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William Paulet,
Marquis of Winchester

Born: circa 1475,
probably at Nunney Castle, Somerset
or Basing House, Hampshire

Lord St. John
Earl of Wiltshire
Marquis of Winchester
Died: 10th March 1572 at Basing House, Hampshire

William was eldest son of Sir John Paulet of Basing, near Basingstoke in Hampshire, the head of a younger branch of an ancient Somerset family seated in the fourteenth century at Pawlet or Paulet and Road, close to Bridgwater. William’s great-grandfather acquired the Hampshire estates by his mar­riage with Constance, granddaughter and co-heiress of Thomas Poynings, Baron St. John of Basing (d. 1428). Hinton St. George, near Crewkerne, became, from the middle of the fifteenth century, the chief residence of the elder branch, to which belong Sir Amias Paulet and the present Earl Poulett.

Paulets father held a command against the Cornish rebels in 1497 and died after 1519. His monument remains in Basing Church. He married his cousin Alice (or Elizabeth), daughter of Sir William Paulet, the first holder of Hinton St. George. William, their eldest son, was born, according to Doyle, in 1485; Brooke, followed by Dugdale, says 1483; while Camden asserts that he was ninety-seven at his death, which would place his birth in 1474 or 1475. The latter actually fits best with other family relationships.

Paulet was Sheriff of Hampshire in 1512, 1519, 1523 and, again, in 1527. Knighted before the end of 1525, he was appointed Master of the King’s Wards in November of the next year, with Thomas Englefield. He appears in the Privy Council in the same year. In the Reformation Parliament of 1529-36, he sat as Knight of the Shire for Hampshire. Created ‘Surveyor of the King’s Widows and Governor of All Idiots and Naturals in the King’s Hands’ in 1531, he became Comptroller of the Royal Household in May 1532 and, a few months later, Joint-Master of the Royal Woods with Thomas Cromwell. Now or later, he held the offices of High Steward of St. Swithun’s Priory, Winchester, Steward of Shene Priory (Dorset) and Keeper (1536) of Pamber Forest, near Basingstoke. In the Summer of 1533, Paulet went to France as a member of the Embassy which the Duke of Norfolk took over to join King Francis I in a proposed interview with the Pope, and kept Cromwell informed of its pro­gress. But Clement’s fulmination against the divorce pronounced by Cranmer caused their recall. On his return, Paulet was charged with he unpleasant task of notifying the King’s orders to his discarded wife and daughter. He was one of the judges of Fisher and More in the Summer of 1535 and of Anne Boleyn’s supposed accomplices in May 1536.

When the Pilgrimage of Grace broke out in the Autumn, Paulet took joint-charge of the musters of the Royal Forces and himself raised two hundred men. As the rebels complained of the exclusion of noblemen from the King’s Council, Henry reminded them of the presence of Paulet and others. In carrying out his Royal Master’s commands, he was not, it would ap­pear, unnecessarily harsh. Anne Boleyn excepted him from her complaints against the council: “the controller,” she admitted, “was a very gentleman”. His services did not go unrewarded. The King visited his ‘poor house’ at Basing in October 1535. The site and other possessions of Netley Abbey, near Southampton, were granted to him in August 1536. He acted as Treasurer of the Household from October 1537 to March 1539, when the old St. John peerage was recreated in his favour, but without the designation ‘of Basing’. The new peer became the first master of Henry VIII’s Court of Wards and Liveries in 1540, Knight of the Garter in April 1543 and, two years later, Governor of Portsmouth. Appointed Lord Chamber­lain of the Household in May 1543, he was Great Master (ie. Lord Steward) of the same from 1545 to 1550. A year before the King’s death, he became Lord President of the Council and was nominated in Henry’s will as one of the eighteen execu­tors who were to act as a council of regency during his son’s minority.

Under Lord Protector Somerset, St. John was, for a few months in 1547, Keeper of the Great Seal. He joined in overthrowing the protector and, five days after parliament had deposed the former, he was created Earl of Wiltshire (19th January 1550), in which county he had estates. The white staff laid down by the Duke of So­merset was given to the new earl who con­trived to remain Lord Treasurer until his death, twenty-two years later. Warwick succeeded to his old offices of Great Master of the Household and Lord President of the Council. Though Wiltshire was not, like Northampton and Herbert, pro­minently identified with Warwick, he received a further advance in the peerage on the final fall of Somerset. On 11th October 1551, the same day that Warwick became Duke of Northum­berland, he was created Marquis of Win­chester. Six weeks later, he acted as Lord Steward at Somerset’s trial.

Careful as Winchester was to trim his sails to the prevailing wind, the Protestants did not trust him. Knox, unless he exaggerates, boldly denounced him in his last sermon before Edward VI as the ‘crafty fox Shebna unto good King Ezekias sometime Comptroller and then Treasurer’. Northumberland and Winchester, Knox tells us, ruled all the court, the former by stout courage and proudness of stomach, the latter by counsel and wit. Though the reformers considered him a Papist, Winchester did not scruple to take out a license for himself, his wife and twelve friends to eat flesh in Lent and on fast days. Knox did him an injustice when he accused him of having been a prime party to Northumberland’s attempt to change the order of the succession. He was, on the contrary, strongly opposed to it; and even after he had bent, like others, before the imperious will of the Duke and signed the letters patent of 21st June 1553, he did not cease to urge, in the council, the superior claim of the original Act of Succession.

After the death of the young King and the proclamation of Queen Jane, Winchester delivered the Crown Jewels to the latter on 12th July. According to the Venetian, Badoaro, he made her very indignant by informing her of Northumberland’s intention to have her husband crowned as well. But Winchester and several other lords were only waiting until they could safely turn against the Duke. The day after the latter left London to capture Princess Mary (15th July), they made a vain attempt to get away from the Tower, where they were watched by the garrison Northumberland had placed there. Winchester made an excuse to go to his house but was sent for and brought back at midnight. On the 19th, however, after the arrival of news of Northumberland’s ill-success, the lords contrived to get away to Baynard’s Castle and, after a brief deliberation, proclaimed Mary as Queen. She confirmed Winchester in all his offices, to which in March 1556 that of Lord Privy Seal was added, and thoroughly appreciated his care and vigi­lance in the management of her exchequer. He gave a general support to Gardiner in the House of Lords and did not refuse to convey Elizabeth to the Tower. It was Sus­sex, however, and not he, who generously took the risk of giving her time to make a last appeal to her sister. So firmly was Winchester convinced of the impolicy of her Spanish marriage that, even after it was approved, he was heard to swear that he would set upon Philip when he landed. But he was rapidly brought to acquiesce in its accomplishment and en­tertained Philip and Mary at Basing on the day after their wedding.

Upon Mary’s death, Winchester rode through London with the proclamation of her successor and, in spite of his advanced age, obtained confirmation in the onerous office of Treasurer and acted as Speaker of the House of Lords in the parliaments of 1559 and 1566, showing no signs of diminished vigour. He voted in the small minority against any alteration of the church services, but did not carry his opposition further; and Heath, Archbishop of York, and Thirlby, Bishop of Ely, were deprived of their offices at his house in Austin Friars. For some years, he was on excellent terms with Cecil, to whom he wrote, after an Eng­lish reverse before Leith in May 1560, that ‘worldly things would sometimes fall out contrary, but if quietly taken could be quietly amended’. Three months later, when the Queen visited him at Basing, he sent the secretary warning against certain ‘back counsels’ about the Queen. Elizabeth was so pleased with the good cheer he made her that she playfully lamented his great age, “for, by my troth,” said she, “if my lord treasurer were but a young man, I could find it in my heart to have him for a husband before any man in England”. Two years later, when she was be­lieved to be dying, Winchester persuaded the council to agree to submit the rival claims to the succession to the Crown Lawyers and Judges, and to stand by their decision. He was opposed to all extremes. In 1561, when there was danger of a Spanish alliance to cover a union between the Queen and Dudley, he supported the counter-proposal of alliance with the French Calvinists but, seven years later, he depre­cated any such championship of Protestantism abroad, as might lead to a breach with Spain, and recommended that the Duke of Alva should be allowed to procure clothes and food for his soldiers in England, ‘that he might be ready for her grace when he might do her any service’. He disliked the turn Cecil was endeavouring to give to English policy and he was in sympathy with, if he was not a party to, the intrigues of 1569 against the secretary.

Winchester was still in harness when he died, a very old man, at Basing House on 10th March 1572. His tomb remains on the south side of the chancel of Basing Church. Winchester was twice married and lived to see 103 of his own descendants. His first wife was Elizabeth (d. 25th December 1558) daugh­ter of Sir William Capel, Lord Mayor of London (in 1503), by whom he had four sons: (1) John, 2nd Marquis of Winchester; (2) Thomas; (3) Chidiock, Governor of South­ampton under both Queens Mary and Elizabeth; (4) Giles; and four daughters: Elizabeth, Margaret, Margery and Eleanor; the last of whom married Sir Richard Pecksall, Master of the Royal Buckhounds, and died on 26th September 1558. By his second wife, Winifrid, daughter of Sir John Bruges, Alderman of London, and widow of Sir Richard Sackville, Chancellor of the Exchequer, he left no issue. She died in 1586.

Sir Robert Naunton, in his reminis­cences of Elizabethan statesmen (he was nine years old at Winchester’s death) reports that, in his old age, he was quite frank with his intimates on the secret of the success with which he had weathered the revolutions of four reigns. ‘Questioned how he had stood up for thirty years together amidst the changes and ruins of so many Chancellors and great personages: “Why,” quoth the Mar­quis, “ortus sum e salice non ex quercu.” And truly it seems the old man had taught them all, especially William, Earl of Pembroke’.

Winchester rebuilt Basing House, which he had obtained license to fortify in 1531, on so princely a scale that, according to Camden, his posterity were forced to pull down a part of it. An engraving of the mansion after the famous siege is given by Baigent in his ‘History of Basingstoke’. The Marquis was one of those who sent out the expedition of Chancellor and Willoughby to Northern Seas in 1553 and became a member of the Muscovy Company incorpo­rated under Queen Mary. A portrait, by a painter unknown, is engraved in Doyle’s ‘Official Baronage’ and another, which represents him with the treasurer’s white staff, in Walpole’s edition of Naunton, from a painting also, it would seem, unassigned, in King’s College, Cambridge. Two portraits are mentioned in the catalogue of the Tudor exhibition, in both of which he grasps the white staff. If the latter, which is in the Duke of Northumberland’s collection, is correctly described, its ascription to Holbein must be erroneous, as Winchester did not become Treasurer until 1550 and the artist died in 1543.

Edited from Leslie Stephens & Sidney Lee's "Dictionary of National Biography" (1891).    Copyright ©2002, LLC