Sir John Perrot
Born in 1528, Sir John Perrot was a profligate and altogether reckless man, whose life seems to have been an unending sequence of quarrels, emnities and squabbles. His family was well connected at court, but the highlight of Perrot’s first spell of service in the house of William Paulet, when Perrot was eighteen, seems to have been a fight with his peer, Henry Neville, sixth Lord Bergavenny, which ended with Perrot smashing a glass into Neville’s face. By the early 1550s he had amassed extraordinary debts of between £7,000 and £8,000, some of which was possibly accrued on foreign service, since he is said to have saved the life of the French king, Henri II, who was attacked while hunting by a wild boar.
Although he spent much of Mary’s reign in prison, either for his protestantism or for debt, the accession of Elizabeth brought him considerable rewards, and he served her for much of his career in Wales and Ireland. He had a talent for making enemies, however, and by the end of the 1580s these certainly included William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and Sir Christopher Hatton, and – in all likelihood – Sir Walter Ralegh too.
Those enemies – but principally Burghley – engineered a treason charge against Perrot; he was charged in December 1590 and spent a year in the Tower awaiting trial. He was sentenced to death on 27 April 1592, but died on 3 November the same year, while in prison still, but without the sentence having been carried out. There were rumours that Elizabeth was planning to release him and that he might therefore have been poisoned to forestall any acts of vengeance against those who had plotted against him.
The case against him seems to have been thin; but Perrot was undoubtedly his own worst enemy. (Or second worst, at any rate, after Burghley.) He certainly had spoken ill of Elizabeth, and did not deny at his trial that he had said:
Stick not so much upon Her Majesty’s letter, she may command what she will, but we will do what we list… Ah, silly woman, now she shall not curb me, she shall not rule me now… God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman, if I had served any prince in Christendom I have not been so dealt withal
Rather charmingly, he claimed he had been quoted out of context. But, on hearing rumours of a Spanish invasion, he had also publicly declared of his queen:
Lo, now she is ready to piss herself for fear of the Spaniards: I am again one of her white boys.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal of evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to suggest that Perrot, was Henry VIII’s son. What there is, principally, is hearsay, and much of that from the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean courtier Robert Naunton, who wrote of Perrot
on his return to the town after his trial, he said, with oaths and with fury, to the Lieutenant, Sir Owen Hopton, “What! will the Queen suffer her brother to be offered up as a sacrifice to the envy of my flattering adversaries?” Which being made known to the Queen, and somewhat enforced, she refused to sign it, and swore he should not die, for he was an honest and faithful man. And surely, though not altogether to set our rest and faith upon tradition and old reports, as that Sir Thomas Perrot, his father, was a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and in the Court married to a lady of great honour, which are presumptions in some implications; but, if we go a little further and compare his pictures, his qualities, gesture, and voice, with that of the King, which memory retains yet amongst us, they will plead strongly that he was a surreptitious child of the blood royal.
Naunton was married to Perrot’s grand-daughter, so one might argue that he was in a position to know the truth of such matters. On the other hand, of course, he might have considered there to be some personal advantage in implying that his wife had royal blood.
At any rate, I think Naunton’s explanation for Perrot’s fall – that he was ‘a person that loved to stand too much alone, and on his own legs’ – is a generous, but true, assessment of a difficult but fascinating man. But I do wonder if Walsingham’s assessment, that ‘He might have lived in better season in the time of King Henry VIII… [whereas now he] must be content to conform himself as other men do’ doesn’t also discretely nod towards the issue of his paternity, which might also account for some of his self-destructive behaviour.