Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Thomas (1525?-1581)
WILSON, THOMAS (1525?–1581), secretary of state and scholar, born about 1525, was son of Thomas Wilson of Strubby, Lincolnshire, by his wife Anne, daughter and heiress of Roger Cumberworth of Cumberworth in the same county (cf. Harl. MS. 6164, f. 42b). He was educated at Eton, whence in 1541 he was elected scholar of King's College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1545–6 and M.A. in 1549. Sir John Cheke [q. v.] was elected provost of King's on 1 April 1548, and Wilson came under the influence of the revival of the study of Greek led by Cheke, Sir Thomas Smith (1513–1577) [q. v.], and others, through whom he became intimate with Roger Ascham. His Lincolnshire neighbours Katherine Willoughby, duchess of Suffolk, Sir Edward Dymock, and Cecil also furthered his advance, and the Duchess of Suffolk appointed him tutor to her two sons, Henry and Charles Brandon (successively dukes of Suffolk), who divided their time between Cambridge and Holbeach's episcopal palace at Bugden (Addit. MS. 5815, f. 41). On their death Wilson collaborated with Walter Haddon [q. v.], another Etonian, in producing ‘Vita et Obitus Duorum Fratrum Suffolciensium, Henrici et Caroli Brandoni … duabus epistolis explicata,’ London, 1551, 4to. Wilson wrote the dedication to Henry Grey, created Duke of Suffolk on 11 Oct. in that year, the first epistle, and several of the copies of verses at the end of the volume. It was published by Richard Grafton [q. v.], who had helped Wilson at Cambridge, and suggested to him his treatise ‘The Rule of Reason, conteinynge the Arte of Logique set forth in Englishe …’ which was also published by Grafton in the same year (London, 8vo) and dedicated to Edward VI. The first edition is very rare, and the copy in the British Museum has manuscript notes by Sir Thomas Smith; a second edition appeared in 1552, a third in 1553, and others in 1567 and 1580; the third edition contains a passage from Nicholas Udall's ‘Ralph Roister Doister,’ which is reprinted in Wood's ‘Athenæ’ (ed. Bliss, i. 213–14). Wilson also wrote in 1552 a dedication to Warwick, the Duke of Northumberland's eldest son, of Haddon's ‘Exhortatio ad Literas.’
According to John Gough Nichols, Wilson's ‘Arte of Rhetorique’ was published at the same time as, and uniform with, the ‘Rule of Reason,’ but the earliest edition of which any copy is known to be extant is dated ‘mense Januarii 1553.’ It is entitled ‘The Arte of Rhetorique, for the use of all suche as are studious of eloquence, sette forthe in Englishe by Thomas Wilson,’ London, 4to; it bears no printer's name. Wilson describes it as being written when he was ‘having in my country this last summer a quiet time of vacation with Sir Edward Dymock.’ The copy of the first edition in the British Museum was given to George Steevens [q. v.] by Dr. Johnson. A second edition appeared in 1562 (London, 4to; prologue dated 7 Dec. 1560), and subsequent editions in 1567, 1580, 1584, and 1585, all in quarto. Warton describes it as ‘the first system of criticism in our language,’ though in the common use of the word it is not criticism at all, but a system of rhetoric without much claim to originality, the rules being mainly drawn from Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian. Wilson, however, did good service by his denunciation of pedantry, ‘strange inkhorn terms,’ and the use of French and ‘Italianated’ idiom, which ‘counterfeited the kinges Englishe’ (Hallam, Lit. of Europe, ii. 193, 209; Brydges, Censura. Lit. i. 339, ii. 2). In this way Wilson may have stimulated the development of English prose, and it has been maintained that Shakespeare himself owes something, including hints for Dogberry's character, to a study of Wilson's book (Drake, Shakespeare and his Time, i. 440–1, 472–4).
The ‘Arte of Rhetorique’ was dedicated to Northumberland's eldest son, John Dudley, earl of Warwick, and from this time Wilson became a staunch adherent of the Dudley family, his especial patron in later years being the Earl of Leicester. On Northumberland's fall he sought safety on the continent; in 1555 he was with Cheke at Padua, where on 21 Sept. 1556 he delivered, in St. Anthony's Church, an oration on the death of Edward Courtenay, earl of Devon, which is printed in Strype's ‘Memorials’ (vol. iii. App. p. lvii). Thence he seems to have proceeded to Rome before December 1557, when he was implicated in some intrigue at the papal court against Cardinal Pole (Cal. State Papers, For. 1553–8, pp. 345, 374, 380). On 17 March 1557–8 Philip and Mary wrote commanding him to return home and appear before the privy council before 15 June following (ib. Dom. 1547–80, p. 100). The English ambassador, Sir Edward Carne, delivered him this letter in April, but Wilson paid no attention; and it was possibly at Mary's instigation that he was arrested and charged before the inquisition with having written the books on logic and rhetoric, and with being a heretic. He is said to have been put to torture, and he owed his escape to a riot which broke out on the news of Paul IV's death on 18 Aug. 1559, when the mob, enraged at the severities of the inquisition, broke open the prisons and released suspected heretics (ib. For. 1558–9, No. 1287; Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique, ed. 1562, pref.) He now took refuge at Ferrara, where he received his diploma as LL.D. on 29 Nov. 1559 (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. App. p. 305); he was incorporated in this degree at Oxford on 6 Sept. 1566, and at Cambridge on 30 Aug. 1571 (Lansd. MS. 982, f. 2; Reg. Univ. Oxon. i. 264; Addit. MS. 5815, f. 41).
In 1560 Wilson returned to London, whence on 7 Dec. he dated the preface to the second edition of his ‘Arte of Rhetorique;’ he was admitted advocate in the court of arches by a commission from Archbishop Parker dated 28 Feb. 1560–1 (Lansd. MS. 982, f. 3); and Parker also seems to have appointed him dean of the college he founded at Stoke Clare, Suffolk (Addit. MS. 5815, f. 42). In January 1560–1 he spoke of being ‘summoned to serve abroad’ (Cal. State Papers, For. 1560–1, No. 930), but no trace of the nature of this mission has been found. In the same year he became master of St. Catherine's Hospital in the Tower, and also master of requests (Leadam, Court of Requests, 1897, pp. xlv, cvii, cix, cxx). In the former capacity he incurred some odium by taking down the choir of St. Catherine's, said by Stow to have been as large as that of St. Paul's, and apparently it was only Cecil's intervention that prevented his selling the franchises of the hospital. He was returned for Michael Borough in Cornwall to the parliament summoned to meet on 11 Jan. 1562–3 and dissolved on 2 Jan. 1566–7. In April 1564 he was commissioned with Dr. Valentine Dale [q. v.] to examine John Hales (d. 1571) [q. v.] about his book advocating the claims of Lady Catherine Grey to the succession (Hatfield MSS. vol. i. passim). On new year's day 1566–7 he presented to the queen an ‘Oratio de Clementia,’ now extant in the British Museum (Royal MS. 12 A. 1).
In 1563 Sir Thomas Chaloner had urged Wilson's appointment as ambassador to the court of Spain, but Wilson's first diplomatic employment of any note was his mission to Portugal in 1567; it dealt mainly with commercial matters, and Wilson's energies were largely devoted to furthering in Portugal the mercantile interests of his brother-in-law, Sir William Winter [q. v.] His commission was apparently dated 6 May 1567 (Cal. Clarendon Papers, i. 494), but it was October before he had his first interview at Lisbon (Cotton. MS. Nero B. i. 142). While there he entered into relations with Osorio da Fonseca, the well-known bishop of Silves, and on his return in 1568 Wilson brought with him the bishop's reply to Haddon (cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. App. p. 363, and art. Haddon, Walter). In July he addressed some Latin verses to Cecil on his recovery from illness. On 13 May 1569 he vainly requested to be again sent as agent to Portugal (Lansd. MS. xii., art. 3), and he generally acted as intermediary between Portuguese envoys in London and the English government. As a thoroughgoing adherent of Leicester he also participated in the earl's secret negotiations with the Spanish ambassador (Cal. Simancas Papers, 1569–78, pp. 61 sqq.)
In the intervals of these occupations and his duties as master of requests Wilson busied himself with his translation of ‘The Three Orations of Demosthenes, chiefe orator among the Grecians in favour of the Olynthians … with those his four Orations … against King Philip of Macedonie; most nedeful to be redde in these daungerous dayes of all them that loue their countries libertie and desire to take warning for their better auayle … After these Orations ended, Demosthenes lyfe is set foorth;’ it also contains a description of Athens and various panegyrics on Demosthenes. The translation had been begun at Padua in 1556 with Cheke, and Wilson seems to have resumed it in November 1569 (Lansd. MS. xiii. art. 15; Letters of Eminent Lit. Men, pp. 28–9), but the preface was not dated till 10 June 1570, in which year the book was published with a dedication to Cecil (London, 4to). The preface contains ‘a remarkable comparison of England with Athens in the time of Demosthenes,’ the part of Philip of Macedon being filled by Philip of Spain (Seeley, British Policy, 1894, i. 156); it is similar to the ‘Latin treatise on the Dangerous State of England,’ on which Wilson speaks of being engaged on 13 Aug. 1569 (Lansd. MS. xiii. art. 9), and which is now extant in the Record Office (State Papers, Dom. Eliz. cxxiii. 17), being dated 2 April 1578, and entitled ‘A Discourse touching the Kingdom's Perils with their Remedies.’ To this is to be attributed the curious story contributed probably by Dr. Johnson to the ‘Literary Magazine’ (1758, p. 151), to the effect that Wilson was employed by the government to translate Demosthenes with a view to rousing a national resistance to Spanish invasion (Addit. MS. 5815, f. 42). Apart from its political significance, Wilson's translation is notable as the earliest English version of Demosthenes, and attains a high level of scholarship; no second edition, however, appears to have been called for, though a Latin version by Nicholas Carr [q. v.], who died in 1568, was published in 1571. At the same time Wilson was engaged upon his ‘Discourse uppon usurye by waye of Dialogue and Oracions,’ which he dedicated to Leicester. The preface is dated 20 July 1569, but the book was not published until 1572 (London, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1584). It was one of the numerous sixteenth-century attacks upon interest based mainly on biblical texts which proved absolutely unavailing against the economic tendencies of the time, but it is of some value as illustrating various phases of contemporary opinion on the subject (Ashley, Econ. Hist. ii. 467–9); Jewel bestowed upon it his warm commendation, and on Jewel's death Wilson contributed a copy of verses to the collection published in his memory (London, 1573, 4to).
Less congenial work occupied Wilson during the autumn of 1571; on 7 Sept. he conveyed the Duke of Norfolk to the Tower, and for the next few weeks he did ‘nothing else but examine prisoners’ (Cal. Simancas MSS. 1568–79, p. 339). On the 15th he received a warrant to put two of Norfolk's servants to the rack (Ellis, Orig. Letters, i. ii. 261), and so engrossing was this occupation that he took up his residence, and wrote letters ‘from prison in the Bloody Tower’ (Cotton. MS. Calig. C. iii. f. 260; Hatfield MSS. i. 571 sqq.). He also conducted many of the examinations in connection with the Ridolfi plot, and in June 1572 was sent with Sir Ralph Sadler [q. v.] to Mary Queen of Scots ‘to expostulate with her by way of accusation’ (ib. ii. 19; instructions in Egerton MS. 2124, f. 4). He was returned for Lincoln city to the parliament that was summoned to meet on 8 May 1572 and was not dissolved till after his death, and on 8 July he was commissioned to provide for the better regulation of commerce (Lansd. MS. xiv. art. 21). In the summer of 1573 he had many conferences with the Portuguese ambassadors (Harl. MS. 6991, arts. 24, 26, and 27).
In the autumn of 1574 Wilson was sent on the first of his important embassies to the Netherlands; he left London on 7 Nov. (Walsingham's Diary ap. Camden Soc. Misc. iv. 22; his instructions, abstracted in Cal. State Papers, For. 1572–4, No. 1587, are printed in full in Relations Politiques des Pays-Bas et d'Angleterre, vii. 349–52; there are others in Cotton. MS. Galba C. v. ff. 51–216, and Harl. MS. 6991). While at Brussels he is said to have instigated a plot for seizing Don John and handing him over to the insurgents (Cal. Simancas MSS. 1568–1579, pp. 543–4). He remained in the Low Countries until 27 March 1575, when he sailed from Dunkirk (Act P. C. 1571–5, p. 361). His second embassy to the Netherlands followed in the autumn of 1576; he left London on 25 Oct. (Camden Soc. Misc. iv. 28), and spent nearly nine months in Flanders, mainly at Brussels, Bruges, Antwerp, or Ghent. His despatches are printed in ‘Relations Politiques’ (ix. 1–414; see also Cal. State Papers, For. 1575–77; Hatfield MSS. vol. ii. passim; Cotton. MS. Galba C. v. ff. 272–358; Harl. MSS. 36 art. 34, and 6992 arts. 36, 37; and Lansd. MSS. clv. art. 67). The ostensible purpose of his mission was to negotiate some modus vivendi between Don John, with whom he had various interviews (e.g. on 1 May 1577, Cotton. MS. Galba C. v. f. 306), and the Dutch insurgents; but he soon came to the conclusion that such schemes were impracticable, and urged a complete understanding between England and William of Orange (Hatfield MSS. ii. 150–4; cf. Putnam, William the Silent, ii. 172–212). He also took part in the negotiations for a marriage between Elizabeth and Anjou. He returned to England on 13 July 1577.
During his absence Wilson was on 23 April 1577 nominated a commissioner for a special visitation of Oxford University, but he was destined for more important work. In September the Spanish ambassador wrote that Leicester, with a view to furthering his project of marrying the queen, was bringing into the council all his adherents, of whom Wilson was one (Cal. Simancas MSS. 1568–1579, p. 546). Wilson does not, however, occur as a privy councillor until 12 Nov., when he was sworn secretary of state in succession to Sir Thomas Smith (Acts P. C. ed. Dasent, 1577–8, p. 85). From that date he was constant in attendance on the council, but he was somewhat overshadowed by the superior ability of his colleague in the secretariate, Sir Francis Walsingham [q. v.], and the nature of his political influence is not easy to distinguish, more particularly as he tempered his adherence to Leicester with a firm desire to stand well with Burghley. He was, however, the principal authority on Portuguese affairs, and was the main supporter of Don Antonio's ambassadors in London (Cal. Simancas MSS. 1580–6, p. 183). In 1580 he became one of Elizabeth's lay deans, being installed dean of Durham on 5 Feb. 1579–80, a preferment for which he was a candidate in 1563, when William Whittingham [q. v.] was appointed (Le Neve, Fasti, iii. 299). Ralph Lever [q. v.] protested against Wilson's election (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1547–80, p. 644), and the nomination of a layman to the deanery was a rude assertion of the royal supremacy against those who had cavilled at Wilson's predecessor on the ground of his invalid ordination (cf. Add. MS. 23235, f. 5).
Wilson's last attendance at the council board was on 3 May 1581. He died at St. Catherine's Hospital on 16 June following, and was buried there on the 17th. He ordered in his will that he should be buried ‘without charge or pomp,’ and no trace of his monument, if there was one, remains. A portrait of Wilson, dated 1575 but repaired in 1777, representing him in a black cap and dark furred dress, belonged in 1866 to Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, bart. (Cat. First Loan Exhib. No. 214, where Wilson is erroneously styled ‘Sir Thomas’). Another, an old copy of an anonymous painting, was in 1879 transferred from the British Museum to the National Portrait Gallery, London. A copy of his will, dated 19 May 1581, is preserved at Hatfield (Cal. Hatfield MSS. ii. 391). He left his house at Edmonton to the overseers of his will, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir William Winter, and Matthew Smith, to be sold to pay his debts; five hundred marks to his daughter Mary on her marriage or coming of age, and a like sum to his daughter Lucrece; his son Nicholas was to be sole executor. No successor was appointed to Wilson, Walsingham acting as sole secretary until Davison's selection on 30 Sept. 1586. His death was the occasion of various poetical laments (cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. App. p. 97, 4th Rep. App. pp. 252–4).
Wilson was twice married: first, to Jane, daughter of Sir Richard Empson [q. v.], and widow of John Pinchon of Writtle, Essex (Baker, Northamptonshire, ii. 141). By her Wilson appears to have had no issue; and he married, secondly, Agnes, daughter of John Winter of Lydney, Gloucestershire, sister of Sir William Winter, the admiral, and widow of William Brooke (Visit. Gloucestershire, 1623, p. 274); of her three children, the only son, Nicholas, settled at Sheepwash, Lincolnshire (see pedigree in Coll. of Arms MS. C. 23); Mary married, first, Robert Burdett (d. 1603) of Bramcote, by whom she was mother of Sir Thomas Burdett, first baronet, ancestor of Sir Francis Burdett [q. v.] and of the Baroness Burdett-Coutts; and, secondly, Sir Christopher Lowther of Lowther, Westmorland. She was buried in the choir of Penrith parish church (Lansd. MS. 982, f. 2). Wilson's second daughter, Lucrece, married Sir George Belgrave of Belgrave, Leicestershire.
Wilson has generally been confused with one or more contemporaries of the same name; a confusion of him with Sir Thomas Wilson (1560?–1629) [q. v.] has led to his being frequently styled a knight. Other contemporaries were Thomas Wilson (d. 1586), a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge, who took refuge at Frankfurt during Mary's reign, was elected dean of Worcester in 1571, and died on 20 July 1586 (Cooper, Athenæ Cantabr. ii. 5–6); Thomas Wilson (d. 1615), canon of Windsor (see Lansd. MS. 983, f. 147); and Thomas Wilson (1563–1622) [q. v.]