WISEMAN, Robert (c.1530-c.99), of Great Canfield, Essex; later of Greenwich, Kent.

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. c.1530, 2nd s. of John Wiseman of Canfield by Agnes, da. of (?Ralph) Josselyn of Essex. educ. ?Gonville Hall, Camb. 1544. m. (?1) Mary. rel. to the Eliotts of Essex; (?2) Anne, da. of Sir Gamaliel Capell of Raynes, Essex, s.p.

Offices Held

Gent. pens. by 1564-1602; j.p. Kent from c.1583-c.92.


No coherent story emerges from the few isolated enigmatic incidents known to have occurred in this Member’s life. However, there is no doubt that he came into Parliament for Bramber through the unfortunate 4th Duke of Norfolk, who frequently nominated there, and with whom Wiseman is known to have had confidential dealings. It might be guessed therefore that Wiseman would be suspected of Catholicism and that his loyalty might be at issue, were it not for his court office, an office, moreover, especially close to the sovereign, membership of the honourable band of gentlemen pensioners, her bodyguard within the royal palace. Yet such was the case. Sir Ralph Sadler wrote to Cecil 18 June 1570, a few months after the northern rebellion of Catholics against the Queen:

If her Majesty knew Mr. Wiseman as well as I do, she would not think him worthy of any benefit, for he is one of the greatest papists I know, and was in the north, in a very suspicious manner, with the Earl of Northumberland, not long before this last rebellion, and brought letters from the Duke of Norfolk. He favours this late rebellion as much as any man in England, and if he were asked whether he was here at the time, and why, you will understand more.

When ‘asked’, he admitted taking letters from the Duke of Norfolk to the captain of the gentlemen pensioners, the Earl of Sussex, who was then at Cawood, Lancashire. Wiseman took care, however, to be back at Windsor before ‘any stir of the northern rebels began’, as he put it. There is independent evidence that at least one branch of the Wiseman family in Essex was Catholic.

Then there were two curious and unexplained assaults on his person, the first in about 1564 on an Essex highway when a band of malefactors led by one Leonard Berners cried ‘Kill the villain’ and almost did, the second sometime before January 1578 when the master of the rolls was trying to settle a dispute between him and ‘certain persons in Greenwich touching an assault’. Perhaps for these there is no intentionally concealed explanation, but it is just possible that, in addition to his post at court, which was not full time, he was some sort of government agent. In June 1573 he was provided with post horses for himself, two servants and a guide ‘going to Carlisle and returning’ on official business. He paid several visits to Ireland between September 1587 and December 1591, clearing the official accounts of a government official named Jacques Wingfield, who may have been his brother-in-law. Perhaps as a sequel to this the Queen recommended him (about 1594) for the post of clerk of the outlawries, but Edward Coke scotched the idea, thinking him ‘utterly unmeet and insufficient for the place’.

Wiseman and his brother sold Great Canfield soon after coming into the property in 1558. He obtained a 21-year lease of land in Middlesex and Kent in 1568, and, when he was not at court, or otherwise employed, he resided at Greenwich from at least 1578. It was ‘from my cabin at Greenwich’ that he wrote a begging letter to (Sir) Robert Cecil in 1599. He was now unable ‘by reason of infirmity’ to come to court and pleaded his service there ‘these 53 years and the Queen’s servant 40 years past’. This may be exaggeration, or may refer to a period in his life which, if all accounts of it were not lost, might provide some items of interest to his biographer. Elizabeth was, save with money, generous to her old servants (see for example Thomas Markham), overlooking Catholicism in their families and even disloyalty, and sheltering them from the jealousy of other courtiers and even from the law itself. Perhaps this is the key to understanding Wiseman’s career. At any rate his last plea to Cecil went unheeded, and in all probability he died in want soon after making it, aged about 70.

Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 48, 49, 191-2, 370; PCC 38 Noodes; C142/118/48; CPR, 1558-60, p. 242; 1560-3, p. 201; 1563-6, p. 129; 1566-9, pp. 266-7; W. Berry, Co. Genealogies, Suss. 107; Morant, Essex, ii. 461; HMC Hatfield, i. 435; iv. 511; ix. 241, 244, 248; CSP Dom. Add. 1566-79, p. 200; Cath. Rec. Soc. ii. 285, 287; iii. 31; St. Ch. 5/W5/5; APC, viii. 119; x. 144; xviii. 56; xxiii. 203; CSP Ire. 1586-8, p. 407; 1588-92, pp. 293, 442-3; PCC admon. act. bk. 1587, f. 30; A. Vicars, Index Wills of Ireland, 501; Lansd. 106, f. 117.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler