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

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



Apr. 1554
Nov. 1554

Family and Education

b. 1532, o.s. of Sir Roger Copley of Gatton by his 2nd w. Elizabeth, da. of Sir William Shelley of Michelgrove, Suss. educ. I. Temple 1547. m. 1558, Katherine, da. and coh. of Sir John Luttrell of Dunster, Som., 4s. 3da. suc. fa. 1549.1

Offices Held

J.p. Surr. 1559-68; member, Mercer’s Co. 1562.


Copley was, through the Boleyns, a blood relation of the Princess Elizabeth, and his sister was her ‘very learned’ Latin tutor. During the first session of the 1558 Parliament he expressed his ‘dutiful affection’ for her in such a way that he was committed, first to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms, then, after the end of the session, to a term of imprisonment at the Queen’s pleasure. When Mary died Copley was in France with the commissioners who were negotiating the peace with France, Scotland and Spain. On 18 Nov. he was sent back to England with letters of congratulation to the new queen. He was at once appointed to the Surrey commission of the peace, and Elizabeth was godmother to his eldest son Henry in 1561. He made an unsuccessful attempt to gain a county seat in the first Parliament of the reign, and was instead returned (for the fourth time) for his family borough of Gatton, the electoral patronage of which was then in the hands of Copley’s mother, but was soon to pass via Copley himself to the Howards of Effingham in the general reversal of his fortunes brought about by a spectacularly ill-timed conversion to Catholicism.2

According to the Spanish ambassador this conversion took place in 1563, but Copley’s grand-daughters affirmed that he had been brought up a Catholic by his mother. A literary explanation has even been suggested (by the Jesuit Robert Persons)—that it was occasioned by Bishop Jewell’s inability to refute, at Robert Dudley’s dinner table, Copley’s criticism of the bishop’s newly published Apology. But many of Copley’s relations were Catholics. An uncle was the last prior of St. John’s in England; one of his sisters was the mother of Robert Southwell; another sister married the John Gage who was convicted for sheltering seminary priests. Finally ‘in an ill hour to me’ (as he wrote beforehand to his friend Sir Thomas Cawarden, master of the revels and a noted protestant), he married a Catholic: ‘My hope is there shall no harm come of it’. Thus the ‘hot heretic’ of the 1550s became the Catholic exile of the 1570s. At first the authorities ignored the matter. He returned himself once more for Gatton to the Parliament of 1563, was re-appointed to the commission of the peace in 1564, and his attitude towards the established church was not noticed (favourably or unfavourably) in the report made by the bishop of his diocese to the Privy Council in that year. But in 1568 Copley was imprisoned and fined for materially helping the English Catholic exiles at Louvain. Next, in November 1569 his office of j.p. necessitated his taking the oath required by the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. ‘I cannot yet’, he wrote to the sheriff, ‘by any search, find sufficient matter to persuade me with safe conscience to that which is at present required of me’.3

In the following year he left the country without permission, thereby forfeiting, under a statute of 1566, his lands and goods for life. His local rivals, the Howards of Effingham, already, as Copley thought, alienated by his marriage (William, Lord Howard wished his own daughter to have been the bride), now moved in for the kill, Howard himself directing the confiscation of Copley’s goods, which included, according to the grand-daughters, ‘so fair a library of books that [Howard] pleasured therewith the universities of England’. Welcome also was the opportunity to add to Howard’s growing electoral patronage the share in the borough of Gatton that would have come to him had his daughter’s marriage to Copley taken place. Howard’s electoral partner, however, was Lord Burghley, the master of the wards, ostensibly acting on behalf of Copley’s eldest surviving son, a minor. Burghley remained well disposed towards Copley, and was aware of Howard’s interest in his fall. Copley corresponded with Burghley for the remainder of his life, mostly, it is true, in vain attempts to obtain some sort of paid employment ‘in all offices that may be performed by a Catholic Christian’ to alleviate the financial hardship caused by an embargo on remitting funds abroad. But the only task offered him—that of supplying intelligence about his fellow exiles—was unacceptable, and he obtained no office, no permission to dwell abroad, and no income from his estates. Ultimately he became a pensioner of the governor of the Netherlands, was ennobled by the King of Spain, and knighted by Henri III of France. Still, he always affirmed his loyalty to the Queen, his letters remained friendly, and his wife and children occasionally visited England.

Copley died at the Spanish camp near Antwerp 25 Sept. 1584, having made his will 25 Sept. 1576, naming his ‘entirely beloved wife’ sole executrix and residuary legatee. His daughters, friends and servants received bequests, and his lands went to his heir except for certain estates left in jointure to his wife. A codicil made a year later provided annuities for the younger sons, and 20 marks for his ‘dear friend’ Thomas Doyley. In a second codicil he described himself as ‘Sir Thomas Copley, knight, Lord Copley of Gatton’. His widow proved the will in England, where she lived for the remainder of her life, enjoying her dower lands unmolested, save for two convictions for harbouring Catholic priests.4

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. DNB; Letters of Sir Thos. Copley (Roxburghe Club 1897), ed. Christie; C142/91/20; Vis. Surr. (Harl. Soc. xliii), 21; A. J. Kempe, Loseley Mss, 59-60.
  • 2. CSP Dom. Add. 1566-79, p. 294; 1580-1625, p. 65; CJ, i. 50-1; C142/89/124, 139.
  • 3. Kempe, loc. cit.; Cam. Misc. ix(3), p. 56; CSP Span. 1568-79, pp. 50, 52, 58; Surr. Arch. Colls. xi. 158-9.
  • 4. PCC 13 Brudenell.