Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ferguson, Robert (d.1714)

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FERGUSON, ROBERT (d. 1714), surnamed the ‘Plotter,’ was the eldest son of William Ferguson of Badifurrow, Aberdeenshire. Before he left Scotland he had received a ‘liberal education,’ possibly at Aberdeen University, where the name ‘Robertus Fergusone Aberdonensis’ appears in the rolls of 1650. He was resident in England from about 1655, and at the Restoration held the living of Godmersham, Kent. Being expelled by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, he supported himself by ‘teaching boys grammar and university learning at Islington, near London’ (Athenæ Oxon. iv. 106; Calamy, Account, ii. 327). On 16 Jan. 1662–3 a warrant was issued against him for being concerned in raising money in support of ejected ministers, and for other treasonable practices, and on the 21st he was committed a prisoner to the Gatehouse, not receiving his liberty till 12 May, when he and two others entered into a bond of 300l. for his good behaviour. He next came into prominence as a religious controversialist. In 1668 he published ‘Justification onely upon a Satisfaction; or the Necessity and Verity of the Satisfaction of Christ as the only ground of Remission of Sin, asserted and opened against the Socinians.’ It is an exposition of the usual Calvinistic doctrines, displaying a facile if somewhat superficial eloquence, but characterised by no special argumentative ability. This work, according to Wodrow, ‘did much to ingratiate him with Dr. Owen’ (Analecta, ii. 271), with whom ‘he frequently preached,’ having now ‘renounced his communion with the church of Scotland.’ According to Wodrow, though in a coffee-house he had ‘one of the glibest tongues in England upon all subjects, yet when in the pulpit he was exceedingly dry and straitened. He used his papers, and inclined to make extemporary flights, but frequently faltered’ (ib.) In his next treatise, ‘A Sober Enquiry into the Nature, Measure, and Principle of Moral Virtue,’ 1673, he characteristically alludes to Dr. Owen as that ‘great and incomparable man.’ The treatise shows him to be an adept in popular exposition and appeal. In 1675 he published the last of his books strictly relating to religion, viz. ‘The Interest of Reason in Religion, with the Import and Use of Scripture Metaphors, and the nature of the Union betwixt Christ and Believers, with Reflections on a Discourse by Mr. Sherlock.’ Ferguson's skill as a religious controversialist, and his influence with the dissenters, strongly recommended him to the party of Shaftesbury, and he now came forward as the champion, against the government, of the cause of protestantism. His first political pamphlet, entitled ‘A Letter to a Person of Honour concerning the “Black Box,”’ was published anonymously with the date London, 15 May 1680. It had reference to a missing ‘Black Box,’ reported to contain proofs of the king's marriage to Lucy Walters, the mother of the Duke of Monmouth. The position taken up by Ferguson was that the whole story of the ‘Black Box’ was a fiction invented by those who wished to discredit the Duke of Monmouth's title to the crown, and to divert attention from the treasonable procedure of the Duke of York. It shows great skill in the means chosen to arouse popular prejudice against the Duke of York. On 2 June Charles disavowed the marriage ‘on the faith of a Christian and the word of a king,’ and on the 10th Ferguson published ‘A Letter to a Person of Honour concerning the King's disavowing his having been married to the Duke of Monmouth's Mother,’ in which he hinted that evidence would be forthcoming of the marriage ‘when the matter shall come before a competent judicature.’ The controversies connected with the exclusion bill occasioned the following pamphlets from his pen: ‘Reflections on Addresses,’ ‘Smith's Narrative,’ ‘A Vindication of Smith's Narrative,’ ‘Reflections on the Jesuits who suffered for the Plot,’ and ‘The Just and Modest Vindication, in answer to King Charles's Declaration on his Dissolving the English Parliament,’ republished with additions and alterations under the title ‘The Design of Enslaving England Discovered.’ After a city of London jury on 24 Nov. 1681 had thrown out a bill indicting Shaftesbury of high treason, a pamphlet appeared entitled ‘No Protestant Plot, or the present intended Conspiracy of Protestants against the King and Government discovered to be a Conspiracy of the Papists against the King and his Protestant Subjects.’ It was extended into a second and a third part. The authorship of the first two parts has usually been ascribed to Shaftesbury, but Ferguson claims the authorship of the whole three. He is also said to have been the author of the second part to Andrew Marvell's ‘Rise and Growth of Popery,’ 1678, giving an account of its growth, 1678–82. The pamphlet is stated to be printed at Cologne, 1682, but was really printed at London (Wood, Athenæ, iv. 232).

Ferguson has generally been regarded as one of the chief contrivers of the Rye House plot, and even he himself admits, in the words of his apologist, that ‘he conducted the communications between Monmouth, Russel, and those who acted with them, and the more ruthless coterie of conspirators’ (Ferguson, Ferguson the Plotter, p. 64). According to his own narrative, however (ib. 409–37), he took charge of the arrangements only the more successfully to frustrate it. The failure of the plot in October 1682 was, according to Ferguson, brought about by his designedly delaying to make arrangements for it till the king had returned from Newmarket. His aim all along, if he is to be believed, was to substitute an insurrection for assassination, and the new project was now prosecuted with the utmost vigour. After several meetings had been held information regarding the movement was conveyed to the government by Colonel Rumsey, who had attended a meeting uninvited. Ferguson made his escape with Shaftesbury to Holland, where, 21 Jan. 1683, he was present at Amsterdam at the death of the earl, who left him a legacy of 40l. He was supposed to have written a vindication of the association, which was seized in the hands of his servant as he was going with it to press in the beginning of December 1682 (Wood, Athenæ, iv. 80). In February Ferguson returned to London three or four days before the court went to Newmarket. He again, according to his own admission, had a principal share in the arrangements in connection with the second assassination plot, but it also, he asserts, was frustrated simply by his skilful management, and not, as was at the time supposed, by the fact that the king, owing to a fire, left Newmarket sooner than he intended. Had there been no fire, and had the king remained there a month longer, ‘he would,’ Ferguson asserts, ‘have come back in as much security, and as free from danger of being assaulted upon the road, as at the time he did.’ Ferguson was undoubtedly morally as well as legally involved in the scheme. After the frustration of this second plot Ferguson became a leading adviser in connection with the insurrection schemes of Argyll and Monmouth. On the failure of the plot he had fled north to Scotland, and afterwards taking ship thence to Hamburg arrived in Holland. There he wrote ‘An Enquiry into a Detection of the Barbarous Murder of the late Earl of Essex, or a Vindication of that Noble Personage from the Guilt and Infamy of having destroyed Himself.’ On 4 June sentence of outlawry was passed against him for his connection with the assassination plot. In the proclamation issued 2 Aug. 1683 for Ferguson's apprehension he is described as follows: ‘A tall lean man, dark brown hair, a great Roman nose, thin jawed, heat in his face, speaks in the Scotch tone, a sharp piercing eye, stoops a little in the shoulders; he hath a shuffling gait that differs from all men; wears his periwig down almost over his eyes; about 45 or 46 years old.’

Ferguson was one of the eighty-two who sailed from the Texel with Monmouth on his expedition to the west of England, holding the position of chaplain to the army, and acting in the capacity of Monmouth's secretary and adviser. He was the author of the manifesto circulated by Monmouth on his landing, in which King James was denounced as a popish usurper and tyrant, and accused of having contrived not merely the death of the Earl of Essex, but of his brother the late king. Monmouth afterwards asserted that Ferguson drew it up and made him sign it without having read it (Sir John Bramston, Autobiography, p. 188). It was generally believed to be on Ferguson's advice that Monmouth assumed the royal title, but Ferguson asserts that he ‘disputed against the conveniency of it at that juncture with all the strength and vigour of mind’ that he could. After the battle of Sedgmoor Ferguson, with his usual luck or wariness, succeeded, after lying for some time in concealment on the west coast, in reaching Holland in safety. His escapes have been attributed to his having all along been in communication with the government, but this may be regarded as disproved by the fact that he was excepted from the amnesty of 10 March 1686, and also from the general pardon of 1688. In Holland he wrote in January 1688 ‘A Vindication of Monsr. Fagel's Letter,’ in which he asserted that a ‘revolution will come with a witness; and its like may come before the Prince of Wales be of age to manage an unruly spirit which I fear will accompany it.’ In the expedition of William of Orange there was less scope for Ferguson's abilities in intrigue, and, although he accompanied it, he was probably regarded chiefly as a necessary evil. His services were to some extent utilised in influencing the dissenters, but he does not appear to have ever been taken much into confidence by the counsellors of William. Nevertheless he took up his pen on the prince's behalf, publishing ‘An Answer to Mr. Penn's Advice to the Church of England,’ and a ‘Representation of Threatening Dangers impending over Protestants in Great Britain before the coming of his Highness the Prince of Orange.’ At Exeter his chagrin at his subordinate place in the prince's expedition, compared with his dominant influence in Monmouth's counsels, seems to have got the better of his discretion. When Burnet was officiating before the prince in the cathedral, Ferguson asked to preach in the presbyterian church. The keys were refused him, whereupon he resolved, in his own words, to ‘take the kingdom of heaven by violence,’ and, having broken open the door, ascended the pulpit sword in hand, and preached from the sixteenth verse of the 94th Psalm, ‘Who will rise up for me against evildoers?’ After the flight of James, Ferguson published ‘The Justification of the Prince of Orange his Descent, and for settling the Crown upon him on the foot that King James had abdicated.’ The only reward he obtained for such industrious exertions was that of housekeeper at the excise, worth about 400l. a year (Luttrell, i. 515). From a pamphlet published at this time, entitled, ‘R. Ferguson's Apology for his Transactions the last ten years both in England and Foreign Parts,’ in which he lets the world know that his ‘more enlightened understanding’ had sufficiently convinced him of his ‘overhasty and prejudicial censure of the discipline of the church of England as it now stands by law established,’ it is not improbable that he was inclined to regard promotion to a bishopric as a fitting reward. In any case his change from fanatical antipathy towards the government of James II to enthusiastic support of the Jacobites was suspiciously sudden. The conversion, if it changed his political sentiments, made no change in his habits and disposition. In the ‘History of the Revolution,’ published in 1706, he declares his opinion that the revolution, ‘instead of being an effort in favour of the protestant religion and civil liberty … was a deep and successful design of the Vatican for the advancement of popery throughout the whole of Europe;’ but his conscientious objections to the government of William did not prevent him enjoying as long as he was permitted the emoluments he had obtained by his services on its behalf. He was concerned in the Montgomery plot, and was apprehended on suspicion; but, it being impossible to obtain sufficient evidence against him, he was discharged. He then entered into close communication with the court at St. Germain, and became a leading agent in the intrigues for subverting the government of William. On the news reaching the government of the attempted Jacobite landing in 1692, he was on 5 May seized under a warrant (ib. ii. 441), on the 7th committed to Newgate (ib. 443), and on the 18th superseded in his post at the excise (ib. 494). In connection with the Lancashire plot of 1694 he published ‘A Letter to my Lord Chief Justice Holt,’ and ‘A Letter to Secretary Trenchard’ (attributed by Lord Macaulay to Montgomery), containing virulent attacks on the government and the executive. The following year he published ‘Whether the preserving the Protestant Religion was the motive unto, or the end that was designed in the late Revolution?’ ‘Whether the Parliament be not in Law dissolved by the Death of the Princess of Orange?’ and ‘A brief Account of some of the late Encroachments and Depredations of the Dutch upon the English.’ That Ferguson was privy to the plot of Sir George Barclay [q. v.] there can be no doubt. He was the author of ‘Advice to the Country in their electing of Members for the ensuing Parliament,’ which was circulated in January 1695–6. On suspicion of being concerned in Barclay's plot he was arrested 10 March 1695–6 (ib. iv. 27), and he remained in Newgate till 14 Jan. 1696–7, when he was admitted to bail (ib. p. 169). He now took up the cudgels on behalf of the Scots in reference to the Darien question, and, having previously published ‘A Letter to Robert Harley, Esq., in favour of the Scots Act for an African Company,’ he published in 1699 a treatise of some size entitled ‘A Just and Modest Vindication of the Scots' Design for having established a Colony at Darien; with a brief display how much it is their interest to apply themselves to trade, and particularly to that which is foreign.’ This year his father died, but, as he failed to enter an appearance as heir, his brother, James Ferguson [q. v.], was on 19 June 1700 confirmed in possession of the estate. His name next comes into prominence in connection with the ‘Scots Plot,’ and it was through his revelations that the machinations of Simon Fraser, twelfth lord Lovat [q. v.], against the Duke of Atholl were frustrated. In connection with this, Ferguson on 24 Dec. 1703 published a declaration in which he solemnly asserted that, ‘so far as concerns either my knowledge or my belief, there is not a nonjuror, or one reckoned a Jacobite, engaged in a plot, or that will, against her majesty and the government,’ and that his only motive for revealing Fraser's conspiracy against Atholl was ‘the preserving the safety and honour of her majesty.’ With the knowledge now possessed of the designs then cherished by the Jacobites, it is impossible to regard these statements of Ferguson as anything else than deliberate falsehoods, intended both to aid in overturning Queensberry and the whigs, and to divert suspicion from further projects that the Jacobites might then have in hand. In this he did not altogether succeed. On account of the assertions of Sir Thomas Stewart, which undoubtedly revealed Ferguson's true relation to Fraser and the court of St. Germain, he was brought up for examination, but having answered with great dexterity he was dismissed. By the lords his narrative was declared ‘false, scandalous, and seditious,’ and he was ordered to be committed to Newgate; but he was admitted to bail, and was never put upon his trial. Besides his ‘History of the Revolution,’ 1706, 2nd ed. 1717, Ferguson subsequently published, ‘Qualifications requisite in a Minister of State,’ 1710, and ‘An Account of the Obligations the States of Holland have to Great Britain, and the Return they have made both in Europe and the Indies. With Reflections upon the Peace,’ 1712. The ‘History of all the Mobs, Tumults, and Insurrections in Great Britain, with the tryals of the ring-leaders and betrayers counting from William the Conqueror to the present time. Begun by Mr. Ferguson, and continued by an impartial hand,’ appeared at London in 1715. He also edited Bishop Guthrie's ‘Memoirs,’ 1702. His latter years were spent in great poverty, and he died in 1714.

[Luttrell's Short Relation; Wodrow's Analecta; Sir John Bramston's Autobiography (Camden Society); Caldwell Papers (Bannatyne Club); Lockhart Papers; Burnet's Own Time: Calamy's Account of Ejected Ministers; Wood's Athenæ Oxon.; Histories of Oldmixon, Eachard, Ralph, Burton, and Macaulay. The facts of Ferguson's life are introduced into a novel, ‘For Liberty's Sake,’ by J. B. Marsh, 1873, in which use has been made of letters and other documents relating to Ferguson in the State Paper office, and a vindication of his character attempted. A similarly favourable representation of his career is given in James Ferguson's ‘Ferguson the Plotter,’ 1887, and, whether the conclusions of the writer be accepted or not, the work is of special value for the letters and other documents printed for the first time.]

T. F. H.