Petre was adept at sidestepping the great religious controversies of the day and held high office through the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I until, owing to ill health he retired a rich man to Ingatestone, a village in Essex, where he had built Ingatestone Hall. He died in 1572. Sir William's son John Petre, 1st Baron Petre was created Baron of Writtle in 1603. The later Lords Petre have mostly been Catholics. Their name is pronounced "Peter".
Composer William Byrd wrote a Pavan and a Galliard for Sir William Petre. Both pieces were published as part of book of virginal music called Parthenia which, apart from Byrd, also featured music by Doctor John Bull and Orlando Gibbons.
The founder of the Essex family of Petre was Sir William Petre, Tudor Secretary and diplomat, builder of Ingatestone Hall and either present, involved or must have been very close to most major constitutional, international and social events between the years 1527 and 1572. He was a typical professional man of his time and as a Tudor layman he took full advantage of the opportunities thrown up by the social changes and reforms that passed over the land in the time of Henry VIII, many new families sprang into power and property, not least among the men who benefited was William Petre. A whole generation of laymen from humble origins took advantage of the education system, of the decline of the Church, and the rise of the merchant and professional classes, they were the 'new men'. With his legal expertise and its value to Henry's marriage needs and Cromwell's reforms, he was the right man in the right place at the right time.
William probably first came to the notice of the Court as tutor to the Boleyn family, he was tutor to Anne's brother George. He assisted Thomas Cromwell in the Dissolution of the Monasteries and was subsequently appointed Chancellor of the Order of the Garter and Secretary of State to Henry VIII. His great achievement was to retain not only this post but also his head throughout the succeeding reigns of Edward VI, Mary and, until ill-health forced his retirement, Elizabeth. This he succeeded in doing by dint, initially, of his extreme discretion and, ultimately, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the affairs of state, born of his lengthy experience. Hence, he has been described as the first civil servant.
William first considered making his home in South Essex when, in 1537, he obtained the lease of the manor of Great Burstead Grange (near East Horndon) from the Abbey of Stratford Langthorne, and purchased the manor of Bayhouse in West Thurrock. This later purchase would have given easy access to London by water, being situated at the side of the Thames. However, in the following year (1538) he was given a forty-year lease of the manor of Ginge Abbess in Ingatestone, by Barking Abbey, where he had acted as Visitor.
The astuteness of the Petres' investment is highlighted if the nature of the family's estates is considered in the light of the conclusions drawn by Mary Finch in her study of five Northamptonshire families. The Petres' fortune originated in high courtly office and Sir William's second marriage, it was invested in land because this was virtually the only sure method of holding and the best way of transmitting wealth to posterity.
The estate was a consolidated one, which made for low administration cost and high efficiency. The household could support itself from demesne held directly by the family, and from rents in kind which would have been impossible to collect in a widely dispersed estate. When Sir William bought the land it was already enclosed, which made for easy introduction of improvements in estate management. Most of the 16th and 17th century leases included husbandry clauses that prevented over-cropping on the light soils. By this means, and by the shortness of the leases, most leases were for 21 years, the Petres managed to keep an element of control over the quality of the farming exercised by their tenants, and they were able to raise rents in keeping with inflation. The evidence of the Petres' personal supervision of their estates contains no suggestion of lax administration. Furthermore, the Petres' concentration upon stock fattening for the London market guaranteed increasing sales and rising prices.
The self-sufficiency of the Ingatestone household has been particularly emphasised by Emmison 'the records show admirably how Petres' servants, tenants, and the craftsmen of the neighbourhood provided most of the things required, making them with their own hands and their innate skill. By drawing liberally on his estate and his purely local resources the household, apart from the periodic need to replenish the big store of saltfish, was not far from being self-supporting'. Meat, poultry, fresh-water fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables were all produced from the farms and parks held in demesne at Ingatestone, Stock and East Horndon, and these were supplemented by rents in kind, presents and tithes. Beer was brewed at the Hall, fuel was collected locally and the servants made clothing. Only wine, dried and saltfish, and such luxuries as fashionable clothes, plate and jewellery had to be bought in London. Sir William Petre found it profitable to transport most of his London needs from Ingatestone to his house in Aldersgate Street.
The main branches of the Petres were seated at Ingatestone Hall, Thorndon Hall, West Hanningfield, Cranham Hall and Bellhouse in Stanford Rivers. Owing to the status of the lords Petre and the royal protection granted to them, neither Thorndon Hall nor Ingatestone Hall featured prominently in the court records, although on occasion a few of the servants at Ingatestone were presented, and the depositions of George Elliot provide their own picture of a Catholic household. Full lists of servants, however, can be provided from the court records of West Hanningfield, Cranham and Stanford Rivers.
William Petre owed his success in life to his own ability, industry and perseverance. The 18th century historians Morant and Richard Baker speak slighting him as not being descended from any ancient county family, Baker especially saying of him and Lord Chancellor Rich, "Henry VIII had raised these men from the lowest gentry". But it to the credit of the King that able men should have obtained some of the good things of the land, that had been too long monopolized by the Church and a few great families; though one could wish that when the division of the monastery lands was made, they had been yet more widely divided. It was better for his family to owe their property and peerage to Sir William's ability and labour than to a bend sinister.
A mass of Petre's correspondence has been summarised in the 'Calendars of State Papers', and many of the originals are in the Cottonian, Harleian and additional museums. His transcript of the notes for Edward VI's will is in the Inner Temple Library.
William Petre was born at Tor Newton, Devonshire (between Newton Abbot and Ashburton), in 1505 or 1506, he was the son of John Petre, a wealthy farmer and tanner of Torbryan, Devonshire, by his wife Alice or Alys, daughter of John Collinge of Woodlands in the same county. He was the second eldest son of a family of nine. The five sons were:
In about 1533, William married Gertrude, youngest child of Sir John Tyrell of Little Warley Hall, (– 28 February 1541) (younger branch of the Tyrells of Heron Hall, East Horndon – one of the old Essex families) and his wife Anne, (daughter of Edward Norris). No information is available as to how they met, the date and venue of the marriage, or her dowry. Her children, all born in London were:
Gertrude died on 28 May 1541, leaving the two small daughters. She is unlikely to have lived at Ingatestone Hall, but was buried in Ingatestone Church. Inside the chancel altar rails lies a slab with marginal inscription in ornamental capitals:
When Barking Abbey was surrendered to the Crown on 14 November 1539, the thirty nuns included Mary Tyrell, Gertrude's sister, who had been prioress by 1508 but had since retired. In her father's will, it is recorded that Mary "sometyme a nonne of Barking" was left "a ring with a safier". The will does not mention Gertrude, although she was still alive.
Anne was born in 1509 (her portrait states "aged 58" in 1567) the daughter of Sir William Browne, a London merchant who died (one of the few to do so) during his term as Lord Mayor of London in 1514; his widow, the daughter of Henry Kebyll, subsequently became the third wife of Lord Mountjoy. A book of hours given to her by William, 4th Baron Mountjoy, who was both her stepfather and her uncle by marriage, is in a private collection at Beeleigh Abbey (Mountjoy's sister Constance Blount was the mother of John Tyrell).
Anne was married first to John Tyrell, son of Sir Thomas Tyrell of Heron Hall widow of William's first wife's kinsman, Thomas Tyrell and a distant cousin of John Tyrell, (Anthony Tyrell was the second Lady Petre's nephew). They were only children when their fathers gave agreement for the marriage to take place before 1521; her marriage portion was 400 marks. Her husband died on 3 April 1540, leaving no male heirs. Anne Petre's funeral certificate refers to her children by Tyrell as "Gertrude that died young" and "Catherine, wife of Sir Richard Baker".
A small book of accounts refers to John Tyrell's last illness – payments to a doctor of physic and three surgeons, Mr. Momford (the King's surgeon), and one each from London and Chelmsford. Nearly £7 was spent on apothecary's bills, plus 4s to a woman "for wachyng with my husband"; the body was washed and wax tapers set up round the corpse. Later, the parson from Thorndon (East Horndon) was paid 13s 4d for the "monthe's mynd for my master". 21d was spent on beer on this occasion. Anne's brother, Mr. John Browne of London, was one of John Tyrell's executors. The will only mentions one child – Catherine Tyrell. He was presumably buried as requested in his will at the church of "Este Hornedon", to which he bequeathed 10s "to the reparacons of the churche yarde pale".
By March 1542 Anne had married William bringing him an increase in income of £280, from the lease of a farm at Dunton near East Horndon, and from manors in Cambridgeshire and Hampshire.
Lady Petre survived her husband by ten years, dying on 10 March 1582; she was buried by her husband's side on 10 April. By William, she had two daughters and three sons, of whom two died young.
Dr. F G Emmison in Tudor Secretary pointed out that Essex became the adopted county of William Petre as a result of three influences: marriage, land, and the proximity of London. A Crown grant for the purchase of a small estate with the title of Esquire and Lord of the Manor of Gynge Abbess in Essex, then within easy reach of London was made to Petre on 15 December 1539, for £849 12s 6d (the full market price), as a country retreat. In accordance with contemporary practice of the Court of Augmentations (set up to handle redistribution of monastic property) a purchaser did not have to pay outright. The payment was spread over four years, and the file of receipts, attached to the Crown grant, is deposited in Essex Record Office. The dwelling on the site was "an old house scant meet for a farmer to dwell upon", so it was demolished and erection begun of "new houses, very fair, large and stately, made of brick and embattled". Brick was becoming fashionable at this time and was a natural choice in a county like Essex, which lacks good building stone. The new building was started about 1540 on, or very near, the old site. The main quadrangle was completed about four years later. Unfortunately, detailed estate accounts do not begin until 1549, too late for the main building period.
It is typical that he chose to have a modest house in comparison with Layer Marney and Leigh's Priory, too modest for the fashion of the time but sufficient for his own needs. From 'an olde house scant mete for a fermor to dwell on' he created a knightly residence with orchard and gardens and 'a wholly one very fayr and stately gallery or walke mete for any man of honor to come into'. It was an early example of a long gallery that was rapidly becoming the fashion set by Hampton Court in 1535. In 1549 Edward VI complained bitterly of Windsor Castle 'methinks I am in prison, here be no galleries nor gardens to walk in'.
After a long illness, William died at Ingatestone Hall on 13 January 1572. At the end of his life, William Petre owned 45,000 acres: 20,000 in Essex, the rest in East Anglia and Devon. He was buried in Ingatestone church, where a handsome altar tomb to his memory probably by Cornelius Cure, the Crown mason, between the chancel and south chapel, is still extant and in the register is the entry 1571 17th die Februarij sepultus fuit dns Willmus Petreus Eques auratus. It is interesting and a sign of his important rank that his tomb shows him, as by right, in a Knight's armour, though as David Piper says 'if ever a man was a Secretary by nature and by calling it was he'.
William's portrait shows the face of a clever shrewd man, of a man with a cool head and a quiet tongue which enabled him to hold office under Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I, and to survive in unique and unbroken service through the cut-throat world of Tudor politics. Almost alone among his contemporaries he escaped the Tower, the block, fines and exile and yet earned the reputation of an honest man, neither rapacious nor a rogue. We do know that according to Camden he was a distinguished scholar and 'a man of approved wisdom and exquisite learning'. Strype says, 'he was without spot that I could find, except change of religion' – a verdict which William Petre himself would hardly have endorsed, for in one of his letters to his friend William Cecil he says, 'We which talk much of Christ and his holy word have, I fear me, used a much contrary way: for we leave fishing for men, and fish again in the tempestuous seas of this world, for gain and wicked Mammon".
Petre's career is strikingly similar to those of other statesmen of his time, such as Cecil, Mason, and Rich, who, 'sprung from the willow rather than the oak', and served with equal fidelity Henry, Edward, Mary, and Elizabeth, surviving all contemporary political and religious storms. Among mid-Tudor privy councillors, Sir William is unique in his unbroken service; he alone escaped the block, the Tower, house arrest, disgrace, fine, exile, or enforced retirement. As a diplomat, his manner was 'smooth, reserved, resolved, yet obliging'. At Boulogne in 1550, Chatillion said of Petre "Ah, we had gained the last two hundred thousand crowns without hostages, had it not been for that man who said nothing".
In his later years, he was said to be a papist, a creed to which his descendants have consistently adhered. Nevertheless, his piety was not uncompromising, and did not stand in the way of his temporal advancement. Though he was less rapacious than his colleagues in profiting by the fall of Somerset, Petre acquired enormous property by the dissolution of the monasteries; in Devonshire alone he is said to have secured 36,000 acres; but his principal seat was at Ingatestone which he received on the dissolution of the abbey of St. Mary's Barking.
Though so occupied in politics, he seems to have been a man with wider interests, a considerable portion of his wealth was spent on charitable objects; he founded almshouses at Ingatestone, and designed scholarships for All Souls College, Oxford, but his chief benefactions were to Exeter College, Oxford, and entitle him to be considered its second founder. In other ways, Petre was a patron of learning; his correspondence with English envoys abroad contains frequent requests for rare books. He was himself governor of Chelmsford grammar school, and Ascham benefited by his favour, which he is said to have requited by dedicating to Petre his Osorius de Nobilitate Christiana. A mass of Petre's correspondence has been summarised in the 'Calendars of State Papers', and many of the originals are in the Cottonian, Harleian, and Additional Manuscripts in the British Museum; his transcript of the notes for Edward VI's will is in the Inner Temple Library.
William was educated at the great West Country college of Exeter, at Oxford, arriving there in 1520 when he was about 14 (the usual age at that time), from whence he was elected Fellow of All Souls in 1523 where he graduated Bachelor of Civil and Canon Law on 2 July 1526 (both colleges were generously endowed by him later). Proficient both in Roman (administrative) and ecclesiastical law, in about 1527, he became Principal of Peckwater's Inn or Vine Hall, and tutor to George Boleyn (son of the Earl of Wiltshire and afterwards Viscount Rochford). It was no doubt through the influence of Boleyn's sister Anne that Petre came to the notice of Thomas Cromwell (she sent him presents, and promised him any pleasure it was in her power to give) and was introduced at court and selected for government service. He was sent abroad and resided on the continent, chiefly in France, for more than four years. On his return, he was appointed a Clerk in Chancery and All Souls made him Doctor of Civil Law on 17 February 1532.
In 1534, William and Edmund Walsingham examined Anne Husee on the charge of addressing Henry's daughter Mary as Princess when Anne had stayed with her at Hunsdon, and whether she thought her the lawful daughter of the king. Anne Husee, knowing her head to be in danger if she continued to support Mary, took the more prudent way and besought pardon. 'She most humbly beseecheth his Highness of mercy and forgiveness, as One that is repentant for that she hath so offended and purposeth never hereafter to fall in to semblable danger, – signed Anne Husee, countersigned Edmund Walsyngham. Per me Gulielmum Petre'.
From his youth he must have been a capable, pushing, insinuating man. He was only about thirty when he was already in high favour with Cranmer and Cromwell, who spoke in November 1535 of making Petre dean of arches, there 'being no man more fit for it'.
On 13 January 1536, he was appointed deputy or proctor for Cromwell in his capacity as Vicar-General and appointed Visitor of the greater monasteries in Kent and other southern counties, being especially active in the West Country. In the same year, he was made Master in Chancery, was placed on a commission to receive and examine all bulls and briefs from Rome, and granted the prebend of Langford Ecclesia in Lincoln Cathedral, which he resigned the following year. On 16 June 1536, Petre appeared in Convocation and made a novel claim to preside over its deliberations, on the ground that the King was supreme head of the church, Cromwell was the King's vicegerent, and he was Cromwell's deputy. After some discussion, his claim was allowed. In 1537 was employed to examine Robert Aske and other prisoners taken in the Lincolnshire and Yorkshire rebellions.
Soon he was actively visiting and aiding in the suppression of the smaller monasteries, he was one of the most zealous of the visitors. Among the twenty monasteries he visited and procured the surrender of in 1538 were, perhaps, St. Leonard's, Thoby and Blackmore. In the first three months of 1539, thirteen more fell before him; he being instrumental in the almost total extirpation of the Gilbertines, the only religious order of English origin. A few years later, he was Visitor of the greater monasteries in Kent and the South of England.
Though much occupied with public business, this astute politician found time and many opportunities to get and lay by great gain for himself. As one of the Visitors of the monasteries, he knew better than many people what properties were worth acquiring. He paid the King some £849 12s 6d (approximately £330,000 today) for the property known as "Ginge Abbes" at Ingatestone, even though the King was trying to raise money and this was a "fair" price it is probably true Sir William got a bargain. Ingatestone, which had previously belonged to Barking Abbey, must have been selected as being a particularly fertile and well-cultivated district at that period, within an easy ride of London, and with the comfortable house of the Abbess's steward, with its fish-ponds and park, easily turned into an excellent country residence for the busy statesman. Here, at Ingatestone Hall, Sir William Petre established himself and his family, and many of his letters are dated from this place.
However there is some evidence of an institutionalised system of bribery and corruption. Those in public office were expected to charge for favours and salaries were accordingly set very low. Accounts show that by 1540, William was receiving £180 per year in annuities from religious houses he had visited (approximately £70,000 toady). It is strange that abbeys should give annuities to an individual charged with abolishing them; they were probably bribes either to delay the procedure or to facilitate a fat pension for the retiring Abbot. William received money from monasteries such as:
When Henry VIII died in 1547 William was appointed an assistant executor to his will. This gave him much hold over the Protestant and youthful sovereign, Edward VI, and his power, importance and activity rapidly increased. In August 1547, he was entrusted with the Great Seal for use in all ecclesiastical affairs.
In 1549, he served on commissions to visit the University of Oxford inquiring into heresies, to examine the charges against Lord Seymour of Sudeley, and to try Bonner. He did not take part in Bonner's trial after the first day, and it was rumoured that he 'was turning about to another party'. On 6 October 1549, he was sent by Somerset to the council to demand the reason of their coming together, though at first a supporter of the Protector Somerset. Finding them the stronger party he deserted Somerset just before his fall, remaining to sign the council's letter to the lord mayor denouncing the protector; four days later he also signed the proclamation against Somerset.
By the 1550s, he was very prosperous. Not only was he Secretary of State but he also had many other sinecures such as warden of Bishop of Winchester's lands. He enjoyed many rewards such as free board and lodging at court. In February 1550, he was sent to Boulogne to negotiate the terms of peace with France, and in the following May exchanged ratifications of it at Amiens. William Petre is described as smooth and obliging in manner, yet reserved and resolved, and not given to many words. In the same year, he was treasurer of first fruits and tenths, and one of the commissioners to examine Gardiner; he was also sent to New Hall, Essex, to request Mary to come to court or change her residence to Oking. William also writes in terms of friendship to William Cecil in 1551, from Ingatestone, regretting to hear that Cecil is ill, thanking him for a book he had sent, and saying his little ones when they are able shall send him some proof of their progress; and writes again later to congratulate Cecil on his recovery.
In August 1551, Petre was one of those who communicated to Princess Mary the Privy Council's decision forbidding Mass in her household, an important and dangerous task. September 1551 found him laid up at Ingatestone Hall, and unable to travel to Court. He still had many affairs on hand, amongst them a very trivial complaint from the Countess of Southampton, which Sir William forwarded to William Cecil, recommending that her suit be allowed and attended to 'Jane, Countess of Southampton, complains that Hierom Colas, French teacher to her children, has left her service, and begs he may be compelled to return'. In October, he was appointed to confer with the German ambassadors on the proposed Protestant alliance; and in December, he was on a commission for calling in the king's debts.
As the young Edward VI's health failed, it was necessary to determine what should be done on his death, and a memorial was drawn up and signed by Sir William Petre in May 1553, under the direction of the King and the Privy Council, limiting the succession, in the interest of Lady Jane Grey, to Protestants. Two months later Edward VI was dead and Mary had a powerful party behind her, On 20 July, he, like the majority of the council, declared for Mary, the memorial in Sir William's handwriting was laid on the shelf. He remained in London during the next few days transacting secretarial business, but his wife joined Mary and entered London with her.
Petre had been identified with the council's most obnoxious proceedings towards Mary, and his position was at first insecure. He resumed attendance at the council on 12 August, but in September, it was rumoured that he was out of office. He was however, installed Chancellor of the Order of the Garter on 26 September when he was directed by the Queen to expunge the new rules formulated during the late reign. He further ingratiated himself with Mary by his zeal in tracing the accomplices of Wyatt's rebellion and by his advocacy of the Spanish marriage. Petre now devoted himself exclusively to his official duties; he rarely missed attendance at the council and was frequently employed to consult with foreign ambassadors. He acquiesced in the restoration of the old religion, and took a prominent part in the reception of Pole and ceremonies connected with the absolution of England from the guilt of heresy.
Religion sat ever easy with William; as he had acquiesced in the Reformation under Henry VIII, so now he acquiesced in the re-establishment of the Pope's authority and the restoration of the Roman form of service, and was one of the foremost at Cardinal Pole's reception when he came on a mission from the Pope. With his vast Church property, it behoved Sir William to stand well with the new religious authorities; Cardinal Pole had come with instructions not to be too particular about the restoration of abbey lands. Mary approved the scheme drawn up by him. With great dexterity, William succeeded in obtaining a 'Bull of Confirmation' confirming him in possession of the lands he had derived from the suppression of the monasteries. Pope Paul IV granted this on 27 November 1555. This is believed to be a unique document. Sir William was also absolved from the Interdict of Excommunication placed upon Henry VIII. He was allowed to retain his lands, but was exhorted to endow a charity foundation and to provide pensions for the needy inhabitants of Ingatestone, who had been deprived of their accustomed doles from the monasteries by the wholesale dissolution and destruction that had taken place, so largely by the aid of William Petre himself. This bull is a lengthy document, and enumerates all the Church lands Sir William Petre had acquired, and the prices he had paid for them. Morant thus describes his property:
William duly complied, 'Letters Patent of Mary and Philip' (7 July 1557) confirmed the foundation of an almshouse charity for "six poor persons and one priest" from the parish of Ingatestone. Five of the pensioners were to be women, and the male pensioner was to receive the status of Freeholder. The Ginge Petre Charity also provided for the distribution of gifts to twenty deserving souls at Christmas, and to forty at Easter. Sir William Petre added three "extraordinary" pensions to the fund. The almshouses were built in what is now Stock Lane. The "extraordinary" pensioners were not included within the Body Corporate, but enjoyed the same privileges as the original six, and were bound by the same rules. Sir William also added a chapel (the present South Chapel of the parish church) for use as an oratory for the alms people.
However, even within Petre's own lifetime, when the Catholic-Protestant divide was still far from clear in many respects, the administration of the Charity begun to revert to the Rector of Ingatestone. Until the 19th century, the Charity was an Anglican enterprise. The Rector selected the pensioners and administered the funds.
Sir William was a judge in the trials of Bishops Bonner and Gardiner, and served with Lord Rich of Leigh's Priory as the Council's agent in warning Princess Mary not to have the Mass celebrated at New Hall, Boreham and Copped Hall, near Waltham Abbey, her Essex mansions. It was at Ingatestone Hall, where Queen Mary stopped in her journey to London after her accession, that Petre was sworn her Secretary; and here also that Cecil (the future Lord Burleigh) offered his obedience, kissed her hand, but lost his appointment as Secretary, which he had shared with his older colleague. Petre was one of the councillors deputed to question Princess Elizabeth in the Tower on her alleged complicity in Wyatt's rebellion (during which he had raised a small force for the Queen). Sir William helped to negotiate Mary's marriage.
The move was a wise one for a man so heavily weighted with Church property, and his adroitness quickly enabled him to be as indispensable to Mary as he had been to her father and brother. He warmly advocated the Spanish marriage with Philip, and was soon freely consulted by Bishop Gardiner on matters of State policy. He took an active part in discovering the persons implicated in Sir Thomas Wyatt's rising which took place early in 1554 with the object of preventing Mary's marriage and of putting Elizabeth on the throne. After the capture of Wyatt, Sir John Bourne writes from the Tower to tell Secretary Petre that he has been labouring to make Sir Thomas Wyatt confess that the Lady Elizabeth and her servant Sir William St. Loo, were implicated in the matter; but Sir Thomas Wyatt confessed nothing, and Elizabeth, though imprisoned for a time, was spared. In July 1554, Philip landed in England and married Mary. The following year Petre attended at Court and wrote thence to the Earl of Devonshire, in July, that the Queen's hour was daily expected – that hour which, happily for the country, never arrived to the unhappy Queen.
By 1556, his income was £3,353 (approximately £560,000 today) with very modest personal expenses he wrote to Nicholas Wootton, Dean of Canterbury, desiring Wootton to succeed him as Secretary of State, being himself so out of health.
It was on his advice that Mary in 1557 forbade the landing of the Pope's messenger sent to confer legatine power on William Peto instead of Pole; he was responsible for receiving the first Russian ambassador to England. However, by the end of the year, owing to declining health, he ceased to be Secretary.
Queen Mary's reign was even shorter than that of her brother, and on her death the hated Spaniards and Romanists were driven out of the country, and Elizabeth, the Protestant princess, ascended the throne.
Once again, to save his place, Sir William had to change his religion, as did so many others; but he was getting an old man – he had all the property he could desire, his health was failing, and politics no longer attracted him as they had done in his younger days. On Elizabeth's accession, Petre was one of those charged to transact all business before the queen's coronation, and was still employed on various state affairs, but his attendances at the council became less frequent. In March 1559, he writes to William Cecil that he will attend him at the Court if necessary, but wishes to be excused because of the disease of his leg he did however still deputise for Secretary Cecil during the summer of 1560, when Cecil was in Scotland. However, he still had many years of official life before him. He resided much at Ingatestone Hall in those later days, and we find him writing from there in 1561 about the Portuguese restrictions on English merchants in the Indies.
One of William's last public duties was to take charge of Lady Catherine Grey, the heir to the throne under Henry's will, at Ingatestone Hall in 1564 – 1566. Katherine, a younger sister of the ill-fated Lady Jane, had married the Earl of Hertford without Queen Elizabeth's consent. The maiden Queen was greatly displeased – not so much by the marriage having taken place without her consent, as by her fears that there should be children by the marriage, and 'the brats', she feared, might imperil her throne. Therefore, she caused Lady Katherine to be sent to the Tower in 1563; later, she was removed to the care of her uncle, Sir John Grey, at Pyrgo, where she stayed until November 1564, when she was committed to the charge of Sir William Petre. For two years she was in his custody, and probably resided at Ingatestone Hall; then she was removed to Sir John Wentworth's (a kinsman of Sir William's first wife) at Gosfield Hall, and after seventeen months' confinement there was taken down to Cockfield Hall, Oxford, where she died fourteen days later.
The care of this poor lady seems to have been the last public charge undertaken by William Petre: from 1566 he practically retired from the busy, active life he had led so many years, and devoted himself to his charitable foundations. He writes again to Cecil that he is too ill to go abroad, though recovered of his fever, and wishes to retire 'to my poore house at Ingatestone', where he thinks the open air will do him good.
Unlike both the Treshams of Rushton and the Fitzwilliams of Milton, the Petres had no difficulty in adjusting the scale of their entertainment and hospitality to the family's reduced income after Sir William's retirement from Court. Indeed, that the Court could be a means of financial loss is shown by the experiences of Sir William Fitzwilliam III when he held the office of Treasurer of War in Ireland. The Petres were safely removed from both the temptations and the gains of the Court, and in every respect, the nature of their estates placed them ideally for profitable survival throughout the period under review. The personality of the family was well suited to taking full advantage of the opportunities open to them.
In his later years, he was said to be a Papist, but too prudent to be involved in the many plots that were so constantly being laid against Elizabeth, a creed to which his descendants have consistently adhered. Nevertheless, his piety was not uncompromising, and did not stand in the way of his temporal advancement. Though he was less rapacious than his colleagues in profiting by the fall of Somerset, Petre acquired enormous property by the dissolution of the monasteries; in Devonshire alone he is said to have secured 36,000 acres, but his principal seat was at Ingatestone, Essex, which he received on the dissolution of the abbey of St. Mary's Barking. The hall, which he built there, still stands almost unimpaired.
Sir Williams's widow, Anne, who survived him many years, was a keen Papist; she lived on at Ingatestone Hall, and there received and sheltered many of the seminary priests, whose presence was forbidden in England by Elizabeth's law at that time. Coming from Douai they were sometimes only Roman missionaries, but very often plotters against the Protestant Queen. Amongst them was John Payne, who lived for some time at Ingatestone Hall under the protection of old Lady Petre. In 1577, he was arrested at Ingatestone, thrown into prison for three weeks, and then released. He returned to France by the end of the year, but it was not long before he was back in England, and residing at Ingatestone Hall, where he passed as Lady Petre's steward. In 1581, information was laid against him, and he was arrested at Warwick and tried, not only for saying Mass, which was then a punishable offence, but also for plotting against Elizabeth. After long investigation, trial, and torture, he was executed in 1582 at Chelmsford. John Payne was nephew of Rector Woodward, of Ingatestone who had resigned rather than conform. Lady Petre herself was on the list of recusants whose addresses were to be sent up in 1582. The trial and execution of her confessor and pseudo-steward seems to have been a severe blow to the old lady, for she died in April of the same year and was buried with her husband in the vault in the chancel, and her effigy lies by his on the tomb above.
Lady Anne Petre, widow of Sir William Petre made a final will in the February of the year in which she died, 1582. The extracts given below chiefly concern her bequests of jewellery, silver etc. to some of her children nephews and nieces, and shed much light on the personal possessions of an Elizabethan lady.
A considerable portion of his wealth was spent on charitable objects; he founded almshouses at Ingatestone, and endowed scholarships for All Souls' College, Oxford. He was one of the first Governors of King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford. Ascham benefited favour by his favour, which he is said to have requited by dedicating to Petre his 'Osorius de Nobilitate Christiana'. In other ways, Petre was a patron of learning; his correspondence with English envoys abroad contains frequent requests for rare books.
His chief benefactions were to Exeter College, Oxford (whose rowing eights bear his name to this day), and entitle him to be considered its founder; he rewrote its statutes so its membership was increased. That he retained a warm affection for the College that had given him his early education is evident from the liberal gifts he made. In 1566 he founded seven Scholarships or Fellowships, called the Petrean Fellowships, and the next year founded another to be nominated by him or his heirs from the counties of Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Oxford, Essex, and other counties within the kingdom of England where he had lands and inheritance. For the maintenance of these, he gave four Oxfordshire rectories (which had cost him £1,376) and four parishes (Kidlington, Merton, South Newington and Yarnton) a yearly value of £91 annually. In his will gave a further sum of £40 for the same purpose, to which Lady Petre his widow, and his son and heir John each added another £40. He was a great collector of books, and presented many to Exeter College library. He also obtained for the College new and beneficial Statutes from the Bishop of Exeter, and a Charter from the Queen that the College might be a body politic and corporate. On his portrait, which hangs in Exeter College Hall, is this inscription Octo socios cum terries addidit AD 1566 et multos Libros Bibliothecae contulit. Probably his liberality to Exeter suggested to his daughter Dorothy and her husband, Nicholas Wadham, the founding of the new college of Wadham at Oxford.
There exist four portraits of Sir William Petre: one hangs in Exeter College Hall, and two are at Ingatestone Hall. One by Sir Antonio More, was painted ætatis suæ XL. The other is probably by Holbein, though the ascription is not quite certain. This latter is reputed by the family to be the better portrait but bears the inscription on the background ætatis suæ 74 AN. 1545, which does not agree with the facts of Petre's life. The fourth is part of the National Portrait Gallery collection at Montacute House in Somerset. Sir William was granted the lease of the lands at Montacute in 1539 and sub-let them to the Phelips family, who built the current house at the end of the 16th century.
Wards and wardships have been covered by two detailed studies:
The latter deals fully with the financial aspects of Petre's wards. His accounts have many entries of expenditure and income concerning his wards, but no reliable figures of profit can be drawn, as the accounts have gaps. The chief aim of the suitor to the Court of Wards and Liveries for the grant of a wardship was the valuable future right of arranging the ward's marriage. The grantee had the choice of marrying the ward to his own child or relation, who thus acquired the ward's lands, or of selling the right to the best bidder. The guardian usually also secured from the Crown a lease of the lands during the minority at profitable terms. Petre was in a privileged place for seeking such grants.
In 1550, he was allowed to purchase the right of wardship and marriage of his own heir John and of the four daughters of his wife's first and second marriages and to vest it in his friend William Pownsett of Barking as trustee. The legal machinery designed to achieve this family safeguard worked in reverse: it was Pownsett who nominally bought the Crown grant for 100 marks and then released it to Petre eight days later.
Of his first three wards, the grant of Edward Sulyard's wardship has not been found. His other early excursions into the market concerned John Eiston and Thomas Leigh, granted in 1547. In 1550, he obtained the wardship of John, son of William Gostwick, who owned a large estate at Willington in Bedfordshire but apparently lived at Cauldwell Priory, Bedford, of which he had a lease. Petre had a good reason to be the best bidder. In 1555, he also secured Anne and Juliana, daughters of John Drake, an Exeter merchant. Petre had petitioned for these six months earlier, one month in fact before their father's death. Such unseemly anticipation was by no means uncommon. His accounts give: 'The Clerk of the Wards for the writing of Mr. Drake's wards, 2s 6d; the Master of the Wards' servant for the letter to seize [take legal custody of] the wards, 20d'. The girls did not come to Ingatestone; John Petre of Tor Brian gave a bond in 1556 to Sir William for delivering one of them to her guardian if she did not shortly marry a son of John.
In that year, Petre bought the wardship of John son and heir of Sir John Talbot of Grafton in Worcestershire. With this grant, his annual gross income from wards' estates totalled £196 according to his accounts for 1556 (just under £33,000 today).