The Mystery of the ‘Black Box’ and the ‘true’ heirs of Charles II

In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles probes the mysteries of the ‘black box’ that was supposed to contain proof of Charles II’s marriage to his mistress, Lucy Walters, and how the family of the duke of Monmouth eventually made its way back into the House of Lords.

In February 1735 Parliament was faced with a petition lodged by the Scots representative peers about accusations of corruption in their recent elections. One of those to raise his voice in the matter was Francis Scott, 2nd duke of Buccleuch, who was one of the new batch of Scotch peers returned in the 1734 general election, and who wanted to know whether the intention was to deprive him of his seat. Buccleuch was not a particularly engaging character, dismissed by the later commentator Lady Louisa Stuart as ‘of mean understanding and meaner habits’. If rough around the edges, though, he was normally a valuable ministerial loyalist and for the remainder of the decade he proved a consistent follower of the administration.

In 1741, Buccleuch fell out with Walpole and voted for his removal from office. Unsurprisingly, he failed to make the cut for the ministerial list of Scots representatives for the 1741 election, but two years later he made a return to the Lords having been restored to the British peerage as earl of Doncaster. The bill re-granting him his titles was brought in by Lord Carteret at the king’s command on 11 March 1743 and skipped through the House without incident, passing on the 16th.

All of this may not have been of much account but for the fact that Buccleuch was the grandson of the duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II, who had been executed following his failed rebellion against his uncle James II in July 1685. Monmouth had been stripped of his titles, which is why his descendants were known by their Scottish honours, which they owed to his wife, as duchess of Buccleuch in her own right.

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When Monmouth died on the block in spectacularly grisly fashion, with him had died the hopes of a number of Protestants who had been eager to see him displace James II on the throne. For some of them, Monmouth had been the true heir of Charles II. Soon after the Restoration when his marriage to Lady Anne Scott was being arranged, a process was begun under Scots law for Monmouth to be granted letters of legitimation and it was probably to this that should be attributed the beginning of rumours that Charles intended to acknowledge him as his legitimate son. Nothing of the kind happened, but at the height of the Exclusion Crisis, Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, and others agitated for Charles to acknowledge Monmouth as his heir. There were even moves to have the king’s ‘marriage’ to Lucy Walters (who had died prior to the Restoration in 1658) declared formally in Parliament. In spite of solemn undertakings made by Charles that he had never married Walters, the myth endured bolstered by rumours of the existence of a mysterious ‘black box’ containing documents proving that the marriage had taken place.

The story of the black box was popularized in two tracts published by Robert Ferguson (known as ‘the Plotter’) in 1680 following an official enquiry launched by the court. The owner of the notorious receptacle was said to be Sir Gilbert Gerard, MP for Northallerton, and a supporter of exclusion. He was said to have been bequeathed it by his father-in-law, John Cosin, bishop of Durham (Lucy Walters’ confessor in the final years of her life). On his death, Cosin was said to have left instructions that the box was to be kept sealed until after Charles’s death, but Gerard had fallen prey to temptation and looked inside. There, it was believed he found proof that Cosin himself had married Charles and Lucy during the exile. Gerard was brought up to London in April 1680 and questioned by the privy council to discover what he had uncovered. Although he denied all knowledge, he was turned out of his offices. His experience proved the starting point for Ferguson’s pamphlets.

In the short term, the efforts made by Charles and (perhaps more to the point) James to close the story down were unsuccessful. Ferguson’s tracts remained in circulation and continued to inspire opposition. In 1682 a man was prosecuted in Dorset for insisting:

it could and should be proved that the king was married to the duke of Monmouth’s mother and that nought but knaves, rascals, and fools signed the Dorsetshire address to the king [Zook, 101]

Tales continued once Charles was dead. The 1685 election for Westminster saw one of Gerard’s distant relations standing as one of the Whig candidates, only to meet with noisy opposition at the poll with the crowd parading a box on a pole and calling out ‘No black box! No excluder!’ There were similar demonstrations at Newark and at Newcastle-under-Lyme, where replica black boxes were ritually burnt.

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Monmouth’s defeat and William of Orange’s successful invasion ultimately rendered the tales of the black box irrelevant. By the time of the Hanoverian succession, little more was said about it, though the episode did feature in Roger Coke’s 1719 publication, A Detection of the Court and State, which promised to reveal ‘many SECRETS never before made publick’. It may have been an indication of how secure George II felt by 1734 that he had no compunction in permitting the admission to Parliament of a man some might have felt to be the true heir to the throne; and even more so that in 1743 he was willing to restore him to some of the titles stripped from his rebellious grandfather.

Choosing to reward Buccleuch may have been made easier because the duke inspired relatively little affection. Louisa Stuart was not alone in dismissing him as an unappealing sort of character. Towards the end of his life he was said to have:

plunged into such low amours, and lived so entirely with the lowest company, that his person was scarcely known to his equals, and his character fell into utter contempt.

He continued his downward trajectory and, following the death of his first wife, married a washerwoman. When he died in April 1751, Buccleuch’s demise was overlooked amid the constitutional crisis caused by the recent death of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and he was buried ‘very meanly’ in the chapel of Eton.

There is, however, a corollary to all of this. While Ferguson the Plotter had, undoubtedly, been willing to popularize the story of the black box to please his patrons, Shaftesbury and Monmouth, in his first tract he had perhaps given away his true feelings on the issue, one which could in no way displease the Hanoverians:

‘Tis of no great concernment, who is the immediate heir in the regal line, if we do but consider that the Parliament of England hath often provided a successor to the Government, when the interest of the Publick hath required it, without the least regard to such Punctilios.

RDEE

Further Reading:

James Ferguson, Robert Ferguson: the plotter, or the secret of the Rye House conspiracy and the story of a strange career
Robert Ferguson, ‘A letter to a person of honour concerning the Black Box’ (1680)
Melinda Zook, Radical Whigs and Conspiratorial Politics in Late Stuart England

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