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A History of the Four Georges, Volume I

Sidenote 1723 Charges against Atterbury This


or justice the penalty is not

enforced. The descendant and heir of that same Catholic in the reign of George the First is fined fifteen pounds, and the fine is exacted. He complains, and he is told, "You have no right to complain; you ought to be grateful; the original fine ordained was twenty pounds; you have been let off five pounds--you have been favored by an act of indulgence, not victimized by an act of persecution." Lord Cowper had not much trouble in disposing of arguments of this kind, but his speech took a wider range, and is indeed a masterly exposure of the whole principle on which the measure was founded. On May 22, 1723, sixty-nine peers voted for the third reading of the Bill, and fifty-five opposed it. Lord Cowper, with twenty other peers, entered a protest against the decision of the House, according to a practice then common in the House of Lords, and which has lately fallen into complete disuse. The recorded protests of dissentient peers form, we may observe, very important historical documents, and deserve, some of them, {218} a careful study. Lord Cowper's protest was the last public act of his useful and honorable career. He died on the 10th of October in the same year, 1723. Some of his enemies explained his action on the anti-Papist Bill by the assertion that he was a Jacobite at heart. Even if he had been, the fact would hardly have made his conduct less creditable and spirited. Many a man who was a Jacobite at heart would have supported a measure for the punishment of Roman
Catholics if only to save himself from the suspicion of sympathy with the lost cause.

[Sidenote: 1723--Charges against Atterbury]

This, however, was but an episode in the story of the Jacobite plot and the measures taken to punish those who were engaged in it. Committees of secrecy were appointed by Parliament to inquire into the evidence and examine witnesses.

Meantime both Houses of Parliament kept voting address after address to the Crown at each new stage of the proceedings, and as each fresh evidence of the conspiracy was laid before them. The King must have grown rather weary of finding new words of gratitude, and the Houses of Parliament, one would think, must have grown tired of inventing new phrases of loyalty and fresh expressions of horror at the wickedness of the Jacobites. The horror was not quite genuine on the part of some who thus proclaimed it. Many of those who voted the addresses would gladly have welcomed a restoration of the Stuarts. Not the most devoted adherent of King George could really have felt any surprise at the persistent efforts of the Jacobite partisans. Eight years before this it was a mere toss-up whether Stuart or Hanover should succeed, and even still it was not quite certain whether, if the machinery of the modern _plebiscite_ could have been put into operation in England, the majority would not have been found in sympathy with Atterbury. It is almost certain that if the _plebiscite_ could have been taken in Ireland and Scotland also, a majority of voices would have voted James Stuart to the throne.

{219}

It was resolved to proceed against Atterbury by a Bill of Pains and Penalties to be brought into Parliament. The evidence against him was certainly not such as any criminal court would have held to justify a conviction. A young barrister named Christopher Layer was arrested and examined, so were a nonjuring minister named Kelly, an Irish Catholic priest called Neynoe, and a man named Plunkett, also from Ireland. The charge against Atterbury was founded on the statements obtained or extorted from these men. It should be said that Layer gave evidence which actually seemed to impugn Lord Cowper himself as a member of a club of disaffected persons; and when Lord Cowper indignantly repudiated the charge and demanded an inquiry, the Government declared inquiry absolutely unnecessary, as everybody was well assured of his innocence. The Government, however, declined to follow Lord Cowper in his not unreasonable assumption that the whole story was unworthy of explicit credence when it included such a false statement. The case against Atterbury rested on the declaration of some of the arrested men that the bishop had carried on a correspondence with James Stuart, Lord Mar, and General Dillon (an Irish Catholic soldier, who after the capitulation of Limerick, had entered the French service), through the instrumentality of Kelly, who acted as his secretary and amanuensis for that purpose. It was a case of circumstantial evidence altogether. The impartial reader of history now will feel well satisfied on two points: first, that Atterbury was engaged in the plot; and second, that the evidence brought against him was not nearly strong enough to sustain a conviction. It was the case of Bolingbroke and Harley over again. We know now that the men had done the things charged against them, but the evidence then relied upon was utterly inadequate to sustain the charge.


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