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Terrorism 17th century style

In the last post, Hide and Seek in Moorgate, I relayed the story of the run up to the English Civil War and how five members of Parliament escaped the clutches of Charles I. One of these five was John Pym at the time the leader of the opposition in the Commons and staunch Puritan.


John Pym

It’s easy to believe that in the 1640s the majority of the population sided with the Parliamentarian cause, after all the victors get to write the history books. However, it would seem that there was a large groundswell of support for the Royalists and not only from the wealthy and titled, many ordinary citizens preferred the status quo.

Some of the Parliamentarian leaders in the Commons came under vitriolic attack for their opposition to the way the King ruled and several were openly intimidated in the streets, although there don’t seem to have been any physical attacks. Pym as opposition leader came under the worst criticism.


Pym’s London residence was in Cannon Row (sometimes known as Channel or Channon’s Row) Westminster, now partially buried under Westminster underground station.

By 1641 tensions were running high between the King and parliament and it appears in this febrile atmosphere an attempt was made on John Pym’s life. As you might think for the times possibly a knife or sword attack, but this was a rather more sophisticated plan and was a chilling precursor to the modern day terrorist letter Bomb!

On the 20th October1641 a messenger called at Pym’s house in Manchester Buildings, Cannon’s Row to deliver a letter addressed to Pym which landed on his desk to await his perusal. Pym who is due to make a speech in the commons receives the letter at his desk just before leaving. On opening, it was found to contain what was described as a “filthy clout, with the contagious plaster of a Plague sore upon it”. A roll of dirty and puss soaked material used to cover the buboes of a plague victim. The accompanying letter read;

Mr Pym, Doe not thinke that a Guard of men can protect you, if you persist in your Traytorous courses, and wicked Designes. I have sent a Paper-Messenger to you, and if this does not touch your heart, a dagger shall, so soon as I am recovered of my Plague-Sore: In the mean time you may be forborne, because no better man may bee indangered for you. Repent Traytor.

A short time later with a Politian’s eye for capital, Pym stood up in the Commons and theatrically produced the bandage and read aloud the letter, causing great excitement in the house which descended into uproar as his supporters baited the King’s with accusations of attempted assassination, noisily refuted by the other side.


That this event actually happened in the Commons is a matter of record, but if you delve deeper another angle appears. Pym produces his house Porter and servant boy to attest that the messenger has stopped in a nearby tavern. Guards are sent to look for the man and a dishevelled character sporting a large bubo on his arm is arrested and taken to the nearby Gatehouse prison. There appears to be no record of the man’s name or any sort of investigation or subsequent trial. A couple of days later, with incredible speed for the time, a pamphlet bearing a resplendent woodcut image of Pym appears on London’s streets decrying the attempt on Pym’s life, entitled “A damnable treason, by a contagious plaster of a plague sore“.

Reading an account of the incident by the historian David Cressy, he is of the opinion that the whole event was stage managed by the Parliamentarians. The incident came just after the reopening of Parliament on the 20th October in the midst of crucial tussles with the king’s party. It all sounds a bit too good to be true: the assassin sporting a bubo, the convenient delivery of the letter for opening it in front of the Commons, the hastily produced pamphlet singing Pym’s praises with a huge great woodcut of him… it does seem a bit opportune.


St Margaret’s Westminster

There were however future attempts to murder Pym, in fact a man resembling him was stabbed in Westminster Hall. Pym went on to drive the Parliamentarian cause forward when it looked like it had lost impetus but only lived until 1643, dying, probably of cancer at his residence in Cannon’s Row. He was buried not far away at Westminster Abbey, but on the restoration of Charles II his corpse was exhumed and thrown into an unmarked pit in the grounds of St Margaret’s Westminster, along with other Parliamentarians who had been executed for the regicide of Charles I.

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