Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

License to Kill: Assassination and the Politics of Murder in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

License to Kill: Assassination and the Politics of Murder in Elizabethan and Early Stuart England

Article excerpt

In his remarkably ambivalent dissection of the morality of "attempts on the lives of great personages," early Stuart scholar Richard James observed that "in story, such actions are hateful under the name of assassination." (1) James drew most of his material from classical sources, but may also have had more recent killings in mind. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw a spate of deadly attacks on political leaders. Prince William of Orange had survived one near-fatal shooting before succumbing to another in 1584. The French witnessed an abundance of political killings, including the slaying of Francis, Duke of Guise in 1563 by a Huguenot, the Guise-backed slaughter of Admiral Coligny in 1572, the fatal stabbing of King Henri III by a Dominican friar in 1589, and the killing of Henri IV in 1610, after several earlier attempts on his life. In Scotland, Lord Damley and Regent Moray had died at others' hands. In England, such attempts had been many, but unless James was writing after the killing of the Duke of Buckingham in 1628, none had thus far succeeded. (2) Yet, while James was right to suggest that labelling the killing of political leaders as "assassinations" made them particularly opprobrious, he erred in suggesting that this had long been the case. Moreover, while he could contextualize recent slayings and attempted slayings of political leaders with reference to the ancient past, this essay suggests that there was something distinctive about the assassinations of his era that warrants attention. The word itself was new; so, too, were some aspects of the deed it described and the place such "attempts on the lives of great personages" assumed in early modern political culture.

Asking whether assassination was, in any meaningful sense, new to late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England might simply seem perverse. "No" is the obvious answer; indeed, most every writer on the subject assumes or asserts that the practice is "as old as time." (3) What prompts the query, though, is the novelty of the word itself to the Elizabethan years. In long use in Italian, "assassinat(e)" and its cognates appeared in French in the mid-1500s and then in English some decades later. (4) The Oxford English Dictionary dates "assassin" and "assassinate" to 1600 and 1602, respectively. It attributes the first use of "assassination" to William Shakespeare's Macbeth, which was probably composed sometime between 1603 and 1607. (5) Somewhat earlier examples do exist; the first reference I have found appears in a letter sent by Sir Thomas Smith from France in 1572, in which he referred to "treason, conspiracy, insurrection, assassination, empoisonment" and other such "false measures" intended for the "utter destruction of the state." (6) To be sure, one should not too quickly see too much significance in the appearance of a new word, at this time especially: in the years from c. 1570-1630 the English coined or borrowed more additions to their vocabulary than ever before or since. (7) In this case, however, I want to suggest that the adoption of "assassination" and its cognates should alert us to changes in the nature and significance of political killings in an increasingly participatory political culture. The focus here is not primarily on the word itself, but on what it points to. In the wake of the Reformation, individuals from a broad range of social backgrounds came to believe themselves licensed to kill in the interests of the public good. Their efforts, however few, fed authorities' fear-mongering, with plots constructed or crafted for the public in ways that make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction in individual instances, but that themselves suggest a broadening of the political nation.

Dynastic rivals and embittered noblemen in the past had certainly sought power or revenge by killing their kings and other dignitaries. "Compassing or imagining" the king's death had been defined as treason since 1352, and the link between king-killing and treason remained explicit thereafter. …

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