John Ayloffe

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John Ayloffe (c.1645 - October 30, 1685) was an English lawyer, satirist and Whig conspirator, responsible for several pieces of violently anti-Stuart propaganda of the 1670s. In 1683, he was involved in the Rye House Plot to assassinate Charles II and his brother.

Accused of treason, he fled to Holland but was executed in London after becoming involved in Argyll's Rising of 1685.


Little is known of Ayloffe's early life. The spelling of his surname varies: Joseph Foster gives it as Ayliffe.[1] The son of another John Ayloffe, he was born in Foxley in Wiltshire in about 1645.[2] He has been described as either a family connection or more specifically as a nephew by marriage of the Earl of Clarendon:[3] Clarendon's first wife was a daughter of Sir George Ayliffe of Grittenham, Brinkworth, Wiltshire, and Clarendon himself referred to Ayloffe's father as someone he "dearly loved".[2] The Ayliffe family had owned Grittenham, Foxley and other manors in north Wiltshire for many years.

He has been presumed to be the Ayloffe admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1666,[4] but the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that he matriculated at St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 1662.[5] By the 1670s, he was practising as a barrister and his name appears regularly in the Calendar of Treasury Books, representing clients who were appearing before the Treasury Lords.[6]

Ayloffe has been described as an extremist Whig, an anti-Catholic and a republican: in the latter he seems to have been at least partly inspired by the politics of classical-era Greece and Rome. Fountainhall, however, repeated a story that Ayloffe's father had been a wealthy man who had spent much of his money in the service of Charles I during the English Civil War, but had seen little reward at the Restoration, an experience that provoked Ayloffe to "draw up with the republicans".[7] At the opening of Parliament in October 1673 he brought himself to notice by throwing a sabot under the chair of the Speaker of the House of Commons, supposedly a reference to French influence on the country.[8] Ayloffe was briefly detained by the doorkeepers, but released on grounds of being "distracted" (insane): a detailed account of the incident was given in a letter from Charles Hatton, who describes Ayloffe as a "kinsman", to his father-in-law William Scroggs.[9] The incident occurred during the Third Anglo-Dutch War. At this period Ayloffe was working covertly with his friend Andrew Marvell, for Dutch interests against the French. Both men were part of an intelligence network operating under the leadership of Peter Du Moulin, the secretary of William of Orange.[5] As a propagandist and versifier, Ayloffe has been identified as the author of "much of the republican doggerel of the 1670s".[10] In 1678 he gave evidence in a House of Commons debate on the danger posed by Catholic soldiers "going into Ireland": the affair of the sabot was again brought up and there were comments that he was"mad", but Sir Thomas Meres said "Mr. Ayliffe is a man of good sense, and points at what he intends".[11]

In common with other radical Whigs, Ayloffe was a member of the Green Ribbon Club, and was implicated in the Rye House plot to assassinate the monarch Charles II. An idealist and "doctrinaire republican whom probably no political settlement could ever have satisfied",[12] he associated with the most extreme, reckless and violent faction of the Whig party as well as with some of its most high-principled and considered members.[13] Perhaps due to his family connections, he managed to evade punishment for some years, but by October 1683 his political activities had reached the point where the government issued a warrant for Ayloffe's arrest for treason, along with that of Fanshawe, an associate: "there are not two more daring men for a desperate exploit than these two", as Roger L'Estrange reported.[14] Ayloffe had, however, escaped to Holland. In his absence he was attainted and his estate forfeit.

In 1684 he returned covertly to England - a highly risky mission given his outlawry - to raise funds amongst Nonconformist ministers for a proposed uprising against the Stuart monarchy, but found that such was his reputation as an "atheist and a man of no conscience" that none of them would speak to him.[15]

"Col. Aylof Desperately Wounded": Ayloffe attempts suicide after his capture during Argyll's Rising, from a contemporary commemorative card

In May 1685 Ayloffe travelled to Scotland with a group of armed rebels led by Archibald Campbell, 9th Earl of Argyll. The leaders of the rebels were a politically disparate group: Argyll was a former Stuart loyalist, some such as Sir Patrick Hume were Whig Presbyterians, and Richard Rumbold was a former Cromwellian republican and religious Independent. Despite their differences of outlook Argyll was said to have placed great trust in Ayloffe,[7] who was given a colonelcy of a small regiment of infantry raised by Argyll in Kintyre, but the rebellion collapsed by mid June and Ayloffe was captured by the authorities. Severely beaten by the Scottish militiamen who captured him, Ayloffe initially attempted suicide by stabbing himself in the abdomen, but the wounds were not considered serious: he was afterwards said to have regretted it as "the most base and cowardlie thing he had ever done in his life" but said he was "tired of living".[7]

Whereas other leaders of Argyll's Rising were quickly executed, Ayloffe was well treated after his initial capture and given his family and social connections was thought to be in line to be saved.[15] However, brought to London, he seems to have completely refused cooperation with the authorities and so was executed at Inner Temple on the same day as another fellow Rye House conspirator, Richard Nelthorpe. Macaulay wrote that Ayloffe died with "stoical composure".[16] The official account of his execution, penned by L'Estrange, which depicts a repentant Ayloffe offering prayers for the King, the people and the Protestant religion, appears so completely inconsistent with all of his recorded opinions and behaviour it is likely propaganda.[15]

A story was widely circulated amongst Whig sympathisers that prior to his death, Ayloffe had been interviewed personally by King James (who had a family connection with Ayloffe through Clarendon). James was said to have reminded Ayloffe "you know it is in my power to pardon you, therefore say that which may deserve it", whereupon Ayloffe retorted "though it is in your power, it is not in your nature to pardon".


The recorded details of his life include a satiric homage to Andrew Marvell. One page of Macaulay's History of England detailed his career.[17] His biographer George de Forest Lord attributed to him a number of verse satires previously assigned to Marvell, identifying several distinct characteristics of Ayloffe's writing: a bitterly anti-French, anti-Irish, and anti-Catholic tone; an attack on the Stuart kings in which they are often compared with Roman tyrants and depicted as threatening the rights of the Magna Carta; a "somber and humorless " quality; and visionary imagery.[18] Based on this the pamphlets Britannia and Raleigh, Oceana and Britannia and The Dream of the Cabal, amongst others, are tentatively assigned to Ayloffe.


  1. ^ 'Alumni Oxonienses, 1500-1714: Appleyard-Azard', Alumni Oxonienses 1500-1714: Abannan-Kyte (1891), pp. 29-50. URL: Date accessed: 08 March 2012.
  2. ^ a b Lord, Satire and Sedition: the Life and Work of John Ayloffe in Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 3 (May, 1966), 256
  3. ^ Greaves, Secrets of the Kingdom, 1992, p.150
  4. ^ "Ayloffe, - (ALF666)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  5. ^ a b Chernaik, Warren. "Ayloffe (Ayliffe), John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/937.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ Ashcraft, Revolutionary Politics and Locke's Two Treatises of Government, p.376
  7. ^ a b c Fountainhall, Historical Observes of Memorable Occurrents in Church and State, 1840, p.182
  8. ^ "The Dictionary of National Biography". Historical Research. 2 (6): 93–97. 1925. ISSN 0950-3471. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2281.1925.tb01870.x. 
  9. ^ Edward Maunde Thompson (editor), The Correspondence of the Family of Hatton vol. 1 (1878), p. 118;
  10. ^ Harris, Politics Under the Later Stuarts: Party Conflict in a Divided Society 1660-1715, p.87
  11. ^ Debates of the House of Commons: From the Year 1667 to the Year 1694, Volume 6, p.170
  12. ^ Lord, 273
  13. ^ Lord, 272
  14. ^ Lord, 263
  15. ^ a b c Lord, 264-5
  16. ^ Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, v1, 1858, p.448
  17. ^ 'Satire and Sedition: The Life and Work of John Ayloffe' George de Forest Lord. Huntington Library Quarterly Vol. 29, No. 3 (May, 1966), pp. 255-273
  18. ^ Lord, 270