Richard Topcliffe: the Queen’s torturer

There is no known portrait of Richard Topcliffe, the man most associated with the torture and persecution of Catholics in Elizabethan England. In some respects that is as it should be: those who break human bodies on behalf of the state are usually anonymous, ordinary figures, extraordinary only in the apparent disjunction between their personal banality – as Hannah Arendt noted – and the malignancy of the work they go daily to do.

But Topcliffe was something of an exception: he was famous – or infamous – in his lifetime. As you might expect, surviving Catholic correspondence is full of despite for him: he was, they said, ‘the cruellest tyrant in all England’. But in other circles, his name was casually used as shorthand – disapproving but largely void of horror – for the practices he made his own. So Anthony Standen, writing to Nicholas Bacon in March 1594, referred to England’s ‘Topcliffian customs’ in the conversion of Catholics; and the poet Frances Davison, writing home to his father from Lucca a couple of years later, explained his unwillingness ‘to informare or Topclifizare’ [meaning hunt after and persecute] some fellow Englishmen who bragged about planning to kill the queen.

That both these references come from the circles around Robert Devereux, the young Earl of Essex, and the closest thing to a radical Protestant figurehead at court, may tell us something, that even among England’s more zealous reformists Topcliffe’s cruelty towards the anti-Christian enemy created moral discomfort. Alternatively, both correspondents may reflect continental disdain for English justice: Standen was widely traveled – the DNB describes him as an ‘adventurer’ – and Davison was undertaking an early version of the Grand Tour.

On either reading, however, the fact that his name was recognisable shorthand for torture is an indication of how public and singular his reputation was. Certainly other men undertook such things. But none with such zeal and efficiency as Richard Topcliffe.

According to the DNB, Topcliffe was born into a good Lincolnshire family on November 14, 1531, his maternal grandfather being Baron Burgh of Gainsborough. Both his parents were dead by the time he was 12, however, and as the eldest son he inherited lands in Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. He later claimed that he entered Elizabeth’s service before her accession, although there is no independent evidence to support that.

In fact, much of his life was rather unremarkable. His early patrons included the earls of Shrewsbury, Leicester and Warwick. He sat as MP for Beverley and seems to have been deeply involved in the government effort to suppress the Northern Rebellion, albeit at a fairly minor level. Such correspondence as survives from this period certainly shows him to be an ardent enemy of Catholicism; but there is little that seems strikingly unusual and nothing to suggest his later career.

Nothing, that is, until the summer of 1578, when he was present on Elizabeth’s progress through East Anglia. The persecution and humiliation of Edward Rookwood, which Topcliffe recorded with such relish – and which I have previously blogged about here – sets the tone for what was to come.

It was over the next decade that he built the reputation that lasts to this day, both as an exponent of inquisition, and more generally as a hunter, snuffling out catholic seditionaries and seizing his prey with glee – often, it would seem, on his own initiative. He was a one-man Stasi; a one-stop shop for the suppression of dissent; an efficient and effective private contractor, happy to generate his own leads and happier still to fulfill them.

When we think of torture under Elizabeth it is the rack that first comes to mind, and there is no doubt that Topcliffe was a master of its tensions and pressures. He was inventive in his cruelties, too, with all the thoughtful ingenuity of an artist perfecting his technique: the impact of a session on the rack could be magnified by placing a stone beneath the victim’s spine, for example. The rack was not Topcliffe’s only instrument, however, nor the Tower his only stage; and he accompanied his performances with harrying abuse and what I suppose we might call banter, intended to break a man’s spirit as his body was being broken.

One priest, named Eustace White, held at the Marshalsea, wrote before his execution that

I was hanged at the wall from the ground, my manacles fast locked into a staple as high as I could reach upon a stool: the stool taken away, there I hanged from a little after 8 o’clock in the morning till after 4 in the afternoon, without any ease or comfort at all, saving that Topcliffe came in and told me that the Spaniards were come into Southwark by our means: ‘For lo, do you not hear the drums?’ For then the drums played in honour of the Lord Mayor.

By the time that Robert Southwell, arguably Topcliffe’s best known victim, was arrested, in June 1592 – I have blogged about Southwell’s capture here – Topcliffe had installed a torture chamber in his own house in Westminster Yard, to which the government seems to have outsourced such work in a fit of squeamishness. At least, that is one interpretation.

There is some suggestion that the government sought to put about that it was demonstrating its generosity by allowing Southwell to be kept under house arrest, as it were, but otherwise enjoying all the hospitalities of a private house. But given the reputation of his host, that is a difficult story to credit.

According to a Catholic source, meanwhile, the arrangement arose because ‘exercise of the rack in the Tower was so odious and so much spoken of by the people’.

But it may simply have been a practical extension of the freelance work Topcliffe already undertook scouring the country for victims on the government’s behalf. Sir Robert Cecil noted approvingly that the tortures Topcliffe designed in his own premises were far more effective than those officially inflicted on the rack.

Who authorised Topcliffe’s work? Most obviously the Privy Council and, in particular Lord Burghley – and later his son Sir Robert Cecil. But there is no avoiding Elizabeth’s complicity in such matters either, and she seems to have retained faith in his services until the end of her reign, despite the vicissitudes in his reputation.

As for Topcliffe, he certainly felt confident enough to address at least one letter to Elizabeth as his ‘goddess’. This was, of course, the routine iconography of the court and there are many examples of such rhetoric from Hatton, Ralegh and others. But for Topcliffe to be drawn into such a circle, a man whose sole political worth derived from his apparent talent and enthusiasm for torturing those considered enemies of the state, tells us something about Elizabeth’s relationship with him – and therefore something about Elizabeth too and the value she placed on security.

I have written extensively in The Favourite about Elizabeth’s attitude to personal security and her emotional need for liberty: advised not to walk alone or unguarded in her gardens, she replied, ‘I had rather be dead than put in custody’. But there is surely a case to be made that, in practice, men like Southwell suffered and died to ensure that Elizabeth could walk abroad with such freedom, that the extraordinary cruelties inflicted on some Catholics in the late years of her reign were a kind of corollary for her unwillingness to entertain greater security – and therefore loss of personal liberty – at court. I don’t say that is necessarily true: but I do think it is a possibility we must contemplate.There is no doubt that Topcliffe regarded Elizabeth as happily sharing complicity in his work. Here, for example, is his letter to Elizabeth regarding Southwell – who was refusing to confirm his identity in the hope that he might thereby win the Bellamys some time to escape – written 26 June 1592, the day after the dramatic capture:

Most gracious Sovereign

Having F Robert Southwell (of my knowledge) the Jesuit in my strong chamber in Westminster churchyard, I have made him assured for starting or hurting of himself by putting upon his arms a pair of hand gyves and so can keep him either from view of conference with any, but Nicolas the underkeeper of the gatehouse and my boy…

I have presumed (after my little sleep) to run over this examination enclosed, faithfully taken, and of him foul and suspiciously answered. And somewhat knowing the nature and doings of the man, may it please your majesty to see my simple opinion, constrained in duty to utter it. Upon this present taking of him, it is good forthwith to enforce him to answer truly and directly, and so to prove his answers true in haste, to the end, that such as be deeply concerned in his treacheries have not time to start or make shift.

To use any means in common prisons either to stand upon or against the wall (which above all things exceeds and hurteth not) will give warnings. But if your highness’ pleasure be to know anything in his heart, to stand him against the wall, his feet standing upon the ground and his hands but as high as he can reach against the wall, like a trick at Trenchmore [a step or figure in a then-fashionable dance], will enforce him to tell all, and the truth proved by the sequel…

So humbly submitting myself to your majesty’s direction in this, or in any service with any hazard, I cease, until I hear your pleasure here at Westminster with my charge and ghostly father this Monday the 26 of June 1592.

Your majesty’s faithful servant

Richard Topcliffe

There are a couple of points worth making about this. The first is the sadistic glee – in context, presented almost as a kind of witty apercu – of the description of Southwell’s suffering as like ‘a trick at Trenchmore’, which clearly Topcliffe expects to amuse Elizabeth. The second is the revealing note of self-pity – the implication that he is the one whose suffering deserves compassion – in the aside about his lack of sleep the night before. Poor Topcliffe: did Elizabeth really understand just how much he gave in her service?

It is interesting to note in this context that Topcliffe’s relationship with Elizabeth was perceived by his enemies as a possible source of vulnerability – even as he clearly regarded it as a strength. A few months before the capture of Southwell, in November 1592, a young Lincolnshire priest named Thomas Pormort – who had also been tortured at Topcliffe’s house – contrived to get a complaint about him – and specifically about the banter with which attempted to break the will of his prisoners – to the Privy Council.

Pormort alleged:

Topcliffe said that all the Stanleys in England are to [be] suspected to be traitors.

Topcliffe offered [Pormort] his liberty, if he would say that he was a bastard of the Archbishop of Canterbury, [or] that the Archbishop had maintained him beyond the seas.

Topcliffe told [Pormort] that he was so familiar with her Majesty that he many times putteth [his hands] between her breasts and paps and in her neck.

That he hath not only seen her legs and knees [but feeleth them] with his hands above her knees.

That he hath felt her belly, and said unto her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any woman kind.

That she said unto him, ‘be not these the arms, legs and body of King Henry?’ To which he answered: ‘Yea.’

That she gave him for a favour a white linen hose wrought with white silk, etc.

That he is so familiar with her that, when he pleaseth to speak with her, he may take her away from any company; and that she is as pleasant with everyone that she doth love.

That he did not care for the Council, for that he had his authority from her Majesty

That the Archbishop of Canterbury was a fitter councillor [in] the kitchen among wenches than in a prince’s court. And to Justice Young, the said Topcliffe said that he would hang the Archbishop and 500 more, if they were in his hands.

It is to be noted that these extraordinary allegations seek to discredit Topcliffe with not only the Queen, but also the Privy Council and the Archbishop of Canterbury – not to mention the Stanley family – so perhaps it was simply an attempt to blacken his name and force a slackening, even a cessation, of his work. However, the allegation about the then Archbishop, John Whitgift, seems somewhat more plausible when you learn that Pormort – with an admirably waggish wit but very little sense – had chosen the Archbishop’s name as his alias. And the comments are reasonably consistent with what we know about the bantering, baiting vanity of Topcliffe’s interrogation technique – and about his sense of himself as a man of destiny, saving Elizabeth from her enemies one by one.

Certainly, Topcliffe himself took the opportunity to avenge himself when Pormort came to be executed on a cold February morning the following year. Topcliffe made him stand for two hours shivering in his shirt at the top of the ladder beneath the gallows, while he harangued him to withdraw the accusations. Pormort did not.

It took more than the desperate word of a condemned man to damage Topcliffe’s reputation. It took his own greed and self-regard.

Two years after the capture of Southwell, Topcliffe sued one of his associates, a Catholic named Thomas Fitzherbert for £3,000. The latter, Topcliffe claimed, had agreed to pay Topcliffe the vast sum of £5,000 on the understanding that he would persecute Fitzherbert’s father, uncle and cousin to death – and thereby enable Fitzherbert to inherit. This extraordinarily distasteful deal seems to have been real enough. Fitzherbert did not deny it. His defence was merely that his father and uncle had died of nature causes and that his cousin, one Mr Bassett, was in fact rudely prosperous.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Topcliffe’s already difficult reputation and its taint on the government, most of the proceedings were held in private and it seems that Topcliffe lost his grip and abused some members of the Privy Council.

He was himself then sent to the Marshalsea, from which he wrote to Elizabeth complaining of his imprisonment with characteristically loathsome self-regard:

I have helped more traitors [to Tyburn] than all the noblemen and gentlemen of the court, your councillors excepted. And now by this disgrace I am in fair way and made apt to adventure my life every night to murderers, for since I was committed, wine in Westminster hath been given for joy of that news. In all prisons rejoicings; and it is like that the fresh dead bones of Father Southwell at Tyburn and Father Walpole at York, executed both since Shrovetide, will dance for joy.

The letter is dated ‘Good or Evil Friday, 1595’.

On his release later in the year, he returned to government service, torturing Gypsies and others, as well as Catholics, and also interrogating the young Ben Jonson over The Isle of Dogs, a play which Jonson had co-written with Thomas Nashe and which was considered so offensive that all the London theatres were closed for a time as a reprisal. Jonson and two actors were sent to prison; Nashe, more experienced perhaps in these matters, had fled town at the first hints of trouble.

Topcliffe died, most likely at the Derbyshire estate he had extracted from the foolish and unpleasant Fitzherbert, in the last weeks of 1604.

There is no doubt that his career and proclivities marked him out as an extraordinary man, much feared and not only by his enemies. But what is most remarkable is the fact that he was a public figure, and that fear of Catholicism had so distorted English public life that he was accepted, if queasily, as such.

After all, there are many many Topcliffes quietly busying themselves around the world today, and many more who shrug off those Topcliffian customs of our own as sad necessities in pursuit of whichever ideology is ascendent, or in defence of whatever faith feels itself imperiled. But they do not seek – and nor do we accord them – the kind of celebrity which is such an unusual feature of Topcliffe’s work.

11 thoughts on “Richard Topcliffe: the Queen’s torturer

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  1. Excellent article. I am fascinated by the Reform in England and read most everything it came my way about it. However Topcliffe is a very important figure, we meet him in all the history of all the nations and in all times. Basically he is a sadist (more often a sexual sadist). Taken alone he’s not so important. He might become a serial killer, but usually society disposes of him before he gathers enough experience to get away with his pleasures.

    The problem arises when he meets a leader who for one or another reason (religious intolerance, ideological fanaticism, or, more commonly, a long enough time in power to forget to imagine humans same human as himself or herself) needs his talents. On one side the leader perceives him as the only subject “man enough” to do what is needed for the desired results (confessions, spread terror over YouTube etc.) and the sadist finally has a protector that not only provides for his only means to acquire pleasure but also protects him from the inbred horror that normal humans perceive faced with his cruelty.
    Un-empathical leader plus (sexual) sadist are probably one of the strongest couples to fear in human history.

    In this respect I wouldn’t dismiss completely Pormort’s accusations, not that they would directly point to actual facts. But alone with his prisoner, Topcliffe, perfectly aware he wouldn’t be believed if he dared to accuse him, talking as such might not aim so much to breaking psychologically the prisoner but rather fulfill his own delusional dreams that brought satisfaction only while torturing. We have to take into consideration at the same time what a gentleman was expected to talk about and what not at the time. Robert Southwell’s answer “ask a woman about her throes” might point exactly to that.

    And “alone with the prisoner” is the key word here. Years ago I’ve been reading a ton of memories of Romanians imprisoned between 1945 and 1960 in the communist prisons. When my passion for Reform hit last year I’ve been at first amazed how much of the victim’s dignity was actually maintained while, paradoxically, he was tortured, at least in comparison to communism victims. The secret was in the massive legal presence during the torture session and the papers constantly written about it.

    This ended once Topcliffe managed to have the queen approve of his private torturing room. It was bad enough that the King’s will circumvented Magna Charta allowing torture, torture without a highly legalized frame unveiled a totally new and unsuspected low level of humanity.
    Richard Topcliffe’s biography should one day written in every single dreadful scrap of detail as a caveat, and I would love to see all judges and leaders have that book 🙂

    Anyway one story I am still searching for both in libraries and on the Internet is a detailed story of Anne Bellamy. Some authors say she was the victim of a prison rape. The author might have been Topcliffe, maybe not. Some documents also mention that the crown was aware of that pregnancy. Anne Bellamy is not only a victim, I think her story would be both enlightening on the character of the sadist and of the situation of women in jail (and there were many).

    1. There are many saints resulting from the horrors of Elizabeth’s teign. The good Jesuit priests who gave their lives to give us Catholics the Mass and sacraments will be remembered forever. Topcliffe and Henry and Elizabeth are receiving their just sentences now.

      1. And note that Robert Southwell is tops among them, so surely he was not involved in any “treasons.”

  2. May I ask what your sources are? Especially on Topcliffe’s letter and other information about him. As well as Southwell. I am currently writing an assignment on the subject Catholics under Elizabeth I and need some sources to use. Thank you 🙂


  3. Hello Mr. Lyons,

    I am most definitely a history nerd of the highest calling and do appreciate your post. I have an interest in Topcliffe and Walsingham, their “work”, and letters. This post makes sense partly due to the psychopath Topcliffe most certainly was. The letter to Elizabeth re Southwell’s arrest is creepy and from what I’ve read of her (quite a lot!), she would not have allowed this person’s activities to continue unabated without her say. He must have served a purpose as Elizabeth would not have wanted to be associated with such otherwise. I have to remind myself, however, that torture was a part of the times and I am referring more to Topcliffe’s familiarity than his gory work.

    I will follow your posts as they relate specifically to my interests. I am not a reader of fiction, but may decide to read your book as I am sure your research was without fault. Do you happen to know of any bios re Thomas Cromwell? I have one, an older volume of life and letters but the title escapes me at present. I know of Wolf Hall but as I mentioned, I prefer factual reading or better yet, contemporary work or primary sources. Thank you again.

    Linnea Johnson, USA

    1. Hi Linnea
      Many thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. I’m delighted you like it. As you say, it is very hard to believe that Elizabeth was unaware of Topcliffe’s activities, and she certainly demanded the torture of those caught up in treason plots on other occasions.
      There have been a couple of biographies of Thomas Cromwell published over here in recent years – and I haven’t read either of them yet, I am afraid, so I can’t make any specific recommendations.
      As for my book, I’d be delighted if you read it, of course! It is non-fiction not fiction, despite the cover.
      Kind regards

      1. Thank you, Mathew, for your addition of the links for books re Cromwell. In browsing through Hutchinson’s book(the preview)I did in fact read some tidbits about his early life which I had not read before. That in itself is odd due to the fact that I read so much!
        I am very glad to know your book is non-fiction. I have read some decent fiction in the past, but always feel a sort of disappointment knowing it’s really just a story despite background research. I shall order your book forthwith!

        Thanks again and Happy Holidays 🙂


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