Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Petre, William (1622-1684)

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PETRE, WILLIAM, fourth Baron Petre (1622–1684), was the eldest son of Robert, third lord Petre (1599–1638), who was the great-great-grandson of Sir William Petre [q. v.] His mother, who was married in 1620 and died two years after her son, in 1685, was Mary, daughter of Anthony Browne, second viscount Montagu. William Petre [q. v.], the translator of Ribadeneira, was his uncle. He was one of the ‘cavaliers’ imprisoned in 1655, but until well advanced in life did nothing to attract public notice. In 1678, however, he, as a devout Roman catholic, involuntarily drew upon himself the attentions of the perjurer Titus Oates, who charged him with being privy to the alleged popish plot. Oates swore in his deposition before Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey [q. v.] that he had seen ‘Lord Peters receive a commission as lieutenant-general of the popish army destined for the invasion of England from the hands of Joannes Paulus de Oliva, the general of the jesuits’ (cf. art. lxxi. of Oates's Narrative, 1679). He repeated these statements, with embellishments, before the House of Commons in October 1678, and the house promptly sent for Lord-chief-justice Scroggs, and instructed him to issue warrants for the apprehension of all the persons mentioned in Oates's information (Commons' Journals, 23–28 Oct. 1678). Together with four other Roman catholic lords—Powis, Belasyse, Arundel, and Stafford—who were similarly accused of being destined for high office under the jesuitical régime, Petre was committed to the Tower on 28 Oct. 1678. Articles were exhibited against him by the commons in April 1679, yet, in spite of repeated demands for a trial by the prisoners' friends, and of the clamour of the partisans of Oates on the other hand, no further steps were taken until 23 June 1680, when Lord Castlemaine, who had subsequently been committed, was tried and acquitted. A few months later Viscount Stafford was tried, condemned, and executed; but the patrons of the plot derived no benefit from his death, and nothing was said of the trial of the other ‘popish lords,’ though the government took no step to release them. Their confinement does not appear to have been very rigorous. Nevertheless Petre, who was already an old man, suffered greatly in health; and when, in the autumn of 1683, he felt that he had not long to live, he drew up a pathetic letter to the king. In this he says: ‘I have been five yeares in prison, and, what is more grievous to me, lain so long under a false and injurious calumny of a horrid plot and design against your majestie's person and government, and am now by the disposition of God's providence call'd into another world before I could by a public trial make my innocence appear.’ This letter was printed, and provoked some protestant ‘Observations,’ which were in turn severely criticised in ‘A Pair of Spectacles for Mr. Observer; or Remarks upon the phanatical Observations on my Lord Petre's Letter,’ possibly from the prolific pen of Roger L'Estrange. When, however, Petre actually died in the Tower, on 5 Jan. 1683–4, a certain amount of public compassion was awakened. The remaining papist lords were brought before the court of king's bench by writ of habeas corpus on 12 Feb. 1683–4, when the judges asserted that the prisoners ought long ago to have been admitted to bail. Petre was buried among his ancestors at Ingatestone on 10 Jan. 1683–4. There is a portrait at Thorndon Hall, Essex.

By his first wife, Elizabeth (d. 1665), daughter of John Savage, second earl Rivers, Petre had no issue; by his second wife, Bridget (d. 1695), daughter of John Pincheon of Writtle, he had an only daughter, Mary, who was born in Covent Garden on 25 March 1679, married, on 14 April 1696, George Heneage of Hainton in Lincolnshire, and died on 4 June 1704. The first lady was probably the ‘Lady Peters’ slightingly referred to by Pepys (April 1664) as ‘impudent,’ ‘lewd,’ and a ‘drunken jade.’ The peerage descended in succession to his brothers John (1629–1684) and Thomas, and the latter, who died on 10 Jan. 1706, left by his wife Mary, daughter of Sir Thomas Clifton of Lytham, Lancashire, an only son, Robert, seventh lord Petre. It was this baron who in 1711, being then only twenty, and very ‘little’ for his age, in a freak of gallantry cut off a lock of hair from the head of a celebrated beauty, his distant kinswoman, Arabella Fermor. It was to compose the feud that sprang from this sacrilegious act that Pope wrote his ‘Rape of the Lock,’ first published in ‘Lintot's Miscellany’ in May 1712. Lord Petre married, on 1 March 1712, not Miss Fermor—who about 1716 became the wife of Francis Perkins of Ufton Court, near Reading, and died in 1738—but a great Lancashire heiress named Catherine Walmesley, by whom, upon his premature death on 22 March 1713, he left a posthumous son, Robert James, eighth lord Petre. The eighth lord married, on 2 May 1732, Anne, only daughter of James Radcliffe, the unfortunate earl of Derwentwater [q. v.] (Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, v. 96; Spence, Anecdotes).

[The Declaration of the Lord Petre upon his death, touching the Popish Plot, in a letter to his Most Sacred Majestie, 1683 (this letter is reprinted in Somers Tracts, viii. 121); Observations on a Paper entitled The Declaration of Lord Petre; Howard's Roman Catholic Families of England, pt. i. p. 8; G. E. C[okayne]'s Peerage, vi. 247; Collins's Peerage, vii. 36; Lingard's Hist. ix. 181, x. 47; Morant's Essex; Evelyn's Diary; Luttrell's Relation, vol. i.]

T. S.