I t is a question many of us must have asked ourselves when watching Sunday night costume dramas on television, or visiting evocative historic palaces: could I have survived life at the Tudor court? Part of the public fascination with the Tudors is undoubtedly the fact that it was a time when politics was a game played for the highest possible stakes. Sotheby's is fortunate to offer for sale six letters by three Tudor monarchs – Edward VI, Mary I (and her husband Philip of Spain), and Elizabeth I – written to one of the great survivors of the Tudor period, in July's English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations sale.
William Paget (1505-63) was a Londoner from a family of small fortune, but his formidable abilities as an administrator and diplomat led to a rapid rise through the royal bureaucracy not unlike that of his near-contemporary Thomas Cromwell. By the 1540s he was one of the men closest to the ailing, short-tempered and often malevolent King Henry VIII: physical proximity is a key to power in a personal monarchy and Paget became the key conduit to an increasingly reclusive monarch.
Such positions bring wealth and power, and Paget soon accumulated vast estates from the recently-dissolved monasteries, but they also bring enemies. When Henry was on his deathbed, Paget struck a deal with Edward Seymour, the young Prince of Wales’s uncle, that would preserve his position. Thus, when the Prince became Edward VI, Seymour duly became Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector, with Paget as his principal advisor. The first lot in the sale is a letter from the early days of Edward VI’s regime, signed by Somerset and with a woodcut signature of the King.
Two years later Somerset’s regime crumbled, and in October 1549 it fell to Paget to arrest the Protector, but this move against his former master was not enough for him to earn the trust of the new regime. Lot 2 in the sale is a letter to Paget signed by the King in June of 1551, but by the end of that year he was in the Tower and stripped of office. Somehow, however, Paget survived, and when fortune swung again with the death of Edward VI he was soon back in office, although the early period of Mary’s reign was deeply insecure - lot 3 in the sale is a letter warning about Wyatt’s Rebellion in January 1554.
It is safe to say that Paget was not surrounded by friends at the court of Mary I. The Lord Chancellor was Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester. Gardiner had spotted Paget’s talent as an undergraduate and become his first major patron in the 1520s. But when Paget had aligned himself with Somerset in 1547, he helped to bring about the political downfall of Gardiner (a committed Catholic), and in 1551 Paget had even testified at his former patron’s trial. Now the two men sat across the Council Table once again.
Paget was key to the successful negotiations for Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain – lot 4 announces Philip’s imminent arrival in England, and lot 5 is a rare letter signed by both Philip and Mary. Paget was an important diplomatic presence on the international stage throughout Mary’s reign, whilst domestically he attempted to moderate the Queen’s more radical (and bloodthirsty) Catholic policies.
In November 1558, Queen Mary died and the English settlement was reconfigured once again. The new Queen, Elizabeth I, was finally to bring stability to the kingdom. Paget, who was loyal to the crown no-matter who wore it, would have made a good servant to Elizabeth but by the late-1550s he was chronically unwell – lot 6 is a letter by Elizabeth excusing him from attending Parliament – and was forced to refuse all offers of employment. Unlike so many of his peers, he died a natural death, at his Middlesex home at the age of 57.