John Locke fled to Holland around September 1683 amidst the fallout of the Rye House Plot. While not directly implicated in the suspected plot, Locke was associated politically and personally with those accused, and he feared for his life. For instance, individuals such as Algernon Sidney, a former member of Parliament, was tried and executed for treason based partly on unpublished manuscripts, in 1683, shortly after Locke fled.
Those manuscripts were seized by Roger L’Estrange, who used a general warrant to search Sidney’s house and a locked trunk. A General Warrant gave him the right to search anywhere he wanted (including in anyone’s house) for any evidence: such warrants would become an issue again a century later, before the American Revolution.1Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics & Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, (Princeton University Press, 1986), 401-405.
In 1682, the year before, Charles II had Shaftesbury prosecuted for treason, a charge he escaped only because a London jury refused to convict. After 1683, the government used the alleged plot to pursue potential conspirators aggressively, seizing the opportunity to persecute a large range of their political enemies.
While Locke was in exile in Holland, the government turned its attention to his position as a tutor (or faculty member) at Christ Church College. In November 1684, Lord Sunderland, the secretary of state for Charles II, wrote in November 1684 to Bishop Fell, the Dean of Christ Church College. He sought to compel Locke to return to England (where he could then be captured and tried) or to at least humiliate him, by forcing Fell to remove Locke from his position.
Questions to Consider:
- How did Fell respond to Sunderland’s initial request? How and why did his response change?
- How would you interpret such a request if you were Locke? What does this reveal about how power relations might influence what someone like Locke would be willing to write or say? Or anyone else?
- What does this mean about how historians should interpret writings about government or about slavery during this period?
- Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics & Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (Princeton University Press, 1986).
- Philip Milton, “John Locke and the Rye House Plot,” The Historical Journal 43, no. 3 (2000): 647-68.
- Melinda S. Zook, Radical Whigs and Conspiratorial Politics in Late Stuart England (State College: Penn State Press, 2010).
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Charles II’s attempt to extradite John Locke from Holland, 1684
[Sunderland to Fell]
“Whitehall, Nov. 6, 1684.
The king having been given to understand that one Locke, who belonged to the late earl of Shaftesbury, and has, upon several occasions, behaved himself very factiously against the government, is a student of Christ-Church; his majesty commands me to signify to your lordship, that he would have him removed from being a student, and that, in order thereunto, your lordship would let him know the method of doing it…”
[Fell to Sunderland]
Nov. 8, 1684.
“To the right hon. the earl of Sunderland, principal secretary of state:
Right honourable, I have received the honour of your lordship’s letter, wherein you are pleased to inquire concerning Mr. Locke’s being a student of this house, of which I have this account to render: that he being, as your lordship is truly informed, a person who was much trusted by the late earl of Shaftsbury, and who is suspected to be ill affected to the government, I have for divers years had an eye upon him; but so close has his guard been on himself, that after several strict inquiries, I may confidently affirm, there is not any man in the college, however familiar with him, who had heard him speak a word either against or so much as concerning the government; and although very frequently, both in public and private, discourses have been purposely introduced to the disparagement of his master, the earl of Shaftesbury, his party and designs; he could never be provoked to take any notice, or discover in word or look the least concern. So that I believe there is not a man in the world soc much master of taciturnity and passion. He has here a physician’s place, which frees him from the exercise of the college, and the obligation which others have to residence in it, and he is now abroad for want of health; but notwithstanding this, I have summoned him to return home, which is done with this prospect, that if he comes back, he will be liable to expulsion for contumacy; and if he does, he will be answerable to the law for that which he shall be found to have done amiss. It being probably that, though he may have been thus cautious here where he knew himself suspected, he has laid himself more open at London, where a general liberty of speaking was used, and where the execrable designs against his majesty and government were managed and pursued. If he don’t return by the first of January, which is the time limited to him, I shall be enabled of course to proceed against him to expulsion. But if this method seems not effectual or speedy enough, and his majesty, our founder and visitor, shall please to command his immediate remove, upon the receipt thereof, directed to the dean and chapter, it shall accordingly be executed, by your lordship’s…”
[Second letter from Sunderland to the bishop of Oxon]
“My lord, having communicated your lordship’s of the 9th to his majesty, he has thought fit to direct me to send you the inclosed concerning his commands for the immediate expulsion of Mr. Locke.”
[The inclosed warrant, addressed to the dean, Nov. 12]
“Whereas we have received information of the factious and disloyal behaviour of Locke, one of the students of that our college; we have thought fit hereby to signify our will and pleasure to you, that you forthwith remove him from his student’s place, and deprive him of all rights and advantages thereunto belonging, for which this shall be your warrant. And so we bit you heartily farewell. Given at our court of Whitehall, the 11th day of Nov. 1684. By his majesty’s command, Sunderland.”
[Bishop to Sunderland, Nov. 16]
“Right honourable, I hold myself bound to signify to your lordship, that his majesty’s command for the expulsion of Mr. Locke from this college is fully executed.”
[Sunderland to bishop of Oxon]
“I have your lordship’s of the 16th, and have acquainted his majesty therewith, who is well satisfied with the college’s ready obedience to his commands for the expulsion of Mr. Locke.”
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- 1Richard Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics & Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, (Princeton University Press, 1986), 401-405.