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Thomas Wilson (1524-1581):

Biographical Sketch


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Summary: Born in 1523 or 1524, Thomas Wilson came from a relatively humble family. He distinguished himself early, however, went to Cambridge and was rising when Mary came to the throne. He then studied civil law in Italy until Elizabeth's accession. Returning, he became a client of the Dudley's and  had a solid career in parliament,  the courts, and diplomacy, becoming co-secretary (with  Walsingham) to the Queen. He wrote six books, including his oft-reprinted Art of Rhetoric,  and when he died in 1581, he could look back on a lifetime of  important, if not stellar, service to his Queen and Church..


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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 Republica Anglorum) 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 for Italy. 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.

Nicholas Sharp

Richmond, Virginia, USA

6 November, 1997



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This account is based largely on two sources:

1.      Medine, Peter E. Sir Thomas Wilson. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

2.      Pollard, A. F. "Sir Thomas Wilson" in The Dictionary of National Biography. London: Oxford U. Press, 1921-27.



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orangebu.gif (324 bytes) The Thomas Wilson Page

orangebu.gif (324 bytes)Introduction to THE ART OF RHETORIC

orangebu.gif (324 bytes)First Part of THE ART OF RHETORIC

orangebu.gif (324 bytes)Second Part of THE ART OF RHETORIC

orangebu.gif (324 bytes)Renascence Editions Complete Online Old Spelling Edition of The Arte of Rhetorique

orangebu.gif (324 bytes)Nicholas Sharp at Virginia Commonwealth University



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[Last Updated: June, 2010. Disclaimer: This page does not represent an official position of Virginia Commonwealth University]