William Paulet, or Powlett (c 1474/5-1572), eldest son of Sir John Paulet of Basing, Hampshire, came to prominence after Henry VIII’s accession in 1509, by which time he had married Elizabeth (d 1558), daughter of William Capell, Lord Mayor of London. He undertook the rebuilding of Basing House, Hampshire, principal home of the Paulet family, then the largest private residence in Britain. He was appointed sheriff of Hampshire in 1511 and became Member of Parliament for the county in 1529. Created Baron St John in 1539, he became a Knight of the Garter in 1543, earl of Wiltshire in 1550 and first marquis of Winchester the following year.
Although closely aligned with powerful figures who subsequently fell from favour, such as Thomas Wolsey, Edward Seymour, John Dudley and Thomas Cromwell, Paulet himself survived to a remarkable age, steering a path through the religious and political vicissitudes of Tudor England and retaining a series of influential appointments under four consecutive monarchs, including the lucrative post of Master of the Royal Wards (1526-54), Comptroller of the Royal Household (1532), Lord Chamberlain (c 1543), Keeper of the Great Seal (1547), and Lord Treasurer (1550). Regularly in attendance on Henry VIII, he became a privy councillor and, in 1546, Lord President of the Council. Chief mourner at Edward’s VI’s funeral in 1553, he also carried regalia at Queen Mary’s coronation, continuing to serve as a Privy Councillor and Lord Treasurer during her reign. In 1566, when probably over ninety, he was finally dismissed as Speaker of the House of Lords by Elizabeth I on the grounds of age and infirmity. In 1570, he retired to Basing where he died in 1572.
Paulet, turned slightly to his right, glances back at the viewer, his white wand of office as Lord High Treasurer in his left hand. He wears a black cap with close-fitting lappets over the ears, a type of headgear favoured by Tudor lawyers and doctors, as in the group portrait of Henry VIII and the Barber-Surgeons of 1541-3. By the 1560s, when the prototype of Paulet’s portrait was painted, this kind of cap was slightly old-fashioned, the garb of an elderly gentleman. He is dressed in a gown of velvet or silk damask, entirely in black, deepest-dyed and thus the most costly of colours. The starched ruff and cuff of his white shirt are trimmed with lace, and on the index finger of his left hand is a ring bearing a shield, surrounded by a blue circle and surmounted by a coronet. The shield has black, red, grey and white enamelling and a curious interlocking pattern in the lower left-hand corner. These details occur on other versions of the portrait and are equally hard to decipher but they represent neither Paulet’s arms, which consist of three vertical swords with their tips meeting, nor his family crest, although the latter did include a ducal coronet. The main component of the Paulet crest, a falcon with outstretched wings, does, however, appear on the ring in some versions of the portrait, notably that at Syon House, which shows a bird with outstretched and downward curving wings. The ring in the Society’ version shows a shield of apparently six quarters, of which the first and sixth seem to be plain Gules. No charges are visible in any of the other four quarters. This is not identifiable heraldry and the fact that some of the other versions seem to show six quarters on which charges do appear suggests that this version is an imprecise copy.
Although Queen Elizabeth did not confer any honour or further title on the elderly Paulet that might have called for a commemorative portrait, it was during her reign that the treasurership, the largely ceremonial office that he held for the better part of a decade, was relaunched as a major instrument of fiscal governance. The Lord High Treasurer’s powers of patronage were greatly enhanced as a consequence, a development that Paulet might well have marked by commissioning a portrait.