By Paul Walker
In 1583 Elizabeth I was 50 years old and had been on the throne for 25 years. All talk of marriage was gone, Sir Francis Walsingham and Lord Burghley were occupied with war in the Low Countries and the threat of Spain, coupled with the influence of the Catholic League in France.
History records John Somerville as a conspirator. In October 1583, he journeyed alone from his home in Warwickshire, with witnesses reporting him uttering threats to kill the Queen. He was arrested and, under torture, implicated his father-in-law, Edward Arden, and Hugh Hall, a Catholic priest. They were also arrested. Arden, who protested his innocence, was in dispute with the Earl of Leicester for refusing to sell him property and reportedly had made comments about the Earl’s affair with Lettice Knollys and the suspicious death of her first husband, the Earl of Essex.
All were found guilty under a fast-track legal process. Hall was released, but Arden was executed at Smithfield. Somerville was moved from the Tower to Newgate prison and within two hours was found dead as the result of self-strangulation. Even by the standards of jails at that time, his death was suspicious. The historian William Camden in his Annales (published after the death of Elizabeth) wrote that he had heard gossip linking his strangling to the Earl of Leicester.
In hindsight the Somerville episode seems undeserving of the term ‘conspiracy’. The ravings of a lone madman were surely no more than a flea bite on the affairs of state, but his threat was taken seriously by Walsingham, and I found the possible link to Leicester intriguing.
The Throckmorton Conspiracy was on a different scale and presented real danger to Elizabeth. It led to the strict confinement of Mary Queen of Scots, the expulsion of the Spanish Ambassador and eventual war with Spain.
Francis Throckmorton was from a prominent Catholic family based in Warwickshire. In 1580 he travelled to Paris, Italy and Spain, where he met with exiled Catholics. In 1583 he returned to England and became involved in an elaborate plot to release Mary Queen of Scots and restore the authority of the Pope. An invasion of England was planned, backed by Spain and led by the French Duke of Guise.
Throckmorton carried messages from the Spanish Ambassador, Bernadino de Mendoza, to Mary and correspondence was routed through the French Embassy at Salisbury Court. Sir Francis Walsingham was alerted to the plot by an agent in the Embassy and Throckmorton was arrested at his house on St Paul’s Wharf in November 1583. Walsingham’s agent is reported to have been Giordano Bruno, the philosopher of an infinite universe, recently arrived in London.
Throckmorton confessed under torture, naming other conspirators. He later retracted his confession, saying he was forced by pain and words put in his mouth. However, his confession agreed with details from other sources and documents seized from his properties confirmed his guilt. His trial took place in May 1584, and he was executed at Tyburn in July of that year. It may be a coincidence that the conspiracies of Somerville and Throckmorton took place at the same time and there were links of kinship and geography between the two men, but it is known that both affairs shared space on Walsingham’s desk at Seething Lane in November 1583. Ample excuse to suggest a connection in the third of the William Constable series of Elizabethan spy thrillers, The Queen’s Devil.