It has been a while since I’ve posted about something to do with the Tudor age of the 16th century. Aside from the recent article about the 1497 Cornish rebellions I would need to go back to late 2019 to find one (relating to Sir William Harspur). But yet a year ago the blog seemed to be awash with different articles that were Tudor specific, particularly in terms of my academic research in the summer of 2019 (which culminated in a short eBook on Henry VII’s “forgotten pretender” Ralph Wilford, and in an article about Catholic martyr Cuthbert Mayne). This is mostly due to a change in my focus in the classroom during 2019-20: I concentrated on teaching the German focused module Democracy & Nazism rather than the Tudors. But my love for this dynasty continues as strong as always.
And so, to remind myself, I thought I upload a post that I have thought about often over the past several months: the revelation of Sir William Petre. Petre is, in many ways, something of a hidden local history gem: a man who played a prominent role under several Tudor monarchs – principally Elizabeth I – but who has become a forgotten figure in the area of south Devon. So, who was this man?
Petre (pronounced “Peter”) was born in the small parish of Torbryan in south Devon (near Torbay) in the first decade of the 16th Century. His beginnings were not grand by any means, but the Petre family appears to have been local landowners stretching back several generations. Petre’s father – John Petre – was reportedly a tanner, and clearly he was wealthy enough in order to help fund the advance of the careers of his many sons. For example, his son John was an MP for Dartmouth in the 1550s; Richard was an archdeacon; and Robert played an influential role in the Exchequer. And William Petre’s achievements were to eclipse all of them.
In the 1520s, William was educated at Oxford and became involved in law. From here he was able to use his talents to progress through the ranks in Tudor government. Such advancement was a sign of the times during this period, with many other influential political figures rising to the top from more modest beginnings. In a previous post I noted how Sir William Harspur was an example of a social climber from the area of Bedford, and such an incident was trumped by the likes of Thomas Wolsey (a butcher’s son) becoming the most powerful man in England for more than a decade. It appears that two things were key: intelligence and patronage. Petre possessed the first (through natural ability and by strong support of his father in terms of education), and the second was provided through the support of the Boleyn family.
The Boleyns are an incredibly famous (or should that be infamous?) family of the Tudor period, particularly in terms of their meteoric rise during the 1520s during the reign of Henry VIII. Due to Henry’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn, the family grew in influence and stature; however, the royal court during this time was a fickle one, and the wheel of fortune continued to spin. Anne’s beheading in 1536 led to the loss in status for the Boleyns, but Petre – due to his talents, no doubt – was able to remain within governmental posts.
In many ways, Petre was a great survivor of such political and religious changes of the period. He reminds me of Sir William Cecil, the greatest of all of Elizabeth’s ministers, in their ability to twist and turn despite the upheaval. The 1530s was a volatile place, with the Pope’s jurisdiction in England removed and the monasteries pillaged; then, in Edward VI’s reign (1547-53) the Protestants made sweeping changes to religion, which in turn was counter-acted by Mary I’s strong hand (from 1553-58). Protestants were burnt and revenge was meted out, with the course once again changed when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in late 1558, before retiring in 1566. Throughout all of this Petre remained a constant fixture and served all of these monarchs, despite their ideological and religious differences.
Petre did as many others did: he changed his own outlook to suit the ruler of the times, which meant flip-flopping between religions. It is clear that he possessed great political skill and perhaps such “talent” would be well utilised in the 21st Century political landscape. Such is Petre’s career during such a tumultuous time, I can’t help but feel that his biography would be benefited from a deeper study. I will recommend him as a possible case-study the next time the Hidden Histories module is taught on the History with English foundation degree at University Centre South Devon. Perhaps then his intriguing life will be explored in full detail.