Robert Poley

Robert Poley was born in the mid-50s of the 16th century. He first came to attention when he entered Clare College, Cambridge in 1568. So he was a fellow student of Richard Baines. Unlike him, Poley was a so-called "sizar". This was a scholarship holder who did servant work at the university in order to be able to afford to study. Poley did not graduate. Perhaps an indication that he was a Catholic. In 1583 Francis Walsingham sent him to Marshalsea Prison, where mainly Catholics were imprisoned. The following year, he was suspected of circulating subversive pamphlets. Walsingham himself interrogated him, but Poley was not prepared to confess. As a consequence it appears that Walsingam has refused consent of Poley’s continued employment. He then offered his services to the Earl of Leicester. The latter set him on Thomas Morgan, Mary Stuart’s busy agent in France. Together with Christopher Blount, who also worked for Leicester, Poley set up a news channel between Morgan and Mary Stuart, which Walsingham’s agent Gilbert Gifford used to allow the English to see correspondence from the former Queen of Scots. Leicester must have been satisfied with this, for he recommended Poley to his nephew Sir Philip Sidney.1 Then came the Babington Conspiracy. The group around the priest John Ballard had already been infiltrated by Walsingham’s spies for some time when Anthony Babington made the acquaintance of Robert Poley in June 1586, whom he soon introduced to his co-conspirators. On 12 August, Babington and his friends dined at Poley. Two days later, Thomas Walsingham came to see him. After he left, Ballard arrived and was immediately arrested. Babington then wanted to go to Walsingham and reveal the whole plot to him. Poley, however, persuaded him to go instead. After Poley had not returned by evening, Babington wrote to him in a letter:

"Take heed of your own part, lest of these my misfortunes you bear the blame. Est exilium inter malos vivere. Farewell, sweet Robyn, if as I take thee true to me. If not, adieu, omnium bipedum nequissimus."2

The last three Latin words come from a letter written by Pliny the Younger to Voconius Rufus at the beginning of the year 97. The characterisation in it referred to Marcus Regulus, a notorious lawyer during Nero’s reign.3 This allusion was not unjustified. A few days later Babington was arrested and on 30 September he was executed with Ballard and some other conspirators in quite gruesome circumstances. Poley was also arrested and sent to the Tower, where he stayed for over two years. Perhaps this imprisonment was a deception so that Poley could continue to move in Catholic circles. It is more likely, however, that Poley, who had quite comfortable conditions of detention all this time, went back to work as an informer. In any case, he remained in contact with Walsingham, who, however, still did not like Poley, which is why he preferred to keep him in prison. Walsingham must then have changed his mind, because after Poley’s release in the autumn of 1588 he was regularly active for the secret service. His first mission took him to Denmark at the end of the year. Between 1588 and 1601 he was on no less than thirty different missions.4 In the summer of 1597 Ben Jonson was arrested as co-author of the subversive drama Isle of Dogs and sent to Marshalsea Prison. He later suggested that two men had tried to spy on him at the time. Possibly one of them was Poley.5 In 1618, a Robert Poley and three other men went on a journey for three years, during which they were expressly forbidden to go to Rome. One of the travelling companions was John Shelton, possibly a relative of Audrey Walsingham. In 1624, a Robert Poley was already Esquire. On the recommendation of Lord Montgomery, he and Roger Palmer of Queenborough were elected to the English Parliament. In fact, this Poley could not take office until 1626, after a fierce intervention by Montgomery, and even then only once, for at the next parliamentary session Queenborough again sent a replacement.6 Perhaps Poley had died in the meantime.

  1. Nicholl (2002)↩︎
  2. Nicholl (2002), 187↩︎
  3. Plin. Ep. 1,5,14↩︎
  4. Nicholl (2002)↩︎
  5. Nicholl (2002)↩︎
  6. Urry (1988)↩︎

Aktualisiert am 24.05.2024

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