The Recusant Legend: Chideock Tichborne

In post-reformation England, recusants were punished for their failure to attend Church of England services. The Tichborne family, explains Teresa McLean, was amongst the most intransigent in the country and Chideock Tichborne became a romantic martyr of this opposition.

Chideock Tichborne was an Elizabethan recusant who was executed for his part in the Babington plot, but his execution was universally lamented, even by the most aggressively Protestant chroniclers, and watched with horror by the London crowds, usually so thirsty for blood. He wrote an elegy for his young life three days before his execution. It was published at once, in a volume of verses celebrating Queen Elizabeth's survival of the Babington plot, and it immediately became a favourite fashionable poem and a popular song. Unknown during his life, Chideock Tichborne became a hero at his death, the darling of patriotic Protestant high society. His is a paradoxical story, and the key to its understanding lies right in the nature of its deepest paradoxes: his own personality and that of his family; his Catholicism and his appeal to Protestants; his attractiveness and his fatal susceptibility to a similar attractiveness in another; his insignificance and the poem which has earned him a lasting, albeit an obscure and humble, memory in English literature and history. It is a memory overdue for revitalisation.

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