CORNWALLIS, Sir Thomas (1518/19-1604), of Brome, Suff.
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Family and Education
b. 1518/19, 1st s. of Sir John Cornwallis, and bro. of Henry. educ. L. Inn, adm. 1539. m. by 1540, Anne, da. of Sir John Jerningham of Somerleyton, Suff. 2s. Sir Charles† and Sir William† 4da. suc. fa. 22 Apr. 1544. Kntd. 1 Dec. 1548.3
J.p. Suff. 1547, q. 1554; commr. relief 1550, goods of churches and fraternities 1553; other commissions 1550-68; sheriff, Norf. and Suff. 1552-3; PC Aug. 1553; treasurer, Calais Apr. 1554-Dec. 1557; comptroller of the Household Dec. 1557-Nov. 1558.4
The Cornwallis family had been established at Brome since the early 15th century and Thomas Cornwallis succeeded to considerable estates in Norfolk and Suffolk on the death of his father, steward of the household to Prince Edward. Cornwallis himself does not seem to have held any post in Edward’s household but on the prince’s accession he was named to the Suffolk bench and in 1548 he was knighted at Westminster.5
In 1549 Cornwallis helped the Marquess of Northampton to recover Norwich briefly from Robert Ket, but was later taken prisoner by the rebels and held until the city was relieved. In the autumn of 1552 he was pricked sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk and thus became involved in the succession crisis which followed the death of Edward VI. According to a list made by Cecil, Cornwallis was one of the Suffolk knights called upon to assist Lady Jane Grey, but on 15 July 1553 he swore allegiance to Mary and throughout her reign he was to be employed in posts of increasing responsibility. By the middle of August 1553 he had become a member of the Privy Council, and his wife had joined Mary’s household as a lady of the privy chamber. In October Cornwallis was sent with (Sir) Robert Bowes to settle border matters with the Scottish commissioners and in the early months of the following year he played a leading part in the suppression of Wyatt’s rebellion. About this time he was one of those responsible for bringing Princess Elizabeth from Ashridge to London. At the subsequent Council meeting at which it was proposed to send the princess out of England, Cornwallis was among those Catholics who sided with the Protestants in opposition and he was also to align himself with that party on the Council which was reported to have openly combined to fight bills on religion introduced in Parliament without its foreknowledge.6
In February 1554 the responsibilities of the Council were shared among its members in order to make it more effective, and Cornwallis was one of the group charged with garrison-maintenance, while he himself was made treasurer of Calais under his cousin, Sir Thomas Wentworth II, 2nd Lord Wentworth. His duties kept him fully occupied in France and he appeared infrequently at the Council except during the spring of 1555 when affairs of Calais were under review. In July 1557 he informed the Queen of the inadequacy of its defences. Later in the year he was recalled to take up the comptroller-ship of the Household following the death of Sir Robert Rochester, but he retained his interest in Calais until its surrender early in 1558. When in the spring the Count of Feria advised King Philip to try to negotiate for the return of Calais he suggested that Cornwallis should be one of the negotiators, ‘although he always makes difficulties about everything’. While trying to re-establish the staple in the Netherlands, Cornwallis promoted his own interests, in October 1558 obtaining a licence to export wool for six years.7
Cornwallis’s parliamentary career had begun in January 1552 with the by-election following the succession to the peerage of his cousin Wentworth: the Council had instructed that ‘grave and wise men’ should be elected to fill vacancies in the final session of that Parliament and the choice of Cornwallis indicates the confidence placed in him. His shrievalty may have debarred him from Membership of the Parliament of March 1553 but before his term of office had expired he was returned to Mary’s first Parliament for Gatton, a borough owned by the Copley family. As Cornwallis is not known to have had ties with the Copleys he was presumably elected there in response to official prompting, perhaps exercised through the sheriff, Sir Anthony Browne. On the list of Members for this Parliament Cornwallis was surprisingly, and perhaps mistakenly, included among those ‘who stood for the true religion’, that is, for Protestantism. In April 1554 a seat was found for him at Grampound, a duchy of Cornwall borough, following Thomas Prideaux’s decision to sit for Newport iuxta Launceston rather than Bodmin or Grampound where he had also been elected: Cornwallis’s kinsman John Sulyard replaced Prideaux at Bodmin. For the next three years Cornwallis was preoccupied with Calais and he was not to reappear in Parliament again until, following his appointment as comptroller of the Household, he was chosen knight of his own shire with the Speaker-designate, William Cordell. He played an active part in the House during the first session of the Parliament of 1558. The bill modifying regulations for the manufacture of cloth failed after its committal to him on 31 Jan. but two more significant bills committed to him on 25 Feb., for armour and for musters, were enacted. He was also a frequent bearer of bills to the Lords.8
At the accession of Elizabeth, Cornwallis was dismissed from office and retired to spend the remaining years of his long life at Brome Hall which he rebuilt. He was not left entirely undisturbed, being first made a ‘prisoner for matter of religion’ after the fall of the 4th Duke of Norfolk, whose feoffee he had been named in 1569 and of whose family his own had long been clients. On this occasion he conformed after conference with the dean of Westminster but within a few years he was again a recusant. He still enjoyed some favour at court, profiting especially from his long-standing friendship with Cecil, to whom from 1570 he was also related by marriage. After being confined in the home of his son-in-law Sir Thomas Kitson at the time of the Armada he was allowed to remain at home in Suffolk as a very old man who, except in matters of religion, had ‘not been known to have intermeddled in causes of the state’ and in 1600 he was given leave to receive into his household his brother William, a seminary priest who had been imprisoned in the Clink. Cornwallis made his will on 26 Mar. 1604, added a codicil on the following 6 Nov. and died on 27 Dec. He was buried in Brome church where a monument to his memory was erected near that of his parents.9
Ref Volumes: 1509-1558
Author: M. K. Dale
- 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament; Hatfield 207.
- 2. Bodl. e Museo 17.
- 3. Aged 71 in 1590 according to inscription on portrait. C142/70/20; Vis. Suff. ed. Metcalfe, 22; PCC 11 Pynnyng; P. McGrath and J. Rowe, ‘The recusancy of Sir Thomas Cornwallis’ Procs. Suff. Inst. Arch. xxviii. 226-71; DNB.
- 4. CPR, 1547-8, p. 89; 1550-3, pp. 141, 395; 1553, pp. 358, 387, 415; 1553-4, pp. 24, 177; 1569-72, p. 217; Machyn’s Diary (Cam. Soc. xlii), 162; APC, iv, vi passim.