Monday, February 20, 2012

Blessed Thomas Pormort, the Pole Family, John Whitgift, and Richard Topcliffe

From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

English martyr, b. at Hull about 1559; d. at St. Paul's Churchyard, 20 Feb., 1592. He was probably related to the family of Pormort of Great Grimsby and Saltfletby, Lincoln shire. George Pormort, Mayor of Grimsby in 1565, had a second son Thomas baptized, 7 February, 1566, but this can hardly be the martyr. After receiving some education at Cambridge, he went to Rheims, 15 January, 1581, and thence, 20 March following, to Rome, where he was ordained priest in 1587. He entered the household of Owen Lewis, Bishop of Cassano, 6 March, 1587. On 25 April, 1590, Pormort became prefect of studies in the Swiss college at Milan. He was relieved of this office, and started for England, 15 September, without waiting for his faculties. Crossing the St. Gotthard Pass, he reached Brussels before 29 November. There he became man servant to Mrs. Geoffrey Pole, under the name of Whitgift, the Protestant archbishop being his godfather. With her he went to Antwerp, intending to proceed to Flushing, and thence to England. He was arrested in London on St. James's Day (25 July), 1591, but he managed to escape. In August or September, 1591, he was again taken, and committed to Bridewell, whence he was removed to Topcliffe's house. He was repeatedly racked and sustained a rupture in consequence. On 8 February following he was convicted of high treason for being a seminary priest, and for reconciling John Barwys, or Burrows, haberdasher. He pleaded that he had no faculties; but he was found guilty. At the bar he accused Topcliffe of having boasted to him of indecent familiarities with the queen. Hence Topcliffe obtained a mandamus to the sheriff to proceed with the execution, though Archbishop Whitgift endeavoured to delay it and make his godson conform, and though (it is said) Pormort would have admitted conference with Protestant ministers. The gibbet was erected over against the haberdasher's shop, and the martyr was kept standing two hours in his shirt upon the ladder on a very cold day, while Topcliffe vainly urged him to withdraw his accusation.

There are several interesting names in this account: Mrs. Geoffrey Pole might be Catherine Pole, the daughter-in-law of Sir Geoffrey Pole, Blessed Margaret Pole's youngest son. He died in 1558 before his brother, Reginald Cardinal Pole, and "He left five sons and six daughters, two of whom were married, and one a nun of Sion." One of his sons was Geoffrey Pole of Lordington, Sussex, and of West Stoke, Sussex (1546-before 9 March 1590/1591), who was educated at Winchester College, Winchester, Hampshire, married Catherine Dutton sometime before 1573, who died after 1608. Geoffrey and Catherine had three sons:
Henry Pole (bef. 1570-aft. 1570), Arthur Pole of Lordington, Sussex, and of West Stoke, Sussex (c. 1575-murdered, Rome, 23 June 1605), who was educated at the Palazzo Farnese, in Rome, Italy, along with the son of Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, and became Lord of the Manor of Walderton, Sussex, and a Member of the Household of Cardinal Odoardo Farnese, unmarried and without issue, and Geoffrey Pole of Lordington, Sussex, and of West Stoke, Sussex (c. 1577-assassinated, Rome, bef. 7 January 1619), who was educated at the seminaries, in Douai, France, and at the English College, in Rome, Italy, unmarried and without issue. Now why Arthur was murdered in Rome on 23 June 1605 and Geoffrey assasinated in Rome sometime before 7 January 1619, I have not been able to ascertain.

The Whitgift mentioned is John Whitgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, nominated by Elizabeth I in 1583, after the death of William Grindal, her second Archbishop of Canterbury.

Richard Topcliffe, is, of course, Queen Elizabeth's servant, with the duties of finding and torturing priests. The History of Parliament website provides some detail of his career, with definite hints of unpopularity:

The time and manner of Topcliffe’s entry into public service are alike uncertain. The earliest reference to him as ‘her Majesty’s servant’ dates only from March 1573; but his own claim, made in June 1601, to have done 44 years’ service places its beginning much earlier, and indeed hints at a possible entry into Elizabeth’s retinue before her accession. . . .

Before the third and final session of this Parliament, in 1581, Topcliffe had begun his career as an interrogator of suspects. It is likely that he was drawn into this business both through his continuing interest in the northern rebels and by his attachment to the Earl of Shrewsbury, the custodian of Mary Stuart. It was at Shrewsbury’s instance that in 1578 Topcliffe helped to investigate the activities of some of the ex-rebels, and it was to the Earl that he reported on these and other matters. But it may well have been the anti-Catholic legislation of the parliamentary session of 1581 which determined that Catholic-hunting should become Topcliffe’s life-work. Although we know next to nothing of his part in that session (he was on one minor legal committee, 20 Feb.) his mounting activity in investigation from early in 1582 seems to reflect an accession of zeal as well as an expansion of opportunity. By the time the next Parliament met in the autumn of 1584 Topcliffe could be ranked with the notorious Richard Young as an acknowledged master of this ugly craft.

In that Parliament, and its successor, Topcliffe sat for Old Sarum, a borough whose patron, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, was son-in-law to Topcliffe’s protector Shrewsbury. In 1584-5 we hear little of him, although he was, interestingly enough, one of four Members appointed to examine a skinner found sitting in the House without authority at the end of November. His membership of a committee to confer with the Lords, 18 Feb. 1585, on the bill against Jesuits and Catholic priests must also have been to his liking. He sat on one other recorded committee, 17 Mar., on the preservation of game. But in 1587 he came to the fore. On 24 Feb. he told the Commons of the Romish ‘trumpery’ discovered in a house near where they were sitting, and he was one of the Members named the same day to search suspected houses in Westminster. A few days later he endorsed Edward Donne Lee’s denunciation of the state of the church and called upon all Members to report ‘disorders’ in their counties, as he offered to do. Topcliffe was on the committee of a bill for East Retford (10 Mar.) and on the subsidy committee (11 Mar.).

The next 15 years of Topcliffe’s life were to make his name synonymous with the worst rigours of the Elizabethan struggle against Catholicism. It is clear that in much of what he did Topcliffe was acting under orders—whether under a commission such as that of March 1593 against Jesuits or under one of the numerous Council warrants to him to use torture—and that those who gave him these orders must share the odium of their consequences. Moreover, his superiors made only spasmodic efforts to restrain him. His brutal treatment of Southwell in 1592 cost him a spell in prison; in 1595, following the disclosure of Thomas Fitzherbert’s attempt to bribe him into doing two of the Fitzherberts to death, Topcliffe was again committed for a few weeks for maligning Privy Councillors; and early in 1596 he had to answer to the Council for his arbitrary behaviour towards prisoners in the Gatehouse. But every check was followed by a fresh outburst of activity, and only in his last few years did the moderating of official policy, and the failing of his own vigour, bring it to an end.

The gravamen of the indictment of Topcliffe is that he displayed an unmistakable and nauseating relish in the performance of his duties. On this the verdict of contemporaries is amply borne out by the evidence of his many letters and by the marginalia preserved in one of his books. It was, and is, easy to believe any evil of such a man; and to reflect that some of the worst accusations—among them that he reserved his most hideous tortures for infliction in his own house—rest upon fragile evidence is not to excuse him. Nor is there much profit in speculating on the influences which went to his making, although his early loss of both parents, the impact of rebellion upon his infant awareness, and perhaps some marital misfortunes might enter into the reckoning.

Of the general aversion which Topcliffe aroused his disappearance from the House of Commons after 1587 may be a reflection. In commending himself, in December 1590, to the newly succeeded 7th Earl of Shrewsbury he referred both to his emancipation from dependence upon Leicester and to his ‘unkind’ treatment by the 6th Earl, which perhaps included, or involved, the withdrawal of the nomination at Old Sarum. The new Earl’s quarrelsomeness was likely to make him an unsatisfactory patron, and Topcliffe’s own reputation may have stood in his way as a candidate for another seat. But his exclusion from the House did not deter him from meddling in its proceedings: in April 1593 he made ‘much stir’ in the Commons by spreading it abroad that the sheriff of Derbyshire, William Bassett II, was a harbourer of Papists. Since the House was then at the climax of its handling of a bill against religious dissidents Topcliffe perhaps hoped to influence that bill’s fate. . . .

Topcliffe’s domestic life was not without its difficulties. His marriage was clouded at least for a time by his alleged failure to pay his wife adequate maintenance. In his later years the criminal escapades of his eldest son, Charles, gave him much anxiety, and in January 1602 Sir Robert Cecil chided him for not having this wayward son ‘cleansed’. He also had the humiliation of seeing his nephew Edmund Topcliffe fall under suspicion on his return in May 1600 from a voyage abroad, during which he had assumed another name because of the ill-repute of his own.

Topcliffe had a house in Westminster from at least the end of 1571, when we know that it was burgled, clothes worth over £50 being stolen from the owner, besides other goods probably belonging to Topcliffe’s servants: the articles stolen from Topcliffe suggest that he maintained a good wardrobe. It was in this house, or an adjacent successor, that he was accused of torturing prisoners: but its nearness to the Gatehouse prison may have led to confusion between them.


  1. Was it not a Pole who fought with the Duke of bedford against the maid in 1429. Are they related?

    1. I'm not sure, but I think that the Pole and the de la Pole families are separate. William de la Pole served in France during the Hundred Years War
      Margaret Plantagenet married Sir Richard Pole, son of Sir Geoffrey Pole, whose wife, Edith St. John, was half-sister of the king's mother, Margaret Beaufort.

  2. I wonder if you have any additional knowledge on Great-Grand-Son of Lady Margaret, Countess of Salisbury. The #3 son Geoffrey Pole of Lordington, Sussex, and of West Stoke, Sussex (c. 1577-assassinated, Rome, bef. 7 January 1619).
    Lady Margaret was given a Tea Pot, 485 years ago as she was governess to Mary I daug. of Catherine of Aragon & Henry 8th. This tea pot was handed down to the youngest son of each Pole Family. It is said Geoffrey had no issue. But he must have had a son. They changed the name to Pool (in great fear of death) and eventually 2 brothers came to America, as Huguenot in 1750s, to fight. Wm. Pool born 1715 died in Va. and family of 15 kids and wife moved to N.C. The youngest son Jesse married 1795 and moved to Taylorsville. Tea pot went to his youngest son Rev. Wm. Pool, born 1807-1882. My great-great-Granddaddy. I have a picture of this item. In 1940s the spelling was changed to Poole. There is 100 years of missing names from 1619 to 1715. Hope you can suggest something.

    1. I'm sorry, Gail Gaither, but I don't have any resources or expertise in the exploration of family trees or ancestry (one of my aunts joined the DAR and therefore completed the necessary research). Good luck in your research; you have some good detail; perhaps or some other similar website would fill in some gaps.