William Painter (author)

William Painter (or Paynter, c. 1540 – mid-February 1595 in London[1]) was an English author and translator. As a clerk of the Ordnance in the Tower of London, he was accused of fraud aimed at amassing a personal fortune at public expense.

Personal life

Painter was long believed to be a native of Kent due to confusion with a contemporary namesake, who matriculated at St John's College, Cambridge in 1554.[2][3]

Painter was married in about 1565 to Dorothy Bonham, with whom he had at least five children – a son and four daughters. By 1587 their son Anthony had joined his father in his government work.[3]

Painter made an oral will dated 14 February 1594 and died between 19 and 22 February 1595. He was buried in St Olave Hart Street, London, not far from the Tower.[3]

Administrative career

In 1561 Painter became a clerk of the Ordnance in the Tower of London, a post he would hold for the rest of his life. In 1566 the Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance, Edward Randolph, supplemented Painter's income with an annuity and a pension.[3]

Throughout his career, there were accusations of fraud and abuse of his position in order to amass a personal fortune out of public funds. This came to a climax in 1586, when the Surveyor of the Ordnance, John Powell, accused Painter and two others of peculation (embezzlement).[3] As his co-accused were already deceased, only Painter could defend himself. He confessed that he owed the government a sum of just over a thousand pounds.[3] Although Painter offered to repay the amount, the debt was not discharged until the time of Painter's grandson due to delays during his lifetime, and the discovery of more discrepancies after his death.[3] It is notable that the accusations of embezzlement comprise charges and counter-charges between government officials, underlining the endemic corruption in the Elizabethan civil service.[3]

Literary work

Painter began translating into English in 1558, with Nicholas à Moffan's Soltani Soymanni Turcorum Imperatoris horrendum facinus, under the title Horrible and Cruell Murder of Sultan Solyman. This work was later to become Novel 34 in his The Palace of Pleasure.[3]

The first volume of his The Palace of Pleasure appeared in 1566, dedicated to the Earl of Warwick. It included sixty tales, and was followed in the next year by a second volume containing thirty-four others. A second, improved edition in 1575 contained seven further stories. Painter borrowed from Herodotus, Boccaccio, Plutarch, Aulus Gellius, Aelian, Livy, Tacitus, Quintus Curtius, Giovanni Battista Giraldi, Matteo Bandello,[4] Ser Giovanni Fiorentino, Giovanni Francesco Straparola, Queen Marguerite de Navarre and others.

The fashion for Italian settings that affected a noticeably large proportion of Elizabethan drama was in part due to the vogue for Painter's work and other, similar collections.

The early tragedies Appius and Virginia, and Tancred and Gismund were taken from The Palace of Pleasure. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Edward III, and All's Well That Ends Well are all derived from Painter's collections, the last from his translation of Giletta of Narbonne. Other playwrights also made extensive use of his work and that of similar contemporary translators, with these believed to have inspired well-known works such as Beaumont and Fletcher's Triumph of Death, John Webster's The Duchess of Malfi (from Belleforest), and James Shirley's Love's Cruelty.[3]

The Palace of Pleasure was edited by Joseph Haslewood in 1813. This edition was collated (1890) with the British Museum copy of 1575 by Joseph Jacobs, who added further prefatory matter, including an introduction on the importance of the Italian novella in Elizabethan drama.

It has been suggested that Painter was responsible for the 1580 work A Moorning Diti upon the Deceas of the High and Mighti Prins Henri, Earl of Arundel, attributed to Guil. P. G.[3]


Painter's contemporary namesake attended Cambridge between 1554 and 1557, but left without taking a degree. This William Painter was appointed headmaster of Sevenoaks School, Kent, in 1560. He was ordained as a deacon in the same year and later took up a post as Vicar of Grain, Kent, which he held until 1563. Like the more famous William Painter, he too undertook translations. He is known to have published one of William Fulke's Antiprognosticon. He died in about 1597, two years after his namesake, leaving a widow, Winifred. Both William Painters were buried in London, but the deacon was interred at St Mary Aldermanbury, to the west side of the City of London.


  1. "William Painter". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 3 March 2015.
  2. "Painter, William (PNTR554W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  3. Kelly, L. G. (2004). "Painter, William (1540?–1595)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/21135. Retrieved 6 July 2012. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  4. "The Project Gutenberg eBook of A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, by John W. Cousin". gutenberg.org. Retrieved 3 March 2015.


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