Richard Topcliffe

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Richard Topcliffe (14 November 1531 – late 1604)[1] was an investigator and torturer[1] during the reign of Elizabeth I of England. A landowner and Member of Parliament, he became notorious as a priest-hunter and torturer and was often referred to as the Queen's principal "interrogator".

Early life[edit]

Topcliffe was the eldest son of Robert Topcliffe of Somerby, Lincolnshire, and his wife, Margaret, daughter of Thomas Burgh, 1st Baron Burgh of Gainsborough. He was orphaned at age 12, and later entered Gray's Inn to train as a lawyer. Until his early forties, he appears to have contented himself in administering his estates in Yorkshire and elsewhere.


Topcliffe entered the service of the Queen's secretary, William Cecil in the 1570s, and worked for Sir Francis Walsingham and the Privy Council. However, he regarded his authority as deriving directly from the Queen.

He represented Beverley in Parliament in 1572. He would later return to Parliament as MP for Old Sarum in 1584 and 1586.[2]

Topcliffe was a fanatical persecutor of Catholics and the Catholic Church, and was involved in the interrogation and torture of many priests and laity, at a time when all Catholics were accused of actively seeking to overthrow the ruling Anglican establishment of England to return England to Catholicism.

Topcliffe gained a reputation as a sadistic torturer who frequently played mind games with prisoners under interrogation.[3] He claimed that his own instruments and methods were better than the official ones, and was authorised to create a torture chamber in his home in London. He also involved himself directly in the execution of sentences of death upon Catholic recusants, which involved hanging, drawing and quartering. The British literary critic Frank Kermode notes in The Age of Shakespeare that "Topcliffe's copy of a history of the Jesuit mission survives, with his gloating marginalia: beside the name of a missionary the words ‘I racked him,’ beside the name of someone hanged a little stick figure dangling from a gallows.”[4]

Topcliffe's victims included the Jesuits Robert Southwell,[5] John Gerard, and Henry Garnet. Topcliffe features numerous times in Gerard's autobiography of his days as a hunted priest in Elizabethan England. In it he is described as, "old and hoary and a veteran in evil". He raped one of his prisoners, Anne Bellamy, until she helped him arrest the Jesuit priest Robert Southwell. When Bellamy became pregnant by him in 1592, she was forced to marry his servant to cover up the scandal.[6]

He also interrogated Ben Jonson in August 1597 in investigations into Jonson's suppressed play, The Isle of Dogs.[7]

Fitzherbert affair[edit]

Topcliffe was involved in a legal wrangle with his assistant Thomas Fitzherbert. Fitzherbert had betrayed his own father and uncle by accusing them of treason, agreeing to split their forfeited estates with Topcliffe if they were condemned. There was a dispute over whether one of them had died of natural causes, or as a result of the torture inflicted by Topcliffe, and Fitzherbert refused to pay. Topcliffe won the case and gained the estates, but a few years later the estates were returned to the Fitzherbert family by Queen Elizabeth I, and Topcliffe was presented with estates in Derbyshire.


Topcliffe died in November or December 1604 at the age of about 73.[1]


Richard Topcliffe was portrayed by Brian Wilde in the 1971 British television mini-series Elizabeth R. Topcliffe is featured in Rory Clements' "John Shakespeare" murder mystery series as a sadistic torturer.


  • "The morrow after Simon and Jude's day I was hanged at the wall from the ground, my manacles fast locked into a staple as high as I could reach upon a stool: the stool taken away where I hanged from a little after 8 o'clock in the morning till after 4 in the afternoon, without any ease or comfort at all, saving that Topcliffe came in and told me that the Spaniards were come into Southwark by our means: 'For lo, do you not hear the drums' (for then the drums played in honour of the Lord Mayor). The next day after also I was hanged up an hour or two: such is the malicious minds of our adversaries."

    —Saint Eustace White, S.J., written to Father Henry Garnet from prison. 23 November 1591. Quoted in The Other Face; Catholic Life Under Elizabeth I, by Father Philip Caraman, pages 235–236.
  • "The Chief Justice asked how old he was, seeming to scorn his youth. He answered that he was near about the age of our Saviour, Who lived upon the earth thirty-three years; and he himself was as he thought near about thirty-four years. Hereat Topcliffe seemed to make great acclamation, saying that he compared himself to Christ. Mr. Southwell answered, 'No he was a humble worm created by Christ.' 'Yes,' said Topcliffe, 'you are Christ's fellow.'"

    —Father Henry Garnet, "Account of the Trial of Robert Southwell." Quoted in Caraman's The Other Face, page 230.

Southwell: I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times. I had rather have endured ten executions. I speak not this for myself, but for others; that they may not be handled so inhumanely, to drive men to desperation, if it were possible.

Topcliffe: If he were racked, let me die for it.

Southwell: No; but it was as evil a torture, or late device.

Topcliffe: I did but set him against a wall.

Southwell: Thou art a bad man.

Topcliffe: I would blow you all to dust if I could.

Southwell: What, all?

Topcliffe: Ay, all.

Southwell: What, soul and body too?[8]



  1. ^ a b c Richardson, William. "Topcliffe, Richard (1531–1604)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008. Accessed 26 July 2013.
  2. ^ "History of Parliament". history of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 28 November 2011. 
  3. ^ In Search of Shakespeare . Richard Topcliffe | PBS
  4. ^ Kermode, Frank (2005). The Age of Shakespeare (paperback ed.). New York: Modern Library. p. 143. ISBN 978-0-8129-7433-1. 
  5. ^ In Search of Shakespeare . Robert Southwell | PBS
  6. ^ Hutchinson, Robert, Elizabeth's Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England (2006) pp.76–78 ISBN 978-0-297-84613-0
  7. ^ Richardson (2004): "In August 1597 he was also responsible for initiating a government inquiry into the scandalous play The Isle of Dogs, during which he was required to interview Thomas Nash and his fellow players in the Fleet prison. In the event Nash made himself scarce, but Topcliffe did interrogate Ben Jonson and two actors."
  8. ^