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Felton, The Political Assassin
by [?]

Felton, the assassin of the Duke of Buckingham, by the growing republican party was hailed as a Brutus, rising, in the style of a patriotic bard,

Refulgent from the stroke.–AKENSIDE.

Gibbon has thrown a shade of suspicion even over Brutus’s “god-like stroke,” as Pope has exalted it. In Felton, a man acting from mixed and confused motives, the political martyr is entirely lost in the contrite penitent; he was, however, considered in his own day as a being almost beyond humanity. Mrs. Macaulay has called him a “lunatic,” because the duke had not been assassinated on the right principle. His motives appeared even inconceivable to his contemporaries; for Sir Henry Wotton, who has written a Life of the Duke of Buckingham, observes, that “what may have been the immediate or greatest motive of that felonious conception (the duke’s assassination) is even yet in the clouds.” After ascertaining that it was not private revenge, he seems to conclude that it was Dr. Eglisham’s furious “libel,” and the “remonstrance” of the parliament, which, having made the duke “one of the foulest monsters on earth,” worked on the dark imagination of Felton.

From Felton’s memorable example, and some similar ones, one observation occurs worth the notice of every minister of state who dares the popular odium he has raised. Such a minister will always be in present danger of a violent termination to his career; for however he may be convinced that there is not political virtue enough in a whole people to afford “the god-like stroke,” he will always have to dread the arm of some melancholy enthusiast, whose mind, secretly agitated by the public indignation, directs itself solely on him. It was some time after having written this reflection, that I discovered the following notice of the Duke of Buckingham in the unpublished Life of Sir Symonds D’Ewes. “Some of his friends had advised him how generally he was hated in England, and how needful it would be for his greater safety to wear some coat of mail, or some other secret defensive armour, which the duke slighting, said, ‘It needs not; there are no Roman spirits left.'”[246]

An account of the contemporary feelings which sympathised with Felton, and almost sanctioned the assassin’s deed, I gather from the MS. letters of the times. The public mind, through a long state of discontent, had been prepared for, and not without an obscure expectation of, the mortal end of Buckingham. It is certain the duke received many warnings which he despised. The assassination kindled a tumult of joy throughout the nation, and a state-libel was written in strong characters in the faces of the people.[247] The passage of Felton to London, after the assassination, seemed a triumph. Now pitied, and now blessed, mothers held up their children to behold the saviour of the country; and an old woman exclaimed, as Felton passed her, with a scriptural allusion to his short stature, and the mightiness of Buckingham, “God bless thee, little David!” Felton was nearly sainted before he reached the metropolis. His health was the reigning toast among the republicans. A character, somewhat remarkable, Alexander Gill (usher under his father, Dr. Gill, master of St. Paul’s school), who was the tutor of Milton, and his dear friend afterwards, and perhaps from whose impressions in early life Milton derived his vehement hatred of Charles, was committed by the Star-chamber, heavily fined, and sentenced to lose his ears,[248] on three charges, one of which arose from drinking a health to Felton. At Trinity College Gill said that the king was fitter to stand in a Cheapside shop, with an apron before him, and say, What lack ye? than to govern a kingdom; that the duke was gone down to hell to see king James; and drinking a health to Felton, added he was sorry Felton had deprived him of the honour of doing that brave act.[249] In the taste of that day, they contrived a political anagram of his name, to express the immovable self-devotion he showed after the assassination, never attempting to escape; and John Felton, for the nonce, was made to read,