WILKES, Thomas (d.1598), of Downton, Wilts.; later of Rickmansworth, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

educ. All Souls, Oxf. 1572, BA and fellow 1573. m. (1) bef. 1584, Margaret (d. bef. 1597), da. of Ambrose Smith, mercer of London; (2) Frances, da. of Sir John Savage of Rocksavage, Cheshire, 1da. Kntd. 1591.

Offices Held

Sec. to ambassador to France 1573; envoy to Elector Palatine 1575; clerk of PC from 1576; ambassador to Spain 1577-8, to Don John of Austria 1578; freeman, Southampton by 1581; envoy to Netherlands 1578, 1582, 1586; English member of Netherlands council of state 1586-7; envoy to Duke of Parma 1588; ambassador to Netherlands 1590-1, to France 1592, 1593, to the Archduke 1594, to France 1598.1

J.p. Wilts. 1583-93, Herts. from c.1593.


The origin of this prominent public servant is obscure. Against Wood’s statement that he was a native of Sussex must be set the possibility of connecting him with one or more of the various individuals and families bearing his name, among them the Thomas Wilkes of Wiltshire, whose will provoked litigation earlier in the century and who was perhaps the Member for Chippenham in the Reformation Parliament. Since, however, a cousin in holy orders, William Wilkes, whom Thomas was to present to the living of Downton in 1587, had been born within the diocese of Lichfield and Coventry, it is likely that both men came of Midland stock, perhaps from that family which produced the Thomas Wilkes, merchant of the staple, who in 1554 purchased the manors of Hodnell and Ascott in Warwickshire, and his brother William, who inherited them from him five years later.2

It was, according to his own statement, about the year 1564 that Wilkes began the foreign travels which were to last until his admission to All Souls. What the purpose of this journeying was we do not know, but it was no doubt the experience thus gained which led to Wilkes’s appointment, in April 1573, as secretary to Dr. Valentine Dale in his embassy to France. Dale, himself a fellow of the college, may have chosen Wilkes to accompany him: he certainly took steps to allay the resentment of the fellows at this leave of absence granted to a probationer, an irregularity which was smoothed over by Wilkes’s promotion to the fellowship later the same year. But Sir Francis Walsingham, the ambassador whom Dale replaced, may also have had a hand in the matter. Elizabeth had delayed Dale’s appointment on the ground of his inexperience, and the summoning of Wilkes from Oxford to accompany him perhaps argues a confidence in the secretary based on personal knowledge. Wilkes corresponded with Walsingham from Paris even before the latter’s appointment as secretary of state, and it was to him that Wilkes looked as his patron and friend for the next eighteen years. After a strenuous apprenticeship to diplomacy in France and the Palatinate, Wilkes was appointed a clerk of the Privy Council. The period of home service which he might have expected in the new post was soon interrupted by two further missions abroad, prompted by the threatening situation in the Netherlands. In December 1577 Wilkes was despatched to Spain to exhort Philip II to recall Don John and to come to terms with the rebels. In Spain he was graciously received (although the King considered the prospect of having him burnt), and in the Netherlands he heard the views of the Prince of Orange on their future. Four months later only his absence from court saved him from being again sent to the Netherlands to check the rebels’ tendency to ‘go French’.3

The early 1580s found Wilkes engaged in domestic administration. Under the arrangement of January 1579 for a six-monthly rotation of duties by the clerks of the Council, Wilkes was to be in attendance from May to August and during November and December, but he was still available at other times for a variety of duties, such as examining Campion on the rack in the Tower in October 1581 and taking charge (in April 1584) of the books and papers of Thomas Norton, who had been associated with him in that brutality. In November 1583 he stayed at Charlecote with Sir Thomas Lucy while investigating a local conspiracy. It was to be expected that so active a crown official should find a place in the House of Commons. His first opportunity came in 1584, when he was returned for Downton. As lessee of the rectory and parsonage of Downton, which Winchester College had reluctantly granted him at the Queen’s persuasion in March 1582, Wilkes had sufficient local standing to account for his return. In 1586 Southampton offered him a seat: he was a freeman of six years’ standing, and the town doubtless judged him a serviceable choice. Wilkes, however, withdrew when he thought that he was shortly to be sent abroad, and had himself re-elected for Downton. There is no record of any activity by Wilkes in his first three Parliaments. Perhaps he was abroad for the duration of that of 1586. In 1593 he was named to the subsidy committee, 26 Feb., and to that concerning some lands sold by the Knightley family, 9 Mar.4

In 1587 Lord Buckhurst was to describe Wilkes to the Queen as ‘so sufficiently practised in the estate of other countries and so well trained in your affairs at home, with such excellent gifts of utterance, memory, wit, courage and knowledge and with so faithful a heart to serve your Majesty’. It was in recognition of these qualities that in July 1586 the Queen chose him ‘to carry my mind and see how all goes’ with Leicester and the English forces in the Netherlands. Wilkes discharged this task in August, and in October was sent back to The Hague as Killigrew’s successor on the council of state. The objects of this mission, to reduce English expenditure, to promote harmony between Leicester and the states-general, and to prepare the way for the Earl’s recall, were as delicate in character as they were difficult of attainment. The high praise and warm welcome which Leicester at first accorded Wilkes soon gave way to suspicion and jealousy, Wilkes being out of sympathy with Leicester’s cultivation of popular support against the regents, upon whom alone, he was convinced, the stability of the new state rested: and although he made sincere efforts to bolster the governor-general’s dwindling authority he could scarcely have failed to find himself, with Buckhurst and General Sir John Norris, the object of Leicester’s enmity. During the spring of 1587 Wilkes struggled on in the face of the public disaster of the betrayal of Deventer and the private affliction of a painful illness, but by June 1587 he was driven into the dangerous course of returning home without the Queen’s permission and without taking leave of Leicester. He was committed for two or three weeks to the Fleet, where he busied himself with his replies to a questionnaire on his conduct, and was then allowed to move to a friend’s house in London: it was, in Leicester’s view, inadequate punishment.5

There could, however, be no question of Wilkes’s rehabilitation while Leicester lived. Thus when in January 1588 he came to London and petitioned for pardon Walsingham warned him that the Earl was still pursuing him and advised him to return to his country house. The first sign of Wilkes’s restoration came in August 1588 with his despatch on a mission to the Duke of Parma, one which the choice of so determined an opponent of peace was not calculated to render fruitful. He was returned to the 1589 Parliament for Southampton, but it was not until 4 Aug. 1589 that he reappeared, after a lapse of two years, at the Council board. The remaining years of his life saw Wilkes again continuously in service either at home or abroad, his domestic employment including, besides routine business, the oversight of musters and of the accounts of the troops in the Netherlands. It was during these years that he wrote the treatise of a councillor of state in a monarchy or commonwealth which he dedicated to Sir Robert Cecil. Wilkes’s outstanding merits as a servant of the Crown were his devotion to duty and his intelligent performance of it: his work bears the stamp of high-class professionalism. In diplomacy he displayed enterprise and persistence,and he commanded readiness of both tongue and pen. His despatches, and broader surveys of foreign affairs, show a firm grasp of complex situations and problems together with sound judgment in their recommendations. Only under extreme stress, such as he knew at The Hague in 1587, did he allow personal considerations to interfere with public duty, and even then he showed restraint. The lightness of his punishment for that episode, and his rapid recovery of trust and favour on Leicester’s death, show that his qualities were valued and his integrity accepted.6

So unremitting a public career must have left almost as little leisure for private pursuits as the traces of them which have survived. Twice married, he was trying to secure the residue of his first wife’s portion of £1,500 in the midst of his troubles in the Netherlands in 1587. It may have been in connexion with this marriage that Wilkes secured the rectory of Downton, which he used for several years as his country house. During his later years, which were punctuated by illness, Wilkes leased a house and land at Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, where he lived in the intervals of his public employments.7

Wilkes’s career provides an interesting case-study of the material rewards of Elizabethan governmental service. His only regular remuneration was the £40 a year and diet attached to the clerkship of the Council and the 40s. a day allowed to him on his missions abroad. It is clear that these would not have yielded him affluence, if indeed they came near to meeting his expenses. Like others in his position, Wilkes looked to his employer for additional rewards. His first was the patent as Queen’s printer, which he received in the late 1570s and disposed of to Christopher Barker, whose ill-success in enforcing it Wilkes moved Burghley in July 1578 to remedy. In 1581 he incurred the lord treasurer’s rebuke at the Council table for pressing a suit on the Queen through Walsingham. His most notorious achievement was his receipt in 1585 of a 21-year monopoly of the supply of white salt through Boston and Lynn (to which in 1586 Hull was added) at a nominal rent. The exercise—and the profits—of this privilege he straightway disposed of to a consortium which, to judge from the prevalence of the surname Smith in its ranks, may have coalesced round his wife’s family. But Wilkes continued to bear the formal responsibility, and the defence of the patent against its critics and victims was to cost him unending anxiety. The worst attacks coincided (perhaps significantly) with his own period of disgrace. Of chief interest in the present context—apart from its contribution to his income—is the bearing of the patent on his parliamentary career. His decision to have himself returned for Downton in October 1586, when on the eve of returning to the Netherlands, may have been designed to hamper criticism of it in the Commons. His Membership of the next two Parliaments, if similarly prompted, may indeed have served his turn. He must have been present in 1589 when the matter was raised by the Members from Yorkshire and Norfolk, only to be dropped ‘through the persuasion of some honourable and worshipful personage’; while towards the close of the Parliament of 1593 he had to meet the Members from the shires affected before a committee of the Privy Council.8

That Wilkes did not wax fat on the proceeds of this or any other reward is clear from his circumstances on the eve of his death. In January 1598, before leaving for France on his last embassy, Wilkes made his will. After stating that he had assured to his wife £1,000 out of his lands and goods, he instructed his executors, who were his wife and one George Bowne, to find from the residue of his goods £300 for his infant daughter, or if that proved impossible, at least £200. His only other legacy was one of £13 6s. 8d.to his servant George Bayneham, ‘who has long served me without recompense’; the residue he left to his wife. Attached to the will is a list of debts totalling a little over £400, a sum which would be increased by at least £50 raised for the journey. The modesty of Wilkes’s estate, with the implication that his goods might not even be equal to raising £300 for his daughter, seems a far from handsome return for the 25 years of service which he had rendered to the state.9

Within a few weeks of making his will Thomas Wilkes had died in France, towards the end of February 1598, from the effects of an accident he suffered before his departure.10

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: S. T. Bindoff


  • 1. DNB; Reg. Univ. Oxon. i. ed. Boase, 274; Vis. Leics. (Harl. Soc. ii), 66; Vis. Cheshire (Harl. Soc. lix), 205-6; PCC 40 Montague, 14 Watson, 36 Lewyn.
  • 2. Wood, Fasti Ox. ed. Bliss, i. 188; Req. 10/208; Wood, Ath. Ox. ed. Bliss, ii. 46; VCH Warws. vi. 115-16; PCC 40 Welles; CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, p. 165.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 398; APC, viii. 107; CSP For. 1572-4, pp. 318, 349, 395-6, 403-4; 1577-8, pp. 613-16; 1578-9, p. 127; CSP Span. 1568-79, p. 553.
  • 4. APC, xiii. 249; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 251; Add. 22924, f. 50; Neale, Commons, 178-9; D’Ewes, 474, 495.
  • 5. Cott. Galba C xi. f. 61, quoted Motley, United Netherlands (1901), ii. 265 n; CSP For. 1586-7, pp. 94, 122, 143, 168-9, 174; 1587, pp. 149, 163, 181-3, 199-200, 211; Cabala, pt. 2, p. 77.
  • 6. CSP For. 1577-8, pp. 423, 644-50; 1583-4, p. 109; 1587, pp. 162-6, 433-5; 1588 (Jan.-June), pp. 12-13; APC, xviii. 11; xx. 152-3; xxi. 49; xxiii. 44; xxviii. 156, 602; HMC Hatfield, vii. 368; Stowe 287.
  • 7. CSP For. 1587, p. 68; HMC Hatfield, v. 507; vi. 61, 461; APC, xxvi. 258-9; C3/253/11.
  • 8. HMC Hatfield, ii. 187-8; iii. 107; iv. 315-17; CSP For. 1587, pp. 66-8; E. Hughes, Studies in Admin. and Finance, 45-65.
  • 9. PCC 36 Lewyn; HMC Hatfield, viii. 38.
  • 10. Collins, Sidney State Pprs. ii. 94; HMC Hatfield, viii. 90.