Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fenwick, John (1645?-1697)

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FENWICK, Sir JOHN (1645?–1697), conspirator, was descended from an old Northumberland family, the earliest of his ancestors of whom there is mention being Robert de Fenwic, who in the 10th of Henry III was possessed of Fenwic Tower, Northumberland (Pedigree in Hill, History of Langton, p. 218). He was the eldest son and second child of Sir William Fenwick or Fenwicke of Wallington Castle, and Grace, daughter of the Hon. Mr. Stapleton of Wighill, Yorkshire. In Burke's ‘Extinct Baronetage’ it is mentioned among the ‘splendid traits’ of Fenwick's character, that after the great fire in London he built the hall in Christ's Hospital; but, according to the ‘Brief History of Christ's Hospital’ (5th ed. p. 35), the person who built it was Sir John Frederick, who was governor in 1662. Fenwick at an early period entered the army; in 1675 he became colonel of foot, in 1687 colonel of the 3rd guards, and in 1688 major-general. He was returned member of parliament for Northumberland in room of his father deceased, 15 March 1676–7 (Return of Members of Parliament, i. 526), and the last occasion on which he was returned was 2 April 1685 (ib. p. 584). As he was at this time one of the most devoted supporters of the policy of James II, his candidature attracted special attention, and his triumph was celebrated in Newcastle with manifestations of rejoicing ‘which excited interest in London, and which were thought not unworthy of being mentioned in dispatches of foreign ministers’ (Macaulay, Hist. of England). It was Fenwick who, in 1685, brought up the bill of attainder against the Duke of Monmouth. It is said that Fenwick, while serving in Holland, had been severely reprimanded by William of Orange, and that this was the cause of his subsequent animosity against the prince. After William's accession he remained in England and became one of the most persistent of the plotters against his throne, but his curious combination of imprudent boldness in showing illwill with fatal want of resolution made him less dangerous than many persons of much less influence. In March 1688–9 he was in the north of England fomenting disturbances (Luttrell, Diary, i. 509). Shortly afterwards he was arrested, and on 13 May 1689 committed to the Tower (ib. p. 532), but on 28 Oct. he received his discharge. In 1691, during the reverses of the arms of William on the continent, the hopes of Fenwick and his associates became so elated that they began to assume swaggering airs in Hyde Park. One avenue which they frequented became known as the Jacobite walk. Fenwick was rude to Queen Mary, according to one version venturing to cock his hat in her face, while other versions add details implying even more marked impertinence (see the authorities quoted in Macaulay, Hist. of England). Orders were given to shut the gates against him and his associates. On 9 July 1692 he was declared to have been guilty of misdemeanor for his share in a Jacobite riot in Drury Lane (Luttrell, iii. 495). According to a statement made to Burnet by Lady Fenwick at Sir John's request, Fenwick frustrated a plot for William's assassination in 1695 by threatening to divulge it (Burnet, Own Time, ed. 1838, p. 612), but in all probability the reason why the plot miscarried was that the king left unexpectedly for Flanders. As he was privy to that plot, there is the more reason to suspect that he was fully cognisant of all the details of the assassination plot of the following spring, in which Sir George Barclay [q. v.] and Robert Charnock [q. v.] had the principal practical share. In the commission sent from France Fenwick was named major-general of the troops to be raised for King James on his arrival from France (Wilson, Memorials of the Duke of Berwick, i. 134). He remained in hiding until after the trials of the other conspirators, and, knowing from these trials that there were only two witnesses, Porter and Goodman, whose evidence against him was to be feared, he determined to bribe them to leave the country. This was the first of a series of false steps. Porter affected to listen until he had secured the bribe of three hundred guineas offered him, but took care to arrange with the authorities for the apprehension of the agent employed to bribe him. Thus Fenwick's attempt actually led the witness to volunteer information to the authorities, and a bill of indictment was found against him at the next sessions of the city of London. Fenwick therefore resolved to flee the country, but on his way to the south coast of Kent he was accidentally encountered by a messenger in charge of some smugglers. He was on horseback, and on being recognised dashed past, pistol in hand, and was soon out of sight, but on 13 June he was arrested in bed. According to Luttrell (iv. 72) and a contemporary letter published in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 2nd ser. i. 68, he was captured at New Romney, but according to a note by William Bray to Evelyn's ‘Diary,’ the arrest took place in a house by the side of the road from Great Bookham to Stoke D'Abernon, near Slyfield Mill. Shortly after his arrest he wrote a note to his wife in which he practically admitted that the evidence against him was overwhelming, and that nothing could save him except a free pardon (printed in Proceedings at his trial). The note was intercepted, and when, on being brought before the lords justices, he boldly asserted his innocence, it was shown to him. He immediately offered, on condition of pardon, to make a complete revelation of all that he knew of the Jacobite conspiracies. King William instructed Devonshire to obtain Fenwick's confession, but declined to pledge himself to grant a pardon until he saw the nature of Fenwick's revelations. Fenwick now resolved only to reveal as much as would implicate his political enemies. His so-called confession was almost of itself sufficient to seal his fate. It supplied no information whatever in reference to the Jacobite plots in which he had himself been specially engaged, but was wholly confined to accusations against some of the more prominent members of the whig party, especially Marlborough, Godolphin, Russell, and Shrewsbury. The accusations had the merit of being substantially true, and were not only sufficiently unpleasant to all whom they implicated, but caused a dismay from which Shrewsbury never fully recovered, while Godolphin became so unpopular that he was compelled to resign. Had there been no truth in Fenwick's allegations, the king would have been less indignant than he professed to be at the ‘fellow's effrontery.’ He directed the confession to be sent to the lords justices, expressing at the same time his astonishment and incredulity, and gave orders that Fenwick should be sent immediately before a jury. The whigs, however, deemed it advisable that the matter should be brought under the notice of parliament, but before doing so they advised that Fenwick should be brought for examination before the king. The king with extreme reluctance consented, and Fenwick now again became bold. He declined to modify his former statement either by withdrawing his accusations or by revealing matters in which he himself had been personally concerned. As he positively refused to make any further statement without more time to consider, the king finally said: ‘Be it so, I will neither hear you nor hear from you any more.’ Fenwick had succeeded in getting rid of Goodman, the principal witness against him, and was probably encouraged by the rumours of the man's disappearance. When brought to the bar of the House of Commons he was still obstinate, and it was moved and carried without a division that his confession was false and scandalous. Many members then left the house, supposing the business to be over. A motion, however, was made to bring in a bill of attainder, and carried by 179 to 61. The subsequent proceedings in connection with the attainder caused protracted and exciting debates. The minority increased considerably as the debates proceeded, but the bill was finally carried in the House of Commons by 189 to 156, and in the House of Lords by 68 to 61. While the guilt of Fenwick was morally certain, and was aggravated by his subsequent disingenuous conduct, it can scarcely be affirmed that the procedure against him was justifiable, as regards either the tribunal by which he was tried, or the manner in which the trial was conducted. In fact his attainder was decided on to render escape impossible, and for the same reason the law requiring the evidence of two witnesses in cases of treason was dispensed with, and the indirect evidence of Goodman was also admitted in violation of the usual methods of procedure. Smallridge, afterwards bishop of Bristol, wrote to Walter Gough, 29 Nov. 1696: ‘I do not find many concerned for his person; the course of his life has been such, and the management of the part he had now to act so bad, that he has few friends; but the method of punishing him being out of the common road, and such as has not been often used, and, when it has, been condemned by those who have judged coolly, is what some are startled at’ (Nichols, Illustrations of Literatureas before the lords, Monmouth, afterwards earl of Peterborough, who ‘at one time thought himself named in Sir John Fenwick's paper’ (Vernon to Lexington, 24 Nov. 1696, Lexington Papers, p. 237), but learned from the Duchess of Norfolk the exact information possessed by Fenwick, advised him, because ‘he liked the accusation so well’ (ib.), boldly to challenge inquiry into the truth of his allegations against the whig leaders; but Fenwick shrank from endangering himself by adopting Monmouth's advice, though his conviction, if he did not adopt it, was morally certain. Monmouth, when his advice was scouted, became one of the most vehement against Fenwick. Fenwick's wife, Lady Mary, used every effort to save her husband's life by petitioning both the king and the House of Lords, but Fenwick's maladroitness in putting forward the plea that he had been privy to an assassination plot in 1695, and had frustrated it, only served to prove how deeply he was in the confidence of the conspirators against William's throne. Fenwick, when no hope was left, desired the services of one of the deprived bishops, a favour which he obtained through the courteous help of Bishop Burnet. He was beheaded on Tower Hill on 28 Jan. 1696–7. Owing to his connection with so many noble families, and possibly also to the fact that he had been proceeded against by attainder, the formalities employed at his execution were similar to those used in the case of a peer of the realm. Burnet states that he ‘died very composed, in a much better temper than was to be expected, for his life had been very irregular’ (Own Time, ed. 1838, p. 637). He delivered a sealed paper to the sheriffs, in which he commented on the injustice of the procedure by which he had been condemned. He also owned his loyalty to King James and to his legitimate successors. Fenwick's remains were placed by his friends in a rich coffin, and buried on the evening of his execution by torchlight under the pavement of the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where they lie near the altar. By his wife Lady Mary, eldest daughter of Charles Howard, earl of Carlisle, he had one daughter and three sons. The sons all died before manhood, and were buried in St. Martin's Church. His wife died 27 Oct. 1708, and was buried in York Cathedral, where she had caused a monument to be erected to her husband. By a curious coincidence it was by falling from a horse named Sorrel, formerly belonging to Sir John Fenwick, that King William lost his life (a Latin sonnet on Sir John Fenwick and his sorrel pony was printed in the ‘Universal Mag.’ 1768, xlii. 183, and reprinted in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 2nd ser. ix. 486). There is a portrait of Lady Mary Fenwick, by Sir Peter Lely, with a miniature of Sir John Fenwick, at Castle Howard, the seat of the Earl of Carlisle, where also the library of Fenwick is preserved. In the Harleian ‘Miscellany,’ vol. i., there was published as the composition of Sir John Fenwick, ‘Contemplations upon Life and Death,’ by a ‘person of quality,’ but in reality the work was the translation of a composition by Philip de Mornay, lord of Plessis.

[Le Neve's Monumenta; Burke's Extinct Baronetage; Caulfield's Portraits, i. 19–24; Luttrell's Diary; Commons' Journals; The Proceedings against Sir John Fenwick, bart., with a letter of Sir John Fenwick to his lady upon being taken in Kent, as also of the Paper delivered by him to the sheriffs at his execution, 1698, reprinted in State Trials, xiii. 537–788, and in Parliamentary History, v. 995–1156; The Arguments used pro and con upon the Attainder of Sir John Fenwick, in a Letter to a Friend, London, 1723; A Full Answer, paragraph to paragraph, to Sir John Fenwick's Paper given to the Sheriffs, 28 Jan. 1696–7, at the Place of Execution on Tower Hill, by a True Son of the Church of England, 1697; A Letter to a Friend in Vindication of the Proceedings against Sir John Fenwick, 1697; Edmund Calamy's Life; Coxe's Shrewsbury Correspondence; Lexington Papers; Macpherson's Original Papers; Hill's History of Langton; Histories of Bishop Kennett, Macaulay, and Klopp. Papers relating to the trial which add nothing to the printed information are in Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 33251.]

T. F. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.121
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
330 i 3 Fenwick, Sir John: for Highall read Wighill
331 ii 27 for 1646 read 1696