Dr William Alabaster


(1568-1640) – Poet, Theologian, and Spy?



Portrait of Dr. William Alabaster, 1633
 Copyright © John S. Alabaster

ISBN 0-9549831-0-6

First Edition 2003

All rights reserved.

 Occasional Monograph No. 1

Published by The Alabaster Society


Since 1993, the Alabaster Society has been publishing articles on Alabaster family history in the biannual publication, the Alabaster Chronicle.  As suitable as this journal is for most reports, it has disadvantages for research resulting in more than sixteen pages.

To meet the wish to circulate results of more substantial research, in 2002 the Society decided to publish occasional monographs as suitable material became available and Society resources permitted.  The present fine monograph is a fitting inaugural volume to the Society’s new series.

Tony Springall


It was something of a pleasant surprise, when we first moved to Stevenage, Hertfordshire nearly 50 years ago, to find ourselves so close to Therfield where someone with our own name had been rector.  Then, having discovered a link between William Alabaster’s uncle, Thomas, The Elder of Hadleigh, Suffolk and our own male line of ancestors, we felt duty-bound to find out more, especially as he was the only Alabaster to find a place in the National Dictionary of Biography (Ref 1).

William’s life had already been outlined by Guiney (Ref 2) and Story & Gardner (Ref 3), and has since been further elaborated by Adrian Alabaster (Ref 4), but more information has now come to light, which presents a slightly different picture of him and thus seems worth passing on in a semi-narrative account, even though this must entail repetition of some things already well known.  But, as Oscar Wilde affirmed, ‘the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it’, for we can be sure that a definitive account of William, or anyone else for that matter, can never be a realistic objective.  Hopefully this present account will stimulate others to delve further to try and solve a numbers of questions that still remain unanswered.

I had also felt uncomfortable at some of the judgemental epithets that William had attracted – ‘triple turncoat’, for example (Ref 5).  As a scientist, I applaud anyone who can change his mind in the light of experience, and give up some long and firmly held opinion, especially, as in William’s case, it was a matter of religious faith, and was taking place at a time when the consequences of that could be dire indeed.  So a particular objective was to explore the rationale behind William’s apparent fickleness, and the motives of those making such judgements.

Some new information relates particularly to William’s writings (Ref 6), as revealed by Sutton (Refs 7 & 8), which provides further insight into William’s character, as well as into the development of metaphysical poetry.  William’s writings have also been examined in several other studies, such as the commentaries by O’Connell (Ref 9) and Clark (Ref 10); these, together with further biographical facts published by Eccles (Ref 11), have been kindly brought to my attention by Paul Bembridge, formerly of Huddersfield University.  There is also additional background information to pass on concerning William’s periods abroad and at Therfield.

It has been convenient to adopt familiar, general terms for the main religious groups, but it should be remembered that these, like most simplistic labels are not strictly defined and include many variations, particularly in the case of ‘Protestant’ and, within that group, the term, ‘Puritan’.  And to avoid getting bogged down in the details of their different, often overlapping dogmas, discussion has been limited to what seem to be key points only in as far as William Alabaster is concerned.

Since the few (only five) extant letters from William are still unpublished, but of considerable interest, transcripts of the four in English and an English translation by Prof. Dana Sutton of the one in Latin have been included in full as an Appendix.

The text is well sprinkled with sub-headings and short summaries to help the reader find areas of most (or least!) interest.

The portrait of William (front cover and frontispiece) is published by permission of the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.  The photo-copy of William’s letter to Sir Robert Cecil (inside the book covers) is included by permission of Lord Salisbury°.  Part of the map of Rome, 1597 (Fig. 6) is published by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library, New York*.

Much of the source material has been provided by members of the Alabaster Society and others, and is very gratefully acknowledged, their names being included within the lists of notes and references appended, but I would like to draw attention in particular to: the large number of documents on Alabasters transcribed by John William Alabaster; to the help given over many years by Laraine Hake, Secretary of the Alabaster Society and, more recently, by Tony Springall.  Special thanks are due to both Tony and Paul Bembridge who read and commented most constructively upon my first draft, and to the Rev. John Inder who kindly considered my treatment of the religious aspects.  Let me also record my warm appreciation to my wife, Beryl, who has, as always, read through drafts and made invaluable editorial and other helpful suggestions.  As for the imperfections that undoubtedly remain, and for the opinions expressed that inevitably colour the account, I accept full responsibility.

John S. Alabaster (Branch I),

May 2003

 Preface to Second Edition

The present edition has been undertaken to meet the demand for more copies, to incorporate new information by amplifying the text and notes, and to correct errors; of considerable help in all this, as acknowledged in the text, has been the help of Dr. F. Dana Sutton, Professor of Classics at Irvine, California, Dr. Diamaid N. J. MacCulloch, Professor of Theology at Oxford, and Professor Cyndia Clegg of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

John S. Alabaster

January 2005

Reference (shelf mark) 4° A9 Th.Seld.

° Cecil Papers 87/80, Hatfield House Library

* DG 62.5 B6 1627 Cage vol.1…Topographia Romae… NOVISSIMA VRBIS ROMAE DESCSIPTO Ao M.D.L. XXXXVII


1568 TO 1596

General historical background

It is helpful in considering the life of William Alabaster to recall first the context of his times, being very different from our own, particularly regarding the strong link that existed between religion and politics.  One of the main axioms of that time was that a unified state required a unified religion, and this led to difficulties for the people of England, caused by Henry VIII’s break with Rome, by the Protestant religious reforms under Edward VI and by the sharp return to Roman Catholicism when Queen Mary came to the throne in 1553, and then finally the reverse back to Protestantism on the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558.  William was born just ten years after this latter event, by which time things were still far from settled, many people retaining their strong Catholic beliefs.  Some, the ‘recusants’, utterly refused to compromise with the national church and faced sanctions from the state, others attended the services but either did not take communion or took it peremptorily (‘church papists’), whilst the majority remained quite indifferent.

Under the Catholic Church, Europe had been Christianised and united into a family of nations under the spiritual guidance of the Pope.  But then the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century spread to England where it developed in two directions – on the one hand, the Anglican, which accepted many extra-scriptural traditions, and on the other, the more radical Calvinistic, which rejected those traditions and went for the utmost simplicity and strictness (Ref 12).  Some of the differences in doctrine between these two strands, as they affected William, will be addressed in more detail later.

Then, towards the end of the 16th century there was a very strong Counter Reformation by the Catholic Church, which made strenuous efforts to reinforce its traditional faith and undermine Protestantism, resulting in considerable hostility between England and Catholic Spain during Elizabeth’s reign, as well as the implementation of strong measures within the country (as elsewhere) to ensure uniformity of faith.  When William failed to conform he experienced the force of such measures from both sides before achieving a measure of normality in his life.

Linked to this phase of open hostility was the development of intelligence networks that, in England, involved two rival factions, one controlled by Robert Cecil and the other by the Earl of Essex.  William and his cousin, Thomas would be involved with both in their different pursuits – trade and possibly treason!

The Hadleigh environment and links with Cambridge

By the time William was born in Hadleigh, Suffolk in 1568 (modern dating), the country had become Protestant again after suffering considerable persecution under the reign of Mary, some 300 Protestants having been martyred during a period of only five years (Ref 13).  Hadleigh people themselves had witnessed this persecution at first hand when Dr. Rowland Taylor, their much beloved rector, who had resisted the reintroduction of the Latin mass under Mary, had been led through the town on a cold and miserable Palm Sunday in February 1555 to be burned at the stake.  Then, a few years later the people had failed to prevent his curate, Richard Yeoman from being captured and martyred at Norwich (Ref 14).  All this persecution was in spite of Mary’s promise to the men of Suffolk, before she came to the throne – according to Foxe, quoted by O’Connell (Ref 9) – that there would be freedom of religion.  Some of the townsfolk had even fled to the sanctuary of Switzerland (Ref 14) where the Reformation had taken root under the influence of Calvin at Geneva in the middle of the 16th century (Ref 15).  Consequently there must have been considerable residual fear and hatred among Hadleigh inhabitants of Roman Catholic oppression, if not of Roman Catholicism itself, although, paradoxically, Protestantism was strengthened rather than weakened during Mary’s reign (Ref 16).  All this must have had its effect upon William who was born and bred as a Calvinist and was strongly anti-Catholic as a young man (Refs 17 & 18) (Note 1).

Hadleigh was much nearer Cambridge than London (Fig. 1), and so it is not surprising that there were strong and long-standing connections with the former, including the University of Cambridge; indeed they went back nearly 200 years when Hadleigh men took their degrees there (Ref 74).  Both Taylor and Yeoman were Cambridge men, as were a number of William’s contemporaries.  At about this time, Hadleigh people were described (by an extreme Protestant, it is true) as ‘exceedingly well learned in the Holy Scriptures … the whole town seemed rather a university of the learned than a town of cloth-making or labouring people’ (Ref 14).  Certainly, the town of Hadleigh had for long been keen on education; its grammar school had been in existence since before 1382, and subsequently its non-classical school was the first established in Suffolk – in 1582 (Note 2). This was an ideal educational environment for a bright boy, and William did very well academically, going on to become one of three Queen’s Scholars at Westminster School, London (Ref 17) where he had his fees paid by the Dean and Chapter (Ref 3) and also had the benefit of tuition by the headmaster, Edward Grant and, more importantly perhaps, by the renowned scholar William Camden (Note 3).

Fig. 1. Map of southeast England showing some of the  places mentioned in the text.

Family, friends and education

William had the advantage of coming from a good family of Norfolk stock that had moved into Hadleigh in the early 1500’s, becoming established mainly as clothiers and merchants (Note 4).  However, his father, Roger who had been a merchant in Spain, had not flourished but had become bankrupt (Ref 18), and was rather overshadowed by his brother, Thomas, The Elder, a successful clothier.  Their respective affluence can be illustrated by the worth of goods on which they paid taxes – £3 and £20 for Roger and Thomas, respectively in 1568, the year William was born (Ref 19), a situation that changed little over the next 20 years or so, Roger paying 8d quarterly for the poor rate in 1590 (and defaulting in 1591), whilst Thomas paid 6d weekly (Ref 20).

Thomas was prominent among the ‘Chief Inhabitants’ who were actively involved in running the town, including helping to look after church affairs; amongst other things he saw to it that the poor-house was well supplied with spindles for spinning (an extra source of yarn for the clothing business!).  He was a man of considerable property (Refs 21 & 22), including a large family home at the top end of the town, and with some of his free land ‘held of King’s College’, Cambridge (Ref 23).  He died when William was 24, having led ‘always a godly, virtuous and discreet life’, as did William’s cousin John (Ref 23) and many others, it being necessary to be ‘discreet’ at this time of religious persecution.  William too was destined to lead a holy life, but we will judge as to his virtue and discretion later!

William’s mother, Bridget was a Winthrop, daughter of Adam Winthrop, one-time Master of the Cloth-workers’ Company, a Lavenham man, who had received the grant of Groton Manor that lies only a few miles to the west of Hadleigh (Fig. 1).  He had died before William was born, and his third son, Adam, The Younger, occupied the property.  This Adam was a lawyer and County Magistrate (Ref 23) and, from 1548 to 1609, was also auditor of St. John’s and Trinity Colleges, Cambridge (Ref 24).  From his diary (Ref 25) we learn of the closeness between him and the Alabasters (Note 46).  The Winthrop family was also related to the Stills, John Still being William’s cousin, as well as his uncl

Fig. 2. Main links between the families of Alabaster, Winthrop and Still.

The family was Puritan, and ultimately, in 1630 William’s cousin John Winthrop (younger by 20 years) felt obliged to emigrate to America where he became the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and where his son, in turn, established Connecticut.  So it seems that between these two families, at least, the differences between Calvinist and Puritan teachings were not an insuperable impediment to close relationships, indeed such differences might even have fostered an attitude of tolerance among some members.  Adam, though schooled at Ipswich under John Dawes, a zealous religious reformer, had been exposed at Magdelene College, Cambridge to theological discussion the object of which was to find general rather than exact consensus and had ‘learned to combine communal search for truth with respect for the views of fellow seekers’ (Ref 140).

When William was three, John Still was appointed Rector at Hadleigh and had a notable career in the church.  He had been educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and the University made him Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity in 1570.  He was elected Master of St. John’s, in which position he well nigh succeeded in rooting out [extreme] Puritanism there, and later, in 1577 became Master of Trinity (prudently making it a life-long post!).  He married William’s cousin, Ann in 1574 and, during William’s formative years, conscientiously attended to his duties at Hadleigh, as judged from the records (from 1577 to 1589) of his attendances at Parish meetings and the baptisms of his children (Ref 14).  From 1577 to 1593 he was archdeacon of Sudbury, exerting, as a church reformer, a considerable influence over most of the western half of Suffolk and, with the help of godly magistrates, giving the Stour Valley its particular reputation for reform (Ref 140).  So it is likely that he was a strong influence on his young cousin, and also that he was instrumental in directing the course of his education and religious attitude.

In 1592 he was raised to Bishop of Bath and Wells and continued to advance in his career in the church and interact with William.

William went on to Trinity College, Cambridge (Fig 3) as an elected Queen’s Scholar through the good

Fig. 3. The Great Court of Trinity College, Cambridge, showing the Chapel and the Renaissance fountain.

offices of his cousin (Ref 17, Chapter 8, paragraph 4), gaining his fellowship in 1590 (Ref 86).  New entrants were required to take oaths accepting the Thirty-nine Articles of Faith, the Prayer Book and the Royal Supremacy (over the Church) for, after the Elizabethan Reformation, although the university legally became a lay corporation directly under the crown, the majority of fellows were still required to be in orders or to take them some time after election or after receiving their M.A. (Ref 27).  William later recalled having to swear such an oath seven or eight times (Ref 17, Ch. 1.7).  While the curriculum included grammar, poetry, logic, philosophy, maths, history and philosophy, the emphasis was on theology (Note 6) (Ref 18).  Nevertheless, university places were greatly valued as offering a fast track to a comfortable and often powerful bureaucratic post (Re 35).  William was incorporated at Oxford in 1592 (Ref 2), and was also appointed ‘Mathematical Lecturer’ on St. Barnabus Day, 11 June 1593, as had been Richard Brewer and George Fairfax, two of his colleagues, in 1591 and 1592, respectively (Ref 32), both of whom had been admitted to Trinity with William in 1589 (Ref 86) (Note 7).

Important among William’s contemporaries was John Overall, who had also been born in Hadleigh, and was about nine years older than William.  He must have been another strong influence for, after going to St. John’s, he followed Dr. Still to Trinity.  There, as deputy to the Public Orator he had as one of his pupils Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, with whom William was also later connected.  In 1595 Overall became Regius Professor of Divinity, and later, Dean of St Paul’s and (on his own nomination!), rector of Therfield.  Overall was accounted ‘one of the most profound school divines of the English Nation’ and was generally considered a gentle and moderate man; what was striking in his lectures was ‘the singular tact and wisdom with which [he] quoted from Holy Scripture and the fathers; but, above all… the allowances that he made for differences of opinion’ (Ref 14).  He was, like Still, opposed to the extremists at Cambridge who were strongly against any Episcopal control, yet, in practice later in his diocese, he was willing to respect the scruples of Puritans and allow their preachers into the ministry of the church.  Moderate as he was considered, his clearest (Calvinist) belief was that there was an inner circle of the elect who were predestined for salvation and could never finally fall away from grace.  However, some ranked him with the Arminians (Ref 14) whose fifth fundamental argument was that believers might still lose their faith and thereby forfeit salvation (Ref 30) (Note 8).

William’s much older cousin, Thomas Alabaster, should also be mentioned, for he became a prominent merchant dealing in Spain for many years and took the opportunity to act as a spy for Sir Robert Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister (Ref 4) (Note 9).  His sister Margaret married John Dorrington who became Thomas’ business partner, and they may have been among the relatives who according to William had been secretly converted to Catholicism (Ref 18).  The Dorringtons (Ref 150) enter William’s story later.

Nicholas Shaxton, too, is of interest because he was his great uncle (Ref, 150), one of many people who had agonised over their position when facing the volatile theology and practices of the times (Note 10).  During the reign of Henry VIII he had variously: favoured Henry’s first divorce; proclaimed his Catholic faith; been imprisoned for circulating books promoting the Reformation and the English mass; opposed the Six Articles and resigned his bishopric when they became law; been imprisoned again and conditionally pardoned and allowed to teach (but not to preach) at Hadleigh; been imprisoned yet again on a charge of treason and condemned to be burned; and finally gained his release on reaffirming his adherence to Rome towards the end of Mary’s reign (Ref 14).  Knowledge of such a person would surely have caused William to wonder at the flexible nature of religious dogma and practice.

Summary of early education

So we see that William had the good fortune to be born of a respectable family, whose members were successful and influential, not only in Hadleigh where there was a tradition of learning, but also at Cambridge University with its opportunities for a good classical education.  Clearly he had the intellectual capacity to take advantage of those opportunities, having gained scholarships to both Westminster School and to Trinity College, and in due course gained his degrees and fellowship.  Outstanding among his good friends of integrity and ability was John Overall, a man who showed a measure of toleration generally unusual in those days and whose influence may well have been to instil a degree of moderation in William who, brought up in a strongly Protestant, mainly Calvinist environment, would, no doubt have seen himself as one of God’s chosen few.

Development as a Latinist and poet

By the time William had become a minor and then a major Fellow in 1589 and MA in 1590 respectively and MA in 1591, he had already shown clear signs of his classical scholarship and poetical ability.  Even as a school-leaver he had composed Latin verses to his former master William Camden, with whom, incidentally he clearly maintained contact over at least the following ten years (Ref 7).  This short poem [Poem No. I., following Sutton’s numbering (Ref 7)] prayed to the sun and moon to brighten Camden’s days and nights, and included classical references, some invention and a pun, all intimations of the style of his more mature compositions, including his devotional English sonnets (Ref 3).  This poem was soon to be followed by others, such as those to Sir Philip Sidney – one in Hebrew [Poem No. IV.], and two more in Greek [Nos. II & V] – all before he was twenty (Ref 7) (Note 11); in one of these there is an early example of William’s interest in paradox, for he writes, ‘[Sidney] has found the final goal: death that of life, and life, that of death’.

While he was at Trinity he embarked on what were to become his two most well known works in Latin, a play, Roxana (Refs 8 & 41) (Note 12) and, perhaps more importantly, the first part of an epic poem to Queen Elizabeth, ‘Elisaeis‘ (Refs 9 & 31).


Professor Dana F. Sutton has published the first English translation of Roxana, together with very extensive commentary (Ref 8). The play is based partly on the Italian poet Luigi Grotto‘s revenge play, La Dalida (1572), but is much more succinct, more logical, and less blood-thirsty.  It is also partly based on the model for La Dalida, namely Seneca‘s Thyestes (Note 13), the rhetoric, theatrics and political input of which it imitates.  But it has its own intrinsic value and, according to Sutton, possibly the greatest reputation of 150 Renaissance academic dramas produced by Oxford and Cambridge and certainly among the 250 or so most highly regarded (Sutton, personal communication).

It is true that it is also rather horrific and so one can well understand a gentlewoman, at the conclusion of a performance at Trinity, Cambridge, being reported as having fallen ‘distracted and never fully recovered her senses’!  Fuller, in his History of the Worthies of England (1662) said that he ‘had it from an author whose credit it is sin with me to suspect’ (Ref 9) (Note 14).  But the criticism that William plagiarised Grotto is quite misplaced because what was, and is, most important is not so much the plot as the quality of the Latin.  Samuel Johnson praised Roxana as the finest Latin verse by an Englishman before Milton‘s Elegies, and it was also admired by William’s contemporaries, including his life-long friend, the poet Hugh Holland, as seen in his congratulatory verse to the author when the play was eventually published (in Latin) in 1633, an event that was triggered by the printing of a pirated version by one, appropriately named, ‘Crook’! (Note 15).

Holland started his epigram with the words, ‘Lo, Roxana the survivor is lately returned from Orcus’ abysmal threshold (Note 16), and she, who was by a most shameful misfortune repressed now goes winging her way throughout the world’ (Ref 8).  Sutton does not comment on this ‘shameful, unfortunate repression’.  One can understand why William published Roxana in 1633 to put the record straight, but why did he not publish nearer to the time when it was written?  Was it suppressed?  And, if so, why?  The piece can be regarded as a political statement, for it comments adversely on bad kingship, with explicit condemnation of royal revenge, lawlessness and tyranny.  In it, King Oromastes supports

Fig. 4. Frontispiece to Roxana, 1633

the royal right to indulge his will on his kingdom, but his minister, Arsaces considers that he should set a good example and also advises him against divorce.  If this had been taken as a reference to Thomas More’s opposition to Henry VIII’s divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, so challenging the legitimacy of Elizabeth, daughter of his second, Ann Boleyn, then one could understand why it would have been suppressed!  The precise dates of writing of these two works are not known, so it is possible that Roxana was written after, and not before Elisaeis.  A hidden meaning is perhaps more obvious in the 1633 published version, being indicated by the frontispiece (Fig. 4), which shows, in the top left panel, the Pope physically subjugating a king with his foot pressing down on the back of his neck, and this being witnessed by a monk in the background – perhaps the intended message of the earlier unpublished work.  There is, incidentally much more symbolism in the frontispiece that remains un-interpreted for the present (Note 17).


The poem, Elisaeis has been translated into English by O’Connell, with extensive commentary and notes (Ref 9) and also by Poole & Poole (Ref 31).  It was the first of a planned epic of 12 books, modelled on Virgil‘s Aeneid, but dealing, unusually, with the life of a living person – Queen Elizabeth; this was incidentally, contrary to the advice of Tasso, who recommended eulogising on the dead rather than the living – so, here William was breaking new ground and venturing an interpretation of events that might not match the Queen’s own recollections!  His historical source was Fox‘s Actes & Monuments and so he blamed Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Chancellor for the difficulties suffered by the Queen in her early years (Ref 9). William’s strongly expressed antipathy against Gardiner may also have been influenced by his role in the condemning of Hadleigh’s famous Dr. Rowland Taylor to be burned during Mary’s reign (already mentioned).  Furthermore, Gardiner’s zeal is supposed also to ‘have been quickened by his desire to obtain possession of Tayler’s [sic] patrimonial estate’! (Ref 14).

The Elisaeis had classical pretensions and was written in the style of Lucan; also highly rhetorical, it contained clever mythologizing, verbal paradoxes, mixed metaphors, alternation of present and past tenses for dramatic effect, and could be regarded as the forerunner of the metaphysical style.  The narrative was weak, the emphasis being on the style itself, yet it still seems to have brought forth the most glowing praise (Ref 9).  Edmund Spenser, in particular, famously praised it in his Colin Clouts Come Home Againe (Ref 33), lines 400-415, two of which can be quoted: –

‘Who liues that can match that heroick song,

Which he hath of that mightie Princesse made?’

In this poem Spenser praised only one other poet (‘Daniell’) by name, so, we can regard it as high praise indeed (Note 78).  It is not surprising, therefore, that when Spenser’s second tombstone was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1600, William wrote a short laudatory poem to him, ‘Easily the First Man of British Poetry’ (Poem No. XXX);

‘If you ask, traveller, who is buried in this tomb, you deserve to know.  Spenser lies here; but if you go on to enquire who he was, you deserve to remain in ignorance.’ (Ref 31).

Incidentally, since Spenser’s poem recorded his sojourn in England from the autumn of 1589 to the spring of 1591, it is reasonable to assume that most of Elisaeis was completed by early 1591 (Ref 9) when William was just 23.

O’Connell (Ref 9) has identified in Elisaeis almost 100 links with various classical writings, mostly actual quotations.  This is a formidable total for such a short piece.  Almost half are from Virgil, mainly from the Aeneid (especially Book I), with some also from Virgil’s Georgics.  Several are found from Statius (thirteen), Pliny (five) and Cicero (four), with single matches from 18 other sources.  In addition, there are links with three other authors of the period.  Two of these are found in Part I of Spenser‘s Fairy Queen which was published early in 1590, having been entered at the Stationer’s Hall the previous December (Ref 33).  Thus it is likely that Spenser was the source for these two matches.  A single link with Shakespeare‘s Richard II relates to the description of Britain as ‘another world’, but since the traditional consensus is that this play was written and first performed in 1595 (Ref 34), it is unlikely that Shakespeare was the source.  In the case of the third author, John Milton, the match with his Paradise Lost, which was written much later, could reasonably be attributed to the influence of Elisaeis.

Elisaeis was very anti-Rome and anti-Pope, and had its influence on some other later poets such as Milton in his epic (albeit of only a couple of hundred lines) on the Gunpowder plot (where Satan is seen as the source of evil), and Phineus Fletcher in both his ‘Locustae’ and the English version, ‘The Apolyonists’ (where Rome is seen as the centre of evil) (Ref 9).

English translations give some indication of the flavour of the work, as illustrated by the very first paragraph (Ref 31):

‘The virgin glory of the world, the honoured Queen of the British Court, the deeds done throughout her broad dominions through so many years, the arts of peace and the triumphs of war – these here I begin to record, in a mighty story of deeds of undying fame.’

Fourteen pages follow in the same extravagant vein, until we reach only as far as the time when Elizabeth first enters the Tower.  The flamboyant style is typical of the times, since the writing of orthodox, erudite poetry, particularly in Latin, was a potential route to advancement and success at court.  It must have been a great moment for William when he was able, as he tells us (Ref 17) to present it to her in person, presumably through the good offices of someone like the Earl of Essex with whom he was closely involved probably after 1591. Also, in this case, the addition of the anti-Papal sentiment might well have appealed to the Queen, not that she was violently anti-Catholic.  She was rather more anti-extremist, as was evident in her dislike of the more militant Puritan clerics; her religion was between her and her maker (Ref 35); and it was Francis Bacon who wrote of her,

‘not liking to make windows into men’s hearts and secret thoughts, except the abundance of them did overflow into overt and express acts and affirmations’ (Ref 36),

i.e. treason, an attitude that Bacon and many other moderate men shared.

As an example of the Queen’s relaxed attitude, we may note in passing that Thomas Egerton, who rose to high office and later plays a part in William’s story had actually been a recusant in 1577 (Ref 37).

          Some shorter poems

A number of short verses that William composed over the next few years while still at Trinity also survive to inform us further of his feelings and interests. In particular, in 1593, when his cousin Ann Still died (Note 18), he penned at least one obituary poem to her [Poem No. X], and probably several others [Nos. VII to XI], the last of which is to be found on the inscription in St. Mary’s Church, Hadleigh.  They all speak admiringly of her piety;

‘… in her was that which men praise and what we are want to hope for’ (No. VII);

‘religion, sincere faith, unswerving ardour for the Lord, a life agreeable to one’s words, sobriety, chaste morals, prudent modesty, and a deep and genuine affection for spouse and offspring’ (No. IX) (Ref 7).

The death of a Trinity man, Christophor Morley in 1596, inspired another obituary poem in Latin (Ref 38).  Morley was older than William and had been at the College when William joined, gaining his Fellowship in 1586, and the verse tells us that he had been a performer of some kind:

‘The stage is squalid, tongues silent, nor does Music sound; with Morley our pleasure is buried.  But you are not buried in that we your heirs – with our eyes, ears and mouths – shall be your language, your music, your stage…William Alabaster lamented him’.

So there was a shared interest in theatre and drama.  Disappointingly, perhaps, this is not the Christopher Marlow of Christ’s College, but it is an odd coincidence that there should have been two graduates of the same name and sharing some of the same interests in Cambridge at the same time (Note 19).

Poem No. XIII also probably belongs to this University period, being written in defence of religion, and in praise of Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, whose treatise on the truth of Christianity (De la vérité de la religion Chrestienne…) must have inspired William since its long title lists many pagans referred to in the verse (Ref 7).  Duplessis-Mornay was chief advisor to the Protestants (Huguenots) in France and was noted for his moderation and loyalty, even being praised for it in the French court, but he did attack the papacy in his Mystère d’iniquité, which was condemned by the authorities and, incidentally also caused a bookseller to be imprisoned for selling it! (Ref 73).

Among all of William’s poetical output, mention should be made of the only composition discovered on the subject of love (Poem XII), and it is, therefore, worth quoting Sutton’s translation in full (Ref 7):

‘Whoever is a lover, forbear to renounce the broken burden of your pride, and to bow in abject submission.  Rather, let your spirit be such that you smooth your brow yet scarce show forth your pride through dry eyes.  For a woman turns swollen arrogance topsy-turvy, and with a laugh shatters the excessive abject.  But from afar Cupid has stabilised a favourable omen for the man who tempers his stern countenance with softness’.

Incidentally, the poem is a translation of an epigram in Greek by Agathius Scholasicus that was included in The Greek Anthology (1566) by Stephanus.  We do not know when William wrote it, but it provides a clear glimpse of an interaction with the opposite sex that struck a note with him. Even in Elisaeis there is an indication of his observation of the female condition in the simile that he chose (albeit inappropriately to my mind) for the conflict within Queen Mary between herself as Queen and her rival sister, Elizabeth:

‘She was like the virgin ripe for marriage who is beset by the eager wooing of her bridegroom; though she has never been shamed in her heart by the wound of love, savage Cupid assails her with flames of desire; her eyes are betrayed and drink in the insidious beauty of the youth.  Now a girl, now a woman, she feels alternating desires within her…On one side, eager and merciless, Love casts his fires, and on the other, undefiled chastity sprinkles her cold waters and calms the flames with reason.  The critical moment of the battle appears in her face, and lilies now bathe her complexion with snow, now blushing red colours her face with rosy hue’ (Ref 9).

As for William’s own direct experience of a woman’s love, we learn from him later (Ref 17) that from about 1591, for the next four or five years he ‘had byn dealing to marrie and [had been] fully resolved to do it’, but more of that later.

Summary of William’s early poetry

William’s output to date was predominantly in Latin, dominated by: Elisaeis that was clearly designed to curry favour with the Queen, with its emphasis on style and scholarship and its politically polarised statement on Roman Catholicism; and Roxana, a bloody, though moral tale, perhaps with a political motive, which would date it after Elisaeis.  The epigrammatic tributes to family and friends hint at his moral values, whilst his pro-Protestant religious views are strongly voiced.

In any event, we must judge not only his writing style by the mores of his age, but all his other actions too, some of which, as we shall see, we might be tempted to criticise by our modern standards.

The religious conflict in England and abroad

William’s early life must have been strongly influenced by the religious conflicts of the time.  Between 1576 and 1581 there had been a flood of anti-Catholic literature, much of it from the Puritans on doctrinal grounds.  Added to that, in 1569 there had been a Catholic revolt in the north of England, followed the next year by a Papal Bull (Note 20) to support it, by releasing the Queen’s subjects ‘from every obligation of allegiance, fealty and obedience’.  Although the revolt was unsuccessful, the Bull continued in force as a potent encouragement to future Catholic rebels and must have fuelled long-lingering resentment by loyal Englishmen.  Hundreds of Catholic priests were sent into England to administer the Latin mass to the faithful, and to make new converts.  Such converts were targeted under the Treason Act of 1581, although not too vigorously; simply being a Catholic was not an offence, whilst becoming one was, but only if such a conversion was made with the intention of harming the Queen.  Nevertheless, the number of executions rose in 1588, the year of national crisis with the coming of the Spanish Armada, although it fell again to an average of 10 per year towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign.  The last of the anti-Catholic Acts was passed in 1593 and simply required obstinate recusants to remain within five miles of their homes (Ref 16).

Events on the continent also reflected the pressure from the Spanish-backed Catholic Counter Reformation and illustrated the kind of danger to which the Queen was exposed.  William of Orange, who had resisted the Spanish and started to unite the northern Protestant provinces of the Netherlands was wounded by a Catholic assassin in 1582 and killed less than two years later.  Then, in 1594 Henry IV of France, too, was wounded by a would-be assassin and eventually stabbed and killed in 1610 (Ref 39).

We can expect all this to have had its effect on William, with his Calvinist background and Anglican education, by reinforcing his patriotism and loyalty to the Queen, and perhaps encouraging him in his resolve to gain preferment in the Anglican Church in emulation of his cousin John Still.

Inauguration of an Anglican career

By about the year 1596, William’s career prospects were very good indeed, for his academic brilliance and Protestant conformity would together have been expected to lead him to high office in the Church or University or Court.  Indeed, early that year he had already been offered a living at Brettenham, Suffolk by Sir Thomas Egerton who had just been appointed Lord Keeper.  Surprisingly he actually refused it (Ref 114; Appendix, 1), although he did so very politely and graciously (in Latin), explaining that although the stipend would be sufficient, he wanted to stay in the college community (presumably to continue his studies), and that if he accepted the offer (for gain) then the regulations would require his resignation since he was not among the twelve ‘elders’, who would not have been so constrained.  My guess is that Overall and Still were both among the privileged twelve.  Even so, William still had the temerity to ask Egerton to use his influence to bend the rules (it is not clear exactly how) so that, in the absence of a minister, the revenues of the parish could be assigned to him in some way!  William included a flattering verse to conclude his letter (Poem No. VI), depicting his epistle being carried swiftly to its destination on the back of a bird,

‘Soon through the soft realms of the air where the channelled whirling torrents of the Thames flow and are dissipated by their restraint under twelve arches, and where in their captivity the noise of their waves resounds through the city, there stands the sacred and palatial home of Eboracus’ [i.e. York House, Egerton’s residence next to York Place where the Queen lived]…Do not sink down with the wind in the middle of your flight’ (Ref 114);

the letter was indeed high-flown!

In any event, William at some time after about 1591 had contracted to become chaplain to the Earl of Essex for a period of six years, and had preached at court and ‘laide the [alternative] plot to aspire in tyme to the highest dignities and honors’ (Ref 17, Ch. 1.7).


In June, 1596 he went with Essex on his punitive expedition to Cadiz against the Spaniards, accompanied by various people, including, courtiers such as Egerton, Henry Cuffe, who was secretary to Essex, and almost certainly by fellow poet John Donne (Ref 40), both of the two latter reappearing later in the story of William’s life.

In the Cadiz expedition Essex led the attack by land from the south, and the capture of the town took place with relatively small loss of English life.  The sack that followed the victory was remarkable for its restraint, to the amazement of the Spaniards, for although Essex plundered a large library, much of it now in the Bodleian collection at Oxford, he ensured that the churches were left unharmed and that some 1,500 monks, friars and women were safely evacuated.  He firmly held the Dutch back from vengeance for the cruelties of the Spanish in the Netherlands (Ref 40).  One wonders to what extent Essex acted out of sympathy for the Catholics. William must have been moved, not only by this restraint, but also impressed by the splendour of the churches and even by the humble demeanour of the clergy.

It was suggested in a government document of 1601 (quoted by Coutts, see Ref 7) that it was in Cadiz that William was converted by a Jesuit priest to Roman Catholicism, but there is no other evidence for this (Ref 24).  He did, however, experience aspects of the faith at first hand, and also took the opportunity to read up more about it.  He later wrote,

‘I… saw the austere habitt of certaine fryars and religiouse men, and moreover lighted upon som bookes of [the Dominican theologian, Pedro] à Soto and others that treated of cases of conscience about restitution [,] satisfaction, penance, performance of oaths and vowes, and other lyke matters … fasting, haircloth, punishment of the body, going to confession, paines of purgatory, of monasteries’ (Ref 17, Ch. 2.3),

and showed awareness of how this contrasted with the ‘comfortable counsel’ of Protestantism whereby,

‘beleving that [his] synnes were forgiven [him], all wickedness and vice was lawfull unto [him]‘(Ch. 3.4),

not that recognition of the moral danger to him of such antinomy was sufficient for him to change his mind towards Catholicism at that time

In fact, on returning home, he accepted the living at Landulphe, Cornwall at £100/year offered by Essex (Ref 2), and thus, with his cousin Joshua Winthrop standing surety for the first fruits (Ref 140; Note 97), his future in the Church of England seemed well set.  What a surprise then, when later in the year there were rumours that he had actually converted to Catholicism!


The conversion document

We know of William’s conversion to Catholicism mainly from a long letter of some 167 pages that he wrote in English to a friend when at the English College, Rome.  It was subsequently reduced to 106 typed pages of A4 (Ref 17) and combined with a four-page appendix of relevant extracts in Latin from the college archives (Ref 18) and produced as Alabaster’s Conversion.  Much of it is corroborated from other factual sources.  Part of the English text, together with other biographical details, was published by Rope (Ref 24), and included minor errors, some of which have been copied by other authors, e.g. Caro (Ref 42).  But a virtually complete and accurate text, with extensive notes, has since been produced by Sutton (Ref 7).  For the interpretation of this conversion event and the immediate aftermath, however, we are largely in William’s hands and therefore have to bear in mind the possibility of bias, or even deception.

It was written in English, using very corrosive ink on both sides of the paper, with the result that much of the early part was so badly damaged as to be illegible.  Fortunately, however, about half the document had been translated into Latin beforehand, probably because it was then seen as excellent propaganda for the Jesuits, and so the Latin could be subsequently translated back into English to fill in the gaps.

Sudden conversion?

Much play has been made of the apparent suddenness with which William was converted in 1597, relying on the account he gave of returning to his London lodgings after visiting his old friend Dr. Gabriel Goodman, Dean of Westminster, carrying back a copy of William Rainolds’ book refuting a defence of an English translation of the New Testament (Ch. 4, para. 8):

‘I began to read the preface thereof… I had not read for the space of a quarter of an hour… I found my minde wholie and perfectly Catholique in an instante … I lept up… and said to myself, now I am a Catholique’.

Reading the book may well have triggered a conscious recognition of his new Catholicism, but there was evidently a much more gradual development in that direction.  His appointment as catechist (to discuss Christianity by question and answer) at Trinity in the autumn of 1596, when he was faced with the problem of dealing with a number of the papist arguments, seems to have been crucial (Ch. 4.1):

‘I furnished myself with more than ordinary store of bookes, and studied the question of Controversie that fell owt in that matter with attention not contenting myself only with that which Calvine and others of our side had wryten, but perusing also the fathers and the bookes of Catholique wryters’.

He says he began to question the validity of the Elizabethan Church Settlement and also to see the similarity, rather than the differences between the Catholic and Protestant Churches.

Perhaps it was at about this time that he highlighted the strife between Protestant and Catholic in a poem [No. XVI], concerning two brothers of opposite conviction who were in dispute and, ironically, succeeded in converting each other!  The brothers

‘were twin captives without a captor, and the victor deserted to his victor’s camp.  What kind of battle is this, when each rejoices in defeat, and at the same time each grieves at his own victory?’ (Ref 31).

William was to write of his period at Trinity when he reflected on the changes in religious doctrine since the time of Henry VIII (Ch. 3.12):

‘my last and only refuge was at lengthe to runne unto that opinion which begynneth now to be very generall amonge the learneder sort of protestantes to witt that a man may be saved by both religions, or by a mixture of them bothe, seing that they do agree in the most principall pointes of beleefe and in the rest both parties may have errors, and so a man may take or leave therof what he list withowt danger of damnation’.

This was indeed a moderate stance, but not one restricted to the more learned Protestants.  There had been a number of official Catholic attempts over the centuries to reconcile differences in dogma, not the least important being the latest at the Council of Trent, opening in 1551, which was meant to be ecumenical but failed to reconcile the Lutherans (Ref 43).  Over all this towered the humanist spirit of Erasmus, inter alia, playing down doctrinal differences (Ref 39).

Even in his youth, William had been attracted by some religious practices that were not typical of Calvinism.  He wrote that, before his conversion,

‘I gave myself frequently to prayer, and especially in reverence and love towards the saints reigning with Christ; though to follow them I did not think necessary; and also I felt myself moved to repent my past sins so as to atone for them by bodily penance’ (Ch. 3.5).

The overall impression is of a thoughtful person, gradually informing himself about Roman Catholicism, becoming hesitant about his own beliefs and moving inexorably away from the relatively narrow elements in his Calvinist background (Note 21), towards what may have been a broader view of religion. One wonders to what extent he had been influenced by his association with the University of Oxford, with its history of flirting dangerously with Rome and nurturing converts such as Gabriel Allen, Edmund Campion and Robert Persons (Ref 129).  He would have been acutely aware of the antipathy between Protestants and Catholics and the anguish it caused, not least in Ireland, and he may well have been sensitive to its presence there in the summer of 1595.  At that time, Adam Winthrop described him as ‘malcontent’ (Ref 25) following the departure of Roger and the rest of his family to Ireland, as part of the Protestant Plantation.  Whether this was caused by his being mindful of the past failures to establish Protestantism in Ireland (in 1567 in Antrim and in 1584 in Munster), or the dangers involved (as during the Desmond rebellion in 1579 and the ever-present risk of being murdered by the discontented natives) (Ref 26) or, more particularly of the injustice of it all, we don’t know.  As it happened the family all returned safely a few months later and would no doubt have brought back some of the disquieting details (Note 98).

In any event, William announced his resolve in the autumn of 1596 to study the theology of both sides more thoroughly, which seemed to put him in pious and receptive mood for a final choice by the time he visited Goodman the following Easter.  There he met the recusant Catholic priest, Thomas Wright, with whom he had long discourse and from whom he borrowed the book by Rainolds.  Wright’s name then became linked to William’s in several ways over the next few years.

Wright’s influence

Wright had entered England in 1585 under Essex’s personal protection and had been granted permission by the Queen to move about freely.  So, when he and William met at Goodman’s house, they had a mutual friend in Essex and, incidentally, also a common interest in Hebrew.  Wright had resigned from the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1595, becoming anti-Spanish and advocating the submission of Catholics to the crown, as well as their opposition to threats from Spain – all in the hope of achieving greater tolerance for their ‘liberty of conscience’ in England.  He even produced evidence in 1596 of a proposed Spanish invasion of England.  Thus he became part of Essex’s spy network and, consequently became aligned with him in his power struggle with Cecil (Ref 42).

Wright had in 1595 unwisely engaged in theological controversy in York, causing the Archbishop to complain, thereby providing Cecil with an excuse to put him under house arrest under Goodman (Ref 42), who was a well-known trouble-shooter in interviewing Roman Catholics, perhaps because he held moderate Protestant views (Ref 132). Yet both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Goodman had encouraged Wright to continue theological discussions with Goodman’s visitors (Refs 49 d & e), and, when papers among which was a letter by William about his conversion were later intercepted by the authorities (Ref 49 a), they were used as an excuse to imprison Wright on the grounds that he had converted William.  It looks as though it was a set-up (Note 22).  The accusation was accepted as true by the Jesuits (Ref 46) and has, incidentally, been accepted by some biographers e.g. Guiney (Ref 2) and Eccles (Ref 11), although it was denied by both Wright and William and later by, inter alia a close friend of William’s, John Racster who had been at school and university with him.  Racster, in refuting William’s motives for conversion, made it plain that they all knew that it was ‘a certain ten penny book [Rainolds’] that helped him [William] to his two penny [i.e. Catholic] faith’ (Ref 47).  Racster was referring to William’s Seven Motives, which had been prepared for Essex, and when discovered by the authorities, led to his arrest (Ref 17, Ch. 7.2), because it was seen to be an attempt to convert Essex.

Wright may not have converted William, but it is considered likely that he influenced William’s later devotional poetry, if only through his intimate knowledge of the Spiritual Exercises established by the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola.  Also, Wright was then probably working on his treatise, The Passions of Minde in Generall – finished in 1598 (Ref 49e) – that helped in bringing together rhetoric and meditation (Ref 42), by which, as I understand it, meditation became the favoured means by which a reasonable proposition could be translated into passionate, persuasive language; it became an important characteristic of metaphysical poetry, William’s in particular.  This has been discussed by Inder (Ref 48) and will be returned to later.

Immediate consequences

William took his leave of Essex and Wright in the summer of 1597 and returned to Cambridge to deal with the immediate consequences of his conversion.  He first broke off his engagement to be married (Ref 17, Ch. 4.10) and then he turned to meditation and the composition of devotional sonnets (Ch. 5.1 & Ch. 5.5).  He bought more Catholic books for study and resolved to add Spiritual Exercises to his prayers in the form of a routine of fasting (Ch. 5.2).  He disputed with family and friends (Ch. 5.5) and, not surprisingly, at some time after 1591 held back Part 2 of Elisaeis to the Queen (Ch. 1.7).  He is even reported to have converted some of his family (Ref 45 a) which appears to have included his brother (Note 81a), though not Adam Winthrop. Adam ruefully recorded being told the news in July 1597 (Ref 25), travelling with William to London on 14th, perhaps meeting up with Wright, or Essex who had just returned from the Azores on the 20th (Ref 40), and returning home on the 22nd.  Finally William recounts how he sent Essex some of his [seven] reasons for becoming a Catholic in an attempt to convert him, adding that when these got into the wrong hands he was apprehended (Ch. 5.6 & 7.2) and put under house arrest, first in Cambridge in September, 1597 (Refs 49 b & c) where attempts were made to change his opinions, and then, in London in October (Ref 2).


Thus began a long intermittent spell of confinement, either under house arrest or in prison, and of exile, totalling some 10 years or so.  This included spells in England in the Clink, the Gatehouse, the Tower of London and Framlingham Castle and, on the continent, at La Rochelle, in Amsterdam and, even in Rome under the Italian Inquisition.

Imprisonment in London

Soon William was sent to Southwark prison, known as the Clink, near Blackfriars, close to London Bridge.  The prison, owned by the Bishop of Winchester was near his Palace on Bankside and, although used originally in the 12th century for prostitutes and customers who broke the rules in his 22 licensed brothels, it was now used almost exclusively for heretics who broke the state rules on religion!  In 1592 there were:

‘… about threescore and twelve Men and Women, younge and olde lying in colde and hunger in Dungeons and in Yrons … for those bloudie Men (the Keepers) will allow them neither Meate nor Drynke nor Fyre… purposing to imprison them to Death as they have done to 17 or 18 others…’ (Ref 50).

It is to be hoped that conditions were better when William was there in 1597. These prisoners, incidentally, would have included some from Puritan sects.

The main purpose of such imprisonment was not so much punishment, but security to keep people out of circulation.  But there was a price to pay, literally, for everything, for prisons were run as businesses and this could be quite a burden on the prisoners; they had to pay, not only for their food and any small comforts they could afford, but even for their entry and exit!  This burden was especially true of ‘close prisoners’ like William who would normally have been confined to their room, as he had been at Cambridge.

In William’s day the prison was full of Catholics and recusants and was known as a ‘propaganda cell for the whole capital’; Father Gerard described how he heard confessions there and was able to bribe the gaolers, pass letters and get food! (Ref 37).  William too was able to get messages out, in his case to Essex, urging support (in particular, to be allowed books and writing materials) and, as a result, the Bishops who were questioning him got a ticking off from the Queen (Ref 17, Ch. 10.6)).  Although the Clink was credited with ‘handsome lodgings’ by John Taylor in a piece of doggerel about London’s prisons in 1623 (Note 23), these would have been available only to those who could afford them; for the poor, conditions could be grim (Ref 51).

The Interrogation

Over a period of several months William was in many ways treated very gently by the bishops, even being wined, dined and offered money (Ch. 6.3, 11.1 & 11.6).  There could be several reasons for this.  First, it was well recognised that the majority of Catholics were loyal to the Queen and posed no threat to the country.  In his case too, not only would he have been a real loss to the Anglican church, but was known to be favoured by Essex (Ch. 10.1) who was well connected at Court and still much in favour with the Queen, despite her irritation at the outcome of the Cadiz expedition (Ref 40).  Several of his interrogators were moderate men, and one, Dr. Lancelot Andrewes held ‘some mingled Catholic positions in diverse thinges’ acknowledging, inter alia the necessity for good works and penances (Ch. 9.1) (Note 24).  Even the Bishop of London had ‘in the olde Lord Chancelers tyme [been] accounted halfe so [Catholic] (Ch. 10.1).  One wonders, too, whether William’s Elisaeis together with the intelligence reports on Spain coming in to Cecil since January 1597 from William’s cousin, Thomas also contributed to his favour (Refs 4 & 52).

Even so, he was subjected to repeated interrogations over the whole period, during which he was confronted by almost a score of formidable representatives of the establishment (Note 25) all urging him, without success, to rejoin the Protestant fold (Ref 17).  Principal among these was the Bishop of London, well known for his antipathy towards Puritans, and also his cousin the Bishop of Bath and Wells, who was apparently reduced to tears at one stage, and was needled into reminding William of his penchant for argument for its own sake, even as a boy.  Added to these were the Privy Councillors, including Sir Edward Coke the Attorney General, and the gentle Overall, and other former teachers and tutors.  It is worth pointing out, however, that both Bancroft and, more importantly, Cecil were amenable to some sort of accommodation with Catholics loyal to the Queen, although the final result of negotiations with them did not bear fruit until much later (Ref 16).

In all these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that in January 1598 the Jesuit, Grene recorded that William ‘confoundeth the Bishopps in disputation’ and, in March that he ‘doth excellently wel’ (Ref 46).

The argument

For details of William’s stance at his interrogations we have to rely solely on his own account, which thus introduces the danger of some degree of bias and exaggeration.  As for reporting any counter arguments, the danger would appear to be greater, offering scope for alteration or even exclusion.  However, William’s account will be taken at face value and examined briefly, although a competent theological analysis would be welcome in the long term, to do it proper justice.

It is clear that William’s main argument was, not surprisingly, to do with faith – a subject that had troubled him in his youth and that he now mentioned almost a dozen times.  He espoused the Catholic doctrine of justification by faith and works (namely, salvation by a combination of divine grace and human merit) as against the Protestant (Calvinist) doctrine of justification and salvation by faith in Christ alone.  He admitted that

‘It seemed most comfortable counsel which once lyfting up my hart to heaven and saying Lord have mercy upon me with the publicane, and firmly believing that my synnes were forgiven me, all wickedness and vice was lawful unto me’ (Ch. 2.4).

There is no doubt that he had a point, for it is undeniable that in Germany for example, the Reformation had been accompanied by antinomian tendencies; a sect had arisen there in 1535 maintaining that, under the law of grace, the moral law was not binding upon Christians, and this resulted in a degeneration of public morals, as testified by Luther himself (Ref 12).  Some extremist writers and preachers even maintained that ‘good works were positively detrimental to salvation’ (Ref 39), not that the majority of Protestants were thus disposed.

To this ‘comfortable counsel’ there was apparently no effective rebuttal, although one would have expected a response from someone like John Still, who had a reputation of being ‘a rare man for arguing’ and ‘a disputer that the learned were ever afraid to contend with’, and was even selected to do battle with the Protestants in Germany (Ref 14) as well as (in company with the Bishop of London) with ‘Jesuits, seminary priests and other Papists’ (John Strype, quoted in Ref 7).  Dr. Still might at least have been moved to quote Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1:17), ‘The just shall live by faith’, or he might have pointed out, for example, that the distinction between the two dogmas was not all that rigid.  Luther, for example had often been charged with indifference to good works, but unjustly so, for he said that,

‘…faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing and it is impossible that it should not do good without ceasing; it does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is put it has done them already, and is always engaged in doing them; you may as well separate burning and shining from fire, as works from faith’ (Ref 12).

More succinctly, ‘They [Lutherans] saye that good works must needs flow out of the true faith as necessarie fruites’ (Ch. 6.10).  It seems to me, nevertheless, that in this instance they would have been dealing in what I would call the pastel shades of piety!  There were surely no sharp differences between seemingly opposite points of view.

On the linked question of free will William argued that since God exhorts us to do good not evil, free will must exist to make the choice, and the right choice should be rewarded.  Clearly, predestination, whereby the select, chosen few were destined to go to heaven while everyone else would be doomed to go to hell, was unacceptable.  Erasmus believed in free will, while Luther, in reply had written of the bondage of the will, declaiming that the elect would be reformed by the Holy Spirit while the rest would perish unreformed! (Ref 12).

The second main point William put forward repeatedly in favour of Catholicism, was its continuity, derived from the apostolic succession that produced a unique universality, uniformity and unity of the church.  The Protestants’ history was certainly shorter, and their leaders divided (Ch. 8.2); Calvinists, Lutherans and Puritans were all at odds with each other, and within the Lutherans there was schism between Saxony, Tubingen and Wittenberg (Ref 12).  The Bishop of London had acknowledged that the Roman Church had been the true Church until purged by Luther and Calvin (Ch. 8.6).  But again there was apparently no reply (Ch. 8.9) and no mention, for example, of the fact that prior to the intervention of these Protestants there had been: a fundamental polarisation of views between East and West at the Council of Niceae in 325 AD on the nature of the Trinity (Note 26); the rejection of the Pope by the Eastern churches as head of the whole Christian Church in 1054; and the regular questioning of papal authority by France since the 13th century (Ref 30) where their own special patriarch was nearly appointed in 1551 (Ref 39).  Any of these events the Bishop might have depicted as part of the evolution of Christianity.  Perhaps he did!  But, in any case, William’s view was that there could be no change in doctrine, only change ‘in matters of life and manners’ (Ch. 8.7) (Note 27).

On the question of Scripture – the Word of God – that the Protestants took as their only guide rather than accepting interpretations by the Church, William pointed out that they still had to rely on their own opinions and interpretations, without the benefit of scholarly comment from ‘old fathers and auncient councels’ as embodied in ‘more and better books’ – in Hebrew, Chaldean, Syrian and Greek as well as in Latin (Ch. 3.5).  As a scholar himself, and having recently studied the literature at Cambridge, William would probably have been very much more familiar with those commentaries than some of his interrogators (Note 28).

The Bishop of Bath, for example is portrayed as having accumulated a number of misapprehensions about Catholicism that William was well able to correct (Ch. 12) (Note 29).  The Bishop of London, too seemed unprepared and uncertain of his facts; one important instance was his failure to provide evidence for his assertion that the Catholic Church, ‘held that lying was lawful’ (Ch. 8.9), perhaps influenced by the view (shared by crypto-Protestants, and called Nicodemism by Calvin) that dissimulation was lawful under certain circumstances.  Wasn’t it almost like the guilty of today pleading ‘Not Guilty’?  A fine line had been drawn by the Jesuit, Henry Garnet between lying and dissimulation, but the government called the latter, ‘equivocation’ and equated it not only with lying, but, because of its religious context, with hypocrisy  (Ref 53).  Perhaps with this in mind one particular question from the Bishop was, ‘What if the Pope should bidd yow kyll the Queenes Maiestie … must yow do it’ (Note 85).  The response with its rather naïve rider was, ‘This is an odious question saith I, and no matter of faith, nor will the Pope ever bidd me do it.’ (Ch. 7.9).  I suspect that, in William’s case, the straight, unequivocal answer would have been, ‘No’!  But his actual answer is difficult to understand, bearing in mind that it was recorded by William when he was in Rome; in London, he may well have been blind to the Vatican’s true intentions, but, having arrived at the English College was he still in ignorance?  Or was he cleverly expressing the Appellant view?

Other points put forward in favour of Roman Catholicism assumed less prominence, some being questionable or seemingly less important theologically, whilst others were simply accepted rather than being rationalised.  They included: belief that Christ is present in the bread at the Eucharist (Ch. 7.9); greater discipline within the clergy, including celibacy (which freed the clergy from family worries); tackling of abuses in the church; greater inward belief and piety; honouring God’s servants (as saints); and carrying out social work, the last of which will be touched on again later.

Summary of conversion and interrogation

William’s conversion, starting from a strictly Calvinist position, strikes one as having been formed gradually, starting when he was quite young as he was becoming aware of the similarities of different Christian faiths, and then being accelerated by study, particularly of hitherto unfamiliar Catholic literature, as well as by discussion, especially, most recently, with Wright.  His conversion was then ripe for triggering by almost anything relevant (Rainolds’ book, as it happened), and was subsequently reinforced by interrogators comprising moderate, tolerant Anglicans, some having Catholic leanings, but none of whom apparently argued effectively against him.  His final position rested mainly upon a conviction of the need for good works as well as faith, and respect for the continuity, as he saw it, of the Catholic Church.

His imprisonment and interrogation were mild by the standards of the day, resulting partly perhaps from his potential value to the Anglican Church as an able academic, but also partly from being well connected with establishment figures in the Church and at Court, including his teacher John Overall, his cousin John Still and his patron the Earl of Essex.  Furthermore, the authorities at that time realised that Catholics were not necessarily a threat to the realm, indeed. many were strongly opposed to the extreme position adopted by the Jesuits.

He seems to have convinced his interrogators of his resolve to remain a Catholic and he concluded that they ‘ment rather to dally with me and to make me lose tyme, than to get me to the pointe or corporal daunger’ (Ch. 12.1).

Escape to Gerard’s House

Towards the end of April 1598, frustrated by the impasse between himself and his questioners, and in contact with Catholics abroad, William decided to break his parole and escape.  He made his way with a Catholic friend to John Gerard’s house across the Thames in St. Clement’s Lane (Ch. 12.1), on Gerard’s invitation (Ref 37).  The Lord Mayor and Aldermen put out a wanted notice in which he was described as a tall young man with a sallow, long, lean face, with a black beard, and having somewhat thick speech (Ref 11) (perhaps a Suffolk accent).  A search was made far and wide, though not in Gerard’s house which was perhaps too obvious a place to look, especially as Gerard had only just recently escaped himself out of the Tower (Ref 37).  The gossips, John Chamberlain in particular, soon circulated the story (Ref 5).

Gerard was convinced of William’s sincerity in wanting to join the Society of Jesus, and the news was quickly passed on to Henry Garnet, the Jesuit Superior in England, and by him in turn on 6 May to Robert Persons, Rector of the English College in Rome, even writing, ‘Alabaster hath a vocation for the Society’ (Ref 46).  The Society had been established by Ignatius Loyola in 1540 and took great care in admitting new members.  As principal motive for joining, William offered the rather perverse reason that it attracted the greatest detestation from its critics.  He also favoured the restriction on members to accept ecclesiastical preferment and appreciated its special regard for obedience.  That William was considered suitable at such an early stage must have meant that he was being taken seriously as a convert.  Apparently he had been ‘highly commended by Father H. Garnet in many letters’ (Ref 46), presumably through reports from Gerard, who had given William instruction in Spiritual Exercises (Ref 37) and may also have been impressed with what he had already learned about the Exercises from Wright.  These exercises are likely to have been those devised by the Society that involved a 4-week schedule concerned with:

1. Sin and punishment, focussing on death and hell, with all the senses, even smell, stimulated to activity,

2. The life of Christ and the mystery of the Incarnation, making a comparison of two standards of life – those of Lucifer and Christ,

3. The institution of the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ, and

4. The Resurrection (Ref 39).

During his time at Gerard’s house, William wrote two books on Protestantism that are no longer extant.  They were directed mainly against his inquisitors, chiefly for their theology, questionable morality, worldliness, intolerance and ‘scoldinge and raylings’ of Catholics, not to mention the appointment of Bishops ‘that is begane in a taverne at London after a good dynner’, etc., etc.  (Note 86).  With several mentions of ‘faith without works’, there were in all, at least some two dozen chief points, reiterated in the Conversion (Ch. 12.2 to 12.26).  It is also suspected that he continued composing the collection of devotional sonnets that he had begun the previous summer at Cambridge.

Devotional sonnets

Altogether William wrote 77 English devotional sonnets, none of which was published by him at the time (one only being published, un-attributed, by John Boys in 1613), but which remained in various manuscript forms (Note 30) attracting relatively little attention until 1959 when Story and Gardner published them in full for the first time by (Ref 3).  Subsequently they received further comment, most recently by, for example, Caro in 1998 & 1999 (Ref 42), Inder in 1998 (Ref 48), Klawitter in 2001 (Ref 57) and Nydham in 2007 (Ref 151), and these authors should be consulted for a full appreciation of the sonnets’ merit and relevance.  Some authors have criticised them as being somewhat unfinished, but it seems to me that they were created in a fever of religious insight, without time being spent in polishing them for publication.  True, they are obscure at times, but not, I think sufficiently so to deserve the same remark that the verses of fellow poet John Donne drew from James I, who said that they ‘are like the peace of God; they pass all understanding’! (Note 22).

Suffice it to say here that William, as a convert to Catholicism, focused attention intensely and intellectually upon self-dedication to service and obedience to God, pouring out tears of contrition, all of which showing clearly the influence of the instruction he had received in Spiritual Exercises from Wright and Gerard.  The sonnets are arranged into several discrete groups and within each group the sequence is designed to heighten the devotional experience.  Generally, Story and Gardner follow the sequences of the manuscripts, but their rearrangement of one group, ‘Upon the Ensigns of Christ’s Crucifying’ has been criticised as unjustified and destructive of William’s purpose, and an alternative, more satisfactory sequence proposed (Ref 57) (Note 32).

A large group of sonnets relates to penitence (18), but even more are concerned with Christ’s death (22) and the Incarnation (15), subjects that are associated with the first and second weeks of the Exercises.  Christ, rather than the Virgin Mary is the focus of interest, as one might expect of someone ‘fired up with Calvin’ in his early years.  Altogether, they strike one as very sincere expressions of his new outlook on religion.

A few are autobiographical, touching on his conversion, his anti-Luther feelings, his imprisonment and seemingly his attitude towards his ex-fiancée.

The sonnets now assume a proper place in the development of metaphysical poetry, standing between Robert Southwell and Donne though all these three are very different from each other.  Southwell, a Jesuit martyr in 1595, dealt with remorse and salvation, and was more concerned with sustaining others against the threat of martyrdom than with himself.  Donne, on the other hand, a Catholic and later agnostic and Protestant, was intense, but less intellectual and spiritual, and dramatised himself for the salvation of his congregation.  John Inder, who contributed an article to Adrian Alabaster’s book (Ref 4), rightly considers William’s sonnets to be underestimated and ripe for a new edition.  Certainly, his allusions to the parallels between his conversion and both alchemy and the printing process compellingly explained by Nydam (Ref 151) and which help to account for the somewhat derogatory remarks of  Story and Gardner (Ref 3) deserve more attention.  Furthermore, the case put forward by Paul Bembridge (Ref 152) that they are not sincere needs to be examined.

On a Wax Taper

Since I have not chosen to quote any of the divine sonnets, it is only fair to indicate William’s imagery of the prevailing religious conflict using a translation of another of his Latin Poems (No. XVI), On a Wax Taper, in order to illustrate, poignantly the stark reality of religious persecution as William perceived it, and the consequences of following a Jesuit course.  The translation reads:

‘As the lamp-wick, passing hot flame through its entrails, creates threads of light from its rich matter, so he who applies himself to the noble study of divine things is himself transformed into a ray of celestial light.  What wonder if the Saints become stars after their death, when their living bodies now become torches?’ (Ref 31).

In William’s case, however, I do not believe that he was in such mortal danger, and I think that he rather over-dramatised his own situation.

 To sanctuary abroad

In the autumn of 1598, William was sent on his way by Gerard to visit William Holt, a former rector of the English College, Rome who had moved to Belgium, with a request that he should see William safely on to Rome (Ref 37).  William went via Calais with funds from Gerard (Note 33), and letters of introduction from Garnet to the Capuchin Fathers at Rouen, the capital of Upper Normandy (Fig 5).  However, he found this Order of Franciscans rather too strict, and so went on to the Douay College at Rheims (Note 34), bringing with him the same letters of recommendation (Ref 58).  He continued through the Netherlands and Germany into Italy (Ref 17, Ch. 12.27), eventually being admitted into the English College in Rome by Robert Persons on 30 November 1598, and was sworn in on 28 February 1599 (Ref 18).

To reach Germany, where the Jesuits were active, he might well have passed through Spanish controlled Luxemburg or Strasbourg, that had also become Catholic that year (Ref 39).  The route he took from Germany is not recorded, but the two poems he penned on Venice [Poems XIX & XX] may have been inspired during this

Fig. 5. Map of Europe showing the general direction of William Alabaster’s travels.

particular journey into Italy, in which case he would probably have passed through Trent, at that time still in Germany (Note 35).  If so, he would, no doubt have been mindful of the failure of the Council there to achieve any compromises on doctrine in 1562, despite earlier signs of some flexibility, at least on the issue of Justification; in 1541 Gaspare Contarini, the Pope’s appointed representative in the dialogue between Protestants and Catholics at Regensburg proposed two alternative forms, one the result of God’s grace in cooperation with man in performing good works and the other, higher kind resulting from faith alone.  Although it satisfied the Protestants, it was criticised by enemies in Rome as too great a concession to ‘inwardness’ (Ref 59).

Getting to the continent was like a breath of fresh air for William, and we can identify with his sense of release from the tedium of confinement of body and mind in Cambridge and London, and his appreciation of a completely different world, when he writes:

‘… and wonderfull was the change which I seemed to have made by cominge out of Ingland, to wit from a little Iland and corner of the world into the main continent of Europe, wher the largnes of Cowntries, the variety of people, the diversity of tonges, the abundance of Citties, townes and Provinces, and a thousand thinges more did greatly enlarge the borders of my harte from that straightnes which at home I had felt in myself, yet nothing more or so much as the uniformity and universalitye of Catholique Religion, which endured with us from Calais to Rome about a thousand miles except some odd cittie or town upon the way, wher notwithstanding the profession of protestancy is farr different from that of England’ (Ref 17, Ch. 12.27).

If, as seems likely, he did indeed visit Venice, once called the ‘New Rome’ and fiercely independent, it must have been an extraordinary experience for him, it being so different from anything else in Europe.  Long linked with the Byzantine tradition, its Venetian Gothic architecture, mosaics and Apelline colours were unique, as was its location midst flooded marshes, all of which must have impressed William.  In one of his poems (No. XIX), he refers to  ‘The rare grace of Apelles’ hand painted Venus’ and ‘a city gleamed amidst Adriatic waves’ (Ref 7), and in the other (No. XX), to the splendour of the city:

‘… wholeness adorns her parts, proportion her limbs, modesty of colour her face, and grace the entire work … So well is mercy balanced with well-considered punishments… Such seemliness accompanies the taking up of arms and the pursuit of peace, that she gives pleasure, going on through the centuries.  And so you may say, as a proverb, that this city of Venice is not Venice, but the Venus of cities’ (Ref 31).

William was also generally amazed by the piety of the people and their good works, the adorned churches, and the processions, pilgrimages and penances, and wrote,

.   ‘… I can never have imagined the tenth parte of that which I have seene and learned synce my arrival in thes partes, especially in Rome (Ch. 12.28).


William was truly impressed by Rome: the grand architecture, the social structure and the morality of its people were all clearly evident to him.  Perhaps his most moving experience would have been the sight of St. Peter’s Basilica, the premier church of Roman Catholic Christendom, placed high on the Vatican Hill, the traditional sight of the burial place of the crucified Peter,

Fig. 6. Part of Rome, 1597 and today, showing the English College and St. Peter’s

first of a long line of Popes.  The huge building stood just about 1.5 km from the English College that nestled in what is now the Via di Montserrat across on the other side of the Tiber (Fig 6).  The dome had been finished in 1590 by Giacomo della Porta, in collaboration with Domenico Fontana, based on Michelangelo’s design, and was in full view, towering over the area (Note 36) (Ref 60).  On wonders, however, whether William was aware that in 1507 Pope Julius II had promulgated a Bull offering Indulgences to raise the money for the rebuilding (Ref 60) and that it was those very indulgences that had triggered the Reformation (Note 89).

No doubt he would have visited the Basilica and the Sistine Chapel and been overpowered by the strength and beauty of the paintings.  He was certainly ‘touched in piety to see the ancient monuments’ (Ch. 13.3), ‘dead monuments which yeatt have vigour to quicken any mans spirit that beholdeth them’ (Ch. 13.5).  Perhaps too, as a Hebrew scholar, he would have noticed the logic of running the murals dealing with the Old Testament from right to left in contra-direction from those from the New Testament (Ref 60).

He was acutely aware and appreciative of the role of the church in carrying out ‘good works’ in the city, ‘… so doth it shew itself as forward also or rather formost in all Christian workes’ (Ch. 12.28).  This was no exaggeration.   Italian towns had a long history of operating costly welfare institutions; indeed, Italy was in the forefront of social welfare and remained so until the 18th century.  Virtually every town involved about a quarter of adult males in panoplies of charitable and devotional confraternities, precursors of modern professional welfare agencies that developed later in the rest of Europe with the rapid growth of population and urbanisation (Ref 13). Having first hand experience, William mentioned specifically the

‘number of congregations, meetings, companys, sodalities, confraternities, Hospitals, religious orders, institutes[,] and appointed only for that lyffe and forme of good workes which is tawght by Catholic Doctrine in wordes as for example of giving of alms, visiting and loving the sicke, assisting the imprisoned, relieving of cripples, education of orphans, marying of poore virgines and other the like…’ (Ch. 13.5).

There were also strict standards of morality imposed, especially by the Capuchins and Jesuits whose ‘Missions’ favoured inter alia, ‘spiritual raids’ involving visits to towns for: sermons and confessions, reconciliation of enemies, and penitential processions.  They would also oversee the burning of playing cards, obscene books and magic amulets, and finally hold a solemn mass (Ref 13).  The Society of Jesus also shielded its recruits from ‘obscene books like those of Catullus, Propertius, Plautus, Horace and Martial’ that had been earlier specifically exempted because of their elegant language (Ref 43); perhaps William, as a classical scholar would have questioned that policy.

Religious orders contributed most to the creation of full-time schools, providing elementary and vocational training, mostly for the poor. The Jesuits focussed particularly on future members of the elite boarded in their ‘Colleges’, of which there were no fewer than 49 in all by 1600.  There they gave instruction in a wide range of subjects, starting with Latin grammar, literature and rhetoric, and proceeding in the final years of schooling to maths, scholastic philosophy and law.  There was a strict code of discipline, and emphasis on religious and moral development.  Even the social graces – music, dancing, acting, fencing and horsemanship – were not neglected.  The overall objective was control of the ruling elite and through them, politics – promotion of the Cause of the Catholic Faith and reform of society in the Christian mould (Ref 13).  No wonder William was favourably impressed

The English College

The building itself had originally been established by English merchants in 1362, but was turned into a college for training priests as part of a plan to invade England with the help of Spain, and was finally taken over by the Jesuits in 1579.  Between the years 1581 and that of William’s arrival, no fewer than 23 former students had been martyred, Robert Southwell being one of the latest in England in 1595.  During this time a custom arose whereby, for each such case a Te Deum was sung before Durante Alberti’s altarpiece of the Holy Trinity (Note 93) (and still extant there), and the College soon became known in Rome as the Seminary of the Martyrs (Ref 116).  William referred to the admirable example of such people (Ch. 13.8).

Robert Persons, who had left Balliol College, Oxford some years earlier and become Rector of the English College for a short while in 1588, had introduced a Missionary Oath in addition to an oath of allegiance to the Pope.  His standing is somewhat paradoxical because, on the one hand, he wrote a manual of private devotion, so impressive for its spiritual insight that it was actually taken over by English Protestants and, after a few expurgations, went through fifteen editions, but on the other hand, as a Jesuit he was also involved in the Guise plot of 1581 to 1584 devised to release Mary Queen of Scots from prison and challenge Queen Elizabeth’s right to the throne, and when that failed went to Madrid and then to Rome, helping to make preparations for the Spanish Armada of 1588 (Ref 16).

Fig. 7 The Hospice Church of the English College, Rome, c. 1580 (redrawn from a woodcut in Ref 116).

How William first viewed Persons and the Jesuits, we do not know, but he was very impressed with the scholarly regime at the English College (Ch. 13.6).  He waxed eloquently on the good curriculum and the dedication and learning of both the teachers and the score or so of students, and made unfavourable comparisons with Oxford and Cambridge.  This difference in standards may not have been a new situation; for Giordano Bruno had claimed in 1585 that the dons of Oxford ‘knew much more about beer than they did about Greek!’ (Ref 59).

Although the schooling was good, there had been difficulties over the past few years over discipline and, especially over differences between English Catholics who, on the one hand, trusted the Elizabethan government and, naturally enough tended to be anti-Spanish and anti-Jesuit, and, on the other, those who did not.  The English character was blamed!  Person’s pamphlet concerning Spanish and other claims to the English throne had further aggravated matters and Alfonso Agassari, then rector, wrote to Persons complaining of the students’ nationalism, ‘I do not know whether they hate the Society because of the Spaniards, or the Spaniards because of the Society’! (Ref 116).

Person’s tract, ‘A Conference on the Next Succession to the Crown of England’ had been produced under the name of R. Doleman in 1595, with a fulsome dedication to Essex, implying some endorsement by him.  It speculated on the subject of the succession, a subject explicitly forbidden by the Queen, considering the claims of James IV of Scotland, the Spanish Infanta of Philip II, and various others, and plumbed for Essex as the best candidate, either as king or king-maker! (Refs 40 & 53).  Needless to say, it annoyed or embarrassed everyone concerned, including the moderate Catholics.

Persons had come back once more as rector in 1598 by which time, what had in effect developed among the émigré Catholics were two differently oriented Colleges, one pro-Jesuit at Rome, and the other, anti-Jesuit at Douay (Ref 116).  William had had experience of both, and it appears that at some time he had informed Gerard of his cooling enthusiasm for joining the Jesuits (Coutts, in Ref 7).

William’s Catholic faith, however, seems to have been reinforced by his experiences of interrogation and travel abroad, and he was now convinced, for several reasons that Catholicism would return to England (Ch 13.7 to Ch. 13.9).  He was fully conscious of the fragmentation of Protestant sects in England, the deep-rooted affection for the ‘Old Religion’ there, and the strengthening of Catholicism in France.  How and when it would be accomplished only God knew, but he wanted to return to England, presumably to proclaim the true faith,

‘and merit that at length w[hi]ch I was not worthy of (to witt to give my lyffe at Tybourne, for testimony of the Catholic truth) with which I desire I live and hope shall dye’.

Here we find him expressing the same, perhaps over-dramatised kind of euphoric resolve that characterised his journey through Ware, back to Cambridge immediately following his reading of Rainolds’ Treatise.  In neither case, however, does he specifically mention loyalty to the Pope or to the Jesuit cause.

It was while he was in Rome that William had to answer some formal questions about his background (Ref 18), an innovation by Persons, the answers to which William then expanded in his Conversion in the form of a long letter to a friend (Note 37).  Over the months he proceeded through various orders, as far as the fourth (acolyte), but then left in May 1599, apparently through ill health (Ref 18).  He would have been expected to return by the usual ‘Spanish route’, opened up after 1589 and involving a sea crossing to the east coast of Spain and an overland crossing to Bilbao, or other northern port, for a passage to England (Ref 116) (see Fig. 5).

Return to England as a spy?

William in London, with vital information

William went from Spain to the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle.  There, not surprisingly, he was arrested and handed over to the English, as affirmed in Chamberlain’s correspondence of 23 August 1599 (Ref 5).  By the end of July he had been in the custody of Henry Lord Cobham (Note 38), who wanted to be delivered of him (Ref 49 g), and by 9 August was in the Tower where the Lord Lieutenant, Sir John Peyton wrote to Cecil reporting that William,

‘importunes me to advertise that he has some secret matter of importance touching the state which he intends only to impart to you By circumstances I conceive it some what concerns the northern part’ (Ref 49 h).

What this ‘secret matter of importance’ was we can only guess at.  But Cecil evidently did not think it was important enough to follow up very quickly, for Peyton wrote again to him on 24 August saying,

‘Alabaster in some stomach (as I conceive because out of your wisdom you forbore to give him audience) refused to make any material confession upon his late examination before Mr Attorney [Coke] Mr Wade (Note 39) and myself since which time he has desired to be permitted to write unto her Majesty some matter as he says touching the state in which I have accused hi[s] presumption and after some reasoning found his honour of pride somewhat qualified, so as I conceive upon his next examination he will be more plain and moderate (Ref 49 i).

Being ‘of the northern part’ would suggest that the matter was related to the accession of James IV of Scotland to the English throne.  James was the obvious choice and, indeed, as long ago as 1586, in the Treaty of Berwick, Elizabeth had blocked any move by the English Parliament to oppose his accession after her death (Ref 117; Note 99), although she later prevaricated.  In any case, at this time too, Henry Constable was in Scotland in negotiation with James about the succession (Ref 2).

In the meantime, on 13 June 1599, just before William’s arraignment, Frances Barnebys, a Catholic priest, had confessed to having come from Rome on 6 April that year, where Persons proposed not only to have his pamphlet on the succession read at the English College, but also intended to bring the Infanta to the Netherlands (Ref 49 f).   This highlighted the links between Persons and Essex in relation to the succession.

Essex and the succession

Peyton’s letter did speak of William’s ‘next examination’, but it was not until about a year later that there is any record of William having revealed anything at all substantial.  The reason may have been that he, having left Rome through illness, had remained on the sick list during his stay in the Tower, as testified by his heavy medical expenses there (Ref 2).  The record of his interrogation in the Tower was for 22 July 1600, when he was examined by Peyton and Coke, the official account of which is given in full by Guiney (Ref 2) and, nearly so by Sutton (Ref 7).  It shows William having been somewhat dangerously involved in political activity, first in Rome with Persons, then on the way home in Barcelona with two Spaniards – Joseph Cresswell, Superior of the Jesuits in Spain (rector of the English College, Rome, in 1589) and Don Juan Idaques (a Spanish politician).

The report comprised a mixed bag of items including two relating to the succession.  One of these concerned the claim of James IV of Scotland, for William ‘had heard in Spaine that the king of Scottes had, or would offer his subjection to the Pope of Rome so he would confirme the crowne to him’.  This was innocuous enough, and simply confirmed other rumours to the same effect; on the continent as early as 1599, Queen Ann of Scotland, a Catholic, had already supposedly converted her husband James, and in November 1600 Persons thought his conversion a serious possibility (Ref 53).

The second item concerned the claim of the Infanta.  William apparently carried a message for Essex, on instructions from the Duke of Cessye (Note 100), Persons, Idiaques and father Cressey (Cresswell) (Ref 2), urging him to support the Spanish Infanta’s claim to the English throne [a very good one, through Edward III and John of Gaunt], and to take the title on her behalf and to deal for peace with Spain, on condition that:

1) ‘Irleand [where Essex had been sent] should be quiet’;

2) ‘the lowe countries [i.e. the Protestant northern part of the Netherlands] should not be assisted against Spaine’; and

3) ‘Spaine should have the Indians [East Indies] free’ [because of the trade opportunities there; an English Joint Stock Company had already been formed in 1599 and would receive its Royal Charter on 31 December 1600 (Ref 4) (Note 40)].

Such an item as this second, with its conditions, was dynamite!  Even William’s agreeing to pass on such a proposal to Essex was, on the face of it, surely treasonable.  It is doubtful whether he actually succeeded in contacting Essex and passing on his information, but other channels of communication would surely have been available at that crucial time before Essex finally confronted Tyrone in September 1599 (Ref 40).  It was also stated in the trial documents at this time (July 1600) that Wright had conferred with Essex about the crown of England, that William carried letters for Essex from the Pope and the King of Spain suggesting that Essex should not deal against the Earl of Tyrone (Ref 2) [who was defending Ireland against the English].

Other confessions from William

William also confirmed the events of his escape from London, and told that he had heard from Wright himself, and in Rome [presumably from Persons] that Wright had conferred with Persons, although he said he could not remember what about!  This in itself was of little consequence, except that it might be construed as protecting someone.  But there was a further statement of much interest, though not hitherto commented upon by biographers, namely, that William,

‘confesseth that [Sir Robert? (Note 41)] Titchborne did robbe him and that he [Tichborne] found a letter as to himself wherein was intelligence of a greate fleete from Spaine, superscribed for her Majecties affaires which, together with Squires Booke was found & sent to the King of France, & from him to the Queen of England, which he [William] did to the end that he might the better and more safely passe into England’ (Ref 2).

I take this to mean that William was carrying a letter containing an intelligence report about Spain which he would have passed on to Cecil had it not been stolen.  I assume that this would have been prior to his capture in August 1599.  At about this time, when the Queen had rebuked Essex for his failing to advance into Ulster, ‘there was a note of hysteria to her rebukes, for intelligence of a threatened Spanish invasion of England had prompted mobilisation’ (Ref 40), which seems to confirm that the intelligence from William was sound.  Furthermore, I conclude that William’s possession of a book (Note 42), which was put out as propaganda in favour of the Queen, indicates his attachment and loyalty to her.  And of course, the acquisition of these items by Titchbourne as a Catholic (Ref 53), anxious to curry favour with royalty (Note 41) would have been most advantageous to him.

Essex in Ireland and thereafter

Essex had landed in Ireland in April 1599 with large forces, and after ineffective sorties to the south and west, during which he suffered heavy losses, was in no condition to advance north into Ulster to deal with Tyrone.   Yet against the advice of his Irish Council on 21 August, he did so (Ref 40).  Essex biographers cannot explain why he acted without waiting for the Queen’s approval, and then on 7 September made a truce with Tyrone, that was quite unacceptable to both the Queen and Tyrone’s companions. The overtures from Rome and Spain would appear to supply part of an answer, bearing in mind his erratic temperament and the evidence that later emerged of his intention to overthrow the Queen (Refs 54 & 118).

After Essex returned to England, without permission, on 26 September, he was initially charged, essentially with just disobedience and rashness, and it was not until 5 June 1600 that there was a more formal public indictment (postponed from the previous February 1600).

William’s information, together with other evidence was then used to draw up a charge of treason against Essex in July 1600, in which more details were given.  These included a covenant that Essex should not deal against Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone in Ireland.  Perhaps such a charge would have been brought sooner had the authorities had William’s information at the time at which Essex was publicly censured on 29 November 1599.  In the event, Essex was not tried until February 1601 following his unsuccessful armed insurrection (Note 44).  During the trial his surprising accusation, that it was Cecil who favoured the Infanta, failed, and he was found guilty, confessed (putting some of the blame on his servant Cuffe and was beheaded within the walls of the Tower on 26 February 1601.  William was said to have heard the swish of the axe (well, three swishes!), but that, surely is apocryphal (Ref 55).  Cuffe in his turn confessed at length and mentioned William and ‘one Roleson who have [both] ever found more favour since they professed themselves of the Spanish faction’.  Incidentally, early as 1591 Anthony Rolston was known as a ‘Catholic intelligencer’ in correspondence with Anthony Bacon as (Ref 118).

William’s role

William had appeared willing to divulge all his intelligence information voluntarily to the English authorities (at least to Cecil or the Queen) as soon as he had arrived in England in July 1599, and at some time between then and September 1601 he did in fact have an interview with Cecil (Refs 49 k & 61).  The official account, however leaves us wondering what his true original intention was.

Was it to support his former patron, Essex, in this treason, knowing that there was certainly a good deal of Catholic support for him to succeed to the throne, and believing that, as king, he would have restored the Catholic faith, or at least treated the Catholics tolerantly?  For one thing, having contact with Wright, he probably knew that Essex had said to him; ‘If I could be persuaded that the church did not seeke my blood, I could lyke your Religion well’ (Ref 2).  For another, William had given Essex his own reasons for becoming a Catholic, perhaps even expecting to persuade him to convert.  Also William’s appeal for help, when defending himself against the Anglican Bishops, had met with a sympathetic response from Essex and even some material help in the form of much sought after pen and ink.  Was he, indeed, all the time acting as one of Essex’s spies, but then, being captured, was he naively unaware of the likely reaction of Essex’s enemies to his revelations?  Or did he decide to expose Essex to save his own skin?

Alternatively, was he intent at an earlier stage to betray the plot to the English authorities, having heard of it by accident or even design, and perhaps having also heard and disapproved of Essex’s angry reaction to the Queen in half-drawing his sword on her in July 1598? (Ref 40).

It has been suggested (Paul Bembridge, personal communication) 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, not only of his family (some of whom he is reported to have converted) and close friends, like Racster, but also his teachers and tutors, such as Goodman and Overall, not to mention Catholic associates like Gerard and Persons.  It would also have had to involve the penning of insincere devotional sonnets, which seems to me to be 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 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?  There is also the puzzle that, if he was such a retained spy, why was he not allowed access to Cecil to reveal all as soon as he was recaptured?   Perhaps that too would have been a clever deception.

My own tentative conclusion, based on all this evidence is that he was indeed involved in espionage, but acting, adventitiously for Cecil as a ‘Catholic intelligencer’, being a genuine convert to Catholicism, even applying to join the Jesuits, but once in Rome, turning away from extreme anti-Elizabeth Roman Catholicism.

The stolen letter

Support for this conclusion could come from the letter that William said had been stolen from him by Titchborne. According to Professor Dana Sutton (personal communication), Professor Cyndia Clegg of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California has indeed identified such a document (Ref 145) and, from the distinctiveness of the handwriting, Sutton has identified it as having been written by William (Note 82)

When William was interrogated in July 1600 he said that the letter contained intelligence about a Spanish invasion fleet, and that it had eventually reached the Queen via the French King.  My transcription of the document is given in full in Appendix 4.  It is a personal statement, unsigned and not addressed to any particular person, and does contain intelligence. It mentions, amongst other things: 100 galleons offered to the Spanish king in order to protect the coast of Spain; a further 100 offered by the clergy to defend the coast from English men of war; 30 ships of war and 30 galleons that were available to intercept English ships in the straits (presumably of Dover), and also that the Genoese had promised ‘som good number’.  Although an invasion fleet as such is not mentioned, it reports a decision made to send 12,000 men to Ireland, adding that three ships of armour had already been sent to [Hugh O’Neill] the Earl of Tyrone, that 100,000 crowns had been given to the Marques of Derry, and that Milan had offered 40,000 men to help the war effort.  However, an offensive against England is reported as being unlikely during 1599 or the following year, although the Spaniards feared that should a treaty be concluded, and the English Catholics thereby would gain greater toleration, they would be more likely to support an English, rather than a Spanish succession at the Queen’s death.  There is mention too of the arrival at Barcelona of the young king [Philip III] of Spain, the Archduke [Albert of Austria] and [his wife, Isobella] the Infanta, [favourite daughter of Philip II] ‘by reason of important business’ and that before they departed there was ‘a secret deliberation’ on the desirability of war or peace.  And a final snippet concerns [Ranuccio I] the Duke of Parma’s wanting the Pope to confirm his title to the crown of England.

On the last page of the document there is appended a list of what seem to be desirable courses of action, namely: breaking the link between Philip and the Catholics [of England]; encouraging both sides to an honourable peace; and dealing with pretenders to the English throne and discouraging the Pope from supporting them.

So, there is considerable military and political intelligence in the letter, together with some advice, that subsequent events show was reasonably sound.  For example, it was at Derry, in the north that the Lord Deputy Mountjoy later (in 1600) engaged O’Neill, and subsequently defeated him and his Spanish allies at Kinsale in the south, in December 1601 (Ref 26), the Spanish reinforcements of 5000 troops in a fleet of 55 ships under Don Juan de Aguila having landed in Ireland the previous September (Ref 143).  And in October of 1599 the Archduke, who now ruled the Netherlands, had sent an envoy secretly to London, and in the following spring representatives of both sides met in Boulogne, although peace negotiations eventually broke down (Ref 144).  As for Parma, he, like other descendants of John of Gaunt were not popular choices for the throne, and Philip III was not sufficiently interested to pursue it; Philip was less fanatical than his father and continued the war in a desultory fashion – namely, as described in the letter, to maintain it ‘in an ordinary manner’.

All this suggests that the document is probably the letter in question referred to by William.

The document explains that when the writer had been in Rome, he wanted to show his loyalty to the queen by spying on the Spaniards, to which end, he had suggested to the Jesuit, Persons, that he should visit Essex in Ireland and see whether he would be both likely to favour Catholics and also willing to fall in with the proposal of the king of Spain that the Infanta should succeed to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth.  Furthermore, subject to the Queen’s approval of his scheme, he hoped to be able to travel repeatedly to England, as necessary.  So, taking this document at face value, William is seen to have been acting not as a courier loyal to Spain, but as a double agent, proposing something that would gain the trust of the Spaniards.  And if the English authorities believed from this ‘letter’ that there was not a genuine attempt by him to compromise Essex, this might explain in part why his trial had been delayed so long after William’s return to London, presumably awaiting the harder evidence of treason that was to follow.

After Persons had put William’s scheme to the Spanish ambassador, Duke of Cessye, William discussed it with Idaques in Barcelona and then set off, ostensibly for Ireland, though in reality bound for Bristol, England.

There is a good deal of agreement between this document and other government accounts already discussed, namely: the involvement of Essex, Cessye, Persons. Idiaques, Spinola and Tyrone, and the mention of Rome, Barcelona and La Rochelle, but there are a few extra points of difference and, therefore, interest.  Firstly, when he confided his business to an English merchantman with whom he travelled to La Rochelle from Bordeaux, he seems to have resented having been taken for a Jesuit.  He also reports that he had been arrested in La Rochelle after three days freedom there, and then released after three weeks confinement.  The Mayor, who having ‘found neither letters nor any suspicion of farther matters, uppon my often and earnest entreaty to be sent to her Ma[jes]tie, I was lett goe’.  William says that he agreed with Idaques not to ‘risk any letters from them’ until he had seen Essex, though this seems to be at variance with the statement in July 1600 that he had indeed carried letters from the Pope and the King of Spain.

So, we are still left with several unanswered questions. What happened after he was released in La Rochelle? When and where did he write the ‘letter’; was it when he was in custody in the Tower? And to whom was it to have been given? Cecil?

Whatever William was up to, as a spy or double agent, it must have been a dangerous game, always under suspicion as to where one’s true loyalties lay, and always having to face the possibility of brutal retribution from one’s enemies.  Imprisonment in the Tower would have increased his feeling of vulnerability and it would have been a sobering day for William on 13 March 1601 when, as the cold record tells, ‘Cuffe was taken from the Tower, Sir Gelly [Gilly Meyrick, Essex’s steward who had raised men from Wales (Ref 54)] from Newgate to Tyburn and there executed. The same day the Lord Keeper [Egerton], Lord Admiral [Nottingham, a friend of Cecil’s] and Mr Secretary [Cecil] went to the Tower and examined the Earls of Southampton and Rutland and Mr Alabaster’ (Ref 49 j).

If, as seems likely, and as argued by Clegg (Ref 145) that William’s testimony was used to discredit Essex in the eyes of the public, though not strong enough to support a charge of treason against him, he must have been saddened that his role had been so misrepresented by Coke.  No doubt, his continued imprisonment was then necessary so that the truth would not come out.

Framlingham Castle

In the summer of 1601 William was dispatched from the Tower to Framlingham Castle in Suffolk (Ref 25) and was probably among 28 prisoners (one of whom was Wright) ‘kept close and without meat’ for a few days, half starved in a dungeon (Ref 46).  The castle still stands and one can imagine the conditions at the time.  Here, there were no ‘handsome lodgings’ (Fig. 8).  The dungeon, measuring barely 10′ by 13′, is at the base of the Prison Tower and accessed only through the roof (Ref 63).  Little wonder that he wrote at length to Cecil on 9 August, complaining on behalf of all, of the high cost of food and lodgings and the restriction on exercise (Refs 49 k & 61).  The letter is reproduced in full in the Appendix (No. 2) because it has not been published before, and is remarkable for its high-flown language, not to mention William’s sheer nerve, under the circumstances; it is also of interest in confirming William’s earlier meeting with Cecil.  Incidentally, the fine italic hand is reminiscent of that of Essex.

Fig. 8. Plan of Framlingham Castle, Suffolk (from Ref 63)

In spite of these deprivations, William, as a Catholic, must have taken some comfort, knowing that it was at Framlingham that Mary‘s supporters had rallied to her in their thousands in 1553 when the outcome of the succession had still been in the balance and the attempt was made to set Lady Jane Grey on the throne.  On the other hand he may even have reflected on the fact that Bishop Ridley had failed to obtain Queen Mary’s mercy when he visited her at the castle in the July and was burned at the stake at Oxford two years later (Refs 63 & 135).  So much suffering in the name of religion!

It seems that William had been moved to Wisbech Castle, Lincolnshire, at some time prior to 1603, because there the priest, ‘John Grosse or Felton’ had talked to him, borrowed his copy of Lawrence Vaux’s Catechism and had been converted by him.  Rope, the Catholic source of this story also mentioned another priest, Henry Coppinger, who had entered the English College in 1607, and attributed his conversion to William’s advice (Ref 24).

Incidentally, it was at Wisbech where a great many priests were held, that the split between Jesuits and the more moderate ‘Appellants’ erupted angrily in the late 1590’s and helped to draw that important distinction between those who were loyal to the monarch and those who were not (Ref 53).  This dichotomy led to discussions with the government that, at the beginning of 1603, culminated in a declaration signed by thirteen secular priests, in which they maintained the spiritual supremacy of the papacy, but professed their complete allegiance to the Queen, even to the extent of disobeying papal demands to take up arms against her to help invaders (Ref 16).

Accession of James I and amnesty

James came to the throne in March 1603, and when his wife, a Catholic, declined the Protestant communion during the coronation in July, it must have been of considerable comfort to many Catholics like William, but a source of concern for Puritans.  Unfortunately, there was later a plot (the ‘Bye Plot’) against the King by a few disaffected Catholics, much to the horror of the majority, and it was fortunate that Gerard, who considered it ‘impudent folly’, had prudently tipped off the Privy Council about it (Ref 53), otherwise the reaction against Catholics in general would have been much stronger (Note 45).

To Groton Manor

Then, on 10 September, in accordance with the custom of amnesty being accorded to most prisoners on a succession to the throne, William was pardoned, the good news reaching Adam Winthrop at Groton well before William arrived there on the 21st (Ref 25).

The Alabaster and Winthrop families being close, there would have been plenty of news, good and bad to catch up on (Note 46).  William’s sister, Sarah had died the previous year, and his brother Thomas was to be apprenticed at neighbouring Boxford when he was a bit older, and Adam’s son John, twenty years William’s junior was soon to enter Trinity, Cambridge.  There had also been a grand family gathering the previous July, a repetition of the one they had experienced when William was just seventeen.  No doubt there would have been talk of country events as when Adam ‘began to sowe Magottes croft with barley’ and how, in July ‘Alcocks beasts’ had broken in, and of the earthquake he felt in 1601, and so on (Ref 25).   One gets the impression that Groton Manor, at that time, under the dominant influence of Adam, was a haven for William and the rest of the family, a place of tolerance of Appellant Catholic views, where perhaps the common factors of Christianity were appreciated, rather than the differences.  Indeed, Adam visited and exchanged gifts with the family of William Mannock a prominent recusant on the Essex side of the River Stour (Ref 140).  Mistress Winthrop, however, was a Puritan with strong convictions that she was to share with her son, John as he grew up (Ref 121), and she no doubt would have disapproved of William’s religious conversion. She had been inculcated in the evangelical religious outlook by her father, Henry Browne, one time rector of Groton, who insisted that ‘the minister and preacher must tell the people of their sins’, and she was not backward in doing the same; indeed, soon after William arrived at Groton that year she had rebuked the wife of her cousin, Joshua Winthrop (son of Adam’s half brother William) for her costly apparel and failure to attend various services (Ref 140).

William’s release did not affect his Catholicism or that of his fellow prisoners.  In fact, there was a substantial increase in the number of recusants from about 35,000 in March to perhaps 100,000 attending mass by the end of the year, despite urgent calls for prudence from Rome.  In February 1604, James declared ‘his utter detestation of the Papist religion’, and in March not only re-imposed fines for recusancy (of £20/month) but, admonished papists not to presume too much on his leniency, brought many before the courts and introduced a Bill on 24 April outlawing all Catholics (Refs 16 & 53).  The demand for clerical subscription (to the Common Prayer Book and the 39 Articles) that was spearheaded by Archbishop Bancroft peaked during the years 1604 to1606 (Ref 140).

Imprisonment again

In 1604 William was again involved in disputes, this time with Dr William Bedell, later Bishop of Kilmore and Armagh, questioning the continuity of the Church of England, to which only an ineffective and garbled reply was forthcoming (Ref 64), and in June that year, William was sent to the King’s Bench for preaching popery (Ref 25).  James was determined ‘to exterminate Jesuits, other priests and divers other corrupt persons employed under the colour of religion’ and by December, recusant fines were back in full force, including arrears! (Ref 16).

There was now a power struggle between, on the one hand, the Jesuits who would take extreme measures for their faith, culminating in the Powder Plot of 5 November 1605, and, on the other, the moderates (Appellants) who saw the danger of the back-lash of such actions.  The year 1606 saw the grim execution of the plotters, including even Garnet (on 3 May) who had learned of the plot only through the confessional.  When he said on the scaffold that he ‘ever meant to die a true and perfect Catholic’, John Overall protested, ‘But Mr. Garnet, we are all Catholics’ (Ref 53).  Overall, as we have already learned, was a moderate and mild man (Note 47), and he clearly took a broad view of Catholicism.  Perhaps that was how William felt, too, the corollary being a dislike of extremism, be it Jesuit or Puritan.

William wrote a sympathetic Latin poem (No. XV) on this terrible event in which he made reference to the ‘miraculous image’ of Garnet’s face found on a stained husk of corn left on the scaffold which was smuggled away, much to the annoyance of the English authorities (Ref 53).

‘Whenever a painter sets his hand to a picture for exhibition, he selects a tablet worthy of his lifelike strokes.  Thus did the hand of God, in order to paint the Jesuit’s face, execute a wondrous work of art on straw.  The Jesuit’s likeness could not be drawn to life had not a needle supported the straw that resembled him.  We stand open-mouthed in wonder at paintings of men on tablets; but here the tablet itself stands as the painting’ (Ref 31).


That summer, William, in anticipation of deportation, actually offered to spy for Cecil on Jesuits and priests on the continent, provided he was allowed sufficient maintenance, and not forced to earn money as a priest (Appendix (No. 3); Ref 65).  On the surface this might seem disloyal and mercenary, but as a moderate his action is congruent with those of a loyal, Appellant Catholic.  We do not know the outcome, but he was duly banished with many others (Ref 3), and on 24 July 1606 was reported to be among 50 English deportees in Rheims (Ref 58).  He is said ‘to have settled in Flanders, where his amiability and talents made him loved and respected by those around him’ (Ref 66), and although one would like to believe this statement, there is, unfortunately no other supporting documentation for it!

Cabbalistic writing

We do know, however, that he had been busy until the spring in writing a work on theology, which he wanted to dedicate to Persons, having written to him in April about it.  It seems an odd thing to have done.  Was it to curry favour and get closer to Persons in order for William to pursue his proposed spying activities?  But Persons in his reply of 12 May 1607 wanted it vetted before publication since he had already received some prejudicial remarks about it, and described it as, ‘a thing niew and subject to misconstruction’ (Ref 46).  The book comprised a commentary on Hebrew Biblical texts, with a Latin translation, but to my mind was certainly unorthodox and anachronistic, being based on the Cabbalistic method of extracting the hidden meaning allegedly contained in the scriptures, a method that had reached its peak between the 13th and 16th centuries (Ref 67) (Note 48).  We do not know when William became interested in Cabbalism, but the first evidence of it is in his letter of 1601 (Ref 65) when he referred to Cecil’s ‘honourable judgement and understanding [being] signified by [his] very name in Hebrew’.

Nevertheless, William went ahead that year and published his ‘Apparatus in Revelationem Iesu Christi’ [Commentary on the Revelation of Jesus Christ] in Antwerp (Ref 68) and, not surprisingly, by the October, it had already attracted adverse comment in England.  William Udall, who was involved in intelligence concerning the location of Jesuits and also with the confiscation of books and printing presses, wrote on the 15th to Cecil (now the Earl of Salisbury),

‘your secretary has seen the work of Alabaster, held comparable, They are not fitting to be kept but at your command’ (Ref 49 m).

There was a further reference to ‘pestiferus bookes’ by Gyggins and Alabaster (probably including Apparatus in Revelationen), having been brought from [the Jesuit College at] St. Omer to Dunkirk in August 1609 (Ref 69).

 To Rome again and the Inquisition

William was then actually summoned to Rome on the pretext, he tells us later in his ‘Note to the reader’ in Ecce Sponsus Venit [Behold the Bridegroom Cometh] published in 1633 (Ref 70), of negotiating a pension to compensate him for having to live on the continent as an exiled Catholic.  Was his stratagem to work as a spy actually succeeding?  He arrived at the English College, Rome on 23 January 1609 and was received as a pilgrim among the College community on 3 February (Refs 18 & 41).  Pollen, a Catholic, said he was seeking ordination (Ref 66).

His movements thereafter are not easily traced, but he left before September 1609 (Ref 46) (Note 49) and later, someone, probably Persons, wrote that William was sound in his [heretical, Protestant] faith and unwilling to conform to the College discipline.  Furthermore, he was not cut out for the priesthood, and would do better as a teacher of Hebrew or Greek at some Italian University where he could also study medicine (Refs 2 & 46).  It is true that there had been problems with discipline at the College (Ref 116), but otherwise, the analysis of his condition and the remedy suggested sound rather exaggerated.  Certainly Persons’ antagonism to Cabbalism would be quite understandable.  William was then arrested and imprisoned by the Inquisition, interrogated, and his ‘Apparatus…’ put on the Index of prohibited books (Ref 70).  It seems that his work was under correction from 18 December 1609 to 30 January 1610 (Ref 71), when the decree [of correction] was issued and recorded in ‘the annals of the Roman Church’ (Ref 70).  For William, it must have been like the tramontana, the frigid north wind that blew south from the Alps and reputedly brought fatigue and depression to Italy along with the cold (Ref 60).

The Inquisition in Rome was not the same as that in Spain.  For, whereas the Spanish Inquisition had been established under the crown in the 15th century and held sway in most Spanish possessions, including those in Italy, the Papacy did not established the Holy Office of the Roman Inquisition until 1542.  It had limited powers, in, for example, Naples, Venice and Genoa, although overall, it still had a greater influence in Italy than in any other European country (Ref 13).  By the Bull of 1520, Pope Leo had singled out all Luther’s works for prohibition, but it was Pope Paul IV who sanctioned the first worldwide censorship of books in 1559 and issued the first Index (Ref 59).

After 1580 the Inquisition focussed, not so much on the infiltration of Protestants into Italy, but more upon deviant philosophical and scientific ideas – hence the clampdown on William’s Cabbalism.  Their procedures compared favourably with those of secular courts, and the punishments were on the whole relatively lenient, graded from: 1) acts of penance; 2) public recantation; 3) house arrest (which is probably what William experienced); 4) perpetual incarceration (in practice often about three years); 5) service in the galleys; and 6) death!   Partial evidence indicates relatively few executions for heresy by the Roman Church in Italy in comparison with England under Mary (about 300) and Elizabeth (about 200) (Refs 13 & 129).  Censorship was, of course commonly practiced everywhere, but it was not very effective; the Jesuit, Cardinal Bellarmine, for example, complained in 1614 of the widespread circulation of ‘infected and pernicious books’ (probably including William’s) in all of which the Church’s failings featured prominently (Ref 70).

Of course, censorship was not unique to Rome.  It had a long history elsewhere as a weapon to prevent changes in the status quo.  In Mainz, for example, in 1486, anyone who ventured to translate or circulate translations of sacred books, especially the Bible, without permission was threatened with excommunication.  In England, the first edition of Tyndale’s New Testament had to be smuggled into the country and even then did not escape being publicly burnt! (Ref 12).

William was required to remain within the bounds of Rome for five years, but he soon made his escape for, on 21 June 1610, Serapanni wrote to Persons that Alabaster was in Marseilles, venting his wrath on Rome, the Jesuits and in particular Persons, accusing him inter alia of having been involved in the Powder Plot, and also accusing Bellarmine of promoting the assassination of James I (Ref 46) which was not all that far from the truth.

Meanwhile, following the Powder Plot, James had drawn up an oath of allegiance to distinguish loyal Catholics from potential traitors.  This had been to ‘abjure as impious and heretical this damnable doctrine and position that princes which be excommunicated or deprived by the Pope may be deposed or murdered by their subjects’ (Ref 16).  The oath must have resulted from Overall’s Convocation Book of 1606 in which the independence of the Church of England from Rome, and the duty of submission to the established government had been made clear (Ref 14).  Only a few took the oath, among them, George Blackwell, the archpriest (Ref 53), but generally it was a failure (Ref 16).  This provoked Paul V to forbid such subscriptions, and there followed a furious series of exchanges between, on the one hand, Protestants (including Isaac Casaubon (Note 90), Andrewes and James himself from England, as well as others from the continent), and on the other, Roman Catholics (mainly Bellarmine, with support from others including Persons), all challenging James’ authority (Ref 72).

Long before Serapanni’s letter, news of William’s ‘revolt from the Pope’s religion’ had already reached Adam Winthrop in April via his neighbour, Mr. Gurdon of Assington, who had heard it through Sir William Waldegrave, the elder; it was an event that Adam ‘could scarcely believe though readily wished to be true’ (Ref 25).

By 11 August 1610, however, William was again in custody, this time in Amsterdam, and, according to John Dickenson writing from the Hague to Sir Ralph Winwood at Dusseldorf, was planning to write against the Jesuits (Ref 112).  Sir Ralph, in turn reported on the 22nd to Sir Thomas Bodley, saying that William was imprisoned because the Dutch burgermasters doubted his sincerity (Ref 113).  William was also suspected of being involved in an attempt on the life of Prince Maurice (Ref 3 & Ref 112) who was leader of the northern Protestant States of the Netherlands, a suspicion that was natural enough in view of the assassination of Maurice’s father by Catholics in 1584 (Note 50).  Added to that, only a few months before, on 14 May 1610 (Note 51) the assassination of Henry IV of France by a Catholic, called Ravaillac had raised the temperature considerably against the Jesuits (Ref 73).

A Rumour

This same August 1610, a Jesuit newsletter reported:

‘A rumour is current in London of the arrival of Alabaster, and that he had indeed been sent in custody from the States of Holland; nevertheless, they dissembled this, and reported through London that it was necessary to search the houses of Catholics to take him.  There is fear that they will do so, as much for the Oath [of Allegiance] as a pretext against Catholics, particularly the priest [William] Baldwin, against whom they know that Alabaster entertains hatred, because as he believes, he denounced him before the Holy Office’ (Ref 2).

This report suggests that the Jesuits believed that William was still a Catholic and in prison, and that his pretended liberty would be used by the authorities as an excuse for a crackdown on Catholic houses.  It is not obvious why William Baldwin was mentioned, for he had been taken into custody that month, so obviating the need for any pretext against him; he had been indicted in January 1606 for involvement in the Powder Plot and remained in the Tower until 1618, though no charge of treason was ever brought against him, presumably for lack of evidence (Ref 53).  The suggestion of a wrongful denunciation could, however, be seen as a means of reinforcing the idea that Alabaster was still a Catholic (and so allowing him to be in a good position to continue gathering intelligence about Jesuits for the authorities).  Still, it is surprising that the Jesuits seem not to have known about William’s ‘revolt from the Pope’s religion’ when Adam Winthrop had heard about it at Groton months before.  So, it is possible that they put out the rumour themselves, making Baldwin’s denunciation the excuse for William’s known disaffection.

Whatever its origin, the rumour had been a false one; William was still in Amsterdam as shown by the letter of 2 September 1610 from Sir Thomas Lake (Note 52) to the Earl of Salisbury:

‘His highness has perused the papers you sent this morning and judges Alabaster to be a distracted person and wishes him to live a while in Amsterdam, where there is liberty for all religions, and to see what will become of him’ (Ref 49 n).

If, as is probable, the papers referred to William’s Cabbalism, James’ reaction is understandable.  But he was wrong about religious toleration there, because the Dutch had not agreed to tolerate Catholic worship in the north (Ref 39).  William did not remain abroad much longer, but returned home by 20 November, described as having, ‘revolted from the Pope’s Religion’ (Ref 25) and then, by 13 December had been ‘committed to the Dean of St. Paul’s, Overall (Ref 49 o), remaining at his house at least until February 1611.  There he declared he would live and die a Catholic (Ref 2), a statement that seems to be at odds with his recent revolt from the Pope, and calls for some sort of explanation.

A new argument

When William was in dispute with the bishops, two of his main arguments for Roman Catholicism had been, in short: 1) its recognition of the need for good works as well as faith; and 2) its authority derived from the continuity of the traditions of the elders.  The arguments were not all that powerful but, even so, the bishops had made few counter-arguments against them.

In exile, William, had written his Apparatus which was aimed to show that a secret method of explaining the mysteries of the scriptures was concealed in the actual words, and also hidden beneath the outward form of Catholicism; this he related in the preamble, ‘to the Reader’ in his Ecce Sponsus Venit (Ref 70).  Facing the Inquisition, he found an unexpected antagonism against his thesis, to which he reacted strongly, and hence there was no chance of an accommodation with the Church followed by a light punishment, but the need for an escape ‘not without very great danger to [his] life’ (Ref 70).

In an attempt to do justice to his reaction, a selection of his own words (translated from the Latin by Louise Ryley-Smith) is offered here, before attempting any paraphrasing (also imitating the fonts he used for emphasis):

So now I make a universal proclamation, the Roman Church has fallen, and groaned as it fell, and it has been inhabited by devils… God’s delight: Babylon [i.e. the early Catholic Church] my delight, has become a marvel to me. And never did it fall and become a dwelling place of demons… But these words must be understood to apply to Christian Rome, where it had departed from the simplicity of the Gospel, even in the time of the Apostles, and had transformed itself to become like it (Babylon), and a theatrical play, and an antitype that was prefigured in the Jews who in Moses’ time made images of living things; but through the mercy of Christ, who gave his life to the wolf for his sheep, the city was saved.  And although they believed in justification through works of penance, they were impious in practice: but because their spiritual worship of God was performed in mysteries it led in to true faith in Christ to those who rightly understood him; it was to be useful to the faithful, until it was taken from their midst, as has now been done by Paul V who forbids any mention or thought entertained of any other interior worship of God, or of any method of investigating higher mysteries for the general understanding of Catholics.  And the Roman Church has fallen twice from the state of grace in which Christ was keeping it.  The first was when it condemned the doctrine of justification by faith alone proposed by Luther; the idea of this had been the end of the divine indulgence, and a return to penance.  The second was in denying the virtue of the internal word [in Greek: ‘the indwelling word’] and rejecting contact and conformity with the hidden things of God: and having done that it chose, with Lucifer, to stand on its own. and not in God.  This was, and could not be any different from the position of the rebellious devil at the beginning of the world.  So now the whole worship of the Roman Church is ungodly, manifests the Devil not God, whom it clearly repudiates… The mystery of the Protestant faith will flood the whole earth of the Catholic Church… So now I come to oppose you, not in the usual fashion of Protestants, but so that I can reject the form your faith takes, and challenge your erroneous words. For just as the Apostles, in refuting the Jews, did not deny the truth of the law of Moses, but argued that in fact that great mystery belonged to Christ and his Church: neither do I tear up the truth your words contain…my point is that `you have used the words in vain practice… I snatch the golden chalice of the Babylonian harlot from his hands, and give them over, cleansed of filthy sensuality and ungodly observances, for the use of our Church. You have pious appearance, we have the virtue of piety; you have the glorious clothing of the faithful without the substance, we have the substance without the clothing; you know the attributes of wisdom. We have wisdom itself.  I divest you of the garments, foreign adornments, which you wrongfully stole; and I bear them into the Protestant Church; and so I may return the meaning of the ancient fathers to the Protestant sons, and the meaning of the Protestant sons to the ancient fathers so that they prepare the way for the coming of the Lord; and so that we, wearing the wedding garment of Ecclesiastical peace, may go in to the marriage feast with confidence.  For the ways of God are ways of peace, which until now have been full of shouting and fighting (like a night-time battle) because brothers have wrongly fought brother… Here are the seven chapter headings of my sermon.

1.         That the end of the world and the coming of Christ are to be expected soon.

2.         That there be an interior and particular way of reading and explaining scripture.

3.         That the authority of the Roman Church be curbed.

4.         That the faith and devotion of Catholics shall have been an outline of that of Protestants.

5.         That the number of Catholics to be united with Protestants must be investigated to see if it is greater than the other.

6.         That everyone from the communion of the Roman Church who wants to be saved must be instructed.

7.         That Protestants are to be clothed with all the glory of Catholic symbols [Note 87].

This should help to put William’s ‘revolt from the Pope’s Religion’ into perspective.   He was evidently vexed that his Cabbalistic approach should be turned down, and this seems to have been the main reason behind his reaction.  But he did not reject the whole of the Catholic Church out of hand.  On the contrary, he sought common ground, and advocated the exchange of the best of both versions of Christianity.  He was still a Catholic in the broad sense of the word – as used by Overall in his memorable response to Garnet on the scaffold.  And he seemed to be distinguishing between, on the one hand, the Catholicism that embraced the ancient, pre-evangelical, Oriental church, the medieval church, and, on the other, what has been called, Romanism – the Latin church turned against the Reformation (Ref 12).  With William having these views it is easy to understand his dislike of Jesuits and his leaning toward the Appellant Catholic position.


After the death of Salisbury in 1612, James I came increasingly under the influence of the pro-Catholic Howards (Ref 16), and ultimately, William seems to have found Royal favour.

At the end of that year his going ‘on with his fooleries’ triggered a catholic rebuke, presumably because he was not unequivocally supporting Catholicism (Note 81) but what appears to have been crucial to his rehabilitation was his penning of a number of pro-James Latin poems, the first against Kaspar Schoppe (Poem No. XXII), who was a Catholic humanist and had printed two treatises against James in 1611 and 1612, the latter of which was publicly burned (Ref 7).  Schoppe was only one of many who had become involved in the long drawn out controversy already mentioned between James and Bellarmine (Ref 72).

Another factor may have been, as reported by Chamberlain on 9 December 1613:

‘The Lord Chief Justice [Sir Edward Coke] called many recusants into the King’s-bench this last term, and there tendering the oath of allegeance, committed many for refusal; Hugh Holland [William’s friend] made difficulties a while, and stood upon nice points and interpretations, but he was willed to take yt as yt lies, or refuse altogether, so then in the end he yielded to take it’ (Ref 5).

So perhaps William took the oath then too.

In any event, William’s poem was followed, more importantly, by no fewer than five poems celebrating the wedding on 26 December, 1613 of Frances Howard and the Earl of Somerset, James’ favourite at the time – there were three long poems (Nos. XXIII to XXV) and two sonnets (Nos. XXVI & XXVIII).  The couple were married in the Chapel Royal, Whitehall by the Bishop of Bath and Wells (not Still, who had died in 1607), circumstances that replicated those of the bride’s first marriage to the Earl of Essex and drew the acerbic comment from Chamberlain, the itinerant correspondent,  ‘All the difference was, that the King gave her [away] last time, and now the father’ (Ref 5).  Frances had divorced her first husband in controversial circumstances, amid rumours of her promiscuity and his impotence, and what had struck Chamberlain as tasteless was that she now made a show of being a virgin in the way she wore her hair long (Ref 119), ‘pendant almost to her feet’ (Ref 72).  William refers to her as a virgin, and in several poems (Nos. XXIV to XXVII) a theme is cleverly based on an anagram of the name of one or other of the couple: for example, for the Earl of Somerset, Robert Carr, it translates, ‘I keep my harvest locked up for King James’, and for Frances, ’Why is there but one rose of such loyalty’ (Ref 7).

It was a propitious time to praise Somerset for he was then at the height of his popularity with the King.  Since the death of Cecil he had exercised many of the functions normally discharged by the Secretary of State, and he continued to do so even after the belated appointment on 29 March of Sir Ralf Winwood (Ref 72).  Soon Somerset would be displaced as the King’s favourite by the twenty-two-year-old George Villiers who was presented to the king in August 1614 and was knighted and appointed as a Gentleman of the Bedchamber the following year (Ref 72).

William was not the only person involved in celebrating the marriage.  Some, including John Donne, wrote poems, whilst others, including Thomas Campion, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton and Francis Bacon, produced masques for the lavish celebrations (Note 53).  The poems were mostly conventional, hypocritical, panegyrics, eulogising the bride’s beauty and virtue and extolling the groom’s qualities, but one by George Chapman was open to interpretation as a rebuke against the Earl of Essex and the bishops who had voted against the nullity, and required a later ‘justification’ (Ref 119).  Even some of William’s (Nos. XXIII & XXV) had a somewhat ambiguous and almost ironic quality, although not sufficiently so, apparently to have required redrafting! (Note 54).

William followed these poems up with one to James on the occasion of the birth of his grandson on New Year’s Day, 1614  (No. XXVIII).  A few days later (Note 55) he found himself preaching before James at Whitehall.  Perhaps, had William’s detractors read what he had written earlier about religion, they would not have labelled him ‘double or treble turncoat’ as Chamberlain had in reporting on the sermon to Sir Dudley Carleton (Ref 5) or, as ‘the worst of men’ as Winwood had done a couple of years earlier (Ref 113).  If on this occasion William had expounded his cabbalistic ideas, it would not have been surprising that, as Chamberlain wrote, ‘there were many clergymen that do not greatly applaud him, but say he made a curious fantasticall piece of work’ (Ref 5).

All this poetic activity, and perhaps even the sermon, seem to have worked in William’s favour for, by 14 March, 1614 he had gained the living of St. Mary’s at Therfield, Hertfordshire, one of the most lucrative in the country, allowing him to continue with his literary and linguistic studies and, perhaps, live a holy, virtuous and even discreet life! (Note 56).`      He had certainly fared better than Donne who seems to have shown a little envy in reporting William’s success to Sir Henry Goodyer, in which he implies that Overall regretted giving up the Therfield living (Ref 3), although Chamberlain wrote in the previous November that ‘We are like to lose our Dean of Powles who is to go [as Bishop] to Coventrie and Litchfield’ (Ref 5).  Donne had relied on Somerset for favours, without success, but when finally in desperation, Donne had taken holy orders in January 1615, he had immediately been appointed Chaplain-in-Ordinary to the king! (Ref 119).

Summary of the middle years 1597-1613

After his escape from the clink to hide in Gerard’s house, there to consolidate his conversion to Catholicism and continue writing his devotional English sonnets, William fled to the English College, Rome and began to distance himself from the extreme Jesuits there.  Ill health brought him back to England, carrying treasonable messages for the rebellious Essex (Note 57) that put William, first in the Tower for a year, and then in Framlingham Castle, Suffolk where he remained for two years until pardoned by James I on his accession to the throne.

On the eve of banishment with other Catholics after the Gunpowder Plot, he made what appears to have been an abortive attempt to act as a spy for Cecil, and then turned his attention to writing his first work on Cabbalism, which brought him into conflict with the Roman Inquisition, set him against the Pope and caused him to return to England.

A combination of a new pro-Catholic atmosphere under the influence of the Howards, William’s preaching effectively before the king, and his composition of laudatory verses to the King and his favourites, all led to his rehabilitation and appointment as rector of Therfield, Hertfordshire.


Appointment as rector

William’s appointment as rector marked a new, less turbulent period in his life, one in which financial security would enable him to marry and also to indulge his interest in theology, especially in Cabbalism.

The parsonage of St. Mary’s, Therfield became vacant on the nomination of the incumbent, Overall, to the Bishopric of Coventry and Litchfield in March 1614 (Ref 14), at which time William was ‘presented’ as his successor (Ref 75).  The position was the gift of the Dean (Overall) and the Chapter of St. Paul’s, and no doubt Overall himself was instrumental in putting forward William’s name.  However, at that time Overall had not been ‘restored to his temporalties’ [i.e. his normal condition], and was not consecrated Bishop until 21 May (Ref 14), so that William’s definitive presentation was delayed until June (Ref 75), William compounding for the first fruits (i.e. his first income) on the 29th (Ref 2).

Why Overall needed restoring to his ‘temporalities’ is not clear.  Hopefully it had nothing to do with there being an undercurrent of disapproval in Therfield of William’s appointment, for on 29 March the incumbent minister, Roger Goad reported to the Arch-dean, ‘Dr. John Overall is our parson, recusants we know not here’ (Ref 76).  No doubt Goad knew something of William’s past (Note 58) and also remembered the case, not all that long before, when Master James Rose, Commissioner of the Court of Lincoln was brought before the court for having taken five shillings from an Antony Gray of Therfield to absolve him from excommunication (Ref 77), the sort of malpractice that for many years had contributed to mounting anti-clerical feeling among the population, particularly against Catholics.  Whether or not William was aware of this rebuff by Goad, or of the case of Antony Gray, we do not know, but it may be significant that, on 5 May he abjured the [Roman] Catholic faith at a public synod at Westminster, and on 8 June had been absolved from all irregularity and restored to the Church of England (Ref 2).  A few years later there came from the Parish a cautious report, ‘to let you understand that all within our parish have took the [Protestant Sacrament of Holy] communion’ (Ref 76).

Altogether the summer of 1614 was a most propitious time for William for, on 14 June, on instructions from the King himself, he had been awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by the Vice Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and at the ceremony must have made another ‘fantastical piece of work’ for he found the hidden meaning, ‘man is put or placed for pain and trouble’ in the first words of the First Book of Chronicles that he took for his text (Ref 14).  How his fortunes had changed over just a few months!  Not that his luck would last the whole year, for in the autumn, he would be reminded of the theme of his sermon, ‘pain and trouble’, when on 29 October 1614, his mother died and was buried at Therfield (Ref 89).  What a disappointment, so soon after William had compounded for the first fruits of the living, that she had not lived longer as mistress of the manor to share his success (Note 64).

The Old Rectory, Therfield

When William became rector (Note 60) he must have been impressed by the size of the rectory.  It was certainly large by comparison with contemporary rectories or even lay manor houses.  Even today the 15th century buildings of flint rubble and clunch, with walls up to 2ʹ 6ʺ thick and ornate windows, are impressive, and indicate a house of some importance.  In fact it is considered one of the most interesting remains of medieval domestic architecture in Hertfordshire and has been listed as a Grade II building (Ref 78).

The manor of Therfield had been the property of Ramsey Abbey from the 11th century, the land then amounting to more than 1200 acres.  After the Dissolution in 1539, Henry VIII presented it in 1544 to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul’s (Ref 29).  The living was one of the best in England, with an estimated worth of £200/year (Ref 76), or even £300/year according to one Catholic commentator (Ref 24; Note 83), with glebe land of more than 100 acres (Ref 81).  It is difficult to equate these sums with modern values, or even to put them into a contemporary context, without knowing more of the type of expenditure incurred, but we can get some inkling of relative wealth by considering the wages of other classes of society in Hertfordshire at the time.  In 1592, for example, the ‘best sort of manservant, with livery’ would earn about £10 per year, and ‘the best sort of mowers and rakers of corn and grass’ would expect about 8 pence per day (4 New Pence) ‘with meat and drink’, and about 11 pence without!  (Ref 77).  By contrast, William’s income probably put him in the top 3% of the population (Note 84).

The rectory itself, running east to west, would have included a large timber-framed hall (where the present 18th century addition now stands), and across the eastern end would have been a large wing about 30 ft. long and 11 ft. wide, from which two further smaller wings would have projected eastwards (dashed line in Fig. 9).  There would have been a gallery at the eastern end of the hall, and on the first floor in the northernmost wing there is evidence of a chapel or oratory, furnished with a tall east window.  There was probably another wing at the western end of the hall (Refs 79 & 80), for a terrier of 1625 refers, not only to there being ‘on the east side of the hall, one little lower chamber, a cellar, a kitchen, a larder, [and] a scullery [and] above stairs four lodging chambers’, but also ‘on the west side of the entry, beyond the hall, two parlours, one study, one other little new built parlour [and] one pantry [and] above stairs four chambers, one study [and] a turret’.  It is also possible that when William was in post the space between the two small wings to the east would have been filled in and a new roof built, aligned north-south, to include the southeast wing; certainly some work had been done in the 17th century because of the ‘one other little new built parlour’ already noted (Ref 81).

Fig. 9. Layout of the Rectory, Therfield in 1625.

 The outbuildings were also extensive, including, on the south side, another kitchen, a brew house, a bolting house (where bran would be sifted from the flour), a dairy and a coal house; whilst on the north side were stables, a hay loft, a tiled wood house, two thatched barns containing five bays apiece, a granary, another wood house and a dovecot.  There were several fishponds, an orchard and a small garden as well as ‘a little walking cloister’ (Ref 81).

Altogether, this was a formidable property and, as if to make doubly sure of the king’s favour and his overall good fortune, William wrote yet another poem (No. XXIX), praising an orthodox book, A Christian and heauenly treatise containing physicke for the soule that had been published in 1615 by Bishop John Abernathy and prefaced by a dedicatory epistle to James’ favourite (Ref 7) (Note 59).

St. Mary’s Church, Therfield

The church itself (Fig. 10) had one particular feature that would have probably caught William’s attention and given him a feeling of belonging, and that was the chantry chapel attached to the north side of the chancel that had been endowed in 1430 by the Paston family with whom James Alabaster, probably a distant relative, was connected (Refs 82, 115 & 120) (Note 61).  So I picture William inspecting the chantry chapel in his church for the first time, reading the inscription there, and then suddenly making the distant connection with the legendary James, remembering the family lore about him helping the Pastons.

Fig. 10. St. Mary’s Church, Therfield

Therfield’s potential

The situation at Therfield would appear to have been ideal for a country parson, affording William the opportunity not only to breathe out the stench of city life and replace it with fresh Hertfordshire air which, as Fuller noted in his Worthies, caused buyers of land to pay ‘two years extra’ (Ref 83), but also to continue quietly his theological studies and his writing, having no financial worries, no obvious immediate conflict with the establishment and seemingly no pressure of religious duties.  He had, of course, never been close to the growing, strict Puritan movement that was epitomised in graduates from Cambridge, including those of his own Trinity College where his cousin John Winthrop had developed his very rigid views, though these were, if we are to trust Anya Seton’s well-researched historical novel, The Winthrop Woman, necessarily tempered from time to time by John’s father (Ref 121).

So, even had he been actively looking after his flock in Therfield, he was unlikely to have emulated some Puritans, like Richard Greenham who kept open house in their parsonages so that young men could come and stay with them to share in prayer and study, or others like Edward Dering who kept up correspondence with those who had problems of conscience (Ref 16).  In fact, what few records there are, even of his preaching, indicate that this was not carried out in Therfield itself. and did not endear him to Puritans.

One such example was in 1617 when he preached from the open pulpit in Spital Square before the Lord Mayor of London, Sir John Leman.  Following the practise of the day, his sermon was to have been subsequently recapitulated (with two others) by Dr. Thomas Beard, an ardent Puritan who, as a prependary at Lincoln had been summoned to do so by his bishop, Neile.  Beard actually proposed to criticise certain of William’s ‘tenets of Popery’, but in the event, Neile expressly forbade him to contradict any of William’s doctrine (Ref 131).

One can understand Richard Neile’s sympathy for William.  Like him, he had studied at Westminster school under the conservative, William Camden (who attacked the Edwardian Reformation and Puritanism) and during Gabriel Goodman’s time as Dean of the Abbey (1561-1601) where rituals, ornaments and a conservative clergy were more prevalent than in any other Protestant church, and where only later would its ceremonials be leavened by more evangelical sermons.  Neile followed Goodman and Lancelot Andrewes as Dean (1605-1610), and is considered an Arminian and one of the founding fathers of Laudian ceremonialism (Ref 132).

Proximity to James I

King James liked to summon men of eminence from Cambridge to preach before him, and Willia