Dr George Eglisham - The Scotsman who helped destroy the Stuart monarchy
Historians Professor Alastair Bellany and Professor Thomas Cogswell reveal the hitherto untold story about a political pamphlet written by a Scotsman whose allegations of a poisoning at the court of James VI/I helped destory the Stuart monarchy.
In January 1649, the Scottish Covenanters struggled to save King Charles I's life. Their regicidal English opponents had many reasons for bringing Charles Stuart to justice: among them was the conviction that Charles had his father’s blood on his hands. And that conviction owed its existence to a book, written over two decades earlier, by a Scotsman: Dr. George Eglisham.
George Eglisham had grown up in the circle of James Hamilton, later the second Marquis of Hamilton. The Marquis had followed King James VI south in 1603, but Eglisham took a very different route out of Scotland. A committed Catholic, he became a well-known figure among the exiled Scots intelligentsia scattered across the Continent.
Educated in philosophy and medicine at Louvain and Paris, Eglisham quickly acquired a reputation as a teacher and physician, before turning his pen to savage two of James VI’s bêtes noire - the German Arminian, Conrad Vorstius, and the Scottish Presbyterian icon, George Buchanan (pictured). The grateful king offered Eglisham his patronage, and during the 1610s he established himself in London as an honorary royal physician, eventually acquiring a royal patent for the manufacture of gold leaf that promised to make his fortune.
A LIFE IN RUINS
By March 1625, however, Eglisham’s world was in ruins: financially strapped and religiously marginalized, he recklessly attempted to engineer Hamilton’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism. With the English court outraged, Eglisham fled to Brussels, settling among its Scottish émigré community.
With the encouragement of the Spanish authorities, in April 1626 Eglisham published a sensational tract in Latin, German and English, alleging that the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, had poisoned not only Hamilton, but also King James.
As Eglisham’s tract began circulating in London, the House of Commons investigated James's death and charged Buckingham with a "transcendent presumption" in offering medicine to the king. The charge infuriated Charles I, and before the Upper House reached a verdict, the king dissolved Parliament.
Far from dispelling Eglisham's allegations, the dissolution strengthened them. The charges were repeated in various libels and manuscript tracts, and reportedly inspired several Scottish aristocrats to demand a further investigation.
Early drafts of David Calderwood's monumental History of the Kirk incorporated Eglisham's charges wholesale. But Eglisham’s allegations not only dogged Buckingham to his assassination in 1628, they also began to attach themselves to Charles. Some contemporaries now worried that, while Charles may not have been involved in his father's murder, he was guilty of covering up Buckingham's crime by dissolving the 1626 Parliament.
A POLITICAL FIRESTORM
Although Eglisham’s pamphlet was reprinted in the opening weeks of the English Civil War, allegations of Charles's involvement in James’s murder remained muted until the crisis year of 1648. Parliament’s February 1648 Declaration explaining its decision to break off negotiations with the King made what one Royalist called a "direct insinuation as if [Charles] had conspired with the Duke of Buckingham against the life of his father."
A polemical firestorm ensued, and while the Scottish Covenanters rallied to the beleaguered king, English radicals continued to invoke their daring new version of Eglisham’s allegations as they pressed to bring Charles to justice.
Denied a chance to present his case against the king at trial, the High Court prosecutor, John Cook, printed the speech he had intended to make in court, branding Charles a tyrant while unmistakably leveling a charge of parricide against him.
Like the 1648 Declaration, Cook alleged that the 1626 parliamentary dissolution had served to cover up James’s murder, and argued that "to conceal a Murder, strongly implies a guilt thereof”. Suspicions about Charles's involvement in James’s death hardened to revolutionary dogma in the 1650s, and many English republican polemicists celebrated God’s angry judgment against a cursed Scottish dynasty.
George Eglisham died in exile in the 1630s, still imagining himself a Stuart loyalist. But his legacy was the short pamphlet he had written in Brussels; a pamphlet that poisoned English politics and helped destroy the Stuart monarchy.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Professor Alastair Bellany and Professor Thomas Cogswell are co-authors of The Murder of King James I, published by Yale Books.
Illuminating many hitherto obscure aspects of early modern political culture, this eagerly anticipated work is both a fascinating story of political intrigue and a major exploration of the forces that destroyed the Stuart monarchy. Find out more about the book on Yale's website.