God's Playthings

Mark as finished
Font:Smaller АаLarger Aa

Marjorie Bowen

God's Playthings

Published by Good Press, 2021


EAN 4064066201807

Table of Contents



















Table of Contents

“This letter has given rise to various conjectures.”–Dalrymple’s Memoirs.

From Ringwood, the 9th of July, 1685.

My Lord,

Having had some proof of your kindness when I was last at Whitehall, makes me hope now that you will not refuse interceding for me with the King, being I know, though too late, how I have been misled; were I not clearly convinced of that, I would rather die a thousand deaths than say what I do. I writ yesterday to the King, and the chief business of my letter was to desire to speak to him, for I have that to say to him that I am sure will set him at quiet for ever. I am sure the whole study of my life shall hereafter be how to serve him; and I am sure that which I can do is worth more than taking my life away; and I am confident, if I may be so happy to speak to him, he will himself be convinced of it, being I can give him such infallible proof of my truth to him that, though I would alter, it would not be in my power to do it. This which I have now said, I hope will be enough to encourage your lordship to show me your favour, which I do earnestly desire of you and hope that you have so much generosity as not to refuse it. I hope, my lord, and I make no doubt of it, that you will not have cause to repent having saved my life, which I am sure you can do a great deal in if you please; being it obliges me to be entirely yours, which I shall ever be, as long as I have life.


For the Earl of Rochester, Lord High Treasurer of England.

Knowing that I had been involved in the miserable final adventure of that unhappy Prince, James Scot, Duke of Monmouth, and even been with him in that last Council in Bridgewater, my lord Rochester showed me this letter with a kind of languid malice, and even had the indecency to smile at it and address to me a remark slighting to the unfortunate writer of that desperate appeal.

“For,” said he, “had Monmouth a secret to reveal, though ever so base a one, he had disclosed it to save his life–and since he disclosed nothing ’tis proof plain this was but a fool’s trick to catch mercy.”

He said no more, but I was minded to tell what I knew that I might do justice to the memory of one wronged and wretched; yet the impulse was but passing, for I knew that the secret his dead Grace had never discovered was one which for pity’s sake I must be silent on; and well I was aware also that what I could say would awaken no understanding in the cold heart of Lawrence Hyde. My Lord’s Grace of Monmouth has been dead ten years, and in the potent and huge events that have changed Europe since, he has been forgotten by all but some of those poor souls in the West who called him King. But I, who joined fortunes with him in his reckless enterprise, hold often in my thoughts him whose fate is now reckoned but a trifle in the history of nations. Both in the exile that followed Sedgemoor and the years in England under His present Protestant Majesty have I considered silently the tragic mystery of this young man whose life was useless pleasure and whose death was bitter anguish.

It hath a curious sound that I, once penman to his Grace, should now be secretary to the Earl of Rochester; I gave my master this reflection, and he laughed in his indolent fashion and answered that ten years had accomplished the work of a hundred, and that the rebellion in the West was ancient history. Yet when he had left me to my work I copied this same letter (written in a quick hand with the agony of the author showing in that forceful entreaty to one who had never been his friend), and I brought the copy home with me and now must write under it the explanation like the key to a cipher. Not to show any, but rather to bury or destroy; not to betray the secret of the dead, but to ease mine own heart of one scene which has haunted me these long ten years.

It hath a turn of folly to write what will never be read, but the impulse driving me is stronger than reason, and so I make confession of what I know while holding my faith inviolate.

At the time of the capture of my lord in ’85, the indecent cruelty of the then King in seeing one whom he had resolved to be bitterly avenged on, and in commanding to be published an account of those agonies he should have been most sedulous to veil, was much commented upon, and first gave his people the impression of that ill-judging severity of character and stern harshness of temper they soon found unendurably galling.

It was well known too at that time, that my lord had obtained that interview with the King by reason of the desperate letter he wrote, of the same trend as the epistle he sent to my lord Rochester, declaring he had somewhat of such importance to reveal that it should put the King’s mind at rest for ever concerning him. Various were the rumours abroad concerning this secret and what it might be, and as it was known from the King’s lips that his Grace had revealed nothing, many supposed, as my lord Rochester, that it was but a feint to obtain an audience of his Majesty; yet how any could read those letters and not see they were inspired by the bitter truth, I know not. Some believed that it was that his Grace had been urged to his fatal undertaking by His present Majesty, then Stadtholder of the United Provinces, and that he had about him letters from that Prince’s favourite, Monsieur Bentinck.

Yet all evidence was against this, and the Duke himself appealed to the Stadtholder to bear witness that he had no designs against England when he left The Hague, but intended for Hungary (for which purpose, indeed, the Prince equipped him) and had since been misled by the restless spirit of the Earl of Argyll and other malcontents whom he met, to his undoing, in Brussels.

More believed that the disclosure related to that subtle designing minister, the Earl of Sunderland, who was deep in the councils of the King’s enemies, yet held his Majesty in such a fascination that no breath against him was credited, even at the last, when he ruined the King easily with a graceful dexterity that deceived even Monsieur Barillon, who is esteemed for his astuteness.

Yet what reason had my lord Sunderland, intent on far larger schemes, to lure my lord Monmouth into a disastrous expedition, and what object had his Grace in keeping a final silence about such treachery?

Nor would the revelation of the falsehood of his Majesty’s minister or the discovery of the dissimulation of his Majesty’s nephew be such a secret as his Grace indicated in his letter–“for I have that to say to him which I am sure will set him at quiet for ever”–whereas either of these communications would rather have set King and Kingdom at great trouble and dis-ease.

No one came near the truth in their guesses, and after a while no one troubled, and truly it is an empty matter now; still, one that containeth a centre of such tragic interest that for me the wonder and pity of it never dieth.

To bring myself back to the events of that fatal year (the recollection groweth as I write), it shall here be noted that I was witness of the great and bitter reluctance of my lord to lead this rebellion.

He was brave in his spirit, but of an exceeding modesty and softness in his temper, of a sweet disposition, averse to offend, fearful of hardship, a passionate lover of life, generously weak to the importunities of others.


Yet for a great while he withstood them, avoided Argyll, shut his doors to Lord Grey and Ferguson and was all for retirement with the lady whom he truly loved, Harriet Wentworth.

But from Love for whom he would put by these temptations came the goad to urge him into the arms of Ambition, and she, who in her pride would see him set on a throne, joined her entreaties to the arguments of the men who needed a King’s son for their leader, and pawned the very jewels in her ears to buy him arms. And he was prevailed upon to undertake this sad and bitter voyage with but a few adventurers whose much enthusiasm must take the place of money and wits, for of these last they had neither. At first his Grace’s heart utterly misgave him and he was more despondent than any man had ever known him, being indeed in a black and bitter mood, reluctant to speak on anything but Brussels and my lady waiting there.

This brought him into some discredit with his followers, but Ferguson had spirit enough to inspire the ignorant, and Lord Grey, who, though a man dishonoured in private and public life, was of a quick moving wit and an affable carriage, animated the little company of us, not above a hundred, who had joined together on this doleful enterprise.

But when we had landed on the rocky shores of Lyme Regis, it was his Grace whose mood became cheerful, for his ready sensibility was moved by the extraordinary and deep welcome these people of the West gave us, for, whereas we who were at first, as I have said, but a hundred, in a few days were six thousand, all hot on an encounter and confident; truly it was marvellous to see how these people loved his Grace and how he was at the very height of joyous exaltation in this fair successful opening.

Taunton saw a day of triumph when his Grace was proclaimed King in the market-place by a mad speech of Ferguson in which wild and horrible crimes were laid to the charge of James Stewart, and I think Monmouth saw himself King indeed, at Whitehall, so gracious and gay was his bearing.

But my lord Grey looked cynically, for not a single person of any consideration had joined us, and, while the gentry held back, ill-aimed and untrained peasants were of no use to us. Yet had his Grace done better to trust their fanatical valour and march on for Bristol and so take that wealthy town, instead of spending his time endeavouring to train his men–God knows he was no general, though a brave soldier in his services in the Low Countries!

While he dallied, my lord Beaufort was raising the trained bands, and my lord Feversham came down from London with some of the King’s troops. Then came that attempt of my lord Grey on Bridport when he forsook his men and fled; though this was proved cowardice, his Grace was too soft to even reprimand him.

In miserable searching for food, in vain straggling marches, in hesitations, in fatal delays the time passed; his Grace might have had Bristol, a place abounding in his own friends; yet, hearing that the Duke of Beaufort had threatened to fire it rather than open the gates, he turned towards Bath, saying he could not endure to bring disaster on so fair a city.

This faint-hearted gentleness was not fitted for the position he had assumed; at Bath they killed his herald and returned a fierce defiance. So we fell back on Frome in disorder; and my lord saw his visions melting, his dream of Kingship vanish, for in the same day he received three pieces of news: that the three Dutch regiments had landed at Gravesend, that my lord Argyll was a prisoner, and that my lord Feversham was marching upon him with three thousand men and thirty pieces of cannon.

And now the full utter madness of what he had undertaken was apparent; we had neither cannon nor arms, scarcely powder; and he who had seen the fine armies of Holland and France could not but see the hopeless position he held with a force of these poor peasants, the cavalry mounted on cart and plough horses, the foot but armed with scythes and pruning-knives. Despair and dismay gained an audience of his mind; he fell suddenly into agonies of fear and remorse for what he must bring on these followers of his; from every one who came near him he asked advice, and the anguish of his spirit was visible in his altered countenance. He called councils in which nothing was resolved but the desperate state they were in, and nothing talked of but the folly that had put them there; his Grace passionately blaming Ferguson and Argyll for their evil urgings. Then it was resolved to retreat on Bridgewater to be nearer the sea; on this march some few left his Grace, but most stayed in a dogged love, and this faith touched his tender heart as much as his own danger, and wrought such a passion of weak agony in him it was piteous to see the expression of it in his face.

At Bridgewater he viewed the enemy through his glasses from the top of the church tower; there and then, I think, he knew that he gazed on a country he must soon for ever leave.

Alas! alas! In my nostrils is still the scent of that July afternoon, the perfume from the slumbrous grasses, the scent of the peaceful flowers.…

That day we had a very splendid sunset; all the west was gold and violet and the whole sky clear of clouds, yet over the morass below the castle the marsh fog lay cold and thick, for lately it had rained heavily and the Parret had overflowed its banks, so the whole earth was wet–very clearly I recall all details of that day.

Here I come to that picture that is for ever with me–the last Council of my lord. Had I the skill of some of those Hollanders whom I have seen abroad, who can limn a scene just to the life, I could give this scene on canvas with every colour exact.

It was a room in the Castle, not large, looking on to the garden; through the open window showed that emblazoned sunset, and a rose and vine leaf entwined against the mullions.

The panelling of the chamber was darkened and polished, above the mantelpiece was a painting of a stone vase of striped and gaudy tulips, very like, and there were logs ready on the hearth, for the evenings were chilly. On the floor was a little carpet of Persia, and in the centre a table with stools set about it, all of a heavy, rather ancient design. A little brass clock with a mighty pendulum stood against the wall on a bracket; on the table were two branched candlesticks, clumsy and shining.

There were gathered the rebel officers, talking themselves into a boastful confidence; the only man of quality among them, my lord Grey, stood a little apart beside the open window–and smiled; he was a curious man, not well-favoured, but one whom it was pleasant to look upon, tall and dark, with that little fault in the eyes that casteth them crooked. My office was an idle one, for there was nothing to write, so I watched the others and felt chilled at the heart for the hopelessness of it all.

When the dusk gathered, my lord Grey drew the curtains across the rising mists and lit the candles slowly.

When the last flame rose up, Monmouth entered quietly: he ever had a light step.

Marred as he then was by his inward misery, he was still the loveliest gentleman in England and of a winning beauty impossible to be realised by those who have not seen him; he wore a riding coat of brown cloth and a black hat with a penache of white plumes, being more plainly dressed than ever he had been before, I think, in all his easy life.

They all rose when he entered, but he motioned them to their seats again, and I saw that he had not the firmness to command his voice to speak. He took the place they had left for him, and Lord Grey, shading the candle flame from his eyes, stared at him with that crossed glance of his and that immovable expression of amusement on his lips. For a while they spoke together, to cover, as I took it, this dismal discomposure on the part of their leader.

But presently he took off his hat impatiently, showing his long soft hair of that English-coloured brown and his eyes, of the tint of a chestnut, that usually shone with so bright a light, and leaning a little forward in his chair he broke into astonishing speech.

“I cannot go on,” he said. “I will not go on–there is nothing ahead but ruin.”

At these words that so stript the poor pretence of hope from their councils, these officers sat revealed as fearful and stricken men. They looked at Monmouth as one who would be the mouthpiece of their own terrors; my lord Grey withdrew himself a little from them and went to stand by the mantelshelf, from there observing all.

The red came into the Duke’s face and he eyed them wildly.

“What are we going on?” he said. “We are not such fools as to think we can prevail now.… I saw Dumbarton’s Scots yonder on Sedgemoor.… I know how they can fight … they were under me at Bothwell Brig.…” He pressed his handkerchief to his lips and he was trembling like a sick maid.

They saw in his eyes that he considered them, as the play saith, on “the edge of doom,” and as he had given them leave for ignoble thoughts, so each took advantage of it and bethought him of his own sad condition.

“We have but a rabble,” said one. “And there is yet a chance to get over seas—”

“I cannot fall into the hands of James Stewart,” muttered Monmouth; “for I have done that which cannot be forgiven.” And there was such pusillanimous fear in his wretched look of shivered dread that it passed like a panic through all that they too had done what could not be forgiven; nor was James Stewart a merciful man. One voiced the general terror:

“We could get to the coast before any guessed we had left Bridgewater–in flight lies our only chance.”

Then my lord Grey made this speech.

“There are six thousand people have left their homes to follow you–would you, my lord, abandon them to that fate ye cannot face yourself?”

Monmouth looked at him; maybe he thought it strange that the man that had been a proved coward under fire should speak so intrepidly in the council, yet he was too unnerved for a retort or an answer.

“Oh, you,” added Lord Grey, with a flick of a scorn in his tone, “who took the title of a King, and are a King’s son, cannot you make a more seemly show of it than this?”

“It is my life,” said the Duke in a piteous agitation. “Five thousand pounds on my head … to die as Russell did.…”

“You are a King’s son,” repeated Lord Grey.

In a desperate passion his Grace answered him.

“Why did you induce me to this folly? It was you, that villain Ferguson and Argyll—”

“He has paid,” said the other quickly.

“As I must pay.… My God, was I not happy in Brabant? You but wanted my name to gild your desperation—”

“We would have made you King,” said Lord Grey, and he smiled a little.

There fell a silence, and it seemed that the Duke would speak, but he said no words.

“Come, gentlemen,” spoke out my lord Grey. “The Council is over–you will have your orders before morning–all expedients are ineffectual; now each, in his own way, must go forward to the end.” He took up the candle to light them from the room, and they, being men of a little station, were overawed by his quality and went; two of them deserted that night, and one betrayed us by firing a pistol to warn Lord Feversham of our approach and so got the King’s pardon. God be merciful to the others; I think they died unknown and brave.

I, being trusted because there was a price on my head and I had borne the torture in Scotland, was asked by Lord Grey to stay and help hearten his Grace.

We endeavoured to reason him into going into Castle Field, where Ferguson preached to the miners and ploughmen; he would not, but in a weak agony abused Wildman and Argyll as the engines of his torture, and he had the look on him we call “fey”; I believed he was near his death.…

So the night fell very misty and warm, and my lord would not lie down, but sat in that little room struggling with anguish.

He had his George of diamonds on and often looked at it and spoke incoherently of how King Charles had given it him … surely my pity was more provoked than my scorn, for he was soft and gentle in his ways and so had gained much love.

That morning one had complained to him Lord Grey should be dishonoured for his behaviour without Bridport–and he had answered: “I will not affront my lord by any mention of his misfortune–” yet here was he sunk in utter misery while Lord Grey strove to rouse in him a manly and decent courage with which to be worthy of these poor brave souls who loved and followed him; presently he came round to his old and first appeal.


“Remember you are a King’s son.”

It was near one in the morning by the little brass clock, and I sat wearily by the door that led to the bedchamber; the Duke was at the table, and as my lord Grey spoke he looked up and began laughing. He laughed so long and recklessly that we were both dumb in a kind of horror, and when at last he came to a pause in his laughter there was silence.

Now the Duke discovered some fortitude: he rose and helped himself to wine, which brought the fugitive blood back into his cheeks and he held himself with more dignity, though there was that wild look of unsettled wits in his wide-opened eyes.

“My lord,” he said, “and you, sir–bring the candles nearer and I will show you something—” He put back the admired locks that screened his brow and took from the pocket of his inner coat a leather book that he laid on the table before us.

“What is this?” asked my lord Grey.

The Duke untied the covers in quiet and let fall on the polished wood all manner of odd and foolish papers, letters, complexion wash recipes, charms and notes of his journeyings in Holland.

These he put aside and drew from a secret lining a silver case such as is used for a painting in little.

It was my thought that it contained the picture of Lady Harriet, which we were to return to her if either lived to do it, and I was sorry for this lady who had been so faithful in her love.

From one to the other of us the Duke looked strangely; his face was flushed now and beautiful as in former days when he was the loved one of that great brilliance at Whitehall, yet still he had the seal of death on him, and, worse than that, the horrible fear of it writ in every line of his comely countenance.

“Please you, look here,” he said; he opened the locket and held it out in his palm.

“What is this?” he asked in a husk and torn voice.

It was the likeness of a man, very fairly done, who wore a uniform and cravat of the time of the death of King Charles I.

Lord Grey looked at it quickly.

“It is your Grace,” he said; then, seeing the dress–“No,” he added, and glanced swiftly at Monmouth–“who is it?”

“It is Colonel Sidney taken in his youth,” I said, for I had known the man well in Rotterdam when he was attached to the court of the late King Charles, then in exile there. And I gazed at the painting … it was a marvellous fair face.

While I looked my lord Duke had three letters out from the same secret corner of his book, and I saw that two were in the writing of Colonel Sidney and the third in a hand I did not know, the hand of an ill-educated woman.

“Who is this?” asked Lord Grey with an amazed look. “Surely Colonel Sidney was never any concern of your Grace?”

He stood with the picture in his hand and Monmouth looked up at him from the old worn and folded letters he was smoothing out.

“It is Colonel Sidney,” he said.

“Well?” asked Lord Grey intently.

“He was my father,” said Monmouth; then he began laughing again, and it had the most doleful sound of anything I have ever heard. I could not grasp what had been said, but my lord Grey with his quick comprehension seemed in a moment to understand and value this truth.

“Your father!” he said softly, and added: “To think we never saw it!” which was an extraordinary thing to say; yet, on looking at the likeness in little and on the fair agonised face staring across the candlelight one might notice that they were in almost every detail the same, and methought I was a very fool never to have observed before how these two men were alike, even to little manners and fashions of speech.

And being that I saw the tragic pitifulness of it all, I could do no more than laugh dismally also.

“See you these letters if you want proof,” said Monmouth.

“There is no need,” answered my lord Grey. “The likeness is enough.” Then he repeated: “And we never saw it!”

“No,” said his Grace half-fiercely; “you never saw it–I was always the King’s son to you–instead of that I am scarce a gentleman.… Now you know why I cannot go on.… I am no Stewart, I have no royal blood.…”

Grey looked at him, turning over in his mind, I think, the aspects of this bewildering turn; he gazed at Colonel Sidney’s son with a curiosity almost cruel.

I was thinking of the obscurity from which he had sprung, the mystery round his early years in Rotterdam, his sudden appearance in a blaze of glory at Whitehall when the King had made him Duke.…

“Who did this?” I asked. “And who kept silence?”

“King Charles loved me as his son,” he answered vaguely, “and I loved him.… I could not have told him–and I was ambitious. What would you have done?” he cried. “I did not know until I was fourteen.” He pressed his hand to his breast.

“But I will not die for it,” he muttered. “Why should I die for it?”

“Your death must become your life, not your birth,” said Lord Grey.

“My death!” shivered Monmouth.

Lord Grey turned to face him; thin and harsh-featured as he was, he made the other’s beauty a thing of nothing.

“Why?” he said commandingly. “You know that you must die–you know what will happen to-morrow and what you have to expect from James Stewart, and those honours that you have won in life will you not keep to grace your death?”

“I cannot die,” answered Monmouth; he rose and began walking about in a quick passion of protesting anguish: “I will not die.”

“That you cannot decide; the manner only is in your power,” said Lord Grey calmly, and I marvelled to think that he had been a coward in open field.

“I am not the King’s son—” his Grace cried out at him, and fell across a chair sick with unavailing love of life.

Lord Grey took up a candle and turned to the door, looking at him the while.

“Will you give James Stewart this triumph?” he asked.

This seemed the one thing to brace Monmouth, for those two had always hated each other strongly; James in the old days had feared my lord’s power, been jealous that he was the elder son of the elder son, and Monmouth seemed to remember that; yet a mean thought hurried on the heels of the manly reflection.

“He would give me my life for this,” he said weakly. “My life for this secret—”

“Good night,” said Lord Grey–a strange man–and left us.

The Duke seemed not to know that he had gone or that I remained; after a little he went into the bedchamber, but not to sleep, and all night I heard him weeping … such sick and bitter womanish sobs all through that long watch I kept.…

Colonel Sidney’s son!

Who were they who did this–and they who kept silence?

A curious commingling of motives, sordid and lovable, ambition, some little love, some touch of self-sacrifice.… I felt compassion for King Charles, who had had no deeper feeling in all his spoilt life than this affection for what was not his.…

I put the wasting candles out and sat in the dark; I lifted the curtain and saw the sun rise over Sedgemoor.

Six thousand men to fight against hopeless odds to-morrow for him they deemed a King, the blood of Bourbon and Stewart, the heir of Tudor and Plantagenet.…

And in my ears was the thick sobbing of a mere Englishman of a stock that scarce boasted gentility, who could not face the end of his masquerade nor fit the robe of greatness he had assumed.

So here is the secret revealed at length to the dumb and innocent paper; God knoweth it is, as Lawrence Hyde saith, a great while ago; for the rest, the world knows how the Duke rode out to Sedgemoor with such a look in his face the very children knew he was marked for doom, and how he fled, leaving his men to gain great honour after he had forsaken them. Also how he was found in peasant’s dress, so changed they did not know him till the George of diamonds flashed out on his tattered garments as he fainted in his captor’s clutch. Lord Grey was taken with him; they stayed at Ringwood two days and from there his Grace wrote frantically to the King and to Lord Rochester.

It is very clear he meant to buy his life with his wretched secret, though I think my lord Grey must have been ever urging him to die with a decent carriage.

So they brought him to London and he was taken before his Majesty, swordless and with his hands tied behind him.

What passed no man knoweth but James Stewart; he has spoken often of it, and I know those to whom he has told of Monmouth’s ignoble desperate pleadings for life at any cost, of his casting himself down and imploring mercy.

Yet he must have been spurred by something in the demeanour of his ancient enemy, for he never told his secret, and he left the presence with anger and dignity, resolving, it must be, to cheat the King of that last satisfaction. Yet afterwards he fell again into unmanly misery that was the wonder of all, and then into a strange mood that was neither the apathy of despair, or, as some said, an exalted enthusiasm. I wondered then and now where his proofs were: not found on him with the other poor trifles I had seen at Bridgewater Castle–destroyed, perhaps. And so he died, hurried reluctant from life, without either religion or repentance, sorry for the blood shed in the West, firm in his love for Lady Harriet, indifferent to the clergyman who cried out on the scaffold: