Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Topcliffe, Richard
TOPCLIFFE, RICHARD (1532–1604), persecutor of Roman catholics, born, according to his own account, in 1532, was the eldest son of Robert Topcliffe of Somerby, near Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, by Margaret, daughter of Thomas, lord Borough (Harl. MS. 6998, art. 19). He was probably the Richard Topcliffe who was admitted student of Gray's Inn in 1548 (Reg. col. 20). It has been assumed that he was the Richard Topcliffe who, after being matriculated as a pensioner of Magdalene College, Cambridge, in November 1565, proceeded B.A. in 1568–9, and commenced M.A. in 1575 (Cooper, Athenæ Cantabr. ii. 386). He represented Beverley in the parliament which met on 8 May 1572, and was returned for Old Sarum to the parliament of 20 Oct. 1586. After the collapse of the northern rebellion he was a suitor for the lands of Richard Norton (1488?–1588) [q. v.] of Norton Conyers, Yorkshire. In 1584 a dispute began between him and the lord chief justice, Sir Christopher Wray [q. v.], about his claim to the lay impropriation of the prebend of Corringham and Stowe in Lincoln Cathedral. Subsequently he was regularly employed by Lord Burghley, but in what capacity does not appear. In 1586 he was described as one of her majesty's servants, and in the same year was commissioned to try an admiralty case. He held some office about the court, and for twenty-five years or more he was most actively engaged in hunting out popish recusants, jesuits, and seminary priests. This employment procured for him so much notoriety that ‘a Topcliffian custom’ became a euphuism for putting to the rack, and, in the quaint language of the court, ‘topcliffizare’ signified to hunt a recusant.
The writer of an account of the apprehension of the jesuit Robert Southwell [q. v.], preserved among the bishop of Southwark's manuscripts, asserts that ‘because the often exercise of the rack in the Tower was so odious, and so much spoken of by the people, Topcliffe had authority to torment priests in his own house in such sort as he shall think good.’ In fact he himself boasted that he had a machine at home, of his own invention, compared with which the common racks in use were mere child's play (Rambler, February 1857, pp. 108–18; Dodd, Church Hist. ed. Tierney, vol. iii. Append. p. 197). The account of his cruel treatment of Southwell would be incredible if it were not confirmed by admissions in his own handwriting (Lansdowne MS. 73, art. 47; Tanner, Societas Jesu usque ad sanguinis et vitæ profusionem militans, p. 35). Great indignation was excited, even among the protestants, and so loud and severe were the complaints to the privy council that Cecil, in order to mitigate the popular feeling, caused Topcliffe to be arrested and imprisoned upon pretence of having exceeded the powers given to him by the warrant; but the imprisonment was of short duration. At a later period Nicholas Owen [q. v.] and Henry Garnett [q. v.] were put to the test of the ‘Topcliffe’ rack.
Topcliffe's name appears in the special commission against jesuits which was issued on 26 March 1593. In November 1594 he sued one of his accomplices, Thomas Fitzherbert, who had promised, under bond, to give 5,000l. to Topcliffe if he would persecute Fitzherbert's father and uncle to death, together with Mr. Bassett. Fitzherbert pleaded that the conditions had not been fulfilled, as his relatives died naturally, and Bassett was in prosperity. This being rather too disgraceful a business to be discussed in open court, ‘the matter was put over for secret hearing,’ when Topcliffe used some expressions which reflected upon the lord-keeper and some members of the privy council. Thereupon he was committed to the Marshalsea for contempt of court, and detained there for some months. During his incarceration he addressed two letters to the queen, and, in Dr. Jessopp's opinion, ‘two more detestable compositions it would be difficult to find.’ Topcliffe was out of prison again in October 1595. In 1596 he was engaged in racking certain gipsies or Egyptians who had been captured in Northamptonshire, and in 1597 he applied the torture of the manacles to Thomas Travers, who was in Bridewell for stealing the queen's standish (Jardine, Reading on the Use of Torture in England, pp. 41, 99, 101). In 1598 he was present at the execution of John Jones, the Franciscan, whom he had hunted to death. He got possession of the old family house of the Fitzherberts at Padley, Derbyshire, and was living there in February 1603–4. He died before 3 Dec. 1604, when a grant of administration was made in the prerogative court of Canterbury to his daughter Margaret.
He married Jane, daughter of Sir Edward Willoughby of Wollaton, Nottinghamshire, and by her had issue Charles, his heir; three other sons named John who probably died in infancy; and two daughters, Susannah and Margaret.
Dr. Jessopp describes Topcliffe as ‘a monster of iniquity,’ and Father Gerard in his narrative of the gunpowder plot speaks of ‘the cruellest Tyrant of all England, Topcliffe, a man most infamous and hateful to all the realm for his bloody and butcherly mind’ (Morrs, Condition of Catholics, p. 18). A facsimile of a pedigree of the Fitzherbert family compiled by him for the privy council is given in Foley's ‘Records,’ ii. 198.[Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1580–1604; Cal. Hatfield Manuscripts; Acts of the Privy Council, 1580–1589; Bibl. Anglo-Poetica, pp. 64, 212; Birch's Elizabeth, i. 160; Cal. of Chancery Proc. temp. Eliz. i. 320; Croke's Reports, temp. Eliz. pp. 72, 644; Hallam's Constitutional Hist. i. 139, 140; Hunter's Sheffield, p. 87; Jessopp's One Generation of a Norfolk House; Lodge's Illustrations, ii. 119–25, 143, 164, 428; More's Hist. Prov. Anglicanæ Soc. Jesu, p. 192; Nichols's Progr. Eliz. (1823), ii. 215, 219; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vii. 207, 270, 331, 357, 417, 8th ser. x. 133, 198, xi. 51, xii. 434; Oldys's British Librarian, p. 280; Poulson's Beverlac, p. 390; Rymer's Fœdera, xvi. 201; Sadler State Papers, ii. 206; Strype's Works (general index); Turnbull's Memoirs of Southwell (1856), p. xxiv; Wright's Elizabeth, ii. 169, 244, Hearne's Langtoft, 1810, ii. 639.]