The Drama of Recusancy in Yorkshire’s North Riding

Recusancy – the refusal to attend regular services of the newly-founded Church of England (usually in favour of attendance at the celebration of a Catholic mass) – was prohibited by the 1559 Act of Uniformity, with harsh penalties for non-compliance. The fines could be crippling: an initial fine of twelve shillings for non-attendance was soon increased to twenty pounds a month. Queen Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Sir William Cecil, and his son and successor, Sir Robert Cecil, kept extensive lists of recusants, and it is clear from these lists that recusancy was concentrated in the North Riding deaneries of Cleveland and Richmond.

The eastern part of the Cleveland deanery is of particular interest, for it housed the country’s only known company of recusant players. Based in the village of Egton or the nearby vill of Westonby, the company was largely drawn from the Simpson family, who (outside of their performing) were, at least nominally, shoemakers. The Simpsons spent much of their time avoiding the bailiffs, since their performances transgressed two statutes: the recusancy laws and the poor laws, which required performing companies to operate only under gentry patronage. The redoubtable Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby of Hackness accused his neighbour, Sir Richard Cholmeley, of acting as patron to the Simpson company, but there is no clear evidence that this was the case.

Lying a scant 6 miles inland from the port of Whitby, Egton was also a central stopping point on one of the principal routes for Catholic priests to join the mission for the reconversion of the country.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Following study at one of the continental seminaries, like Douai in northern France, or Valladolid in northern Spain, newly ordained English priests would sail from France or the Netherlands to Whitby, whose convenience as an English port avoiding large urban areas was later recognized by Bram Stoker, when Dracula used the route for his return to England.

Photo: Mark Chambers

From Whitby, it was walking distance to Egton, where they would be welcomed by an extensive Catholic community.

Photo: Mark Chambers

From Egton they would cross the slow-moving river Esk at the hamlet of Egton Bridge.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

From here they followed the riverside path towards the former Grandmontine priory of Grosmont on the river’s left bank.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

The priory was a Catholic safe house recognized by the Cecils as a centre of recusant activity.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Grosmont was farmed by John Hodgson and his wife, staunch Catholics both. Nothing of the Priory remains above ground today; the path on the right side of the picture leads to the present town of Grosmont and the Moors railway.

Photo: Mark Chambers

Travel over the short distance from Whitby to Grosmont would have meant crossing the river, likely at a set of stepping stones.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Aside from government raids on Grosmont, life in Egmont must have been relatively quiet, as it is today.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

From its position high above the Esk valley, the village boasts beautiful views of the surrounding moorlands.

Photo: Mark Chambers

Today, Egton and Egton Bridge are served by two churches, an Anglican church dedicated to St Hilda of Whitby, and a Catholic church dedicated to St Hedda, a Whitby monk of the seventh century, who had been a student of Hilda. The Catholic church would not have existed in the period covered by these records, and only a few stones incorporated into the fabric of the church of St Hilda remain today, including the zig-zag arch over the south doorway.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

The remainder of the church of St. Hilda and the whole of the church of St. Hedda date from the later nineteenth century, though Hadfield, the Victorian architect, incorporated perpendicular features indicating the style of the earlier building.

Photo: Mark Chambers.

Want to know more?

Hugh Aveling. Northern Catholics: The Catholic Recusants of the North Riding of Yorkshire, 1558–1790 (London, 1966).

G.W. Boddy. ‘Catholic Missioners at Grosmont Priory,’ North Yorkshire County Record Office Journal 4 (1976), 65–76.

G.W. Boddy. ‘Players of Interludes in North Yorkshire in the Early Seventeenth Century,’ North Yorkshire County Record Office Review 3 (1976), 95–130.

J.T. Cliffe. ‘Chapter 10: The Cost of Recusancy,’ The Yorkshire Gentry from the Reformation to the Civil War, University of London Historical Studies 25 (London, 1969), 210–230.

Real-life drama in Yorkshire’s North Riding: Sir Thomas Hoby and the Protestant North

It is a commonplace that Tudor and Stuart societies were among the most litigious in history, and that the courts were regularly used to settle scores, advance personal wealth, and control relationships.

Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby (1566–1640) is a particularly egregious example of this mindset; his name appears frequently in the court records of the North Riding, as well as those of the nation’s highest court, Star Chamber, largely in the context of disputes with his Yorkshire neighbours.

Detail from the Wasse deposition in Sir Thomas Hoby’s Star Chamber case against Sir William Eure (TNA: STAC 5/H50/4). Photo: David Klausner.

I. Sir Thomas Hoby against the Recusants

Hoby was born in October 1566, shortly after the untimely death in July 1566 of his father Thomas, Elizabeth’s ambassador to France. His mother, the formidable Elizabeth Hoby (née Cooke), who became Lady Elizabeth Russell on her second marriage in 1574 to John, Lord Russell, attempted with limited success to control all aspects of her son’s life, sending him off to Oxford at the age of 8. Her intention was that he would attend the Inns of Court at 16, but Thomas refused to go, though in 1586 he was admitted to Gray’s Inn.

Hoby spent much of the late 1580s as a soldier in Ireland, distinguishing himself sufficiently to attract a knighthood in 1594. His marriage to Margaret Dakins in 1595 not only brought him the estate of Hackness, but also a close association with the Cecil family, since his mother was sister-in-law to William Cecil, first Baron Burghley, Elizabeth’s secretary of state, and Hoby himself was first cousin to Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, first earl of Salisbury. A staunch Protestant, Hoby became a significant participant in Cecil’s plans to eliminate recusancy in the North.

Lady Russell described her son as a diminutive child, and it is clear that Hoby had an advanced case of what has come to be known as ‘short-man syndrome’. He was party to a number of Star Chamber cases brought against his neighbours, one of whom described him as ‘the little knight who useth to draw up his breeches with a shooing-horn,’ and ‘the sauciest little Jack in all the countrie, and wold have an oar in everybody’s boat.’ Hoby did an extraordinarily successful job of making himself disliked by practically all the Yorkshire gentry. Jack Binns describes him as a contemptible foreign southerner and carpetbagger, deliberately and offensively planted in the North to spy on his neighbours.

There is almost certainly a measure of truth in these accusations. Hoby’s career in the North likely owed something to the patronage of the earl of Huntingdon, in whose manor house Hoby’s wife Margaret had been brought up. Huntingdon had been lord president of the Council of the North since 1572; his particular concern was the influence of Catholic families, many of whom, such as the Cholmleys of Whitby and the Eures of Malton, regularly sheltered missionary priests and facilitated their movement from the continental seminaries to the major landing at Whitby and cross-country to the safe house at the former Grandmontine priory of Grosmont. Huntingdon clearly planned for Hoby’s manor at Hackness as a Protestant stronghold in the midst of a large Catholic population. In the same year as his move to Hackness, Hoby was appointed a JP for the East Riding, and for the North in 1601. Scarborough sent him to parliament in 1597. Over the next forty years, Hoby was elected to all but one, sitting regularly for Ripon, Appleby, and Scarborough.

The large surviving archive of quarter sessions records gives extensive evidence of Hoby’s prosecutions of the local recusancy in his position as magistrate. In addition to his ruthless prosecution of recusants, Hoby attempted to use his position as magistrate to bring to court the Catholic playing company led by Christopher Simpson of Egton, near Whitby, claiming that Sir Richard Cholmley was acting as their gentry patron to circumvent the Poor Laws. Although the Simpson company did appear before the magistrates of the quarter sessions on several occasions, Cholmley was never convicted of supporting the recusant players.  

It was inevitable that Hoby would attract enemies, and on 5 September 1600 a cohort of mostly younger gentry undertook what can only be called a home invasion at Hackness. Claiming to be a hunting party, they demanded hospitality from Sir Thomas, disrupting the household’s routine as far as possible, singing ribald songs and a ‘black Sanctus’ when the family attempted to sing psalms and recite prayers. When the invaders left the following morning, windows were broken, and Sir Thomas immediately complained to Cecil and initiated a case before the court of Star Chamber that would carry on for several years, resulting eventually in the leader, Sir William Eure, being fined £100 a year. Public feeling over the so-called ‘Hackness scandal’ may be indicated by the fact that in 1601 Hoby’s election to parliament for Scarborough was unsuccessful, the seat going instead to the leader of the home invasion, the recusant Sir William Eure. He also failed to secure membership on the Council in the North in 1603.

Sir Thomas died on 30 December 1640, and was buried with Margaret in Hackness parish church.

II. Lady Margaret Hoby and the Hackness estate

A Yorkshirewoman by birth, Margaret Dakins (1571–1633) was the daughter of Arthur and Thomasin Dakins of Linton, fourteen miles west of Scarborough, the area in which she spent most of her life. The young Margaret was placed in the household of Henry Hastings, the third (or twentieth) earl of Huntingdon, whose wife undertook the training of a number of young gentry women. The Hastings family’s strong Protestantism provided the foundation for Margaret’s Calvinism, chronicled in detail in her daily journal, kept from 9 August 1599 to 21 July 1605. Training in the Huntingdon’s household included household skills, including music, reading, as well as a daily regimen of church attendance and private prayer.

As heiress to her father’s estate at Linton, Margaret was clearly a highly marriageable young woman, and in 1588 a union was negotiated between her and Walter Devereux, the younger son of the first (or eighteenth) earl of Essex and a ward of the earl of Huntingdon. When the negotiations proved fruitful, a coalition of Arthur Dakins, the earl of Essex, and the earl of Huntingdon arranged to purchase the estate of Hackness for the young couple. A short two years later Walter followed his brother to France to support Henry IV in his campaign against the Catholic Holy League. Shortly after the army’s arrival in France, Walter was killed in the siege of Rouen on 8 September, leaving his wife Margaret a widow with a large estate. In order to protect both Margaret and the estate, her parents and her protectors the Huntingdons agreed to a swift remarriage, selecting again a ward of the earl of Huntingdon. Thomas Sidney, nephew to the Huntingdons, was the younger brother of the courtier and poet Sir Philip Sidney. They were married on 22 December 1591, but on 26 July 1595, Sidney died, leaving Margaret again a widow. 

Sir Thomas Hoby, likely pressed on by his formidable mother, made representations to Margaret, but was turned away until the end of the year, when a death-bed letter from Margaret’s guardian, the earl of Huntingdon, convinced the young widow to accept Hoby’s proposal. They were married on 9 August 1596 at Lady Russell’s Blackfriars house in London, celebrating with a dinner followed by a sermon. They took over the Hackness estate, now very large, and remained there for the rest of their lives.

Margaret’s journal gives a detailed picture of their life at Hackness, with Margaret involved in local philanthropy and good works, while her husband increased his legal and political status as a justice of the peace and magistrate. She remained a staunch Protestant all her life, frequently reflecting on religion in the journal. She died on 6 September 1633 and was buried in the chancel of the parish church. In 1634 her husband fulfilled one of her promises, building a chapel of ease at Harwood Dale on the Hackness estate, but at a considerable remove from the parish church. The chapel is dedicated to St Margaret.

III. The Hackness home invasion

Since taking up residence at Hackness in 1596, Sir Thomas Hoby had done very little to endear himself to his neighbours. His appointment as a JP gave considerable power to a man already of a litigious nature. Hoby’s firm Protestantism and his legal standing made him an ideal candidate to pursue the government’s policy of prosecution and fines for unrepentant Catholics who refused to conform to the requirement of weekly church attendance. The fact that a significant number of the North Riding gentry were Catholic guaranteed that there would be substantial disagreement with the new southern JP.

 It didn’t take long.

On 26 August 1600 a footboy representing a cohort of young men — mostly sons of the gentry — claiming to be a hunting party, arrived at Hackness demanding lodging for the night. Hoby said that his wife was not well and that the house was not well provisioned to receive guests. The reply was that the hunting party was in the woods and the message could not be got to them. The party arrived about two hours later and were admitted by Sir Thomas. Cards were soon produced and supper was found.

Presently after this Sir William Ewres footeboy tooke forth Cardes and layde them vpon the table wherwith some of the gentlemen were excersized vntill supper./

In the beginninge of Supper tyme (Mr. Ewre pretending that he Came to hunte although he had noe howndes or greyhowndes with him) Sir Thomas sente for his servante that had moste Chardge of his deare whoe dwelte three myles from him; to be at Hacknes howse the next morninge to attende Mr Ewre: and soe Contynued at the table with them all the tyme of supper which was spente by the gentleman fyrst named (Mr Dawny excepted) partly in discoorsinge of Horses and dogges sportes whervnto Sir Thomas never applied himselfe; partly with lascivious talke wherin euerye sentence was either begone or ended with a grevous Oath yll beseeminge either the place or persons; And partly in inordynate drinkinge vnto helthes; abuses never practyzed in Sir Thomas his howse but once when Mr Ewre came vnto his howse whch was in ye yeer before./

In supper tyme Came in a foote boy whome the gentlemen had sente for Mr William Dawny and brought worde that he woold Come vnto them in the morninge./

After supper Sir Thomas willed to have their Chamberes made readye: And soe soone as they wer readye, Sir Thomas Came himselfe and offered to bringe them vnto their lodginges; but they beinge at Dyse with the moste parte of their Company abowte them towld Sir Thomas that they woold play a while And soe they refusinge to goe vnto their Chambers; Sir Thomas did leave them for that night; and wente downe and sett his howshoulde to prayers as they were accustomed./

When Sir Thomas his famyly had begone to sing a psalme (as they are accustomed to doe before prayers) The gentlemen and their Company beinge but a little before lefte by Sir Thomas busye at dyse in the dyninge Chamber which ys over the Hall; presently soe soone as the psalme was begone belowe; the Company aboue made an extraordynary noyse with their feete and some songe and some laughed & were much lowder then those that were singinge in the hall and Certeyne of their Company stoode vpon they stayres at a wyndowe that opened into the Hall and laughed all the tyme of prayers./

At least two recusant members of the North Riding gentry, Sir William Eure and his son William, were among the party. William Jordan, a Hackness resident, described the tumult in his deposition to the court:

[They] did stampe & trample with their |ffeete in extraordinarie manner making great noyse ouer the heddes of the said Complainantes servantes And did likewise make very extraordinary outcries with singing in some confused manner thene laughing thother crying with that confusing which is commonlie called the Black sanctus. And he saithe that the famelie of the plaintif wer gretelie disturbed and disquieted in their praiers with the extraordinary cryes and demenors of the defendantes but whether then did singe any prophane songes or no this defendant dothe not knowe.

Eure demanded to see Lady Margaret, who finally consented and requested that he depart peaceably, though on leaving he broke four window panes by throwing stones, and remarked to one of Sir Thomas’ servants:

Tell thy Master he sente me a scurvy messadge and the next tyme I meete him I will tell him soe yf he be vpon the bench (and offeringe to take the man by the bearde sayde) And will pull him by the beard.

Hoby retaliated immediately (5 September) by writing to Cecil with a full narrative of the invasion and lodging a formal complaint to the Council in the North, who heard the complaint on 26 September. By November the complaint had moved on to the court of Star Chamber, where it was finally settled in Hoby’s favour on 17 February 1601/2 with an annual fine levied on the Eure family of £100, which was still being paid in the twentieth century. Margaret noted with delight the outcome of the suit in her Journal entry for 29 May 1602:

This day Came the Lord Ewry his men to Hacknes to pay 100li: wch was appointed them and others to pay, by the Lordes of the priue Counsill in the starr Chamber, for their riott Comitted and vnsiuill behauour at Hackenes: and so it fell out that, as it was done in the sight of our tenantes, so many of the tenants were bye when the mony was brought: wch I note, as seeinge the Iustice and mercie of god to his seruants in manifestinge to  the world, who litle regardes them, that he will bringe downe their enemes vnto them.

Want to know more?

Jack Binns, ‘Sir Thomas Hoby: A Missing Person,’ Transactions of the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society 41 (2008), pp 6-15.

Simon Healy, ‘HOBY, Sir Thomas Posthumous (1566-1640), of Hackness, nr. Scarborough, Yorks. and Blackfriars, London; later of Twickenham, Mdx.’ History of Parliament Online,, accessed 17 May 2022.

Hoby, Margaret. Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599–1605. Dorothy M. Meads (ed)(London, 1930).

The Private Life of an Elizabethan Lady: The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby 1599–1605. Joanna Moody (ed) (Stroud, 1998).

Playing Companies in Yorkshire’s North Riding

The North Riding collection of documents provides evidence of playing companies on a number of levels, ranging from local companies based in the Riding to touring companies from London.  London companies would have travelled under the patronage of a member of the aristocracy or gentry, avoiding the severe penalties under Elizabeth’s Poor Laws of 1572 which required such patronage for permission to tour.

An acte for the punishment of rogues, vagabonds and sturdie beggars (1598). STC: 8261.7.

Patronized players in the provinces

Touring companies were of course dependant on the hospitality of the North Riding gentry for subsistence as well as for playing space, and household accounts of the gentry often provide information on the touring practices of those who stop to entertain the family and their guests. Sir Thomas Bellasis of Newburgh Priory attended fourteen performances by professional companies during the period from 1610 to 1616. These included performances by Lord Mounteagle’s Men in 1611 and by the Queen’s Men in 1615 and 1616.  The King’s Men appeared at Sir Richard Cholmeley’s manor of Brandsby during the Christmas season of 1622, while Lord Berkeley’s players appeared for the Fairfax family at Gilling Castle in 1581, and the earl of Worcester’s players performed at Gilling in 1571, just as the Fairfaxes were beginning extensive renovation of the Great Hall.

The Great Hall at Gilling Castle. Photo: David Klausner.

Lord Wharton’s Men on tour

Travel from London to Yorkshire was no small matter, and some smaller companies remained based at their patron’s estate within the Riding.  Lord Wharton’s company played primarily at his manor at Healaugh Park Priory (West Riding), but toured locally as well, appearing at Cholmeley’s manor of Brandsby in January of 1615/16 and two years later in 1617/18.  Provincial touring was also a means of avoiding the dangers of plague flare-ups which occurred with some frequency in the larger urban centres and were endemic in London.


The North Riding was also the home of two semi-professional companies.  Both of these performed regularly without gentry patronage, although Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby accused Sir Richard Cholmley (unsuccessfully) of serving as the company’s patron. The documentation of their frequent brushes with the law provide extensive information on the company’s touring practices.  The company of recusant players led by shoemaker Christopher Simpson and his family was based in the village of Egton, just inland from Whitby, while the non-sectarian company was led by Richard Hudson, weaver, of Hutton Buscel.

The Simpson company was based in the North Riding village of Egton. Photo: Mark Chambers.

Recusancy in performance: the Simpsons at Gouthwaite

Information on the Simpson company appears primarily in the documents relating to the Star Chamber prosecution of Sir John Yorke of Nidderdale who hired them during the Christmas to Candlemas season in 1609/10.  Yorke was offered his choice of several plays, including ‘King Lere’, ‘Perocles, Prince of Tire’, and ‘The Travels of the Three English Brothers’ of John Day, William Rowley, and George Wilkins. This list was provided to the court by William Harrison, who played the Fool in ‘King Lere’.  It is likely that both ‘Lere’ and ‘Perocles’ are Shakespeare’s, both published in 1607/8, though the possibility that the reference may be to the anonymous ‘King Leir’ (1605) cannot be entirely discounted.  Harrison’s Star Chamber deposition emphasizes that the company only played from printed texts, implying that this was for all purposes equivalent to the required patronage. 

Yorke, a staunch recusant, turned down these offerings in favour of an anti-protestant St Christopher play in which a clergyman is bested in argument by a Catholic priest (unfortunately, the play has not survived). The documentation of the resulting Star Chamber case as well as their appearances before the magistrates of the local quarter sessions gives extensive information on the touring practices of a small local company. 

Simpson company tour, Christmas to Candlemas 1609–10. Cartography: Byron Moldofsky.

Quarter sessions records also give extensive information on the Hutton Buscel company who, during the winter of 1615/1616 played at thirty-two gentry houses until a prosecution at the sessions led to their withdrawal from performing. The court documents provide a complete list of those who hosted performances by the Hutton Buscel company, since the hosts were also brought before the court and fined.

Hutton Buscel company tour, 29 December 1615–18 February 1615/16. Cartography: Byron Moldofsky.

Both the Simpson company and the Hutton Buscel players included a number of boys in their membership, and the quarter sessions records are careful to indicate that the boys were all over the age of seven, the youngest age to be subject to the Poor Laws.

Want to know more?

Douglas H. Arrell, ‘King Leir at Gowthwaite Hall,’ Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England 25 (2012), pp 83–93.

G.W. Boddy, ‘Players of Interludes in North Yorkshire in the early Seventeenth Century,’ North Riding Yorkshire Record Office Review 4 (1976), pp 95–130.

Phebe Jensen, ‘Recusancy, Festivity, and Community: the Simpsons at Gouthwaite Hall,’ Region, Religion, and Patronage, Richard Dutton et al (eds) (Manchester, 2003), pp 101–20.

Siobhan Keenan, ‘The Simpson Players of Jacobean Yorkshire and the Professional Stage,’ Theatre Notebook 67.1 (2013), pp 16–35.

David Klausner, ‘Travelling Players on the North Yorkshire  Moors,’ Early Performers and Performance in the Northeast of England, Diana Wyatt and John McKinnell (eds) (Amsterdam, 2021), pp 39–50.

Paul Whitfield White, Drama and Religion in English Provincial Society, 1485–1660 (Cambridge, 2008).