According to sources, William Paget was born in 1506 in Staffordshire, quite possibly around the Wednesbury area, to John Paget who hailed from the same town. Not much is known about his family or early life, other than his father was a man of modest means, who worked several different trades and occasionally lent money on a small scale basis to those in the area of Bromsgrove, where he was thought to have family connections. John however seems to have settled in London prior to his son’s birth, several working references appear for him from around 1502, so it is entirely possible this information is incorrect. By ten years later, he is recorded in certain remarks and documents as a sergeant of London. Other sources claim that William’s father was also William, and his mother Anne, although this is disputed. As the William Paget we are discussing married Anne Preston, it is entirely possible the original claimant of this source may have mixed up his information, as all other details appear to be corroborated.
William Paget was one of the early attendees of St Paul’s School, founded in 1509 by Dean Colet, in St Paul’s Cathedral Churchyard, taught by William Lilly. Paget’s friends included Edward North, Thomas Wriothesley, Anthony Denny and John Leland, who shared Paget’s future in the court of Henry VIII. Following his time at St Paul’s, Paget attended Trinity Hall at Cambridge, where he was sponsored as a student of meagre means by Thomas Boleyn. Studying under Stephen Gardiner, Paget was noted for his Protestant sympathies, reading Erasmus, Luther and Melanchthon, but this was tolerated by Gardiner, who later was listed amongst Paget’s friends.
Following the completion of his studies at Cambridge, Paget spent time in Paris, working on his language skills. Around this time, probably as a result of his growing friendship with Gardiner, Paget was introduced to Court, and accompanied Gardiner in an official capacity to France on matters concerning Henry’s increasing romance with the lady Anne Boleyn. Interestingly, around this time, both Anne and Paget were struck down by a particularly widespread outbreak of the dreaded sweating sickness, along with Paget’s old sponsor, Anne’s father Thomas. Paget’s affliction was noted by the French ambassador in his papers, and on this occasion, the disease spread across the shore to France.
By 1529 after surviving the bout of Sweating sickness, to which other members of court unfortunately succumbed, including Sir William Carey, Anne’s brother in law, Paget was listed as a Member of Parliament for Lichfield, by 1532 he was not only serving as clerk of the signet, but shortly afterwards, joined Henry’s privy council, no doubt prompted again by Gardiner who was by now Henry’s secretary, following the fall and subsequent demise of Cardinal Wolsey. He was chosen to accompany Edward Foxe Reginald Pole and Sir Francis Bryan on the mission to canvas the universities of Europe regarding the theological implications of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, proposed by Thomas Cranmer. At some point around this time, William married Anne Preston. Together they would have ten children, four sons and six daughters.
Following Gardiner’s opposition of the King’s policy on the matter, which brought him into disfavour, Paget succinctly abandoned his old friend and switched to the Cromwell camp. Cromwell, knowing of Paget’s diplomacy, utilised him following England’s break with Rome to return to Europe, in 1534, to visit with the German Princes and elicit their support. Over the next few years, Paget continued his steady rise with positions in Parliament, as secretary to Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves and Catherine Howard, and accompanying the King to York in 1541 to meet with James V of Scotland, which failed to come to fruition, Paget soon replaced Lord William Howard as Ambassador to France. Cromwell’s fall from grace did not adversely affect Paget’s own position within court.
Paget continued with Parliamentary duties and attendance as often as his duties and diplomatic travels allowed him, and through Henry’s final years, became a close advisor and sometime confidante of the King, acting increasingly as an intermediary between Henry and his council only leaving his bedside to serve on the trial of the Earl of Surrey shortly before the King’s death. Despite this Paget is not a prominent figure in the annals of history. He served Somerset in his role as Protector in the court of Edward VI following the death of Henry, after transcribing and executing his will. It was in the role of Protector that Paget’s first fall from grace occurred.
Following the increased distance between his fellow Protector, Somerset and the rest of the Court, it fell to Paget to persuade Somerset to give himself over to the Earl of Warwick, which he eventually did. Somerset and Paget were in the first instance quite good friends, but Somerset had come to see Paget as an embarrassment, still Paget refused to abandon him in his hour of crisis. Following Somerset’s arrest, Paget earned his Peerage. However once the deed was done, Warwick no longer needed Paget’s support and was slowly ostracised, until eventually he was asked to stay away from the Court. Subsequently, Paget found himself under house arrest and eventually a Prisoner in the Tower on charges of malversation. Luckily for Paget, treason was not offered as a charge, although some of Somerset’s other supporters were not so fortunate. After he signed an admission of guilt, Paget was fined, stripped of his Garter and ordered from court, to remove to his Staffordshire residence. He was able to pay a reduced fine quite quickly, and appealed successfully to remain in London in his home at the Strand.
By 1553 Paget had returned to favour and returned to court. Warwick, now Duke of Northumberland was to ask for his assistance in the matter of succession following Edward’s sudden death shortly afterwards. Despite initially standing against Mary, Paget soon changed his position. It was he who was chosen to ride to her residence in Framlingham to notify her of the council’s support of her right to the crown. He soon found himself heading up Mary’s Parliament with the Earl of Arundel.
Alas, his second fall from grace was awaiting him. With the short-lived return of Gardiner to favour, and his thirst for rooting out what he considered heretics, backed whole-heartedly by the staunchly Catholic Mary, Gardiner attempted to pass a heresy bill, including the establishment of an Inquisition in England. Paget refused to allow the bill to pass, and despite support from her husband Philip of Spain for Paget’s stance, Mary refused to promote Paget to Gardiner’s position as chancellor following his sudden death shortly afterwards. Despite this, Mary continued to seek his advice until her own death in 1558.
Paget was retained as a parliamentary official upon the accession of Elizabeth I, but due to his own increasingly ill-health and – in Tudor terms – advanced years, his appearances were few. In 1563, just four years into Elizabeth’s reign as Queen, on June 9th, Paget passed away aged 57 having lived through at least partial reign of every Tudor monarch, from the first to the last.