Thomas Wilson was an English humanist, diplomat and administrator who rose to become an influential figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth I, culminating in his appointment as one of the queen’s principal secretaries. He was educated in the Protestant environment of mid-century Cambridge, and both his humanist commitments and anti-Catholicism were sharpened by the experience of exile in Padua and torture and imprisonment in Rome. He is the author of a number of works which are significant for their success in disseminating ancient learning in the English vernacular in the fields of logic and rhetoric, including The Arte of Rhetorique, first published in 1554.
Thomas Wilson was an English humanist and administrator who rose to become an influential figure at the court of Queen Elizabeth I through powerful connections established during his education at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. There he became a protagonist of the so-called Cambridge connection of Protestant humanists led by Sir John Cheke. His first positions were as tutor to the children of leading aristocrats, and in 1551 he published a manual on logic, The Rule of Reason, dedicated to King Edward VI (Wilson 1551). This was followed in 1554 by The Arte of Rhetorique (Wilson 1982). During the reign of Queen Mary I, Wilson, like many leading English protestants, went into exile and stayed in the city of Padua in north-east Italy with a circle of English friends. He proceeded from there to Rome, where he was denounced as a heretic, tortured, and imprisoned by the Inquisition. He only escaped when the prison was sacked and burnt down on the death of Pope Paul IV in 1559. Before returning to England, he acquired a doctorate in civil law from the University of Ferrara.
Back in England, Wilson pursued a career as a civil lawyer and member of parliament, but through the support of Sir William Cecil and Sir Robert Dudley, he also, in the 1560s, undertook duties for the privy council, including the examination of political prisoners, Catholics, and suspected traitors.
In the same period and into the 1570s, he acted as a diplomat for the English government in Spain, Portugal, and the Low Countries. This work earned him membership of the privy council from 1577, as well as his appointment as one of the queen’s two principal secretaries. These major offices were assumed during a period when the queen was considering military intervention in the Low Countries against Spain, which Wilson, as an ardent anti-Catholic, earnestly supported.
Wilson’s The Rule of Reason was the first logical treatise written in English and therefore represents an important moment in the vernacular domestication of the Latin liberal arts in England. It was reprinted seven times in the sixteenth century. The Arte of Rhetorique continued this development and is a milestone in the Tudor and protestant humanist endeavor of transmitting ancient learning in the English vernacular, an ambition shared by many of Wilson’s Cambridge contemporaries, and in a field – rhetoric – central to so much of Renaissance culture. Although this was not the first rhetorical manual to be printed in English, it was far more comprehensive than any of its predecessors, synthesizing the practical lessons of the major ancient and Renaissance rhetorical works and updating them with topical, humorous, patriotic, and protestant illustrations of rhetorical parts. It advances a linguistic agenda characteristic of Wilson’s generation of English intellectuals, namely, to promote a pure vernacular English uncontaminated by foreign “inkhorn” terms.
The Arte of Rhetorique ran to eight editions in the sixteenth century, and Gabriel Harvey commented in 1570 that both this work and The Rule of Reason were “the dailie bread of owr common pleaders & discoursers” in the Inns of Court (Stern 1979).
Wilson continued the work of bringing ancient wisdom to a vernacular audience in his English translation of the Athenian rhetorician Demosthenes’s Orations dating to 1570. However, this work also functioned as a scarcely veiled political allegory in support of an interventionist foreign policy against King Philip II of Spain, who is implicitly compared in this work to Demosthenes’ foe, the expansionist King Philip II of Macedon.
Wilson’s impact was significant as a popularizer and disseminator of ancient learning to an English-reading audience, particularly in the areas of logic and rhetoric.
- Demosthenes. 1570. The three Orations. Trans. Thomas Wilson. London: Henrie Denham.Google Scholar
- Wilson, Thomas. 1551. The rule of Reason, conteinyng the Arte of Logique set forth in Englishe. London: R. Grafton.Google Scholar
- Wilson, Thomas. 1982. Arte of rhetorique, ed. Thomas J. Derrick. New York: Garland Publishing.Google Scholar
- Doran, Susan, and Jonathan Woolfson. 2004. Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/29688.
- Lerer, Seth. 2001. An art of the emetic: Thomas Wilson and the rhetoric of parliament. Studies in Philology 98: 158–183.Google Scholar
- Shrank, Cathy. 2004. Writing the nation in reformation England: Literature, humanism and English identities, 1530–1580. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Stern, Viriginia. 1979. Gabriel Harvey: His life, marginalia and library. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar