Sir Richard Topcliffe, gentleman and torturer

Sir Richard Topcliffe is remembered as a sadistic religious zealot, a legacy of which he might well have approved. In August, 1588, he served on a commission to interrogate Catholic prisoners along with Francis Bacon, before he gained his reputation as an enthusiastic torturer. For all we know, this may have been when he discovered that particular talent.

Topcliffe struck me as the polar opposite of Francis Bacon in character — a zealot, an extremist, a man of violence — but by most standards Bacon’s social superior. Thinking about those two serving together on so unpleasant a commission stimulated many scenes for The Widows Guild. I appreciate reminders that Bacon spent so much of his life in the company of such men, working with them and for them, joining them at court events. It makes his clarity and moderation all the more impressive.

Basic facts

Richard Topcliffe was born in Somerby, Lincolnshire, on 14 November 1531. He was thus 30 years older than Francis Bacon. Topcliffe’s credentials as a gentleman are unassailable. His great-grandfather was the 1st Lord Burgh. His grandfather was chamberlain of the household to Queen Anne Boleyn. One of his uncles had been Katherine Parr’s first husband. In 1553, Topcliffe came of age and into possession of some 4,000 acres, a substantial estate.

He married Jane, the daughter of Sir Edward Willoughby of Wollaton. He was related to the Percys (earls of Northumberland) and the Nevilles (earls of Westmorland.) He was related by marriage to the Fitzherberts of Derbyshire and Staffordshire. All of these families were Catholic. Topcliffe was proud of their nobility but shamed by their religious intransigence and carried on a lifelong feud with his in-laws, the Fitzherberts.

Anne Bolyen, at Hever Castle, Kent

He lived through the turmoil of the Dissolution, hearing horror stories about dead children found buried under nunneries and other Protestant propaganda. He was a north country man; vehement, rough and aggressive in manner, liable to outbursts of rudeness, and quick to stand up for his rights. He was a friend and ally of William Cecil, a fellow Lincolnshire man, united in defense of Queen Elizabeth and the Protestant cause. He was an educated man, fluent in Italian, and a member of Gray’s Inn, like William Cecil and our own Francis Bacon.

Topcliffe exhausted his estate in the service of his queen. His son, Charles, was in and out of prison for debt and the lands in Somerby passed out of Topcliffe hands.

I can’t find portraits of Topcliffe or any of his relatives, alas, so I give you a portrait of Anne Boleyn. Queen Elizabeth remembered those who had served her mother faithfully, which might account for much of the tolerance and favor she showed Sir Richard Topcliffe.


Rowse wrote, “Richard Topcliffe was a kind of Elizabethan Inquisitor-General… though the term is not exact; for it was not Topcliffe’s business to inquire into the faith of those he rounded up, but in their external behaviour, their defiance and breach of the laws, their danger to the state, their ‘treasons’ as he frequently described them.” He pursued Catholics who defied the law, relentlessly.

Topcliffe entered the political sphere in 1569, when he brought a troop of horse to fight for the queen in the Northern Rebellion. He considered himself an independent servant of the queen, although he worked in coordination with Lord Burghley, the Lord Treasurer, and Sir Francis Walshingham, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and principal spymaster. He was paid by Burghley from 1581 for his work as a pursuivant — essentially a warrant officer. He specialized in investigating religious infractions, like failure to attend church or sending children to be educated in French or Italian seminaries.

Uniformity was universally regarded as essential. All religious dissenters believed that the rest of society ought to conform to their beliefs. Naturally, the state had more power to enforce its wishes. Topcliffe traveled from one end of England to the other, meeting with justices of the peace and reliable Protestant gentlemen to compile lists of recusant Catholics — those who refused to conform. Some of the persons on his lists were merely questioned and fined, others were brought back to London to be imprisoned for further questioning.

Oppression is a relative term

Questioning by agents of the Elizabethan government could cause permanent harm to the questionee. Catholics were tortured and executed, and not just the foreign-trained priests. Many Catholics were imprisoned. and sixteenth-century jails were hardly luxury vacation spots. Most of the torturing done in England was done during Elizabeth’s reign, but even so, she was kinder than her peers abroad or her own family. Lord Burghley wrote in the early 80’s that ‘not above three score’ Catholics had been executed in the 25 years of Elizabeth’s reign, compared with almost four hundred Protestants in the five years’ reign of Queen Mary. (That’s 60 religious dissenters; about 800 felony convicts were executed each year under Elizabeth.)

Three score still sounds like a lot, until you consider what was going on in Spain and Italy. According to The CrippleGate, Juan Antonio Llorente (1756–1823) reported that nearly 32,000 “heretics” were burned at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. The inquisition was established in 1478 and disbanded in 1834 (!). If we stop at 1820 to give Juan Antonio a chance to write his report, we have 342 years, giving us around 93 heretics burned per year. I’m afraid Mary beats that average, although it’s safe to assume the Spanish executions tapered off considerably over the course of the eighteenth century. Regardless, Elizabeth isn’t even in the running.

I’ve blogged about torture recently, so I won’t dig into that topic here. Suffice it to say that although I am unalterably opposed to it in the present day, when I transport myself into the mind of an Elizabethan, I’m forced recognize that it has its place. And I am reminded not to let my enemies have sole charge of my enduring reputation!

The legacy

Most of what you read about Richard Topcliffe, including the quotes on the Wikipedia page, come from Catholics. It is thus not surprising that he is painted with the blackest of brushes. The nastiest bits come from a formal complaint made by a priest named Thomas Pormort, who was tortured at Topcliffe’s house. Pormort claims Topcliffe bragged about having fondled the queen: 

“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.”

Tyburn Tree

The quotes borrowed from Matthew Lyons’ blog and they are certainly extra creepy. But they were spoken by an enemy — an abused, aggrieved enemy fighting for his life before the Privy Council, trying to discredit his torturer and thus principal witness against him. He failed and was hung.

Lyons offers a balanced view of Topcliffe, although he does incline toward the dark side in interpreting the scanty clues in the historical record. For example, he quotes Anthony Standen, writing to Nicholas Bacon in March 1594. Standen referred to England’s ‘Topcliffian customs’ in the conversion of Catholics. Lyons assumes Standen was referring to torture, and he might well have been. Alternatively, he might have meant merely “pursue with relentless zeal, prosecuting even minor infractions to the fullest extent of the law.”

I agree that torture is implied; I’m just pointing out that it is not asserted.

Professor Rowse managed to find information about Topcliffe written by the man himself. Rowse writes, “It so happens that a copy of Girolamo Pollini’s Historia Ecclesiastica Della Rivoluzion d’Inghilterra in my possession has its margins covered with Topcliffe’s comments on his Catholic opponents abroad and at home, signed at several places with his beautiful signature. … His marginalia give us an intimate insight into his own mind and point of view, hitherto reported on only by his enemies.”

Tellingly, the Wikipedia article does not refer to Rowse’s chapter on Topcliffe. I wouldn’t have found it, had I not been such a fan of Rowse’s popular books on Elizabethan history. Court & Country is full of short biographies of lesser known persons, full of delightful detail and insight into Elizabethan thought.

Topcliffe still comes across as an overly zealous prosecutor, but not quite the slavering sadist depicted by the Catholics. He was not the “rack-master of the Tower,” although he may have personally supervised tortures.

He associated with the highest in the realm, including Her Majesty, who never forget those who served her mother; nor their descendants. Topcliffe can’t have been overtly strange and horrible, or the queen wouldn’t have employed him to deliver messages to Lord Leicester. He was obsessive and aggressive; perhaps they tolerated his excessive views, knowing that someone had to do the dirty work.


Lyons, Matthew. 2012. “Richard Topcliffe: the Queen’s torturer.” Accessed 11/26/2105.

Rowse, A.L. 1987. ” Chapter 5: The Truth about Topcliffe,” In Court & Country: Studies in Tudor Social History. Brighton, Sussex: The Harvester Press. pp. 181-210.

Wikipedia, “Sir Richard Topcliffe,” Accessed 24 Nov 2015.

Death by Disputation on sale!

Death by Disputation will be on sale this coming week at Amazon. This is book 2 in the Francis Bacon series. (See the blurb and sample.) dbd_150x225

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