BOWES, Sir William (d.1611), of Streatlam, co. Dur.

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

1st s. of Sir George Bowes by his 1st w.; bro. of Robert II and half-bro. of Talbot. educ. St. John’s, Camb. 1565; ?L. Inn 10 Feb. 1571. m. (1) Mary (d.1588), da. of Henry, 9th Lord Scrope, 1da.; (2) Isabel, da. of Christopher Wray, wid. of Godfrey Foljambe, s.p. suc. fa. Aug. 1580. Kntd. 1586.1

Offices Held

J.p. Cumb. 1579-82, Yorks. (N. Riding) 1583, q. by 1586-1601; j.p.q. Dur. bpric. by 1586-1601, Northumb. 1601; member, council in the north Nov. 1582; dep. warden, west march c.1585-92; steward, Marwood park, Barnard Castle by 1586; commr. for middle march 1595-6, border causes 1596-7; jt. (with Robert Bowes I) ambassador, Scotland Apr.-Nov. 1597, sole Jan.-Feb. 1598, May-July 1599; treasurer, Berwick-upon-Tweed 20 Apr. 1598-1603; member, high commission, York prov. 20 Nov. 1599; dep. steward, Richmondshire by June 1600.2


Becoming head of his family when he was aged about 30, Bowes in the following years had to sell or mortgage a large part of the family estates in county Durham and north Yorkshire to pay his father’s considerable debt to the Crown. From the lord president in the north, the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, who is known to have obtained two Bowes manors in county Durham, he immediately received ‘good countenance’. Appointment to a commission to survey border castles soon followed; and in 1582 he became one of the lord president’s council. Probably he was already son-in-law to Lord Scrope as well as his deputy warden when in 1585 he was joined with Scrope and others to investigate the murder of Lord Francis Russell. In 1588 he was singled out among the Durham gentlemen as specially deserving of the Queen’s thanks, and after Scrope’s death in 1592 an unidentified correspondent recommended him to Burghley for one or other of Scrope’s chief offices, the wardenry of the west march or else the captaincy of Carlisle. Both offices, however, were granted to Scrope’s son, and Bowes, influenced perhaps by the knowledge that his uncle Robert Bowes I, who had sat in six consecutive Parliaments, would not be returning to the House, went himself to Westminster as senior knight for the Earl of Cumberland’s hereditary sheriffwick. Experienced in border warfare, moderately puritan, and recognizable to a later age as an ‘establishment’ figure, he was just the type of Member who could be relied upon to support Burghley’s wish for stricter legislation against recusants and a subsidy large enough to counter the danger discerned in Scotland’s relations with Spain. He was named to the subsidy committee (26 Feb. 1593), to committees on the laws against recusants (28 Feb., 4 Apr.), and he could have attended a committee concerning lands (9 Mar.).3

The Parliament ended in April. In July the Queen, knowing him to be ‘faithful and wise’, decided that he should join his ailing uncle Robert Bowes I, who was in Scotland as ambassador resident and desirous of being recalled, but Sir William ‘made wonderful means to stay’ and the order was countermanded. The respite lasted until October 1595 when he was included in a commission to look into the administration of the middle march, where Sir John Forster was being superseded as warden by Lord Eure. While he was engaged in this business, and at the same time hoping for the success of his marriage suit to the widowed Mistress Foljambe—herself a generous maintainer of puritan preachers ‘where there were none, ... in the north, or in the Peak of Derbyshire, or other places’—the English and Scottish governments agreed to appoint commissioners to pacify the border areas. Eure and Robert Bowes separately advised Burghley to include Sir William in the commission, the ambassador pointing to his nephew’s ‘knowledge and experience of the treaties, laws and customs of the marches’ and the ‘practice and manner of their execution’. Burghley agreed, and in October 1596 the English commissioners, Bowes apparently their senior, were given their instructions.4

The halting progress of the mission can be followed in his long and frequent reports, some official, others private, to Burghley and Cecil. Inclined by nature to stand upon the letter of his instructions, Bowes was a formidable negotiator, ever mindful of the deference due to his sovereign—and hence to himself—and unshakeably insistent on the niceties of protocol. When checks occurred he satisfied his zest for work by ‘hearing multitudes of causes ... without intermission from nine o’clock till four every day’, while in the actual negotiations (as Eure reported) ‘Sir William Bowes with extraordinary diligence hath surpassed’. After his first visit to court he was instructed to deal directly with the King in the matter of the Scottish wardens, Buccleuch and Cessford, who had infringed his mistress’s sovereignty, and entrusted with ‘divers particulars not fit for paper’ to be imparted to James’s ear from the Queen herself. He crossed into Scotland, laden with responsibilities, shortly before the border commissioners on 5 May 1597 concluded the treaty of Carlisle.5

For the due observance of the treaty the two countries were to exchange hostages or pledges, Bowes being charged to see the exchange effected. Weeks of exhausting discussions, fully reported to Burghley and Cecil by the joint ambassadors, ended in a fruitless meeting at Norham, and Bowes went again to court for fresh instructions. A second, more protracted meeting at Norham broke up in disorder on 8 Oct. and Bowes returned to Berwick, but to the extent that Buccleuch voluntarily accompanied him the mission was counted a success. In the view of his fellow commissioner Bishop Matthews, few men but Bowes could ‘have walked so warily and so safely amid such thorns’ and as ‘discreetly as also strongly’ held their ground; but Bowes was weary of negotiating with a people who, as he expressed it, could and would say more for a falsehood than he would for the truth, and he asked to be relieved. He was also out of pocket. During a period for which he received but £33 out of an entitlement amounting to £326 (the remainder having been set against arrearages and rents due to the Crown) his outgoings had exceeded £600, as he was‘well able to show’. He therefore asked for £300 on account or the grant of an appropriate lease. This petition, like his request to be recalled, was of no effect: it ceased to matter when Robert Bowes I died and the Queen, on Cecil’s recommendation, appointed Sir William to be treasurer at Berwick.6

For some months, arranging the exchange of pledges continued to be his chief concern. Early in January 1598 he was sent to James with an angry, blistering letter from the Queen. A larger measure of success resulted, but at court in March he was charged with being dilatory and had to press hard for funds to pay the Berwick garrison in full when he entered on his office there. After stopping for a while in Derbyshire where his wife’s lands and her first husband’s debts had involved him in seemingly endless litigation, he reached Berwick in August and soon, to the Queen’s displeasure, left it to attend, as he explained, to the necessitous state of the people, and of his lead-mines, in his own cornery of west Durham. Hearing that the Queen proposed to employ him again in Scotland as ambassador he protested vigorously. Her Majesty, he hoped, would note that the house of Bowes had ‘stood in the same degree’ for 500 years and been much wealthier than it now was, yet he had paid above £30,000 towards his father’s debts. His sight was failing and his plain speaking suited neither the high place of ambassador nor the humour of the Scots. He was sent, nevertheless, in May 1599, with 13 pages of accusations against James as well as a general instruction to revive the English party in Scotland. His reports attest his diligence in an extremely difficult situation, but his loquacity wearied the King, who twice raged against him said he would never trust puritans for his sake, complained that ‘the Queen sent him never any honest men’ and that all he could get from Bowes were ‘fiffles fuffies’. The seizure of an Englishman in James’s service, and the spiriting of him out of the country in Bowes’s coach, put an end to his usefulness as ambassador and he was recalled in July, never to be so employed again. The story that the Queen called him ‘Sirrah’ over the affair was relished in Scotland.7

By advancing Bowes to the potentially lucrative treasurership of Berwick the Queen, as John Carey observed, was seen to be helping him to recover his lands, for ‘her Majesty is gracious and will suffer none to lose by her’. Yet it is conceivable that Bowes lost. His own pay was generally in arrear; money for the pay and other expenses of the garrison commonly came late; and every year he paid out more than he received. In three and a half years £52,500 passed through his hands. A later letter puts the sum at £80,000 for his whole term in office, and all of it accounted for. Such at least was his claim. Probably no one, not even Bowes himself, knew exactly what the position really was. At Berwick, ‘this costly postern’ of the kingdom, the administrative machinery was breaking down, struggles for power were relentless, rivalries intense, treasure and reputations equally at risk. Her Majesty should ‘look well to her treasurer’, advised Carey, who coveted the post. Another wrote of him as

so peremptory and spiteful to those he loves not, so full of ostentation to all, and so base in gross flattery and observance to my lord governor [Willoughby] that I wish there were in him less profession and more piety, fewer protestations and more performances, more religion with less show; lastly, that he would do better and speak worse.

Bowes retorted that his accusers were mightily befriended and himself half condemned before he was heard. By the end of 1600 he was worn down by the complaints against him, poor health, troublesome suits in law, losses in his ‘works’, and wishing only for an end to his ‘unquiet service in an unpleasant place’. Serving the Queen in Berwick, he wrote to Cecil, ‘will be attended by my ruin. Yet I stand clear in the matter of her treasure’. The Exchequer under Lord Buckhurst, no friend to Bowes, saw the matter differently, and it was not until after Buckhurst died that Bowes’s account was declared.8

His service ended with the Queen’s death. No favour was expected or received from her successor, the sovereign whom he had upbraided in her name. The pension granted to the dissolved establishment at Berwick was denied him, and on his death, at Walton, his wife’s seat, on 30 Oct. 1611 he was judged to be still in debt to the Crown. A short and uninformative will made his widow sole executrix and beneficiary, on condition that she was good to his nephew George Bowes (later knighted) of Biddic. As his brothers had predeceased him, Streatlam and the other estates passed to his eldest half-brother Talbot in accordance with the entail created by their father in 1569. A later agreement resulted in the Bowes estates being ‘pretty nearly evenly divided’ between Talbot and George. His widow afterwards married John, 3rd Baron Darcy.9

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: E.L.C.M.


  • 1. Durham Vis. Peds. ed. Foster, 38; Surtees, Durham, iv. 110; Shaw, Knights, ii. 84.
  • 2. APC, xiv. 244; HMC Hatfield, v. 430-1; ix. 396; x. 182, 288-9; CSP Scot. xii. 335, 530; Border Pprs. ii. 529.
  • 3. C. Cross, The Puritan Earl, 79; CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, pp. 17, 80-1, 152, 333-4; Border Pprs. i. 33, 163, 331; CSP Scot. viii. 63; ix. 39-42; D’Ewes, 474, 477, 496, 517.
  • 4. CSP Scot. x. 539; xi. 126-7; xii. 312; APC, xxvii. 139; HMC Hatfield, v. 430-1, 458-60; Border Pprs. ii. 59, 70, 80-1, 101-2, 205-6; Surtees, iv. 105.
  • 5. Border Pprs. ii. 249, 284; HMC Hatfield, vii. 80; CSP Scot. xii. 481, 488, 497, 502-3, 530.
  • 6. CSP Scot. xiii(1), p. xlvii; HMC Hatfield, vii. 274-5; Border Pprs. ii. 349, 350-5, 380, 394, 414-19, 437, 450, 465.
  • 7. HMC Hatfield, viii. 3-4, 314; Border Pprs. ii. 509-17, 525, 545, 575-7, 649; CSP Scot. xiii(1), pp. xx-xi, 455-61, 462, 466; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 222, 226, 252.
  • 8. Border Pprs. ii. 439, 450, 474-5, 669-70, 671, 706, 721-2; HMC Hatfield, x. 380.
  • 9. PCC 65 Capell; Wards 7/61/48; Durham Vis. Peds. 38; Surtees, iv. 105; CP, iv. 77.