William Paget, the son of John Paget, was born in London in 1505. His father was employed as a shearman and sergeant-at-mace to the sheriff of London. (1)
In June 1528 Paget suffered an attack of sweating sickness, but recovered and in 1529 he was elected to the House of Commons. He was considered a loyal supporter of Henry VIII and in June 1530 he went to the University of Paris to solicit opinions on king's marriage to Catherine Howard. He also carried out several diplomatic missions for the king over the next few years.
Paget married Anne Preston. The exact date of their marriage is uncertain but by 1534 they were living in a substantial house in Aldersgate. Their eldest surviving son Henry was born in 1536, and records show that after twenty years they had nine children living, six of them daughters. He was appointed secretary to Queens Jane Seymour. (3)
On 10th August 1540, following the execution of Thomas Cromwell, Paget was appointed clerk of the Privy Council. It has been claimed by John Foxe that Paget along with Thomas Cranmer, Charles Brandon, Edward Seymour, John Dudley, Ralph Sadler and Thomas Audley, was a member of the "Protestant" faction of the Privy Council, whereas Stephen Gardiner, Cuthbert Tunstall, Thomas Howard, Thomas Wriothesley and Richard Rich were "Papists". It is claimed that the men disagreed about whether they should burn heretics such as Robert Barnes. (4)
William Paget was also secretary to Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard. In 1541 he became involved in the case of Thomas Fiennes, 9th Baron Dacre, who had been charged with killing a gamekeeper. Dacre was tried in the Court of King's Bench in Westminster before Lord Chancellor Thomas Audley. Dacre pleaded not guilty and denied that he had any intention of killing the man. After discussions with Audley, Dacre changed his plea to guilty. It was assumed that a deal had been done and that he would be treated leniently. (5)
William Paget claimed that he understood that Dacre had been led to believe that the death sentence would be commuted if he pleaded guilty. However, the Lord Chancellor sentenced Dacre to be hanged. Dacre was executed on 28th June, 1541. Edward Hall recorded "he was led on foot between the two sheriffs of London from the Tower through the city to Tyburn where he was strangled as common murderers are and his body buried in the church of St Selpulchre". (6)
In June 1544 he was joined by Nicholas Wotton in negotiations leading to the joint Anglo-imperial invasion of France that summer. Sybil M. Jack has argued that Paget was now one of the most important figures in government. "In January 1544 he was knighted. In 1546 he bought eleven former episcopal manors in Staffordshire, Derbyshire, and Worcestershire, centred on Beaudesert, Staffordshire, thereby becoming a prominent landowner. He actively developed his landed interests, establishing ironworks and exploiting his woods. Meanwhile Paget had become one of the most powerful office-holders in the kingdom. He spoke for the monarch, controlled considerable patronage, and was the linchpin both of Henry's diplomatic correspondence and the national intelligence network. It was Paget's job to sift out from the intercepted mail and oral communications real plots from imaginary or invented ones, to distinguish reliable from double agents." (7)
Henry's health continued to cause concern. According to Peter Ackroyd, the author of Tudors (2012), William Paget, became a powerful influence upon the ailing king. Ackroyd suggests that Paget associated himself with the reformers in the king's council. In the autumn of 1546 the imperial ambassador, described the unexpected rise in the influence of religious reformers: "The Protestants have their openly declared champions... some of them had gained great favour with the king, and I could only wish that they were as far away from court as they were last year." (8)
Dr. George Owen, the royal physician, who was paid £100 a year to treat the king, told the Privy Council in December, 1546, that Henry was dying. The Privy Council, now under the control of religious radicals such as John Dudley, Edward Seymour and Thomas Seymour decided to keep the news secret. On 24th December, Catherine took Mary and Elizabeth to stay at Greenwich Palace for the holidays. On their return they were told that Henry was too ill to see them. (9)
Sybil M. Jack points out that Paget reached agreement with "Edward Seymour, earl of Hertford... that the provisions in Henry's will for a council of state should be amended to admit the earl as protector to his nephew, the new king, and that in return he would be Hertford's principal adviser. It was Paget also who kept the notes of the promotions and grants that Henry was alleged to have planned and which were implemented within days of the king's death, with Hertford becoming duke of Somerset and Paget receiving lands worth a nominal 400 marks (£266 6s. 8d.) per annum." (10) In doing so, Paget became involved in the downfall of his old friend Thomas Wriothesley, and also of his old master, Bishop Stephen Gardiner.
Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. The following day Edward and his thirteen year-old sister, Elizabeth, were informed that their father had died. According to one source, "Edward and his sister clung to each other, sobbing". Edward VI's coronation took place on Sunday 20th February. (11) Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward VI in governing his new realm.
It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. Somerset soon began to make changes to the Church of England. This included the introduction of an English Prayer Book and the decision to allow members of the clergy to get married. Attempts were made to destroy those aspects of religion that were associated with the Catholic Church, for example, the removal of stained-glass windows in churches and the destruction of religious wall-paintings. Somerset made sure that Edward VI was educated as a Protestant, as he hoped that when he was old enough to rule he would continue the policy of supporting the Protestant religion. (12)
The Duke of Somerset rewarded Paget by making him both a knight of the Garter and high steward of Cambridge University. He was also appointed comptroller of the household. In 1548 he acquired the bishop of Exeter's former London house, just outside Temple Bar, a suitable residence for a leading government official. However, he gradually became concerned about Somerset's reforms. (13)
Somerset's programme of religious reformation was accompanied by bold measures of political, social, and agrarian reform. Legislation in 1547 abolished all the treasons and felonies created under Henry VIII and did away with existing legislation against heresy. Two witnesses were required for proof of treason instead of only one. Although the measure received support in the House of Commons, its passage contributed to Somerset's reputation for what later historians perceived as his liberalism.
Popular rebellions and riots began in Cornwall in 1548 and spread through more than half the counties of England over the next few months. Some of those involved demonstrated against Somerset's religious programme. "The new vernacular liturgy contained in the Book of Common Prayer was the most evident grievance of the Cornish rebels, but the other religious changes of recent years and opposition to enclosures were also important. Revolt began in Cornwall in April 1548 when the clergy and commoners resisted the removal of religious images from parish churches and killed a government official, while in Somerset weavers and other commoners pulled down hedges and fences." (14)
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset urged compassion and on 14th June 1549, he persuaded Edward VI to pardoned all those people who had torn down hedges enclosing common land. Many landless people thought that this meant that their king disapproved of enclosures. All over the country people began to destroy hedges that landowners had used to enclose common land. As Roger Lockyer, the author of Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985), pointed out: "Somerset's championship of the common people won him their acclaim. It also promoted them to demonstrations which were designed to show their support for him, but which quickly developed into massive protest movements that no government could have tolerated or ignored." (15)
In July 1549 rebellion broke out in Norfolk. The rising began with an attack on recent local enclosers. This included those put up by Robert Kett, a large landowner in Wymondham. (16) However, he admitted that he had been wrong to enclose the common land. Kett also agreed to help the protesters persuade other landowners from enclosing public land. As Kett was a well-educated man, the crowd asked him to become their leader. (17)
The Kett Rebellion grew rapidly and a gathering of about 16,000 camped at Mousehold Heath just outside the walls of Norwich. It has been suggested that the people had rebelled for a variety of reasons and that as well as enclosures they were "also aggrieved by rack-renting, by the rise in food prices, by a steady erosion of tenant rights". (18)
Kett drew up a list of demands that included the no lord of the manor should be able to exploit common land and that private jurisdictions should be abolished. "Their demands in general are clear evidence of a belief in the ancient and traditional ways of the countryside; the rebels were not innovators but conservators, protesting against the encroachments of a free market, the rapacity of newly rich landlords, and the steady depreciation in the value of money." (19)
It has been argued that the rebellion was the closest thing Tudor England saw to a class war. (20) Kett formed a governing council made up of representatives from the villages that had joined the revolt. It was a remarkable demonstration of self-government. He was said to have dispensed justice beneath a tree, which came to be called the "oak of reformation", on both disorderly followers and unpopular local landowners who were charged with robbing the poor and imprisoned. (21)
The elected council then sent details of their demands to Edward VI and his government. The Duke of Somerset, responded by calling for the rebels to abandon their protests and to return peacefully to their homes. He offered them a free pardon if they did so but warned them he would use force if they refused. Dale Hoak has described it as the "sixteenth-century England's greatest crisis". (22)
The government at first responded in a conciliatory manner, offering a pardon to all who would disperse peacefully. This was rejected on 21st July and the rebels decided to enter Norwich. The mayor refused to allowed them to enter and so Kett's army, armed with spears, swords and pitchforks, successfully stormed the city walls. The English government were shocked when they heard that Kett and his rebels controlled the second largest city in England. It has been claimed that Kett was convinced that his actions were not only morally justified but also lawful. (23)
A force of about 1,400 men under the command of William Parr, 1st Marquess of Northampton, was sent to restore order but was defeated and had to abandon the city. (24) In August 1549, the Duke of Somerset sent John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, and an army of 12,000 English troops and 1,200 German mercenaries. Norwich was surrounded and Kett was ordered to surrender. One of the rebels lowered his hose and tauntingly bared his backside. An archer, with "commendable accuracy, shot an arrow into his rump." (25)
Warwick eventually seized Norwich after several days of fierce street fighting. He then encircled Kett's camp at Mousehold Heath. Kett gave the order to move out rather than face starvation. Warwick now sent in his cavalry in among the rebels and turned their retreat into a rout in which an estimated 3,000 men were slaughtered. (26) Kett was captured the day after the battle. By early September he and his brother William Kett were prisoners in the Tower of London. (27)
A special commission was set up to deal with the prisoners, of whom forty-nine were executed. The Norfolk gentry who had been terrified by the class character of the rising called for a wholesale slaughter and not even Warwick's brutality could satisfy them. John Dudley, Earl of Warwick, pointed out that the rebels were the source of all their wealth, asking, "Will ye be ploughmen and harrow your own land?" (28)
Robert Kett, twice refused a pardon on the grounds that he had done nothing that needed pardoning. (29) Kett was sent to London and was found guilty of treason and was hanged at Norwich Castle. (30) "Whatever sympathy Somerset might have felt for the Norfolk peasants, he behaved like any other Tudor ruler when it came to dealing with rebels." (31)
William Paget wrote to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, about the way he had dealt with the crisis. He admitted that "there was never man that had the hearts of the poor as you have!" However, the way he had dealt with the uprising had given both occasion and boldness to strike. In doing so he had betrayed the governing class. He told him that he should concentrate his efforts on the "conservation and state of the realm." Paget then suggests that Somerset should bring an end to his programme of religious reform. Although the "old religion is forbidden by a law... the new religion is not yet printed in the stomachs of the eleven of twelve parts of the realm". (32)
Somerset was blamed by the nobility and gentry for the social unrest. They believed his statements about political reform had encouraged rebellion. His reluctance to employ force and refusal to assume military leadership merely made matters worse. Seymour's critics also disliked his popularity with the common people and considered him to be a potential revolutionary. His main opponents, including John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton and Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, met in London to demand his removal as lord protector. (33)
Seymour no longer had the support of the aristocracy and had no choice but to give up his post. He was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. Following negotiations Paget surrendered the comptrollership without obtaining an alternative office. He also lost all the other government posts he had. Paget continued to provide advice on England's best strategy in foreign affairs, but he was not rewarded with any lucrative or influential office. (34)
Edward Seymour, pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. He skillfully conducted his own defence and was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony under the terms of a recent statute against bringing together men for a riot and sentenced to death. (35) "Historians sympathetic to Somerset argue that the indictment was largely fictitious, that the trial was packed with his enemies, and that Northumberland's subtle intrigue was responsible for his conviction. Other historians, however, have noted that Northumberland agreed that the charge of treason should be dropped and that the evidence suggests that Somerset was engaged in a conspiracy against his enemies." (36) Although the king had supported Somerset's religious policies with enthusiasm he did nothing to save him from his fate. (37)
As he was such a popular figure the authorities feared that Somerset's execution would cause disorder. On the morning of 22nd January, 1552, people living in London were ordered to remain in their houses. For added protection, over a 1,000 soldiers were on the streets of the city. Despite these measures large crowds gathered at Tower Hill. (38) He showed no sign of fear and he told those assembled that he died in the knowledge that he was "glad of the furtherance and helping forward of the commonwealth of this realm". (39) He also urged those present to follow the reformed religion that he had promoted. Edward wrote in his journal: "The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine in the morning." (40)
William Paget was arrested and accused with being involved in plots against the government with the Duke of Somerset. In 31st May 1552 he signed a submission of guilt, and two weeks later made a public confession in Star Chamber. Edward noted in his diary that it was because Paget was no gentleman on either his father's or his mother's side. He lost his chancellorship and was then released from the Tower of London. After paying a £8,000 fine he received a full pardon. (41)
Edward VI died on 6th July, 1553. Queen Mary appointed Paget to her Privy Council. He found himself in direct conflict with Bishop Stephen Gardiner, who had been appointed as her Lord Chancellor. Over the next two years Gardiner attempted to restore Catholicism in England. In the first Parliament held after Mary gained power most of the religious legislation of Edward's reign was repealed. (42) However, Paget, who headed what became known as the "secular" group, eventually accepted Gardiner's policies.
William Paget died on 9th June, 1563.
Recent scholarship has generally doubted the sincerity of his convictions, while disagreeing about whether he should be seen as a statesman or merely as a pragmatist. But his political and administrative skills have been usually, though not invariably, acknowledged. Yet although the enigmatic mask that shrouded his personal feelings and beliefs reinforced his diplomatic skills, it did not prevent his being accepted as a wise and honest counsellor by the princes of Europe. It is hard to doubt the fundamental sincerity of his concern for good governance and the maintenance of law and order. His appreciation of the realities and the limitations that the existing structure of society in Europe imposed on rulers made him essentially conservative, concerned above all to avoid actions that would destabilize the realm. His invariable preference for caution and moderation enabled him to avoid the numerous traps implicit in involvement in high matters of state, but his scheming was directed more towards the benefit of the realm than of himself, and although he amassed a considerable fortune, there is no convincing evidence that he did so dishonestly.