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Thurloe, John (1616-1668), secretary of state

Thurloe, John (1616-1668), secretary of state, baptised on 12 June 1616, was the son of Thomas Thurloe, rector of Abbot's Roding, Essex ('Life' prefixed to the Thurloe Papers, p. xi). He was brought up to the study of the law, and 'bred from a youth' in the service of Oliver St. John (1598?-1673) [q.v.] (Case of Oliver St. John, 1660, pp. 4, 6). By St. John's interest Thurloe was in January 1645 appointed one of the secretaries to the commissioners of parliament at the treaty of Uxbridge (WHITELOCKE, Memorials, i. 377, ed. 1853). In 1647 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn, and in March 1648 made receiver of the cursitor's fines under the commissioners of the great seal (ib. ii. 285), a post worth about 350l. per annum. He had nothing to do with the establishment of the republic, and, as to the king's death, he subsequently declared that 'he was altogether a stranger to that fact, and to all the counsels about it, having not had the least communication with any person whatsoever therein' (State Papers, vii. 914). In March 1651 he was appointed secretary to St. John and Walter Strickland [q.v.] on their mission to Holland, and on 29 March 1652 the council of state appointed him to be their secretary in place of Walter Frost, deceased. His salary was fixed at 600l. per annum, and he was given lodgings in Whitehall (ib. i. 205; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1651-2, pp. 198, 203). In December 1652 the salary was raised to 800l., and the duty of clerk to the committee for foreign affairs apparently added to his former office (ib. 1652-3, p. 1). In the elevation of Cromwell to the Protectorate Thurloe took a not unimportant part; the letters ordering the sheriffs to proclaim Cromwell were signed by him, and he was charged to perfect the instrument of government. At the same time (22 Dec.) he seems to have been co-opted a member of the council (ib. 1653-1654, pp. 297, 301, 309). He was also given charge of the intelligence department, which had been before confided to Thomas Scott (d 1660) [q.v.] and Captain George Bishop (ib. p. 133). In addition to this, on 3 May 1655 the Protector entrusted him with the control of the posts both inland and foreign (ib. 1655, pp. 138, 286). Moreover on 10 Feb. 1654 he was made a bencher of Lincoln's Inn (State Papers, vol. i. p. xiii).

Thurloe fulfilled his various duties with conspicuous ability. By the intelligencers he employed in foreign parts, and by the correspondence he organised with the diplomatic agents of the government, he kept the Protector admirably informed of the acts and plans of foreign powers. When the ministers of Charles II were attacked for the ignorance which allowed the Dutch to inflict a crushing surprise upon England in 1667, Thurloe's management of intelligence was held up to them as an example. 'Thereby,' said Colonel Birch in the House of Commons, 'Cromwell carried the secrets of all the princes of Europe at his girdle.' No one denied the fact, but secretary Morrice pleaded in answer that he was allowed but 700l. a year for intelligence, while Cromwell had allowed 70,000l. (PEPYS, Diary, 14 Feb. 1668). In reality Thurloe's expenditure for intelligence seems to have been between 1,200l. and 2,000l. per annum (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1653-4, pp. 454, 458; THURLOE, vii. 483, 785). Under the head of intelligence came also the political police, and so long as Thurloe was in office no conspiracy against the government had a chance of success. His control of the post office enabled him to seize the correspondence of plotters, and his collection of papers contains hundreds of intercepted letters. The spies whom he kept at the court of the exiled king, and the plotters whom he corrupted or intimidated, supplied him with information of each new movement among the royalists (see English Historical Review, 1888 p. 340, 1889 p. 527). An illustration of his vigilance is supplied by the traditional story of the royalist gentleman who was told by Cromwell when he returned to England all that had passed in his secret interview with Charles II (LUDLOW, ii. 42, ed. 1894). Burnet and Welwood tell many similar stories (Own Time, i. 121, 131, ed. 1833; WELWOOD, Memoirs, p. 105).

Thurloe's duties as secretary sometimes required him to set forth the views of the government in a declaration or explain them in a speech. Drafts of two such defences of the policy of the government towards the cavaliers are among his papers (State Papers, iv. 132, v. 786). To the parliament of 1656, in which, as in that of 1654, Thurloe represented Ely, he announced Blake's victory at Santa Cruz, related the discovery of Venner's and Sindercombe's plots, and spoke on behalf of the confirmation of Cromwell's ordinances (BURTON, Parliamentary Diary, i. 353, ii. 43, 143; State Papers, vi. 184). On 11 April 1657 he received the thanks of the house for his care and vigilance (Common's Journals, vii. 522). On 13 July of the same year he was sworn in as a member of Cromwell's second council, on 2 Nov. he was elected a governor of the Charterhouse, and on 4 Feb. 1658 he was made chancellor of the university of Glasgow (State Papers, vol. i. p. xvii, vol. vi. p. 777). But in spite of the post which he occupied, and though his services were liberally recognised, Thurloe had very little influence in determining the Protector's policy. 'In matters of the greatest moment,' writes Welwood, 'Cromwell trusted none but his secretary Thurloe, and sometimes not even him' (Memoirs, p. 105). Thurloe was anxious for Cromwell to accept the crown, but was totally unable to tell Henry Cromwell what the Protector intended to do. 'Surely,' he concludes, 'whatever resolutions his highness takes, they will be his own' (State Papers, vi. 219). In his confidential letters to Henry Cromwell he more than once expresses his dissatisfaction with the policy of the council (ib. vi. 568, 579). Both agreed in their preference for parliamentary and legal ways, and their opposition to the military party among Cromwell's councillors, and the arbitrary methods they advocated (ib. vii. 38, 55, 56, 99). Thurloe thought that the Protector humoured them too much (ib. vii. 269). With Cromwell personally Thurloe's relations were very close. On one occasion Cromwell took him for a drive in Hyde Park in order to try the six horses sent the Protector by the Duke of Oldenburg; the horses ran away with the coach, and the secretary hurt his leg in jumping out (ib. ii. 652). He was one of the little knot of friends with whom the Protector would sometimes be cheerful and 'lay aside his greatness' (WHITELOCKE, Memorials, iv. 289) in the intervals of confidential deliberations on affairs of state. Thurloe's letters to Henry Cromwell during the Protector's illness, and his remarks on the Protector's death, show unbounded admiration for Cromwell as a ruler, and genuine attachment to him as a man (State Papers, vii. 355, 362, 363, 366, 372, 374).

During the brief government of Richard Cromwell, Thurloe's influence rather increased than diminished. He had played an important part in Richard's elevation; the missing letter nominating Richard as successor had been addressed to him, and the verbal nomination finally made had been made at his instance (ib. vii. 363, 364, 372, 374). Hyde and the royalists were convinced that Thurloe (advised in secret by Pierrepoint and St. John) was the real inspirer of Richard's government (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 421, 423, 425, 435). The officers of the army were jealous of his power over Richard, and complained of evil counsellors. Thurloe thought of resigning, but he could not be spared; and even Richard's reply to the complaints of the army was drawn up by him (State Papers, vii. 447, 490, 495). From the moment of the old Protector's death, Thurloe had feared that the government would be ruined by the dissensions of its friends rather than by the attacks of the royalists; but he endeavoured to shake off his melancholy forebodings, and set to work to secure a Cromwellian majority in the coming parliament (ib. vii. 364, 541, 588). He himself was elected for the university of Cambridge, for Tewkesbury, and for Huntingdon, but made his choice for Cambridge (ib. vii. 565, 572, 585-8).

In the parliament of January to April 1659 Thurloe was the official leader of the supporters of the government, and its recognised spokesman. On 1 Feb. he introduced a bill which he had drafted for the recognition of Richard Cromwell as lord-protector (ib. vii. 603, 609; BURTON, Diary, iii. 25). On 21 Feb., and again on 24 Feb., he gave a clear exposition of the state of foreign affairs and of the policy of the government (ib. iii. 314, 376, 481). On 7 March he defended the authority of the second house, and on 7 April explained the state of the finances (ib. iv. 68, 365). During the session he was called upon to defend himself with regard to the police administration under the late Protector. From the moment the parliament met, Hyde and the royalist agents in England had regarded an attack upon Thurloe as one of the first and most necessary steps towards the overthrow of the Protectorate (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 426, 428, 436). He had not abused his power to extort money, as some of his colleagues were accused of doing, but he had arbitrarily committed supposed plotters to prison, and transported them without legal trial. On 25 March a certain Rowland Thomas presented a petition stating that he had been sold to Barbados by Thurloe's order, and demanded redress. Thurloe answered these and similar attacks by pleading reason of state, asserting that the persons complaining were royalist conspirators, and adding that similar conspiracies were even now on foot. But the republican opposition, backed by a number of crypto-royalists, replied by asserting that the supposed plots were pretended to justify arbitrary rule (ib. iii. 441, 446, 448, 453, 457, 463; BURTON, iv. 254, 301). In the end Thurloe successfully weathered the storm, though some of his subordinate agents were not so fortunate (ib. iv. 307, 407). In spite of their pertinacity the parliamentary opposition were beaten on point after point, and the government seemed in a way to be firmly established. But the quarrel which took place between the parliament and the army proved fatal. To the last Thurloe, deserted by the rest of the council, urged Richard not to dissolve parliament, but Richard at length gave way (Life of John Howe, 1724, p. 9). 'I am in so much confusion that I can scarce contain myself to write about it,' said Thurloe in announcing Richard's fall to Lockhart (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 461). For a few days he carried on the management of foreign affairs, and received with apparent favour the offer of French aid to maintain Richard Cromwell's power; but on the restoration of the Long parliament (7 May 1659) those of his functions which were not entrusted to committees were assigned to Thomas Scott (GUIZOT, Richard Cromwell, i. 367, 376, 385, 389, 393, 401).

After the readmission of the secluded members (21 Feb. 1660) Thurloe, to the great disgust of the royalists, was reappointed secretary of state (27 Feb.) as being the only man whose knowledge of the state both of foreign and home affairs fitted him for the post (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 693, 701). The royalists suspected him of desiring to restore Richard, and were anxious to buy him over if possible; but, according to their information, he resisted the restoration of the Stuarts to the last, and did his best to corrupt Monck (ib. iii. 693, 749; THURLOE, vii. 855). In April, however, he certainly made overtures to Hyde, promising to forward a restoration, but his sincerity was suspected (THURLOE, vii. 897). Monck so far favoured Thurloe that he recommended him to the borough of Bridgnorth for election to the Convention; but even with this support his candidature was a failure (ib. pp. 888, 895).

After the king's return Thurloe escaped better than he could have expected. On 15 May 1660 he was accused of high treason and committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. The particulars of the charge do not appear. On 29 June he was set at liberty with the proviso of attending the secretaries of state 'for the service of the state whenever they should require' (Commons' Journals, viii, 26, 117). He was reputed to have said that if he were hanged he had a black book which would hang many that went for cavaliers, but he seems to have made no revelations as to his secret agents (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. pp. 154-84, 208). After his release he usually lived at Great Milton in Oxfordshire, residing at his chambers in Lincoln's Inn occasionally during term-time. The government desired to avail itself of his minute knowledge of the state of foreign affairs, on which subject he addressed several papers to Clarendon (THURLOE, i. 705, 759, vii. 915). An unsupported tradition asserts that Charles II often solicited him to engage again in the administration of foreign affairs, but without success (State Papers, vol. i. p. xix). He died at his chambers at Lincoln's Inn on 21 Feb. 1667-8, and is buried in the chapel there. An account of his last illness, written by his friend Lord Wharton, is printed in 'Notes and Queries,' 8th ser. xi. 83.

Thurloe was twice married: first, to a lady of the family of Peyton, by whom he had two sons who died in infancy; secondly, to Anne, third daughter of Sir John Lytcott of East Moulsey in Surrey, by whom he had four sons and two daughters (State Papers, vol. i. p. xix).

A portrait of Thurloe by Stone, belonging to Mr. Charles Polhill, was No. 812 in the National Portrait Exhibition of 1866. Another portrait, ascribed to Dobson, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London. An engraved portrait by Vertue is prefixed to the state papers.

Thurloe's vast correspondence is the chief authority for the history of the Protectorate. His papers, no doubt purposely hidden at the Restoration, were discovered in the reign of William III, 'in a false ceiling in the garrets belonging to secretary Thurloe's chambers, No. xiii near the chapel in Lincoln's Inn, by a clergyman who had borrowed those chambers, during the long vacation, of the owner of them.' The papers were sold to Lord Somers, passed from him to Sir Joseph Jekyll, master of the rolls, on whose decease they were bought by Fletcher Gyles, a bookseller (Preface to the Thurloe Papers, p. vi). Richard Rawlinson purchased them from Gyles in 1752, and left them to the Bodleian Library at his death in 1755 (MACRAY, Annals of the Bodleian Library, 1890, p. 236). Before this time, in 1742, Thomas Birch had printed his seven folio volumes of Thurloe state papers, adding to the original collection a certain number of papers from manuscripts in the possession of Lord Shelburne, Lord Hardwicke, and others. The manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, which include a considerable number of unpublished letters, are catalogued as Rawlinson MSS. A. vols. 1 to 73. Others which Birch obtained from Lord Hardwicke are now in the British Museum (Addit. MSS. 4157, 4158). Letters from Thurloe to English agents in Switzerland form part of Robert Vaughan's 'Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell,' 2 vols. 1836.


A memoir of Thurloe serves as introduction to the State Papers. Other authorities are mentioned in the article.

C. H. F.

Original date of publication: 1898

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