LACON, Sir Francis (1568/9-1642/7), of Willey and Kinlet, Salop
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Family and Education
b. 1568/9, 1st. s. of Rowland Lacon† of Willey and Kinlet and Eleanor, da. of William Rigges of Stragglethorpe, Lincs.1 educ. privately (Robert Walthow); Trin. Oxf. 1583, aged 14; G. Inn 1585.2 m. (1) settlement 1 Apr. 1589, (with £3,000), Jane, da. of Anthony Browne†, 1st Visct. Montagu, 3s., 3da.;3 (2) 1600, Sara (d. c.1602), da. and h. of Francis Campion of London, wid. of one Gifford and Francis Albany (d.1597) of Whittington, Salop, ?s.p.;4 (3) 5 June 1609, Margaret (d. Oct./Nov. 1616), da. of Richard Whetell, Merchant Taylor of London, wid. of Sir Thomas Mildmay† (d.1608) of Moulsham, Essex and Aldgate, London, s.p.;5 (4) by 1623, Ann Phillips, 3da., 4 other ch.;6 (5) by 1633, Frances Digby (d.1635/6) of Sandon, Staffs. ?s.p.;7 (6) by 1639, Elizabeth, 1s.8 kntd. 13/15 July 1599;9 suc. fa. 3 Nov. 1608.10 d. 1642/7. sig. Fra[ncis] Lacon.
Vol., [I] 1599.16
Cockmaster (jt.), king’s Household 1613.17
An ancient family, the Lacons took their name from a hamlet near Wem in northern Shropshire, but by 1600 marriage and purchase had shifted the balance of their estates, so that two-thirds of their 11,000 acres lay in south-eastern Shropshire, with most of the remainder straddling the northern end of the Shropshire/Staffordshire border. Sir Francis was later reckoned to have inherited property worth £3,000 a year, and he also developed lucrative coal-mining interests at Broseley and Earnwood, Shropshire.18 Lacon and his father could not have held public office without some degree of conformity to the established church, but otherwise the family was almost entirely Catholic: a month after his father’s death, the forfeiture of Lacon’s mother’s jointure estate was granted to an informer, while Sir Francis’s youngest son and two of his brother’s children later became Jesuits.19
Having been tutored by an Oxford don, Lacon went up to university at the age of 14, thus avoiding any requirement to take the Oath of Supremacy. His first wife was a daughter of the 1st Viscount Montagu, a dazzling match in financial, social and religious terms, as the bride’s father was England’s premier Catholic loyalist.20 However, she was probably dead by 1599, when he served in Ireland as a volunteer in the cavalry contingent commanded by another of Montagu’s sons-in-law, the 3rd earl of Southampton. Lacon earned himself a knighthood during the 2nd earl of Essex’s aimless march across Munster after taking part in a cavalry charge which saved the army’s baggage from capture.21 However, the connections he made on campaign attracted official suspicion in the aftermath of Essex’s rebellion, especially when the priest Thomas Wright darkly referred to him as a ‘special man’ under interrogation. Lacon was understandably keen to redeem himself in the government’s eyes, offering evidence to corroborate the accusation that Sir Christopher Blount†, one of the ringleaders of the revolt, had converted to Catholicism while in Ireland.22
The government naturally took a keen interest in the Lacons over the next few years. In July 1601, perhaps as a gesture of loyalty, one of the Lacon servants carried a message from (Sir) Walter Chetwynd* to the Privy Council about the detention of a group of suspected Catholic booksellers.23 However, the accession of King James apparently encouraged the family, like many other Catholics, to throw caution to the winds, and over the next two years the Jesuit ‘firebrand’ Robert Jones was said to be a regular guest at the Lacons’.24 This linked the family to a circle which included the Habingtons of Worcestershire, at whose house Father Henry Garnet was captured in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot. A few months later the informer William Udall insisted that Oswald Tesimond, another Jesuit plotter, was hiding with one of the two families.25
Fortunately for him, at the time of Gunpowder Plot Lacon was in the north of England raising troops for the English regiment serving with the Spanish forces in the Low Countries, accompanied by the secular priest Henry Shaw, who had no connection with the plotters.26 The government hardly welcomed Lacon’s activities, but the terms of the 1604 Treaty of London obliged them to allow such recruitment, which was led by the loyalist Lord Arundell of Wardour, appointed colonel at the insistence of James I in place of the traitor Sir William Stanley.27 As Arundell was the son-in-law of the earl of Southampton, under whom Lacon had served in Ireland, it is perhaps not surprising that he should have wanted Lacon, his uncle by marriage, to recruit for him. Lacon’s willingness to accept the job suggests that he had turned his back on radicals such as Father Jones even before the plotters’ murderous intentions became clear.
While Lacon’s life to 1605 involved many compromises between secular and religious allegiance, the appalling revelations of the Gunpowder Plot afforded him an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty in an unequivocal manner. In January 1606 he sent Capt. William Newce to the Spanish Netherlands, ostensibly to liaise with Arundell about recruits, but actually to allow Newce to renew contacts made in Spain with Col. Giacomo de Francheschi, who planned to use Newce to betray Dutch fortresses into Spanish hands and to implement a plot to kill James at Royston.28 This mission was co-ordinated by Secretary Salisbury (Robert Cecil†), while the deputy warden of the Cinque Ports, the English ambassador in Brussels and Arundell were all forewarned of the arrival of Newce, who passed information back to London in a deliberately opaque letter to Lacon.29 Thanks to this intelligence, Franchesci’s brother was arrested five months later when he arrived with bills of exchange to fund the assassination, and the plot was broken up.30
The imposition of the new Oath of Allegiance upon those intending to serve in foreign armies meant that Lacon’s Catholic recruits never reached the Low Countries. However, having demonstrated his loyalty at a crucial moment, Lacon found the government inclined to take a more benign attitude towards his often unorthodox activities thereafter. Thus Salisbury never managed to find the funds Udall required to search for priests at the Lacons’ house at Kinlet, Shropshire. Even when Udall later claimed that the family was harbouring the author of Prurit-anus, a scatological attack on the king’s publications justifying the Oath of Allegiance, the government showed little interest in his accusations. Their indifference may also have owed something to the fact that the man Udall named as author, Lacon’s old acquaintance Thomas Wright, was one of the few Jesuits then prepared to condone the taking of the Oath, a stance which provides another illustration of Lacon’s loyalist inclinations.31
Lacon’s loyalty earned him not only a respite from official persecution, but also the opportunity to pursue a public career, a notable achievement for a known Catholic. Within months of his father’s death in 1608 he had been added to the commission of the peace and the Council in the Marches, while in 1611 he was picked as sheriff of Shropshire. In February 1610 he stood for election to Parliament at Bridgnorth, in a chaotic by-election in which the writ was temporarily lost, and an argument between the borough bailiffs over the franchise resulted in the submission of rival returns on behalf of Lacon and Sir George Heyward of Cound, Shropshire; the privileges’ committee validated Lacon’s return on 10 March. Having taken such trouble to secure his seat, Lacon left little trace in its records, being named to a single committee for the estate bill of Thomas Mildmay (31 March). If this was Lacon’s stepson - there were several namesakes - it would suggest that the inspiration for his election came from his third wife.32
The new Lady Lacon lived at Aldgate, London, and it may have been at her instigation that Lacon secured a minor post at Court in 1613, joining another Shropshire Catholic, William Gatacre, in the post of cockmaster. Lacon had an additional reason for remaining in the metropolis, to further a romance rumoured to be developing between one of his daughters and Antonio Foscarini, the Venetian ambassador, although the latter’s departure in 1615 clearly dashed any hopes on this front.33 It is likely that Lacon’s daughter met her suitor at the ambassador’s chapel, and if the family habitually worshipped there when in London, they moved in a milieu which was far less ultramontane than much of the capital’s Catholic network.
Lacon’s son Rowland was returned to the Addled Parliament for Much Wenlock, but neither man stood for election thereafter. This was largely because of growing financial problems, but may also have owed something to the Commons’ increasingly hostile attitude towards Catholics after the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War in 1618. Lacon was named in the Commons’ petition against recusant officeholders in 1624, and was one of the few individuals so listed to be removed from office. However, what the Commons took away with one hand, they gave back with the other: the same session passed a private bill which confirmed Lacon’s title to an estate he had bought from the recusant Edwards family of Chirk, Denbighshire in 1613.34
By the time his third wife died in 1616, Lacon was in some financial difficulty. Recusancy fines were almost certainly the least of his problems, and there may have been an element of truth in his son’s subsequent claim that he had spent £50,000 during his second and third marriages ‘through keeping great hospitality, living in London and having many suits in law, and removing his household and family to several places’.35 In 1608 Lacon obtained £5,200 by selling the manor of Stragglethorpe, Lincolnshire, an outlying property his father had recently acquired from his uncle, but in 1616-18 he mortgaged and sold one of the family’s core estates, the manor of Willey, to the Worcestershire lawyer John Wylde* for £7,000.36 ‘To the great grief of all his friends’, Lacon then compounded his family’s difficulties by taking as his fourth wife one of his chambermaids, who died after bearing him seven more children to be provided for. In 1633 a fifth marriage was arranged by the Staffordshire lawyer Matthew Cradock*, but Lacon was by then in such straits that he had to borrow £1,000 merely to enable him to set up house with his new bride. By 1640, all of the family’s estates bar those in the immediate vicinity of Kinlet seem to have been dispersed, either through sale or to provide for Lacon’s younger children, and to salvage what was left his heir stepped in with an offer to pay off debts of £2,900 in return for an entail of Kinlet and three neighbouring manors.37
Lacon filed his final Chancery suit in May 1642, and his son’s composition petition of April 1647 suggests that Sir Francis was by then dead. His widow secured administration of his estate, perhaps at Hereford, while his inventory, which survives in a Chancery suit of 1648, enumerated goods worth £156, nearly half of which was paid over to the parliamentarian county committee in back taxes.38 He was presumably buried at Kinlet, where no parish register survives for this period.
Ref Volumes: 1604-1629
Author: Simon Healy
- 1. Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 308.
- 2. C2/Jas.I/W18/30; Al. Ox.; GI Admiss.
- 3. C142/312/147, 142/402/146; C2/Chas.I/L52/51; Vis. Salop, 373-4.
- 4. C3/364/82; C2/Jas.I/W18/30; C142/255/145; Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxviii), 15.
- 5. Reg. St. Botolph, Bishopsgate ed. A.W.C. Haller, i. 43; The Gen. n.s. xix. 225; PROB 11/128, f. 402r-v.
- 6. C2/Chas.I/L16/66.
- 7. C2/Chas.I/L9/6.
- 8. C2/Chas.I/L22/7; H. Foley, Recs. Soc. Jesus. vi. 405.
- 9. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 96; CSP Ire. 1600, p. 234.
- 10. C142/312/147; 142/402/146.
- 11. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), vi. 276.
- 12. SP14/33, f. 51v.
- 13. NLW, 339F, p. 34; C181/2, f. 254.
- 14. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 119.
- 15. C212/22/21-3.
- 16. HMC Hatfield, ix. 237
- 17. C66/2041/7.
- 18. C142/312/147; STAC 8/86/18, 8/195/8; C2/Jas.I/E4/40; 2/Jas.I/L6/44; C2/Chas.I/L23/53; 2/Chas.I/L52/51.
- 19. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 472; Foley, vi. 319-20, 342-3, 405.
- 20. C2/Jas.I/W18/30; Al. Ox.; R.B. Manning, Religion and Soc. in Eliz. Suss. 159-61.
- 21. CSP Carew, 1589-1600, pp. 308-12; HMC Hatfield, ix. 237; CSP Ire. 1600, p. 234; C. Falls, Elizabeth’s Irish Wars, 233-8.
- 22. CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 568-9; HMC Hatfield, xi. 98. Wright is here identified as a secular priest, for whom see G. Anstruther, Seminary Priests, ii. 368; but Lacon’s later contacts suggest that this was the Jesuit of the same name, for whom see ‘Udall’s reports’ ed. P.R. Harris, Recusant Hist. viii. 255.
- 23. APC, 1601-4, p. 85.
- 24. A.J. Loomie, Toleration and Diplomacy (Trans. American Phil. Soc. n.s. liii); M.C. Questier, Catholicism and Community, 265-7.
- 25. Foley, iv. 368-1; ‘Udall’s reports’, 217-18, 220-1.
- 26. SP14/19/111; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 500; Anstruther, i. 307.
- 27. P. Croft, ‘Serving the Archdukes’, BIHR, lxiv. 289-304; M. Lunn, ‘Chaplains to the Eng. Regt. in Spanish Flanders’, Recusant Hist. xi. 133-155.
- 28. CSP Dom. 1603-10, pp. 319, 323-6; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 197-200.
- 29. SP77/8, f. 29; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 10-11, 28.
- 30. HMC Hatfield, xviii. 197-200; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 230.
- 31. ‘Udall’s reports’, 217-18, 220-2, 255; Birkhead Newsletters ed. M.C. Questier (Cam. Soc. ser. 5. xii), 61n.
- 32. CJ, i. 407-9, 417b.
- 33. CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 170, 230.
- 34. CJ, i. 776b; ‘Earle 1624’, f. 164v; LJ, iii. 395a; HLRO, main pprs. 20 May 1624.
- 35. C2/Chas.I/L16/66, f. 1.
- 36. C2/Jas.I/E2/80, 2/Jas.I/W18/30; C2/Chas.I/L52/51; 2/Chas.I/W54/60; 2/Chas.I/W81/28; VCH Salop, x. 450.
- 37. C2/Chas.I/C51/72; 2/Chas.I/L16/66; 2/Chas.I/L30/24; 2/Chas.I/L50/42.
- 38. C2/Chas.I/L9/6; 2/Chas.I/L22/7; CCC, 1718.