Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Wilson, Thomaslocked

  • Susan Doran
  •  and Jonathan Woolfson

Thomas Wilson (1523/44–1581)

by unknown artist, 1575

Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581), humanist and administrator, was born between August 1523 and January 1524, the eldest of five sons of Thomas Wilson (d. 1551), yeoman farmer, of Strubby, Lincolnshire, and his wife, Anne, daughter and heir of Roger Cumberworth of Cumberworth, Lincolnshire.

Education and early career, to 1560

Nothing is known of Wilson until 1537, when he became a king's scholar at Eton College. During his time there he established a lasting friendship with the humanist headmaster Nicholas Udall, whom he aided in a lawsuit in the court of chancery in 1553. From Eton, Wilson went to King's College, Cambridge, which was linked to the school; he matriculated on 13 August 1542 and was a fellow of the college from August 1545 until he received his BA, probably in 1547. At Cambridge he was strongly influenced by the protestant humanist circle led by John Cheke, and he became a friend of its most important members, including Thomas Smith, Roger Ascham, Nicholas Carr, and Walter Haddon. After proceeding MA in 1549 he became the private tutor of Henry and Charles Brandon, the sons of Katherine Brandon, duchess of Suffolk, who was also an ardent protestant. No doubt his Lincolnshire background and his protestant humanism helped him obtain the position, although it is also possible that the duchess had an earlier acquaintance with him or his family which helped his advancement. Wilson was also tutor to several of the children of John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, including Robert Dudley. He seems, briefly, to have been the duke's secretary.

The death of Martin Bucer in 1551 prompted Cheke to collect tributes in his honour. As a friend of Bucer, Wilson was asked to contribute some Latin verses. The same year, the two Brandon boys died of sweating sickness and in commemoration of them Wilson contributed a prose biography and several poems in Latin to a collection of Latin and Greek eulogies which he compiled with Haddon. The volume was dedicated to Henry Grey, duke of Suffolk. Following the death of the young Brandons, Wilson may have tutored their cousin Charles Willoughby, the son of William Willoughby, first Baron Willoughby of Parham. He certainly worked on The Rule of Reason, a manual on logic published in 1551, which he revised in 1552 and 1553, after receiving some suggestions from Sir Thomas Smith. He also worked on editing Haddon's oration Exhortatio ad literas, published in 1552, which contained Wilson's own Latin dedicatory poem to Edward VI and was dedicated to John Dudley, earl of Warwick. It is also possible that he returned to Lincolnshire for a time after 1551 in order to deal with the estates of his father who had died that year. He spent the summer of 1552 with Sir Edward Dymoke at his home in Scrivelsby, Lincolnshire, where he wrote The Arte of Rhetorique.

Soon after the accession of Mary I, Wilson followed many of his friends into exile, and went to study in the famous civil law faculty at the University of Padua. There he was again associated with Cheke, who had already taken up residence and whose lectures on Demosthenes's Orations he attended in 1555—Cheke's work formed the inspiration for Wilson's later translation of the Orations into English. At Padua he was also briefly connected with Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, whose funeral oration he delivered in the basilica of San Antonio on 21 September 1556. From Padua he moved to Rome, where in late 1557 he engineered an audience with Paul IV, delivering to him letters from Cardinal William Peto which probably concerned Peto's kinswoman Agnes Woodhull. Woodhull was the woman at the centre of the matrimonial dispute between John Chetwood and Charles Tyrell then being heard in Rome, Wilson acting as Chetwood's advocate. Perhaps because of a genuine intrigue, certainly because of the English authorities' desire to have the suit revoked to England against Woodhull's wishes, as well as their discomfort at having an English protestant operating at the court of Rome, in March 1558 the government summoned Wilson back to England at the urging of Sir Edward Carne, the English ambassador. Presumably fearing persecution at home, Wilson ignored the summons and subsequently it was probably Cardinal Reginald Pole who denounced him to the Roman Inquisition as a heretic. This led to his torture and imprisonment on the pretext of the protestant sentiment in his Rule of Reason and The Arte of Rhetorique; he languished in the Inquisitorial prison on via Ripetta for the best part of nine months, only escaping when a Roman crowd, indignant at the massive reach of the Inquisition under Paul IV, sacked and burnt down the prison on that pope's death on 18 August 1559. This, the most dramatic episode of Wilson's life, was recounted by him in the preface to the second edition of The Arte of Rhetorique (1560), which contains other anti-papal additions. It is probably not insignificant that Wilson later acted as an interrogator of Catholic plotters. In later life Wilson owned a picture of the Castel Sant'Angelo, the pope's fortified residence, a reminder, no doubt, of his Roman experiences. From Rome he probably moved directly to Ferrara, from which university he acquired a doctorate in civil law on 29 November 1559, before returning to England by September 1560. His doctorate in law was incorporated at Oxford University on 6 September 1566 and at Cambridge in 1571.

Return to England, 1560–1577

After his return to England, Wilson enjoyed a series of promotions through the patronage of Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, Sir William Cecil, and Sir Robert Dudley. Through Parker's influence, he was appointed master of the college of Stoke by Clare in Suffolk in 1560 and granted a licence on 28 February 1561 to be an advocate in the court of arches. The same year he was made a member of Doctors' Commons and a master in the court of requests. On 7 November 1561 he received the mastership of the royal hospital of St Katherine. Wilson was probably Dudley's client and was described as his chancellor in December 1560. He wrote to him in December 1562, as 'one who pertains to your lordship' (CSP for., 1562, 1308). Between 1560 and the end of 1561 Wilson married Agnes (d. 1574), daughter of John Winter, merchant and sea captain of Bristol, and his wife, Alice, and widow of William Brooke. The couple had one son, Nicholas, and two daughters, Mary and Lucrece, all born by 1565. Wilson lived in the master's lodge at St Katherine's until 1579. He was named of the quorum for Middlesex about 1564 and for Essex from about 1577.

With the support of Cecil and Dudley, Wilson was also able to begin a new career in royal service. One of his earliest and most regular duties was to act for the privy council in collaboration with other officials as an examiner of political prisoners, Catholics, and suspected traitors. Among the suspects he examined were John Hales in 1564, Antonio de Guaras in 1578, and the Catholic priest Edward Jackson in 1580. His most important examination was that of Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, and his fellow conspirators in the Ridolfi plot, an interrogation which he shared with Sir Thomas Smith and Sir Ralph Sadler.

Wilson was also active as a diplomat. He was recommended as ambassador to Spain in December 1562. Perhaps because of his wife's close family connections with English merchants trading with Portugal, he was chosen in June 1567 to present commercial grievances to Sebastian in Lisbon. He had an audience with the king on about 1 September and was the first English diplomatic agent to be sent to Portugal. During his time there he acted as a mediator in the scholarly dispute between his old friend Haddon and the Portuguese scholar Jerome Osorio. His mission was complete by about 1 November. On 13 May 1569 he asked to be sent as agent to Portugal once again, but without success; thereafter he was consulted as an expert in Portuguese affairs, often acting as an intermediary between Portuguese envoys in England and the government. Later on he became a spokesman for the interests of the pretender Dom Antonio.

In the mid-1570s Wilson went on two missions to the Low Countries. Between 5 November 1574 and 30 March 1575 he acted as a special ambassador to Don Luis Requesens, governor of the Low Countries, on a daily wage of £2 13s. 4d. His instructions were to settle some outstanding commercial difficulties, including implementation of the treaty of Bristol; to offer English mediation in the disputes between Spain and the Dutch rebels, which Requesens refused; to demand that English exiles be expelled from the Low Countries; and to request permission for Elizabeth I's subjects to use the Book of Common Prayer in the English House. Overall the mission had a degree of success: Requesens ordered the departure of the English exiles who had been involved in the northern uprising in 1569 and agreed to reopen the Scheldt to English shipping.

Wilson returned to the Low Countries from 20 October 1576 to about 13 July 1577. He was there during a period when a peace was being negotiated between Philip II's new governor, Don Juan, and his rebellious subjects. This time, Wilson was instructed to convey to all sides the queen's desire for a pacification and again to gather information and assist the English merchants based in the Low Countries. At the same time, he tried to secure the extradition of English rebels who were still taking refuge there. He was secretly instructed to discover whether the Brussels government would revolt. He met with the Spanish council and Philippe Cray-Aerschot III, duke of Aerschot, on 12 November 1576. Fearing that the French might exploit the political disturbances in the Low Countries for their own ends, Wilson tried to dissuade the states general and William of Orange from accepting any aid from François, duc d'Anjou. He sent advice home that Elizabeth should give aid to the states general and Orange. His view was shared by others at the English court, including Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary, and Dudley (now earl of Leicester), and in January 1577 a £20,000 loan arrived from the queen which Wilson passed over to the states general. Wilson remained in the Low Countries to monitor the making of the ‘perpetual edict’. He was not commissioned to treat with Don Juan until April 1577 but had an audience with him on 6 March. Wilson discovered and sent over Guaras's correspondence in Brussels in March, which led to the latter's arrest later in the year. During both his missions he channelled news to the English court not only about events in the Low Countries but also about the activities of English Catholic exiles. In his reports he provided clear and detailed information as well as sensible and realistic appraisals of the political situation. None the less, it was clear that he distrusted both Philip and Don Juan and admired William of Orange greatly. Wilson's wife died in June 1574 and in 1576 he married Jane (d. 1579), daughter of Richard Empson of London and widow of John Pinchon of Writtle, Essex.

Privy councillor, 1577–1581

It was probably Wilson's work as ambassador that earned him membership of the privy council on 12 November 1577 and his appointment as one of the queen's two principal secretaries, replacing Smith, who had died on 12 August. As secretary, he worked jointly with Walsingham, who had also been a student at Padua. The two men were closely associated and Wilson appointed Walsingham as an executor in his will. It is possible, though not certain, that some time before this appointment Wilson acted as the first ‘clerk of the papers’, with responsibility to keep the state papers in some kind of order. About 1578 there was an appointment as clerk of the papers of state by letters patent, although the recipient is unknown. Wilson's nephew, Sir Thomas Wilson (d. 1629), who later held this post, claimed his uncle oversaw the papers before he was made secretary, but no official patent of appointment exists for him and the elder Wilson may have been carrying out this work informally.

Wilson was secretary during the period when Elizabeth was debating whether or not to intervene in the Low Countries against Spain and considering marriage to Anjou. Wilson consistently supported a policy of intervention against Spain in the revolt of the Netherlands. In spring 1579 he wrote a manuscript in his own hand, entitled 'A discourse touching this kingdoms perils with their remedies', which reads as a statement of principles that he might have written for presentation to the privy council. Underpinning his vision of international affairs was the conviction that England's chief care was 'the glorie of God' and that consequently the country was engaged in an ideological struggle against international Catholicism. The remedy to the perils from Catholics was twofold: first to make them obey God and their sovereign; and second to unite in an international league of protestant princes. This would comprise Henri, king of Navarre, and Henri I de Bourbon, prince de Condé, in France, the states general and William of Orange in the Low Countries, and John Casimir and the protestant princes in Germany. James VI and the nobility of Scotland, he believed, would have to be assured by pensions. Yet despite this protestant world picture, in 1578 Wilson reluctantly supported the queen's proposal to marry the Catholic Anjou and in November 1579 he was one of the privy councillors appointed to negotiate a marriage treaty with the French.

Wilson was elected to the parliaments of 1563 and 1566 as MP for Mitchell in Cornwall. He represented the city of Lincoln in the parliaments of 1571 and 1572. His most notable speech was against usury in 1571, which was evidently very long, and in the same parliament he also spoke against vagabonds. In 1572 he delivered a strong speech in favour of the execution of Mary, queen of Scots, a position he was to hold until it was carried out in 1587. His hostility to Mary is also evident from his contribution to George Buchanan's De Maria Scotorum regina (1571), a pamphlet discrediting the Scottish queen.

On 28 January 1579, as a reward for his political service, Elizabeth appointed Wilson dean of Durham, an unusual position for a layman. Wilson never visited Durham—his installation was done by proxy—and he carried out his responsibilities by correspondence. The post, with its properties, was worth £666 per annum. Wilson also drew profits from two other managerial appointments: the parsonage of Mansfield in Nottinghamshire (1580) and the manor of Saltfleetby in Lincolnshire. These posts brought him substantial revenues, and he exploited them financially as best he could, although the story that he sold the choir of St Katherine's has been exposed as a myth. On his death he was a rich man and he appears to have managed his affairs with considerable business acumen; an extant inventory of his household goods drawn up in 1581 reveals his many possessions and fine tastes. In 1579 Wilson bought a twenty-room country estate, called Pymmes, in Edmonton in Middlesex; he had long sat as a JP for Middlesex. After the death of his second wife in 1579, Wilson's own health apparently declined, perhaps as a result of disease of the kidneys, but he continued attending privy council meetings until 3 May 1581. He wrote his will on 19 May, appointing Walsingham, his brother-in-law Sir William Winter (c. 1525–1589), and his 'cosen' Matthew Smith as executors. He died at St Katherine's on 20 May and was buried in the church there on 17 June.

Published works

Wilson's main claim to fame is his literary career, which began in 1551 with the printing of two works already mentioned, the Epistola de vita et obitus duorum fratrum Suffolciensium Henrici et Caroli Brandoni, and The Rule of Reason, dedicated to Edward VI. The Rule of Reason, the first logical treatise in English, went through a further four editions in the sixteenth century. It was followed in January 1554 by his most important work, The Arte of Rhetorique.

The Arte of Rhetorique represents an important and relatively early stage in the Tudor humanist endeavour of transmitting ancient learning in the English vernacular, one which can also be associated with Wilson's contemporaries at Cambridge, Smith, Cheke, and others. Wilson contributed to the debate on the vernacular by complaining about the importation of 'inkhorn' terms from other languages into English, indicating instead the Ciceronian and Erasmian preference for common usage as the basis of vernacular discourse. His was not the first book on rhetoric to be printed in English, having been preceded by Leonard Cox's Arte of Crafte of Rhethoryke (c.1532) and Richard Sherry's Treatise of Schemes and Tropes (1550), both of which Wilson drew on to a very limited extent. However, The Arte of Rhetorique was much more comprehensive than these, covering all the ancient parts of rhetoric and running to eight editions. Part of its appeal to aspiring clergy, administrators, politicians, and lawyers must have been its practical rather than theoretical approach—only invention, on which he was heavily dependent on Cicero, was accorded comprehensive theoretical treatment. Furthermore, the work contains vivid, humorous, and topical historical and anecdotal illustrations of rhetorical parts, which convey protestant, patriotic, and anti-papal feeling. The Arte of Rhetorique operates as a synthesis and adaptation of the major ancient rhetorical works, in particular the pseudo-Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium, Cicero's De oratore, Quintilian's Institutio oratoria, as well as various works of Erasmus, of whose efforts to reconcile Christian and pagan values Wilson was a protestant advocate. The work played an important role in transmitting these values both to a university audience increasingly interested, in the Elizabethan period, in vernacular learning, and also beyond it: Gabriel Harvey, a Cambridge man, commented in 1570 that Wilson's Rule of Reason and Arte of Rhetorique together were 'the dailie bread of owr common pleaders & discoursers' in the inns of court (Stern, 239).

Wilson's edition of Demosthenes's Orations, dedicated to Cecil and translated from Greek into English, appeared in 1570. Typical of his concern to apply humanist learning in practical ways, in Wilson's hands this work became a thinly disguised political allegory suggesting the virtues of an interventionist foreign policy: the tyrant Philip II of Macedon is implicitly compared to Philip II of Spain, and in the preface Wilson claimed that 'he that loves his country and desires to procure the welfare of it, let him read Demosthenes and he shall not want matter to do himself good'; readers 'should compare the time past with the time present, and ever when he heareth Athens or the Athenians, to remember England and Englishmen'. The campaign was continued by Wilson's friend Carr in his Latin translation of the same work in the following year.

Wilson followed this work with A Discourse upon Usury, which employed his commercial expertise gained as an ambassador—as well as his strong sense of Christian morality—to denounce the practices of usury and enclosure at length. Containing a dedicatory letter addressed from St Katherine's Hospital and dated 20 July 1569, it was first published in 1572. Though this was too late to have the desired effect, the book was again intended as an intervention in a political debate: usury was on the parliamentary agenda in 1571 and Wilson spoke on 19 April 1571 against the government bill which allowed English lenders a modest interest rate.

Wilson was both a highly competent royal servant and an influential humanist writer; his works were widely read and deeply respected by contemporaries. The Rule of Reason and The Arte of Rhetorique retain their interest today because of the light they throw on the attitudes of a typical protestant, humanist scholar of the mid-Tudor period and both works have consequently been reprinted since 1970.


  • CSP for., 1560–61; 1572–9
  • Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove [J. M. B. C. Kervyn de Lettenhove] and L. Gilliodts-van Severen, eds., Relations politiques des Pays-Bas et de l'Angleterre sous le règne de Philippe II, 11 vols. (Brussels, 1882–1900), vols. 7, 9–10
  • BL, Cotton MS Nero B.i, fols. 146r–149r
  • BL, Cotton MS Nero B.i, fol. 131r
  • J. Strype, Ecclesiastical memorials, 3 vols. (1822), vol. 3, appx, pp. 191–5
  • W. Murdin, A collection of state papers relating to affairs in the realm of Queen Elizabeth from … 1571 to 1596 (1759)
  • CSP Rome, 1558–78
  • A. J. Schmidt, ‘A treatise on England's perils, 1578’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte, 46 (1955), 243–9
  • A. J. Schmidt, ‘A household inventory, 1581’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 101 (1957), 459–80
  • CSP dom., 1547–90
  • BL, Lansdowne MS 982, fol. 2r
  • A. J. Schmidt, ‘Some notes on Dr Thomas Wilson and his Lincolnshire connections’, The Lincolnshire Historian, 2 (1957), 14–24
  • Arte of Rhetorique by Thomas Wilson, ed. T. J. Derrick (1982)
  • T. Wilson, The arte of rhetoric, ed. P. E. Medine (Pennsylvania State Univerisity Press, 1994)
  • A. J. Schmidt, ‘Thomas Wilson, Tudor scholar-statesman’, Huntington Library Quarterly, 20 (1956–7), 205–18
  • T. French Baumlin, ‘Thomas Wilson’, British rhetoricians and logicians, 1500–1660: first series, ed. E. A. Malone, DLitB, 236 (2001), 282–305
  • M. A. S. Hume, ed., Calendar of letters and state papers relating to English affairs, preserved principally in the archives of Simancas, 4 vols., PRO (1892–9)
  • CPR, 1560–66
  • A. W. Reed, ‘Nicholas Udall and Thomas Wilson’, Review of English Studies, 1 (1925), 275–83
  • T. E. Hartley, ed., Proceedings in the parliaments of Elizabeth I, 3 vols. (1981–95), vol. 1
  • C. Jamison, The history of the Royal Hospital of St Katharine by the Tower of London (1952)
  • C. H. Garrett, The Marian exiles: a study in the origins of Elizabethan puritanism (1938)
  • E. J. Baskerville, ‘Thomas Wilson and Sir Thomas Wilson at Cambridge’, N&Q, 225 (1980), 113–16
  • V. F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: his life, marginalia, and library (New York, 1979)


  • NRA, corresp. and papers
  • BL, Cotton MS Nero B.i.
  • TNA: PRO, state papers foreign


  • oils, 1575, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. Houbraken, line engraving, pubd 1738 (after F. Zucchero), BM, NPG
  • J. Goldar, line engraving, pubd 1784 (after F. Zucchero), NPG

Wealth at Death

see Schmidt, ‘Household inventory’

P. W. Hasler, ed., , 3 vols. (1981)
J. M. Rigg, ed., , 2 vols. (1916–26)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Notes and Queries
Historical Manuscripts Commission
Dictionary of Literary Biography
Public Record Office
W. B. Turnbull & others, eds., (1861–1950)