Sir Robert Wingfield, Diplomate

Sir Robert Wingfield (b. in or before 1464-d. before 12 November 1539), diplomat and the seventh of twelve sons of Sir John Wingfield KB (1428–1481) of Letheringham, Suffolk, a member of the Privy Council of Edward IV of England and Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and his wife, Elizabeth FitzLewis (d. 1500), the daughter of Sir John FitzLewis of London and West Horndon, Essex and his wife Anne Montagu, daughter of Sir John Montagu, KG and 3rd Earl of Salisbury.

Much of Robert’s early history is obscure, but it may have included some legal training, as he was in later life connected with Lincoln’s Inn. Sir Robert was brought up by his childless aunt Anne Harling (d. 1498) and her second husband, his godfather and uncle, Sir Robert Wingfield MP (d. 1481), who was comptroller of Edward IV’s household. After his uncle’s death, Anne married John Scrope, 5th Baron Scrope of Bolton (22 July 1437–17 August 1498) and left her nephew Robert the manor of Stanford, Norfolk, together with the advowson of the church and college of Rushworth in Norfolk.

Polydore Vergil reported he fought with Henry VII of England (28 January 1457–21 April 1509) in France in September 1492, and against the Cornish rebels in the Cornish rebellion of 1497. By the later year he married Eleanor Raynsford (died before 4 July 1519), daughter of Sir William Raynsford of Bradfield, Essex and Marshal of Calais. Sir Robert and Eleanor did not have any surviving children.

In March 1505 Robert Wingfield traveled to Rome on pilgrimage with his younger brother Richard Wingfield (later became Sir Richard Wingfield KG of Kimbolton Castle) and a reputed illegitimate half-brother, Richard Urry. It was probably after this that he went on to the Holy Land, where he was made a knight of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.

He received an English knighthood by 2 July 1509 (conferred by a grant to him by Henry VIII of England (28 June 1491–28 January 1547) at Leicester, as part of the forfeitures of Edmund de la Pole, 3rd Duke of Suffolk), and was granted an income of £20 out of the manor and castle of Orford, Suffolk, and the offices of constable and bailiff of Eye Castle, Suffolk. Further grants followed, and on 10 February 1511 he is styled ‘councilor and knight of the body.’

Sir Robert returned to the short parliament of England which was held during the reign of Henry VIII of England from 21st January–23 February 1510 from Great Grimsby, Lincolnshire; probably by royal nomination on 17 October 1509.

On 10 April 1510, Sir Robert is appointed, for life, Bailiff of Silam and Veeles, Suffolk, as lately held by Robert Rochester, Esq. (d. 1508) who was Comptroller of the Household to John de Vere, 13th Earl of Oxford.

On 30 May 1510, Sir Robert was sent abroad as the first English resident ambassador to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (22 March 1459–12 January 1519). On his initial journey to the imperial court he visited in early June 1510 Margaret of Austria, Princess of Asturias and Duchess of Savoy (10 January 1480–1 December 1530), regent of the Habsburg Netherlands and found Maximilian I at Innsbruck by midsummer. As resident ambassador, he was required principally to gather and forward intelligence about European affairs and to facilitate the work of any ‘special’ ambassadors who would be sent out for shorter periods with specific missions, but also to support England’s underlying diplomatic aims, which were to hold Maximilian I to his various commitments for an English alliance against France, and to subsidize the military activities of the Holy Roman Emperor.

In April 1512, Sir Robert was commissioned with the Bishop of Worcester, Silvestro de’ Gigli, as ambassador to the Lateran council, although it is not certain he traveled to Rome to attend the 5th Council of the Lateran (1512-1517), which was the last council before the Protestant Reformation. The Lateran councils were ecclesiastical councils or synods of the Catholic Church held at Rome in the Lateran Palace next to the Lateran Basilica.

In July 1513, Sir Robert was in Calais with his brother Sir Richard Wingfield in the office of marshal of the town and marches of Calais.

Sir Robert was among the commissioners who accepted the surrender of the city Tournai on 23 September 1513 (Siege of Tournai), making it the only Belgian city ever to have been ruled by England until 1519 when the city was handed back to France, following the Treaty of London in 1518. At the time the Siege of Tournai in 1513 the city was ruled by the Kingdom of France. Henry VIII’s initial plan was to appoint Sir Robert Wingfield governor of the captured city, but did not transpire and later returned to Maximilian I, trailing the peripatetic imperial court through the Low Countries and others parts of the Holy Roman Empire (LP Henry VIII, 2/1, 463).

During his seven-year embassy Sir Robert became a good friend of Maximilian I, and perhaps in consequence remained fiercely anti-French throughout his life. During this extended time abroad he published an account of the 15th century Council of Constance, Nobilissima disceptatio super dignitate et magnitudine regnorum Britannici et Gallici, printed at Louvain in 1517 by Thierry Martens. By May 1517 Sir Robert requested to be recalled, resulting in Sir Thomas Spinelly becoming resident ambassador in mid-July 1517 and Sir Robert returning to England before 18th August 1517.

For the next two years Sir Robert lived quietly in Little Wenham, Suffolk at Wenham Hall with his sister Katherine Brewes (d. 1525), wife of Robert Brewes Esq. MP of Dunwich (died December 1513). Sir Robert’s first wife, Eleanor Raynsford having died during period, he would later marry after 4 July 1519, Lady Jane Clinton, widow of Thomas Clinton, 8th Baron Clinton (1490–1517) and an illegitimate daughter of Sir Edward Poynings KG (1459–22 October 1521). Sir Robert and Jane did not have any children.

On 14 August 1519, Sir Robert was granted an annuity of 100 marks out of the tonnage and poundage of the port of London. He occasionally attended court that year. Sir Robert took part in the masked festivities at Beaulieu in September 1519 and attended the full council meeting on 27 October 1519.

In 1520 Sir Robert was granted an honorary special admission to Lincoln’s Inn. He attended Henry VIII at his meetings with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (24 February 1500-21 September 1558) at Dover in 1520 and with Francis I of France (12 September 1494-31 March 1547) at the Field of Cloth of Gold (7th–24th June 1520).

By December 1521, Sir Robert was Vice-Chamberlain of the Royal Household of Henry VIII. The Vice-Chamberlain is the Deputy to the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.

In July 1522 Sir Robert was granted three Essex manors formerly belonging to Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham (3 February 1478–17 May 1521), and by 1524 he acquired a mansion in Old Fish Street, London, known at the time as “Wingfield Place” where the Welsh chronicler Elis Gruffydd studied and wrote under his patronage. Sir Robert also acquired other London property: ‘an old ruinous place’ on Lombard Hill which he rented from his nephew Sir Anthony Wingfield MP PC (died 15 August 1552), and an adjoining lot purchased from Sir Stephen Jenyns (circa 1450–1523), which Sir Robert built a new house of brick and stone.

On 29 January 1522 Sir Robert was sent with William Knight, Secretary of State of Henry VIII on special embassy to Charles V and Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy in the Low Countries, again to further an Anglo-imperial military alliance against France. In late May 1522, Sir Robert returned to England in Charles V’s train for the state visit which culminated in the Treaty of Windsor of 19 June 1522. The treaty outlined a joint English-Imperial attack against France, with each party providing at least 40,000 men. Charles agreed to compensate England for the pensions that would be lost because of conflict with France and to pay the past debts that would be forfeit; to seal the alliance, he also agreed to marry Henry VIII’s only daughter, Mary Tudor.

In further preparation for the war to come, Sir Robert was sent back once again to Margaret’s court in the Low Countries from 20 August 1522 through 15 April 1523 to facilitate military preparations. Sir Robert was appointed to command in the Duke of Suffolk’s unsuccessful French campaign in the following autumn. By this time Sir Robert vacated his old joint office as Marshal of Calais by the end of May 1519, but maintained ties to the town, where both his brother Richard and his new wife’s father had earlier served as deputy. Sir Robert would return to Calais at the end of his embassy in April 1523, serving as Lieutenant of Calais Castle from 10 October 1523 until October 1526.

Sir Robert’s final diplomatic mission followed Charles V’s victory at Pavia. He was nominated on 11 April 1525 to the council of war under the Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk (1473-25 August 1554). In late March 1525, Sir Robert was sent as special ambassador with Sir William Fitzwilliam (circa 1490- 15 October 1542) at 20s. per day to the Low Countries to gain support for England’s proposed invasion of France. They had audience with Margaret of Austria, Duchess of Savoy at Mechelen on 27 April 1525. Sir Robert then replaced Knight as the resident ambassador and stayed on until being recalled on 18 April 1526.

On 1 October 1526, Sir Robert was finally appointed deputy of Calais in his own right, at £2 per day and 20 marks per annum, and remained in office for almost five years.

Sir Robert was building a substantial house in Calais at Boulogne Gate by 1527, and on 20 September 1529 he was granted a lease at £20 p.a. on some 4,000 acres of marshy crown lands on the outskirts of Calais, known as the Meanbrook, which he drained and returned to agriculture at considerable expense. At Henry VIII’s request, Sir Robert stepped aside as deputy of Calais on 27 March 1531 in favor of John Bourchier, 2nd Baron Berners (1467-19 March 1533), who in recompense agreed to pay him an annuity of 100 marks. Upon John Bourchier’s own death in March 1533 the new deputy Arthur Plantagenet, 1st Viscount Lisle (died 3 March 1542) discontinued Sir Robert’s pension. Sir Robert remained on the council of Calais, served on various commissions there, and in 1534–1535 was mayor of Calais. Sir Robert’s also served as an alderman, and remained a burgess until his death. His last years in Calais were marred by an increasingly bitter dispute over his improvements to the Meanbrook property, which were held to have endangered the town by draining the marsh which had comprised part of its defenses. Town officials under royal direction tore down several of his new buildings and destroyed the drainage dikes in 1534. After surrendering his patent for the Meanbrook to Henry VIII’s hands on 17 July 1536, was granted on 1 February 1537 rents and lands in the neighborhood of Guînes worth £56.

Sir Robert was nominated several times for the Knight of the Garter, but was never elected.

Sir Robert supposedly died on 18 March 1539, almost certainly in Calais. In Sir Robert’s will, dated three days earlier 15 March 1539 and proved on 12 November 1539, left to his wife, Jane, their main house at Boulogne Gate for her lifetime, along with additional income to maintain it, £100 in plate, the jewels she brought to their marriage, his crimson cloak, and ‘the cross which hangeth on my cheyne for remembrance’. Sir Robert also provided generously for numerous nephews (five of whom he had raised), nieces, godchildren, and household servants, divided a substantial collection of arms and armor between family and soldiers in the garrison at Calais, and left property in London to his godson Robert Wingfield (d. 19 March 1596), son of Sir Anthony Wingfield. To his principal heir John Wingfield, eldest son to his brother, Lewis Wingfield, he left the manor of Stanford and the advowson of Church and College of Rushford in Norfolk, other lands in Calais, flocks of sheep and hogs, and (to be divided with another nephew Francis Hall) ‘all suche bokes as be in my Lybrary or in any other place’.

A fine illuminated manuscript book of hours once owned by him, signed and inscribed with the motto ‘Posse et nolle nobile’ (‘to be able to do and to not want to do is noble’), is now at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

Sir Robert wished to be buried in the parish church of St Nicholas in Calais. However, if he died in Norfolk, he wished to be buried in the church of Rushford in the midst of a chapel on the south side where his uncle and godfather, Sir Robert Wingfield, Controller of Edward IV of England household lie buried, and that upon his grave be laid a marble stone upon which shall be graven a cross of Jerusalem. If he died in London, his wish to buried in Saint Peter’s Church of the parish that his house stands, and a like stone to be laid upon his body as is before spoken of.


Wingfield, Mervyn Edward, 7th Viscount Powerscourt, ed., Muniments of the Ancient Saxon family of Wingfield (privately printed, London, 1894), Wingfield Family Society, Durham, North Carolina, (1987)

Wingfield, John Maurice, Some Records of the Wingfield Family, Wingfield Family Society, Athens, Georgia, (1991), page. 38-139

Dewing, Edward M., Pedigree of Wingfield of Wingfield, Letheringham, Easton, & c., Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History, Volume 7 Part I (1889), pages 57-68

Metcalfe, Walter C., ed., The Visitations of Suffolk, (Exeter, William Pollard, 1882), page 79, online edition, [accessed 26 November 2017].

Robertson, Mary L., ‘Wingfield, Sir Robert (b. in or before 1464, d. 1539)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, (2004), online edition, Oct 2008,, [accessed 12 Nov 2017]

The National Archives (TNA): PROB 11/27, ff. 262-3

"Posse Nolle Nobile" — Latin for "To have the power without the wish is noble."

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