The Rye House Plot of 1683
PUBLISHED: 10:20 12 June 2018 | UPDATED: 10:20 12 June 2018
Treason, regicide, religion and power all intertwine in a plot to kill a king and his brother at the gates of a Hertfordshire manor house in 1683
The assassination of a king and his brother – that’s what they were about. Men of high rank plotted and schemed, flitted in the shadows and made their plans against the two leading men of the kingdom. It all happened 335 years ago, and at its heart was a house in Hertfordshire.
The two men in the firing line were King Charles II (1630-85) and his younger brother, the Duke of York, the future James II (1633-1701). The scheme to dispose of them is known as the Rye House Plot, after a property near Hoddesdon. Rye House was built in the mid-15th century, on the east bank of the Lea, by Sir Andrew Ogard, a Danish knight, and was one of the first brick-built houses in the country. It was at a strategic location for an attack.
The scheme was simple enough. The king and duke would be heading back from Newmarket races to London and would pass Rye House. There was a narrow road nearby, down which the royal party would have to travel. It would be straightforward enough to ambush and kill them right there.
What was the cause? One theory has it the conspirators were anti-Papists determined to remove a king who was leaning too much to Rome (England had been officially Protestant, with one brief interruption, since Henry VIII). Not only that, but Charles II was not disposed, as many wanted, to set aside his younger brother, who was even more strident in his adherence to Catholicism.
Republicanism was also a factor. The ex-Cromwellian plotters looked back to the period between 1649 and 1660 when England had no king after the parliamentarians’ overthrow and beheading of Charles and James’ father, Charles I.
Party politics also featured, with several prominent Whigs implicated. These identified very closely with the Protestant succession. One of the alleged plotters, Richard Rumbold (1622-85), was the owner of Rye House.
It would seem luck was on the royal side however. The pair’s early departure from horse racing following a fire at the king’s Newmarket estate, foiled the conspirators, who it was alleged were working to a precise timetable. However, some accounts claim their plans were not yet finalised.
Whatever, the case, the ambush never happened, but the story didn’t end there. The failed plot was discovered in June 1683. The conspirators had relied on luck and utmost secrecy. They had neither. Allegations were made that prompted a government investigation. Arrests followed.
The plotters – described by some as a death or glory brigade – were accused of scheming the death of the king at the house of a wine merchant and at each other’s homes, presumably trying to cover their tracks by not meeting in the same place. They were charged with treason.
The most famous of the conspirators was the illegitimate son of the king and nephew to James. The Duke of Monmouth (1649-85), James Scott, escaped the law by fleeing the country (some say he was allowed to because of his royal blood). Rumours had abounded (from 1662) that Monmouth would be legitimised and made heir to the throne, in preference to the Duke of York. An energetic military commander and popular Protestant alternative, he was ambitious yet reckless. The person who may have enmeshed him in the conspiracy was the 1st Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), who also left the country, before the plot was discovered.
Another accused, Arthur Capel, Earl of Essex, was taken to the Tower of London, where he died, possibly a suicide. The politician Lord William Russell, Algernon Sydney, who had fought for parliament in the Civil War, and Sir Thomas Armstrong were convicted of treason and beheaded. Elizabeth Gaunt, accused of ‘harbouring and maintaining rebels’, was burnt at the stake.
Others, including the Duke of Monmouth, Robert Ferguson and Lord William Howard, escaped punishment.
Monmouth’s end was nigh though. When Charles II died in February 1685, bringing his younger brother to the throne, he returned to Britain with an army to launch his Monmouth Rebellion (May-July 1685). Also known as the Pitchfork Rebellion, it was a failure, and Monmouth faced the axe. Rye House’s Rumbold was executed for his participation in the same enterprise – he was involved in the Scottish arm of a two-pronged attack on the new king.
Rye House was not just the backdrop to a royal murder attempt. It had a more picturesque side – its impressive gatehouse presenting a sufficiently attractive vista to be painted in watercolour and graphite by JMW Turner in around 1793.
In 1870, then owner William Henry Teale opened a pleasure garden on the site and also displayed the Great Bed of Ware, mentioned by Shakespeare. It was such a popular tourist destination that an extra railway station was built to cope with the visitors.
By the early 20th century, tourism had fallen away and the manor house was demolished, the Great Bed of Ware shipped off to the V&A.
What remains of Rye House today is just the gatehouse with its diaper brickwork, oriel windows and ‘barley sugar twist’ chimney.
One intriguing footnote to the royal assassination plot is that some historians believe the whole thing was a fiction, made up by the royalist camp to discredit the opposition. That would have been a far more cunning plot. Charles II, buoyed up by the failure of the Rye House plotters, and with no legitimate heirs, was able to be even more trenchant in upholding his brother’s right to succeed him.
If walls could talk we might learn the truth of this murky and twisting tale, but then the walls of Rye House are all but gone; the restored gatehouse a silent sentinel to the past.