Nicholas Wotton was the fourth child and second son of Sir Robert Wotton and Anne Belknap Wotton, was born in Boughton Malherbe in about 1497.
Wotton's father was a local administrator and a full-time crown official in Calais. His sister Margaret, married to Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset. Nicholas is believed to have studied at Oxford University where he probably acquired a doctorate in both canon and civil law.
Archbishop William Warham appointed Wotton to the vicarage of Sutton Valence. He spent time in Perugia and Rome where he witnessed the imperial sack of the city in 1527. He returned to England in 1528 and was appointed official principal to Cuthbert Tunstall, the bishop of London. (1)
During this period he met Henry VIII and in June 1530 he was employed towin favourable verdicts from French universities on the king's right to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Wotton also acted as a proctor for Anne Boleyn in the divorce proceedings brought by the king. Alison Weir points out that it was Wotton who heard Archbishop Thomas Cranmer "pronounce that her union with the King was invalid and therefore null and void, and her daughter (Mary) a bastard." (2)
According to Owen Chadwick, the author of The Reformation (1964) Wotton "refused bishoprics with passion" but was willing to become one of Henry VIII's senior diplomats. (3) Thomas Cromwell wanted to form an alliance with the Protestants in Saxony. In March 1539 Wotton was one of a three-man delegation sent to Cleves, to negotiate a marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves and to establish a defensive league with the German princes. (4)
As David Loades has pointed out: "Cleves was a significant complex of territories, strategically well placed on the lower Rhine. In the early fifteenth century it had absorbed the neighbouring country of Mark, and in 1521 the marriage of Duke John III had amalgamated Cleves-Mark with Julich-Berg to create a state with considerable resources... Thomas Cromwell was the main promoter of the scheme, and with his eye firmly on England's international position, its attractions became greater with every month that passed." (5)
After initial talks Wotton reported to Thomas Cromwell that "she (Anne of Cleves) occupieth her time most with the needle... She can read and write her own language but of French, Latin or other language she hath none... she cannot sing, nor play any instrument, for they take it here in Germany for a rebuke and an occasion of lightness that great ladies should be learned or have any knowledge of music." (6)
Cromwell was desperate for the marriage to take place but was aware that Wotton's reported revealed some serious problems. The couple did not share a common language. Henry VIII could speak in English, French and Latin but not in German. Wotton also pointed out that she "had none of the social skills so prized at the English court: she could not play a musical instrument or sing - she came from a culture that looked down on the lavish celebrations and light-heartedness that were an integral part of King Henry's court". (7)
Wotton was frustrated by the stalling tactics of William. Eventually he signed a treaty in which the Duke granted Anne a dowry of 100,000 gold florins. (8) However, Henry refused to marry Anne until he had seen a picture of her. Hans Holbein arrived in April and requested permission to paint Anne's portrait. The 23-year-old William, held Puritan views and had strong ideas about feminine modesty and insisted that his sister covered up her face and body in the company of men. He refused to allow her to be painted by Holbein. After a couple of days he said he was willing to have his sister painted but only by his own court painter, Lucas Cranach. (9)
Henry was unwilling to accept this plan as he did not trust Cranach to produce an accurate portrait. Further negotiations took place and Henry suggested he would be willing to marry Anne without a dowry if her portrait, painted by Holbein pleased him. Duke William was short of money and agreed that Holbein should paint her picture. He painted her portrait on parchment, to make it easier to transport in back to England. Nicholas Wotton, Henry's envoy watched the portrait being painted and claimed that it was an accurate representation. (10)
Henry VIII was angry with Thomas Cromwell for arranging the marriage with Anne of Cleves. The conservatives, led by Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, saw this as an opportunity to remove him from power. Gardiner considered Cromwell a heretic for introducing the Bible in the native tongue. He also opposed the way Cromwell had attacked the monasteries and the religious shrines. Gardiner pointed out to the King that it was Cromwell who had allowed radical preachers such as Robert Barnes to return to England.
Barnes was clearly in danger but on 28th February, 1540, he preached a sermon attacking Bishop Gardiner. On 5th March, Barnes was summoned to appear before Henry VIII and Gardiner. Barnes begged forgiveness but continued to preach against the religious conservatives. On 3rd April, he was arrested along with two of his followers, William Jerome and Thomas Garrard, and taken to the Tower of London. (11)
Thomas Cromwell retaliated by arresting Nicholas Wotton and Richard Sampson, Bishop of Chichester, staunch conservatives in religious matters. He then began negotiating the release of Barnes. However, this was unsuccessful and it was now clear that Cromwell was in serious danger. (12) The French ambassador reported on 10th April, 1540, that Cromwell was "tottering" and began speculating about who would succeed to his offices. Although he he resigned the duties of the secretaryship to his protégés Ralph Sadler and Thomas Wriothesley he did not lose his power and on 18th April the King granted him the earldom of Essex.
Quarrels in the Privy Council continued and Charles de Marillac reported to François I on 1st June, 1540, that "things are brought to such a pass that either Cromwell's party or that of the Bishop of Winchester must succumb". On 10th June, Cromwell arrived slightly late for a meeting of the Privy Council. Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, shouted out, "Cromwell! Do not sit there! That is no place for you! Traitors do not sit among gentlemen." The captain of the guard came forward and arrested him. Cromwell was charged with treason and heresy. Norfolk went over and ripped the chains of authority from his neck, "relishing the opportunity to restore this low-born man to his former status". Cromwell was led out through a side door which opened down onto the river and taken by boat the short journey from Westminster to the Tower of London. (13)
Nicholas Wotton was appointed as dean of the newly erected secular chapter of Canterbury Cathedral in April 1541 (with a salary of £300 a year), and reappointed archdeacon of Gloucester, when it became a bishopric in 1541. The following year he was involved in a plot against Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. In June 1544 he was joined by William Paget in negotiations leading to the joint Anglo-imperial invasion of France that summer. Wotton was appointed resident ambassador to France, a post he took up in July 1546 and retained uninterruptedly for three years. (14)
Henry VIII died on 28th January, 1547. Edward was only nine years old and was too young to rule. In his will, Henry had nominated a Council of Regency, made up of 16 nobles and churchman to assist Edward VI in governing his new realm. It was not long before his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, emerged as the leading figure in the government and was given the title Lord Protector. (15)
The Duke of Somerset was a Protestant and he soon began to make changes to the Church of England. This included the introduction of an English Prayer Book and the decision to allow members of the clergy to get married. Attempts were made to destroy those aspects of religion that were associated with the Catholic Church, for example, the removal of stained-glass windows in churches and the destruction of religious wall-paintings. Somerset made sure that Edward VI was educated as a Protestant, as he hoped that when he was old enough to rule he would continue the policy of supporting the Protestant religion.
Somerset's programme of religious reformation was accompanied by bold measures of political, social, and agrarian reform. Legislation in 1547 abolished all the treasons and felonies created under Henry VIII and did away with existing legislation against heresy. Two witnesses were required for proof of treason instead of only one. Although the measure received support in the House of Commons, its passage contributed to Somerset's reputation for what later historians perceived as his liberalism. (16)
Edward Seymour was blamed by the nobility and gentry for the social unrest. They believed his statements about political reform had encouraged rebellion. His reluctance to employ force and refusal to assume military leadership merely made matters worse. Seymour's critics also disliked his popularity with the common people and considered him to be a potential revolutionary. His main opponents, including Nicholas Wotton, John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick, Henry Wriothesley, 2nd Earl of Southampton, Henry Howard, 1st Earl of Northampton, and Ralph Sadler met in London to demand his removal as Lord Protector. (17)
Archbishop Thomas Cranmer supported the Duke of Somerset but few others took his side. Seymour no longer had the support of the aristocracy and had no choice but to give up his post. On 14th January 1550 his deposition as lord protector was confirmed by act of parliament, and he was also deprived of all his other positions, of his annuities, and of lands to the value of £2,000 a year. He was sent to the Tower of London where he remained until the following February, when he was released by the Earl of Warwick who was now the most powerful figure in the government. Roger Lockyer suggests that this "gesture of conciliation on Warwick's part served its turn by giving him time to gain the young King's confidence and to establish himself more firmly in power". (18) This upset the nobility and in October 1551, Warwick was forced to arrest the Duke of Somerset.
Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. He skillfully conducted his own defence and was acquitted of treason but found guilty of felony under the terms of a recent statute against bringing together men for a riot and sentenced to death. (19) "Historians sympathetic to Somerset argue that the indictment was largely fictitious, that the trial was packed with his enemies, and that Northumberland's subtle intrigue was responsible for his conviction. Other historians, however, have noted that Northumberland agreed that the charge of treason should be dropped and that the evidence suggests that Somerset was engaged in a conspiracy against his enemies." (20) Although the king had supported Somerset's religious policies with enthusiasm he did nothing to save him from his fate. (21)
As he was such a popular figure the authorities feared that Somerset's execution would cause disorder. On the morning of 22nd January, 1552, people living in London were ordered to remain in their houses. For added protection, over a 1,000 soldiers were on the streets of the city. Despite these measures large crowds gathered at Tower Hill. (22) He showed no sign of fear and he told those assembled that he died in the knowledge that he was "glad of the furtherance and helping forward of the commonwealth of this realm". (23) He also urged those present to follow the reformed religion that he had promoted. Edward VI wrote in his journal: "The Duke of Somerset had his head cut off upon Tower Hill between eight and nine in the morning." (24)
On the death of Edward, his step-sister, Mary Tudor became queen. Mary was the first woman to rule England in her own right. She appointed Bishop Stephen Gardiner as her Lord Chancellor. He had been imprisoned during the reign of Edward VI. Over the next two years Gardiner attempted to restore Catholicism in England. In the first Parliament held after Mary gained power most of the religious legislation of Edward's reign was repealed. (25)
Wotton was appointed resident ambassador in France by Queen Mary in August 1553. The following year his position was made very difficult by the involvement of a number of his own relatives in the rebellion led by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Wotton returned in June 1557 and it seems he took no active role in religious affairs. It has been claimed by Michael Zell that this was because he was seen as too tolerant towards heretics. (26)
He died on 26th January 1567 and was buried in Canterbury Cathedral.
After a decade as an ecclesiastical lawyer, Wotton began his career as a diplomat properly in 1539. Four years after Henry VIII's renunciation of papal supremacy England was politically isolated in Europe, and faced the combined onslaught of France and the emperor. Thomas Cromwell's response was to seek alliances with the German protestant states. In March 1539 Wotton was one of a three-man delegation sent to Cleves, to negotiate a marriage between Henry VIII and one of the duke's sisters, and to establish a defensive league with the German princes. Following the arrival in London of a Cleves delegation to negotiate the marriage treaty Wotton was left as resident ambassador in Cleves. That summer Wotton's services were rewarded with another ecclesiastical sinecure, the archdeaconry of Gloucester, to which he was admitted in 1540. In the wake of the marriage treaty with Cleves (October 1539), the king offered Wotton a bishopric. He declined, and in November privately wrote to his friend Anthony Bellasis, ‘if it be possible yet, assay as far as you may to convey this bishopric from me’ (LP Henry VIII, 14/2, 501). Wotton was one of the English party that accompanied Anne of Cleves to England in December 1539, and he returned to Cleves as resident in 1540, where he attempted, unsuccessfully, to discourage the duke from restoring good relations with the emperor and with France, and had to inform the duke of the annulment of the king's marriage to Anne of Cleves. He was not recalled until June 1541.
She (Anne of Cleves) occupieth her time most with the needle... She can read and write her own language but of French, Latin or other language she hath none... she cannot sing, nor play any instrument, for they take it here in Germany for a rebuke and an occasion of lightness that great ladies should be learned or have any knowledge of music.
In March, Nicholas Wotton and Richard Beard began the negotiations at Cleves but were frustrated by the stalling tactics of Wilhelm, who was still attempting to conciliate the emperor. By late summer the ambassadors had achieved success, and Hans Holbein the younger was commissioned to paint a portrait of Anne, which Wotton swore was a faithful representation of her. Many contemporaries, including Wotton, praised her beauty. The first writer to ridicule her as a ‘Flanders mare’ and to insist that Holbein had flattered her was Bishop Gilbert Burnet, writing late in the seventeenth century.