STUBBE, John (c.1543-90), of Thelveton, Norf.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1543, 1st s. of John Stubbe of Buxton, Norf. educ. Trinity Coll. Camb. 1555 (impubes), BA 1561; L. Inn 1562, called 1572. m. Anne, wid. of Christopher Sharnborne of Sharnborne, Norf., 2s. suc. fa. 1562.1

Offices Held

Under-steward, Great Yarmouth 1585-9.2


Stubbe was in residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, when it was one of the most important centres of Elizabethan puritanism. A great contemporary was Thomas Cartwright, who later married his sister; and two of his closest friends at the college were Michael Hickes and Vincent Skinner, who were both strong protestants. In fact there is evidence for the existence of a closely knit puritan circle at Trinity College and later at Lincoln’s Inn, where Stubbe, Hickes and Skinner were students together after they had completed their university education.3

This puritan circle may have produced, as a combined literary effort, that brilliant lampoon of Archbishop Parker’s De Antiquitate Britannicae Ecclesiae which appeared anonymously in 1574 under the title, The Life of the 70th Archbishop of Canterbury ... Englished. This tract has usually been attributed to Stubbe alone, but it seems at least as likely that he wrote it in collaboration with friends. It is possible too that these friends had a hand in a more famous literary venture for which Stubbe received the credit and bore the pain. That was the notorious Gaping Gulf, published in 1579, a bitter attack on the proposed Alençon marriage. The pamphlet reflected the views of an influential group of English statesmen headed by the Earl of Leicester and Walsingham who were almost certainly behind the publication, in December 1579, of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, an allegory containing a veiled attack on the French marriage. The Gaping Gulf should probably be regarded as part of the propaganda of the Leicester House circle.

Stubbe wrote of the Queen in terms of the greatest loyalty and affection, but affirmed that the Duke of Alençon was rotten with debauchery, ‘the old serpent himself in the form of a man, come a second time to seduce the English Eve and ruin the English paradise’. He freely discussed questions of policy and roused the Queen’s special resentment by suggesting that she was too old to marry and bear children. The pamphlet was widely read. On 27 Sept. 1579 a royal proclamation was issued prohibiting its further circulation, and on 13 Oct. Stubbe was tried at Westminster with his publisher and printer on a charge of disseminating seditious writings. It is ironic that the Act under which he was arraigned was one of 1554-5, designed to protect Philip of Spain from libellous attacks, the court holding that the statute was equally applicable to the Queen’s suitor. He and his two companions were sentenced to have their right hands cut off:

Stubbe wrote to the Queen immediately after the trial. It was a pathetic letter in which he stated that he was the ‘sorrowfullest man in the world’ to have angered her, protested that his ‘poor heart never conceived malicious thought or wicked purpose’, implored ‘some better conceiving’ of his ‘single-hearted allegiance’, and asked that his hand might be spared. Elizabeth refused his plea, although she did pardon Singleton, the printer. The sentence on Stubbe and his publisher, Page, was carried out on 3 Nov. They were brought from the Tower to a scaffold set up in the market-place at Westminster and from it Stubbe addressed the onlookers. ‘Pray with me’, he asked,

that God will strengthen me to endure and abide the pain that I am to suffer and [will] grant me this grace: that the loss of my hand do not withdraw any part of my duty and affection towards her Majesty.

It was a brave speech. Afterwards his right hand was cut off ‘with a cleaver driven through the wrist by the force of a mallet’. His agony did not prevent him from taking off his hat with his left hand and crying in a loud voice, ‘God save the Queen’. He then swooned and had to be carried back to the Tower. Camden, who was present, affirmed that the multitude standing about was ‘deeply silent’ during the proceedings.4

The sentence on Stubbe, who always thereafter signed himself ‘scaeva’, produced echoes in Parliament. In 1581 the government introduced in the Lords an ‘Act against seditious words uttered against the Queen’s most excellent Majesty’. It was designed as an anti-Catholic measure, but was worded as an extension of the 1554-5 Act under which Stubbe had suffered. This was now declared to be insufficient in its punishments. The bill passed the Lords, but the Commons seem to have realised that it might prove dangerous to puritans as well as recusants and moderated its terms in such a way as to safeguard protestant zealots. It is difficult to believe that Stubbe’s fate was not in the forefront of Members’ minds during the proceedings.5

The treatment meted out to Stubbe did not deter him from making use of his literary abilities in the pamphlet war against the Catholic propagandists. In 1583 Cecil produced his tract The Execution of Justice in England, the official apology for Elizabeth’s treatment of Catholic missionaries. The following year William Allen replied. His Modest Defence of the English Catholics was generally agreed to be a most able piece of work and Stubbe was commisioned to write an answer. He sent his manuscript to Cecil in 1587. That is the last we hear of it.6

While Stubbe was writing his reply to Allen he was also acting as confidential servant to Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby De Eresby. He had entered his service by 1585 and between the winter of that year and the summer of 1588 spent much of his time at Willoughby’s house in London. His master was engaged, during these years, in diplomatic and military missions abroad and Stubbe kept him well supplied with news from London. In 1587 and 1588 he was Willoughby’s channel of communication with Burghley and Walsingham. In the middle of 1588, when Lady Willoughby decided to visit her husband in Holland, Stubbe accompanied her, returning in the autumn when Willoughby recommended him for the office of auditor and controller of the checks, a post which he failed to obtain.7

Stubbe spent some of his time during the 1580s in Norfolk, his home county. In 1585 he was elected under-steward of Great Yarmouth, an office which involved him in judicial duties in the town. On 1 Oct. of the same year he was sworn a freeman of the borough. In 1586 or 1587 the Earl of Leicester, high steward of Great Yarmouth, tried to obtain the under-stewardship for one of his protégés, Jeffrey Whitney. The bailiffs of the town seem, however, to have resented this attempt to interfere with their rights of election, and Stubbe retained the office until 1589, the year he represented the town in Parliament. He was appointed to committees on the subsidy (11 Feb.), Hartlepool pier (28 Feb.) and Lincoln (11 Mar.); and he spoke on a matter of privilege (21 Feb.). During the last days of the session it is clear that he tried to stop the bishops’ proceeding against puritan ministers, though the details are obscure. Stubbe may have initiated the discussion in the House and had a ‘supplication’ to the Queen drawn up in readiness. The House seems to have appointed a committee to consider the matter and, as a result, the petition was modified. There was probably no time to present this second petition before the close of the session.

In Stubbe’s original version he spoke with his usual frankness, castigating non-resident and unlearned ministers, and praising puritan pastors, whom he described as being of ‘better conscience and more profitable learning’. He then launched into a bitter attack on the ex officio oath and on the bishops, whom he discussed in the most slighting terms. He concluded with a paean of praise for the Queen herself, wishing that she might continue to reign for many years

in health of your person, in honour of your name, in joy of your heart, and in all flourishing happiness ... We shall ... employ the services of our goods, bodies, lives and all our means whatsoever [on your behalf] ... [both] in regard to our natural allegiance and for the infinite graces which we enjoy by you ... [May] God ... bless your Majesty and curse all those that say not thereto ‘Amen’.

It was a strange mixture of loyalty and defiance.8

Stubbe was clearly a man of striking personality and able to inspire devotion in his friends. Michael Hickes retained affection and respect for him in later years and kept in touch with him until shortly before his death, which took place the year after he sat in Parliament.

On 25 Sept. 1589, when he drew up his will, he stated that he was

driven to do this ... upon my sudden journey into France with [Lord Willoughby De Eresby], the most honourable general of the forces of her Majesty, to aid the most Christian King against his rebels.

He bequeathed to his mother his ‘greatest bible’ and a ring of gold engraved with the word ‘mortal’; left all the rest of his movable possessions to his wife Anne; and appointed Lord Willoughby as a supervisor. He also mentioned his ‘good cousin’ Sampson Lennard and his ‘dearly beloved and worthily trusted’ friend Sir Robert Jermyn.

The fact that the will was drawn up in haste may explain the absence of a pious preamble, but Stubbe did not neglect to pay a last tribute to the Queen. ‘I protest and contest’, he stated,

that I lived and do die the true man and most loyal subject of her most excellent Majesty Elizabeth, by God’s singular grace our happy Queen, beseeching her most merciful and royal nature that after my death my most true and well-deserving wife, mine executrix, may find that grace and favour in her Majesty’s eyes which, though I could not deserve, I yet would have esteemed for a great blessing on earth.

These words serve as an appropriate epitaph to Stubbe’s career. Throughout his life he had hoped to retain the Queen’s favour while opposing her politics. In the face of death he sought indulgence for his wife, who was one of the most notable of Elizabethan Brownists. His sense of loyalty was matched only by his lack of realism.

He died in France and was buried, with military honours, on the seashore near the town of Havre de Grace. His will was proved 27 June 1590.9

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: A.G.R.S.


  • 1. PCC 40 Drury; DNB; Al. Cant. i(4), p. 178; Norf. Rec. Soc. Pubs. xxi. 162.
  • 2. C. J. Palmer. Yarmouth, 339; Cal. Yarmouth Freemen, 1429-1800, p. 43.
  • 3. Lansd. 10, f. 73; 12, f. 117.
  • 4. Collinson thesis, 145; Neale, Parlts. i. 373; DNB; C. Read, Burghley, 217; E. M. Tenison, Eliz. England, iii. 176-7; Camden, Elizabeth (4th ed., 1688), p. 270; E. Rosenberg, Leicester, Patron of Letters, 399; P. E. McLane, Spenser’s Shepheardes Calender, 19, 22, 24-5, 30, 50, 74, 288.
  • 5. Neale, Parlts. i. 393-7.
  • 6. Tudor Govt. and Soc. 37-8.
  • 7. HMC Ancaster, 16, 18, 21, 25, 31-3, 293, 478; CSP For. 1587, p. 453; 1588 (Jan.-June), p. 165; 1588 (July-Dec.), pp. 68, 89, 134, 148, 150.
  • 8. Lansd. 88, f. 147; Cal. Yarmouth Freemen, 1429-1800, p. 43; Yarmouth ass. bk. 1579-98, 155, 158; Palmer, 105-6, 336, 339; Neale, Commons, 179-80; D’Ewes, 431, 436, 440, 444; Neale, Parlts. ii. 234-8; Add. 48101, ff. 136-7; Rosenberg, 310-11.
  • 9. Lansd. 12, ff. 117, 217; 23, f. 179; 36, ff. 212-13; 61, f. 170; 107, ff. 168, 170; PCC 40 Drury; Cartwrightiana, ed. Peel and Carlson, 58; DNB; A. F. S. Pearson, Thomas Cartwright and Elizabethan Puritanism, 306; Ath. Cant. ii. 112.