Wadham was probably born at Merryfield in the parish of Ilton, near Ilminster, Somerset, the only son of John Wadham (d.1578) of Merrifield and of Edge, Branscombe, Devon, by his wife Joan Tregarthin, daughter and co-heiress of John Tregarthin of Cornwall and widow of John Kelloway of Cullompton, Devon.
Depiction on mother's monument
The image at right shows detail from the mural monument to Nicholas's mother Joan Tregarthin (d.1583) and her two husbands, in Branscombe Church, Devon. Shown here is her 2nd husband John Wadham (d.1578) of Edge, Branscombe, Devon and Merrifield, Ilton, Somerset. Joan Tregarthin kneels behind him and behind her kneel the couple's children, the eldest son amongst whom is Nicholas Wadham (1531/2-1609) founder of Wadham College, Oxford. Kneeling opposite John Wadham, partly visible at left is John Kelloway, Joan Tregarthin's first husband. Joan's arms, of 6 quarters, are shown in a lozenge between her two husbands, whilst the escutcheon behind John Wadham shows the arms of Wadham, of 9 quarters, impaling the arms of Tregarthin, of the same 6 quarters as in the lozenge.
A biography written before 1637 states that Wadham attended Corpus Christi College, Oxford as a commoner, but did not take a degree. He may have lodged with John Kennall, the civil lawyer, later canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Wadham was briefly at court, as the text relates: vitam Aulicam aliquantisper ingressus est. A certain "Nicholas Wadham of Brimpton, Somerset", was admitted to the Inner Temple on 9 March 1553 on the pledge of Richard Baker, who was married to Catherine Tyrell, a stepdaughter of Sir William Petre (Wadham's father-in-law), principal secretary to King Henry VIII, and thus due to the Petre connection it is likely that the record refers to Nicholas Wadham subject of this article.
Wadham was appointed to the commission of the peace and other minor commissions in Somerset, appearing as executor and overseer in the wills of other Somerset gentlemen. Two personal letters of his exist, one from Sir Amias Paulet, Ambassador to Paris, advising that Wadham was unlikely ‘to be envious of our French news’ and thanking him for his efforts in the leasing of Paulet's park. The other letter was to John Talbot of Grafton, who had married Dorothy's sister Katherinen Petre, regarding Wadham's work in negotiating a lease. Wadham was known for his hospitality and he maintained a fine household at Merrifield. In 1608 the privy council ordered a stay of proceedings against both Wadham and his wife on a charge of recusancy. John Carpenter, Rector of Branscombe, dedicated to him his literary work "Contemplations", for the Institution of Children in the Christian Religion (1601), noting his "gentle affability with all persons" and his generosity.
On 3 September 1555 at St Botolph's Church, Aldersgate in the City of London, Nicholas Wadham married Dorothy Petre, eldest daughter of Sir William Petre, principal secretary to King Henry VIII. The marriage was without progeny. Wadham and his wife lived with his parents until his father's death in 1578, when his mother moved into the dower house at Edge, Branscombe, Devon.
Statues survive of Nicholas Wadham and his wife Dorothy Petre at their foundation, Wadham College, Oxford, high on the external wall of one of the buildings. The arms of Wadham impaling Petre are shown between the two figures. Nicholas, dressed in full armour, holds in his right hand a building as an offering. On a stone tablet between the two figures is engraved the following Latin inscription:
"Hospes quam vides domum musis nuncupatem ponendam mandabat Nicholaus Wadham Somersetensis armiger. Verum ille fato preareptus Dorotheae conjugi perficiendam legabat illa incunctanter perfecit magnificeque sumtibus suis auxit. Tu summe pater adsis propitius tuoque muneri addas quaesumus perpetuitatem"
Above is inscribed within two arches: "Anno Dom. 1613 Apr 20" and "Sub auspiciis IC Jacobi"
Which may be translated as:"Stranger the Home of the Muse which you see, Nicholas Wadham of Somerset, Esquire, ordered the building of as an oral declaration (of his last will). Indeed he having been snatched away by fate he bequeathed to his wife Dorothy the completion, she without delay finished it and magnificently added her own expenditure. O You Highest Father be present favourably inclined and to you (to present and to you give) we seek perpetuity")
Death & burial
On 20 October 1609, aged seventy-seven, Wadham died at Merrifield and was buried in the Wadham chapel in St Mary's Church, Ilminster on 21 November 1609, where survives his monumental brass showing himself and his wife. Following his father's example, his will ordered a full heraldic funeral, with alms to be distributed throughout county. Thomas Moore described him as "an ancient schismatic", referring to his attendance at Church of England services, and described Wadham as "dying a Catholic".
Wadham died childless, and all his estates and other wealth had been expected to pass to the children of his three sisters:
- Joan Wadham, first wife of Sir Giles Strangways (1528-1562), of Melbury Sampford, Dorset, five times MP for Dorset in 1553, 1554, 1555, 1558 and 1559, and was thus ancestor of the Fox-Strangways Earls of Ilchester.
- Margaret Wadham, wife of Nicholas Martin (d.1595) of Athelhampton, Dorset. The couple's monumental brass, showing them kneeling beneath an escutcheon with the ancient arms of FitzMartin (Argent, two bars gules) impaling Wadham, survives in St Mary's Church, Puddletown, Dorset. Nicholas Martyn, in full armour, kneels bare-headed before an altar on which is an open book. His three sons, who all predeceased him, kneel behind him. To the right is his wife Margaret Wadham, behind whom kneel their seven daughters, of whom four survived as co-heiresses.
- Florence Wadham (d.1596), wife of Sir John Wyndham (d.1572) of Orchard Wyndham, Watchet, in Somerset, and mother of Sir John Wyndham (1558-1645), ancestor of the Wyndham Earls of Egremont of Petworth House in Sussex.
Instead he determined to use much of his wealth to perpetuate his name and in 1606 he founded an almshouse for eight poor people at Ilton. Wadham had also been saving money to found a college at Oxford, yet his intentions had not been written down and his instructions on his death-bed were contradictory. Despite this, his wife Dorothy, adding in her own large paternal inheritance, attended to his wishes and founded Wadham College, Oxford. The descendants of his sisters nevertheless still received large inheritances from Nicholas Wadham, including the manor of Ilton (to Wyndham); the manor of Wadham, Knowstone, (to Wyndham and Strangways); Edge, Branscombe (to Wyndham), Silverton in Devon (to Wyndham), etc.
- Prince, John, (1643–1723) The Worthies of Devon, 1810 edition, biography of Wadham, Sir John, Knight, (died 1412), pp.748-752
- Stevens, Hariet Weeks Wadhams, Wadhams (sic) Genealogy, Preceded by a Sketch of the Wadham Family of England, New York, 1913
- Rogers, William Henry Hamilton, Memorials of the West, Historical and Descriptive, Collected on the Borderland of Somerset, Dorset and Devon, Exeter, 1888, pp.147-173, The Founder and Foundress of Wadham
- Prince, John, (1643–1723) The Worthies of Devon, 1810 edition, p.749
- Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, 1907 (Vol. 4). London, pp.341-2, Article 59 by "Senex", Branscombe Monument
- STRANGWAYS, Sir Giles II (1528-62), of Melbury Sampford, Dorset.
- Burke, John, The Royal Families of England, pedigree CCII, Earl of Dunraven
- Part of the Petre inheritance received by Dorothy came from grants made by Queen Mary to her father Sir William Petre, of lands formerly held by Lady Jane Gray and forfeited to the crown, which had come in part from the great heiress Cecily Bonville, of Shute, Devon (Bridie, M.F., The Story of Shute, Axminster, 1955, pp.76-8)