Of Pretenders and Prime Ministers: Robert Walpole and the Atterbury Plot 300 years on

As 2022 draws to an end Dr Charles Littleton considers the tercentenary of the Atterbury Plot, the failed plan for a Jacobite insurrection in England in 1722. The investigation of the conspiracy by Parliament in 1722-23 had far-reaching effects, as it consolidated the incoming premiership of Robert Walpole and contributed to the weakening of English Jacobitism.

As its name suggests, the direction of the ‘Plot’ was attributed to the notoriously aggressive Francis Atterbury, bishop of Rochester. From 1716 he was the Pretender’s principal agent in England (not that he was necessarily entirely happy with the role). He was joined in its direction by a number of Jacobite peers sitting in the House of Lords. Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, William North, 6th Baron North (and 2nd Baron Grey), and the Irish peers Charles Butler, earl of Arran, and Charles Boyle, 4th earl of Orrery, had all been military officers, diplomats or statesmen during the reign of Queen Anne, but by 1720 were dedicated servants of the Pretender.

In the last days of 1721 Atterbury, Strafford, North, Arran and Sir Henry Goring pledged themselves to proceed with plans for a Stuart restoration formulated at the Jacobite court at St Germain-en-Laye. They would raise domestic uprisings in England during the general election scheduled for spring 1722, while St Germain would send over a small band of troops from Spain in support. The conspirators quickly became disunited, though. Orrery (who did not sign the letter to St Germain) insisted on the need for a more sizeable foreign invasion force, while North, Strafford and Arran were confident they could personally lead a domestic popular revolt. The plot, or what soon became separate individual plots, began to unravel and its timing had to be postponed to the late summer.

Oil on canvas portrait of the top half of Francis Atterbury. He is angled towards the right and facing forward. He is wearing plain bishop robes that are white and black. He has a grey wig on.
Kneller, Godfrey; Francis Atterbury (1662-1732); Christ Church, University of Oxford; available here.

The situation grew worse for the plotters from 19 April 1722, after the death of Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland. As first lord of the Treasury in 1720-21, Sunderland had been deeply implicated in the bribery that allowed the South Sea Company to inflate its ‘Bubble’ and, after it had burst, he had negotiated with Atterbury and the Tories for their support during the parliamentary investigations.

As long as Sunderland had influence Atterbury could be relatively confident of being ‘screened’ from government interference. With him gone, though, Robert Walpole was likely to take the reins of government. Virulently anti-Jacobite, Walpole took action quickly when he learned from the French court, then in alliance with Britain, that the Jacobites were making military preparations on the continent. The correspondence between the English Jacobites and St Germain was intercepted, opened and read. One of the decipherers working on these coded letters was a clerical colleague of Atterbury, Edward Willes, who, after his codebreaking days were over, served as bishop of Bath and Wells. Couriers were taken up and interrogated. One suspect inadvertently revealed Atterbury as the principal addressee of the letters when she blithely chatted away about a little ‘spotted dog’ named Harlequin, which had been sent to Atterbury as a present for the bishop’s dying wife [HMC Portland, vii. 326].

Oil on canvas. There is a spotted dog stood between two herons. The backdrop is a winding body of water with a ship on it. The picture is dim and dull.
Hoynck, Otto; The Spotted Dog (The Golden Horn at Constantinople); Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service: Colchester Collection; available here.

The net was tightening on the Jacobite plotters, and after Goring successfully fled England on 23 August 1722, Atterbury was arrested the following day and sent to the Tower. There he proved ‘very boisterous’, and in one notorious incident scuffled with his gaoler, Colonel Williamson, ‘collared him, struck him, and threw him down’. A commentator thought it ‘pretty odd’ that Williamson would make public that he had been ‘beaten by a gouty bishop’ [HMC Portland, vii. 344].

Walpole’s government was selective in its targets when rounding up the Jacobites and investigating the conspiracy, owing in part to a lack of evidence to prove charges of treason. The principal victims were commoners, such as George Kelly and John Plunkett, both deprived of their estates. Christopher Layer, North’s lawyer and agent, was the only plotter executed, and even his sentence was continuously reprieved in the hope that he would turn king’s evidence. Orrery and North were arrested and imprisoned at about the same time as Atterbury, but proceedings against them were never commenced and they were both eventually discharged. Strafford was never even arrested and continued agitating against the government throughout 1722-23, while his colleagues languished in the Tower.

The government’s principal target was Atterbury, who already had a reputation as a disruptive troublemaker. Despite Atterbury’s forceful two-hour speech in his defence on 11 May, the House passed a bill of ‘pains and penalties’ against him four days later. While Layer, no longer useful as a potential witness, was executed shortly afterwards, Atterbury was allowed to go into exile. He died on the continent in 1732. Orrery, the nominal and ineffectual leader of a weakened Tory party, had died the previous year and North died in Spain in 1734, having converted to Catholicism and been commissioned an officer in the Spanish army. Strafford lasted until 1739, a Tory opponent to Walpole’s Whig ministry to the end. As he described himself in 1737, ‘he was bad with the last ministry, worse with this, and he did not doubt but he should be worse with the next’ [HMC Carlisle, 179]. By the end of the 1730s the Jacobite wing of the Tory party was hollowed out, and the party itself was left adrift until its next reshaping in the 1760s.

While the parliamentary proceedings of 1722-23 destroyed the Jacobites, and seriously damaged the larger Tory party by association, it only strengthened Walpole in his early years as prime minister. Arthur Onslow, the long-serving Speaker of the Commons, thought that the discovery and prosecution of the Jacobite plot was ‘the most fortunate and the greatest circumstance of Mr Walpole’s life. It fixed him with the King, and united for a time the whole body of Whigs to him, and gave him the universal credit of an able and vigilant Minister’ [HMC Onslow, 513].


Further reading:

E. Cruickshanks and H. Erskine-Hill, The Atterbury Plot (2004)

G. V. Bennet, The Tory Crisis in Church and State, 1688-1730: The Career of Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester (1976)

E. Cruickshanks, ‘Lord North, Christopher Layer and the Atterbury Plot, 1720-3’, in The Jacobite Challenge, ed. E. Cruickshanks and J. Black (1988)

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