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An essay by Samuel Johnson

Account Of A Book Entitled An Historical And Critical Enquiry

Title:     Account Of A Book Entitled An Historical And Critical Enquiry
Author: Samuel Johnson [More Titles by Johnson]

Account of a book entitled an historical and critical enquiry into the evidence produced by the earls of Moray and Morton against Mary queen of Scots, &c.;

With an examination of the reverend Dr. Robertson's Dissertation, and Mr. Hume's History, with respect to that evidence.

We live in an age, in which there is much talk of independence, of private judgment, of liberty of thought, and liberty of press. Our clamorous praises of liberty sufficiently prove that we enjoy it; and if, by liberty, nothing else be meant, than security from the persecutions of power, it is so fully possessed by us, that little more is to be desired, except that one should talk of it less, and use it better.

But a social being can scarcely rise to complete independence; he that has any wants, which others can supply, must study the gratification of them, whose assistance he expects; this is equally true, whether his wants be wants of nature, or of vanity. The writers of the present time are not always candidates for preferment, nor often the hirelings of a patron. They profess to serve no interest, and speak with loud contempt of sycophants and slaves.

There is, however, a power, from whose influence neither they, nor their predecessors, have ever been free. Those, who have set greatness at defiance, have yet been the slaves of fashion. When an opinion has once become popular, very few are willing to oppose it. Idleness is more willing to credit than inquire; cowardice is afraid of controversy, and vanity of answer; and he that writes merely for sale, is tempted to court purchasers by flattering the prejudices of the publick.

It has now been fashionable, for near half a century, to defame and vilify the house of Stuart, and to exalt and magnify the reign of Elizabeth. The Stuarts have found few apologists, for the dead cannot pay for praise; and who will, without reward, oppose the tide of popularity? yet there remains, still, among us, not wholly extinguished, a zeal for truth, a desire of establishing right, in opposition to fashion. The author, whose work is now before as, has attempted a vindication of Mary of Scotland, whose name has, for some years, been generally resigned to infamy, and who has been considered, as the murderer of her husband, and condemned by her own letters.

Of these letters, the author of this vindication confesses the importance to be such, that, "if they be genuine, the queen was guilty; and, if they be spurious, she was innocent." He has, therefore, undertaken to prove them spurious, and divided his treatise into six parts.

In the first is contained the history of the letters from their discovery by the earl of Morton, their being produced against queen Mary, and their several appearances in England, before queen Elizabeth and her commissioners, until they were finally delivered back again to the earl of Morton.

The second contains a short abstract of Mr. Goodall's arguments for proving the letters to be spurious and forged; and of Dr. Robertson and Mr. Hume's objections, by way of answer to Mr. Goodall, with critical observations on these authors.

The third contains an examination of the arguments of Dr. Robertson and Mr. Hume, in support of the authenticity of the letters.

The fourth contains an examination of the confession of Nicholas Hubert, commonly called _French Paris_, with observations, showing the same to be a forgery.

The fifth contains a short recapitulation, or summary, of the arguments on both sides of the question.

The last is an historical collection of the direct or positive evidence still on record, tending to show what part the earls of Murray and Morton, and secretary Lethington, had in the murder of the lord Darnley.

The author apologizes for the length of this book, by observing, that it necessarily comprises a great number of particulars, which could not easily be contracted: the same plea may be made for the imperfection of our extract, which will naturally fall below the force of the book, because we can only select parts of that evidence, which owes its strength to its concatenation, and which will be weakened, whenever it is disjoined.

The account of the seizure of these controverted letters is thus given by the queen's enemies.

"That in the castell of Edinburgh, thair was left be the erle of Bothwell, before his fleeing away, and was send for be ane George Dalgleish, his servand, who was taken be the erle of Mortoun, ane small gylt coffer, not fully ane fute lang, garnisht in sindrie places with the roman letter F. under ane king's crowne; wharin were certane letteris and writings weel knawin, and be aithis to be affirmit to have been written with the quene of Scottis awn hand to the erle."

The papers in the box were said to be eight letters, in French, some love-sonnets in French also, and a promise of marriage by the queen to Bothwell.

To the reality of these letters our author makes some considerable objections, from the nature of things; but, as such arguments do not always convince, we will pass to the evidence of facts.

On June 15, 1567, the queen delivered herself to Morton, and his party, who imprisoned her.

June 20, 1567, Dalgleish was seized, and, six days after, was examined by Morton; his examination is still extant, and there is no mention of this fatal box.

Dec. 4, 1567, Murray's secret council published an act, in which is the first mention of these letters, and in which they are said to be _written and subscrivit with her awin hand_. Ten days after, Murray's first parliament met, and passed an act, in which they mention _previe letters written halelie_ [wholly] _with her awin hand_. The difference between _written and subscribed_, and _wholly written_, gives the author just reason to suspect, first, a forgery, and then a variation of the forgery. It is, indeed, very remarkable, that the first account asserts more than the second, though the second contains all the truth; for the letters, whether _written_ by the queen or not, were not _subscribed_. Had the second account differed from the first only by something added, the first might have contained truth, though not all the truth; but as the second corrects the first by diminution, the first cannot be cleared from falsehood.

In October, 1568, these letters were shown at York to Elisabeth's commissioners, by the agents of Murray, but not in their publick character, as commissioners, but by way of private information, and were not, therefore, exposed to Mary's commissioners. Mary, however, hearing that some letters were intended to be produced against her, directed her commissioners to require them for her inspection, and, in the mean time, to declare them _false and feigned, forged and invented_, observing, that there were many that could counterfeit her hand.

To counterfeit a name is easy, to counterfeit a hand, through eight letters very difficult. But it does not appear that the letters were ever shown to those who would desire to detect them; and, to the English commissioners, a rude and remote imitation might be sufficient, since they were not shown as judicial proofs; and why they were not shown as proofs, no other reason can be given, than they must have then been examined, and that examination would have detected the forgery.

These letters, thus timorously and suspiciously communicated, were all the evidence against Mary; for the servants of Bothwell, executed for the murder of the king, acquitted the queen, at the hour of death. These letters were so necessary to Murray, that he alleges them, as the reason of the queen's imprisonment, though he imprisoned her on the 16th, and pretended not to have intercepted the letters before the 20th of June.

Of these letters, on which the fate of princes and kingdoms was suspended, the authority should have been put out of doubt; yet that such letters were ever found, there is no witness but Morton who accused the queen, and Crawfurd, a dependent on Lennox, another of her accusers. Dalgleish, the bearer, was hanged without any interrogatories concerning them; and Hulet, mentioned in them, though then in prison, was never called to authenticate them, nor was his confession produced against Mary, till death had left him no power to disown it.

Elizabeth, indeed, was easily satisfied; she declared herself ready to receive the proofs against Mary, and absolutely refused Mary the liberty of confronting her accusers, and making her defence. Before such a judge, a very little proof would be sufficient. She gave the accusers of Mary leave to go to Scotland, and the box and letters were seen no more. They have been since lost, and the discovery, which comparison of writing might have made, is now no longer possible. Hume has, however, endeavoured to palliate the conduct of Elizabeth, but "his account," says our author, "is contradicted, almost in every sentence, by the records, which, it appears, he has himself perused."

In the next part, the authenticity of the letters is examined; and it seems to be proved, beyond contradiction, that the French letters, supposed to have been written by Mary, are translated from the Scotch copy, and, if originals, which it was so much the interest of such numbers to preserve, are wanting, it is much more likely that they never existed, than that they have been lost.

The arguments used by Dr. Robertson, to prove the genuineness of the letters, are next examined. Robertson makes use, principally, of what he calls the _internal evidence_, which, amounting, at most, to conjecture, is opposed by conjecture equally probable.

In examining the confession of Nicholas Hubert, or French Paris, this new apologist of Mary seems to gain ground upon her accuser. Paris is mentioned, in the letters, as the bearer of them to Bothwell; when the rest of Bothwell's servants were executed, clearing the queen in the last moment, Paris, instead of suffering his trial, with the rest, at Edinburgh, was conveyed to St. Andrew's, where Murray was absolute; put into a dungeon of Murray's citadel; and, two years after, condemned by Murray himself, nobody knew how. Several months after his death, a confession in his name, without the regular testifications, was sent to Cecil, at what exact time, nobody can tell.

Of this confession, Leslie, bishop of Ross, openly denied the genuineness, in a book printed at London, and suppressed by Elizabeth; and another historian of that time declares, that Paris died without any confession; and the confession itself was never shown to Mary, or to Mary's commissioners. The author makes this reflection:

"From the violent presumptions that arise from their carrying this poor ignorant stranger from Edinburgh, the ordinary seat of justice; their keeping him hid from all the world, in a remote dungeon, and not producing him, with their other evidences, so as he might have been publickly questioned; the positive and direct testimony of the author of Crawfurd's manuscript, then living, and on the spot at the time; with the publick affirmation of the bishop of Ross, at the time of Paris's death, that he had vindicated the queen with his dying breath; the behaviour of Murray, Morton, Buchanan, and even of Hay, the attester of this pretended confession, on that occasion; their close and reserved silence, at the time when they must have had this confession of Paris in their pocket; and their publishing every other circumstance that could tend to blacken the queen, and yet omitting this confession, the only direct evidence of her supposed guilt; all this duly and dispassionately considered, I think, one may safely conclude, that it was judged not fit to expose, so soon, to light this piece of evidence against the queen; which a cloud of witnesses, living, and present at Paris's execution, would, surely, have given clear testimony against, as a notorious imposture."

Mr. Hume, indeed, observes: "It is in vain, at present, to seek for improbabilities in Nicholas Hubert's dying confession, and to magnify the smallest difficulties into a contradiction. It was certainly a regular judicial paper, given in regularly and judicially, and ought to have been canvassed at the time, if the persons, whom it concerned, had been assured of their innocence." To which our author makes a reply, which cannot be shortened without weakening it:

"Upon what does this author ground his sentence? Upon two very plain reasons, first, that the confession was a judicial one, that is, taken in presence, or by authority of a judge. And secondly, that it was regularly and judicially given in; that must be understood during the time of the conferences before queen Elizabeth and her council, in presence of Mary's commissioners; at which time she ought to have canvassed it," says our author, "if she knew her innocence.

"That it was not a judicial confession, is evident: the paper itself does not bear any such mark; nor does it mention, that it was taken in presence of any person, or by any authority whatsoever; and, by comparing it with the judicial examinations of Dalgleish, Hay, and Hepburn, it is apparent, that it is destitute of every formality, requisite in a judicial evidence. In what dark corner, then, this strange production was generated, our author may endeavour to find out, if he can.

"As to his second assertion, that it was regularly and judicially given in, and, therefore, ought to have been canvassed, by Mary during the conferences; we have already seen, that this, likewise, is not fact: the conferences broke up in February, 1569: Nicholas Hubert was not hanged till August thereafter, and his dying confession, as Mr. Hume calls it, is only dated the 10th of that month. How, then, can this gentleman gravely tell us, that this confession was judicially given in, and ought to have been, at that very time, canvassed by queen Mary and her commissioners? Such positive assertions, apparently contrary to fact, are unworthy the character of an historian, and may, very justly, render his decision, with respect to evidences of a higher nature, very dubious. In answer, then, to Mr. Hume: As the queen's accusers did not choose to produce this material witness, Paris, whom they had alive and in their hands, nor any declaration or confession, from him, at the critical and proper time for having it canvassed by the queen, I apprehend our author's conclusion may fairly be used against himself; that it is in vain, at present, to support the improbabilities and absurdities in a confession, taken in a clandestine way, nobody knows how, and produced, after Paris's death, by nobody knows whom, and, from every appearance, destitute of every formality, requisite and common to such sort of evidence: for these reasons, I am under no sort of hesitation to give sentence against Nicholas Hubert's confession, as a gross imposture and forgery."

The state of the evidence relating to the letters is this:

Morton affirms, that they were taken in the hands of Dalgleish. Hie examination of Dalgleish is still extant, and he appears never to have been once interrogated concerning the letters.

Morton and Murray affirm, that they were written by the queen's hand; they were carefully concealed from Mary and her commissioners, and were never collated by one man, who could desire to disprove them.

Several of the incidents mentioned in the letters are confirmed by the oath of Crawfurd, one of Lennox's defendants, and some of the incidents are so minute, as that they could scarcely be thought on by a forger. Crawfurd's testimony is not without suspicion. Whoever practises forgery, endeavours to make truth the vehicle of falsehood.

Of a prince's life very minute incidents are known; and if any are too slight to be remarked, they may be safely feigned, for they are, likewise, too slight to be contradicted. But there are still more reasons for doubting the genuineness of these letters. They had no date of time or place, no seal, no direction, no superscription.

The only evidences that could prove their authenticity were Dalgleish and Paris; of which Dalgleish, at his trial, was never questioned about them; Paris was never publickly tried, though he was kept alive through the time of the conference.

The servants of Bothwell, who were put to death for the king's murder, cleared Mary with their last words.

The letters were first declared to be subscribed, and were then produced without subscription.

They were shown, during the conferences at York, privately, to the English commissioners, but were concealed from the commissioners of Mary.

Mary always solicited the perusal of these letters, and was always denied it.

She demanded to be heard, in person, by Elizabeth, before the nobles of England and the ambassadours of other princes, and was refused.

When Mary persisted in demanding copies of the letters, her commissioners were dismissed with their box to Scotland, and the letters were seen no more.

The French letters, which, for almost two centuries, have been considered as originals, by the enemies of Mary's memory, are now discovered to be forgeries, and acknowledged to be translations, and, perhaps, French translations of a Latin translation. And the modern accusers of Mary are forced to infer, from these letters, which now exist, that other letters existed formerly, which have been lost, in spite of curiosity, malice, and interest.

The rest of this treatise is employed in an endeavour to prove, that Mary's accusers were the murderers of Darnly: through this inquiry it is hot necessary to follow him; only let it be observed, that, if these letters were forged by them, they may easily be thought capable of other crimes. That the letters were forged, is now made so probable, that, perhaps, they will never more be cited as testimonies.

[The end]
Samuel Johnson's essay: Account Of A Book Entitled An Historical And Critical Enquiry