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


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

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