Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Staley, William

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STALEY or STAYLEY, WILLIAM (d. 1678), victim of the ‘popish plot,’ was the son of William Staley, and carried on his father's business as goldsmith and banker in Covent Garden, his customers being almost entirely Roman catholics. In consequence of the feeling of insecurity induced by the ‘revelations’ of Oates and Bedloe in September 1678, a large number of Staley's creditors called in their money, and the banker was gravely embarrassed. On the morning of 14 Nov. 1678 he was talking over the situation in the Black Lion Tavern in King Street, with an old friend named Barthlemy Fromante, a native of Marseilles, and may well have given vent to some indiscreet expressions. Though the conversation was in French, it was overheard by William Carstares, ‘a Scottish adventurer,’ and his friend, Alexander Sutherland. The next morning ‘Captain’ Carstares waited on Staley, and accused him of high treason, but offered to suppress the charge in consideration of the sum of 200l. The banker laughed at the insolence of the man, but in a few minutes he was arrested for treason, and five days later was brought to trial before the king's bench. As soon as Burnet heard who the witness was, he ‘felt bound,’ he says, to do what he could to stop the prosecution. He sent to the lord chancellor (Finch) and to the attorney-general (Sir William Jones) ‘to let them know what profligate wretches these witnesses were.’ But Jones asked him with asperity what authority he had to defame the king's witnesses, while Shaftesbury, when he heard of the affair, exclaimed that all who undermined the credit of the witnesses were to be looked upon as public enemies. For some days Burnet declares that his own life was in danger in consequence of this intervention. The trial took place before Scroggs on 21 Nov. 1678. Scant attention was paid either to Staley's witnesses or to his plea as to the improbability of his allowing himself to be overheard while uttering rank treason in a public room. Carstares having sworn that he heard Staley reply in French to his friend ‘he [the king] is a great heretic and the greatest rogue in the world; here is the heart and here is the hand that would kill him;’ and this evidence having been confirmed by Sutherland, Scroggs summed up to the effect that if Staley had spoken these words he was manifestly guilty of high treason under the statute (13 Car. II, cap. 1), which he caused to be read. Staley was found guilty. Dr. Lloyd went to see the prisoner in Newgate, and offered him his life if he would discover any of the plots of his co-religionists. To his honour Staley replied that he knew of none, while he solemnly protested that he had not used the words sworn against him. On Tuesday, 26 Nov., he was dragged on a sledge to Tyburn and hanged. By the king's special grace the quarters of his body were delivered to his friends instead of being set upon the city gates, according to usage. Staley's friends said masses over his remains, and on 29 Nov. arranged a ‘pompous funeral’ from his father's house. This so incensed the government that the coroner was ordered to take up the body from St. Paul's, Covent Garden, and dispose of it to the sheriff of Middlesex in the usual manner. The day after Staley's death commenced the first of the ‘popish plot’ trials proper, that of Edward Coleman (d. 1678) [q. v.] Staley's execution was, in Dod's words, ‘the prologue to the bloody tragedy that was now to be acted.’ In the lying deposition of Miles Prance [q. v.], of 19 March 1679, Staley was charged with having instigated a plot to assassinate Shaftesbury.

[The Tryal of William Staley, 1678, 4to; A True Relation of the Execution of Mr. William Staley, 1678, 4to; An Account of the Digging up of the Quarters of William Stayley on 30 Nov. 1678, s. sh. fol.; Burnet's Own Time, ii. 161–3; Cobbett's State Trials, vi. 1501; Willis-Bund's Select Cases from the State Trials, ii. 470–3; Luttrell's Brief Historical Relation, i, 3. 4; Dodd's Church Hist. iii. 265; Eachard's Hist. p. 953; Lingard's Hist. ix. 384; Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. App. p. 471, 13th Rep. App. vi. 156.]

T. S.