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Portrait of Sir William Petre. NPG.

Sir William Petre (1505?-1572)

SIR WILLIAM PETRE, Secretary of State, born at Tor Newton, Devonshire, about 1506, was son of John Petre, said to be a rich tanner of Torbryan, Devonshire, by his wife Alice or Alys, daughter of John Collinge of Woodlands in the same county. He was the eldest son of a family of nine; of his four brothers, the eldest, John (d. 1568), who is supposed by family tradition to have been senior to William, inherited Tor Newton; the second was chief customer1 at Exeter; Richard, the third, is stated to have been chancellor of Exeter and archdeacon of Buckingham; but the only preferment with which Le Neve credits him is a prebend in Peterborough Cathedral, which he received on 14 Jan. 1549-50 and resigned on 6 Oct. 1566; he was, however, installed precentor of Ely Cathedral on 28 Dec. 1557, and, though disapproving of Elizabeth's ecclesiastical policy, retained his office until 1571.2 The youngest brother, Robert (d. 1593), was auditor of the exchequer.

William was educated at Exeter College, Oxford, and elected fellow of All Souls' in 1523, whence he graduated bachelor of civil and canon law on 2 July 1526, and D.C.L. on 17 Feb. 1532-3. Probably about 1527 he became principal of Peckwater's or Vine Hall, and tutor to George Boleyn (afterwards Viscount Rochford).3 It was no doubt through the influence of Boleyn's sister Anne that Petre was introduced at court and selected for government service. He was sent abroad, and resided on the continent, chiefly in France, for more than four years. On his return he was appointed a clerk in chancery.

He had secured the favour of Cromwell and Cranmer, who spoke in November 1536 of making Petre Dean of Arches, there 'being no man more fit for it.' Anne Boleyn also sent him presents, and promised him any pleasure it was in her power to give. On 13 Jan. 1536 he was appointed deputy or proctor for Cromwell in his capacity as vicar-general. In the same year he was made master in chancery, and granted the prebend of Langford Ecclesia in Lincoln Cathedral, which he resigned next year.

He was largely engaged in visiting the lesser monasteries. On 16 June 1536 Petre appeared in convocation and made a novel claim to preside over its deliberations, on the ground that the king was supreme head of the church, Cromwell was the king's vicegerent, and he was Cromwell's deputy. After some discussion his claim was allowed. In the same year he was placed on a commission to receive and examine all bulls and briefs from Rome, and in 1537 was employed to examine Robert Aske and other prisoners taken in the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire rebellions. In 1536 he had been appointed visitor of the greater monasteries in Kent and other southern counties. He was one of the most zealous of the visitors; in 1538 he procured the surrender of twenty monasteries, and in the first three months of 1539 thirteen more fell before him; his great achievement was the almost total extirpation of the Gilbertines, the only religious order of English origin.4

In 1539 Petre was one of those appointed to prepare a bill for the enactment of the Six Articles, and in the following year was on the commission which declared the nullity of Henry's marriage with Anne of Cleves. Early in 1543 he was knighted; in the same year he served on various commissions to examine persons accused of heresy, and was appointed secretary of state in Wriothesley's place. On 9 July 1544 he was selected to assist Queen Catherine in carrying on the regency during Henry's absence, and to raise supplies for the king's expedition to Boulogne. In 1545 he was sent ambassador to the emperor, and at the end of the year was summoned to the privy council. He was appointed an assistant executor to Henry's will in 1547.

During Edward VI's reign Petre's importance and activity increased. In August 1547 he was entrusted with the great seal for use in all ecclesiastical affairs. In 1549 he served on commissions to visit the university of Oxford, to inquire into heresies, to examine the charges against Lord Seymour of Sudeley, and to try Bonner. He did not take part in Bonner's trial after the first day, and it was rumoured that he 'was turning about to another party.' On 6 Oct. he was sent by Somerset to the council to demand the reason of their coming together, but, finding them the stronger party, he remained and signed the council's letter to the lord mayor denouncing the protector; four days later he also signed the proclamation against Somerset.

In February 1550 he was sent to Boulogne to negotiate the terms of peace with France, and in the following May exchanged ratifications of it at Amiens. In the same year he was treasurer of firstfruits and tenths, and one of the commissioners to examine Gardiner; he was also sent to New Hall, Essex, to request Mary to come to court or change her residence to Oking. In August 1551 Petre was one of those who communicated to Mary the council's decision forbidding mass in her household, and in October was appointed to confer with the German ambassadors on the proposed protestant alliance; in December he was on a commission for calling in the king's debts. In 1553 he drew up the minutes for Edward VI's will and, in the interest of Lady Jane Grey, signed the engagement of the council to maintain the succession as limited by it. On 20 July, however, he, like the majority of the council, declared for Mary. He remained in London during the next few days transacting secretarial business, but his wife joined Mary and entered London with her.

Petre had been identified with the council's most obnoxious proceedings towards Mary, and his position was at first insecure. He resumed attendance at the council on 12 Aug., but in September it was rumoured that he was out of office. He was, however, installed chancellor of the order of the Garter on 26 Sept., when he was directed by the queen to expunge the new rules formulated during the late reign. He further ingratiated himself with Mary by his zeal in tracing the accomplices of Wyatt's rebellion and by his advocacy of the Spanish marriage.

Petre now devoted himself exclusively to his official duties; he rarely missed attendance at the council, and was frequently employed to consult with foreign ambassadors. He acquiesced in the restoration of the old religion, and took a prominent part in the reception of Pole and ceremonies connected with the absolution of England from the guilt of heresy. But with great dexterity he succeeded in obtaining from Paul IV a bull confirming him in possession of the lands he had derived from the suppression of the monasteries.5 It was on his advice that Mary in 1557 forbade the landing of the pope's messenger sent to confer legatine power on William Peto instead of Pole. Owing to declining health he ceased to be secretary in 1557.

On Elizabeth's accession Petre was one of those charged to transact all business previous to the queen's coronation, and was still employed on various state affairs, but his attendances at the council became less frequent. They cease altogether after 1566, and Petre retired to his manor at Ingatestone, Essex, where he devoted himself to his charitable foundations. He died there, after a long illness, on 13 Jan. 1571-2, and was buried in Ingatestone church, where a handsome altar-tomb to his memory, between the chancel and south chapel, is still extant.

Petre's career is strikingly similar to those of other statesmen of his time, such as Cecil, Mason, and Rich, who, 'sprung from the willow rather than the oak,' served with equal fidelity Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth. Camden calls him 'a man of approved wisdom and exquisite learning,' and Strype says he was 'without spot that I could find except change of religion.' He was 'no seeker of extremity or blood, but of moderation in all things.' As a diplomatist his manner was 'smooth, reserved, resolved, yet obliging:' 'Ah!' said Chatillon of Petre at Boulogne in 1550, 'we had gained the last two hundred thousand crowns without hostages, had it not been for that man who said nothing.'

In his later years he was said to be a papist, a creed to which his descendants have consistently adhered. But his piety was not uncompromising, and did not stand in the way of his temporal advancement; as he himself wrote to Cecil, 'we which talk much of Christ and his holy word have, I fear me, used a much contrary way; for we leave fishing for men, and fish again in the tempestuous seas of this world for gain and wicked mammon.' Though he was less rapacious than his colleagues in profiting by the fall of Somerset, Petre acquired enormous property by the dissolution of the monasteries; in Devonshire alone he is said to have secured thirty-six thousand acres; but his principal seat was at Ingatestone, Essex, which he received on the dissolution of the abbey of St. Mary's, Barking. The hall [Ingatestone Hall] which he built there still stands almost unimpaired.6 A considerable portion of his wealth, however, was spent on charitable objects; he founded almshouses at Ingatestone, and designed scholarships for All Souls' College, Oxford, but his chief benefactions were to Exeter College, Oxford, and entitle him to be considered its second founder.7

In other ways Petre was a patron of learning; his correspondence with English envoys abroad contains frequent requests for rare books. He was himself governor of Chelmsford grammar school, and Ascham benefited by his favour, which he is said to have requited by dedicating to Petre his 'Osorius de Nobilitate Christiana.' A mass of Petre's correspondence has been summarised in the 'Calendars of State Papers,' and many of the originals are in the Cottonian, Harleian, and Additional MSS. in the British Museum; his transcript of the notes for Edward VI's will is in the Inner Temple Library.

Petre married, first, about 1533, Gertrude, youngest child of Sir John Tyrrell, knt., of Warley, and his wife Anne, daughter of Edward Norris; she died on 28 May 1541, leaving two daughters, one of whom, Dorothy (1534-1618), married Nicholas Wadham, founder of Wadham College, Oxford; and the other, Elizabeth, married John Gostwick. Petre married, secondly, Anne, daughter of Sir William Browne, lord mayor of London, and relict8 of John Tyrrell (d. 1540) of Heron, Essex, a distant cousin of Sir John Tyrrell, father of Petre's first wife.9 Anthony Tyrrell was the second Lady Petre's nephew. She died on 10 March 1581-1582, and was buried by her husband's side in Ingatestone church. By her Petre had two daughters, Thomasine and Katherine, and three sons, of whom two died young; the other, John (1549-1613), was knighted in 1576, sat in parliament for Essex in 1585-6, was created Baron Petre of Writtle, Essex, by James I on 21 July 1603, and died at West Horndon, Essex, on 11 Oct. 1613, being buried in Ingatestone church. He augmented his father's benefactions to Exeter College, contributed £95l to the Virginia Company,10 and became a Roman catholic. Exeter College published in his honour a thin quarto entitled 'Threni Exoniensium in obitum ... D. Johannis Petrei, Baronis de Writtle,' Oxford, 1613 (Brit. Mus.) He married Mary, daughter of Sir Edward Walgrave, or Waldograve, and left four sons, of whom the eldest, William, second Lord Petre, was father of William Petre (1602-1677), and grandfather of William, fourth baron Petre.

1. i.e. Customs Officer.
2. Oliver, Collections, p. 198. [link]
3. Lloyd, State Worthies, p.430; cf. Wood, Athena Oxonienses, i. 98.
4. cf. Dixon's Church History ii. 26-30, 116; Gasquet, Henry VIII and the Monasteries. [link]
5. Dugdale, Monasticon anglicanum, vi. 1645.
6. cf. Barrett, Essex Highways, Byways, and Waterways., 2nd ser. pp. 32, 178-80.
7. For full details see Boase, Registrum Collegii Exoniensis. pp. lxxxv et seq. [link]
8. Widow.
9. See pedigree in the Visitation of Essex, 1558.
10. Brown, Genesis of the United States..

      Excerpted from:

      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XV. Sidney Lee, ed.
      New York: The Macmillan Co., 1909. 979-81.

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