Did someone try to assassinate Elizabeth I with a poisoned dress?
This question (the number one question posed to this blog in 2020) derives from the film Elizabeth (1998). In said film, one of her ladies, Isabelle Knollys, dies mid-coitus with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, while wearing a dress intended for the queen. The dress is then revealed to have been a gift from France, and the fabric poisoned so as to kill Elizabeth when she wore it. Did this actually happen? No, it did not. The event is entirely fabricated (heh) and even the woman wearing the dress is fictional. About the only accurate thing in the scene is that the person of Robert Dudley existed.
The idea of a dress laced in poison has more basis in Greek mythology than Elizabethan history and there was never an actual attempt on her life in this manner. However, as early as 1560, only two years into Elizabeth’s reign, her advisors ensured that anything that might come into contact with her person (including her clothes) were checked for poison. But, although there were a considerable number of threats against Elizabeth’s life, very few of these materialised as an actual attempt.
Assassination attempts were mostly a part of the much larger plots to remove Elizabeth as queen, and replace her with her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Such plots required Elizabeth’s death as a matter of course, the major ones being the Northern Earls Rebellion of 1569, the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1585. After the Babington Plot, Mary, Queen of Scots was tried and executed. Without a reasonable alternative to Elizabeth, plans to depose the queen and therefore assassinate her diminished somewhat.
Beyond these major conspiracies, there were only a handful of direct attempts on Elizabeth’s life and they aren’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as you might think.
The Barge Incident 1579
This assassination attempt, which may not have been anything of the sort also made it into the film Elizabeth, appropriately dramatized, of course.
Accounts vary as to what actually happened, but the underlying facts is that the queen was shot at while enjoying a river cruise on the Thames. There is some dispute as to whether she was shot at by a crossbow bolt or a bullet and whether said bolt or bullet struck one of the helmsmen or killed one of her ladies in waiting. The more commonly repeated story has a bullet fired from shore pass through both arms of one of the helmsmen. Elizabeth wraps her own scarf around his wounds and comforts him until they reach shore.
As you might expect from a story which already has conflicting elements the perpetrator and their motives are equally confused. Speculation runs from it being a specific attempt on the life of the queen to a salute gone wrong to a young man recklessly playing with a gun, showing off in front of his friends.
John Somerville 1583
In 1583, a Catholic landowner, John Somerville, left for London declaring that he was going to kill the queen. En route, he assaulted several people with his sword, loudly proclaiming his intent to shoot the queen and display her head on a spike. Unsurprisingly, he was apprehended fairly swiftly. Upon his arrest he reiterated his intent and implicated several others in his “plot”. His wife was arrested, along with her father, Edward Arden, her mother, and a Catholic priest by the name of Hugh Hall who was posing as Arden’s gardener.
Somerville had hoped that if he killed Elizabeth, she would be replaced by her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. Granted, he had gone about it in far less subtle means than the instigators of the major plots. It is unknown whether those he named as his accomplices had actually any idea as to what Somerville was doing or had any desire to overthrow the queen. The women were pardoned, as was Hall. But, Arden was executed for treason along with Somerville. Or at least, Somerville would have been executed for treason. When the guards went to bring him out of his cell, they discovered that he had been strangled (allegedly by his own hand). Even though he was already dead, he was still taken to the block where he was beheaded.
William Parry 1584
Much like the Barge Incident, William Parry’s plot against the queen may not have been a plot at all. A gentleman known to have been at points in the Queen’s service, Parry holds the dubious honour of being the only serving member of the Elizabethan Parliament to have been tried and convicted of treason. After his execution, Parliament petitioned the queen to create a new level of treason for their members and published a pamphlet denouncing him. Despite all this, it’s unknown whether he actually intended to assassinate the queen as he planned or whether the plan was a ruse by which he could implicate actual traitors at court.
During his career at court, Parry had spent time abroad working as a spy for William Cecil and later, Francis Walsingham. It was later suggested that he was actually working as a double agent for Elizabeth’s Catholic enemies and he supposedly converted to the Catholic church during a stint in France. Whether his conversion was legitimate or part of his cover as a spy, his intelligence was used and accepted by Cecil.
In early 1584, Parry returned to England, having devised a plan to assassinate the queen and entrapping others. He revealed the treason to the queen in a private audience and was rewarded for his work. Later in the year, he formulated another a plan to kill Elizabeth and tried to involve Edmund Neville. Neville was himself a government agent, recently returned from France. Parry claimed that his intention had been to denounce Neville, but Neville got there first, reporting Parry to Walsingham. Neither Cecil or Walsingham knew of Parry’s current endeavour which may have meant it was legitimate, or was a poor attempt on Parry’s part to gain further credit with the queen. Given his prior service, Elizabeth had Walsingham interview Parry privately. If this was an opportunity for Parry to reveal his plans to Walsingham and prove his innocence, he did not realise it or did not avail himself of it. Parry claimed to have no knowledge of any plots or any connection with Neville. Given that Neville had already denounced him, Parry was known to be lying and imprisoned in the Tower.
Initially and possibly in an attempt to secure a pardon, Parry pleaded guilty to all charges and made a full confession. Then he changed his mind and denied having ever colluded with Neville. He claimed his initial confession to have been extracted under torture, but later said that it had been freely given. Ultimately, his attempt would have apparently had himself and Neville riding either side of the queen’s coach, where they would draw their weapons and shoot her. After his execution, it was also claimed that he had attempted to kill the queen himself on two occasions. Once, during a private audience, he had hidden a knife in his clothes with which he would stab her. He apparently lost his courage and fled the scene instead. Another story had him hiding in the gardens of Richmond Palace, where once again he was prepared to stab her but was overcome by her sheer majesty and resemblance to her father.
Parry proclaimed his innocence at the scaffold but was hung, drawn and quartered, despite Parliament’s call for a more painful death. Neville was imprisoned in the Tower for his part in the plot, but escaped execution.
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6 thoughts on “Elizabethan Assassination Attempts (not feat. a poisoned dress)”
Interesting article, thankyou. 2 points:
1. “Parliament’s call for a more painful death.” ? so being hung, drawn and quartered was the soft option?
2. assassination by poisoned garment sounds fanciful, until you note that Alexei Navalny was apparently poisoned by novichok in his underpants (and it failed to kill him). Though of course 16thC poisons would have been far less potent than 21stC nerve agents
Thank you for your comment, Laurence. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
I have to confess I’m intrigued as to what Parliament wanted. The phrase from Blackadder, “ah, a fate worse than a fate worse than death!” springs to mind. I’m not sure what else you could do to someone you wanted to hurt??
And true! I can’t help but wondering if 16thC poison for clothes would be more akin to modern day itching powder since there is so little evidence of them actually working.
Poison hemlock though
The assassination plots lessened shortly after the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, which was also the time when Queen Elizabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada and Spain fell into bankruptcy a year later. What a beautiful Legacy!!! Queen Elizabeth was able to break from the Catholic Church, form the Church of England and create AMERICA, a land of the free and home of the brave.
It is hard to think of a death that would be significantly more painful than being hung, drawn and quartered. Remembering, of course, than when you were hung, you were not hung until dead. Before death occurred, you would be released from the rope and then laid aside for a while before the rest of the sentence was carried out. As those in charge of giving out the punishment were particularly “skilled” (I can’t think of a better phrase!) death would normally only occur after the quartering, as a result of blood-loss – provided they didn’t have a heart attack and die early, to the disgust of everyone else. The pain that the victim went through prior to finally popping his clogs must have been horrendous! Strangely enough, this method of execution – along with a few other choice methods, was one of the few subjects of history that we were taught in GREAT detail at school back in the 60’s. Just about everything else was minimalist, but the torture module…?
Late to the party, but the gruesome practice of hanging in chains was used on living men in certain instances, such as on the leaders of a rebellion, which would fit this narrative. Then there was boiling in oil. But I imagine what Parliament wanted was burning at the stake, which was also punishment for treason along with beheading.