HOLCROFT, Sir Thomas (1505/6-58), of Vale Royal, Cheshire.
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Family and Education
b. 1505/6, 2nd s. of John Holcroft of Holcroft, Lancs. by Margaret, da. of Hamnett Massey of Rixton, Lancs.; bro. of Sir John. m. Juliane, da. and h. of Nicholas Jennings of Preston, Lancs. and London, 1s. Thomas† 1da. Kntd. May 1544.1
Sewer of the chamber 1536; bailiff, duchy of Lancaster, West Derby, Lancs. 1536-45, receiver, Lancs. and Cheshire 1538-52, ?1553-8, master forester, Quernmore and Wyresdale, Lancs. 1540-5; j.p. Cheshire 1539-d., Lancs. 1546; esquire of the body 1540; jt. (with bro. Sir John) receiver, lands formerly of Lenton priory, Notts. 1540-5; sheriff, Lancs. 1545-6; commr. musters 1546, chantries, Cheshire, Lancs. and Chester 1546, goods of churches and fraternities, Cheshire 1553, loan 1557; v.-adm. Lancs. and Cheshire 1547; custos rot. Cheshire 1548-d.; keeper, Redholme park in Bowland forest, Yorks. by 1552; knight marshal May/June 1556-?Mar. 1558.2
Thomas Holcroft was a shrewd, energetic, courageous and fortunate man. His success as a Household officer, soldier and diplomatist showed how far the younger son of an undistinguished county landowner could go if his ambition was coloured by ruthlessness. Robert Southwell had the measure of the man when he reported from Furness in 1537 ‘if there is a good fee Holcroft will take it: he has been diligent, though only put in trust to pluck down the church’.3
Holcroft had early attracted Cromwell’s attention, perhaps because he had been a member of the 3rd Earl of Derby’s council, and was appointed to assist the commissioners for the dissolution in Lancashire. His position as a lessee of Cartmel priory illustrates his prestige; the three others appointed at the same time elsewhere in the county were the 2nd Lord Monteagle, the Earl of Derby and Sir Thomas Butler. The country was in uproar at this time, and the canons at Cartmel were restored, but after open opposition to Holcroft early in 1537 four canons and eight husbandmen were executed. His only other service during the rebellions of 1536 and 1537 was to act as a juror for the trial of Sir Robert Constable, Sir Francis Bigod and others.4
The way was now open for the purchase and exploitation of monastic property. During the early months of 1540 a large proportion of the lands available in Holcroft’s district came into his hands, including Willoten manor, Cheshire, and three Lancashire friaries. He was made joint receiver of Lenton priory lands, negotiated for the lease of Vale Royal abbey, and obtained one of Cartmel priory. When Cartmel reverted to the crown in 1545 the rents had been raised to more than three times their original value; Holcroft had made about £250 profit from rents alone during his six years’ tenure. Whereas he had paid £126 for the three friaries, in 1543 he sold one of them for the same sum and reserved the building stone to himself. His foremost acquisitions were Vale Royal, purchased on advantageous terms with the King’s help in 1544, and the lands of Lytham priory, Lancashire, and Acton grange, Cheshire, in Mary’s reign, for which he paid £1,800. In all he expended £3,798 on monastic land, clearly profited by its efficient management, and built up a substantial estate in Cheshire round the lands of Vale Royal.5
Active in local administration, Holcroft was also an acknowledged authority on Scottish affairs and proved himself a courageous and resourceful soldier. In October 1535 he was despatched on an important mission to James V with William Barlow, prior of Bisham and later one of the foremost reformist clerics. They were instructed to urge a meeting between the two kings and to advise James V to follow Henry VIII’s lead by seizing church property and renouncing papal authority. Almost exactly a year later Henry VIII sent Holcroft with messages for his sister Queen Margaret, and in 1542 he was again sent north with carts and horses for the coming war. In 1544 he was given a secret mission to negotiate with the master of Rothes, who had suggested murdering Cardinal Beaton. The idea was dropped, but Holcroft was knighted at Leith in 1544 for his service at this time. Other missions of like nature were entrusted to him and in 1548-9 he took charge of part of the English spy network in Scotland, spending over £400 of his own money in the process. The expeditions at the beginning of Edward VI’s reign owed something of their limited success to Holcroft, who with Sir Thomas Palmer was largely responsible for the fortification and defence of Haddington. When the 2nd Earl of Rutland was given command in Scotland it was to Holcroft that he was instructed to turn for advice on the supply of men, materials and food. Thomas Fisher wrote to Cecil from Haddington in September 1549, ‘I assure you it had been French ere this, but for Master Holcroft, who has served as few men living would and with such liberality as is wonderful’. Holcroft’s achievements in Scotland were to be remembered in 1557 when Shrewsbury was sent north to reinforce the border: ‘a man of skill in matters of war’, he was suggested as the earl’s adviser; but as he was knight marshal (Sir) James Croft was despatched in his stead.6
Holcroft’s experience should have made him a notable Member when he came to sit in Parliament, although the absence of his name from the Journal suggests that he was not prominent in committee. That he had strong and original views, and the capacity to express them, is shown by the plan he sent to Cecil in 1549 for increasing the efficiency of forces in Scotland. His return as senior knight of the shire for Lancashire in 1545 may be seen as the outcome of his vigorous activity both in that county and at court, qualifications which may indeed have brought him into the Commons at a preceding Parliament for which the names are missing. His brother John had already twice served as sheriff; Sir Thomas was himself to be pricked in November 1545, during the first session of this Parliament.7
Holcroft might well have been expected to sit again in 1547, especially as in June of that year he was appointed vice-admiral for Lancashire and Cheshire by Admiral Seymour. However, the Scottish war concluded, Holcroft received an annuity of £100 ‘until better provided for’, and appears to have thrown his lot in with the Protector Somerset, who had been his patron in Scotland. Holcroft seems also to have become a friend of Paget and was his guest in London and at West Drayton on nine occasions in 1550 and 1551. Holcroft’s relative by marriage William Grey II was one of Somerset’s ‘principal instruments and counsellors’ and as such was imprisoned in 1549. Holcroft was himself arrested after Somerset’s fall in October 1551 and he remained in the Tower until June 1552, surrendering his office as receiver of the duchy in the same month.8
It is thus a little surprising to find him returned to Parliament for Cheshire in the following spring. He seems to have convinced the Council of his loyalty to the new regime, and his powerful friends at court and within the duchy, perhaps William Cecil in particular, presumably encouraged his restoration. His fellow-Member Sir Thomas Venables was both a courtier and a prominent and active local gentleman; he and Holcroft had stood surety for Sir Richard Cotton in 1547. Cotton, a Privy Councillor, may perhaps have spoken for Holcroft.9
Like Cotton, Holcroft survived Northumberland’s fall and in common with others who had earlier supported Somerset found favour with Queen Mary. He was returned to her first Parliament for Cheshire and to her second for Arundel, evidently on the nomination of the borough’s patron the 12th Earl of Arundel whom he assisted in the negotiations leading to the Spanish marriage. Although he was not among those who ‘stood for the true religion’, that is, for Protestantism, in the first of these Parliaments, Holcroft later seems to have used his position as knight marshal to help Protestants. Strype claims that ‘the knight marshal ... the under marshal and the knight marshal’s secretary were all secret friends of the Protestants’, and this is partially vouched for by Thomas Mountain, a London minister who was warned by Holcroft’s secretary to leave the city. In 1563 Bishop Sandys deposed that Holcroft and others had sued for his release from prison in Mary’s reign, but he did not confirm (Sir) John Bourne’s accusation that the marshal deliberately allowed him to escape. By March 1558 Holcroft had been replaced as marshal by Thomas Harvey and may even have been himself arrested and placed in the custody of Michael Wentworth, cofferer of the Household, for it was at Wenham in Suffolk, where Wentworth had a house, that he made his will on the following 25 July. He appointed his wife executrix and gave her all his goods and leases so that she should bring up his son and daughter ‘as she will answer to God on the day of judgment’. He named his brother Sir John Holcroft and his cousin Gilbert Gerard supervisors. Holcroft died on 31 July 1558 but the will was not proved until 20 Apr. 1564.