Thomas Alfield

Thomas Alfield was born in Gloucester in 1552.  His father, Robert, had been an undermaster at Eton but moved to the then recently established Cathedral school, now Kings School, at Gloucester and had become Master there by 1558.  Thomas was educated at Eton, where he was a Kings scholar, until 1568.  In September 1568 he was admitted as a scholar at King's College Cambridge.  He graduated B.A. and held a fellowship at the College until he relinquished it in 1575.

When, where and by whom Thomas was received into the Catholic Church is as yet not known.  What is known is that on the 8th September 1576 he was admitted as a student at the English College, Douai, in the Spanish Netherlands.  However at the time Thomas entered Douai college the continuance of that institution was in danger due to the political situation in Flanders.  He had to leave the College two months after his admittance at a time when a raid by Nationalists was expected.

Thomas was living in Gloucester in 1577.  His name is included in the return of recusants made by Bishop Cheyney of Gloucester in November 1577 by demand of the Privy Council.  Thomas is recorded as one of three recusants living in Holy Trinity Parish, Gloucester.

It is evident that Thomas Alfield still intended to become a priest.  Sometime in July or August 1580 he met Father Robert Persons who had landed in England in June of that year as leader of the first Jesuit missionaries to arrive in the country.  Thomas requested that Father Persons take his brother Robert Alfield as a servant.  Thomas was concerned for the welfare of his brother and wanted to make arrangements for him before he himself returned to the English College which by then had been relocated from Douai to Rheims.  Thomas arrived at the college on 18th September 1580 and he studied there under the pseudonym 'Badger'.  He was ordained priest at Chalon-sur-Marne on 4th March 1581.

At the end of March 1581 he was sent on the English Mission using the same alias of 'Badger'.  One of his companions on the journey, John Adams, was also to be a future martyr.  It is known that between his arrival in the country and when he was first arrested in April 1582 he ministered much in the north of England, including Yorkshire.  Information obtained by the Government during 1582 and up to six years after his death verifies this.  It was during his first three months in England that he reconciled another future martyr, William Dean, to the Church.  William Dean was at that time a Church of England curate in the Diocese of York.

Thomas was present at the execution of Edmund Campion S.J. at Tyburn, London, on 1st December 1581.  A member of the Dolman family of Pocklington, Yorkshire, in whose house Thomas had celebrated Mass, and who was then at Gray's Inn, London, accompanied Thomas to witness Campion's martyrdom.  Mr Dolman and Thomas were associates in writing an account of the death of Campion and of those who died with him, and then having it printed at the secret press of Richard Verstegan (alias Rowlands) in Smithfield, London early in 1582.  It was not long after the publication of this account that Verstegan's press was discovered by the Government, and the arrest of Thomas Alfield soon followed in April 1582.

On his arrest Thomas was held in the Tower of London.  At the end of April the Privy Council authorised that he be examined and, if necessary, tortured by being put on the rack.  This is indeed what happened, but as far as is known, Thomas did not reveal anything on the matters that were out to him.  At the end of May 1582, the Privy Council considered sending William Dean (who had also been arrested early in 1582) and Thomas to the north of England to be made an example of, by suffering among the people in whose midst they had ministered.  However this proposal was not carried out.  Thomas, between the end of June and the beginning of September, agreed to attend services in the Church of England.  He was discharged from the Tower of London 'upon bondes'.  Dr William Allen, the founder of the English College, noted in a letter that 'Fr Alfield..... has lapsed to some extent for fear of the torture, and having gone once or twice to the heretical church has been set free'.

Thomas, within some months of his release, returned to Rheims, was reconciled to the Church, and resumed his priestly ministry.

During 1583 and into 1584 Thomas travelled between the European mainland and England.  In this period he acted as an agent for Dr William Allen who, it should be noted, had been drawn into Pope Gregory XIII's attempts to urge Phillip II of Spain to actively endeavour to restore the Catholic faith in England.  In April 1584, for example, Allen sent Thomas Alfield to the Apostolic Nuncio in Paris, about a matter of great consequence, relating to a recent convert Captain John Davis, the explorer.  In his letter introducing Thomas to the Nuncio, Allen praises Alfield as 'very diligent and skilful in the transaction of business'.  Allen adds, however, that 'though specially sent to me from the Island concerning a secret matter, which he will unfold to you but to no one else in these parts, he ought to know nothing about the great affair' i.e. the contemplated invasion of England.

Thomas was involved in a matter whereby consideration was given to Captain John Davis handing over three English ships, filling them with Catholic sailors, and giving them to the Pope or Phillip II.  A patron of John Davis was Sir Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth I's Secretaries of State and spymaster.  It would appear that Davis was acting as and agent provocateur  through this matter.  Suffice it to state though that Thomas appeared prepared to be connected to such a plan.

In 1583 and 1584 there are also references to his involvement with the Catholic Pauncefoote family of Hasfield, Gloucestershire.  He has been recorded as being with the Pauncefootes, John and his wife Dorothy, at their home in Hasfield and in London.  What the elements of this involvement were are not entirely clear but, in part it seems to have been associated with the Pauncefootes' decision making about whether or not they should leave England because of the situation catholics found themselves in.  Thomas also helped facilitate the conveying of the Pauncefoote's son to the European mainland.

During 1584 Dr William Allen published his True, Sincere and Modest Defence of English Catholics that suffer for their Faith, a work written in response to a pamphlet written by Lord Burghley in the previous year and entitled The Execution of Justice in England.  Burghley's pamphlet was concerned with promoting the argument that the catholics who had suffered for their faith since Elizabeth I's coming to the throne had done so for treason and not their faith.  Allen's work refuted what Burghley's was promoting.  To import and distribute Dr Allen's book in England was an enterprise fraught with danger but this is what Thomas Alfield became engaged in.  Involved with Thomas Alfield in the distribution of Allen's work was Thomas Webley.

Thomas Webley was a young man with Gloucester connections who was apprenticed to a dyer in London.  In March 1585 both Alfield and Webley were arrested and by the end of April enough was known, even though neither of the two men had given any information away under interrogation, for further arrests to be made in Oxford.  Some people in Oxford had provided a staging point for the conveyance of the books to Gloucester and thence distribution.

There is a suggestion that Captain John Davis, the navigator, continued to have an association with Thomas Alfield which contributed to the latter's arrest.  Richard Young, one of the justices who tried Alfield, some years after Thomas's death wrote to Sir Robert Cecil referring to Davis's effort in pursuing Thomas to the extent of Davis involving himself in taking books into the west country.

Sit Francis Walsingham, Davis's patron, had wanted to apprehend Thomas again since late 1583 when he suspected that Thomas was acting as a link between catholics in England and some of those in exile on the continent.  Walsingham had prepared a list of questions to be put to him should he be arrested.  Questions on this list related to the activities of the Duke of Guise in France (the Duke was uncle to Mary Queen of Scots), possible alliances between the Duke, Phillip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XIII to aid the catholics in England, plots with regard to delivering Mary Queen of Scots, and catholic exiles both clerical and lay.  These questions were put to Thomas following his arrest but nothing incriminating was forthcoming.

The government then devised a second list of questions to attempt to get Thomas to entrap himself so that a matter of treason could be brought against him.  These questions were put together by Sir John Popham, the Attorney General, and related to issues from correspondence of Dr Allen that had association with Thomas.  Again the government failed to get the answer it wanted.  Two attempts, including the use of torture, had now been made to try and establish a case of treason against Thomas Alfield.

The decision was then made to indict Thomas Alfield under the 1582 Act aimed at the Catholic ballad mongers who had caused trouble for the government by praising Edmund Campion following his martyrdom.  Judges had ruled that to publish, sell, or give away a book in which fault was found with the Queen's religion brought a person within the Act's meaning.  Distributing Allen's book thus led to Thomas's arraignment under this Act of Parliament.  Thomas and two other priests who were implicated with him, Leonard Hyde and William Wiggs, were tried in London on 5th July 1585.  Thomas was found guilty and was sentenced to be hanged.  As the offence was felony and not treason he was spared drawing and quartering.  The other two priests were sentenced to life imprisonment (they are recorded as being in Wisbech Castle in 1595).

Thomas was hanged at Tyburn, with Thomas Webley, on 6th July 1585 the day following his trial.  He was thirty three years of age.  Thomas Alfield and Thomas Webley were offered their lives at Tyburn if they would renounce the Pope and agree with the queen but both refused.

Before the end of July 1585 a tract was published, at the behest of the government to deny that their deaths were for the sake of conscience, a sign that the government considered them to have been of significance.

Crudelitatis Calviniana exempla, published about the end of 1585, states that both men endured their punishment with the greatest patience and constancy, to the great edification of the people.

Thomas Alfield was declared Venerable by Pope Leo XIII in 1886 and beatified by Pope Pius XI in 1929.

D Cottam – transcribed from Bergin Sept 2103.