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Somerville, Johnlocked

  • William Wizeman

Somerville, John (1560–1583), convicted conspirator, was the son of John Somerville (d. in or after 1579), of Edstone, Warwickshire, and Elizabeth Corbett of Lee, Shropshire. After studying at Hart Hall, Oxford, between 1576 and 1579, he married Margaret Arden, the daughter of Edward Arden of Park Hall, Warwickshire. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Alice. His father died some time after late 1579, leaving his properties in Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, and Worcestershire to his wife, until John should take possession at the age of twenty-four.

Somerville and his family were members of the Roman Catholic church, and he presumed its restoration if Mary, queen of Scots, should supplant Elizabeth I. In early October 1583 Somerville had been examined regarding an acquaintance imprisoned in the Tower for associating with Mary. On 24 October 1583 he was ill in bed at his father-in-law's home. Yet early the next morning he began to journey alone to London, where he was said to have 'meant to shoot her [Elizabeth] with his dagg [pistol], and hoped to see her head on a pole, for that she was a serpent and a viper' (CSP dom., 1581–90, 126). Somerville publicized his intention to fellow guests at an inn, and he was arrested and questioned for the next few days. On 31 October he spoke to Sir John Conway, a relation of the Ardens, regarding 'the trouble of his mind' (ibid., 126). On 7 November Thomas Wilkes, secretary to the privy council, reported to Sir Francis Walsingham that 'nothing could be learned except from the confessions' of Somerville and his family (ibid., 129). Some scholars have presumed that this last statement implied the use of torture. In any event Somerville, as well as his wife's parents, and Hugh Hall, a priest resident at Park Hall, whom he was said to have implicated as the instigators of this ‘conspiracy’, were imprisoned in the Tower of London and convicted of high treason on 16 December 1583. On 19 December Somerville and Arden were moved from the Tower to Newgate prison. Within two hours of this move Somerville was found strangled in his cell. It was stated that he had committed suicide. His head was cut off and placed on Tower Bridge, and his body buried in Moorfields outside the city of London.

Many contemporaries of Somerville believed that he had been the means for Robert Dudley's vengeance for the public contempt with which he was held by Edward Arden. That Somerville was mentally ill seems beyond doubt. Cecil admitted as much in his Execution of Justice in England, and William Allen drew attention to this fact in his True Defense of English Catholics. Like other Roman Catholics, he questioned whether John Somerville had died in his cell 'for prevention of the discovery of certain shameful practices about the condemnation' of his father-in-law (Allen, 108–9).


  • CSP dom., 1581–90, 124–6
  • Report of the Deputy Keeper of the Public Records, 4 (1843), appx 2, pp. 272–3
  • J. Stow, The annales of England … untill this present yeere 1592 (1592), 1189
  • C. C. Stopes, Shakespeare's Warwickshire contemporaries (1897), 39–47
  • W. Camden, Annales: the true and royall history of the famous Empresse Elizabeth, trans. A. Darcie (1625), bk 3, p. 47
  • Foster, Alum. Oxon., 1500–1714 [John Somervile]
  • will of John Somerville the elder, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/67, sig. 11
  • N&Q, 3rd ser., 5 (1864), 352, 463, 492
Notes and Queries
J. Foster, ed., , 4 vols. (1887–8), later edn (1891); , 4 vols. (1891–2); 8 vol. repr. (1968) and (2000)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London