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.

The German Leopold Von Wedel, who visited Elizabeth’s court in 1584, joked that England’s absurd inheritance laws meant that eldest sons received everything and that younger sons either entered some kind or office or pursued highway robbery. His might well have been thinking of Gifford: the year before, Gifford had been in trouble for aiding the daring escape from custody of a highwayman named Nix. He only escaped punishment thanks to his court connections. Quite clearly, he was a man of few scruples. George Throckmorton, a kinsman, caught up in the sweep of known recusants that followed the exposure of the Babington plot – and kept in chains for three weeks in the Poultry Compter – bitterly reported to the authorities that six-months earlier, Gifford – avowedly short of money – had cozened a friend of Throckmorton’s out of 80 pounds of cloth as a down-payment on the manufacture of a philosopher’s stone, which could transmute base matter into gold.

Gifford seems to have played no particular role in the abrupt schism that fractured the Oxford circle at the turn of the decade, but we can nevertheless catch a glimpse of him in the welter of charge and counter-charge that marked the circle’s breaking. It is Oxford himself who tells the tale. The scene is Oxford’s Westminster lodgings a little before Christmas and the drink is flowing as the men sit at the dinner table waiting for the food to arrive. Gifford is talking about “the order of living by money and [the] difference between that and revenue by land”. It is the sort of thing landless young men talked about often: the challenges of life without a steady, regular income. Ralegh, for one, found the transition impossible, always in thrall to the tyranny of the now.

Charles Arundell, however, had something more to offer Gifford than sympathy. “If George Gifford could make three thousand pounds,” Oxford reports Arundell saying, “he would set him in to a course where he need not care for all England and there he should live more to his content and with more reputation than ever he did or might hope for in England, and they would make all the court wonder to hear of them.” Oxford is vague on the details, but “divers other brave and glorious speeches” accompanied this deceptively dangerous suggestion.

It was not exactly treasonable talk, of course. But it was suspect. Although English gentlemen travelling abroad were tolerated, they were also controlled. Passports were just that; without license from the crown it was – officially at least – impossible to leave the country. You were also expected to return: to make a choice of permanent exile was, almost by definition, to be disloyal, to reject your government, your state and your people. After all, even the Catholic exiles, without exception, wanted to return home, to claim their patrimonies, find their place again in the order of things.

Gifford, however, does not recoil from the prospect. Quite the opposite.

“God’s blood, Charles!” he says. “Where is this?”

“If you have three thousand pounds or can make it [I] can tell,” Arundell teases.

Gifford is in the process of saying that he thinks he can find the means to make the money when Oxford’s servants enter with the food, and the men are not so drunk or so foolish to continue such dangerous conversation within the earshot of others. The moment is lost and the talk takes a different turn.

Gifford, however, did not forget. This kind of reckless quest for anomie, a dream of liberty elsewhere, another country where a man might live a good life untroubled by duties or demands, unvexed by want or other oppressions, was not Gifford’s alone. It informs everything from Oxford’s travels around Europe to Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s American vision – not to mention that of the recusants who hoped to license their own Newfoundland colony from him.

But it is a quest that Gifford seems to have quietly pursued, or dreamed about pursuing, as a private venture, with distant Constantinople as his target, over many years. In 1581 he persuaded three fellow gentleman – among them Ralegh’s friend and captain, Thomas Cavendish – to invest £1,000 in his journey there; five years later we hear his brother reported as tired of all his talk on the subject and thinking he should just get on and do it ; finally, at the beginning of the next decade, we hear he has realised his dream, but is returning all too quickly.

It was one response – at once extreme and highly rational – to the pressures and contortions of court life for young men of minimal status or prospects, but it was not one viewed with any equanimity by the authorities; Nicholas Faunt, Walsingham’s secretary, writing to a friend in the wake of Charles Arundel’s flight to Paris in the winter of 1583, articulated the official position perfectly: “they are not the best thought of where they would be, that take any delight to absent themselves in foreign parts, especially such as are of quality, and known to have no other cause than their private contentment; which also is not allowable.”

Nevertheless, despite everything we know of Gifford, what he did in late April 1583 still astonishes. Escaping scrutiny thanks to his connections after breaking Nix from prison, Gifford travelled to Paris and met secretly with Charles Paget and Thomas Morgan; he told them he was a catholic and was prepared to assassinate Elizabeth – if the duke of Guise would recompense him sufficiently. As a gentleman pensioner, he claimed, he would have no difficulty getting close to her.

Gifford does not sound much like anyone’s idea of a subtle conspirator, and – to give the catholics their due – much as their correspondence regarding his offer crackles with excitement at the premise, it is also cold with doubt as to his reliability; “unfit to build on”, was their eventual conclusion. Nevertheless, it was certainly rumoured that the Guise did in fact pay him 800 crowns, although the sums mentioned go as high as £5,000; another version of events had the duke depositing the money with Mary Stuart’s agent in Paris, the archbishop of Glasgow, until such a time as the deed was done.

Gifford made no effort to fulfil his bond, and it is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility, given what we know of his proclivities, his talent for spinning other men’s dreams into gold in his purse, that he viewed the approach to Guise as the ultimate scam, selling the tallest tale in Europe, with risks and rewards to match. He would have been a fool to approach such a task without some kind of support at court, whether from Walsingham, Ralegh or Hatton – all three of whom he depended on at different times in his career. But the record is silent on that point, and it is no doubt a mistake to presume that all actors are equally grasping of self-interest, or careful of their lives: perhaps Gifford was that fool.

Clearly, however, if anyone at court sanctioned such an approach to the catholic exiles it would have had an aim beyond sounding their hatred of Elizabeth; after all, the depth of that was a known. What needed to be mapped was Mary’s complicity, and it is therefore revealing that the earliest surviving report of his offer, from the papal nuncio in Paris, notes that Gifford first made his pitch to Mary, who – presumably suspicious at Gifford’s bona fides – refused to listen to him. Was this then an early attempt to smoke out Mary, the government feeling awkwardly for the shape of the plot which she and Francis Throckmorton, among others, were at that moment developing?

Or was he serious when he made the offer? Consider Gifford’s younger brother William: William’s profile in the Dictionary of National Biography paints him as a rather stately figure, not exactly saintly perhaps, but with little direct involvement in the dirtiest religious politics of the day. I’m not sure such a view survive close company with the man. In some senses, after all, the Babington conspiracy began in 1585 when William Gifford fell into conversation in Rheims with an English catholic by the name of John Savage, later one of Babington’s doomed circle, who was returning from the Netherlands where he had fought for the duke of Parma. Savage had been boasting of his military service; “a better service than all of this I could tell you”, said Gifford. He meant the murder of Elizabeth. It took several weeks for Savage to be persuaded, but ultimately Gifford wore him down and swept aside his scruples.

At this point Gifford had some specific suggestions: “as her majesty should go into her chapel to hear divine service, Savage might lurk in the gallery, and stab her with his dagger: or if her majesty should walk into her garden, he might then shoot her through with his dag; or if her majesty did walk abroad to take the air, as she would often do, rather accompanied with women than with men, and those few men but slenderly weaponed, Savage might then assault her with his arming sword.”

If Savage were worried about his own safety, Gifford assured him that the killing of such a heretic as Elizabeth would offer him the assurance of a place in heaven. Then, as now, the pieties of martyrdom greased the path to murder.

To return to George Gifford, perhaps he shared his brother’s deadly seriousness, but ultimately found it impossible, on whatever diffidence or scruple, to prosecute the killing? It took him a decade to make his longed-for journey to Constantinople – perhaps he always intended to kill Elizabeth but deferred the moment, as he seems to have deferred many decisions in his life. The scheme seemed to die within two months as far as Philip’s representatives in Paris were concerned, and an oblique reference in a letter from Mendoza in August 1583, which refers to an unnamed person who has reported himself unable to complete the task entrusted him because he has accidentally found himself barred from the presence of his target, sounds very much like Gifford excusing his failure. One later anonymous source – probably English catholic in derivation – implicates Charles Arundell and Mary’s secretary Nau in the plot, which gives it an additional degree of plausibility – although by the time the accusation was laid, both men were conveniently dead.

For Elizabeth, the heightened vulnerability that Throckmorton’s discovery ushered in added greatly to her burdens. In a sense she faced a very modern dilemma: how to maintain the usual liberties and routines of daily life while living with the terror of an unspecific but very real threat. There is no record that anyone at court knew of Gifford’s actual deal, but everyone was familiar with the idea behind it: Elizabeth had much more to fear from a lone enemy within than she did from an invasion force. Hadn’t someone almost assassinated the prince of Orange two years earlier? The number of people who had the same degree of access as Gifford was large, and policing them all was impossible.

But Gifford’s scam – if that’s what it was – might have gone with him to his grave where it not for the eruption of the Babington plot in the summer of 1586. Several of the conspirators revealed a knowledge of his vow three years earlier to assassinate Elizabeth, which seems to have come as a surprise to the authorities since Gifford was quickly placed in the Tower. His grafitti is still there in the Beauchamp Tower: Mala conscientia facit ut tuta timeantur, A bad conscience makes what is safe seem fearful. Gifford flatly and angrily denied the accusation – a denial we know to be a lie – and Walsingham was ultimately content to let it rest there: such evidence as the government had was slight, the hearsay of condemned men.

Gifford no doubt still had powerful friends, Ralegh among them, and clearly some effort was made to whitewash his reputation. His name was kept out of the trial, but it was certainly in public circulation, else why would the historian William Camden go out of his way in the Annales to deny the rumours: “And withal [the Babington conspirators] spread abroad a false rumour by their privy whisperers that George Gifford, one of the Band of the Queen’s Gentlemen pensioners, had sworn the Queen’s death, and in that respect had wiped the Duke of Guise of a great sum of money.” This is misleading, wilfully or otherwise: there is contemporary evidence from the catholic side of Gifford’s dealings in 1583.

Howsoever he was reprieved, the exposure was effectively the end of Gifford’s career at court. When he died in 1613, it was said that his loss “would have been less, both for himself and his posterity, if he had gone thirty years ago”. Thirty years earlier was 1583, the year he offered to assassinate Elizabeth. The valediction was either a lucky generalisation, or a very precise obversation. His own view, looking back on the ruin of his hopes, was that he was “as deep in disgrace as years”, with no aim “but to make his death show his life’s innocence”.

Casting around for things to do, he finally made the journey to Constantinople. Ralegh was one of the few men who stayed close to him on his return. In April 1592 Gifford can be found as rear admiral of a fleet under Captain Cross, another of Ralegh’s men, commanding a crew of 180 on board the Alcedo. He sailed with Ralegh to Guiana in 1594 as his vice-admiral aboard the Lion’s Whelp, and was rear admiral on the Quittance on the Cadiz expedition of 1597. Between those two voyages, Ralegh interceded on Gifford’s behalf with Sir Robert Cecil, asking that Cecil “move Her Majesty after so many year’s disgrace to comfort him with one gracious word.”

In the circumstances, Ralegh’s claim that “I do not know how he may be wronged to her majesty” is classic Raleghan chutzpah. It is perhaps thanks to Ralegh that Elizabeth eventually softened Gifford’s disgrace, knighting him in 1596.

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

NOTE: For more on Catholic conspiracies against Elizabeth, see my posts on the Ridolfi plot and the psychology of treason

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