WILSON, Thomas (1523-81), of Washingborough, Lincs. and Edmonton, Mdx.

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

b. 1523, 1st s. of Thomas Wilson of Strubby, Lincs. by Anne, da. and h. of Roger Cumberworth of Cumberworth, Lincs. educ. Eton 1537-41; King’s Camb. 13 Aug. 1542, fellow 14 Aug. 1545-7, BA 1546 or 1547, MA 1549; Ferrara Univ. DCL 1559. m. (1) c.1560, Agnes (d. June 1574), da. of John Wynter, of Lydney, Glos., wid. of William Brooke, 1s. 2da. all by 1565; (2) by 1576, Jane (d.1577), da. of Richard Empson, of London, wid. of John Pinchon of Writtle, Essex.2

Offices Held

Master of St. Katharine’s hosp. London 1561-d.; adv., ct. of arches 1561; master of requests 1561; j.p.q. Mdx. from c.1564, Essex from c.1577; ambassador to Portugal 1567, to the Netherlands 1574-5, 1576-7; principal sec. and PC 12 Nov. 1577; dean of Durham 1579.3


Wilson’s ancestors left Yorkshire about the middle of the fifteenth century, settling in Strubby, Lincolnshire. His father made a fortunate marriage, acquired ex-monastic lands and became a friend of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Save for the attachment he developed for his master, Nicholas Udall, little record remains of Wilson’s career at Eton, where he was a King’s scholar. At Cambridge he was taught by such scholars as Cheke, Ascham, Thomas Smith and Haddon: his political and religious preferences at the university can be seen in his associations with the Dudleys, Greys, Brandons and the theologian Martin Bucer. He became tutor to the two sons of his father’s friend the Duke of Suffolk, and was devoted to the latter’s wife Katherine. Both the young Brandons and Martin Bucer died in 1551, and thenceforward Wilson spent less time at Cambridge. During the summer of 1552 he had ‘a quiet time of vacation with Sir Edward Dymoke’ at Scrivelsby, and, by the following January, he had himself settled in Lincolnshire, at Washingborough.4

In view of the opinions expressed in his Rule of Reason, and Art of Rhetorique (written during his visit to Dymoke), Wilson’s eclipse during Mary’s reign was predictable. He joined Cheke in Padua in the spring of 1555, where he studied Greek, and, from the funeral oration he delivered for Edward Courtenay, Earl of Devon, in St. Anthony’s basilica on 18 Sept. 1556, it seems possible that he may have become the young nobleman’s tutor. In the following year he appeared in Rome as a solicitor in the famous Chetwode divorce case, when, in an attempt to obtain a favourable decision for his client, he intrigued against Cardinal Pole. The Pope—Paul IV—at first proved a willing listener. However, in March 1558 Mary ordered Wilson to return to England and appear before the Privy Council, and soon afterwards still, or again, in Rome he was thrown into the papal prison on a charge of heresy. There he suffered torture, escaping only when the mob broke open the prison upon Paul IV’s death in August 1559. Wilson took refuge in Ferrara, where in November the university made him a doctor of civil law.5

Upon his return to England in 1560 the impoverished scholar received the mastership of St. Katharine’s hospital, London, soon being accused of wasting the revenues, destroying the buildings, and selling the fair and the choir. However, the support of Sir Robert Dudley and Sir William Cecil soon brought him further preferment, as a master of requests. Besides the usual cases he frequently dealt with those concerning conspiracy, commercial disputes and diplomacy. He was prominent in the Hales (1564), Creaghe (1565), Cockyn (1575), and Guaras cases, and after the northern rebellion of 1569 he interrogated supporters of Mary Stuart and conducted many of the examinations in connexion with the Ridolfi plot. Frequently employed on missions abroad, his name occurs in connexion with foreign embassies in 1561, 1562 and 1563, but his first important journey was to Portugal in 1567, where he sought redress for damage done to a ship belonging to his brothers-in-law William and George Wynter, made a lengthy Latin oration before the young king Sebastian and was thenceforward frequently employed in negotiations on commercial matters between England and Portugal. By the end of the 1570s he had established himself as an expert in Portuguese affairs, and emerged as the champion of the pretender, Don Antonio, after the latter had fled from the armies of Philip II. As well as leading a mission to Mary Stuart at Sheffield castle, where he interrogated her upon her part in the Ridolfi plot, Wilson served on two separate occasions in the Netherlands. On the first, in late 1574 and early 1575, he negotiated with the Spanish governor on commercial matters and the expulsion of the English Catholics. By the time he went back in 1576 the situation in the Netherlands was chaotic. Mutinous Spanish troops had pillaged Antwerp, while the States, casting in their lot with the Prince of Orange, forced the new Spanish governor, Don John of Austria, to withdraw the Spanish soldiers. Wilson’s original idea was to arrange a modus vivendi between the protagonists. Gradually, however, he came to fear French intervention and to distrust the intentions of Don John, so that, by the time of his departure in June 1577, he had emerged a partisan of Orange.6

Wilson’s appointment as principal secretary soon followed his return to England. Although, like others in the Walsingham-Leicester faction of the Council, he deplored the Queen’s policy of procrastination over her marriage, and identified England’s cause with that of protestantism abroad, he remained subordinate to his colleague Sir Francis Walsingham, and his influence was minimal. He remained a supporter of Orange, of Condé, and of Henry of Navarre. As part of his duties as secretary, he became the first keeper of the state papers.

It was, presumably, court influence that procured Wilson his seat for the Cornish borough of Mitchell in 1563. There is no record of his activities in the first session of that Parliament, but on 31 Oct. 1566, he sat on a conference with the Lords to consider the most important current issues, namely the succession and the Queen’s marriage. On 3 Dec. he sat on a committee about the export of sheep. In the next two Parliaments he represented Lincoln, where his friend Robert Monson was recorder. In 1571 he spoke against vagabonds (13 Apr.) and against usury (19 Apr.). On 21 Apr. he took part in a conference with the Lords where it was decided to afford precedence to public over private bills ‘as the season of the year waxed very hot, and dangerous for sickness’. He was named to committees on the river Lea (26 May) and barristers fees (28 May). In 1572 the main topic was Mary Stuart, whose execution Wilson urged:

No man condemneth the Queen’s opinion, nor thinketh her otherwise than wise; yet [he doubts] whether she so fully seeth her own peril. We ought importunately to cry for justice, justice. The case of a king indeed is great, but if they do ill and be wicked, they must be dealt withal. The Scottish Queen shall be heard, and any man besides that will offer to speak for her. It is marvelled at by foreign princes that, her offences being so great and horrible, the Queen’s Majesty suffereth her to live. A king, coming hither into England, is no king here. The judges’ opinion is that Mary Stuart, called Queen of Scots, is a traitor. The law sayeth that dignity defends not him which liveth unhonestly.

The Queen took exception to the Commons giving a first reading, 21 May 1572, to a bill on religion, and a delegation, including Wilson, waited upon her. He reported back to the Commons on 23 May:

She had but advised, not debarred us to use any other way, and for the protestants, they should find that, as she hath found them true, so will she be their defence.

In the 1572 session Wilson was appointed to committees concerning Mary Stuart and the Duke of Norfolk, and other, particularly legal, matters. In 1576 he again played a mediating part, this time in the Arthur Hall affair, and he was of the committee that examined Peter Wentworth after the latter had made his famous speech on the liberties of the House. On the other hand his independence, even as a Privy Councillor, can be seen in 1581, when he spoke for Paul Wentworth’s proposal for a public fast. ‘Both Mr Secretaries’, Wilson and Walsingham, were ordered by the House on 3 Mar. 1581 to confer with the bishops on religion. Throughout the 1572 Parliament, Wilson, as master of requests, was frequently employed fetching and carrying bills and messages to and from the Lords, and on such tasks as drafting bills, examining witnesses and administering oaths. As Privy Councillor he was appointed to several committees including those on the subsidy (25 Jan. 1581), seditious practices (1 Feb.), encumbrances (4 Feb.), the examination of Arthur Hall (6 Feb.), defence (25 Feb.), Dover harbour (6 Mar.) and the Queen’s safety (14 Mar.). Wilson died after the end of what proved to be the last session of the 1572 Parliament, but before it was finally dissolved.7

Wilson’s literary works, like those of More, Crowley and Starkey before him, were concerned with classical studies, and with problems of morality and the commonwealth. At Cambridge in 1551 he contributed Latin verse to Haddon’s and Cheke’s De Obitu doctissimi et sanctissimi theologi doctoris Martini Buceri. A few months later, after the death of his young pupils, he wrote and edited Epistola de vita et obitu fratrum Suffolciencium Henrici et Caroli Brandon. The Rule of Reason, written in 1551 and dedicated to Edward VI, uses medieval logic to support the doctrines of Geneva, and this was followed by the dedication in Haddon’s Exhortatio ad Literas to John Dudley, the eldest son of Northumberland, to whom, in 1553, Wilson dedicated his own Art of Rhetorique. Like the Rule of Reason this dealt with the teachings of the earlier scholars, supplemented by digressions on political, social, religious and moral questions. Similar questions concerned Wilson when he wrote his Discourse upon Usury in 1569. Though in close contact with the New Learning, and well informed on current economic problems, Wilson was unable to escape from the limitations of medieval moral precepts. He was especially critical of enclosures and usury, from both of which he feared harm for the commonwealth. In 1570 Wilson translated the Three Orations of Demosthenes, to serve as a warning against a new Philip of Macedon, Philip II of Spain.

Apart from his mastership of St. Katharine’s hospital, Wilson had several sources of income: his employment as master of requests and secretary brought him £100 p.a. as well as perquisites; he received a life annuity of £100 from the Queen in 1571; and on 28 Jan. 1579 he was appointed lay dean of Durham at £266 with £400 p.a. more from the properties attached to the office. He was installed by proxy and had letters of dispensation for non-residence. With one exception the Durham prebendaries acquiesced in Wilson’s appointment. A year before his death he accepted the parsonage of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. He had of course a substantial income from his Lincolnshire lands, concerning which he remained in close touch with his brothers Humphrey and William who lived in that county, and Godfrey, who was a wealthy London merchant and member of the Drapers’ Company. Humphrey, in his will, committed his son Thomas, later a prominent political figure, to his brother’s care; but in the event, Humphrey outlived Wilson, who made his own will in May 1581, the day before he died. He had suffered from bouts of sickness—it seems from a kidney complaint—since his return from the Netherlands in 1577, and the Tower Hill water did not provide the cure he hoped for. He was buried ‘without charge or pomp’ at St. Katharine’s hospital, although he had recently been living on his estate, Pymmes, at Edmonton, which he had purchased in 1579 for £340. His son Nicholas, heir and executor, returned to his father’s Lincolnshire estates, and his two daughters each received 500 marks.8

Wilson belongs to the second rank of Elizabethan statesmen. An able linguist, he had numerous acquaintances among Spanish and Flemish officials in the Netherlands, and, in a wider context, his range of friends included Leicester, Burghley, Hatton, Davison, Sir Francis Knollys, Paulet, Walsingham, William of Orange, Jewel, Parker, Parkhurst, Gresham, Ludovico Guiccardini and Arias Montano.9

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


This biography is based upon a paper by Albert J. Schmidt, Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, U.S.A.

  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament
  • 2. King’s Coll. Camb. protocullum bk. 1, p. 104; Harl. 1550, ff. 85-6; Guildhall mss 4546; Vis. Glos. (Harl. Soc. xxi) 278; Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 470; Lincs. Historian, ii(4), pp. 14-24; DNB.
  • 3. C. Jamison, Hosp. St. Katharine, 69 et passim; CPR, 1560-3, p. 102; 1563-6, p. 187; Lansd. 22. f. 52; I. S. Leadam, Sel. Cases Ct. of Requests (Selden Soc. 1898), p. xxi.; Cott. Nero B. 1, f. 125; APC, x. 85; C66/1188/82.
  • 4. Harl. 1550, ff. 85-6; PRO, Lincs. muster rolls, 1539, Calcewath E36/21, f. 52; PRO town depositions C24, 30; T. Wilson, Epistola (London 1551); T. Wilson, Art of Rhetorique, ed. Muir.
  • 5. C. H. Garrett, Marian Exiles, 339 et passim; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 100; CSP Rome, ii. no. 602; Art of Rhetorique.
  • 6. Strype, Annals, i(2), pp. 285-6; E. Nuys, Le Droit Romain, Le Droit Des Gens, et Le College des Docteurs en Droit Civil (Bruxelles, 1910), p. 144; HMC Hatfield, i. 250, 508, 520; APC, vii. 205; x. 210; CSP Ire. 1509-73, p. 255; CSP Scot. 1571-4, nos. 352, 353; 1574-81, nos. 140 seq.; CSP Span. 1568-79, passim; 1580-5, passim; Murdin, State Pprs. ii. passim; CSP For. 1579-80, passim.
  • 7. D’Ewes, 126-7, 157, 206, 219, 220, 222, 241, 249, 251, 252, 255, 282, 288, 290, 291, 292, 293, 294, 301, 302, 306, 309; CJ, i. 94, 98, 99, 101, 109, 110, 112, 122, 124, 130, 136; Cott. Titus F. i. ff. 152, 163; Neale, Parlts. i. 259, 303-4, 379; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. f. 42.
  • 8. I. Temple, Petyt 538, ff. 39, 147, 152v; C66/1076/29, 1189/38; C54 close rolls, passim; C142/233/41; C54/1052; Dean and Chapter of Durham treasurer’s bk. 1579-80, no. 2; 1580-1, no. 3; reg. 3, ff. 2, 3; Dean and Chapter Acts, 1578-83, ff. 29, 46; Estate House, Old Charlton, Kent, Wilson’s household inventory 1581; Lincoln Wills, 2, f. 262; Wards 7/23/112; Harl. 6992, f. 120; Fleet of Fines, CP25(2) 172, 21 Eliz. Trin.; PCC 32 Tirwhite.
  • 9. CSP For. 1577-8, no. 820(4); CSP Dom. 1575. p. 105; Corresp. de Philippe II (Bruxelles 1848-79), iii. 214; Wilson’s household inventory.