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.



3 thoughts on “Sir Francis Knollys – (pronounced Knowles)

  1. Mary Stuart was not a prisoner. She requested to be placed in protective custody and she was. But like many people today placed under the protection of the state, they feel they are a prisoner.
    Mary couldn’t stand Sir Francis, for he would not succumb to her seductive ways. From Sir Francis description of Mary – we know these about her: she talks too much, is over confident, and touches people up!
    Sir Francis requested to withdraw from this service, for his wife died during his time looking after Mary. Elizabeth also got the message from Sir Francis that only a happily married man could look after Mary. George Talbot was such a man.
    The only time Mary Stuart was a prisoner was only later on (after the Babington plot) in which she conspired to have Elizabeth killed, then she was properly arrested and then tried.

    • Thank you for the summary of Sir Francis’s comments. It certainly provides an insightful portrait of Mary’s behaviour especially as he initially noted in Carlisle that Mary was gracious towards everyone and not at all precious of her royal estate -unlike Elizabeth. In terms of being an ‘official’ prisoner you are, of course, correct to say that she was not arrested until the Babington Plot since it suited Elizabeth and her councillors to maintain the status quo in the aftermath of the Conference of York. However, and I am sure that you would support this, in practical terms her attempted escape from Bolton Castle; her refusal to pay towards her household from her french estates unless she was set at liberty to come and go as she pleased; the refusal to allow her to hunt or even to take the waters at Buxton on many occasions make her a defacto prisoner – Cecil wasn’t about to let Mary go anywhere that he didn’t want her to be.

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