Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wilson, Arthur
WILSON, ARTHUR (1595–1652), historian and dramatist, baptised 14 Dec. 1595, was the son of John Wilson (according to his baptismal register, but of Richard according to the entry in the matriculation register) of Yarmouth (Wood, Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 318). At the age of sixteen (after spending two years in France) Wilson's father sent him to John Davis of Fleet Street to learn courthand, after which he became one of the clerks of Sir Henry Spiller in the exchequer office, but was discharged two years later for his quarrelsomeness (Peck, Desiderata Curiosa, p. 461). He lived then for a year in London, writing poetry and reading, till his money was nearly spent. In 1614 he made the acquaintance of Mr. Wingfield, steward to Robert Devereux, third earl of Essex [q. v.], and Wingfield invited him down to Chartley in Staffordshire. While there Wilson saved a woman-servant from drowning, and Essex, who saw the scene, took a liking to him and made him one of his gentlemen-in-waiting. Wilson distinguished himself by duels and feats of strength, which he relates in his autobiography, and was selected by his master to accompany him in his foreign travels. He was with Essex in Vere's expedition for the defence of the palatinate (1620), in the wars in Holland (1621–23), at the siege of Breda (1624), and in the expedition to Cadiz (1625). In 1631 Essex contracted his second marriage, of which Wilson disapproved, and the countess taking in consequence a great dislike to him, he was forced to leave Essex's service. Resolving to complete his somewhat neglected education, he now matriculated at Oxford (25 Nov. 1631), as a gentleman commoner of Trinity College (Foster, Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Wood, Athenæ). At Oxford he chiefly devoted himself to the study of physic, alternating it by sometimes disputing with Chillingworth about absolute monarchy, and at other times drinking ‘with some of the gravest bachelors of divinity there’ (Peck, p. 470).
In 1633 Wilson left the university and entered the service of Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick [q. v.] In 1637 he accompanied Warwick to the siege of Breda, thus witnessing its capture by Spinola and its reconquest by Prince Maurice. During the civil war Wilson lived peaceably on the estates of his master in Essex, his only adventures being the rescue of the Countess of Rivers from a mob in August 1642, and an attempt to prevent the plunder by the cavaliers of the Earl of Warwick's armoury in June 1648. His autobiography ends in July 1649. He died about the beginning of October 1652, and was buried in the chancel of Felsted church, Essex (ib. p. 482).
Wilson married, in November 1634, Susan Spitty of Bromfield, Essex, the widow of Richard Spitty (ib. p. 471); Chester, London Marriage Licences, col. 1482). An abstract of his will is given by Bliss in his additions to Wood's ‘Athenæ Oxonienses,’ which shows that his wife died before him and that he left no issue (iii. 320). Wilson wrote several plays, which, according to Wood, ‘were acted at the Black Friars in London by the king's players, and in the act time at Oxford, with good applause, himself there present.’ Of these ‘The Inconstant Lady,’ which was entered at Stationers' Hall on 9 Sept. 1653, was printed by Dr. Philip Bliss at the Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 1814. The titles of two others survived: (1) ‘The Corporall,’ licensed for acting at Blackfriars by the king's men (a fragment exists in manuscript); (2) ‘The Swisser.’ Both these were entered in the ‘Stationers' Register’ on 4 Sept. 1646 (Wood, iii. 322; Fleay, Chronicle of the English Drama, ii. 278).
Wilson's prose works consist of (1) an autobiography of himself, styled ‘Observations of God's Providence in the Tract of my Life,’ which was first printed in Peck's ‘Desiderata Curiosa’ in 1735, and is reprinted in the appendix to ‘The Inconstant Lady;’ (2) ‘The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I,’ 1653, folio, with a portrait of King James by Vaughan. This is reprinted in the second volume of Kennett's ‘Complete History of England,’ 1706. As an historian Wilson is very strongly prejudiced against the rule of the Stuarts, but his work is of value because it records contemporary impressions and reminiscences which are of considerable interest. At times he speaks as an eye-witness, especially in his account of the foreign expeditions in which he took part. He quotes at some length the speeches of the king, the petitions or remonstrances of the parliament, and other original documents. William Sanderson's ‘Reign and Death of King James,’ 1656, contains a detailed criticism and refutation of Wilson's attacks on that king and his government. He describes the history as ‘truth and falsehood finely put together,’ and asserts that Wilson's collections were ‘shaped out’ for publication by an unnamed presbyterian doctor. Heylyn, in his ‘Examen Historicum,’ 1659, calls Wilson's book ‘a most infamous pasquil,’ classing it with Weldon's ‘Court of King James,’ as libels in which ‘it is not easy to judge whether the matter be more false or the style more reproachful in all parts thereof.’ Wood is little less severe. Wilson, he says, ‘had a great command of the English tongue, as well in writing as speaking. And had he bestowed his endeavours on another subject than that of history, they would without doubt have seemed better. For in those things which he hath done are wanting the principal matters conducing to the completion of that faculty, viz. matter from record, exact time, name and place; which by his endeavouring too much to set out his bare collections in an affected and bombastic style are much neglected.’ He concludes by complaining of ‘a partial presbyterian vein that constantly goes through the whole work, it being the genius of those people to pry more than they should into the courts and comportments of princes, to take occasion thereupon to traduce and bespatter them.’
Wilson intended to complete his history by narrating the reign of Charles I, but died before he could carry out his plan.
[Peck's Desiderata Curiosa, ed. 1779; Wood's Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, iii. 318; Wilson's Inconstant Lady, ed. Bliss, 1814.]