The Case for Murder 6 February 1685

The Case for the Murder of King Charles II

The Whig case against James Duke of York for the murder of King Charles II on 6 February 1685

King Charles II

In June 1685, the Declaration of the Duke of Monmouth contained this accusation, ‘James Duke of York, in order to the expediting the Idolatrous & bloody designs of the papists, the gratifying of his own boundless ambition after the crown…has poisoned the late King.’[1] The case for fratricide levelled at the Duke of York, by Monmouth and the Whigs begins with an understanding that there had been a reconciliation between Charles and Monmouth in December 1684. The evidence for this can be found in the Welwood Memoirs, Monmouth’s own Pocketbook, and other Whig sources. However, to keep this account consistent and balanced the primarily evidence comes from the French ambassador, Mr Barillon, and King Louis XIV of France. Both avid supporters of the Duke of York’s cause. Therefore, it was on December 14, 1684 and again on the 18th, that the Frenchman informed his king that Monmouth had been in London. Even that father and son had a secret meeting in Whitehall, all without York’s knowledge.[2] As always, French intelligence was sound and this gathering is supported by other eyewitnesses, including Monmouth himself, who wrote on folio 74 of his pocketbook ‘the way that I took when I came from England December the 10th 84‘.[3]

It is only through later memoirs that we discover the purpose for these talks and the evidence points to the formation of a new anti-French coalition. The first step was for Charles to agree to a settlement between himself and the Prince of Orange, after the Dutchman’s support of the Exclusion Bill and Monmouth.[4] Secondly, the King agreed to his son taking command of a Coalition Army to fight against Louis XIV in response to the persecution of French Protestants, called ‘les Dragonnades’. This combined force would contain Dutch, Brandenburg, English, and Scottish soldiers, but manly French Huguenots. However, before moving forwards, Charles needed time to ready England for Monmouth’s return, and to exile York. Therefore, it appears that April 1685 was set as the date for the Whigs return.[5] Interesting the key witness for this chain of events is Barillon who wrote on September 10, 1685 that York had told him in ‘the original deposition of Mr Matthews, squire of the Duke of Monmouth; it contains that he knew of M. of Monmouth that the Baron of Freize had spoken to him at The Hague on behalf of the Protestants of France, and had communicated to him their plan, which was to take up arms at the beginning of this summer, and to revolt in several places in France; that they offered to receive the Duke of Monmouth at their head; that this plan was communicated to the Elector of Brandenburg, to the Princes of the House of Brunswick, and the Prince of Orange, who all approved.[6] It is highly likely that the French quickly knew of these plans, and this may be the reason why Louis XIV stopped all secret payments to Charles at the end of 1684.[7] For the Whigs this was motive enough for York’s later actions, but at the time, the King needed something more substantial to send his brother away.

James, Duke of Monmouth

To help with this, the Whigs turned to the black days of July 1683, in particular the death of the Earl of Essex in the Tower of London. On July 10, 1683, this Whig noble was discovered ‘with his throat cut through Jugulars and Arteries, even to the neckbone on both sides of the neck.’[8] Essex was in the Tower for his alleged part in the Rye House Plot along with other top Whigs, and the incident was investigated by Lord Chief Justice Jefferies. This Whig hating judge was a close ally of York but had just presided over the execution of the Whig leader William Lord Russell. Unsurprisingly, his verdict was ‘self-murder’ or suicide. To counter this ruling, in late 1684 a book was published in Amsterdam entitled ‘The detection of the barbarous murder of the late earl of Essex.’ This was attributed to Colonel Danvers, and its distribution in London put a price of £100 on his head.[9] As the title states, this 70-page book laid out the facts surrounding the death of Essex. Danvers claimed that the Earl was murdered on the direct orders of the Duke of York. In late January copies of this book started circulating in London, and one canny Whig left a copy on the step into the King’s chambers.[10] It is then alleged that Charles read the book cover to cover and in shock, asked Baron Alington, as Constable of the Tower, to secretly investigate the accusations.[11] Alington then talked to several people before returning to the King with his findings. Just hours later, with Alington still in the room, Charles challenged his brother about the information discovered by the constable. It was therefore easy, for the Whigs to make the link between this event and the fact that both Alington and the King, were taken sick and then died within five days of each other. Therefore, if Charles need a reason to banish York, for the Whigs the murder of Essex was the pistol, and the ultimate motive for fratricide.

It is interesting that today’s historians never question the death of Essex, and still use Judge Jefferies’ verdict of self-murder. If one man above all other has been proven to do anything asked by York, Jefferies was this creature. The modern repetition of the suicide judgment is even more intriguing, as a full public enquiry was held into the death of Essex in 1689. This went through all the evidence; from the news reports posted about his death (before his body was discovered), to the lack of a razor next to the body. The investigation also found evidence that four unknown men had been let into Essex’s room just hours before his body was found. Finally, any pathologist will point out that the fatal wound was impossible to be self-inflicted, as it was done from behind ‘ear to ear’. It is no surprise therefore that the new conclusion was that Essex was murdered. If you need an example of the first news sticking and the truth being forgotten, then this is surely it.

James, Duke of York

With the smoking pistol in James’ hand, the Whig’s then turned to the final hours of King Charles II to demonstrate James’ guilt. Today, we have a populate view of a Royal death in the 17th Century as the sovereign being surrounded by courtiers, as depicted in the image of Cardinal Mazarin on this deathbed. However, Charles II last moments were very different, and witness by our old friend the French ambassador. The following day he wrote ‘Finally M. the Duke of York resolved to speak to the King his brother in front of everyone, but to make sure that no one would hear what he would say to him…the Duke of York bent over to the ear of the King his brother, after having ordered that no one should approach him: I was in the room, and more than twenty people at the door, which was open, and no one could hear…the King of England said loudly and loudly, Yes, with all his heart, from time to time; he sometimes made the Duke of York repeat what he was saying, because he could not hear easily; this lasted nearly a quarter of an hour.‘ According to Barillon, it was after this that Charles’ conversion into the Catholic faith took place, this time behind closed doors. The rest of that sad evening continued in the same vein, the Frenchmen writing that Charles ‘spoke aloud several times to the Duke of York in terms full of tenderness and friendship; he twice recommended Madame de Portsmouth and the Duke of Richmond; he also recommended his other children; he made no mention of the Duke of Monmouth, either for good or ill: he often showed his trust in God’s mercy. The Bishop of Baths and Wells, who was his preacher, made a few prayers and spoke to him about God; the King of England marked with his head that he heard him: this bishop did not interfere to tell him anything in particular, nor to propose to him to make a profession of faith; he feared a refusal, and was even more afraid, I believe, of irritating the Duke of York.‘ The Whigs now asserted that York had everything to lose if the King lived, and yet it was York who acted as the King’s only mouthpiece in his final hours. Therefore, York had the opportunity to make Charles say and agree to anything he wished.

The Whig’s could turn to York’s character to demonstrate that he was not above self-interest. Today, much has been made of Monmouth being exiled in 1680 and 1683, but York was also exiled several times. In 1680, York found himself in Scotland, but the news coming from London was that he would be sent to Brussels if the Exclusion Bill became law. This prompted York to open correspondence with Barillon regarding his plans for civil war.[12] In response, on November 8, 1680 (ns) Louis XIV wrote to Barillon ‘if you see him [York] resolved to support himself by means of Scotland and Ireland, you may assure him that in that event I will not refuse him secret supplies.‘ A week later Louis added to this by asking Barillon to ‘encourage this Prince, and to make him see that if he finds he has friends enough and forces enough to maintain himself … I will not refuse in that case secret aids…‘ Clearly, this demonstrates that York was not a man to put his power second to the kingdom. So, would York really accept his exile once again in 1685, this time for the murder of Essex? It is interesting that York’s account of Charles’ death is taken as gospel given that he is the key beneficiary. Especially, as within days of Charles II death, Louis XIV granted the new King, 500,000l on the basis that James II would not recall Parliament, but rule as a divine King. It is Barillon who gives us a glimpse of the true nature of this divine Stuart. The Frenchman writes that on his arrival at the court on February 5, 1685 ‘the Duke of York told me, The doctors believe the King is in extreme danger; I beg you to assure your master that he will always have in me a faithful and grateful servant“…’ Obviously, York was a man more worried for the support of France and his pocket, than his brother’s life.

Self-preservation, money, and power are always good motives for murder. So, as the Whigs sat in the coffee shops or Taverns of Holland, the rumours quickly spread and mutated. When murder was added to fear of tyrannical divine rule and forced conversions to Catholicism, Whigs flocked to the cause of Monmouth. The Whigs believed that York had the opportunity to poison his brother.  That his motive was to stop Charles banishing him forever for the murder of Essex, and then making Monmouth his heir. While York’s paymaster, Louis XIV, stopped Charles supporting the move to save the French Protestants. For the Whigs, these motives were clear, the opportunity was obvious, and the evidence was there for all but the Court Tories to see.   It is important to remember that from 1685 to 1688 it was high treason to talk, write or think that Monmouth was legitimate, or that Essex was murdered.


[1] British Library, Egerton Papers MS 1527, f.261

[2] Dalyrmple, Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland vol.2 Appendix, p.90

[3] British Library, Egerton Papers MS 1527, f.74

[4] Dalyrmple, vol.2, Appendix, p.90

[5] Welwood Memoirs, p.128

[6] Fox’s A history of the Early Part of the Reign of James the Second, Appendix, p.cxvii

[7] Dalyrmple, vol.2, Appendix, p.90

[8] An Account of the most Treacherous Murder of the Earl of Essex, London 1689.

[9] London Gazette #1996

[10] Ferguson the Plotter, p.186-188

[11] William Alington, 1641 – February 1, 1685

[12] Dalyrmple, vol.2 Appendix, p.339