Felton, John (1595?-1628) (DNB00)

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FELTON, JOHN (1595?–1628), assassin of the Duke of Buckingham, was of a Suffolk family. According to the statement of the Suffolk antiquary, John Rous (Diary, Camd. Soc. p. 27), ‘he was borne neere to Sudbury.’ A Thomas Felton is known to have been residing near Pentlow, Suffolk, in the neighbourhood of Sudbury, in 1595, and it has been suggested that this was John Felton's father (Suffolk Institute of Archæology Proc. iv. 39–40). He was certainly connected with the great family of Felton settled at Playford, Suffolk, whose chief, Henry, was created a baronet in 1620, and he claimed relationship with the Earl and Countess of Arundel. Sir Simonds D'Ewes says he was ‘a gentleman of very ancient familie of gentrie in Suffolk.’ His mother was Eleanor, daughter of William Wright, mayor of Durham, and he had a brother Edmund (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1628–9, pp. 321, 340). Felton entered the army at an early age, and his left hand was rendered useless by a wound. He served as a lieutenant, apparently to a Captain Lee, under Sir Edward Cecil at Cadiz in 1625. Always surly and morose, he was unpopular with his comrades, and he is said to have quarrelled with Sir Henry Hungate on the Cadiz voyage. Hungate was a favourite with the Duke of Buckingham, and D'Ewes attributes Felton's failure to gain promotion in the army to Hungate's influence with the duke. While the expedition of 1627 was being organised, Felton twice applied for command of a company, on the first occasion being recommended by Sir William Uvedale, and on the second by Sir William Becher, but was refused in both instances. Clarendon states that he thereupon gave up his commission, but this is clearly incorrect. He made at least one personal application to Buckingham, and pleaded that without a captain's place he could not live. The duke answered that he would have to hang if he could not live. Whether or not he joined the expedition of 1627 is uncertain, but it is undoubted that he harboured the angriest feelings against Buckingham. In July 1628 he employed a scrivener of Holborn named George Willoughby to draw up petitions for arrears of pay, which, according to his own account, exceeded 80l. He was suffering great poverty at the time, and his moroseness and melancholy were increasing. On one of his visits to Willoughby's office he found Willoughby making copies for public distribution of the ‘remonstrance,’ drawn up by the parliamentary leaders in the previous June. He obtained permission to read the paper, expressed satisfaction with its sentiment, and purchased a transcript. Felton had always been a reader, and his library now included the remonstrance, the attack on Buckingham by Dr. George Eglisham [q.v.] , and ‘The Golden Epistles,’ i.e. probably the volume by Sir Geoffrey Fenton [q.v.] . Perusal of these works combined with his sense of private injury led him to plan Buckingham's assassination. On Tuesday, 19 Aug., he obtained a little money from his mother, Eleanor Felton, who lodged at a haberdasher's in Fleet Street, and announced his intention of going to Portsmouth, where Buckingham was preparing a new expedition for France. Before starting he left directions at a church in Fleet Street that he should be prayed for as a man disordered and discontented in mind on the following Sunday; bought a tenpenny dagger-knife of a cutler on Tower Hill, which he fastened to his right-hand pocket so that he could draw it without using his crippled left hand, and finally wrote on a paper, which he pinned on the lining of his hat, the following sentence from ‘The Golden Epistles:’ ‘That man is cowardly and base and deserveth not the name of a gentleman or soldier that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honour of his God, his king, and his country.’ Another sentence, of his own composition, followed: ‘Let no man commend me for doing of it, but rather discommend themselves as the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins he would not have gone so long unpunished.’ Felton made his way to Portsmouth, chiefly on foot, and did not arrive before nine o'clock on Saturday, 23 Aug. No. 10 High Street was in the occupation of Buckingham, the lord admiral, and thither Felton trudged on entering the town. The hall was crowded with men anxious to be engaged in the expedition, and Felton mingled with the concourse unnoticed. Buckingham entered in conversation with Colonel Sir Thomas Fryer, a man of short stature. Felton approached the two and stabbed the duke over Fryer's arm in the left breast. No one saw the blow struck, and Felton retired to the kitchen leading from the hall. The duke staggered, and fell dead. All was confusion, and the cry ‘A Frenchman!’ was raised. Felton imagined that his own name was mentioned, re-entered the hall, and cried out, ‘I am the man; here I am.’ It was only owing to the efforts of Carleton, Sir Thomas Morton, and Lord Montgomery that he escaped lynching on the spot. He was taken to the house of the governor of Portsmouth, and a fortnight later carried to the Tower of London, where he occupied the cell recently vacated by Sir John Eliot.

Whatever feelings Felton's act excited in government circles, popular sentiment ran high in his favour. While at Kingston-on- Thames, on his journey to London, he was greeted with the cry ‘God bless thee, little David!’ When the fleet left Portsmouth the sailors and soldiers appealed to the king ‘to be good to John Felton, their once fellow-soldier.’ At Oxford his health was drunk repeatedly. Alexander Gill was summoned before the Star-chamber for following the practice; while numberless poems and ballads described him as a national benefactor. At first the government thought to implicate the parliamentary opposition in Felton's crime, but, although he insisted that the ‘remonstrance’ was ‘his only confederate and setter-on,’ it became clear that he had no political associates. Puritan preachers visited him, and the Earl and Countess of Arundel with Lord Maltravers saw him before his trial. The king suggested on 13 Nov. that he should be racked, but the judges declared that torture was illegal, and the proposal dropped, although Laud and Dorset had supported it. On 27 Nov. Felton was tried in the court of king's bench, pleaded guilty to the fact, and was hanged at Tyburn on the next day. His body was afterwards removed to Portsmouth, and there hung in chains. Epitaphs, in which Felton was liberally eulogised, abounded. One poem by Zouch Townley, ‘to his confined friend Mr. Felton,’ protests against the threat of torture. A collection of these poems was made by F. W. Fairholt in 1850, and published by the Percy Society. A rare print, ‘The lively portraiture of Iohn Felton, who most miserably kild the right Honoble George Villeirs, duke of Buckingham, August ye 23 1628,’ is in the Bodleian Library. A worthless print of the assassination was reissued in 1822. A double-bladed knife at Newnham Paddox, Warwickshire, the seat of the Earl of Denbigh, is stated to be the weapon used by Felton (the first Countess of Denbigh was Buckingham's sister). The paper pinned in his hat came into the possession, through Sir Edward Nicholas, of John Evelyn, and, with other Evelyn papers, was some years ago the property of William Upcott of the London Institution. Sources

The best contemporary account of Buckingham's murder is Dudley Carleton's letter to the queen, sent on the day of the occurrence, see Ellis's Orig. Letters, 1st ser. iii. 256. Clarendon's version adds some details, but is not at all points correct. See also Howell's Epistolæ; Wotton's Life of Buckingham; Gent. Mag. 1845, ii. 137–44 (with portrait of Felton); State Trials, iii. 367–72; Fairholt's Poems and Songs relating to Buckingham and his assassination (Percy Soc.), 1850; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1628–9; Diary of John Rous (Camd. Soc.); Suffolk Institute of Archæology, iv. 14–64 (Playford and the Feltons); Forster's Life of Sir John Eliot; Gardiner's Hist. of England, vol. vi.

S. L.