A Colourful Character from Elizabethan England

I find it very intriguing that some of our co-religionists are stigmatising the Catholic Church on account of the evil perpetrated by a very small number of clerics and bishops purported to be protecting them. And then they try to demonstrate the pristine purity of their “classical Anglicanism” restored by Queen Elizabeth I. English Protestantism, conveniently ignored by some, had its own “inquisition”.

The Anglican Church in the late sixteenth century had a zealous man by the name of Richard Topcliffe, who lived from 1532 and died – not dangling from a gallows – but in comfort, in his bed at the age of about 72 in 1604. He was a man we would compare with Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Heinrich Himmler, Julius Streicher or Hitler himself. Going by what he loved to do, he was a psychopath, a man who was totally given to evil.

Well, was he a criminal doing his own thing like Charles Manson or Ted Bundy? No, he was part of the Establishment. He was a rich landowner and Member of Parliament under the reign of Elizabeth I. He was a priest-hunter and torturer, and the favourite operative of the Queen herself.

This nasty piece of work was the eldest son of Robert Topcliffe of Somerby, Lincolnshire, and Margaret, daughter of the third Baron Burgh of Gainsborough. He trained as a lawyer at Gray's Inn in London. During his young life, he administered his vast property. He worked for William Cecil, the Queen's secretary, in the 1570s, and for Sir Francis Walsingham and the Privy Council. However, he regarded his authority as deriving directly from the Queen.

This evil psychopath vented his hatred against Catholics and the Catholic Church, and made it his business to hunt down priests and laity helping them, interrogate them under torture, and have them condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered in the usual gruesome way. He even had a torture chamber installed in his own home in London. We read that he invented a special kind of rack to cause more agony than the 'ordinary' rack at the Tower of London. How he must have enjoyed himself!

Topcliffe's victims included the Jesuits Robert Southwell, John Gerard and Henry Garnet. His Christian zeal for the established Church even extended to raping one of his prisoners, Anne Bellamy, to make her help him arrest the Fr (now Saint) Robert Southwell. Topcliffe covered up the scandal of Bellamy’s pregnancy by him in 1592, by forcing her to marry his servant.

This piece of diabolical slime was also involved in plots to get other noblemen condemned for high treason in order to seize their property in the name of the Crown. As usual, Topcliffe made liberal use of his thumbscrews and rack to extract the right confessions of guilt. He was generously rewarded by the Queen.

Now, the point I am making is that there have been evil men in Churches, and this does not effect the essential sanctity of the Church. There have been evil and weak Popes and bishops, as everyone knows. Topcliffe’s evils were matched by those of Bernardo Gui and Torquemada before him. And don’t let us think it is the fault of God or Christianity, because there were atheistic psychopaths in the twentieth century who loved tormenting and killing millions! We have to rise above human evil to discern the fruits of the Redemption in the life of the spirit.

It cuts both ways.

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PS. Since writing this article, I came across a piece by Arturo Vasquez Defending the Indefensible II, dealing with the question of the rights of the State over the bodies of its subjects. The question is indeed complex and leads to many moral dilemmas.