Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pickering, William (1516-1575)

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PICKERING, Sir WILLIAM (1516–1575), courtier and diplomatist, born in 1516, was the son of Sir William Pickering (d. 1542), by his wife, Eleanor, daughter of William Fairfax. The father was knight-marshal to Henry VIII, from whom he received various grants, including a lease of lands belonging to the monastery of Valle Crucis in Wales. The son was educated at Cambridge, but does not seem to have graduated, though he is mentioned as one of the eminent scholars who adopted Cheke's new method of pronouncing Greek. In 1538 he was suggested as one of those ‘most mete to be daily waiters on’ Henry VIII, and ‘allowed in his house.’ On 1 April 1543, with Henry Howard, earl of Surrey [q. v.], he was brought before the council charged with eating flesh in Lent and walking about the streets of London at night ‘breaking the windows of the houses with stones shot from cross-bows.’ After some denials he confessed to these charges, and was imprisoned in the Tower; he was released on 3 May on entering into recognisances for 200l. He is also stated to have served Henry VIII in the wars, probably at Calais with Anthony Pickering, who was possibly a relative (Chron. of Calais, passim).

At the accession of Edward VI he was dubbed a knight of the carpet, and on 20 Oct. following was elected M.P. for Warwick. In February 1550–1 he was sent on a special embassy to the king of France, to ascertain the possibility of making an alliance between the two kingdoms. He arrived at Blois on 26 Feb., and had an interview with the king at Vendôme on 3 March. Three weeks later he returned to England on the plea of urgent private affairs, in spite of the remonstrances of Sir John Mason [q. v.], who was anxious to be relieved of the cares of ambassador. He promised to be back within a fortnight or three weeks, but was retained by the council to deal with the Scottish negotiations and other matters. He was appointed resident ambassador in France in April, but it was not until 30 June that Pickering was finally despatched and Mason recalled.

As ambassador, Pickering acquitted himself with credit; he gained the favour of the French king, and his correspondence gives a valuable account of continental politics. But he was soon weary of the work; his allowance was seven crowns a day, but he had to spend fourteen; he was required to accompany the king on his campaigns; and his treatment in the camp was injurious to his dignity. His health suffered so that he was ‘more than half wasted.’ Moreover, he could extract nothing from the king but ‘words, words, words;’ and the specific objects of his embassy, like the marriage project between the French princess Elizabeth and Edward VI, came to nothing. In May 1552 he begged to be recalled, and repeated the request without success in October and February 1553. At length Wotton and Sir Thomas Chaloner [q. v.] were appointed to assist him, and a month after Mary's accession he was summoned home.

Despite his complaints, Pickering was evidently displeased by his recall, which may have been due to suspicions of his loyalty. He now joined the opponents of the Spanish marriage, and was apparently implicated in the plot to marry Edward Courtenay, earl of Devonshire [q. v.], to Elizabeth. In March 1554 he joined Sir Peter Carew [q. v.] and others who were collecting ships with hostile intent at Caen. The French king, in answer to Wotton's demands, promised that he should be arrested, a promise that was not fulfilled. On 7 April he was indicted for treason with Sir Nicholas Throckmorton [q. v.] and others. On the 17th Wotton wrote asking what measures were to be taken, as Pickering was then in Paris and was acquainted with the cipher Wotton used in his correspondence. But, alarmed by the proceedings against him, or won over by Wotton, Pickering now began to inform against his fellow-conspirators. The latter suspected his action, and, when he left Paris, secretly on 25 April for Lyons, plotted to assassinate him. He got safely out of France, however, and travelled for a year in Italy and Germany. Meanwhile Mason, Petre, and Wotton made intercession for him in England, and in March 1555 he was permitted to return, and no further proceedings were taken against him.

It was not till 1558 that he was again employed. In March of that year he was directed to repair to Philip at Brussels and then to negotiate in Germany for three thousand men for the queen's service in defence of Calais. In October he was at Dunkirk, ‘sick with the burning ague.’ He did not return till after Elizabeth's accession, in May 1559. From that time he lived quietly at Pickering House, in the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft, London; but, being ‘a brave, wise, comely English gentleman,’ was seriously thought of as a suitor for Elizabeth's hand. In 1559 ‘the Earl of Arundel … was said to have sold his lands and was ready to flee out of the realm with the money, because he could not abide in England if the queen should marry Mr. Pickering, for they were enemies’ (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1559–1560, p. 2). In 1569 he was appointed one of the lieutenants of London ‘to put the kingdom in readiness to resist the rebels in the north,’ and in 1570 he was on the special commission which tried John Felton [q. v.] for treason.

He died unmarried on 4 Jan. 1574–5, and was buried on the north side of the chancel of Great St. Helen's Church, London, where a handsome tomb, with recumbent effigy, was raised to his memory; his father's body was disinterred and buried with him. By his will, dated 31 Dec. 1574, he bequeathed to Cecil his papers, antiquities, globes, compasses, and horse called ‘Bawle Price.’ He requested that his library should not be dispersed, but go to whoever married his illegitimate daughter Hester. She subsequently married Sir Edward Wotton, son of the ambassador.

[Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. passim; Letters and Papers of Henry VIII; Hist. MSS. Comm. Hatfield MSS. i. 85, 105, 118, 121, 257, 443; Harleian, Lansdowne, and Addit. MSS. in Brit. Mus. passim; Sadler's State Papers, ii. 140; Proc. Privy Council passim; Rymer's Fœdera, xv. 274, 326; Official Return Memb. of Parl.; Lit. Remains of Edw. VI (Roxburghe Club) passim; Zurich Letters, i. 24, 34; Strype's Works, Index; Lloyd's State Worthies, edit. 1766, i. 415–16; Archæologia, xxv. 382; Archæol. Cambrensis, iv. 22–6; Athenæ Cantabr. i. 325–6, 562; Burnet's Hist. of Reformation; Burgon's Life and Times of Gresham, i. 147, 157, 158, 165, ii. 383, 457, 459, 460; Aikin's Court of Elizabeth, ii. 298; Tytler's England under Edward VI and Mary, i. 406, ii. 86, 176; Wheatley's London, Past and Present, ii. 204; Froude's Hist. of England; Hinds's Age of Elizabeth, pp. 74, 77–8, 82.]

A. F. P.