One day in the early weeks of June 1723, a line of schoolboys trooped from Westminster to visit a celebrated prisoner in the Tower of London. Francis Atterbury, Bishop of Rochester and Dean of Westminster, had been sentenced to perpetual banishment for treasonous activities on behalf of James Edward Stuart, the Old Pretender. His trial had been the most spectacular and one of the most blatantly corrupt of the century. Lacking the evidence to pursue a case in court, the government tried him before a special meeting of Parliament. In an extraordinary clash of wits, Atterbury was cross-examined by Sir Robert Walpole himself – and, while losing on points, proved perhaps the one worthy opponent the minister faced during his robustly amoral ascendancy. While in the Tower, the champion of the High Church and the Roman Catholic claimant to the throne received his final visits before embarking on a few years of near-hopeless intrigue in Paris (for, notwithstanding the lack of due process, he was guilty as charged). The representatives of Westminster School packed into his cell and recited verses in his honour. He responded by adapting lines from Book XII of Paradise Lost:
Some natural tears he dropt, but wiped them soon.
The world was all before him, where to choose
His place of rest; and Providence his guide.
Poignantly, Atterbury, a widower, changed Milton’s ‘they’ –