1604, William Udall, an informer, petitions Robert Cecil for mercy

William Udall. SP 14/7 f. 20 (1604)

My most and ever honourable lord words are but al cyphers to make shewe of the minde being no way being no wayes able to expresse the true conceyts of the same. In true consideration howe I am greved at those wrongs and offences which I have done unto yow I rather feale in the bitter anguishes of my soull then am any wayes able to utter in [circumstance?] of speaches. When I do consider the offence I have made, I remayne despayring and out of all hope finding that to true in me which Cayne untruly spake to the almightye major est iniquitas mea quam ut possit remitti: what I have done I knowe. What yow may do I may deservedly feare. But whereas Cayns despe ration was cause of his damnation who yf he had sought might have found mercy where it did abound I in my offences correct Cayns wilfull errors and rather in most submissive manner make my dependance in hope uppon your most honourable disposition then in the grevousnes of my offence to despayre of the nobilitye and bownty of so honourable a person as my fault done to yow is greate so my shame and sorrowe for the same is far greater let my grey heares, not for age but for greffe contestate. To use reasons to move yow to pardon my offences were to make doubt of your assured wysdome and most honourable compassion. I knowe full well that as Tully sayeth to Cesar nihil [prout?] accidere fortunus tuus [ma…?] [quam?] ut possis, naturus tuus metius, [quam?] ut velis injurias remittere, prostratis et vemam demisissime orantibus parcere. Only this, I will and may alleage yf your honour shall please to deigne me pardon and by your favor to obtayne libertye I shal be able to discover and deliver those who set me in hand with so malitious a worke as an accessary I must ever submitt my self to your honourable pardon but as I am, it remayneth in your honourable dispose to make and take me for principall whylest I am in prison yf I should do as I have done, committ the execution of some matters to trust I should hasard the service and finde that dissimulation in vowes and protestations which I have done experience makes me fearefull to committ that to others which so deeply concerneth your honour, and my self so nearely I have bin ashamed to acknowleg howe hearetofore I have bin dearened in trust when your honour hath had cause to suspect indirect promises I have rather excused matters by circumstances then I wold confesse my simplicitye to be betrayed in trust but nowe right honourable as confession and submission bredeth and beginneth a newnes of lyfe so wold I uppon newe foundations begine a better building I prostrate my self in all humilytye and entire devotion to your honourable consideration protesting that yf yow reserve me in prison for further punishment I have deserved it but yf in the nobilitye of your nature and worthiest disposition yow shall disdayn to take revenge uppon a yelding praye but shall rather comiserate my longe endured misery and unspekable afflictions and shall vowchsafe (far beyonde my desert, and expestation vowchsafe my libertye, as no man under the coope of heaven can be more bound unto yow so no man this day living shall more faythfully and zelously endevour himself towards your honour then pore Udall to make satisfaction for his offencesThus right honourable wholy committing my self to your most honourable consideration in all submissive manner I take leave from Newgate this fyfth of AprileYour honours most humbly and more truly devoted then ever

William Udall


Report by Howard Greenwood

The State Papers confirm the “the lord” that the petition was directed to was Lord Cecil (Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury).[1][2] Simon Schama describes Cecil as being in charge of an intelligence network at this time.[3] The petition also says Udall is in Newgate (gaol one assumes) and the State Papers also say “Newgate”.

The journal Recusant History carried two articles in 1966 entitled ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605-1612’.[4][5] The title of the articles would suggest that William did regain his freedom and was taken up on his offer to supply information about co-conspirators. The Cecil papers contain further correspondence from/about Udall.[6]

All this seems to suggest that Cecil was already aware who William Udall was and the sort of information he could obtain, when the petition arrived. Other papers show letters from William to Robert Cecil as early as 1595, relating to events in Ireland.[7] The 1604 text suggests Udall had provided information on plotting being carried out by the Earl of Essex and by Walter Ralegh (Raleigh). The Cecil papers contain more communications through to 1607.[8]

The first article by P.R. Harris gives a detailed description of Udall’s career. This piece says that the first record of Udall is in 1595, which matches the records in the State papers. In it Udall claims to have “learned many secrets” while in the service of the Earl of Kildare. Harris points out that when in trouble, Udall invariably claims to have secret information he must give personally to someone of high rank.[9] However, Udall seems to struggle in getting Robert Cecil to believe him. In 1596 Cecil warns the Earl of Kildare of his grave doubts concerning Udall’s religion.[10] He was not alone, for in 1600, Sir Geoffrey Fenton, the Secretary in Ireland commented people like Udall “only made worse the sad state of Ireland”.[11] Having made a number of enemies, Udall was escorted from Ireland to England in May 1601 and imprisoned in the Gatehouse at Westminster.[12] Harris’s article also discloses that while Udall was confined to prison, his first wife and four of his six children died.[13]

Udall was only moved to Newgate gaol after he made the mistake of accusing Cecil of being involved in a French plot with Raleigh and Cobham.[14] It can be assumed that this is why Udall was apologising to Cecil in the petition. Udall was fortunate that Cecil preferred to have Udall retract this slur rather than have him executed. Harris next finds reference to Udall in March 1604/5, once more at liberty.

Udall was therefore around in 1605 to become embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot. In a letter of 1612, Udall claims to have been providing information on the plot eleven months before it was discovered. He also claims that Salisbury (Cecil) would not take it seriously until October 1605. Antonia Fraser paints a much more controlling picture of Cecil’s actions, knowing the plot to be serious, but lacking sufficient details to round up all those involved.[15] How reliable Udall’s statement was is unclear. Cecil may once again have been doubting him as a source (without corroboration) and seeking full details before ‘springing the trap’. According to Harris, Udall had entered the service of Sir Everard Digby, one of those involved in the plot and was arrested in the aftermath of its discovery.[16] What is clear is that Udall was a government spy even if Cecil continued to view him with considerable suspicion.[17]

Harris also comments that Udall had a difficult time financially, being perpetually in difficulties over money and his pleas for financial relief from his various patrons was a constant refrain in his letters.[18] Clearly the informer business was an unstable one.

While Harris can find no further record of Udall after 1612, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has more to offer. It notes Udall’s authorship of Historie of the Life and Death of Mary Stuart, Queene of Scotland, published in 1624.[19]


[1] ‘James I: Volume 7, April, 1604’, in Calendar of State Papers Domestic: James I, 1603-1610, ed. Mary Anne Everett Green (London, 1857), pp. 90-103. British History Online, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/domestic/jas1/1603-10/pp90-103.

[2] ‘Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury’, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Cecil,_1st_Earl_of_Salisbury.

[3] Simon Schama, A History of Britain – The British Wars 1603-1776 (London, UK: BBC Worldwide Ltd, 2001), p. 43.

[4] P. R. Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, Recusant History (later British Catholic History), 8.4 (1966), 192–249, https://doi.org/10.1017/S003419320000385X.

[5] P. R. Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part II’, British Catholic History, 8.5 (1966), 252–84, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034193200004076.

[6] ‘Cecil Papers: December 1603, 16-31’, in Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House: Volume 15, 1603, ed. M S Giuseppi (London, 1930), pp. 325-345. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-cecil-papers/vol15/pp325-345.

[7] ‘Elizabeth I: volume 180, June 1595’, in Calendar of State Papers, Ireland, 1592-1596, ed. Hans Claude Hamilton (London, 1890), pp. 321-334. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-state-papers/ireland/1592-6/pp321-334

[8] ‘Cecil Papers: December 1607, 16-30’, in Calendar of the Cecil Papers in Hatfield House: Volume 19, 1607, ed. M S Giuseppi and D McN. Lockie (London, 1965), pp. 383-397. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/cal-cecil-papers/vol19/pp383-397.

[9] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 192.

[10] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 193.

[11] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 195.

[12] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 196.

[13] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 197.

[14] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 198.

[15] Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot – Terror & Faith in 1605 (London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996), p. 156.

[16] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 200.

[17] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 200.

[18] Harris, ‘The Reports of William Udall, Informer, 1605–1612. Part I’, p. 205.

[19] ‘Udall [Uvedale], William’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/67017; William Udall, The Historie of the Life and Death of Mary Stuart Queene of Scotland Annales Rerum Anglicarum et Hibernicarum Regnante Elizabetha (England: Printed by Iohn Haviland for William Barret).


This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, 1600-1625’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.