COPLEY, Thomas (1532-84), of Gatton, Surr.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Apr. 1554
Nov. 1554

Family and Education

b. Feb./May 1532, o. s. of Sir Roger Copley of Gatton and Roughey, Suss. by 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of (Sir) William Shelley of Michelgrove, Suss. educ. I. Temple, adm. 2 Nov. 1547. m. July 1558, Catherine, da. and coh. of Sir John Luttrell of Dunster, Som., 4s. 4da. suc. fa. 10 Sept. 1549.1

Offices Held

J.p. Surr. 1558/59-68; commr. of oyer and terminer, home circuit 1560, 1564.2


Thomas Copley was fortunate in his birth if not in his temperament. His father and grandfather had, by judicious marriages and perhaps good business sense (both took up the patrimony of the Mercers’ Company which they derived from their wool-trading forbears) acquired considerable property while linking the family with men who were to make their mark in Elizabethan England. Copley’s inheritance included the Surrey manors of Gatton and Merstham, and the Maze in Southwark, those of Hurst, Roughey and Warnham in Sussex, and several in Lincolnshire. He was related to the Boleyns through a common ancestor, Thomas, Lord Hoo and Hastings (d.1455), and the Earl of Wiltshire stood godfather at his christening; as a Catholic fugitive in France and the Low Countries he was frequently to remind Queen Elizabeth of their kinship. According to Copley’s granddaughters his sister Bridget, who married Richard Southwell alias Darcy, was ‘a very learned lady and Latin instructress to Queen Elizabeth’.3

At the age of 15 Copley was granted a special admission to the Inner Temple, no doubt at the instance of his grandfather Shelley, a justice of common pleas. Although he was to become a marshal of the inn in 1561 Copley had earlier given trouble there: in 1556, with Thomas Norton and others, he was temporarily expelled for ‘wilful demeanour and disobedience’ to the benchers and spent some time in the Fleet: the association with Norton, who was to be his fellow-Member at Gatton in 1558, suggests that the episode may have had a religious side. In later life Copley came to believe that his harsh treatment by the government, and in particular the Queen’s intransigence, was a divine punishment for the excesses of his youth, his ‘costly building, chargeable music, horses and such like vanities as my age delighted in’.4

Lady Copley, widowed in 1549, was the sole elector at Gatton until her death ten years later, and she returned her son to three Marian Parliaments. According to his granddaughters Copley, although a ‘hot heretic’ in the 1550s, had been given a Catholic upbringing, a claim which receives some support both from his father’s will, which although dating from 1549 has a conservative-sounding preamble, and from his mother’s burial ten years later with ‘two great staff torches burning’ and ‘priests and clerks singing’. Nothing is known about Copley’s part in either of the two Parliaments of 1554, but he took a bold line of his own in the Parliament of 1558. Towards the close of the first session he displayed what he afterwards called his ‘dutiful affection’ for the Princess Elizabeth by voicing his fear that she might be excluded from the succession. His words were deemed to be ‘a grievous fault’, and on 5 Mar. he was ordered by the Speaker to ‘absent himself, until consultation were had thereof’. On his recall he asked the House ‘to consider his youth, and that, if it be an offence, it might be imputed to his young years’, but he was none the less put in the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. When the Speaker reported the affair to the Queen he asked her in the name of the House to be merciful, and on 7 Mar., the day the Parliament was prorogued, she accompanied an order for Copley’s examination with the promise that she ‘would well consider the request of this House to her Majesty for him’. How long he was detained is not known, but as he was often to refer to the hardship he had suffered for Elizabeth he may not have been freed for some time.5

Four months later Copley was married. On 18 July he asked his friend (Sir) Thomas Cawarden master of the revels and a notable Protestant, ‘secretly to lend me the use of one of your masks for one night against this my marriage which (in an ill hour to me) is like to be solemnized on Sunday next at Nonsuch, where my hope is I shall see you, and so I do most heartily require you I may do. My hope is there shall no harm come of it’. If this was not merely humorous, it may mean that the Queen intended to be present and that Copley did not relish the prospect: four months later a Mistress Copley, either his mother or his bride, was to attend the Queen’s funeral as a gentlewoman of the privy chamber, and the court, which was at Richmond on 22 July, could well have gone to Nonsuch a few days earlier. Copley later claimed that he had chosen his wife for her beauty and in so doing had alienated a powerful local nobleman, Lord William Howard, who wanted Copley to marry his daughter: Howard, who already had the patronage of Reigate and was soon to acquire that of Bletchingley, may have had his eye on Gatton as a third borough for which to nominate. It was Howard who, when Copley later fled the country, directed the confiscation of his goods.6

When Mary died Copley was in France with the commissioners for a peace treaty: he was probably in attendance on his kinsman Dr. Nicholas Wotton. On 18 Nov. he was despatched to England with letters of congratulation to the new Queen. He must have missed part, if not all, of the second session of Parliament, which began on 5 Nov., perhaps because he wished or was advised to do so. His own assertion that the new Queen acknowledged that she owed him ’a good turn’ is borne out by his receipt of favours early in her reign: he was appointed to the commission of the peace for Surrey, and Elizabeth stood godmother to his eldest son Henry in 1561. His seemingly bright future he forfeited by his conversion, or return, to Catholicism in 1563 and his unlicensed departure overseas six years later. He died near Antwerp on 25 Sept. 1584.7

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: S. R. Johnson


  • 1. Date of birth estimated from age at fa.’s i.p.m., C142/89/124, 139; 91/20. Letters of Sir Thomas Copley (Roxburghe Club 1897), ped. bet. pp. xlix and 1; Vis. Surr. (Harl. Soc. xliii), 121; DNB.
  • 2. CPR, 1560-3, p. 325; 1563-6, p. 43.
  • 3. The Gen. n.s. xxxiii. 73-77; CSP Dom. Add. 1566-79, pp. 435, 494, 497, 503; 1580-1625, p. 49; Copley Letters, pp. xiv. xviii, xx, 2.
  • 4. Cal. I.T. Recs. i. 151, 186-7, 215; CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, p. 49.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, vi, viii, xiii, xiv; PCC 38 Populwell; Machyn’s Diary (Cam. Soc. xlii), 221; CSP Dom. Add. 1566-79, p. 494; 1580-1625, p. 65; CJ, i. 50-51.
  • 6. Loseley Mss, ed. Kempe, 59-60; APC, vi. 336, 351, 356, 358; LC2/4/2; Copley Letters, p. xxi.
  • 7. Copley Letters, pp. xxii, 106-8; CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, p. 65; CSP Span. 1568-79, pp. 50, 52, 58; CSP For. 1558-9, pp. 10, 17; DNB (Wotton, Nicholas); Strype, Annals, ii(1), 378-81; HMC 7th Rep. 622, 628; C142/210/85.