William Allen, of Rossall, Fleetwood

This summer I read a terrifying, though fascinating book. It scared me. It is Stephen Alford’s The Watchers (Penguin, 2012) and its introduction describes an imaginary Catholic rebellion against a young Elizabeth I which succeeds in reversing the Reformation. The young Queen is executed and her Privy Council sent to the Tower. Protestantism is extinguished and medieval darkness covers the land once more. 

Looking back, it appears far-fetched, but it was a very real fear for the people at the time. The book details the extensive spy network employed by Elizabeth’s two chief ministers, her Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, and her Lord High Treasurer, Lord Burleigh. There were a number of plots against the Queen, some coming closer to succeeding than others, in their aim of supplanting the heretic with Mary Queen of Scots. The mastermind and paymaster behind many of these schemes was an Englishman, a fellow Lancastrian, by the name of William Allen. He hailed from Fleetwood, not a place usually accounted worthy of mention in histories of the Reformation. A Cardinal then based in Rome, his family rented Rossall Grange, a part of the town which is older than the rest and more famous now for its posh public school. As a young man, he had watched Archbishop Cranmer burning at the stake, later reminiscing with approval, describing him as a 'notorious perjured and oft relapsed apostate, recanting, swearing, and forswearing at every turn' (Allen, Modest Defence, 104). He was one of the brains behind the Spanish Armada, encouraging the Spanish invaders to conquer his native land. Thank God, both they and he failed.


I made an anti-pilgrimage to the site of his birth this summer en-route to the Inskip Bible convention. The only trace of it is preserved in the name of a road which terminates at a rather grim-looking clubhouse used by Fleetwood Golf Club. One source says the farm was washed away in the sixteenth century, which seems unlikely, though beautifully poetic considering Allen’s planned sea-borne invasion of the country. The site of the house is probably the clubhouse itself or the large tarmacked area to its front where the lane joins the later coastal road. A local Catholic secondary school bears his name.


I’m usually proud of my fellow Lancastrians, but I’m glad the lifetime goals and ambition of this one failed miserably. His most skillful opponent was Francis Walsingham, a dedicated evangelical, whose portrait I admired at London’s National Portrait Gallery a few weeks previous.