VILLERS, Sir John (1485/86-1544), of Brooksby, Leics.
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Family and Education
b. 1485/86, o.s. of Sir John Villers of Brooksby by Agnes, da. of John Digby of Coleshill, Warws. m. by 1520, Elizabeth, da. of John Winger of London, 1da.; 1s. illegit. suc. fa. 29 Sept. 1506. Kntd. 1515/19.2
Commr. subsidy, Leics. 1512, 1514, 1515, 1523, 1524, musters, 1539; other commissions 1530-d.; j.p. Leics. 1514-d.; sheriff, Leics. and Warws. 1531-2, 1537-8; knight of the body by 1532-33 or later.3
The family of Villers, or Villiers as it was later called, had been established in Leicestershire, with its principal seat at Brooksby, since at least the 13th century. John Villers had livery of his father’s lands in December 1507; they comprised the family’s main property in Leicestershire worth £95 a year, manors and lands in Lincolnshire valued at £25 a year, and further lands in Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. Shortly after his father’s death Villers was bound in £100 to pay 500 marks to the crown by five annual instalments, but the recognizance was discharged in 1517 with £300 still due to the crown. He took part in the funeral obsequies for Henry VII, and was among those regularly summoned by the new King to such state occasions as the Field of Cloth of Gold and the meeting with Charles V at Gravelines in 1520. In the autumn of 1522 he served in the Picardy campaign. He returned to France ten years later for Henry VIII’s meeting with Francis I at Calais.4
As a leading gentleman of his county Villers had been appointed a justice of the peace in 1514 and remained on the commission for the rest of his life; his name appeared first on the sheriff roll as early as 1512, although he was not pricked sheriff until 1531. He was to develop into one of the most active and reliable servants of the government in the county. One of the special commissioners appointed to try the Lincolnshire rebels in March 1537, he played his part with zeal, if not relish: as Sir William Parr reported to Cromwell, ‘until ... executions were done at Horncastle and Louth ... Sir John Villers and Sir John Markham would in no wise depart’. In the following January Villers was one of three commissioned by Cromwell to take and imprison the vicar of Sproxton, Leicestershire, who was suspected of sedition.5
Villers for his part, it appears, was not without blame for the prevalent disorder. A number of complaints against him of lawless behaviour have survived. In one from the 1520s Thomas Grey, 3rd Marquess of Dorset, reporting to Wolsey on the disturbed state of the county, cited Villers’s behaviour as a bad example. Dorset’s brother Leonard had had two tame harts killed by Villers’s servants, and when Villers was indicted for his part in the affair [he] who was wont to ride with eight or nine horses at the most came to town with 26 or 30 well weaponed and himself a sword and buckler by his side who never used to ride with one before and set him down upon the bench the said sword and buckler by his side facing and braving the quest with his adherents so that justice could take no place.It may have been this incident which called for the pardon granted to Sir John and William Villers in July 1529. A fellow-executor of Villers, suing him in the Star Chamber in 1539, alleged misappropriation of the deceased’s goods and continual lawlessness by Villers and his servants, which was never punished owing to his power in the county.6
The Greys were one of the two leading noble families in Leicestershire, and Villers’s hostility to them implies that he adhered to their rivals the Hastings, although there is no known alliance or other close connexion between him and that family, nor would Villers have needed its patronage, even if it had not been in temporary eclipse, to secure his return to the Parliament of 1539. Of more value was his friendship with the 1st Earl of Rutland, for his fellow-knight, John Digby, was, or was soon to become, a servant of Rutland. (Like Digby, Villers may have already sat in Parliament, for it is not known who had sat for the county in 1536.) If Villers had needed government backing, he could doubtless have counted on the support of Cromwell, for whom he had performed much service. Of his role in the Parliament which was to witness the minister’s downfall nothing is known; it was during the prorogation between the second and third sessions that he was present at the reception of Anne of Cleves in January 1540.