Sir John Gates epitomizes the life of a Tudor courtier. If one could reach the heights of wealth and power during this era, one could also come to a bad end. He has been described as a thug, greedy, grasping, conscienceless, sacrilegious, unreliable, ambitious and unscrupulous. But Sir John was not a politician and he appears to have been more than competent and dependable as an administrator and executive in his indefatigable pursuit of career and profit. He was very effective in aligning himself with the right people but he also managed to bring down upon himself the wrath of one of the Tudor monarchs.
The Gates family were Essex gentry. His grandfather William Gates bought the manor of Garnetts in High Easter and the family lived there until 1582. John was born at Garnetts c. 1504, the eldest son of Sir Geoffrey Gates and Elizabeth Clopton. Sir Geoffrey was a JP and served as sheriff for Essex and was present at the siege of Tournai in France with Henry VIII in 1513. After the French city surrendered, Geoffrey was knighted by the king.
John was given a good education and in 1523, he began his training as a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn. In 1533 he became a groom of the privy chamber of Henry VIII. The Gates were distant relatives of the Denny’s and John may have gained his position due to the endorsement of Sir Anthony Denny. Sometime in 1534, John married Denny’s sister Mary. John was a great supporter of the reformed religion. In October 1536, he was given the assignment of keeping the peace in Essex during the Pilgrimage of Grace, contributing six men for the royal army. John’s services during the rebellion may have earned him the king’s gratitude as soon afterwards, he became a royal confidant.
John was instrumental in removing altars and despoiling many churches during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. John himself came into possession of some of the dissolved monasteries. These transactions, as well as others, allowed John to acquire extensive estates in Essex and Suffolk. After 1540, John rarely stayed at the family seat, preferring to live at Syon or Havering-atte-Bower where he was Keeper of Pyrgo Park. This did not restrict him from continued interest in local government or prevent him from playing a role in East Anglia. His sister Lady Dorothy Josselyn helped him look after his affairs in Essex while he was absent.
On October 10, 1537, John was awarded the post of page of the wardrobe making him part of an exclusive circle of royal servants. His wages are unknown but he regularly received 40s as a New Year’s gift from the king. As page of the wardrobe, he inspected the king’s personal weapons, and noted the receipt of frocks, coats and gowns from the Great Wardrobe in the Tower of London. He took in the clothing of Thomas Cromwell after his execution and also the goods of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk after his attainder.
He paid bills to suppliers for gloves, night caps, silk hats, velvet caps, satin hose, gold lace, leather, swords, girdles, and horse-trappings, among other items. John served as Denny’s right hand man and was put in charge of the king’s coffer. He would oversee the king’s liquid cash, golden spoons and jewels all of which were probably stored and transported in chests. He was assigned funds to repair some of the king’s manors and parks.
John was licensed to retain ten men in his livery along with bailiffs and other servants. In 1542, he first sat for Parliament and he served in the household of Queen Katherine Parr from 1543-5. For the French expedition of 1544, John supplied sixty soldiers and commanded over three thousand men that remained with the king at Boulogne.
In the years before his death, Henry VIII came to rely on Anthony Denny. Denny in turn relied on John Gates, his brother-in-law, to carry out hard tasks and get things done. Denny and Gates had no compunction about using their exclusive access to the king to grant favors to those who petitioned them. Henry’s eyesight began failing as early as 1544. Accounts show orders for ten pairs of spectacles at a time from a company in Germany. This and Henry’s impatience with the demands of signing countless documents required an alternative to his genuine signature.
Beginning in September 1545, a “dry stamp” was used. A carved wooden block was hand-pressed on a piece of paper, leaving an impression of the king’s signature. This would then be inked in by one of the clerks of the Privy Seal serving under Denny and Gates of the Privy Chamber. One or the other of these men would witness the inking in of the signature and then record the transaction in a record book. This record was supposed to be viewed regularly by the king because of the possibility of misuse or abuse of the stamp.
At first the stamp was kept in a small, locked black leather casket and remained on the king’s person. But he eventually gave up custody of the stamp to Gates, surrendering the reins of power to those who closely surrounded him. Unauthorized use of the stamp was a treasonable offense. Those who had access to the stamp had to be formally licensed to use it and retrospectively and formally pardoned.
Denny, Gates and William Clerk were officially pardoned for the use of the stamp since September 20, 1545 and all three men were authorized to use the dry stamp until May 10, 1547 in a document approved at Hampton Court on August 31, 1546. The use of this stamp gave these men enormous power and patronage and access to the exchequer. It also permitted them to exact revenge on their political enemies. The stamp was used on eighty-six documents during January 1547 all in the presence of Gates and Denny.
John was made a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber although he continued to work in the wardrobe and pay the clothing bills. Shortly before the king died, John and others were dispatched to Kenninghall to find evidence against the Duke of Norfolk and his son the Earl of Surrey. They also took an inventory of the Howard’s possessions so the Crown could confiscate them.
King Henry VIII died on January 28, 1547 and John rode beside the corpse of the king during the funeral procession to Windsor. Gates was a witness to the king’s will where he was named as a beneficiary, receiving a small token of £200. The will was not signed by Henry but the dry-stamp was used. This has been a source of controversy ever since.
John was to have an even greater role at court during the reign of King Edward VI. He became a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of the king and in 1549 he was appointed sheriff of Essex. Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset served as Lord Protector during the king’s minority. Sir John did not object to Somerset’s rule but he was not a partisan either. He did not participate in the plot to bring Somerset down but he carried out the orders of his superiors and confiscated Somerset’s property. After 1549, Somerset’s power was severely reduced and he was eventually executed in January of 1552.
Sir John began to align himself with the new power behind the throne, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Sir John was appointed to the Privy Chamber of the king in 1550 and held the dry stamp of Edward’s signature. He was in constant attendance on the king and had complete access, reporting everything to Dudley who relied on Sir John to transmit his wishes to the king. Dudley described Sir John as his “special friend”.
The king’s council heard news of his sister Mary’s attempt to escape England on July 13, 1550. As sheriff of Essex, Sir John was sent with some cavalry to stop Mary from going to Antwerp as reported in King Edward’s diary. Later more troops were dispatched to garrison the ports in the area. After this aborted attempt, the council was more aggressive with Mary about allowing her to practice her Catholicism. Mary would never forget Sir John’s role in this incident.
In 1551, Sir John was made Vice-Chamberlain of the Household and Captain of the King’s Guard, given a seat on the Privy Council and granted lands worth £120 per annum. In January of that year, he took part in a jousting tournament in front of the king. Sir John was very diligent in attending the council meetings and participated in various commissions for financial reforms. On July 7, 1552, he was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
In January of 1553, King Edward was beginning to show the signs of his last fatal illness. He was very concerned about the succession because he didn’t want his Catholic sister Mary to become Queen as the laws required. He believed Mary would undo all the protestant religious reforms which had advanced during his reign. It is unclear who originated the idea of the ‘devise’ which Edward created, casting aside his sisters and naming his cousin Lady Jane Grey as his successor.
Although Sir John had access to the king, this did not necessarily mean he was his confidant. Dudley and Lady Jane Grey hinted that Sir John was the mastermind of the ‘devise’. To this day the question remains as to who instigated the plan. Whether Sir John was involved or not, he was loyal to the king, supported the ‘devise’ and carried out the orders of his superiors. He was Dudley’s agent in the Commons of Parliament in an effort to engineer the passage of a bill altering the succession as laid down by King Henry VIII’s Act of 1544. The king issued letters patent changing the succession and Sir John was one of the twenty-one councilors and three lawyers who signed the ‘devise’. King Edward died on July 6, 1553 before the letters patent were approved by Parliament, creating a succession crisis.
Edward’s death was kept secret for three days. The day after the king died, Sir John reportedly had to remind Dudley to send men to capture Mary. On day three, as Captain of the Guards, Sir John told his subordinates of the dead king’s wishes and took possession of the Tower of London. Dudley had his daughter-in-law Lady Jane Grey proclaimed Queen on July 10. The council had underestimated Mary. She consolidated her power in East Anglia and gathered an army to defend her right to the throne.
On July 14, a nervous council sent Dudley with troops to combat Mary’s army and secure her person. That same afternoon, Sir John and Sir Thomas Palmer left with five hundred men. On the way to Cambridge, there was a rumor that Sir John had been killed and his men backed Mary. Support for Jane Grey melted away and Mary was victorious with no bloodshed. Gates, Dudley and others were arrested in Cambridge and escorted back to London, entering the Tower on July 25 as prisoners of Queen Mary.
The newly proclaimed queen arrived in London on August 3. By this time, she had already decided who would be condemned to die for supporting Jane Grey. She never forgot Sir John’s role in preventing her attempt to escape and his fate was sealed. On August 19, Sir John, his brother Henry, Andrew Dudley and Sir Thomas Palmer went to trial and were found guilty of treason. His punishment was to be hanged, drawn and quartered but this was commuted to beheading by the Queen.
Dudley had been brought to trial the day before and found guilty and condemned to death. Dudley decided to accept the Catholic faith and requested a priest, possibly in hope of saving himself. Mary sent Stephen Gardiner to him and he fully recanted, observing mass in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower precincts on August 21.
Sir John followed his lead on the next day. Dudley’s son, the young Earl of Warwick and Gates observed mass at St. Peter ad Vincula. Gates confessed: ‘we have been out of the way [away from Catholicism] a long time, and therefore we are worthily punished; and, being sorry therefore, I ask God forgiveness therefore most humbly; and this is the true religion.’ The Earl of Warwick asked forgiveness in similar terms and then Gates and Warwick asked each other for forgiveness and begged all men to forgive them as they forgave every man freely.
Sir John then turned to Edward Courtenay who had just been released from the Tower by Mary after being held for fifteen years. Gates asked Courtenay for his pardon for holding him as a state prisoner as Captain of the Guard. He explained he did not keep him imprisoned due to any hatred towards him but because he was worried about the safety of King Edward VI. As Dudley and Gates were led from the Tower to the scaffold on Tower Hill, there was an exchange at the garden gate which was witnessed by the anonymous historian of the “Chronicle of Queen Jane”.
“’Sir John’, said the Duke, ‘God have mercy upon us, for this day shall end both our lives. And I pray you forgive me whatsoever I have offended; and I forgive you with all my heart, although you and your counsel was a great occasion hereof.’ ‘Well, my lord’ said John Gates, ‘I forgive you as I would be forgiven; and yet you and your authority was the only original cause of all together; but the Lord pardon you, and I pray you forgive me.’ So, either making obeisance to other, the duke proceeded.”
The crowd gathered to watch the executions has been estimated at ten thousand. Dudley was executed first. Sir John came forward and acknowledged his offences and asked the people to pray for him. He had been given £10. 14s. 4d to distribute as alms. He refused a kerchief for his eyes and laid his head on the block. It took three blows to strike his head off. He was laid to rest in the chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula.
Sir John Gates had acquired many valuable monastic properties as well as the manors of Rivenhall and Shalford in Essex, estates in Hertfordshire, Norfolk, and Northamptonshire and the site of St. Stephen’s College in Westminster. The value of these properties was estimated to be around £13,600. An act confirming his attainder was passed a year after his death and most of these properties were confiscated by the Crown.
Further reading: “The Last Days of Henry VIII: Conspiracies, Treason and Heresy at the Court of the Dying King” by Robert Hutchinson, “Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen” by John Edwards, “Edward VI: The Lost King of England” by Chris Skidmore, “John Dudley: The Life of Lady Jane Grey’s Father-in-Law” by Christine Hartweg, entry on Sir John Gates in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Narasingha P. Sil, “The Rise and Fall of Sir John Gates” article written by Narasingha P. Sil in Historical Journal, 24 (1981), pgs. 929-43, “Chronicle of Queen Jane” by anonymous