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Buckingham’s Political Coquetry with the Puritans

BUCKINGHAM, observes Hume, “in order to fortify himself against the resentment of James”—on the conduct of the duke in the Spanish match, when James was latterly hearing every day Buckingham against Bristol, and Bristol against Buckingham—“had affected popularity, and entered into the cabals of the Puritans; but afterwards, being secure of the confidence of Charles, he had since abandoned this party; and on that account was the more exposed to their hatred and resentment.”

The political coquetry of a minister coalescing with an opposition party, when he was on the point of being disgraced, would doubtless open an involved scene of intrigue; and what one exacted, and the other was content to yield, towards the mutual accommodation, might add one more example to the large chapter on political infirmity. Both workmen attempting to convert each other into tools, by first trying their respective malleability on the anvil, are liable to be disconcerted by even a slight accident, whenever that proves to perfect conviction, how little they can depend on each other, and that each party comes to cheat, and not to be cheated!

This piece of secret history is in part recoverable from good authority. The two great actors were the Duke of Buckingham and Dr. Preston, the master of Emmanuel College, and the head of the Puritan party.

Dr. Preston was an eminent character, who from his youth was not without ambition. His scholastic learning, the subtilty of his genius, and his more elegant accomplishments, had attracted the notice of James, at whose table he was perhaps more than once honoured as a guest; a suspicion of his Puritanic principles was perhaps the only obstacle to his court preferment; yet Preston unquestionably designed to play a political part. He retained the favour of James by the king’s hope of withdrawing the doctor from the opposition party; and commanded the favour of Buckingham by the fears of that minister; when, to employ the quaint style of Hacket, the duke foresaw that “he might come to be tried in the furnace of the next sessions of parliament, and he had need to make the refiners his friends:” most of these “refiners” were the Puritanic or opposition party. Appointed one of the chaplains of Prince Charles, Dr. Preston had the advantage of being in frequent attendance; and as Hacket tells us, “this politic man felt the pulse of the court, and wanted not the intelligence of all dark mysteries through the Scotch in his highness’s bedchamber.” A close communication took place between the duke and Preston, who, as Hacket describes, was “a good crow to smell carrion.” He obtained an easy admission to the duke’s closet at least thrice a week, and their notable conferences Buckingham appears to have communicated to his confidential friends. Preston, intent on carrying all his points, skilfully commenced with the smaller ones. He winded the duke circuitously,—he worked at him subterraneously. This wary politician was too sagacious to propose what he had at heart—the extirpation of the hierarchy! The thunder of James’s voice, “no bishop! no king!” in the conference at Hampton Court, still echoed in the ear of the Puritan. He assured the duke that the love of the people was his only anchor, which could only he secured by the most popular measures. A new sort of reformation was easy to execute. Cathedrals and collegiate churches maintained by vast wealth, and the lands of the chapter, only fed “fat, lazy, and unprofitable drones.” The dissolution of the foundations of deans and chapters would open an ample source to pay the king’s debts, and scatter the streams of patronage. “You would then become the darling of the commonwealth;” I give the words as I find them in Hacket. “If a crum stick in the throat of any considerable man that attempts an opposition, it will be easy to wash it down with manors, woods, royalties, tythes, &c.” It would he furnishing the wants of a number of gentlemen, and he quoted a Greek proverb, “that when a great oak falls, every neighbour may scuffle for a faggot.”

Dr. Preston was willing to perform the part which Knox had acted in Scotland! He might be certain of a party to maintain this national violation of property; for he who calls out “Plunder!” will ever find a gang. These acts of national injustice, so much desired by revolutionists, are never beneficial to the people; they never partake of the spoliation, and the whole terminates in private rapacity.

It was not, however, easy to obtain such perpetual access to the minister, and at the same time escape from the watchful: Archbishop Williams, the lord keeper, got sufficient hints from the king; and in a tedious conference with the duke, he wished to convince him that Preston had only offered him “flitten milk, out of which he should churn nothing!” The duke was, however, smitten by the new project, and made a remarkable answer: “You lose yourself in generalities: make it out to me in particular, if you can, that the motion you pick at will find repulse, and be baffled in the house of commons. I know not how you bishops may struggle, but I am much deluded if a great part of the knights and burgesses world not be glad to see this alteration.” We are told on this, that Archbishop Williams took out a list of the members of the house of commons, and convinced the minister that an overwhelming majority would oppose this projected revolution, and that in consequence the duke gave it up.

But this anterior decision of the duke may he doubtful, since Preston still retained the high favour of the minister, after the death of James. When James died at Theobalds, where Dr. Preston happened to he in attendance, he had the honour of returning to town in the new king’s coach with the Duke of Buckingham. The doctor’s servile adulation of the minister gave even great offence to the over-zealous Puritans. That he was at length discarded is certain; but this was owing not to any deficient subserviency on the side of our politician, but to one of those unlucky circumstances which have often put an end to temporary political connexions, by enabling one party to discover what the other thinks of him.

I draw this curious fact from a manuscript narrative in the handwriting of the learned William Wotton. When the Puritanic party foolishly became jealous of the man who seemed to be working at root and branch for their purposes, they addressed a letter to Preston, remonstrating with him for his servile attachment to the minister; on which he confidentially returned an answer, assuring them that he was as fully convinced of the vileness and profligacy of the Duke of Buckingham’s character as any man could be, but that there was no way to come at him but by the lowest flattery, and that it was necessary for the glory of God, that such instruments should be made use of as could be had; and for that reason, and that alone, he showed that respect to the reigning favourite, and not for any real honour that he had for him. This letter proved fatal; some officious hand conveyed it to the duke! When Preston came as usual, the duke took his opportunity of asking him what he had ever done to disoblige him, that he should describe him in such black characters to his own party? Preston, in amazement, denied the fact, and poured forth professions of honour and gratitude. The duke showed him his own letter. Dr. Preston instantaneously felt a political apoplexy: the labours of some years had been lost in a single morning. The baffled politician was turned out of Wallingford House, never more to see the enraged minister! And from that moment Buckingham wholly abandoned the Puritans, and cultivated the friendship of Laud. This happened soon after James the First’s death. Wotton adds, “This story I heard from one who was extremely well versed in the secret history of the time.”1

1 Wotton delivered this memorandum to the literary antiquary, Thomas Baker; and Kennet transcribed it in his Manuscript Collections. Lansdowne MSS. No. 932-88. The life of Dr. Preston, in Chalmers’s Biographical Dictionary, may be consulted with advantage.