Sir William Pickering (c.1517 – 1575): ‘The finest gentleman of his age’, the bookies’ favourite to marry Queen Elizabeth I in 1559

Original sources are addictive. What’s more exciting than hearing the past in the voices of the people of the time? Like listening to the best radio play in the world. Last night I was reading Venetian State Papers on British History Online.

Venice was the clearing house for intelligence at this date. Venetian diplomats had a reputation for being the ablest and best-informed in Europe. As these dispatches show, they were their masters’ eyes and ears at the Courts of Europe, where in the first months 1559 one of the great questions was: Who will Queen Elizabeth of England marry?

Queen Mary of England (1516 – 1558) had died in November the previous year. She was succeeded by her sister Queen Elizabeth I (1533 – 1603). Elizabeth had to have a husband everyone realised. So who? The ambassadors review the likely candidates, and try to plumb the Queen’s intentions. Venetian diplomats were seldom wrong, and they can’t be blamed for not recognising that Queen never intended to marry. Elizabeth played the game better than anyone.

King Philip II of Spain (1527 – 1598) falls at the first hurdle, and may never have taken the idea seriously. He had been married to Queen Mary, and until Mary’s death had officially been England’s King.

Giovanni Michiel, Venetian Ambassador to King Henri II of France, writing to the Doge and Senate of Venice, January 2nd 1559.

With regard to her marriage, it was reported in England that she would marry an Englishman, though no one is named in particular; or were she to choose a foreigner , as seemed to be her inclination, that at least he would not be a potentate of another state, nor have any greater interest than that of England, nor any occasion to depart thence and leave her, but remain there permanently. His Majesty added that the Emperor’s second son, the Archduke Ferdinand, was talked of; and that with regard to King Philip,—besides his being unpopular in the island, most especially with the new ministry—his marriage with Queen Elizabeth was spoken of very coldly in Flanders, at the court of the Catholic King [the King of France]; and all persons coming from Flanders say that there Queen Elizabeth is openly and freely reproached and blamed, rather than in any way praised or esteemed; which was an evident sign (his Majesty said) that King Philip had no hope of getting her, as otherwise his own people would not dare to speak ill of her as they do.

Henry FitzAlan 12th Earl of Arundel KG (1512 – 1580) is a recurring possibility. He was Elizabeth’s enemy in politics and religion, and within a decade he would be conspiring against her, but he was too powerful not to humour at this date.

Michiel Surian and Paulo Tiepolo, Venetian Ambassadors with King Philip II of Spain, writing to the Doge and Senate, January 8th 1559

…the Queen shows herself very greatly inclined to humour the people in everything, and to keep on good terms with them; so … for their gratification announces her intention of marrying the Earl of Arundel, who is a native Englishman.

Lord Robert Dudley later Earl of Leicester KG (1532/3 – 1588), the strongest favourite later in the reign, jousts for love; the result is prophetic

Il Schifanoy, Venetian diplomat serving as the Duke of Mantua’s Ambassador to Queen Elizabeth, writing to the Castellan of Mantua, January 23rd 1559: On Monday, the 16th [the day after the Queen’s Coronation], these English lords had prepared a joust, but it was postponed until the morrow, her Majesty feeling rather tired. I was not present. They could not finish it on the first day, the challengers, viz., the Duke of Norfolk, Sir George Howard, and Lord Robert Dudley, having as many hits as the adventurers. The judges therefore could not award the prize, which, as they jousted for love, was a diamond.

Il Schifanoya to Ottaviano Vivaldino, Mantuan Ambassador to King Philip II at Brussels, January 23rd 1599: We shall also hear something more certain [in Parliament] about the marriage than has been whispered hitherto at the Court. Some persons declare that she will take the Earl of Arundel, he being the chief peer of this realm, notwithstanding his being old in comparison with the Queen. This report is founded on the constant and daily favours he receives in public and private from her Majesty.

Other persons assert that she will take a very handsome youth, 18 or 20 years of age, robust, &c., judging from passion, and because at dances and other public places she prefers him more than any one else.

A third opinion is, that she will marry an individual who till now has been in France on account of his religion, though he has not yet made his appearance, it being known how much she loved and loves him. He is a very handsome gentleman, whose name I forget.

Giovanni Michiel, Venetian Ambassador in France, to the Doge and Senate, February 6th 1559: A person sent back from England by Lord Grey made his appearance here lately… the advices thence are few, either about the Queen’s marriage, or other resolves there; and even those who have the means of hearing them through secret channels merely discuss them doubtfully as things uncertain and conjectural, and as a topic of conversation rather than from knowledge.

Il Schifanoya to Ottaviano Vivaldino, Mantuan Ambassador with King Philip at Brussels, February 6th 1559. About [Queen Elizabeth’s] marriage, it is still said by the vulgar that one Master Pickering will be her husband. He is an English Knight, who was sent to Germany, and for the last three months he has been ill at Dunkirk. Should he recover, I hear that he has something good in hand.

This is the first mention by name of the soldier and diplomat Sir William Pickering (1516/7 – 1575), described in John Strype’s Annals of the Reformation (1709) as ‘the finest gentleman of his age, for his worth in learning, arts and warfare.’ Pickering was a former knight marshal to King Henry VIII and MP for Warwick. Under King Edward VI (1537 – 1553) he was Ambassador to France. He was a friend of Sir Thomas Wyatt (c.1512 – 1554) who was executed for rebelling against Queen Mary on her marriage to Philip of Spain. Pickering was accused of trying to raise ships in France to stop Philip’s fleet from arriving in England, and was said to have been deep in discussion with Elizabeth before the rebellion was launched. He stayed abroad until 1555 when he was back in favour with Mary, thanks to his friends at Court. Queen Mary sent him on a diplomatic mission shortly before she died, leaving him to make his way home again watched by all Europe.

Letter from London, enclosed in a Letter of Paulo Tiepolo, dated 17th February 1559. Parliament also sent a deputation to pray the Queen that she will be pleased to marry within the Realm, something having been heard to the contrary, but they did not propose to her a patrician rather than a plebian; and her Majesty, after having first made some verbal resistance to the first point, as becoming a maiden, replied that to oblige them she would marry; adding with regard to the second point, that she had well seen how many inconveniences her sister was subjected to, from having married a foreigner. Some persons are of opinion that she will marry to please herself (as it seems to me that I also should do the like), and perhaps a person of not much lineage. Amongst those most frequently mentioned is a gentleman who is now in Flanders, and who is said to be ill there. Guess who he is!

Paulo Tiepolo, Venetian Ambassador with King Philip, to the Doge and Senate, February 23rd 1559. In the aforesaid Queen’s presence sermons are preached to very large congregations against the power of the Pope and other Catholic tenets; and concerning her marriage, it still continued to be said that she would take that Master Pickering, who, from information received by me, is about 36 years old, of tall stature, and handsome, and very successful with women, for he is said to have enjoyed the intimacy of many and great ones. On the accession of Queen Mary he went into voluntary exile, but was subsequently recalled by her, and she commissioned him to go to Germany to raise a German regiment, as he did, and took it to the sea-side, precisely at the time of the rout of M. de Termes at Gravelines; after which, with the Queens consent, he took the regiment for himself and, without crossing over to England, remained in Flanders, where he fell ill for a time, but has now recovered.

The Earl of Arundel felt so threatened by the imminent arrival of this ‘brave wise and comely English gentleman’ that he ‘was said to have sold his lands and was ready to flee out of the realm with the money, because he could not abide in England if the queen should marry Mr. Pickering, for they were enemies’ (English State Papers quoted in the Dictionary of National Biography)

Pickering’s return must have been an anticlimax to those who thought he would marry the Queen at the end of it. A few months later he went back to his home in Oswaldkirk in Yorkshire where he stayed until his death. He came back to London only once to warn the Queen about the imminent Northern Rebellion of 1569, and was appointed one of the Lieutenants of London ‘to put the kingdom in readiness to resist the rebels.’ He died in 1575, leaving most of his estate, including a great collection of books to his illegitimate daughter Hester, and his papers, antiquities, globes and a horse called Bawle Price to Sir William Cecil.

Pickering gave his own opinion of the great marriage race to ambassadors at the time, saying ‘they would laugh at him, and at all the rest, as he knew she meant to die a maid.’

(Featured image: The Tomb of Sir William Pickering, St Helen’s Church, Bishopsgate, City of London. Photo Roel Renmans)

2 thoughts on “Sir William Pickering (c.1517 – 1575): ‘The finest gentleman of his age’, the bookies’ favourite to marry Queen Elizabeth I in 1559

  1. Absolutely fascinating. Nothing really changes* I remember well the gossiping that went on between journalists of the day as to who would Prince Charles marry. Would he marry a foreign Royal etc. I had never heard the story about Sir William Pickering, most interesting. Thank you very much

    * Ecclesiastes 1:9

    9 What has been will be again; there is nothing new under the sun




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