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Dorothy was the second and eldest surviving child of Sir William Petre, a civil and canon lawyer serving King Henry VIII, and his wife, Gertrude, daughter of Sir John Tyrrell. Her date of birth may be deduced from her portrait in Wadham College, which gives her age as sixty in 1595. When Dorothy's mother died on May 28, 1541, she was brought up by Petre's second wife, Anne, who was also a Tyrrell by her first marriage. Later in life her writing skill and knowledge of Latin was evident, and it is likely that she was educated at her home, Ingatestone Hall, Essex. On September 3, 1555 she married Nicholas Wadham at St Botolph, Aldersgate, London.
The couple lived at Nicholas's family home in Merrifield, near Ilton, Somerset and produced no children. Nicholas died on October 20, 1609. The Wadhams were possibly recusants or crypto-Catholics at a time when Catholics were under penalties in England. Between 1612 and 1613 Dorthy Wadham had her armoury confiscated becauise she was suspected of recusancy. In 1615 she was granted a formal pardon under the 1593 act against Popish recusants.
Dorothy was the sole executor of Nicholas's will, which provided a bequest "for such uses and purposes" as he had "requested her and she hath assented to". His wishes included founding a college in Oxford, and this Dorothy did, noting that "it would greatly offend my conscience to violate any jot of my husband's will". On his deathbed, Nicholas had summoned Sir John Davis to discuss his plans with Dorothy and their two men of business. Nicholas was persuaded by Davis to sign an instrument naming him as jointly responsible with Dorothy for pursuing Nicholas' plans for a college. Davis had been convicted as a traitor because of his part in the Essex conspiracy, and was a recusant. His inclusion in the designs put the plan in jeopardy. In 1610 it was shown in Parliament that Davis refused the Church of England sacraments. He may have wanted Wadham's foundation to be governed by his former college, Gloucester Hall. Dorothy wrote to the Lord High Treasurer, Robert Cecil a month after Nicholas's death, denying Davis's accusation that she did not intend to proceed with Nicholas's plans. An offer was made to Gloucester Hall, which was refused by the principal unless he was made head of the new foundation. Nicholas had intended an offer be made to Jesus College, but no evidence of such exists.
A site was acquired in February 1610 and the architect William Arnold was commissioned for the construction of the college. A letter from King James I to Oxford City Council persuaded the Council to lower the asking price for the site. Dorothy managed to loosen Davis's ties by way of a collusive suit in chancery in July 1610, which established a trust excluding him. Her brother John Petre was key in raising support at Westminster, but Dorothy refused his offer of taking over the responsibility "which my dear husband so solely and absolutely trusted me with".
On 20 December 1610, Wadham College received its royal letters patent, and its statutes were approved by Dorothy in 1612. The college was formally instituted in April 1613. The appointment of the warden, fellows, and scholars, and even on occasion the college cook, rested Dorothy, as sjown by a series of letters written by her man of business, John Arnold, and signed by her. Dorothy never visited the college and relied on Arnold to commuicate her wishes to the wardena and fellows. Dorothy died on 16 May 1618, at the Wadham dower house, Edge Barton Manor, in Branscombe, Devon. Her body was taken to Merrifield and buried on 16 June alongside that of her husband in St Mary's Church, Ilminster. The tomb of Micholas and Dorothy Wadham remains the principal monument in the church.
- Davies, C. S. L. ‘Wadham, Dorothy (1534/5–1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.