What’s your image of an Elizabethan nobleman? A grave elder statesmen with a long beard, perhaps, or a dashing young courtier in a large ruff. How about a pantomime villain? Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section considers a peer whose bad behaviour shocked even his contemporaries…
According to the conventional narrative of English history, medieval peers lived in castles, employed private armies, oppressed their tenants, and intermittently fought with the king and each other. And then the Tudors arrived, and tamed these unruly barons, who henceforth eschewed violence, followed the laws of the land, and took up residence in comfortable country houses. In broad terms this clichéd picture contains a fair deal of truth. Although Henry VII and his successors faced aristocratic rebellions and conspiracies from time to time, there were no sustained conflicts equal to the 15th-century Wars of the Roses. However, quite a few peers continued to live in castles, many of them still had substantial retinues, they all expected to have a say in local government and perhaps national affairs, and most at one point or another bent the law to their own advantage.
In effect, a new contract emerged between the nobility and the crown, whereby personal loyalty to the monarch of the day effectively guaranteed peers a privileged position in the land, and a fair amount of freedom in their dealings with the lower ranks of society. Underpinning this unwritten consensus was an assumption that individual peers would accept the relative constraints on their behaviour which the Tudors imposed, abiding by the law in all important matters, fulfilling the customary social obligations, and interacting with other people with a reasonable degree of civility. However, perhaps inevitably, some Elizabethan noblemen failed to get that message, and tested the system almost to breaking point. Notable among these aristocratic delinquents was Henry Clinton, 2nd earl of Lincoln.
To say that Clinton was generally disliked would be a considerable understatement. According to his own son-in-law, Sir Arthur Gorges, ‘his wickedness, misery, craft, repugnance to all humanity, and perfidious mind [were] not amongst the heathens to be matched’ (HMC Hatfield, x. 332). That was quite a claim, but the earl did his best to live up to it. A notorious miser, he cheated his own brother out of his rightful inheritance, and failed to honour the financial settlement that he’d agreed when his eldest son married. When his second wife finally tired of his behaviour, and requested a formal separation (which would have required him to pay maintenance), he locked her up in one of his castles, threatened to disown their young children, and employed as her guard a fugitive Italian rumoured to have committed multiple murders on the continent. His relations with his Lincolnshire neighbours were no better. As a justice of the peace he routinely browbeat his colleagues into agreeing the verdicts that he himself favoured, and intimidated commissioners sent from London to inquire into local abuses. One observer in 1580 described Clinton’s unorthodox approach to conducting militia musters, namely turning a blind eye to substandard horses and equipment if he liked the owners, but taunting and insulting those he considered his enemies, regardless of whether they’d complied with the regulations.
As for the lower classes, Clinton rarely wasted an opportunity to exploit them for his own advantage. The diarist John Manningham recorded one telling episode in about 1601, when the earl took a liking to a jewel owned by one of Manningham’s relatives. First Clinton tried to persuade the man simply to give him the gem. When this approach failed, he agreed to buy it for £80, providing a promissory note in order to secure the jewel. On the appointed day, the vendor arrived to collect his money, but the earl, having taken the note back from him, abused him and sent him away empty-handed. Similarly, while it wasn’t unusual in this period for aristocratic landowners to push up rents, foreclose on leases, and drive tenants off their estates so that the fields could be converted to pasture, Clinton was notorious both for the number of petitions submitted to the Privy Council complaining about his behaviour, and the ruthlessness with which he pursued his accusers.
Predictably, the earl was an enthusiastic litigant (while bitterly lamenting the financial cost of his numerous lawsuits), but if he couldn’t obtain the desired outcome from the courts he unhesitatingly resorted to force. Possessed of a fearsome temper, he scandalised observers in 1580 by hurling a dagger at a gentlemen who had offended him, while as late as 1602, when he was aged nearly 60, he was still engaging in armed scuffles. In that latter year his target was his own nephew, Sir Edward Dymoke, with whom he’d been conducting a feud for more than a decade. This dispute, which severely disrupted Lincolnshire society and administration, was characterised by acts of trespass, the circulation of libels, attacks on property, and violent confrontations between rival bands of servants, resulting in at least one fatality.
Faced with this persistent pattern of appalling behaviour, the government clearly needed to act. But its preferred response was a gentle slap on the wrist. Writing to Clinton in 1597 in response to the latest complaints from the earl’s tenants, the Privy Council observed: ‘your lordship cannot do better than to prevent these kind of petitions by good and conscionable satisfaction where you know it to be due, which we do rather signify unto your lordship both for our own goodwill unto yourself, and because we would be glad not to be troubled with them so often as we are’ (Acts of the Privy Council, 1597, p. 272). Admittedly, Clinton was twice briefly imprisoned, once in 1592 for mounting an armed assault on an Oxfordshire country house which he believed rightfully belonged to him, and again in 1600 for repeatedly refusing to pay a fine imposed by the Council itself after he lost a Star Chamber case. However, from the government’s perspective, the earl was reliably loyal to the crown, he had some powerful allies at court, and, in the final analysis, his actions did not pose a serious threat to the established order. As such, he could safely be tolerated by those in power. When in 1605 James I observed that Clinton acted under ‘the influence of Dis [the underworld]’, he wasn’t condemning his behaviour; the king was merely cracking a joke.
Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy 1558-1641 (1965)
For more details of Clinton’s Jacobean career, see his biography in our new volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021). An account of his earlier life is in preparation as part of our Lords 1558-1603 project.