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

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
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, Devon, by Alice, da. of John Collinge of Woodland, Devon;1 bro. of John and Robert. educ. Oxf. by 1519; fellow, All Souls 1523; BCL and BCnL 1526; DCL and adv. Doctors’ Commons 1533. m. (1) ?Feb. 1534, Gertrude (d.1541), da. of Sir John Tyrell of Warley, Essex, 1s. d.v.p. 2da.; (2) by Mar. 1542, Ann (d.1582), da. of William Browne, ld. mayor of London, wid. of John Tyrell of Heron in East Thorndon, Essex, 4s. inc. Sir John 2da. Kntd. 1544.

Offices Held

Proctor, ct. of chancellor, Oxf. Univ. 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; custos rot. Essex 1547-d.; keeper, seal ‘ad causas ecclesiasticus’ 18 Aug. 1548; treasurer, ct. of 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 1553.2


By the accession of Elizabeth, Petre’s political career was nearing its close. ‘A man of approved wisdom and exquisite learning’, his ability and lack of religious zeal had enabled him to secure and retain high office during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary. He was, as a contemporary put it in Mary’s reign, ‘as good as a Council register’, and ‘behaved as if it were not in the power of fortune to jostle him out of position’. Elizabeth retained him on the Privy Council, but she appointed Cecil to the post of principal secretary which Petre had resigned in 1557. The two men remained on good terms, and for a few months in 1560 when Cecil was in Scotland, Petre was his deputy. No doubt Cecil valued his support in the early years of the new reign, and particularly his knowledge of foreign affairs and diplomacy, gained during Mary’s reign when Cecil himself was out of office. His colleagues on the Privy Council acted swiftly when his county seat was threatened in November 1562 by Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich, who wanted the seat for his heir. They wrote to Rich:

Although nature may move you to prefer your son, yet seeing he hath a place as your heir apparent in the higher House, and may also, if you would, by other good means be in the lower house

an attempt to secure the Essex county seat was neither dignified nor necessary. So Petre came in again, for the ninth consecutive time as knight of the shire, to what proved to be his last Parliament. His election expenses were £6 13s. 4d. for dinners in January 1559, and £4 8s.3d. for provisions in December 1562. Whether because of his old age and deafness or because of the defective records, the only references found to him in his two Elizabethan Parliaments are his membership of the succession committee (31 Oct. 1566) and of the delegation of 30 from the Lower House summoned to hear the Queen’s message on the succession (5 Nov. 1566). However, as a Privy Councillor he was appointed to committees concerned with the petition to the Queen to marry (6 Feb. 1559), the petition for the Queen’s marriage and the succession (19 Jan., 12 Feb. 1563) and the subsidy (25 Jan. 1563 and 17 Oct. 1566). Until this year, with a break of some months owing to a serious illness in 1559, Petre still attended the Council regularly, and sat on a variety of commissions, from those dealing with vitally important matters such as the newly established English church or the civil wars in France, to minor bodies like the one set up in May 1564 to raise money for the rebuilding of St. Paul’s, recently destroyed by fire. From November 1564 to May 1566 Lady Catherine Grey was in his custody at Ingatestone. One of his last known appearances at the Privy Council was in October 1566, when two of his Henrician colleagues, Sir Walter Mildmay and Sir Ralph Sadler, were also present, Mildmay for the first time and Sadler after three years’ absence. Petre attended a meeting in February 1567—possibly his last. Beginning three months later, there is a long gap in the Council register.3

Petre lived his last years in retirement at Ingatestone. As cautious and farsighted over money as politics, Petre was that rare phenomenon, a statesman who lived within his means. His household accounts show an average annual surplus of over £600, invested almost entirely in land. He acquired considerable property around his ancestral house in Devon, though there is no evidence that he ever lived in that county after his boyhood days. It was in Essex that he mainly increased and developed his estates, with Ingatestone, acquired at the dissolution of the monasteries, as a nucleus, and where he began to build a new house in about 1540. When Elizabeth spent three days there in July 1561, Petre estimated the cost of her food only at over £136. Much of his wealth went to charities, such as his almshouses at Ingatestone, and All Souls and Exeter, Oxford, Exeter College considering him a second founder. In 1566 he was granted letters patent to found seven fellowships, and two years later he endowed an eighth. Altogether he gave £5,000 to charity. Petre made his will in April 1571 and died at Ingatestone on Jan. 1572, and was buried on 1 Feb. in the parish church, where there is a monument. He had suffered for many years from a ‘humour’ in the leg, probably a varicose ulcer, which forced him to travel in a specially constructed litter. As an elderly man he suffered also from the stone. Though he conformed to the Elizabethan church settlement, taking the oath of supremacy as late as 1569, his wife remained a Catholic, and his family chaplain was the Catholic priest John Woodward, to whom he left a legacy of £40.4

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N. M. Fuidge


This biography is largely based upon F. G. Emmison, Tudor Secretary

  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon , 592.
  • 2. LP Hen. VIII, xx(1), pp. 314, 322; CPR, 1547-8, p. 83; 1553-4, p. 160; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Oxf. 1501-4, pp. 445-6.
  • 3. Camden, Britannia (1610), p. 445; SP12/25/64; Strype, Annals, i(1), p. 9; D’Ewes, 45, 79, 80, 84, 103, 124, 126; Read, Cecil, 77, 160-77; Camb. Univ. Lib. Gg. iii. 34, p. 209; CPR, 1558-60, p. 118; 1560-3, pp. 279, 623; 1563-6, pp. 122-3; APC, vii. 147, 314, 326; Essex RO, D/DP/214/1.
  • 4. CPR, 1555-7, pp. 542-3; 1563-6, pp. 430-1; C. W. Boase, Exeter Coll. Reg. xciv. 74-5; PCC 1 Peter; SP12/3/8, 39/75.