THOMAS, William (by 1524-54), of London and Llanthomas, Brec.
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Family and Education
b. by 1524 ?s. of one Thomas of Llanthomas. ?educ. Oxf. m. ?(1) by 1544, Margaret, ?da. of one Watkins of Hereford, Herefs., (2) by 1553, Thomasin, da. of Thomas Mildmay of Chelmsford, Essex, wid. of Anthony Bourchier (d. 13 July 1551) of London and Barnsley, Glos., 1da.3
Despite his fame as a scholar, nothing is known for certain about William Thomas before the last ten years of his life. It has been tentatively suggested that he was William, son of Thomas ap Philip ap Bleddyn of Llanigon in east Breconshire, and so brother to the Elizabeth who married Richard Seysallt and thereby perhaps became a kinswoman of William Cecil; or alternatively that he could have been a son of Cromwell’s follower Walter Thomas of Crickhowell, who died in 1542. The first of these suggestions is at odds with chronology, for whereas William ap Thomas was born not later than 1494 William Thomas was described by two writers in 1545 as a young man; the second appears to be mere conjecture. More worthy of consideration is the origin mentioned in a grant of arms of I Feb. 1552 to William Thomas of Llanthomas, gentleman, ‘descended of a noble house undefamed’: if, as is highly probable, the recipient was the clerk of the Council, then at the height of his fortune, he must have been related in some way to the Thomases of Llanigon, whose seat was at Llanthomas in that parish.5
This pedigree, although respectable, was not distinguished enough to ensure advancement. The possibility that William Thomas attended Oxford university rests not on the admission of someone of his name as a bachelor of canon law in 1529, for this man was then already in priest’s orders and in any case the author of the Peregryne was to deny that he was a canonist, but on the fact that he somehow attained a mastery of Latin. His name was too common to make it clear whether his first surviving letter is one sent from London on 19 May 1540 to John Scudamore of the augmentations about pensions paid to former nuns at Limebrook and Wormsley, Herefordshire, in which the writer asks that payment for his labour should be made to his mother-in-law at Hereford. He can doubtless be distinguished from namesakes who were tenants at Oxford and Romsey in 1544 and he was certainly not the William John Thomas who sat on the first of several commissions in Monmouthshire in the previous year; but he could have been the William Thomas who became clerk of the peace in Radnorshire and neighbouring counties early in 1542, the man who received the next presentation to a Dorset vicarage in 1543 or the buyer and seller of the reversion of Beedon manor, Berkshire, at the beginning of 1544. He was almost certainly the grantee of a 21-year lease of the rectory of Hay in May 1540, Hay being only two miles from Llanthomas, and probably the tenant in September 1544, with his wife Margaret, of a house in St. Saviour’s parish, Southwark, adjoining the former priory of St. Mary Overey and belonging to Sir Anthony Browne whose service William Thomas had entered by the following year.6
It is from early in 1545 that conjecture gives place to fact. On 13 Feb. of that year Stephen Vaughan, the royal agent at Antwerp, reported the passage of one of the Earl of Hertford’s servants sent after Thomas, who had run away with money. The fugitive, who was also sought in Germany, arrived in Venice on 10 Apr., the day that letters about him from the Council reached the English ambassador Edmund Harvel, to whom he at once confessed that ‘folly and misfortune of play’ had caused him to abscond with some bills of exchange issued by the Vivaldi company of Genoa. After having Thomas imprisoned and stopping payment of the bills, Harvel was moved by the culprit’s plight and wrote on 3 May that he seemed penitent. At the end of the month the Council instructed Harvel to return a bill of exchange which Thomas had obtained with Sir Anthony Browne’s money from Acelyne Salvage, an Italian merchant in London, so that Browne might be indemnified.7
Thomas’s flight was the prelude to three years in Italy. How long he spent in prison and how he earned a living during the remainder of his exile are alike unknown, although there were wealthy Italian merchants who entertained him. He learned of Henry VIII’s death when at Bologna in February 1547 on his way north from Florence to the freer atmosphere of Venice; there he probably wrote his first work, the Peregryne, a political dialogue in defence of the late King, with a scathing attack on the monks and a flattering portrait of Edward VI. He then moved south again, to pass the Christmas of 1547 at Rome, and soon afterwards he was commissioned to draw up his Principal rules of the Italian grammar by a Mr. Tamworth, probably John Tamworth†, Cranmer’s kinsman and like Thomas a future brother-in-law of (Sir) Walter Mildmay. The grammar, perhaps composed in Padua, was despatched from there to Tamworth with a covering letter on 3 Feb. 1548. Tamworth may have sent the author money for his journey home, for Thomas had never been outlawed and his political propaganda must have found favour with Edward VI’s advisers. A new work, The historie of Italie, was finished after his return to England, via Strasbourg, in the late spring or early summer of 1548; the earliest English book on Italy, this was published by the King’s former printer, the Welshborn Thomas Berthelet, in 1549.8
The next two years of Thomas’s life are obscure, since he cannot be distinguished from others of the same name until his appointment as one of the clerks of the Privy Council on 19 Apr. 1550. His reappearance at home was probably not unconnected with the death on 28 Apr. 1548 of his former master Browne, whose will makes no mention of him. Thomas was almost certainly the Member for Old Sarum whose presence in Edward VI’s first Parliament is known from the list of Members as revised for the final session in 1552: none of his namesakes was of a standing to enter the House of Commons. Whether he may be thought to have done so before his flight abroad depends upon a consideration of what is undoubtedly the most interesting passage in the Peregryne. In this Thomas argued that the Acts against Rome had been passed only after mature deliberation, ‘for in the Parliament the law permitteth all men without danger to speak, as well against as with the King’: decisions were therefore not unanimous, ‘for the judgment in the parliament house cases is given by dividing all the persons, all that say yea on the one side of the house and all that say nay on the other side; and the most number do always attain the sentence’. With the exception of the dividing of the House by the King himself in March 1532, as reported by the imperial ambassador Chapuys, this is the earliest known description of a parliamentary division, and it would clearly gain in authority and interest if it could be regarded as based on first-hand knowledge rather than hearsay. Unfortunately, Thomas’s Membership at an earlier date must be accounted possible rather than probable. The possibility arises from the loss of most of the names for the Parliament of 1539 and of many for that of 1542, but it would become a probability only if Thomas could be shown to have acquired the necessary patronage. Thus if he had entered Browne’s service before the end of 1541 he could have been returned for one of several seats in Sussex, and even if the connexion had begun a year or two later he could have been by-elected in time to take his seat for the final session at the beginning of 1544; alternatively, it is not out of the question that Thomas sat for a Welsh borough in this, the first Parliament which included Members for the principality.9
The circumstances of Thomas’s by-election to the first Edwardian Parliament are scarcely less obscure. By-elected he must have been, for when the Parliament was summoned in 1547 he was still in Italy, but how soon after his return to England he entered the House, and under whose auspices, it is hard to say. His earlier service with Browne may have brought him to the notice of the Protector Somerset, who had secured Browne’s assent to his assumption of that office and who as Earl of Hertford had sent one of his servants to pursue Thomas abroad in 1545. Yet Thomas could not have owed his clerkship of the Council to Somerset since he was granted that office when the duke, newly released from the Tower, was politically powerless. Thomas’s appointment was followed by the admission of his precursor Sir John Mason as a Privy Councillor and by Mason’s promotion two months later to the clerkship of the Parliaments; as Sir William Paget, who preceded Mason, had likewise risen from one clerkship to the other, Thomas could aspire to a similar career. Although no previous connexion between Mason and Thomas has come to light, Mason supported Somerset’s rival the Earl of Warwick, and it was to Warwick that Thomas dedicated The historie of Italie on 20 Sept. 1549, just when Warwick was poised to overthrow Somerset. Warwick was to secure Mason’s return for Reading at a by-election in January 1552 and Thomas could well have been returned for Old Sarum at about the same time; he is styled ‘armiger’ on the list of Members and he was granted arms on 1 Feb. 1552.10
A third magnate who appears to have extended his favour to Thomas was William Herbert I, Earl of Pembroke, the ally of every ruler in turn. It was to Pembroke’s first wife, ‘the lady Anne Herbert of Wilton’, the sister of Queen Catherine Parr, that Thomas dedicated a short politico-moral treatise, The vanitee of this World, which was printed by Berthelet in 1549. In that year the future earl had leased from the bishop of Salisbury the manor of Milford, which adjoined the borough of Old Sarum, and with it seems to have acquired the patronage there: if, as is likely, this transaction preceded Thomas’s election, Herbert was almost certainly responsible for that result. The other Member, John Young, previously a follower of Somerset, also came under Herbert’s wing. By what may be more than a coincidence Young had been in Italy early in 1548 on a mission for Somerset, and it is tempting to speculate that he had met Thomas there and perhaps had a part in smoothing the exile’s return.11
On the day after Thomas’s appointment as a clerk of the Council he was made solely responsible for entering its proceedings in a new register and was accordingly discharged from all other business. A patent for the office for life was granted on 20 May, with annual wages of 50 marks, although it was again to be granted to him during pleasure, with £40 a year, on 12 May 1552; in addition, half-yearly expenses of £6 13s.4d. for books and paper were paid on 16 Aug. 1550. It was once assumed that Thomas himself transcribed his rough notes into the council book from 19 Apr. 1550 until 24 Sept. 1551, when his successor Barnard Hampton took over, but Thomas’s own entries cease at the end of August 1550; a different hand has been detected from 3 Sept. 1550 until 5 Apr. 1551, a third hand from then until 5 July, when the second hand briefly reappears, and a fourth from 19 Aug. 1551 until Hampton’s accession. The second writer may well have been Thomas’s secretary, who could have accompanied his master to France in April 1551, in which case Thomas must have retained an active interest at least until the final disappearance of the second hand in August 1551. He was still nominally a clerk of the Council as late as 16 Nov. 1551 but had surrendered the office altogether by 31 Mar. 1553.12
Thomas’s release from secretarial work coincides with his emergence as a mentor of Edward VI, to whom he dedicated his translation of the Persian embassy of the Venetian Giosafat Barbaro, as a New Year’s gift, perhaps at the beginning of 1551. This new role was foreshadowed by an undated letter in which he offered instruction in the principles of statecraft, suggesting 85 ‘politic questions’. The King limited his interest to specific subjects, transmitted through (Sir) Nicholas Throckmorton, and Thomas replied with at least five ‘discourses’, the best known of these contained a plan for reforming the currency, criticisms of which were vigorously rebutted in a subsequent letter to the King. The discourses, whose chronology is disputed, were accompanied by several ‘common-places of state’, all of them military in character. In addition, Thomas translated the 13th-century De Sphaera for Henry Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, including in his preface a famous plea for the teaching of English. It was probably also at this time that he finished his translation of the Peregryne into Italian; the work was begun while he was still busy as a clerk of the council and was published abroad in 1552, for circulation in Italy, as Il Pellegrino Inglese.13
The frequency with which Edward VI recorded his interest in the coinage led Froude to suggest that Thomas might even have had a hand in composing the royal Journal. The nature and extent of his influence over the King are nevertheless hidden, since in his introductory letter secrecy was counselled from the start. Perhaps he was at odds with the King’s tutor (Sir) John Cheke, for it was to Cheke that Bishop Ridley appealed on 23 July 1551, when Thomas was trying to obtain a prebend of St. Paul’s called Cantlers which was said to be worth over £34 a year. The King, to whom the late incumbent William Layton had surrendered his interest, had promised the preferment to Thomas in June 1550, although the bishop hoped to collate Edmund Grindal, the future archbishop of Canterbury. Eventually Ridley had been browbeaten by the Council into promising that the vacancy would not be filled without reference to the King, and he was now indignant that Thomas had renewed his ‘ungodly enterprise’ by persuading certain Councillors to announce that Cantlers would be appropriated to the use of the royal stable. The protest must have had some effect, for neither Thomas nor Grindal secured the prebend which on 24 Oct. 1551 was bestowed on another of the bishop’s protégés.14
A different request by Thomas, for the auditorship of Sussex, was rejected by the Council on 13 July 1551; it was then agreed that no more of these offices were to be granted until further notice, although Thomas should have the first vacancy thereafter. He was already a considerable landowner, having paid £279 in January 1551 for two manors in Herefordshire and Sussex. In October he obtained a second manor in Herefordshire with other rents there, and soon afterwards, in recompense for £17 6s.8d. a year and a debt of 500 marks which he had surrendered to the crown, the rectory of Presteigne; this rectory was later granted at his request to John Bradshaw I of Ludlow, from whom at some unknown date he bought the site of Wigmore abbey. At the end of the year Thomas also secured in reversion several tolls and customs in the marches of Wales, with salt-houses at Droitwich and an annuity of 40 marks from the fee-farm of Hereford. This accumulation of property in Thomas’s native country was furthered by his marriage to Thomasin, the widow of Queen Catherine Parr’s auditor Anthony Bourchier. The wardship of his stepson Thomas Bourchier was granted to him on 31 Mar. 1553, with the custody of property in Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Gloucestershire.15
During his active months as a clerk of the Council and throughout the rest of the reign Thomas performed a number of extra duties, for which he was often well paid. On 12 July 1550 he accompanied two Councillors to see the 12th Earl of Arundel, who had been forbidden the court, on 16 Aug. he was given 66s.8d. for two journeys ‘in post’ and on 30 Aug. he was appointed to join Sir Andrew Dudley and Sir Walter Mildmay in business connected with the King’s wardrobe; on 7 Jan. 1551 the Council ordered that he should have £248 as a reward for unspecified services. In the spring of that year Thomas went as secretary to the embassy under the Marquess of Northampton to Henry of France. Before the embassy set out he received £100 towards his expenses; during June he returned to England to obtain fresh instructions, after which a further £200 was granted to him on going back to France. It is not clear whether he was the William Thomas who was a coroner in Gloucestershire in January 1552 but it was certainly the clerk of the Council who, writing on the Earl of Pembroke’s affairs from Wilton on 14 Aug. 1552, told Sir William Cecil that he would like to be sent to Venice, and who, when at Salisbury on 27 Aug., asked Chancellor Goodrich for a commission to try pirates in the Cinque Ports. His re-election in 1553 to Edward VI’s second Parliament presumably had the backing of Pembroke as well as of the Duke of Northumberland (the former Earl of Warwick), but he himself may have approached Bishop Ponet, the patron of Downton, directly for the nomination: his fellow-Member Robert Warner was a client of Pembroke’s. After the dissolution of the Parliament he accompanied Bishop Thirlby of Norwich on an embassy to the Emperor, with the object of ending the war with France; once again he was sent home while the talks were in progress, for on 15 June the imperial ambassador Scheyfve reported that he had spoken with Thomas in London. Edward VI’s fatal illness and the upheaval which followed may have kept Thomas in England for some two months. After the new regime had decided to reinforce Thirlby’s embassy he accompanied Sir Thomas Cheyne and others to the imperial court, where they spent eight days before returning home. This was the last official activity undertaken by Thomas, for there is no record that he was reappointed a clerk of the Council, although he was accorded this title by the preacher Thomas Hancock in October and by Scheyfve’s successor Renard in the following February.16
Thomas became involved in plans to prevent the Queen’s Spanish marriage. It is not clear whether, as was to be alleged against him, he hoped to have Mary assassinated and thereby to render unnecessary the rebellion envisaged by Sir Thomas Wyatt II. On 27 Dec., perhaps after his own suggestion had been rejected, he left London for Mohun’s Ottery in Devon, the home of Sir Peter Carew, who was supposed to head a rising in the west. A few weeks afterwards Thomas was sought by the Council. Sir John St. Leger, wrote from Exeter on 29 Jan. that Thomas was nowhere to be found, and again reported failure on 4 Feb., after Carew had embarked for France, but surmised that he had escaped to Wales. The fugitive arrived at Bagendon parsonage, near Cirencester, accompanied by his brother-in-law David Watkins, and learned that his property had been seized in London, presumably after the Council had ordered his arrest by the sheriff of Gloucestershire on 12 Feb. Three days later Thomas set out in disguise for the capital, only to be taken near Henley and committed to the Tower on 20 Feb., ‘there to remain apart in secret custody’. He was kept in prison for longer than most of his confederates. On the night of 25-26 Feb. he tried to kill himself with a bread-knife, but on 1 Mar. Renard told the Emperor that he had survived to inculpate himself in a plot against the Queen’s life. A special commission for his trial was issued on 1 May and (Sir) Nicholas Arnold deposed that on the previous 21 and 22 Dec. Thomas had discussed the Queen’s death with him in London. The defendant was brought to Guildhall on 9 May, when his protest that an esquire should not be tried by a jury of common merchants was overruled. After his conviction Thomas was dragged from the Tower to Tyburn on 18 May and, after declaring that he died for his country, was hanged and dismembered; his head was set on London Bridge and three of his quarters over Cripplegate, near the house where he had plotted and where presumably he had lived.17
Thomas is remembered not for his life but for his writings, which reveal him as an early disciple of Machiavelli and also as the first to insist that English should be properly taught for its own sake rather than treated as a mere medium for instruction in the classics. In spite of his assertion that ‘riches deserve not to be esteemed’, when discussing the struggle of the body with the soul in The vanitee of this World, Thomas appears to have been as covetous as he was learned. Not all his material gains were wasted, for on 13 Dec. 1554 the Queen granted to his widow all his goods, with the manor of Garway and other lands in Herefordshire, and on the same day another Herefordshire manor was bestowed on her son Edward Bourchier for life. The grant to Thomasin, however, included the Herefordshire prebend of Nunnington, over which she was sued in Chancery before Archbishop Heath by the lord chancellor’s chaplain Henry Welsh, who claimed that he had been promised the next vacancy. Thomas’s daughter Anne was restored in blood in 1563 and three years later, was granted Garway from the time of her mother’s death, after which she passes into obscurity.18
Ref Volumes: 1509-1558
Author: T. F.T. Baker
- 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament; Hatfield 207.
- 2. C219/330/35 ex inf. Margaret Condon.
- 3. Date of birth estimated from first certain reference. LP Hen. VIII, xix, xx; P. J. Laven, ‘Life and Writings of William Thomas’ (London Univ. M.A. thesis, 1954), 16; Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 251; PCC 20 Bucke; CPR, 1553, p. 4; LJ, i. 591.
- 4. LP Hen. VIII, xvi, xx; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 258, 582; CPR, 1550-3, p. 22