Thomas Wilson was very much a man of his time.
Born to a prosperous but undistinguished family of the Lincolnshire
gentry in 1523 or 1524, he went to Eton, then to King's College, Cambridge, taking his
M. A. in 1549. At Cambridge he studied Greek with Sir John Cheke, leading "Grecian" of the time, and
developed lifelong friendships with several men who would later become
prominent courtiers and humanists, notably Thomas Smith (later to write De
and Roger Ascham (who later wrote The Scholemaster).
In the 1550's Wilson
accepted an appointment as tutor to the sons of Katherine, Duchess of
Suffolk, member of the important Willoughby
family of Wilson's native Lincolnshire. Her deceased husband was
Charles Brandon, the intimate friend of Henry VIII. While in her service Wilson formed enduring connections with influential men
in the Protestant circles at court, particularly Sir Edward Dymock and William Cecil, a member of the privy council
who later, as Lord Burleigh, would become the most powerful of Elizabeth's courtiers.
In 1551 Wilson published the first book on logic ever written in English (The
Rule of Reason), and in 1553 he brought out The Art of Rhetoric,
dedicating it to John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, heir to the staunchly
Protestant Duke of Northumberland, who effectively ruled England during the
sad last years of the dying boy-king Edward VI.
With the accession of the Catholic Mary, Wilson left England
There he spent the next five years studying civil law and engaging in enough
Protestant intrigue to be imprisoned (and possibly tortured) by the
inquisition, though in August of 1559 he was able to escape during an
anti-Dominican riot after the death of Pope Paul IV. He took refuge in Ferrara, where he
received a doctorate in law in November, 1559.
In 1560, with Elizabeth on the throne and the
Earl of Leicester (brother of Wilson's late
patron, John Dudley) in ascendancy at court, Wilson
returned to London.
He was soon appointed to remunerative and responsible positions in the
government. In 1561 he became the master of St. Katherine's Hospital in the Tower of London, and later that year he was
appointed to the much more responsible position as a master (i.e., a judge)
in the Court of Requests, one of the new Tudor equity courts that relied
heavily on civil law procedures.
Throughout the 1560's and 1570's, Wilson served in various diplomatic capacities,
primarily in Spain and Portugal,
then later in the Spanish Netherlands. He came to be the crown's recognized
authority on Portuguese affairs. During this time, he also finished the first
English translation of Demosthenes (The Three Orations of Demosthenes,
Chief Orator Among the Grecians, in Favor of the Olynthians
. . . With Those His Four Orations . . . Against King Philip of Macedonie, London, 1570), which he had begun while he
was residing with Cheke in Padua during 1556. He
also completed two significant treatises on politics, both of them intended
for the ears of the Dudley circle and the
privy council. "A Discourse touching the Kingdom's Perils with their
Remedies" was never printed, but his Discourse Upon Usury was
published in 1572, though completed several years earlier.
During the early 1570's he was entrusted with the
important but unpleasant task of prosecuting traitors. He spent much of 1571
living in the Tower, preparing the case against the Duke of Norfolk,
including racking two of the duke's servants. He examined a number of those
implicated in the Ridolfi plot in 1572, and he was
among those sent to examine Mary, Queen of Scots, about her role in the
conspiracy. He sat in several Parliaments during the 1560's and 1570's, and
in 1577 he succeeded his friend Sir Thomas Smith as the queen's secretary.
Though overshadowed by the queen's other secretary, the redoubtable Walsingham, Wilson
remained an active participant on the Privy Council for the rest of his life.
Though a client of Leicester and generally a supporter of aggressively
Protestant causes (such as active intervention in the Low
Countries during the revolution against the Spanish Hapsburgs),
he tempered that allegiance with a conciliatory attitude toward Burleigh's
more pacific and conservative policies. Appointed a lay dean of Durham
Cathedral in 1579, he died at St. Katherine's Hospital on 20 May, 1581, and
was buried in St. Katherine's Church.
Richmond, Virginia, USA
6 November, 1997