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Breaking News: Denham's Connections to the Gunpowder Plot?

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Sir George Peckham was the owner and occupier of Denham Place towards the end of the 16th century. Established history describes him as a merchant adventurer who attempted to expand the colonising ambitions of Queen Elizabeth I’s government on the North American continent. He is noted particularly for his authorship in 1593 of “A true reporte of the late discoveries and possession taken of the Newfound-landes”, a justification of colonisation.

But more detailed research suggests that Sir George may have been a great deal more than that and indeed a peripheral player in the events we remember each November.

Earlier this month, we told the story of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 still remembered in our Bonfire Night celebrations on 5th November every year. We now need to turn back the pages of history a little to learn what was happening here in Denham around that time and the part the village played in the events that led up to the events of 5th November 1605.

Historical documents referenced in A Walkabout Around St Mary’s, our website article in September, confirmed that the Parish Church had been established here in Denham long before the English Reformation of the 16th Century. Known then by its Catholic name, the Church of Our Lady in Denham was the local centre of worship in the traditions and practices of the church under the leadership of the Pope in Rome.

So it will come as no surprise that even those loyal to King Henry VIII were not always so eager about his break with Rome in 1533 and the new laws which made the King head of the church in England in 1534. Many Catholic priests became “recusants” refusing to accept the royal leadership of the church and still committed to acceptance of papal authority. Throughout England havens and shelters were established for the protection of recusant Catholics where they were welcomed into the receipt of Catholic sacraments.

After the death of Henry and his son, Edward VI, Catholics regained the upper hand during the five year reign of Mary. Indeed even after Mary’s death in 1558, her Protestant half sister Queen Elizabeth I was, for a while, quite tolerant of Catholic services whilst reaffirming her own leadership of the “Church of England”. But with Catholic rebels increasingly threatening her throne, that attitude soon changed and religious hostilities increased.

It was in this tumultuous time that Denham Place became one of the havens of Catholicism.

Denham Place had its own chapel for priests to administer the sacraments, as did other large houses owned by Sir Edmund Peckham. Peckham was descended from an old Buckinghamshire leading Catholic family. He, and his sons Robert and George both raised in the Catholic faith, were obliged to witness the dismantling of the Church of Rome in England, the dissolution of the Catholic abbeys and monasteries, the sequestration of church property and, under Elizabeth’s mandates, the gradual replacement of Catholic traditions and practices. By the time Sir Edmund Peckham died in 1564, Catholics were being required by law to attend Church of England services. In 1581 the celebration of the Catholic Mass became illegal.

It is apparent that at first the Peckhams of Denham were royally favoured by Queen Elizabeth. In 1569, Edmund’s son and his successor as Lord of the Manor of Denham, Sir George Peckham renovated Denham Place in preparation for a scheduled visit from Queen Elizabeth on her royal “progression”, one of the tours around the country favoured by the Tudor monarchs to show themselves to their subjects. She arrived at Denham Place from Oatlands in Surrey on September 27, 1570. Her stay was short as she moved on from Denham to the Duke of Bedford’s residence at Chenies where she reportedly stayed for a month before visiting Peckham’s relative by marriage, Sir Ralph Verney at Penley in Hertfordshire.

Such was the febrile atmosphere of the time that whilst on her travels, Elizabeth, or at least her protective spymasters and advisers, insisted that locks and hinges specially made for her in advance of the visit must be fitted to the doors of the great houses in which she would reside and taken with her from one accommodation to the next. No doubt this was considered particularly important as she was to stay in a Catholic household in Denham – though it is interesting that even after she was excommunicated by the Pope in February 1570 Elizabeth still felt able to accept Catholic hospitality from Sir George later that same year. Nonetheless, however loyal Sir George may personally have been at this time, excommunication was, for the Catholic Church, equivalent to a sentence to Hell and a licence to many Catholics to rise up in rebellion against her. It did turn out to be a turning point: the rest of Elizabeth’s reign was bedevilled by plots and rumours of Catholic rebellion.

In 1540 the Pope had authorised the establishment of the Society of Jesus, an order of missionary priests and brothers initially dedicated to stem the rising tide of Protestantism in Europe. Its members became known as Jesuits. Their efforts continued throughout the century with some aggressive fanaticism on the part of some of the society adherents.

As the plots against Elizabeth's grew, Jesuits continued to arrive in England with hopes of re-converting the English population back to Catholicism. In 1580 the Pope specifically authorised a mission by sending the Jesuit priests Robert Persons and Edmund Campion and the Jesuit brother Ralph Emerson to England. Their expressed aim was to try to achieve a peaceful reunification of the churches but their very presence in the country was too much for Elizabeth’s Ministers. Campion was arrested, tortured and eventually executed, traitor to some and martyr to others.

Things took another turn for the worse as a result of the rejection and failure of the 1580 mission. Efforts to achieve reconciliation were abandoned and the Catholic hierarchy began to contemplate invasion to depose Elizabeth, even to imagine her assassination.

On 18 December 1580, the authorities summoned Sir George Peckham, “Knight in the County of Bucks” to answer to royal authority and he was then charged with “harbouring and entertaining Campion the Jesuit, and one Gilbert, a notorious Practiser”. The Privy Council record for the day records “There can be no doubt that Sir George Peckham was in entire sympathy with, and was in every way aiding and abetting the very worst offenders of the Romish Church”.

Quite how Sir George had “entertained” Campion is unclear, but it is known that when itinerant priests or monks were seeking to hide, there were safe houses for such a purpose and they often included a “priest hidey hole” if the agents of authority unexpectedly stopped by for an inspection. Does Denham Place have such a priest hole ? There is certainly one cottage in the village that does.

Jesuit priests could be considered guilty of the crime of treason simply by being in the country and anyone harbouring and concealing a Jesuit was guilty of a felony. Priests caught could be put to death. Those supporting such activities could face serious fines or worse. And yet, history records: “ is curious to observe for how long a time a dozen Papal missionaries, occupying Denham as a centre, and travelling to and fro between several well-known Catholic houses, associating with suspected traitors”.

Nonetheless Sir George did not get off all that lightly. He spent some time regretting his actions whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London. But Sir William Cecil, Lord Burghley Elizabeth’s chief adviser, was a crafty fixer. He knew that harsh punishment of Catholic recusants who in reality posed little threat to the Crown would only serve to provoke those of more violent tendencies. After all Sir George Peckham had been High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire until 1574 and he was a substantial property owner and Lord of the Manor of Denham. A short sharp shock of imprisonment was perhaps thought to be enough to teach him a lesson and there were other ways of neutralising his influence. The Reverend R.H. Lathbury writing his history of Denham in 1904 describes how within three months of his incarceration, Peckham was released by order of the Queen, she being satisfied that he would afterwards be “of good behaviour”.

But as Lathbury reports “subsequent events proved that this conformity on the part of Sir George Peckham was false and insincere”.

Sir George was also something of a merchant adventurer who had been pestering the Crown to finance an expedition of colonisation to Newfoundland since 1574. Queen Elizabeth gave authority for the venture in 1578 but it was another five years before it finally got going.

One of Sir George’s partners in this adventure was Sir Humphrey Gilbert, presumably the same “notorious practiser” of 1580. One of their principal objectives was to discover lands which Catholic recusants might colonise with freedom to practice their religion. By 1583 the opportunity to pack Gilbert off to Newfoundland and have Peckham follow him later together with a host of their followers could have been irresistible to Lord Burghley.

In the event the venture failed disastrously. Sir Humphrey went down with his ship in the Atlantic on the return voyage and the intended Catholic colonists were not allowed to leave England without first paying their recusancy fines. Peckham was left heavily indebted.

Sir George did however hang on to Denham Place at least for the time being and he continued to provide a haven for Catholics at Denham Place. His devout Catholicism soon got him into trouble again. We told the story last month of the faked exorcisms to which George played host at Denham Place in 1585 and 1586. Leading the hoax designed to scare Protestants into returning to the Catholic faith was another Jesuit priest, one William Weston, otherwise Edmunds. Weston was linked through another Jesuit priest, John Ballard, to a Derbyshire nobleman Anthony Babington. There is evidence that Babington was in Denham in 1585 to bear witness to the exorcisms. Clearly despite his promises made to the Queen in 1581, Sir George Peckham was still associating with some dangerous characters in the Catholic cause.

Any link, however tenuous, to Anthony Babington and John Ballard soon became very toxic indeed. Babington and Ballard were together the leaders of a serious plot in 1586 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her with her Stuart Catholic cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. It was the discovery of this plot that set off the train of events leading to the execution of Mary on 8th February 1587.

Peckham was just too close to the action. As an apparently peripheral participant in the affair and evidently still a person of some standing he was spared the harsh punishments meted out to those more directly involved in plotting, but Elizabeth nonetheless moved against him. He owed her money - some £6500 (around half a million pounds today). Denham Place was forfeited to the Crown in repayment. By July 1586 the Queen herself was in charge of Denham Place. It remained in Her Majesty’s ownership until she granted it to Sir William Bowyer in 1595. Sir George and his heirs were, it seems, given the opportunity to recover ownership on payment of their debts but they never did or never could.

Of Sir George Peckham after the events of 1585/86 little is recorded save for a plaintive letter he wrote to Lord Burghley’s son, Sir Robert Cecil on 3rd January 1595 describing his distress, his sickness and his poverty being “compelled to sell the apparel off his own back".

Elizabeth died in 1601 to be succeeded by her cousin once removed, James VI of Scotland then to become also James I of England. Catholics expected some relief from persecution under James, but their hope were not realised. Though he was the son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, he had been raised a Protestant and was too wise and sensible then to return influence to the Catholics in England. The Catholic plotting continued and the rest of that story we have already told. George Peckham survived until 1608, his grievances unresolved.

But there is a footnote concerning Peckham’s known associates.

Father John Gerard was a figure of some mystery in Elizabethan England operating in a cloak and dagger environment that we more readily attach to the Cold War spies of the 20th century. Also a Jesuit, Gerard is known to have close associations with both Barnet and Babington.

In April 1594 Gerard was tracked down, arrested and subsequently imprisoned and tortured. Then later in October of that year, assisted by others in the Catholic underground, he made his escape and found his way to Uxbridge, to the home of Robert Catesby at Morecrofts (now known as Moorcrofts). He was joined there by Henry Garnet who had succeeded William Weston as “Jesuit Superior in England” – that same William Weston who nine years earlier had overseen the fake exorcisms at Denham Place. Catesby of course was the nominal leader of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. They were all close associates in the then treasonous Catholic cause. Gerard later denied any involvement in the Gunpowder Plot, but is thought by some historians to have known a great deal more than he ever admitted to, perhaps even to have taken a lead role.

Coming then to 1605, Henry Garnet found himself in conversation with Robert Catesby. Catesby's plans to assassinate the King and blow up his Parliament then became known to Garnet by the confessions of an associate. Respecting the secrecy of the confessional, Garnet’s reaction was to write to Rome encouraging the Pope to intervene to warn Catesby off rather than tip off Elizabeth’s ministers. Garnet was ultimately captured with other plotters and was convicted as a participant in the Plot and executed.

As for John Gerard he was the second son of Sir Thomas Gerard who, it turns out, was the third partner in Sir George Peckham’s North American adventure of 1582.

The relationship doesn’t end there. Sir George Peckham had a son, Edmund Peckham. Edmund married Dorothie Gerard, daughter of his father’s 1583 business partner, and brother to the Catholic conspirator Father John Gerard.

There then we have it. Sir George Peckham of Denham Place, protector of Catholics, known host of the fake exorcisms scheme, merchant adventurer supporting the Catholic cause, victim of Elizabeth’s confiscation of his prized manor with known connections to participants in the 1605 plot. It is all grist to the mill of conspiracy theorists.

Father John Gerard escaped to France on the day of Henry Garnet’s execution on 3 May 1606. In Europe, Gerard’s Jesuit superiors instructed him to write his autobiography, which includes descriptions of his harrowing escape and his efforts to convert Protestants and keep Catholics faithful whilst he was in England. Of involvement in the Plot he writes nothing. Father Gerard died at age 73 in Europe. His book was not translated from the original Latin until 1951.

Sir George Peckham was 67 years old at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. He lived to see two of the celebrations of the Plot’s failure ordered by the government in 1606. Whether or not he had any direct involvement in the Plot, he cannot have felt comfortable to see so much anti-Catholic sentiment being expressed. Sir George died in 1608 as England entered a period of relative calm - only to be torn apart again thirty years later with the revival of violent religious conflict.

St Mary’s Parish Church Denham holds several historically important monuments that relate to the Peckham family: an altar tomb in memory of Sir Edmund Peckham with effigies of himself and his lady, a memorial to their son Robert, and a memorial to Agnes Jordan, a Peckham relative who had been Abbess of the Brigittine monastery of Sion before it was dissolved in 1538 by orders from Henry VIII.

And now you know the rest of this story that links Sir George Peckham of Denham Place to Gunpowder, Treason and Plot, evidently much more than a merchant adventurer with a business eye on profits to be had from colonisation.



Image of Edmund Campion and Robert Parsons by Friedrich van Hulsen published in George Carleton's 'A Thankful Remembrance of God's Mercy' 1627 NPG D25307 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Image of Sir Humphrey Gilbert after Unknown artist Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Image of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators after Heinrich Ulrich etching, late 18th to early 19th century. Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Photo Credit: The Brockham bonfire. michaelcjones, CC BY-NC-SA

Higgins, Rory Br, FSC (©2017), The Margaret Higgins Database of Catholics in England and Their Friends : 1607-1840

Lathbury, Rev. R.H. (1904) The History of Denham Bucks


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