Memorials of the Tower of London

De Ros, William Lennox






The fate of the Earl of Essex, who was found with his throat cut in the Tower, July 13, 1683, on the morning of the day that Lord Russell was undergoing his trial for high treason, was one of those mysteries, on which great difference of opinion, or rather of conjecture, for a long time prevailed.

It is not easy to decide at the present time, the exact position of the lodging where Lord Essex was confined after he was brought to the Tower, from Cassiobury near Watford, by the party of horse who were sent down to arrest him. But, as it is described in the depositions before the Commission assembled in King William's time, to investigate the matter, to have been "on the left hand as you go up the mound, after passing Bloody Tower Gate," there can be little doubt but this building must have stood at the southern part of the avenue of trees which shade the paved walk on the parade, in front of the Government House, and was probably pulled down when the present roadway was made, and the steps and terrace formed, opposite the main guard. In the depositions above alluded to, it was stated that a sentinel was posted,


within some wooden railings in front of the door of the Warder's lodging, where Lord Essex was confined. This sentinel, when examined, prevaricated a good deal in his evidence; denying at first, that any one had entered the door, during the period of his watch, but afterwards saying that two gentlemen had produced an order for admission. It must, however, be remembered, that the professed object of the Commission was to cast a suspicion of murder on James II., and that any assertion of this sort, however vague, would be received with favour. Not a word was said of these mysterious visitors coming out again, but the next occurrence mentioned by the sentinel was the alarm given by Mr. Bommeney, the Earl's French valet, that he had found his master on the floor of a closet next his bedroom, with his throat just cut, and the body fallen against the door, which opened inwards, in such a manner, that there was much difficulty to push it open, from the weight lying against it. The evidence chiefly relied upon, to prove that Lord Essex did not kill himself, but died by other hands, was the assertion of two children, who declared, that as they were at play near this spot, they saw a hand throw out a razor from Lord Essex's window, and that a woman ran out of the door, a minute afterwards, and picked it up. But the sentinel had said nothing of seeing either the children or the woman; and one of the children was notorious among the neighbours for being untruthful. It should be here observed that Charles II. and the Duke of York had this same morning visited the Tower, to make an inspection of the works, which coincidence


was much dwelt upon, as an evidence of foul play in respect to Lord Essex. But in the first place, the proofs which had come out lately of the intention of the contrivers of the Rye House Plot, to attack and seize the Tower, as part of the plan for an insurrection in London, were very likely to have induced the King and his brother (who had much experience, from his service in the Low Countries, of the strength and requirements of a fortress) to examine the condition of the Tower defences. On the other hand, could anything be less probable, if they really had employed assassins to murder Lord Essex, than that they should have visited the Tower at the very hour, when their doing so might have induced suspicion, and when common prudence would have suggested to them to keep out of the way, if they had authorized the commission of a crime, which would make so much noise in the world ? Even admitting the evidence of the children, which was anything but clear or decisive, to have some weight, it must be recollected that numerous instances have occurred of persons retaining the power of moving, and walking about, in a surprising manner, after inflicting injuries on themselves which very soon after proved fatal. One case happened lately, of a woman in Lambeth, whose husband had cut her throat, running down stairs, and walking for a considerable distance along the street, before she fell and expired. To have thrown the razor, with which he had killed himself, from a window, would therefore have been by no means inconsistent with the fact of the Earl having committed suicide.

In the 'Life of Lord Russell,' by the present Earl Russell,


he makes allusion at some length to the mysterious end of the Earl of Essex in the Tower, and states that he had once been told by the late Earl of Essex (who died in 1839) that Mr. T. Grenville had assured him, that he had seen in the old Treasury books, the entry of a pension to Bommeney, the French valet; but he adds that he had never been able to trace this entry, nor did Lord Essex say what was its amount; neither did it appear, whether it was granted before, or after, the death of the Earl. If such a pension had existed, surely the active exertions of Mr. Braddon the barrister, who got up the evidence laid before the Commissioners in King William's time, would not have allowed so material a fact to pass unnoticed, especially as the new government of King William would have had every facility of placing in Braddon's hands the details of the supposed grant or pension.

It may be observed of the death of the Earl of Essex, as of that of the Earl of Northumberland in Elizabeth's reign, that there existed a prevalent notion that a prisoner accused of high treason, might evade by suicide the forfeiture of his estates to the Crown, inasmuch as he died, without guilt being actually proved against him. How far any such supposed evasion of the severity of the Treason Laws really availed against the arbitrary powers exercised by the Sovereign, before the Revolution of 1688, it is not easy to determine, but certainly there was such an impression, and one can hardly suppose it would have existed, without some foundation or precedent.