MASON, Sir John (1503-66), of Abingdon, Berks. and Hartley Wintney, Hants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Apr. 1554

Family and Education

b. 1503, ?illegit. s. of a sis. of Thomas, last abbot of Abingdon. educ. Abingdon g.s.; All Souls, Oxf., fellow, BA 1521, MA 1525; Paris (King’s scholar). m. Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Isley of Sundridge, Kent, and wid. of Richard Hill (d.1539) of Hartley Wintney, serjeant of the cellar to Henry VIII, 1s. d.v.p. Kntd. 22 Feb. 1547.3

Offices Held

Sec. to Sir Thomas Wyatt (envoy to Emperor 1537-41); envoy to Emperor 1546, 1553-6; French sec. 1542; acting clerk of PC 1541; clerk of PC 1543-5; jt. (with (Sir) William Paget) master of the posts 1545; j.p. Hants by 1547, q. by 1564; steward of lands and keeper of site of late abbey of Abingdon 1549; dean of Winchester 1549-53; PC 1550-d.; ambassador to France 1550-1; (dep. from Jan. 1542) clerk of Parliaments 1550-1, jt. clerk of Parliaments 1551-d.; master of requests c.1551-8; j.p. Berks. by 1552, q. by 1564; chancellor of Oxf. Univ. Nov. 1552-Oct. 1556, June 1559-Dec. 1564; a founder and 1st master of Christ’s hospital, Abingdon 1553; treasurer of the chamber 1559-d.; chief subsidy commr. Mdx. 1559; visitor, Oxf. Univ. 1559.4


A diplomat by profession and a ‘trimmer’ by nature. Sir John Mason retained at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign the high position he had enjoyed under the Queen’s three predecessors. Through his marriage he was related to the Dudleys; and through his step-daughter’s marriage to Sir John Cheke, he was distantly connected with Sir William Cecil. It was his diplomatic experience, however, which made him indispensable: he was remembered as having ‘the quickness of the Italians, the staidness of the Spaniards, the air of the French, the resolution of the Germans and the industry of the Dutch’.5

Mason was in London at the time of Queen Mary’s death and was instructed, along with Archbishop Heath and Sir William Petre, to transact necessary business, till Elizabeth and her council should arrive from Hatfield. Thenceforward, until his death in 1566, he played a leading part in framing foreign policy and frequently advised the government on economic affairs. In the first week of the reign he wrote to Cecil urging a speedy peace with France, which should not be allowed to ‘stick upon Calais’. The following March he was sent to Cateau-Cambrésis, with instructions to the English commissioners there to be less friendly to the Spanish viewpoint. This was his last mission abroad, but he continued to have frequent interviews with the foreign ambassadors in London and carried on an extensive correspondence with English agents, especially Sir Thomas Chaloner in Spain. He soon veered towards support of an alliance with Spain, to counter French activity in Scotland.6

His new friendship to Spain, coupled with his conservatism in religion, made him an object of suspicion to the extreme protestants. In the spring of 1560, John, Lord Grey of Pyrgo, warned Cecil against the ‘Philippians’, Mason, Arundel and Petre, who ‘because they may not have things go after their will and device ... had rather bring in a foreign prince’; and Henry Killigrew told Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador in Paris, ‘our councillors are honest men all, Mason excepted’. Mason complained to Cecil of the ‘undeserved vexation’ he was receiving from such critics and claimed that his conscience was ‘unaccused’. In fact his religious standpoint is obscure. On his death, he was described by the Spanish ambassador as ‘a man of importance and apparently a Catholic’, and he was the friend and relative of Sir Richard Shelley, a notable Catholic exile. During his education under the patronage of the last abbot of Abingdon, possibly his uncle, Mason had taken acolyte’s orders (thus, incidentally, he may not have been strictly speaking a ‘lay dean’ of Winchester). There is no evidence that his Catholic sympathies affected his official advice, and he was certainly not unfriendly to the Elizabethan settlement. In August 1559 he recommended to Cecil a ‘book of common service in Latin’ and a ‘little book of private prayers for children and servants’, asking that they might be authorised for printing. He took part in the visitation of Oxford University and accepted re-election as chancellor, when the Earl of Arundel resigned, probably for religious reasons; he was scandalized to find that some of the heads of colleges were married. He praised the Queen’s care for the state of the church, and in the 1564 bishops’ reports was classified by the protestant bishop of Winchester as ‘favourable’ to true religion. His will gives no indication of his religious beliefs.7

The first of his considerable estates in Hampshire had come to Mason through his marriage. He had subsequently been granted some of the temporalities of the bishop of Winchester, and this property, restored to the bishopric by Queen Mary, was returned to Mason and his fellow patentees by the first Parliament of Elizabeth. At his birthplace, the town of Abingdon, Berkshire, he acquired much of the land of the dissolved abbey, and he styled himself high steward of the borough. On the flight of the Catholic, Sir Francis Englefield, he was made keeper of Whitley park, near Reading. When the subsidy assessment was made in the first year of Elizabeth’s reign, Mason, with lands worth £200 a year, was listed as the richest of the officials in the Queen’s household; Cecil, who came second, was assessed on £133. On more than one occasion Mason was asked to deal with threats to the Queen’s life or sovereignty. The reign was only a few days old when he was ordered to take action against Sir Anthony Fortescue. Edward Grimston was in his custody until he was cleared of responsibility for the loss of Calais. Mason was also employed in the Queen’s efforts to invalidate the marriage of the Earl of Hertford to Catherine Grey, who had a claim to the succession. In May 1564 Hertford was committed to his charge, which explains his tenure, at the time of his death, of the Earl’s house and manor at Elvetham, Hampshire.

Mason’s property in Abingdon gave him the parliamentary patronage of the borough but he did not need to sit himself, as he was of sufficient status in Hampshire to be returned as knight of the shire. Though he was knighted in 1547, and there can be no doubt of the identity, on all but one of the occasions, in accordance with contemporary usage, he appears in the journals as plain Mr. As a Privy Councillor Mason was appointed to important committees such as that drafting the petition to the Queen to marry (6 Feb. 1559). He read the Queen’s reply to the House on 10 Feb., an appropriate task for the old diplomat, who must have recognised the advantages of leaving the marriage and succession questions undecided. Writing of Parliament’s next attempt, in 1563, to get the Queen to name her successor, he thought:

she will not bite at that bait, wherein, in my opinion, she hath a better judgment than many have of them that be so earnest in the matter.

Nevertheless, as a Privy Councillor, he would have had a hand in drawing up the petition for the Queen’s marriage and succession on 19 Jan. 1563. On 25 Jan. the Privy Councillors were appointed to the subsidy committee and on 24 Feb. Mason conducted the inquiry into the alleged frauds of John Smith (see MARSHE, John). On 3 Mar. Mason spoke about the bishop of Winchester’s lands, and on 8 Feb. he reported to the House the results of an inquiry into an affray caused by the servants of Sir Henry Jones.

In December 1564, Mason resigned the chancellorship of Oxford University in favour of Sir Robert Dudley, just created Earl of Leicester. Mason last attended a Privy Council meeting on 4 June 1565 and died in the following April; he was buried in St. Paul’s cathedral. His will was proved 25 Jan. 1567. He left his books to be shared between All Souls and Winchester colleges and his half-brother’s son, Anthony Wyckes. As overseers of his will he appointed Cecil and Sir William Cordell. His lands he had already settled on Anthony Wyckes, who adopted the name of Mason. Leicester succeeded to his influence at Abingdon, and Sir Francis Knollys to the treasurership of the chamber. The Hampshire by-election caused by Mason’s death was the occasion of a contest between the conservative and the puritan factions in the county.8

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: Alan Harding


  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. A. E. Preston, Christ’s Hosp. Abingdon, 40; Dugdale, St. Paul’s Cath. (1818), 65; DNB; Vis. Hants (Harl. Soc. lxiv), 20; Hasted, Kent, (1778-9), i. 368.
  • 4. DNB; Preston, 42; Winchester Cath. Statutes, ed. Goodman and Hutton, 100-1; LP Hen. VIII, xvi(2), p. 884; xviii(1), p. 365; xx(2), p. 449; VCH Hants, ii. 115; Lansd. 1218, f. 5; VCH Oxon. iii. 39, 100, 105; CPR, 1553 and App. Edw. VI, pp. 142-3; 1557-8, p. 429; EHR, lxxiii. 79, 82.
  • 5. N. and Q. (ser. 4), iii. 460; Read, Cecil, i. 69.
  • 6. Strype, Annals, i(2), p. 390; CSP For. 1558-9, pp. 6, 166, 175, 179; 1559-60, pp. 224, 382; 1561-2, pp. 191, 241; 1562, p. 136; CSP Span. 1558-67, pp. 34, 39, 48, 50, 59, 232, 366, 380; CSP Ven. 1558-80, pp. 40, 81; Read, Cecil, i. 242.
  • 7. Read, Cecil, i. 168, 174; CSP Scot. i. 415; CSP Span. 1558-67, p. 544; Vis. Hants (Harl. Soc. lxiv), 20; Wright, Eliz. i. 137; Winchester Cath. Statutes, 100-1; Liturgical Services of Queen Elizabeth, ed. Clay (Parker Soc. 1847), 516; if these prayers are indeed by Mason, the date (1568) must be wrong; CSP For. 1558-9, p. 468; 1560-1, p. 87; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 183, 488; Cam. Misc. ix(3), p. 55.
  • 8. VCH Hants, iv. 79-80; VCH Berks. iii. 207, 373-4, 393, 442; Strype, Annals, i(1), 10, 90; i(2), 118, 121; CPR, 1560-3, pp. 211-12; Lansd. 3, f. 193; F. Little, A Monument of Christian Munificence (ed. Cobham), 34-50; CJ, i. 54, 56, 65; D’Ewes, 45, 46, 48, 49, 79, 80, 84; Wright, i. 137; APC, vii. 5; CSP For. 1559-60, p. 137; 1563, p. 378; HMC Hatfield, i. 272, 295; PCC 2 Stonard.