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Francis Tresham - An Incident in 1591
By David Herber

On 4 May 1589, Sir Thomas Tresham wrote from his house at Hoxton, to Sir Francis Walsingham with regard to an outstanding debt.

According to Calendar State Papers Vol.CCXXIV [1] the letter states he "..has never been paid the money owing to him by Mr. Bawle of Buckinghamshire, for cattle sold to him."

The letter outlines the particulars of Tresham’s business dealings with Bawle, and he solicits Walsingham’s help to procure payment. An interesting turn of events considering that only a few years earlier, Tresham had been tried and imprisoned by Star Chamber for his harboring of the Jesuit Edmund Campion [who was subsequently captured and executed], and Walsingham had taken a key role in his prosecution.

The incident is further expanded on by Francis Edwards in his work "Guy Fawkes : The Real Story of the Gunpowder Plot", pages 32-33 [2].

1591. A few years before, George [Bawle] Ball, a gentleman and tenant of Sir Thomas Treshams "was indebted unto divers persons for great sums of money" (BM Additional MSS, 39828, f. 150. Cf. HMC Report, Various, Vol. 3, (1904) p.61).

It is likely that Sir Thomas’s son paid Ball at least one visit without much result. Then on Tuesday June 1, 1591, "..an hour before the rising of the sun, one Francis Tresham, Esquire….came accompanied with thirteen horsemen and two footmen known, besides others unknown, and with very great force, both with great bars and crows of iron which they brought with them". They "broke open divers doors and chests, which they rifled, and took out both money and all the evidences of writings that were therein, being a hundred several pieces. And four or six of them with swords in their hands entered into the chamber where [Ball] lay". He was seventy years old, nevertheless, they "laid violent hands upon him". His daughter was "great with child". There was a scuffle in which they "threw her down the stairs, pressing and bruising her body to the very great danger of her life, being within one month of her time. And afterwards by virtue of a warrant, as they pretended, directed from their Lordships of the Privy Council, they apprehended [Ball] and carried him away as a prisoner with them to the house of Sir Thomas Tresham at Ruston".

Upon his eventual release, Ball lost no time in complaining to the Privy Council. In due course it was established that the Privy Council warrant, genuine enough in itself, had been used unjustly to keep Ball virtually as a private prisoner. Francis Tresham was committed to the Fleet Prison "for the abusing of the authority of a warrant from their Lordships".

However, Ball's track record was that of someone who was not unused to being in such a position. In the early 1580’s he was involved in a protracted case regarding leases he and Sir George Peckham had made, then a couple of years later he was involved in yet another judgement of debt against him. It is no wonder that Sir Thomas took matters into his own hands, Ball’s prior conduct wouldn’t have provided many with the confidence that they were going to be repaid. Sir Thomas at this time, as a result of the years he had spent in prison and the enforcement of the recusancy laws that restricted his ability to travel, had begun to default on some of the loans he and his son had procured, and he had found it increasingly more difficult to secure additional loans to cover his earlier ones.

Sir George Peckham is yet another interesting character in all of this. Imprisoned in the easrly 1580's for harbouring priests, like Sir Thomas Tresham he was a staunch Catholic and a respected landowner and helped in the attempt to found an English colony in North America. He is regarded as one of the most active, if not innovative, proponents of Elizabethan expansionism. His dealings with Ball began in Ireland, yet there is another link between Peckham and Francis Tresham.

During the years 1585–6 William Weston and a group of secular priests were involved in the practice of exorcism. Though it was not popular among the priests of the Counter-Reformation, an interest in demonology was not unusual, and the priests concerned may have been influenced by public exorcisms practiced in France. Weston was convinced of the power of God to cure demoniacs through the Catholic church and the priest–exorcist. He felt people wanted such public exorcisms and, as a proselytizer, thought it possible thus to confirm waverers in their faith. The exorcisms have been presented as a conversion campaign, based on the unreliable confessions of Anthony Tyrrell, a priest–exorcist turned informer, who spoke of a total of at least 500 conversions. Weston's exorcisms, however, all took place in recusants' private houses, mostly that of Sir George Peckham of Denham, Buckinghamshire, and were on a considerably smaller scale.

At this time rumours were spread of a connection between the Denham exorcisms conducted by Weston, John Cornelius, Robert Dibdale, and possibly John Ballard, and the Babington Plot, an intricate affair involving Walsingham's machinations against Mary, queen of Scots. Ballard (former companion of Tyrrell) was a main conspirator of a group plotting the assassination of Queen Elizabeth, a Spanish invasion, and the installation of Mary as queen of Britain. The affluent gentleman Anthony Babington and his romantic associates hoped to free their beloved queen from prison, at first without any idea of regicide. Babington possibly visited the Denham exorcisms, and his servant Nicholas Marwood was Weston's first demoniac. The government allowed the exorcisms to continue in the hope of implicating a wider circle of Catholics while waiting for the best moment to explode the manipulated plot and damage the reputation and the organization of English Catholicism. In June 1586 the house at Denham was raided and the prisons were prepared for the Babington arrests.[5[

Weston's identification which led to the raid was made by one Nicholas Berden (whose alias was Thomas Rogers) the very same Walsingham spy who wrote to Thomas Phellipps recounting his meeting of Francis Tresham at the house of the French Ambassador in 1586.

Returning to the Ball incident, it appears then that in the two years since Sir Thomas wrote the original letter to Walsingham, the debt had remained unpaid. On 5 February 1592 a further entry occurs relating to George Ball's financial dealings.

Exemplification at request of Sir John Hart, alderman of London, of an extent and liberate between him and George Ball, of Quarington, co. Bucks, and Thomas Ball, of the Inner Temple. [Docquet 7 Feb] - An exemplification being a copy or transcript attested to be correct by the seal of an officer having custody of the original. In Great Britain law, an extent is a writ allowing a creditor to seize a debtor's property temporarily. In effect, the entry indicates that the property is being repossessed until arrears are met. Again then it appears that Ball's clash with the young Francis Tresham had not deterred him from his financial misdealings.

What this does begin to show though is the type of person Francis Tresham may have been. Willing to do his father’s dirty work while showing contempt for the offices of the law. It is also his earliest known term of imprisonment, something that his father was now more than accustomed to.


The "Ball Incident" research still includes several documents that require translating that relate to the financial dealings with Sir George Peckham, lands of the 3rd and 4th Earls of Derby, and judgements made against him in Chancery in the early 1580's. George Ball's son Thomas, who in 1582 is described as under the age of 21 and on foreign shores is also of interest - after all it is possible that he and Francis were of similar age.

Sources and Bibliography

[1] Edwards, Francis, S.J., "The Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway, trans. from the Italian of the Stonyhurst Manuscript, edited and annotated", The Folio Society, 1973
[2] Edwards, Francis, S.J., "Guy Fawkes: the real story of the Gunpowder Plot?", 1969
[3] Dictionary of National Biography
[4] Finch, Mary E., "The Wealth of five Northamptonshire Families 1540-1640", Northamptonshire Record Society, 1956
[5] Weston, William, "An Autobioigraphy from the Jesuit Underground - Translated by Philip Caraman", Farrar, Straus and Cudahy New York, 1955

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