CHAMBERLAIN, Sir Thomas (c.1504-80), of Churchdown and Prestbury, Glos. and Cripplegate, London.

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



Family and Education

b. c.1504, s. of William Chamberlain of Hopton, Derbys. by Elizabeth, da. of one Fleming of Dartmouth. m. (1) Anne Vander Zenny of the House of Nassau, s.p.; (2) Joan Elizabeth, da. of Sir John or Henry Luddington, wid. of John Macham or Machell, sheriff of London, 2s. inc. John 1da.; (3) Anne, da. of Anthony Monck of Potheridge, Devon, wid. of William Pierson of London, at least 2s. Kntd. by 1550.1

Offices Held

Ambassador to Portugal 1542; groom of the chamber by 1542; King’s commissary and agent in Flanders 1544-8; gov. of Merchant Adventurers in Flanders by Oct. 1544-?50; under-treasurer Bristol mint 1548-50; ambassador to Denmark and Sweden 1549-50; ambassador to Queen of Hungary, regent of the Netherlands 1550-3, to Spain 1560-2.2

J.p. Glos. 1559, q. 1564; j.p. Mdx. 1561, q. 1573.


The Chamberlain family claimed to have come to England with the Conqueror and that its name was derived from the office held by one of its members in the reign of Henry I. In the sixteenth century the most prominent branches were represented by Sir Leonard Chamberlain of Shirburn and Woodstock in Oxfordshire and by Chamberlain himself, who, in spite of a distinguished ancestry, inherited no landed estates, his acquisition of property in Gloucestershire from June 1552 being the reward for long service to the Crown. After a number of diplomatic posts Chamberlain was appointed, in June 1550, ambassador to Mary of Hungary, regent of the Netherlands. There he remained until April 1553, trying to alleviate the difficulties of English merchants occasioned by new imposts and by an embargo during the war with France. By October 1552, however, he was finding that the Emperor was placing difficulties in the way of English commerce, and offering him personal affronts. As the ambassador of a protestant king and a protestant himself, Chamberlain maintained protestant services in his household in Brussels until, in January 1551, he was forbidden to do so any longer. Edward VI’s retort to this was to forbid the Emperor’s ambassador in London to hear Mass in his house until the prohibition was lifted. Chamberlain’s recall was decided on a few days before Edward VI’s death, and, though recommended to Queen Mary for his ‘diversity of languages, wisdom, experience abroad, and sundry other honest qualities’, he was not employed during her reign, no doubt because of his religion.3

With the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign he re-entered public life, as one of the protestants whose election to the Queen’s first Parliament would be especially welcome to the government. A friend of William Cecil in former days—Cecil had been active in securing the payment of Chamberlain’s allowances in almost reasonable time—he was assured of a seat somewhere and was returned for Camelford, a duchy of Cornwall borough open to court influence. He is noted once in the Commons Journals, on 7 Nov. 1559, when, as ‘Mr. Chamberlain’, he took charge of a bill requiring executors to acquaint supervisors with the execution of a will.4

In January 1560 he resumed his diplomatic career by going to Spain with Sir Anthony Browne, 1st Viscount Montagu, to secure Philip II’s good offices in negotiations with France, and to assure him of Elizabeth’s reliance upon his friendship and advice. In May Montagu was recalled, but Chamberlain remained resident ambassador. His position was difficult. In November 1560 his cook was arrested by the Inquisition and diplomatic privilege had to be invoked in his defence, while Chamberlain’s health suffered in the Spanish climate. He was ill even before Montagu left, and in July 1561 a report of his imminent death reached Sir Nicholas Throckmorton in Paris. His financial position was precarious. Montagu, on leaving Spain, told Cecil that if Chamberlain was not furnished with money the Queen’s service would suffer, and in February 1561 Chamberlain himself wrote that he ‘had so far stretched his poor ability to advance this service’ that he could not even begin to repay the debts owed to Gresham since his Flemish embassy, which was ‘such a moth in his garment as has almost eaten the same bare’. Gresham himself asserted in October 1563 that he had lent Chamberlain £1,000 while he was in Spain which had not been repaid. Still, Chamberlain apparently retained his faith in the friendship of Spain, assuring Cecil in December 1560 that he dared ‘warrant the indifferent friendship and somewhat more of King Philip upon the ancient assured friendship maintained on their part.’ This contrasted sharply with the opinion of his colleague Throckmorton, who had already decided that the amity of Spain was worse than her enmity, and wrote almost congratulating Chamberlain on his troubles with the Inquisition. Pleas for recall went unheeded, and by May 1561 Chamberlain’s credit was so low that his wife was unable to borrow more money to send him. In November he told Cecil that his friend Peter Osborne was exhausted with his efforts to get his allowances as ambassador paid. Eventually he was recalled, leaving Spain in February 1562 with a chain worth £100, the gift of the King. By Philip II’s favour also, and perhaps through the mediation of the Count and Countess Feria, who had become his friends, he was allowed to satisfy his creditors by returning their goods to them without further recompense.5

After his return from Spain neither his health nor his finances allowed further foreign employment, and his pleas for reimbursement went unheeded. When he was not living in Gloucestershire he was living in London, serving on several local government commissions in Middlesex. In 1565 he served with other mint officials on an inquiry into counterfeiting, and in 1576 on another dealing with foreign exchange.6

He died in 1580, soon after making a will concerned mainly with his debts. When they had been paid, one third of his goods was to go to his wife, one third to his children and one third toward the payment of other legacies. His wife was to have an annuity of 200 marks, according to the provision of her marriage settlement. Most of the Gloucestershire lands were to go to his eldest son John, who was enjoined to recover the mortgaged manor of Compton Abdale. Two younger sons also had bequests of land. Chamberlain’s only daughter Theophila was disinherited for becoming involved with a ‘lewd fellow of base condition’. She was therefore to be deprived of her dowry, although ‘out of pity’ her brother was to maintain her while she remained unmarried and to provide a convenient portion for her if she married with his consent. One of the overseers of the will was that Peter Osborne whose friendship had been taxed by Chamberlain’s financial difficulties in 1561. As John Chamberlain seems to have held the Gloucestershire estates unhindered by creditors, it may be presumed that the debts to Gresham and others were taken over by the Crown, on whose behalf they had been incurred.7

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: Irene Cassidy


  • 1. PRO, Req. 2/17/24, ex inf. J. W. Greenwood; S. Rudder, Glos. 705; Vis. Glos. ed. Fenwick and Metcalfe, 37; VCH Glos. vi. 67, 90, 91, 152; Vis. London (Harl. Soc. i), 46; Vis. London (Harl. Soc. cix-cx), 117; Vis. Devon (Harl. Soc. vi), 191.
  • 2. LP Hen. VIII, xvii. 76, 105; xix(1), p. 100; xix(2), p. 298; xx(1), pp. 607-8; xx(2), p. 57; E101/303/6, ex inf. Dr C. E. Challis; APC, i. 525-7; ii. 201-2, 284, 419; iii. 45; CSP For. 1559-60, p. 292.
  • 3. Rudder, loc. cit.; LP Hen. VIII, passim; APC, i. 211, 525-7; ii. 96, 419; iii. 88, 190-1, 389; CPR, 1548-9, pp. 260-7; 1549-51, p. 314; 1550-3, p. 357; CSP For. 1547-53, pp. 25, 67, 75, 152, 185, 188, 191, 193, 199, 206, 208, 225; 1553-8, pp. 6, 127.
  • 4. CJ, i. 57.
  • 5. HMC Hatfield, i. 179, 236-7; CSP For. 1559-60, pp. 292, 315-21; 1560-1, pp. 35. 122-3, 397, 418, 424, 448, 489, 542, 543; 1561-2, pp. 116-17, 186, 209, 406, 543, 599; 1562, pp.106, 145, 489, 625; 1563, p. 539; Cotton Vespasian C. vii. 133.
  • 6. CSP For. 1563, p. 463; CPR, 1563-6, pp. 126, 257; APC, ix. 234.
  • 7. PCC 45 Arundel.