Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Research notes

What follows is an example of why I love working with certain types of court records. Lately, I've been working my way through files largely consisting of indictments, for database-quantification purposes. Not thrilling (well, occasional flashes of interest). But now I'm on a nice meaty box of witness examinations and depositions, and I come across a teaser of a case, with the added bonus of interlinking national politics and local relationships. It's about seditious words again - or is it?

It's October 1680, and George Dutton tells two Cheshire magistrates that he

heard Mr William Winfeild of Tattenhall on the 17th day of June last was twelvemonthe [ie, 1679] say in his house that the queene had sent his matie three peares one wherof hee eate & if hee had eaten another all the doctors in London could not saved his life & that the duke of Yorke when hee went for Holland gave consent to his secretary to poyson the king yt Sr Jeffrey Shakerley was turnd papist his name being in the list & concerned in the plott & yt the then cheife justice of Chester was likewise in the plott & standing in his owne doare declared that the king leaned with the papists & was in the plott & would doe none of his true subjects any good & the countrys money went to maintayne his bastards...

At this point you need some national political context. 'The plott' is the Popish Plot, an anti-Catholic fabrication propagated by Titus Oates and others in 1678 that (playing on Protestant prejudice/paranoia) created a political furore. The allegations were that leading Catholics including the duke of York and the queen, Catherine of Braganza, were conspiring to murder the king and set up a Catholic government. (Sir Jeffrey Shakerley was a leading figure in Cheshire society and politics; I think he may have been MP, but I forgot to check in the library today.) And this was a set of lies with fatal consequences: a number of both leading and obscure Catholics lost their lives before the allegations were ultimately exposed.

You might already be wondering why the king himself would be 'in the plott' (but bear in mind that there was little that was logical about the Popish Plot business). However, the JPs questioned several witnesses, and they cast considerable doubt that Wyngfeild had ever said those words. No one else came forward to say that they had heard him say anything like it to them. A group of witnesses even disputed Dutton's claim that he had on one occasion within a couple of weeks - or, indeed, at any other time - told them what Wyngfeild had said.

Dutton's brother, however, said that about three weeks after midsummer 1679 George had said to him "that Mr Wyngfeild tould him [George] that if there was any plot the king was concernd in it". George's nephew said that George had told him (yes, there's a lot of "X told me that Y said that..." in this) that he had been dissuaded from reporting the words at the time by a neighbour, Charles Hughson, because "it would be a troublesome businesse and yt [Hughson] desired George to live peaceably & quietly as neighbours should doe".

Hughson himself confirmed that at midsummer 1679 "there was a quarrell between Mr Wyngfeild and George Dutton & that blows did passe betwene them", because, according to George again, "Mr Wyngfeild had spoken treason but ye next morneing Mr Wyngfeild threatned to sue George at London for ye scandell & George Dutton then threatned to goe and complaine to ye justices for ye treasonable words". It's ambiguous from this whether the quarrel and blows are supposed to have followed the initial speaking of the words or the subsequent threats and counter-threats. Hughson, too, could not swear that George had ever declared to him the exact words alleged, though "some thing was said yt ye king inclined towards being a papist". And he affirmed that he and his wife had "used their endeavours to make them freinds". So, Hughson's priorities were clear: neighbourliness and local peace were more important than vague allegations of seditious words about the king.

I haven't yet cross-checked other records to see if either man ended up appearing before the courts, or whether there's any record of previous contention (binding over to keep the peace, litigation, etc). It's not even entirely clear from the depositions whether, by that point (and why did it take so long?), the magistrates think that they're dealing with a case of seditious words (by Wyngfield) or of defamation (by Dutton), or whether Dutton went to them or they forced him to.

There was evidently a quarrel between Dutton and Wyngfield in June 1679, but what caused it is obscured. If, as I tend to suspect, Wyngfield never said anything stronger than that "ye king inclined towards being a papist", then it seems unlikely that Dutton would become quite so angry nor that the conflict would have intensified so easily unless there were already some kind of bad blood between them. Dutton complained that Wyngfeild "had don him wrong", which might refer to the threat of litigation (and yet it was only a threat), or to the fight they had. Or did it express already existing grievances? Equally, I do tend to think that Wyngfield probably said something prosecutable by the standards of the day, and that Dutton's claims were not pure invention. Another aspect of the law of seditious words is that it could make a useful weapon against indiscreet enemies and rivals. The disavowals of those witnesses may well indicate their desire, like Charles Hughson, to damp down this dispute in the name of neighbourhood cohesion.

But plenty of people had repeated those claims of Catholic plotting in 1678-9. Why not William Wyngfield? Maybe Dutton was telling the truth, or something very close to it, and the witnesses were closing ranks to protect Wyngfield (a man of higher status, by the way; 'Mr' was in this period still a title reserved to the wealthy gentleman). Why rake up old scandals, anyway? Especially if it might involve offending one's social superiors?

I don't, as you might realise by now, go to these records because they offer any reassurance that we can know what 'really' happened in the past. But I rather enjoy the uncertainties; I like being forced to think about the possibilities created by the gaps and ambiguities in the records. I really like 'maybe' and 'on the other hand'. Yesterday's post was about letting my brain wander around making odd connections. This one is about setting it to focus on one concentrated micro-slice of 'stuff' (good technical term there). Getting those two modes to play together is, basically, how I do history.

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