Today I am wrapping up my Blog Tour for my short biography Thomas Cranmer: In a Nutshell at my own beloved website Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers. Everything I accomplished within my historical knowledge, short story writing, non-fiction writing and blogging – and everything I hope to accomplish in the future – owes right down to the very roots my passion for my beloved website and those members and writers who share it with me. Since the website’s inception, people often ask me who beyond Thomas Cranmer, and his partner in all things evangelical, Thomas Cromwell, are my favorite English Tudor Era historical figures. This is a harder question than it sounds, because the more I learn about the era, the more people I find downright fascinating. Here are my “remaining top five” favorite Tudor Era historical figures. They may actually surprise you.
Sir Ralph Sadler and his wife, the Lady Margaret Mitchell Sadler
If I were to mention Sir Ralph Sadler as a favorite Tudor Era historical figure two years ago, most people reading this would think, “Who the hell is he?” Well acclaimed author Hilary Mantel fixed that in her novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. With no further ado, here is the “historical low down” on “all things Rafe”.
Thomas Cromwell, then a merchant and banker, became guardian of the 7 year old Ralph Sadler while his parents still lived at their behest in their desire for the child’s best interest. Instead of generating income from the arrangement, Cromwell raised Sadler as his own, alongside his children at his home at Austin Friars. Their freely given relationship was exceptionally close. Due to Cromwell’s influence and patronage, Sadler became King Henry VIII’s Principal Secretary and later was knighted by King Edward VI. Ultimately Sir Ralph Sadler, an esteemed diplomat essential to England’s foreign policy with Scotland, became England’s most influential and wealthy commoner, far eclipsing both Cromwell’s own son, Gregory Cromwell, Baron Cromwell of Oakham and nephew, Sir Richard (Williams) Cromwell.
Sir Ralph Sadler was a quick study, hardworking, trustworthy, and very gifted intellectually and socially. As such, he became not only Thomas Cromwell’s most trusted servant, but later also a highly trusted and effective servant, courtier and knight to King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I. Sadler, an eminently qualified expert in Scottish diplomacy, was a staunch Protestant. As agent to Reformists and Protestants throughout his career, he often engaged in activities in stark opposition to Roman Catholicism. Thus, Sadler’s marriage choice became a story of legend. Unlike the “tall tale” of Cranmer’s dearly beloved wife being hidden in “a large wooden box with breathing holes”, however, the oral history of Sadler’s wife among Roman Catholics was based on truth.
Sir Ralph Sadler married a widow named Margaret Mitchell. Very little is known of Sadler’s wife beyond records that list her as the daughter of John Cromwell and Jayne Smith. Thus, it is believed that Margaret was a relative of Thomas Cromwell, most likely the child of a cousin. In any case, what is known as fact is the woman was a commoner and a widow with two children. As the more “positively painted” story goes, Margaret’s first husband, Ralph Barré, abandoned her, traveled to Europe and presumably died there.
Well, like in our modern era when “friends” and “relatives” appear only when we come into money, install a new in-ground swimming pool or move to a tropical climate, Ralph Barré made a quite unexpected appearance. According to Roman Catholic lore, Margaret was a lowly laundress working at Cromwell’s home at Austin Friars. Hatching a plan with her husband, he made himself scarce, reappearing after she successfully seduced Sadler, married the man, and then birthed children by him.
What was the truth of the matter? The details are not clear, but Ralph Barré factually was Lady Margaret Sadler’s first husband, and he turned out to be very much alive. Was he paid handsomely to accept an annulment and leave the couple in peace? The records do not tell us, but historians firmly established that in 1546 an act of Parliament was passed on Sir Ralph Sadler’s behalf to legally legitimize his children. With a true story as colorful as that, how could the Roman Catholics resist retelling the tale with a few embellishments? After all, as the fictional character Don Quixote teaches us, “All is fair in love and war.”
Sir Richard Rich, Baron Rich of Leez
When I state that a Tudor Era historical figure is a favorite, that doesn’t necessary mean the person had scruples or in fact had any redeeming qualities. Sir Richard Rich, Baron Rich of Leez made my list for just these reasons.
Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, Essex — was there ever a more evil or manipulative man in 16th century British history? Simply stated, no. In fact, many historians would be hard pressed to find any British man who walked the earth with less redeeming qualities. With no moral center, not even the zealous religious fanaticism common for the era, the Baron Rich of Leez lived his life flip-flopping to the whims of the monarchs he served, resourcefully allying with and then stepping on anyone in his way to advancement and wealth.
Unfortunately for many in the realm, Rich was long-lived, spreading his venom throughout the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I, amazingly remaining unscathed. With the varying political and religious agendas of these monarchs, ranging from staunch Roman Catholicism to near Calvinist Protestantism and everything in between, just how did he pull this off?
Sir Richard Rich, by 1535 Attorney General of Wales and Solicitor General of England, is famously known for his persecution of those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy during the reign of King Henry VIII, a vow that assured the King was the acknowledged Head of the Church in England inclusive of the clergy and all religious liturgy and tenants. In the case of Bishop John Fisher, Rich tricked the man into admitting his loyalty to the Roman Catholic papacy, promising to tell no one. Rich then testified to Fisher’s statements at trial. In Thomas More’s case, Rich flat out lied to the same. Both Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More were executed by decapitation for high treason based on Rich’s dubious testimony.
In 1536, along with his other titles, Sir Richard Rich was appointed Chancellor of the newly created Court of Augmentations. In this role, he worked in partnership with the Vice-gerant and King’s Principal Secretary Thomas Cromwell to dissolve all abbeys, monasteries and nunneries in England and Wales, displacing thousands and completely upending a way of life going back centuries. What did Sir Richard Rich have to gain by this? Well, he acquired wealth and territories, of course. At bargain basement prices.
In 1540, Sir Richard Rich turned on his close ally and benefactor of his great wealth and land acquisitions, again performing commendably as a “chief witness”, this time against Thomas Cromwell, who was just four months earlier elevated to Earl of Essex. Cromwell was soon executed by decapitation for sacramentary heresy and treason, the charges and testimony falsified.
Sir Richard Rich was an incredibly resourceful villain. As King Henry VIII’s religious views swayed from evangelical to conservative and back again, Rich went along for the ride, playing the role of henchman brilliantly. In July 1540, on the heels of Cromwell’s execution, three men were burned at the stake, declared heretics for preaching doctrines opposed to King Henry’s Six Articles of Faith. On the same day — that’s right, the same day — three more men were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the Royal Supremacy.
In 1546, the Baron of Leez was a busy guy. Along with Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Rich engaged in a witch hunt, working to discredit and upend minor evangelicals in the hopes of snagging the major players, most notably Katherine Parr, Queen of England; Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk; and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. One such “minor evangelical” was martyred preacher Anne Askew. Unwilling to testify with whom she associated, Sir Richard Rich and his cohort Wriothesley tortured the woman, racking her by turning the wheeled levers themselves. With arms, legs, elbows and knees dislocated from the rack, Anne Askew was burned at the stake on July 16, 1546.
Upon the death of King Henry VIII and ascension of King Edward VI in 1547, Sir Richard Rich once again did what he did best, turn on one of his closest allies to seek his own advancement. To reach his goal, Rich successfully worked with his other “allies of the moment” and secured the fall of his “interrogation and torture partner” Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley. Things did not work out quite as planned. William Paulet was appointed in Wriothesley’s place. No problem — Baron Rich of Leez quickly convinced Lord Protector Edward Seymour and the Privy Council of Paulet’s “incompetence”, securing the Lord Chancellorship for himself.
Throughout the reign of King Edward VI, Lord Chancellor Rich was a “staunch Protestant”. Just how “staunch” was Rich’s Protestantism? Baron Rich of Leez was heavily involved in proceedings leading to the arrests and imprisonments of conservative and later avowed Roman Catholics, Bishop Edmund Bonner and Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Taking things a step further, in his role as Lord Chancellor, Rich worked tirelessly to insure the Eucharist mass was not celebrated, arresting those performing mass for the ever defiant Lady Mary Tudor. Sir Richard Rich dutifully delivered a letter to the King’s Roman Catholic sister from Edward VI himself commanding her to cease and desist. The Lady Mary’s response? She commanded that Rich keep his lecturing short. Her celebration of the Eucharist continued.
What goes around comes around, even for the brilliantly manipulative Sir Richard Rich. In December 1551, he was compelled to resign his long sought powerful position as Lord Chancellor of England and Wales, feigning illness. The poor man took to his bed at at his estate at St. Bartholomew’s. Why? Like those in modern times who carelessly hit the “send button” before insuring they are emailing or private messaging the correct person, a befriending letter of manipulative warning intended to be sent to the imprisoned Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset was delivered instead to the also imprisoned Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. I suppose addressing the wax sealed parchment “The Duke” was not quite specific enough for a missive sent to the Tower of London. Rich’s days as Lord Chancellor were over.
Phew! Finally we are done with him. Or are we? Upon the death of King Edward VI in 1553, both Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor were usurped in favor of the King’s cousin, Jane Dudley. Sir Richard Rich was solicited for support of the new queen. Knowing this was his chance to regain power within the realm, the Baron of Leez did what he is now infamous for. Rich flipped his support to whom he gauged would ultimately reign and proclaimed his loyalty to the woman he previously persecuted, Mary Tudor.
The Baron of Leez always the ultimate host, Queen Mary Tudor spent a few days visiting with Rich and his family at his home in Wanstead before heading to London to take her rightful crown. What was Sir Richard Rich’s most noteworthy service to the realm in Queen Mary’s reign? This should come as no surprise. Baron Rich, loyal subject that he was, became one of Queen Mary’s most active persecutors, orchestrating the arrest and execution by burning of all convicted Protestant “heretics” in his home county of Essex.
After five years supporting the Roman Catholic agenda of Queen Mary Tudor, Sir Richard Rich rode into London with Queen Elizabeth Tudor when she ascended the throne. In his likely only act showing disagreement with a reigning monarch, Rich refused to support Queen Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity, voting against it in Parliament’s House of Lords in 1559 with the Roman Catholic minority. Sir Richard Rich mellowed in his last years, perhaps in penance and preparation for meeting his God. The Baron of Leez founded a grammar school in Felsted, which in time educated two sons of Oliver Cromwell. He also founded almshouses to care for the poor and built the tower of Rochford Church.
Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby
Forget the mistresses, ladies-in-waiting, noble women, queen consorts and England’s first female monarchs to rule in their own right. Sisters Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby, with the heroic Anne Askew a close second, are my favorite Tudor Era female historical figures. Why? These ladies can be described in two short words, BAD ASS.
Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby, daughters of William Vaux, 3rd Baron Vaux of Harrowden, were wealthy Roman Catholic recusants during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Anne, a single woman, and Eleanor, a widow, safeguarded and sheltered Roman Catholic priests. Known by their most “precious cargo” Society of Jesus Jesuit priest Henry Garnet as “the widow and the virgin”, they accomplished their goal in fostering the worship of Roman Catholics by renting a variety of houses and estates where priests could meet, lay their head and celebrate mass secretly. Through ingenuity, creativity, boldness and downright sneaky daring-do, the Vaux sisters sheltered not only Father Henry Garnet and several other priests illegally practicing their faith in the realm, but fenced the Society’s finances, safeguarded treasures of the church and relics, and assisted in other “elicit activities” in gross violation of Elizabethan law. The dangers incalculable, for over twenty years, they ventured forward for the glory of God and the papacy.
Just what were these two ladies up to? Eleanor Brooksby, widow of staunch recusant Edward Brooksby, was like her deceased husband a strong follower of the Elizabethan regime’s “enemies of The Imperial Crown”, the Jesuits. Left to raise two small children on her own, Eleanor graciously adopted the young daughter of a deceased aunt. Although she certainly lived an exciting life, Eleanor was modest in dress, and for the remainder of her life remained chaste. Reportedly anxious by nature, Eleanor sometimes panicked when Elizabethan authorities ventured to her door in search of outlaw priests and religious relics. Consequently, her remarkably brave and innovative sister, Anne Vaux, often impersonated Eleanor, chastising those there to search her home for “lack of propriety” or “frightening the children”, any tactic she could think of to delay searches long enough for their “guests” and “religious relics and mass alters” to be safely stashed away. As a single and wealthy woman with “connections”, Anne Vaux could afford to take risks. She did so in abundance.
Using aliases to cover their trails, Eleanor Brooksby and Anne Vaux worked in partnership together and with other recusants, such as Saint Nicholas Owen, to insure Roman Catholicism’s survival in England and Wales. While Eleanor or “Mrs. Edwards” often “held down the fort”, Anne Vaux or “Mistress Perkins” traveled throughout the country with young priests in disguise. In fact, Anne traveled along with Father Henry Garnet so frequently that even other recusants and Jesuit leaders believed their close relationship went far beyond “priest and parishioner”, though no impropriety was known to exist. In short, once Father Henry Garnet was named Jesuit superior, his harboring and safety became her life’s passion – and for over 20 years, Anne and Eleanor “pulled off” the seemingly impossible.
How did they accomplish their remarkable work? Well, with money sheltered so effectively that the Elizabethan authorities could not sort out how it was safeguarded or even how much there was, Mrs. Edwards and Mistress Perkins rented multiple properties to provide cover for priests and the sacraments celebrated within them. Boldly the women hosted bi-annual Jesuit conferences; visited, supplied and when possible, bailed out imprisoned priests; and fenced the Jesuits’ finances. In every way imaginable, these two heroic women supported the worship of Roman Catholicism, remaining sometimes just “one step ahead” of those pursuing them, leaving their homes in the dead of night to travel on to the next rented abode in another county. Correspondences that looked innocent enough contained secret messages written with orange juice, which served as invisible ink. In short, historian Jessie Childs sums up the obvious: “… they made a formidable pair.”
Beyond all the daring-do both Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby engaged in to protect priests so they and others could worship secretly within the realm, they also contributed to the Roman Catholic cause in other meaningful ways. Eleanor, obviously the ideal mentor for her daughters, aided her ward Frances Burroughs in taking her vows as a nun, sneaking her and other young women out of England to do so. Evidently, Eleanor, despite the risks, was highly regarded for ensuring children were raised in the Roman Catholic faith. Her grandson Edward Thimelby teaches us that Eleanor “took care that I should be instructed in the Catholic faith”. Both women welcomed guests within their home, Garnet’s presence insuring a continual stream of laypeople and clergy. Sacraments were given. Confessions were heard. Exorcisms were conducted. Mass was celebrated. Throughout Queen Elizabeth, Regina’s reign, the sisters carried forward, though often suspected, undetected.
Sadly, the story of Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby, along with their “charge from God” Father Henry Garnet, took a tragic turn with the ascension of King James VI/I. In 1605, Father Henry Garnet met with Robert Catesby. Unknown to the priest, Catesby planned to assassinate the king and other high ranking nobility by blowing up Parliament. The plans of the plot were later revealed to Garnet through the confession of Father Oswald Tesimond. Despite the enormity of the confession, Garnet remained faithful to Canon Law and spoke nothing of it. Upon the failure of the plot, Garnet went into hiding under the protection of Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby. After hiding with Father Edward Oldcorne in a cramped “priest hole” for over a week while Jamesian authorities searched Hidlip Hall, finally the men came out, both arrested.
Throughout Father Henry Garnet’s imprisonment, Anne Vaux was never far away. Following him to London, Anne corresponded via veiled letters, hidden messages passed along with invisible ink made from orange juice. Ultimately the letters were intercepted, all contained known by authorities before being passed on one to the other. After attempting to catch a glimpse of her spiritual mentor and friend, Anne Vaux herself was arrested. Heavily questioned, she gave away remarkably little. She was finally released three months after Father Henry Garnet’s execution for treason, which took place May 3, 1606.
Though Henry Garnet was now dead, their greatest life mission over, Anne Vaux and Eleanor Brooksby continued their staunch Roman Catholicism through education of youth. Founding a secret Roman Catholic school, the women fostered the survival of Roman Catholicism in England and Wales, often cited for their recusancy. Shortly after Eleanor’s death around 1625, Anne moved their original school to Stanley Grange, where it thrived for over ten years until given up by a former student. Upon seizure by authorities, nothing was found at there. Tipped off, Anne Vaux, ever resourceful, ingeniously moved the school once more. By then in her 70’s, the date and details of Anne Vaux’s death are lost to history.
Saint Nicholas Owen
Nicholas Owen is a huge favorite historical figure of mine due to his brilliance, ingenuity, steadfast religious faith, and his unquestioning courage. If I were forced to select just one Tudor historical figure to highlight as a favorite, Saint Nicholas would be my man.
Nicholas Owen, nicknamed “Little John” due to his exceptionally short stature, was the son of Roman Catholic recusants and the brother of two Jesuit priests. A gifted craftsman of carpentry and masonry, “Little John”, a devout Roman Catholic, entered the service of Jesuit Superior Henry Garnet in 1588. For the next eighteen years, “Little John” Owen worked exhaustively to insure the survival of the Roman Catholic faith in England and Wales, sharing his gifted ingenuity to protect the lives of priests and their harboring hosts throughout the realm.
Nicholas Owen was a clever, original and inventive man. Using his gifted carpentry and masonry skills, “Little John” traveled most commonly with Father Henry Garnet and his protective hosts, Anne Vaux and her sister, Eleanor Brooksby, throughout England’s countryside. At every manor, estate and country home where he lodged, “Little John” built ingeniously designed and elaborate “priest holes”. Hinslip House alone had eleven hiding places scattered throughout the property. One Elizabethan official finding a “priest hole” at Hinslip only after wainscot was stripped and walls smashing about, described that “two cunning and very artificial conveyances” were discovered, “so ingeniously framed, and with such art, as it cost much labor ere they be found.”
Though scarcely larger than a man with dwarfism, “Little John” worked alone. During daylight he worked as a common laborer to detract attention from himself, while through the night “Little John” engineered and creatively crafted hiding places behind hidden doors, walls, hearths and cabinets. The variety of “priest holes” equaled in number those he built, no two alike. So expert was “Little John’s” craftsmanship that it is is believed that there are still “priest holes” out there yet to be discovered.
Once Elizabethan authorities came to know of the creation of “priest holes”, those engineered by Nicholas Owen over time by necessity became increasingly more sophisticated. At Baddesley Clinton mansion, for example, Owen engineered secret trap doors in the turrets and stairwells, connecting them with the sewer system. He also ran feeding tubes into hiding spaces, so priests could receive nourishment while hidden, sometimes days or weeks at a time. There are also “more easily discovered priest holes” engineered, which laid in front of a more elaborate “priest holes” hidden directly behind them. Authorities discovering no one in the first hiding spots moved on, leaving priests safely hidden farther on beyond the decoy.
Over the course of the eighteen years he worked in partnership with the Vaux sisters, Father Henry Garnet and other priests and recusants, Nicholas Owen was involved in exploits beyond his design and construction of “priest holes”, several which also highlight his courage, wherewithal, and ingenuity. Before his ultimate fall, “Little John” was arrested and released twice, first in 1581 and then again in 1594, neither time giving in to his true activities despite torture, both times released with authorities unknowing who was in their grasp. In 1597, “Little John” then masterminded the prison escape of Father John Gerard from the Tower of London. Father Gerard later escaped again to Europe. Encouraged by other Jesuits, Father John Gerard wrote his autobiography, historians’ most treasured contemporary source of the “cloak and dagger” lives recusants and their priests led.
A massive crackdown against Roman Catholics after the Gunpowder Plot of 1606 finally led to the ultimate captures of both Father Henry Garnet and Nicholas “Little John” Owen. This time King James VI and I’s agents knew exactly who they had. Despite a grotesque ulcer on his abdomen, small stature and an injured leg, Nicholas Owen was tortured mercilessly in hopes he would disclose the location of his “priest holes” and the whereabouts of priests and recusants still at large. Unwilling to speak more than prayers to the Virgin Mary, he was tortured literally to death by racking, no trial or execution needed.
Nicholas “Little John” Owen was canonized by Pope Paul VI on October 25, 1970. One of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, Saint Nicholas Owen is aptly Roman Catholicism’s Patron Saint of Illusionists and Escapologists. His annual Feast Day is March 22nd.
Author Unidentified, Chapter X: Sir Richard Rich, British History Online
Author Unidentified, Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich, Luminarium Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors. The article notes that it was excerpted from the following: 1. Pollard, A. F. “Richard Rich, first Baron Rich.”; 2. Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XVI. Sidney Lee, ed.; and 3. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909. 1009-1012.
Caraman, Philip, John Gerard: Autobiography of an Elizabethan, London, 1951. (Latin to English translation of original prose composed by Father John Gerard, SJ.)
Childs, Jessie, God’s Traitors, Terror & Faith in Elizabethan England, The Bodley Head, 2014.
Loades, David, Thomas Cromwell, Servant to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing, 2013.
Schofield, John, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Most Faithful Servant, The History Press, 2011.
Beth von Staats a history writer of both fiction and non-fiction short works. A life-long history enthusiast, Beth is the owner and administrator of Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers website, QueenAnneBoleyn.com.
Beth’s interest in British History grew through the profound influence of her Welsh grandparents, both of whom desired she learn of her family cultural heritage. Her most pronounced interest lies with the men and women who drove the course of events and/or who were most poignantly impacted by the English Henrician and Protestant Reformations, as well as the Tudor Dynasty of English and Welsh History in general.
Beth’s short biography, Thomas Cranmer In a Nutshell, was recently released by MadeGlobal Publishing. A second biography, Thomas More In a Nutshell, and a full length book focusing on Henrican martyrdom are current works in process.
MadeGlobal Publishing is graciously offering a complimentary copy of Thomas Cranmer In a Nutshell to one lucky QAB member or browser. If you are interested in being included in a drawing for a chance of winning this wonderful book, send the administrator a message via the website’s contact form. To complete the contact form, click here –> CONTACT US! We will draw a random winner on July 17, 2015. Good Luck!!!