Divided Souls – a review of God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England by Jessie Childs

God's TraitorsThe daily lives of catholics in England under Elizabeth I and James I have long been neglected by historians. True, much as been written about the various attempts against Elizabeth during her reign – most obviously the Babington ‘complotment’ which resulted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – and, of course, the Gunpowder Plot against James I, which we still remember every November 5th. But did such outbursts of violence really reflect the views of the faithful? Was the government right to fear a catholic uprising against the Elizabethan settlement? How did catholics experience the narrowing of their rights and prospects over the course of Elizabeth’s reign? How did they reconcile their loyalty to Rome, to their faith, with the loyalty they owed to their country and its crown?

These and many other questions are addressed in Jessie Childs’ superb and groundbreaking new book, God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England. Childs charts the catholic experience of those decades through the turbulent history of the Vaux family, prominent landowners in Northamptonshire and by any measure a family of considerable status and means when Elizabeth came to the throne at the end of 1558.

While not sharing Elizabeth’s religion there seems every reason to suppose they and most other catholics viewed her accession with something approaching equanimity. There were some, no doubt, who viewed Elizabeth as illegitimate and the daughter of a whore to boot – Anne Boleyn was, to put it mildly, far from popular in the catholic community – but the future course of the English church was far from certain. Who knew if Elizabeth would live, for one thing? And what would happen if, as seemed likely, she married a catholic prince?

At the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, then, there was little to genuinely trouble most consciences. As Childs’ points out, Elizabeth and most of her ministers had conformed under Mary I. They were no doubt aware of the irony of their position – and aware too – how could they not be? – that conformity was not the same as acquiescence. Certainly there were fines for non-attendance at church but there seems to have been little appetite on the part of the government to demand much beyond outward conformity. And even if they had wished to police religious orthodoxy more aggressively, they cannot have been assured of taking the country with them. In the early years of the reign, Sir William Cecil, for one, believed protestants to be in the minority in England.

Many, perhaps most catholics simply swallowed what reservations they had and did as the government and its new church required. Some bowed less willingly to the pressure and joined public acts of worship under the Elizabethan settlement while also hearing mass at home. Others families would divide their loyalties: the husband, who was the primary target of the penal laws, went to church and conformed while the wife stayed home and heard mass with their children.

Other schemes were pettier still, highlighting the depths of indignation felt – but also perhaps the triviality of the stakes. One wealthy recusant built his own chapel, which had its own entrance, within his local church; another would openly read a book during each sermon. Some ostentatiously kept their hats on while their fellow parishioners prayed for the queen; one simply blocked his ears with wool each time he went to church.

If the government was content to tolerate such transgressions in the belief that the old religion would slowly wither and die with the aging Marian priesthood it was soon to be disabused of such complacency. In short succession, the rising of the catholic Northern earls in 1569, the issue of the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis in 1571 – which charged English catholics with the moral duty to overthrow Elizabeth – and the exposure the same year of the Ridolfi plot – which sought to put Thomas Howard, fourth duke Norfolk on the English throne alongside Mary, Queen of Scots by way of a Spanish army – made clear that the status quo was not a safe option. (Regnans in Excelsis was still being referenced as an example of what not to do by the Vatican in the 1930s as it considered its advice to catholics in Nazi Germany. I have written in more detail about the Ridolfi plot here.)

But then, what was safety?

In a sense, the catholic experience in England after Elizabeth’s accession is a kind of tragedy. There is an inevitability about it, with the actions of all parties, all actors inexorably leading to a tightening of the vice, a limiting of freedom, of room for manoeuvre, for the ordinary mass of catholic men and women. The lack of freedom was, by the end of the reign, quite literal: from 1593 a ‘statute of confinement’ forbade recusants – those who did not attend church – from traveling more than five miles from their homes without a licence.

Most of us quite happily lead lives of quiet contradiction on one level or another; it is part of our charm. No-one much asks us to account for ourselves or charges us with hypocrisy or deceit. But the activities of the English government and the catholic church alike – and of their most zealous adherents in particular – brought an impossible level of scrutiny to the lives of catholic England, and with it a bright and unforgiving spotlight on the contradictions of their position.

Thus, what had perhaps been a tolerable existence of mild dishonesty became a life of privation, evasion and fear. The English catholics were forced to choose: but the choice they were offered was not one with which they could live.

Not all of their brethren seemed to care about such dilemmas.

The arrival of Edmund Campion and Robert Persons in England in the summer of 1580 as the first members of the catholic church’s English mission transformed the terms of the debate.

If anyone had intended the two men to slip into England unnoticed, they clearly hadn’t briefed Campion and Persons about the matter. On their way from Rome they made speeches at Bologna and Milan and tried to provoke a disputation in Geneva. The two men – as many fellow English missionaries would after them – had a magniloquent sense of martyrdom and destiny. “It often happens that the first rank of a conquering army is knocked over,” Campion said, grandly. The military metaphor, had it reached Elizabeth’s ears, would hardly have soothed her concerns.

The mission to England claimed to be about religion, not politics. But the passion with which it was proclaimed in its early years made the distinction largely a semantic one. It was equivocation avant la lettre. At the very least, Campion and Persons challenged the laws of the land – that is, challenged the authority of Elizabeth I and her government. If they weren’t explicitly involved in plots to assassinate Elizabeth, as Burghley and others alleged, they certainly helped nurture a climate of thought, a culture of resistance, in which such acts became not just permissable but – eventually – necessary.

It was a difficult and delicate situation for the Catholics in England and most were still trying to find ways of easing their consciences through the thorns without shedding blood. As Childs shows, the line between low-level civil disobedience – or dissent – and sedition was a perilously fine one. Each bled into the other. And it was a line Campion and his successors in the English mission were determinedly oblivious to. The missionaries had all accepted the prospect of martyrdom; some clearly relished it. They were – as Campion himself noted – dead to the world already. Those they ministered to had made no such peace; but they had the choice foisted on them no matter what.

When Campion was captured, the government went out of its way to charge him with treason under the statutes dating from the reign of Edward III. That is, they wanted to ensure his crimes were seen as political, not theological. And that would continue to be the frame through which the state defined its actions.

In its simplest expression, this became known as the ‘bloody question’: in the event of an invasion, of war, whose side were you on? Would an English catholic choose God or Caesar, conscience or crown?

Lord Vaux was one of those accused of having aided Campion. But did that make him part of a catholic fifth column? Where did the dictates of conscience become seditious opposition? What were public protestations of loyalty to the queen worth if those making them also welcomed members of the English mission into their homes, succoured, fed and supported them? Where did treason begin?

Then as now, there is no simple answer.

Campion’s death did not deter other missionaries. Indeed, it may have encouraged some. But it raised the stakes for everyone, and dissimulation – casuistry and equivocation – became the calling card of the catholic mission, in the eyes of the English state at least. And these slippery intellectual practices – necessary though they were for those of tender conscience – also helped to further taint catholics trying to stay loyal to both God and Caesar, further eroding their apparent trustworthiness and straining the sense of faithfulness and honesty which made social cohesion possible.

One of the many insights Childs offers is into the role of women in supporting the mission, from the education of catholic children to the domestic organisation required to accommodate catholic ritual within the household and, of course, to hide wanted men. On one level, they had greater freedom than men precisely because they were so subjugated: they were highly unlikely to face the punishments faced by men, and were not legally liable  to the same extent. But two members of the Vaux family – Eleanor and Anne Vaux – one widowed and the other unmarried – became central to the success of the mission. The irony of this – given that the missionaries were not meant to spend time with women, particularly unmarried ones – was lost on no-one, and Anne Vaux’s intense relationship with Henry Garnet seems to have caused as much consternation in Rome as it did in London. Its propriety was questioned by everyone, although Childs believes there was nothing untoward about it. It was, at heart, devotional – in every sense of the word.

It is through the courageous actions of women like Anne Vaux that Childs reveals most clearly the depths of faith and conscience that drove many English catholics to disobedience and brought nearly two hundred of them to the steps of the scaffold and the executioner’s knife. Every social norm in early modern England demanded conformity and submission to authority, whether within the family, within the local polity or within the state. And yet Anne and many others like her chose to reject that ‘fast-fettered’ life: the choice was both brave and desperate, but ultimately mortal peril was preferable to denying the immortal soul.

It isn’t possible in the space of a review to do justice to the breadth and depth of Childs’ research and insight; but they illuminate the entire landscape of English life. She demonstrates brilliantly how interpenetrated the communities of recusants, protestants and puritans were within the country as a whole and within each region and shire – and how, therefore, he crisis tainted everyone.

After all, the problems created by the catholics’ increasingly difficult and anomalous position in England were not merely those of conscience. There were also strains on every aspect of their status. Refusing to take an oath renouncing papal sovereignty meant that young catholic men could not graduate from university or hold office under the crown. They could not be magistrates or MPs or command the queen’s forces. For young men keen to advance themselves, loyalty to their faith condemned them to a life of passivity and impotence. It is no wonder, as Childs notes, that second generation recusants were more militant than their parents.

But the schism also played out in marriages and property transactions, in Parliament and on the bench. Class by class, individuals were bound by geographic, social and familial loyalties, by histories of friendship. Marriage, for example, was a key traditional means by which families established status, security and advancement, tying themselves into the hierarchy on which society was built. But recusancy and its after-effects tainted marriage prospects – and narrowed the pool of potential suitors for catholic and protestant alike. It diminished everyone, and weakened every bond. One casuist text recommended marrying below one’s social status over marrying a heretic: it is hard to stress how unthinkable such advice was to the sixteenth-century mind.

And then, of course, there were the fines, which would be impossibly steep by the end of the century. Lord Vaux ultimately forfeited two-thirds of his estate under 1587 legislation that made fines for recusancy cumulative. Sir Thomas Tresham died £11,500 in debt. He had paid some £8,000 in recusancy fines and the marriages of his daughters had cost him over £12,000.

It is worth remembering too, that those who would be required to raid catholic houses were usually neighbours and peers of the suspects, men who the family in question might well have entertained or done business with. The humiliation of such raids – and the sense of breached trust on both sides – must have run deep. Which is not to minimise the terror of such raids: large numbers of men – weapons in hand – poured through the house charged with destruction: tearing down walls, ripping up floorboards, stabbing at every cloth and cushion with dagger or sword. It was not just priests they were after: the furniture of ritual, religious texts, rosaries, agnus dei – everything sniffed of sedition.

Childs unfolds this secret world of priestholes and pseudonyms, of disguises and deceit with an expert eye for detail and an unerring sense of drama. And there is a current of almost psychological horror running through the book, no less in the terror of the hunted than in the tortures that awaited them. Perhaps it is useful to consider the experience of Elizabethan catholics as a whole as a kind or mental and moral torture: the contorted spaces that were built for the missionaries hidden between the skin and bones of each house might stand as a metaphor for the condition of being catholic in England.

And she is brilliant at teasing out the moral and social complexities of these lives. Lord Vaux had been imprisoned in the aftermath of Campion’s arrest and had spent some twenty months in the Fleet for refusing to answer questions about Campion and his mission under oath. The man who arranged for his release – to the extent of drafting Vaux’s submission to present to the queen – was Lord Burghley, as Sir William Cecil became. Why? We don’t really know. But the idea that loyalty to Rome – or Elizabeth for that matter – was the only loyalty that mattered to these men and women is a simplistic one. They regarded themselves as having duties to men of rank and status too; and the wide, all-pervasive networks of family and kinship were bonds of incalculable strength, the importance of which it is hard for us in our atomised world to understand. Everyone had conflicted loyalties; but it was only the catholics who were required to account for them.

It also reminds us that these great ideological struggles were also intensely personal. Burghley visited Vaux in his cell to discuss and arrange the latter’s submission and release. Later, when the Jesuit priest Garnet was in the Tower and being questioned about his role in the Gunpowder plot, he was questioned by Lord Salisbury – Burghley’s son Robert Cecil – and Lord Chief Justice Popham. Garnet and Popham jovially recalled meeting in the 1570s when Garnet had been considering a career in the law. Salisbury apologised to Garnet for making a salacious joke about his relationship with Anne Vaux, putting his arm around the priest’s shoulder as if asking for forgiveness.

The book is studded with moments of intense humanity like this, and they are unsettling because Childs’ sympathetic but acute portraits strip away any instinct we might have to judge these men and women for their choices. She shows us their divided souls, but she does not ask us to take sides.

Even the zeal of the missionaries served to hide complex motives and widely different personalities. At one end of the spectrum there was the handsome and charismatic John Gerard, who lived with the swagger of a gentleman, and a rich one at that, and struggled – manfully, one assumes – with the humility that ought to have suited his calling. Women fell over themselves to help him, he tells us in his autobiography. One Flemish woman learned English simply to be able to confess to him; two noble ladies almost fought each for the honour of kissing his feet in the Tower.

At the other, there was the little-remembered Thomas Lister who suffered from migraines, mood swings and claustrophobia among other neuroses. A priest with a fear of priest-holes must have been a trying companion for even the most saint-like of men.

This is a superlative, flawlessly written book, rich in its detailed evocation of the texture and fervour of the Catholic experience without ever losing sight of the moral and political crucible in which that experience was being tried. It is a joy to read and revelations abound, from the trade in ‘fresh green relics’ – that is the remains of the English martyrs – to the way that the English mission strayed into dramatic demonstrations of the power of their faith which made many fellow believers deeply uncomfortable. Childs’ description of an exorcism at Lord Vaux’s house in Hackney in the autumn of 1585 – which Anthony Babington, among others, was invited to witness – is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever read.

God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England superbly maps the trajectory of catholic England over fifty years and three generations. If we knew a little already about some of the better known figures – Campion, Southwell, Babington, Fawkes – there is much here that will make all of us re-evaluate the much-fabled tolerance of Elizabethan England and deepen our understanding of the English catholics’ long existential crisis of faith. Wise in her judgements and generous in her sympathies, Childs ensures we always see the activities of the Vaux family and its fellow travellers in the wider cultural and political context – teasing out references in Shakespeare and Jonson, for example – and she is as alert to alternate narratives and their possibilities as she is sensitive to the impossibility of the choices many were faced with. This is a book about saints and traitors, certainly; but above all it is about the strengths and frailties that made these people human. They have had to wait a long time, but at last they have found a historian who offers them both justice and dignity.

The Ridolfi plot

Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk: the principal victim of the Ridolfi Plot

On May 16 1568 the catholic regnant Scottish queen Mary Stuart arrived in England. She had been deposed, marginalised  and effectively disowned by the protestant establishment in Scotland, where her young son James VI, aged 13 in 1569, was now a minority king.

Mary was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret, and therefore had a strong claim to the crown of England, the strongest after Elizabeth’s in fact, and the stronger of the two for those who regarded Elizabeth’s dubious legitimacy as the child of Anne Boleyn sufficient to bar her from the throne. Mary made her ambitions quite clear by proudly quartering the English coat of arms with her own when she learned of Mary Tudor’s death in 1558. A later report has her joining a group discussing a portrait of Elizabeth. Was it a good likeness of the queen of England? “Nay, it is not like her, for I am the Queen of England,” Mary replied.

Mary’s arrival in England created a problem for Elizabeth’s government. As the Spanish ambassador astutely observed the following week:

They must be somewhat embarrassed… although these people are glad enough to have her in their hands, they have many things to consider. If they keep her as if in prison, it will probably scandalise all neighbouring princes, and if she remain free and able to communicate with her friends, great suspicions will be aroused.

The English chose scandal and prison; but the government also explored ways of peacefully restoring Mary to Scotland that would also bind her politically to England. One possible solution was for Mary to marry an English nobleman. Elizabeth, once apparently a supporter of such a strategy, now forbade it: it gave Mary too great a purchase on the English throne. Which was no doubt one of the attractions for Mary, and she found the ideal candidate, certainly in his own mind, in the shape of Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk.
Continue reading

Sir Walter Ralegh and the Babington plot

Mary, Queen of Scots

I was not, truth be told, expecting to write much, if at all, about the world of espionage when I first set out to research The Favourite, my recent book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Ralegh. After all, Ralegh’s protestant credentials in the fight against imperial Spain would appear, at first sight, unimpeachable. What could possibly connect his world with that of Babington?

As it happens, quite a lot. As I have tried to show in The Favourite, the young Ralegh was a much more ambivalent figure than traditional histories suggest. In particular, during his first years in London at Middle Temple in the mid-to-late 1570s, when he was scratching around half-heartedly on the far margins of the court along with many contemporaries, necessity demanding they pretend to a status they could barely afford, ever threatened by poverty and debt,  his reputation extended little further than drunkeness: louche, reckless and wanton.

And many of Ralegh’s companions were, largely, Catholics and their fellow travellers, since he quickly became part of the circle around the Earl of Oxford, a group largely defined by a sour, sullen and reactionary opposition to the Elizabethan settlement. In one sense, this suggests a personal indifference on Ralegh’s part – which I suspect was also widespread – to the schism that separated the faiths, enjoying with his friends a fellowship defined by circumstance far more than ideology, and sharing a voluble, almost fashionable, disaffection rooted more in youth and under-employment than in the practical matters of revolt.

He sounds to me one with some of Babington’s ale-house seditionaries, such as Chidiock Tichbourne, who said sorrowfully on the scaffold, ‘Before this thing chanced, we lived together in most flourishing estate: of whom went report in the Strand, Fleet Street, and elsewhere about London but of Babington and Tichbourne? No threshold was of force to brave our entry. Thus we lived, and wanted nothing we could wish for: and God knows, what less in my head than matters of state?’
Continue reading

The Babington plot: the capture and execution of the conspirators

Scene from an execution

On Tuesday 20th September 1586, seven Catholic men were bound to hurdles in the Tower of London – one of them, a priest named John Ballard, on a single sled, the others two-a-piece – and then dragged westward on their final slow journey through the city’s autumnal streets to a hastily erected scaffold in the open fields ‘at the upper end of Holborn, hard by the highway-side to St Giles’. The scaffold was probably situated somewhere a little to the north west of what is now Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then known as Cup Field. The crowd gathered there to watch them die numbered in thousands. The authorities had fenced off the site to stop horsemen blocking the view, and had also raised the gallows ‘mighty high’, so that everyone could see justice being done.

The names of the men were – Ballard aside – Anthony Babington, John Savage, Robert Barnwell, Chidiock Tichbourne, Charles Tilney, and Edward Abingdon. (Seven more conspirators and their accomplices would die the following day: Edward Jones, Thomas Salisbury, John Charnock, Robert Gage, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy and Henry Donne, elder brother of the poet.) Most of them were minor courtiers, well-connected, wealthy; it was said they wore fine silks on this, their last day.

Just a week before they had been tried at Westminster and found guilty of treason; six weeks before that, they had still been free men. But then had come intimations of arrest – one story is that Babington was alerted by catching sight of a message delivered to a dining companion named Scudamore and realising that Scudamore was, in fact, one of Walsingham’s men – followed by dispersal and desperate flight. Babington and four others took to what was then still wild woodland beyond the city at St John’s Wood.

The authorities searched the houses of some thirty known recusants around London. Almost all were outside the city walls in places such as Hoxton, Clerkenwell, Highgate,  Enfield, Islington, Newington and Westminster. One conspirator, John Charnock, was captured on the road from Willesden, where he too had slept in the woods.
Continue reading

Catholic treason in Elizabethan England and the psychology of espionage and terror

Anthony Babington and his fellow conspirators

London Historians have just posted online a piece I wrote for their newsletter to mark the 450th anniversary of the birth of the most notorious of Elizabethan traitors, Anthony Babington. (Update: Now available on my blog here in two parts, here and here.) However, I felt that his fate – and those of his fellow Catholic conspirators in late Tudor England – raised wider issues that were worth exploring. In particular, I wanted to consider why their stories resonate so strongly today, concerning as they  do the balance between personal liberty and public security, the limits of political and religious tolerance, and the reaction of the state to potential acts of violence against it.

I have long been fascinated by Babington and the Elizabethan demi-monde of footloose young gentlemen, among them aspiring courtiers and spies alike, to which he belonged, having first read about him – and them – in Charles Nicholl’s brilliant 1992 book, The Reckoning.

When I encountered them originally, I tried to understand them through the frame of Cold War espionage and the 20th-century treasons of men like Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean. But Babington and his fellow Marian conspirators, including those from earlier plots, such as those of Francis Throckmorton and William Parry, don’t readily fit into that paradigm: it obscures more than it reveals.
Continue reading

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.

Dreams of escape – George Gifford: courtier, con-man, conspirator

Despite the notoriety which still clouds men like Anthony Babington, executed in 1586 for plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I, history’s selective memory has been kind in overlooking the dubious career of other men who flirted with regicide in the same period. Indeed, one man, despite never having attempted the act, seems to have been almost something of an inspiration to Babington and his followers. He was a courtier named George Gifford.

George Gifford was a Throckmorton on his mother’s side. Born in 1552, his father died when he was ten, and Gifford inherited two manors, Weston-under-Edge in Gloucestershire and Ithell in Hampshire, together with further lands in Wiltshire, collectively worth some £116 8s 8d. His personal faith is unclear, but there was a history of recusancy in both the Gifford and Throckmorton families, and his younger brother William was a prominent Catholic exile – of whom more later – who left England in 1573, perhaps coincidentally the year Gifford was granted livery of his lands, and ultimately became Archbishop of Rheims.

A courtier by 1573, George Gifford was made a gentleman pensioner in 1578 and seems to have been a prominent one: he was among the Whitehall tilters in 1581, and again in 1583, 1584 and 1585. He is usually said to have married Eleanor Brydges, both a distant member of the Cecil family, and therefore kinswoman to Lord Burghley, and the stepdaughter of Sir William Knollys, younger brother to Henry Knollys and Lettice Devereux. However, it was his namesake, the recusant George Gifford of Chillington, who married Brydges, who almost certainly shared his faith, as her mother and brother did too.

Our Gifford must have met Ralegh around 1578, when both can be found in the dysfunctional, seditious clique around the earl of Oxford, men characterised, in John Bossy’s superb phrase, by “a certain sense of ‘outness’”. It was also about this time that things began to unravel for him. Like all the gentlemen pensioners he seems to have been perennially short of money, and as early as 1579 he was forced to sell his Hampshire lands to the earl of Southampton.
Continue reading