|Lusty Stukeley: Deceiver of Princes
by Comer Plummer
The day was Monday, August 4, 1578. Sir Thomas Stukeley stood in his armor on the plain of Ksar el-Kebir, in the heart of the Kingdom of Fez, with the hosts assembling for battle around him. He had collected himself by then, having shed the ordeal of the previous night, with its discomforts and frustrations. He would have been calm and reflective, as only experienced soldiers could be at such times. Thomas probably knew that he was playing his final card. In a life of twists and turns the climactic moment had at last arrived. There was no maneuvering out of it. He was adrift among forces beyond his control. At last, on this battlefield, his destiny would be decided.
Circumstances might have been better. Certainly, they appeared altogether different a few short weeks ago when he joined the expedition. But this foray into Morocco had not been the parade he had been led to expect. The general-in-chief and his latest royal sponsor, King Sebastian I of Portugal, was at best head strong and quite possibly delusional; the army was fractured, exhausted, and outnumbered; and the contingent Thomas led despised him for treachery. No matter, in some way Stukeley must have welcomed the moment, for he was exhausted in every sense of the word. He had tread a path of calumny through the courts of Europe, and the crowing betrayal against the Pope stripped away the disguise he so painstakingly cultivated these past years, that of the persecuted Catholic and loyal instrument of the Church. Despite his lofty titles, Stukeley was landless and had lived for years on the alms of patrons. And he was no longer a young man. At 53, he was, by the demographics of the day, an old man. Only victory might redeem him and provide the stature and security he so coveted.
To many, Captain Thomas Stukeley was ambiguous. Soldier, adventurer, mercenary, courtier, diplomat, pirate, and counterfeiter described a career as notorious as it was famous. Thomas could be at once intriguing and perplexing. Stukeley’s appearance was deceptively economical. The visage held a taught, bony face and a prominent nose, a trim beard and mustache, and was decorated at the summit with a luxuriant tuff of auburn hair, cropped short on the sides. For a young man they called ‘Lusty Stukeley’ down in England’s West Country, he had an aura of purpose and austerity.
Beyond the façade, the truth was not so obtuse. Thomas Stukeley was not a loved man. His family life was a sham. His marriages were a means to the patrimony of his wives, and, once despoiled, he abandoned them. To his one son, he was an absentee father. He had few close companions. Those who came to know Stukeley well had few kind words for his character. Elizabeth I scathingly referred to him as “a faithless beast rather than a man.” Maurice Fitzgibbon, Archbishop of Cashel, described him as “a pirate, of life dissolute, of expenses prodigal, of no substance on any account in his country, though descended from a good house.” Henry Parker, Lord Morley, called Stukeley a “knave and a villain” and “not a Catholic but a deceiver of Princes”. Perhaps the kindest description came from his principle ally in the court of Spain, Don Gomez de Suárez de Fígueroa, Duke of Feria, who labeled Stukeley as simply “unruly”.
The bravados that rolled off Thomas Stukeley’s tongue gave vent to the nature of the man. “No action,” sufficed for him, “that cannot make a step toward a crowne”. He was a prideful sort who esteemed himself unable to “brook the least disgrace.” To such a man, vain despite his distinctly limited means, appearances were everything. Maintaining a subterfuge of gentlemanly virtue while conniving toward the very apex of the social ladder required a nimble lifestyle, the sort required to keep one step ahead of the past while ever looking for the next rung, or, when necessary, the quickest way down to safety. Thomas Stukeley was, in short, the consummate opportunist. His dissembling nature paid homage to the feudal traditions of service, but, in the end, he served only himself. Even in matters of faith, Thomas was pliant. Though descended from a Lutheran family, he had no particular religious conviction and conformed to his circumstances. Such men were not entirely scarce. In Renaissance Europe, a comfortable life depended upon the tenuous patronage of the nobility and the clergy, or admittance to that most exclusive club. Those on the fringes of power toiled for notoriety through conquest or knavery. Stukeley was, however, no ordinary supplicant. His life had been a crusade to escape the fate this his birth had imposed upon him. The son of a minor noble, ‘Lusty’ Tom acquired early the taste for a higher life. One of his fondest boasts was that he “would rather be the King of a molehill than the greatest subject of the mightiest monarch in Christendom.” It was a life that embodied the Machiavellian credo: The end justifies the means.
In his ambition for land and title Stukeley cultivated a wide acquaintance. Despite his relatively modest circumstances he treated with some of the most powerful figures of his time, including England’s Mary I and Elizabeth I, Henry II of France, Phillip II of Spain, Sebastian I of Portugal, popes Pius V and Gregory XIII, Don John of Austria, and many other nobles and members of the clergy. When fortune failed him, as was not infrequent, he allied himself with mercenaries, rebels, villains, and pirates. He survived and, despite numerous setbacks, remained relevant to the powerful though much of his life.
Thomas Stukeley was born around 1525 at Affeton, near West Worlington, Devon, England. A large shire county in England’s Southwestern peninsula, Devon was a picturesque place of whitewashed cob cottages clustered around hilltops presiding over a pastoral paradise of rolling hills intersected by icy streams and craggy tree lines. But for the bustling port town of Plymouth, it was something of a remote place, suspended in its wild beauty - bracken and heather covered uplands, the rugged cliffs of the north, and pristine beaches of the southern coast. Astride the county sat the vast, tor-strewn heath of the Dartmoor, whose high catchment area poured forth the waters that carved the landscape and fed the many rivers and streams of the land. Thomas grew up along one of these rivers, the Little Dart. He was the third of five sons of Sir Hugh Stukeley and Jane Pollard. The progenitor of the line was another Hugh, who migrated from Huntingdonshire around 1437 to marry Katherine, the only daughter and heir of Sir John de Affeton. Hugh Stukeley earned a knighthood and became Sheriff of Devon in 1448. Thomas’s father was a wealthy clothier who himself became Sheriff of Devon in 1544. The Affetons and the Stukeleys after them occupied a castellated mansion and extensive grounds, which over the years became one of the jewels of the county. It was a comfortable life, with connections that brought both standing and security. It was, however, no path to power.
As in centuries past, war remained in Renaissance Europe the quickest way to riches and notoriety. Stukeley came to accept this fact early in life. By 1544, as a young man of 19, he had left home to seek his fortunes on the battlefield and found service with Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, at the siege of Boulogne. The experience as ‘standard bearer to the men at arms’, and connections with two relatives at his side, Sir Hugh Poulet, Treasurer to the Army, and Sir George Pollard, must have infused him with ambition.11 He also came to understand that service and self-promotion went hand in hand. Returning from France, Stukeley began to cultivate patronage in London.
Bitter lessons came early, too. Stukeley’s service both in France and subsequently on the Scottish frontier, did not yield the hoped-for rewards. Pay to the soldier of the age was still medieval in nature, which is to say flagrantly unreliable. The gentleman’s condition could be equally precarious. Maintaining appearances was serious business to the man-at-arms, and his expenses were substantial. A gentleman was expected to outfit himself in a manner befitting his position and to sustain himself in the field. This included his armor and weaponry, camp kit, provisions, and often mounts, grooms, pages, and other servants. Fame and plunder were the real riches of war, and both were as problematic as the paymaster. A poor situation it was, and Thomas’s appetites did not help matters. He must have grown up in great comfort at Affeton, for the evidence of him from the earliest times is colored with the fineries of noble living - custom clothing and arms, jewels, handsome lodgings, and servants in livery. Changing fortunes did not much alter his habits. In fleeing to Spain in 1570, Thomas was recorded as taking with him three private cooks and several grooms. Such ease and expenditures were nothing uncommon for a gentleman. What made Tom Stukeley unique as a spendthrift, apart from his complete disregard for his circumstances, was his ability to leverage credit to sustain his lifestyle. He had a real talent for spreading his debts, “borrowing everywhere”, as William Cecil observed, and “paying nowhere.” Money, or the absence of it, would be a recurring affliction in his life.
Stukeley’s long term prospects were no more promising. His choice of patron, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, was an education in the court politics and the consequences for those on the wrong side of favor. Thomas’s target, Somerset, was a reasonable choice. Lord Protector of England since the death of King Henry VIII in 1547, Somerset’s position appeared unassailable after he decisively defeated of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. However, social unrest in England in 1549 unleashed court rivalries that exposed the once-redoubtable lord. Outmaneuvered by John Dudley, 1st Earl of Warwick, later 1st Lord of Northumberland, and the Lord President of the Privy Council, Somerset’s fall was meteoric. Accused of felony for plotting against the Council, his properties were confiscated by the crown and he was decapitated on Tower Hill in January 1552.
Somerset’s former entourage scattered. Stukeley was forced to seek refuge on the continent. He found France, however, to be less than welcoming. After several months dithering, and failing to gain traction with Henry II as a courier or soldier, Thomas gambled on a return to England. He grasped at intelligence as a means to ingratiate himself with the new government. It was a ploy he would use often in life. On this occasion, however, the attempt backfired and nearly cost him his head. A royal letter of safe conduct was a useful thing, unless it came from the hand of the King of the France, England’s traditional rival and erstwhile foe. The French monarch’s entreaty to Edward VI to welcome home and forgive any “fault” of “notre cher et bon ami” Stukeley only increased the scrutiny of the wayward gentleman. Brought before the Council, Thomas ventured his gambit. He told the assembled lords how he had hurried back to dearest England, forsaking any risk to himself, in order to impart the dastardly news overheard at the French court: Henry II was plotting an invasion of England, with the object of restoring the position of the Church. The Council, and Northumberland in particular, was skeptical enough of both the message and its bearer to dispatch a letter to King Henry on the veracity of these claims. The French monarch’s scathing denial of the “false bruits and tales” did little to settle the matter.14 Stukeley was sent to tarry in the Tower of London.
He almost perished there. The executioner’s block might have been imminent had the Council been able to decide whether Thomas was a misguided fool or a foreign agent. He spent nearly a year stewing in his miseries, the uncertainty being the worst of it. As the prisoner would later come to appreciate, this ambiguity kept his head on his shoulders long enough for politics to come to the rescue. By July 1553, fresh tremors rocked the political and religious landscape of England. Northumberland, his old nemesis, was in prison and soon headed for the block, along with Lady Jane Gray, whom he attempted to install as queen. Mary Tudor emerged the victor, holding at bay another rival, her half-sister, Elizabeth. The new queen announced her intent to return England to “the old faith”, and offered clemency to those persecuted by the former regime. Stukeley suddenly found himself released from prison and privations that had nearly caused his “utter undoing”. The threadbare mercenary soon departed to repair his situation on the Continent, where the Valois-Habsburg War offered the prospect of employment in the Low Countries. With the Queen’s endorsement, Stukeley took up arms in the service of Emmanuel Philibert, the Duke of Savoy, and later Habsburg Governor of the Netherlands, and campaigned actively that spring and summer.
In need of a new patron, Captain Stukeley worked as diligently as he could from a far to ingratiate himself with Mary, whose “clemency and favour” had saved his life. He wrote her several letters in which professed his loyalty and provided details of affairs on the Continent. On one occasion, Thomas included a letter that he had purloined from a French courier. Written by King Henry to his ambassador in London, the document contained potentially valuable information, including fears that the union of Mary and Philip would “cause the English to make war in the spring”, and revealed certain conspirators among the English nobility. As the year’s end approached, Thomas schemed to return home. The Duke of Savoy was crossing to London to attend the bridal festivities of his cousin, Philip of Spain, and Mary Tudor, and Stukeley planned to be in the ducal train. There remained, however, the question of his debts. Fearing a new arrest awaiting him in London, Thomas implored the Queen’s intervention on his behalf. He was “endangered” and did not blush to beg “for the great sums as my very small power shall never attain to discharge unless you, of your mere mercy provide for me in that behalf.”
By December 1554, Thomas Stukeley was back in London with the Duke’s entourage, enjoying holiday festivities and the afterglow of a historic, if not entirely popular, royal wedding. The crowns of England and Spain were joined, and old differences were papered over. Thomas capered away Christmas and the New Year at Whitehall and St. James, surrounded by London’s elite. The prison cell in the Tower and the battlefields of Scotland, Flanders, and France must have seemed far away. Stukeley, however, could have derived little satisfaction from his circumstances, however improved. His slavishness earned him merely a six-month retrieve from his creditors. Whatever services he rendered to the Queen did not merit a place at court, and his very presence there must have been a painful reminder of his limitations. Sir Thomas was little more than a mercenary, and was utterly deficient in social and financial standing to be relevant to the powerful. Moreover, life in the capital was hard for a man trying to rise above his station. All too soon, the game was up. Without means, Stukeley sank to survival.
What followed were difficult years when Thomas’s nefarious dealings kept him under the eye of the law. He stumbled into luck with a wealthy heiress, Anne Curtis, whom he swept off to disreputable nuptials by candlelight. It was his second marriage. An unknown lass had been left behind in Devon. This new union, however, but this did little to improve his immediate condition. Anne’s grandfather, Sir Thomas Curtis, a wealthy merchant and alderman of London, kept a tight fist on his money. So, on he went, making ends meet any way he could. He was leading a dangerous double existence, shuttling between Devonshire and London, by day salving the feelings of Old Curtis and playing the good grandson-in-law, flattering and grinning his way into drawing rooms and dinner parties, while by night plying a dozen shady schemes with his constellation of bounders and desperados. A few months later, arrest warrants arrived in Devonshire directing the Sheriff to retain Stukeley and his accomplices for “coining”. These were serious charges, and sent the practitioners scurrying for cover. Most were rounded up, and many went to the scaffold. Not Tom Stukeley, however, who promptly decamped to Flanders and the Duke of Savoy’s service, leaving his flummoxed bride and her scandalized grandfather to make his excuses before the law. Redemption, however, was not far off. Savoy’s victorious campaign, which culminated in August 1557 at the Battle of St. Quentin, was apparently sufficient rehabilitation to allow Stukeley to return to England a few weeks later. And so the trend, established in 1553, and oft-repeated in years to follow, was continued: Somehow, the recidivist was able to evade the full measure of the law. Just how is a matter of speculation, but it is clear that by this time, when he was about 32 years of age, Thomas Stukeley had learned to leverage his talents. He had an uncommon sense of purpose, an absence of rectitude, and a gift for identifying and exploiting the fears and petty vanities of the powerful; he could also consume the unsuspecting and the weak without scruple. This malevolent machinery operated under a disguise that included a good name, soldierly repute, proper attire and plate, and, above all, a true deftness at sycophancy. These talents earned him both the sympathy, as well as the antipathy, of the powerful. Fortunately for Thomas, Queen Mary remained a supporter until the end. Before she died in 1558, Mary managed a final gesture on Stukeley’s behalf, awarding him the wardship of his deceased brother-in-law’s son.
While the dying queen might have given him the benefit of the doubt, others had heard too much about the rake. Details of Thomas’s racketeering life were catching up to him. The latest charge laid before the Council that year of 1558 came by way of several Spanish merchants, whose ships had apparently been waylaid by thugs under Stukeley’s employ off the coasts of Devon and Cornwall. The Admiralty Court, however, found insufficient evidence to bring charges of piracy. Regardless, the Councilors thought it prudent to over-ride the late queen’s wishes and bar Stukeley from entering the lodgings or disturbing the affects of his ward’s late father. Though a trifling figure, Thomas Stukeley was fast becoming a polarizing subject at court. He seemed oblivious to it all, for in an instant his luck had changed. Old Curtis died suddenly one night, and had the good grace to leave no will behind. Little time was wasted with appearances. Curtis’s sober home on Lime Street became an oasis of babel, or as the beneficent new proprietor preferred, “royalty to all comers”. ‘Lusty’ Tom saw in his new City properties in Lombard and Fenchurch, and the farms in Essex, a stake to a new reputation, and he was determined to frolic his way there. The bacchanalia became the talk of the town and beyond. The gossip reached all the way to Madrid where the English ambassador recorded that barely had the alderman turned cold that Stukeley was “in the midst of his coffers”. For eighteen months it went on, a prodigal romp whose tab was said to amount to £100 a day. While this extravagance was doubtless to some degree an urban legend, Thomas clearly made an impression. Such was his object, and to the devil with the consequences. When the last reveler had drifted away, all that remained in that gray awakening was confetti - notes to tailors, wig makers, jewelers, armorers, haberdashers, and purveyors of fine wines and delicacies. Such delights required heavy borrowing, including from the Company of the Merchant Adventurers of London, the powerful guild that held the textile export monopoly. The reckoning of these debts compelled Stukeley to mortgage much of his wife’s inheritance. His largesse did not buy him favor. The Privy Council was quite saturated with this roguish behavior.
Stukeley’s luck had not yet run its course. His fortunes, however, would lie outside of England. On the surface it appeared a familiar enough story: another change of government, another shuffling of the power brokers at court. This one, however, was to be different. Elizabeth I’s ascendancy was a turn of events that would prove enduring. The new queen quickly restored the Protestant laws and the position of the Anglican Church. The papal response included the bulls Cum ex Apostolatus Officio (1559) and Regnans in Excelsis (1570), which respectively limited papal eligibility to true Catholics and declared Elizabeth a heretic and released her subjects from their allegiance to her. Together, these events formed a fresh rupture in European politics.
This change of government heralded a new reality for Thomas Stukeley. Elizabeth was a ruler equal to the times. Schooled in dynastic intrigues from her formative years, she had experienced the ebb and flow of royal favor and its heavy consequences. Elizabeth’s father was the flamboyant and controversial King Henry VIII, and her mother, the unfortunate Anne Boleyn, was among those victims of his changing tastes. A few years after Henry’s death, an early suitor, Thomas Seymour, was executed for plotting to marry Elizabeth and overthrow her half-brother, Edward VI. Elizabeth had accompanied Mary into London where she witnessed the demise of Lady Jane Grey. She too had a near miss with the executioner’s block. Educated in the Protestant faith, Elizabeth was held in suspicion during Mary’s reign. Following an abortive uprising against her half-sister, Elizabeth narrowly escaped charges of sedition. She was interrogated and maintained under house arrest for almost a year. Adversity forged a circumspect and practical queen who was not easily seduced by flattery. She was also notoriously parsimonious. In short, Elizabeth Tudor was the very antithesis of Thomas Stukeley. He would find her an insoluble problem.
If the fates assigned to him an intractable foe at home, they offered opportunity abroad. By 1561, Thomas was keeping a low profile down in Berwick, where he had obtained a captaincy. He was then in a rare interlude of respectability, living in comfortable obscurity, and it rankled. With no particular prospects, Thomas might have withered and died on the vine had it not been for the fateful visit to London of the Irish leader, Shane O’Neill, the following year.
One of her two kingdoms and yet so remote, Elizabeth’s Ireland was conceived by many an Englishman as a rude and barbarous nation, a Neanderthal place of painted savages, warring clans, and bizarre customs. England’s rulers had long been consumed with her dwindling lands on the Continent. Ireland was, by comparison, a neglected backwater. By 1560, the situation had changed. The continental door was being slammed shut. England’s last possession in France, Calais, had been lost two years earlier. The formation of the Anglican Church led to an open rupture with the Pope and the Hapsburg and Valois families that ruled much of Europe. England’s continental detachment was underway.
Elizabeth ascended the throne at a tumultuous time. The Counter-Reformation was in full bloom in 1558, with the Council of Trent, initiated thirteen years earlier, still re-convening periodically to review Church doctrine and, in due course, reject Protestant heresies. The Christian schism cast a long shadow over European affairs, pitting neighbor against neighbor, fueling court intrigues and struggles over dynastic succession, and intensifying the rivalry between Europe’s great families. It also expanded the reach of the dreaded Inquisition. England reflected the fractured social and religious landscape of the times. While Protestantism was at the time ascendant, since the days of Henry VIII the land had teetered between the faiths and might yet again. Certainly, the ‘old faith’ was far from extinguished, and powerful forces would strive to kindle the flame, including Earls of the North, the restive clans of Ireland, and Elizabeth’s avowed enemies abroad. The great victory of 1588 was far off. In 1562 England’s leaders felt vulnerable and lived in fear of foreign invasion. They came to see Scotland and Ireland as strategic threats, and with good reason. The Pope campaigned actively against Elizabeth, recognizing her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, as England’s rightful ruler. While the Treaty of Edinburgh ended French military support to Scotland and recognized Elizabeth as England’s queen, Mary refused to ratify the treaty and retained designs on the English throne. Mary’s imprisonment and the passing years did not much alter the situation, a fact clearly revealed a decade into Elizabeth’s rule when a group of Catholic noblemen rose in revolt with the aim of deposing her in favor of Mary, the so-called Rising of the North. Ireland was no less problematic. Through both alliances and its modest garrison, London had been unable to assert its authority over the clans and much of the countryside was autonomous. Shoring up the Queen’s position required the consolidation of English authority in her own backyard.
Shane O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, was a means to that end. As the main Gaelic chief, Shane O’Neill was one of most powerful figures in Ireland. Master of Ulster and leader of a major clan, O’Neill could field an army to challenge the English. Yet, his power rest on shaky ground. In assuming his earldom through treachery, O’Neill was an outlaw in the eyes of London and to many of the clan. His father, Bacaugh, exchanged leadership of the clan for fealty to the Queen and, in compensation, the title and rights of Earl of Tyrone. When he died, according to English law, the earldom was to pass to his eldest son, Mathew. Shane, Mathew’s half-brother, had other ideas. He discredited the presumptive heir as a bastard in order to gain the support of the clan and then murdered him. Internal strife followed, which a series of English Lords Deputy tried unsuccessfully to resolve. When English military intervention proved inconclusive, a stalemate settled over the land in the summer of 1561.
Both sides sought an accommodation. When O’Neill came to London in January of 1562, it was to renew fealty to the Queen as a prelude to negotiations on his patrimony. Stukeley, then a minor courtier, hit it off with O’Neill. Over late nights of wine and commiserations the two discovered that they had much in common. Both were vain, without scruple, and quite ruthless where their aspirations were concerned. Shane resorted to murder to gain his title. Thomas was, by necessity, more nuanced. Thomas manipulated his lineage to the situation. The most prevalent gossip was that Stukeley was the illegitimate son of King Henry VIII. To curry favor with the Irish, he later spun tales of his being the son of a knight and an Irish lady. Still another had him the son of Irish parents, one of whom was noble, who changed their names to conceal their Gaelic roots from the English. None of these rumors had any basis in fact, but Stukeley gave wind to them whenever he might benefit.
Soon, Thomas had become the Irishman’s confidant, guide, and go between in negotiations. O’Neill represented Stukeley well to Elizabeth, which must have improved his standing at court. Shane also took care to cultivate Spanish sympathies, visiting their embassy in London where he shared the holy sacrament with “utmost secrecy” [sic.] and promised to remain with the Church. The negotiations in London were inconclusive, and O’Neill returned to Ulster with vague assurances of his position in exchange for fealty to the Queen. Stukeley was intimately involved with these events, and it was during these days that the seed was planted for his Irish expedition.22
Ireland was a vision – a frontier where an enterprising man might carve himself a fiefdom. Thomas, however, had immediate concerns of a more practical nature: He was reaching the end of his wife’s patrimony and the debts were piling up again. He needed a windfall to buy his way clear. In 1563 he gambled all on a joint commercial venture with the crown to establish a colony in Florida. The seafaring life was nothing new to Thomas. He had been working the seas for some time with two barks he purchased from the salvage of his wife’s ruined inheritance, The Fortune Stucley and The Anne Stucley, nimble craft yet remembered for their notorious work on the Channel back in 1558. That the reprobate should garner royal support, however, was a novelty and showed the fruits of Thomas’s knavery. Powerful allies had helped, and, remarkably, would continue to do so for years, until they could no longer risk extending him the benefit of the doubt. In times of need Stukeley leaned on his influential family members, including Lewis, his eldest brother at Affeton, and his uncle, Sir Hugh Poulet, Knight Marshal and Governor of Jersey. He enjoyed considerable support of two of the highest men in the realm, William Cecil, 1st Baron of Burghley, and old comrade from Somerset’s former entourage, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and fifth son of Northumberland – both particular objects of his toadying.
While advocates produced the opportunity, it was Jean Ribault who provided the impetus. The previous year Ribault, a French naval officer and a Huguenot, had established a colony at Fort Royal, in present-day South Carolina, which he called Charlesfort. Leaving behind a small garrison, he returned to France to raise more supporters and funds for the colony, but was impeded by the civil war that flared in his absence. Stymied at home, Ribault traveled to London to seek the financial backing of Elizabeth. In return, he offered her the nascent colony astride Spanish trade routes from her empire in the Americas. Neither side seemed concerned that the land in question fell within Spanish sphere according to the Treaty of Tordesillas. Ribault argued, to the Queen’s evident satisfaction, that Spain had failed to exploit the area, and therefore could not be expected to retain such a monopoly.
The New World dazzled the imagination. It was only fifty years earlier that Ponce de Léon had discovered the verdant land they named after the Easter season, or Festival of Flowers (Pascua Florida), and it remained exotic and unknown. This was no mere ‘molehill’, but a limitless horizon of virgin land, exploitable savages, and, above all, gold. Ribault signed on as Stukeley’s second-in-command, and brought along his three pilots. It was not long, though, before both men soon soured on the plan. The Frenchman apparently misunderstood Elizabeth’s terms and balked at the idea of turning over the Charlesfort colony to the English. It is also quite likely that he had by then taken full measure of the rapacious nature of the commander. Ribault sought a refuge for Protestants, while Stukeley’s ambitions were of a baser kind. One night, the Frenchman and the pilots tried to bolt, but they were quickly captured and thrown into the Tower on suspicion of espionage. Ribault could rot, but the pilots were another matter. Stukeley had them bailed out and returned in chains to his ships. Such tactics belied a determination that Thomas did not feel, for his own change of heart was already forming. The Queen’s patronage was frugal. Her purveyor provided the victuals, and the ordinance came from the Tower. Thomas was allowed to keep fifty percent of any booty he might take. Beyond that, she would not consent to a farthing. What probably decided the matter for Stukeley was an encounter that spring off the English coast. By bizarre coincidence, one of his barks came across a rudimentary craft containing the survivors of the Charlesfort settlement. Some weeks earlier they had abandoned the penury of the New World and sailed for home. The men, leathery and skeletal, had resorted to choking down their own urine and the human flesh of their dead to survive the crossing. This sight, and their croaking ordeals of life in the wilds of the Americas, brought Thomas back to a closer and more practical reality.
Whatever reticence he felt, Thomas could not back out now. He had assembled six ships, two of his own, one from the crown, and the remainder from private investors. His end had cost him dearly. Everything that had not already been mortgaged away was sold, pawned, or melted down, right down to the blocks of tin that once covered the courtyard of the old Lime Street home. It had to be: The Queen steadfastly refused any serious financial commitment. While the enterprise offered the twin benefit of financial gain and doing mischief to Spanish economic interests in the New World, Elizabeth was circumspect about the enterprise. Beyond her desire to avoid openly provoking Philip, something was amiss. Perhaps it was Thomas’s colorful past, for he simply did not fit the mold of a colonizer.
It was quite possible that Thomas never considered Florida at all. The outfitting of the ships, including abundant shot and artillery, suggested an ulterior motive. Alvarez de Quandra, Bishop of Aquila, and the Spanish ambassador to London, reported that the flotilla was more equipped “for some great robbery than discovering new lands”. Certainly, Stukeley’s history of high seas thuggery provided such an inclination or at least a ready alternative when the New World dream died. Thomas had resorted to everything to thaw the Queen, and, of course, loosen her purse-strings. As was his custom, he spared no expense. On June 14, 1563, Captain Stukeley staged a massive naval pageant on the Thames before the royal barge, to “show her Grace the pleasure that can be on the water, with shooting of guns, as in war, with playing of drums and trumpets”. The mock sea battle with ‘infidels’ included elaborate costumes, and was appropriately copious in pyrotechnics, sword play, and buckets of phony blood. The rapt crowd that lined the riverbanks and bobbed in every imaginable craft among the fireballs and smoke, cheered lustily as each enemy ensign was cut down. Something near delirium reigned as the last of the turbaned foes were hauled up for public scorn, then hurdled down from the yard-arm. Surely, Elizabeth could not help but be impressed.
Then, a few days before sailing, the mask fell away. Disenchanted with his mission and resigned to the Queen’s obduracy, Stukeley sent an emissary to De Quandra complaining of the “bad and knavish business” that was his charge and hinted at a willingness to switch his allegiance to Spain. This tantalizing bit of information was duly conveyed to Philip, who feared that the real motive of the voyage was to prey on English shipping in the Caribbean. This required a follow-up. A dejected Stukeley came to see De Quandra the day before his departure and confirmed his previous offer. It was all too naked, too blatant, however, and the ambassador was unconvinced. Stukeley was, he wrote to Philip, “not much to be trusted”. The Englishman’s motives were born of desperation, not conviction. De Quandra so concluded: “He is quite ruined here, without an estate.”
While Stukeley found no embrace from Spain, he had succeeded in inscribing himself in Phillip’s conscious. The King made note that he might perhaps “take up with this Stukeley, and make some use of him.”
More theatrics accompanied the departure. On June 25, 1563, Captain Stukeley came to Greenwich to take leave of the Queen, which was de rigueur since her standard few over his ships. From there he would sail to Plymouth, where the little flotilla was to assemble. During this interview Stukeley put himself on full display. He is reported to have demonstrated this historic impertinence, as recorded by a purported observer:
‘So confident his ambition, that he blushed not in telling Queen Elizabeth, that he preferred to be the sovereign of a mole-hill than the highest subject of the greatest kingdom of Christendom, adding, moreover, that he was assured of being a prince before his death: I hope (said Elizabeth) I shall hear from you, when you are instated in your principality. I will write unto you. (quoth Stukeley.) In what language? (saith the Queen.) He returned: In the stile [sic.] of princes: ‘To our dearest sister.’
These were words that Elizabeth would not forget.
Captain Thomas Stukeley, pirate, was unleashed. No longer fettered by plying the English coast for petty cargos, his flotilla sailed from the Channel and into the hunt for larger and more lucrative prey on the Irish Sea and on the Bay of Biscay. It was boom time for high seas larceny, with the packs of pirates and privateers hunting fertile sea lanes for merchant ships bloated with regional goods of an emerging world economy: wines, rum, textiles, manufactured goods, and firearms from Europe, slaves, ebony, and ivory from Africa, gold, silver, and molasses from the Americas, and spices, silks, porcelain, and exotic medicines from India and the Far East. For two years Thomas’s coffers fattened with booty from Spanish, Portuguese, and French shipping. Stukeley pursued his new vocation the same with ardor that earlier made him one of Devon’s principal counterfeiters and he soon became major scandal to Europe. The hue and cry of plaintiffs became impossible to ignore and the English ambassador to Madrid was said to have “hung his head for shame” over this infamous business. Repeated remonstrances by foreign diplomats at length brought Elizabeth to action and she renounced Stukeley and dispatched ships to hunt down the miscreants. In short order, the ringleader and several of his accomplices were apprehended in Ireland. Thomas’s fortunes had again ebbed. He faced a catalogue of charges that included not only piracy, but embezzlement from his creditors.
Back in London and protesting his innocence in every direction, Stukeley mobilized his beleaguered supporters anew against the potentially ruinous accusations. Once more, he managed to evade the Admiralty Court until the fates again intervened on his behalf. Politics in Ireland trumped the law, if only for a time. By 1566 Thomas Stukeley’s services were once more required in Ulster, where the new Lord Deputy of Ireland, Henry Sidney, was having a difficult time with Shane O’Neill. This situation was tenuous, at best. The previous summer O’Neill had defeated a rival clan at the Battle of Glentaisie, and in so doing amassed power among the Gaels unseen in recent memory. His troops descended through the passes of the north and stared menacingly down the very border of the Pale, England’s medieval foothold around Dublin. Sidney chaffed, for he could do nothing. O’Neill’s 4,000 warriors were twice what he could muster. His diplomacy was equally feeble. The Lord Deputy had been unable to build any rapport with O’Neill, whose demands seemingly grew bolder by the day. Negotiations were going nowhere. Moreover, whatever confidence that had been engendered between the parties during the Irish leader’s visit to London was all but gone now. Sidney needed, at the very least, to buy time in order to convince Elizabeth to send him reinforcements.
Tom Stukeley had a nose for opportunity. With the Admiralty Court looming over his future and the fruits of his past efforts with Shane O’Neill ripening by the day, he determined to act. On June 18, 1566 three letters, addressed to the Queen, Leicester, and Burghley, arrived in Elizabeth’s court. Improbable documents, they must have raised some eyebrows. In the most courtly language of the day, and impeccably rendered in Latin, Shane O’Neill ardently requested that his dear friend, Thomas Stukeley, resume his former place as intermediary with the crown. He went on beseech the Queen to forgive his friend of any transgressions to her laws and restore him to favor. Though no record survives to tell the full story, obviously, Stukeley had written to O’Neill and offered his services. Judging from the result, the timing could not have been better. O’Neill’s support, added to that of the Lord Chief Justice and the Bishop of Meath, was decisive. The Privy councilors swallowed any reservations they might have had about such a roguish plenipotentiary. O’Neill’s cooperation was paramount to peace in Ireland and Stukeley was a means to that end. Leicester and Burghley, the Council’s dominant figures, consented to his assignment. The Queen’s attitude was less apparent, though her subsequent reaction suggests an ignorance of these arrangements. Stukeley then repaired to Ulster, where he renewed his acquaintance with the Gaelic leader. The new emissary quickly won the confidence of the Lord Deputy, who became his staunch advocate. As Sidney’s correspondence to Burghley revealed, the opportunist had another convert.
…albeit, I never had cause to doubt Stucley’s sufficiency in discretion, saving that his loose dealing for his own commodity was some maim to his credit, yet I have found in his late service with O’Neill such honesty and deep judgment, and such care of the prince’s honor and my place, as giveth me a new opinion far different from mine old.
At last, Thomas’s planets seemed to align and he reached for the prize. With £3,000 of ill-gotten gains from piracy he moved to purchase the estates and title of a nobleman, Sir Nicholas Bagenel, which included the highest military command in the land, the Knight Marshaldom of Ireland. Bagenel was only too ready to sell, and at a considerable discount. In twenty years’ experience he had never seen the land in such a state of turmoil. Sir Nicholas, whose estates were now largely in O’Neill’s hands, was determined to cut his losses and return to England. Sidney sanctioned the transaction, arguing that his new emissary was “an apt man to be a neighbor to O’Neill”. Thomas feathered his nest with a third wife, an Irish widow, Elizabeth Peppard. Anne Stukeley had charitably passed on by then. Being old enough to have a married grand-daughter did not prevent Ms. Peppard from being seduced by the mysterious and well-traveled foreigner. Whatever doubts she may have had she suppressed, just as Lusty Tom looked beyond his bride’s fading charms. After all, Elizabeth’s late husband conveniently worked a concession of Wexford’s gold and silver mines for the crown. And it was a union that provided vast possibilities, including ties with several Irish clans. But if Stukeley had assumed that his new found utility to the crown might expunge his record and provide a fresh start, he was mistaken. Upon hearing this news Elizabeth felt compelled to write to her Lord Deputy directly: “..we find it strange that Thomas Stucley should be used there in any service considering the general discredit he remains in, not only in our own Realm, but in other countries abroad.”
The Queen overrode Sidney: The reprobate would serve no function in or receive any succor from her government. Ominously, the she invited Sir Thomas back to London to appear before the Admiralty Court and clear himself of the old charges still outstanding. Tom Stukeley’s knack for making an impression had a recoil, and in this case the consequences were crippling. Ever since that infamous day in Greenwich, Elizabeth nursed a pique against the scoundrel that would grow in time to antipathy. It was more than the arrogance of the upstart, but the impertinence of suggesting some common lineage. The Queen had doubtless heard the rumors of Thomas’s bastard connection to her father. And to a woman who valued loyalty and thrift, his conduct was an abomination. Unfortunately for the Queen, evidence to convict Stukeley was again lacking, and soon he was scurrying back to Dublin to join the fray. Sidney and O’Neill were at war, and honors were to be won. Soon Sidney had scattered the rebels and O’Neill was dead. Undeterred by his earlier rebuff, the obstinate Sidney once more took up Stukeley’s cause, appointing him to the stewardship of Wexford, and with it the authority to exercise martial law, Constable of the castles of Carlow, Leighlin, and Ferns, and sanctioning his purchase of the several lucrative estates. Assuredly, the Queen could refuse nothing of her triumphant Lord Deputy now, certainly not the posting to his trusted friend, Tom Stukeley, to a lesser post than the Marshaldom. In August 1567 the seals of office were his, followed, a month later, by the lush entitlements of office: an advantageous lease of the castle and manor of Enniscorthy, grants of church property and lands, the Abbey of Downe, and the former Monastery of Thomas Court, and the power to levy and skim taxes and tolls over one of the riches counties in all Ireland. His long-cherished windfall at last in hand, Thomas Stukeley basked in self-reflected glory.
‘Lusty’ Stukeley, however, soon re-appeared. He was lording it over the locals for all he was worth, and it was not long before a daily dose of misdoings from Wexford began to reach the ear of the Lord Deputy. The following anecdote, another illuminating bit of effrontery, was attributed to him.
One day, while prancing through the streets of Enniscorthy at the head of his guard, Thomas crossed paths with the comely Lady St. Leger, who was riding down to the quay to meet her husband, who had just landed after a terrible storm.
“How did the good man, Sir Warham?” he inquired, as he sallied up alongside her. “Was there any truth in these reports that he had gone to the bottom of the Irish Sea?”
The Lady huffed, “Not a word of truth!” as she tried to pass.
A pity, Thomas replied, for otherwise he should have boarded the ship and married her instantly, since she was the Queen’s cousin and had a claim to the crown, just as he had one of his own. Whatever was deficient in her claim might be more than compensated by his own. Together, “there should be nothing between them both and the Crown of England.”
The Lady’s reaction to such a public humiliation could be imaged. She avowed that she made no such claim and, whether her lord lived or not, that she would never mate with “a rascal of Stukeley’s condition”.
Tom Stukeley was not the sort to count his blessings. Even Sidney was fast tiring of the drama by the time he received Elizabeth’s decisive rebuke. As it was, Thomas had four precious months before being divested of his duties, and he was out in the cold again. This was, however, the tipping point. Henceforth, Thomas Stukeley determined on rebellion as the only option available to his ambitions, and religion the card that he would play: the persecuted Catholic, driven from his patrimony and his homeland by an intolerant queen. Thomas was in no mood for prudence, and his clumsy plotting with Irish rebels soon landed him back in prison. While he was eventually released, the last of his bridges was burned and no one, not his influential family members or his former sponsors, might shield him from the recriminations that would surely follow. Thomas Stukeley’s time in England was at an end.
Where to go? Bitter against Elizabeth and the courtiers who were hounding him from England, Thomas was eager for mischief. A plot formed: an invasion of England, with Ireland as the spring board. Stukeley would land in Ireland with a small Spanish force and arms and money to raise the Irish clans. Though O’Neill was no more, Thomas had many influential connections among the Irish, or so he would lead his would-be sponsors to believe. Spanish troops would sweep Elizabeth from power. Philip’s half-brother, Don John of Austria, would wed Mary, Queen of Scots, and England would be returned to the Catholic fold. Sir Thomas Stukeley, for his troubles, would become the Duke of Ireland.
So, he would gamble on Spain. Since Thomas had explained his way free of the Admiralty, perhaps Philip might look beyond his high seas escapades to the greater utility he offered them. Early 1570 found him at Waterford, adjacent to the ephemeral Wexford fief, preparing a definitive exit. One indelible anecdote emerges from this time, notable for its incongruity more than its occurrence. The good folk of the town would long speak of Thomas’s Lenten supplications, when the gentleman was seen walking through the befouled streets in his bare feet, or, by some accounts, crawling on his knees, beating himself about the chest, and offering himself up to God. Was he implanting his devotions with the fair Catholic people for an eventual return? Whatever the motives, Thomas soon moved on to more practical matters. He bought a ship and provisions, hired a crew, and gathered about himself a few like-minded men, his servants, and William, his 10-year old son of the late Anne. Fourteen fine mares were assembled to offer as gifts to King Philip. His wife, Elizabeth, mercifully stayed behind, being too infirmed for the rigors of the voyage. On April 17, 1570, the ship weighed anchor for Spain.
The Spanish reception was inauspicious. Stepping ashore in Viviero, in Galicia, Stukeley and his companions were corralled there as Philip mulled over what to do with them. After a wait of six months, during which Thomas bombarded the King with letters proposing his scheme, Thomas was at last invited to Madrid. Once again, timing favored him. The Spanish Netherlands were in chaos. Spain had special need of English renegades.
The Dutch revolt, which began in 1566, was due, as so many conflicts of this period, to religious causes. But, what began as an attempt by Philip to reassert the authority of the Church, soon revealed complex origins, including differing approaches to governance and religious toleration. Centralized government, high taxation, and state Catholicism went against the grain in the progressively inclined and diverse Netherlands provinces. Ineffective and heavy-handed Spanish policy, as well as the undisciplined conduct of Spanish troops, fueled the uprising, and gave impetus to its evolution as a national war of liberation. Spain’s effort to manage the crisis was hampered by many elements. While still Europe’s preeminent power, that state was unable to meet the competing obligations imposed by Philip’s determination to play the part of defender of the Catholic faith against both Protestantism and Islam. Philip was certainly the only king in capable of confronting the Ottoman Turks in the Mediterranean and North Africa. The cost of these commitments was crushing, even for a treasury suckled from expansive and fecund New World possessions. So, the Dutch conflict ebbed and flowed, with the Spaniards eventually gaining the upper hand in the southern provinces. But the northern regions of Holland and Zeeland, with their coastal islands and innumerable swamps and rivers, escaped their control. There, the Dutch rebels found relative shelter from Spanish land forces in Flanders and from the reach of Spain’s declining naval power. The English sympathized with their Protestant brethren, and their trade and support helped keep the rebellion alive. Unable to impose a naval blockade, the Spanish fretted, fussed, and eventually went to war over English meddling. The Dutch revolt was bitter and consuming, and it was to last intermittently for 80 years, all the way to 1648, when, at last, the northern provinces gained their independence.
But all this was in the future. In 1570 the conflict was still unfolding. It was, from the Spanish point of view, an internal matter of religious heresy, complicated by foreign interference. The Netherlands, with its proximity to Germany and it concentration of urban areas and printing presses, was fertile ground for Protestantism. Martin Luther’s critique, unleashed in Wittenburg in 1517, spread rapidly through central and northern Europe. The Dutch provinces pursued a policy of peaceful co-existence. However, in 1566 a radical Calvinist iconoclastic movement precipitated a political crisis. Their wanton destruction of icons, which they considered to be idol worship, was largely unimpeded by local authorities and drove nobles into competing camps. Philip, an austere and devout Catholic, refused to compromise with those he considered heretics. And the Netherlands held a special significance for him. His adored father, Charles V, had been born in Ghent. When Charles abdicated and divided up the vast Hapsburg holdings among his brother and his son, he assigned the Netherlands to Philip. It was a special trust.
Philip’s response to the Dutch revolt was uncompromising. He sent in troops to assert his authority, installed the Inquisition, and executed several recalcitrant nobles. When the Dutch States General refused to authorized taxes to pay his troops, the Spanish Governor collected them anyway. Reprisals and massacres followed. Eventually, the Spanish army managed to assert its control on land, only to see the military theater switch to the sea. Dutch pirates wreaked havoc on Spanish efforts to resupply their forces in Flanders. Elizabeth, while publicly neutral, secretly aided the rebel cause. She could not stand by and watch the Spanish roll over the Dutch. It was a subterfuge that fooled no one. The specter of war lingered between England and Spain.
It was under this gathering cloud that Señor Estucláy, formerly the bane of the high seas, found a cordial welcome at Philip’s court. Stukeley maneuvered his way into the Spanish inner circle through the Duke of Feria and his English wife, and through them access to Philip. Thomas had known both during the time of Mary I, when the Duke was serving as ambassador and his future wife, Lady Jane Dormer, had been a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. The Ferias well remembered Stukeley’s tribulations, his loyalty to Mary, and her support of him. They were moved by his determination to restore the true faith to England. Thomas took special care with the Duchess. In addition to being the nexus of the English exile community in Madrid, she exerted uncommon influence over her husband. And the Duke himself was no mere grandee, but Philip’s favorite cousin and Captain of the Guard. Once more, the seducer seduced. “I have plate”, intoned his Grace, “Pawn it. Let not this gentleman lack.” Several days after his arrival in Madrid, the Duke brought Thomas to the Alcazar palace for his introductory audience with Philip. This time, Stukeley did not fail to impress a potential royal sponsor. The cad played to the King’s sentiments, posing as the aggrieved Catholic who had been unjustly chased from his native land for being a loyal servant of the Church. The Prudent King was sufficiently won over to yield the Englishman a generous retainer in the form of a comfortable villa on the outskirts of Madrid, a daily allowance for his table, and a stipend of 6,000 ducats.
Elizabeth’s ambassadors and spies reported on English refugees aboard, and Thomas Stukeley’s activities received due attention. The Queen’s hatred of the pestiferous renegade flared through the veneer of courtly comportment. As John Baptista Cartagna, former nuncio in Spain and then nuncio in Venice wrote in 1575 to Ptolemy Galli, Cardinal of Como and Secretary of State of the Vatican:
…there is nothing that vexes her [Elizabeth] more than to hear this gentleman’s [Stukeley’s] name, not that she is in the least afraid of him, but because she dislikes him, and is incensed to think that he goes about sowing in the mind of the powerful Princes seeds of evil against her.
Elizabeth’s sentiments toward the scoundrel were no better represented than in her diplomatic correspondence. In 1571 she sent her ambassador a letter for King Philip in which she pledged her desire for peace between the two countries, while taking pains to impugn the renegade’s repute. Knowing Philips’s austere character, she painted Stukeley in the worst possible light. He was a “fugitive and a rebel…a spendthrift…an extravagant being who had consumed not only his own patrimony but that of his wives, both in England and in Ireland.” She summed him up as a man who “could not be useful to any king.”
A year later, her sentiments had only festered, due in large part to reports from diplomats and spies of Stukeley’s comfortable lifestyle at Madrid. A letter from the Privy Council to the acting Spanish ambassador in London contained a number of objections to Spanish policy, and an interesting diatribe. “It could not possibly have escaped the King’s notice,” the quill dripping of royal sarcasm, “how many English, fugitive from their native land, were now entertained in Spain…yea, with titles of attendance upon the King’s person in the Court. But of all, none more notable to be spoken of than one Thomas Stucley. How this man, that had not a penny, no land nor livelihood of himself, not any credit, could be fleeing into Spain be so much esteemed there, used in better sort than any ambassador, and allowed to expend such great sums of the King’s money in his vain pomps, is very strange!”
Thomas Stukeley might have taken some pleasure in Elizabeth’s discomfiture, but he was enduring quite enough of his own. These were trying times, requiring the kind of patience and tact that did not come naturally to him. He loitered four years at Philip’s court. It was a seemingly interminable stretch of sleeve-hanging, patiently plying his hosts with his schemes, minding his most-Catholic manners, and all the while looking over his shoulder for news of a Spanish reconciliation with England that might spell his doom. If that was not enough, Thomas faced serious scrutiny and potential exposure from two central members of the Anglo-Irish exile community at the court of Spain, Maurice Fitzgibbon, Archbishop of Cashel, and the emissary of Irish rebel James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald to the Spanish court, and Henry Parker, Lord Morley, a nobleman who had fled the land after his role in the Rising of the North. Both were suspicious of Stukeley’s motives and were deeply resentful of the newcomer’s apparent favor with the King, and they missed no opportunity to undermine him. And the Duke of Feria soon exited the scene, having died suddenly of a stroke in September 1571. The cumulative effect was that his schemes never seemed to gain traction with the King. The ‘Ridolfi Plot’ certainly did not help either. Shortly after Stukeley’s arrival at court, Roberto di Pagnozzo Ridolfi sauntered into the picture, with a competing plan to overthrow Elizabeth for Mary of Scotland. Ridolfi, a former Catholic banker of London, and a papal agent, claimed the support of the Duke of Norfolk, and no less than twelve earls and twenty-seven barons of England, all of whom he claimed were prepared to raise forces and march in concert on the capital. This was no oblique effort, like Thomas’s scheme, but a frontal assault with strong domestic support. The Pope enthusiastically endorsed the plan. All that was needed was Spanish military assistance from Flanders. Philip gave this serious consideration, but the entire matter was abruptly dropped when the English uncovered the plot and arrested the conspirators. It was a diplomatic fiasco for Spain, and for a time sated Philip’s appetite for the ‘enterprise of England’. The tedium and tensions of the court were interrupted by the epic Battle of Lepanto, in October 1571, at which Thomas Stukeley reportedly commanded a squadron of three galleys under Don John. This added a bit of luster to a reputation corroded by months of controversy and eccentric living, but did nothing to revive royal interest in his plots. As the months gave way to years, Stukeley’s entreaties to the King grew more urgent. The western part of Ireland, Thomas argued, could be ‘reduced with great easiness, for your Majesty has more supporters in that place than the heretics in Holland and Zeeland.’ He boldly exhorted the King to make use of the refugees in his court, and not “let his servitors grow old in exile, without ever testing how much they can achieve, how much they are worth, and how much they are capable of.”
Finally, in 1574 conditions were ripe and the King readied an armada against the English. Ireland was in flames. The Earl of Desmond was in open revolt. Philip determined to strike at the Channel, open communications with Desmond, and secure the sea lanes to the Netherlands. He appointed Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Aviles, formerly governor of Cuba, to the post of Captain General and authorized him to assemble 233 ships of varying sizes, and some 13,000 troops, sailors, and rowers.45 Menéndez then enjoyed a certain celebrity. Spain’s most accomplished military seaman at the time, he helped develop the Spanish Treasure Fleet system and served as its commander. As an explorer, he had founded St. Augustine in Florida, and ended French efforts to gain a foothold there. It probably amused Stukeley to know just how right about Florida he had been, and also how close he came to disaster there. His new commander had, in fact, butchered Ribault and his band and raised the French settlement at Fort Caroline back in 1565. Tom Stukeley, to the lament of his enemies, certainly had a sense for self-preservation. Reports soon reach Elizabeth’s ears that the odious renegade, whom Philip had knighted the Duke of Ireland, was to have eight large galleons and a contingent of troops, reportedly to invade England by way of Ireland. The news reverberated. It was plausible enough, for it might bring to Spain in one fell swoop a number of desirable outcomes, including the liberty and coronation of Mary of Scotland as ruler of a Catholic England, and a cessation of English support for the Dutch cause.
Elizabeth demurred. After consulting with the lords of the Privy Council, she determined on a rapprochement with Spain. She dispatched an envoy to Madrid to negotiate a settlement on a range of issues, including an end to the Spanish trade embargo against England. There was also the matter of Spanish support to English refugees in her territories, and to one rogue in particular. They envoy’s instructions could be no clearer: A condition to any settlement with Spain would include “security from the king about Thomas Stucley.”
The invasion never materialized. Beset by financial and logistical problems from the outset, after months of preparations the Spanish dropped the original plan. The armada had simply not coalesced into an effective fighting force, and ships and supplies were rotting at anchor. Rather than see their entire investment come to nothing, Philip settled on a mere show of force in the Channel “for the sake of appearances”. However, nothing could be salvaged after two successive blows. In August a massive Ottoman fleet swept in from the east and besieged the Spanish garrison at Tunis. While Don John tried to mobilize a relief force of galleys from Italy, high winds foiled the operation until it was too late. With the Turk on the loose every available galleon might be needed at any moment in the Mediterranean. The coup de gras came a few days later in the form of a plague that swept through the Spanish ships and carried off scores of men, among them Admiral Menéndez . “It is God’s will”, a somber Philip wrote, “that the armada must be dissolved after so many difficulties as we have encountered.”
Frustrated again, Stukeley’s anger soon turned to despair. When it looked as though things could not get any worse, they did. It would have been unthinkable had it not already happened. Spain, the world’s preeminent power, with bullion pouring in from her vast empire in the Americas, went bankrupt. Philip’s ambition had once more emptied his coffers and exhausted his credit. The crisis had been building for some time. His father, Charles V, had resorted to loans to fund his empire and its wars and many of these debts passed to Philip when he mounted the throne in 1556. As a result, Spain was under constant financial duress and struggled to pay even the interest on its loans. The influx of precious metals from Spanish overseas colonies was a mixed blessing. Though a vital source of income for an over-extended government and modestly-endowed land, it caused inflation that, along with substantial population growth, lead to a significant rise in poverty during Philip’s reign. The King was stretched very thin, and nowhere was this more evident than his inability to pay his troops and mercenaries. By 1574 several Spanish units in Flanders had not been paid in years. A series of mutinies would follow, the most spectacular being the sacking of Antwerp in 1576, the ‘Spanish Fury’, during which 8,000 were killed.49 Peace in the Netherlands depended on English neutrality. By January 1575 Philip determined to pursue an understanding with Elizabeth.
Under these circumstances, Philip’s Irish duke was a luxury that he could no longer afford. He had kept Stukeley in a gilded cage for his ‘nuisance value’, and paid a princely sum for the privilege - more than 27,000 ducats, or about 1 million dollars in today’s currency.48 Elizabeth would relieve him of that burden. Her terms included the expulsion of all English and Irish fugitives from Spain and the Netherlands. Stukeley, third on that list of most wanted outlaws, was now a liability. Philip could not keep such company and pretend at peace with England. Stukeley’s stipends ceased. Within months Thomas had once again sold everything and was, as he described in a letter to Philip, “reduced to a beggar, scorned by everyone in these hamlets”. He beseeched the king to “remedy this situation in brevity”. He wrote plaintively:
I feel the indifference of your majesty more deeply than my own painful situation. And because of the joys that my enemies may feel, who have always labored to slander me, on seeing your Majesty seems to ignore me. Someone has even published that my absence from Madrid has been ordered by your Majesty.
Philip never replied, but Stukeley got the message. Within a month he had departed for Rome, the only option that remained for his ambitions. He had gone on alone. The servants had been cashiered long ago, for presently he had barely the means to pay for his own table. The cruelest blow was the loss of his son, young William, whom the King determined to retain at court and provide for his education. Tom Stukeley knew the situation for what it was, insurance for his good behavior. He would not be so easily manipulated, or impelled to shed his ambitions. Once in Rome, Thomas wasted no time in making the right friends. Soon, he was reported to be installed in a ducal palace with eighteen lackeys attending him, “honored among the clergy as if he were a principal nobleman”. Stukeley’s talent for ingratiation had earned him the ear of the new Pope, Gregory XIII, who was only too anxious to make his mark against the rogue Queen of England. The Irish enterprise was revived.
Thomas Stukeley, however, had company. James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald was also in Rome, and for the same purpose. Thomas knew James well. The two had plotted an Irish uprising five years earlier, shortly after Stukeley had been turned out of Wexford. Fitzmaurice, of the Geraldine dynasty of Munster, was cousin to the Earl of Desmond and had been serving as military commander with the detention of the Earl in London. He later launched the first Desmonds Rebellion to stem the tide of English influence in their lands. When the Earl of Desmond petitioned the Queen for peace, Fitzmaurice quit Ireland in search of allies who might sponsor his return to prominence in Munster. To that end, he trod the familiar path of Anglo-Irish fugitives to Madrid and then to Rome. It seemed natural that Stukeley and Fitzmaurice should fall in together. Gregory and his councilors certainly provided encouragement. The distrust between the two men, however, was profound at this point, due in no small part to the invective of Maurice Fitzgibbon. Nevertheless, the common view in Rome was that they could accomplish little a part, so the two renegades became allies of the sheerest necessity. Their objectives were vague. The common thought was of the old plot of 1574 – that of a union of Don John and Mary of Scotland. Also, rumor circulated that they intended to install the illegitimate son of the Pope, Giacomo Boncompagni, the Duke of Sora, as king of Ireland. Whatever the plan, the alliance would prove illusory.
While the papal attitude was more encouraging than that of Philip, three more years passed in discussions about the Irish enterprise. By 1577 Stukeley was again destitute and suffering anew the privations of those final weeks in Madrid. The munificence of his Roman reception had long evaporated and he was now juggling patrons and florins by the meal. Increasingly desperate, Thomas somehow scraped his way to the Low Countries to beseech the support of his old commander, Don John of Austria, who was then serving as Spain’s Governor there. As Sidney before him, Don John was wholly taken with Thomas, his earnestness and his misfortunes, and he dashed off letters to Philip and Gregory to secure their support for him and for the Irish enterprise. Don John’s remarkable missive to Philip offered further proof of the knave’s ability to cultivate the most powerful men of his time: “He [Stukeley] has represented to me that, for the lack of succor and bounty that your Majesty was wont to offer him, he is in extreme need since he quitted your Court, and this will increase hourly if your Majesty does not afford relief.” Perhaps unaware that the King had already invested a handsome sum in the gentleman in question, Don John continued: “…and so, to the best of my power I supplicate you that for pity of his hard case you requite him with the means of getting out of debt and enjoying himself for the future, for besides, that will be a word right worthy of your Majesty, I shall account the requital that you make him as a favor done to me.”
While Philip’s help remained elusive, fortunately for Thomas, the Pope was already sympathetic to his cause. Initially, papal support was more of the moral variety. Gregory considered such matters, and the men and funds required, to be the business of Christendom’s primary temporal power, His Most Catholic Majesty, Philip II of Spain. The King, however, had his fill of this scheme, and merely ignored papal correspondence on the matter. With the situation deteriorating in the Netherlands, the Turkish menace on the advance in the Mediterranean and North Africa, domestic concerns about the Moriscos, and, as always, his financial woes, the last thing Philip needed was a war with England. At length, Fitzmaurice determined to precede Stukeley, and sailed off to Spain with papal letters of support to appeal directly to the King. Gregory watched him go, believing that, in the end, Philip would do his duty. Fitzmaurice, however, was allowed to quit Madrid without so much as a ducat. Gregory was outraged. Philip would have to be shamed into action. The Holy Father determined “to dispatch Stukeley, providing him with a good ship, with men, arms, munitions and victuals and money for some months, that they may join James Geraldine [Fitzmaurice] and that they in concert may do all the mischief they may to that wicked woman [Elizabeth].”
Once decided upon, the Irish enterprise quickly took shape. An 800-ton galleon was leased, the St Giovanni di Battist. A roman nobleman, Paolo Giordano Orsini, engaged 600 Italian soldiers. Arms were procured for 3,000 men, enough to outfit a healthy augmentation of Irish volunteers. The Pope deluged Stukeley with titles, including Baron of Ross and Idrone, Viscount of the Murroughs and Kinsellagh, Earl of Wexford and Carlow, but he withheld the one most cherished: Archduke. Sensitive to Gaelic sentiments, he would only consent to a Marquisate for his English commander, and not for all of Ireland, but only of Leinster.
As Ptolemy Galli wrote to the nuncio in Spain: “Everything is now ready for Stucley’s expedition. A ship of the largest size has been chartered; and 600 choice soldiers are being put aboard her with plentiful supplies of all things needful for six months; to wit, victuals in great abundance, and money for the pay, arquebuses, pikes, and arms for 3,000 men; which will cost his Holiness thousands and thousands of crowns.”
While Church officials wrote rosily to one another about the forming expedition, the reality was much different. The expedition was poorly coordinated, owing in part to a want of leadership. Stukeley spent the weeks preceding the departure “in hiding”, perhaps evading his creditors. The correspondence of Thomas’s second-in-command, Captain Bastiano San Joseppi, revealed an ominous future. On January 24, 1578, two weeks before setting sail, San Joseppi’s assessment of the ship determined that “all things are requisite”. While Gregory had already advanced considerable sums, including 1,800 gold crowns paid to Stukeley two weeks earlier, funds were lacking. Thomas had accumulated considerable debts during his time in Rome, obligations likely settled by the expedition’s purse. San Joseppi was obliged to appeal for another 1,000 gold crowns to allow the preparations to move forward. The ship, he found, was provisioned for a trip only as far as Marseille, and no arrangements had been made to outfit the galleon for 600 soldiers. A storehouse had to be hastily built to accommodate the contingent’s biscuits. The ship also lacked artillery. Four antiquated pieces were hastily scrounged – one of them a stone-thrower. Finally, the Italian soldiers were hardly the choicest. Recruited from the bars and brothels of Rome, only eighty were veterans, and they would prove to be an unruly lot. A mixture of Genoese and Corsicans, their rivalry and lack of discipline would be a constant source of strife, beginning at Civitavecchia, the Italian port where the expedition was formed. As the Pope departed Rome to bless the enterprise, the Italians rebelled and demanded two installments of their pay before they would embark. Some even discharged their arquebuses in the direction of their ostensible leader, who by then had made his appearance. While Stukeley escaped unscathed, the embarrassing episode caused the Pope to return to immediately to Rome, no doubt with grave concerns about his investment.
Meanwhile, Fitzmaurice had departed Spain. He traveled to Lisbon, where he was able to coax enough funds from the King of Portugal to hire a Breton ship and outfit a small contingent. On November 18, they sailed for Ireland. Overtaken immediately by tenacious storms, the ship was forced to harbor on the Spanish coast. Battered by twenty days of foul weather, the supplies dwindling, morale plummeted. Desertions began, culminated by that of the captain and crew, who snuck aboard the ship one day while the Fitzmaurice and his men were ashore and sailed away to Brittany. James and the few men who remained to him took up the chase, albeit by foot. Stranded in France, Fitzmaurice would spend months there attempting to recover his cargo.
For Thomas Stukeley, the fateful hour was at last at hand. The St Giovanni di Battist sailed from Porto Herole on February, 3, 1578, amidst great intrigue and excitement. The destination of the expedition was known only to a few. Almost immediately, the woeful condition of the ship revealed itself. San Joseppi recorded how the galleon “lacked the most elementary equipment of a ship”. With rotting timbers, insufficient role and sail, the ship was “impossible to navigate”. The St Giovanni di Battista limped around Corsica and the Gulf of Lyon before dropping anchor in Palamos Bay, off the Spanish coast. After ten days, the ship “risked going to pieces in the sea”. Stukeley dispatched urgent message to Rome and the Nuncio in Madrid for funds to refit the ship at his next stop, Lisbon.
Stukeley slept little during the voyage. The creaking galleon was but one worry. He trusted no one. The contingent was full of ruffians and scoundrels whose loyalty depended on the paymaster. After only several days at sea two men were charged with inciting mutiny. When the ship arrived at Palamós, serious trouble began. The town was in the midst of Carnival, and the festive decorations, music, and gaiety echoed an unwelcome temptation across the bay. Surly from overcrowding, sea sickness, and boredom, the spectacle enflamed the men’s spirits. Stukeley, sensing trouble, forbade shore leave. About fifty men defied him and snuck ashore in the long-boat. There, mingling with the locals and well-plied with drink, the Corsicans and Genoese began to spar with knives. A brawl ensued, engulfing the entire town. The townspeople banded together and battered and dispersed the Italians, who took shelter where they could find it. Some sulked back to the ship in the morning. Seven men deserted, including five gentlemen, friends of Orsini’s, “on whose loyalty”, Stukeley lamented, “I would have staked my very life.”
The expedition plodded to Cadiz, where a curious and most confidential suggestion from King Philip reached Captain Stukeley’s ears. The King proposed that Stukeley delay the Irish enterprise in order to reinforce his nephew, Sebastian I of Portugal, who was in preparations for an invasion of the Kingdom of Fez. Philip believed that Stukeley’s contingent might be a decisive reinforcement to Sebastian’s army of largely peasant recruits. Once Morocco had been subdued, Sebastian would be prepared to assist in a concerted effort directed at Ireland.
Morocco was then in one of its characteristic periods of turmoil. The reigning sultan, Abdalmalek, the rightful ruler according to Saadian custom, had recently returned from exile to claim his throne from a usurper. With Ottoman assistance, Abdalmalek ousted his nephew, Mulay Mohammed, from his palace in Fez. The deposed ruler fled to the Atlas Mountains where he pursued an insurgency with the assistance of loyal tribes. At length, Mulay Mohammed appealed to Sebastian for assistance in regaining the throne. The Portuguese monarch, eager to cast his legacy and recapture littoral enclaves his predecessors had lost to the Moors, leapt at the chance.
It was a bolt from the blue. Stukeley considered the matter carefully. He might refit in Lisbon, and trust that the delay and extended shore leave would not decimate his ranks. He might evade weather, privateers and English men-of-war, and make land-fall in Ireland. Would Ireland rise up to greet its liberators? Would the Italians fight? How would he pay them? The difficulties abounded. Joining Sebastian offered a much safer choice. And royal gratitude might yield land and title in Lisbon or Porto or some agreeable spot, making the Irish enterprise unnecessary. Yet, Stukeley had accepted a papal charge and money, and brushing this aside was no small matter. He temporized. The expedition continued on to Lisbon.
News traveled remarkably fast. Spies and informers were ubiquitous and efficient. By the time the St Giovanni di Battista rounded into Lisbon’s harbor on 18 April the enterprise was common gossip. From London, wary ears followed Stukeley’s process. Elizabeth felt certain that, at last, the recalcitrant rebel was “reaching for a mole-hill of his own”. But, where? No one could say precisely. As Ptolemy Galli wrote to the nuncio in France:
Wither he is bound, I cannot say, because it may well be that his own mind is not yet made up, whether to go the Levant against the Turks or to the West against the heretics, his object being, in my judgment rather that to procure for himself the means of living more handsomely in accordance with his character, which is that of a great spend thrift, than to do other sort of service to Christendom.
These comments by Galli are telling in two ways. First, coming when they did, these words bear a familiar refrain - controversy about Stukeley from among the power brokers he cultivated. Despite the honey tongue, Thomas was not a subtle fellow, and the longer he lingered in a place the closer the gossip closed in around him. Certainly, wherever Tom Stukeley decamped he left in his wake an equal population of prominent people who held him in contempt as showed him favor. It came down to money, the most outward manifestation of the man. Whether florins, ducats, or farthing, he had a talent for making it fly. Reports of his once-fat lifestyle in Rome certainly circulated to the Vatican and beyond, just as did the anecdotes of his heyday at the court of Spain, where it was said that he kept “a greater port than any two dukes in the kingdom”. A gentleman might wallow in excess at his own expense, but not on the alms of others. Secondly, these remarks reveal the uncommon nature of the man. For all his foibles, Tom Stukeley was the best of few options for such a daring undertaking.
As news of the leaky expedition traveled west, rumor came in its wake. To Sebastian, it was a tantalizing opportunity to add to his burgeoning army. So uncertain was the atmosphere that Robert Fontana, the Papal Consul-General at Lisbon, who was arranging the delivery of the requested funds, was determined to keep Stukeley from coming ashore at Lisbon.
Given a choice, in the end, Stukeley did as was his custom - he chose the path of least resistance. Or, so he thought. Arriving at Lisbon on April 18, he was already well aware of Sebastian’s intentions. Despite Fontana’s best efforts, and the proffered funds, Stukeley dropped anchor in the Tagus and disgorged his perverse cargo on Lisbon. Brought before the King, the older warrior allowed himself to be “pressed” into his service. If he had any reservations, Stukeley kept them to himself. And, the condition of the St Giovanni di Battist provided the perfect alibi for not continuing on to Ireland. With twelve feet of water in the hold, the old ship was enervated. It was towed to dry dock and dismantled. To appease papal wrath, he dashed off a series of letters to Catholic authorities explaining his predicament. Not surprisingly, Gregory was “amazed and grieved” on how Stukeley had been hijacked by the Portuguese king. He gave orders to restore the Marquis to his original purpose. The Pope yet hoped that Stukeley and Fitzmaurice might link up in France. Sebastian, however, would not be deterred. He would assist the Irish enterprise in due time, but Morocco would come first.
It was all high theater. Despite his slavish posturing to the Church, Thomas Stukeley considered only his own agenda. The scoundrel hinted at this true intent to companions over a meal shortly after his arrival in Lisbon. As the men dined, conversation and wine flowed freely. When the subject turned to his enterprise, Stukeley was dismissive: He was “not appointed” for the Irish expedition, besides, there was nothing to be had there “but hunger and lice.” It was the New World expedition repeated.
This time, however, there was one important difference: Stukeley was no longer his own master. Sebastian was commander-in-chief. The 24-year old king, tall, muscular, and blond, and an expert in knightly skills, might have been plucked from the pages of Ivanhoe. The reality was somewhat different. Sebastian was obstinate, impulsive, a religious zealot, and had no significant experience in war, let alone in generalship. His was an ethos of a bygone age, a kind of tournament psychology, with war as the ultimate spectator sport. More importantly, he had no relevant concept of command. Sebastian idealized the warrior-king, with leadership tied to personal acts of bravery. By the second half of the 16th Century changes to the Middle Ages style of warfare required a different kind of leader. Innovations in tactical formations such as the ‘caracole’ and the widening use of firearms, to name but a few, required tactical proficiency and the control of forces in the field. This demanded steadiness, even detachment, on the part of the commander. Sebastian was no such general.
Absent leadership, idle troops made mischief in Lisbon. The Italians drank, caroused, and fell into increasingly violent quarrels with one another. After several episodes their captains were jailed and an exasperated Sebastian ordered them to desist on pain of death. Stukeley could do nothing. His authority in the eyes of his soldiers had long evaporated. It had been dubious from the outset. Galli’s agent sent to Lisbon to report on the preparations wrote of “such inability in Stucley, such distrust between him and the soldiers, and such dissention among the soldiers themselves as could not be exceeded.”
Stukeley’s contingent was a microcosm of the expedition. In an age of emerging military professionalism, Sebastian’s army was a feudal host. About 17,000 strong, it was a patchwork affair cobbled together from 11,500 Portuguese soldiers, including 2,500 gentlemen volunteers, and 9,000 Portuguese levies from poor country towns, as well as a contingent of 5,500 foreign troops, including German and Walloon mercenaries, a contingent of Spanish infantry that Philip had allowed his nephew to recruit, and Stukeley’s Italians. The army lacked cohesiveness and military experience, both critical shortcomings that were not much mitigated during preparations. Indifferently trained, it was a carnival and victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Portuguese nobles, many young fidalgos who were called to service according to the feudal code of Portugal, vied with one another in the opulence with which they outfitted their camps. Many incurred crushing debts to fund these extravagances. Their king too dug deep into his treasury. Sebastian scoured the country and beyond for the 800,000 cruzados required to fund the expedition. Neither royal bullying nor inducements, however, could fill the army’s need of provisions and firearms.
All of these inadequacies were lost when, on June 25, 1578, the fleet departed Lisbon. The pageantry of the royal departure - the banners, the music, embarkation of great men-at-arms and their retinues – was a singular spectacle. But, even the majesty of 400 ships filing out of the harbor could not allay the fears of a people whose young sovereign had gone off to war, leaving behind no heir to the throne.
The military objective was the port city of Larache, situated at the mouth of the Loukkos River in northern Morocco. The Portuguese forces would come ashore at their enclave at Arzila, 30 kilometers to the north, then advance down the littoral with the fleet in support. On July 14 the invaders landed and camped as their remaining supplies and baggage filtered in. After a brief period of consolidation, during which the King rejected Abdalmalek’s offer of a negotiated peace, the Portuguese were ready to strike. The King, however, determined to change strategy: The land invasion would pursue an inland course, making a sweeping strike at Larache from the east with Ksar el-Kebir as the pivot point. Brushing aside all advice to the contrary, the reports of two Moorish armies massing to meet him, of inhospitable terrain, and abandoning the singular advantage of his fleet, Sebastian determined to draw the Moors into decisive battle.
By then, premonitions of doom must have set in with the experienced soldiers, foremost among them Tom Stukeley. The Portuguese attitude was, after all, unlike any he had witnessed at the side of Philibert or Montmorenci. Quite apart from the King’s demeanor, something fundamental lacked. It was reflected in the absence of training, and the reliance on the outmoded pike. It was present in the hasty departure from Lisbon, followed by the torturous wait for the baggage ships. It was all this and more, and it was appallingly foreign to his eyes. Nowhere was absence of professionalism more evident than at Arzila. There, the Portuguese bivouacked on the open plain before the city walls, disdaining the inconvenience of erecting earthworks or any defensive barrier. Sentinels would apparently be enough to protect the camp as they slept off the wine. It was the mark of amateurs. Without the buttress of earth, green recruits would prove skittish in the dark, and the slumbering horde would assume the worse when roused. And so it came to pass: One night, while Thomas was out inspecting the guard, a sentry fired upon him. The Captain had barely counted his body parts and started to curse the fellow when the tents erupted. Mass chaos ensued. Surely, the Moors were sweeping through the camp! Thousands of panicked recruits descended, half naked, roaring to the heavens, down to the beach in search of boats to carry them to the safety of the fleet in the harbor. Don Juan de Silva, Spain’s ambassador to Lisbon and member of the King’s retinue, observed, “There was an extreme confusion, no man knew what he had to do or where to go, to such an extent that, if there had been an enemy, he could have brought about a terrible massacre without loss to himself.”
The army at last lumbered forth on July 29. The crowd that watched the Portuguese break camp and march from the shadow of Arizla’s walls witnessed a curious affair – certainly nothing they had seen before. Nobles rode in gilded carriages, and those of lesser rank on coiffed and corseted chargers, prancing above the dust of thousands of foot soldiers – pikemen, arquebusiers, halderdiers, and artillerymen. The haze only slightly dimmed the brilliance of it all, the regimental standards, the glint of polished steel, and the madcap adornments of bold, billowy shirt sleeves and breeches, the fantastic assortment of headgear, the plumes, and the lace. But there was something incongruous, almost comic. Trailing close by was an enormous baggage train that included some 9,000 camp followers, including wagoneers, mule drivers, pages, servants, musicians, priests, wives, and prostitutes, countless wagons, carts, and rolling pavilions, as well as hundreds of mules, oxen and other animals. Eleven hundred wagons alone were required to transport the baggage of the nobles. Rather than an invading host, the impedimenta gave the look of a retreating horde. Subsequent days would reveal the sheer folly of it all. While the army brought along sumptuous pavilions, ornate furniture and plate, and musicians for the evening comforts of the privileged, the rank and file was grossly undersupplied in food and water. And the bloated tail was an easy target for the Moorish light horse, whose harassments sapped the strength and the moral of the army. As Abdalmalek’s main force reposed at Ksar el-Kebir, the Portuguese army staggered across the broken terrain under summer heat, “weary, dying of hunger, thirst and heat, who, in great part, had left their arms behind in order to enable them to carry victuals on the march, and with but 6 pieces of artillery of all that he brought hence.” By the time they came within sight of the Moors, at the Makhazen River on the evening of August 3, the troops were at the limit of their endurance. In six days, the mighty invasion had covered some 40 miles.
Thomas was a witness to the madness from the outset. Shut out during war councils in Lisbon, he was only brought into the preparations when it was divulged that the Englishman had under his control 3,000 spare arms, which were desperately needed to equip the Germans. Ever the hustler, Stukeley tried to wring a profit through the rent or sale of the stock, but the cash-strapped King only offered to borrow them. An outsider, Stukeley was an afterthought, and he fumed as silently as he could. It was only in Morocco, when the operation began to unravel that he spoke out directly and with increasing bluntness to the King. Where his skin was concerned, Tom Stukeley was no sycophant, and in the field there were no doors to close in his face. At the decisive war council in Arzila, he and a few like-minded officers had spoken with strained diplomacy against the strike inland. The fleet, they pointed out, was the army’s only advantage. The operation must be tied to the coast and within supporting distance of the ships. Sebastian publically spurned this advice with “injurious terms”.
Undeterred, Thomas Stukeley continued to speak out. At the final war council on the evening of August 3, when the army’s predicament was clear, a grim-visaged Sebastian had asked his commanders for their advice. Should the army attack or defend? The foreigners - Stukeley, Martin of Burgundy, and Alphonso de Aguilar – looked on stonily, wondering no doubt if their views might at last penetrate the royal dome. Mulay Mohammed proposed a third option: to wait. For days, reports from his spies told of Abdalmalek’s declining health. The Sultan had apparently been poisoned and was dying. He might, in fact, not last another day. Mulay Mohammed counseled to postpone the attack until late the next afternoon. The death of the Sultan, he reasoned, would throw the Moorish camp into confusion and dampen their will to fight. Tom Stukeley, the seasoned campaigner of more than thirty years, knew the value of this advice, coming as it did from the one amongst them who understood the Moors, and he spoke up frankly. Once again, Sebastian did not hide his disdain. Stukeley’s retort, purportedly captured by a Devonshire chronicler from papers since lost, captured the essence of the moment.
Out of your inexperience and ignorance of the stratagems of war, ye deem me a coward. Yet this advice would prove safe and victorious, and your great haste be your overthrow. Yet, proceed! And when you come to action you shall look after me, and shall see manifestly that Englishmen are no cowards!
To no one’s surprise, the King opted to attack at first light.
Sir Thomas Stukeley, presumptive Marquis of Leinster, squinted into the Sun. It was already late in the morning and neither side seemed anxious to get underway. The heat of the Maghreban summer was already upon them. The chill of the past night, spent huddled around one of a thousand camp fires, seemed remote now. He tugged at his breast plate and looked out over the undulating hills of rock and scrub. It was poor land for anything, even dying. Was this the end? What an irony: He, who had evaded death alongside some of the great captains of the day, Somerset at Pinkie, Philibert at St. Quentin, Don John at Lepanto, and a dozen lesser butchers at battlefields in Normandy, Flanders, Alsace, Scotland and on the Rhine; he, who had courted and trumped monarchs, princes, and popes, drowning in the clutches of a lunatic boy-king! Thomas probably mused for a moment, wondering what might have been had he followed his impulse to quit the campaign after the fateful war council in Azila. He had gone so far as to order his page to pack up his kit and round up his horses but quickly reconsidered. There was no turning back - not then, and not now.
It was an ugly predicament. The Portuguese army assembled on a barren plain at the confluence two rivers, the Makhazen and Loukkos, which protected the army’s rear and right flank respectively. The King had selected this site for its potential for "beautiful cavalry charges and high feats of arms” but in reality he had placed his army into a snare. The Makhazen, with its steep and muddy banks, was an obstacle to retreat. His line of advance required a ford across the Loukkos, which was several kilometers distant and barred by an enemy that held the high ground. A kilometer distant, Thomas could see the Moors arraying their formations. It was impossible to estimate their numbers, though spies had reported between 50,000 and 70,000 in their camp. The flowing banners, blurting horns, and shifting clouds of dust spoke of a substantial mass of men and horse.
The Portuguese elected to attack with their forces and baggage train together. It was the crowning blunder, encumbering the assault forces with a tactical formation that placed half of their troops and most of their firepower in a defensive role. The baggage train was tucked into a square formation, protected on the two flanks by wagons and a thin file of arqubusiers and conscripts. The vanguard and rear were open and protected by the best troops, the Aventuros, gentlemen soldiers professional caliber. On the right were the Germans and Walloons, and on the left were Stukeley and his Italians, and the Spanish troops. The cavalry protected the flanks of the square, Sebastian with the main force on the left and three detachments under the Duke of Averio, Don Duarte de Meneses, and Mulay Mohammed on the right. Inside the square churned a mass of man and beast that occupied several acres.
The battle lasted six hours. It was a slaughter for both sides, and a national disaster for Portugal. In the days that followed about a hundred men tricked back to Arzila to relate how the entire army had been annihilated. While casualty figures were never been firmly established, Sebastian’s forces may have lost as many as 9,000 soldiers, including the flower of Portuguese nobility. Moorish losses probably amounted to between 3,000 and 5,000 dead.
The Portuguese army had been overwhelmed. Brave men, they made a contest of it for a while. The initial Portuguese charge bit deeply into the Moorish ranks and the pike nearly unhinged Abdalmalek’s forces at the center. Two Christian cavalry charges almost swept the rival horse from the field. ‘Believe me’, the Sultan’s doctor recorded, ‘we thought to lose all.’ In the end, the Portuguese lacked reserves to exploit their initial successes, and were fatally deficient in firearms. Moorish reserves filled the gaps, and their superior cavalry chased the Portuguese horse back into their vanguard and shattered the Christian ranks. The Moorish cavalry surrounded the square, and quickly worked themselves through its seams. The Portuguese army disintegrated into a mass of beleaguered regiments, each whittled to a bloody end by wheeling mounted arquebusiers and flashing scimitars. Inside the square, terror reigned, as the cacophony and exploding bullets pressed the enormous square into a knot of beast and baggage. As the afternoon drew to its terrible conclusion, the chaos reached a crescendo. Around the smashed wagons and their scattered paraphernalia, the tangled, smoking heaps of human and animal corpses, above the cries of the dying, the entreaties of the wounded and the captives, and the wailing of all those terrified souls that was scarcely audible above the din, a new battle that was commencing, that of the fight for booty. The evening would bring fresh horrors to the thousands Christian survivors who cowered in the gathering darkness, a windfall of ransom and slaves.
Somewhere on the rocky plain lay the mortal remains of Sir Thomas Stukeley. Two accounts of his death were recorded and each is entirely plausible. Both involved the possible treachery of Papal troops. The Italians, who already despised their leader for bringing them to such grief, suffered an irretrievable blow to their pride at having to fight among the Castilians. Stukeley, lacking confidence in them, had divided them into sections and inserted them among the Spanish regiment. In the play, The Famous History of the Life and Death of Captain Thomas Stukeley, written within living memory of these events, the author writes of Stukeley being murdered by several of his Italian troops toward the end of the battle. G. Maffei’s account includes another possibility:
There, the moment the battle starts, Stucley abandons his Italians, who were the first in the engagement, and noiselessly goes over to the Castilian ranks. According to many, he had his legs torn off by an artillery shot. Others affirm, however, that in the midst of the battle he was injured by both enemy shots and by the shots of his own men, who hated him.
Thomas Stukeley’s demise was all but lost in the calamity of that day. The Battle of Ksar el-Kebir was soon to be called more dramatically the Battle of the Three Kings for the monarchs who died in the fray. Abdalmalek expired early in the fight, as his last strength gave way to the exertions of battle. Mulay Mohammed, suffered an ignominious end in the waters of the Makhazen, drowning as he attempting to flee the carnage. Sebastian was cut down late in the battle, true to his warrior ideal.
For Portugal the battle had far-reaching consequences, hastening the end of her great power status. The empire was deprived of leadership at a time when rivals to her trade monopolies in Brazil, India, and the Far East were starting to emerge. With Sebastian’s death, the crown passed to the aged Cardinal Henry, the late king’s great-uncle, who had served Sebastian as regent for eleven years. The Cardinal was unable to receive papal dispensation to marry, and, with his death in 1580, the House of Aviz came to an end. The ensuing dynastic crisis was only resolved when Philip II successfully asserted his claim to the Portuguese throne. The two lands were then joined in a dynastic union under the Spanish Hapsburgs until 1640. Though she remained essentially independent, Portugal shared Spain’s foreign policy. This both alienated England, formerly a close ally, and allowed the Dutch to extend their war with Spain to Portuguese interests worldwide. By the time the 60-year Iberian Union was dissolved, the Dutch were well on their way to ending the Portuguese East Indies trade monopoly. The English, the emerging global trading force par excellence, also profited from the conflict between the two rivals.
While news of the catastrophe was greeted with shock and sadness throughout much of Christendom, the reaction in London was decidedly different. Elizabeth slept easier. The relentless schemer was dead. England and indeed the wider world seemed, at least for a moment, a safer place. As if to punctuate the fact, the Irish enterprise soon petered out. The following year, James Fitzmaurice and a band of followers came ashore at Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula only to meet with disaster and death.
As for the remarkable life of Sir Thomas Stukeley, he remains to this day a curiosity. For his clan, he is the proverbial skeleton in the closet, the blackest sheep in a long family history. To the detached, he is a study in blind ambition, the heights, the pitfalls, and the collateral damages it brings.
Show Footnotes and
. John Izon. Sir Thomas Stukeley (London: Andrew Melrose, Ltd., 1956), 23.
. Juan Tazon. The Life and Times of Thomas Stukeley (Surry: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd, 2003), vii
. Ibid, 140.
. Ibid, 171-2.
. Ibid, 146.
. Ibid, 5-9
. Ibid, 143.
. Ibid, 67.
. Ibid, 21.
. Devon Perspectives: Affeton. hppt://www.devonpersepctives.co.uk/affeton.html (undated)
. Tazon, 21.
. Izon, 110
. Ibid, 31
. Ibid, 24-26
. Tazon, 30.
. Ibid, 35-36.
. Izon, 27.
. Tazon, 36-40.
. Izon, 31.
. Tazon 59-61.
. Ibid, 89.
. Ibid, 61-62.
. Samuel Eliot Morison. The European Discovery of America, The Southern Voyages (Oxford University Press, 1974), 507.
. Izon, 32.
. Ibid, 67.
. Izon, 17-18.
. Tazon, 66-67.
. Calendar of State Papers, Foreign Series. 1564–5, p. 272
. Tazon, 79.
. Izon, 58-9.
. Tazon, 80-82
. Izon, 75.
. Ibid, 80-81.
. Ibid, 82-83.
. Ibid, 99.
. Ibid, 105-108.
. Colin Pendrill. Spain, 1474-1700 (Oxford: Heimann Publishers, 2002), 78-80
. Izon, 111-112.
. Tazon, 199.
. Tazon, 144.
. Izon, 153.
. Ibid, 139
. Tazon, 162-3.
. Ibid, 181
. Ibid, 188
. Ibid, 134.
. Tazon, 191-193.
. Pendrill, 80.
. Izon, 160.
. Tazon, 183.
. Izon, 161.
. Ibid, 210.
. Tazon, 219.
. Izon 180-181.
. Tazon, 223.
. Ibid, 220-1.
. Tazon, 220.
. Ibid, 187.
. Izon, 224
. Ibid, 225.
. Izon, 230.
. Ibid, 228.
. Edward McMurdo. The History of Portugal (London: Sampson, Marston, Searle, and Rivington, 1889), 181-183.
. Thomas Arnold. The Renaissance at War (New York: Smithsonian/HarperCollins Books,
. Tazon, 233.
. Younes Nekrouf. La Bataille des Trois Rois (Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1984), 181.
. McMurdo, 202.
. Izon, 202.
. Tazon, 234.
. Pierre Berthier. La Bataille de Trois Rois (Paris: Centre de national de la recherche scientifique, 1985), 111.
. Nekrouf, 180
. Tazon, 234.
. Izon, 213.
. Ibid, 220-221.
. Ibid, 222.
. Ibid, 221
. Nekrouf, 193.
. Berthier, 118-120.
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Copyright © 2011 Comer Plummer
Written by Comer Plummer. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Comer Plummer at:
About the author:
Comer Plummer is a retired US Army Officer. He served from 1983 to 2004 as both an
armor officer and Middle East/Africa Foreign Area Officer. He is currently
employed as a DoD civilian and living in Maryland with his wife
Published online: 01/30/2011.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.