Lancashire Plot

The “Lancashire Plot.”

he town of Manchester was in a state of indignant and feverish excitement on the 17th of October, 1694, being the sixth year of the reign of William the Deliverer. Everywhere groups of townspeople were discussing the all-absorbing topic of the “Lancashire Plot,” for on that day there came to the town four of their Majesties' judges, with every circumstance of pomp and parade, to try for their lives gentlemen of the best blood of Lancashire and Cheshire; unfortunate prisoners who were accused of having conspired against the Deliverer, of having been guilty of the treason of remaining faithful to the old King, whom the rest of the nation had cast off. The prisoners were brought into town strongly guarded, amidst the sympathetic demonstrations of their neighbours, who were equally liberal of groans and hisses for the wretched informers who were about to do their endeavour to bring them to the scaffold.

Lancashire, which in the civil war struck some hearty blows for the Parliament, was now a hotbed of disaffection. The old cavalier families, in spite of bitter experience of Stuart ingratitude, remained faithful in spirit to the exile of St. Germains; and the common people would have no love for King William, who was a foreigner, nor for Queen Mary, who sat upon the throne of her royal father, whilst he wandered a weary exile in a foreign land. The accused would have been pretty certain of sympathy had the public mind been convinced of the reality of the supposed conspiracy. How much more so, then, when it was shrewdly suspected that the charge had been trumped up by a gang of villains eager for blood-money, and supported by greater rogues anxious for a share of the estates which would be forfeited upon the conviction of their victims? Nor was the suspicion altogether groundless; covetous eyes were fixed longingly on these fine Lancashire acres, and the Roman Catholic gentry ran great danger of being defrauded of their inheritances.

In 1693, a commission sat at Warrington to inquire into certain lands and property alleged to have been given to “superstitious uses,” i.e., to ascertain whether the Roman Catholic gentry had applied any portion of their estates or income to the promotion of their faith, or the sustenance of its ministers, and if they could be convicted of this heinous crime the property was confiscated, and one-third portion was to be the reward of the undertakers. So confident were these persons of their prey, that the plunder was prospectively allotted. As the result of this commission, where the defendants were not heard, the matter was carried into the Exchequer Chamber. Here it was pretended that at a meeting at the papal nuncio's house, Lord Molyneux, William Standish, Thomas Eccleston, William Dicconson, Sir Nicholas Sherborne, Sir W. Gerard, and Thomas Gerard, had all promised money or lands for Popish uses. But the accusers had been very clumsy, for the falsehood of each separate item of the accusation was so abundantly proved, that the Government was forced to abandon all further proceedings.

When, therefore, in the next year, it was bruited about that a plot had been discovered to bring back King James and murder King William of Orange; that men had been enlisted, commissions received from St. Germains, arms bought and concealed in the old halls of Lancashire and Cheshire, and that those who had by the Warrington inquiry been in danger of losing their broad acres, were now also likely to lose their lives; men said, not unnaturally, that it was a base and horrible conspiracy against the Lancashire gentlemen; that this was the next move in the iniquitous game began at Warrington. If broken tapsters and branded rogues were to be encouraged in devoting to the traitor's block gentlemen of rank and estate, whose life was safe?

Such was the state of feeling amongst the crowds which surrounded the Sessions House, opposite to where our present Exchange is erected. It was not until the 20th that the trial before a jury began. On that Saturday, Sir Roland Stanley, Sir Thomas Clifton, William Dicconson, Philip Langton, Esquires, and William Blundell, Gent., were placed at the bar and, in long verbose sentences, accused both in Latin and English generally of being false traitors to our Sovereign Lord and Lady, and specifically of having accepted commissions for the raising of an army from James II., late King of England. After the case had been opened, Sir William Williams, their Majesties' counsel, called, as first witness, John Lunt, who was asked if he knew all the five men at the bar. Lunt, with front of brass, answered that he did know them all. Here Sir Roland Stanley cried out, “Which is Sir Roland Stanley?” Whereupon, to testify how intimately the informer was acquainted with them, he pointed out Sir Thomas Clifton! Great was the outcry in the court, which did not lessen when the judge bid Lunt take one of the officers' white staves, and lay it on the head of Sir Roland Stanley, and he again indicated the wrong man. Being asked which was Sir Thomas Clifton, he unhesitatingly pointed out Sir Roland Stanley. Having thus shown his accuracy, he was allowed to proceed with his narrative of the plot. His evidence asserted that in 1689 one Dr. Bromfield, a Quaker, was sent by the Lancashire gentry to the court at St. Germains, to request King James to send them commissions, that they might enlist men for his service. Bromfield, beingknown as a Jacobite agent, it was determined to employ some one less known, and Lunt was pitched upon for the purpose. So, in company with Mr. Threlfall, of Goosnargh, he came over in a vessel which landed at Cockerham, that famous village where the devil dare not come. At the residence of Mr. Tildesley they separated, Threlfall went into Yorkshire to distribute commissions, and Lunt was summoned to attend a midnight meeting of the Lancashire Jacobites, held at the seat of Lord Molyneux, at Croxteth. Here the persons now accused were present, and many others, none of whom Lunt had ever seen before. The commissions were delivered, the health drunk of their Majesties over the water, and some little additional treason talked. At this point in the evidence Sir Roland Stanley remarked how improbable it was that he should accept a commission which might endanger his life and estate from an utter stranger. “But,” cries Lunt, “I brought you with your commission Dr. Bromfield's letter.” Then the judge said to Sir Roland, “You are answered—that was his credentials;” but did not think fit to say that Lunt had made no mention in his depositions of this circumstance, which was evidently invented on the spur of the moment to confound Sir Roland Stanley. The judge also observed there was no great matter in Lunt not being able to point out the prisoners correctly. Lunt, thus encouraged by Sir Giles Eyre, proceeded with his veracious narrative—swore that the Lancashire gentlemen had given him money to enlist men and buy arms; that he beat up sixty men in London, who were quartered in different parts of the County Palatine; and particularised some persons to whom arms had been sent. In 1691 (about July or August), he was sent to France, to acquaint the Pretender with what his friends had been doing, and to inquire when they might expect him in England. The spring following was named as the happy time when the Stuarts were to be re-established on the English throne. He also named a meeting at Dukenhalgh, when some more commissions were distributed by Mr. Walmsley, one of the accused. Mr. Dicconson now asked Lunt why he had not disclosed the existence of this terrible plot, or why he had revealed it at all. Lunt was evidently prepared for this inquiry, and his retort was prompt and crushing. Some proposals had been made to which he could not assent. Being pressed by the Court to be less reticent, and explain his meaning, he said there was a design to murder King William; that the Earl of Melfort (the Pretender's friend and minister) had asked him to aid in the assassination; he had consented to do so, but a Carthusian friar, to whom he had revealed it under confession, told him it would be wilful murder if King William were killed, except in open battle, and he had revealed the plot lest his old colleagues should carry out their wicked project.

Such, in brief, was the evidence of Lunt, deviating often from the tenour of his previous depositions, which had been made before he had been under the moulding influences of Aaron Smith, that unscrupulous Jacobite hunter, whose duty it was to manage these little matters, to procure witnesses and favourable juries. Favourable judges were supplied by his betters. And to fully understand the gravity of the prisoners' position it should be recollected that they could not have the assistance of counsel; their witnesses could not be compelled to attend; they were ignorant of the witnesses to be produced against them; and, until they stood in the dock, had not heard the indictment against them. Every circumstance was in favour of the crown. Lunt's evidence was corroborated by Womball, a carrier, and one Wilson, who had been branded for roguery, as to the delivery of commissions and arms. Colonel  Uriah Brereton (a saddler's apprentice and common sharper) testified that he had received money from Sir Roland Stanley for the service of King James. This worthy Captain Bobadil being asked if he was not poor and necessitous when he received these gifts, cried out, in true ruffler style, “Poor! That is a question to degrade a gentleman.” The remaining evidence we need not go into, save that of John Knowles, who, having been sworn, declared “by fair yea and nay, he knew nout on't.”

Then, after short speeches by Stanley and Dicconson, the witnesses for the defence were examined. The first half-dozen made some damaging attacks upon the character of John Lunt, representing him as a mean scoundrel, a bigamist, and a notorious highwayman. Then Lawrence Parsons, his brother-in-law, testified that he had been invited by Lunt to aid him in denouncing the Lancashire gentlemen, but had refused the offer of 20s. per week and £150 at the end, rather than “swear against his countrymen that he knew nothing against.” Mr. Legh Bankes, a gentleman of Gray's Inn, told how Taafe, an intimate friend of Lunt's, and who was expected to be a witness for the crown, had been to the wife of Mr. Dicconson, and revealed to her the whole design of Lunt, offering to introduce some friend of the prisoner's to Lunt, as persons likely to be serviceable in any swearing that might be needed to hang the prisoners. Mr. Bankes was suspicious of this being a trap; but having been introduced to Lunt, that worthy, over a glass of ale, very frankly said that he wanted gentlemen of reputation to back his own evidence, and if Bankes would join he should be well provided for. He produced his “narrative of the plot,” and Taafe read aloud this manuscript, which named several hundreds besides the prisoners. “Why were these not taken up also?” inquired Bankes. Lunt's answer was, “We will do these people's business first, and when that hath given us credit, we will run through the body of the nation.” When the next witness arose, Lunt and Aaron Smith must surely have trembled, for it was their old friend Taafe, who, after adding his testimony to Lunt's villainous character, gave a brief account of that worthy gentleman's career as a discoverer of plots. How the first one he discovered (it was in Kent) came to nothing, as he had failed to find corroborative evidence; and how he was near failing again from the same cause; how Aaron Smith had edited and improved his original narrative. Lunt wanted Taafe as a witness, complained that the men he had hired to swear were blockish, and of such low caste as to carry little weight. Could Taafe introduce him to some gentleman—(God save the mark!)—willing to perjure his soul, consign innocent men to the scaffold, and receive blood-money from Aaron Smith? Taafe, from some motive not clear, determined to baulk the villany of his fellow-informer, hence the circumstances narrated by Mr. Legh Bankes, whose suspicions of treachery had prevented a full discovery. Taafe had partially opened his mind to the Rev. Mr. Allenson, who had also distrusted him in a similar manner. In Roger Dicconson, brother of the prisoner, he found a bolder and more adventurous spirit. The evidence of Mr. Allenson need not be analysed. He was followed by Mr. Roger Dicconson, who told how he was introduced at a coffee-house in Fetter Lane, by Taafe to Lunt, as a proper person to aid in the plan. Dicconson called himself Howard, a member of the Church of England, willing to join in the plot for a valuable consideration. Lunt said they had gold in for £100,000 a year, and that the informants were to have a third of the forfeited estates. He asked Lunt if he knew Dicconson's brother, and Lunt, all unconscious that he was sitting face to face with him, replied, “Yes, very well; for he had delivered commissions to Hugh and Roger Dicconson about Christmas!”

Many more witnesses were examined, some of whom established that certain of the prisoners were not in the neighbourhood of Croxteth and Dukenhalgh at the time of the alleged Jacobite meetings at those places; whilst others gave most damaging evidence as to the utter rascality of Lunt and his chief witnesses—Womball, Wilson, and Brereton. The judge, in his summing up, contented himself with saying that the matter deserved great consideration, in which opinion the jury did not agree, for, after a short consultation, and without leaving court, they returned for each prisoner a verdict of Not Guilty. Mr. Justice Eyres then discharged them, with an eulogy upon the merciful and easy Government under which they lived, and advised them to beware of ever entering into plots and conspiracies against it. Lord Molyneux, Sir William Gerard, and Bartholomew Walmsley, Esq., were then put to the bar, but, no witnesses appearing, they were also declared Not Guilty, which gave Mr. Justice Eyres an opportunity for another cynical speech, concluding with these words: “Let me therefore say to you, go and sin no more, lest a worse thing befall you.” As they had just been pronounced innocent, the meaning and fitness of his remarks are somewhat questionable. But if his bias prejudiced him against the prisoners, they would have compensation in the popular satisfaction at their acquittal. Manchester went mad with joy. Lunt and his merry men were pelted out of the town, and only escaped lynching by the intervention of the prisoners' friends; and all concerned in the prosecution came in for a share of popular hatred. The peril which the Lancashire gentlemen thus strangely escaped was a very great one, but the peril which the country escaped was greater still, for had there been wanting the disaffection of Taafe to his brother rascal Lunt, the courage and address of Roger Dicconson, and the honesty of the Manchester jury, England might have seen a repetition of the atrocities of Titus Oates and William Bedloe; might have seen a bigamist highwayman going from shire to shire and fattening on the blood and ruin of the best of her nobles and gentlemen.

Such will be the impression left on most minds by a candid examination of the proceedings at this remarkable trial as recorded in the volume edited by the Rt. Rev. Alexander Goss, D.D., for the Chetham Society in 1864. It is only fair to add that those who believe in the reality of the “plot” may cite the resolution of the House of Commons (many witnesses on the subject were examined some months after this trial), that there had been a dangerous plot, and that the special assize at Manchester was justifiable. That resolution strikes one as being more political than judicial. A prosecution for perjury against Lunt was abandoned, because it was understood that persistence in it would bring on the prosecutors the weight of the harsh penal laws.