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The Gentlemen Pensioners, the Duke of Northumberland, and the Attempted Coup of July 1553

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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The band of gentlemen pensioners, a body which, diminished in size and its functions altered almost beyond recognition, still survives at the English royal court under the title of “The Honourable Corps of Her Majesty's Gentlemen at Arms,” was instituted on Christmas Eve 1539 as part of a reform of the royal household. The group was a revival of the “spears” or “spears of honour,” an elite, sumptuously-outfitted royal bodyguard of gentlemen founded by Henry VIII in 1509, shortly after his accession, which appears to have lapsed in 1515 or 1516, because of the great charges involved in their maintenance, according to Hall's chronicle. The revived group was provided for in a rather more modest manner than its predecessor had been, but its members served much the same purposes. They were the king's elite bodyguard, his personal companions in arms when he went to war, the principal participants in tournaments and other martial sports at court and, more generally, a courtly and military finishing school for the sons of nobility and gentry.

From 1540 until 1670, when the band underwent its first reduction in size, its structural organization remained unchanged in all essentials. It consisted of fifty men and five officers, a captain, lieutenant, standard-bearer, clerk of the check and harbinger. The last two were ancillary offices, the keeper of the “check-list” or attendance roll and his deputy, and were not strictly speaking members of the corps, but its servants. The lieutenant and the standard-bearer were normally men who had served for a time as gentlemen pensioners before being appointed to these offices, while the captain, on the contrary, was a figure of some importance at court in his own right, and one who had not previously served in the band. After the death of the first captain, Sir Anthony Browne, Henry VIII's master of the horse, in 1548, subsequent captains under the Tudor and early Stuart monarchs were all peers and almost always held other great offices of state. Browne's successor, William Parr, marquess of Northampton, was Edward VI's lord chamberlain; he lost all of his offices and titles on Mary's accession and was lucky to escape with his life. Thomas Radcliffe, lord Fitzwalter, later earl of Sussex, succeeded him in the captaincy, holding it continuously until his death in 1583. From 1572 he held the office of lord chamberlain to the queen. His Elizabethan successors in the captaincy, the first and second lords Hunsdon, father and son, the queen's kinsmen, also held the lord chamberlainship.

Research Article
Albion , Volume 19 , Issue 1 , Spring 1987 , pp. 1 - 11
Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1987

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1 Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, ed. Brewer, J.S., Gairdner, J. and Brodie, R.H., 21 volumes (London, 18621932), 14, pt. 2:745Google Scholar (hereafter cited as LP). For much of what follows, see the author's The Gentlemen Pensioners in Elizabethan Politics and Government (Ph.D. diss., Cambridge University, 1984), chapter IGoogle Scholar.

2 Hall, E., Hall's Chronicle (London, 1809), p. 512Google Scholar.

3 The body's contemporary functions are entirely ceremonial. The change of the corp's name occurred in 1834, possibly because of the alteration in meaning which the word “pensioner” had by that date undergone.

4 He survived until 1571. Queen Elizabeth restored his forfeited titles, but of the offices which he had previously held he was reappointed only to membership of the privy council (G.E.C., The Complete Peerage [London, 19101959], 9:669674Google Scholar).

5 Tighe, , “The Gentlemen Pensioners,” appendix III, pp. 491495Google Scholar.

6 Public Record Office, LC.2/2, ff. 41v–43v.

7 Nichols, J.G., Narratives of the Reformation, Camden Society old series 77 (1859): 147148Google Scholar.

8 The last member of the gentlemen-at-arms died in 1591. The memory of the group's name, however, survived, and was adopted by the gentlemen pensioners themselves in 1834.

9 British Library, Marleian MS. 6142. This document, an Elizabethan transcription of the now lost original, entitled “The oath and articles concerning the ordering, service and duties belonging to her Highnes gentlemen pensioners” consists of the fourteen articles originally produced for the regulation of the band at its foundation, plus four supplementary articles which declare themselves to have been obtained of Henry VIII by Sir Anthony Browne. These latter form a substantial modification of the original. Somewhat surprisingly, the Elizabethan transcript substitutes “Queen” for “King” in the main articles but not in the supplementary ones. All of them, however, continued in force until the reforms of Charles I's reign.

10 Eighteen of the 169 men who were gentlemen pensioners in the period between 1558 and 1603, for instance, served for over forty years. The record for length of service was held by Sir George Beeston, who was in the corps from 1547 to his death in 1601, a period of over fifty-four years. His closest rival was Clement Paston, who served from 1545 until his death in 1598. The average length of service of the Elizabethan gentlemen pensioners was just over twenty years each (Tighe, , “The Gentlemen Pensioners,” pp. 6768Google Scholar).

11 Albion 6 (1974):342356CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Ibid., pp. 342–343, instances S.T. Bindoff and W.K. Jordan as purveyors of this “received wisdom.”

13 Society of Antiquaries, MS. 125. It is impossible to give a precise date to the “book of fees and offices”: it reflects the situation in the immediate aftermath of Mary's triumph, perhaps the short period between her entry into London on 3 August 1553 and Edward VI's funeral five days later. It had become outdated by the time of her coronation on 1 October 1553.

14 Braddock, , “Duke of Northumberland's Army,” p. 356Google Scholar.

15 B.L., Stowe MS. 571 is composed of several independent sections which were bound together at a later date. The late Edwardian household list occupies folios 3 to 76: it is an exact (although not in all respects accurate) copy of the Society of Antiquaries MS. 125. The hand appears to be a mid-century one. Of the remaining sections of the manuscript, folios 77 to 132 contain transcripts of material relating to the earl of Pembroke's activities as commander of the English forces in France in 1557, folios 133 to 174 consist of a list of offices and wages under the Crown which, from the few officeholders whose names appear on the list, would appear to have been drawn up in the late 1570s, and folios 175 to 204, finally, form a collection of material concerning taxes and subsidies levied in England from the Norman Conquest to 1511.

16 Society of Antiquaries, MS. 125, f. 31; B.L., Stowe MS. 571, ff. 31–32. The copyist also mistook the name of one of the gentlemen pensioners, John Caverley (or Calverley), writing instead “John Gawley”: as such he appears as the tenth man on Braddock's list of gentlemen pensioners loyal to Northumberland.

17 The captions are in quotation marks, since I hope to show that the lists do not reveal the “loyalties” of the individuals listed.

18 P.R.O., E. 101/427/6, no. 24. That some care was taken in determining the men's allegiances is evident from a note in the royal wardrobe accounts dated 27 September 1553 from Henry Jerningham, the queen's vice-chamberlain, to one of the wardrobe officials, informing him that since Thomas Astley, a gentleman pensioner, had not, as previously supposed, been with Northumberland's army he was to be served with raiment to attend the queen's coronation (P.R.O., E. 101/427/4, f. 10). Astley's name is among those struck through on the coronation list, but the cancellation was itself cancelled, as “served” is written above his name (P.R.O., E. 101/427/5, f. 29r).

19 P.R.O., LC.2/4(1), ff. 23v–24r.

20 The gentleman pensioners were mustered along with other groups of armed men on 7 December 1551 and 16 May 1552 (Nichols, J.G. ed., Literary Remains of Edward the Sixth [London, 1857], 2:375, 416Google Scholar). The corps continued to be mustered formally in later years, as in 1590 (P.R.O., SP.12/231/9).

21 Professor Michael Graves of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, in an unpublished paper read to the Cambridge Tudor Seminar on 18 January 1983 concerning Northumberland's plans for calling a Parliament in September 1553 to alter the succession, adduced evidence that Edward VI's illness was not recognized to be mortal until the middle of May 1553 and that for another month his death was thought to be months rather than weeks away. The final form of the device to alter the succession was worked out, according to Professor Graves, between 28 May and 11 June and the result drafted on 19 June. The succession crisis, if these views hold up, would have erupted more suddenly than our retrospective view of the course of Edward VI's illness might appear to indicate.

22 It is unfortunate that the keeping of regular quarterly attendance rolls for the band appears to have begun only in the first quarter of 1560 (P.R.O., SP.12/11/32, 33, E.407/1/2–36). An earlier one survives for the month of June 1558 (P.R.O., E407/1/1). Earlier rolls would have furnished reliable information about which gentlemen pensioners were at court during the crisis, but whatever records the clerks of the check kept in the early years of the group's existence have not survived. In Elizabeth's reign the rules about attendance at court were strictly enforced; that this was so earlier is a presumption, but one which the evidence of the relaxation of the rules by official action late in Henry VIII's reign would support.

23 I am far from denying that individual gentlemen pensioners might have had private opinions about Northumberland's attempt to alter the succession. It is conceivable both that some of the twenty-nine men who “went not with the duke of Northumberland” would have preferred Jane Grey to Mary and also that some of those who were in Northumberland's army were not keen supporters of the enterprise. This is but to say that the action or inaction of these men does not necessarily furnish information about their personal opinions or loyalties.

24 Acts of the Privy Council of England (hereafter cited as A.P.C.), ed. Dasent, J.R., 32 volumes (London, 18901907), 3:30Google Scholar. Edward VI recorded the event in his journal in a way which underlines the association of the gentlemen-at-arms with Boulogne, (Literary Remains, 2:268)Google Scholar.

25 Braddock, , “Duke of Northumberland's Army,” pp. 348349Google Scholar.

26 Henry VIII (whose brother-in-law he was in the final years of the reign) had made Parr a baron in 1539 and earl of Essex in 1543; he was also warden of the Scottish marches. But high advancement (and his marquessate) came after Henry's, death (Complete Peerage, 9:669674)Google Scholar.

27 Northampton had badly bungled the first attempt to suppress Kett's Rebellion in Norfolk in July 1549 when he commanded the regime's forces. It may be that a promise to overlook this failure caused him to support Somerset's downfall.

28 P.R.O., SP. 1/156, ff. 56–57.

29 LP, 20, pt. 2, app.: 2.

30 A taxation list for the payment of a parliamentary subsidy by the personnel of the royal household drawn up on 24 April 1549 lists Vane as lieutenant of the corps (P.R.O., E. 179/69/62). The next surviving list, dated 20 May 1550 (P.R.O., E. 179/69/63) records lord Bray as holding that office.

31 P.R.O., LC.2/2, ff. 41v–43v.

32 Above, n. 21.

33 Above, n. 21.

34 P.R.O., E. 179/69/64.

35 Society of Antiquaries, MS. 125, f. 31.

36 Some gentlemen-at-arms petitioned for liveries for Mary's coronation (P.R.O., E.101/427/6, no. 16). Most of these attended her coronation (P.R.O., E.101/427/5, f. 29r). Both of these lists appear to be incomplete.

37 P.R.O., E.407/1/6.

38 The other possibilities are (a) the king and (b) the privy council acting collectively. It is difficult to credit the first alternative: the youthful Edward VI would scarcely have had an extensive personal acquaintance with men eligible for such positions. The second is certainly possible. But although Somerset was readmitted to the privy council on 10 April 1550, Professor Dale Hoak has demonstrated how complete Northumberland's control of that body was even before Somerset's final fall in 1551 (The King's Council in the Reign of Edward VI [Cambridge, 1976], pp. 58–80, 262263Google Scholar). Northumberland also took care to control access to the king in his privy chamber. If the method of appointing gentlemen pensioners which prevailed by the end of the sixteenth century was already in being—in which the monarch gave or refused assent to names suggested to her by the captain of the gentlemen pensioners (see Tighe, W.J., “Herbert Croft's Repulse,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 58 [1985]: 106109CrossRefGoogle Scholar)—then whoever proposed the names, Northumberland, Northampton or others, Northumberland would have controlled the process of appointment by controlling access to the king. But I have found no evidence of how appointments were made in Edward VI's reign.

39 Bindoff, S.T., The Commons 1509–1558 (London, 1982), 3:513Google Scholar.

40 At least one of the gentlemen-at-arms, Thomas Hungerford, went to Mary's camp at Framlingham, Suffolk, to offer his support. He was rewarded with a £10 annuity and soon became a gentleman pensioner (B.L., Lansdowne MS. 156, ff. 90–100). Several of Mary's supporters in her hour of need later became gentlemen pensioners, and at least two former gentlemen pensioners, Richard Tyrrell and Richard Freston, came to her assistance promptly. None of the “loyal” twentynine appears as a supporter of Mary in Robert Wingfield's account of the events of the summer of 1553 (MacCulloch, Diarmaid, “The Vita Mariae Angliae Reginae of Robert Wingfield of Brantham,” Camden Miscellany XXVIII, Camden Society fourth series 29 [1984]:181301Google Scholar).

41 One of them, Edmund Horne, may have been on his deathbed, for he died on 11 August 1553 (P.R.O., C.142/100/46; PROB.11/36, ff. 126v–127r [P.C.C. 17 Tashe]).

42 Narratives of the Reformation, pp. 160–169.

43 P.R.O., E. 101/427/5, f. 29r.

44 Horne attended Edward VI's funeral on 8 August 1553 (P.R.O., LC.2/4[1], f. 23v). He made his will three days later (P.R.O., PROB.11/36, ff. 126v–127r [P.C.C. 17 Tashe]) and, according to the inquisition post mortem which was held four months afterwards, died on the same day (P.R.O., C. 142/100/46; C. 142/101/98). Perhaps—the will and inquisition are silent on this point—he died in London.

45 Calendar of the Patent Rolls (hereafter cited as C.P.R.), 15501553, p. 106Google Scholar.

46 A.P.C., 4:306, 309, 330.

47 C.P.R., 1553–1554, p. 82.

48 Complete Peerage, 9:669674 (Northampton)Google Scholar; ibid., 2:287–289 (Bray); Bindoff, , The Commons, 3:364366 (Stafford)Google Scholar.

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