FITZWILLIAM, Sir William I (c.1490-1542), of Cowdray, Suss. and London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. c.1490, 3rd s. of Sir Thomas Fitzwilliam (d.1498) of Aldwark, Yorks. by Lucy, da. and coh. of John Neville, Marquess of Montagu; half-bro. of Sir Anthony Browne. m. Nov. 1513, Mabel, da. of Henry, 10th Lord Clifford, d.s.p.; 1s. illegit. Kntd. 25 Sept. 1513; KG nom. 24 Apr., inst. 6 May 1526; cr. Earl of Southampton 18 Oct. 1537.2

Offices Held

Gent. usher 1509; King’s cupbearer 1509; esquire of the body 1513, knight by 1515; j.p. Surr. 1514-d., Mdx., Kent 1520, nearly all counties 1531-d.; v.-adm. 1520, 1522-3; ambassador to France Jan. 1521-Jan. 1522; Councillor by Apr. 1522; jt. master of ordnance, Calais 1522; capt. Guisnes 1523-6; lt. Calais castle 1526-30; treasurer, Household 1525-39; chancellor, duchy of Lancaster 3 Nov. 1529-d.; high steward, Oxf. Univ. 1532-d.; commr. tenths of spiritualities, Surr. 1535; ld. adm. 1536-40; trier of petitions in the Lords, Parlts. of 1539 and 1542; ld. privy seal 1540-d.; lt. and capt.-gen. in the north 1542; numerous minor offices.3


William Fitzwilliam, a younger son in a cadet branch of a relatively undistinguished Yorkshire family, was probably chosen at the age of ten as a companion for Prince Henry as a result of his mother’s second marriage to Sir Anthony Browne, the King’s standard-bearer and constable of Calais. After receiving a sound education with the prince he passed the first ten years of Henry VIII’s reign as an athletic young courtier, increasingly employed in positions of trust. In 1512 he took part in the 2nd Marquess of Dorset’s abortive invasion of Guienne and followed this with service in the fleet under Sir Edward Howard; in the brave but reckless action off Brest which cost the admiral his life Fitzwilliam was ‘sore hurt’ by a crossbow. He next went with the King to France, leading a company of the King’s guard, and in September was knighted at Tournai. In November the King attended his marriage to Mabel Clifford, a gentlewoman to Queen Catherine.4

Fitzwilliam’s career during the years which followed is liable to confusion with that of a namesake, the treasurer of Wolsey’s household: both were associated with Calais and both became members of the Council, but it was probably the courtier who was appointed to sit in the Star Chamber in 1517. By 1520 Fitzwilliam was vice-admiral to the Earl of Surrey and as such was responsible for fitting out the transport to the Field of Cloth of Gold and providing a convoy for the King’s own passage. He attended the King both on that occasion and at the meeting with Charles V at Gravelines in the following July. He had taken his own first steps in diplomacy in 1518, accompanying the embassy to France headed by the 1st Earl of Worcester and the bishop of Ely. In January 1521 he replaced Sir Richard Jerningham as resident ambassador there. He gave high satisfaction to Wolsey, who praised him to Henry VIII, and the King himself congratulated Fitzwilliam on ‘the diligent and substantial acquittal’ of his task. His long-awaited recall came in January 1522 after an attack of colic and fever.5

On his return Fitzwilliam was promptly immersed in preparations for war against France, his special responsibility as vice-admiral being to prepare the ships at Portsmouth. He was in the force led by the Earl of Surrey which burned towns, villages and castles from Calais to Picardy. When criticized in the following year for failing to set sail he wrote a spirited letter to the King saying that he could not make ships sail without wind, or cables hold where they would not, ‘and in case my lord admiral can, I would be right glad to learn in that behalf’. In July 1523 he defeated a Scottish-French squadron off Boulogne and ravaged the French coast but failed to stop the Duke of Albany’s passage from France to Scotland. Although Wolsey thought that he had done all he could, Fitzwilliam wished he had done more: the Scots had killed his two elder brothers, Thomas and John, at Flodden, and he would have been glad, he said, ‘to do the Scots some displeasure for their cracks and high words’.6

In 1522 Fitzwilliam had been appointed joint master of the ordnance at Calais and in 1523 captain of Guisnes. In May 1525 he was sent with Sir Robert Wingfield on a special embassy to Margaret of Savoy to convey Wolsey’s latest notion, the partition of France, and in September he went with Dr. John Tayler to Louise of Savoy to receive her oath of ratification to the treaty of the More. When Fitzwilliam again fell ill and was recalled, Tayler explained to Wolsey how deeply his loss would be felt, as ‘a wise, discreet and sober man’ who ‘hath the language of the French tongue’. By October 1525 Fitzwilliam had become treasurer of the Household and by 1526 a member of the inner ring of royal Councillors.

His ascendancy was confirmed by his admission to the order of the Garter in 1526, and in the same year the city of London admitted him to the freedom ‘in whatever mystery or craft he likes, paying nothing’. His next appointment, as lieutenant of Calais castle, meant that he could be readily sent on embassies to France; he was there in 1526-7 trying to negotiate a closer alliance and to promote a marriage for Princess Mary, and again in 1529, this time with the Duke of Suffolk, to forestall a peace which would lessen the chance of obtaining the King’s divorce.7

During Wolsey’s last years of power Fitzwilliam stood close to the cardinal, acting as his channel of communication with the King. Their relationship was not purely official: Fitzwilliam sent Wolsey a gift of his wife’s ‘housewifery’, ‘made him good sport’ in Windsor forest and undertook to cover up for the minister if he failed to attend to the matter of a household appointment. He none the less subscribed to the articles presented by the Lords as did More and others of the Household; article 12, which charged Wolsey with conducting diplomacy single-handed, Fitzwilliam signed separately, but as he had been personally involved he could hardly deny its truth even if the implication of deceit was unfair. He was present when Wolsey surrendered the great seal. As late as the following June he was among those at court who were still ‘asking heartily’ after the cardinal.

Fitzwilliam’s career in the Commons may well have begun in 1523, or even earlier, but the loss of names for these Parliaments leaves this a matter of speculation. His election in 1529 as knight of the shire for Surrey must certainly have had the King’s approval, if indeed it was not the King’s doing: Fitzwilliam was probably with him at Windsor when delivery of some of the writs was being arranged, and unlike his fellow-Member Sir Nicholas Carew he had as yet no strong affiliation with the county. What little is known of his role in the House suggests that it was chiefly that of spokesman for the crown, although in 1531 he helped Southampton to secure an Act (22 Hen. VIII 20) reducing its fee-farms. When in the course of the first session the House complained to the King of Bishop Fisher’s imputation that Members were heretics, it was Fitzwilliam who brought back the King’s answer, ‘which blind excuse pleased the Commons nothing at all’. He was one of the knights and doctors in Parliament who signed the petition of July 1530 to the pope for the divorce and he was present at Westminster when the clergy made their submission in May 1532. As ‘Mr. Treasurer’, he was included in a list compiled by Cromwell probably in December I534 and thought to be of Members connected with the treasons bill then passing through Parliament. In 1535 he visited Calais with his former commander Surrey, now 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and the results of this and earlier commissions of inquiry were incorporated in a bill prepared by Fitzwilliam and enacted in the last session of the Parliament (27 Hen. VIII, c.63). During the following Parliament his presence in the House was noted when another Calais matter was debated and towards its close John Hussee observed that Chancellor Audley, Cromwell and Fitzwilliam had all been too preoccupied with ‘the weighty matters of the Parliament’ to settle a dispute over an office there: his constituency is unknown but he had almost certainly been re-elected for Surrey in accordance with the King’s request for the return of the previous Members.8

Fitzwilliam’s duties in the Household were not onerous, and he was appointed in turn to greater and more demanding offices: in 1529 he succeeded More as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, in 1536 he replaced the Duke of Richmond as admiral and in 1540 he followed Cromwell as lord privy seal. If his unbroken progress is proof of his ability to avoid pitfalls, his attitude towards the great issues of these years is, perhaps understandably, less clear. It was as a ‘very friend’ of Cromwell that he was asked by More to intercede with the minister in 1533, whereas Chapuys took him to be ‘a good servant of the Princess Mary’ and a secret opponent of the divorce. To this piece of wishful thinking Fitzwilliam’s conduct lent little or no colour: in 1530 he was sent with Suffolk to cajole or bully the university of Oxford into support for the divorce, in 1531 he was one of the Councillors who exhorted the Queen not to make her appeal to Rome and two years later he witnessed the King’s appeal to a future general council against his threatened excommunication. Only during the tense summer of 1536 was he momentarily at risk: as one of the commissioners who had sought vainly to persuade the princess to submit he incurred the King’s anger and was for a time excluded from the Council. He redeemed himself by the vigour with which he acted during the northern rebellion, and in the following year he was ennobled. A certain ruthlessness, allied to cunning, also marked Fitzwilliam’s dealings with offenders of higher degree. Henry Norris complained that Fitzwilliam had tricked him into a confession of Anne Boleyn’s adultery. In 1538 he interrogated (Sir) Geoffrey Pole and his mother the Countess of Salisbury, and 18 months later it was Cromwell’s turn to face him. His last such investigation was that of 1541 when with Thomas Wriothesley he inquired into Catherine Howard’s upbringing.9

In 1539 Fitzwilliam had been in charge of the mobilization of the country in case of invasion, a task which he combined with that of supervising the choice of Members to the Parliament of that year in Hampshire, Surrey and Sussex. His reports to Cromwell show that, while aware that Godalming and Petworth were not parliamentary boroughs, he believed the bishop of Winchester’s borough of Farnham to be one although it is only known to have made an isolated return in 1460. Fitzwilliam became a regular attender in the House of Lords. As admiral in 1540 he introduced the measure enacted as the Navigation Act (32 Hen. VIII, c.14). In the same year he was one of the committee which dealt with the Commons over the nullity of the Cleves marriage, and on 11 Feb. 1542 he reported for the commission from the Lords which, on Audley’s suggestion, visited Catherine Howard before her attainder. In 1539 he had received Anne of Cleves at Calais, whence he wrote to the King in praise of her beauty. Henry VIII’s disappointment nearly cost Fitzwilliam his reputation and standing, although he made the excuse that it would not have helped to disabuse the King at so late a stage. It was Fitzwilliam whom the King sent with Suffolk and Wriothesley to tell the Queen of his wish for a divorce, and in the subsequent proceedings he was a witness that the King lacked the will and power to consummate the marriage. As lord privy seal Fitzwilliam signed Anne’s letters of consent to the divorce and afterwards assisted her to establish her own household.10

Fitzwilliam greatly augmented the inheritance he had received from his father and mother. His principal seat, Cowdray, he bought in 1528 for nearly £2,200 although he did not occupy it until 1535. At the Dissolution he received the entire holdings of Boxgrove priory, Durford priory, Easebourne nunnery, Shulbrede abbey and Waverley abbey, and had a lease of Chertsey abbey lands. In 1537 there followed grants of lands in Devon, Northamptonshire and Somerset, and in 1540, after the attainder of the Countess of Salisbury, of her manors of Chalton and Warblington. His first town house was in Cannon Row, but in 1539 he acquired the bishop of Bath’s house in the Strand, a transaction confirmed by Act of Parliament (31 Hen. VIII, c.25). The value of his property after the Dissolution has been estimated at over £1,000 a year, to which must be added his income from wardships, fees and offices.11

Fitzwilliam died as he had lived, on active service. Appointed to command against the Scots in 1542, he had to travel to Newcastle in a litter and died on 15 Oct., three days after his arrival. In the will which he made on 10 Sept. he had asked to be buried, if he were to die within 100 miles of Midhurst, in a new chapel to be built in the church there: the chapel was built, but without a tomb, so that he was probably buried at Newcastle. To the King, whom he appointed his overseer, he gave his ‘great ship with all her tackle and apparel and also my collar of the Garter with my best George and a tabernacle of silver and gilt beset with stones and mother of pearl’, and to his friends, relations and household servants he made gifts of money and plate. He left no legitimate child, and his entailed lands passed to his half-brother Sir Anthony Browne. His heirs were a niece and a great-nephew Godfrey Foljambe. A drawing of Fitzwilliam by Holbein survives.12

This biography rests on R. E. Brock, ‘The courtier in early Tudor soc.’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1964) and D. F. Vodden, ‘The corresp. of William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton’ (London Univ. M.Phil. thesis, 1972).

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: S. R. Johnson


  • 1. LP Hen. VIII, xi. 34, 94.
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from career. Vis. Yorks. (Harl. Soc. xvi), 128; CP; NRA 11233, BA16.
  • 3. Somerville, Duchy, i. 394; Hall, Chron. 827; D. Gladish, Tudor Privy Council, 140; E371/300/47; Surr. Arch. Colls. xxvi. 141; LJ, i. 103, 165.
  • 4. Hunter, S. Yorks. ii. 54; Holinshed, Chron. iii. 575.
  • 5. W. C. Richardson, Tudor Chamber Admin. 260n.; G. Cavendish, Wolsey (EETS, ccxliii), 245; C. M. Clode, Merchant Taylors’ Co., ii. 51; Lansd. 1(44), ff. 108, 110; Chron. Calais (Cam. Soc. xxxv), 110.
  • 6. Chron. Calais, 32-33; Hunter, ii. 55.
  • 7. A. F. Pollard, Wolsey, 148; City of London RO, Guildhall, jnl. 12, f. 351v; rep. 7, f. 107v; Gladish, 140; Elton, Tudor Rev. in Govt., 57.
  • 8. J. J. Scarisbrick, ‘The conservative episcopate in Eng. 1529-35’ (Camb. Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1956), 96-97; Hall, 766; LP Hen. VIII, vii. 1522(ii) citing SP1/87, f. 106v.
  • 9. Herbert, Hist. Eng. 511.
  • 10. LJ, i. 105, 106, 108, 138, 146; Hall, 832.
  • 11. Suss. N. and Q. xiv. 181; C142/70/28, 29, 56; P. M. Hembry, Bps. of Bath and Wells 1540-1640, p. 67.
  • 12. PCC 16 Spert; Holbein (The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 1978-9), 57-59.