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.
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.
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’
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.
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’