WRIOTHESLEY, Thomas (1505-50), of Micheldever and Titchfield, Hants and Lincoln Place, London.

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. 21 Dec. 1505, 1st s. of William Writh alias Wriothesley of London by Agnes, da. of James Drayton of London. educ. St. Paul’s, Trinity Hall, Camb. m. by 1533, Jane, da. of William Cheyne of Chesham Bois, Bucks., 3s. 5da. suc. fa. 1513. Kntd. 18 Apr. 1540; KG nom. 23 Apr., inst. 17 May 1545; cr. Baron Wriothesley 1 Jan. 1544, Earl of Southampton 16 Feb. 1547.3

Offices Held

Clerk, the signet by May 1530-Apr. 1540, bailiff, manors of Snitterfield and Warwick, Warws. 29 Aug. 1535-d.; engraver, Tower mint 29 May 1536-31 Mar. 1544, constable, Donnington castle, Berks. 21 July 1536, Southampton castle, Hants 7 Jan. 1541- d. , Christchurch castle 20 Feb. 1541-d., Portchester castle 28 Oct. 1542-d.; j.p. Hants 1538-46 or later; jt. ambassador to the Queen of Hungary Sept. 1538-Mar. 1539; principal sec. to the King Apr. 1540-Apr. 1544; PC Apr. 1540-Mar. 1547, rest. early 1548-?d.; steward, manors of Christchurch and Ringwood, Hants 20 Feb. 1541, forfeited lands of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury 28 Oct. 1542; jt. (with Thomas White II) clerk of the crown and King’s attorney KB 1542-d.; commr. loan, London 1542, array, six southern counties 1545, contribution, London 1546; chamberlain, receipt of the Exchequer 28 Jan. 1543-?d.; high steward, borough of Andover, Hants 14 May 1543; treasurer of the wars Jan.-Apr. 1544; ld. keeper of the great seal 22 Apr.-3 May 1544; ld. chancellor 3 May 1544-6 Mar. 1547.4


Thomas Wriothesley came of a line of heralds: his paternal grandfather John Writh was Garter King of arms, his father William Writh alias Wriothesley York herald, his uncle Sir Thomas Writh alias Wriothesley John Writh’s successor as Garter, and his cousin, the chronicler Charles Wriothesley, Windsor herald. It was his uncle Sir Thomas who on appointment as Garter adopted the surname Wriothesley in preference to Writh, and the example was followed by others in the family.5

When his father died the care of the eight year-old Wriothesley was shared between his mother and uncle who seems to have encouraged him to follow his great-grandfather William Writh into the law. A contemporary of John Leland and William Page at St. Paul’s, he studied civil law at Cambridge with Paget under the supervision of Stephen Gardiner, perhaps at the expense of Thomas Boleyn. Wriothesley is not known to have graduated but he seems to have followed Gardiner into the service of Cardinal Wolsey. There he met Thomas Cromwell whom as early as 1524 he was to call master. Since his early advancement was evidently the work of Gardiner his assurance of obedience to Cromwell in 1524 was perhaps merely a formal courtesy, but it could signify a spell at an inn of chancery under the tutelage of Cromwell before admission to Gray’s Inn in 1534, which accords well with his later career. By 1529 he was clerk to Gardiner’s kinsman, the cofferer of the Household, Edmund Peckham, but within a year he had been named as one of the clerks of the signet, presumably by Gardiner as the King’s secretary, and had taken up residence in Gardiner’s house.6

Wriothesley probably ingratiated himself with Henry VIII by his diligence in the King’s great matter. It was on the recommendation of Cromwell that in 1531 he received an annuity out of St. Mary’s abbey, York. Late in 1532 he was sent abroad as a bearer of despatches, and he was to fulfil several similar missions before Gardiner’s resignation as secretary. He continued as clerk of the signet under Cromwell, who used him as a personal representative in the privy seal office. His emergence as a spokesman of anti-clericalism, and his proposal to use ex-monastic land to endow hospitals, to support a standing army, and to provide funds for poor relief, won him commendation from Cromwell but alienated him from Gardiner, who was later to regret the loss of their former friendship.

After supervising the demolition of St. Swithin’s shrine at Winchester in 1538 Wriothesley was sent as ambassador to the Regent of the Netherlands for the abortive marriage negotiation between the King and the Duchess of Milan. Given leave to depart from Brussels on 19 Mar. 1539, he returned to receive news of his election as knight of the shire for Hampshire from the sheriff John Kingsmill. Cromwell had nominated him, and the cellarer of the Household, Richard Hill of Hartley Wintney, had rallied his neighbours and tenants to ensure Wriothesley’s return, with the other nominee Richard Worsley, against opposition from Gardiner. Kingsmill also asked Wriothesley to remind Cromwell of the promise made to him about his own return to the Parliament and went on to commend John Dale, who ‘says he will follow your advice if it please you to get him [a] place’. Before the Parliament assembled Wriothesley went down to Hampshire where he upheld the King’s religious policy. In mid April William Petre advised him ‘to make himself strong against Parliament’ but a week later he had not returned to London although he was daily expected. Of his part in this Parliament all that has come to light is that, on his appointment with Ralph Sadler as principal secretary, the King set aside the recent Act (31 Hen. VIII, c.10) requiring the secretary to attend in the Lords by allowing them to sit alternate weeks in the Commons ‘where they now have places’.7

Early in the third session Wriothesley was knighted at the time of Cromwell’s ennoblement, and the minister’s subsequent fall might well have brought him down also; thus his omission, in favour of his kinsman Richard Lyster, from the list of Members charged with supervising the collection of the subsidy could have been a reflection of his weakened position rather than a concession to his preoccupations as senior secretary. He is thought by some to have been the ‘secret friend’ of Gardiner who was accused by an anonymous writer of duplicity towards Cromwell, but his identification with the man whom the minister had trusted ‘as brother to brother’ is dubious. He was certainly active in the annulment of the Cleves marriage which under Cromwell he had helped to promote, but this may have been prompted by the danger which he was thought to be in by the imperial ambassador. He weathered the charges brought against him by Walter Chandler and others, and kept his place on the Council. His inquiry into Catherine Howard’s indiscretions was followed by his re-election for Hampshire to the Parliament which attainted her. During the first session he was instructed to report to the King on a debate on Irish affairs in the Lords, and in that and the next he signed the Acts for the manor of Blewbury in Berkshire and for the naturalization of Thomas Brandling’s children. His elevation to the peerage on the eve of the final session presumably caused a by-election, but it is not known who took his place in the Commons. He was admitted to the Lords on the third day of the session and until he became immersed in the preparations for war he attended there regularly.8

On Audley’s death Wriothesley was made lord keeper and shortly afterwards chancellor. His diverse activities during the last three years of the reign, especially in raising revenue, earned praise from the King and many others: even Sir Richard Morison, who disliked him, admitted that he was ‘an earnest follower of whatever he took in hand, and very seldom did miss where wit and travail were able to bring his purpose’. He was responsible for summoning the Parliament of 1545 and its repeated postponement greatly exercised him. Evidence of his influence at the elections is scanty, but John Fryer clearly owed his Membership for Portsmouth to being Wriothesley’s physician. It fell to him to open the Parliament, to preside over the Lords and to pronounce prorogation and dissolution. During the first session he obtained a private Act (37 Hen. VIII, c.26) confirming an exchange of lands between the Earl of Hertford, the bishop of Salisbury and himself. Henry VIII attended the prorogation and once Wriothesley had finished speaking the King reminded the assembly:

Although my chancellor for the time being hath before this time used very eloquently and substantially to make answer to such ovations, yet he is not able to open and set forth my mind and meaning, and the secrets of my heart in so plain and ample manner as I myself am and can do.

He was one of the panel empowered to sign Acts on the King’s behalf during the second session: the only measure on which its members were apparently unanimous was that for the attainder of the Earl of Surrey, and Wriothesley’s defence of Chancery against the proposal to unite the court of general surveyors with the augmentations almost certainly accounts for the delay in its engrossment before being sent to the Commons on the eve of dissolution. He wept when before dissolving the Parliament he announced the King’s death.9

Under Henry VIII’s will Wriothesley was named an executor, and according to the testimony of secretary Paget as to the King’s intentions he was to receive £500 and an earldom. Edward VI reinvested him in the chancellorship but the mutual dislike between him and the Duke of Somerset, his opposition to the Protectorate and his championship of his own court provoked his dismissal. The allegations of incompetence and transgression of authority brought against him in the Council by certain unnamed common lawyers, although not substantiated before the tribunal which degraded him, have given rise to the tradition that he was unsuited to the office. After a period of confinement to his London house he was given his liberty but not restored to the Council. Thus freed from public commitments, he was able to devote himself to his own and his county’s affairs, and he seems to have played a more prominent part in the Hampshire elections of 1547 than previously. His own appearance at the opening of the Parliament was commented upon by the imperial ambassador. He attended the first session almost daily, having four bills committed to him, one being for the erection of a new court of Chancery for ecclesiastical causes which came to nothing, and taking part in the conference between both Houses for the repeal of the heresy laws. He was equally regular in the second session, when he at first opposed the Act of Uniformity (2 and 3 Edw. VI, c.1) but ‘lost his constancy in the end and agreed to everything’ shortly before being reinstated in the Council. During the second prorogation he was ruthless in preventing the spread of insurrection from the south-west to Hampshire and his discontent at Somerset’s handling of the affair combined with his personal dislike of the Protector made him a ready accomplice in the Earl of Warwick’s coup of October 1549.10

The resulting transformation of Wriothesley’s position elicited John Ponet’s comment, ‘Wriothesley that before was banished the court is lodged with his wife and son next to the King. Every man repaireth to Wriothesley, honoureth Wriothesley, sueth unto Wriothesley and all things [are] done by his advice.’ He did not long enjoy this ascendancy. In the summer he had excused himself through ill-health from joining in the embassy to negotiate peace with France; by the autumn he was worse and in November he was said to be dying. He seems to have attended only nine days of the third session of the Parliament of 1547, all in the first two months of its sitting, but he was one of the signatories to the Act for the fine and ransom of the Duke of Somerset which was introduced into Parliament only in the third month. In January 1550, after a three months’ absence from the Council, he was asked to clarify a legal point and in February he was advised ‘to keep his house and not depart thence’. In March the imperial ambassador reported an improvement in his condition but that Wriothesley wished rather ‘to be under the earth than upon it’. Reports of his imminent death continued for another three months but it was not until 30 July that he died, and then amid rumours of suicide. He was buried four days later in St. Andrew’s Holborn, where the funeral sermon was preached by Bishop Hooper of Gloucester. His corpse was later transferred to Titchfield.11

By his will, made on 21 July 1550, Wriothesley left his collar of garters to the King and a cup each to Princess Mary and Elizabeth. After providing for his wife and children he remembered his son-in-law Sir Thomas Radcliffe, Lord Fitzwalter, and other relatives including his sister the wife of Oliver Lawrence, ‘cousins’ William Honing and John Hungerford, and the children of Nicholas Cutler as well as his friend Sir Richard Southwell, his ward Anthony Rush and his surveyor Thomas Wroth. He named Sir Edmund Peckham, Sir Thomas Pope and Sir William Stanford among the executors and Sir William Petre supervisor. Two codicils added on 23 and 24 July dealt with aspects of the division of the extensive lands that he had obtained in Hampshire and elsewhere which had been overlooked in earlier settlements.12

The wardship of Wriothesley’s four year-old son Henry was acquired by William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. The 2nd Earl of Southampton grew up a notorious Catholic and three of his sisters married into Catholic families, but Wriothesley himself was almost certainly a Protestant. The part he played in the examination of Anne Askew and Dr. Crome was by order of the Council and Gardiner was critical of his attitude as chancellor long before John Foxe described the sufferings of the martyrs. Because Wriothesley grew up a ‘man to purge the cankered and rusty hearts from their old superstitions’ his early friendship with Gardiner did not last, but the esteem in which Cranmer came to hold him must have provided some compensation. There seems to be no reason to mistrust the acknowledgements of his part in some conversions, for he maintained several Protestants and paid Richard Cox a pension as an exile during the 1540s. His vitriolic attack upon the papacy on taking the oath as chancellor had not been required of him by the King and was not to be repeated by his successors, but it accords well with his choice of Hooper to preach at his funeral. A drawing of Wriothesley by Holbein survives.13

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. LP Hen. VIII, xiv(1), 662 citing SP1/146, pp. 237-40; E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2].
  • 2. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 3. Date of birth given in Add. Ch. 16194. This biography rests on C. J. Adams ‘Tudor minister: Sir Thomas Wriothesley’ (Manchester Univ. M.A. thesis, 1970).
  • 4. Brit. Numismatic Jnl. xlv. 71-72; NRA 8800, pt. i. no. 158; LP Hen. VIII, xiii.
  • 5. A. Wagner, Heralds of England, 129, 146-7; Heralds and Heraldry, 86.
  • 6. M. L. Robertson, ‘Cromwell’s servants’ (Univ. California Los Angeles Ph.D. thesis, 1975), 591-3.
  • 7. LP Hen. VIII, xiv; Elton, Tudor Constitution, 121-3, 292; Policy and Police, 369-70.
  • 8. E159/319, brev. ret. Mich. r. [1-2]; Vis Hants (Harl. Soc. lxiv), 45; Elton, ‘Thomas Cromwell’s decline and fall’, Studies in Tudor and Stuart Pol. and Govt. i. 189-230; Bull IHR, vi. 22; House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 33 Hen. VIII, no. 40, 34 and 35 Hen. VIII, no. 41.
  • 9. LP Hen. VIII, xx; Tudor Men and Institutions, ed. Slavin, 49-69.
  • 10. Wealth and Power, ed. Ives, Knecht and Scarisbrick, 88, 90, 96; A. J. Slavin, ‘The fall of Lord Chancellor Wriothesley’ Albion, vii. 265-86; M. A. R. Graves, ‘The Tudor House of Lords 1547-58’ (Otago Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1974), ii. 289-90.
  • 11. Graves, ii. 290; House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 3 and 4 Edw. VI, no. 31.
  • 12. PCC 13 Bucke; L. Stone, Fam. and Fortune, 209-11.
  • 13. CP, xii(1), 126-7; CPR, 1549-51, p. 300; Holbein (The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace 1978-79), 12.