In Search of Catholic Priests
at Ufton Court
In the last years of the 16th century, Francis Perkins, a famous Berkshire landowner and Catholic, was absent from his home at Ufton Court, having rented it out to pay recusancy fines. In 1599, a search for priests took place there. The informant was a man named Gayler, whose brother had formerly been in Mr. Perkins' service.
The incident was described by various eye-witnesses, in answer to interrogations administered before the Court of Exchequer a few years later, in 1608, when certain legal proceedings took place connected with it, as will be related further on. The following narrative is gleaned from these answers, as nearly as possible in the original words, but put together in the order of events.
It appears, then, that this Gayler came to a Mr. Henry Meere, a counsellor-at-the-law, & told him that he knew of a great treasure that was hid in a house of one Mr. Perkins, & it was the many of some ill effected persons, & to be employed to some ill purposes; & said that, of his good will to the said Mr. Meere, he acquainted him therewith, to the intent that he might take some course to benefit them booth thereby; & to that end, he entreated Mr. Meere to move Sir Walter Rawley to beg it of the Queen's Majesty. Whereupon the said Mr. Meere did accordingly move Sir Walter Rawley, but Mr. Walter did refuse to deal therein. Whereupon the said Gayler, coming after to Mr. Meere, to know Sir Walter Rawley's answer, & understanding Sir Walters refusal, said, it was no matter, for that now the Lord Chamberlain was made acquainted with the matter.
The Lord Chamberlain, Lord Hunsdon, thus informed, and suspecting the truth of that information, directed two letters or warrants to Sir Francis Knollys, knight, the one of them being for the apprehending of one Jarrett a Jesuit escaped out of the Tower of London & one Garrett, two notorious Traitors supposed to be in the house of one Francis Perkins of Ufton, a place generally reputed to be a common receptacle for priests, Jesuits, Recusants, and other such evil desposed persons; & the other letter declaring or expressing an information made to the said Lord Chamberlain of some great some of money that should be laid up there by Recusants or other evil affected persons to the State, the which if he found to be true he should see the same in safe custody until such further order might be taken for the same, as by her Majesty should be thought fit.
In pursuance of these orders, Sir Francis Knollys set out from his own house in Reading, on the night of 17th July 1599, with a party of men, including the informer Gayler, not knowing, as one of his attendants thought, to what house he should go until he was a mile or thereabouts beyond the house, & being so far gone, upon conference with some of the gentlemen in the company, called to his man Cray that then rode before & asked of him which was the way to Ufton, for that they had then ride beyond the house as aforesaid. Whereupon they turned towards Ufton & Sir Francis Knollys, when he knew whither they should go, declared, his opinion, that he thought it better to forbear entering the house until break of day, than to adventure thereon in the dead of the night as then it was.
Arrived at the house at last, and after the party had done some while there, one of the company came to Sir Francis Knollys, being then in the Hall, & told him the nest was found, then Sir Francis, having searched the rest of the House by virtue of the first letter, did forthwith repayer to the secret place where the money was. The said secret place was found by Gayler, that gave the first information to the Lord Chamberlain. Sir Francis, before his entry into any of the rooms of the house for search, did lake into his Company, the keeper of the house, whose name was Thomas Perkins, & the keeper's wife, who both did accompany the said Sir Francis through all the rooms that he went into. Every room, where into he came to search, was either open before he came into it, or else was opened by such of the house as did accompany him, except a chamber which it seemed had been used for a Chapel, the door of which Chapel Sir Francis, or some of the company, did break open with his foot, for that Thomas Perkins said he had not the key thereof. In that chamber or Chapel they found diverse relics & Popish Trash, as namely, holy water with a sprinkle therein and a cross at the end of the sprinkle, besides which, there was a little box with diverse small white wafer cakes like Agnus Dei fit for the saying or signing of masse, & candles half burnt out such as usually mass is said with all, & diverse pictures & such other things whereby it seemed unto them that some mass had been said or song not long before.
At his coming to the secret place Sir Francis did call Thomas Perkins unto him & demanded of him whether he formerly knew the said secret place, who answered that he knew it not; the secret place had been opened before the coming of Sir Francis, who had lights whereby he might well see into it but went not into it. And then Sir Francis caused the chests to be taken up & set on the floor in the next Chamber, & forthwith spoke to Thomas Perkins to help him to some means to open the chests; Whereupon the said Perkins went away to fetch a smith, & Sir Francis made some stay, expecting his return, who returned no more during the time that Sir Francis continued in the house. The wife of Thomas Perkins, however, was an eye witness & present at the opening of the two chests; in one whereof there was a portmanteau locked, which was also opened & therein were found diverse bags of gold, all which, as they were taken out, were laid into her lap, & afterwards carried into a closet in the said chamber, & the gold told out upon a Table there by Sir Francis in her presence. And further, in the other chest there was diverse parcels of plate whereof a note was taken, also in her presence.
Then Sir Francis Knollys went from the house at Ufton together with the rest of the company, excepting Gayler, with the gold & plate, directly to Sir Humphrey Foster's house, about a mile or two from there, purposing to have left the said gold & plate with Sir Humphrey; but not finding him at home, Sir Francis & the rest of the company returned to Reading, bringing the gold with them, leaving his servant at Sir Humphrey's to bring the plate after in a cart.
Thus far the first part of the story; for the sequel it appears that the Perkins family, in hopes of recovering some part of the loss, put up a man of straw, one Peter Beaconawes, who asserted that there had been, in the secret place, a bag containing £751-16s-7d in silver, which had been put there with the knowledge of Richard Perkins, brother to Thomas, who let it down into the hole by a cord, pulling the board over the place again as he found it, & that Sir Francis Knollys, or some one of his company, had taken it, having no right thereto.
In consequence Peter Beaconsawe brought an action of trespass against Sir Francis Knollys, and his servant Cray, in the Court of Common Pleas, which was tried by a Jury of twelve substantial freeholders of the County of Southampton, who after full evidence gave a verdict for Beaconsawe, & damages were assessed to £900 & costs £20. But Sir Francis Knollys, meanwhile, had exhibited a bill of complaint against Beaconsawe in the Court of Exchequer. The witnesses called on Sir Francis Knollys' side are the narrators of the story related above. They were the two bearers of the letters from the Lord Chamberlain to Sir Francis, named Blande and Duffield, who were both present during the search of the house, John Vachell of Burghfield, and some others. Sir Francis Knollys and his servant Isaac Cray were also examined. The gist of their evidence went to prove that Sir Francis Knollys did not take the money ; that Peter Beaconsawe was believed not to have been possessed of such a sum; that if the money had been put in the secret place, it was taken away before the arrival of the search party, probably by Richard Perkins; that Sir Francis had not known to whose house he was going, and therefore could have had no intention of finding Beaconsawe's money; and that the keeper of the house, with his wife and others, were with him in the house all the time, that they saw into the secret place, but had discovered nothing there except the chests of gold and plate which Sir Francis took safely to Aldermaston. Thereupon the Court of Exchequer issued an injunction to stay Beaconsawe's proceedings, and because he continued them in spite of it he was imprisoned for contempt of Court. Finally, on 31st January 1609, it was declared by the Right Honourable the Lord Chancellor, and the Barons of the Court of Exchequer, that forasmuch as it appeareth that if the defendant [Beaconsawe] had at any time the sum of money claimed in the house at Ufton, which was doubtful, it had been taken away by others before the complainants [Sir Francis Knollys & his servants] came there. Or that if it should have been taken by any that followed Sir Francis Knollys, without his knowledge, he was not responsible, and that this Court thinketh it not reasonable nor agreeable to justice, nor to stand with the honor of the state & government, that Sir Francis Knollys being employed in the service by public authority & warrant & doing his duty therein should be left subject to answer such warrant, & that therefore the defendant [Beaconsawe] shall not proceed in any manner of action against the complainants touching the said sum of money & that they shall be discharged, freed, & acquitted forever.
The two priests had escaped, apparently, but the loss of the money was not in any way made good. Thomas Perkins and his brother Richard here mentioned were cousins of Francis, being the sons of his father's younger brother, Francis Perkins of Padworth. Sir Francis Knollys was then, as is incidentally stated, living in Reading. His father had received, from Queen Elizabeth I, a grant of what remained of the old abbey buildings, and the family lived in the abbot's lodgings. Sir Francis and his family were buried in a transept of the Church of St. Lawrence, Reading, which he had built for the peculiar use of himself and posterity, as well for their seats there, as for their burial-place underneath. This transept was afterwards pulled down, and the street pavement outside the church now covers the graves.
Edited from A. Mary Sharp's "History of Ufton Court" (1892).
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