At the time of Edward VI’s accession on the 28th of January 1547, England was in a state of confusion — a ‘Mid-Tudor Crisis’. The 9-year-old King had inherited a country which was religiously confused, economically distraught, and vulnerable to foreign invasion. Having not yet reached a suitable age to govern alone, a Regency Council of sixteen executors had been outlined by Henry VIII and — potentially as a result of meddling by Paget through his ally Anthony Denny — a ladder had been created on top of which a man could have de facto control of England. Moreover, there was a lack of strong pre-determined leadership for the council. Of the 16 men, only one (Henry FitzAlen, 19th Earl of Arundel) was part of the ‘old aristocracy’. The others were ‘New Men’: Men of low or middle origin who had acquired their power through merit rather than pedigree. In addition to this, Stephen Gardiner (a prominent Catholic figure) had been barred entry in Henry’s later years and Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, (who had been one of the most influential men under Henry VIII) had been recently accused of treason on account of the actions of his son, Henry, and so found himself in the Tower of London (only avoiding execution due to Henry VIII’s death). Among the group of ambitious men was William Paget. A man of low birth (labelled a ‘mean peasant’ by Henry Howard) and a politically cunning gentleman, Paget saw the potential for power. What followed was a tale of risky alliances, betrayal, and the dangers of seeking influence in a turbulent Tudor court.
Although Henry had deliberately not named any member of the council in charge and so Edward Seymour’s eventual appointment as Lord Protector was a subversion of his wishes, it’s no surprise that Seymour (who would also become Duke of Somerset) would rise to the top. Seymour had been Warden of the Scottish Marches and overseen successful English military action in Scotland as well as helping the English army in France after Henry Howard proved incompetent. Naturally, Paget could not possibly compete with such a qualified candidate and offered Seymour his support under the condition that Seymour would not act alone but always consult the council before making major decisions. This was Paget’s first move towards gaining influence and proved to be an alliance which he would regret.
Even if Paget would never have as tight a grasp over the country as Seymour or his successor, Northumberland, he certainly profited from his close relationship with the former. Shortly after Edward VI’s accession, he was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, made a knight of the Garter, and elected MP for Staffordshire. The ranks of the Tudor monarchs’ administration had always been rife with corruption and those who sought personal gain, Paget was to be no different. Despite various anti-corruption measures put in place by Thomas Cromwell the decade prior and even earlier under Henry VII, Paget used his position as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to enrich himself through embezzlement. The struggle for power during this time was common amongst men put in charge of administration, so in this regard Paget is certainly not an outlier. Sir William Cavendish, for example, had been accused of embezzlement during his tenure as Treasurer of the Chamber from 1546 to 1553 and Edward Seymour’s brother (Thomas) had been accused of embezzlement at the Bristol mint prior to his execution. That this was a serious problem is highlighted by the fact that John Dudley, when himself President of the council, was to launch a comprehensive anti-embezzlement campaign with the help of William Paulet and famous financier Thomas Gresham.
As it pertained to influence over Seymour, however, what had begun as a close and trusting relationship began to deteriorate. Although it's impossible to pinpoint the exact date that Paget turned on the Duke, it was in February of 1548 that he first voiced his concerns about the dictatorial way in which Seymour was acting. Certainly, as Seymour began more and more to rule by proclamation, treating the Privy Council as a mere rubber stamp, Paget grew more and more concerned. On Christmas Day 1548, Paget wrote a letter (which he would never send) to Seymour in which he criticised the Duke, arguing that he ‘cared to content all men […] and be loth or rather afraid to offend any’, a reference to Seymour’s failed attempts to help the lower classes, pointed out the vulnerable nature of England as a state against which ‘Scotland desireth revenge’ and ‘France [saw] a most propitious time to fall out with you’. Most importantly, however, Paget remarked that ‘Sir, you hear not all thing nor all men’, a reference to his solitary style of rule. Amongst those men to whom Seymour would not listen was Paget himself. It was in the summer of 1549 that Paget would finally break with Seymour altogether. As the Western Rebellion broke out in June and rebels rioted in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, Paget penned an angry letter to Seymour. ‘I told your Grace the truth and was not believed’, he claimed, ‘Well, now your Grace sees it, what says your Grace?’. As in his 1548 letter, Paget makes sure to credit the Duke’s good intentions, however, the rest of the letter is a scathing rant in which Paget clearly feels betrayed by someone who he once thought an ally.
Although Paget had been a strong critic of Seymour towards the end, he fell alongside the Duke. He was committed to the Tower of London in 1551, degraded from the Order of the Gater, and fined heavily by the Star Chamber for the aforementioned embezzlement. He would be restored to favour in 1553 and reinstated as a knight of the Garter and privy councillor under Mary I, however, his influence dwindled until he retired from public life after the accession of Elizabeth I.
Was William Paget’s quest for power a success? The obvious answer may appear to be ‘no’: He was an embezzler who chose the wrong people to ally with, lacked influence over the Lord Protector, and would die in relative security. However, when you look at the deeper implications of Paget’s origins, life, and legacy, it’s clear that he was largely successful. A man of low birth, he rose to the top under Henry VIII through his appointment to the Regency Council. He had influential allies other than Seymour, such as Anthony Denny, and although he did fall from grace towards the end of his life, he nonetheless lifted the Paget family from mediocrity with his children going on to become powerful men. Moreover, he was one of few men to serve under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Mary I. Thus, although Paget found himself betrayed and often dislikes, he was nonetheless a sly political fox who made a name for himself and his family, managing to survive and thrive at a time when one wrong move could lose you your head.