Fitzharris, Edward (DNB00)

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FITZHARRIS, EDWARD (1648?–1681), conspirator, son of Sir Edward Fitzharris, was born in Ireland about 1648, and bought up in the Roman catholic faith. According to his own relation he left Ireland for France in 1662 to learn the language, returning home through England in 1665. Three years later he went to Prague with the intention of entering the service of the emperor Leopold I in his operations against Hungary, when, finding that the expedition had been abandoned, he wandered through Flanders to England again. He next obtained a captain's commission in one of the companies raised by Sir George Hamilton in Ireland for Louis XIV, but on being discharged from his command soon after landing in France, he went to Paris, 'and, having but little money, he lived there difficultly about a year.' Returning to England in October 1672 he received, in the following February, the lieutenancy of Captain Sydenham's company in the Duke of Albemarle's regiment, which he was forced to resign on the passing of the Test Act in 1673. For the next eight years he was busily intriguing with influential Roman catholics, among others with the Duchess of Portsmouth. At length in February 1681 he wrote a libel, 'The True Englishman speaking plain English in a Letter from a Friend to a Friend' (Cobbett, Parl. Hist. vol. iv., Appendix, No. xiii.), in which he advocated the deposition of the king and the exclusion of the Duke of York. He possibly intended to place this in the house of some whig, and then, by discovering it himself, earn the wages of an informer. He was betrayed by an accomplice, Edmond Everard, and sent first to Newgate and afterwards to the Tower, where he pretended he could discover the secret of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey's murder. Eventually he succeeded in implicating Danby. Fitzharris was impeached by the commons of high treason, not to destroy but to serve him in opposition to the court. His impeachment brought into discussion an important question of constitutional law. The lords having voted for a trial at common law, the commons declared this to be a denial of justice. Parliament, however, was suddenly dissolved after eight days' session on 28 March, probably to avoid a threatened collision between the two houses; others, according to Luttrell, thought that the court feared that Fitzharris might be driven by the impeachment to awkward disclosures (Relation of State Affairs, 1857, i. 72). He had had, in fact, more than one interview with the king through the Duchess of Portsmouth (Burnet, Own Time, Oxford edition, ii. 280-1). The dissolution decided his fate. He was tried before the king's bench in Easter term, and entered a plea against the jurisdiction of the court on the ground that proceedings were pending against him before the lords. This plea was ruled to be insufficient, and Fitzharris was proceeded against at common law, 9 June 1681, and convicted. His wife, daughter of William Finch, commander in the navy, exhibited wonderful courage and resource on his behalf. At his request Burnet afterwards visited him, and soon satisfied himself that no reliance whatever could be placed on his testimony. Francis Hawkins, chaplain of the Tower, then took him in hand in the interests of the court, and, by insinuating that his life might yet be spared, persuaded him to draw up a pretended confession, in which Lord Howard of Escrick, who had befriended Fitzharris, was made the author of the libel, while Sir Robert Clayton [q. v.] and Sir George Treby, before whom his preliminary examination had been conducted, together with the sheriffs, Slingsby Bethel [q. v.] and Henry Cornish [q. v.], were severally charged with subornation. 'Yet at the same time he writ letters to his wife, who was not then admitted to him, which I saw and read,' says Burnet, ' in which he told her how he was practised upon with the hopes of life ' (ib. ii. 282). Fitzharris was executed on 1 July 1681, the concocted confession appeared the very next day, and Hawkins was rewarded for his pains with the deanery of Chichester. The justices and sheriffs in their reply, 'Truth Vindicated,' had little difficulty in proving the so-called ' confession ' to be a tissue of falsehoods. The indictment against Lord Howard of Escrick was withdrawn, as the grand jury refused to believe the evidence of the two witnesses, Mrs. Fitzharris and her maidservant. The court, fearful of further exposures, persuaded Mrs. Fitzharris to give up her husband's letters under promise of a pension; 'but so many had seen them before that, that this base practice turned much to the reproach of all their proceedings' (Burnet, ut supra). In 1689 Sir John Hawles, solicitor-general to William III, published some 'Remarks' on Fitzharris's trial, which he condemns as being as illegal as it was odious. During the same year the commons recommended Mrs. Fitzharris and her three children to the bountiful consideration of the king (Commons' Journals, 15 June 1689).

[Cobbett's State Trials, viii. 223-446; Cobbett's Parl. Hist. vol. iv. col. 1314, Appendix No. xiii.; Burnet's Own Time, Oxford edit. ii. 271, 278, 280; Luttrell's Relation of State Affairs, 1857, vol. i.; Reresby's Diary; North's Examen; Eachard's Hist, of England, pp. 1010, 1011; Hallam's Const. Hist. 8th edit. ii. 446; Macpherson's Hist. of Great Britain, vol. i. ch. v.pp. 341-3; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. i. 303.]

G. G.