Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. 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).

Wadham [née Petre], Dorothyfree

  • C. S. L. Davies

Dorothy Wadham (1534/55–1618)

by unknown artist, 1595

The Lord Egremont. Photograph: Photographic Survey, Courtauld Institute of Art, London

Wadham [née Petre], Dorothy (1534/5–1618), founder of Wadham College, Oxford, was the second and eldest surviving child of Sir William Petre (1505/6–1572), then a civil and canon lawyer in the service of the crown, and of his wife, Gertrude (d. 1541), daughter of Sir John Tyrrell; a portrait of her at Wadham College gives her age as sixty in 1595. Her mother died on 28 May 1541, and Dorothy was thereafter brought up by Petre's second wife, Anne, also a Tyrrell by her first marriage. Petre was to be a principal secretary to Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Queen Mary from 1544 to 1557. Dorothy was presumably educated at home at Ingatestone Hall, Essex. A younger sister was sent away to service in a great lady's household, but if this was also Dorothy's experience, there is no record of it. In her old age she wrote a firm English hand, and apparently understood Latin. On 3 September 1555 she married Nicholas Wadham (1531/2–1609), gentleman, at St Botolph, Aldersgate, London; the wedding was a sumptuous one, with a good deal spent on clothes and jewellery.

Little is known of the next fifty years of Dorothy Wadham's life. The Wadhams lived at the family seat at Merrifield, near Ilton, Somerset. They had no children. The Petre connection probably strengthened their inclination to Catholicism. In 1612–13 Dorothy, then a widow, suffered the confiscation of her armoury as a suspected recusant, but in 1615 she was granted a formal pardon for offences under the 1593 act 'against Popish recusants'. Yet there is no hint of Catholic sympathies in Dorothy's will, or in her letters to her brother, John, Lord Petre, whom she habitually commends 'to the protection of the Almighty'. Nor did any such leanings prevent friendly relations with protestant gentry and clergy.

Dorothy's father had virtually refounded Exeter College in Oxford, and it is possible that the idea of founding an Oxford college came from Dorothy. However, she always professed to be acting solely to fulfil her husband's intention, 'for it would greatly offend my conscience to violate any jot of my husband's will' (Briggs, 64). Nicholas Wadham, however, left a confused situation following his death on 20 October 1609. Dorothy was his sole executor, charged with using the money he had put aside 'for such uses and purposes' as he had 'requested her and she hath assented to' (Wadham College muniments, 10/1/1). On the other hand, on his deathbed he had summoned the sometime surveyor of the ordnance and Essex conspirator, Sir John Davis, to confer about his plans with Dorothy and the Wadhams' two men of business; Davis induced Nicholas to sign an 'instrument' naming him as jointly responsible with Dorothy for carrying out the design. Davis's involvement threatened the whole scheme. He was a convicted traitor because of his role in the Essex conspiracy, and a recusant. Discussion on a bill for his restitution in blood in the 1610 parliament revealed that he still refused the Church of England sacrament. He may also have wished to subsume the Wadham foundation in his alma mater, Gloucester Hall, rather than, as Nicholas Wadham probably intended, taking over the assets of Gloucester Hall for the new college.

A month after Wadham's death Dorothy was writing to Lord Treasurer Salisbury angrily denying Davis's accusation that she had no intention of proceeding with her husband's project. An offer was made to Gloucester Hall but, probably to Dorothy's relief, was turned down by the principal unless he became head of the new college. There is no record of any offer, as Wadham had indicated, for an arrangement with Jesus College. Dorothy's agents identified a site for the college in February 1610, and an architect, William Arnold, was appointed. A letter from the king induced Oxford city council to lower its asking price. A collusive suit in chancery resulted in July 1610 in the establishment of a trust which excluded Davis. Dorothy's brother Lord Petre was important in mobilizing this support at Westminster, but Dorothy firmly rejected Petre's offer to take over the responsibility 'which my dear husband so solely and absolutely trusted me with' (Briggs, 62). On 20 December 1610 Wadham College received its royal letter patent. Statutes were drafted and approved by Dorothy in 1612, and the building was opened and the college formally instituted in April the next year. Dorothy had carried through a formidable task quickly and completely. She also added some £7270 of her own to her husband's contribution of £19,200.

The appointment of warden, fellows, and scholars, and even on occasion of the college cook, remained in Dorothy's hands, conveyed in a series of letters to 'my college' from Edge Manor, the Wadham dower house in Branscombe, Devon. They were written by John Arnold, her man of business, but signed by her, as were successive drafts of the statutes. She was anxious that these should be amended in the light of experience before she died, confessing that 'my experience in such matters is but small', and sending some drafts in English for translation into Latin (Letters of Dorothy Wadham, letters 18, 19). She never visited the college, whether from infirmity, or because of the travel restrictions imposed on recusants, and depended a good deal on Arnold. However, she retained a clear view of her mission in carrying out what she claimed, perhaps too modestly, to be her husband's design. She died on 16 May 1618, at Edge and was taken to Merrifield to be buried on 16 June with her husband in St Mary's Church, Ilminster.


  • C. S. L. Davies, ‘A woman in the public sphere: Dorothy Wadham and the foundation of Wadham College, Oxford’, EngHR, 118 (2003)
  • T. G. Jackson, Wadham College, Oxford (1893)
  • The letters of Dorothy Wadham, 1609–1618, ed. R. B. Gardiner (1904)
  • N. Briggs, ‘The foundation of Wadham College, Oxford’, Oxoniensia, 21 (1956), 61–81
  • F. G. Emmison, Tudor secretary: Sir William Petre at court and home (1961)
  • L. Stone, ‘The original endowment of Wadham College’, Wadham College Gazette, 146 (1959), 118–19
  • A. C. Edwards, John Petre (1975)
  • muniments, Wadham College, Oxford, 10/1/2 [Dorothy Wadham's will]
  • muniments, Wadham College, Oxford, 10/1/1 [Nicholas Wadham's will]


  • Wadham College, Oxford, corresp. relating to the college
  • Wadham College, Oxford, letters to first and second Baron Petre [photocopies]
  • Essex RO, Chelmsford, corresp.


  • portrait, 1595, Petworth House, West Sussex [see illus.]
  • follower of Custodis, oil on wood (aged about sixty), priv. coll.
  • carved statue, Wadham College, Oxford
  • funerary brass, St Mary's Church, Ilminster, Somerset

Wealth at Death

gave £7270 cash to Wadham College, Oxford, between 1609 and 1618; left c.£1000 cash disbursements; also plate, jewels; income in widowhood presumably derived from land held in trust for her, value £400 p.a.; total estate from Nicholas seemingly £22,200: Stone, ‘Original endowment of Wadham College’; Briggs, ‘Foundation of Wadham College’, 78–9; will, muniments, Wadham College, 10/1/2

English Historical Review