WOTTON, Sir Henry (1568-1639), of King Street, Westminster and Eton College, Bucks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

b. 30 Mar. 1568, 8th but 4th surv. s. of Thomas Wotton† (d.1587) of Boughton Malherbe, Kent, being o. surv. s. with 2nd w. Eleanor, da. of Sir William Finch of the Mote, nr. Maidstone, Kent, wid. of Robert Morton of Molesworth, Hunts.; half-bro. of George Morton† and Edward Wotton†, 1st Bar. Wotton of Marley. educ. Winchester Coll. Hants; New Coll., Oxf. 1584, Hart Hall c.1585, Queen’s 1586-9; travelled abroad (Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Bohemia, France) 1589-94, 1600-4; Heidelberg Univ. 1589-90; Altdorf Univ., Nuremberg 1590; Ingoldstadt Univ., Bavaria 1590; Padua Univ. 1591-2; M. Temple 1595; vol. Cadiz 1596, Azores 1597. unm. kntd. 8 July 1604; ordained deacon 1627.1 d. 5 Dec. 1639. sig. Henry Wotton.

Offices Held

Sec. to Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex 1595-1600;2 amb. Venice 1603-11, 1615-19, 1620-3, Savoy (extraordinary) 1611-12, Utd. Provinces (extraordinary) 1614-15, Germany and Vienna 1620-1;3 gent. of the Privy Chamber by 1629-?d.4

Commr. new buildings, London 1615; provost, Eton Coll. Bucks. 1624-d.5


Wotton was descended from a London Draper who served two terms as lord mayor, represented the City in at least six Lancastrian parliaments, and married the heiress of Boughton Malherbe. The family welcomed the Reformation, but Wotton’s father, an able man who attracted the attention of Queen Elizabeth, preferred a quiet life and could not be tempted to any office outside the confines of his native county. According to his earliest biographer, Izaak Walton, Wotton was ‘noted in his youth to have a sharp wit, and apt to jest’, while Thomas Coryate remarked upon his ‘plausible volubility of speech’.6 His private means consisted only of a rent-charge of 100 marks, and consequently all his life he was in pecuniary difficulties.7 Nevertheless, he was somehow able to travel on the Continent, to read extensively in history, philosophy, and civil law, and to pick up enough of the languages to pass as a German in Italy and an Italian in Scotland.8 After studying at both Protestant and Catholic universities, he entered Essex’s service, but returned to the Continent following the earl’s fall from grace in 1599.9 In 1601 the grand duke of Tuscany sent him to James VI with a warning of a poison plot and suitable antidotes. Adopting the alias Ottavio Baldi, an appropriate pseudonym for an eighth son, in October he was granted admittance to James, to whom he secretly revealed his true identity.10

Following the accession of James to the English throne, Wotton, whose elder half-brother Sir Edward had become comptroller of the Household in 1602, was recalled from exile, knighted, and (in his own jesting phrase) ‘sent to lie abroad for his country’ as ambassador to Venice.11 On his first visit to Venice in 1591 Wotton had fled the city after only a few days to preserve his virtue from the notorious allurements of the courtesans.12 However, it was here that most of his diplomatic career was to be spent, during a period when the republic occupied a key position in European politics. Wotton’s bookish abstraction led sometimes to neglect of routine diplomacy, but his dispatches were excellent, and much to the king’s taste.13 His concern for Italian Protestantism led him to arrange for the translation into Italian A Relation of the State of Religion by Sir Edwin Sandys* in 1608.14 It also overrode secular objectives, and consequently his promises of help to the Venetians in their conflict with the papacy exceeded his instructions.15 On his return after six years in the post he was granted a pension of £200 and the second reversion of a six clerkship in Chancery.16 His half-brother, now Lord Wotton, was connected by marriage with the Clifford family, and deeply involved in their affairs as an executor of the 3rd earl of Cumberland. Wotton accompanied Henry Clifford* in 1610 on the first stage of his travels, and earned the approbation of the young Lords’ father-in-law, lord treasurer Salisbury (Robert Cecil†). With additional support from Prince Henry, and his own persuasiveness, he was widely expected to succeed as secretary of state.17 But his habitual indolence and levity, and the distrust inspired by his Italianate manners, disqualified him from high office. The death in 1612 of both his patrons, and the collapse of the Savoyard marriage negotiations, on which he had unwisely staked his diplomatic prowess, set his career on the downward path.18 For a time he even aroused the king’s displeasure, because a Catholic polemicist quoted his remark about the duties of an ambassador to show that Protestants, like Jesuits, practised equivocation.19 Soon he was overtaken not merely by such natural rivals as Sir Ralph Winwood* and Dudley Carleton*, but even by his own nephew and secretary Sir Albertus Morton*.

Wotton was elected for Appleby in 1614 on the Clifford interest and was named to four committees and made three recorded speeches. He was among those appointed to consider a bill to relieve Crown tenants from the penalty of forfeiture for non-payment of rent (15 Apr.) and to draft a bill to regulate elections (19 April).20 In ‘a very mannerly and demure speech’ on 21 May he argued that history demonstrated that hereditary monarchs, unlike elective kings, were entitled to impose.21 Shortly thereafter he was appointed to committees to consider the constitutional position of baronets (23 May) and the affront offered to the Commons by Bishop Neile (25 May).22 On 6 June he desired his friend John Hoskins to interpret his reference to the Sicilian Vespers.23 The following day he objected to the wording of a message the Commons intended to send the king as it claimed that impositions were unprecedented, and he was subsequently ‘cried down and in great danger to be called to the bar ... for some indiscreet and indecent language used to Sir John Savile*’ about his farm of recusants’ lands in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. He claimed that Savile stood to benefit financially from this farm if Parliament were dissolved, and thereby implied that Savile was trying to wreck the Parliament.24

The day after the Parliament ended, Wotton described the assembly in a letter to Sir Edmund Bacon as ‘the strangest thing that ever I beheld’. The Parliament, though it had been well attended, had ‘produced nothing but inexplicable riddles in the place of laws’. The only bill to have passed both Houses - to settle the succession following the recent marriage of Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine - had been lost at the dissolution. In the Commons many Members’ speeches were ‘better becoming a Senate of Venice, where the treaters are perpetual princes, than where those that speak so irreverently are so soon to return (which they should remember) to the natural capacity of subjects’. Yet ‘irreverent discourse was called honest liberty’. Among the most outspoken Members was Thomas Wentworth, described by Wotton as ‘a silly and simple creature’ who had failed to inherit his father’s understanding.25

Shortly after the dissolution, Wotton was granted a half-share in some concealed lands.26 He resumed his diplomatic career that same year, and in 1616 was reappointed ambassador to Venice. On his return three years later, he impressed the royal favourite, Buckingham, who in January 1620 obtained for him the reversion to the mastership of the Rolls.27 At the next general election, however, he was in Vienna, striving to avert the worst consequences of the Elector Frederick’s acceptance of the Bohemian throne, but achieved nothing apart from his memorable poetic tribute to the charm of the electress. He landed at Sandwich on 25 Nov. 1623, by which time his health was indifferent and his finances desperate. He did not stand for the last Jacobean Parliament, but retired to ‘some corner in the country’ and wrote the Elements of Architecture. Published in the following year, it provoked ironic comment about the author’s propensity for building castles in the air.28 In April 1624 he surrendered his reversion of the mastership of the Rolls, which office he was ill-qualified to fill, and at around the same time he presented ‘many curious pictures’ to Buckingham. Consequently he was permitted to exchange with (Sir) William Beecher* his reversion of the Chancery six clerkship for the provostship of Eton, which carried a stipend of £140.29

At the general election of 1625 Wotton stood for Canterbury on the interest of his half-brother, Edward, Lord Wotton, high steward of the city’s mayoral court, and ‘spent almost £50 in good drink for his followers’, but was defeated by John Fisher. Buckingham, exercising his rights as lord warden of the Cinque Ports, subsequently found him a seat at Sandwich,30 but in the first Caroline Parliament he was named only to the committees to confer with the Lords about the address for a general fast (23 June) and to draft an address on religion (24 June), and took no part in debate.31 He did not seek re-election in 1626, but as a bystander witnessed with amazement the attempt to impeach Buckingham, to whom he owed his position as provost. In a letter to Elizabeth of Bohemia, he remarked that

this very nobleman, who at the Parliament of 1623 [sic] was so universally applauded, and celebrated in every corner, as a great instrument of the public good ... should be now pursued with these dislikes, when for the most part the very same objectors were in the foresaid Parliament, and the very same objections (except one or two) might as well then have been alleged ...32

Wotton was ordained a deacon in 1627, and granted a pension of £200, but did not lose his interest in parliamentary politics, writing to Clifford’s brother-in-law Sir Thomas Wentworth* on 8 Apr. 1628: ‘If I could in a line or two be favoured with your judgment of the event of this Parliament, I should think myself better resolved than if I had gone to ask that question at Delphos’.33 On learning in early March 1629 of chaotic scenes in the Commons, in which the Speaker (John Finch II*) had been held down in his chair, Wotton wrote to Sir Edmund Bacon, 2nd baronet* that some still thought that the Parliament might be salvaged, although in his opinion ‘that is an airy conceit’. Dissolution was inevitable, and when it came Wotton remarked that ‘all sober minds’ could only approve of the king’s decision, ‘even while they wish it otherwise’.34

For all his cosmopolitan experience, Wotton remained, like his father, a loyal man of Kent, revisiting his native county even after the deaths of Lord Wotton and Morton, to whom he was sincerely attached. He was arrested for debt at Canterbury in 1629, and had to apply to Carleton for ‘help over the rude affront’.35 A post in the Household gave him protection against creditors, and in 1632 his pension was raised to £500.36 He cheerfully retired to Eton to enjoy the delights of fishing and smoking, although asthma obliged him to give up tobacco shortly before his death.37 His educational duties were somewhat ill-defined but he did not neglect them. He had an uncommon eye for talented youth, both in and out of school; it is given to few to earn the gratitude of men of such varied origins, outlook and interests as Roger Boyle, John Milton, and Isaac Walton. When he did venture to go to London to solicit for £4,000 due to him from the Crown, in March 1635, he was arrested for debt again as he was leaving the Exchequer, and had to be granted royal protection.38

In drawing up his will on 1 Oct. 1637, Wotton sought to ensure that his debts might be satisfied, while at the same time proclaiming his belief that he was one of the elect. He left five of his paintings and the correspondence of the Elizabethan diplomat Sir Nicholas Throckmorton† to the king, and also bequeathed pictures to Prince Charles, Archbishop Laud, lord treasurer Juxon and his ‘great friend’ Sir Francis Windebank†. Wotton died of a ‘quotidian’ fever on 5 Dec. 1639, the last of his family, and was buried in Eton College chapel, in accordance with his wishes, under an inscription recording that ‘the itch for controversy is the plague of the Church’.39

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Andrew Thrush


  • 1. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton ed. L. Pearsall Smith, i. 1-4, 7-45, 209.
  • 2. Ibid. 29-34.
  • 3. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 60, 143, 195, 228, 289-91.
  • 4. T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 3, p. 73.
  • 5. APC, 1615-16, p. 122.
  • 6. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, i. 27, 60.
  • 7. Ibid. 7, 28.
  • 8. Ibid. 11, 19, 41.
  • 9. Ibid. 29-34.
  • 10. Ibid. 40-1.
  • 11. Ibid. 49.
  • 12. Ibid. 18.
  • 13. Ibid. 111.
  • 14. Ibid. 91; T.K. Rabb, Jacobean Gent. 42-3.
  • 15. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, i. 82.
  • 16. Ibid. 17; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 17.
  • 17. Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, iii. 201; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 459; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 359.
  • 18. CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp.157, 167, 172; R. Strong, ‘Eng. and Italy: The Mar. of Henry, Prince of Wales’, For Veronica Wedgwood These: Studies in Seventeenth-Cent. Hist. ed. R. Ollard and P. Tudor-Craig.
  • 19. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, i. 126-7; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 157.
  • 20. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 85, 106.
  • 21. Chamberlain Letters, i. 532; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 311, 314-17.
  • 22. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 322, 346.
  • 23. Ibid. 428, 433; T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, i. 346.
  • 24. Chamberlain Letters, i. 538; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 440.
  • 25. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, ii. 36-7.
  • 26. C66/2035.
  • 27. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 277; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 113.
  • 28. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 543.
  • 29. CSP Dom. 1623-5, pp. 119, 201, 207-8, 307; Eg. 860, f. 113v; Smith, 204.
  • 30. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 615, 617.
  • 31. Procs. 1625, pp. 228. 240.
  • 32. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, ii. 295.
  • 33. C66/2438; Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 45.
  • 34. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, ii. 318-19.
  • 35. CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 592.
  • 36. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, i. 205.
  • 37. Ibid. 211, 223.
  • 38. Strafforde Letters, i. 388; LC5/134, f. 49.
  • 39. Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton, i. 215-16, 219, 223.