The Sealed Knot

The Sealed Knot conspiracy ring was commissioned by the exiled King Charles II in Paris between November 1653 and February 1654. Its purpose was to co-ordinate underground Royalist activity in England and to prepare for a general uprising against the Protectorate government. The Knot comprised six members: Lord Belasyse, Lord Loughborough, Sir William Compton, Sir Richard Willys, Colonel John Russell and Colonel Edward Villiers. All but Willys were younger sons of prominent aristocratic families and all of them had distinguished military records in the King's service during the civil wars. The conspirators were approved by Sir Edward Hyde and represent the interests of the conservative "Old Royalist" faction at the exiled court, which sought to bring about the King's restoration through the sole agency of Royalists rather than through alliances with foreign powers, Presbyterians or other disaffected parties. Hyde also hoped to avoid wild and desperate plots that were likely to unite the various republican and radical factions against Charles. The overriding strategy of the Sealed Knot, which quickly brought criticism from more militant Royalists, was to wait for conflict to break out between rival enemy factions, so that the restoration of the monarchy would be widely accepted as a viable alternative to anarchy and chaos.

The authority of the Sealed Knot was compromised almost immediately when John Thurloe's agents discovered the "Ship Tavern conspiracy" in February 1654, to foment apprentice riots in London as a prelude to a general Royalist uprising, and the "Gerard plot" in May 1654, to assassinate Cromwell. Both conspiracies were associated with Prince Rupert's more reckless "Swordsmen" faction and were not authorised by the Sealed Knot. The discovery of the Gerard plot was followed by the arrest of prominent Royalists throughout England, including Sir Richard Willys and Colonel Villiers of the Sealed Knot. Willys believed that he had been betrayed by Lord Belasyse, which resulted in an intensification of their long-standing feud.

A further effect of the discovery of the Gerard plot was that the Sealed Knot lapsed into cautious inactivity and Charles began negotiating with a more militant group of conspirators, known as the Action Party. During the latter half of 1654 and the early months of 1655, the Action Party pressed ahead with plans for a nation-wide Royalist insurrection, which the Sealed Knot did its best to discourage, arguing that the time was not right. The Knot's obstructiveness and the efficiency of the government's intelligence network both contributed to the failure of Penruddock's Uprising, which finally took place in March 1655. The suppression of the uprising was followed by a tightening of security measures within the Protectorate under the Rule of the Major-Generals.

After the failure of the 1655 uprising and the declaration of the Anglo-Spanish War, Charles II sought an alliance with Spain against the Protectorate. At the Treaty of Brussels signed in April 1656, the Spanish agreed to provide an army to invade England as soon as the Royalists could secure a port for its disembarkation. During 1656, the Sealed Knot resumed its efforts to organise an insurrection to support the Spanish invasion. Having realised that English Royalists alone were unlikely to carry through an uprising, the Sealed Knot made tentative approaches to Levellers and others opposed to the Protectorate, including the double agent John Wildman, the renegade Edward Sexby and the republican admiral John Lawson, but with no tangible result.

Although no new Sealed Knot members were commissioned by the King, the group employed Alan Brodrick as secretary and intelligencer in 1656. Brodrick supplied Sir Edward Hyde with information regarding the Protectorate's troop movements and naval manoeuvres but once again, the Sealed Knot's caution in organising an insurrection failed to satisfy the more militant Royalists. As had happened in 1654-5, a new Action Party emerged during 1657. During this period, the Sealed Knot was even less effective than before owing to the treachery of one of its members. For reasons that remain unclear, Sir Richard Willys entered into a secret pact with John Thurloe in late 1656 to betray details of further Royalist conspiracies. Willys's treachery remained undetected by his colleagues for three years.

The plot for the Spanish invasion was abandoned in February 1658 after Cromwell's navy destroyed the transport vessels intended to convey Spanish troops to England. Following the exposure of the conspiracy that supported the invasion, many Royalists were arrested and several ringleaders of the Action Party were executed. Sir William Compton, Colonel Russell and Sir Richard Willys of the Sealed Knot were among those arrested. They were released in July 1658 but warned that they could expect no mercy if they engaged in further subversive activity. Although the warning meant nothing to the double-agent Willys, both Russell and Compton were discouraged and the Sealed Knot once again became completely inactive.

The death of Oliver Cromwell in September 1658 and the smooth transition to power of his successor Richard fuelled the sense of dissatisfaction with the Sealed Knot among militant Royalists. Responding to demands for a re-organisation of its leadership, Charles II issued a new set of commissions in March 1659 and the Sealed Knot was superseded by a new organisation, the Great Trust and Commission.


Sources:

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. iii (London 1903)

David Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy in England 1649-60 (New Haven 1960)