Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tresham, Francis

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TRESHAM, FRANCIS (1567?–1605), betrayer of the ‘gunpowder plot,’ born about 1567, was the eldest son of Sir Thomas Tresham (1543?–1605) by his wife Muriel, daughter of Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton, Warwickshire [see under Tresham, Sir Thomas, d. 1559]. According to Wood (Athenæ Oxon. i. 754), Francis was educated ‘either in St. John's College or Gloucester Hall, or both,’ but his name does not appear in the university registers, and the religion of his father and himself would in any case have prevented his graduating. As early as 1586 he is mentioned as frequenting the French ambassador's house with Lady Strange, Lady Compton, and other Roman catholics. He was ‘a wylde and unstayed man,’ and in 1596 he is said by Father Gerard to have been arrested with Catesby and the two Wrights, during Elizabeth's illness, to prevent them causing any disturbance in case of her death. In 1600–1 he became involved in Essex's rebellious schemes, to the disgust of his jesuit advisers, one of whom declared that if Tresham ‘had had so much witt and discretion as he might have had, he would never have associated himself amongest such a dampnable crewe of heritikes and athistes’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. pt. iv. pp. 369–70). He was one of those left by Essex to guard Lord-keeper Egerton in Essex House on Sunday, 8 Feb. 1600–1, and refused to allow Egerton either to leave or to communicate with the queen. He was imprisoned first in the White Lion, Southwark, and then in the Tower. His father, Sir Thomas Tresham, bought his pardon at the price of three thousand marks; he was also required to give satisfaction, probably of a monetary kind, to Egerton and the lieutenant of the Tower, his delay in so doing retarding his release until 21 June (Salisbury to Windebank, Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1601–3, p. 205; three letters relating to his release and the losses entailed upon his father among the Tresham papers at Rushton are described as ‘curious’ and ‘interesting,’ Cal. Rushton Papers).

Tresham seems to have lived a dissatisfied and not very creditable life. His father allowed him the use of his manor of ‘Hoggesdon’ (? Hoxton), but Francis was not above entering into a conspiracy with one of his father's servants to deceive him about the extent of some lands they were to exchange (Cal. Rushton Papers, p. 11), and there are frequent references to his debts and requests to his father for money. He also occupied himself in calculating the profits to be obtained from sheep-farming. At the same time he continued his treasonable proceedings. In 1602 he, Catesby, and Winter consulted Father Henry Garnett [q. v.] at White Webbs as to the propriety of sending one of their number to the king of Spain to induce him to attempt an invasion of England. He also had made for him a copy of George Blackwell's book on equivocation. It was natural, therefore, that he should drift into the gunpowder plot. Catesby and the two Winters were his cousins, his family was closely connected with the Vaux of Harrowden, and had suffered much for the Roman catholic cause. The exact date of his initiation into the secret is somewhat doubtful: in the indictments against the conspirators Tresham is named with those who were said to have met, approved, and undertaken the plot on 20 May 1604, and possibly some of the money he obtained from his father may have found its way into the conspirators' pockets. On the other hand, Tresham himself declared that Catesby revealed the secret to him on 14 Oct. 1605, and others of the conspirators asserted that Tresham was the last to be initiated. In his case, as in those of Digby and Rookwood, the object of the conspirators was to draw on Tresham's wealth, for by the death of his father on 11 Sept. 1605 Tresham had succeeded to considerable property. This step was a fatal mistake on the part of Catesby and Winter; his newly acquired wealth made Tresham less ready than he had been in his penniless days to risk all in a revolution. Moreover, he was closely connected with several peers who would have perished in the destruction of parliament: Lords Stourton and Monteagle were his brothers-in-law, and Guy Fawkes admitted in his examination that Tresham was very anxious to save them. Tresham himself declared that he opposed the plot when first Catesby mentioned it, then urged its postponement, and offered Catesby money to leave the kingdom.

In any case there can be little doubt that it was Tresham who revealed the plot. The method of revelation was probably prearranged between him and his brother-in-law, Monteagle [see Parker, William], but the theory that the whole plot was encouraged or concocted by the government, and that Tresham was an agent provocateur, is especially difficult to believe so far as concerns Tresham, whose conduct is satisfactorily explained on less recondite motives. Tresham was in London on 25 or 26 Oct. when Winter came to his lodgings in Clerkenwell and obtained 100l. from him, and on the latter date Monteagle received the famous letter warning him not to attend at the opening of parliament on 5 Nov. The letter was anonymous, but the circumstantial evidence is all in Tresham's favour, and the rival claims of Mrs. Habington and Anne Vaux [q. v.] are very improbable (cf. Gent. Mag. 1835, i. 251–6). On Friday, 1 Nov., Catesby met Winter and Tresham at Barnet, where they questioned him as to how the letter was sent to Monteagle; they could not conceive ‘for Mr. Tresham foresware it, whom we only suspected’ (Winter, Confession). On the following day Tresham was again in London, and after the discovery of the plot, ‘notwithstanding all accidents aforesaid, yet Francis Tresham remained still about the courte, who uppon the first and second newes of outrages and attemptes done by the rebellious route, offered his speciall services dessiring present imployment for their suppression and apprehension’ (Stow, Annales, p. 879). His name does not therefore occur in the proclamations for the arrest of the other conspirators, and Tresham had time to conceal his books and papers at Rushton, where they were not discovered until 1828 (Cal. Rushton Papers, Pref.). The first indication of his complicity received by the government seems to have been Sir William Waad's letter dated 8 Nov., in which he spoke of Tresham as ‘long a pensioner of the king of Spain,’ and a suspicious person. He was thereupon ‘restrayned, examined, and then sent to the Tower’ on 12 Nov. (Stow). On 13 Nov. he confessed that Catesby had revealed the plot to him and that he had been guilty of concealment; but pleaded that he had opposed the scheme, had no hand in its attempted execution, and threw himself on the king's mercy; but that there was no intention of sparing him is evident from the fact that on 18 Nov. the king promised Lake one of Tresham's manors. On the 29th he confessed his own and Father Garnett's complicity in Thomas Winter's mission to Spain. A few days later he was seized with what Salisbury termed ‘a natural sickness, such as he hath been a long time subject to.’ His wife and servant, Vavasour, were allowed constant access to him, and the suggestion that he was poisoned is unsupported by evidence. Knowing that he was about to die, he performed what he considered a last service to the cause of religion, and dictated to Vavasour a declaration denying Garnett's knowledge of Winter's mission to Spain. He had learnt the doctrine of equivocation from Blackwell's ‘Treatise of Equivocation,’ which he had caused Vavasour to copy; this copy, now preserved in the Bodleian Library, was published by David Jardine [q. v.] in 1851. Garnett himself was examined on the point, but ‘was reluctant to judge in the case of Francis Tresham's equivocation, as he did it to save a friend’ (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1603–10, p. 306).

Tresham died on 22 Dec.; although he had not even been indicted, he was treated as a traitor, his corpse was decapitated, and his head set up over the gate at Northampton. He was attainted with the other conspirators by act of parliament passed during that session (Statutes of the Realm, iv. 1068–1069), and his lands were forfeited. By his wife Anne, eldest daughter of Sir John Tufton of Hothfield, Kent, Tresham had issue two daughters—Lucy, and Elizabeth who married Sir George Heneage. In spite of the attainder, Rushton and other lands of Tresham passed eventually to his brother Lewis (1578?–1639) of the Inner Temple, who was a baronet of the original creation, 29 June 1611, was knighted on 9 April 1612, and died in 1639. He was succeeded by his son William, on whose death in 1650–1 the baronetcy became extinct. Wood credits Tresham with the authorship of the above-mentioned ‘Treatise of Equivocation,’ and of ‘De Officio Principis Christiani,’ in which he is said to have maintained the lawfulness of deposing heretic kings. Nothing, however, is known of the manuscript, which was never printed.

[Cal. Rushton Papers, Northampton, 1871; Cal. State Papers, Dom. passim; Stow's Annales; Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. pt. iv.; Goodman's Court and Times of James I; Wood's Athenæ, i. 754; Abbot's Antilogia; Dodd's Church Hist. ed. Tierney; Jardine's Gunpowder Plot, 1857; Gerard's What was the Gunpowder Plot? 1896; S. R. Gardiner's History, vol. i., and What Gunpowder Plot was, 1897; Gerard's Gunpowder Plot and Plotters, 1897; Falkener's Tresham Pedigree, 1886; Bridges's Northamptonshire; Burke's Extinct Baronetcies; Brown's Genesis U.S.A.]

A. F. P.