Archive for August, 2009


Many of the posts I have done for Tudor Stuff have touched upon people who were outlawed for their Catholic beliefs; many of these people were fined, imprisoned, tortured or executed.  In researching these stories I have often come across the name of Richard Topcliffe. Although this name is less well known today it was infamous in Elizabethan times for its association with torture and cruelty.

Early years

Somerby Church Linconshire : Rick Wilks on Flickr (Click image)

Somerby Church Linconshire : Rick Wilks on Flickr (Click image)


The Topcliffes were an old family from Somerby in Liconshire, Richard was born in 1531 but orphaned when he was aged 12 and was placed in the care of Sir Anthony Neville, his uncle.  It seems that Topcliffe may have entered the Queens service in some capacity before she ascended to the throne. Family connections helped him to become Member of Parliament for Beverley in Yorkshire and eventually secured him a role in the official investigation of those perceived to be enemies of the state.

Torture chamber I HDR : Photo hans jesus wurst on Flickr (Click image)

Torture chamber I HDR : Photo hans jesus wurst on Flickr (Click image)

Bully  and sexual fantasist?

From the 1570’s onward, England had no shortage of external enemies but the most suspicion fell upon its Catholic minority. Special attention was given to the Priests who were being smuggled into England to minister to these Catholics, it was in the persecution of this group that Topcliffes talents were most often employed.

Although Topcliffe seems to have been used at different times by the Privy Council, Lord Burghley and the spy master Walsingham, he was known to boast of his links to Queen Elizabeth. One of his victims, a Priest called Thomas Pormont reprted that Topcliffe had boasted to him that the Queen had allowed him to touch her breasts and legs and also;

‘that he felt her belly and said unto Her Majesty that she had the softest belly of any womankind’

It is hard to read anything about Topcliffe without getting the impression that this was a man who enjoyed his work. John Gerard wrote about meeting him after he was arrested in 1594. Apparently Topcliffe said to him

You know who I am? I am Topcliffe. No doubt you have heard people talk about me?

Clearly, Topcliffe thought that the mention of his name might be enough to frighten people. In order to heighten the effect Topcliffe hit the table with his sword as he said this. Gerard reported that he was unimpressed although he had indeed heard of Topcliffe, describing him as ‘a cruel creature’ who ‘thirsted for the blood of Catholics’

Torture bed : jeff caires on Flickr (Click image)

Torture bed : jeff caires on Flickr (Click image)


So closely was Topcliffe associated with the practice of Torture that the term ‘Topcliffian practices’ became known as a euphemism for torture. There are many accounts of his involvement with this, and again it is easy to get the impression that he took personal enjoyment from this.

He is known to have had his own ‘stronge chamber’ in his London house where he boasted that he kept a personally designed machine for torture – ‘compared with which the rack was mere childs play’ – we can only guess what form this machine may have taken. It is also likely that he helped to pioneer the use of manacles, a ‘lesser torture’ than the rack but still devastating in its effect upon victims.

Torture chair : Brian Gilmore on Flickr (click image)

Torture chair : Brian Gilmore on Flickr (click image)

A useful but little regarded servant of the State

Although he was useful to the Elizabethan state it seems likely that there was no love for a man who may have been considered a necessary evil. In his later years Richard Topcliffe retired from London and spent most of his time in his estates in Yorkshire and at Badley Hall in Derbyshire where  he died in 1604.

There are no pictures of Topcliffe that I know of ( unless anyone can correct me?).  I though it appropriate to use images of torture instead. Also, as an Amnesty International supporter I have added a link to their information about torture – sadly, there are plenty of modern Topcliffes still at work.
See also our earlier post ‘Torture – rack and manacles’


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Harvington Hall is well known for it’s wall paintings (see link) which were completed in the 1600’s. Until 1936 these paintings had lain forgotten beneath a layer of whitewash although they have since been uncovered and can be seen by visitors to the Hall. The largest of these paintings(above) is of a mermaid and this image is today’s subject.

The Mermaid passage.

The Harvington mermaid lies above a doorway on the first floor and can best be seen as one leaves the great chamber. The picture shows a two tailed mermaid sitting on a scallop shell. Around the mermaid are two smaller mermaids as well as an intricate scrolling design including what appear to be fountains of water as well as vases and fruit.

The Mermaid - above a bedroom door at Harvington Hall

The Mermaid – above a bedroom door at Harvington Hall

The image of fruit on the mermaids head suggests (to me) a cornucopia – an image associated with female fertility. The picture is in a style knownas ‘arabesque’ – popular in the Elizabethan period and there is an idea that it may have been completed by a Flemish or German artist.

The mermaid is in reasonable condition but was clearly once part of a larger design which is fading into the walls around it. The worst damage to the mermaid (the plain & nearly circular patch left of centre) was caused where a hole was cut to allow access for a flue pipe from a stove in the room beyond.


Mermaid legends are of ancient origin and often have similar themes. A mermaid is pretty much always seen as a seductive and tempting figure. In the same way that the sea can be both beautiful and dangerous – stories often tell of mermaids trying to lure people with their beauty – often with tragic consequences. It is also common for there to be terrible consequences if a mermaids advances are spurned.

Mary Queen of Scots - 'dolphin' used as a slur against her

Mary Queen of Scots – ‘mermaid’ used as an insult.

In Elizabethan times, the mermaid came to be a euphemism for a prostitute ( I have been told that German people still recognise this connection, unknown in modern English people). This was used as a slur against Mary Queen of Scots and Shakespeare is commonly thought to have refered to this in ‘The Midsummer Nights Dream’

‘Thou rememberest

Since once I sat upon a promontory,

And heard a mermaid on a Dolphin’s back

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,

That the rude sea grew civil at her song;

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,

To hear the sea-maid’s music.’

In the extract above the ‘mermaid’ represents Mary Queen of Scots, the Dolphin is the ‘Dauphin’- the French Prince she was married to and the ‘certain stars’ are noble supporters who rallied to her hopeless cause.


The above image shows a mermaid with a crown and the initials M.R. which stands for Maria Regina (Mary Queen of Scots) The mermaid in the 16th cent was a symbol of prostititution, and this mermaid wearing a crown is a slur on Mary Queen of Scots after she married James Hepburn Earl of Bothwell, as a great whore. The symbol below with the Hare, is the Insignia of Lord Bothwell with his Initials J (I) H= James Hepburn his proper name (this information is taken from a comment made by W. Adams on 21.01.2019, as it improves the post I added it here, see comments below for context)

(See articles here & here for fuller discussion of this)


I always wondered why Harvington had a painting which was suggestive of such a sensual theme, it hardly seems to fit with the rest of the Hall given it’s strongly Catholic background. This website which discusses Mermaids in Irish Church art gave me cause to think.

The author confirms the association between the mermaid and sin and tempation but concludes with the suggestion that the image of a mermaid was used to divide the secular part of the church from the sacred areas. At Harvington, the mermaid is roughly situated at the point where one leaves the family areas of the house and moves upstairs to areas where Priests would have stopped and masses were held. Is it possible that this image was used here for a similar purpose? (* See below *)

A modern mermaid.

Porpoise - (click image)

Porpoise – (click image)

I thought I would include the reason that I got thinking about mermaids in the first place. I have just come back from a holiday in Yorkshire, one day we took a walk out to the cliffs at Flamborough head.

Whilst walking I looked out over a cliff and saw a dead poropise on the rocks below. There is a suggestion that the mermaid myth may be built upon mis-interpretations of sightings such as this.

This sighting was confirmed by the local wildlife experts as being a dead porpoise but It is easy to imagine how one might catch a glimpse of such a creature and ‘see’ a mermaid – especially if one had been rised to believe in such creatures.

The Mermaid by James Edward Creamer (Click image)

The Mermaid by James Edward Creamer (Click image)

The mermaid image continues to inspire people – just try putting ‘mermaid’ as a search term on flickr – this is my favourite (above). I was however suprised (& a little pleased!) to find that the mermaid can still cause some offence.

The Starbucks Mermaid.

I stated above that (apart from the Germans) I didn’t think anyone would still associate the mermaid with anything lewd. Apparently there is a Christian group in the US who have campaigned for a boycott of Starbucks because of their use of the two-tailed mermaid! (See also)

As they say in Yorkshire – ‘theres nowt as queer as folk’

(* of course – it may be that the mermaid is there because it was fashionable at the time & the Hall inhabitants just liked it – it is possible to over-do the search for deeper symbolic meanings!)

PS Thanks to Lee Durkee for drawing my attention to this image of a mermaid feeding her young – from the Royal collection.

PPS See also ‘How many breasts does a mermaid have‘ by Lee Durkee



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Corfe Castle at sunrise on summer morning from West Hill: o.ivanchenko on Flickr (Click image)

Corfe Castle at sunrise on summer morning from West Hill: o.ivanchenko on Flickr (Click image)

I have been intending to do this post for a while now. I thought that it would be best to wait until the Summer comes. It is officially Summer now but as anyone in England knows the weather has been really awful. Right now if you wanted to flatter anyone then you probably wouldn’t compare them to a summers day – unless you wanted a smack in the mouth that is!

I suppose that it is ok to post this anyway – Shakespeare does acknowledge that Summer is imperfect, there are sometimes rough winds – or the sun can be too hot. I suspect he would have been suprised at the current weather

‘ sometimes it raineth continuously throughout the month of July!’

It is however, a good excuse to show some excellent photos of the English countryside if nothing else!  I am heading off on holiday for a week so things might get a bit slow around here for a short time.

English Countryside by sabine.gruenke on Flickr (click image)

English Countryside by sabine.gruenke on Flickr (click image)

Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And Summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And oft’ is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d:

Summer Eves by rawprints on Flickr (click image)

Summer Eves by Rob Woolf (rawprints.co.uk - click image)

But thy eternal Summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou owest;

Nor shall Death brag thou wanderest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou growest:

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Sonnet 18

William Shakespeare

And finally, all those pictures of England reminded me of this video I saw on YouTube – it has got absolutely nothing to do with things Tudor but I thought it would be good to add.



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