Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Chidiock Titchbourne.

I have already drawn a picture of Jewish history in our country; the present is a companion-piece, exhibiting a Roman Catholic one.

The domestic history of our country awakens our feelings far more than the public. In the one, we recognise ourselves as men; in the other, we are nothing but politicians. The domestic history is, indeed, entirely involved in the fate of the public; and our opinions are regulated according to the different countries, and by the different ages we live in; yet systems of politics, and modes of faith, are, for the individual, but the chance occurrences of human life, usually found in the cradle and laid in the grave: it is only the herd of mankind, or their artful leaders, who fight and curse one another with so much sincerity. Amidst these intestine struggles, or, perhaps, when they have ceased, and our hearts are calm, we perceive the eternal force of nature acting on humanity; then the heroic virtues and private sufferings of persons engaged in an opposite cause, and acting on different principles than our own, appeal to our sympathy, and even excite our admiration. A philosopher, born a Roman Catholic, assuredly could commemorate many a pathetic history of some heroic Huguenot; while we, with the same feeling in our heart, discover a romantic and chivalrous band of Catholics.

Chidiock Titchbourne is a name which appears in the conspiracy of Anthony Babington against Elizabeth, and the history of this accomplished young man may enter into the romance of real life. Having discovered two interesting domestic documents relative to him, I am desirous of preserving a name and a character which have such claims on our sympathy.

There is an interesting historical novel, entitled “The Jesuit,” whose story is founded on this conspiracy; remarkable for being the production of a lady, without, if I recollect rightly, a single adventure of love. Of the fourteen characters implicated in this conspiracy, few were of the stamp of men ordinarily engaged in dark assassinations. Hume has told the story with his usual grace: the fuller narrative may be found in Camden; but the tale may yet receive from the character of Chidiock Titchbourne, a more interesting close.

Some youths, worthy of ranking with the heroes, rather than with the traitors of England, had been practised on by the subtilty of Ballard, a disguised Jesuit of great intrepidity and talents, whom Camden calls “a silken priest in a soldier’s habit:” for this versatile intriguer changed into all shapes, and took up all names: yet, with all the arts of a political Jesuit, he found himself entrapped in the nets of that more crafty one, the subdolous Walsingham. Ballard had opened himself to Babington, a Catholic; a youth of large fortune, the graces of whose person were only inferior to those of his mind. In his travels, his generous temper had been touched by some confidential friends of the Scottish Mary; and the youth, susceptible of ambition, had been recommended to that queen; and an intercourse of letters took place, which seemed as deeply tinctured with love as with loyalty. The intimates of Babington were youths of congenial tempers and studies; and, in their exalted imaginations, they could only view in the imprisoned Mary of Scotland a sovereign, a saint, and a woman. But friendship the most tender, if not the most sublime ever recorded, prevailed among this band of self-devoted victims; and the Damon and Pythias of antiquity were here out-numbered.

But these conspirators were surely more adapted for lovers than for politicians. The most romantic incidents are interwoven in this dark conspiracy. Some of the letters to Mary were conveyed by a secret messenger, really in the pay of Walsingham; others were lodged in a concealed place, covered by a loosened stone, in the wall of the queen’s prison. All were transcribed by Walsingham before they reached Mary. Even the spies of that singular statesman were the companions or the servants of the arch-conspirator Ballard; for the minister seems only to have humoured his taste in assisting him through this extravagant plot. Yet, as if a plot of so loose a texture was not quite perilous enough, the extraordinary incident of a picture, representing the secret conspirators in person, was probably considered as the highest stroke of political intrigue! The accomplished Babington had portrayed the conspirators, himself standing in the midst of them, that the imprisoned queen might thus have some kind of personal acquaintance with them. There was at least as much of chivalry as of Machiavelism in this conspiracy. This very picture, before it was delivered to Mary, the subtile Walsingham had copied, to exhibit to Elizabeth the faces of her secret enemies. Houbraken, in his portrait of Walsingham, has introduced in the vignette the incident of this picture being shown to Elizabeth; a circumstance happily characteristic of the genius of this crafty and vigilant statesman. Camden tells us that Babington had first inscribed beneath the picture this verse:—

Hi mihi sunt comites, quos ipsa pericula ducunt.

These are my companions, whom the same dangers lead.

But as this verse was considered by some of less heated fancies as much too open and intelligible, they put one more ambiguous:—

Quorsum hæc alio properantibus?

What are these things to men hastening to another purpose?

This extraordinary collection of personages must have occasioned many alarms to Elizabeth, at the approach of any stranger, till the conspiracy was suffered to be sufficiently matured to be ended. Once she perceived in her walks a conspirator; and on that occasion erected her “lion port,” reprimanding her captain of the guards, loud enough to meet the conspirator’s ear, that “he had not a man in his company who wore a sword."—“Am not I fairly guarded?” exclaimed Elizabeth.

It is in the progress of the trial that the history and the feelings of these wondrous youths appear. In those times, when the government of the country yet felt itself unsettled, and mercy did not sit in the judgment-seat, even one of the judges could not refrain from being affected at the presence of so gallant a band as the prisoners at the bar: “Oh, Ballard, Ballard!” the judge exclaimed, “what hast thou done? A sort (a company) of brave youths, otherwise endued with good gifts, by thy inducement hast thou brought to their utter destruction and confusion.” The Jesuit himself commands our respect, although we refuse him our esteem; for he felt some compunction at the tragical executions which were to follow, and “wished all the blame might rest on him, could the shedding of his blood be the saving of Babington’s life!”

When this romantic band of friends were called on for their defence, the most pathetic instances of domestic affection appeared. One had engaged in this plot solely to try to save his friend, for he had no hopes of it, nor any wish for its success; he had observed to his friend, that the “haughty and ambitious mind of Anthony Babington would be the destruction of himself and his friends;” nevertheless he was willing to die with them! Another, to withdraw if possible one of those noble youths from the conspiracy, although he had broken up housekeeping, said, to employ his own language, “I called back my servants again together, and began to keep house again more freshly than ever I did, only because I was weary to see Tom Salusbury’s straggling, and willing to keep him about home.” Having attempted to secrete his friend, this gentleman observed, “I am condemned, because I suffered Salusbury to escape, when I knew he was one of the conspirators. My case is hard and lamentable; either to betray my friend, whom I love as myself, and to discover Tom Salusbury, the best man in my country, of whom I only made choice, or else to break my allegiance to my sovereign, and to undo myself and my posterity for ever.” Whatever the political casuist may determine on this case, the social being carries his own manual in the heart. The principle of the greatest of republics was to suffer nothing to exist in competition with its own ambition; but the Roman history is a history without fathers and brothers! Another of the conspirators replied, “For flying away with my friend I fulfilled the part of a friend.” When the judge observed, that, to perform his friendship he had broken his allegiance to his sovereign, he bowed his head and confessed, “Therein I have offended.” Another, asked why he had fled into the woods, where he was discovered among some of the conspirators, proudly (or tenderly) replied, “For company!”

When the sentence of condemnation had passed, then broke forth among this noble band that spirit of honour, which surely had never been witnessed at the bar among so many criminals. Their great minds seemed to have reconciled them to the most barbarous of deaths; but as their estates as traitors might be forfeited to the queen, their sole anxiety was now for their families and their creditors. One in the most pathetic terms recommends to her majesty’s protection a beloved wife; another a destitute sister; but not among the least urgent of their supplications, was one that their creditors might not be injured by their untimely end. The statement of their affairs is curious and simple. “If mercy be not to be had,” exclaimed one, “I beseech you, my good lords, this; I owe some sums of money, but not very much, and I have more owing to me; I beseech that my debts may be paid with that which is owing to me.” Another prayed for a pardon; the judge complimented him, that “he was one who might have done good service to his country,” but declares he cannot obtain it. —“Then,” said the prisoner, “I beseech that six angels, which such an one hath of mine, may be delivered to my brother to pay my debts."—“How much are thy debts?” demanded the judge. He answered, “The same six angels will discharge it.”

That nothing might be wanting to complete the catastrophe of their sad story, our sympathy must accompany them to their tragical end, and to their last words. These heroic yet affectionate youths had a trial there, intolerable to their social feelings. The terrific process of executing traitors was the remains of feudal barbarism, and has only been abolished very recently. I must not refrain from painting this scene of blood; the duty of an historian must be severer than his taste, and I record in the note a scene of this nature.1 The present one was full of horrors. Ballard was first executed, and snatched alive from the gallows to be embowelled: Babington looked on with an undaunted countenance, steadily gazing on that variety of tortures which he himself was in a moment to pass through; the others averted their faces, fervently praying. When the executioner began his tremendous office on Babington, the spirit of this haughty and heroic man cried out amidst the agony, Parce mihi, Domine Jesu! Spare me, Lord Jesus! There were two days of execution; it was on the first that the noblest of these youths suffered; and the pity which such criminals had excited among the spectators evidently weakened the sense of their political crime; the solemnity, not the barbarity, of the punishment affects the populace with right feelings. Elizabeth, an enlightened politician, commanded that on the second day the odious part of the sentence against traitors should not commence till after their death.

One of these generosi adolescentuli, youths of generous blood, was CHIDIOCK TITCHBOURNE, of Southampton, the more intimate friend of Babington. He had refused to connect himself with the assassination of Elizabeth, but his reluctant consent was inferred from his silence. His address to the populace breathes all the carelessness of life, in one who knew all its value. Proud of his ancient descent from a family which had existed before the Conquest till now without a stain, he paints the thoughtless happiness of his days with his beloved friend, when any object rather than matters of state engaged their pursuits; the hours of misery were only first known the day he entered into the conspiracy. How feelingly he passes into the domestic scene, amidst his wife, his child, and his sisters! and even his servants! Well might he cry, more in tenderness than in reproach, “Friendship hath brought me to this!”

“Countrymen, and my dear friends, you expect I should speak something; I am a bad orator, and my text is worse: It were in vain to enter into the discourse of the whole matter for which I am brought hither, for that it hath been revealed heretofore; let me be a warning to all young gentlemen, especially generosis adolescentulis. I had a friend, a dear friend, of whom I made no small account, whose friendship hath brought me to this; he told me the whole matter, I cannot deny, as they had laid it down to be done; but I always thought it impious, and denied to be a dealer in it; but the regard of my friend caused me to be a man in whom the old proverb was verified; I was silent, and so consented. Before this thing chanced, we lived together in most nourishing estate: Of whom went report in the Strand, Fleet-street, and elsewhere about London, but of Babington and Titchbourne? No threshold was of force to brave our entry. Thus we lived, and wanted nothing we could wish for; and God knows what less in my head than matters of state. Now give me leave to declare the miseries I sustained after I was acquainted with the action, wherein I may justly compare my estate to that of Adam’s, who could not abstain one thing forbidden, to enjoy all other things the world could afford; the terror of conscience awaited me. After I considered the dangers whereinto I was fallen, I went to Sir John Peters in Essex, and appointed my horses should meet me at London, intending to go down into the country. I came to London, and then heard that all was bewrayed; whereupon, like Adam, we fled into the woods to hide ourselves. My dear countrymen, my sorrows may be your joy, yet mix your smiles with tears, and pity my case; I am descended from a house, from two hundred years before the Conquest, never stained till this my misfortune. I have a wife and one child; my wife Agnes, my dear wife, and there’s my grief — and six sisters left in my hand — my poor servants, I know, their master being taken, were dispersed; for all which I do most heartily grieve. I expected some favour, though I deserved nothing less, that the remainder of my years might in some sort have recompensed my former guilt; which seeing I have missed, let me now meditate on the joys I hope to enjoy.”

Titchbourne had addressed a letter to his “dear wife Agnes,” the night before he suffered, which I discovered among the Harleian MSS.2 It overflows with the most natural feeling, and contains some touches of expression, all sweetness and tenderness, which mark the Shakspearean era. The same MS. has also preserved a more precious gem, in a small poem, composed at the same time, which indicates his genius, fertile in imagery, and fraught with the melancholy philosophy of a fine and wounded spirit. The unhappy close of the life of such a noble youth, with all the prodigality of his feelings, and the cultivation of his intellect, may still excite that sympathy in the generosis adolescentulis, which Chidiock Titchbourne would have felt for them!

“A letter written by CHEDIOCK TICHEBURNE the night before he suffered death, vnto his wife, dated of anno 1586.

“To the most loving wife alive, I commend me vnto her, and desire God to blesse her with all happiness, pray for her dead husband, and be of good comforte, for I hope in Jesus Christ this morning to see the face of my maker and redeemer in the most joyful throne of his glorious kingdome. Commend me to all my friends, and desire them to pray for me, and in all charitie to pardon me, if I have offended them. Commend me to my six sisters poore desolate soules, advise them to serue God, for without him no goodness is to be expected: were it possible, my little sister Babb: the darlinge of my race might be bred by her, God would rewarde her; but I do her wrong I confesse, that hath by my desolate negligence too little for herselfe, to add a further charge vnto her. Deere wife forgive me, that have by these means so much impoverished her fortunes; patience and pardon good wife I craue — make of these our necessities a vertue, and lay no further burthen on my neck than hath alreadie been. There be certain debts that I owe, and because I know not the order of the lawe, piteous it hath taken from me all, forfeited by my course of offence to her majestie, I cannot aduise thee to benefit me herein, but if there fall out wherewithal, let them be discharged for God’s sake. I will not that you trouble yourselfe with the performance of these matters, my own heart, but make it known to my uncles, and desire them, for the honour of God and ease of their soule, to take care of them as they may, and especially care of my sisters bringing up the burthen is now laide on them. Now, Sweet-cheek, what is left to bestow on thee, a small joynture, a small recompense for thy deservinge, these legacies followinge to be thine owne. God of his infinite goodness give thee grace alwaies to remain his true and faithfull servant, that through the merits of his bitter and blessed passion thou maist become in good time of his kingdom with the blessed women in heaven. May the Holy Ghost comfort thee with all necessaries for the wealth of thy soul in the world to come, where, until it shall please almighty God I meete thee, farewell lovinge wife, farewell the dearest to me on all the earth, farewell!

“By the hand from the heart of thy most faithful louinge husband,



“Made by CHEDIOCK TICHBORNE of himselfe in the Tower, the night before he suffered death, who was executed in Lincoln’s Inn Fields for treason. 1586.

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,

My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,

My crop of corn is but a field of tares,

And all my goodes is but vain hope of gain.

The day is fled, and yet I saw no sun,

And now I live, and now my life is done!

My spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,

The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves are green,

My youth is past, and yet I am but young,

I saw the world, and yet I was not seen;

My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun,

And now I live, and now my life is done!

I sought for death, and found it in the wombe,

I lookt for life, and yet it was a shade,

I trade the ground, and knew it was my tombe,

And now I dye, and now I am but made.

The glass is full, and yet my glass is run;

And now I live, and now my life is done!3

1 Let not the delicate female start from the revolting scene, nor censure the writer, since that writer is a woman — suppressing her own agony, as she supported on her lap the head of the miserable sufferer. This account was drawn up by Mrs. Elizabeth Willoughby, a Catholic lady, who, amidst the horrid execution, could still her own feelings in the attempt to soften those of the victim: she was a heroine, with a tender heart.

The subject was one of the executed Jesuits, Hugh Green, who often went by the name of Ferdinand Brooks, according to the custom of these people, who disguised themselves by double names: he suffered in 1642; and this narrative is taken from the curious and scarce folios of Dodd, a Roman Catholic Church History of England.

“The hangman, either through unskilfulness, or for want of sufficient presence of mind, had so ill-performed his first duty of hanging him, that when he was cut down he was perfectly sensible, and able to sit upright upon the ground, viewing the crowd that stood about him. The person who undertook to quarter him was one Barefoot, a barber, who, being very timorous when he found he was to attack a living man, it was near half an hour before the sufferer was rendered entirely insensible of pain. The mob pulled at the rope, and threw the Jesuit on his back. Then the barber immediately fell to work, ripped up his belly, and laid the flaps of skin on both sides; the poor gentleman being so present to himself as to make the sign of the cross with one hand. During this operation, Mrs. Elizabeth Willoughby (the writer of this) kneeled at the Jesuit’s head, and held it fast beneath her hands. His face was covered with a thick sweat; the blood issued from his mouth, ears, and eyes, and his forehead burnt with so much heat, that she assures us she could scarce endure her hand upon it. The barber was still under a great consternation."— But I stop my pen amidst these circumstantial horrors.

2 Harl. MSS. 36. 50.

3 This pathetic poem has been printed in one of the old editions of Sir Walter Rawleigh’s Poems, but could never have been written by him. In those times the collectors of the works of a celebrated writer would insert any fugitive pieces of merit, and pass them under a name which was certain of securing the reader’s favour. The entire poem in every line echoes the feelings of Chidiock Titchbourne, who perished with all the blossoms of life and genius about him in the May time of his existence.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53