PICKERING, Sir William (1516/17-75), of London and Byland and Oswaldkirk, Yorks.

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



Family and Education

b. 1516/17, 1st s. of Sir William Pickering of London, Byland and Oswaldkirk by Eleanor, da. of William Fairfax. educ. Camb. unm. 1da. illegit. suc. fa. 1542. Kntd. 22 Feb. 1547.1

Offices Held

Gent. of the chamber by 1550; keeper, Sheriff Hutton park, Yorks. and constable of the castle by 1551; ambassador to France 1551-3; j.p. Mdx. 1562.2


William Pickering’s father, knight marshal to Henry VIII, acquired considerable monastic property in Yorkshire and other counties. At Cambridge Pickering was tutored by John Cheke and his scholarship was sufficient for him to be considered worthy of mention in a list of those who had adopted Cheke’s new pronunciation of Greek.3

In 1538 Pickering was suggested as ‘one of those most meet to be daily waiters’ upon the King and ‘allowed in his house’, but it is not known if this suggestion was acted upon. Of his career and activities nothing further has been traced until 2 Feb. 1543, when he went with several other young bloods led by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, on a nocturnal spree in London, smashing windows and firing crossbows at passers-by. A week later Surrey was brought before the Council on a composite charge of eating flesh in Lent and breaking the King’s peace, and among his principal associates were named Pickering, Sir John Clere, Thomas Clere and Sir Thomas Wyatt II, all noted Protestants. When Wyatt and Pickering were called before the Council they claimed to be licensed for the flesh-eating and denied the window-breaking: both were committed, Wyatt to the Compter and Pickering to the Porter’s Lodge, and on the following day they were confronted by one of the Cleres, who had confessed, whereupon they admitted their guilt. They spent a month in the Tower before being released on recognizances of £200. Surrey tried to maintain that the group’s antics were intended to remind the citizens of the suddenness of God’s judgment, but he, too, found it prudent to retract and to attribute it to the reckless folly of youth: he employed Pickering as an envoy to the Council to ask for mercy.4

Before the reign ended, and with it Surrey’s life, Pickering had exchanged that perilous attachment for a more promising one. His new patron was John Dudley, Viscount Lisle and Earl of Warwick, under whose aegis he was knighted at Edward VI’s coronation and elected by the borough of Warwick as its senior Member in the King’s first Parliament, the only man from outside the county to be chosen there throughout the period. (Although the Journal throws no light upon his activity in the House, Pickering is known to have sympathized with Wyatt’s scheme for a militia authorized by Parliament.) But the largest dividend was to accrue three years later when, after Warwick’s seizure of power from the Protector Somerset, Pickering was appointed to replace Sir John Mason as envoy in France. The imperial envoy Scheyfve promptly wrote him off as a creature of Warwick’s, about 30 years old, unlettered and a zealous Protestant, and Warwick’s use of a novice in diplomacy on so important a mission reflects his overriding need for loyalty in its discharge.5

The surrender of Boulogne by the treaty of May 1550 had brought the Anglo-French war to an end and Pickering’s task was to smooth the way for a marriage alliance between Edward VI and the French Princess Elizabeth. After a brief sojourn with Mason in February and March 1551, from which he returned on urgent private business (the nature of which does not appear), he went back in May with the embassy despatched to invest the King of France with the Garter and to negotiate the marriage: the Garter ceremony was performed before the end of May but the treaty was not concluded before the middle of July. Pickering was then left as resident ambassador in France, where he was to remain until after the death of Edward VI. In measure as that event, and with it the lapse of the treaty, were foreshadowed during these two years his importance diminished and his treatment worsened. When he was recalled, soon after Mary’s accession and at the end of an embarrassing month in which he had received no instructions, his debts were such that he had difficulty in leaving Paris.6

His absence abroad had prevented Pickering from attending the last session of the Parliament of 1547—on the list of Members as revised for that session he is marked ‘extra regnum’—or from sitting in that of March 1553: it also saved him from involvement in the struggle over the succession, but he was soon engaged in activities which justified the new government’s mistrust of him. In October 1553 Renard, the imperial ambassador in England, reported to the Queen that Pickering had talked over two hours with Princess Elizabeth, ‘and I suppose their conversation had something to do with the French ambassador’. Pickering was soon conspiring against the Spanish marriage with his old associate Wyatt, and although he did not take part in the rising he was indicted after he had fled to France. In March 1554 he and Sir Peter Carew arrived at Caen to organise ships with which, it was said, they hoped to intercept the Spanish fleet bringing Prince Philip to England. For the provision of the ships they relied on the French King, to whom Pickering was to be envoy, but Henry II immediately disavowed any connexion with the project and even promised Wotton, the new English ambassador, to apprehend the plotters. This promise notwithstanding, in April Pickering and Carew were living openly in Paris and Wotton was writing home about Pickering’s familiarity with the English diplomatic cipher, which had to be changed. By this time, however, Pickering was veering round and he revealed to Wotton what he claimed to be the French King’s plan to land the conspirators in Essex or the Isle of Wight towards the end of the summer. With Cecil’s cousin, Thomas Dannett, he then fled to Italy for fear of revenge but when Carew soon afterwards followed suit this fear was removed. By March 1555 Pickering had received a royal pardon and was in Brussels awaiting favourable tidings to embark for England: he finally arrived in July and retired into private life for two years. In January 1558 the Queen called on him to recruit mercenaries in the Netherlands and Germany for the French war; after he had engaged in protracted negotiations the transaction was countermanded, but not before it had involved him in financial commitments which were still outstanding five years later when a commission was issued to view and settle his accounts.7

The accession of Elizabeth brought Pickering a last flash of notoriety. Unmarried, reputedly successful with women, and a Protestant, he was for a time spoken of as a candidate for the Queen’s hand. Ambassadors reported his secret visits to the Queen; he had taken up residence at court, entertained lavishly and showed extravagant tastes; he dined alone with music playing, had made his way into the royal chapel reserved for the nobility—to the fury of the 12th Earl of Arundel said to be his rival in the Queen’s favour—and had challenged the 2nd Earl of Bedford to a duel for having spoken ill of him. The truth is probably that Pickering never considered himself a suitor: the Queen, he told ambassadors, ‘would laugh at him and at all the rest of them as he knew she meant to die a maid’.8

Apart from a place briefly on the Middlesex bench and a commission of lieutenancy for London at the time of the rebellion of 1569, Pickering received no further appointments, ending his days in semi-retirement and literary recreations. In his will made on 31 Dec. 1574 part of his land was left to found a free school and maintain students at Oxford. Most of his property, which he had settled securely on trustees to the performance of his will, he bequeathed to his illegitimate daughter, Hester, who was to be brought up by his friend Thomas Unton. His extensive library and armoury, with the exception of certain books on antiquities, globes and compasses which he gave to Cecil, were to be kept intact for his daughter’s husband. He made bequests to his heir, his sister, and to numerous friends, including his executors, John Astley, his cousin Thomas Heneage, Thomas Wotton and Dru Drury, and his supervisors Cecil and (Sir) Nicholas Bacon. He died in his London house, in the parish of St. Andrew Undershaft, on 4 Jan. 1575, and in accordance with his wishes he was buried in the church of St. Helen within Bishopsgate. Strype called Pickering ‘the finest gentleman of his age, for his worth in learning, arts and warfare’.9

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: S. M. Thorpe


  • 1. Date of birth estimated from age at fa.’s i.p.m., C142/65/63. DNB; PCC 15 Spert, 1 Pyckering.
  • 2. Stowe 571, f. 69v.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, xvii, xviii; HMC Bath, iv. 2; NRA 6160, no. 4837; C. Peers, Byland Abbey, 4; Strype, Eccles. Memorials, ii(1), 574; Cheke, 435.
  • 4. LP Hen. VIII, xviii; APC, i. 104-5, 125-6.
  • 5. Pprs. Geo. Wyatt (Cam. Soc. 4th ser. v), 57; B. L. Beer, Northumberland, 110-11; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 232; CSP Span. 1550-2, p. 218.
  • 6. Jordan, ii. 88, 127, 145, 158, 160, 167; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 304-464 passim; E. Lavisse, Histoire de France, v(2), 147-50; CSP For. 1547-53 passim; 1553-8, p. 5; CSP Span. 1550-2 passim; APC, iii, iv passim; HMC Hatfield, i. 85; Lansd. 3(30), ff. 59-60.
  • 7. Hatfield 207; CSP Span. 1553, p. 314; 1554, passim; 1554-8, pp. 380, 389, 404; CSP For. 1553-8, passim; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 100, 103; CSP Dom. 1601-3, Add. 1547-65, p. 466; D. M. Loades, Two Tudor Conspiracies, 15-16, 24, 50, 92n, 96, 158; CPR, 1554-5, p. 177; 1558-60, p. 71; APC, vi. 242, 310, 314-15, 320; Lansd. 8(70), ff. 163-4; HMC Hatfield, i. 257.
  • 8. CSP For. 1558-9, no. 729; CSP Span. 1558-67 passim; CSP Ven. 1558-60 passim; Strype, Annals, i(2), 491; Parker, i. 164.
  • 9. CSP Span. 1558-67, p. 337; PCC 1 Pyckering; C142/170/32, 171/73; Strype, Annals, ii(1), 530.