In late November 1670, Andrew Marvell broke dramatically with his preference for preserving his anonymity in print and in public. Constantly vigilant about being discovered as author of his many verse and prose satires, on this occasion he threw caution aside and stood up in the House of Commons to be a singularly outspoken voice in defence of two dissenting citizens of London: the haberdasher John Jekyll and linen-draper James Hayes. Both men, members of nonconformist congregations, had coordinated resistance to the prelacy of the established Church, embodied in the Conventicle Act (1670), in a crisis of order which might be described as a ‘battle for London’. One such action saw Hayes and Jekyll organise a mass demonstration to hinder the attempt by the magisterial elites of London to snatch the Presbyterian minister Thomas Watson whilst preaching at an illegal conventicle in May of that year. The pair were arrested on 28 May under warrants ‘to search for and secure dangerous and suspected persons’. They sued for habeas corpus, though refused to find securities for a bond of £5,000 binding them to good behaviour and to abstain from attending illegal conventicles. They also had the lord mayor of London Sir Samuel Sterling (or Starling) arrested for making a false arrest, and petitioned to have their case heard before the House of Commons.
Sir John Robinson, the staunchly royalist lieutenant of the Tower, and secretary of state Sir Joseph Williamson, the head of the intelligence service, were outraged at the dissenters’ stance, which had led to the threat of them being called before the Privy Council, and were determined to destroy their petition. Robinson boasted to Williamson that ‘he would attend the Council, make their petition a juggling petition, and give them a broadside’. When the case came before the Commons, Sterling claimed that Hayes had attempted to bribe him not to enforce the Conventicle Act. ‘About a fortnight before the Act against Conventicles’ was due to come into effect, he alleged, ‘Mr Hayes visited him, and told him, that it was the opinion of Counsel that it was but 100l. forfeiture on the Magistrate’ if he failed to enforce the act, and that Hayes would pay him ‘that 100l. and 200l. more, if he would forbear putting the Act in execution’. Sterling rejected the offer and expressed surprise that ‘He … should come to bribe a Magistrate’.