Monthly Archives: February 2014

Richard Topcliffe – torturer

topcliffe-300x246Richard Topcliffe, born in 1532,  the eldest son of Robert Topcliffe of Somerby in Lincolnshire was orphaned early in his life and raised by an uncle. Perhaps he tore the legs off spiders but history has not recorded this information. He became a lawyer at Gray’s Inn and was an elected Member of Parliament for Beverley in Yorkshire.  Again, perhaps he embodied all that was appalling about both professions – but that’s speculation.

What is fact is that Topcliffe was not a nice man.  He is more ordinarily remembered as Elizabeth I’s  interrogator – you would not have wished to have met this man down a dark alley and most especially not in the dungeons of the Tower of London nor in his own home where he’d improved on the official instruments of torture in his spare time.

Topcliffe had such a reputation for sadism and cruelty as well as enjoyment of his work (he took his work home  at the weekend to his house in Westminster where he had a specially adapted cellar) that when he met Father Gerard for the first time he felt that his name was sufficiently terrifying on its own.  Gerard was unimpressed.

He was responsible for the torture of Robert Southwell, Henry Garnet and John Gerard (who described him as a ’cruel creature’) as well as other Jesuit priests.  He tortured ordinary citizens as well if it was believed that they could help track down priests and stamp out recusancy.  Ben Johnson, the playwright, came to his attention and the unfortunate Father Gennings so outraged him that when Gennings was executed Topcliffe had the priest cut down far too soon so that the dying man was still alive when his heart was flung into the flames.


His most infamous act was the torture by racking and then the rape of Ann Bellamy in order to extract Robert Southwell’s location.  Ann came from a notable Catholic family.  One of her relations, Jerome Bellamy, was executed for his part in the Babbington Plot He covered this outrage up when she became pregnant by forcing her to marry his servant Nicholas Jones in July 1592. Ann’s mother was to die in prison and Southwell was captured and tortured most horribly with Mrs Nicholas Jones being forced to come to court to give evidence against him.  Gerard was not far wrong when he described the interrogator as a ‘veteran in evil’.


Just for good measure Topcliffe also attempted to blackmail the Archbishop of Canterbury…

Cecil became alarmed about the appetites of the man who fantasied about having an intimate relationship with his queen and described his fantasies as he tortured his victims. He had Topcliffe removed from his post but not for long.  The man was too creative in his use of rack and thumbscrews to ignore besides, Topcliffe regarded his authority as coming directly from the queen rather than Cecil or Walsingham.

He received  rewards and wealth for his help in tracking down the threat of the Jesuit Counter-Reformation in England; after all Topcliffe had suffered as well.  All that exposure in dank and damp dungeons had left him with rheumatism and a pronounced limp.


Topcliffe died in 1604 at home in his bed having retired to Yorkshire and also to his home at Badley Hall near Ashbourne in Derbyshire which he acquired in 1603.  It had previously belonged to a catholic called Thomas Fitzherbert – Thankfully Fitzherbert hadn’t encountered Topcliffe in his place of work; he lived until 1640 as a Jesuit in Europe.



Leave a comment

Filed under Sixteenth Century

Henry Hastings, 3rd Earl of Huntingdon

huntingdon3bHenry Hastings, born in 1535, was the great grandson of  Margaret, Countess of Salisbury – the redoubtable lady who defied the executioner in the Tower of London , and as the very entertaining Yeoman of the Guard explained during my visit, “had it away on her toes.”  She was in her 80s at the time and about to be the victim of judicial murder.   He was descended from the Pole family so was a Plantagenet, Margaret was the niece of King Edward IV.  It was a bloodline that did rather mean that his family was prone to sudden death by beheading.  Both his maternal grandparents had suffered a similar fate and his two times great grandfather the Duke of Clarence was the chap who suffered an unfortunate end in a vat of malmsey.


Henry loyal to the Tudors and his country was a protestant with puritan tendencies having spent much of his childhood as companion to King Edward VI.  He was even married to the Duke of Northumberland’s daughter Catherine Dudley (making him a brother-in-law to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester).  Upon his father’s death he became the Third Earl of Huntingdon.


When Elizabeth was seriously ill in 1562 his name was given as a potential replacement.  It would have meant ignoring the rights of Lady Catherine Grey but his bloodline, his faith and, of course, his gender made his claim a powerful one.


His protestant sympathies were so strong that he asked Queen Elizabeth if he could go to France to support the Huguenots.  There was talk of him selling his estates to raise an army.  It is perhaps not surprising then, that as a possible heir to the English throne and a man of Protestant principle he was not one of Mary Queen of Scots admirers; he’d been invited to hear the evidence against Mary as presented by Moray in the form of the Casket Letters.  He was firmly against a marriage between Mary and the Duke of Norfolk in 1569, not least because it would have weakened his own position.


At this time the Earl of Shrewsbury, Mary Queen of Scots jailor, was ill and had been with the queen to take the waters in Buxton.  He had gone without Elizabeth’s permission.  Now, ordered back to Tutbury Mary was about to make the acquaintance of Huntingdon.  He was sent ostensibly to assist Shrewsbury to guard the queen against the northern earls who were planning to raise an army, march south and free the queen.  He arrived on the 19th of September.  Mary feared for her life and said as much in a letter to the French ambassador.  Shrewsbury must have agreed with Mary because he wrote back saying that his health was sufficient to guard his charge and that he had no desire to be replaced.  In the event Mary was conveyed to Coventry and out of reach of the Northern Earls via Ashby de La Zouche castle which belonged to Huntingdon.  The shared responsibility for the queen was not a happy alliance as letters in the National Archives demonstrate.


Huntingdon soon departed from his temporary role as joint custodian of the queen.  He soon found another occupation.  The threat of the Northern Earls loomed ever larger  in 1569 so it was decided that Huntingdon should be made lord-lieutenant of Leicestershire and Rutlandshire.  He was also created Lord Presedent of the North in 1672.  The following year he was one of the Duke of Norfolk’s judges when he was tried for the crime of treason.


His offices in the North grew and as a consequence it was he who represented Queen Elizabeth in a conference with the Scottish regent Moray following the Raid of Reidswire; he looked into the religious beliefs of the gentry of the north – no doubt in search of Catholic plotters- and was part of the force that gathered to repel the expected Spanish invasion.


In his spare time he wrote a family history, a poignant task given his lack of children.  He also invested in the early chemical industry buying land in Dorset with an alum and coppera mine, the manor of  Puddletown and part of the manor of Canford, which had previously belonged to Lord Mountjoy.  The two men became involved in a legal wrangle about who had the right to extract the minerals.  Mountjoy claimed that he had stipulated that he should retain the rights to extract the minerals.    The conflict was eventually resolved after many years.  The mines did indeed belong to Huntingdon but he had to pay Mountjoy’s son (the old lord had died by that time) £6000 in compensation.


Henry Hastings died in December 1595 and was buried in Ashby-de-la-Zouche.  His brother George became the Fourth Earl.






Leave a comment

Filed under Castles, Mary Queen of Scots, Queens of England, Sixteenth Century, The Plantagenets

Kings and Queens

Detail from Ripon Cathedral.

Detail from Ripon Cathedral.

I still have the wooden ruler I was given as a child that lists all the rulers from 1066 onwards.  I shall be buying a modern version to give to my middle grand-daughter as she is currently undertaking a project on the kings and queens. I’m sure it will come in useful.

What else might she need if she is to know all that needs to be known about our assorted monarchs?  Well in addition to the royal family tree – I have two (one that’s been lurking in a cupboard since I left university and a second that came free with a newspaper), I’ll also be sending along a copy of the Kings and Queens of England & Scotland by Plantagenet Somerset Fry.  There’s also a Ladybird book (come to think of it I think I may have had that once upon a time).

However, the reason for this post is the rather fun mnemonic rhyme to help remember the monarchs in order….

Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee,
Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three,
One-To-Three Neds, Richard Two,
Harrys Four-Five-Six… then who?

Edwards Four-Five, Dick the Bad,
Henrys seven and eight, Ned Six (the lad),
Mary, Bessie, James you ken,
Then Charlie, Charlie, James again…

Will & Mary, Anne of gloria,
Georges ( 4 ), Will Four, Victoria,
Edward Seven next, and then
Came George the Fifth in 1910…

Ned the Eighth soon abdicated,
So George Six was coronated,
Then Number Two Elizabeth…
And that’s all, folks (until her death…)!!


I’m a bit sad that the Empress Matilda doesn’t get a look in or the Young King – Henry was crowned king of England by his father Henry II while he was still very much alive.  I suppose that would be rather complicating matters as indeed would Lady Jane Grey.  To find out more about some of the monarchs click the tab marked “Rulers” at the top of the page.

I have also discovered that there’s a sentence to help remember the Royal Houses:

No Plan Like Yours To Study History Wisely!

Norman, Plantagenet, Lancaster, York, Tudor, Stuart, Hanover, Windsor

How brilliant is that? I’d love to find out if there are any more helpful historical memory devices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Kings of England, Queens of England

Simple Tom

200px-Thomas_Percy_Earl_of_Northumberland_1566Thomas Percy 7th Earl of Northumberland gained the rather unflattering nickname Simple Tom.  He was a key figure in the Northern Rising of 1569.  He’d met Mary Queen of Scots on her journey to Carlisle in May 1568 and it was to Northumberland that Mary, during her journey from Bolton Castle to Tutbury, sent a gold ring with a reminder that he’d promised to help her.


Northumberland was not only in contact with Mary.  He also had links to the papacy in Rome and to the Duke of Alva in the Low Countries.  His forceful wife Ann was an ardent Catholic.  Percy had other reasons for resenting the English establishment.  He’d lost the lucrative wardenship of the East marches that he regarded as his birthright and in addition the revenue from copper mines found on lands he owned near Keswick had been commandeered on behalf of the State by Cecil.

He found himself drawn into a scheme later described as incoherent and aimless along with the Earl of Westmoreland and Leonard Dacre.  The aim was to raise the north, march south and free Mary Queen of Scots from captivity.  She was then to marry the Duke of Norfolk.  The earls would then rid Elizabeth of her poor advisors (Cecil).   

The rising  began before the rebels were ready.  Panic caused by the arrest of the Duke of Norfolk, led to the church bells in Topcliffe being rung backwards on the 9th November 1569.  It was the middle of winter – exactly the wrong time for a rebellion.  Before long the rebels found themselves sandwiched between a force from the south led by the Earl of Warwick and a combined force from the north led by Sir John Forster and Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon.  Mass was said in Durham.  Hartlepool was captured so that the Duke of Alva could land but the earls did not receive the support that they’d relied upon.  It wasn’t long before they found themselves turning  north towards home.  


The rebels and the forces loyal to the queen, including Percy’s brother Henry, fought briefly at Chester Dean near Hexham.  Percy and his fellow conspirator the Earl of Westmoreland fled the field along with Percy’s wife.


They rode as fast as they could to Naworth Castle, home of the Dacre family.  Leonard Dacre had been a conspirator but had changed sides.  Now he kept his doors firmly shut against the desperate earls.  His brother Edward led them into Liddesdale and left them in the hands of the Armstrongs who were notorious border reivers.  It was said of Jock of the Side’s home that it wasn’t fit for a dog kennel.

 Ann was left with Jock of the Side and Black Ormiston.  One or the other of these borderers relieved the countess of her jewels and her horses.  She was eventually rescued by the Kerrs of Ferniehurst who traditionally feuded with the Percy family but who were loyal to Mary Queen of Scots (sounds like a complicated game of chess).  

 Henry Percy’s ill luck continued.  He found himself separated from the Earl of Westmoreland and was betrayed by Hector Armstrong of Harelaw into the hands of Martin Elliott who promptly handed the unhappy earl into the clutches of Moray.  Moray sent his prize to Lochleven Castle where he remained for the next two years while the English and the Scots negotiated with one another over the best price for Simple Tom. 


During this time Ann, Countess of Northumberland escaped abroad to raise the money to ransom her husband from the Scots.  It did little good.  Percy was escorted into England in 1572.  He believed that he was going to make his peace with Elizabeth.


Upon his arrival in York on the 22nd August 1572 he was executed somewhere near Low Pavement and buried in St Crux Church near the Shambles.  The church was demolished and the site of his burial lost during the Victorian period.  However, the nineteenth century also saw his beatification – so Simple Tom became the Blessed Thomas Percy, Seventh Earl of Northumberland.




Filed under Anglo-Scottish history, Border Reivers, Mary Queen of Scots, Sixteenth Century

Sir Francis Knollys – (pronounced Knowles)

knollysSir Francis was born in Oxfordshire in 1511.  His father died when he was seven but he gained a position at court thanks to Henry VIII who showed him the same favour with which he’d regarded his father.  He is perhaps best known as Mary Queen of Scots gaoler but he appears at keys moments throughout much of the Tudor period.  For instance,  he was one of the gentlemen who met Anne of Cleves on her arrival in England; he was an MP; a soldier during the Rough Wooing; a friend to Princess Elizabeth and Robert Cecil; husband of  Catherine Carey (Elizabeth’s cousin via Mary Boleyn).

There is, of course, the possibility that Catherine Carey was not simply Elizabeth’s cousin but also her half-sister but there is insufficient evidence to draw any satisfactory conclusions.  It is however safe to say that Sir Francis was close to Elizabeth.  His wife was a good friend of the queen’s as well as being a relation.  So close was his relationship that Sir Francis was able to express his belief that keeping the Scottish queen in England was a disaster.

As a determined Protestant his career suffered a severe reverse upon the accession of Mary Tudor.  He was such a determined Protestant that he went to Germany rather than live under Catholic rule.

Unsurprisingly his career resumed once Elizabeth ascended the throne.  In addition to becoming a privy councillor he also resumed his parliamentary career.  He worked for the queen in Ireland and received jobs within the queen’s household such as Treasurer.  The image shows Sir Francis holding a white staff showing his role as officer in the queen’s household.


In May 1568 Mary Queen of Scots arrived in England.  Knollys was sent north to act as her gaoler.  His reputation as puritan made him naturally suspicious of the Scots queen.  However, her charisma soon won him over, though he never let down his guard while he had care of her in Carlisle Castle and later in Bolton Castle.  In fact he was so worried about security that he sent the plans of Bolton Castle and his security provision to Cecil for approval.  He taught the queen English and read the English Prayer Book with her as well as discussing his faith – a matter which caused Elizabeth to write a letter chastising his behaviour.

On January 20th 1569 Knollys received orders to take Mary to Tutbury Castle and hand the royal prisoner over the Earl of Shrewsbury who would take over Knollys’ role of gaoler.  Sir Francis remained with Mary until February when his wife died.

Sir Francis died in 1596 after a long and illustrious career as a politician and adviser to the Tudors.




Filed under Mary Queen of Scots, Queens of England, Sixteenth Century