ELIZABETH I’S MERCENARY SCOUNDREL
Thomas Stukeley served his queen as a soldier, mercenary, diplomat, pirate, spy, schemer, religious agitator & above all a rogue of the highest order
The 15th and 16th centuries are full of the remarkable and flamboyant lives of soldiers of fortune. None are more fascinating than Englishman Sir Thomas Stukeley
(c. 1525 – 4 August 1578). He fought all over Europe in the service of four English monarchs, two popes and various other heads of state. He was a man whose appetite for mischief knew no bounds; Stukeley involved himself in several of the most prominent political and religious intrigues of the day and offered his service to any and all who would take it.
Stukeley was born at Affeton in Devon, the third son of Sir Hugh Stukeley, at some point in the early 1520s. When he was a young man, rumours began to spread that Thomas was a bastard son of King Henry VIII. He was born in the period when Henry was looking for mistresses and had visited Affeton. It was also a period when Henry seemed desperate to father sons (the illegitimate son he recognised, Henry Fitzroy, was born in 1519).
One reason to favour this rumour is that in subsequent decades Stukeley escaped several intrigues unscathed when others involved to a lesser degree were put to death. The apparent closeness in appearance to Henry that Thomas Stukeley bore is hard to verify; all known paintings of him have disappeared and we only have one, rumoured, portrait of him to go by. That portrait, Man in Red, from the Holbein school (now at Hampton Court) is the source of the depiction of him here. We also have at least two plays about Stukeley, written 10-15 years after his death, which suggests he was a subject worth retelling into the 1590s.
Thomas Stukeley’s first foray into service was in the house of Charles Brandon, a favourite of Henry VIII. Brandon took Stukeley with him to France in 1544 to the siege of Boulogne, where he was the commander. Stukeley was then fighting on the Anglo-scottish border in 1547 in the service of Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset and Jane Seymour’s brother, when Henry VIII died. It is possible Stukeley fought at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh on 10 September 1547, where the Scottish were catastrophically defeated by Somerset’s English army.
Somerset was appointed lord protector of the Realm for the young King Edward VI but he ruled autocratically and fell from power in 1549. The next mention of Thomas Stukeley was when he was raising soldiers in London in 1551, perhaps as part of Edward Seymour’s plot to seize the throne. Seymour was arrested for his plot and executed in January 1552. By then Stukeley had already fled to France.
In France, Stukeley offered his services to the French king, Henry II, and may have fought for him against the Habsburgs, although the exact nature of Stukeley’s service becomes unclear from this point on. He was sent back to London in September 1552 as part of a French delegation, with a letter of recommendation from Henry to Edward VI.
In London, Stukeley betrayed French plans to seize Calais and told Edward that he had been sent to London to gather intelligence for the French. Edward’s diary records that the young king was unsure about Stukeley’s claims, but his councillor, William Cecil, believed them. Edward asked his ambassador to France, William Pickering, to investigate. Pickering returned saying that Stukeley had never been in service to the French king. Stukeley was therefore locked up in the Tower of London. It would not be his last visit to gaol.
Stukeley, imprisoned for nearly a year, was released from the Tower only a few days after Mary Tudor marched on London and ascended the throne in August 1553. Stukeley was released, along with several other Catholics, and religion would soon came to play an important part in his affairs. Stukeley immediately returned to Europe, to the Habsburg court, where he served the duke of Savoy, Emmanuel Philibert, at the head of a band of mercenaries to fight against France.
These men may have been those he had been recruiting in 1551. At the same time, however, we find reports of him also in French service in 1553. This suggests that he was not such a liar in regard to his French connections in 1552. Mary wrote to the Habsburg ambassador in January 1554 that Stukeley was a “useful man” and was spying on the French. That year Stukeley intercepted letters between Henry II and his ambassador, naming contacts in England and expressing fears of a marriage between Mary and Philip II of Spain. Stukeley does therefore seem to have offered some service to Mary as a spy and perhaps as a double agent.
Stukeley took a position in the Imperial army in Brussels, probably at the head of his mercenaries. Mary of Hungary, the emperor Charles’s sister and regent of the Low Countries, wrote of men being recruited into “Stukeley’s Band”. By June 1554 Stukeley and his men were involved in the sieges of Marienburg and Dinant. In October 1554 the duke of Savoy visited London and took Stukeley with him. Stukeley took advantage and wrote to Queen Mary, asking for the remission of all his debts. While there he also married. Anne Curtis was the daughter and sole heir of her
family fortune, but if Stukeley was expecting to get his hands on her money he must have been frustrated. There is an arrest warrant from June 1555 naming Stukeley as a counterfeiter. By then, however, Stukeley was already back in Europe, again as a mercenary captain. Another document records a fight with the master of the Mint in 1556.
Stukeley fought in the duke of Savoy’s army at the Battle of Saint Quentin in 1557, where an alliance of Spanish and English troops defeated the French. The city of Saint Quentin was sacked and atrocities committed, and it is likely Stukeley was involved. 1558 saw Stukeley back in England, and that year saw the loss of the English port of Calais to the French, as well as the deaths of Charles V, Mary of Hungary and, in November 1558, of Mary Tudor.
Stukeley had been busy, however. He was summoned before the Privy Council and accused of piracy off the coast of Devon and Cornwall. The charge was dismissed, and Stukeley continued to be in favour. He was granted a ward but was soon discovered rifling through his house looking for cash. In 1559 his wife’s grandfather died and Anne inherited everything, so Stukeley set about spending as much as he could. He may have purchased a position at Berwick, the only permanent garrison in early Elizabethan England.
This was the same region in which he had been during the 1540s, and he seems to have behaved himself for a time. From this post there is the dedication of a translation of the Description Of Sweden made to Thomas Stukeley. The subject of Sweden may have been suggested by relations between England and Sweden at this time, but plans for a marriage between Elizabeth and Erik XIV of Sweden came to nothing, although she had to remain civil, especially when Erik began to court Mary Stuart.
Stukeley began siding with the Protestant Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and Elizabeth’s favourite, perhaps doing some unsavoury business on Dudley’s behalf. Stukeley was also present when the Ulster chieftain Shane O’neill visited England in 1561/2 and sought Elizabeth’s favour. O’neill and Stukeley struck up a friendship that was to prove valuable.
Before that, however, Stukeley was granted the favour of a naval command by Elizabeth. In June 1563 he was given the responsibility of staging a mock sea battle on the Thames for Elizabeth. He was then to command five or six vessels on an expedition to colonise Florida, following the French example at Charlesfort, South Carolina, the year before. The truth surrounding this appointment is difficult to assess, since we have the report of the Spanish ambassador suggesting that Stukeley had offered to defect to the Spanish cause as his being sent to Florida was a “bad and knavish business”.
This brings up the possibility that Stukeley’s appointment was to get him out of the way somehow. Elizabeth no doubt was expecting Stukeley to indulge in piracy (she had written to the lord deputy of Ireland that she expected her share of the booty from French ships). Stukeley’s offer to defect to Spain may have been a ruse to ensure that he was unmolested by Spanish ships.
When Stukeley made his departure in June 1563 he made some odd claims, addressing Elizabeth as his sister and claiming he would rather be the king of a molehill than a subject. This had a great effect on Elizabeth, and she reminded courtiers of the conversation 15 years later. The brusque nature of Stukeley’s address to Elizabeth raises questions once again about his exact parentage.
Whatever the truth of his birthright,
Stukeley took his six ships and immediately began plundering shipping off the Irish coast indiscriminately, taking French, Spanish and Portuguese vessels. He also came across the sorry survivors of the French expedition to South Carolina limping back to France. The various ambassadors complained to Elizabeth
“HE MADE SOME ODD CLAIMS, ADDRESSING ELIZABETH AS HIS SISTER AND CLAIMING HE WOULD RATHER BE THE KING OF A MOLEHILL THAN A SUBJECT”
about Stukeley’s piracy, and he was duly arrested at Cork and imprisoned.
Stukeley looked to his new friend O’neill for help. O’neill interceded on his behalf, writing to Elizabeth, William Cecil and the earl of Leicester, calling Stukeley an “intimate friend” and requesting that Stukeley be appointed O’neill’s intermediary with the crown. Stukeley had other friends speaking on his behalf too, including Lord Deputy of Ireland Sir Henry Sidney. Elizabeth therefore left Stukeley in Ireland. Perhaps he was considered out of the way if he remained there. Stukeley’s attempts to improve his position in Ireland were, however, thwarted by Elizabeth.
First, Stukeley married again (we do not know when Anne died) and he purchased the lands and title of marshal of Ireland. This was blocked by Elizabeth, possibly because it was suspected that Stukeley was Catholic (this last insight came from the Spanish ambassador, with whom Stukeley was still in contact). Stukeley was summoned to England to face charges, but there was insufficient evidence and he was released. In his absence O’neill was assassinated by Irish rivals.
Stukeley was able, with Sidney’s support, to purchase the land and title of the seneschal of Wexford, but he behaved arrogantly, insulting the queen’s cousin, Lady St. Leger, and he was dismissed. Elizabeth’s new seneschal faced several acts of rebellion from his subjects, and Stukeley was soon accused of treason and imprisoned in Dublin castle. The case never came to trial, and Stukeley went to Waterford with his and Anne’s son. One anecdote has him crawling through the streets of Waterford as a penitent, although modern authors have expressed doubt as to his sincerity. It is possible that he was ‘playing the Catholic’, claiming through his actions to have been mistreated by Elizabeth because of his religion. If this was an act, it was one Stukeley was to maintain for the rest of his life.
Stukeley departed Waterford in April 1570, in company with his eight-year-old son. Their destination was Viveiro in Galicia, northwestern Spain, and they were never to see England or Ireland again. As soon as he landed in Spain, Stukeley took up the cause of a zealous Catholic exile. Up to that point he had worked for Catholic and Protestant without any qualm, but he now presented himself as a devout man, attending Mass and showing himself a true Catholic. He was also used by Philip II of Spain in his propaganda against Elizabeth. The papal bull excommunicating Elizabeth had been issued in February 1570, and Philip appointed Stukeley marquis of Ireland, gave him a monthly stipend and a villa on the outskirts of Madrid. These actions may also have been to keep Stukeley quiet, since the Spanish seemed to remember that he could not be fully trusted. Stukeley began trying to raise an army with which to invade Ireland. Philip II paid for Stukeley to go to Rome in 1571, perhaps to get him out of the way, or to have him plead his cause in front of the pope.
In Rome we have evidence that
Englishmen had been instructed to spy on Stukeley’s doings, and reports on his activities seem to have caused Queen Elizabeth some distress. We find Stukeley named in correspondence from her to the Spanish king in 1571, calling Stukeley a “fugitive and rebel”. Again, we are left to question exactly why Stukeley was so important. Pope Pius V, however, gave Stukeley his full support (it was he who had excommunicated Elizabeth).
We know that Stukeley had experience as a naval captain – especially as a pirate – and he served as a captain in the Papal forces during the Battle of Lepanto in October 1571, commanding either a single vessel or a squadron of three. Lepanto was the greatest naval battle of the age, where the Holy League faced the navy of the Ottoman Empire. The
Holy League fleet was mostly paid for by Philip
II, and so he may have dispatched Stukeley to Rome to be of service. If Stukeley commanded three ships, then he commanded almost half of the Papal fleet of seven vessels, and they were stationed in the centre of the Catholic forces. The commander of the Catholic navy was Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of Charles V, and it seems that Stukeley made an excellent impression on him: there were reports after the battle of Stukeley’s “manly deeds”.
After Lepanto, Stukeley’s reputation with the pope, Philip II and Don John of Austria were at their highest ebb. He returned to Spain, and there are letters from him to Philip throughout 1573 and 1574 outlining his plans for an invasion of Ireland. Philip’s invasion plans of 1574, when Ireland was in revolt against Elizabeth under the earl of Desmond, was to have 233 ships, and Stukeley was to command eight of them. When peace was suggested, Elizabeth’s proposals named Stukeley in particular, and he was banished from Madrid under the terms of the peace.
In 1575 Stukeley again travelled to Rome to seek the favour of the new pope, Gregory XIII, a task in which he succeeded spectacularly. He was installed in the Papal palace, and plans for an invasion of Ireland began in earnest. In early 1577 we find Stukeley in Brussels with Don John of Austria, where John wrote new letters of recommendation to both the pope and Philip. We know Stukeley’s movements because of the continued interest in him from William Cecil’s agents. Stukeley was in Siena and then departed for Rome in March. There he was finally given 600 soldiers and a ship, the St Giovanni di Battista, with which to invade Ireland. The ship was, however, woefully under-provisioned and equipped. The expedition barely made it to Palamós in northeastern Spain, where his men fell to fighting with the locals. His Italian captains wrote back to Rome that Stukeley was a fraud. Stukeley’s disaffected entourage limped on.
At Cádiz, Stukeley was met by a proposal from King Philip that he should abandon his Irish plans and fall in with King Sebastian I of Portugal, who intended to invade Morocco in support of the deposed Moroccan sultan,
Abu Abdallah Mohammed II, who had been deposed by his uncle, Abd al-malik. Thereafter, Sebastian would surely support Stukeley’s invasion of Ireland.
Stukeley’s decision to switch to Sebastian’s cause seems entirely in keeping with his pragmatic career of looking out for himself. There were indignant letters back to the pope that he had been betrayed, and the Irish members of Stukeley’s expedition abandoned him and returned to Rome. And yet, part of Stukeley’s brief from the pope was to do
“all the mischief” he could to that “wicked woman”. And in that regard, his decision to help intervene in Morocco may have been driven by other factors. Elizabeth wrote that perhaps Stukeley would find his molehill to be king of in Morocco, a sign that his movements and activities were still reported and still of concern to her. England had ignored a Papal ban on trading with the Moroccan ‘infidel’ and, in 1577, Elizabeth had secured saltpetre, essential for gunpowder production, from Abd al-malik in Morocco. Stukeley’s presence may have been in part to disrupt such an important trade link and live up to the request that he cause as much mischief as he could for Elizabeth.
Unfortunately, Sebastian’s expedition was a disaster from the very start. He invaded with 17,000 men, made up of 9,000 peasant levies, 5,500 foreign troops (German, Walloon, Spanish and Stukeley’s Italians), and 2,500 Portuguese gentlemen volunteers. The army was poorly equipped, largely untrained and it lacked any kind of cohesion or organisation.
The levies still used the pike, a weapon that had been shown to be utterly outdated at a battle Stukeley may have been in, the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, in 1547. The expedition departed on 400 ships in late June, but Sebastian decided to abandon the support and supplies of his fleet and march inland.
There is evidence that Stukeley argued against the poor decisions Sebastian took when the army was in the field, calling on his superior military experience, but his complaints were shut down and he was all but accused of cowardice. The expedition was so overburdened with unnecessary baggage and followers that it took six days to march 65 kilometres (40 miles), by which time the army was exhausted and out of water. It also faced an enemy superior in arms, tactics and numbers; the Moroccan army was between 50-70,000 men.
Still, Sebastian looked forward to leading chivalrous charges and took to the field early the following morning, on 4 August 1578, despite all his advisers urging him to wait until later in the day. The Portuguese attacked in an open square (necessitated by protecting their baggage). The battle lasted six hours and from the first was a disaster for the Portuguese.
Surrounded and outnumbered, they were cut down. 9,000 men fell, the remainder were captured and enslaved, and those who made it back to the ships numbered in the hundreds.
Among the dead on the field was a certain English soldier of fortune, Thomas Stukeley, whose flamboyant life of adventure had come to an ignominious end, his remarkable run of luck finally running out. Any knowledge of whether he was indeed an illegitimate son of Henry VIII died with him.
The Battle of Lepanto, 7 October 1571, pitted the navy of the Holy League against the might of the Ottoman Empire. The Catholic victory stopped Ottoman expansion
William Cecil, Elizabeth’s spymaster. Stukeley earned the hatred of Cecil early in his career
It is possible that Stukeley was present at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, where the Scottish force was decisively defeated
ABOVE: A portrait of Queen Elizabeth I at the time of Stukeley’s expedition to Florida in 1563