Actions, Reactions, Provocations

It would be fatuous to deny that Pope Pius V, in excommunicating Elizabeth, intended to destroy her. Or that he hoped to recruit the leading Catholic powers for a crusade aimed at removing her from her throne.

Nor were such hopes ridiculous. Three decades before, the Pilgrimage of Grace had exposed the unpopularity of Henry VIII’s religious innovations and left hanging the question of what a rising might accomplish if given strong enough leadership and sufficient encouragement and support. The rebellions of Edward VI’s reign, and the ease with which Mary I had overcome John Dudley’s attempted coup, bolstered the credibility of those wanting to make Rome believe that Elizabeth’s regime, if given a firm shove, might fall almost of its own weight.

As for the idea of involving France and Spain, here again hope was not entirely without a footing in reality. Though Pius V had become pope with little experience in politics and even less in diplomacy (it is a measure of how rapidly the church was changing that he had grown up in poverty and spent much of his life as a Dominican friar known for austerity), he was not naïve enough to expect kings to sacrifice their thrones on the altar of religion. But in Philip of Spain he had an ally who genuinely believed that if he could save England from the Protestants he would save her people from eternal damnation. And Pius could hope to find support at France’s Valois court if he could point to practical advantages of removing the English queen.

Thus it is entirely understandable that Elizabeth and her council went to great lengths to prevent a Catholic combination from forming. If they can be faulted, it is for going too far with their meddling in continental affairs, thereby helping to bring into existence something very like what they most feared. The worst of their mistakes was to overreact, bringing down upon England hardships that might and even should have been avoided.

For in fact their position was less dangerous than they understood. Under any circumstances it would have been difficult in the extreme for France and Spain, locked in a struggle for European domination that was already half a century old, to join forces for any shared purpose involving sacrifice and risk. They had already shown themselves to be incapable of organizing a common defense even against the Ottoman Empire, which unlike England posed a threat to the very survival of their civilization. And that was only half the story. The Reformation had come to France by this time, giving rise to conflicts that were draining away the kingdom’s power. Yet another new phenomenon, nationalism, had come at the same time to the Spanish possessions in the Netherlands, sparking a rebellion that Philip would need all the resources of his sprawling empire and all the gold being stripped from the New World to keep from overwhelming him. France and Spain alike—though France more than Spain—rarely ignored an opportunity to exploit and worsen the other’s problems and to ally themselves with England whenever it seemed advantageous to do so. Neither was easily drawn into fantasies of returning England to the universal church by force of arms. Philip, though more the idealist than Marie de’ Medici, understood from personal experience that, in the almost forty years since Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the number of Englishmen likely to see any sense in fighting to repair that break had shrunk severely.

The brilliant success of Elizabeth’s first international adventure, the 1560 foray into Scotland, served to encourage further enterprises more distant from home. An opportunity came just two years later with the eruption of France’s first religious war, which pitted Calvinist Huguenots against the regime headed by the queen dowager Catherine de’ Medici in the name of her sickly and ineffectual second son, the adolescent Charles IX. It was easy to argue that England could both help itself and do God’s work by becoming involved on the Protestant side, and the Dudley brothers, ambitious and eager for action, argued exactly that. Intervention could frustrate Philip of Spain, who was supporting the royal Catholic party in the hope of building a lasting alliance. At the same time it could undermine the Valois by enhancing the strength of their internal enemies. Conceivably it could lead to the recovery of Calais, which would be a tremendous propaganda coup for Elizabeth, a demonstration of the superiority of her rule to that of her late sister.

William Cecil, who by pushing the Scottish incursion to its conclusion had laid at the feet of his queen an achievement of genuine strategic importance, was not enthusiastic about making war on France. As a committed Protestant he naturally favored the Huguenots, but he was not as confident as the Dudleys that providing assistance required going to war with a kingdom whose population was several times that of England. The queen, however, approved the sending of an expeditionary force. She disappointed Robert Dudley, who wanted command, by selecting his brother the Earl of Warwick instead. He was to land his troops at, and take possession of, the port of Le Havre—the English called it Newhaven—on the Normandy coast. The plan, from that point, was to win the gratitude of the Huguenots to such an extent that they would exchange Calais for Le Havre. Exactly how this was to be accomplished appears to have been left rather vague.

All did not go according to plan. Ambrose Dudley showed himself to be an effective enough leader, maintaining order and discipline in his little army under difficult conditions and establishing good relations with the inhabitants of Le Havre. But his instructions from the queen made it impossible to achieve anything. Throughout the first two months following his arrival in France, Dudley remained under orders to take no action. Then, when the opposing French sides surprised him by making peace, the earl was ordered to hold on to Le Havre until a trade for Calais could be arranged. This led—a crowning absurdity—to his erstwhile allies joining forces with the Catholics to drive him out. After several months of standing their ground in spite of the inadequacy of Le Havre’s defensive works, the English were so ravaged by plague that Dudley was left with no choice but to surrender. A final, tragic chapter was added when the remnants of his expeditionary force returned to England and brought the plague with them. In the subsequent Peace of Troyes, England abandoned forever its claim to Calais. Robert Dudley, as responsible as anyone for putting the whole debacle in motion, was rewarded with appointment to the Privy Council. Perhaps because Elizabeth’s refusal to part with him had spared him exposure to the hardships of the campaign, his appetite for war was undiminished. Cecil, whose responsibilities made him acutely aware of the strain the affair had put on the treasury, would henceforth be incapable of mustering much enthusiasm for sending armies across the Channel for any purpose.

Cecil was not averse, however, to tweaking the tail of the despised king of Spain whenever he found opportunities to do so without excessive risk. This tendency became increasingly pronounced, in fact, as the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign approached its end and Cecil persuaded himself that France and Spain were preparing a great joint invasion. About this he was consistently, demonstrably wrong—a rare and even weird miscalculation by one of the most astute, careful, and successful politicians of the age. Above all it was a misreading of the king of Spain. Perhaps Cecil could not understand Philip, could think only the worst of him, simply because his contempt was so deep. Probably he had no idea that Philip had concluded, during his years as England’s uncrowned king, that it was an alien and treacherous place and best left alone. At this stage Philip was, despite his religious convictions, almost desperately eager for England’s friendship, and if he could not have that he wanted her neutrality. He had more than enough other matters demanding his attention, more than enough other uses for resources that never seemed sufficient to his needs, and little reason to be confident that he stood to gain anything by deposing Elizabeth and replacing her with Mary, Queen of Scots. Cecil might have benefited from remembering how supportive of Elizabeth Philip had been both before she became queen and during the uncertain early days of her reign. He might have asked himself if conditions had changed enough to turn Philip into an actively aggressive foe. Instead he allowed his concerns to grow into something akin to paranoia, and to drive him—and with him England—into dangerously provocative actions that could serve no significantly good purpose and for which there was absolutely no need.

A particularly dangerous temptation came within Cecil’s grasp late in 1568, when a fleet of Spanish ships traversing the Channel en route to the Netherlands found itself threatened by pirates and took refuge in English ports. The fleet’s commander had good reason for wanting to avoid capture: he was carrying a fortune in gold and silver that Philip had borrowed from his Italian bankers and was sending to the Low Countries to pay the troops he had stationed there. Cecil, when he became aware of what had fallen into his clutches, did not hesitate. He ordered the money seized and locked away. The Spaniards, needless to say, were outraged. Philip’s governor in the Netherlands, the tough old Duke of Alba, responded by seizing English trade goods. England retaliated in its turn, and the dispute escalated until there was a real danger of war. Alba, however, had a turbulent region on his hands and so dispatched envoys with instructions to make themselves agreeable to the English. Cecil for his part wanted nothing less than outright war, and gradually the situation was defused.

The Privy Council then fell into an angry dispute over what Cecil had done. A substantial number of its members, Robert Dudley prominent among them, accused him of having recklessly put England in danger. There followed a contest over whether he should retain his position as secretary and with it his control over what information was allowed to reach the queen, what business was brought before the council, and how the council’s decisions were translated into action. This became the decisive crisis of Cecil’s long career. It ended with Elizabeth intervening so decisively on his behalf that it was no longer possible to doubt that he enjoyed her full confidence. He became and would remain unassailably secure. Not coincidentally, by protecting him the queen implicitly endorsed his policy of harassing the Spaniards by almost every possible means while pretending innocence. She and her government were turning a benignly blind eye to the raids that freebooters like John Hawkins and his cousin Francis Drake, privateers destined to rank high among the immortals of the Elizabethan age, were making on Spanish ports and shipping. It seemed an ideal arrangement: Cecil and even Elizabeth herself not only provided the pirates with a secure home base but helped to finance their voyages in return for a share of the profits. When Spain protested they claimed, unconvincingly, to know nothing and to be unable to do anything. Philip’s restraint through years of this undeclared naval war is the strongest possible indication of just how badly he wanted to avoid conflict.

Soon it was again France’s turn at center stage. The end of the 1560s brought a resumption of the increasingly bitter and bloody conflict between the Huguenots and the Catholic government in Paris. (It might be appropriate to speak of the ostensibly Catholic government, the young king Charles showing at this point more inclination to accept the counsel of the Protestant leader Admiral de Coligny than that of his mother, Catherine; the alignments were rarely not confusing.) These wars were dangerous because of the pull they inevitably exerted on other countries: Spain was always drawn to what Philip judged to be the Catholic side, England to the Calvinists. The latest round of hostilities ended in 1570 with the Peace of St. Germain, but on terms that offered little hope of lasting amity. Catherine de’ Medici agreed, over the objections of Philip, to the marriage of her daughter Margaret to the bride’s royal cousin Henry of Bourbon, more widely known as Henry of Navarre. The Guises, still the driving force behind Catholic militancy in France, were not alone in complaining that such a marriage would be an outrage: Navarre was a Protestant and therefore judged to be no fit spouse for a princess of the blood. The Huguenots, by contrast, rejoiced; Navarre would be next in line to the throne if (as must have seemed possible by this time) none of Catherine’s diminishing supply of sons produced a male heir, and a Valois bride could only strengthen his claim. Elizabeth and Cecil were untroubled by the prospect of peace. They were content to be relieved of the obligation to support the Huguenots financially, and ready to try to wedge themselves between Spain and France by building a friendly relationship with the Valois. Their first steps in this direction gave rise to a possible new way of solving England’s festering succession problem. King Charles’s heir presumptive—his heir, that is, if he died without a son—was his brother Henry of Anjou, not yet twenty years old. Elizabeth being in her late thirties now, negotiations of a possible marriage got under way with some sense of urgency on the English side: those still hopeful that the queen might have a child knew that, for such a thing to happen, she would have to act soon.

Elizabeth probably had as little interest in marrying now as at any point in the preceding decade; she allowed the talks to proceed simply to distract the French from rapprochement with Spain. Anjou definitely had no interest, speaking contemptuously of his prospective bride as a “public whore” and (after being told that varicose veins were causing her to limp) as “an old creature with a sore leg.” If somehow the two had married, the consequences could only have been disappointing for both sides. Anjou was more militantly, aggressively Catholic than Elizabeth was Protestant. His irregular personal behavior, including a passion for extravagantly lavish, sometimes shockingly feminine attire and a refusal to engage in hunting or the other customary pastimes of male royalty, had won for him the epithet “Prince of Sodom.” His very appearance would have stunned Elizabeth’s court and mortally offended every Puritan in England. As for his breeding potential, he would live a good many years more but never have a child in or out of wedlock.

The following year, 1572, brought convulsions that would briefly make an Anglo-French marriage alliance seem more plausible but then drive the two countries apart. In March the conflict between the people of the northern Netherlands and their Spanish masters erupted into open revolt. In short order four provinces made themselves functionally independent under the leadership of William of Orange (William of Nassau if you prefer, or William the Silent), a onetime Catholic and protégé of the Hapsburgs who had gone into exile and become a Calvinist in reaction to Spanish demands for the surrender of what the Dutch regarded as their inalienable liberties. Elizabeth, for obvious reasons, always regarded loyalty to the sovereign as a sacred duty of all subjects everywhere, and so now as in other, similar situations she found it difficult to support or even condone rebellion. At first England’s ports were closed to the seafaring Dutch renegades. But the temptation to create trouble for Philip once again proved irresistible, all the more so when the rebels demonstrated that they were not going to be easily suppressed. Soon the English authorities were coyly noticing nothing as Protestant volunteers and money began streaming out of the country in aid of the revolt. The French, too, could find nothing objectionable in a war that soaked up so much Spanish manpower and treasure, and they saw new reason to make common cause with England. In April the two countries entered into the Treaty of Blois, by which they pledged to assist each other if either were attacked. The Duke of Anjou having conclusively removed himself from contention for Elizabeth’s hand, a new candidate emerged in the person of his younger brother Francis (at birth he had been given the name Hercules), the Duke of Alençon. He was sixteen years old; Elizabeth was thirty-nine.

August was when it all blew up. The explosion came in Paris on the feast of St. Bartholomew, and it was horrific. From all around France thousands of Huguenots, many of them people of considerable wealth and social standing accompanied by their private security forces, had gathered in the capital to celebrate the wedding of their champion and hope for the future, Henry of Navarre, to the sister of a childless king. The city was electric with tension between the visitors, who continued to parade through the streets long after the wedding was over, and the local population. Four days after the ceremony there was an attempt on the life of the Protestant leader Admiral de Coligny, who, to the indignation of powerful Catholics including the Guises, had been readmitted to the national governing council as part of the reconciliation between the contending factions. Coligny escaped with relatively minor gunshot wounds, but on the third day of his recuperation one of the Duke of Guise’s ruffians burst into his room, pulled him from his bed, stabbed him to death, and threw the body out the window. The killing was like a spark put to gunpowder. There followed days and then weeks of wholesale butchery; Protestants were hunted down first in Paris and then in other cities as well. The generally accepted best guess puts the number of dead in the neighborhood of ten thousand, and the total may very well have been higher. Who exactly was responsible, and why the slaughter was carried to such extremes, remains unclear. That the Guises were responsible for the killing of Coligny cannot be doubted. The involvement of Catherine de’ Medici, and through her of her son King Charles, is likewise beyond dispute; she appears to have been frightened into thinking that the Huguenot leadership had to be eliminated to abort an investigation that would have revealed her approval of the original assault on Coligny. The Duke of Alba may have encouraged the attack on Coligny because the admiral had been urging French support of the Dutch rebels and appeared to be winning the young king’s agreement, but we have no conclusive evidence that any of these people intended a massacre. More likely the original plan was to eliminate Coligny only, and the scheme was broadened to include a number of his associates only after the failure of the first attempt on his life stirred up fears of reprisals, a damaging investigation, or even a coup d’état. But the people of Paris were Catholic and poor, they had been experiencing hardship that year as a failed harvest inflated the price of food, and their resentment had been inflamed by the spectacle of so many prosperous Protestant outsiders, some of them guarded by armed men, ostentatiously showing themselves off in the streets. Catholic preachers were warning of a Protestant takeover, no doubt in inflammatory ways, and apparently some of their listeners took the news of the first killings as license to go on a rampage. Within a few days the disorder had spread to Rouen, Lyon, Orleans, and Bordeaux, and in all these places royal orders for it to stop were ignored.

The religious divisions of France were even more hateful than those in England and obviously much more dangerous. Open war had erupted between the contending parties three times in the previous decade, with much criminality on both sides. That the 1572 calamity began on the feast of St. Bartholomew was probably not a coincidence. On the same day three years earlier, in the south of France, Henry of Navarre’s mother, a woman whose contempt for the old religion made the evangelicals of England seem models of toleration by comparison, had ordered the execution of a company of Catholic nobles who had surrendered after receiving assurances that their lives would be spared. The young Duke of Guise, if in fact he ordered Coligny’s murder, was undoubtedly spurred less by theology than by a hunger for revenge: the admiral had earlier been responsible for the killing of Guise’s father. In France the Reformation was becoming a sordid chronicle of atrocities and reprisals, treachery was by no means exclusive to either side, and the complications were almost as endless as the provocations. What matters here is that the massacre of 1572 horrified the Protestants of England, seemed to provide rich justification for their insistence that Catholicism had to be extinguished, and made it impossible for Elizabeth even to feign interest in marriage to any son of Catherine de’ Medici.

In that same year the increasingly discontented, increasingly unmanageable Puritans began bullying Elizabeth to destroy Thomas Howard, fourth Duke of Norfolk. Son of the Earl of Surrey whose execution was one of the last acts ordered by Henry VIII, grandson of the duke whose life was saved only by Henry’s death, great-grandson of the earl who restored the family’s fortunes by crushing the Scots at Flodden, and great-great-grandson of the duke who died fighting for Richard III at Bosworth, this latest Norfolk was a somewhat feckless individual who lacked the strength to resist being drawn into dark schemes that he could neither control nor, probably, understand. Secretary Cecil had put him on the council in 1564 as a conservative and presumably manageable counterweight to Robert Dudley, who also became a member that year and was obviously not going to be managed by Cecil or anyone else. Things did not work out as Cecil planned, however. Instead of helping to neutralize Dudley, Norfolk joined him in trying to get Cecil dismissed after his seizure of the Spanish king’s gold. He also opposed the secretary’s policies with respect to Mary Stuart, aid to the French Huguenots, and the harassment of Philip II. He had given Cecil no reason to support him—or even, in a pinch, to do anything to save his life.

What made Norfolk a prime target of the Puritans was his involvement with Mary, Queen of Scots, and a faintly asinine (unless he was instead profoundly devious) Florentine banker named Roberto di Ridolfi. After Mary became a prisoner of the English Crown, a group of courtiers (including, somewhat oddly, Robert Dudley) hatched the idea of neutralizing her as a threat to Elizabeth and at the same time solving the succession problem by marrying her into the English, and Protestant, nobility. Norfolk, a youngish widower who as the only duke in the kingdom was its premier noble, was an obvious possibility. And he was immediately, if foolishly, interested. Most of the Puritans, uncomfortable with anything that might even tend to legitimate Mary as heir, were so hostile to the proposal as to cast Norfolk into the role of mortal enemy. William Cecil, as always, was opposed to anything that might lead to Mary Stuart becoming queen of England.

The marriage scheme became, in ways far too arcane to be unraveled here, intertwined with the revolt of the northern earls. Norfolk, as a result, fell into deep disfavor at court. It is at this point that Ridolfi enters the story. A busybody who had first come to England as a moneylender, much too restless a spirit to be satisfied with dabbling in the currency markets, he began intriguing in so many directions that in due course he became a paid informant of the French and Spanish governments and the pope’s “secret nuncio.” Like Norfolk he got into trouble in connection with the northern rising, and for a time he was in custody and under interrogation by Cecil and the head of Elizabeth’s intelligence service, Francis Walsingham. After his release Ridolfi appears to have made it his mission to win papal approval for the marriage of Mary Stuart and Norfolk and, probably, to arrange a good deal more than that. He began weaving a web of conspiracy that extended from the English to the Spanish court, from Mary’s place of confinement to Rome and the Netherlands. In 1571 he crossed to the continent, traveling from place to place presumably to make arrangements for a Spanish invasion to occur simultaneously with a rising of England’s Catholics, the marriage of a liberated Scots queen to Norfolk, and Elizabeth’s removal. In actuality it was all talk—no one was doing anything serious in preparation for either an invasion or a rebellion—and almost all of it came from Ridolfi himself. He was so free in telling everyone who would listen about his plans that there has hung over him, ever since, the suspicion that when Cecil and Walsingham had him in custody, they may have bribed or blackmailed him into becoming their agent. Certainly no agent provocateur could have done more to lure Norfolk and others into incriminating themselves, or to make certain that nothing about his scheme was truly secret. Cecil was fully aware of what Ridolfi was up to: Grand Duke Cosimo de’ Medici of Florence even sent him a warning immediately after being visited, and confided in, by Ridolfi. Norfolk was arrested and put on trial for treason. Slanted in favor of the prosecution as all treason trials were in those days—the accused were allowed neither legal counsel nor any opportunity to prepare a defense—in this instance guilt was undeniable, and the duke was quickly sentenced to death. For four months, however, the queen refused to approve his execution. Parliament and council, meanwhile, badgered her relentlessly to allow Mary Stuart to be condemned as well. To this she absolutely would not agree. Her unwillingness to see even a deposed queen put to death was even more powerful than her reluctance to kill dukes. Though Norfolk had to be sacrificed at last, Mary was too valuable a prisoner to be dispensed with. So long as she remained alive, England’s Protestant subjects would have strong reasons for wanting Elizabeth to remain alive as well. And of course Elizabeth may have felt compassion for her fallen cousin, who was passing her life as a prisoner in spite of having been charged with no crime.



IT IS A MISTAKE TO ASSUME, UPON BECOMING AWARE OF how extensively Henry VIII and Elizabeth I used torture to terrorize their subjects and extract information about real or imagined enemies, that they were simply continuing a standard practice of the English Middle Ages.

They were doing nothing of the kind. Though inflicting physical pain on captives to achieve some political purpose goes back further than recorded history, and though it was certainly not unknown in England before the Tudors, it was never legitimized by law there or allowed to become accepted practice. English rulers never used torture as an instrument of state in anything approaching a systematic way until Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell began doing so in the mid-1530s. Half a century later, when Elizabeth surpassed her father in the intensity and frequency of the tortures inflicted on people perceived to be a threat to her survival and even began to torture people because of their religious beliefs, the population was so repelled that after her death such practices soon fell into disuse and in due course were banned—forever, as it turned out—by Parliament.

Being an inherently loathsome thing—church leaders condemned its use from the earliest centuries of the Christian era—torture inevitably required Elizabeth and her henchmen to employ singularly odious men. Not much is known about her first principal torturer, a member of Parliament called “Rackmaster Norton,” but whatever atrocities he may have been capable of must have been almost trivial compared to those of the man who replaced him in 1572, Richard Topcliffe. A Yorkshire landowner who appears to have won Elizabeth’s favor early in her reign or possibly even earlier, Topcliffe was not only a dutiful torturer but an eager one—a sadist to the point of psychosis. Having begun his public career as a kind of intelligence agent for Francis Walsingham, who entered royal service as an associate of the queen’s secretary William Cecil and rose to secretary himself when Cecil became lord treasurer, Topcliffe distinguished himself first as a hunter of fugitive Catholics and then as an interrogator of the people he captured. He was so passionate in his hatred of Catholics and all things Catholic that there appear to have been no limits to what he was willing to do; in devising new ways of inflicting pain he was always confident of doing God’s work. The relish with which he approached his duties—he participated personally in the disemboweling and quartering of condemned men in spite of the fact that there was no need for him to do so—made him so useful to Cecil and Walsingham (not to mention the queen) that he was permitted to install a torture chamber in his Westminster home. Though by no means the Crown’s only torturer (the Tower of London’s warders or “Beefeaters” customarily operated such machinery as the rack, the scavenger’s daughter, and the iron maiden, while gentlemen merely did the questioning), he easily established himself as the leading practitioner of his dubious trade. He wrote with a kind of pornographic glee of the mastery required to push victims up to but not quite across the threshold of death, comparing the prolongation of unbearable agony to a skilled lover’s ability to sustain sexual ecstasy.

A number of the best-known priests to fall into the Crown’s hands in the 1580s and early 1590s, the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell among them, spent long periods in Topcliffe’s custody (some were apprehended by Topcliffe himself) before finally being put to death. If challenged about his methods and the validity of confessions made under torture, he always replied—not truthfully, it is clear—that his objective was always to obtain information, not mere confessions. No one was ever tortured, he absurdly claimed, whose guilt had not already been established beyond doubt.

Two stories, one nightmarishly horrible and the other merely disgusting in a sardonically amusing way, reveal as much as any normal person could ever want to know about Topcliffe’s character. The first happened in 1592, when he had been pursuing Southwell without success for six frustrating years. His search led him to the home of a family named Bellamy, several of whose members were already in prison (two would die there, and a third would be executed) on suspicion of harboring priests. Somehow he learned that one of the daughters of the household, Anne Bellamy, supposedly had information about Southwell’s plans. When the girl would tell him nothing, Topcliffe made her his prisoner, but instead of using the usual instruments of torture he adopted a method that must have been vastly more painful and infinitely humiliating. He raped her repeatedly until at last, broken, she gave up her secret (which was that Southwell had promised to return to the Bellamys’ house on June 20, in order to say mass). Southwell was captured as a result. He was tortured on thirteen separate occasions, first at Topcliffe’s home and then in the Tower. After refusing to answer questions even about the color of his horse—he feared that anything he said might compromise the people who had sheltered him—the priest was taken to Tyburn to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. When Anne Bellamy found that she was pregnant, Topcliffe was able to avoid disclosure of what he had done by forcing her to marry his assistant. One can only speculate as to what sort of bridegroom a torturer’s assistant must have been. Nothing is known of what finally happened to the girl, one of history’s forgotten victims.

The second Topcliffe story involves another of his assistants, one Thomas Fitzherbert, whose family were landowning Catholics. Topcliffe and Fitzherbert concocted a scheme for making a tidy fortune quickly. Fitzherbert would accuse his father, his uncle, and a man named Bassett of treason, thereby providing an excuse for their arrest. Topcliffe would then torture the three to death, Fitzherbert would inherit their property, and the two of them would split the proceeds. All went according to plan, apparently, until Fitzherbert refused to pay up. Amazingly, Topcliffe then had the temerity to go to court, explaining the nature of the bargain and suing Fitzherbert for £5,000. In defending himself, Fitzherbert complained that Topcliffe had not done his part: that Bassett was still alive, and the father and uncle had died not of torture but of a fever contracted in prison. Even more amazingly, thanks no doubt to his excellent connections at court, Topcliffe won the case instead of being arrested for conspiracy to commit murder or worse. Fitzherbert was obliged to surrender his inheritance.

One would like to think that the queen knew nothing of such matters and little of what was being done in her name. Where Topcliffe is concerned, unfortunately, it is not possible to believe anything of the kind; the records make clear that the torturer had ready access to Elizabeth over a great many years, that at least some of his foul work was done with her knowledge and possibly at her direction, and that he was well rewarded for his labors. He wrote of being encouraged by Elizabeth, quoting her as complaining about “sundry lewde popishe beasts.” He always claimed that he acted not on Walsingham’s or Cecil’s authority but on that of the queen herself, and that he was accountable to her only. This is not implausible, though it is not likely that Topcliffe ever had to bypass either Cecil or Walsingham in the performance of his duties; those two shared a fear and hatred of Catholics that, if not pathological like Topcliffe’s, certainly gave them no reason to interfere with his work. Perhaps it was thanks to Elizabeth that Topcliffe was given a seat in the House of Commons, that Crown and local officials always treated him with more deference than the offices he held warranted, and that he was set free after Burghley had him arrested for appearing to threaten members of the Privy Council. He was always treated generously. When the queen decided for some reason that the bumbling patricide Fitzherbert should have his inheritance after all, Topcliffe was given a generous grant of Crown lands to compensate him for his loss.

It is hardly surprising that historians wishing to emphasize the glories of Elizabethan England have rarely given much attention to the career of Richard Topcliffe. He is nearly as forgotten as Anne Bellamy, though in his own lifetime he became all too well known. At the time of his death—like that other reptilian arch-villain Richard Rich, he died in his bed, an old and wealthy man—he was everywhere reviled. His own nephew had by then changed his name to escape the ignominy of being a Topcliffe.

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