The Life and Times of William Paulet by Margaret Scard
For many historians William Paulet is a shadowy figure in the background of the Tudor court. Writers often give him only a passing mention. Yet to his contemporaries he was a man at the forefront of court life and sixteenth century politics.
In the length and breadth of his career together with his remarkable rise from being the son of a country gentleman to be the senior noble in England he stands apart from his contemporaries. His success, though, was dependent not only on his own ability but also upon surviving the machinations of court life and on choosing to support the winning side.
For nearly half a century he served four monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth. Yet it appears that Paulet was not initially pursuing a career at court. He was nearly 50 years old before he took his place as a courtier and his early education as a lawyer together with many years spent living in Hampshire serving as sheriff and justice of the peace had fitted him well to be a country gentleman.
However, during the 1520s he came to the attention of the king and was appointed firstly as Surveyor of the Woods followed soon after by an appointment as Master of the Wards, both administrative roles. Today we would equate these positions with senior civil servant appointments, the former responsible for managing the King’s woods and for the cultivation and harvesting of timber, a primary construction material in sixteenth century England.
The post of Master of the Wards was a financial appointment, dealing with the income the king received in his role as guardian of under-age heirs and heiresses. Until the children came of age and inherited their lands the king had the right not only to take the income from their estates but also to choose their marriage partners. However, these rights could be sold to his nobles generating an important source of royal revenue. Paulet’s success in enlarging and improving the system of wardship – and increasing the income to the king – led to him being appointed as Comptroller of the royal Household in 1532. This role put him at the centre of the royal Court, close to the king, and for the rest of his life Paulet played the role of courtier.
During the next 18 years Paulet held each of the four household officer appointments. As Comptroller and later Treasurer of the Household, he was responsible for the ‘below-stairs’ departments of all the houses in which the king lived, ensuring the supply of everything necessary to feed and lodge a court of several hundred people and overseeing the kitchens which each day prepared up to 600 meals for both dinner and supper – a massive logistical challenge. A further appointment as Lord Chamberlain gave him responsibility for the organisation of the ‘above-stairs’ department – the state apartments – where the ceremony observed by the courtiers and the decoration of the chambers all helped to create the image of Henry VIII as a magnificent king. Paulet’s final Household appointment was as Lord Great Master with overall control of every aspect of life in the royal palaces. By the time he was 66 he had more experience than any other courtier of how the palaces operated and might have been expected to retire to his estate at Basing in Hampshire but his next appointment as Lord High Treasurer set him on a completely new career path. However, if Henry VIII had lived it is unlikely that he would have given Paulet such an exalted position. Paulet’s good fortune rested upon a boy king, the downfall of one powerful courtier and the rise of another.
When Henry VIII died he was succeeded by his son, Edward, VI. During Edward’s reign court politics played a large part in the rise and fall of several courtiers. It really was a time when success and advancement could be dependent upon supporting the right side. Usually appointments and titles were decided by the monarch but during Edward’s reign all that changed as a small group of powerful and ambitious men each sought to advance their own ideals.
Edward VI was nine years old when he came to the throne so England was governed by the sixteen executors whom Henry VIII had named to be his son’s privy council. Paulet was one of these men and for two years he supported Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, as Lord Protector – first among equals among the councillors – but in 1549 he sided with John Dudley, earl of Warwick, in a bid to reduce Somerset’s power, a bid which ultimately led to his overthrow. Warwick took Somerset’s place as leader but realised that he needed to cultivate supporters and during the next four years he and the other leading members of the council rewarded themselves with titles and appointments – rewards from Warwick for past support and inducements for future loyalty. Within two years Paulet was created firstly earl of Wiltshire and then marquis of Winchester and, at the age of 66, appointed Lord High Treasurer – the second highest post in England. However, these rewards were insufficient to guarantee Paulet’s unwavering support – his first loyalty was to the crown – and he soon opposed Warwick, now duke of Northumberland, in his plans to put lady Jane Grey upon the throne. Having taken part in the downfall of Somerset, Paulet now played his part in the downfall of Northumberland but in both instances he stayed loyal to the crown and followed the path he believed was best for England.
Paulet was a privy councillor for 30 years, the only councillor to serve continuously under all four monarchs. Other men may have come and gone but Paulet stayed in favour. It seems extraordinary that both Mary and Elizabeth reappointed him as Lord Treasurer, the latter when he was 74. By then he was notably old by the standards of the time but one important aspect of his presence was the continuity it gave to a government which experienced four monarchs and four changes of religion in just twelve years between 1547 and 1559.
Paulet served the four monarchs as an administrator and politician. There is no indication of any especial friendship between him and the kings and queens although Elizabeth did seem to have a soft spot for him. On one occasion she announced that, of all her councillors, only Paulet was on her side and, after a visit to Basing House, she is reputed to have said that if he were a young man she would marry him before any other man in England. Sadly for Paulet, at the age of 76 he must have seemed truly ancient to the 26-year old queen!
Paulet was still in harness when he died aged 87 in 1572. He was lauded for his great age at a time when the average life expectancy for his contemporaries at court was only 62. As marquis of Winchester he was the senior peer in England. He had been a participant in many of the famous events in Tudor history – the executions of Sir Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the attempt to change the succession with lady Jane Grey and the sinking of the Mary Rose. He played a central role at royal weddings, coronations and funerals and, as a councillor and member of the House of Lords, he influenced major changes to the religion, economy and social fabric of England. He was definitely not a man of the shadows.
How did he survive and live to such a great age? Paulet believed that it was because he tried to treat people gently so as not to alienate men and make enemies. Perhaps if some of the other characters of the time – Wolsey, Cromwell, Somerset and Northumberland – had heeded this advice they too might have survived to live to an esteemed old age.
But there was more to his survival than his ability to handle people. He was skilful at his work and managed to satisfy the demands of four very different monarchs. He was fortunate in choosing the winning side when there were disagreements, particularly during the reign of Edward VI. But Paulet also lived by his motto ‘Love Loyalty’. He was loyal to the crown and always did what he believed was right for England.