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The Bishop's Palace at Ely as a Prison for Recusants, 1577–1597

  • Francis Young

The Bishop's Palace at Ely was used as a prison for Catholics between 1577 and 1597, and between 1588 and 1597 was exclusively a prison for lay recusants. Its inmates included Abbot John Feckenham between 1577 and 1580 and Thomas Tresham, who was imprisoned in Ely four times. Unlike Wisbech Castle, however, the Palace at Ely's period as a prison for recusants has received little attention. This article draws on the documentary evidence for the Catholic prisoners in official records, as well as Tresham's extensive writings during his Ely imprisonment. It also draws on a newly discovered inventory of the Palace's contents in 1581, arguing that the prisoners, and Tresham in particular, were affected by their stay in Ely. It makes the case for the prisoners’ rich cultural life, as evidenced by the prison writings of Tresham and a fellow inmate, George Cotton, who used his time to translate Jesuit letters from Japan. The prisoners in the Bishop's Palace at Ely may have made less public noise than their fellow prisoners at Wisbech Castle, but like Wisbech, Ely was a focus of Catholic culture and resistance during the late Elizabethan period that deserves to be better understood.

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1 Gonville and Caius College MS 53/30, fols 57r–59r.

2 The painting hangs in the Bishop's house in Ely and is reproduced in Young, F., A History of the Bishop's Palace at Ely: Prelates and Prisoners, The Ely Society, Ely, 2012, pp. 67 ; Speed's survey map can be found in Bendall, S., The Earliest Known Map of Ely: John Speed's Survey Map of 1607, The Ely Society, Ely, 2009, pp. 67.

3 Gonville and Caius College MS 53/30, fol. 57r.

4 I have argued elsewhere (young (2012), n. p. 23) that a blocked-up round-headed arch on the east side of the Palace, now partly concealed by a plant room, represents the east window of Bishop Patrick's chapel. Two blocked-up perpendicular arches that survive in the perimeter wall of the Palace garden, facing the east end of Bishop Patrick's chapel, could be remains of an earlier chapel or other buildings.

5 Stevenson, W., A Supplement of the Second Edition of Mr. Bentham's History & Antiquities of the Cathedral and Conventual Church of Ely, London, 1812, p. 84.

6 The text of the original inscriptions on the oriel window, which are no longer visible, can be found in Churton, R., ‘Appendix VI: Inscription on the episcopal palace at Ely’ in The Life of Alexander Nowell, Dean of St. Paul’s, Oxford, 1809, pp. 401–2.

7 on the later restructuring of the Palace see young (2012), pp. 14–7.

8 APC, vol. 10, p. 12.

9 Gonville and Caius MS 53/30, fol. 57v.

10 Strype, J., Annals of the Reformation and Establishment of Religion, London, 1725, vol. 2, pp. 526–8.

11 Richard Cox to the Privy Council, n. d., Gonville and Caius College MS 53/30, fol. 28r.

12 Richard Cox to Burghley, 29 August 1578, BL Lansdowne MS 27 fol. 16, printed in Strype (1725), vol. 2, pp. 525–6.

13 APC, vol. 11, pp. 290–1.

14 CSPD 1578–79, p. 628.

15 ‘Wisbech: Recusants in the castle’ in Pugh, R. B. (ed.) A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, Volume Four, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1953, p. 252. on the imprisonment of lay recusants see also McGrath, P. and Rowe, J., ‘The Imprisonment of Catholics for Religion under Elizabeth I’, Recusant History vol. 20 (1991), pp. 415–35.

16 Lord north to Walsingham, 30 June 1588 (CSPD 1581–1590, vol. 67, p. 494).

17 Anstruther, G., A Hundred Homeless Years: English Dominicans, 1558–1658, Blackfriars Publications, London, 1958, p. 61 ; Morris, J., The Troubles of our Catholic Forefathers, related by themselves, Gregg, Westmead, 1970, vol. 3, p. 221.

18 Pugh, R. B., ‘City of Ely: Monastic Buildings and Palace’, in Pugh (1953), p. 98.

19 APC, vol. 16, p. 382.

20 LPL MS 2008, fol. 43.

21 Hope, W. H. S., ‘A Painted Cloth found at Coughton Court Warwickshire’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London vol. 23 (June 1911), pp. 249–63, at p. 261.

22 Bartoli, D., Dell’istoria della Compagnia di Giesù l’Inghilterra, parte dell’Europa, Rome, 1667, p. 64.

23 APC, vol. 16, pp. 167–8.

24 Salisbury MSS, vol. 14, p. 53.

25 Gonville and Caius College MS 53/30, fol. 58r.

26 McDermott, J., England and the Spanish Armada: The Necessary Quarrel, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2005, p. 246.

27 APC, vol. 16, p. 49.

28 APC, vol. 16, p. 165.

29 APC, vol. 16, p. 167.

30 Holleran, J. V., A Jesuit Challenge: Edmund Campion's Debates at the Tower of London in 1581, Fordham University Press, New York, 1999, p. 36.

31 on the sculpture at Rushton hall see Williams, R. L., ‘A Catholic Sculpture in Elizabethan England: Sir Thomas Tresham's Reredos at Rushton hall’, Architectural History vol. 44 (2001), pp. 221–7.

32 Salisbury MSS, vol. 14, p. 53.

33 Harleian Miscellany, London, 1809, vol. 2, p. 66.

34 Salisbury MSS, vol. 14, p. 54.

35 Historical Manuscripts Commission 5th Report, HMSO, London, 1876, pp. 406–7.

36 APC, vol. 16, p. 313.

37 McDermott (2005), p. 246.

38 Salisbury MSS, vol. 14, p. 58.

39 APC, vol. 16, p. 362.

40 BL Add. MSS 39828, fols 139r–142v.

41 APC, vol. 8:1, p. 550.

42 APC, vol. 8:2, p. 799.

43 APC, vol. 8:2, p. 812.

44 APC, vol. 8:2, p. 941.

45 APC, vol. 11, p. 246.

46 LPL MS 2008, fols 41, 55.

47 CSPD 1593–94, vol. 148, p. 470.

48 CSPD 1593–94, vol. 148, p. 471.

49 APC, vol. 14, p. 65.

50 APC, vol. 14, p. 97.

51 Barker, N. and Quentin, D., The Library of Thomas Tresham and Thomas Brudenell, Roxburghe Club, London, 2006, pp. 2131.

52 McCoog (2012), p. 336.

53 Kaushik, S., ‘Resistance, Loyalty and Recusant Politics: Sir Thomas Tresham and the Elizabethan State’, Midland History vol. 21 (1996), pp. 3772 , at p. 39.

54 Ibid. p. 44.

55 Kilroy, G., Edmund Campion: Memory and Transcription, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, p. 123.

56 Childs, J., God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, Bodley Head, London, 2014, pp. 227–9.

57 On Tresham's architecture see Girouard, M., Elizabethan Architecture: Its Rise and Fall, 1540–1640, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2009, pp. 232–7. on Tresham's mysticism see Young, F., English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553–1829, Ashgate, Farnham, 2013, pp. 38–9.

58 Barker and Quentin (2006), p. 50.

59 These words from I Corinthians 1:18 appear in a partially obliterated frieze above the first floor at Lyveden New Bield, begun in the same year ( Bradshaw, M., Lyveden New Bield, The National Trust, Warrington, 2008, pp. 45 ).

60 Arblaster, P., ‘“G. C.”, Recusant Prison Translator of the Japonian Epistells ’, Recusant History vol. 28 (2006), pp. 4354 , at p. 47.

61 Quoted in Arblaster (2006), p. 52.

62 Barker and Quentin (2006), p. 322, nos 1005, 1006.

63 Arblaster (2006), p. 48.

64 BL Add. MS 39831, fol. 5r.

65 Williams, R. L., ‘Contesting the Everyday: The Cultural Biography of a Subversive Playing Card’, in Hamling, T. and Richardson, C. (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings, Ashgate, Farnham, 2010, pp. 241–56, at pp. 246–7.

66 Kilroy (2005), pp. 124, 145.

67 Williams, R. L., ‘Forbidden Sacred Spaces in Reformation England’, in Spicer, A. and Hamilton, S. (eds), Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Ashgate, Aldershot, 2005, pp. 95114 , at p. 109.

68 Davidson, P., ‘Recusant Catholic Spaces in Early Modern England’ in Corthell, R., Dolan, F., Highley, C. and Marotti, A. F. (eds), Catholic Culture in Early Modern England, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, IN, 2007, pp. 1951 , at p. 35.

69 Gerard, John, The Autobiography of an Elizabethan Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1951, p. 105.

70 BL Add. MS 39831, fol. 13v.

71 This book was Parsons, Robert, A booke of Christian exercise, appertaining to resolution, London, 1584. Tresham's copy still survives in the library at Deene (Barker and Quentin (2006) p. 366, no. 1356).

72 BL Add. MS 39831, fol. 6r.

73 BL Add. MS 39831, fol. 7r.

74 Salisbury MSS, p. 90: Uxor et virgo, regina et sancta, beata Etheldreda, ora pro me misserrimo peccatori, Thoma Tresam (‘Wife and virgin, queen and saint, blessed Etheldreda, pray for me a most miserable sinner, Thomas Tresham’).

75 BL Add. MS 39831, fol. 24r.

76 BL Add. MS 39831, fol. 5r.

77 Cooper, T., ‘The Enchantment of the Familiar Face: Portraits as Domestic objects in Elizabethan and Jacobean England’, in Hamling, T. and Richardson, C. (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings, Ashgate, Farnham, 2010, pp. 157–78, at p. 158.

78 Tittler, R., Portraits, Painters, and Publics in Provincial England 1540–1640, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2012, pp. 110–1.

79 BL Add. MS 39831, fol. 5r.

80 Salisbury MSS, vol. 14, p. xix.

81 D’Armada, P., King's School, The Old Bishop's Palace, Ely: A Report Detailing the Results of an Investigation of the West Window in the Long Gallery for Wall Paintings, Hirst Conservation, London, 2013, p. 3.

82 Ibid. p. 5.

83 Phillip Aitkens, pers. comm. 27 november 2013.

84 ‘Appendix’ in Bentham, J., The History and Antiquities of the Conventual and Cathedral Church of Ely, 2nd edn, Norwich, 1812, pp. 39.

85 Keynes, S., ‘Ely Abbey 672–1109’ in Meadows, P. and Ramsay, N. (eds), A History of Ely Cathedral, Boydell and Brewer, Woodbridge, 2003, pp. 358 , at p. 57.

86 Hope (1911), p. 255.

87 Ibid. pp. 256–7.

88 Ibid. pp. 258, 262.

89 Seven prisoners (William Browne, John Gage of haling, Samuel Loame, Ferdinando Parris, Gervase Pierrepont, John Thimbleby and John Towneley) are recorded only in the Tabula Eliensis. Four prisoners mentioned in official records (Samuel and Sampson Erdeswicke, Edward Rookwood and William Tyrwhitt) receive no mention in the Tabula.

90 Marshall, P. and Scott, G., ‘Introduction: The Catholic Gentry in English Society’ in Marshall, and Scott, (eds), Catholic Gentry in English Society: The Throckmortons of Coughton from Reformation to Emancipation, Ashgate, Farnham, 2009, pp. 130 , at p. 12.

91 Secker, J. E., ‘Consolatory Literature of the English Recusants’, Renaissance et réforme vol. 6 (1982), pp. 122141 , at p. 123.

92 Strauss, P., In Hope of Heaven: Recusant Prison Writings of the Sixteenth Century, Peter Lang, New York, 1995, p. 2.

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