Shandy) “post-modern before there was modern”: it consists of a play within a play, with various bewildering half-scenes being rehearsed while the playwright defends them against criticisms from onlookers. The Rehearsal was aimed specifically at the heroic dramas of John Dryden, mocking both their high-flown morals and sentiments and their over-reliance on hoary devices like the overheard plot; and it was successful enough to put a temporary kink in Dryden’s dramatic career. (He revenged himself on Buckingham by writing him into Absalom And Achitophel, as Zimri.)

The Rehearsal contains any number of self-reflexive allusions, including the characters of “the two kings”, who were clearly meant to be Charles and James. Prince Pretty-man, meanwhile, is a figure of dubious parentage, found abandoned as a baby and raised by a fisherman, who is eventually accused of kidnapping him. Prince Pretty-man stays loyal to the man who raised him – “Bring in my father! Why d’ye keep him from me? Although a fisherman, he is my father” – and declares that he would rather be the son of a fisherman than a bastard.

The combination of a prince of ambiguous parentage and an explictly Stuart setting  must have made a reference to “our Prince Prettyman” irresistible to the anonymous author of The Sham Prince Expos’d. And as with the sneering allusion to “Perkin Warbeck”, “Prince Prettyman” subsequently became a commonly used, shorthand insult.

The nuncio reflects upon how carefully the birth was arranged, and in the face of formidable opposition:

Nuncio:  Did not our Roman Almanacks speak of the Queens being to be with Child, at least half a Year before ’twas said she was conceived? Did we not declare it must be a Prince of Wales? nay we could have told the very time and place too, but that we fear’d the Chamber would have been crowded with Hereticks, and that would have troubled her worse than her Labour: For we had Prognosticated before, that the presence of a Bishop, &c. would be very Obnoxious and Hurtful to the Birth of a Prince of Wales.

The conspirators then analyse what went wrong:

Nurse:  Why they say the Queen lay under such Circumstances at the time of the Report of her Conception, that not all the Stallions in Europe could have got her with Child; nay, they say neither the Irish Champion nor the Italian Count, no nor the strongest Backs in Covent Garden could have done it.
Nuncio:  Nay to speak the Truth between you and I, we chose a bad time, but we thought the very Notion of a Prince of Wales, would make such a noise, as would drown all Probability and Reason; besides, who thought People would have been so uncivil, to peep as it were under the Queens Cloaths, or Question the Word of a King.

I haven’t been able to determine who the “Irish Champion” or the “Italian Count” were, but no doubt (along with Father d’Adda himself) they were favourites in the running for the title of Surrogate Royal Father.

And here again we see one of the most persistent touches in this body of literature, the idea of the witnesses to the prince’s birth (who did in fact stay in the next room) going in for a closer look.

Interestingly, while this broadsheet sits comfortably within the body of anti-Catholic / anti-Stuart literature, it is not uncritical of the other side of the political fence. There is a suggestion here that the author, while in sympathy with the Whigs’ cause, deplored their tactics and how far they were prepared to stoop to achieve their end:

Nurse:  ‘Tis true, these Church of England Whigs are so Inquisitive (forsooth) that the Queen never went to piss, but they’d be casting of her Water.

Although the sheet is dated only “1688” (we note, by the way, that printer’s details are conspicuous by their absence), internal details place it as having been issued quite late in the year, when everyone was aware that William was on his way. The nurse, mourning the loss of the perks that accrued through her participation in the sham prince scheme, wonders if they might not try it on again – there is, we learn, already a rumour current that, The Queen’s big again with a Duke of York – but the nuncio regretfully scotches the idea:

Nuncio:  O Lord, do you think she’d be mad to lye in these troublesome times; besides the very noise of the Dutch Soldiers would spoil her Milk, as Thunder does Ale…
Nurse:  Well Sir, I wish I could see it, but all the Protestant Astrologers fore-tell that she’ll mis-carry: And O my Conscience, I believe they’re a sort of Conjurers, for they Calculate every thing to a Hairs breadth.
Nuncio:  Nay, nay, now you talk of Conjurers I can fit you: I am sure I and my Brethren foretold things so miraculous, that few or none could believe them, till they saw them.
Nurse:  Nor then neither, may be.

James, meanwhile, has ceased to be an object of reverence or fear, and instead has become one of mingled pity and contempt; not a part of the conspiracy, but merely the conspirators’ tool; and, like all Catholics, forced to choose between religion and honour:

Nuncio:  But tell me how the People think of the King in this matter?
Nurse:  Why they that are Moderate amongst them, think he was so very fond of the very Notion of having a Son in his Old Age, that in a little time he might have been (good man) deluded into the belief of it; as some have us’d themselves to tell a Lye so often, that at last they have been perswaded that it was true: Others think the Queen wore the Breeches so long, that His Majesty durst not venture to unbutton them, or try the truth of the Matter: But the more general, and more probable Opinion, is, that being led by a Zeal, inflamed chiefly by you and your Worshipful Society, he thought the merit of the Act, in relation to his Church, would ballance the Stain which the dismal Consequences thereof would certainly imprint on his Memory and Reputation.

The Catholic church, in short, ought to be ashamed of itself, not least for being willing to ruin the honour of a king in pursuit of its ends:

Nurse:  The thoughts of this, if you had any Grain of Conscience, Religion, or Honesty (which is very much dispair’d of in men of your Profession) should touch your Hearts, with either Shame or Repentance, for so black a design of Suppressing the Church, ruining the State, and murthering more honest and conscientious men, than all your boasted Universality can show…

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10 Responses to “…and the case for the prosecution”

  1. So the hundred witnesses did not actually gaze directly into the royal hoohah while she gave birth? How much of a view of her did they have? Or do we even have a clear picture of how it went?

  2. We don’t – which is the point. They were in the next room for the whole labour. You can imagine what they heard in those pre-anaesthesia days; but the fact that they didn’t actually see anything – other than the bedsheets afterwards – allowed the pamphleteers some room to move when propagating their conspiracy theories.

    (A fake labour? Whoever they hired to act as Mary’s vocal stand-in must have had great commitment to the cause!)

  3. Then again – given the number of different versions of these events, and the impossibility of dividing the people telling the truth from the people with an agenda, perhaps none of us should be speaking too definitively… 🙂

  4. James IV of Scotland, I think, not VII – who was England’s James II.

    Interesting how astrology, fortune-telling, and other such things are casually attributed to both churches – an early dawn for the attitudes of the Age of Reason?

  5. Oops, yes – Henry VII and James IV – damn Stuarts! 🙂

    Fixed, thanks.

    I was struck by the facetiousness of the name-calling; it wasn’t so much earlier that those sorts of accusations could get someone killed, but by this time it was just, “Wow, you knew the baby would be a boy – you must be an astrologer!”

  6. Not only royal birth-giving would be made public, but after the royal wedding night, the royal bedsheets could be looked at very very closely (ick).

  7. That was a practice not confined to royal families – and one that got a lot of girls killed…

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