Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/"Lusty" Stucley

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IF Devonshire has turned out a number, and a very considerable number, of gallant and honourable gentlemen, she has also given birth to some great scoundrels, and one of these was Thomas Stucley or Stukeley.

His life was worked out with great pains and elaboration by the late Richard Simpson in his School of Shakespeare, London, 1878. Indeed, it occupies one hundred and thirty-nine pages in the first volume of that work. To give the biography at all fully here is not possible, space is not at one's disposal for all details; it is also unnecessary, since that exhaustive account by Simpson is accessible to every one. The utmost we can do is to give a summary of the chief events of his chequered career. Captain Thomas Stucley was the third son of Sir Hugh Stucley, of Affeton in the parish of West Worlington, near Chumleigh. Hugh Stucley, the father of our Thomas, was Sheriff of Devon in 1544; his wife was Jane, daughter of Sir Lewis Pollard. Sir Hugh died in 1560.

The eldest son, Lewis Stucley, was aged thirty at the death of his father. He became standard-bearer to Queen Elizabeth.

It was rumoured during the life of Thomas that he was an illegitimate son of Henry VIII, like Sir John Perrot. "Stucley's birth," says Mr. Simpson, "must have occurred at the time when the King, tired of his wife Catherine, was as yet ranging among favourites who were contented with something less than a crown as the price of their kindness. Elizabeth Tailbois had been succeeded by Mary Boleyn; and as Mary Boleyn was married to William Carey at Court, and in the presence of the King, 31 January, 1521, it is clear that some one else had already succeeded to her place."

Whether Thomas ever claimed to be of royal blood we do not know. If so, Lady Stucley, like Lady Falconbridge, might have cried out:—

Where is that slave—where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?

But he was certainly treated at foreign courts as one of birth superior to that of a younger son of a Devonshire knight; and the tradition obtains some support from the familiar way in which he was received by both queens, Mary and Elizabeth, and the peculiar terms of intimacy which he assumed towards royal personages; moreover the Duke of Northumberland treated him with the same jealousy with which he might have treated Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, had he been still alive. In the play Vernon says:—

Doubtless, if ever man was misbegfot,
It is this Stucley.

As a retainer of the Duke of Suffolk, into whose household he had entered, and whose livery he wore, he was present at the siege of Boulogne, 1545-50; and he acted as standard-bearer, with the wage of six shillings and eightpence a day, from 1547 until its surrender to the French in March, 1549-50. Then he returned to England, and attached himself closely to the Protector Somerset.

As one of the Protector's retainers, he was probably involved in his plot to revolutionize the government. The gendarmerie upon the muster day were to be attacked by two thousand men under Sir Ralph Vane, and by a hundred horse of the Duke of Somerset's, besides his friends, who were to stand by, and the idle people who, it was calculated, would take part. After this was done, the Protector intended to run through the city and proclaim, "Liberty! Liberty!" But the plot was discovered in time, and Somerset and his chief accomplices were committed to the Tower, 17 October, 1551. The Council gave orders for Stucley's apprehension, but he escaped in time, and took refuge in France, where he devoted his sword to the service of Henry II, who entitled him "mon cher et bon ami."

He must have fought in the campaign of Henry against the Emperor Charles V in 1552, when Metz was taken by fraud. He was certainly received as a disaffected subject, and was admitted to the French counsels. In 1552 he returned to England with a story which he hoped would purchase his pardon. This was to the effect that Henry II meditated a sudden attack upon Calais.

According to his account the French King himself had spoken to him of the weak points in the defences, had pointed out the very plan of assault by which, six years later, Calais was actually taken. Moreover, according to his scheme, the Scots were to enter Northumberland; Henry II would land troops at Falmouth, and the Duke of Guise would land at Dartmouth, which he knew to be undefended. Cecil suggested that Stucley should be sent back to France to acquire further information; but the Duke of Northumberland sent Stucley's report to the French King, and committed Stucley to the Tower. Henry denied the truth of what had been reported. The payment of his debts, which had been promised to Stucley as a reward for his revelations, was now refused, and he remained in prison to the end of Edward's reign. He was released on 6 August, 1553, but his debts compelled him again to leave England. Unable to return to France, he betook himself to the Emperor, and he was at Brussels in the winter of 1553-4, and served with the Imperial army at St. Omer. Philibert, Duke of Savoy, invited Stucley to accompany him to England in October of 1554, and Stucley accordingly appealed to Queen Mary for security against arrest whilst in her dominions, and this was granted to him for six months, and at the end of December he accompanied the Duke to England.

During his visit he attempted, Othello-like, to bewitch Anne, the granddaughter and sole heiress of Sir Thomas Curtis, a wealthy alderman of London, with his tales of adventure. Against her father's wishes the lady was beguiled into a secret marriage, and he retired with her to North Devon. On 13 May, 1555, the sheriffs of Devon and Cheshire were ordered to arrest him on a charge of coining false money. His house was searched, his servants questioned. There was much that was suspicious, but nothing certainly to convict. But Thomas Stucley had taken himself off before the sheriff arrived, and again took service under the Duke of Savoy, and shared in the victory of the Imperialists over the French at St. Quintin, 10 December, 1557.

Then he went into the Spanish service, but in November old Sir Thomas Curtis died, brokenhearted, it was asserted, at the match his favourite grandchild had contracted with one so disreputable and unprincipled.

Stucley at once returned to England, and a correspondent of Challoner, the Ambassador in Spain, writes of him in November, 1559: "The Alderman Curtes is dead, and by this time is busy Stucley in the midst of his coffers." Speedily the accumulations of the merchant's industrious life were squandered in extravagance. We next hear of him in April, 1561, when he was appointed to a captaincy in Berwick. There he entertained Shan O'Neil, a famous, turbulent chief from Ireland, who late in this year visited Elizabeth's Court, where his train of kerns and gallowglasses, clothed in linen kilts dyed with saffron, made a great impression.

While at Court, Shan wrote to Elizabeth: "Many of the nobles, magnates, and gentlemen treated me kindly and ingenuously, and, namely, Master Thomas Stucley entertained me with all his heart, and with all the favour he could." The friendship was destined to bear fruit later.

In a few years but little of the alderman's savings remained, and with the wreck that was left, Stucley fitted out a small squadron, and obtained permission from Elizabeth to colonize Florida; and the Queen contributed "2000 weight of corn-powder, and 100 curriers; and besides artillery to the value of £120 towards the furniture of his journey." This was her investment in the venture, though she did not furnish the powder out of her own stores, but made one Bromefield go into debt for it with a Dutchman.

Fuller says that, "having prodigally misspent his Patrimony, he entered on several projects (the issue-general of all decaied estates), and first pitched on the peopling of Florida, then newly found in the West Indies. So confident his ambition, that he blushed not to tell Queen Elizabeth 'that he preferred rather to be sovereign of a Mole-hill than the highest Subject to the greatest King in Christendom'; adding, moreover, ’that he was assured he should be a Prince before his death.' 'I hope,' said Queen Elizabeth, 'I shall hear from you, when you are seated in your Principality.' ’I will write to you,' quoth Stucley. ’In what languidge?' said the Queen. He returned, 'In the style of Princes, To our dear Sister.’"

He took leave of the Queen on 25 June, 1563. Cecil wrote in her name to the Earl of Sussex, Lord Deputy of Ireland: "Our servant Thomas Stucley, associated with sundry of our subjects, hath prepared a number of good ships well armed and manned to pass to discover certain lands to the West towards Florida, and by our licence hath taken the same voyage." But in the event of stormy winds or accidents he was to be well received, should he put into a port in Ireland.

So he sailed, but Stucley. had no real intention of going to Florida: his squadron lived by piracy on the high seas for two years. He made his head-quarters at Kinsale, where he resumed acquaintance with Shan O'Neil, chief of Tyrone, who aspired to be king of Ulster, and was repeatedly in arms against the English. Shan had offered Ireland as a fief to Philip II of Spain. And now Stucley from Kinsale swept the seas, and made prizes of Spanish galleons, and of French and Portuguese merchantmen. Complaints were made by the foreign courts, and the English Ambassador at Madrid confessed that "he hung his head for shame." Stucley filled his cellars with sherry from Cadiz, and amused Shan O'Neil with his boastful speech, his flattery, and his utterance of what he would do for him; and Shan had the impertinence to write to Elizabeth in favour of "his so dearly loved friend, and her Majesty's worthy subject."

In June, 1563, Stucley took a Zealand ship with £3000 worth of linen and tapestry, and then, joining a small fleet of West-countrymen, fourteen sail in all, he lay off Ushant, watching for the wine fleet from Bordeaux professedly, but picking up gratefully whatever the gods might send. No less a person than the Mayor of Dover himself was the owner of one of these sea-hawks. Wretched Spaniards flying from their talons were dashed to pieces upon the granite cliffs of Finisterre.

At length the remonstrances of foreign ambassadors took effect, and Elizabeth disowned Stucley, and took measures for his apprehension. Some ships were sent out with this object, and he was caught in Cork harbour, in 1565, put under arrest, and sent to London, where he was consigned to the Tower.

Stucley was all the while playing a double game. While professing loyalty to the Queen he was in correspondence with Philip of Spain. Shan O'Neil proposed to Elizabeth that she should divide all Ireland between himself and Stucley, when they would make of it a paradise. Stucley had purchased a good deal of land in Cork, and he hoped to have more granted him and to share with St. Leger and Carew in the partition of Munster. He had a plausible tongue, put on an air of great frankness, and soon obtained his release, and was actually sent back to Ireland with a letter of recommendation from Cecil. There he bought of Sir Nicholas Bagnal for £300 down his office of Marshal of Ireland and all Bagnal's estate in the island. Elizabeth, however, refused to sanction the transaction; she mistrusted him, and with reason, for he was engaged in constant treasonable correspondence with the Spanish Ambassador, and he was in receipt of a pension from Philip. She heard reports of murders, robberies, and other outrages committed by him, and ordered him back to England. He obeyed, cleared himself, and in 1567 was allowed to return to Ireland, where he purchased of Sir Nicholas Heron the offices of seneschal and constable of Wexford and captainship of the Kavanaghs, together with many estates. Again Elizabeth interfered, and Stucley was turned out of his offices. Nicholas White, Heron's successor, now accused Stucley of felony and high treason, and in June, 1569, he was imprisoned in Dublin Castle. It was high time; he had in that same month proposed to Philip the invasion of Ireland, and had demanded twenty fully armed ships for the purpose. As sufficient evidence to convict him was not forthcoming, he was discharged, but felt that he could no longer rely on Elizabeth's forbearance. With treachery in his heart he pretended to Sidney, the Queen's deputy in Ireland, that after such misinterpretation of his acts and doubts of his fidelity, he desired to go in person to his royal mistress and clear his reputation with her; and Sidney, instead of sending him over under a guard, was contented with his parole—Stucley's parole!

Stucley informed him that for his defence he needed a certain number of Irish gentlemen to serve as witnesses to his conduct. The deputy permitted him to purchase and fit out a ship at Waterford to transport them and himself. He took with him some Irish cavaliers, along with their servants and horses, and a miscellaneous crew of adventurers. They embarked as for London, but when clear of the harbour made for the ocean. A few days after they sailed for Galicia, and sent messengers to Philip to announce their arrival.

The Archbishop of Cashel, then at Madrid, not knowing much of Stucley, recommended Philip to receive the party. The King accordingly sent for him to Court, knighted him, loaded him with presents, granted him five hundred reales a day and a residence at Las Rozas, nine miles from Madrid, where he lived in great state, with thirty gentlemen about him. He made great brag of the vast estates of which the Queen had deprived him—Wexford, Kinsale, the Kavanagh country, Carlow, and the whole kingdom of Leinster, and an income of £2200 per diem—and was believed. He assumed the title of Duke of Ireland, but Philip only allowed him to be received as Duke of Leinster. He represented himself as of vast influence in Ireland, and Philip was completely taken in by his boasting. But the Archbishop of Cashel soon received tidings of his real position in the island. He had robbed churches, despoiled abbeys, was detested by the native Irish whom he had cruelly maltreated, and was of no influence at all. Thenceforth two parties were formed in the Spanish Court, one denouncing Stucley as an adventurer and so unprincipled that if he thought it would suit his purpose would betray everything to Elizabeth. The other party believed in his professions and encouraged the King to trust him; and his assumption, his audacious and enormous lies, his perfect self-assurance bore down all opposition, and under Stucley's auspices the Spanish Government began serious preparations for the invasion and conquest of Ireland. Ships were collected at Vigo with arms and stores. Ten thousand men were to be raised, and Julian Romero was to be recalled from Flanders to command.

Meanwhile he amused the Spaniards with scandalous stories about Elizabeth and her Court, and his fool's boast of what he was about to achieve.

"Master Stukely said to the King's Council that the Queen's Majesty will beat Secretary Cecil about the ears when he discontenteth her, and he will weep like a child. The Spaniards asking him why the Queen's Highness did not marry, he said she would never marry, for she cannot abide a woman with child, for she saith those women be worse than a sow. He also said, 'What hurt I can do her I will do it and will make her vilely afraid.'"[1]

"The Duke's Grace Stukely had received the Sacrament, and promised to render unto the King of Spain not only entrance within his duchy, but also possession of the whole realm of Ireland. The soldiers were amassing from all parts of Spain Spaniards, Burgundians, Italians, the most part Bezonians, beggarly, ill-armed rascals, but their captains old beaten men-of-war. The King was sparing no cost on the enterprise, and no honours to Stukely, hoping by such means to enlarge his empire."[2]

Nothing, however, came of this at the time, and the party that perceived Stucley to be a charlatan grew stronger, his boasting palled, and the King at last became suspicious and withdrew his favour. Perceiving himself to be regarded on all sides with mistrust, not to say with contempt, in a huff he left Spain, went to Italy, and offered his service to the Pope. In 1571 he was given command of three galleys, and partook in Don John's victory over the Turks at Lepanto; and thus raised himself considerably in King Philip's estimation. Then he went back to Rome, where "it is incredible how quickly he wrought himself into the favour, through the Court into the Chamber, yea Closet, yea Bosom of Pope Pius V; so that some wise men thought his Holiness did forfeit a parcel of his Infallibility in giving credit to such a Glorioso, vaunting that with three thousand Soldiers, he would beat all the English out of Ireland."

The Pope created Stucley Baron of Ross, Viscount Murrough, Earl of Wexford, and Marquess of Leinster, and furnished him with a few vessels and eight hundred soldiers, but these were to receive their pay from the King of Spain.

Some contention arose as to the division of spoil when Elizabeth was overthrown and England and Ireland were at the feet of Gregory XIII and Philip of Spain. The Pope gave Stucley a consecrated banner to plant in Ireland, which was to become wholly his own, and to which he was to appoint the Pope's bastard son, Giacomo Buoncompagni, as king.

Stucley left Civita Vecchia in March, 1577-8, but soon found that the vessels were unseaworthy, and the military the offscouring of Italy. Stucley put into Lisbon for repairs, and found King Sebastian of Portugal preparing for his attempt on North Africa, having with him two Moorish kings. The King persuaded Stucley to accompany him. Landing in Africa, Stucley gave wise counsel to Sebastian not to engage the enemy till the soldiers had recovered from the voyage, they having suffered severely in the stormy passage. But the young King would listen to no advice, and in the battle of Alcazar, on 4 August, 1578, Stucley lost his life, regretted probably by none.

A fatal fight, where in one day was slain
Three king's that were, and one that would be fain.

Thus perished a man of whom Cecil had written some years before, "Thomas Stucley, a defamed person almost through all Christendom, and a faithless beast rather than a man, fleeing first out of England for notable piracies, and out of Ireland for treacheries unpardonable."

Lord Burghley wrote: "Of this man might be written whole volumes to paint out the life of a man in the highest degree of vain-glory, prodigality, falsehood, and vile and filthy conversation of life, and altogether without faith, conscience, or religion."

Stucley at once became the hero of ballads, chap-books, and plays. The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley was printed in 1605, and Peele's Battle of Alcazar in 1594, but both plays had been acted before these dates. In the Life and Death Stucley is glorified, as an idol of the military or Essex party to which Shakespeare is known to have belonged, and it has been thought that his hand can be traced in the composition. But if so, he has left in it but little trace of his genius.

In one of the ballads published about Stucley, he is thus spoken of:—

Taverns and ordinaries were his chiefest braveries,
Golden angels there flew up and down;
Riots were his best delights with stately feasting day and night,
In court and city thus he won renown.

  1. Depositions relating to Mr. Stucley's doings in Spain, August, 1571, quoted by Froude in his History of England.
  2. O. King to Burghley, 18 February, 1572. Ibid.