The persecution of Edward Rookwood: a Catholic victim of Elizabethan state power

There was politics behind the choice of East Anglia for Elizabeth’s summer progress in 1578. During the course of the summer, Elizabeth stayed twice with Philip Howard, Earl of Surrey – heir of the foolish traitor Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk – just turned 21 that June. Kenninghall, Norkolk’s great palace, had been shuttered since his execution in June 1572. It was reopened now – restored to life – for the queen’s visit, a symbolic restoration. Surrey spent lavishly in pursuit of Elizabeth’s favour: her visits to Kenninghall and another mansion in Norwich were said to have left him £10,000 in debt.

It was no doubt for the benefit of adherents to Norfolk’s former cause that the government stage-managed the humiliation and arrest of a young catholic gentleman named Edward Rookwood as the court made its way from Bury to Kenninghall. Being entertained at Euston, his family’s house, on Saturday August 9th, Elizabeth received Rookwood and gave him her hand to kiss. It was discovered – a piece of theatre – that Rookwood had been “excommunicated for papistry” and he was called before Sussex, the lord chamberlain, who demanded of him “how he durst presume to attempt [the queen’s] real presence, he, unfit to accompany any Christian person”. Rookwood was ordered out of his own house and, further, committed to the town prison in Norwich.

In a further show of power, a piece of plate was declared missing from the court. A search was instigated and, in a hayrick, an image of the Virgin Mary was discovered. That night, after some country dancing had ended, the idol was set behind the people, suddenly appearing “a beast raised upon a sudden from hell by conjuring”, it was said. Elizabeth ordered that the image be burned in sight of the country people, to the unspeakable joy of everyone, “but one or two who had sucked of the idol’s poisoned milk”.

The gleeful report – addressed to the earl of Shrewsbury and dated 30th August 1578 – is from the pen of Elizabeth’s torturer, the malevolent and lascivious psychopath, Richard Topcliffe.

This Rookewoode is a Papyste of kynde newly crept out of his late Wardeshipp. Her majesty, by some means I know not, was lodged at his house Ewston, farre unmeet for her Highnes, but fitter for the blacke garde; nevertheles (the Gentilman brought into her Majesty’s presence by lyke device) her excellent Majesty have to Rookewoode ordenary thanks for his badd house, and her fayre hand to kysse; after wich was brayved at: But my Lord Chamberlain, nobly and gravely understanding that Rookwood was excommunicated for papistry, called him before him; demanded of him how he durst presume to attempt her real presence, he unfit to accompany any Christian person; forthwith said he was fitter for a pair of stocks; commanded him out of the Court, and yet to attend her Council’s pleasure; and at Norwich he was committed. And to decipher the gentleman to the full: a piece of plate being missed in the court and searched for in his hay house, in the hay rick such an image of our Lady was there found, as for greatness, as for gayness, and workmanship, I never did see such a match; and after a sort of country dances ended, in her Majesty’s sight the idol was set behind the people, who avoided. She seemed rather a beast raised up on a sudden from hell by conjuring, than the picture of whom it had been so long and so often abused. Her Majesty commanded it to the fire, which in her sight by the country folks was quickly done, to her content, and unspeakable joy of every one but some one or two who had sucked on the idol’s poisoned milk…

8 thoughts on “The persecution of Edward Rookwood: a Catholic victim of Elizabethan state power

  1. I am a descendant of Nicholas Rockwood or Rookwood who appeared in Massachussetts in about 1636. In the few papers he left he stated that he was a descendant of the Roger Rokewood family of Ewston Hall. I wonder if it is possible that Edward Rookwood had offspring that immigrated to the Americas after their fortune was taken by the crown?

    • Many thanks for your comment Dave. That’s fascinating! As I imagine you already know, the Rookwood family seem to have been staunchly Catholic and one of their number was later involved in the Gunpowder Plot. Next time I’m at the British Library I’ll see if I can find out anything about the family in the 1620s and 30s – and in particular if there are any records of your Nicholas.
      I know little about the history of the first American settlements, but I have always tended to think of the first settlers as protestant. It would be interesting to know the extent to which there were catholic setters too – or whether Nicholas Rookwood’s faith took a different path to that of his wider family.
      If you have any other information to share, I’d be delighted to hear it – but in the meantime, thanks again for getting in touch!

      • Does your book the Favourite contain the story on Edward Rookwood? I mentioned to you the American “Rockwoods”. I misspoke and said Nicholas was the first known American Rookwood. Actually it was Richard who shows up in records dating from 1636 in the Mass Bay Colony. Nicholas was his son. In addition to the mention in family history that the family descended from Roger Rokewoods of Ewston Hall” who I believe was Edward Rookwood’s grandfather, when naming their children, they repeated names of the Euston Hall Rookwoods: Nicholas, Roger, Ambrose, etc. A theory is that one of Edward Rookwood’s offspring, son or grandson, may have altered his name in order to avoid drawing attention to his travel outside the country. I will see if I can find out any information on the religious affiliation of the first American Rockwoods. I wondered the same thing — if their devotion to Catholocism survived in the new colony.

  2. I too am descended from Nicholas in America. We have a cousin, Capt Alfred J Dillon, who is apparently writing a book connecting the dots. Reading back over the records, Edward had three sons. His youngest, Robert, became a Catholic priest. In his testimony, he says that his father, Edward is in prison, and that his oldest brother, Nicholas, is “fallen away” from the faith. This is somewhere around 1620 or so. After years of Nicholas and his father being in prison for debts and other misdemeanors, I can now see why he would have decamped for the colony. Will be waiting for cousins book. He is elderly, but determined.

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