Histories & Mysteries: Thomas Stukeley – Devon born pirate, double agent, forger and traitor

Ben Fox
Ben Fox
Sir Thomas Stukeley

Thomas Stukeley was a soldier, pirate and adventurer, who was born in 1525 to Sir Hugh Stukeley in Affeton, North Devon. Though there are rumours that still circulate today that Henry VIII was actually his natural father.

Stukeley was one of the most colourful characters of the Elizabethan age, whose exploits brought him fame and notoriety throughout Europe. Described variously as picturesque, quixotic, cloudy minded, remarkable, and (by Evelyn Waugh) as a ‘preposterous and richly comic figure’, Stukeley remains a flamboyant and fascinating character in the imagination of succeeding generations.

Yet whilst these portrayals may be accurate, they do not in themselves do full justice to a multifaceted man whose remarkable career included stints as mercenary, pirate, forger, colonial adventurer, political advisor, diplomat and traitor, and who rubbed shoulders with princes, kings and popes.

He began a military career under the Duke of Suffolk, on whose death (1545) he joined the household of the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of England from 1547. Upon Somerset’s arrest for treason, Stukeley escaped arrest by going to France, where he came to the notice of Henri II, who wrote him a letter of recommendation to Edward VI.

Returning to England, Stukeley reported to the Duke of Northumberland (who had supplanted his former patron Somerset as effective ruler of England) that Henri had recruited him as a spy. His story was disbelieved and Northumberland imprisoned him. He was released by the newly-crowned Queen Mary on 6th August, 1553, but left England at once to escape his creditors.

Service in a number of continental armies followed, until in December, 1554, protected by a grant of six months’ immunity from arrest, he accompanied the Duke of Savoy to England, where he married Anne Curtis, granddaughter and heiress of Sir Thomas Curtis, a London alderman. They had a son, William. Stukeley was forced to flee again in May, 1555, when he was charged with counterfeiting money. Back on the continent once more, he returned to soldiering, serving in the Spanish army against France. After his return to England (1557), he squandered his wife’s fortune on riotous living, became involved in a failed attempt to defraud family members of their inheritance, and engaged in privateering against French ships – England then being at war with France.

Queen Elizabeth I, succeeded her sister Mary in 1558 and was initially favourably disposed towards Stukeley. He received a number of military assignments within England, and when Shane O’Neill (qv), Lord of Tyrone, came to court late in 1561, Stukeley was appointed to entertain him. For some time Stukeley had been organising an expedition, ostensibly to colonise Florida, and in June 1563 he left Plymouth with 300 men and six ships, one of them supplied by the Queen. The real objective was to prey once more upon French shipping; but Stukeley’s depredations were indiscriminate, and complaints of piracy from neutrals and English allies eventually forced Elizabeth to disown him.

Queen Elizabeth I

In spring 1564 he went on the run and, basing himself at Kinsale, Co Cork in Ireland, continued his piratical exploits. He brought seized cargoes into various Munster ports for sale, forming links with a number of Irish Lords along the south-west coast of Munster in the process. His attacks on foreign shipping provoked such international uproar that in late 1564, a royal fleet was dispatched to Ireland to capture him. In March 1565 this fleet seized his galley in Cork harbour, having been alerted by the mayor of the city.

Stukeley was ashore at the time, but went to Waterford to surrender to the authorities, who conveyed him rather tardily to London in July. In the interim, he won over a number of prominent Irish Government officials, who wrote to London in his support; some of them may have formerly connived at his activities in return for a share of the proceeds. Even more impressively, he procured a letter from O’Neill, then at the height of his powers, to the Queen, requesting Stukeley’s pardon. He was imprisoned in London but was released on grounds of insufficient evidence, in September.

In November he was returned to Ireland, where it was hoped that he could use his influence with O’Neill to persuade him to drop his claims of sovereignty over Ulster. He met with O’Neill in Ulster twice in February 1566, but O’Neill imperiously rejected the Crown’s demands. A month later he concluded a bargain with Sir Nicholas Bagenal (qv), marshal of the army, to buy the office of marshal and the attached estates along the Ulster–Leinster border for £3,000. The Lord deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney (qv), approved wholeheartedly of the arrangement, seeing Stukeley as the perfect instrument to either mediate with O’Neill or harass him relentlessly. However, the Queen, perhaps suspecting that he was too close to O’Neill, refused to countenance this and summoned him to London to face further charges in the court of admiralty.

In July he settled out of court with the foreign merchants who had brought a case against him, and returned soon after to Ireland, where he received a minor military posting. His first wife having died, he married a wealthy widow, Elizabeth Peppard (née Popley) at some point in 1566; this marriage provided him with an estate at Rosnalvan, Co. Kildare. In summer 1567, Sidney proposed his appointment as seneschal of Wexford and as constable of Leighlin and Ferns castles. Despite the Queen making clear her dislike of this appointment, Sidney proceeded to install Stukeley in office, also granting him a twenty-one-year lease of former monastic estates associated with the post. This posting made him military governor of the south-east corner of Ireland. Controversy continued to dog him during his tenure as seneschal of Wexford, but he was no more heavy-handed than most English military officials in Ireland and this does not explain the Queen’s unyielding determination to have him dismissed. He did not help his cause by venting his frustration in a very public, colourful, and coarse fashion at the Queen’s somewhat inexplicable and immoderate hostility towards him.

In November 1568, the Queen finally prevailed on Sidney to remove Stukeley from office, but he retained the sizeable properties normally coupled with the seneschalship of Wexford by conveying them in trust to some associates. In early 1569, he became involved in a newly established English colonial settlement at Kerrycurrihy, Co Cork. However, it was apparent that he had no future serving the English Crown, and about May he informed the Spanish ambassador in London that he was prepared to help Spain conquer Ireland, recommending a landing at Waterford, which was near his residence at Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.

He had been intermittently in contact with Spanish agents since 1563, assuring them that he was secretly a Catholic and eager to serve King Philip II of Spain. The Spanish had always regarded him warily, believing he only made these claims to sway them into dropping their charges of piracy against him. However, his obvious estrangement from the Queen suggests he was being truthful this time.

During summer 1569, rebellions in Leinster and Munster were sparked by accurate rumours that the Crown intended confiscating vast tracts of land in Munster from Irish landowners. Stukeley, probably through his involvement in the Kerrycurrihy colony, had been aware of these plans and may even have been the source of the rumours. However, he was not privy to the rebels’ designs. Stukeley was summoned to Dublin where he was imprisoned in Dublin castle on 6th June, and charged with treason on 8th June. He was accused of releasing known rebel sympathisers and of either deliberately provoking or actively encouraging certain Kavanaghs into rebelling. He remained in Dublin castle until October, during which time no compelling evidence was produced against him and rebel forces devastated his estates in Wexford, which was regarded as indicating his innocence. Following his release on bail, Sidney pardoned him 16th November, and permitted him to sail from Waterford to plead his case in London. Instead, Stukeley set course for Spain, arriving at Viviero on 24th April, 1570, after a seven-day journey. While preparing for his voyage, he had renewed contact with the Spanish ambassador, but received no assurances from this quarter.

Manor of Affeton

On his arrival, he claimed to be an envoy of the Irish rebels and that his fellow passengers were pledges sent to Spain by the rebel leaders. In fact, his passengers had thought themselves on their way to England to conduct private business there. After a lengthy hiatus, he was summoned to the royal court of King Philip II at Madrid in September, where he received a rapturous reception and pressed the king to authorise him to lead a Spanish expedition to Ireland in support of the rebels there. The king appeared receptive to this, granted him an allowance to cover his expenses, and enrolled him as a knight of the order of Calatrava.

His prospects were undermined by the opposition to him from Irish exiles at the Spanish court, spearheaded by the Irish rebels’ real envoy, Maurice Fitzgibbon, archbishop of Cashel. The Irish distrusted him due to his former role as upholder of the English Crown’s authority in Ireland, and accused him of persecuting Catholic clergy and destroying monasteries in Ireland. He denied these charges and tried to draw their sting by seeking papal absolution for living as a protestant during 1558–70 and for holding former monastic property, but this was refused in autumn, 1570.
By February, 1571, it was apparent that Stukeley had no following in Ireland; his allowance was cut off and he was encouraged to go to Rome that summer. There, he was warmly received by the Pope, but little could be done without Spanish aid. In October, he took part as captain of three galleys in the famous victory of the Spanish fleet over the Turks at Lepanto. His role in this battle largely restored his credit with Philip, who granted him a pension. In 1572 he went to Flanders, where there was a sizeable English émigré community, and continued to urge Spanish interventions in Ireland, England, or both, refusing alternative military employment with the Spanish monarchy in order to pursue his vendetta against his former mistress.

Around late 1573, Philip ordered him to leave Flanders, probably to conciliate Elizabeth, and he arrived in Rome about the start of 1575 after a period in Madrid. Thereafter, the cash-strapped Spanish monarchy failed to maintain his pension payments, causing him considerable financial distress. However, Pope Gregory XIII appointed him a member of his household and provided him with some financial relief, having been won over by his charm, bravado, and ostentatious displays of Catholic piety. Although the Irish and even some English exiles regarded him with suspicion, the main Irish leader, James Fitz Maurice Fitzgerald, appears to have accepted that Stukeley would play a role in a future Irish campaign, and tried to avoid clashing with him in the interests of preserving a united front against Elizabeth. This proved difficult, due to Stukeley’s perennial egomania.

At a conference in Rome composed of English and Irish Catholics, the Pope and Spain agreed to support an invasion of England. To the outrage of the Irish contingent, Stukeley persuaded the Pope to grant him all of Ireland in the event of a successful conquest of England. The Irish thwarted his designs by offering the Irish Crown instead to Philip’s half-brother, Don Juan of Austria. In early 1577, Stukeley went to Flanders to visit Don Juan, his commander at Lepanto, to propose he lead an invasion of England with 6,000 Spanish troops from Flanders. However, Spain’s difficulties in the Netherlands forced Philip to renege on his promised support, and Stukeley was sent back to Rome empty-handed. After this disappointment, it was agreed in autumn 1577, that Fitz Maurice would return to Ireland to ignite a rebellion among his large following there, and that Stukeley would follow him with reinforcements sent by the Pope.

Battle of Lepanto

The Pope created Stukeley Marquis of Leinster to encourage him. An army of about 700 men, mainly composed of pressed Italian bandits and Irish exiles, was assembled at Rome under his command and set sail in February, 1578. However, his ship was unseaworthy, his men mutinous, and his progress unhurried. He sailed into Lisbon for repairs in May.

There, he was persuaded by King Sebastian of Portugal to join him in an expedition against the Moors in north Africa. He probably doubted his prospects of success in Ireland and had put into Lisbon despite being warned by papal officials not to do so, for fear that the Portuguese would seize the ships for their own use. Both he and Sebastian assured the dismayed papal nuncio in Lisbon that having defeated the Moors, the Portuguese would then assist the Irish expedition.

On reaching Africa they were confronted by a larger Moorish army. Despite Stukeley’s objections, Sebastian ordered his forces into battle at Alcazar on 4th August, 1578; the Portuguese and their allies were overwhelmed and slaughtered to virtually the last man. Stukeley fought bravely and was killed early in the battle when a cannon ball took off his legs.

He was a figure of considerable popular and dramatic interest, whose well-attested bravery, military prowess, and charm, combined with
his treachery to make him intriguingly enigmatic.

His life became the subject of many popular ballads and at least one play in England.
And all this started in the unassuming
landscape of Devon.

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