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Norton was born in London and was educated at Cambridge, and early became a secretary to the Protector Somerset. In 1555 he was admitted a student at the Inner Temple, and married Margery Cranmer, the daughter of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer.
In 1562 Norton, who had served in an earlier parliament as the representative of Gatton, became M.P. for Berwick, and entered active into politics. He became the unofficial leader of a group of about fifty members of the House of Commons, which G. R. Elton saw as the first semi-official opposition in Parliament. In religion he was inspired by the sentiments of his father-in-law, and was in possession of Cranmer's manuscript code of ecclesiastical law; this he permitted John Foxe to publish in 1571. He went to Rome on legal business, in 1579, and from 1580 to 1583 he frequently visited the Channel Islands as a commissioner to inquire into the status of these possessions.
Norton's Calvinism grew with years, and towards the end of his career he became a fanatic. Norton held several interrogation sessions in the Tower of London using torture instruments such as the rack. His punishment of the Catholics, as their official censor from 1581 onwards, led to his being nicknamed "Rackmaster-General" and "Rackmaster Norton."
Norton's puritanism made him objectionable to the English bishops; he was deprived of his office and thrown into the Tower. Francis Walsingham presently released him, but Norton's health was undermined, and in March 1584 he died in his house at Sharpenhoe, Bedfordshire.
From his eighteenth year Norton began to compose verse. With Jasper Heywood he was a writer of "sonnets"; he contributed to Tottel's Miscellany, and in 1560 he composed, in company with Thomas Sackville, the earliest English tragedy, Gorboduc, which was performed before Elizabeth I in the Inner Temple on 18 January 1561.
Gorboduc was revised, as The Tragedy of Ferrex and Porrex, in 1570. Norton's early lyrics have in the main disappeared. Numerous anti-Catholic pamphlets include those on the rebellion of Northumberland and on the projected marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Duke of Norfolk. Norton also translated Calvin's Institutes (1561) and Alexander Nowell's Catechism (1570).
Gorboduc appears in various dramatic collections, and was separately edited by William Durrant Cooper (Shakespeare Society, 1847), and by Lucy Toulmin Smith in Karl Vollmöller's Englische Sprache-und Literatur-denkmale (1883).
- "Norton, Thomas (1532-1584)". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
- "Norton, Thomas". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- p 283-4 G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors (1955) Methuen, London