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Portrait of Nicholas Wotton

Nicholas Wotton (1497?-1567)

NICHOLAS WOTTON, Secretary of State, diplomatist, and Dean of Canterbury and York, was the fourth child of Sir Robert Wotton of Boughton Malherbe, Kent, by his wife Anne, daughter of Sir Henry Belknap. Sir Edward Wotton (1489-1551) was his eldest brother. Nicholas is often said to have been born in 1495, but in his epitaph he is described as 'fere septuagenarius.' According to Fuller he was educated at Oxford, where he graduated in civil and canon law, but no record of his matriculation or graduation has been found in the registers or in Wood. Many years later Wotton referred1 to his having lived at Perugia, and probably he studied at some Italian university. During his stay in Italy he was admitted a brother of the hospital of St. Thomas at Rome, and apparently he witnessed the sack of Rome in 1527.

He certainly graduated not only doctor of civil and canon law, but of divinity as well, and in 1536 he was officially described as 'sacrae theologiae, juris ecclesiastici et civilis professor'.2 He was 'clericus' before 9 Dec. 1517, when he was presented by his father to the family living of Boughton Malherbe, and on 6 Sept. 1518 he was presented by Archbishop Warham to the vicarage of Sutton Valence. Wotton, however, preferred the legal to the spiritual duties of his order, and having attracted the notice of Tunstall, bishop of London, was appointed the bishop's official. In this capacity he attended the proceedings of the legatine court which sat in London in June and July 1529 to try the divorce question,3 was sent to France to assist Edward Fox in procuring a favourable answer from foreign universities.4 He had resigned the vicarage of Sutton Valence before 20 May, and on 26 Oct. 1530 was collated by Warham to the living of Ivychurch, Kent. In 1536 he was proctor for Anne Boleyn, and subscribed the articles of religion, and in 1537 had a share in compiling the 'Institution of a Christian Man'.5 In 1538 Cranmer appointed him his commissary of faculties.

On 11 March 1538-9 Wotton was one of the ambassadors sent to the Duke of Cleves to negotiate a marriage between Henry VIII and the duke's sister Anne, and a league with the German protestant princes against Charles V. On 23 April Cromwell requested the ambassadors to procure a portrait of Anne of Cleves, and on 11 Aug. following Wotton reported that 'your Grace's servant, Hanze Albein, hath taken th' effigies of my ladye Anne and the ladye Amelye, and hathe expressyd theyr imaiges verye lyvelye'.6 His description of Anne's domestic virtues was, however, pitched in a minor key, and he remarked that she could not sing or play upon any instrument.

In July Henry nominated him archdeacon of Gloucester, though he was not admitted until 10 Feb. 1539-40, and on 25 Oct. 1539 commissioned him as sole ambassador to the dukes of Saxony and Cleves. As a further reward for his services Henry designed for him in the same month the bishopric of Hereford, which Bonner had just vacated by his translation to London. Wotton, however, had a rooted aversion to bishoprics; 'for the passion of God,' he wrote to his friend Dr. Bellasis on 11 Nov., 'if it be possible yet, assay as far as you may to convey this bishopric from me,' signing his letter 'yours to his little power. Add whatsoever you will more to it, so you add not bishop.'7 On this and on subsequent occasions Wotton successfully resisted all attempts to make him a bishop. Meanwhile he accompanied Anne of Cleves to England in December 1539, and on 27 Jan. 1539-40 was again sent as ambassador to her brother, reaching Cleves on 5 Feb. In April he attended the duke to Ghent, on his negotiations with Charles V about the duchy of Gueldres, returning to Cleves in May. In July he had the unpleasant task of communicating to the duke Henry's repudiation of his sister. Naturally the negotiations for an alliance did not prosper; the Duke of Cleves threw himself into the arms of Francis I, and on 20 June 1541 Wotton was recalled.

He had in his absence been nominated first dean of Canterbury on 22 March 1540-1, when the monks were replaced by secular canons, but he was not installed until 8 April 1542. He was also appointed first archdeacon of Gloucester on 3 Sept. 1541, when it was erected into a separate see. Subsequently, on 7 Aug. 1544, he was nominated dean of York, being installed by proxy on 4 Dec. following. He retained with it the deanery of Canterbury, and on 13 March 1545-6 was collated to the prebend of Osboldwick in York Cathedral. But even these semi-spiritual functions had no attractions for Wotton, and he soon found relief from them in further diplomatic service. In spite of the unfortunate end of his mission to Cleves, his ability was recognised by Henry, and in March 1543 he was sent with Sir Thomas Seymour (afterwards Baron Seymour of Sudeley) to the court of Charles V's sister Mary, regent of the Netherlands. Their immediate object was to secure the exemption of English goods from import duties in the Netherlands, but the imminence of war between England and France and France and the emperor soon led to negotiations for an offensive alliance between Henry VIII and Charles V, in which Wotton took considerable part, endeavouring especially to persuade Charles to include the Scots in his declaration of hostility.8

On 24 Nov. 1543 he was transferred from the regent's court to that of the emperor, and, the terms of the alliance having been settled, he accompanied Charles V during his invasion of France in the summer of 1544, while Henry besieged and took Boulogne. His post was difficult, for it soon became evident that the allies were pursuing not a common but separate aims, and at the end of August Charles V, having penetrated as far as Vitry, made peace with France, leaving Henry at war. Wotton saw clearly enough what was going to happen, but was powerless to prevent it.9 To induce Charles to carry out his engagements, Hertford and Gardiner were in the autumn associated with Wotton as special ambassadors to the emperor, but were recalled in December. In the following March Paget joined Wotton in an endeavour to persuade Charles to renew the war on France, and in April Wotton accompanied the emperor to Worms. He was recalled in August, being succeeded by Thomas Thirlby, bishop of Westminster.

In the following year "Wotton's services were required to arrange the terms of peace with France. He was sworn of the privy council on 7 April 1546, and on Paget's recommendation appointed peace commissioner with Paget, Hertford, and Lisle. The conference held at Guisnes proved successful, and on 25 May Henry VIII nominated Wotton resident ambassador in France, and commissioner with Tunstall and Lisle to receive the ratification of the treaty from Francis I. He set out on his embassy early in July 1546, and remained in France uninterruptedly for three years.

Henry VIII showed his confidence in Wotton by leaving him £30010 and appointing him executor of his will and privy councillor to Edward VI. Being absent in France he took no part in the appointment of Somerset as Protector, or the measures against Southampton; but he was included in the reconstituted privy council in March. Meanwhile the diplomatic relations between England and France were cordial, and more than one project of marriage between the English and French royal families were proposed. But with the accession of Henry II, on 29 March 1547, the Guise influence became supreme at the French court, and the new king scarcely concealed his determination to support by force of arms the Guise party in Scotland, and to wrest Boulogne from the English at the earliest possible opportunity. To these sources of trouble were added the perpetual disputes about the limits of the English pale, and mutual recriminations and aggressions with regard to the fortifications near Boulogne. France took advantage of England's internal troubles, and declared war on 8 Aug. 1549, and Wotton returned from Paris in time to take part with the majority of his colleagues on the council in deposing the Protector in October. It was proposed to send him as ambassador to the emperor, but on 16 Oct. he was sworn one of the principal secretaries instead of Sir Thomas Smith, who was deprived of the office as being a partisan of Somerset.

Wotton remained secretary for less than a year, giving place on 5 Sept. 1550 to (Sir) William Cecil, and more congenial occupation was found for him in April 1551 in a fresh embassy to Charles V. The occasion of this mission was the emperor's refusal to allow the English ambassador liberty of worship, and his irritation with the English council for its persecution of the Princess Mary, and Sir Richard Morison had neither tact nor firmness sufficient to deal with the situation. Wotton, he acknowledges, 'had a more mannerly "nay;"' but Wotton's courage was as great as his tact, and to the emperor's threats he replied that, though Mary 'had a king to her father, hath a king to her brother, and is akin to the emperor, yet in England there is but one king, and the king hath but one law to rule all his subjects by.' He had many stormy interviews and theological discussions with Charles, but the imminence of war with France and troubles in Germany made the emperor's threats empty words, and in August the council could afford to recall Wotton. He took his leave on 3 Sept., and reappeared at the council board on 21 Oct., five days after the arrest of Somerset and his friends.

For eighteen months Wotton remained in England, taking an active share in the proceedings of the privy council. On 2 April 1553 he was commissioned with Sir Thomas Chaloner the elder to proffer England's mediation with a view to ending the war between France and the emperor. The genuineness of the council's desire for peace is open to doubt, as the war gave Northumberland his only chance of supplanting Mary without Charles V's interference. On the failure of the duke's conspiracy Chaloner was recalled as a pronounced reformer, and Wotton was left as resident ambassador in France. His chief difficulty consisted in the more or less open support the French king afforded to the protestant exiles like the Dudleys, Carews, and Staffords, and to their plots against Queen Mary, but at the same time their intrigues in France often enabled Wotton to forewarn the English government. Thus he discovered [Sir Henry] Dudley's secret negotiations with Henry II in 1556, got wind of [Thomas] Stafford's project in 1557, and as early as 1556 reported French designs on Calais. He also used his influence on behalf of the exiles, such as Sir Gawin Carew, his brother-in-law, and succeeded in winning over his predecessor, Sir William Pickering, whose disaffection was especially dangerous, as he possessed the key of the cipher which Wotton used in his diplomatic correspondence. On 7 June 1557 Mary declared war on France, and Wotton was recalled, resuming his attendance at the council board on 2 Aug. He had resigned the living of Ivychurch on 28 May 1555, and on 6 June 1557 he was installed treasurer of Exeter Cathedral, but this also he resigned before March following.

In September 1558, Wotton was once more sent to France as commissioner with Arundel and Thirlby for drawing up terms of peace, in which England and Spain, France and Scotland should be included. Mary died while the conference was sitting at Cercamp, and Elizabeth immediately ordered Wotton to Brussels to renew with Philip the treaties existing between England and Spain. The peace negotiations were continued there, and subsequently at the congress of Cambray. The chief difficulty was the English demand for the restitution of Calais, and Wotton advocated a continuance of the war rather than acquiescence in its loss. Philip, however, was bent on peace, and eventually on ? May 1559 Wotton was commissioned to receive the French king's ratification of the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. He was then to return to England, leaving Sir Nicholas Throckmorton as resident ambassador in France.

Four days after Queen Mary's death the Spanish ambassador, De Feria, had urged Philip to offer Wotton a pension, as he would be one of Elizabeth's most influential councillors and possibly archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishopric seems to have been offered him, but even this temptation failed to move Wotton from his attitude of nolo episcopari. De Feria implies that there was some difficulty in persuading Wotton to take the oath of allegiance, 'etcetera,' but while Canterbury was vacant Wotton performed, as he had done in 1553-5, some of the archiepiscopal functions. His religious opinions were catholic in tendency, and he absented himself from convocation in 1562.

Meanwhile in April 1560 he laid before the queen his views on the policy to be adopted with regard to Scotland, and on 26 May he and Cecil were commissioned ambassadors to Scotland to arrange terms with the French envoys for the evacuation of Scotland by the French, and other questions raised by the establishment of the Reformation in Scotland and return of Mary Queen of Scots. On 5 June conferences were held at Newcastle, and subsequently at Berwick and Edinburgh. Cecil complained of having all the work to do, 'for Mr. Wotton, though very wise, loves quietness.' On 6 July the treaty of Edinburgh was signed, and Wotton and Cecil returned to London.

Wotton remained in attendance upon the privy council until March 1564-5, when he was sent with Montagu and Haddon to Bruges to represent the grievances of English merchants to the Netherlands government, and to negotiate a commercial treaty. The negotiations dragged on for eighteen months, and it was not till October 1566 that Wotton returned to London. He died there on 26 Jan. 1566-7, and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral; a magnificent tomb, erected by his nephew Thomas, is engraved in Dart's 'Canterbury Cathedral' and in Hasted's 'Kent'; the inscription on it, composed by his nephew, has been frequently printed, lastly, and most accurately, in Mr. J. M. Cowper's 'Inscriptions in Canterbury Cathedral', 1807. Wotton's books and papers were presented by his nephew and heir to Cecil in 1583.

Wotton was one of the ablest and most experienced of Tudor diplomatists; his dexterity, wariness, and wisdom, constantly referred to in the diplomatic correspondence of the time, were combined with a perfect self-control, and with a tenacity and courage in maintaining his country's interests that secured him the confidence of four successive sovereigns. He was no more inconsistent than modern diplomatists in serving governments of opposite political and religious views. He made no pretence to theological learning; his clerical profession was almost a necessity for younger sons ambitious of political service, and his resolute refusal of the episcopacy on the ground of personal unfitness is testimony to his honesty. His simultaneous tenure of the deaneries of Canterbury and York is unique, but his ecclesiastical preferments were for the age comparatively scanty. A master of Latin, French, Italian, and German, he humorously protested against his appointment as secretary, on the ground that he could neither write nor speak English. A scholar himself, he was a patron of learning in others, and figures as one of the chief interlocutors in the 'De Rebus Albionicis' (London, 1590, 8vo) of John Twyne, the Canterbury schoolmaster. Verses on him are extant in the Bodleian Library (Rawlinson MS. 840, ff. 293, 297, 299). He was small and slight in stature, and his effigy in Canterbury Cathedral represents him with a handsome bearded face.



1. Letters and Papers, Henry VIII, ed. Gairdner, xv. 581, p. 258. [link]
2. ib. xi. 60, p. 31. [link]
3. Herbert, Henry VIII, p. 279.
4. Letters and Papers, iv. 6481; Pocock, Records of the Reformation, i. 559. [link]
5. Letters and Papers, vi. 299, xi. 60, XII. ii. 402-3.
6. ib. XIV. ii. 33. [link]
7. ib. XIV. ii. 501 []; Todd, Deans of Canterbury, 1793, p. 4. [link]
8. State Papers, Henry VIII, ix. 365-604. [link]
9. See Calendar of State Papers, Spanish, vol. vii. throughout; State Papers, Henry VIII, vol. x. passim; and Froude, History of England, iv. 55 seq. [link]
10. £300 in 1547 was roughly equivalent to £104,000 in 2008. Source: Measuring Worth




      Excerpted from:

      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XXI. Sidney Lee, ed.
      New York: The Macmillan Co., 1909. 972-5.




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