Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Thomas (1560?-1629)
WILSON, Sir THOMAS (1560?–1629), keeper of the records and author, born probably about 1560, is described in the admission register of St. John's College, Cambridge, as ‘Norfolciensis,’ and is said to have been ‘nephew’ of Dr. Thomas Wilson (1525?–1581) [q. v.], Elizabeth's secretary of state (Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1603–6, p. xx). No confirmation of this relationship has been traced, and the younger Wilson is not mentioned in the elder's will. Possibly he was the ‘Thomas Wilson of Willey, Hertfordshire, son and heir of Wilson of the same, gent.,’ who was admitted student of Gray's Inn on 11 Feb. 1594–5. He was educated apparently at Stamford grammar school, and matriculated from St. John's College, Cambridge, on 26 Nov. 1575. In 1583 he was elected on Burghley's nomination to a scholarship on the foundress's foundation at St. John's (Burghley in Lansd. MS. 77, f. 20; St. John's Coll. Register, per Mr. R. F. Scott). He graduated B.A. in 1583 from St. John's College, but migrated to Trinity Hall, whence he graduated M.A. in 1587. For fifteen years, according to his own account, he studied civil law at Cambridge. In 1594 he procured a letter from Burghley recommending his election as fellow of Trinity Hall. The recommendation was ineffectual, and Wilson betook himself to foreign travel.
In 1596, while sojourning in Italy and Germany, Wilson translated from the Spanish Gorge de Montemayor's ‘Diana,’ a romance, from which the story of ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’ was partly drawn (Lee, Shakespeare, p. 53); it was dedicated to Shakespeare's friend, the Earl of Southampton, ‘then upon the Spanish voiage with my Lord of Essex.’ The original translation does not appear to be extant, but about 1617 Wilson made a copy, extant in British Museum Additional MS. 18638, which he dedicated to Fulke Greville, chancellor of the exchequer, and afterwards Lord Brooke [q. v.]; he remarks that Brooke's friend Sir Philip Sidney [q. v.] ‘did much affect and imitate’ ‘Diana,’ and possibly Wilson took part in publishing some of Sidney's works, for on 12 April 1607 he asked Sir Thomas Lake to further his petition for the privilege of printing ‘certain books [by Sidney] wherein myself and my late dear friend Mr. Golding have taken pains’ (Cal. State Papers, Dom., Addenda, 1580–1625, p. 495; cf. art. Golding, Arthur). He is possibly also the Thomas Wilson whose name appears at the foot of the first page of the manuscript ‘Booke on the State of Ireland,’ addressed to Essex by ‘H. C.’ (? Henry Cuffe [q. v.]) in 1599 (Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1598–9, p. 505); owing to its being a dialogue ‘between Peregryn and Silvyn,’ the names of Edmund Spenser's two sons, it has been considered the work of the poet himself [cf. art. Spenser, Edmund].
In spite of these indications of a connection with Southampton and Essex, Wilson, fortunately for himself, remained faithful to the Cecils, and during the later years of Elizabeth's reign he was constantly employed as foreign intelligencer. On 27 Feb. 1600–1 Sir Robert Cecil wrote to him: ‘I like so well many of your letters and discourses to the lord treasurer [Buckhurst] that I wish you not only to continue the same course of writing to him, but also to me’ (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1598–1601, p. 600). Among these discourses was one begun on 1 March following ‘on the state of England A.D. 1600,’ giving the claims of twelve competitors for the crown, ‘with a description of this country and of Ireland, the conduct of the people, state of the revenue and expenses, and the military and naval forces;’ it is extant in the Record Office (State Papers, Dom., Elizabeth, vol. cclxxx.) In December he was at Florence, and he speaks of being employed on various negotiations with the Duke of Ferrara, the Venetians, and other Italian states (ib. James I, cxxxv. 14; for details of his movements, see his diary in ib. xi. 45). He was obviously a thorough Italian scholar (cf. Addit. MS. 11576, ff. 2 sqq.), and the main object of his residence in Italy during 1601–1602 was to ascertain the nature and extent of the Spanish and papal designs against England (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1601–3, pp. 127, 234). He returned to England during the winter, and was at Greenwich on 12 June 1603 (Cotton. MS. Calig. E. x. 359; Ellis, Orig. Letters, ii. iii. 201–2), but early in 1604 he was sent to reside as consul in Spain (Cal. State Papers, Dom. James I, cxxxv. 14; Winwood, Mem. ii. 45; Nichols, Progr. James I, i. 475). He was at Bayonne in February 1603–4 (Cotton. MS. Calig. E. xi. 78–9), and remained in Spain until the arrival of the Earl of Nottingham and Sir Charles Cornwallis [q. v.] as ambassadors in 1605.
On his return to England Wilson definitely entered the service of Sir Robert Cecil, who leased to him a house adjoining his own, called ‘Britain's Burse,’ in Durham Place, Strand (see sketch in State Papers, Dom., Charles I, xxi. 64). He took a considerable part in supervising the building of Salisbury's house in Durham Place and also at Hatfield, in the neighbourhood of which he received from Lord Salisbury the manor of Hoddesdon. In 1605 he is said to have been returned to parliament for Newton (?Newtown, Isle of Wight); the official return does not mention this by-election, but that Wilson sat in this parliament is probable from the frequent notes of its proceedings with regard to such matters as scutages and the ‘post-nati’ with which he supplied the government. He also kept the minutes of the proceedings of the committee for the union of England and Scotland, and made a collection of the objections likely to be urged against the union in parliament. About 1606, on the surrender of Sir Thomas Lake [q. v.], Salisbury procured for Wilson the post of keeper of the records at Whitehall, with a salary of 30l.; he also obtained the clerkship of imports, worth 40l. a year, but lost it when Suffolk became treasurer in 1614.
Wilson was a zealous and energetic keeper of the records, and made many suggestions with regard to them, which, if they had been adopted, would have saved subsequent students an infinity of trouble. One of these was the creation of an office in which chartularies of dissolved abbeys and monasteries should be transcribed and kept for the use of ‘searchers,’ and to prevent needless litigation for want of access to title-deeds (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1611–18, p. 508). Another, inspired more by self-interest, was the creation of an office of ‘register of honour,’ to be filled by himself, so as to obviate frequent disputes for precedence among knights and their ladies. He also suggested the publication of a gazette of news ‘as is already done in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain,’ and the grant of a patent to himself for printing it. His main difficulty was with secretaries of state and other officials, who refused to deliver to him public documents to which he considered the state entitled, and with highly placed borrowers who neglected to return the documents they borrowed. Among the latter was Sir Robert Bruce Cotton [q. v.], and in 1615 Wilson protested against Cotton's appointment as keeper of the exchequer records, complaining that Cotton already injured the keepers of the state papers enough by ‘having such things as he hath coningly scraped together,’ and fearing that many exchequer records would find their way into Cotton's private collection. Similarly, when Ralph Starkey [q. v.] acquired the papers of Secretary Davison, Wilson procured a warrant for their seizure, and on 14 Aug. 1619 secured a sackful, containing forty-five bundles of manuscripts (Harl. MS. 286, f. 286). He rendered valuable service in arranging and preserving such documents as he did succeed in acquiring (cf. Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1603–1606, pref. pp. xx, xxii, xxxv, xli; Edwards, Founders of the British Museum, p. 149).
Wilson's interests were not, however, confined to the state paper office. He was an original subscriber to the Virginia Company (Brown, Genesis, ii. 1054), and kept a keen watch on discoveries in the East Indies, maintaining a correspondence with persons in most quarters of the globe (see Purchas, Pilgrimes, i. 408–13; Cal. State Papers, East Indies, vols. i. and ii. passim). He petitioned for a grant of two thousand acres in Ulster in 1618, and drew up a scheme for the military government of Ireland (Cal. State Papers, Ireland, 1615–25, p. 202; Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. App. p. 284). He thought he ‘could do better service than in being always buried amongst the state papers;’ his especial ambition was to be made master of requests, an office for which he repeatedly and vainly petitioned the king. He also procured royal letters to the fellows of Trinity Hall and of Gonville and Caius Colleges in favour of his election as master of their respective societies at the next vacancy; but the letters seem never to have been sent, and Wilson remained keeper of the records till his death.
He was, however, knighted at Whitehall on 20 July 1618 (Nichols, Progr. of James I, iii. 487), and in September following was selected for the dishonourable task of worming out of Ralegh sufficient admissions to condemn him. He took up his residence with Ralegh in the Tower on 14 Sept., and was relieved of his charge on 15 Oct. He appears to have entered on his duties with some zest, styling his prisoner the ‘arch-hypocrite’ and ‘arch-impostor,’ and admitting in his reports that he had held out the hope of mercy as a bait; there is, however, no ground for the suggestion thrown out by one of Ralegh's biographers that the real object of Wilson's employment was Ralegh's assassination (Wilson's reports are among the Domestic State Papers, see Cal. 1611–18, pp. 569–92; some are printed in Spedding's Bacon, xiii. 425–7). On Ralegh's death Wilson urged the transference of his manuscripts to the state paper office, and actually seized his ‘mathematical and sea-instruments’ for the navy board, and drew up a catalogue of his books, which he presented to the king.
Wilson was buried at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields on 17 July 1629, and on the 31st letters of administration were granted to his widow Margaret, possibly sister of the Peter Mewtys or Mewys whom Wilson succeeded in 1605 as member for Newtown. His only child, a daughter, married, about 1614, Ambrose Randolph, younger son of Thomas Randolph (1523–1590) [q. v.], who was joint-keeper of the records with Wilson from 1614.
Besides the works already mentioned, Wilson compiled a ‘Collection of Divers Matters concerning the Marriages of Princes' Children,’ which he presented on 4 Oct. 1617 to James I; the original is now in British Museum Additional MS. 11576. On 10 Aug. 1616 he sent to Ellesmere a ‘collection of treaties regulating commercial intercourse with the Netherlands’ (Egerton Papers, Camden Soc. p. 476); he drew up a digest of the arrangement of documents in his office (Stowe MS. 548, ff. 2 sqq.), and left unfinished a history of the revenues of the chief powers in Europe (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1623–5, p. 557). Much of his correspondence is preserved among the foreign state papers in the Record Office, and among the yet uncalendared documents at Hatfield.[Wilson gives an account of his services in his petitions in State Papers, Dom., James I, xciii. 131, and cxxxv. 14, and of his movements in 1601–4, ib. xi. 45. See also Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1600–28, passim, Ireland, 1603–25; Cotton. MS. Calig. E. xi. 81; Lansd. MS. 77, f. 20; Harl. MS. 7000, f. 34; Hist. MSS. Comm. 2nd Rep. App. pp. 55, 283, 284, 9th Rep. App. ii. 373; Winwood's Memorials, ii. 45; Nichols's Progr. of James I, i. 188, 246, 475, iii. 487; Brewer's Court and Times of James I; Spedding's Bacon; St. John, Edwards, Cayley, Stebbing, and Hume's Lives of Ralegh; Gardiner's Hist. of England, ii. 143; authorities cited in text.]