What follows is a preview of Thomas Violet: A Sly and Dangerous Fellow, a book about a deranged Englishman written by Amos Tubb. Reader beware – this man is frightening.
It was over. Thomas Violet could do nothing more to save himself. So far in debt that bankruptcy seemed inevitable, Violet decided to opt out. In his London home, at one o’clock in the afternoon on April 20, 1662, he chose to end his own life. With just a few minutes to live, Violet continued a nearly thirty year old habit of writing down and justifying his actions. He took up his pen and wrote, “I have poisoned myself good Lord.” Almost immediately he felt the fatal toxin working in his body and knew that “now the pangs of death are on me.” With his hand trembling, and with only moments of life left, he begged “Christ Jesus forgiveness.” Realizing that what he was doing was against all of his society’s Christian beliefs, Violet pleaded to Jesus to “pray for me” and asked him to “Intercede for me” to “wipe away all my sins” especially “this great crying sin.” His last act on earth was to scrawl his signature “Tho. Violet” and with that, he died. He was 52.
Committing suicide was just the final sin in a long list of unchristian acts accumulated over Violet’s lifetime. This dying man called to Jesus in a desperate attempt for companionship but he remained utterly and completely alone, devoid of friendship. As in life, in death he chose isolation, and this decision bore its natural fruits. Violet had no mourners at his funeral–the people who cared he had died were only creditors, enemies, and disgruntled family members. Violet earned this animosity because throughout his life he mistreated people. Although he did not abuse people physically, he spent his life ruining others by legally stealing their money. In fact, earning money at others’ expense was the sole pursuit of his life. Two centuries before Charles Dickens invented Ebenezer Scrooge, Violet embodied the archetype for such a character. For just like Scrooge, Violet cared more about money than his fellow man. His actions were ruthless and, more often than not, caused others grief. Over the course of his life, Violet was a banker, a smuggler, a counterfeiter, a government informant, a spy, a traitor (twice over), and an anti-Semite. All his actions demeaned, impoverished, or disgraced either an individual or a group of people. This soulless creature had apparently almost no redeeming characteristics. He only appeared to care about two people in his entire life, his mother Sara Violet and Timothy Eman, the man who trained him as a teenager to be a goldsmith (an early version of the modern banker.) Even then, when his mother was dying, he complained that he had to visit her and not tend to his business deals. Meanwhile, he betrayed Eman, who raised him for nine years, and ruined the man. It is little wonder that an acquaintance said “Thomas Violet: [has] a name too sweet for so foul a carcass.”
Yet strangely, because he spent his life defrauding people during some of the most important events in English history, his life is worth studying. In the 1630s, King Charles I ruled England without Parliament. To do so, he needed to raise income without resorting to Parliamentary taxation. Charles relied on men like Violet, an active goldsmith from 1631-1662, to find this money. Violet used his specialized knowledge of how Englishmen made, spent, and recycled coinage to prove that a wide range of people were breaking the king’s currency laws and therefore could be fined. The enormous payments he netted helped fund King Charles I’s regime. Then, in 1640, when Charles was forced to call a Parliament, he quarreled with it, and eventually relations between the king and Parliament grew so strained it led to the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. Violet decided to side with the king because he believed it would help him financially. While working as a spy for the king though, he was captured by Parliament’s forces and imprisoned for the duration of the war. After being freed, Violet switched sides and supported Parliament. In the 1650s, Violet helped Parliament stabilize England’s economy and pay for its war machine. He then involved himself in an elaborate scheme to defraud and expel the Jews living in England. Finally, when Parliament’s government collapsed in 1660 and King Charles II returned from exile in the Restoration, Violet declared his loyalty to the new government and attempted to use Charles II to help him destroy the Jews in England. In the end, his final schemes came to naught because he angered so many people with manipulative and self-serving plots. Unable to generate any income, and with his line of credit exhausted, he killed himself to avoid bankruptcy.
This book, Thomas Violet: A Sly and Dangerous Fellow, uses each of Violet’s adventurous episodes to explore and examine different aspects of seventeenth-century English society. As students of history, Violet’s deeds intrigue us on their own merits, but they also provide entrée into several of the many contentious historiographical debates about seventeenth-century England. It should not surprise us that scholars argue so fiercely about England’s history during those years because they midwifed many of the political, religious, economic, and social issues that birthed modern Britain. Since he meddled in so many different schemes, Violet can tell us about all of these themes.