The Sole Society, a Family History Society researching Sole, Saul, Sewell, Solley and similar namesTony Storey

The Mysterious Lives of Arthur Saul

by Tony Storey

This article was originally published in the August 2006 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society


In 2001, the Beinecke Library acquired for Yale University a rare 1652 edition of The Famous Game of Chesse-Play by Arthur Saul, the first chess manual to be written by an Englishman. Who was Arthur Saul and could we place him on one of our family charts?

The book was first published in 1614 so our search for Arthur Saul, chess master, would have to start in the previous century. As a background to our quest, we should keep in mind that our man lived during a very turbulent period in English history.

England began the sixteenth century as a Catholic country and in the early years of the reign of Henry VIII, Protestants seeking to undermine the power of the clergy were persecuted by the likes of Thomas More. Like most Englishmen of the time, the king was a devout Catholic but was concerned to produce a male heir to the throne. When the Pope refused permission for Henry to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn, the king, aided by his minister Thomas Cromwell, passed the Act of Supremacy of 1534, which removed the English church from the authority of Rome. Thomas More was executed in 1535 for refusing to recognise the King’s authority over the church.

Thomas Cranmer was now Archbishop of Canterbury, a position he held even after Henry’s death through the short reign of the boy king, Edward VI. During this time it was the Catholics who were persecuted. In 1553 Edward died of tuberculosis. After a failed attempt to make Lady Jane Grey queen, Mary, the Catholic daughter of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, took the throne. During her six-year reign, nearly 300 Protestants were burnt at the stake for heresy or treason, including Thomas Cranmer.

After the death of Bloody Mary the second Act of Supremacy of 1559 re-established the Church of England under Elizabeth I. However, for both religious and political motives, there continued to be numerous plots to overthrow the monarch and restore the Church of Rome,

At first the search for Arthur Saul seemed all too easy. A number of sources name Arthur Saul as a Gloucestershire-born Protestant clergyman, by 1546 a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, who was exiled abroad during the reign of the Catholic queen, Mary. Known to have had an altercation with an English government agent during his exile in Heidelberg, he was able to return to England after Mary died. Under the Protestant queen, Elizabeth, he rose to prominence in the Church of England, holding senior posts in Salisbury, Bristol and Gloucester. Unfortunately, he could not be the author of the chess manual because he died in 1586. In the terms of his will of 1580, which survives at the National Archives in Kew, he left property to his five children, including his sons Arnold and William, who were minors at the time of his death. There is no mention of a son called Arthur, yet intriguingly, the records of Magdalen, Oxford, the clergyman’s old college, do include mention of an ‘Arthur Sale’ graduating in 1572.

By 1573 Queen Elizabeth had reigned for fifteen years but the number of conspiracies had not diminished. Sir Francis Walsingham was then appointed Secretary of State and is credited with organizing the intelligence service, a network of spies to counter the threat from foreign powers and also from those forces within that sought to overthrow Elizabeth and the Church of England. In 1584 it became law that any native-born subject who had become a Catholic priest at any time since Elizabeth’s succession to the throne in 1558 was guilty of treason punishable by death.

Mary Queen of Scots had been the focus of several intrigues against the English government and Walsingham kept her under close surveillance. Eventually, by intercepting her letters he was able to implicate her in the Babington Plot of 1586 and secure Elizabeth’s signature on her death warrant. Mary was executed at Fotheringhay in 1587. By this time the population had been conditioned to fear and distrust all foreigners, particularly Catholics.

At the end of the century we find another Arthur Saul, who was married and settled in London although he did not spend all his time there. The papers of the Star Chamber record a complaint by Arthur Saull, a gentleman of London, that he was staying with his wife at the house of a friend in Gloucestershire in August 1600 when the house was attacked by sixty armed men claiming to be acting in the queen’s name and threatening to burn the house and strip his wife of all her clothes. The link with Gloucestershire could suggest the London gentleman was in some way related to the clergyman.

Sir Robert CecilMight it be the same Arthur Saul who, in 1600, reported to Sir Robert Cecil, the queen’s principle secretary, regarding the unsuccessful surveillance and pursuit of an unnamed man in the Ludgate and St Paul’s area of London? The man under surveillance was also sought at Court so we can assume it was someone of substance that the security service had concerns about.

Robert DevereuxIn February 1601, Robert Devereux, second Earl of Essex, stepson of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and once a favourite of the queen, was arrested for treason and subsequently executed along with a number of other rebellious young malcontents. Sir Robert Cecil had also distrusted Sir Walter Ralegh for some time but was unable to take action while the queen was alive. When Elizabeth died in 1603 Ralegh was arrested for treason and confined in the Tower of London. In 1605 the most famous conspiracy of all, the Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament and the King, was thwarted in the nick of time by the security service. Several Catholics, including Guy Fawkes, were tortured and executed.

The authorities remained paranoid and government spies continued to uncover conspiracies both real and imagined, but there was no further news of Arthur Saul and we might reasonably have assumed he had died or at least retired from the fray. In fact, nothing had been heard of him for more than a decade when in 1614 a book was published setting out the rules of chess. Could the author of The Famous Game of Chesse-Play possibly be the same man who had spied for Sir Robert Cecil all those years before?

Was it the same Arthur Saul who was sent to the continent in September 1615 by the Secretary of State, Sir Ralph Winwood, in order to spy on English Catholics? He is known to have ‘tailed’ priests returning to England and attended a mass, presumably working undercover, at a house in Petticoat Lane, London, near to the home of the Spanish ambassador.

The search for Arthur Saul then takes a dramatic turn. On 19 February 1617, an Arthur Saul is arrested and charged with the rape of Hester Hopkins in the porch of St Mary Abchurch in the City of London.

Newgate PrisonHe finds himself imprisoned in Newgate, where coincidentally a number of Catholic priests are being held. If this is our man, the situation looks grim indeed, but there is a further twist in the tale. On 5 April he gives a statement to the authorities. He tells them he is working for the state secret service and is able to supply valuable information he has gathered whilst in gaol concerning the recent escape of two women recusants and two priests.

Could it be that his arrest had been merely a cover, a device to enable him to gain the trust of fellow prisoners and gather information? Unfortunately it is unlikely we will ever know. Prisons at this time, not least Newgate, were foul, unsanitary places. Arthur Saul became very ill, probably with gaol fever, a virulent form of typhoid. He died in the prison on 29 April 1617.

So just how many men called Arthur Saul have we discovered?

There was the eminent churchman who died in 1586 who, as far as we know, neither worked for the intelligence service nor wrote a book about chess.

There were two secret service agents with different signatures – the signature in Newgate did not match that on the report to Sir Robert Cecil in 1600. Nevertheless they may have been one and the same man.

Finally there was the author of a world-renowned work on the game of chess who might have been one, or indeed both, of the secret agents.

Although not conclusive by any means, the final piece of evidence is this. In 1618, a year after the death in Newgate prison, a revised edition of The Famous Game of Chesse-Play is published. A footnote tells us that its author, Arthur Saul, is now dead.

Acknowledgement: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

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