PETRE, William (1505/6-72), of Ingatestone, Essex and Aldersgate Street, London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Mar. 1553
Oct. 1553
Apr. 1554
Nov. 1554

Family and Education

b. 1505/6, s. of John Petre of Tor Newton in Torbryan, Devon by Alice, da. of John Collinge of Woodland, Devon; bro. of John I and Robert. educ. Oxf. adm. by 1519; fellow, All Souls 1523; BCL and BCnL 1526; DCL 1533; adv. Doctors’ Commons 8 Mar. 1533. m. (1) ?Feb. 1534, Gertrude (d. 28 May 1541), da. of Sir John Tyrrell of Warley, Essex, 1s. d.v.p. 2da.; (2) by Mar. 1542, Anne (d. 10 Mar. 1582), da. of William Browne of Flambards Hall, Essex and London, wid. of John Tyrrell (d.1540) of Heron in East Thorndon, Essex, 4s. inc. Sir John 2da. Kntd. Jan. 1544.4

Offices Held

Proctor, ct. chancellor, univ. Oxf. by 1527-8; principal, Peckwater Inn, Oxf. Jan. 1530-Feb. 1534; clerk in Chancery by 1533, master 1536-41; official principal and commissary to Cromwell as vicegerent 13 Jan. 1536-40; canon of Lincoln and prebendary of Langford Ecclesia Nov. 1536-Apr. 1537; receiver of petitions in the Lords, Parlts. of 1539, 1542; King’s Councillor 5 Oct. 1540; principal sec. 21 Jan. 1544-Mar. 1557; j.p. Essex by 1544-d.; PC by 1545-d.; custos rot. Essex 1547-d.; keeper, seal ad causas ecclesiasticas 18 Aug. 1548; treasurer, ct. first fruits and tenths 22 Oct. 1549-25 Jan. 1553; commr. relief, Essex 1550, chantries 1553; gov. Chelmsford g.s. 1551; chancellor, order of the Garter 27 Sept. 1553.5


William Petre came of a family of Devon yeomen, his father being a farmer and tanner assessed at £40 in goods for the subsidy of 1523. Petre was probably the second son and he was fortunate to be sent to Oxford, where he early distinguished himself by his learning. He is said to have been engaged by the Earl of Wiltshire as tutor to his son George Boleyn at some time between 1526 and 1529, and in June 1529 he received his first royal appointment, being nominated one of the King’s two proctors or advocates in the trial before the papal legates, Campeggio and Wolsey, of the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Petre was one of the lawyers sent by the King to the Continent in 1530 to obtain opinions from universities on the marriage; the Earl of Wiltshire was in the same year sent ambassador to Charles V at Bologna but it is not known whether Petre travelled with his patron or on a separate mission. By 1535 he had commended himself to Cromwell, for in November of that year the minister proposed him to Archbishop Cranmer for the post of dean or presiding judge of the court of arches: Petre did not obtain the post, but in January 1536 he was appointed deputy in ecclesiastical matters to Cromwell, by then vicegerent to Henry VIII, and in that capacity he presided over an important session of Convocation on 16 June 1536 in St. Paul’s cathedral. In the same year he was appointed one of the visitors of the monasteries, an appointment which was to occupy most of his time for several years. On the surviving evidence it can be said that Petre worked hard and conscientiously in the Dissolution, avoiding both the financial dishonesty and the disreputable behaviour of which some other visitors were accused. He received for his services a grant of the priory and manors of Clatercote and certain adjoining lands, worth about £70 a year in all; in addition various monastic houses before their dissolution granted him annuities or pensions, the total of which by 1540 amounted to over £100 a year.6

Petre married into the Essex family of Tyrrell, but when not abroad or on monastic visitations he first seems to have made his home in London. In 1537 he acquired lands in south Essex from monastic and private owners and in May 1538 he took from the convent of Barking a lease of the manor of Ging Abbess, which became the nucleus of a large estate at what is now Ingatestone. In 1539 and 1540 he purchased, through the court of augmentations, further lands in Essex, Oxfordshire and Somerset. It has been calculated that by the end of 1540 Petre had laid out over £1,600 on the purchase of lands and that they yielded him in rents and sales some £500 a year. As a visitor Petre would have had the detailed knowledge of monastic lands necessary for prudent buying. After his first wife’s death in 1541 he married again within a year: his new wife brought him, in addition to a marriage portion of 400 marks, lands in Cambridgeshire, Essex and Hampshire worth £280 a year.

From 1536 to 1541 Petre served as one of the 12 masters in Chancery, and as such was one of three persons appointed in November 1536 to receive, examine and burn papal bulls, licences and dispensations. By 1539 or 1540 he was one of those empowered to hear cases in the court of requests; although he took some part in the court’s work, most of it was probably dealt with by the two or three ‘ordinary’ or full-time masters. Petre also sat in at least one case in the court of Admiralty, perhaps as coadjutor, for he does not seem to have been a regular judge there. He took part in the examination of Robert Aske in the Tower in 1537 after the failure of the Pilgrimage of Grace, and was one of the six administrators of the estate of Queen Catherine of Aragon whose appointment was intended to enable the King to appropriate her possessions with some show of legality. In April 1539 he was one of the commissioners who drafted the bill which later became the Act of Six Articles, but when in September Cromwell recommended him to Cranmer as master of the faculties in the consistory court at Canterbury, Cranmer had already promised the post to another. Like the earlier suggestion that he might be made dean of the court of arches, the proposal may mean that Petre was inclined to exchange political life for a career as a civilian. In the struggle for power that preceded Cromwell’s fall in 1540 he seems to have been useful to each side without becoming involved: he examined Tunstall in the Tower, searched Cromwell’s house by warrant from the King and was appointed a commissioner to test the validity of the marriage to Anne of Cleves. His own emergence from the crisis was signalized by his admission to the Council, and when he was straightway accused before that body by a former monk of Christchurch, Canterbury, of concealing treasons alleged against the prior, the matter was held to be ‘false and malicious’ and he was absolved. During Sir John Gage’s absence in the north in 1543-4 he was deputy keeper of the seal of the duchy of Lancaster.7

In January 1544 Petre was knighted and appointed one of the King’s two principal secretaries, the other being William Paget; a member of the Privy Council virtute officii, he attended its meetings regularly. He was one of the six persons authorized to sign documents with a stamp of the King’s signature and one of the five appointed to advise Queen Catherine Parr during her regency in July 1544. Petre drafted most of the letters sent by the Council while the King was in France and Paget also abroad; in the following April he himself went to Brussels to negotiate a settlement of commercial disputes, returning in July. In common with well-nigh all his colleagues at the centre of affairs during these years, Petre was content to execute decisions made by the King; not for him More’s advice to Cromwell to advise the King what he should do rather than what he could, and the Earl of Surrey’s complaint that ‘the kingdom has never been well’ since ‘mean creatures’ were in government was probably as much a criticism of this limited conception of ministerial duty as of the social origins of those who held it. Petre was actively concerned in the raising of money for the French war by securing loans from foreign bankers and by his membership of commissions for the sale of crown lands, chiefly ex-monastic; in September 1546 he and the dean of St. Paul’s were sent to France to negotiate the settlement of a dispute between the two countries about an outstanding French debt, but they were not successful in their mission.8

It is not known for certain that Petre sat in the Commons during Henry VIII’s reign, but his connexion with Cromwell and his later advancement make it likely that he did, and the supposition receives some support. There is first a list, believed to be in Cromwell’s hand, of the names of three boroughs normally in the gift of the bishop of Winchester, with corresponding names of persons several of whom were Members later; one of the names is Petre’s and it appears against the borough of Downton. The document is undated but is included among papers of 1536, and as Stephen Gardiner was abroad at the time of the elections for the Parliament of that year, Cromwell may have nominated Members for these episcopal boroughs and Petre have begun his long parliamentary career as a Member for Downton in the brief Parliament of 1536. For his Membership of its successor in 1539, which on general grounds is highly probable, the circumstantial evidence is less strong. He was named one of the receivers of petitions and was also involved in the preparation of the Act of Six Articles, but neither of these assignments implies that he sat in the Commons: if he did so, it must have been for a borough, as the names of the knights of the shire, and of the representatives of most cities, are known. For the Parliament of 1542 more names have survived, but not those for Essex or either of its boroughs; it seems to have been on this negative evidence that Browne Willis included Petre as knight of the shire for Essex, but his guess is weakened by the fact that Petre did not sit for the county in the next Parliament. On that occasion, however, Petre was present in the House of Lords. By an Act of 1539 (31 Hen. VIII, c.10) the principal secretaries, among others, had been given the right to sit in the Lords, and in 1545 Petre was among those who received writs of assistance to that effect. He had probably already made his appearance there in the third session of the previous Parliament, following his appointment, although if a writ was issued it has not survived. It was presumably as one of the secretaries that he attended the prorogation of the first session of the Parliament of 1545 by Henry VIII; he afterwards summarized the King’s speech for Paget who was abroad, sent him a schedule of the new enactments and concluded

The bill of books, albeit it was at the beginning set earnestly forward, is finally dashed in the Common House, as are divers others, whereas I hear no[t] his Majesty is much miscontented. The book of colleges etc. escaped narrowly and was driven [over] to the last hour, and yet then passed only by a division of the House.9

Petre was reappointed principal secretary on the accession of Edward VI. He had not been named an executor of Henry VIII’s will but only an assistant, and he was the only person in either group who was not left a legacy, although he apparently contrived to secure payment of £200, the standard amount for an assistant executor, by October 1547. As an assistant Petre did not immediately rejoin the Privy Council; a month elapsed before he and the other assistants did so. In August 1547 the Protector Somerset entrusted to Petre the royal seal for ecclesiastical causes; he had become sole principal secretary two months earlier, when Paget was appointed chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, but Paget continued to take the lead in deciding questions of policy. In April 1548 (Sir) Thomas Smith I was appointed second principal secretary, to act jointly with Petre, but was replaced, after Somerset’s fall in 1549, by Nicholas Wotton, and he in turn by William Cecil. His secretarial duties seem to have occupied Petre’s time fully for most of the next two years. He was on the commission to visit Oxford and reform the university’s statutes, but he did not take much part in the work: in August 1549, with Cecil and Smith, he was appointed by the Council to examine all printed books before publication, a censorship which he carried on alone for the rest of the reign.10

In the manoeuvrings of October 1549 which led to Somerset’s fall, Petre was careful not to identify himself clearly with the protagonists until the issue of their struggle was beyond doubt. Being with Somerset and the King at Hampton Court on 5 Oct. 1549 when the conflict seemed imminent, he was sent to London and arrived there the next day to demand of the Earl of Warwick and the other Councillors the purpose of their assembly and of their proposed journey to Hampton Court, and to warn them that ‘If they meant to talk with the Protector, they should come in a peaceable manner’. Arrived in London, Petre found that the majority of the Council supported Warwick and he accordingly remained with them, to draft their letters in the epistolary war which followed. Petre insured himself against a charge of defection by including in the Council’s letter the phrase: ‘Almost all your Council being now here we have for the better service of your Majesty caused your secretary to remain here with us’; whether Petre did so under duress cannot be known. On 8 Oct. Secretary Smith, who remained with Somerset, wrote a personal appeal to Petre to help in securing honourable terms: ‘Now is the time’, he wrote, ‘when you may show yourself to be of that nature whereof I have heard you and, as I think, worthily, glory, that is no seeker of extremity nor blood but of moderation in all things’. In the event Petre did not exercise any moderating influence on Warwick; the proclamation drafted by Petre and issued by the Council in answer to Somerset’s own was a flat rejection of the pleas for moderation and a demand for unconditional surrender. Petre also drafted the two letters sent on 10 Oct., one to Somerset and the King, the other to Cranmer, Paget and Smith, which carried conflicting messages designed to secure Somerset’s apprehension without bloodshed. His conduct can be defended only on the assumption that he believed Somerset’s instant removal necessary to avert civil war. Somerset went to the Tower with his followers, including Smith, whose secretaryship was given to Wotton. Petre seems to have been honest, even generous, in the share of the secretary’s fees which he paid to Smith on his release.11

Petre not only retained his secretaryship but was also given, on 20 Oct., the treasurership of the court of first fruits and tenths. Warwick appointed him one of the four ambassadors to negotiate peace with France in return for the cession of Boulogne in January 1550, and he is said to have been chiefly instrumental in saving England 200,000 crowns during the negotiations; he was also, with three others, deputed in May to complete the signing of the peace on England’s behalf. From April 1550 Petre was absent from Council meetings for several months, being seriously ill in Essex. Some of his tasks, for example his part in the lengthy trials of Bonner and Gardiner, Petre evidently owed to his training in the civil law. He was also the man most frequently employed to bear the government’s messages to Princess Mary forbidding her to have mass celebrated in her houses. These frequent and doubtless unpleasant missions were a strain on his health; he was ill again in August 1551, after a visit with Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich, and Sir Anthony Wingfield which Mary ended with the words: ‘I pray God to send you to do well in your souls and bodies too, for some of you have but weak bodies’. When in the early part of 1553 the King worked out a project for dividing the Council into three separate bodies dealing with different branches of its work Petre is known to have revised and systematized the scheme, presumably in consultation with the King.12

It was as first knight of the shire for Essex that Petre sat in the Parliament of 1547, as he was to do in every Parliament until 1563: he also had a writ of assistance to the Lords. The traces of his part in the business of the Commons begin in the second session, when on 26 Jan. 1549 a bill about pre-contracts for marriage was committed to him after its first reading; he was also one of five Members deputed to try a case brought by bill against (Sir) Nicholas Hare. In later sessions five bills were committed to him, among them those on ecclesiastical jurisdiction, the dean of Wells’s answer to a bill against him, and a bill ‘for fantastical prophecies’; the preponderance of religious subjects doubtless reflects Petre’s knowledge of church law. Two of the Acts passed during the third session, for a churchyard in West Drayton and for the fine and ransom of the Duke of Somerset, bear his signature. The returns for Essex to Edward VI’s second Parliament are incomplete, but the mention of Petre in the Journal as having an apparel bill committed to him shows that he sat in this Parliament, almost certainly as a knight of the shire.13

Petre was among the Councillors who secured the assent of the judges to the device altering the succession. In June 1553 (Sir) John Cheke had been appointed third principal secretary, and it was rumoured that Petre intended to resign, but he did not do so. He took the oath of allegiance to Lady Jane Grey after Edward VI’s death and was among the Councillors confined in the Tower by the Duke of Northumberland to ensure their loyalty to her, but when on 19 July 1553 a number of them escaped from the Tower and declared for Mary, Petre was among them. He remained in London to carry on the Council’s business when most of his colleagues went to make their submission to Mary. His secretaryship had been brought to an end by Edward VI’s death, but Mary re-appointed him and he was sworn of her Council on 30 July. His second wife, a firm Catholic, was a friend of the Queen’s and rode with her in procession upon her entry to London; she may have helped to smooth Petre’s path back to favour. He prepared a plan for reforming abuses in government and with Gardiner he reviewed the national finances, but his principal concern was with foreign relations, of which for the next four years he was to have almost sole direction. Although the Council under Mary became even larger than it had been under Edward VI, the decision-making body was a group of six or eight Councillors, of whom Petre was invariably one.

Petre avoided committing himself in the matter of the Queen’s marriage; once it was settled he helped to conclude the marriage treaty and his support was rewarded by a pension of £250 when Philip came to England. He raised a substantial force from his Essex estates to serve against Wyatt’s rebels and may have seen action himself. He took part in the interrogation and trial of rebels both in London and Essex, and was one of those appointed in March 1554 to examine Princess Elizabeth in the Tower about her supposed complicity. He was evidently on good terms with the Earl of Devon, some of whose possessions he planned to purchase after the earl’s departure for Italy although the transaction fell through. It appears that by September 1554 Petre would have liked to resign his secretaryship in favour of Cecil. He took no direct part in the proceedings against Protestants, although a member of the Council which directed and of the Parliament which authorized them. His own religious views remain a matter of conjecture. The papal bull of November 1555—so far as is known, the only one obtained by an Englishman—confirming his title to his ex-monastic lands was a piece of insurance which probably owed less to any particular regard for the sanctions of the Church than to inside information about the Pope’s intentions. In June 1555 Paul IV had issued a bull ordering the restoration of church lands which was never published in England, being replaced by another which confirmed the owners of such property in their possession: according to Pole, no-one in England knew about the first bull ‘except the Queen’s secretary’. During the later part of 1556 Petre was again in poor health and this probably explains his resignation of the secretaryship in March 1557, although dislike of the government’s policy both at home and abroad may have come into it. Yet he remained an active member of the Council. He was one of the standing committee appointed to devise means of raising money, among them a revision of the customs system.14

In the frequent Parliaments of the reign Petre came rapidly to the fore. During the first of them he had a bill ‘for certain artificers to dwell in towns’ committed to him and on two occasions he carried bills to the Lords. Before the next one met in April 1554 he was on the committee appointed by the Council ‘to consider what laws shall be established in this Parliament and to name men that shall make books thereof’; in the course of the Parliament itself he carried bills from the Commons to the Lords six times. In the Parliaments of November 1554 and of 1555 Petre was evidently recognized as a leading official figure. He carried bills to the Lords four times and had two bills committed to him. The Treasons Act of 1555 (1 and 2 Phil. and Mary, c.10) furnishes a rare glimpse of Petre at work on the drafting of an important bill; he was one of those who, on the Queen’s instructions, consulted with the imperial ambassador about the form of the bill introduced in the Commons after a similar bill originating in the Lords had been rejected there. As principal secretary it fell to Petre to act as the Queen’s spokesman in the Commons; on 27 Nov. 1554 he transmitted instructions for the House to attend the court to hear Pole’s explanation of his legatine mission and on 31 Oct. 1555 he informed the House that the Queen was ‘contented to refuse’ the two fifteenths they had voted her. He was one of 20 Members chosen ‘to devise articles for aid to the Queen’s majesty’ in October 1555, one of six chosen to consult with the Lords on the privilege question raised in December 1555 by the case of Gabriel Pleydell, and one of four sent in November 1555 to tell the young 4th Duke of Norfolk, who had made a personal appearance in the House with his lawyers to demand the furtherance of a bill, that the House would consider his case. An entry in the Journal for 26 Oct. 1555 reads ‘Arguments for execution of laws—S. Petre’, which suggests that he took a leading part in the debate. In the following Parliament, the last of the reign, he was appointed to the committee to examine the sanctuary rights claimed by Westminster abbey, and the bill placing an embargo on the import of French wines was committed to him after its second reading.15

Mary appointed Petre one of the executors of her will and bequeathed him 500 marks, a legacy which he never received because Elizabeth did not allow the provisions of the will to be carried out. He remained a Councillor under Elizabeth and during Cecil’s absence in the north in 1559 he was recalled to act as secretary. Elizabeth liked him personally and in July 1563 she passed a few days at Ingatestone, but age, ill health and deafness limited his usefulness. He died on 13 Jan. 1572 at Ingatestone and was buried there. The surviving portraits confirm the impression of a man of high intelligence but aloof and calculating.16

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: D. F. Coros


  • 1. LP Hen. VIII, x. 40(ii) citing Cott. Otho C10, f. 218.
  • 2. CJ, i. 25.
  • 3. Huntington Lib. Hastings mss Parl. pprs.
  • 4. Date of birth estimated from age given on portrait, R. C. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 246-7. This biography draws largely on F. G. Emmison, Tudor Sec., individual references to which are not given. DNB; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Oxf. 1501-40, pp. 445-6.
  • 5. Emden, 445; LP Hen. VIII, xx, xxi; CPR, 1547-8, p. 83; 1553-4, p. 160; LJ, i. 103, 165.
  • 6. Bull. IHR, xlvi. 102-6; EHR, lxxxi. 225-35; Elton, Policy and Police, 167, 248; Reform and Renewal, 134-5; D. Knowles, Rel. Orders in Eng. 375; J. E. Oxley, Ref. in Essex, 54, 101, 115, 130, 132.
  • 7. Select Cases in Ct. Requests (Selden Soc. xii), pp. xviii, xix, cv; Sel. Pleas in Ct. Admiralty (Selden Soc. vi), p. lix; Strype, Eccles. Memorials, i(2), 254-5; Somerville, Duchy, i. 394.
  • 8. APC, i. 246; F. M. G. Evans, Principal Sec. of State, 29.
  • 9. Cott. Otho C10, f. 218; C218/1, m. 3; LP Hen. VIII, xx.
  • 10. W. C. Richardson, Ct. Augmentations, 248.
  • 11. Tytler, Edw. VI and Mary, i. 228-30; Cam. Misc. xxv. 136; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 506-17.
  • 12. Cam. Misc. xxv. 81-97; Elton, Tudor Rev. in Govt. 230; Bull. IHR, xxxi. 203-10.
  • 13. CJ, i. 7-8, 11, 13-14, 16, 18, 25; House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 3 and 4 Edw. VI, nos. 25, 31.
  • 14. D. M. Loades, Two Tudor Conspiracies, 14n; CSP Span. 1554, p. 315; APC, iv. 398; Oxley, 184-5.
  • 15. CJ, i. 28, 31-36, 38-40, 42-44, 46, 49; W. J. Fitzgerald, ‘Treason legislation in Eng. 1547-1603’ (London Univ. M.A. thesis, 1963), 52-63, 147; C. G. Ericson, ‘Parl. as a legislative institution in the reigns of Edw. VI and Mary’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1973), 211; Knowles, iii. 375.
  • 16. PCC 1 Petre; Pevsner, Essex, 250; R. C. Strong, The Eng. Icon, 127; Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 246-7.