DERBY, Thomas (by 1501-52 or later).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. by 1501. m. by 1532.2

Offices Held

Clerk to Sir Brian Tuke by 1515-22, the signet 1522-39, the council of Calais 16 Dec. 1527-26 Nov. 1540, the Council 28 Jan. 1533, the Privy Council by Mar. 1538; sec. and clerk of the signet, council in the west 12 Apr. 1539; commr. to receive recognizances, Cornw., Devon, Dorset, Som. 1539; sec. to Queen Catherine Howard by Nov. 1540.3


Thomas Derby’s background is obscure. In the early 16th century families bearing his surname can be traced in Dorset, East Anglia, the Fenlands, Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, but apart from the presumption of a north midlands origin from his early dependence upon Sir Brian Tuke there is little in his career to associate him with any of these regions.4

During his upbringing Derby evidently acquired a taste for learning, especially in theology, which was to remain with him for life, but where he received his education or who fostered it remains unknown. It was presumably this scholarly bent which brought him to the notice of Tuke, whose service he entered in the first decade of Henry VIII’s reign. Tuke was a hard master, but on his appointment as French secretary in 1522 he helped Derby to obtain the clerkship of the signet which he had just vacated: his support was not given free, for he required Derby to pay him 40 marks and to continue to attend upon him, with the result that for several years most foreign despatches and many domestic papers were written by Derby. Although Wolsey appreciated Derby’s diligence and did him several favours, among other things bestowing upon him the clerkship of the council at Calais, these were not happy years for Derby. Tuke promised more than Wolsey gave, and with each dashed hope the relationship between Tuke and his protégé first cooled, then soured. Not infrequently Derby’s expectations involved him in financial losses which he could ill afford, as in 1528 when he was appointed momentarily to replace John Uvedale as secretary to the Duke of Richmond, and he was rarely reimbursed for money spent on Tuke’s behalf. His financial position was further straitened by misfortune and litigation: Thomas Nicols, a clerk apprenticed to him, robbed him and deserted him for another master, after receiving a year’s instruction in writing, and worse still William Nanfan pressed a claim upon the clerkship of Calais, even though he had sold his interest in the office four years before Derby’s appointment. Derby did not break with Tuke until the early 1530s, perhaps for the sake of his wife who for seven years had been employed in Tuke’s household, but in 1532, ‘almost dead with ingratitude’, he turned for advancement to Cromwell, an acquaintance of several years, standing, whereupon his career and prospects took an upward turn.5

Cromwell’s supremacy inaugurated a revival of conciliar government, and a clerk was once more appointed to manage the affairs of the Council. This important office was entrusted to Derby, who soon cut a figure in the administration. Derby’s name was included in a list compiled by Cromwell on the back of a letter dated December 1534, thought to be of Members of Parliament particularly connected with the treasons bill then being debated, perhaps as belonging to a committee. The appearance of Derby’s name on this list may be taken as evidence that he had been by-elected to the House of Commons, probably in the autumn of 1532. It is likely that Cromwell himself nominated Derby, who may also have been supported by Anne Boleyn’s father, the Earl of Wiltshire, whom he had accompanied on a mission to the Emperor in 1530. It is fruitless to speculate on his constituency, for with such backing he could have been returned almost anywhere. In compliance with the King’s request in 1536 for the re-election of the previous Members, Derby doubtless served for the same borough in the Parliament of that year.6

It was not only Derby’s penmanship and administrative skill which commended him to Cromwell, but also his talent as a writer. He was the author of at least one theological tract, The thre Manners of Presthood, which mentions the legislation of 1536 on vagabondage (27 Hen. VIII, c.25, 28 Hen. VIII c.6), while some notes of his on the Scythian language and on the gospel according to Matthew also survive: these works cite the Matthew Bible published in 1537 and clearly reveal Derby’s Protestantism. The thre Manners of Presthood was perhaps commissioned by Cromwell in his capacity as vicegerent: Derby’s two other known works were almost certainly produced for the minister and may be composite productions with other propagandists for the regime. The earlier of the two, dateable on internal evidence to between 1533 and 1536, airs the discontent against tithes, the abuse of which had been ‘the only cause of decay of tillage within this realm’. God, so the argument runs, did not open Englishmen’s eyes to this until they broke with the ‘Antichrist of Rome’, but now ‘it is manifest that the decay of the realm hath not been neither for lack of justice, quietness nor other civil policy’. The author goes on to prescribe the remedy, namely, that impropriations of benefices should be abolished. As he forecast, this solution was too radical to be adopted, and the Acts for tithes (27 Hen. VIII, cc.20, 21) passed during the final session of the Parliament of 1529 did little to modify the practice. Derby’s other work, evidently compiled early in 1539, is an apologia for the regime, summarizing its achievements during the decade. He began by stating that England had seen the light of ‘true religion’, with the Bible available in the vernacular and all works of darkness forsaken: this introductory section ends with a misplaced insertion that Parliament has provided a law to put down vagabondage and to take care of the impotent poor. The second part mentions the commission for the reform of the canon law and recites the evils in the Church which the Reformation in England had removed: probate and mortuary fees, pluralism, non-residence and clerical engagement in secular employment in 1529, appeals to Rome in 1533, and the appointment of bishops, Peter’s Pence and dispensations in 1534. In the third part the author recalls how the clergy ‘of their own free will and common assent’ have accepted the King as supreme head and then sets forth the reasons for the dissolution of the monasteries, a task soon to be completed by the Parliament of 1539. In the fourth and last part he argues that it is not wrong for an ecclesiastic to die for treason, as the King ‘never put to death any man authoritate absoluta, but by ordinary process’.7

When in 1539 the council in the west was established, Derby was appointed its clerk, and in the spring of that year he accompanied its president Sir John Russell, Baron Russell, to the west country. Russell may have secured his return as a Member for a west country borough to the Parliament of 1539, for which most of the returns are lost. On 31 Mar. 1540 he took payment of Russell’s expenses as president, and he appears to have survived Cromwell’s fall without harm; in the autumn he became secretary to the King’s new consort, Catherine Howard, and although he did lose his clerkship at Calais, in which he was replaced by Armagil Waad, in 1541 he was compensated with an annuity of £20, which was still being paid 11 years later. This annuity was paid out of the revenues of the court of augmentations and the circumstances of its award irritated the chancellor of that court, Sir Richard Rich, with whom in December 1540 Derby quarrelled: the dispute was heard before the Privy Council which managed to reconcile the two. None of the many other references to men of his name during the 1540s and early 1550s can be confidently attached to Derby, even though several of them are to men in the royal service. He is not known to have been examined after Queen Catherine Howard’s arrest, and an obscurity similar to that of his origins hangs over his final years and death.8

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. LP Hen. VIII, vii. 1522(ii) citing SP1/87, f. 106v.
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from appointment as clerk of the signet. LP Hen. VIII, v. xiii.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, iii-xv; Elton, Tudor Rev. in Govt., 334.
  • 4. LP Hen. VIII, ii, vii; Lincs. Peds. (Harl. Soc. 1), 295-6; PCC 4 Wrastley; C1/626/13, 777/28, 1345/38; 3/49/105.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, iv, v, xv; C1/496/8, 628/30.
  • 6. Elton, 265, 334, 346, 349; LP Hen. VIII, v. vii; A. J. Slavin, Pol. and Profit, 25-26.
  • 7. Elton, Reform and Renewal, 24; Policy and Police, 195-7; H. W. Clarke, Hist. Tithes, 179; J. Collier, An Eccles. Hist. Gt. Britain (1708-14), doc. 47; SP1/141, pp. 98-99; 6/2, nos. 4-5, 6, no. 7, 12, nos. 1, 9.
  • 8. LP Hen. VIII, xiv-xxi; Add. 30198; Royal ms 7C, xvi, f. 96v; PPC, vii. 84, 94, 308; APC, i. 58, 292-3; CPR, 1553, p. 352; 1554-5, p. 109; 1558-60, p. 293; Mar. Lic. Fac. Off. (Harl. Soc. xxiv), 2.