Open main menu

Sir Thomas Wilson

Sir[1] Thomas Wilson (1524–1581) was an English diplomat and judge who served as a privy councillor and secretary of state (1577–81) to Queen Elizabeth I. He is now remembered principally for his Logique (1551) and The Arte of Rhetorique (1553),[2] which have been called "the first complete works on logic and rhetoric in English".[3]

He also wrote A Discourse upon Usury by way of Dialogue and Orations (1572), and he was the first to publish a translation of Demosthenes into English.[4]



He was the son of Thomas Wilson, a farmer, of Strubby, Lincolnshire.[5] He was educated at Eton College under Nicholas Udall,[6] and at King's College, Cambridge,[7] where he joined the school of Hellenists to which John Cheke, Thomas Smith, Walter Haddon and others belonged. He earned a BA in 1546, and an M.A. in 1549.

Wilson was an intellectual companion to the sons of John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, especially with John, Ambrose, and Robert Dudley.[4] When the Dudley family fell from power in 1553, he fled to the Continent. He was with Sir John Cheke in Padua in 1555–1557, and afterwards at Rome, whither in 1558 Queen Mary wrote, ordering him to return to England to stand his trial as a heretic. He refused to come home, but was arrested by the Roman Inquisition and tortured. He escaped, and fled to Ferrara, but in 1560 he was once more in London.

Wilson became Master of Requests and Master of St Katherine's Hospital in the Tower in 1561 and entered parliament in January 1563 as MP for Mitchell, Cornwall.[8] In 1571 and 1572 he was elected MP for London.

From 1574 to 1577, Wilson, who had now become a prominent person in the diplomatic world, was principally engaged on embassies to the Low Countries, and on his return to England he was made a privy councillor and sworn secretary of state; Francis Walsingham was his colleague.[4] In 1580, despite his being not in holy orders, Queen Elizabeth appointed Wilson Dean of Durham. He died at St Katherine's Hospital on 16 June 1581, and was buried next day, "without charge or pomp", at his express wish.


In 1551 Wilson produced, with Walter Haddon, a Latin life of Henry Brandon, 2nd Duke of Suffolk and his brother Charles Brandon, 3rd Duke of Suffolk. His earliest work of importance was The Rule of Reason, conteinynge the Arte of Logique set forth in Englishe (1551), which was frequently reprinted. It has been considered a derivative work, in English, of the Dialectica of John Seton which was circulated as a Latin manuscript before its publication.[9][10]

It has been maintained that the book on which Wilson's fame mainly rests, The Arte of Rhetorique, was printed about the same time, but this is probably an error: the first edition extant is dated January 1553. It is the earliest systematic work of rhetoric and literary criticism existing in the English language.[4]

The Arte of Rhetorique gives Wilson a place among the earliest exponents of English style. He was opposed to pedantry of phrase, and above all to a revival of uncouth medieval forms of speech, and encouraged a simpler manner of prose writing than was generally appreciated in the middle of the 16th century. He was also opposed to "inkhorn terms" – borrowings and coinages from Greek and Latin – which he found affected.[11]

In 1570 Wilson published a translation, the first attempted in English, of the Olynthiacs and Philippics of Demosthenes, on which he had been engaged since 1556. His Discourse upon Usury, which he dedicated to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, his patron and former pupil, appeared in 1572.[4]


  1. ^ Montague-Smith, P.W. (ed.), Debrett's Peerage, Baronetage, Knightage and Companionage, Kelly's Directories Ltd, Kingston-upon-Thames, 1968, p.865
  2. ^ The Arte of Rhetorique on
  3. ^ James Franklin: The Science of Conjecture (2001) p. 128.
  4. ^ a b c d e Frederick Chamberlin: Elizabeth and Leycester Dodd, Mead & Co. 1939 p. 56
  5. ^ "Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/29688.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  6. ^ N. Rhodes, 'Literary Translation', in N. Rhodes, G. Kendal & L. Wilson, English Renaissance Translation Theory, MHRA Tudor and Stuart Translations Vol. 9 (Modern Humanities Research Association, London 2013) at p. 320 ff.
  7. ^ "Wilson, Thomas (WL541T)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  8. ^ "WILSON, Thomas (1523–81), of Washingborough, Lincs. and Edmonton, Mdx". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 16 June 2013.
  9. ^ Marco Sgarbi (11 October 2012). The Aristotelian Tradition and the Rise of British Empiricism: Logic and Epistemology in the British Isles (1570–1689). Springer. p. 21. ISBN 978-94-007-4951-1.
  10. ^ Lee, Sidney, ed. (1897). "Seton, John (1498?-1567)" . Dictionary of National Biography. 51. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  11. ^ The Arte of Rhetorique, 1560: "Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that wee neuer affect any straunge ynkehorne termes, but to speake as is commonly receiued:" (modernized spelling: "Among all other lessons this should first be learned, that we never affect any strange inkhorn terms, but to speak as is commonly received:"), Original texts from the inkhorn debate

  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Wilson, Thomas (statesman)". Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

External linksEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Susan Doran and Jonathan Woolfson, "Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581)," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, January 2008.
  • Thomas O. Sloane, On the Contrary: The Protocol of Traditional Rhetoric, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1997
  • Tita French Baumlin, "Thomas Wilson," The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 236: British Rhetoricians and Logicians, 1500–1660, First Series, Detroit: Gale, 2001, pp. 282–306.
  • Peter E. Medine, Thomas Wilson, Boston: Twayne, 1986
  • Peter E. Medine, ed., The Art of rhetoric (1560), by Thomas Wilson, University Park: Penn State University, 1994
  • Ryan J. Stark, "Thomas Wilson's Apocalyptic Rhetoric." Studies in Philology 106 (2009): 341–53.
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Francis Walsingham
Secretary of State
With: Sir Francis Walsingham
Succeeded by
Sir Francis Walsingham