Sir Peter WENTWORTH, Knight

Born: 1529, Lillingstone, Dayrell, Buchinghamshire, England

Died: 10 Nov 1596, Tower of London, London, England

Buried: AFT 10 Nov 1596, Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London

Father: Nicholas WENTWORTH (Sir Knight)

Mother: Jane JOSSELYN

Married 1: Laetitia LANE (dau. of Sir Ralph Lane and Maud Parr)

Married 2: Elizabeth WALSINGHAM


1. Nicholas WENTWORTH



4. Frances WENTWORTH






The details in this biography come from the History of Parliament, a biographical dictionary of Members of the House of Commons.

Born 1524, first son of Sir Nicholas Wentworth of Lillingstone Lovell, chief porter of Calais, by Jane, dau. of John Josselyn of Hyde Hall, Sawbridgeworth, Herts.; brother of Paul. Educated Lincoln Inn 1542. Married first Lettice, dau. of Sir Ralph Lane of Orlingbury, Northants. by Maud, dau. and coheiress of William, 1st Baron Parr of Horton; and secondly Elizabeth, dau. of William Walsingham of Footscray and Joyce Denny, sister of Sir Francis Walsingham, widow of Geoffrey Gates of Walton or Waltham, Essex; by whom he had four sons and five daughters. Suc. family 1557.

Wentworth's family setting was both impressive and significant. His grandfather was a younger son of the Wentworths of Nettlestead in Suffolk, a daughter of which house was mother of Jane Seymour and of her brother Protector Somerset. Peter's own first marriage allied him with Queen Catherine Parr and William Parr, Marquees of Northampton. His second marriage, to a sister of Sir Francis Walsingham, made him brother-in-law to Sir Walter Mildmay as well as Walsingham, and later linked him with Sir Phillip Sidney and Robert, Earl of Essex and, more distantly, with the Earl of Leicester. Moreover, through Elizabeth Walsingham's previous marriage to Geoffrey Gates a link was established with another puritan family, while her son by that marriage married a step-daughter of the puritan Thomas Wilson, secretary to Queen Elizabeth. There can be little doubt that Peter was reared in a radical religious atmosphere. His sister Clara married a prominent Kentish gentleman, Edward Boys, and in Mary's reign accompanied her husband into exile abroad, while his younger brother Paul was an ardent puritan, who sat in Parliament from 1559 to 1581 and played a notable part as a radical in the proceedings.

The principal seat of Wentworth's father was at Lillingstone Lovell, a few miles north of Buckingham, though then a detached piece of Oxfordshire, which Sir Nicholas had held only for eleven years (by exchange with the king for lands in Northamptonshire). He also held lands in Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Essex and Surrey. The Buckinghamshire lands were left to his son Paul and the Northamptonshire lands to younger sons, while Peter inherited Lillingstone Lovell. Little is known about Peter before he entered Parliament in 1571. He appears on the pardon roll of 1553 as late of Lillingstone Lovell, alias of Epping, in Essex. His name was added to the commission of the peace for Oxfordshire in 1559, but was removed before 1562. Perhaps the need for enthusiastic protestants in the first year of the new reign explains his appearance on the commission; but the isolation of Lillingstone Lovell from the rest of Oxford county hardly warranted locating a justice there, while Wentworth's excessive zeal cannot have appealed to the authorities.

In the light of his own later behaviour in Parliament, and of his younger brother's activities in 1566 (at least), it is curious that Wentworth remained out of the Commons until 1571. In 1593 he told how, 31 years before, he had been stirred to interest himself in politics ‘by God's good motion’, ‘by sundry grave and wise men unknown unto me’, and ‘by lamentable messages’ sent by unknown persons. At any rate he was returned to Parliament in 1571 for Barnstaple, probably through the influence of Arthur Bassett, or the latter's friend and patron, Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford. Wentworth almost certainly owed his return at Tregony in the following year to Bedford.

In his first Parliament Wentworth served on the committee of the bill to confirm the Articles of Religion, and was one of a delegation of six whom Archbishop Parker questioned in April 1571 about their exclusion of the non-doctrinal articles from the bill. Asked why they had omitted these, Wentworth answered, ‘Because ... we ... had no time to examine ... how they agreed with the word of God’. ‘What!’, exclaimed Parker, ‘surely you mistook the matter. You will refer yourselves wholly to us therein’. ‘No, by the faith I bear to God!’, answered Wentworth: ‘we will pass nothing before we understand what it is, for that were but to make you Popes. Make you Popes who list, for we will make you none’. It was a troublesome session, involving the temporary sequestration from the House of the puritan leader, William Strickland, and a stern, official reprimand for another radical, Robert Bell, who had dared to attack the exercise of the royal prerogative. On the eve of the Easter recess, Sir Humphrey Gilbert made a gratuitous attack on Bell's speech, which provoked Wentworth, 20 Apr, after the recess, to make the first of many speeches in defence of the liberties of the House: Gilbert's speech tended to no other end than to inculcate fear into those which should be free. He noted Gilbert's 'dis position to flatter and fawn upon the prince', comparing him to ' the chameleon which can change himself into all colours saving white ; even so ... this reporter can change himself into all fashions but honesty'. He requested care for the credit of the House, and for the maintenance of free speech (the only means of ordinary proceedings), and to preserve the liberties of the House, to reprove liars, inveighing greatly out of the scriptures and otherwise against liars ...

The Parliament of 1572, summoned after the Ridolfi plot, was concerned mainly with the problem of Mary Queen of Scots and with that of her fellow-culprit, the Duke of Norfolk, who stood condemned for treason. On 12 May 1572 Wentworth was placed on the committee which discussed the great cause with a committee of the Lords. He was very active, making several speeches in the House of Commons, calling time and again for the execution of Norfolk and passionately demanding the death of Mary, ‘the most notorious whore in all the world’. Thus on 16 May the Lords should join with the Commons in a motion to the Queen for her execution. In an elaborate figure of speech Mary was likened to Abinadab, the Duke to Abinadab's assistant, and Queen Elizabeth to Achab. On 24 May ‘It remaineth yet to be considered for our petition to the Queen for execution of the Duke’; on 28th the House should ‘forbear to deal in any other matter until this be determined, otherwise ... it will be said unto us justly, “O fool this night shall thy life be taken from thee”’. On 31st he ‘moveth for execution of the Duke, that order may be taken for the petition’. When a soothing message from the Queen prompted two Members to move that a delegation should convey their thanks to her, Wentworth opposed the motion, saying that he could give no thanks and urging the House to refuse to do anything more until the Duke of Norfolk was executed, thus cutting off half Mary's head. In the event the Duke was executed on Monday morning 2nd Jun before the House sat. Wentworth made only two further reported speeches in the session, 9 Jun on aliens, when he said, with insight, ‘that he had rather commit some folly in speech than do injury by silence’, and 11 Jun, on a recurrent complaint of the rank and file in the Commons that ‘the freedom of the House [was] taken away by tale tellers’.

Wentworth was not a man who excelled in the cut and thrust of debate. He was of the premeditative, deliberate type. In the interval between 1572 and the second session of that Parliament in 1576, he ruminated on his experience in two Parliaments, especially on the frustration of Members and the disciplinary methods of the government, incorporating these incidents in a draft speech which he realised would probably land him in prison. On the first day of the new session (8 Feb) he rose to astound and embarrass the House with his indictment, written in his strikingly melodious prose: ‘Mr. Speaker, I find written in a little volume these words ... “Sweet indeed is the name of liberty and the thing itself a value beyond all inestimable treasure”’. The speech is deservedly famous among English parliamentary orations. Wentworth claimed for freedom of speech in Parliament a fundamental, entrenched place in the constitution, immune from control by the Crown: a novel and revolutionary conception, without historical justification:

... in this House which is termed a place of free speech there is nothing so necessary for the preservation of the prince and state as free speech, and without it it is a scorn and mockery to call it a Parliament house, for in truth it is none, but a very school of flattery and dissimulation and so a fit place to serve the Devil and his angels in and not to glorify God and benefit the Commonwealth. Two things did ‘very great hurt’.

One is a rumour that runneth about the House, and this it is: take heed what you do, the Queen's majesty liketh not of such a matter. Whosoever preferreth it, she will be much offended with him. Or, the contrary, her Majesty liketh of such a matter, whosoever speaketh against it she will be much offended with him. The other is sometimes a message is brought into the House either of commanding or inhibiting very injurious unto the freedom of speech and consultation. I would to God, Mr. Speaker, that these two were buried in Hell, I mean rumours and messages ... Reviewing the inroads on this freedom that he had witnessed in 1571 and 1572, he was led into explicit criticism of the Queen:

Certain it is, Mr. Speaker that none is without fault, no, not our noble Queen ... Her Majesty hath committed great faults, yea dangerous faults to herself and the state ... It is a dangerous thing in a prince unkindly to entreat and abuse his or her nobility and people as her Majesty did the last Parliament, and it is a dangerous thing in a prince to oppose or bend herself against her nobility and people ... and how could any prince more unkindly entreat, abuse and oppose herself against her nobility and people than her Majesty did the last Parliament? Did she not call it of purpose to prevent traitorous perils to her person and for no other cause? Did not her Majesty send unto us two bills, willing us to make a choice of that we liked best for her safety and thereof to make a law, promising her Majesty's royal consent thereto? And did we not first choose the one and her Majesty refused it, yielding no reason, nay, yielding great reasons why she ought to have yielded to it? Yet did not we nevertheless receive the other and agreeing to make a law thereof did not her Majesty in the end refuse all our travails? And did not we her Majesty's faithful nobility and subjects plainly and openly decipher ourselves unto her Majesty and our hateful enemy? And hath not her Majesty left us all to her open revenge? Is this a just recompense in our Christian Queen for our faithful dealings? The heathen do requite good for good; then how much more is it dutiful in a Christian prince? And will not this her Majesty's handling, think you, Mr. Speaker, make cold dealing in many of her Majesty's subjects toward her? Again I fear it will. And hath it not caused many already, think you, Mr. Speaker, to seek a salve for the head that they have broken? I fear it hath. And many more will do the like if it be not prevented in time. And hath it not marvellously rejoiced and encouraged the hollow hearts of her Majesty's hateful enemies and traitorous subjects? No doubt but it hath.

... It is a great and special part of our duty and office Mr. Speaker to maintain the freedom of consultation and speech for by this are good laws that do set forth God's glory and are for the preservation of the prince and state made. St. Paul in the same place sayeth, hate that which is evil and cleave unto that which is good; then with St. Paul I do advise you all here present, yea, and heartily and earnestly I desire you from the bottom of your hearts to hate all messengers, tale carriers, or any other thing whatsoever it be that any manner of way infringe the liberties of this honourable council. Yea, hate it or them, I say, as venomous and poison unto our commonwealth, for they are venomous beasts that do use it. Therefore I say again and again, hate that that is evil and cleave to that that is good. And this, loving and faithful hearted, I do wish to be conceived in fear of God, and of love to our prince and state, for we are incorporated into this place to serve God and all England and not to be timeservers and humour feeders.

Wentworth concluded:

I have holden you long with my rude speech, the which since it tendeth wholly with pure consciences to seek the advancement of God's glory, our honourable sovereign's safety and to the sure defence of this noble isle of England, and all by maintaining the liberties of this honourable council, the fountain from whence all these do spring, my humble and hearty suit unto you all is to accept my goodwill and that this that I have here spoken of conscience and great zeal unto my prince and state may not be buried in the pit of oblivion and so no good come thereof...

Wentworth's suit was granted. His speech was widely reported in England and abroad, and copies have survived for posterity. It is the first full statement of the doctrine of freedom of speech in the House. The immediate consequences were that Wentworth was committed to the serjeant's custody and that afternoon examined by a committee of the House. We possess Wentworth's account of the examination. As one of the committee said: ‘Mr. Wentworth will never acknowledge himself to make a fault, nor say that he is sorry for anything that he doth speak’. The following day the committee reported back to the House and Wentworth was sent to the Tower. There he remained for just over a month, until, two days before the end of the session, the Queen intervened and returned him to the House, accompanying her action with a gracious and magnanimous message. The episode ended ‘to the great contentment of all’.

In 1579 Wentworth was in trouble with the Privy Council on the complaint of his Bishop about the great resort of people from Northampton and elsewhere to his house at Lillingstone Lovell, where the sacrament was administered in puritan fashion. Then, in Jan 1581, came the third and last session of the 1572 Parliament. It started with a contretemps, when Paul Wentworth moved and carried a motion for a public fast, in clear breach of the Queen's ecclesiastical rights. His name recalled to Elizabeth Peter's rash action in 1576, and in her withering rebuke to the House she imputed their offence partly to her lenity towards a brother of that man which now made this motion. Thereafter, the session proceeded on a subdued note, and all we hear of Peter Wentworth is his appointment to two committees, 25 Jan and 17 Mar.

Though the radical puritans with whom Wentworth associated had already established their ‘classical’ movement and begun their organized campaign against Archbishop Whitgift before the next Parliament met in Nov 1584, Wentworth did not sit in that Parliament. Nor, indeed, did his friend, neighbour and fellow-enthusiast, Anthony Cope of Hanwell near Banbury. It is idle to speculate why. Both returned to Westminster in 1586, Wentworth sitting for Northampton, a centre of puritan activity where he was well known and may have owned a house. Called as a result of the Babington plot, the autumn meetings of this Parliament were given over to the clamour for executing Mary Queen of Scots. Congenial as this was to Wentworth, we have no record of him speaking on this subject. Perhaps he reserved himself for the part allotted him in the organized campaign of the puritan classical movement. Their opportunity came in Feb 1587, after Mary had been executed. Their leaders had determined to presbyterianize the Anglican church by means of a parliamentary bill, and had held meetings in London with Anthony Cope, Wentworth and other Members to plan their campaign. The opening move was made on 27 Feb when Cope introduced his famous and revolutionary ‘bill and book’. The Queen immediately suppressed the bill. Anticipating such action, the zealots had evidently cast Wentworth for the principal role in their next move the defence of freedom of speech.

On 1 Mar Wentworth rose to speak, demanding that the Speaker should put a number of questions about the liberties of Parliament to the House. If conceded, they would have stripped the Crown of its prescriptive right of control and discipline and would have left it defenceless except for the royal veto or support in the House of Lords. By implication, if not intent, they were subversive of the constitution. It had been arranged that another Member should support Wentworth, but he ‘brake his faith in forsaking the matter’ and the Speaker declined to put the questions to the House before he had read them. An opportune summons from the Queen saved the situation, and Cope, Wentworth and three other Members were put in the Tower. Attempts by more moderate puritans to secure their release failed, and, so far as we know, they remained in custody until after the end of the session. This was Wentworth's second experience of the Tower.

Wentworth was elected again for Northampton in the next Parliament of 1589. Patriotic feeling after the defeat of the Armada, the revulsion felt by moderate people against the extravagances of the Marprelate tracts, and the explicit injunction of the Lord Chancellor, Hatton, not to meddle with matters of religion, constituted a strong impediment to all radicals. There was an attempt to secure modification of the Whitgiftian regime and it was evidently organized; but there is no evidence that Wentworth took part in it. His mind was by now set on another subject the succession to the throne. In 1587, after the death of Mary Stuart, he had drafted 'A Pithie Exhortation to her Majestie' for establishing her successor to the crowne, a tract published by a friend after his death. Its language was forthright, his admonitions to the Queen at times needlessly and shockingly frank. In a letter to Burghley he later defended the sharpness of his language by quoting ‘the spirit of God in Solomon’: ‘The wounds of a lover are faithful, and the kisses of an enemy are deceitful’.

Wentworth intended to present his tract in the Parliament of 1589 and launch a campaign for settling the succession; but he evidently found the time unpropitious. He tried to persuade Burghley to approach the Queen on the subject, and again in 1590 came to London to renew this quixotic plan. Next year he turned to the Earl of Essex, hoping that he would present his tract to the Queen. But copies of the tract were leaked to the Privy Council, and in Aug 1591 they committed him close prisoner, this time to the Gatehouse. He was incorrigible. Instead of seeking pardon, he tried once more to get Burghley to approach the Queen, convinced that this statesman believed as he did: which may, indeed, have been true. Wentworth was released from the Gatehouse in Nov, confined for a time in a private house, and finally set at liberty in Feb 1592.

Rightly or wrongly, Wentworth thought that he had the sympathy of several Councillors and even seems to have convinced himself that the Queen had seen his tract and approved of it. In the late summer of 1592 he was talking to friends along these lines, and when a new Parliament was summoned he made his plans on the lines learnt from the puritan classical movement. He was returned again for Northampton and came to Westminster with a bill, speeches and other papers that might be needed. A small group of seven Members, mostly young and inexperienced, met at chambers in Lincoln's Inn on 21 Feb 1593 to listen to his plans. Some of the group were scared by his intemperate language, and when next morning, at their urging, he went to consult James Morice, an older and wiser Member, he could evoke nothing but scorn. The group was to have met again that afternoon, but news of Wentworth's intentions had reached the Privy Coucil, and authority descended with heavy hand. The examinations of these men by the Council show Wentworth unrepentant and insisting on his rights as a Member of Parliament.

Wentworth was imprisoned in the Tower, where he remained till his death four-and-a-half years later. It is clear from several surviving petitions and letters that he could have secured his freedom within a reasonable time if he had been prepared to acknowledge his fault and give pledge of future silence, without which he remained a potential focus of unrest and disturber of the Queen's delicately poised policy for the peaceful transition of the crown at her death. Instead of repentance, in every petition he reiterated the argument of his Pithie Exhortation: to do otherwise, he declared, would be to ‘give her Highness a most detestable Judas-kiss’. In 1594, when Doleman's Conference about the Next Succession to the Crown of England was published a disturbing Catholic tract he was reckless enough, at the instance of some friends, to write an answer, entitled A Discourse containing the Author's opinion of the true and lawful successor to her Majesty. It was published after his death along with his Pithie Exhortation and, fortunately for Wentworth, seems to have been kept secret from the authorities. Wentworth pronounced in favour of James VI's title to the succession a judgment he would have strongly opposed earlier, thus, incidentally, vindicating the Queen in her policy of letting time simplify the problem. Doleman had been led to exalt the rights of Parliament. Thus, ironically enough, Wentworth found himself expounding the limitations of those rights.

To keep Wentworth where he could do no harm to the state was the main concern of Queen and Council. As he put it himself: ‘The causes of my long imprisonment ... a truth plainly delivered’. His second wife was permitted to live with him in the Tower, and there she died, Jul 1596, ‘my chiefest comfort in this life, even the best wife that ever poor gentleman enjoyed’. There was a proposal to release him on the pledges of sureties in Jul 1597, when he asked not to be sent home to Lillingstone Lovell, where memories of his wife would be too much for him. On 10 Nov that year he died. An inquisition post mortem taken at Oxford in 1599 was concerned with his manor of Lillingstone Lovell and houses, woods, etc. in the parish and in Lillingstone Dayrell. Wentworth's children married into puritan families, and one of his sons, Thomas, emulated his father in Parliament in James I's reign.

Sir John Harrington described Wentworth as a man ‘of a whet and vehement spirit’. The Queen thought he had a good opinion of his own wit. Though in retrospect he must be acclaimed as one of the immortal pioneering spirits in the history of Parliament, whose extravagant notions about the privileges and powers of Parliament became accepted doctrine with the parliamentary opposition of the next generation, he was an embarrassment to his own generation of Members and would not have been accorded their honorific title of ‘great parliament man’. In loyalty, respect and love for his Queen and devotion to his country, he was excelled by none.

Several letters from Wentworth to Sir Robert Cecil written during his last imprisonment are at Hatfield with other documents relating to him (Cal. Hatfield MSS. vi. 284, 288, 289, vii. 286, 303, 304, 324). The heir to the manor of Lillingstone Lovell was Wentworth's eldest son, Nicholas, who married Susanna, daughter and heiress of Roger Wigston, the head of a great puritan family; and from their mar riage there sprang Sir Peter Wentworth, Lady Vane, and Sybyl, who married Fisher Dilke, second son of Sir Thomas Dilke of Maxstoke Castle. Of Peter's younger children, Walter was a member of Parliament; and Paul was of Castle Bythorpe, married Mary Hampden, and is sometimes said to have been author of Wentworth's ' Orizons'. Of the daughters, Frances mar ried Walter Strickland.

[State Papers, Dom. Elizabeth ; Lord Salisbury's MSS. at Hatfield; D'Ewes's Journals; Official Return of Members of Parliament; Acts of the Privy Council, ed. Dasent; Hallam's Constitutional History of England; Froude's Hist, of England; Button's Three Branches of the Wentworth Family] 


Neale, ‘Peter Wentworth’

Neale, Parlts.

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