Monday, 4 May 2015


5. Thomas Wriothesley - A Man of Pliable Conscience

The contemporary scholar and preacher John Ponet called Thomas Wriothesley, 'the subtle and ambitious Alcibiades of England' after an Athenian general who was notorious for coat-turning. The stormy seas of mid-sixteenth century England were perilous but a determined and wary manipulator could make his fortune by braving them - or so Thomas Wriothesley reasoned.

He was born in 1505 into a family of royal heralds. For several generations they had held office in the College of Arms. As such they were involved with court ceremonial and enjoyed a position of influence among the armigerous families of the realm. Young Thomas used his family connections to advantage to obtain a place in the household of Thomas Wolsey. There he worked closely with Thomas Cromwell and, after the Cardinal's fall, he hitched his wagon to Cromwell's rapidly rising star. 

The crisis of autumn 1536 provided Wriothesley's golden opportunity. The northern counties were boiling with the Pilgrimage of Grace rebellion. Henry retreated within the stout walls of Windsor Castle. Cromwell was at Westminster keeping his finger on all the lute strings of government. The trusted liaison officer between king and minister was Thomas Wriothesley. Being close to Henry during those nervous weeks gave him a psychological advantage and he was not slow to take advantage of it. As confiscated monastic property became available Wriothesley built up an impressive portfolio. He cherry-picked estates and buildings in southern England and, by 1538, when he was scarcely into his thirties, he was the biggest landowner in Hampshire.

The next critical moment came in the summer of 1540. The conflict between Cromwell and his arch-rival, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, was reaching white heat. Court-watchers sensed that one or the other must soon fall. Wriothesley was related by marriage to Gardiner's family. Cromwell was his generous patron. Which way would Wriothesley jump? To be fair, it must be said that Gardiner, eager to wheedle useful information out of him, applied not a little pressure to his 'cousin'. Wriothesley betrayed the man who had forwarded his career and benefited handsomely. He became the new owner of Austin Friars, the sumptuous London residence Cromwell had acquired and embellished for himself.

He soon had the honours to go with his wealth. In 1544 he became Baron Wriothesley of Tichfield and Lord Chancellor. Having moved into the conservative camp led by Gardiner and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, Wriothesley enthusiastically used his talent in the cause of reaction. Among his gifts was a penchant for interrogation. He examined in prison a number of suspected heretics, his most notorious encounter being with the Lincolnshire gentlewoman, Anne Askew. His behaviour in this case was that either of a religious fanatic or a political desperado. Wriothesley and his allies were bent on the destruction of Catherine Parr, Henry's last queen, and her evangelical circle. Knowing that Anne had supporters in this circle their objective was to extract damning information from her. But Anne refused to tell her tormentors what they wanted. This prompted one of the most desperate acts of the age. In the Tower of London the Lord Chancellor of England had Anne placed on the rack and personally turned the screw himself, a barbarian action against a woman which shocked contemporaries quite accustomed to the violence of the Henrician regime. The plotters still believed they could proceed with their campaign against the queen. Wriothesley obtained permission to apprehend Catherine when she was in the privy garden with her husband. But the tables were turned. The queen got wind of the plot, appealed to Henry and he changed his mind. When Wriothesley turned up to effect the arrest he had the embarrassment of being whiplashed by Henry's tongue.

As the reign of Edward VI began it was obvious to Wriothesley that he was on the wrong side in the struggle for control of the boy king. In the distribution of honours at the accession he became Earl of Southampton. But now his career followed the disastrous pattern of Cromwell's. Before many months had passed he was stripped of the Chancellorship. Belligerent to the last, he tried to fight his way out of his corner by driving a wedge between the effective masters of the kingdom, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and John Dudley, Earl of Warwick. Again, he miscalculated. At the beginning of 1550 he was dismissed from the Council and placed under house arrest.

Thomas Wriothesley was a broken man. His mental and physical health collapsed. Fearing, probably correctly, that he would soon pay the ultimate price for his intrigues, he went into a deep depression. According to Ponet this fifth of Henry VIII's Six Thomases, 'fearing lest he should come to some open, shameful end, he poisoned himself or pined away for thought'.
* * *

Further reading:

G. Gibbons, The Political Career of Thomas Wriothesley, First Earl of Southampton 1505-1550, Lampeter, 2001

J. Ponet, A Shorte Treatise of politike power ... (1556)

G. Redworth, In Defence of the Church Catholic: The Life of Stephen Gardiner, Oxford, 1990

D. Wilson, In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII, London, 2001

Next week:  6. Thomas Cranmer and Henry's Ghost 

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