Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Audley, Thomas
AUDLEY, THOMAS, Baron Audley of Walden (1488–1544), lord chancellor, was an Essex man, whose family, though unknown to good genealogists, is surmised by some to have had a distant connection with that of the Lords Audley of an earlier date. He is believed to have studied at Magdalen College, Cambridge, to which he was afterwards a benefactor. He then came to London, and gave himself to the law in the Inner Temple, where he was autumn reader in 1526. Meanwhile he had been admitted a burgess of Colchester in 1516, and was appointed town clerk there. His name occurs on the commission of the peace for Essex as early as 1521 (Brewer, Calendar of Henry VIII, iii. 1081, 12 Nov.), and in commissions for levying the subsidy at Colchester in 1523 and 1524 (ib. pp. 1367, 1458, and iv, 236). It is said that he was steward to the Duke of Suffolk, and that the way he discharged the duties of that office first recommended him to the king's notice. In 1523 he was returned to parliament; and in 1525 he had become a man of so much weight that, when it was thought necessary to make a private search for suspicious characters in London, and the work was committed to men like the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, Lord Edmund Howard, and the principal residents in the different suburbs, we find Audley's name suggested with some others to assist in examining the district from Temple Bar to Charing Cross (ib. iv. 1082). The same year he was appointed a member of the Princess Mary's council, then newly established in the marches of Wales (Madden, Privy Purse Expenses of the Princess Mary, introd. xxx). A little later he was appointed attorney of the duchy of Lancaster, and was candidate for the office of common Serjeant of the city of London (Calendar of Henry VIII, iv. 2639). In 1527 he was groom of the chamber, and an annuity of 20l. was granted to him on 10 July out of the subsidy and ulnage of cloth in Bristol and Gloucester (ib. p. 3324). Soon afterwards he was a member of Cardinal Wolsey's household (ib. p. 1331). On the fall of his master in 1529, some changes took place in which he attained further advancement. Sir Thomas More was made lord chancellor in the room of the cardinal, and Audley was made chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster in the room of Sir Thomas More. Another office which More had filled a few years before was that of speaker of the House of Commons, and in this too he was succeeded by Audley when parliament met in November. On being elected and sent up to the House of Lords, in which the king that day was present, he made an eloquent oration in which he 'disabled himself with conventional modesty for the high office imposed upon him, and besought the king to cause the commons to return to their house and choose another speaker. This sort of excuse was a time-honoured form, and its refusal was equally a matter of course. 'The king,' says Hall, 'by the mouth of the lord chancellor, answered that were he disabled himself in wit and learning, his own ornate oration there made testified the contrary; and as touching his discretion and other qualities, the king himself had well known him and his doings, sith he was in his service, to be both wise and discreet; and so for an able man he accepted him, and for the speaker he him admitted.'
It must be observed that this was the parliament by whose aid Henry VIII ultimately separated himself and his kingdom from all allegiance to the see of Rome. Its sittings continued, with several prorogations, over a period of six years and a half; and it is clear that from the first the Commons were encouraged to attack the clergy and urge complaints against them. In the House of Lords, Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, took notice of the character of their proceedings. 'My lords,' he said, 'you see daily what bills come hither from the Common house, and all is to the destruction of the church. For God's sake, see what a realm the kingdom of Bohemia was, and when the church went down, then fell the glory of the kingdom. Now with the Commons is nothing but "Down with the church!" And all this, meseemeth, is for lack of faith only.' But the words only furnished the Lower House with another grievance, and a deputation of the Commons, with Audley as speaker at their head, waited on the king in his palace at Westminster, complaining that they who had been elected as the wisest men in their several constituencies should be reproached as little better than Turks or infidels. The king (at whose secret prompting, beyond a doubt, this remonstrance was really made) assumed a tone of moderation in his reply, saying he would send for the bishop and report to them how he explained his words; after which he summoned Fisher to his presence, along with the Archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops, to give an account of his language in the House of Peers. The bishop really had nothing to retract, as his brother prelates bore witness along with him that he had imputed lack of faith not to the Commons, but to the Bohemians only. The warning, however, was significant.
Audley's professional advancement at this time scarcely kept pace with his political distinction. It was just two years after his election as speaker that we find him called to the degree of serjeant-at-law, and a day or two later, on 14 Nov. 1531, he was appointed a king's serjeant (Dugdale, Origines, 83). He received, however, from the crown, on 2 March 1531, a grant of lands in Colchester and Mile End in Essex (Calendar of Henry VIII, v. 166, 1) ; and next year he attained all at once a degree of professional eminence which his antecedents scarcely seemed to justify. An incident related by Hall the chronicler will perhaps enable us to comprehend why this promotion was conferred on him.
During the prorogued session of parliament held in April 1532, a motion was made in the House of Commons by a member named Temse that the king, who had now for some months separated from Queen Katharine, though he had not yet obtained his divorce, should be urged to take back his queen and avoid the grave dangers that might arise from the bastardising of his only daughter Mary. This was a degree of independence that Henry did not expect of his faithful Commons, though their remonstrances on other subjects very often suited his purposes well enough. On the last day of April he sent for Audley, the speaker, and some others, and reminded them in the first place how they had exhibited last year a bill of grievances against the clergy, which he had delivered to his spiritual subjects to make answer to, and how he had just received their reply, which he delivered into Audley's hands, intimating that he thought himself it would scarcely satisfy them. 'But,' said the king, 'you be a great sort of wise men. I doubt not but you will look circumspectly on the matter, and we will be indifferent between you.' Having thus, with a pretence of neutrality, assured them of his support against the clergy, he went on to express his astonishment that one of their House should have ventured to speak of his separation from the queen, a matter which it was not their province to determine, seeing that it touched his conscience. He added that he wished with all his heart that he could find the marriage good, but he had received the decisions of many universities that it was invalid and detestable in the sight of God ; that he had not been moved by a wanton appetite at forty-one years of age to abandon the queen for the sake of some one else; but that he felt it a positive duty to part company with her. For nowhere but in Spain and Portugal had a man been known to marry two sisters, and as for the marriage with a brother's wife, it was so abhorred among all christian nations, that he had never heard of any christian doing so except himself. This disgraceful piece of hypocrisy Audley was commissioned to report to the House of Commons as the sincere grounds of the king's conduct, and he did so as in duty bound.
Before the session ended he was sent for again to come before the king, along with twelve of his own house and eight peers, to whom the king made an address, declaring that he had discovered that the clergy were but half his subjects. They had taken an oath, indeed, to him, but they had taken an oath to the pope as well, which was quite inconsistent with their allegiance to him. This matter he wished the Commons to take carefully into consideration, and Audley accordingly caused the two oaths to be read in parliament, thus preparing the way for the Act of Supremacy, which was passed two years later.
This conference with the king was on 11 May 1532. On the 16th of the same month Sir Thomas More, not liking the king's proceedings, was allowed to resign the office of lord chancellor, and surrendered the great seal into the king's own keeping. Four days later Henry delivered it to Audley with instructions to discharge all the duties of a lord chancellor, though he was only to be called, for the present, keeper of the great seal. That same day the king made him a knight, and on 5 June following, being the first day of Trinity term, he took his oath in the court of Chancery as keeper of the great seal. His powers were more formally set forth in a commission dated 5 Oct. following; but in the beginning of next year it was found advisable to give him the name as well as the duties of lord chancellor, and he was appointed to that office on 26 Jan, 1533 (ib. v. 1075, 1295, 1499 (9), vi. 73). The name of lord chancellor, apparently, had been withheld from him at first in order that he might still act as speaker of the House of Commons; but now Humphrey Wingfield was chosen speaker in his place, and Audley took his seat upon the woolsack in the House of Lords. During the time he was lord keeper the king ordered the old great seal (in which the lettering was very much worn) to be destroyed and a new one to be made.
From this time his whole career is that of a submissive instrument in the hands of Henry VIII and his great minister Cromwell, Sickly in his physical constitution, for he complains even at this time of the stone, of a feeble heart and stomach, and of intermittent fever (ib. vi. 2, 976, 1049, 1063), his moral constitution, apparently, was not more robust, and he could not maintain the expenses of his new position without a good deal of begging. He was in debt as keeper of the great seal, and he complained of poverty as chancellor (ib. 2, 927). As some relief he was allowed, in the quaint language of Fuller, to 'carve for himself the first cut' of the monastic property, the priory of Christ-church in the city of London, which was suppressed some years before the general supression and given to him by patent (ib. vii. 419 (28), 587 (10), 1601 (35)). But it was not quite such 'a dainty morsel' as the historian insinuates, being in fact only surrendered by the prior because it was very much in debt. Nor was the office of chancellor otherwise greatly honoured in Audley's tenure, especially considering who was his predecessor. The lord chancellor, according to the legal theory, is the keeper of the sovereign's conscience, and what the custody of such a conscience as that of Henry VIII involved there could be no doubt, even from the time of his appointment. The first thing he had to do was to sanction what More could not sanction — the divorce from Katharine of Arragon and the marriage with Anne Boleyn; then to assist next year (1534) in procuring a new Act of Succession, and taking the oaths of the Lords and Commons and of the king's subjects generally in conformity therewith (ib. vii. 392, 434). Next he was commissioned, along with Cromwell, to examine his predecessor. Sir Thomas More, whom the court was endeavouring to implicate in the follies and treason of the Nun of Kent (ib. 296). Then, when that failed, he had to examine him touching his refusal to take the oath of succession (ib. 575). It must not be supposed that he was void of humanity. His conversations with More's daughter, Lady Alington, seem to show that he was simply a man of low moral tone, who would have saved More if he could, but wondered why any man should entertain such scruples. 'In good faith,' he said satirically, 'I am very glad that I have no learning but in a few of Æsop's fables,' insinuating that too much learning only gave rise to moral scruples that men would be far better without. And the two fables he immediately after related to Lady Alington with a laugh were distinctly designed to illustrate these principles — that when fools are stronger than wise men it is better to go with fools, and that life is vastly simplified by suiting your conscience to your convenience.
What were his feelings next year when the play developed into a tragedy it is unnecessary to inquire. On 15 June 1535 he presided at the trial of Bishop Fisher, who like More had refused the oath; and on 1 July he presided at that of More himself. His conduct in both these trials is universally reprobated. He was even ready to have passed sentence upon More without addressing the usual question to the prisoner beforehand. In 1536 he conducted Anne Boleyn a prisoner to the Tower, and her supposed accomplices were tried before him, while she herself was brought before the court of the lord high steward and found guilty by a jury of peers. That same year he opened a new parliament with a speech showing the necessity of a fresh Act of Succession and the repeal of some former statutes connected with the marriage of Anne Boleyn. Next year he tried the Lincolnshire rebels at Easter, and the Yorkshire rebels — Aske, Sir Robert Constable, Sir Francis Bigot, and others— on 16 May. Never was so much criminal jurisdiction committed to a lord chancellor. On 29 Nov. 1538 he was created a peer by the name of Baron Audley of Walden, apparently for the express purpose that he might fill the office of lord high steward at the trial of the Marquis of Exeter and other lords, whose chief guilt was being either of the blood royal or in some way connected with Cardinal Pole. In reward for services like these a few more of the suppressed monasteries were granted to him at the general dissolution, among which, at his own very earnest suit, was the abbey of Walden in Essex. It is not true, as stated by Dugdale and carelessly repeated by others, that he asked for this expressly on the ground that he had incurred infamy in the king's service. The words used in his letter to Cromwell are 'damage and injury;' but what sort of injuries he could have incurred beyond the expenses of a prominent position in the state, we are left free to speculate. Walden became his country seat as Christchurch had been converted into his town house. At Walden he constructed a tomb for himself during his own life, and his grandson, Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, built the mansion of Audley End, which is now the seat of Lord Braybrooke.
On 28 April 1539, at the opening of a new parliament, Audley as chancellor made an oration in presence of the king and the assembled lords; and on 5 May he conveyed to the peers a message from the king declaring his majesty's desire that measures should be taken as soon as possible for the abolition of differences of opinion concerning the christian religion. The bloody 'Act of the Six Articles' was the result. Next year, on 24 April, Audley was made a knight of the Garter, and within less than three months after it became his duty to carry through parliament an act for the attainder of Cromwell, earl of Essex, the hitherto powerful minister, on whom he had been for eight years dependent, and another for the dissolution of the king's marriage with Anne of Cleves. In 1541 he was again appointed lord steward for the trial of a peer— Lord Dacres of the South, who confessed a homicide he had committed while hunting in Kent, and was accordingly hanged. In December of the same year he passed judgment on the paramour of Queen Katharine Howard, the queen's own case being reserved for the parliament which met in January following, which the lord chancellor opened with a very long speech.
In the spring of 1542 a remarkable case involving the privileges of the House of Commons was brought before the lord chancellor. George Ferrers, member for Plymouth, was arrested in London on some private suit in which judgment was passed against him, and he was committed to the Counter. The Commons sent their serjeant-at-arms to fetch him out of prison; but he was resisted, and a scuffle took place in the streets with the sheriffs' officers. The house, on this, refused to attend to other business till their member was delivered, and desired a conference with the lords. The lord chancellor declared it a flagrant contempt, and left the punishment to the House of Commons, on which the sheriffs and their officers were committed to the Tower by the speaker's warrant. It was a precedent of some importance in parliamentary history. Yet even here the conduct of Audley was governed simply by the convenience of the court, which required a subsidy of the House of Commons; for it seems to have been the opinion of good authorities that the commitment was strictly legal, and the privilege unjust.
Nothing more is known of the public life of Audley. He may have opened the session of 1543, and even that of January 1544; but in all probability he was prevented, at least as regards the latter, by increasing infirmity. On 21 April in that year he sent the great seal to the king, praying his majesty to accept his resignation of an office which he was now unable to discharge from mere physical weakness, and on the 30th of the same month he breathed his last. His remains were deposited in the magnificent tomb which he had erected for himself at Saffron Walden, and a doggrel epitaph engraved upon it is believed to have been his own composition also. Beneath the verses is given the date of his death, which is said to have been in the thirteenth year of his chancellorship and the fifty-sixth of his age (Weever, Fun. Mon. 624).
In person he is said to have been tall and majestic — the sort of man Henry VIII loved to see at his court. He was twice married but left no son to succeed him. His first wife was a Suffolk lady, daughter of Sir Thomas Barnardiston, by whom he had no children. His second, whom he married in April 1538, was Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Grey, marquis of Dorset. By her he had two daughters, of whom the elder, Mary, died unmarried; the second, Margaret, married, first, a son of Dudley, duke of Northumberland, and afterwards Thomas, duke of Norfolk, who was beheaded in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The nobleman who built Audley End was a son of this duke of Norfolk and of Margaret Audley.[Wriothesley's Chronicle; Hall's Chronicle; Dugdale's Baronage; Lloyd's State Worthies, 72 (a rather doubtful authority, being mainly an encomium which has the effect of a satire); Biographia Britannica; Campbell's Lord Chancellors; Foss's Judges.]