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 Thomas Morgan  1546 - 1606
"The conspirator"

It is well known that many of the leading families of Monmouthshire retained their Roman Catholic faith despite the persecutions which took place after Henry VIII of England broke the age old relationship with Rome and set about diverting the Pope's income from Britain into his own treasury. By Henry's death in 1547, the dissolution of the monasteries was complete. The crown became the landlord of their vast estates.

William Morgan of Llantarnam (Lanternam in some old documents) bought the Cistercian abbey there in 1561 and the family became great landowners in Monmouthshire around this time. The Morgans and the earls of Worcester at Raglan became leaders of the Monmouthshire Catholics. Thomas, the subject of this note, is thought to have been a member of the Llantarnam or the  nearby Bassaleg branch of the Morgans of Tredegar.

Thomas Morgan grew up in difficult times. In 1549 the mass was abolished in England but the kingdom was temporarily reconciled with Rome during the short reign of Mary Tudor and many Protestant martyrs suffered death at the stake. All changed when Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1588 and in the following year the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity  restored the Protestant church. Morgan retained the faith of his forefathers but was forced to conceal his loyalty to the Church of Rome until his move to France in the service of Mary, Queen of Scots at the age of 26.

The unfortunate Mary of Scotland had married Francis, who became King of France in 1559. In 1561 she returned to Scotland as a widow. She was a staunch supporter of the Catholic church but turbulent Scotland had welcomed the break with Rome and in 1568 she was forced to abdicate and take refuge in England. She soon became the focus for groups plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with one more sympathetic to the Catholic cause. 

Thomas Morgan was a well educated young man and at the age of eighteen he became secretary to the Archbishop of York, where he remained until 1568 when the Archbishop died (it is reasonable to infer that Thomas's accomplishments would have included a mastery of English, Welsh, French, Latin, Greek and possibly Hebrew). In the next year he became secretary to Lord Shrewsbury who had care of Mary at that time. Morgan managed the Queen's correspondence and a great degree of trust must have developed between them. Lord Shrewsbury became suspicious of the relationship and in 1572 Morgan was sent to the Tower of London where he was confined for two months but it seems that no evidence could be found to implicate him in the conspiracies which surrounded Mary. On his release, Mary asked Morgan to remove to Paris and join the staff of her ambassador at the French court. She made him an allowance of thirty crowns a month from her dowry. Once settled in Paris, Morgan set about inventing ciphers to allow Mary to communicate, and he forwarded Mary's letters to the Pope and to the English Catholics who conspired against Elizabeth and the Anglican church. 

At this time the English crown had an effective set of spies and Queen Elizabeth had already tried to have him arrested before he was implicated in an assassination plot by the confession of a Jesuit, Thomas Parry. In 1583 Elizabeth asked the French to extradite him to England but the French king ultimately had him arrested and sent to the notorious Bastille prison. 

Prison life did not deter Morgan. The Bastille did not reform him any more than it did the Marquis de Sade, an 18th century prisoner there.  English spies proved his continuing involvement with Catholic plotters and Elizabeth offered 10,000 pounds for his delivery to English justice. He could face no other sentence but that for treason and his fate would have been awful. Despite this threat, Morgan helped to organise the fatal Babington conspiracy and had the terrible news of Mary's execution while still a prisoner. Having served 5 years in the Bastille Morgan was released in 1590 and made his way to Flanders where he was arrested again and imprisoned for three years. After this Morgan visited Rome where  he had an audience with the Pope and could presumably have enjoyed a degree of security, but he left for France once more and is thought to have died there in 1606. This was the year that Guy Fawkes was tortured after the failure of the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the English Parliament in the first few years of the reign of King James I. Roger Phillips*  notes that Guy Fawkes' confession revealed that Thomas Morgan had proposed a similar explosion in Elizabeth's time. 

Although much changed over the centuries, the site at Llantarnam remains a Catholic enclave. For many years it has been a convent.  

*Roger Phillips - Bassaleg, aspects of its History, 1991. ISBN 0 9517683 0 1.

   ©  John Weston / Data Wales, 2002

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