Dorothy Wadham (//; née Petre) (1534/1535 – 16 May 1618) was the wife of Nicholas Wadham (1531-1609) of Merryfield, Ilton, Somerset, and of Edge, Branscombe in Devon, and as his widow in pursuance of his wishes, was the foundress of Wadham College, Oxford. She has the distinction of being the first woman who was not a member of the Royal Family or titled aristocracy to found a college at Oxford or Cambridge.
Dorothy was the second and eldest surviving child and heiress of the very wealthy Sir William Petre (c.1505-1572), Secretary of State to four successive Tudor monarchs (namely Kings Henry VIII, Edward VI and Queens Mary I and Elizabeth I), who had acquired much property following the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Her mother was Gertrude Tyrrell, daughter of Sir John Tyrrell. Her date of birth as 1535 may be deduced from one of her two portraits in Wadham College, which gives her age as sixty in 1595. 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.
When Dorothy's mother died on 28 May 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 3 September 1555 at St Botolph, Aldersgate, in the City of London, she married Nicholas Wadham (1531-1609). The couple lived at Nicholas's ancestral "noble moated seat" of Merryfield, in the parish of Ilton, Somerset. The marriage was without progeny.
The Wadhams were possibly recusants or crypto-Catholics at a time when Catholics were under penalties in England. Between 1612 and 1613 Dorothy Wadham had her armoury confiscated because she was suspected of recusancy. In 1615 she was granted a formal pardon under the 1593 Act of Parliament against Popish recusants.
Founding Wadham College
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 the founding of a college in Oxford University, and this Dorothy accomplished, noting that "it would greatly offend my conscience to violate any jot of my husband's will". She added substantial funds from her own great inheritance to the funds left by her late husband in order to finance the building and establishment of the college.
On his deathbed, Nicholas had summoned Sir John Davis to discuss his plans with Dorothy and their two business agents. Davis was persuaded by Nicholas to sign a legal instrument naming him as jointly responsible with Dorothy for effecting Nicholas' plans for a college. Davis had been convicted as a traitor due to his part in the Essex conspiracy, and was a recusant. His inclusion in the design put the plan in jeopardy. In 1610 it was shown in Parliament that Davis had refused the Church of England sacraments. He may have wanted Wadham's foundation to be governed by his own former college, Gloucester Hall, Oxford. 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, Oxford, 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, 1st Baron Petre was key in raising support in Parliament, 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 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 with Dorothy, as shown by a series of letters written by her business agent John Arnold, and signed by her. Dorothy never visited the college and relied on Arnold to communicate her wishes to the Warden and Fellows.
Death and burial
Dorothy died on 16 May 1618, at the Wadham dower house, Edge, in the parish of Branscombe, Devon. Her body was taken to Merrifield and was buried on 16 June alongside that of her husband in the Wadham Chapel inside St Mary's Church, Ilminster, Somerset. The monument to Nicholas and Dorothy Wadham is the principal monument in the church.
- Davies, C. S. L. ‘Wadham, Dorothy (1534/5–1618)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.