WILSON, Thomas (c.1565-1629), of Westminster and the Castle Gatehouse, Hertford, Herts.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



c. Dec. 1605

Family and Education

b. c.1565, yr. s. of Humphrey Wilson (d. c.1583), of Sheepwash, Canwick, Lincs. and w. Alice.1 educ. ?Stamford g.s. Lincs.; St. John’s, Camb. 1581, BA 1584, MA (Trin. Hall) 1587;2 travelled abroad (Italy, Germany) 1596; Clement’s Inn; I. Temple 1599.3 m. 19 July 1593,4 Margaret, da. of Henry Meautys of West Ham, Essex, 1da.5 kntd. 20 July 1618.6 bur. 17 July 1629.7

Offices Held

Sec. to Robert Cecil†, 1st earl of Salisbury by 1601-10;8 consul, Valladolid, Spain 1604-5;9 clerk of imposts in Exch. 1609-12;10 dep. kpr. State Paper Office 1606-10, kpr. (jt.) 1610-d.;11 commr. petitions 1618.12

Member, Virg. Co. 1609.13

Commr. annoyances, Mdx. 1613, 1625;14 j.p. Herts. 1615-21, 1625-d., Mdx. 1616-21, 1625-d., Westminster 1618-d.;15 commr. sewers, Herts. 1617, Westminster 1627,16 gaol delivery, Newgate, London 1619-d.,17 oyer and terminer, Mdx. 1619-d., London 1620-d., Herts. 1622,18 game preservation, Mdx. 1622,19 new buildings, London and Westminster 1624,20 survey Tower liberties 1626;21 collector, Forced Loan, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Westminster 1626-7.22


Wilson’s ancestors settled in Lincolnshire in the fifteenth century, but were of little account before his uncle Thomas made a career in the service of the Crown, representing Lincoln in two Elizabethan parliaments and dying in office as secretary of state in 1581.23 Following in his uncle’s footsteps, Wilson obtained a scholarship to Cambridge where, by his own account, he studied Civil Law for 15 years. He married the daughter of another bureaucratic family connected with the 1st Lord Burghley (Sir William Cecil†), who unsuccessfully recommended him for a fellowship at Trinity Hall in 1594. After leaving Cambridge Wilson travelled abroad. Whilst away he translated Diana, perhaps the source of Two Gentlemen of Verona, and dedicated it to Shakespeare’s patron, the 3rd earl of Southampton.

In a series of bids to impress the leading statesmen of the day, Wilson reported news from abroad, such as rumours from Rome of a plot to restore the Roman Catholic hierarchy in northern England and assure the succession to the Spanish Infanta.24 He also compiled a ‘Book on the State of Ireland’ in 1599, addressed to the 2nd earl of Essex.25 The following year he produced ‘The State of England’, perhaps the most percipient sociological study of the period, which circulated in manuscript form.26 In 1600 Lord Buckhurst (Thomas Sackville†) sent him back to Italy to spy on English Catholic exiles. From Savoy, where he was detained by ‘mine ordinary enemy, the burning fever’, he wrote to his pregnant wife, comforting himself that ‘God hath given you wisdom and discretion more than ordinary in women’.27 Burghley’s son Sir Robert Cecil† was so pleased with Wilson’s dispatches that he asked for duplicates, and was supplied with regular postings from Florence and Venice during 1601-3.28 At the beginning of the new reign Wilson presented a gelding to the Scottish courtier Sir David Foulis, in hopes of a post in Prince Henry’s Husehold.29 In 1604 he proceeded on an intelligence mission to Spain under cover of a consulship.30 Back in England by March the following year, he tried, without success, to obtain a reversion to the lieutenancy of the Tower. Offered the post of consul-general in Spain, he decided he would be ‘better provided for’ as resident secretary to Cecil, now earl of Salisbury.31 He was responsible for foreign intelligence, receiving reports from a network of agents in Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France. In the wake of the Gunpowder Plot he searched the conspirators’ headquarters in Enfield Chase.32

Ahead of the deferred second session of James’s first Parliament, Salisbury recommended Wilson to the earl of Southampton as a replacement for Sir John Stanhope I* at Newtown. Once in the Lower House Wilson kept his master regularly informed of Commons’ business. He had taken his seat by 31 Jan. 1606, when he reported back to Salisbury concerning the debate on the motion of Sir Henry Poole* to honour Lord Monteagle for unmasking the Gunpowder Plot, and on the same day was named to his only committee in the second session, on a bill to supply London with fresh water from the Colne and Lea.33 When purveyance was debated on 6 Mar., Wilson suggested, in his only recorded speech, that as a compromise, composition should be introduced for a limited period only, and upon conditions.34

Later in the year Wilson became deputy to Sir Thomas Lake I* as keeper of the records. On 16 Nov., two days before the third session opened, he corresponded with Salisbury concerning the proposed Union with Scotland, which would be the major issue of the session. He recapitulated the arguments on both sides for aspects already debated, and produced favourable precedents.35 On 4 Dec. he gave a detailed report of the escuage debate, though admitting that his ‘weak judgment in law’ disabled him from assessing it. He reported rumours circulating in the House that Salisbury favoured the abolition of wardship to gain credit, as master of the Wards, for removing the burden, and added that ‘the ground of the arguments pro and contra I will provide in a brief against the conference, this being but a journal taste how the game is like to go’.36 Without authority to attend the conference of 14 Mar. 1607 on naturalization, he informed Salisbury the following day that at a gathering of friends he had steered the conversation round to the speech made by Sir Edwin Sandys*, but had found their recollection patchy. Under guise of testing their memories, ‘so there will not be the least suspicion of that I aim at’, he had arranged for his friends to write down and then pool their accounts of the speech, of which he was eventually able to give a detailed summary. As Salisbury had demanded, he tabulated the arguments over the retention by the Scots of their privilege of naturalization in France.37 On 26 Mar. he was appointed to a sub-committee to investigate wrongs suffered by Englishmen at the hands of Spanish officials.38 His reports of the Union debates during May 1607, including the proceedings of committees for the abolition of hostile laws on 9 and 29 May, were detailed and impartial, in two instances supplying gaps in the diary of Robert Bowyer*.39 At the end of the month Wilson was among those ordered to consider the bill to ratify his master’s exchange of Theobalds for the royal property of Hatfield (30 May).40

Wilson offered a timely bribe to Lake in April 1607 to secure the re-grant of a seven-year licence to print certain books.41 On Salisbury’s behalf he supervised the building of Hatfield, which he helped to design, and later managed the New Exchange, or Britain’s Bourse, on the Strand, building himself a house on the corner.42 In 1608 the king granted him a pension of £100 p.a. for life, and the following year he was appointed to a clerkship in the Exchequer.43 He also used his connections to obtain a patent for his brother Christopher, a clothier, to mix logwood with other dyestuffs; but his first committee nomination in the fourth session, on 29 Mar. 1610, was for a bill to prevent the practice.44 On 26 May he was appointed to attend the king with a conciliatory address on the vexed question of royal messages during the impositions debate.45 He was among those ordered to consider another London water bill for the benefit of Chelsea College (22 June) and bills to confirm the establishment of Britain’s Bourse (23 June), and to relieve three imprisoned debtors (2 July).46 During the recess he left Salisbury’s service to become full-time keeper of the records.47 No trace survives of his activities in the fifth session.

On Salisbury’s death in 1612 Wilson received an annuity of £40, but lost his clerkship of the imposts.48 In compensation the king granted him £300, and made his son-in-law Ambrose Randolph his nominal deputy, and effectual successor, in the Records Office.49 Wilson proved a conscientious archivist and was rewarded with a knighthood, but his frequent importuning for a more lucrative post was ignored. He particularly aspired to be the next master of Requests, presenting numerous unsuccessful petitions for this and other preferments.50 In 1615 he leased the gatehouse of Hertford Castle, then parcel of the duchy of Lancaster; but mounting debts forced him to sell his property in Britain’s Bourse and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.51 Appointed to take charge of Sir Walter Ralegh† during the latter’s trial in 1618, he tried to worm a confession from the ‘arch-hypocrite’ with a spurious offer of clemency.52 His tale-bearing later provoked Sir Julius Caesar* to call him an officious intruder to his face.53

Wilson tried without success to present himself as a candidate for the mastership of Trinity Hall in 1615, and it may have been with an eye to procuring the Cambridge Regius chair in medicine for his puritan cousin Edmund that he drafted a royal letter four years later ordering the fellows of Caius to elect him master of the college as ‘a man of learning and sufficiency’ with a record of long and faithful service to the Crown.54 However, this was never sent, and John Gostlin* succeeded to the mastership, from which position of vantage he was able to defeat Wilson’s cousin in a contest for the chair. Wilson had promised to leave Randolph his lease of Hertford Castle, in lieu of a marriage portion; but he sold it in 1622 to pay off a debt of £1,240.55 Making ‘his last actions suitable to his former’, Wilson was on the point of selling his office, without regard to Randolph’s reversion, when, to his daughter’s ‘great joy’, he suffered a fatal stroke.56 He died intestate and was buried on 17 July 1629 in St. Martin-in-the-Fields. Administration was granted to his widow.57

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Virginia C.D. Moseley / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. Lincs. AO, Consistory Ct. wills, 1583/2/262.
  • 2. Reg. Stamford Sch. 1532-1960, p. 117; Al. Cant.
  • 3. Oxford DNB; I. Temple database of admiss.; Lismore Pprs. (ser. 2) ed. A.B. Grosart, ii. 114.
  • 4. Jane, Lady Cornwallis, Private Corresp. p. xlix.
  • 5. Clutterbuck, Herts. i. 93.
  • 6. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 169.
  • 7. St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Harl. Soc. Reg. lxvi), 245.
  • 8. CSP Ire. 1600-1, p. 202; A.G.R. Smith, ‘Secretariats of the Cecils’, EHR, lxxxiii. 482, 497, 503.
  • 9. SP94/10, ff. 73, 87, 104; 94/11, ff. 4-5.
  • 10. C66/1829.
  • 11. F.S. Thomas, Hist. State Pprs. Office, 7; C66/2024.
  • 12. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 534, 557.
  • 13. Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.M. Kingsbury, iii. 336.
  • 14. C181/2, f. 200; 181/3, f. 157.
  • 15. C231/4, ff. 8, 22; C181/2, f. 331v, 181/3, f. 15v; C193/13/1; C66/2527; T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 2, pp. 9, 11, 21.
  • 16. C181/2, f. 297v; 181/3, f. 213v.
  • 17. C181/2, f. 351v; 181/3, ff. 23, 243.
  • 18. C181/2, ff. 351v, 352v; 181/3, f. 21, 22, 46, 69v, 243, 244.
  • 19. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 352.
  • 20. Rymer, vii. pt. 4, p. 96.
  • 21. CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 471.
  • 22. Harl. 6846, f. 341v.
  • 23. T. Wilson, ‘State of Eng.’ ed. F.J. Fisher, Cam. Misc. XVI (Cam. Soc. ser. 3. lii), 21; Vis. Lincs. ed. Metcalfe, 73-74.
  • 24. CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 25.
  • 25. CSP Ire. 1598-9, p. 505.
  • 26. Wilson.
  • 27. HMC Hatfield, x. 259; xv. 120.
  • 28. CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 600; 1601-3, pp. 127, 128, 140, 148, 234.
  • 29. HMC Hatfield, xv. 203.
  • 30. Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, ii. 45.
  • 31. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 360.
  • 32. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 250.
  • 33. CJ, i. 262b; SP14/18/55, 21/17; Bowyer Diary, 16.
  • 34. CJ, i. 278b; Bowyer Diary, 62.
  • 35. SP14/23/61, 62.
  • 36. SP14/24/13; Bowyer Diary, 201-2.
  • 37. SP14/26/85-7; Bowyer Diary, 237.
  • 38. CJ, i. 355a.
  • 39. SP14/21/16, 21; 26/70; 27/30; Bowyer Diary, 376-8, 382-3.
  • 40. CJ, i. 377a.
  • 41. CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 495; C66/1731.
  • 42. HMC Hatfield, xxi. 34; L. Stone, Fam. and Fortune, 66, 72, 100, 103-4.
  • 43. C66/1761.
  • 44. CJ, i. 416b; HMC Hatfield, xx. 262-3.
  • 45. CJ, i. 433b.
  • 46. Ibid. 442b, 443a, 444b.
  • 47. C66/1829; Smith, 503.
  • 48. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 354.
  • 49. J. Nichols, Progs. of Jas. I, ii. 759, 760; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 248.
  • 50. CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 390, 445, 489, 508, 609-10; 1619-23, p. 374.
  • 51. Vis. Herts. (Harl. Soc. xxii), 105; HMC Hatfield, xxi. 34; REQ 2/402/86; LCC Survey of London, xviii. 93.
  • 52. CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 568-77, 583, 589-92.
  • 53. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 103.
  • 54. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 341; 1619-23, p. 9.
  • 55. SP14/127/47; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 205.
  • 56. Cornwallis, 203.
  • 57. St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Harl. Soc. Reg. lxvi), 245; CSP Dom. 1629-31, p. 25.