MATTHEW, Tobias (1577-1655), of London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 3 Oct. 1577, 1st s. of Tobias Matthew, dean of Christ Church, bp. of Durham 1595, abp. of York 1606, by Frances, da. of William Barlow, bp. of Chichester, wid. of Matthew Parker (s. of Matthew Parker, abp. of Canterbury). educ. Christ Church Oxf. 1590, BA 1594, MA 1597; G. Inn 1599. unm. Kntd. 1623.

Offices Held

Envoy to Spain with the Duke of Buckingham 1623.


‘Little pretty Tobie Matthew’ was a colourful personality, assessments of whom ranged from ‘a trifling courtier, too insignificant to serve any cause’, to ‘a polished gentleman, distinguished for learning, memory, sharpness of wit and sweetness of behaviour’. He spent his youth in diversions at court, suits in law and in frequenting plays and ‘worse places’, taking no pains but ‘to give myself pleasure enough’, but of his ability and learning there can be no doubt. His translation of The Confessions of St. Augustine first appeared in 1620 and remains in use to the present day.

At Oxford he won a high reputation as an orator and disputant. He made his début at court at the age of 18 when he appeared as the squire in a ‘device’, the dialogue of which was written by (Sir) Francis Bacon, whose subsequent friendship was one of the abiding influences in his life. It was for him that Bacon wrote his celebrated essay on Friendship, and once in a letter wrote of the ‘intireness’ between them, a quality of friendship which happily survived disagreements and long separations. Bacon, who on one occasion referred to Matthew as ‘to me another myself’, had the highest opinion of Matthew’s literary ability and Matthew, for his part, said of Bacon: ‘I passed my time with him in much gust, for there was not such company in the whole world’.

About 1596 Matthew began to suffer both from sickness and from bad relations with his father. In 1598 he went to France where he stayed with a Catholic friend, named Throckmorton. When he returned he experienced a serious illness, probably mental, caused or aggravated by the continuing quarrel with his father, who called him ‘a reprobate, a castaway, an example above example of an irreverent and disobedient child’, and who dismissed the disorder as ‘hypocritical shows and melancholy illness’. Matthew was in Oxford at the time, attended by his good friend Dudley Carleton, who was anxious about the ‘violence of his disease’ and his being ‘broken with inward vexations’. Carleton tried to intercede with the father, but the ‘barbarous bishop’ sent only ‘unnatural replies’. Though the parental displeasure had abated by the summer of 1598, father and son were never again on easy terms for long, and Matthew was eventually disinherited.

At Gray’s Inn Matthew displayed an interest in politics and public affairs, and the court opponents of the Cecils frequented his father’s London house. It is not clear how he came to be returned to Parliament for a Cornish borough in 1601. In 1604 it would have been with Bacon’s help. But it was not his ambition to become a Parliament man. He had begun to look across the channel, in particular to Italy.

Despite, or in reaction to his parents’ position in regard to the established church, Matthew always had a bias towards Rome, a fact his parents may have grasped when they forbade him to go to Italy. They wanted him to stay at home and marry, so he promised he would only go to France. But once across the channel in 1604 he went straight to Florence, where, moved by the warmth of Catholic devotion and the beauty of the liturgical singing, he began to follow a ‘more virtuous and recollected way of life’, and finally, after a period of ‘frights and sweats and agonies of perplexity and desolation’, he became a Catholic and was, though this remained secret, ordained to the priesthood on 20 May 1614 by Cardinal Bellarmine. In spite of bad health—by 164o he spoke of himself as a dying man—Matthew lived to be nearly 80. He made a number of wills, by the last of which, dated 1647, he bequeathed his written works and manuscripts to his overseer, Walter Montague, son of the 2nd Earl of Manchester. The executors were Henry Taylor, Francis Plowden and Lionel Wake. He died 13 Oct. 1655 in the house of the English tertians of the Society of Jesus at Ghent, where he was buried.

This biography is based on A. H. Mathew, The Life of Sir Tobie Matthew, The Conversion of Sir Tobie Matthew; D. Mathew, Sir Tobie Mathew, from which the quotations are taken. See also A. G. Petti in Recusant Hist. ix. 123-58.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N.M.S.