I recently visited Englefield House in Berkshire, an Elizabethan stately home just off junction 12 of the the M4 motorway.
You can access the gardens on Mondays but the house is closed as it's still a private residence. We slipped our fivers into the honesty box, sanitised our hands with the hand gel tied to the gate and made our way through the gardens. We wandered under the shadow of ancient, gnarly fir trees, a little garden house with a ceiling made from pine cones and peeked over the wall at the deer park next door.
|Photo: Englefield House, Jo Romero|
And as I looked up at Englefield House itself, the pale, yellowed stone and the twinkling windows standing proudly in the landscape - I thought: I wish I could have been a fly on the wall here just over 400 years ago. Because this house, haunted with the whispers of treason, plots and assassination, was once the home of Sir Francis Englefield.
Sir Francis was well connected to the Tudor monarchs. He gained favour under Henry VIII, and travelled to France on court business for him in 1546. He was knighted, at around the age of 25, by Edward VI at his coronation in 1547. When Mary I succeeded the throne, the Catholic Englefield received titles, lands, a pension from the crown and a key role in the royal council, including the authority to sign documents in the queen's absence due to illness. He owned land in Tidmarsh, Pangbourne, Tilehurst and Sonning, among others. But all that changed when Mary died and her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth came to the throne. In January 1559 Elizabeth requested Sir Francis' resignation from the council and ordered him to give up his seal and any documents he had relating to royal business. Citing health reasons, he left England (with Elizabeth's permission) on condition that he returned if summoned and in any case, after two years.
And this is where our rebel knight gets rebellious.
Sir Francis didn't come back after the permitted two years, and actually refused the queen's requests to return. While abroad, he had also been easing himself into the court of Philip II of Spain, Elizabeth's enemy, of Spanish Armada fame. And there was more. Englefield counted, among his friends, other key, influential local Catholics. Cardinal William Allen, the fellow Catholic who had links to Oxford University. Edmund Plowden, the Catholic lawyer and MP. Plowden had worked in legal matters relating to Sir Francis' Englefield estate and had put forward a case for Mary Queen of Scots' right to the English throne.
Sir Francis was doing anything but behaving himself. In 1564, Elizabeth wasted no time in ordering an inventory of Englefield's lands with the intention of seizing them. A long legal battle ensued, however, because Englefield, under the legal instruction of Plowden, had tied up his estates with a clause containing a gold ring, which must be presented when his property was sold or transferred. In 1574 Englefield and Allen approached Pope Gregory XIII to intervene on behalf of English Catholics, which we all know means an invasion. Elizabeth finally got her hands on Englefield's estates in 1593 through an Act of Attainder. And in 1596, the year of his death, he left a letter urging Philip of Spain to launch another Armada against England and her queen. He died in Spain.
Sir Francis Englefield's case seems to be a classic lesson in how not to deal with Elizabeth I. He had met her while she was a princess in 1556, under the reign of Mary, when he was sent to give her a message. She would have been 23 years old. Did he underestimate her? He was always a man of action, but his contempt for the monarch and the English religious establishment seems to have been vastly fuelled on Elizabeth's accession. Perhaps his reaction was in revenge for Elizabeth unceremoniously removing him from his lucrative and powerful offices almost as soon as her reign had begun, when he had enjoyed favour with the previous Tudors. Perhaps if she had allowed him to continue as part of the council, under a watchful eye, he would have been softer and more inclined to conform. But then, his later actions, as dramatic and wounding as they were, seem to suggest that Elizabeth was right to be cautious - and suspicious - of this powerful landowner.
And there we are again, at Englefield House, on that spring morning in 1559, as Sir Francis is preparing to leave the country. Hushed conversations, gathering up servants and horses. I wonder if the servants and staff at Englefield secretly knew of his plans? If gossip had spread to neighbouring villages such as Theale or Tilehurst? Whether Sir Francis already knew the lengths he would later go to, to try and remove Elizabeth from power. Had visitors galloped up to the house to discuss plans? I can't help but think, as he rode out of Englefield's gates, that he imagined returning to England - and the vast wealth that would still be there for him - once the Catholic Mary Stuart was safely on the throne.
A fly on the wall. Wouldn't it be amazing?
Cleary, JM. Dr Morys Clynnogs Invasion Projects of 1575-1576. Cambridge University Press. 1966.
Baker, T. F.T. Sir Francis Englefield, History of Parliament Online.
Axton, Marie. "The Influence of Edmund Plowden's Succession Treatise." Huntington Library Quarterly 37, no. 3 (1974): 209-26. Accessed September 29, 2020. doi:10.2307/3816851.