By Nancy Bilyeau
|Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons|
Late one November night in 1583, a group of “gentlemen of no mean credit and reputation”—in other words, agents working for Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary to Queen Elizabeth I—banged on the door of a London house. Their sudden arrival threw the occupant of the house into a panic. His name was Sir Francis Throckmorton and he was at that very moment upstairs, using a cipher to disguise his letter to the woman who posed a mortal threat to Elizabeth: Mary, Queen of Scots, her second cousin. Deposed from her own throne in 1567, Mary was being held in genteel confinement in an English manor house, the object of a series of rescue attempts. Walsingham, the spymaster, worked tirelessly to thwart all of them.
Highly incriminating letters and papers were found during their search. Throckmorton, 29 years old, a devout Catholic, had composed a list of other Catholic gentlemen and nobles who could be counted on to rise up against their Protestant queen, Elizabeth, when the time came for a coup and replace her with Mary. He also wrote a list of ports and harbors ideal for an invasion by a French army led by the Duke of Guise, Mary’s relative.
|The young Mary Queen of Scots, from a drawing made in France|
A portrait that has been attributed to Sir Francis Throckmorton
This was not the last time the name “Throckmorton” surfaced in a plot against a Protestant English ruler. In 1605, a servant to Robert Catesby, a key conspirator in the Gunpowder Plot and the son of Anne Throckmorton, rode directly to the Throckmorton estate, Coughton Court, to tell a group of Catholics, including two Jesuit priests, of Guy Fawkes’ arrest in the plan to blow up King James I and his Parliament. He said those Fawkes plotted with were now running for their lives.
These failed English conspiracies in support of Mary Queen of Scots (ranging from the fourth Duke of Norfolk’s efforts to marry the Scottish queen to Anthony Babington’s plot to murder Elizabeth), along with the infamous Gunpowder Plot, formed a strong impression in some minds that Catholics were conspiratorial and dangerous, controlled by France, Spain and, of course, the Pope. These fears hardened into bigotry throughout the 17th century. The despicable Titus Oates, who fabricated the “Popish plot” against Charles II and brought about at least 15 executions, wouldn’t have been possible without the Gunpowder Plot. Moreover, the Glorious Revolution and the arrival of the Hanovers—the direction the country took that leads us to today—were born, in large part, from fear of what James II, a Catholic king, would do. Those fears originated in the 16th century.
Before Sir Francis Throckmorton plunged into violent plotting, his family had made a far different sort of impact in England, one of service to the crown and country. To best understand the Throckmortons, who’ve popped up in so many interesting times and places in the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts, we must take a closer look at the patriarch, Sir George Throckmorton, Sir Francis’s grandfather, a strong-minded man who had a blunt conversation with Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell that is well known even today.
George Throckmorton was born in 1489, two years before Henry VIII, the king who was to wreak such havoc in his life. His father, Robert Throckmorton, was a landowner, soldier and a courtier who did well under the new Tudor regime. Coughton Court was already in Throckmorton possession. In 1501, George married an heiress, Katherine Vaux. They had, incredibly, 19 children, including seven sons who lived to adulthood. His rise in the kingdom was steady: George served the king in the French war; he was knighted in 1516; he attended the Field of Cloth of Gold; he was made a justice of the peace in Warwickshire. By 1529 he was a member of Parliament and worked for Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, alongside a lawyer who would one day make his mark: Thomas Cromwell.
The people who attended the court of Henry VIII in the late 1520s and early 1530s would be amazed, perhaps dumbfounded, by today’s adoration of Anne Boleyn. During the time that the king struggled for his divorce, most of the nobility, as well as the commons, had enormous respect for Catherine of Aragon, both for her royal status as the daughter of Isabelle and Ferdinand, and for the gracious, brave and pious manner in which she carried out her duties as queen of England.
As for Anne Boleyn, she had little support beyond members of her own family, Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer, later archbishop of Canterbury. Henry VIII insisted in his communications with the Pope that Anne was a chaste and respectable woman. Both the nobility and the common people did not see her that way. According to Edward Hall in his contemporary History of England, “Surely the most of the lay people of England, which knew not the law of God, sore murmured at the matter and much the more, because there was a gentlewoman in the court called Anne Boleyn.” There were murmurings, a few shouts in the street as the king passed by, but of course most people were too afraid to tell the king what they thought of his intended new marriage.
Until George Throckmorton.
It was the royal divorce that changed everything for him. From the beginning, Throckmorton was known to be someone who did not support the king’s wish to rid himself of his first wife. Throckmorton was respected in Parliament. His views carried weight. Cromwell, who had replaced Wolsey as chief royal councilor, was busy crafting legislation intended to weaken the Pope’s control of England and, step by step, make Henry VIII the supreme head of the Church of England. Throckmorton attempted to block that legislation.
In 1532, the king summoned Throckmorton to an audience with himself and Thomas Cromwell. There he was asked to support the divorce. As Throckmorton himself recalled in a later document, “I told Your Grace I feared if ye did marry Queen Anne, your conscience would be more troubled at length, for it is thought that ye have meddled with the mother and the sister.”
The king answered, “Never with the mother.” Which is almost certainly true; the rumors that Henry VIII slept with Elizabeth Boleyn were scurrilous.
Cromwell jumped in to say, “Nor never with the sister either, and therefore put that thought out of your mind.” This is most certainly not true. Henry VIII had an affair of some duration with Mary Boleyn.
Although his facts were not all straight, George Throckmorton told his sovereign with all honesty that he did not believe that the sister of a discarded mistress was an appropriate queen of England and that his conscience would be troubled if Henry married Anne. He was certainly not alone. But he is the only Englishman known to have voiced this opinion to the king’s face.
While this was definitely not what Henry VIII wanted to hear, Throckmorton wasn’t punished directly. He did become distinctly less favored by the king. It’s possible Cromwell delivered a warning, for Throckmorton promised in writing to “live at home, serve God and meddle little.” With Parliament out of session, Throckmorton retreated to Coughton Court.
Queen Anne didn’t last long, beheaded on trumped-up charges of treason and adultery in 1536. Before Henry VIII had her executed, he declared his marriage to Anne Boleyn null and void, based on his “affinity” to her sister Mary. That warning by Throckmorton came to pass, although in the most cynical fashion imaginable.
If Throckmorton, along with others who had supported Catherine of Aragon and now cared deeply about the fate of Princess Mary, thought that the kingdom would return to how things used to be, they were greatly mistaken. Henry VIII didn’t return to the Catholic fold even after Anne, a religious reformer, was dead and replaced by Jane Seymour, who favored traditional ways. For one thing, the Cromwell-engineered Dissolution of the Monasteries was pouring thousands of pounds into the royal treasury. If Henry VIII returned to obedience to the Pope, he’d have to stop demolishing the abbeys, ejecting the nuns and monks, and seizing the valuables and property. That was the last thing he wanted to do.
The Pilgrimage of Grace, another 16th century turning point in defining which side you were on, took Throckmorton farther down the road of opposition to Henry VIII. It was a rebellion that sprang up in the North of England opposing the kingdom’s religious reformers, joined by men and women from every level of society.
The king ordered his nobility and gentry to come to the aid of the Crown, bringing armed men, and Throckmorton did so with 300. Nonetheless, he was arrested in early 1537, charged with making copies of the rebels’ demands and expressing willingness to join their side. He denied disloyalty but was sent to the Tower of London. One of this sons later wrote that Throckmorton’s “foes gaped to joint his neck.” The family’s connections did all they could, including his wife’s pleas for help to her half-brother Sir William Parr (uncle of the later Queen Catherine Parr). For months, his life hung in the balance.
George Throckmorton, not interested in martyrdom, announced that he was reading the New Testament and perceived the error of his ways, his “great blindness.” It’s unclear what factor was the deciding one. But during a period in which men who were closer in blood and friendship to Henry VIII—and had committed lesser crimes—met the fate of the ax on Tower Hill, George Throckmorton was released from the Tower of London.
This time he did live at home and “meddle little,” focusing on rebuilding his spectacular home, Coughton Court.
But how he served God is less clear. Throckmorton believed in his heart in the values of the traditional Catholic. His own father, Robert Throckmorton, devoted time and sums of money to his parish church and had, most unusually for the 16th century, gone on a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He died in Rome on his way to Jerusalem in 1518.
Eamon Duffy is at the forefront of modern writers who argue that in the early 16th century traditional worship was not a corrupt and decaying system but a vital one. This is what the Throckmorton father and son believed. And it is the value system that George passed on to his many descendants. Until Henry VIII decided to break with Rome over a thwarted divorce, the kingdom was going in a certain direction. The king swerved onto a new path. The Throckmortons—and other families such as the Howards—kept going in the original direction.
Another possible factor in George Throckmorton’s traditional stance was sympathy for the fate of his aunt, Elizabeth. She was the abbess of a house of Poor Clares in Cambridgeshire. A woman of intellect, she exchanged letters with the famous humanist, Erasmus. After her abbey was destroyed, Elizabeth, more than 60 years old, went to live at Coughton, perhaps bringing one or two nuns with her who had nowhere else to go. She also brought a “dole-gate,” through which help was given to the local poor, and upon which her name was carved.
The practice of the Throckmortons’ “staunch” Catholic faith went in and out of fashion, depending on the Tudor ruler. After Cromwell was executed, religious traditionalists felt a little safer in England. The reign of Edward VI was so difficult that some left the country to live in exile. Mary’s reign was a brief respite. George’s seventh son, Sir John, was active in her Parliament and a witness to the queen’s will.
During the reign of her successor, Elizabeth I, the Throckmortons fell into a defensive position again and a “priest hole” was built in Coughton Court, where priests could hide during inspections. The family became “recusants,” those who refused to attend Anglican services and paid heavy fines for it. People who could not pay the fines were imprisoned. With their money, the Throckmortons avoided that humiliation. Some became Protestants, most famously Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a skilled courtier.
The patriarch, George Throckmorton, had died in his bed in 1552. His grandson was not so lucky.
Sir Francis Throckmorton, born in 1554, was a son of Sir John, the witness of Queen Mary’s will. Because of the increasingly cold climate for Catholics in England, he left England after receiving an Oxford education and studying law at the Inner Temple. In France he was drawn into a conspiracy against Elizabeth, aimed at her overthrow and replacement by the Scottish queen. Once returned to England, Throckmorton would coordinate with Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in the English court.
This was a time of escalating violence, as both sides took steps against the other. Pope Pius V, enraged with Elizabeth's political and financial support of Protestant factions in the Netherlands and elsewhere that threatened the Catholic powers, excommunicated the queen, calling her a "servant of crime." Jesuit priests, some of them English by birth, sneaked into England. Some of them swore it was to minister to those who wanted to continue to practice their Catholic faith. But certainly others were trying to destabilize the kingdom and make it easier to overthrow Elizabeth. In response, Walsingham strengthened his spy network. When he caught conspirators, they were often turned over for extraction of information to the Tower of London and the merciless hands of Sir Richard Topcliffe, an undoubted sadist. (See my blog post "The Rack Seldom Stood Idle/")
|Sir Francis Walsingham, the queen's spymaster|
When Throckmorton returned to the country of his birth, it was with a purpose that could not be more dangerous. Did the young man understand the possible consequences if he failed? We don't know--but failure arrived within the year. He came under suspicion and Walsingham had him watched for six long months, taking note of his co-conspirators, before dropping the net. As a contemporary document put it: Suspicion of Throckmorton "grew first upon secret intelligence given to the Queen's Majesty, that he was a privy conveyor and receiver of letters from the Scottish queen. Upon which information, nonetheless, divers months were suffered to pass on, before he was called to answer for the matter."
Once he'd rolled up the Throckmorton operation, Walsingham urged action against Ambassador Mendoza, who was expelled from England. It was spycraft worthy of today's TV series Homeland.
Ironically, Sir Francis Throckmorton's treasonous action set in motion not the accession to the English throne of Mary Queen of Scots but her own arrest and death, and later war with Spain. Walsingham was able to use the Throckmorton Plot to persuade a reluctant Queen Elizabeth to authorize the Bond of Association. This was a document obliging all people who signed it to execute any person who attempted to usurp Elizabeth’s throne. The bond was used as a legal precedent to kill the Scottish queen after the failure of the Babington plot in 1586. King Philip of Spain was enraged by the ejection of his ambassador and Mendoza was not replaced. That scandal, coupled with the death of Mary Queen of Scots, pushed Philip to declare war on Elizabeth I in 1588 and set sail his armada.
Fortunately, George Throckmorton has happier legacies. His granddaughter, Muriel, married Thomas Tresham, and is the ancestress of Diana Spencer, princess of Wales.
|Another Throckmorton nun -- in the 18th century|
And Coughton Court, which Sir George loved so much, is a popular place for visitors, enthralling all who see it with its Tudor history, including the spectacular turreted gatehouse built by Sir George and the “dole-hole” that Elizabeth Throckmorton brought with her after her abbey was demolished. Six hundred years after the first Throckmorton took possession, the family still lives there—and thrives.