Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thomas, William (d.1554)
THOMAS, WILLIAM (d. 1554), Italian scholar and clerk of the council to Edward VI, was by birth or extraction a Welshman, being probably a native of Radnorshire. He was presumably educated at Oxford, where a person of both his names was admitted bachelor of the canon law on 2 Dec. 1529 (Wood; Foster). He may also have been the William Thomas who, along with two other commissioners, inquired into and reported to Cromwell from Ludlow, 27 Jan. 1533–4, on certain extortions in Radnorshire and the Welsh marches (Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, vi. 32), but he is not to be identified (as is done in Wood's Athenæ Oxon.) with the witness of the same name who was examined in 1529 in the course of the proceedings against Catherine of Arragon (Brit. Mus. Cottonian MSS. Vitellius B. xii. f. 109).
In 1544 he was, according to his own account, ‘constrained by misfortune to abandon the place of his nativity,’ perhaps (as Froude suggests) for his religious opinions. He spent the next five years abroad, chiefly in Italy, and is mentioned in 1545 as being commissioned to pay some money to Sir Anthony Browne (d. 1548) [q. v.] in Venice (Acts of the Privy Council, i. 176, ed. Dasent). In February 1546–7, when the news of the death of Henry VIII reached Italy, Thomas was at Bologna, where, in the course of a disdiscussion with some Italian gentlemen, he defended the personal character and public policy of the deceased king. He subsequently drew up a narrative of the discussion, and an Italian version was issued abroad in 1552. There is a copy in the British Museum bearing the title, 'Il Pellegrino Inglese ne'l quale si defende l'innocente & la sincera vita de'l pio & religioso re d'Inghilterra Henrico ottauo.' He also wrote, but did not publish, an English version, to which he added a dedication to Pietro Aretino, the Italian poet, and a copy of this, possibly in Thomas's own writing, is preserved among the Cottonian MSS. at the British Museum (Vespasian D. 18), a later transcript being also in the Harleian collection (vol. cccliii. ff. 8–36), while there is a third copy at the Bodleian Library, Oxford (No. 53). Froude erroneously states that there is also a copy among the Lansdowne MSS. Presumably in ignorance of the existence of these texts, Edward Brown made, about 1690, an independent translation of the Italian version, which he intended incorporating in the third volume of his 'Fasciculus' (Wood, Athenæ Oxon. i. 220), and which is still preserved at the Bodleian Library (Tanner MS. No. 303). The Cottonian text was quoted by Strype (Eccles. Mem. i. i. 385) and more fully in the 'Miscellaneous Antiquities' (No. ii. pp. 55–62), issued in 1772 from the Strawberry Hill press. Two years later the dialogue was published in its entirety by Abraham D'Aubant, together with Thomas's political discourses, also in the Cottonian collection, under the title of 'The Works of William Thomas' (London, 8vo). A reprint of the dialogue, edited by Froude, was published in 1861, bearing the title 'The Pilgrim: a Dialogue of the Life and Actions of King Henry the Eighth,' London, 8vo. Thomas's work is specially valuable as representing the popular view of the character of Henry VIII current in England at the time of his death. It is not free from mistakes, but it 'has the accuracies and the inaccuracies' which might be naturally expected 'in any account of a series of intricate events given by memory without the assistance of documents' (Froude).
From Bologna Thomas appears to have gone to Padua, whence on 3 Feb. 1548–9 he forwarded to his 'verie good friende Maister [John] Tamwoorth at Venice' an Italian primer which he had undertaken at his request. This Tamworth showed to Sir Walter Mildmay [q.v.], who, approving of it, 'caused it to be put in printe' (cf. Strype, iii. i. 279), under the title of 'Principal Rvles of the Jtalian Grammer, with a Dictionarie for the better vnderstandynge of Boccace, Petrarcha, and Dante, gathered into this tongue by William Thomas.' It was printed (in black letter, 4to) by Berthelet in 1550, subsequent editions being brought out by H. Wykes in 1560 and 1567, and by T. Powell in 1562.
During the summer of 1549 Thomas appears to have returned to England 'highly fam'd for his travels through France and Italy,' and bringing home with him another work, the result of his Italian studies, which was also published by Berthelet under the title, 'The Historie of Italie …' (1549, 4to, black letter). This work was dedicated, under the date of 20 Sept. 1549, to Lord Lisle, then Earl of Warwick. It is said to have been 'suppressed and publicly burnt,' probably after Thomas's execution (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. v. 361, viii. 48; Cat. of Huth Libr. p. 1466), but it was twice reprinted by Thomas Marshe, in 1561 and (with cuts) in 1562.
On 19 April 1550, partly owing to his knowledge of modern languages, but chiefly perhaps for his defence of the late king, Thomas was appointed one of the clerks of the privy council, and was sworn in on the same day at Greenwich (Acts P. C. ii. 433, iii. 3–4; cf. Lit. Remains of Edward VI, Roxb. Club, p. 258). Possibly a portion of the register of the council for the next year is in his autograph (Acts P. C. iii. pref. p. v).
The new clerk had 'his fortunes to make' (Strype), and, though not a spiritual person, he 'greedily affected a certain good prebend of St. Paul's,' which, doubtless at his instigation, the council on 23 June 1550 agreed to settle on him (Acts P. C. iii. 53, 58). Ridley, who had intended this preferment for his chaplain Grindal, stigmatised Thomas as 'an ungodly man,' and resisted the grant, but without success; for when the prebend fell vacant, it was conveyed to the king, 'for the furnishing of his stables,' and its emoluments granted to Thomas (Ridley, Works, Parker Soc., 1841, pp. 331–4, and Strype, Eccl. Mem. iii. ii. 264; cf. ii. i. 95, Life of Grindal, p. 7). This 'unreasonable piece of covetousness' was, in Strype's opinion, 'the greatest blur sticking upon' Thomas's character.
Among many other grants which Thomas received was that of the tolls of Presteign, Builth, and 'Elvael' in Radnorshire on 27 Dec. 1551 (Strype, Eccl. Mem. ii. i. 522; cf. ii. ii. 221), and the parsonage of Presteign with the patronage of the vicarage on 26 Oct. 1552 (Acts P. C. iv. 153). These were in addition to a sum of 248l. previously given him 'by waie of rewarde,' 7 Jan. 1550–1 (ib. iii. 186). In April 1551 he was appointed member of the embassy which, with the Marquis of Northampton at its head, proceeded in June to the French king, to negotiate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth of France to Edward. To cover his expenses, he was granted imprests amounting to 300l. (ib. iii. 269, 326); and on 26 June he was despatched to England with letters to the council asking for further instructions, with which he probably returned to France (Cal. State Papers, For. 1547–53, pp. 128, 133; Strype, ii. i. 473, ii. 243).
While clerk of the council Thomas became a sort of political instructor to the young king, who appears to have narrowly watched the proceedings of his council, and, without the knowledge of its members, sought Thomas's opinion on their policy and on the principles of government generally (see especially Thomas's ‘Discourse on the Coinage’ in Strype, op. cit. ii. ii. 389). The nature of this teaching may be gathered from a series of eighty-five questions drawn by Thomas for the king, and still preserved, along with a prefatory letter, in his own writing at the British Museum (Cotton. MSS. Titus B. ii.); they were printed in Strype's ‘Ecclesiastical Memorials’ (ii. i. 156). Another autograph manuscript in the same collection (Vespasian, D. xviii. ff. 2–46) contains six political discourses confidentially written for the king. These were published in their entirety (in Strype, op. cit. ii. ii. 365–393, and in D'Aubant's edition of Thomas's works, ut supra), while that treating of foreign affairs was summarised by Burnet (Hist. of Reformation, ii. 233), and printed by Froude (Hist. of England, v. 308–10). Some further ‘commonplaces of state’ drawn up by Thomas for the king's use are also printed in Strype (op. cit. ii. ii. 315–27). Froude suggests that Thomas's teaching, if not his hand, is also perceptible in the king's journal (Preface to Pilgrim, vol. viii.; Hist. v. 349). He also dedicated to the king as ‘a poore newe yeres gift,’ probably in January 1550–1, an English translation from the Italian of Josaphat Barbaro's account of his voyages to the east, which had been first published in Venice in 1543. Thomas's manuscript, which is still preserved at the British Museum (Royal MSS. 17 C. x.), was edited, with an introduction by Lord Stanley of Alderley, for the Hakluyt Society in 1873, in a volume of ‘Travels to Tana and Persia’ (London, 8vo).
Influential as was Thomas's position at court, it was not free from danger, and, realising this, he vainly asked to be sent on government business to Venice (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1547–80, p. 43). On the accession of Mary, Thomas lost all his preferments, including his employment at court, because ‘he had (it is said) imbibed the principles of Christopher Goodman against the regimen of women, and too freely vented them’ (Biographia Britannica, ii. 947; cf. Wood, loc. cit.; Strype, Eccles. Mem. iii. i. 278). He attached himself to the ultra-protestant party, and according to Bale (Script. Illustr. Brit. ed. 1557–9, ii. 110) designed the murder of Bishop Gardiner, but of this there is no evidence (but cf. Strype, iii. i. 112). He took an active part in Sir Thomas Wyatt's conspiracy. On 27 Dec. 1553 he left London for Ottery Mohun in Devonshire, the residence of Sir Peter Carew, who was the leader of the disaffected in the west; but when Carew failed to raise the west, Thomas on 2 Feb. 1553–4 fled, going ‘from county to county, in disguise, not knowing where to conceal himself; and yet he did not desist from sending seditious bills and letters to his friends declaring his treasonable intentions, in order that he might induce them to join him in his treasons’ (indictment against Thomas printed in Dep. Keeper of Records, 4th Rep. p. 248; Froude (Hist. vi. 174) erroneously mentions him as being with Wyatt when he made his entry into London on 7 Feb.). Probably his intention was to escape to Wales (Cal. State Papers, Dom. s.a. p. 59), but he went no further than Gloucestershire, with which county he had some previous connection (Strype, ii. i. 522). He was arrested, and on 20 Feb. he was committed to the Tower along with Sir Nicholas Throckmorton [q. v.] (ib. p. 395; Stow, Annales, ed. 1615, p. 623). Conscious ‘that he should suffer a shameful death,’ he attempted on the 26th to commit suicide ‘by thrusting a knife into his body under his paps, but the wound did not prove mortal’ (Wood). He was put on the rack with the view of extracting some statement implicating the Princess Elizabeth, and it was probably to prevent this that he attempted suicide. The chief evidence against him, apart from his sojourn at Sir Peter Carew's house, was the confession of a fellow conspirator, Sir Nicholas Arnold, who alleged that on the announcement of the proposed marriage between Mary and Philip of Spain, Thomas ‘put various arguments against such marriage in writing,’ and finally on 22 Dec. suggested that the difficulty might be solved by asking one John Fitzwilliams to kill the queen. This ‘devyse’ was communicated to Sir Thomas Wyatt, who, when suing for pardon during his own trial, said that he had indignantly repudiated it. Throckmorton, however, when his own trial came on, traversed the allegations of Arnold, who (he said) sought ‘to discharge himself if he could so transfer the devise to William Thomas.’ In support of his statement he asked that the court should examine Fitzwilliams, who was prepared to give evidence, but was denied audience, at the request of the attorney-general (cf. Strype, iii. i. 297). When, however, Thomas's own trial came on at the Guildhall on 8 May, he was found guilty of treason; and, on the 18th, was drawn upon a sled to Tyburn, where he was hanged, beheaded, and quartered, making ‘a right godly end’ (ib. p. 279), saying at his death that ‘he died for his country’ (Stow, Annales, p. 624). On the following day his head was set on London Bridge ‘and iii. quarters set over Crepullgate’ (Machyn, Diary, pp. 62–3), whereabouts he had perhaps previously lived (Strype, iii. i. 192).
In a private act of parliament, passed on the accession of Elizabeth, Thomas's name was included among those whose heirs and children were restored in blood after their attainder, but it is not known whether he was married or had a family (Strype, Annals of the Reform. i. i. 468).
In addition to the works already mentioned, Thomas wrote ‘Of the Vanitee of this World,’ 8vo, 1549. Some authorities date it 1545, in which case it was the author's first work (Strype, iii. i. 279; Ames, Typogr. Antiq. ed. Herbert, i. 449; cf. ib. ed. Dibdin, iii. 331). But no copy is extant either of this work or of another work attributed to Thomas by Tanner and Wood, ‘An Argument wherein the Apparel of Women is both Reproved and Defended: being a Translation of Cato's Speech and L. Valerius Answer out of the Fourth Decad of Livy’ (London, 1551, 12mo). He is also said by Bale to have translated from the Italian into English ‘The Laws of Republicks’ and ‘On the Roman Pontiffs,’ and during his imprisonment he wrote ‘many pious letters, exhortations, and sonnets’ (Strype iii. 279), but none of these survive.
Thomas was a shrewd observer of men and affairs, but, according to Wood, had a ‘hot fiery spirit,’ which was probably the cause of most of his troubles. He was certainly ‘one of the most learned of his time’ (Strype). His Italian grammar and dictionary were the first works of the kind published in English, while his ‘History of Italy’ was formerly held in the highest esteem for its comprehensive account of the chief Italian states. All his works are remarkable for their methodical arrangement, his style is always lucid, and his English shows ‘much better orthography than that current at a later period.’[Authorities cited; Strype's works, especially his Ecclesiastical Memorials, which is always the work referred to in the text above when ‘Strype’ simply is quoted; Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses, ed. Bliss, i. 218–21, and Biographia Britannica (1747), ii. 947; Lansdowne MSS. (Brit. Mus.), vol. 980, folio 144; Burnet's Hist. of the Reformation, ed. Pocock, ii. 232–3; Anthony Harmer's Specimen of Errors (1693), p. 159; Richard Grafton's Chronicle (1569), p. 1341; Foulis's History of Romish Treasons (1681), pp. 317–18; Froude's Preface to the Pilgrim, and his History of England, v. 308–10, 349, vi. 145, 174, 189. Thomas's trial is briefly reported in Dyer's Reports, ed. 1688, p. 99 b, and its legal and constitutional aspects discussed in Willis Bund's Selection of Cases from the State Trials, i. 154–64. The indictment, together with notices of some other papers, was printed in the Deputy-Keeper of Records' 4th Rep. pp. 246–9, and in Lord Stanley of Alderley's Introduction to the Travels to Tana, while further particulars are given in the reports of the trials of Wyatt and Throckmorton in Cobbett's State Trials, i. 862–902. There is an excellent Welsh account of Thomas in Y Traethodydd for 1862, pp. 369–76; see also Cymru, 1895, p. 151.]