Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bedloe, William
BEDLOE, WILLIAM (1650–1680), dishonest adventurer and 'evidence' in the Popish plot, was born on 20 April 1650, at midday, at Chepstow. We must receive with doubt whatever he reported of his family, his boastfulness and unveracity being notorious; but he 'always kept a diary of his most remarkable adventures for the space of ten years together, which was the duration of the scene in which he acted most of his cheats.' He was believed to be of very low extraction, but, according to his own account, his grandfather, on the paternal side, was Major George Bedloe, a younger son in an old Irish family, said to have been a valiant soldier and skilful versifier, leaving manuscripts behind him. Having crossed to England in 1633, George Bedloe married a merchant's widow in London, by whom he had one son, Isaac, and two daughters. He and his wife died in 1641, leaving property to Isaac Bedloe, who became a soldier in the civil wars, and received nine wounds. He was said to be jocose and skilled in music. He went to Ragland, then governed by the Marquis of Worcester. After the surrender he fell ill of fever at Chepstow, and disguised his name as Beddoe. On St. David's Day, 1 March 1649, he married a young lady belonging to that place. By her he had three sons, William, the eldest, Charles, and James; also two daughters, Alice and Mary. Charles was shipwrecked and drowned in the Baltic. William was 'destined for a drier death on shore.' Alice is reported to have married Lord Duncannon's eldest son, and to have died of a surfeit from sweetmeats. Mary remained unmarried, living with her mother at Chepstow. But after twelve years of widowhood Mrs. Beddoe, alias Bedloe, took another husband, one Taynton, who had trailed a pike at Chepstow Castle under Thomas Nanfan. He was an ingenious contriver of clocks and watches, but made his living chiefly as a cobbler. William Bedloe worked with him at this trade, and it is here that we are on safe ground. If we suppose the reported genealogy to be true, it merely proves that William Bedloe was the most disreputable of his family. If it were false, his forefathers could scarcely have surpassed him in wickedness. He claimed for himself the attainment of proficiency in Latin, heraldry, and mathematics. David Lewis, the Jesuit, who was afterwards executed at Monmouth, took notice of the boy when he was twelve years old, and taught him much, with intent of converting him. When aged twenty, in 1670, he travelled to London with one hundred pounds in his pocket, and lived near two Jesuits, Father Harman and Father Johnson. They dined at Locket's ordinary, and were said to adjourn to Mother Cresswell's. Bedloe certainly lived a sharping life in London before he went to Dunkirk, where he was recommended by the lady abbess to Sir John Warner, who sent him to Father Harcourt, the Jesuit, afterwards executed on the evidence of Oates. By his own account, William Bedloe went to Rome, Flanders, Spain, &c., carrying letters; but opened them and made forged copies, which he delivered, retaining the originals. He bore an alias of Captain Williams, under which he cheated the Prince of Orange, and from him, by fraud, obtained a captain's commission. But this captaincy was as apocryphal as the 'invisible degree' of doctor won by Titus Oates at Salamanca. Five years of varied service, intrigues, frauds, and broils, prepared him, with occasional employment by the Jesuits, for emerging into notice as a betrayer and forsworn spy. He declared that Titus Oates had anticipated and outstripped him in making revelations of the popish plot. At the beginning of August 1678, he confessed that he 'had once been an ill man, but desired to be so no more.' He wrote from Bristol, offering to make startling declarations. The Earl of Danby gave little credit to him; and in revenge for this, Bedloe asserted that a bribe was offered to him by Danby, who promised that he should be supported in whatever country he chose to retire into, if he would suppress his threatened revelations. The commons accepted his account of the murder of Sir E. B. Godfrey, and gave him 500l. The extant portrait of Bedloe, prefixed to his 'Narrative' of the fire of London having been caused by the papists, shows a villainous countenance, harsh and forbidding, full of malice and revenge. With beetle brows, hard mouth, and savage eyes, we see the man, unscrupulous, unrelenting, as he in later life became. Dressed in finery beyond his station, his arrogance is as self-evident as his malice. He declared that Counsellor Reading had tried to tamper with him for suppression of his testimony, and Reading was condemned to a year's imprisonment, with exposure for an hour in the pillory, and to pay a fine of 1,000l. Bedloe made many accusations and found willing associates. The king's chemist, Dr. James, deposed that one Dr. Smith, a papist, tried to make him poison Bedloe with a pill on 20 March 1679. By this time he was almost as popular as Oates. He received ten pounds weekly allowance from the royal funds, and lived at the rate of two thousand a year. Rich dupes were plentiful. The citizens feasted him. His folio pamphlets, with copperplate portrait prefixed, had a large sale. He attributed the most extensive plots and execrable crimes, falsely, to the Romanists. He now married the elder of two sisters, reputed co-heirs of six hundred pounds per annum, and Richard Duke wrote a clever buffooning poem on the marriage as an 'Epithalamium.' It was popular as a broadside, and is preserved in the Roxburghe collection (iii. 835), reprinted in 'Roxburghe Ballads ' (iv. 165). It begins, ' Goddess of Rhime, that didst inspire the Captain with Poetic fire.' This poem was issued at Christmas 1679. The lady's name was Anna Purifoy, daughter of an Irishman, Colonel Purifoy. After Bedloe's marriage he did not remain long in London, where he had printed and published a folio tragedy in 1679, entitled 'The Excommunicated Prince, or the False Relique: a Tragedy, as it was acted by his Majesty's Servants, being the Popish Plot in a Play. By Captain William Bedloe.' It is believed to have been written by Thomas Walter, an Oxford scholar of Jesus College. The sub-title was added to gain a sale, and it was dedicated to George Villiers, second duke of Buckingham. The hero is Teimurazez, prince of Georgia, who is excommunicated by the pope. Bedloe had travelled on the continent as courier to Lord Belasyse, against whom he afterwards swore acts of high treason; but he pretended to have been a soldier, though he never saw a battle. He went to Bristol with his wife, and lived on Stonie Hill for half a year. Then he was recalled to London in the middle of July 1680. He was now, with Oates, experiencing the fickleness of fortune and the waning of popularity. Sir George Jeffreys, on the bench, told him sharp truths, and he felt his power deserting him. He retreated back to Bristol, where he had left his wife Anna, who, in her illness, summoned him, at beginning of August. He fell ill after his hurried journey, having 'broken his gall' by violent riding. He was said to be past cure. At the commencement of the assizes on 16 Aug., Sir Francis North, chief justice of the common pleas, attended Bedloe, and took his dying deposition. There had been a promise of fresh revelations, but none of importance were forthcoming. He reiterated old statements as really true, his wife being beside him. James Bedloe made immediate application for money from King Charles, through North, next day. This application, 'that his sickness was very changeable, and that money was required for his subsistence,' explains the persistence of the family in the accusation of the Jesuits. William's death took place on Friday, 20 Aug. 1680. Richard Duke, who had written 'a panegyrick upon Oates,' beginning 'Of all the grain our nation yields,' again came forward with a fresh lampoon, unsigned, beginning,
- Sad fate! our valiant Captain Bedloe,
- In earth's cold bed lies with his head low.
The body lay exposed, as if in state, at Merchant Taylors' Hall, Bristol, on Sunday, and was in the evening buried within the mayor's chapel, called the 'Gaunts.' Thomas Palmer preached a funeral sermon on Romans xiv. 12, 13. Many dreary poems and livelier pasquinades appeared on the occasion, several of which are reprinted in the Ballad Society's twenty-first publication, 1881.
To enter fully into particulars of Bedloe's numerous allegations and sworn depositions would occupy too much space. His chief work is 'A Narrative and Impartial Discovery of the Horrid Popish Plot, carried on for the Burning and Destroying the Cities of London and Westminster, with their suburbs, &c.; setting forth several Consults, Orders, and Resolutions of the Jesuits concerning the same. By Captain William Bedloe, lately engaged in that horrid design, and one of the Popish Committee for carrying on such fires, 1679.' Next in importance, for his history, is 'The Examination of Captain William Bedlow (sic), Deceased, relating to the Popish Plot, taken in his last sickness by Sir Francis North; together with the Narrative of Sir Francis North at the Council Board, 1680, appointed by the commons to be printed.' It need scarcely be added that every part of this wretched man s evidence is tainted and untrustworthy. His bitter spite against Scroggs and Jeffreys, when they no longer accepted his testimony, showed that his charges against the Romanists proceeded as much from hatred as from greed. He and his brother James had been accustomed to cheat in company, exchanging the post of master and man in turn. When, in the summer of 1677, he arrived at Ghent, he there took the name of Lord Newport. When he passed into Spain he bore the name of Lord Gerard at Bilbao; thence he went to Valladolid, Santiago to Corunna, and embarked for England. After his death a book was published, called 'Truth made Manifest, or the Dead Man's Testimony to the Living; being a composition of the last sayings of Captain William Bedlow.' This gave Thomas Palmer's sermon. Among the poems not already mentioned are these: In Luttrell Collection, i. 9, 'An Elegy upon the Unfortunate Death of Captain William Bedloe, who departed this life on Friday, 20 Aug. 1680.' It begins, 'How fickle is the state of all mankind,' and eulogises him as 'blest with a kind wife;' ending with the declaration that 'Had he liv'd longer he had more made known.' In Luttrell Collection, i. 112, is 'England's Obligation to Captain William Bedlowe, the grand Discoverer of this most Horrid Plot;' printed by Thomas Dawks, 1679. It is meant to be serious, beginning 'The World is all on fire in Jesus' name, By quick nosed Jesuites who hunt for game,' and ends with an acrostic on 'William Bedlowe.' An 'Elegie on the Death of Captain William Bedloe' begins:–
- Could Bedlow fall so softly to his tomb,
- Without a comet to foretell his doom ?
But the shortest and severest epitaph is this, from an early manuscript:–
- The Lord is pleas'd when man does cease to sin;
- The divil is pleas'd when he a soul do's win;
- The world is pleas'd when ev'ry rascal dies:
- So all are pleas'd, for here Will Bedlow lies.