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.

Norfolk was the pre-eminent nobleman of the realm, England’s only duke, and immensely popular in his own fiefdom: “It is almost incredible how dearly the people loved him, and how by his natural benignity and courteous actions … he had gained the hearts of the multitude,” wrote the contemporary historian and antiquarian William Camden. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 30-year-old Norfolk had a high regard for himself and his position in society: he once boasted to Elizabeth that his “revenues in England were not much less than those of the Kingdom of Scotland… and that when he was in his tennis court in Norwich, he thought himself in manner equal to some kings”.

In some ways that statement tells you all you need to know about Norfolk, his self-importance struggling against dilettantism, naievety, a fundamental unseriousness of purpose. But stratospheric vanity was a familial flaw: the impossible self-worth of the Howards had led Norfolk’s father and great-grandfather to the executioner’s block under Henry VIII. His father, the Earl of Surrey, the last person to be executed for treason under Henry had quartered his arms with those of Edward the Confessor, as if in challenge to the hereditary claims of every monarch since, the Tudors included. Norfolk’s grandfather, likewise under sentence of death for treason, was only reprieved by the death of Henry himself.

It is unclear who first mooted the idea of a marriage with Mary to Howard, although his name had been floating around as a possible suitor for Mary for several years. But it was certainly being actively discussed by Howard himself by mid-October 1568. Discretion was not his strongest suit; the idea had reached the ears of the new French ambassador by the end of the month. Elizabeth herself heard the rumours around the same time and gently confronted Howard. He replied that “no reason could move him to like of her that hath been a competitor to the crown; and if her majesty would move him thereto he will rather be committed to the Tower, for he meant never to marry such a person, where he could not be sure of his pillow”, a reference to the murder of Mary’s second husband Darnley. It was not so much the idea of the Howard-Stuart match that concerned Elizabeth, although anything that might seem to strengthen Mary’s claim was certainly unwelcome, as the secrecy and deceit that surrounded it. She was right to be concerned.

Mary consented to the marriage in June 1569. Elizabeth persisted in offering Norfolk opportunities to clear the air. At the end of July, in the garden at Greenwich one morning, Elizabeth called Norfolk over and asked if he had any news for her. Norfolk said not. “No?” asked Elizabeth. “You come from London, and can tell no news of a marriage?” A lady in waiting approached with some flowers for the queen and Norwich took the opportunity to withdraw. Two weeks later, on progress with the queen in Kent, she summoned him to dine with her. “At the end of dinner,” Norfolk recalled in his confession, “her majesty gave me a nip, saying that she would wish me ‘to take good heed to my pillow’. I was abashed at her majesty’s speech, but I thought it not fit time nor place there to trouble her.”

There is, perhaps, a certain charm to such diffidence, but for Norfolk it would prove deadly. Elizabeth’s evident fondness for her “right trusty and right entirely beloved cousin” wasn’t limitless. By the time they reached the Earl of Southampton’s mansion at Titchfield, overlooking the Solent, on September 6th, Norfolk’s time was running out. “At that house, in the gallery,” Norfolk remembered, “it pleased her majesty to call me, and there used such speech, or to that effect, as I remember I have confessed in my examinations, and upon calling myself to memory, I think her highness charged me with my allegiance to deal no further with the Scottish cause.” The shifting, squirming syntax betrays Norfolk’s moral discomfort, his emotional disquiet.

From being the most powerful nobleman in England, Norfolk overnight became damaged goods. “Everybody began to be afraid to keep me company,” he reflected ruefully. “Where before [my table] was ever replenished as full of gentlemen as could sit at it, now if I could get three or four to dine with me, it was all.” Norfolk left court for London on September 15th without seeking permission, evidently hurt, uncomprehending of the dissonance between his self-image and the personae he in fact projected. “I am right sorry that no man can keep me company without offence,” he wrote to Cecil that day. “ I never deserved to be so ill thought of.”

Elizabeth ordered him to return to court. On the 22nd, Norfolk removed further, to his great palace at Kenninghall, outside Norwich, claiming illness. His distress seems honest enough, caught between the public shame of becoming “a suspected person” and the private horror of imprisonment in the Tower, “which is so great a terror for a true man”. It seems not to have occurred to him that retreating further within his eastern kingdom was the path of least safety.

Orders went out to place Mary Stuart under greater security, to restrict her household and to ensure that all her correspondence passed through English hands first: “for a season she shall neither send nor receive any message or letters without our knowledge,” Elizabeth wrote. The growing belief at court was that Norfolk had fled to lead a rebellion. Three days later, Elizabeth wrote again to him demanding he report to court immediately, “without any delay upon the sight of these letters, and without any manner of excuse to come forthwith”. By the 28th all semblence of patience was gone: Lord Wentworth was sent to bring Norfolk in no matter what. Norfolk was under house arrest by October 3rd, and in the Tower on the 11th. It was here, to add to his troubles, that he met the well-connected, but dangerous and untrustworthy Thomas Cobham.

Cobham quickly became involved on Norfolk’s behalf, devising a means to smuggle information in and out of the Tower. Letters were sent between Norfolk, Mary and Mary’s ambassador at Elizabeth’s court, John Leslie, the Bishop of Ross, in empty bottles, stuffed with bombast to mask the rattling. Verbal messages were relaid by Norfolk’s chaplain, who Cobham arranged to speak with the maid of a Mrs Heybourn, whose house adjoined the prison where Norfolk was kept. The chaplain spoke with her “down from a hole in a privy house, in another chamber, over a privy house also in her mistress’s house”. According to the government’s interrogation of Cobham two years later in the autumn of 1571, he also passed on news of the northern rebellion led by the catholic earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, Norfolk’s brother in law.

But Norfolk had more than familial interest in the rising. He had certainly known about it in advance, but had ultimately resiled from overt collusion in it, clearly believing such demurral equated to innocence. Yet the rising of the north was, at least nominally, undertaken in his name. “The motives of [the rebels’] counsels seem of divers natures,” was the thoughtful assessment of the Earl of Sussex, the man charged by Elizabeth with restoring order. “Some specially respect the Duke of Norfolk, some the Scottish Queen, some religion, and some perhaps all three, yet use my Lord of Norfolk for a cover to the rest.”

It was by any measure the most serious domestic threat to Elizabeth’s throne; that it ended bloodlessly in the retreat and dispersal of the rebel forces said more about the quality of their leadership than anything else. “The people like so well their cause of religion that they flock to them in all places where they come,” Sussex wrote to Elizabeth on November 20th. “The cause is so plausible to all here, as either by slackness or treason, you are daily disappointed of your forces.” When the rebels’ standard was first raised at Durham on November 15th, the primary objective had been to seize Mary. But her strategic removal to Coventry on November 25th made that unrealistic, particularly with Elizabeth’s own army, 15,000 strong, bearing down on them. The rebel forces, which had marched as far south as Staffordshire, retreated and dispersed in disarray. Its leaders fled the country on December 15th, leaving behind their servants and supporters to suffer the government’s vicious reprisals. Over 750 men were hanged under martial law, more than 10 per cent of the northern army, and many more were sentenced under civil courts.

At the Tower, however, Norfolk continued to pursue his fantasy. He sent Mary a ring as token of his fidelity at Christmas and another the following midsummer, while pressing Cecil, in particular, to free him from the Tower. The government, for its part, recognised that his actions – absent any proof of his involvement in the rebellion of the northern earls – fell short of treason. Cecil even sent Elizabeth a precis of the relevant statute to make the point, which suggests that she needed some persuading. Norfolk was allowed to return to his London home in the Charterhouse under house arrest, having already sworn to Elizabeth that:

Perceiving that you do not like of such marriage, I do, by this writing, signed and sealed by me, bind myself never to offend you again in the same, and do utterly renounce all that has passed on my part, with a full intention never to deal in that cause of marriage of the Queen of Scots, nor in any other cause belonging to her but as you shall command.

Cobham played a similar game. He persuaded Norfolk’s keeper, Sir Henry Nevill to lobby Cecil on his behalf, offering the bait of intelligence, inside information. “If the queen would let Mr. Cobham go out upon sureties, I believe he would advertise you of all his determinations,” Nevill wrote. “He, amending his former life as he hath professed to do, may, both in person by sea or by land and otherwise here, to give you such intelligence as he can learn.”

At the same time he befriended a servant of the Bishop of Ross, who wrote to his master “praising Thomas Cobham beyond measure”. Talkative and indiscrete, as men often are who believe their status provides immunity, Ross was no better suited to intrigue than Norfolk, being more than a little seduced by high living, by good food and wine, and other pleasures of the flesh; he had already fathered three illegitimate daughters. Cobham persuaded him to stand as surety for his good conduct. By the end of the year, he too was free.

Norfolk’s secretary, Robert Higford, has left us with a sketch of how Cobham gathered the information for his intrigues. “I liked not to deal with him that had so busy a head, and would be so inquisitive,” said Higford ruefully. Cobham was relentless in conversation, attempting to force indiscretions, teasing out half-truths, sowing uncertainty, spinning out ideas, possibilities, information, angles with reckless, ruthless profligacy. He was difficult to withstand. Ross used him as a source of intelligence, too, particularly regarding the court, and – as the government discovered in October 1570 – as a means to deliver money and letters.

By now Norfolk had clearly learned to dislike and distrust Cobham, yet seemed characteristically unable to shake him. Ross tried to use him as to carry letters between the two of them, “but the duke liked not to have him a messenger”. In early 1571 Norfolk’s distaste for Cobham hardened when the latter, in need of quick money, asked him to find someone to stand surety for a loan. “What means Thomas Cobham?” Norfolk exploded to Higford. “Must I become one to seek out sureties to borrow money for him? I know it were as good for me to give him as much money out of my purse, for he will never repay it wheresoever he shall borrow it.”

Nevertheless, Norfolk, no doubt aware that Cobham knew more than enough to have him sent back to the Tower, found a merchant named Good to stand surety, albeit reluctantly, given that Good regarded it “a discredit… to be bound to any such as [Cobham] is”. It was no surprise to anyone, least of all Norfolk, that Cobham walked away from the debt leaving Norfolk himself to surrender the sum owed.

Cobham may have known by then that Norfolk had already entertained secret visits at Howard House from Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker in London. Howard House was being watched, but one of Norfolk’s secretaries, William Barker, brought him into the back of the house under cover of darkness some time during Lent, and the two talked privately, pacing the long gallery beside the duke’s bedchamber.

As a money-lender, Ridolfi had entrée almost everywhere, the corrosive thread of debt running through all levels of society. Even Norfolk, the wealthiest private individual in England, was perpetually short of money: “I have been a great turmoiler in worldly charges,” he later admitted, “sometimes purchasing, sometimes building, whereby I was enforced to be ever in debt and still in need of money”.

But Ridolfi wasn’t content with merely being a go-between; he wanted to translate his access into action and revolt. It wasn’t personal finance he wished to discuss with Norfolk, therefore, but a complicated plot he was nurturing to depose Elizabeth, liberate Mary and place her on the English throne with Norfolk as her king – all to be accomplished with the aid of Spanish arms and papal money.

Ridolfi drafted a letter to the pope on Norfolk’s behalf, and two more letters from Norfolk and Mary to himself, detailing the plans, including a request for 10,000 Spanish soldiers to land at Harwich. Accompanying these documents was a list of the English nobility, broken down, somewhat optimistically, into foes to the enterprise, neutrals and friends. Norfolk counted just six enemies, 18 neutrals and 39 friends; Ralegh’s friend Oxford was ranked sixth among the latter. Norfolk seems to have thought that by only giving verbal assent to these letters, rather than signing them, freed him from any responsibility for the treasons they articulated, his deceit being no less half-hearted than his loyalty. It is no wonder that Guerau De Spes, the Spanish ambassador, didn’t wholly trust him: Norfolk being “English and not entirely catholic, makes one always suspicious”, he wrote.

But then, Mary seemed to have a mesmeric fascination for Englishmen with a relish for intrigue, whatever their religion; the impeccably protestant Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, whose daughter Ralegh would marry, was also drawn into the plotting, being thick with Ross and recommending to him those “who favoured well the cause”. He had been a recipient of some of Norfolk’s letters which Cobham had spirited out of the Tower. Under house arrest in late 1569 and early 1570, he had died suddenly on February 12 1571, “in a good time for himself and his, being in great danger of losing life and estate by his restless spirit”, according to Camden. Lady Ralegh was later described as being ““a most dangerous woman, and full of her father’s inventions”. Indeed the Throckmorton family as a whole seems to have been argumentative, slippery, fractious, exhibiting a taste for subterfuge that was not matched by their talent for it.

That the plot was as much a product of Ridolfi’s imagination, inflated into a semblence of reality by Mary’s desperation and Norfolk’s vapidity, can be seen by the reaction he and it received on the continent. The Duke of Alva, at the head of the Spanish army in the Netherlands, was indifferent to Ridolfi’s face but otherwise dismissive. He wanted Elizabeth dead before he would commit his men to England. Philip II of Spain was more welcoming but largely deferred to Alva’s judgement, doubtful that Ridolfi could be all he seemed:

it is greatly to be feared that [the plot] will be the death blow for the queen of Scotland and the duke of Norfolk, as it may be considered certain that, if she of England learns of it, she will make it an excuse to wreak her ill-feeling on them, and with ample cause. We are still not without suspicion that the whole thing may have been an invention of hers, with this very object.

Only the pope, of whom the conspiracy required little more than good will and a modicum of money, which was not in short supply, was enthusiastic.

But the plot did not have to have a realistic chance of success to prove deadly to some of those whom Ridolfi had ensnared in England. Early in April 1571, the nervous behaviour of two men arriving at Dover caught the eye of the men watching the port, who were under the authority of Cobham’s older brother William, Lord Cobham. The inevitable search that followed revealed one of the men to be Charles Baillie, a servant of Ross’s – “a young fellow, and not of the quality fit to be entrusted with such great affairs” a Spanish agent in London later said – whom Ridolfi had carelessly entrusted with some prohibited books and a packet of ciphered letters, the latter secretly tied at his back.

Baillie was placed in the Marshalsea, the second most important prison in London after the Tower itself. Although most of its occupants were debtors it was also used as a receptacle for trouble makers of all stripes; Ralegh would find himself here towards the end of the decade. Meanwhile, the letters and books were sent up to Lord Cobham’s London residence at Blackfriars. Here accounts begin to differ. Cobham’s own version to Norfolk’s man Higford has a characteristic swagger to it.

“Well Higford,” he said, “I have now paid my price for the Duke your master; there is one Charles, a man of the Bishop of Ross’s, taken coming out of Flanders, with certain packets of letters… I have provided well enough that there shall no hurt, I think, fall by it.”

“How so?” asked Higford.

“Marry, whiles my Lord my brother was examining of the said Charles, I stole away the letters that lay in a window, and opened the packet that was to the Bishop of Ross, wherein I found a letter of my Lord of Westmoreland’s, and a letter of Ridolfi’s, both which I took out, closed up the packet again, and so laid it where I found it. If I have done your master good, let him thank me for it.”

William, Lord Cobham’s account to Lord Burghley, however, suggests Cobham displayed somewhat less sang-froid: “Thomas Cobham… besought Lord Cobham with all earnestness – even kneeling on his knees and weeping – that those letters might not be delivered to the council but saved for the Bishop of Ross, for he said they would otherwise be the undoing of the Duke of Norfolk and of himself… [and] being overcome with the importunity of his unhappy brother, he yielded.”

Whatever the truth – and Lord Cobham’s is the more plausible telling – the net result was that Ross supplied two harmless letters to be forwarded to Burghley in place of those with which Baillie had in fact been entrusted, much to the delight of the Spanish ambassador, who was clearly amused at Burghley and his people labouring over the decipherment of anodyne nothings.

Already in the Marshalsea as a debtor waiting for Baillie was William Herle, a friend of George Gascoigne. Herle was activated as a prison spy with instructions to befriend Baillie. Baillie was full of bravado at first, enjoying the dream of desperate heroism: he wrote to Ross on April 20 promising “to confess nothing, though they should pluck me in a hundred pieces” – a sentiment that no doubt afforded Burghley a certain grim amusement when he read it; Herle had persuaded Baillie to let him smuggle correspondence out.

Baillie was moved to the Tower and confined to a cell called Little Ease in the White Tower, four foot square, airless, lightless and damp. He was questioned several times by Burghley, who told him on the 26th he could lose his ears, if not his head, if he didn’t co-operate. The same day the privy council authorised his torture. On the 29th he was taken from his cell before five in the morning and brought before Burghley who gave him an unmistakeable ultimatum. Sometime over the next few days Baillie went to the rack. By May 2nd he had been broken, writing to Burghley to offer up what he knew, sacrificing, he wrote sadly, “his credit with the Bishop of Ross, and the service he has done the Queen of Scots for seven years”. He would still be cramped in Little Ease seven months later, in October, repeating his story to the privy council and begging them to show compassion.

By October, however, the story had moved on. Burghley, aware that Elizabeth’s enemies were preparing to strike but otherwise working in the dark, had employed the Devon sea captain John Hawkins, a sometime associate of both Cobham and Ralegh, to act as a double agent. Since the spring, Hawkins had been seducing De Spes with the idea that he might betray part of England’s fleet to Spain, and he had sent a man, George Fitzwilliam, to Madrid to negotiate directly with Philip. Fitzwilliam returned at the beginning of September and Hawkins wrote to Burghley that “the pretence is that my power should join with the duke of Alva’s power which he doth shortly provide in Flanders, as well as with the Duke of Medina out of Spain, and so all together to invade this realm and set up the queen of Scots”.

Hawkins was writing from Plymouth on September 4th. At one o’clock that same morning Sir Ralph Sadler had been roused from his bed by a messenger from Burghley ordering him to Howard House. He and Sir Henry Neville were to confine Norfolk to his chamber and seclude him from his serving staff. Five days earlier, an alert citizen had investigated a courier bag of Norfolk’s and discovered money intended for Mary Stuart together with a number of ciphered letters.

Norfolk’s secretaries Higford and Barker were pulled in for interrogation and asked to decipher the letters. Their initial inability to recall much useful information faded as the prospect of torture loomed. Elizabeth herself insisted on its use: “If they shall not seem to you to confess plainly their knowledge,” she wrote to the interrogators, “then we warrant you to cause both or either of them to be brought to the rack and first to move them with fear thereof to deal plainly in their answers.” If they persisted in being uncooperative, “then you shall cause them to be put to the rack and to find the taste thereof till they shall deal more plainly or until you see fit”.

Higford directed Burghley’s men to a none-too-discreet hiding place for letters and ciphers under a mat by the window outside Norfolk’s bedchamber and, appositely, beneath a map of England; another cipher had been slipped between two rooftiles during some recent building work. Norfolk followed his men to the Tower on September 7th.

Elizabeth’s primal rage at both Mary Stuart and Norfolk for their very personal betrayal of her and her trust was public. De Spes reported that at the beginning of October the French ambassador had thought it appropriate to chide Elizabeth about the severity of the restrictions on Mary. “The Queen burst into a most furious rage at this and dwelt very strongly upon the evils which she said were being brought upon this country by the queen of Scotland. She afterwards went on to speak of the plots which she and the duke of Norfolk were weaving jointly with [Philip II] to turn her (the queen of England) off of her throne, and afterwards to make war on France.” It was the first time in her reign that Elizabeth had felt a direct intimate threat to her personal safety and the terror of her rage flooded through the court. “She screamed all this out with so much vehemence,” De Spes reported, not without a certain awe, “that almost everybody in the palace could hear her.”

The same day, Thomas Cobham and his brother Lord Cobham were arrested at the court. Burghley and Lord Cobham had always been close and Burghley now suppressed news of his friend’s deceit, but nonetheless he placed him under house arrest in his own home. “My Lord of Cobham is in my house a prisoner, who otherwise should have been in the Tower,” Burghley wrote. “I loved him well and therefore am sorry at his offence.” Cobham would remain there in disgrace for some seven months. Thomas Cobham had no such favours to fall back on. He was returned to the Tower for the fourth time. The authorities tried and failed to find a means of punishing him which would not also bring down his brother.

Eventually enthusiasm for prosecuting Cobham waned. Justice for the others snared by Ridolfi’s imagination was equally arbitrary: Higford, who did little but listen and cipher, was sentenced to a traitor’s death in February; Barker, Baillie and Ross would be released. Norfolk himself went to trial on January 16th 1572. Walter Ralegh’s cousin, Sir Peter Carew, was at the Tower in the early morning light with six score halberdiers to escort Norfolk west through the city to Three Cranes in the Vintry, the tides being too high and dangerous to carry him upriver through the bridge. From there he was taken by barge to the water stairs at Westminster Palace and so, at around 8am, to the bar in Westminster Hall, where the indictment was read. There was never any doubt as to the verdict or the sentence. He had betrayed too much trust, too often. He was executed on June 2nd.

Despite everything, Norfolk considered himself a devout protestant, but it is a mark of how unhelpful religious categories are when considering political or other motives in the period that Norfolk’s devotion to the reformed cause had not precluded him from contemplating with apparent equanimity Ridolfi’s plot, which conjured up the prospect of the Pope funding a project to depose a protestant English queen and replace her with a catholic foreign one. It was, to put it mildly, a catholic plot through and through. As Elizabeth’s ambassador, Sir Thomas Smith, memorably observed to Catherine de Medici, “There was not one notable papist but either his hand was in the pasty or else he was looked for to come into it.”

The intoxicating necessity of ready money trumped faith and loyalty for many of those who hovered on the periphery of great matters of state, trusting doubtfully to wit, charm and fortune to save them from the contradictions of their position. And for those who aspired to significant careers at court, there were the additional temptations of status and political power. Categories dissolve, absolutes fade, certainties unwind.

But the key lesson of the rising had not been that catholicism was a spent force in English politics, but that its self-proclaimed leaders were incompetent – “dastardly and soft” in the words of De Spes. And the truth of Alva’s dictum would not diminish as the decade wore on: catholicism could not rise again in England while Elizabeth lived.

8 thoughts on “The Ridolfi plot

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  1. Having examined the plot for years and considered all the evidence, I am convinced the whole affair was a set-up of the English government to discredit Mary and the catholics further. A must read is Francis Edwards’ The Dangerous Queen, also the same author’s Plots and Plotters in the Reign of Elizabeth.

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