By 1559 factions had formed in Elizabeth’s court. Robert Dudley, not unexpectedly, found himself at the head of one of them. Today though my interest is with Sir James Croft pictured above who is identified by William Cecil in the 1560s as being an adherent of Robert Dudley. The picture which is housed at Croft Castle shows him with his white staff of office.
This may have been mildly alarming for Cecil because Croft had a tendency to be linked with trouble. He had initially supported the claim of Lady Jane Grey to the throne and had spent some time in The Tower as a consequence. Immediately after he was released he became involved with Wyatt’s Rebellion – a plot to depose Mary and place Elizabeth on the throne as well as providing her with a husband in the form of Edward Courteney, Earl of Devon. Courteney’s grandmother was Katherine Plantagenet the sister of Elizabeth of York – Elizabeth’s grandmother. They shared a common great-grandfather in Edward IV.
Croft carried a letter from Wyatt to Elizabeth at Ashridge House in Hertfordshire at the onset of the rebellion but she had the good sense to take to her bed and not receive the missive which told her to seek shelter in Castle Donnington. Croft then carried on to Herefordshire where he was supposed to ferment one of the four uprisings which were planned to catch Queen Mary and her supporters on the hop.
Croft’s position in Herefordshire was that of a member of the most powerful gentry family in the area who had built networks and links during the reign of Henry VIII – not withstanding the fact that his great grandfather had been Richard III’s treasurer. Henry VII not one to bypass an able financial administrator had retained him and when Croft had shown his loyalty at the Battle of Stoke the Croft transfer to the Tudor Rose was complete. There were Crofts at Ludlow when Prince Arthur and Katherine of Aragon were in residence.
James inherited Croft Castle from his father in 1562 but for the time being he was simply in the business of fermenting rebellion – which was rather unsuccessful because whilst the ordinary people weren’t keen on the idea of Mary marrying a foreign prince they were loyal to the memory of Katherine of Aragon, Mary’s mother, and also had a sense of what was right as was laid down in Henry VIII’s will.
Croft was arrested and charged with treason. He was condemned on 28th April 1554 but was fortunate that Stephen Gardener in his capacity as Chancellor persuaded Queen Mary in the direction of clemency for most of the rebels.
Once again Croft was in hot water but on the accession of Elizabeth I he rose in importance having had his attainder reversed. He had been part of the Rough Wooing of 1543 to 1548. He served as the captain of Haddington Castle in 1549 despite the loss of a right arm whilst serving in Henry VIII’s army at Boulogne. Now he was sent north as governor of Berwick-Upon-Tweed and also Lord Deputy of Ireland but he blotted his copy books in 1560 when he indulged in some more dodgy letter writing – this time with Mary of Guise when he should have been attacking the Scots. The Siege of Leith did not go as well as expected primarily because Croft wasn’t where he should have been. The Duke of Norfolk was not amused and wrote : ‘I assure you I thought a man could not have gone nearer a traitor and have missed, than Sir James’. Even so, after a further stint of imprisonment, he was forgiven in 1570 when he was made a privy councillor and comptroller of Elizabeth’s household.
This re-instatement into royal favour may have been thanks to the offices of Robert Dudley. Croft combined his role in the royal household with his role as a member of the Herefordshire gentry. Inevitably his name features on the list of members of Parliament and serving as a justice. Interestingly it was when he was sitting as a Junior Knight for Herefordshire that he encountered Sir John Dudley the future Earl of Warwick and then Duke of Northumberland. It was John Dudley who was the first national rather than local patron and it goes some way to explaining how he became involved with the plot to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne. It also explains how in the early 1560s he regarded himself as part of Robert Dudley’s affinity – Croft simply moved his loyalty from father to son. It may also account for why he was selected to take the letter from Wyatt to Elizabeth at Ashridge given that popular history makes it very clear that Robert Dudley and Elizabeth had been friends since childhood.
In 1587 he was part of Mary Queen of Scots trial and in 1588 he was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Duke of Parma. When he returned he was clapped into the Tower for yet more dodgy dealings – this time with Parma. He was released in 1589 and died in 1590 having penned his own autobiography in the 1580s – the main point of which was to demonstrate what a good Crown employee he had been, a sterling example of a soldier and how impoverished he was as a result. Whether any one else thought so is a moot point but Elizabeth seems always to have forgiven him.
Rather unexpectedly given that he is seen on a list as part of Dudley’s crew of supporters it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that James’ eldest son Edward was charged with witchcraft in 1589 for contriving the death of the Earl of Leicester. The reason for this about-face lies in the fact that Dudley and Croft differed in their views as to how the Spanish threat and the dangers of confrontation in the Low Countries should be dealt with.
Tighe, W. J. “Courtiers and Politics in Elizabethan Herefordshire: Sir James Croft, His Friends and His Foes.” The Historical Journal, vol. 32, no. 2, 1989, pp. 257–279. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2639601.