TOPCLIFFE, Richard (1531-1604), of Somerby, Lincs. and Westminster.

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. 14 Nov. 1531, 1st s. of Robert Topcliffe of Somerby by Margaret, da. of Thomas Lord Borough. educ. G. Inn 1548. m. Jane, da. of Sir Edward Willoughby of Wollaton, Notts., 4s. 2da. suc. fa. 12 July 1544.

Offices Held

?Entered service of Princess Elizabeth 1557; commr. sewers, Lincs. 1564; j.p. Lincs., Yorks. (W. Riding) from c.1579-c.87; commr. to inquire after Jesuits Mar. 1593; steward of confiscated lands of Richard Norton by 1594.2


The name which Richard Topcliffe was to make odious his ancestors had derived from the township so called in the North Riding of Yorkshire, where the family retained property until his own time. It was, however, at Somerby that Richard Topcliffe’s grandfather John, a merchant of the staple, was established in the early part of the sixteenth century, and this patrimony, with other lands in Nottinghamshire, descended through John’s heir Robert to Richard Topcliffe, Robert’s eldest son. Richard was 12 years of age when, his mother being already dead, he was orphaned. His wardship was granted, together with an annuity of 20 marks out of the estate, to his uncle Sir Anthony Neville, who was thus presumably responsible for his further upbringing. Of this we know only that he was admitted to Grays Inn in 1548. He does not appear to have attended either university, the Richard Topcliffe of Magdalene College, Cambridge, with whom he was formerly identified, being another and seemingly unrelated person. On reaching his majority Topcliffe probably took up the administration of his inheritance, for which he had livery in February 1553. He was soon engaged in litigation with his uncles John and Edmund, and his cousin George, who claimed rights in part of the Somerby property under the will of Richard’s grandfather, but with what result is not known.3

The time and manner of Topcliffe’s entry into public service are alike uncertain. The earliest reference to him as ‘her Majesty’s servant’ dates only from March 1573; but his own claim, made in June 1601, to have done 44 years’ service places its beginning much earlier, and indeed hints at a possible entry into Elizabeth’s retinue before her accession. His guardian Neville, who died in 1556 or 1557, had been a follower of successive earls of Shrewsbury, and a connexion with that house is a recurrent feature of Topcliffe’s career. It was to the earls of Leicester and Warwick, however, that he later avowed his long allegiance (and certainly owed favour), and this connexion he is likely to have formed, or cemented, through his marriage into the family of Willoughby of Wollaton, itself allied to the house of Dudley. The date of Topcliffe’s marriage to Jane Willoughby has so far eluded discovery; but if it took place before 1558 it could have brought him into Princess Elizabeth’s entourage, since Jane’s niece Margaret, afterwards Lady Arundell, was one of the Princess’s attendants at Hatfield. So early an introduction to Elizabeth would help to explain the peculiar position which he was to occupy and the licence allowed to his activities during her reign.4

It is, however, only from 1569 that these activities can be traced. The rebellion of that year evidently made an abiding impression on Topcliffe. It may have revived childhood memories of the Lincolnshire rising of 1536 (in which both his father and father-in-law had incurred some suspicion), while the coincidence of its centre with his own Yorkshire property an hardly have failed to move him. In January 1570 Topcliffe reported for service to Leicester at Kenilworth with thirty horses and men at his own cost, and later in the same month carried news of the Queen to the Earl. He had some part in surveying the confiscated lands of Richard Norton, the rebel leader, and his later stewardship of those lands may have been a reward for his services against the rebellion. So also, perhaps, was his return to the Parliament of 1572 for Beverley, although the borough owed its recent enfranchisement to the influence of Leicester, and it may have been he who secured Topcliffe’s election. Of his role in the first session of that Parliament nothing is known; but during its second (1576), his committees included the matter of fraudulent conveyances by the rebels of 1569, a subject of personal interest to Topcliffe, who was to return to it in one of his later speeches. Other committees in this session included strictly legal matters (24, 25 Feb., 3, 8, 14 Mar.), the keeping of unlawful weapons (2 Mar.) and land reclamation (6 Mar.).5

Before the third and final session of this Parliament, in 1581, Topcliffe had begun his career as an interrogator of suspects. It is likely that he was drawn into this business both through his continuing interest in the northern rebels and by his attachment to the Earl of Shrewsbury, the custodian of Mary Stuart. It was at Shrewsbury’s instance that in 1578 Topcliffe helped to investigate the activities of some of the ex-rebels, and it was to the Earl that he reported on these and other matters. But it may well have been the anti-Catholic legislation of the parliamentary session of 1581 which determined that Catholic-hunting should become Topcliffe’s life-work. Although we know next to nothing of his part in that session (he was on one minor legal committee, 20 Feb.) his mounting activity in investigation from early in 1582 seems to reflect an accession of zeal as well as an expansion of opportunity. By the time the next Parliament met in the autumn of 1584 Topcliffe could be ranked with the notorious Richard Young as an acknowledged master of this ugly craft.6

In that Parliament, and its successor, Topcliffe sat for Old Sarum, a borough whose patron, the 2nd Earl of Pembroke, was son-in-law to Topcliffe’s protector Shrewsbury. In 1584-5 we hear little of him, although he was, interestingly enough, one of four Members appointed to examine a skinner found sitting in the House without authority at the end of November. His membership of a committee to confer with the Lords, 18 Feb. 1585, on the bill against Jesuits and Catholic priests must also have been to his liking. He sat on one other recorded committee, 17 Mar., on the preservation of game. But in 1587 he came to the fore. On 24 Feb. he told the Commons of the Romish ‘trumpery’ discovered in a house near where they were sitting, and he was one of the Members named the same day to search suspected houses in Westminster. A few days later he endorsed Edward Donne Lee’s denunciation of the state of the church and called upon all Members to report ‘disorders’ in their counties, as he offered to do. Topcliffe was on the committee of a bill for East Retford (10 Mar.) and on the subsidy committee (11 Mar.).7

The next 15 years of Topcliffe’s life were to make his name synonymous with the worst rigours of the Elizabethan struggle against Catholicism. It is clear that in much of what he did Topcliffe was acting under orders—whether under a commission such as that of March 1593 against Jesuits or under one of the numerous Council warrants to him to use torture—and that those who gave him these orders must share the odium of their consequences. Moreover, his superiors made only spasmodic efforts to restrain him. His brutal treatment of Southwell in 1592 cost him a spell in prison; in 1595, following the disclosure of Thomas Fitzherbert’s attempt to bribe him into doing two of the Fitzherberts to death, Topcliffe was again committed for a few weeks for maligning Privy Councillors; and early in 1596 he had to answer to the Council for his arbitrary behaviour towards prisoners in the Gatehouse. But every check was followed by a fresh outburst of activity, and only in his last few years did the moderating of official policy, and the failing of his own vigour, bring it to an end.8

The gravamen of the indictment of Topcliffe is that he displayed an unmistakable and nauseating relish in the performance of his duties. On this the verdict of contemporaries is amply borne out by the evidence of his many letters and by the marginalia preserved in one of his books. It was, and is, easy to believe any evil of such a man; and to reflect that some of the worst accusations—among them that he reserved his most hideous tortures for infliction in his own house—rest upon fragile evidence is not to excuse him. Nor is there much profit in speculating on the influences which went to his making, although his early loss of both parents, the impact of rebellion upon his infant awareness, and perhaps some marital misfortunes might enter into the reckoning.9

Of the general aversion which Topcliffe aroused his disappearance from the House of Commons after 1587 may be a reflection. In commending himself, in December 1590, to the newly succeeded 7th Earl of Shrewsbury he referred both to his emancipation from dependence upon Leicester and to his ‘unkind’ treatment by the 6th Earl, which perhaps included, or involved, the withdrawal of the nomination at Old Sarum. The new Earl’s quarrelsomeness was likely to make him an unsatisfactory patron, and Topcliffe’s own reputation may have stood in his way as a candidate for another seat. But his exclusion from the House did not deter him from meddling in its proceedings: in April 1593 he made ‘much stir’ in the Commons by spreading it abroad that the sheriff of Derbyshire, William Bassett II, was a harbourer of Papists. Since the House was then at the climax of its handling of a bill against religious dissidents Topcliffe perhaps hoped to influence that bill’s fate.10

Less is known of Topcliffe’s other activities and interests. He was from time to time employed in miscellaneous investigations, as when, in November 1586, an Admiralty suit was referred to him and a master of requests, or, in August 1597, he and others were instructed to examine Thomas Nash and his fellow-actors in the scandalous play The Isle of Dogs. The reference to him of a project for using peat in ironmaking implies an interest in that industry which may have sprung from his Willoughby connexion; he also had a scheme for driving bucks into England from Scotland. Among his lawsuits was a long drawn-out affair concerning a lease of the prebend of Corringham and Stow, Lincolnshire, which he waged first with Sir Christopher Wray, lord chief justice, and, after Wray’s death, with Richard Taylor, the prebendary.11

Topcliffe’s domestic life was not without its difficulties. His marriage was clouded at least for a time by his alleged failure to pay his wife adequate maintenance. In his later years the criminal escapades of his eldest son, Charles, gave him much anxiety, and in January 1602 Sir Robert Cecil chided him for not having this wayward son ‘cleansed’. He also had the humiliation of seeing his nephew Edmund Topcliffe fall under suspicion on his return in May 1600 from a voyage abroad, during which he had assumed another name because of the ill-repute of his own.12

Topcliffe had a house in Westminster from at least the end of 1571, when we know that it was burgled, clothes worth over £50 being stolen from the owner, besides other goods probably belonging to Topcliffe’s servants: the articles stolen from Topcliffe suggest that he maintained a good wardrobe. It was in this house, or an adjacent successor, that he was accused of torturing prisoners: but its nearness to the Gatehouse prison may have led to confusion between them. In his closing years, during which he suffered from lameness, he appears to have spent more time at Somerby or at Padley Hall, ‘a delightful solitary place’ as he described it, which he acquired from Thomas Fitzherbert under circumstances related in the latter’s biography. What property he left at his death is unknown. By his last wishes, expressed in November 1604 and proved as a nuncupative will on 6 Dec. following, he bequeathed the life tenancy of a farm at Heapham to his bailiff there, and all the rest of his goods to his son Charles, apart from trifles—a doublet, a black cloak, a load of wood, and half a doe—to the two witnesses and three other local acquaintances.13

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: S. T. Bindoff


  • 1. HMC Hatfield , xv. 386.
  • 2. HMC Hatfield, xi. 223-4; CPR, 1547-53, p. 373; 1563-6, p. 40; Lansd. 121, f. 70; St. Ch. 7/6/29.
  • 3. P. H. Reaney, Dict. Brit. Surnames, 326; PCC 20 Jenkyn, 9 Hogen; C142/51/31; Abstracts of Inq. Post Mortem Notts. (Thoroton Soc.), iii. 300-1; LP Hen. VIII, xxi(1), pp. 148, 302; CPR, 1547-53, p. 373; Req. 2/22/105.
  • 4. APC, viii. 213; HMC Hatfield, xi. 223-4; C1423/112/124; CPR, 1553-8, p. 343; C3/178/17; Req. 32/26, 130/16.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, xii(1), 199; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 400; Add. 1566-79, pp. 31, 156; Waldman, Eliz. and Leicester, 151; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 309; CJ, i. 108, 110, 111, 112, 115; D’Ewes, 252, 255, 262; Harl. 7188, f. 103.
  • 6. APC, xi. 295; HMC Hatfield, ii. 176; Lodge, Illus. ii. 119, 143, 164-6; CJ, i. 128; D’Ewes, 299; CSP Dom. 1581-90, passim.
  • 7. D’Ewes, 334, 352, 369, 410, 414; Harl. 7188, ff. 90, 93; Neale, Parlts. ii. 176.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 646; 1595-7, p. 40; APC, xvi. 273, xx. 100, 175, 204; xxii. 39-40, 41-2; xxv. 237, 254; xxviii. 165, 187; C2/9/63; C24/247; Recs. Eng. Prov. Soc. Jesus, iv. 49; Jessopp, One Generation of a Norfolk House, 64-9; Harl. 6998, f. 185.
  • 9. Neale, Parlts. ii. 153.
  • 10. Lodge, ii. 429-31; CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 342.
  • 11. APC, xiv. 242, 248, 301, 303; xv. 231-2; xix. 220-1, 364-5; xxv. 483-4; xxvi. 57-8, 179-80; xxvii. 338. Lansd. 59, f. 200 et seq.; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 309; CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 207, 300.
  • 12. HMC Middleton, 530-1; HMC Hatfield, vi. 370; x. 150-1; xii. 2-3; Athenaeum, 5 Oct. 1878.
  • 13. Mdx. County Recs. i. 73; Cath. Rec. Soc. v. 211-12; P. Hughes, Reformation in England, iii. pp. xxvii-xviii; Lincs. Archives Cttee, D. and C. iv/102; Coll. of Arms, Talbot mss, vol. M. f. 184.