A Curious Case of Treason

In late 1651 Roger Williams and John Clarke prepared to sail for England on behalf of Rhode Island’s effort to revoke William Coddington’s upstart 1651 charter and secure a confirmation of the earlier charter Williams had procured in 1644. With the Anglo-Dutch war heating up, Williams, who was still under a Massachusetts edict of banishment dating from 1635, could not sail from Dutch New Amsterdam and in October successfully petitioned the General Court to pass quietly through Boston.

William Dyre went with Williams and Clarke, mixing personal and business matters. On the personal side, this was an opportunity to go to England and persuade his wife, Mary, to return home. On the business side, he surely conceived that some benefit would accrue to himself by way of his affiliation with the charter efforts and the outcome bears this out.

He may even have gone in some official capacity, when in the few weeks before his departure, acting as the Rhode Island attorney general, he petitioned the Massachusetts Bay for permission to convey unnamed prisoners to be tried in England for treason. The petition was granted on November 21, 1651.

But this is a thoroughly curious petition. Since treason was a capital crime, one would expect to find a considerable legal paper trail in colony, town and personal records. Yet there is a remarkable void in both the Rhode Island and Massachusetts records. (Many early Rhode Island records were lost, especially with the burning of Providence in King Phillip’s War and with the looting of Newport records by the British during the American Revolution. Nevertheless, such a complete erasure  of such an historical event is itself remarkable.) Despite severe turbulence and even acts that might rise to the charge of treason, there is no other record of any formal charge of treason prior to Hugh Bewitt in December 1652.

And furthermore, I have never seen note of this petition and its meaning anywhere else. It doesn’t even appear in the quite complete records of the Massachusetts General Court. I would appreciate hearing from anyone who has insight into this petition that can be bolstered with historical evidence.

The petition is in William Dyre’s hand and is damaged at the top edge, so there is some loss of information. The petitioners are William Dyre, likely acting as attorney general, John [hole, but possibly Clarke], and James Badcock, likely acting as constable and warden.

Dyre was in Boston as late as December 4, when he witnessed a bill of sale. The ship named in the petition was the [Johns] Adventure, owned by Dyre’s business partner, William Brenton. This is the ship that Williams, Clarke, and Dyre almost certainly took to England.

A transcription follows.

21 November 1651. Petition on behalf of Rhode Island asking for safe conduct through Massachusetts for prisoners to be tried in England for treason. Granted. In William Dyre’s handwriting.

Massachusetts Archives, vol. 2 (Colonial, 1638-1720), 7a.

(Illegible text at top of letter, much torn away)

The humble peticon of Willm Dyre John [hole] & James Badcock in the behalf of the inhabitants of [Rho]ad Island.

 Sheweth that wheras by our ingagmt lately taken unto the Stat

of England, & that by the Charter & Commission, we are to be

governed according to the Laws of England and wheras ther

are now residing upon the Iland, such who have been, & are

accused Indicted & arrested of High Treason, & misprision of

treason, & that according to the Law of the Parlemt mad in the

yeare 1649 treasons are to be tried according to the Laws

in the case Provided: And wheras the Statute of the 35: H:

8 [ blank]1Doth order that facte of the nature being Comitted

out of the Land, shal be tried in the Land here yor Peticoners

Doth humbly Desire yor favors to grant unto the Inhabitants

of the Iland safe Conduct threw yor Jurisdicon, for such

person or persons to be Conveyed or kept in durance, till

the ship cal’d the Adventure shal go for England, Promis

ing that no charg shall at all accrew to the Contry therby

only because we have no shipping nor any other way

then wtt is Presented to Performe our bounded duty and

faithfull Allegance, To the Highe & mighty State and

Parlemt of Eng: and the most renowned & Honble the

Keepers of the Libty therof so shall yor Peticoners

For ever acknowledge yor goodness & be bound dayly

To pray for yor worshipps Happiness ./.

This petition is granted by the County

Courte 21th 9th mo 1651  Incr: Nowell


[1] Statute of 35: H: 8 = 35 Henry 8 or 1543. “all offences made or declared, or hereafter made or declared treasons, misprisions of treason, and concealments of treason, committed out of the realm of England, shall be inquired of, heard, and determined, either in the king’s bench or before commissioners in such shire as shall be assigned by the king.