We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Tresham, Francis (1567?–1605), conspirator, was the eldest son of of Rushton, Northamptonshire, and his wife, Meriel Throckmorton (d. 1615), daughter of Sir Robert Throckmorton of Coughton, Warwickshire. Anthony Wood in Athenae Oxonienses maintains that he studied at St John's College, Oxford, or Gloucester Hall, ‘or both’, but there seems to be no corroborating evidence (Wood, Ath. Oxon., 754). In 1593 he married Anne Tufton, elder daughter of Sir John Tufton of Hothfield, Kent. The Jesuit Father John Gerard hints at flaws in Tresham's character; another Jesuit closely involved with the English Catholic families of the time, Oswald Tesimond, generally kinder in his assessments, thought Tresham ‘a man of sound judgement. He knew how to look after himself, but was not much to be trusted’ (Edwards, 108). At all events, he was long an associate of his cousin —their mothers were sisters—and of the brothers John and Christopher Wright, all subsequently conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

Tresham was one of the Catholic gentlemen who followed the earl of Essex into rebellion on 8 February 1601. He was among those left by Essex to guard their prisoner, the lord keeper, Sir Thomas Egerton, in Essex House on the afternoon of that tumultuous day. Along with his colleagues, Tresham was arrested and imprisoned, first in the White Lion, Southwark, and then in the Tower. Freedom cost his father 3000 marks, Tresham being released on 21 June. This ugly experience did not prevent him dabbling in further treasons: he was involved in representations to the king of Spain fronted by Thomas Winter, , and Christopher Wright in 1602 and 1603. Nevertheless, his friends by now had their doubts about Tresham's commitment to the extreme courses they were considering, and they did not trust him with the secret of the Gunpowder Plot until 14 October 1605 (TNA: PRO, SP 14/16/63). Sir Thomas Tresham had died in the previous month, and Catesby clearly took this decision with an eye on Francis's newly acquired property, hoping that this wealth could help finance the conspirators' schemes. Although Sir Thomas's debts amounted to more than £11,000, the long-established Rushton estates, among the most prosperous in Northamptonshire, were valued at over £3000 per annum.

Here Catesby made a grave mistake; Tresham had no stomach for the enterprise. He appears to have gone at once into Northamptonshire, shutting up Rushton Hall and taking his family to London. This visit may have provided an opportunity to conceal his muniments in a walled-up closet near the great hall where, more than 220 years later, they were rediscovered by workmen making alterations. Again and again Tresham urged his friends to abandon their scheme. Guy Fawkes says that he was concerned for the safety of Catholic peers attending parliament, and Catesby's airy assurances that the lives of their noble friends would somehow be preserved failed to convince.

Tresham's dilemma was acute. Pressured, and at times openly threatened, by long-standing friends, he was at the same time aware of the immense risks being run, and the probable ruin of himself and every English Catholic should the plot miscarry. Although he never admitted it—the fact would hardly have counted in his favour—Tresham almost certainly wrote the disguised letter to his brother-in-law , which, thanks to Monteagle's loyalty or instinct for self-preservation, revealed the conspiracy to the authorities. Another cousin and conspirator, Thomas Winter, clearly suspected as much. Fawkes, in his declaration of 16 November, recalled that Catesby and Winter had told him how Tresham had been ‘exceeding earnest’ to ‘have [Monteagle] warned to be absent from the Parlament’ (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/100). Early in November, Winter and Catesby taxed Tresham with the deed at the point of a dagger, and were only half convinced by his anguished protestations of innocence. Tresham salved his conscience by insisting that so far as he could tell, the conspirators had decided to halt their operations as a result of his prompting and his money. At his ‘chamber in Clerkenwell’ he paid over £190 to Winter, for Catesby's use ‘acording to a former agreement between them’, in the fortnight before 5 November (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/116). As he himself put it, ‘the silence that I used was only to deliver my self from that infamous brand of an accuser, and to save his life which in all true rules I was bound to do.’ He had aimed, he said, ‘not only to free his majesty and the state from this present treason, but to shipe them all away that they might have no meanes left them to contrive any more’ (TNA: PRO, SP 14/16/63). It was, if true, a perilous game, and Tresham knew it. Driven on by his fears, he secured a licence to travel abroad for two years, with servants and horses, granted on 2 November 1605.

Upon the discovery of the treason, Tresham adopted an attitude of innocence. With the extent of the midlands rising still uncertain, and with preparations being made in London against a widespread Catholic revolt, he offered his services against any rebels (Stow, Annales, 879–80). On 8 November William Waad, lieutenant of the Tower of London, mentioned in a letter to Salisbury that ‘there is one Tresham about the town that was a longue tyme pentioner to the king of Spain, and many others of that crew that would be observed’ (TNA: PRO, SP 14/216/48B), but it was only when Guy Fawkes—who had never met him and who relied upon what he had heard from Catesby and Winter—named Tresham as a conspirator on 9 November that these suspicions received confirmation. According to Stow, Tresham was committed to the Tower on 12 November. At his first examination he provided a string of evasive answers, but on the following day he set down in his own hand a long account of his efforts to frustrate Catesby's design.

Tresham was, however, past saving, patently guilty of, at the very least, concealment of treason, or misprision. Further examination of other suspects revealed the dark secrets of his past, and by the end of November he was admitting his involvement in the negotiations between English Catholics and the court of Philip III in 1602–3. Like every other prisoner, with the early exception of Guy Fawkes, Tresham was well treated in the Tower. Early in December, however, his health began to deteriorate. The earl of Salisbury described Tresham's complaint as a ‘natural sickness, such as he hath been a long time subject to’ (Memorials of Affairs of State … Collected … from the Original Papers of Sir Ralph Winwood, ed. E. Sawyer, 3 vols., 1725, 2.189). This was almost certainly a strangury. His lingering, painful end was documented at length by his trusted servant William Vavasour, who along with Tresham's wife and a nurse, Joan Sisor, had regular access to the stricken man. The attorney-general Sir Edward Coke, in a list of questions prepared for other conspirators, suggested that Vavasour was thought to be ‘Sir Thomas Tresham's base son’, but no evidence survives to support this hostile theory (Hatfield House, MS 115/18).

Around the same time, Coke searched Tresham's chambers at the Inner Temple and found there two copies of a Jesuit ‘Treatise on equivocation’. He set to work cataloguing the legal and moral pitfalls inherent in equivocation, but appears never to have established that the work was in fact from Henry Garnett's pen. In his last hours, Tresham himself resorted to equivocation, and retracted certain statements he had made implicating Jesuits in the Spanish treason. Inter alia, he insisted that he had not seen Garnett in sixteen years, a manifest falsehood. This assertion, in the very presence of death itself, greatly annoyed and perplexed the investigators.

Tresham died in the Tower early in the morning of 23 December, and was buried there. It suited the government's purposes to interpret his crime as treason. He was attainted along with the other plotters (Statutes of the Realm, 4.1068–9), his head was displayed at Northampton, and his lands were forfeited. Tresham was survived by two young daughters—Lucy (1598–1665) and Elizabeth. Lucy became a nun in Brussels; Elizabeth married Sir George Heneage of Hainton, Lincolnshire. Lucy's twin brother, Thomas, had died in 1599. Many of the Tresham lands in Northamptonshire had been entailed by Sir Thomas in 1584, and were inherited—despite the attainder—by Tresham's brother Lewis (d. 1639), but Lewis was extravagant and reckless, and the family's economic decline gathered pace. By 1614 the Rushton estate had passed to William Cokayne, in whose family it remained until the nineteenth century. A baronet of the original creation, Lewis was knighted on 9 April 1612. He married in 1603 María Pérez de Recalde, granddaughter of Martín Pérez de Recalde, viceroy of the West Indies, and a stepdaughter of John Moore, alderman of London, and was succeeded in 1639 by their only son, William (d. 1643), the second, and last, baronet.

Mark Nicholls


TNA: PRO, SP 14/16 and 216 · Thomas Winter's confession in respect of the Gunpowder Plot, Hatfield House, Salisbury (Cecil) MS 113/54 · M. E. Finch, The wealth of five Northamptonshire families, 1540–1640, Northamptonshire RS, 19 (1956) · J. Wake, ed., ‘The death of Francis Tresham’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, 2 (1954–9), 31–41 · The condition of Catholics under James I: Father Gerard's narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, ed. J. Morris (1871) · A. E. Malloch, ‘Father Henry Garnet's treatise of equivocation’, Recusant History, 15 (1979–81), 387–95 · A. J. Loomie, ‘Guy Fawkes in Spain: the “Spanish treason” in Spanish documents’, BIHR, special suppl., 9 (1971) [whole issue] · M. Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991) · The Gunpowder Plot: the narrative of Oswald Tesimond alias Greenway, ed. and trans. F. Edwards (1973) · Wood, Ath. Oxon., new edn, 1.754–5 · A. Luders and others, eds., Statutes of the realm, 11 vols. in 12, RC (1810–28) · J. Stow and E. Howes, Annales, or, A generall chronicle of England … unto the end of this present yeere, 1631 (1631)


BL, family papers, Add. MSS 39828–39838


stipple and line engraving, NPG; repro. in Caulfield, History of the gunpowder plot (1804)