SHELDON, Ralph (c.1537-1613), of Beoley, Worcs.
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Family and Education
b. c.1537, 1st s. of William Sheldon† of Beoley by Mary, da. and coh. of William Willington of Barston, Warws. educ. with tutor, Richard Hicks, abroad 1554-5. m. (1) Anne, da. of Sir Robert Throckmorton† of Coughton, Warws. 1s. 9da.; (2) aft. 1605, Jane, da. of William West, 1st Baron De La Warr, wid. of Thomas Wenman, James Cressy and Thomas Tasburgh. suc. fa. 24 Dec. 1570.1
J.p.q. Worcs. 1574-aft. 1586, sheriff 1576-7, commr. musters.2
Sheldon was one of those who found the natural outlet for their gifts increasingly barred to them because of their adherence to Catholicism. His cousin, Sir John Harington of Kelston, commented on his narrow escape from serious trouble over the plot to kill the Queen in 1594; ‘not half a year before, I heard one that was a great courtier say that he thought [Sheldon] one of the sufficientest wise men ... fittest to have been made of the Council, but for one matter’. Thomas Habington, the contemporary Worcestershire antiquary, thought Sheldon deserved, ‘for his singular parts of mind which flowed from his tongue and pen, a pre-eminent dignity’.3
Impressed by the tapestry-weaving which he and his tutor had encountered in Europe, Sheldon persuaded his father to establish a factory at Barcheston, Warwickshire, which, as well as producing exquisite work, gave employment to the poor and was therefore favoured by the government. It was perhaps one reason for the moderation of the authorities over his recusancy.4
At first Sheldon’s life was not greatly troubled because of his faith. His election as knight of the shire while still in his mid-twenties and before he had succeeded to his estates caused no comment, and soon after his father’s death he was placed on the commission of the peace, and served a turn as sheriff. It is therefore unlikely that he was the Sheldon known in 1570 to be an agent of Mary Queen of Scots. In 1580, however, the Privy Council determined on severer measure against Catholics, and Sheldon was summoned to attend, appearing on 21 Aug., and later being imprisoned in the Marshalsea until, falling ill, he was transferred to the custody of the dean of Westminster, who persuaded him to make some show of conformity. Soon afterwards Sheldon quarrelled with his son-in-law, John Russell II, who brought a Star Chamber case against Sheldon, in the course of which he brought up the matter of the priest Hall’s confession that he had said mass in Sheldon’s house. Sheldon protested that since his submission, he had ‘in all things to his knowledge dutifully and most faithfully performed his duty and allegiance’.5
In June 1587 Sheldon was before the Council on some other matter, but he avoided trouble, and in the 1590s he was even appointed to various commissions. After the discovery of a Catholic conspiracy in 1594, however, he was implicated in the confessions of others, summoned to London and his house searched. Neither the search nor the questioning revealed anything further, and no more serious indictment than a charge of hearing mass could be framed against him. Thenceforward however he paid recusancy fines. In 1603 letters from him to his nephew Francis Plowden were intercepted and found ‘somewhat mystical and dark’, which they remain. Plowden appeared before (Sir) Richard Lewknor, but no sequel is known.6
Sheldon spent the rest of his life in retirement. The only part he is known to have taken in public affairs concerned the parliamentary election in 1601, when he clearly intended opposing the candidature of Sir Thomas Leighton as Member for Worcestershire. The Privy Council warned him not to ‘do [himself] the wrong to be transported with any such passion’. Sheldon’s grandson, Thomas Russell, himself a Catholic, though not openly so in 1601, was elected in the junior seat. Sheldon was relatively unmolested in his later years, possibly through the favour of Robert Cecil, whom in 1603 he thanked for assistance. He avoided becoming implicated in the 1605 plot, although several of his friends and relatives were involved, as was the interesting lady who was soon to become his second wife. Born a protestant, she was converted by her second husband (who was her father’s servant); conformed to Anglicanism during her third marriage, and was presumably Catholic while married to Sheldon, as she certainly was after fulfilling his hope that she would ‘overlive and survive’ him.7
Probably because of recusancy fines, the protection he was having to buy, and penal interest rates, Sheldon became deeply indebted to a recusant moneylender named Thomas Hoord, whose estate falling into crown hands, left Sheldon the Crown’s debtor for between £20,000 and £40,000. Despite the sale of estates his debts were not settled at his death. It is thus something of a tribute to Sheldon’s interest in the university of Oxford that he felt able to give £50 towards the extension of the Bodleian Library begun in 1610 as well as to the mathematician Thomas Allen, of Gloucester Hall, and to Anthony Blencowe, provost of Oriel. Sheldon died in March 1613 and was buried in the tomb he had erected for his wife and himself in Beoley church. In his will, he reaffirmed his faith: ‘I do protest to live, and by God’s grace and assistance, do hope to die in the unity of the Catholic church, and to become a member of His church triumphant forever’.8
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
Authors: S. M. Thorpe / Alan Davidson
- 1. C142/159/87; Vis. Worcs. (Harl. Soc. xxvii), 128.
- 2. Lansd. 56, f. 168. seq.
- 3. J. L. Hotson, I, William Shakespeare, 152-3; Habington’s Worcs. (Worcs. Hist. Soc.), i. 70.
- 4. E. A. B. Barnard, The Sheldons, 14-16, 23-4.
- 5. CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 691; 1581-90, p. 142; Add. 1566-79, p. 236; APC, xii. 166, 254, 301; VCH Worcs. ii. 214; St. Ch. 5/R12/32, R41/34, S15/38.
- 6. APC, xv. 137; xx. 242, 266; xxi. 187; CSP Dom. 1591-4, pp. 531, 540-7, 552, 554-5; HMC Hatfield, iv. 618-19; SP14/3/2, 13.
- 7. APC, xxxii, 251; HMC Hatfield, xv. 60; A. Davidson, ‘The Second Mrs. Sheldon’, ‘Ralph Sheldon and the Provost of Oriel’ (Worcs. Recusant, Dec. 1969, June 1973).
- 8. CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 360, 479, 591; Add. 1580-1625, p. 527; PCC 28 Capell; C142/334/58; VCH Worcs. iii. 226-7, 268-9, 550; iv. 4-5, 14-18, 38-9, 84-5, 339-41; Bodl. Lib. Rec. viii. 252-7.