Sir John RADCLIFFE of Ordsall

Born: 1581, Ordsall Hall, Lancashire, England

Christened: 24 Feb 1581, Manchester Church, Lancashire, England

Died: 29 Oct 1627

Father: John RADCLIFFE of Ordsall (Sir)

Mother: Anne ASSHAWE

Married: Alice BYRON (dau. of Sir John Byron of Newstead and Anne Molyneux)


1. Alexander RADCLIFFE of Ordsall (Sir Knight)




John Radcliffe, the heir of his brother Alexander, was the third son of Sir John. He accompanied his brother in the Irish expedition, and was knighted by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex in Ireland on 24 Sep 1599, being thereby freed from wardship, in his nineteenth year. Returning to London he quickly established himself as a favourite in Court circles. The tragedy of the passing of two young people so popular as his sister and brother had touched a ringing chord of sympathy in a wide circle of hearts, and John was made welcome not only for the fame of his name but also on account of his attractive personality, his proved valour in arms, and his private virtues. His cousin, Robert, Earl of Sussex, held him in great regard and affection, the older man finding in the younger a stability of character of which his own generous but irresolute nature could lean with confident security. Despite Sir John's attachment to the Earl of Essex, his loyalty to Queen Elizabeth and a strict sense of honourable duty did not permit him to join in the incredible folly of Essex's rebellion, though doubtless he grieved that so gallant a nobleman should have cast away his great fame and reputation in a mad moment of passionate despair, too recklessly impulsive to wait with patience for the legitimate achievement of his overbounding ambitions. Essex paid the last penalty on his rashness in the courtyard of the Tower of London. Two years later, when the great Queen herself died, John Radcliffe took no part in the plottings, the conspiracies that marked the beginning of the reign of James I. His natural dignity and sound common sense holding him aloof from the rivalries and discontents in which so many of his associates became involved. Popular tradition in the neighbourhood of Ordsall, and the imagination of a famous novelist, have so generally ascribed to the Radcliffes a prominent part in the Gunpowder Plot that it would be appropriate, at this point, to discover what fragment of fact, if any, there is in this legend.

Sir John Radcliffe was a Catholic, but a convinced loyalist. He belonged to that section of his co-religionists, comprising many of the old families and the majority of the secular priests, he desired only toleration for the exercise of their faith. They had little or no sympathy with the more fanatical elements, who with the aid of indigent adventurers sought the revengeful overthrow of the whole fabric of the state and its unconditional surrender to the Papacy. Like all revolutionaries, what the members of this second party lacked in numbers, they made up for in the violence of their expressions. Anxious to divest himself of the charge of papistry levelled against him by the discontented Puritans, King James made a proclamation, banishing all Catholic missionaries and reaffirming the penal laws against recusants, who were subjected to heavy fines, mercilessly extorted, and ruinous to men of moderate means. When the Bye Plot or 'treason of the priests' failed in 1603, the more fiery spirits among the Catholics frantically sought means to deliver themselves from this oppression. Injustice and hatred together are relentless masters, which drive their victims to extraordinary devices. One of the sufferers was Robert Catesby, a member of an old Northamptonshire family, and by nature a dabbler in treason. In turn he had been a bitter denouncer of the Papists, and their zealous supporter. In 1596 he was arrested on suspicion of being concerned in an attempt to poison the Queen. He took part in the rebellion of Essex and narrowly escaped that noble's fate. In 1602 he was conspiring with the Jesuits in an attempt to persuade the King of Spain to a new invasion of England. Into his scheming mind now flashed a plan so diabolical that it could have been conceived only in a madman's frenzy, the incredible treason of the Gunpowder Plot, and to its achievement he called a number of intimates, most of whom like himself had been involved in the Essex rising.

In his romantic novel of Guy Fawkes, which many people have accepted as authentic history, Harrison Ainsworth introduces us to one Viviana Radcliffe, the sole representative of her family at Ordsall during the absence of her father, Sir William Radcliffe, who is away attending a meeting of Catholic gentry at Holt in Cheshire. Viviana is represented as a fair maiden of eighteen, whom Catesby comes in secrecy to woo, and at Ordsall encounters Guy Fawkes, who has come to secure the support of the Radcliffes in the Plot. When the hall is raided by pursuivants, come to arrest the Roman Catholic priest in hiding at the Hall, Viviana, Catesby, Fawkes, and the priest are all rescued by the timely intervention of Humphrey Chetham, who conducts them by a secret passage running beneath the moat to a summer house in the grounds, and thence through Old Trafford to Chat Moss. Humphrey Chetham is portrayed as in love with Viviana, but differences of religious faith make their marriage impossible, and the story closes with Humphrey left solitary, his life 'tinged by the blighting of his early affection ... true to his love, he died unmarried'. Records fail to reveal that the Radcliffes had even the most remote association with the Gunpowder Treason. Ordsall in 1605 was in possession of Sir John, the last Sir William, his grandfather, having died in 1568. There was never any female of the house named Viviana and only the surviving sister of Sir John was Jane, then thirty years of age, and married to Sir Ralph Constable. It is a fact that Humphrey Chetham was a friend of the family, and in later years advanced them money on a mortgage when their fortunes fell on evil days, though whether he had cherished any romantic attachment to a daughter of the Radcliffes, possibly Anne, who died in 1601, has not been recorded in the story of his life. Picturesque though Ainsworth's story is, and glamorous the atmosphere of romance it spreads about the ancient hall of Ordsall, it must be dismissed as purely the figment of the author's imaginative mind, though indeed the Radcliffes as much as any family had cause for bitterness in the heavy penalties inflicted upon them for their alleged recusancy. But this never tempted Sir John Radcliffe to depart one whit from his loyalty and patriotic service.

He married Alice Byron, daughter of Sir John Byron of Newstead Priory in Nottingham and lord of the manor of Clayton in Lancashire. The mother of Alice was Anne, the eldest daughter of Sir Richard Molyneux of Sefton, another family related to the Radcliffes. In 1606 Sir John Radcliffe sold the Asshawe lands in Flixton to Peter Egerton, younger son of Sir Ralph Egerton of Ridley, who had married Elizabeth, daughter of Leonard Asshawe of Shaw Hall in Flixton. The recusancy fines continued to be a heavy drain on the estate, and in 1613 Sir John conveyed to Adam Byrom of Salford, a leading merchant of the town, certain lands in Eccles and Salford for the term of thirteen years and eight months for the consideration of four hundred and four-score pounds. One of the witnesses to this deed is 'Samuel Bordeman, Cl.,' the family tutor of the Radcliffe family, who accompanied Sir Alexander on the visit to Lathom in Aug 1590. In the Parliament of 1621 Sir John Radcliffe sat as Knight of the Shire, and again in the Parliament called in Feb of 1624. The following year King James died, and Charles I began his troubled reign.

Sir John was unhappy in his domestic life. He suspected Alice, his wife, of a guilty passion for his friend, Sir Edmund Prestwich of Hulme, a neighbouring manor across the river from Ordsall. In consequence of this quarrel Sir John separated from his wife and betook himself to London, there to seek service in arms overseas. He again represented Lancashire as a Knight of the Shire in the first Parliament of the new reign. When Buckingham, in 1627, aiming to checkmate Richelieu's plan of the Franco-Spanish invasion, set sail with a fleet to the relief of La Rochelle, Sir John Radcliffe was one of his company. During the engagement on the disasterous Isle of Rhe, Sir John was in the thick of the fighting and suffered the loss of both his legs. He died of his wounds on the 29 Oct 1627. The esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries is reflected in the laudatory ode Ben Jonson composed in his honour:

How like a column, Radcliffe left alone
For the great mark of virtue, those being gone,
Who did, alike with thee, thy house bear,
Standest thou to show the times what you all were.
Two bravely in the battle fought and died,
Upbraiding rebel's arms and barbarous pride:
And two that would have fall'n great as they
The Belgic fener ravished away.
Thou that art all their valour, all thy spirit,
And thyne own greatness to increase thy merit,
Than thou, I do not know a shiter soul,
Nor could I, had I all nature's roll.
Thou yet remain'st, unhurt in peace and war,
Though not unproved: which shows thy fortunes are
Willing to expiate the fault in thee,
Wherewith against thy blood they offenders be.

Dame Alice outlived her husband thirty years and died in Oct 1657, by her will leaving all her property to her nephew, John Hutchinson.

For more information, see:

Ordsall Hall, a Tudor Manor House

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