One way of filling in the background of your ancestors’ lives is to take a closer look at the people they mention in their wills. Finding out more about the individuals who are beneficiaries of, or witnesses to a will can provide insights into one’s forebears’ occupation and social status – and into their religious and political affiliations.

I’ve written before about John Manser, the seventeenth-century London apothecary who was a ‘kinsman’ of my 8 x great grandfather John Byne. I’m still unsure of the exact relationship between the two men, except for the fact that John’s grandmother was Mary Manser. Both the Bynes and the Mansers had their roots in Sussex, and John Byne and John Manser both moved to London, and more specifically to the parish of St Botolph without Aldgate, as young men.

The first we hear of John Manser is in the will of John Byne’s older brother, Stephen, an upholsterer and another resident of the parish of St Botolph’s, who died in 1675. Stephen bequeaths ‘my cosen John Manser the sume of forty shillings’ and also appoints him as one of the two overseers of the will.  When John Manser made his own will five years later, he nominated ‘my kinsman Mr John Byne of Tower hill’ as one of its overseers.

Witnesses to John Manser's will

Witnesses to John Manser’s will

John Byne was also the third and final witness to John Manser’s will. Of the other two, the second name is difficult to decipher. But the name of the first witness is quite clear: Josiah Keeling. When I searched for information about this person, I discovered that he, or someone with the same name, had played a crucial and controversial part in contemporary historical events.

Rye House, Hertfordshire

Rye House, Hertfordshire

One edition of the Dictionary of National Biography has this brief entry for ‘Josiah Keeling, fl. 1691’:

Conspirator; revealed existence of Rye House Plot and gave evidence against Russell, Sidney, and the key conspirators, 1683; received reward and a place; after Revolution dismissed for Jacobitism; died in prison.

The Rye House Plot was a conspiracy hatched in 1683 to assassinate King Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York (the future James II). Based at Rye House, near Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire, the plan was to ambush the royal brothers on their way back from the races at Newmarket. According to Wikipedia:

The royal party were expected to make the journey on 1 April 1683, but there was a major fire in Newmarket on 22 March, which destroyed half the town. The races were cancelled, and the King and the Duke returned to London early. As a result, the planned attack never took place.

I’m not entirely sure of Keeling’s role, but he must have had some involvement in the original conspiracy. A longer entry in another edition of the Dictionary of National Biography claims he was an Anabaptist, which would certainly have aligned him with the extreme Protestant factions who were wary of the Stuart monarchy’s supposedly Catholic inclinations. On the other hand, he must also have had a motive for his eventual decision to inform on the conspirators, and the later accusation of Jacobitism, following the so-called ‘Glorious’ Revolution (or coup) by William of Orange, might offer a clue here. Keeling’s evidence was vital in the conviction of the leading plotters, who were either executed, exiled or imprisoned for their involvement, and he received a pardon as a result.

Josiah Keeling by Robert White, National Portrait Gallery

Josiah Keeling by Robert White, National Portrait Gallery

Keeling’s ‘place’ appears to have been a post in the victualing office. In addition he was rewarded with £500 by the government and acclaimed as a popular hero. However, after the overthrow of James II, a House of Lords enquiry into the trials led to a re-examination of the evidence and the dismissal of Keeling from his post. In April 1691 he was arrested for the ‘crime’ of drinking the health of the deposed King James, fined five hundred marks, and seems to have died in prison.

The theory that this is the same Josiah Keeling who witnessed John Manser’s will is given credence by the information, included in the longer Dictionary of National Biography entry, that he was ‘a white salter or oilman of St Botolph-without-Aldgate, London’. Could there have been two Josiah Keelings living and working in the same parish in the 1680s? It’s certainly possible, but it seems unlikely.

A record of the trial of the Rye House plotters

A record of the trial of the Rye House plotters

I’m not sure what this new information tells us, if anything, about my ancestors John Manser and John Byne. It would be helpful if we had more certainty about Josiah Keeling’s true religious and political affiliations. Was he really a Protestant extremist, like his supposed co-conspirators, and if so does this suggest that my ancestors also moved in those circles (other evidence certainly points to distinct Puritan sympathies in both families)? What if, on the other hand, Keeling’s evidence at the Rye House trial, and his later arrest, reveals his true sympathies, for the Stuarts and the religious and political establishment? A third alternative is that Keeling, like a number of his contemporaries (including John Byne’s uncle Edward, a minister who made sure he benefited from both the Puritan ascendancy and the Restoration) was a pragmatist who shifted with the changing political and religious temper of the times.


Keeling’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography adds somewhat to our knowledge of the man, and confirms that he was, certainly at the time of the plot, a known Protestant activist. Here is the full entry:

Keeling, Josiah (fl. 1679–1691), conspirator, was a white salter or oilman of East Smithfield, London, in the parish of St Botolph, Aldgate. Although his parentage and birthplace are unknown, Keeling had been concerned in a coalworks in Warwickshire as late as April 1679. He is known to have been married. At the time of the parliaments of 1679–81, his brother John, a smith of St Ann Blackfriars, lived near the whig activist Steven College, the ‘Protestant Joiner’, who was executed for treason in 1681. The Keeling brothers may have been within College’s political circle. A Baptist, Josiah was also a parish constable. As the court-inspired harassment of dissenters mounted in 1682, he opposed loyalist JPs who sought to suppress dissenting meetings. When the court intervened in the corporation of London in 1682 to ensure the election of tory sheriffs, Keeling was among those whig citizens who signed petitions in protest. Like more prominent City whigs, he regarded the court’s imposition of loyalist sheriffs, and also of a loyalist lord mayor, as an ‘invasion’ of civic rights. Keeling stood bail for the unknown printer of Robert Ferguson’s The Second Part of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government (1682). However, by 1683 he was in financial difficulty and had reportedly been expelled from his congregation.

Keeling’s actions and beliefs brought him to the attention of the circle of lawyers, dissenters, and Cromwellian officers who were plotting an April 1683 assassination of Charles II and the duke of York. Keeling agreed to participate in an attempt on their lives at Rye House in Hertfordshire. His knowledge of the whig underworld of plebeian activists enabled him to assist such plot principals as Robert West and Richard Goodenough in recruiting other men. According to West, Keeling was motivated by his desire to ‘save the city charter and the nation’, but Keeling was also described by one acquaintance as having ‘had always the character of an ambitious man’ (State trials, 9.391, 980). When the initial plan miscarried, Keeling remained in touch with the plot’s ringleaders. Goodenough pressed him into service again on 24 April 1683, when Keeling served as a special bailiff in the whig arrest of Lord Mayor Sir William Prichard. The loyalist Prichard had refused to respond to king’s bench suits, brought by the London whigs, that challenged the election of the tory sheriffs. Whatever its precise relationship to the Rye House plot, this escapade collapsed after a few hours with the lord mayor’s release.

In May and June 1683 West and Goodenough resumed their conspiracy and recruited leaders for a London insurrection. Expected to employ his Wapping contacts on behalf of a rising, Keeling became anxious about the design. ‘If it were a sin in David to cut off the hem of Saul’s garment’, he recalled thinking, ‘it was a sin in me much more to kill my king’. His tavern fellows later remembered that a ‘disturbed or distracted’ Keeling had spoken of rewards he might receive from ‘great men’ for discoveries he could make (State trials, 9.535, 974). Becoming suspicious, his fellow conspirators considered murdering Keeling, but they instead sought to retain his allegiance with a loan. Keeling had, however, already commenced the revelations to Secretary of State Sir Leoline Jenkins that initiated the government’s unravelling of the plot. Keeling was pardoned and employed as a witness in the treason trials of Thomas Walcott, William Hone, Algernon Sidney, and Charles Bateman. He was eventually awarded £500 and a place in the victualling office on Tower Hill. Named an assistant in the Broderers’ Company in the remodelling of the London livery, he also provided the government with additional information about disaffected dissenters in the eastern out-parishes at the time of Monmouth’s rebellion. Keeling lost his place during the 1689 parliamentary investigation of the conspiracy trials and turned Jacobite. In 1691 he was fined £500 for drinking James II’s health, and he disappears from the historical record thereafter.

The reference to the Broderers’ company is interesting. I had already come across an apprenticeship record from 1695, for John Shrigley, son of an Aldgate haberdasher, which described Keeling as a ‘citizen and borderer of London’, as well as an entry for him in the  1710 electoral register under ‘broderers’ (embroiderers). This new information confirms that it is the same man.