THROCKMORTON, Sir Nicholas (1515/16-71), of Aldgate, London and Paulerspury, Northants.

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



Oct. 1553

Family and Education

b. 1515/16, 4th s. of Sir George Throckmorton, and bro. of Anthony, Clement, George, John I, Kenelm, and Robert. m. by 1553, Anne, da. of Sir Nicholas Carew of Beddington, Surr., 10s. inc. Arthur and Nicholas 3da. Kntd. Jan./May 1551.1

Offices Held

Page, household of Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond by 1532-6; servant, household of William, Baron Parr by 1543; sewer, household of Queen Catherine Parr by 1544-7 or 8; gent. privy chamber by 1549-53; undertreasurer of the mint 25 Dec. 1549-24 June 1552; keeper, Brigstock park, Northants. 14 Sept. 1553-d.; j.p. Northants. from c.1559; ambassador to France 1563-4, to Scotland 1565, 1567; chamberlain of the Exchequer from 21 June 1564; chief butler of England and Wales from 28 Nov. 1565.2


Though from the Catholic side of the family, Throckmorton believed that a protestant foreign policy was necessary for the defence of England and the recovery of Calais. He remained in England for much of Mary’s reign, ‘stood for the true religion’ in the Parliament of October 1553, and survived implication in Wyatt’s rebellion. But the possibility that he might be accused of complicity in the Henry Dudley conspiracy of 1556 decided him to go abroad. In the event he was pardoned, his property was restored in May 1557, and by early 1558 he was back in England exercising his old office of keeper of Brigstock park. He was thus better placed than most protestants to communicate with Princess Elizabeth at Hatfield.3

He was sufficiently in Elizabeth’s confidence to believe that at her accession she would appreciate his suggestions for filling a number of appointments. As principal secretary he suggested, safely enough, Sir William Cecil, but by and large his advice on offices was ignored. His attitude to the Marian Privy Councillors is interesting. He thought that Heath, Catholic archbishop of York, should for the time being be retained as chancellor, along with many of the late Queen’s Council. ‘For religion and religious proceedings’ it was necessary ‘to require the Lords to have a good eye that there be no innovations, no tumults or breach of orders’. As a man who had lived through the disorders occasioned by Somerset’s religious policy, Throckmorton was anxious that the new reign should not run into trouble through the rash activities of his protestant friends. He suggested ‘making you a better party in the Lords House of Parliament [and] for appointing a meet Common House to your proceeding’. Some years earlier, Sir Richard Morison had called him a ‘Machiavellist’, and the ‘advice’ to Elizabeth bears out this description.

It shall not be meet that either the old [privy councillors] or the new should wholly understand what you mean, but to use them as instruments to serve yourself with ...

Elizabeth employed Throckmorton, during the critical days just after her accession, in various urgent duties (controlling the ports, examining Cardinal Pole’s papers, arranging the state entry into London), but he never attained a major government post.4

Throckmorton was returned to Parliament for west-country boroughs in 1559 and 1563 by courtesy of the 2nd Earl of Bedford. There is no mention of him in the defective 1559 journal, or that of 1563. In the 1566 session he was put on committees dealing with law reform (4 Oct.) and the succession (31 Oct.), and was one of the 30 Members of the Commons summoned on 5 Nov. to hear the Queen’s message about the succession. His reputation rests, for good or ill, on his work as a diplomat. His knowledge of Elizabethan affairs was unrivalled and he had a flair for intelligence. The defence of England was his preoccupation and he was convinced that the only hope for the survival of protestantism in Europe was support for the Huguenots in France, and for the rebel lords in Scotland. By about 1564, therefore, he became a follower of Sir Robert Dudley and had begun to think that Cecil was not only opposing the active policy, but trying to keep exponents of it, such as Throckmorton himself, off the Council. Soon Cecil, then the Queen, began to distrust him. He was one of the first to appreciate that Spain, and not France, was England’s real enemy. Elizabeth was never fully converted to this view, and, certainly in the 1560s, she was concerned to keep the Spanish door ajar. Here again the Earl of Bedford proved his ally, supporting his request for recall from France in 1563, and four years later, as governor of Berwick, doing all he could to forward the policy of support for the Scottish lords, even against Elizabeth’s instructions.5

During Throckmorton’s first embassy to France, beginning in May 1559, he corresponded regularly and frankly with Cecil. His position was difficult. He refused, for example, to kneel at the elevation of the Host, and was ordered either to conform or to absent himself from religious services. After a visit to England from mid-November 1559 to the following January, he was increasingly suspected by the Guises, especially after the conspiracy of Amboise (March 1560), in which they accused him of being involved. Until the possibility of a marriage between Elizabeth and Dudley was over, Throckmorton’s friendship for him did not cause him to hide his conviction that the marriage would be disastrous for Elizabeth’s reputation abroad and at home. In October 1560 he wrote to his cousin, the Marquess of Northampton, that there had been speeches at the French court about Elizabeth which ‘every hair of my head stareth at’ and made his ‘ears glow to hear’.6

Elizabeth’s government thus found him a mixed asset. His position was weak, since Mary Tudor’s defeat in France had lowered England’s reputation there. Again it was necessary that Condé, Coligny and their friends should be strengthened in their opposition to the Guise Catholic interest, which might otherwise act more effectively against the protestants in Scotland; but Elizabeth shrank from the idea of going to war for the Huguenots. All the time both the Queen and Cecil were aware of the danger of his over-playing his hand, which in the event, happened. He encouraged his government to overestimate the strength of the Huguenots, and in July 1562 urgently advised the Queen to accept their offer of Le Havre. His natural impatience, as well as his growing belief in the danger of Spanish intervention on behalf of the French Catholic interest, caused him to upbraid even Cecil for dilatoriness. In the summer of 1560, on Cecil’s departure for Scotland, he had prophesied disaster.

Who can as well stand fast against the Queen’s arguments and doubtful devices? Who will speedily resolve the doubtful delays? Who shall make despatch of anything?7

But by 1562 he was becoming convinced that Dudley rather than Cecil was his chief ally with Elizabeth. In June 1562 Lord Robert and Sir Henry Sidney were godfathers to his son Robert, and early the following year it was to Dudley that he turned for support in his prolonged quarrel with Sir Thomas Smith. He had originally urged his government to send Smith to France, since he greatly respected his abilities, and even suggested him also as a useful English representative at the Council of Trent. But when Smith arrived, in September 1562, relations between the two men quickly deteriorated. Smith, though anxious to bring about the recovery of Calais (which Throckmorton’s experience led him to see was likely to alienate the Huguenots), in general adopted a less aggresive policy than his colleague, and a conflict developed in which Dudley supported Throckmorton while Cecil, though preserving outward impartiality, leaned towards Smith (who was probably carrying out government instructions). Throckmorton persuaded Elizabeth to send troops to help the Huguenots at Le Havre, but this proved an expensive mistake, and Throckmorton’s own identification with Condé’s army, late in 1562, ostensibly as a captive, prejudiced his position. In December he was taken prisoner by Catholic forces, remaining in custody until February 1563, when he retired to Le Havre and maintained liaison between Condé’s forces and the Earl of Warwick. Warwick, however, was unable to hold the town when the Huguenots failed to support him, and, after a short period in England, Throckmorton was sent back to France (June 1563) to negotiate peace terms very different from those he had envisaged. Having no safe-conduct from the French, he was arrested, remaining in prison for some time before Cecil could gain his release. Smith, he complained, did nothing to help him, and although after his release he and Smith officially co-operated in negotiations leading to the Treaty of Troyes (1 Apr. 1564), their personal relations remained bad. At one point during the negotiations both men drew their daggers and were forcibly restrained by the onlookers. After the signing of the treaty, Throckmorton returned to England, where Dudley was making strenuous (and Cecil less strenuous) but unavailing efforts to get him appointed to the Privy Council. Never a wealthy man, he had suffered financially from his period in France, and the two lucrative posts he obtained after his return (chamberlain of the Exchequer and chief butler of England), no doubt eased the burden.

Throckmorton’s next assignment was to Scotland, to try to prevent Mary Stuart’s marriage to Darnley, and encourage her to marry Leicester. He had little hope of success, and achieved none. Typically, he sent Mary a letter of advice, urging her to show clemency to the banished protestant lords. Whether or not this angered Mary Stuart, the Queen and Cecil both found it infuriating. In May 1566 he and Cecil confronted one another, in the presence of Leicester, and Throckmorton promised to do better next time. But his last mission to Scotland, in the following year, with vague instructions to bring about the release of Mary from captivity and make an agreement between her and the rebel lords, was also a failure. He came to the conclusion that it was the lords ‘who must stand her [Elizabeth] in more stead than the Queen of Scots’, and believed that they would be prepared, if they were promised support from England, to send young James to be educated there. Otherwise, they would probably turn to France. In spite of his political convictions, he personally sympathized with Mary, who wrote thanking him for the good feeling he had shown her. He tried unsuccessfully to raise a party to support her, and on Elizabeth’s instructions refused to attend the coronation of James VI. Having annoyed both sides, his recall in September 1567 followed statements in England that ‘he was esteemed to favour too much the lords’.8

This was the end of his diplomatic career. His chances with the Queen and Cecil were finally ruined when, in 1569, his implication in the Norfolk marriage plot brought him an examination before the Privy Council and a short period of imprisonment in Windsor castle. He remained under house arrest until the spring of 1570. In February he wrote a mémoire justificatif to Cecil asking him to sue for his release, and thenceforward took no further part in politics (though there was a rumour early in 1570 that he would be made vice-chamberlain) until his death in London of ‘a peripneumonia’ 12 Feb. 1571. Leicester wrote to Walsingham, who was in France, on the 14th:

We have lost on Monday our good friend Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, who died in my house, being there taken suddenly in great extremity on Tuesday before; his lungs were perished, but a sudden cold he had taken, was the cause of his sudden death; God hath his soul, and we his friends great loss of his body.

He was buried in St. Catherine Cree, Aldgate, the parish where he had his London residence, a large mansion which had belonged to the abbey of Evesham. As a country house he used Beddington, his wife’s family home in Surrey.9

About his private and domestic life not much is known. His daughter Elizabeth married Sir Walter Ralegh. His books, many of which his son Arthur bequeathed to Magdalen College, Oxford, are almost exclusively political and religious, and are heavily underlined—essentially the ‘library of a practicing diplomat’. There are scattered references to hunting and other outdoor amusements in his letters, but no indication of any marked cultural interests. Personally devout, he was opposed to the wilder puritan schemes, or to any kind of pietism. In his criticisms of Mary Tudor’s reign he deplored the policy of ‘referring all to God, without doing anything ourselves’, which he described as tempting God too far. He admitted that there was still some ‘popery’ in the English church, but wanted as much toleration as was compatible with strong government control, to make a united protestant front against the Spanish Catholic menace abroad. The Earl of Leicester appointed him as a suitable governor of his foundation for the revenues of Warwickshire preachers.10

In his will, made four days before his death, he left a life interest in lands in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire to his widow with reversion to his eldest son. The Worcestershire lands were left to Arthur, the second son, with reversion to his younger brothers. The younger children were also otherwise provided for. Thomas, the fourth son, was to have the London property after the death of his mother, as well as £500. A similar sum and the privileges of the salt monopoly granted to Throckmorton were bequeathed to the two youngest sons and £500 to his only surviving daughter Elizabeth. The supervisors of the will included the Earl of Leicester, Sir Walter Mildmay, (Sir) John Throckmorton I and Sir William Cordell. These were all left tokens, as were the Marquess of Northampton, Sir William Cecil, Lady Warwick and Lady Stafford. Throckmorton’s death brought differing comments from various quarters: the Earl of Rutland in Paris told Cecil that the event was no source of regret to the French, but to Lord Buckhurst (Thomas Sackville), the news brought no small grief, ‘not only for his private loss, but the general loss which the Queen and the whole realm thereby suffer’. This sense of Throckmorton’s public value was summed up by Walsingham: ‘for counsel in peace and for conduct in war he has not left of like sufficiency his successor that I know’.11 His widow Anne took as her second husband Adrian Stokes.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Authors: Irene Cassidy / P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Vis. Northants. ed. Metcalfe, 200; Camden, Annals (1717), 221; Stow, Survey of London (1720), i. 63; Nash, Worcs. i. 452; PCC 9 Daper.
  • 2. Soc. Antiq. 1790, p. 167; APC, iv. 76, 77, 84; CPR, 1549-51, p. 137; 1553 and App. Edw. VI, p. 9; 1563-6, pp. 118, 234; CSP Dom. Add. 1547-65, pp. 503, 561; Lansd. 1218, f. 21v.
  • 3. Bodl. e. Museo 17; DNB ; Dugdale, Warws. ii. 749-52; EHR , lxv. 91-8.
  • 4. EHR , lxv. 91-8; A. L. Rowse, Ralegh and the Throckmortons , 25; C. Read, Cecil , 72; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 115.
  • 5. Lyme Regis archives N23/2/19; CJ , i. 73; D’Ewes, 126; Camb. Univ. Lib. Gg. iii. 34, p. 209; CSP For. 1561-2, p. 23; 1566-8, pp. 39, 308; CSP Dom. Add. 1566-79, p. 19.
  • 6. Neale, Eliz. 99; CSP For. 1560-1, pp. 342-3, 348; EHR , lxxxi. 474-89.
  • 7. Rowse, 38; Read, 174.
  • 8. CSP For., CSP Span., CSP Scot. , passim; P. Forbes, A Full View of Public Transactions , i. 163-6, 206-12, 216-18, 320-4; ii. 7-14, 36-43, 61-7, 251-9, 342-4; M. Dewar, Sir Thomas Smith , passim; HMC Hatfield , xii. 255; Lansd. 102, ff. 84, 110; Strype, Sir Thomas Smith , 70, 81 et passim; Rowse, 41, 46; T. Wright, Eliz. i. 208.
  • 9. Haynes, State Pprs. 471, 541-3, 547, 577; HMC Hatfield , i. 363, 426, 430, 435, 456, 465; Wright, i. 355; Camden, Annals (1717), 221; Stow, Survey of London , ed. Kingsford, i. 138, 142-3; ii. 290; Rowse, 46; CSP Dom. 1566-79, p. 16; CPR , 1560-3, p. 400.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 304; Rowse, 336-8.
  • 11. PCC 9 Daper; Lansd. 117, ff. 36, 38, 39; CSP For. 1569-70, p. 407.