On 7th February 1587 a Sussex nobleman was tasked with informing Mary, Queen of Scots, that she had been convicted of treason and was to be put to death the very next morning.
It was but one of a whole series of momentous events in the long life of Thomas Sackville, 1st Earl of Dorset.
Born in 1536, Thomas was the son of Sussex gentleman Sir Richard Sackville. He was a cousin of Anne Boleyn who was beheaded that same year as the ill-fated second wife of Henry VIII. The Sackville family had estates in Sussex and also owned land in Kent.
Buckhurst-born Sir Richard was at one time “Escheator” for Sussex, charged with transferring to the Crown the assets of prominent people who had died intestate.
Thomas was educated at both Cambridge and Oxford. In 1559 he was elected MP for East Grinstead. He also found early success as a poet and dramatist and combined his art with affairs of state when he had “Gorboduc” published in 1561. Co-written with Thomas Norton, it was the first English play to use the style of poetry known as “blank verse” and concerned political intrigues and internecine rivalries.
In 1566 Thomas journeyed to Rome. Why he went is unknown but for some reason he displeased the city’s papal authorities and was arrested and imprisoned for two weeks. His mysterious business in Rome may well have been the reason why, less than a year later, he was created Lord Buckhurst.
In 1571 Thomas undertook a twofold diplomatic mission on behalf of Queen Elizabeth. Firstly, he was to carry her congratulations to King Charles IX of France on his marriage to Elizabeth of Austria. Secondly, he was to sound out the merits of a proposed alliance between Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou, brother of the French monarch. It proved an on-off relationship lasting many years although the Duke, 22 years the Queen’s junior, seems to have ended up as her last serious (but still unsuccessful) suitor.
Next year saw Lord Buckhurst as one of the peers presiding over the trial of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. Through marriage, Howard had acquired considerably estates including those of Arundel in Sussex. His penchant for religious and political intrigue landed him in hot water on several occasions. The last proved fatal when he was implicated in the “Ridolfi Plot” to have Queen Elizabeth murdered and replaced on the throne by Mary, Queen of Scots. Found guilty of treason, Howard was beheaded. In February 1587 Lord Buckhurst was sent to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire to inform the incarcerated Mary of her imminent execution.
A setback to his career came in 1587. The Earl of Leicester (Robert Dudley) had become involved - ostensibly on England’s behalf - in labyrinthine dealings in the Netherlands as the Dutch sought to end Spanish rule. Frustrated at a lack of military progress, he requested that the Queen recall him. Lord Buckhurst was sent as England’s representative in Holland in his stead. Though Lord Buckhurst duly carried out his duties with efficiency, his success seems to have piqued Dudley who, being a favourite of the Queen, engineered the nobleman’s dismissal.
As the TV series “Blackadder” most amusingly illustrated, “Good Queen Bess” could be unpredictable in her dealings with the men around her. She had the apparently blameless Buckhurst placed under virtual house arrest for almost a year on a charge of “shallow judgement in diplomacy”.
The cloud over his head eventually dispersed and he came back into royal favour. In 1590 the fickle sovereign granted the manor of Bexhill to Lord Buckhurst. The very next year he became Chancellor of Oxford University. Then in 1599 he gained his lifetime’s highest political position when he was appointed Lord Treasurer, a post he kept until his death in 1608.
Lord Buckhurst accumulated huge riches and in 1604 he was able to buy Groombridge Place on the Sussex - Kent border north of Crowborough. Earlier acquisitions were Michelham Priory near Hailsham and Knole House in Kent.
The one-time Thomas Sackville must have been a proud if not vain man judging from his support for “sumptuary law”. This was a social regulation protecting the privileges of the ruling class. Essentially it barred commoners - even wealthy ones - from taking on the trappings of aristocrats and assuming places above their status. It sought to ensure that even the most impoverished nobleman was held to be more worthy than an upstart yet prosperous merchant. In the military it insisted that only soldiers ranking as a colonel or higher could wear silk or velvet accoutrements. In 1587, Sackville’s vanity saw him commission a special suit of armour from the Greenwich Royal Workshops that is recognized to be the world’s finest example of such work.
After Elizabeth’s death, Buckhurst’s position as Lord Treasurer continued under King James I. Despite being the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, the new monarch clearly held him in high esteem after creating him 1st Earl of Dorset in 1604.
The Earl died in 1608 from “dropsy on the brain”. It is thought it was actually a stroke. His funeral was at Westminster Abbey and he is buried in St. Michael and All Angels Church, Withyham.