Thomas Cobham: a life of recklessness and reprieve

IMG_0213I didn’t know a great deal about Thomas Cobham when I came across his name in the Middlesex Session Rolls, where he is recorded as one of two men standing surety for a young Walter Ralegh on December 19, 1577, after the latter’s servants had been arrested for a drunken assault on the nightwatch in Shoreditch.

The name seemed familiar, but I wasn’t sure why. It took me a while to retrace my steps and find him again, causing trouble in the background to the Ridolfi Plot, the first catholic attempt to unseat Elizabeth I and replace her on the throne with Mary Stuart. I hadn’t paid him much attention before, but now I started to take a keener interest – something he repaid handsomely.

Cobham’s career, although obscure now, was extraordinary: not many men survive close involvement in two treason plots, but Cobham did. Nor do many escape one death sentence, never mind two. That one of those treason plots was protestant and the other catholic tells you much about Cobham: the taste for disorder, the reckless ambition, the slippery mind.

Despite being well-born, Cobham was a younger son, cursed with expectations and status he had no meaningful income to support. In an earlier generation, he might perhaps have made a good career in the church. Perhaps. But now, he had only his wits – and his connections – to fall back on. As such, he is an ambivalent figure, close to the heart of power but never close enough; perhaps he consciously thrived in the margins, where his busy conspiratorial intelligence could blur the edges of morality and law into nothingness.

The legal record could hardly be drier, but it placed Ralegh in dangerous company:

Recongnizances, taken before Jasper Fyssher esq. JP of Thomas Cobham of Goldinge Lane co. Midd, esq and John Rigges of Davis Inne London gentleman, in the sum of forty pounds each, and of Richard Paunsford yeoman, servant to Walter Rawley esq. Of the Court (de curia) in the sum of one hundred marks; for the appearance of the said Richard at the next Session of the Peace co Midd., to answer such matters as may be objected against him.

Thomas Cobham was a well-known London figure – in some ways a figure on the national stage – but for all the wrong reasons. He stalks the pages of the state papers for two decades, a mischievous and malevolent shadow the regime seemed incapable of dispelling. Yet his life has the archetypal arc of a certain kind of courtier, great youthful hopes trending always down, horizons shrinking, options closing. When report of Cobham’s death came to Burghley on 22 October 1578, there seems to be a sense of eagerness and relief in his brief note of it: “There is news that Thomas Cobham is dead in Flanders”.

Golding Lane, in the parish of St Giles without the walls at Cripplegate, was not a good address: “of  no great account either for buildings or inhabitants”, sniffed Stow.  The road ran north to Old Street from the Barbican – straight over from Red Cross Street – as it still does today, marginally renamed as Golden Lane; if the Middlesex sessions records are anything to go by, it was a frequent locus for trouble of one kind or another, notably theft or assault, although where its residents appear in the Elizabethan state papers the context is usually recusancy. Thomas Cobham, it seems, had fallen far.

Born in 1533, Cobham was a younger son in the most powerful family in Kent, that of George Brooke, ninth Baron Cobham. His elder brother William, who inherited the family title on their father’s death in September 1558, was lord warden of the cinque ports, constable of Dover Castle, and both lord lieutenant and vice-admiral of Kent. Unusually, the family used the title Cobham as a surname; hence “Thomas Brook alias Cobham”, as the House of Commons styled him in a bill of March 1563. In the records, he is almost exclusively referred to as Thomas Cobham. (He was also, as Ralegh knew, a relation, albeit an obscure one, separated by four generations; Ralegh would describe Cobham’s niece, Elizabeth, as a “kinswoman” in a letter to her husband Sir Robert Cecil.)

The Cobham family, like most, could field members on both sides of any dispute; as with many of the great families of the realm, the network of kinship brought them into many apparently conflicting loyalties. Cobham’s extended family contained reformers like the Cecils and Bacons, as well as confirmed Catholics like Southwells and Shelleys. Such networks served them well, allowing them to ride the tides of favour and disfavour with something approaching equanimity. Indeed, to see the loyalties as in conflict is in some sense to miss the point. The first point of loyalty was to family; beyond that, things became more fluid and negotiable.That Thomas Cobham strained that familial loyalty beyond breaking point says much for his behaviour, a rare judgement in a culture that reified and privileged familial bonds above all others, “all kingdoms being but the connection of families”, as Ralegh later wrote.

Along with several family members, Thomas Cobham was active in Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Kentish rebellion of 1554 against the catholic queen Mary’s planned marriage to Philip of Spain. Actually, the rising was something of a family affair: Wyatt was Cobham’s first cousin. In fact, Holinshed identifies Cobham as one of the ring-leaders; he was still just 20 years old. Cobham was therefore one of those taken with its leader on Wednesday February 7 as they retreated with their dwindling force of men – some 400-strong – back along Fleet Street from the Belle Sauvage inn at Ludgate, where they had a last desperate hope of support, towards the Temple Bar, in front of which the Earl of Pembroke waited with three squadrons of cavalry.

On surrender, Cobham and his fellow rebels were taken downriver to the Tower. People came to watch, to sneer. Someone took note of his fine clothes: a mailshirt covering a velvet cassock, trimmed with yellow lace, from which hung the windlass of his pistol; a fair velvet hat sporting broad bone-work lace. “Alas Master Cobham,” he was asked as he entered the Tower’s gates, “what wind headed you to work such treason?” His answer was pitiful in its regret: “Oh sir, I was seduced.” The youthful refusal to acknowledge his own recklessness, to admit that he was the leading agent in his self-destruction, is something he would never lose.

Hundreds died in the government’s reprisals, but Cobham, sentenced to a traitor’s death, was not one of them. Mary commuted his sentence after his father pleaded with her. Her forgiveness astounded Simon Renard, the imperial ambassador and her closest adviser, who thought it imprudent, even potentially suicidal, to issue pardons before any evidence had been presented in court: “She might have waited until it came out in the trials whether these men had been of the plot or no,” he complained to Philip II, “for if they had been, she was only adding to her own enemies and to the Lady Elizabeth’s partisans by sparing their lives”. It wouldn’t be the last time that a foreign ambassador would be appalled by the leniency Thomas Cobham received.

Cobham was, at least, confined to the Tower for several years; his deep-etched graffiti, ‘Thomas Cobham, 1555’, can still be seen carved into a window frame overlooking Tower Green. Two of his books still survive in the library of Magdalen College, Oxford – bequeathed to it by Ralegh’s future brother-in-law Arthur Throckmorton. Both volumes carry Cobham’s own scratched verses bemoaning the actions of fortune; pitying himself, his sorrows; hoping for “the happy day” ahead.  Released in early 1557, Cobham quickly showed how little he was capable of mastering himself: compulsive, careless, changeable, he would always be a sail for every wind. By the end of the summer, he was back in the Tower, having stabbed a catholic in a fight in Fleet Street and, on another occasion, led a gang of thieves into the house of an uncle in Blackfriars and stolen 200 marks.

In September 1565, in fact, it was the turn of the Spanish ambassador, Guzman de Silva to be disgusted at Cobham’s continued liberty. At the end of July 1563, Cobham had entered a bond of £500 for one of Elizabeth’s privateering commissions, a business model England had borrowed from its Hugenot allies across the Channel. The nominal target for such activity was French catholic shipping. But Cobham, in common with most other holders of both English and Hugenot letters of marque, was none too picky about which ships he attacked.

On November 2 he attacked two Spanish ships in the Bay of Biscay returning from Flanders and carrying cargoes of wine and tapestries valued variously at 50,000 and 80,000 ducats, together with 40 galley slaves. The Spanish clearly put up more resistance than he expected and the assault became a vicious and prolonged gunfight, leaving more than 40 English dead. It wasn’t until Martin Frobisher, sailing nearby in the Anne Appleyard, came to his rescue – believing, Frobisher claimed, the Spanish to be the aggressor – that Cobham prevailed over one of the ships, the St Katherine, under its captain Martin Saenz de Chaves.

Cobham killed de Chaves brother on boarding the ship. The other vessel, despite the deaths of its owner and master, limped back to the Spanish coast. Cobham, for his part, took his hard-won prize to the Irish port of Baltimore, the preferred choice of English pirates wanting to fence stolen goods. The voyage took seven days, during which the Spanish crew were kept below hatches with the galley slaves, so pressed together that several of them suffocated.

It was unfortunate for Cobham that the goods on board the St Katherine were destined for Philip II. It was too high profile a catch to ignore. By February, Elizabeth had received two formal complaints from the merchants at Antwerp and the Spanish government in the Netherlands. Both identified Cobham by name. Action was promised; none was forthcoming. Elizabeth was equivocal: when De Silva complained to her about piracy she told him that many of those operating in the Channel “were Scotsman who spoke English”. A Flemish embassy, returning from London in May, was particularly disheartened to see Cobham strolling through the streets of Dover. However, after further lobbying, Frobisher and his brother were eventually arrested and sent to Launceston gaol on July 15.

On July 21 Elizabeth took the unusual step of issuing a proclamation specifically targetted at Cobham, demanding that “all persons, of what condition soever they be, to do their uttermost to apprehend by sea or by land the said Thomas or any of his accomplices”. Even so, Cobham remained free, such was his status. It wasn’t until the following March that he was arrested, but De Silva was still unsure that justice would be forthcoming. “I pressed [the queen] very much for the punishment of Thomas Cobham,” he wrote to Philip II, “whom they were trying to get off through the intrigues of his relatives.” A criminal trial resulted in Cobham’s acquital; De Silva pushed harder.

The Queen having learnt what had taken place – and I took care that she was well informed on the subject – ordered her Council to summon the twelve men who had judged the case, and had them charged with a false judgment. They asked for time to answer the charge, and after they had made their excuses they were condemned by public vote to fines of 20l. each… or six months’ imprisonment, and were put in the pillory with papers stuck on them like a cuirass.

A few days later Cobham went before the admiralty court charged with piracy. He was clearly well briefed because he refused to plead. The punishment in such circumstances was extraordinarily brutal. De Silva again:

He was… sentenced to be taken back to the Tower, stripped entirely naked, his head shaved, and the soles of his feet beaten, and then, with his arms and legs stretched, his back resting on a sharp stone, a piece of artillery is to be placed on his stomach too heavy for him to bear but not heavy enough to kill him outright. In this torment he is to be fed on three grains weight of barley and the filthiest water in the prison until he die.

Not unreasonably, De Silva suspected that Cobham’s status would come to his rescue. “His relatives are making great efforts to procure a postponement of the execution of the sentence,” he worried.

But De Silva didn’t realise that the trick had already been pulled. Cobham claimed benefit of clergy, an already anachronistic medieval right that enabled clerics to escape civil justice if they could prove their literacy by reading psalm 51, the miserere, commonly known as the ‘neck verse’, irrespective of any actual affiliation to the church. Many judges would not hear such claims, but Cobham’s judges did, despite the fact that piracy was one of the few crimes to which it wasn’t applicable; by refusing to offer a plea and avoiding a guilty verdict he had cheated death again. It would hardly be surprising if Cobham believed himself to have a charmed life, floating free from the ordinary restraints of justice. “Thomas Cobham reprieved; 15 pirates hanged” reads one terse Privy Council record. It would ever be thus.

If piractical shadows like these were all that dogged Cobham, we might shrug our shoulders at Ralegh’s connection with him: Ralegh’s own record in this regard was hardly unblemished. But it is Cobham’s involvement in more dangerous, political deceits at the close of the 1560s which makes their apparent friendship of more than passing interest, opening up a thread of activity and associations in Ralegh’s own young career which has never been adequately mined.

Cobham disappears from view after 1565. When he resurfaces in October 1569 he is a prisoner in the Tower again. But for all the continuity such a state of affairs implies, many things had changed: Mary Stuart was in England. I have written about the Ridolfi Plot, and Cobham’s role in it, here.

For all that Cobham’s maritime activities spilled over into outright piracy – or were certainly regarded as having done so by the Elizabethan authorities – they are still on a continuum with those of his more reputable peers, different in quality perhaps but not in kind. He belongs more clearly to the hazardous morality of the aspiring courtiers, putting the creation of personal wealth above all else. In this sense, his kinship with Ralegh – as with Gascoigne, Noel, et al – is apparent.

As for his brushes with treason, it was by no means obvious, in the wake of the northern rebellion, that Elizabeth’s government would survive. Cobham was merely riding the odds, trying to ensure he had a claim to favour whoever had the upper hand. He was hardly alone in that.

Cobham stayed in the Tower until April 1574, around the time that Ralegh must have arrived in London. The offences with which he is associated become increasingly small beer. There was a longstanding dispute over his dealings with the freebooters in the Channel, which dated back to the weeks after his arrest in 1571, when an inquiry was launched “without respect of favour towards him of whom we hear so many complaints for his misbehavior as we cannot pass the same over.” If he was to some extent disowned by his family now – or at least kept at arm’s length – there is no indication that the seafaring community felt the same.

On 27 August 1575, he is rumoured to have colluded with Hawkins, Frobisher, and two other unnamed captains, to lead five warships out from the Thames to attack Spanish shipping, notionally on behalf of the Hugenots. He seems to have been involved in the aftermath – and perhaps the planning – of a raid on a ship called the Argosy moored in the Thames, being suspected of dealing in the stolen goods.

And then there is this brief, unnoticed glimpse of him with Ralegh’s company before he disappears again into the shadows.

NB. This is a greatly expanded version of material on Thomas Cobham from my book, The Favourite.

For more on Catholic conspiracies against Elizabeth, see my posts on George Gifford and the psychology of treason.

5 thoughts on “Thomas Cobham: a life of recklessness and reprieve

  1. […] Orders went out to place Mary Stuart under greater security, to restrict her household and to ensure that all her correspondence passed through English hands first: “for a season she shall neither send nor receive any message or letters without our knowledge,” Elizabeth wrote. The growing belief at court was that Norfolk had fled to lead a rebellion. Three days later, Elizabeth wrote again to him demanding he report to court immediately, “without any delay upon the sight of these letters, and without any manner of excuse to come forthwith”. By the 28th all semblence of patience was gone: Lord Wentworth was sent to bring Norfolk in no matter what. Norfolk was under house arrest by October 3rd, and in the Tower on the 11th. It was here, to add to his troubles, that he met Thomas Cobham. […]

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