- Dakota L. Hamilton
Thomas, William (d. 1554), scholar, administrator, and alleged traitor, was of unknown parentage but almost certainly of Welsh descent. On 1 February 1552 a William Thomas received a grant of arms in which he was described as a gentleman from Llantomas, the seat of the Thomas family in the parish of Llanigon in Brecknockshire. On the basis of a comment that William Thomas made in 1545, in which he attributed an attempted embezzlement scheme to the 'fragilite and slipperiness of youth', it seems likely that he was in his early twenties at the time and in the service of Sir Anthony Browne, master of the horse (Adair, 133).
Early years and travels, 1540–1550
Nothing is known of his education but Thomas clearly understood Latin and he quickly became fluent in Italian (thanks at least in part to the three years he spent in Italy in the mid-1540s). There are also references to classical texts in his later writing, and all of this speaks to his having received a formal education of some kind. It was once thought that he was the William Thomas who was admitted to the University of Oxford as a bachelor of canon law on 2 December 1529, but this identification has been discredited. Thomas might well have spent time at the university, but there is no definitive record of his having done so. Thomas was married by 19 May 1540, probably to Margaret (d. in or before 1551), sister of David Watkyns of Hereford. William and Margaret Thomas were mentioned in a grant on 13 September 1544. She may have died by the time Thomas fled to Italy in early 1545, as no mention was made of her during the three years he spent abroad or even after he had returned home. He married, by 1553, his second wife, Thomasine (b. c.1512, d. in or after 1579), daughter of Thomas Mildmay of Chelmsford in Essex and his wife, Agnes, and widow of Anthony Bourchier of London (d. 1551). Sir Walter Mildmay (1520/21–1589) was his brother-in-law. There is no record of children from his first marriage, but his second wife and he had at least one surviving child, Anne.
Thomas's name was common enough to make identifying him firmly in the records between 1540 and 1545 a difficult task. He was probably involved in the dissolution of at least one religious house, the nunnery of Lynebroke, in May 1540 and this might very well have meant that he had come to the attention of Sir Richard Rich, who noted in a letter of 16 February that a William Thomas was living in a Fleet Street tenement formerly belonging to the white friars in London. This property is very likely the messuage called the Blacke Swann. Thomas may also have been the man who was in May 1540 granted a 21-year lease on Hay-on-Wye rectory, on the Welsh border, and the proximity of the property to Llanigon makes the connection more likely. Similarly, he probably was the person who, on 21 January 1542, was appointed a clerk of the peace and of the crown for the neighbouring counties of Brecknockshire, Radnor, and Montgomeryshire, who, on 23 February 1543, was given the next presentation to the vicarage of Sturminster Newton in Dorset with two other people, and who was living in St Saviour's parish in Southwark, Surrey, by 13 September 1544. This last residence is very likely the property that was reported by Watkyns in February 1554 as having been sequestrated by Mary I.
What kind of duties Thomas carried out for Browne is unclear. What is certain is that he was trusted sufficiently to have access to large sums of Browne's money. Facing gambling debts of some kind Thomas stole some of this and set off for Italy. Along the way he deposited the funds with Acelyne Salvago, an Italian banker, receiving in return bills of exchange that he could cash in once he reached Venice. By 13 February 1545 a servant of Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford, was in hot pursuit, and on 25 March letters were sent to Edmund Harvel, Henry VIII's ambassador in Venice, warning him to be on the look-out for Thomas. By the time he reached Venice on 10 April, coincidentally the same day Harvel received his instructions from London, Thomas had had second thoughts about the whole affair and went immediately to the English ambassador to confess his indiscretions. Payment was stopped on the bills of exchange and Thomas put in prison. Harvel, though, convinced early on of Thomas's contrition, twice wrote to the privy council on his behalf. At a privy council meeting held on 31 May it was decided that Harvel should return the bills to Salvago so that the banker might repay the stolen money to Browne.
Thomas was eventually released from prison though how he supported himself is unclear. He travelled extensively around Italy and was in Bologna, on his way from Florence to Venice, when news of the king's death reached him in February 1547. Once back in Venice he undertook a written defence of Henry, and its purpose may have been to restore Thomas to the good graces of the new government. The tract, which was entitled 'Peregryne', referring to his peregrinations, took the then popular form of a dialogue, in this case between the narrator and several gentlemen of Bologna. Thomas later translated the manuscript into Italian for publication in Italy as Ill pellegrino Inglese (1552), but the original English tract did not appear in print until the eighteenth century. A copy of this tract, which may actually be the original itself, is preserved in the British Library (BL, Cotton MS Vespasian D. xviii).
Thomas spent Christmas 1547 in Rome, and from his critical commentary on Paul III's procession into St Peter's, which he made in a later publication, along with his spirited defence of Henry in 'Peregryne', his religious sensibilities can be classified as protestant. Soon afterwards John Tamworth commissioned Thomas to write an Italian grammar and short dictionary so that he might better learn the language. Thomas had finished this task by 3 February 1548 and he forwarded the work to his patron from Padua. Thomas based his work on Alberto Accarigi's Vocabulario, grammatica, et orthographia de la lingua volgare and Francesco Alunno's Le richezze della lingua volgare, both of which had first been published in 1543. Tamworth thought the work so important that he eventually sent it to his brother-in-law, Mildmay, so that it might be published. Thomas Berthelet, the king's printer, published it in 1550 as Principal rules of the Italian grammar, with a dictionarie for the better understandyng of Boccace, Petrarcha, and Dante. Principal rules had the distinction of being the first Italian dictionary and book of grammar published in English, and it was reprinted in 1562 and 1567.
Informal royal tutor and clerk of the privy council, 1550–1553
By the time that Principal rules was published Thomas was back in England, having arrived there probably after the death on 28 April 1548 of his former master, Browne. Some time after his return Thomas finished The historie of Italie, a boke excedyng profitable to be rede: because it intreateth of the astate of many and divers common weales, how thei have ben & now be governed, begun probably during his final months abroad, since he mentions witnessing the papal procession at Christmas 1547. Berthelet published the work after 20 September 1549, the date of the dedicatory preface. By then, in the aftermath of the western rebellion and Kett's rebellion, Thomas could see which way the political wind was blowing, and he dedicated his work not to Hertford (now duke of Somerset and lord protector), but rather to John Dudley, earl of Warwick. It was a timely work. As Thomas explained at length in the dedicatory preface, The historie of Italie provided examples of both good and bad governance, and suggested ways to achieve the one and to avoid the other. He was pragmatic in his approach, and he owed not a little to Niccolò Machiavelli, who was actually mentioned in Thomas's section on Florence. Thomas also seems to have been influenced by the Memoires of Philippe de Commynes, a Burgundian and French diplomat. Copies of The historie of Italie may have been burnt at the time of Thomas's execution as commentary on his treason, but reissues of the work in 1561 and 1562 testify to its lasting popularity.
The next two years of Thomas's life are obscure. By 23 January 1552 he was returned for Old Sarum in Wiltshire in a by-election through the patronage of William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke. Sitting in Edward VI's first parliament, even though probably late in its session, may have contributed to his being returned to the March 1553 parliament for Downton in Wiltshire. Who his patron on the second occasion was is uncertain, although it was probably Pembroke again. In 1549 Thomas dedicated his book The Vanitie of this World, published by Berthelet, to Anne Herbert, William Herbert's wife. Pembroke exercised influence over Downton as a leading Wiltshire landowner, especially after Somerset's execution. Thomas was clerk of the privy council by 1552 and favoured by Warwick (now duke of Northumberland), who may have played some role in getting him returned for Downton. It is also possible that he knew John Ponet, bishop of Rochester, who was patron of the Downton seat, and approached him directly. Curiously enough the earliest description of a parliamentary division, or rather vote, occurs in Thomas's tract, 'Peregryne'. This seeming firsthand knowledge of parliamentary procedures suggests that he may have sat in an earlier parliament (perhaps one for which there are no surviving returns), or at the very least had good friends who did.
It really is not until Thomas's appointment as clerk of the privy council on 29 April 1550 that he can be more clearly tracked in the records. His duty was to keep a detailed record of decisions made by the privy council. That he was previously engaged in other official affairs is perhaps suggested by the fact that the privy council discharged him from 'all other maner of businesse' so that he might give full attention to his duties as clerk (APC, 1550–52, 4). The privy council's trust in him was further demonstrated in their order that the treasurers were not to pay out money unless authorizing warrants carried Thomas's signature, and this was regardless of whoever else might have signed them. For his labours Thomas received a salary of £33 6s. 8d. This was raised to £40 in May 1552. As was customary Thomas also received payments for the basic supplies of his office, such as paper, pens, and ink. The crown further assumed travel expenses related to the performance of his office, as when, for example, he was appointed secretary for the embassy of William Parr, marquess of Northampton, whose mission into France from 24 April to 12 August 1551 was to negotiate a marriage between the king and Henri II's daughter, Elizabeth, as a way of assuring the new amity between the two realms.
In spite of the strict instructions issued by the privy council on his appointment as clerk, Thomas made entries in the conciliar register only to the end of August 1550, at which point other hands appear in the records. Presumably these several hands represented secretaries who worked under Thomas's direction, transcribing notes taken by him during privy council meetings. In addition to the possibility that other official duties took Thomas away from making regular entries in the register the introduction of these new hands may also indicate the point at which he became a mentor, albeit at a distance, to the king.
How it came to pass that Thomas wrote eighty-five questions and several related essays for the benefit of Edward's political education is, as with so much in his life, something of a mystery. Thomas himself cultivated an air of secrecy about the relationship, asking the king to keep to himself the advice which he proffered, and to send whatever questions he might have through Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a gentleman of the privy chamber. This secrecy, however, may have been more apparent than real, and may reflect a strategy on Northumberland's part to introduce the young king surreptitiously to the art of governing. It seems highly unlikely that, given the alleged attempt by Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley, to kidnap the king in 1549, Northumberland or anyone else in a position of power would have been ignorant of these kinds of exchanges.
The eighty-five questions, which Thomas called 'Common places of state', addressed issues related primarily to the power and authority of rulers. He produced at least six discourses in response to the king's interest in some of these topics, and several of them were infused with Machiavellian political philosophy, complete with emphasis on practical and pragmatic action. Indeed, Thomas's work on Italian subjects generally probably influenced his thoughts on the issue of governance. However, the discourse that seems most to have caught the king's attention concerned the reform of the coinage. Years of debasement under Henry had seriously undermined the royal finances, and Thomas urged immediate reform, which he estimated would cost 12 pence on the pound. When Edward received different but equally vehement opinions on the subject Thomas stood his ground, arguing that although it was an expensive remedy it was necessary to economic stability. Thomas's letters on the coinage probably coincided with the king's 'Chronicle' entries and the privy council's discussions on the subject in September and October 1551. This would mean that Thomas's 'Common places' and at least his opinions on the coinage were composed during the late summer and early autumn.
Thomas was also at work on other literary projects during the last years of Edward's reign. In 1551 he made a translation of the thirteenth-century text De sphaera for Henry Brandon, second duke of Suffolk. Interestingly, he used the preface of this translation to advocate serious study of the English language. The slavish attention to learning Latin in the schoolroom came at the expense of English, and this he greatly lamented. The same year Berthelet published another of Thomas's translations, which appeared as An argument, wherin the apparaile of women is both reproved and defended. As a new year's present (probably for 1551 but possibly for 1552 or 1553), Thomas presented the king with a manuscript translation, 'The narration of Josaphat Barbaro, citezein of Venice, in twoo voyages, made th'one into Tana and th'other into Persia' (BL, Royal MS 17 C x), which had originally been printed in 1543.
In addition to prospering politically and socially, Thomas enjoyed an improvement in his finances. Between January 1551 and March 1553 he acquired a considerable amount of property, and the right to exploit other land, in Sussex, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, the Welsh marches, and especially Herefordshire. One of these purchases was offset by a generous royal grant of £248. By 26 January 1552 Thomas was one of the coroners for Gloucestershire, though how long he held the post is unknown. In August he applied for, and was granted, a commission to try pirates within the Cinque Ports. Thomas's activities, however, were not always successful or unimpeded. On 13 July 1551 the privy council turned down his application for the reversion of the auditorship of Sussex on the grounds that such appointments were a drain on the crown's finances. This rejection was tempered with the promise that he would nevertheless have the first vacancy that became available. About the same time Thomas's pursuit of an ecclesiastical appointment caused friction with Nicholas Ridley, bishop of London. Both men coveted the presentation of the prebend of Cantleurs at St Paul's Cathedral and they used what influence they had to thwart the other: Ridley approached the king's tutor, Sir John Cheke, for help in July 1551, writing on the 23rd that Thomas had 'in times past set the council upon me' in his attempts to obtain the presentation (Works of Nicholas Ridley, 331–2). Although the privy council initially favoured Thomas in the dispute, one of Ridley's clients, though not the one he originally intended, was appointed to the living on 24 October.
It would seem as though Thomas also pursued some kind of appointment abroad. In a letter he sent to Sir William Cecil on 14 August 1552 Thomas expressed an interest in returning to Venice for a year or two, so long as he was sent there, presumably, in some official capacity. No action seems to have been taken on his offer. By 31 March 1553 Thomas had surrendered the clerkship, though he continued in the employ of the privy council. In mid-June he carried letters to London from Charles V's court, and he was still connected with the privy council in the opening days of Mary's reign.
Wyatt's rebellion, 1553–1554
Thomas's official connection with the privy council appears to have ended after August 1553, and it may be that he resigned or was relieved of his duties about that time. He was fully aware of what Mary's accession meant to religious reformers, and when his friend Thomas Hancock was omitted from the queen's first general pardon for his outspoken criticism of Catholicism, Thomas advised him to flee the country. Soon disaffection over the queen's proposed marriage to Philip of Spain became widespread and by the end of the year he was involved at the very least in discussions about deposing Mary, and possibly about assassinating her as well. The motives of this group, which included Sir Thomas Wyatt the younger, are difficult to gauge, though they seem to have been mainly political rather than religious, concerned as they were with the queen's marriage to a foreign prince.
Most of what is known about Thomas's involvement in Wyatt's rebellion is from testimony given under duress by those involved. Supposedly on 21 December, Thomas met Sir Nicholas Arnold and broached with him how the queen's marriage might be prevented. He even reputedly suggested assassinating Mary, and nominated John Fitzwilliam for the job. Arnold told Sir James Croft about Thomas's proposal, and Croft repeated it to Wyatt. Both men later confessed to having been appalled at the suggestion, so much so that Wyatt claimed he carried a cudgel around with him for four or five days so that he might beat Thomas with it if he came across him. It is unclear whether or not Thomas knew of these conversations, as on 27 December he reputedly met Sir Peter Carew at Mohun's Ottery in Devon; Carew was supposed to lead an uprising in the south-west concurrent with Wyatt's in Kent. Carew was ordered to appear before the privy council on 2 January 1554, word of the conspiracy having leaked, and he fled to France on 25 January. Thomas remained in England and travelled to the home of John a Mynde in Bagendon, Gloucestershire, with his former brother-in-law, Watkyns, in tow. While recovering from some illness Thomas sent Watkyns to London on 9 February with a letter for his wife. During his absence Mynde reported that Thomas expressed the hope that his views on the subject of her marriage had not offended the queen. Watkyns returned on 14 February with a letter for Thomas and the news that Mary had sequestrated his house in Southwark. Thomas attributed this action to the rumour that he had fled with Carew, although as he explained to Mynde, his contact with him had been innocent enough, merely the completion of a sale between the two of them. Almost immediately Thomas set out for London with one of his tenants, Thomas Fowler, and Watkyns. Watkyns rode with them part of the way before returning to Mynde and eventually going on to Hereford. Fowler parted company with Thomas at Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. He later noted in his deposition that Thomas had shaved his beard by this point, perhaps by way of a disguise.
By 20 February Thomas had been arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Two days later depositions had been taken from his contacts in Gloucestershire. On the night of 25 February Thomas attempted to kill himself by thrusting a knife into his chest, but he succeeded only in hurting himself and delaying his indictment and trial for treason. As he recovered in the Tower Arnold, Croft, Wyatt, and several others involved in the uprising bandied his name about freely to their interrogators. There is some question about the degree of his guilt in this whole business. Throckmorton, who was also arrested for complicity in Wyatt's rebellion, demanded at his trial to be allowed to call Fitzwilliam in his defence, saying that Arnold was trying to save his own skin by accusing him and Thomas of plotting to murder the queen. It is probably significant that Fitzwilliam was not in the Tower along with everyone else but rather at court, presumably ready to confirm Throckmorton's statements. That the royal officials refused to allow him to testify suggests that they believed Fitzwilliam would indeed clear Throckmorton and Thomas of the charges.
Nevertheless Thomas was formally indicted on 8 May of having encompassed Mary's death. He pleaded not guilty, though his defence in response to the charges has not survived. What does survive, however, in the notes of a contemporary judge, is Thomas's objection to the status of the jurors on his case, who he claimed were not his peers. It was quickly decided, though, that while Thomas was an esquire, merchants and other commoners worth £2 per annum in land or £100 in goods could sit in judgment on cases involving treason. Thomas was convicted, and on 18 May he was drawn on a hurdle from the Tower to Tyburn, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. His head was placed on London Bridge while the rest of him was displayed over Cripplegate. For their part, Arnold, Croft, and Carew all escaped punishment. On 13 December some of Thomas's property interests were restored to his widow on compassionate grounds. She was still pursuing some of her husband's forfeited rights a couple of years later, specifically the presentation to the prebend of Nonnington in the diocese of Hereford, which had been granted by the queen to Henry Walshe. Thomasine Thomas wanted to present the living to Mynde, and she and Walshe fought over the issue in court. In 1563 Anne Thomas was restored in blood, and on 18 April 1566 she received yet more property formerly belonging to her father.
By the end of Edward's reign William Thomas had become a moderately wealthy man with property in London but especially in the marches. Further, he had acquired administrative experience locally and in central government. He had already made a significant contribution in popularizing the Italian language and Italy's history and culture in England and might have continued to do so had he lived longer. However, he was an impetuous man, and his rash actions, even though almost immediately regretted, ultimately cost him his life.
- ‘Six discourses’ and ‘Peregryne’, BL, Cotton MS, Vespasian D. xviii, fols. 2r–46v
- BL, Cotton MS, Titus B. ii, ‘Common place of state’
- ‘Travels to Tana and Persia’, BL, Royal MS 17 C x
- J. Strype, Ecclesiastical memorials, 3 vols. (1822), vol. 2/1 (1822)
- HoP, Commons, 1509–58, 3.439–43
- E. R. Adair, ‘William Thomas: a forgotten clerk of the privy council’, Tudor studies presented … to Albert Frederick Pollard, ed. R. W. Seton-Watson (1924), 133–60
- LP Henry VIII, vols. 15–16, 18–20
- CPR, 1549–55, 1563–6
- CSP dom., 1547–58, 1601–3, with addenda, 1547–79
- Deputy keeper's reports. Reports of the deputy keeper of the Public Record Office, 4 (1843)
- JHL, 1 (1509–77)
- APC, 1542–7, 1550–54
- The diary of Henry Machyn, citizen and merchant-taylor of London, from ad 1550 to ad 1563, ed. J. G. Nichols, CS, 42 (1848)
- Literary remains of King Edward the Sixth, ed. J. G. Nichols, 2 vols., Roxburghe Club, 75 (1857)
- The chronicle and political papers of King Edward VI, ed. W. K. Jordan (1966)
- P. J. Laven, ‘Life and writings of William Thomas’, MA diss., U. Lond., 1954
- J. Dyer, Reports on cases in the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth (1794)
- The works of Nicholas Ridley, sometime bishop of London, martyr, 1555, ed. H. Christmas, Parker Society (1843)
- J. G. Nichols, ed., The chronicle of Queen Jane, and of two years of Queen Mary, CS, old ser., 48 (1850)
- J. G. Nichols, ed., Narratives of the days of the Reformation, CS, old ser., 77 (1859)
- D. M. Loades, Two Tudor conspiracies (1965)
- D. M. Loades, John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, 1504–1553 (1996)
- Emden, Oxf., vol. 4
- The works of William Thomas, clerk of the privy council in the year 1549, ed. A. D'Aubant (1774)
- BL, ‘Six discourses’ and ‘Peregryne’, Cotton MS, Vespasian D. xviii
- BL, ‘Common place of state’, Cotton MS, Titus B. ii
- BL, ‘Travels to Tana and Persia’, Royal MS 17 C x
Wealth at Death
executed traitor; probably forfeit; had been moderately wealthy; property in London, Sussex, Worcestershire, Gloucestershire, Welsh marshes, and especially Herefordshire: LP Henry VIII, 19/1, 1035 (15); 16, p. 719, May 1540; 19/1, 9.80 (24), (64), early 1544; 19/2, 9.340 (23), Sept 1544; CPR, 1549–51, 421–2; 1550–53, 47, 129, 264–5; APC, Jan 1551–Oct 1552, 153; CPR, 1553, 4 (31 March 1553)
property restored to widow: CPR, 1555–7, 176–7 (13 Dec 1554)
property restored to daughter: CPR, 1563–6