Hampshire’s Greatest Nobleman? Thomas Wriothesley

Life of Thomas Wriothesley intrinsically linked to Hampshire’s history

The life of Thomas Wriothesley and the county of Hampshire are intrinsically linked but just who was this man whose character and demeanor saw him rise through the court of King Henry VIII ? What made this man rise to be Chancellor, Knight of the Garter and elevate him to be Hampshire’s (Southampton’s) 1st Earl?

The family Wriothesley, formerly known as Writhe, until one of Thomas’s ancestors thought it was not grand enough, was a family who had set their cap on fame and fortune. They were variously, heralds, officers of arms and ingratiated themselves with the rich and powerful. They were a family on the rise and each successive generation made sure of their position of influence within the royal court.

Sir Thomas Wriothesley’s Family

Sir Thomas was the eldest son of William Wriothesley, an officer of arms at the College of Arms who married Agnes Drayton of London. His grandfather recorded the dates of the baptisms of his grandchildren and recorded their godparents, a brace of dukes and earls. Thomas was born on the 21st of December 1505 and had a number of brothers and sisters, who all made influential marriages.

  • As a young man Thomas was sent to study at St John’s College Cambridge but for one reason or another left without a degree and threw himself upon the patronage of those he knew at court. It could be that he found the academic life at Cambridge too distant from the wheels of power that he was obviously desperate to involve himself with.
  • By the age of eighteen he was in the employ of Cromwell and his signature appears in many legal and royal documents. He must have been a quick, clever and shrewd thinker, looking for opportunities to make himself visible in the day to day ‘doings’ of the court of Henry VIII.In 1530 he appears as clerk of the signet and in 1531 is in receipt of a pension from the lands of St Mary’s Abbey York.
  • This was not a man who shirked work though. In December 1532 and in 1533, he was sent abroad, probably as bearer of dispatches for some foreign ambassador. He visited Rome and on his return, in 1534, it is interesting to note he became a student at Grays Inn.
  • Coroner and attorney on the King’s bench: On 2 Jan. 1535-6 he was granted the office of coroner and attorney in the king’s bench and in the same year was appointed ‘graver’ of the Tower.

Thomas called to attend the King

It was at this time that Thomas was asked to attend the King and at this point he seems to have impressed Henry because he remains with the King at Windsor becoming increasingly involved in legal and secretarial work using his growing influence to secure large grants out of the lands of the dissolved monasteries.

Titchfield Abbey

This period for Thomas was the point at which his fortunes truly turned and his connection with Hampshire made.

  • Early in 1537 he was given various manors previously belonging to Quarr Abbey in the Isle of Wight and at the end of the year he acquired the site of the monastery of Titchfield.
  • By July 1538 he also acquired the site of Beaulieu Abbey. Both these monastries were close to the site of houses that the Wriothesley family owned.
  • It appears that he had held positions of stewardship in these institutions, he was certainly seneschal of Hyde Abbey, near Winchester, of which his friend Salcot had been abbot  and when the abbey was surrendered, Wriothesley obtained a grant of its site and of many of its manors.
  • With the grant of all these abbeys he received numerous manors, chiefly in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and his acquisition of landed property was naturally followed by his inclusion in local commissions and he had authority to destroy images and shrines, which he did with great alacrity.
  • Thomas now had significant power and this involvement with the removal of shrines brought him up against the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner who fiercely opposed him

In 1538 despite Bishop Gardiner’s opposition, Wriothesley was returned to parliament as one of the knights of the shire for the county of Southampton.

  • Wriothesley was then knighted and at the same time that Cromwell was created Earl of Essex but Thomas had tied his flag to Cromwell’s mast a little too tightly and Cromwell’s fall, two months later, made Wriothesley’s position perilous. He had to work hard to avoid the Tower as charges were levied against him in an attempt to topple him from his position.
  • Thomas Wriothesley however, astutely removed himself from Cromwell’s side and proved himself useful by the evidence he gave with respect to Cromwell’s case and the repudiation of Anne of Cleves. He also took the trouble to make peace with the now powerful Gardiner.
  • The higher he rose, the more Wriothesley became inveigled in the intrigues of court. He personally dispatched the household of Catherine of Aragon and in doing so, his star rose even higher.
  • His influence in court was considerable as he worked hard to restore a complete alliance between England and Spain, the result of which was the joint invasion of France by the two monarchs in 1544.
  • As a reward for his efforts Wriothesley was on 1st January 1544, created Baron Wriothesley of Titchfield.
  • On 22 April 1545, he was made keeper of the great seal and on the death of Audsley, succeeded him as lord chancellor.
  • In 1545 he was elected knight of the Garter.

Wriothesley Garter Book Earliest Contemporary Image of Opening of Parliament

This book was acquired for the Royal Library  as late as 1892 on behalf of Queen Victoria, it is in the Garter Book of Thomas, largely written by him with updates by his successors. The Royal Collection citation states that it is possibly the first image/view of the opening of parliament from 1523. in the related Royal Collection article Wriothesley, the King and the main players are identified here, This document alone gives us some idea of his elevated status and what a document to have survived.

Henry possibly used Wriothesley as part of a reactionary policy, in which Thomas became increasingly involved, he actively pronounced sentences of torture and pillory. These deeds made him many enemies and with this thought in mind maybe,that in 1546, he announced the death of his King, Henry VIII to parliament.

The death of the King left Wriothesley in a very vunerable position and when Somerset was made Protector, Thomas scrambled to make his voice the dominant one in the new order of things but people distrusted him and his ambitions. He became arrogant and high handed and faced criticism for his abuses of authority where he was accused of issuing a commission without a warrant or consulting his fellow executors, whilst trying to relieve himself of a large part of his legal duties which led to a brief spell in prison and a hefty fine. When young Edward VI was crowned in 1547 Thomas held the Sword of State, then had it taken away from him for misconduct. Although, Thomas was later reinstated onto the Royal Council. Whilst serving as a member of the Royal Council, he became 1st Earl of Southampton.

He continued in his intrigues against Somerset but he was never to hold the power he had under Henry VIII and became a disillusioned man. He died at his London home Lincoln Place in Holborn, and was buried at St Andrews Church Holborn initially. His body was later removed to Titchfield, where a great monument was laid out above him.

Thomas Wriothesley (1st Earl of Southampton) led a life of self-aggrandisement, that is true but he held true to certain values whatever master he had. His religious bent seemed to sway depending on the current politics between Catholisism and Protestantism, but he was not the first or last to whom that would apply. He was certainly quick to profit from the dissolution of the monasteries but ultimately his position accrued him more wealth than respect. His son continued the connection with Hampshire and raised the ‘Titchfield Monument’ to commemorate the lives of his parents and himself.

For more about this and other intriguing Hampshire families and names start here on Hampshire Names