The History of Thomas Ellwood Written by Himself
by Thomas Ellwood
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For it being a stormy time, and persecution waxing hot, upon the Conventicle Act, through the busy boldness of hungry informers, who for their own advantage did not only themselves hunt after religious and peaceable meetings, but drove on the officers, not only the more inferior and subordinate, but in some places even the justices also, for fear of penalties, to hunt with them and for them; I found a pressure upon my spirit to write a small treatise to inform such officers how they might secure and defend themselves from being ridden by those malapert informers, and made their drudges.

This treatise I called "A Caution to Constables and other inferior Officers concerned in the Execution of the Conventicle Act: with some Observations thereupon, humbly offered by way of Advice to such well-meaning and moderate Justices of the Peace as would not willingly ruin their peaceable Neighbours," &c.

This was thought to have some good service where it came upon such sober and moderate officers, as well justices as constables, &c., as acted rather by constraint than choice, by encouraging them to stand their ground with more courage and resolution against the insults of saucy informers.

But whatever ease it brought to others, it brought me some trouble, and had like to have brought me into more danger, had not Providence wrought my deliverance by an unexpected way.

For as soon as it came forth in print, which was in the year 1683, one William Ayrs, of Watford in Hertfordshire, a Friend, and an acquaintance of mine, who was both an apothecary and barber, being acquainted with divers of the gentry in those parts, and going often to some of their houses to trim them, took one of these books with him when he went to trim Sir Benjamin Titchborn of Rickmansworth, and presented it to him, supposing he would have taken it kindly, as in like cases he had formerly done. But it fell out otherwise. For he, looking it over after Ayrs was gone, and taking it by the wrong handle, entertained an evil opinion of it, and of me for it, though he knew me not.

He thereupon communicated both the book and his thoughts upon it to a neighbouring justice, living in Rickmansworth, whose name was Thomas Fotherly, who concurring with him in judgment, they concluded that I should be taken up and prosecuted for it as a seditious book; for a libel they could not call it, my name being to it at length.

Wherefore, sending for Ayrs, who had brought the book, Justice Titchborn examined him if he knew me, and where I dwelt; who telling him he knew me well, and had been often at my house, he gave him in charge to give me notice that I should appear before him and the other justice at Rickmansworth on such a day; threatening that if I did not appear, he himself should be prosecuted for spreading the book.

This put William Ayrs in a fright. Over he came in haste with his message to me, troubled that he should be a means to bring me into trouble; but I endeavoured to give him ease by assuring him I would not fail, with God's leave, to appear at the time and place appointed, and thereby free him from trouble or danger.

In the interim I received advice, by an express out of Sussex, that Guli Penn, with whom I had had an intimate acquaintance and firm friendship from our very youths, was very dangerously ill, her husband being then absent in Pennsylvania, and that she had a great desire to see and speak with me.

This put me to a great strait, and brought a sore exercise on my mind. I was divided betwixt honour and friendship. I had engaged my word to appear before the justices, which to omit would bring dishonour on me and my profession. To stay till that time was come and past might probably prove, if I should then be left at liberty, too late to answer her desire and satisfy friendship.

After some little deliberation, I resolved, as the best expedient to answer both ends, to go over next morning to the justices, and lay my strait before them, and try if I could procure from them a respite of my appearance before them until I had been in Essex, and paid the duty of friendship to my sick friend; which I had the more hopes to obtain, because I knew those justices had a great respect for Guli; for when William Penn and she were first married they lived for some years at Rickmansworth, in which time they contracted a neighbourly friendship with both these justices and theirs, who ever after retained a kind regard for them both.

Early therefore in the morning I rode over; but being wholly a stranger to the justices, I went first to Watford, that I might take Ayrs along with me, who supposed himself to have some interest in Justice Titchborn, and when I came there, understanding that another Friend of that town, whose name was John Wells, was well acquainted with the other Justice Fotherly, having imparted to them the occasion of my coming, I took them both with me, and hasted back to Rickmansworth, where having put our horses up at an inn, and leaving William Ayrs, who was a stranger to Fotherly, there, I went with John Wells to Fotherly's house, and being brought into a fair hall, I tarried there while Wells went into the parlour to him, and having acquainted him that I was there and desired to speak with him, brought him to me with severity in his countenance.

After he had asked me, in a tone which spoke displeasure, what I had to say to him, I told him I came to wait on him upon an intimation given me that he had something to say to me. He thereupon plucking my book out of his pocket, asked me if I owned myself to be the author of that book? I told him, if he pleased to let me look into it, if it were mine, I would not deny it. He thereupon giving it into my hand, when I had turned over the leaves and looked it through, finding it to be as it came from the press, told him I wrote the book, and would own it, all but the errors of the press. Whereupon he, looking sternly on me, answered, "Your own errors, you should have said."

Having innocency on my side, I was not at all daunted at either his speech or looks, but feeling the Lord present with me, I replied, "I know there are errors of the press in it, and therefore I excepted them; but I do not know there are any errors of mine in it, and therefore cannot except them. But," added I, "if thou pleasest to show me any error of mine in it, I shall readily both acknowledge and retract it;" and thereupon I desired him to give me an instance, in any one passage in that book, wherein he thought I had erred. He said he needed not go to particulars, but charge me with the general contents of the whole book. I replied that such a charge would be too general for me to give a particular answer to; but if he would assign me any particular passage or sentence in the book wherein he apprehended the ground of offence to lie, when I should have opened the terms, and explained my meaning therein, he might perhaps find cause to change his mind and entertain a better opinion both of the book and me. And therefore I again entreated him to let me know what particular passage or passages had given him an offence. He told me I needed not to be in so much haste for that—I might have it timely enough, if not too soon; "but this," said he, "is not the day appointed for your hearing, and therefore," added he, "what, I pray, made you in such haste to come now?" I told him I hoped he would not take it for an argument of guilt that I came before I was sent for, and offered myself to my purgation before the time appointed. And this I spake with somewhat a brisker air, which had so much influence on him as to bring a somewhat softer air over his countenance.

Then going on, I told him I had a particular occasion which induced me to come now, which was, that I received advice last night by an express out of Sussex, that William Penn's wife, with whom I had had an intimate acquaintance and strict friendship, ab ipsis fere incunabilis, {276a} at least a teneris unguiculis, {276b} lay now there very ill, not without great danger, in the apprehension of those about her, of her life, and that she had expressed her desire that I would come to her as soon as I could, the rather for that her husband was absent in America. That this had brought a great strait upon me, being divided between friendship and duty, willing to visit my friend in her illness, which the nature and law of friendship required, yet unwilling to omit my duty by failing of my appearance before him and the other justice, according to their command and my promise, lest I should thereby subject, not my own reputation only, but the reputation of my religious profession, to the suspicion of guilt, and censure of willingly shunning a trial. To prevent which I had chosen to anticipate the time, and came now to see if I could give them satisfaction in what they had to object against me, and thereupon being dismissed, pursue my journey into Sussex, or if by them detained, to submit to Providence, and by an express to acquaint my friend therewith, both to free her from an expectation of my coming and myself from any imputation of neglect.

While I thus delivered myself I observed a sensible alteration in the justice, and when I had done speaking, he first said he was very sorry for Madam Penn's illness, of whose virtue and worth he spoke very highly, yet not more than was her due; then he told me that for her sake he would do what he could to further my visit to her; "but," said he, "I am but one, and of myself can do nothing in it; therefore you must go to Sir Benjamin Titchborn, and if he be at home, see if you can prevail with him to meet me, that we may consider of it. But I can assure you," added he, "the matter which will be laid to your charge concerning your book is of greater importance than you seem to think it. For your book has been laid before the King and Council, and the Earl of Bridgewater, who is one of the Council, hath thereupon given us command to examine you about it, and secure you."

"I wish," said I, "I could speak with the Earl myself, for I make no doubt but to acquit myself unto him; and," added I, "if thou pleasest to give me thy letter to him, I will wait upon him with it forthwith. For although I know," continued I, "that he hath no favour for any of my persuasion, yet knowing myself to be wholly innocent in this matter, I can with confidence appear before him, or even before the King in Council."

"Well," said he, "I see you are confident; but for all that, let me tell you, how good soever your intention was, you timed the publishing of your book very unluckily, for you cannot be ignorant that there is a very dangerous plot lately discovered, contrived by the Dissenters against the Government and his Majesty's life." [This was the Rye plot, then newly broke forth, and laid upon the Presbyterians.] "And for you," added he, "to publish a book just at that juncture of time, to discourage the magistrates and other officers from putting in execution those laws which were made to suppress their meetings, looks, I must tell you, but with a scurvy countenance upon you."

"If," replied I, with somewhat a pleasanter air, "there was any mistiming in the case, it must lie on the part of those plotters for timing the breaking forth of their plot while my book was printing, for I can bring very good proof that my book was in the press and well-nigh wrought off before any man talked or knew of a plot, but those who were in it."

Here our discourse ended, and I, taking for the present my leave of him, went to my horse, and changing my companion, rode to Justice Titchborn's, having with me William Ayrs, who was best acquainted with him, and who had casually brought this trouble on me.

When he had introduced me to Titchborn, I gave him a like account of the occasion of my coming at that time as I had before given to the other Justice. And both he and his lady, who was present, expressed much concern for Guli Penn's illness.

I found this man to be of quite another temper than Justice Fotherly; for he was smooth, soft, and oily, whereas the other was rather rough, severe, and sharp. Yet at the winding-up I found Fotherly my truest friend.

When I had told Sir Benjamin Titchborn that I came from Justice Fotherly, and requested him to give him a meeting to consider of my business, he readily, without any hesitation, told me he would go with me to Rickmansworth, from which his house was distant about a mile, and calling for his horses, mounted immediately, and to Rickmansworth we rode.

After they had been a little while together, I was called in before them, and in the first place they examined me, "What was my intention and design in writing that book?" I told them the introductory part of it gave a plain account of it—viz., "That it was to get ease from the penalties of a severe law often executed with too great a severity by unskilful officers, who were driven on beyond the bounds of their duty by the impetuous threats of a sort of insolent fellows, as needy as greedy, who for their own advantage sought our ruin." To prevent which was the design and drift of that book, by acquainting such officers how they might safely demean themselves in the execution of their offices towards their honest and peaceable neighbours, without ruining either their neighbours or themselves to enrich some of the worst of men; and that I humbly conceived it was neither unlawful nor unreasonable for a sufferer to do this, so long as it was done in a fair, sober, and peaceable way.

They then put me in mind of the plot; told me it was a troublesome and dangerous time, and my book might be construed to import sedition, in discouraging the officers from putting the laws in execution, as by law and by their oath they were bound; and in fine brought it to this issue, that they were directed to secure me by a commitment to prison until the assize, at which I should receive a further charge than they were provided now to give me; but because they were desirous to forward my visit to Madam Penn, they told me they would admit me to bail, and therefore, if I would enter a recognisance, with sufficient sureties, for my appearance at the next assize, they would leave me at liberty to go on my journey.

I told them I could not do it. They said they would give me as little trouble as they could, and therefore they would not put me to seek bail, but would accept those two friends of mine who were then present, to be bound with me for my appearance.

I let them know my strait lay not in the difficulty of procuring sureties, for I did suppose myself to have sufficient acquaintance and credit in that place, if on such an occasion I could be free to use it; but as I knew myself to be an innocent man, I had not satisfaction in myself to desire others to be bound for me, nor to enter myself into a recognisance, that carrying in it, to my apprehension, a reflection on my innocency and the reputation of my Christian profession.

Here we stuck and struggled about this a pretty while, till at length finding me fixed in my judgment, and resolved rather to go to prison than give bail, they asked me if I was against appearing, or only against being bound with sureties to appear. I told them I was not against appearing, which as I could not avoid if I would, so I would not if I might; but was ready and willing to appear, if required, to answer whatsoever should be charged against me. But in any case of a religious nature, or wherein my Christian profession was concerned, which I took this case to be, I could not yield to give any other or further security than my word or promise as a Christian.

They, unwilling to commit me, took hold of that, and asked if I would promise to appear. I answered, "Yes; with due limitations."— "What do you mean by due limitations?" said they.—"I mean," replied I, "if I am not disabled or prevented by sickness or imprisonment. For," added I, "as you allege that it is a troublesome time, I perhaps may find it so. I may, for aught I know, be seized and imprisoned elsewhere on the same account for which I now stand here before you, and if I should, how then could I appear at the assize in this county?"—"Oh," said they, "these are due limitations indeed. Sickness or imprisonment are lawful excuses, and if either of these befall you, we shall not expect your appearance here; but then you must certify us that you are so disabled by sickness or restraint."

"But," said I, "how shall I know when and where I shall wait upon you again after my return from Sussex?"—"You need not," said they, "trouble yourself about that; we will take care to give you notice of both time and place, and till you hear from us you may dispose yourself as you please."

"Well, then," said I, "I do promise you that when I shall have received from you a fresh command to appear before you, I will, if the Lord permit me life, health, and liberty, appear when and where you shall appoint."

"It is enough," said they; "we will take your word." And desiring me to give their hearty respects and service to Madam Penn, they dismissed me with their good wishes for a good journey.

I was sensible that in this they had dealt very favourably and kindly with me, therefore I could not but acknowledge to them the sense I had thereof; which done, I took leave of them, and mounting, returned home with what haste I could, to let my wife know how I had sped. And having given her a summary account of the business, I took horse again, and went so far that evening towards Worminghurst that I got thither pretty early next morning, and to my great satisfaction found my friend in a hopeful way towards recovery.

I stayed some days with her, and then, finding her illness wear daily off, and some other Friends being come from London to visit her, I, mindful of my engagement to the Justices, and unwilling by too long an absence to give them occasion to suspect I was willing to avoid their summons, leaving those other Friends to bear her company longer, took my leave of her and them, and set my face homewards, carrying with me the welcome account of my friend's recovery.

Being returned home, I waited in daily expectation of a command from the Justices to appear again before them; but none came. I spoke with those Friends who had been with me when I was before them, and they said they had heard nothing of it from them, although they had since been in company with them. At length the assize came, but no notice was given to me that I should appear there: in fine, they never troubled themselves nor me any further about it.

Thus was a cloud, that looked black and threatened a great storm, blown gently over by a providential breath, which I could not but with a thankful mind acknowledge to the All-great, All-good, All- wise Disposer, in whose hand and at whose command the hearts of all men, even the greatest, are, and who turns their counsels, disappoints their purposes, and defeats their designs and contrivances as He pleases. For if my dear friend Guli Penn had not fallen sick, if I had not thereupon been sent for to her, I had not prevented the time of my appearance, but had appeared on the day appointed; and, as I afterwards understood, that was the day appointed for the appearance of a great many persons of the Dissenting party in that side of the country, who were to be taken up and secured on account of the aforementioned plot, which had been cast upon the Presbyterians. So that if I had then appeared with and amongst them, I had in all likelihood been sent to gaol with them for company, and that under the imputation of a plotter, than which nothing was more contrary to my profession and inclination.

But though I came off so easily, it fared not so well with others; for the storm increasing, many Friends in divers parts, both of city and country, suffered greatly; the sense whereof did deeply affect me, and the more for that I observed the magistrates, not thinking the laws which had been made against us severe enough, perverted the law in order to punish us. For calling our peaceable meetings riots, which in the legal notion of the word riot is a contradiction in terms, they indicted our friends as rioters for only sitting in a meeting, though nothing was there either said or done by them, and then set fines on them at pleasure.

This I knew to be not only against right and justice, but even against law; and it troubled me to think that we should be made to suffer not only by laws made directly against us, but even by laws that did not at all concern us. Nor was it long before I had occasion offered more thoroughly to consider this matter.

For a justice of the peace in this county, who was called Sir Dennis Hampson, of Taplow, breaking in with a party of horse upon a little meeting near Wooburn, in his neighbourhood, the 1st of the fifth month, 1683, sent most of the men, to the number of twenty-three, whom he found there, to Aylesbury prison, though most of them were poor men who lived by their labour; and not going himself to the next Quarter Sessions at Buckingham, on the 12th of the same month, sent his clerk with direction that they should be indicted for a riot. Whither the prisoners were carried and indicted accordingly, and being pressed by the court to traverse and give bail, they moved to be tried forthwith, but that was denied them. And they, giving in writing the reason of their refusing bail and fees, were remanded to prison till next Quarter Sessions; but William Woodhouse was again hailed, as he had been before, and William Mason and John Reeve, who not being Friends, but casually taken at that meeting, entered recognisance as the court desired, and so were released till next sessions; before which time Mason died, and Reeve being sick, appeared not, but got himself taken off. And in the eighth month following the twenty-one prisoners that remained were brought to trial; a jury was found, who brought in a pretended verdict that they were GUILTY OF A RIOT for only sitting peaceably together without word or action, and though there was no proclamation made nor they required to depart. But one of the jurymen afterwards did confess he knew not what a riot was; yet the prisoners were fined a noble apiece, and recommitted to prison during life (a hard sentence) or the King's pleasure, or until they should pay the said fines. William Woodhouse was forthwith discharged by his kinsman's paying the fine and fees for him; Thomas Dell and Edward Moore also, by other people of the world paying their fines and fees; and shortly after, Stephen Pewsey, by the town and parish where he lived, for fear his wife and children should become a charge upon them. The other seventeen remained prisoners till King James's proclamation of pardon; whose names were Thomas and William Sexton, Timothy Child, Robert Moor, Richard James, William and Robert Aldridge, John Ellis, George Salter, John Smith, William Tanner, William Batchelor, John Dolbin, Andrew Brothers, Richard Baldwin, John Jennings, and Robert Austin.


{180} Ille dolet vere, qui fine teste dolet.

{190} Rom. viii. 9

{230} Understand this of natural things.

{276a} Almost from our cradle.

{276b} From our tender age.


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