What I have called the Brewer’s Sting in my little book on Mary Queen of Scots in Staffordshire (Youcaxton 2019) has been underestimated in mainstream histories. In 1585 the Queen was moved back to the grim fortress of Tutbury Castle in order to isolate her from plotters, with a strict regime applied by the puritan Sir Amyas Paulet, but the role of the apparently unimportant supply of beer is underestimated. The Secretary of State and spycatcher, Sir Francis Walsingham, had given strict instructions the Queen should be kept in lockdown, but by some point in that year Walsingham having required total isolation of the Scottish Queen was willing to let Mary communicate with the plotters. However this would only be allowed if Walsingham could intercept and read the coded messages the Queen would send. Walsingham recognized that if he could find a way to have the secret letters passed to his code breaker Phelippes, then he would know what Mary was plotting, but the Queen and her communicants had to be completely unware of what was happening. The Brewers Sting was the way he achieved this apparently impossible feat. History tells that this astonishing feat was entirely successful but how the trick was performed is another matter.

The method of transmitting secret correspondence to and from the Queen in Staffordshire to her conspirators on the continent via Walsingham’s office using the supply of beer was superficially simple. Only four people knew the inner workings of the Sting, the brewer who supplied Tutbury and later Chartley Manor, Gilbert Gifford who was the main courier, Sir Amyas Paulet the controller of the Scottish Queen’s imprisonment, and Thomas Phelippes, secretary and code breaker to Walsingham, the Secretary of State. The letters came through the French embassy, where they had been blocked throughout 1585, and would have to be taken to Staffordshire and into an enclosure tigbtly controlled by armed men. While the focus of attention has been on Gilbert Gifford, the Catholic deacon who persuaded Mary’s continental agent in Paris, Thomas Morgan, and the French embassy that he was a conspirator who could be trusted to take the letters to Staffordshire, the brewer was vital. The man in Burton delivered them to Mary in her prison and took the replies back to Gifford to take to London. Only the brewer could enter the Queen’s prison and handle the correspondence. Gifford – a member of Staffordshire’s leading Catholic family – could never go to Chartley. Focusing on the relatively minor figure of the brewer throws light on how the plot was organized and run, and when and how it took place, and how the Queen was induced to trust a plan which would destroy her.

Given that the French diplomats would only give the letters to someone with a background in Catholic conspiracy, the current consensus is that the plan was devised in December 1585 and could only operate when Gifford had arrived back in England from a Catholic seminary and was ‘turned’ after talking to Walsingham. Yet the brewer in Burton on Trent – then as now a brewing centre with exceptionally pure water – had been in operation for months before and while the Sting certainly could not operate till Gifford was in transit between London and Chartley, investigating the brewer gives a different perspective. 

The scheme is described accurately by Robert Hutchinson in his book on Walsingham. Hutchinson accurately describes the method of transmission that he believes Phelippes visited Staffordshire over Xmas 1585 (1) to create.

“…After some investigation, the method of communication was fixed. The household received their supply of beer from a brewer in the nearby town of Burton, delivered once a week to Chartley in small wooden casks or kegs. It was decided that the secret letters would be held in waterproof wooden canisters small enough to slip into the keg via the hole used for the bung. The Brewer – referred to as the ‘honest man’ by Paulet* was told to transport the letters by this method and when the process was reversed, to hand over Mary’s letters to Gifford.

“The plan was swiftly put into operation and on the evening of 16th January 1586, the Scottish Queen was delighted to relieve her first secret message for almost a year….”

*his name was revealed by Anthony G Petti in 1979 but this is not widely realized. 

This is accurate, and recognizes the role played by the brewer, not always seen as a crucial cog in the wheels. 

Why Change The System?

The provision of small ie low alcohol beer was a vital part of diet in the Tudor period as clean water was in short supply, and the castle did not have a brewery so would always have had to import beer. When Sir Amyas Paulet took over from Ralph Sadler as the Queen’s first Tutbury jailer in 1585 he made a change to the mechanism for supplying the beer, a curious development as no change was needed. The total number of people in the Castle once the two parties of Mary and her jailers had arrived was not changed when a new person was in charge. Paulet tightened security as Walsingham had instructed him to, but there was no reason to change the method to supply beer. Yet when Paulet arrived at Tutbury in April 1585 (3) he made changes which involved a political development in the locality. 

At the end of May 1585 Paulet wrote to Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer, stating that a Brewer and his family had been moved into the house in Burton on Trent belonging to Lord Paget , a Catholic who had fled abroad. Paget’s houses – Beaudesert, his principal house, and at Burton, both in Staffordshire, became Crown properties – so the contents were sent to Tutbury. This did not in itself mean that there should be any change to how beer from Burton was provided. Paulet – probably in conjunction with Walsingham though his name is not featured in the literature – decided to create a new and dedicated supply line but did not explain to Burghley how beer had been provided when Ralph Sadler was the jailer and why a change was necessary with financial implications. If however the brewer was provided with free lodgings this would be an incentive to do what the new regime wanted, and if so then this could be a step towards the smuggling of clandestine correspondence. 

Paulet’s letter to Burghley of 28th May 1585 stated that the Brewer was already set up in the Burton House, and Paulet was anxious that no other family should be allowed to lodge at the house for reasons which seem spurious. The letter said

“The brewer that serveth this house (Paulet must mean Tutbury castle TF) with beer, breweth his beer in the Lord Paget’s house at Burton, where he is lodged with his wife and family and therefore I think, in my simple opinion, your lordship shall do well to forebear during this service here to grant the keeping of the house to any other, because inconvenience may grow between the two families, and the house being utterly naked, the brewer may seem sufficient to have charge of it.” (4)

It is curious that the supply, which must have already have been established and working effectively, now needed alteration. As Paulet said, Paget’s house was stripped of furniture amd was ‘utterly naked’ though the brewer’s family had to have some facilities to live in, which are not spelled out. Paulet’s major concern was cutting off Queen Mary’s ability to write to plotters so it is not suprising Father J Morris who edited Paulet’s letters concluded the move was the start of the Brewer’s involvement in the clandestine transmission of coded correspondence, arguing in his collected letters of Sir Amias Paulet, that 

“In the following letter we have the first mention of the Burton brewer, who was one of the chief agents in the treachery by which Mary was betrayed, and that he should have been put by Walsingham into Lord Paget’s empty house, seems to show that the scheme of her betrayal was already sketched out” (5)

However in the century and a half since Morris wrote this, little evidence to prove such early planning of the Brewer’s Sting has emerged. While the brewer could have started to plan the system of smuggling letters into and out of the Queen’s lockdown quarters, this could not have happened without someone to take the letters to and from the French Embassy, so unless Gifford was already in Walsingham’s team the plan could not work. The Brewer could not take the correspondence further than Burton. Gifford, who was ideally suited to persuade the French diplomats to release the blocked letters, was still in France till December 1585 and no other candidate has been suggested. Either Gifford was in Walsingham’s employ well before returning to England, or Walsingham and Paulet were indulging in a speculative exercise. The current consensus that Gifford had no contact with Walsingham till December 1585 rules this out. We need to know more about the brewer’s arrival at Paget’s house and what deal had been struck, but the deal was probably verbal. 

The apparently marginal issue of what deal the brewer had made is crucial, and made more difficult by his obscurity to most historians who have dealt with the fall of the Queen -the identity of the Brewer was unknown for many years reflecting his relative unimportance – J H Pollen in 1922 wrote of “the honest man’ (we do not know his real name)” – (6) and this has been the name used to this day despite his name having been known since 1979.

Robert Hutchinson is a rare commentator who has seen the importance of the brewer, rightly arguing that “The key figure in all this movement of secret correspondence to and from Chartley was of course, the brewer in Burton. Without his co-operation, the whole elaborate scheme would have collapsed. Although he was reputedly a good Catholic, he was not ashamed to receive bountiful bribes from both Walsingham and Mary Queen of Scots. With an eye to market forces, he also put up the price of his beer, comfortable in the knowledge that Paulet could not now go elsewhere for his supplies of ale.” (7)

 After the move to Chartley on December 24th 1585, once the Brewer was operating he was taking letters in and out of Chartley in water proof packets and was so valuable he could set his own terms. Paulet was furious when he put his prices up and chose when to do the work to suit himself (8) but objections were futile, Paulet had no choice but to play according to the Brewer’s rules.

The brewer was no more than a transmission belt, and when Mary was taken to Fotheringhay after her arrest, he was left in Paget’s house with no further role to play. For three years he appears to have been forgotten, but in September 1589 he reappears again, with his name revealed as William Nicholson, when Sir Richard Croft, who seems to have been his employer, wrote to Richard Bagot the protestant in charge of central Staffordshire, asking for the “graunte of a small thing now in his possession”, as the Brewer – named as William Nicholson – had asked the Lord Treasurer, Lord Bughley, for the continuation of the tenancy of the house of Paget in Burton. Burghley remembered the brewer and wrote back to Bagot on 12th October 1589 that with Bagot recommending that the tenancy be continued and as the brewer 

“was placed theare by Sir Amice Powlet with my allowance, the rather in respect of his good and gainfull service theare in the time of the Scottishe Quene’s lieng at Tutburye; and therefore I pray yowe to continue him tenaunte for I do not meane to have him removed”.

Bagot endorsed the approval for “Nicholson the brewer”, who presumably remained in Paget’s house indefinitely, and with this note (9) the brewer fades from the historical record.

 The key issue of what I have called The Brewer’s Sting has always been seen as the role of Gilbert Gifford, as without someone as suited as him to get the letters from the French embassy the work of the brewer was stalled. Yet the brewer was operationally important as only the brewer could get the secret letters into and out of the Queen’s prison. The use of the kegs would work as effectively one must assume in Tutbury as Chartley, and William Nicholson alone could deliver in this final stage of the journey. It is undeniable that the plot as it operated in practice relied on Gifford arriving at the French embassy with approval by Thomas Morgan. But Hutchinson is right on the key point, without the brewer the transmission of letters to and from the continent would have failed in Staffordshire. We know now that the brewer was installed in Paget’s Burton house in May 1585. What we may suspect, but cannot prove, is that Morris may be right to see this as the first stage in the formation of the transmission system which worked so well in 1586. What we don’t know is how the system could have been set up with Gifford on the continent – unless the current consensus is wrong and he was in league with Walsingham even when training to be a Catholic priest. 

30 11 21 Trevor Fisher

  1. Robert Hutchinson, Elizabeth’s Spymaster, Phoenix 2007 p121. Alford on the date Mary saw Philippes is on The Watchers, Alan Lane 2012, pp20-205.
  2. Stephen Alford The Watchers, Allen Lane 2012 p 197-198. Earlier (p195) he suggested “Morgan was sure that Gilbert Gifford would solve all the problems of communicating with the Queen of Scots in England”. Yet since he must have known Gifford could not enter her prison why did he think this? 
  3. John Guy My Heart is My Own Fourth Estate 2004 Chronology p518
  5. Morris op cit p31 
  6. J H Pollen Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington Plot Scots Historical society 1922 plxvi
  7. Hutchinson op cit pp124-125.
  8. Hutchinson op cit p125. 
  9. Anthony G Petti Roman Catholicism in Elizabethan and Jacobean Staffordshire, pp45-6