MILDMAY, Sir Walter (bef.1523-89), of Apethorpe, Northants. and St. Bartholomew-the-Great, London.

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

b. bef. 1523, 4th s. of Thomas Mildmay of Chelmsford, Essex by his w. Agnes Read; bro. of Thomas I. educ. Christ’s, Camb. c.1537. m. 25 May 1546, Mary, da. of William Walsingham of Footscray, Kent, 2s. Anthony and Humphrey 3da. Kntd. 1547.1

Offices Held

Dep. receiver, ct. of augmentations by 1540, jt. auditor (with bro. Thomas), Norf., Suff., Cambs., Hunts., Essex, Herts., Mdx., London 1545-50, gen. surveyor 1547-54; jt. auditor, the King’s works 1543 (with bro. Thomas) duchy of Cornw. 1546-54; assistant treasurer, French war 1544; auditor, ct. of gen. surveyors of the King’s lands by 1545-7, duchy of Lancaster, north parts 1546-86; j.p. Essex 1547-53, Mdx. 1559-d., Northants. 1559-d. Hunts. c.1564-d.; treasurer, expedition to Calais 1558-9; chancellor of the Exchequer 5 Feb. 1559-d.; PC from July/August 1566; under-treasurer 1567-d.; jt. ld. lt. Hunts. 1569, ld. lt. 1587-d. 2


By November 1558 Mildmay was an experienced administrator with many years’ service in various financial courts. Though as a convinced protestant he voted against the government’s religious measures in the Parliament of October 1553, and was to some extent out of favour in Mary’s reign, he did not join his brother-in-law, Francis Walsingham, in voluntary exile. In fact he retained his chief offices and served on a number of Marian financial commissions.3 In Mary’s last House of Commons he represented Northamptonshire for the first time, continuing as knight of the shire in all the Elizabethan Parliaments until his death. In 1563, when Sir William Cecil sat for Northamptonshire, and in 1584 and 1586, when the senior Member was Sir Christopher Hatton, Mildmay had to be content with the second seat, but in his other Parliaments he took precedence of local men. Having begun as a borough Member in Henry VIII’s reign, he sat in the House of Commons 12 times—an impressive record, leading to a valuable knowledge of parliamentary procedure.

Though he attended a university and inn of court, Mildmay apparently neither graduated nor was called to the bar. His late admission to Gray’s Inn, when he was already in government service, may have been to gain such knowledge of the common law as would be useful in his auditor’s work. It is therefore the more interesting that in November 1583 he paid £550 for the site of the Black Friars at Cambridge, where, in the following January, he obtained the Queen’s licence to found Emmanuel College. The story of Elizabeth’s conversation with him in which she described Emmanuel as a ‘puritan foundation’ may be apocryphal, but the choice of Laurence Chaderton as first master of the college reflects Mildmay’s religious sympathies, and in the early years of Emmanuel many puritans sent their sons there. Mildmay also founded scholarships, a Greek lecture and a preachership at his old college of Christ’s. His collected parliamentary speeches show considerable literary ability, and he is said to have written Latin verses as well as a book called A Note to know a Good Man. His Memorial of precepts for his son Anthony was printed by a Victorian descendant.4

As befitted a brother-in-law of Francis Walsingham and Peter Wentworth, Mildmay in general supported puritanism, but more cautiously than they. William Fuller, a London gentleman who returned from Geneva at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign, visited him as one ‘whom of long time I had known to be so well affected to true religion that I had made him privy of my purpose of going to Geneva, and provoked him also to go (that said he fain would but could not)’. Mildmay’s sympathy with puritanism combined with his reverence for the monarchy, his financial and administrative ability, and his quality as an orator, made him a leading Privy Councillor in the House of Commons. The recurrent themes of his speeches were the ‘preservation of the cause of religion’ and the Queen’s safety, and his Elizabethan career was devoted to strengthening these ‘twin pillars’ of state security. His fellow puritan Sir Nicholas Throckmorton thought highly enough of him to recommend him to Elizabeth on her accession, as Cecil’s colleague in the secretaryship. No notice was taken of Throckmorton’s advice.5

During the early years of the reign Mildmay’s work was financial. On the death of Sir John Baker in December 1558, the lord treasurer, the Marquess of Winchester, advised Cecil to have Mildmay appointed as chancellor of the Exchequer. However, it is unlikely that Cecil, a former contemporary of Mildmay at Cambridge and his colleague in Edward VI’s government, needed the recommendation. The chancellor’s duties were mainly to deputise for the lord treasurer in the day-to-day business of the Exchequer, and these duties Mildmay shared with another ex-colleague from his period in the augmentations, Sir Richard Sackville. They heard accounts, assigned debts, paid allowances and surveyed land. The chancellor’s office was not sufficiently senior to carry automatic membership of the Privy Council, and there is no evidence that Mildmay had any hand in deciding overall financial policy, but as an acknowledged expert he sat on all the important commissions, including those to consider the recoinage and the repayment of crown debts; the sale of crown lands; and the financial affairs of Ireland. It looks as if much of the preparation of information for such commissions fell to Mildmay, who must thus have had considerable indirect influence on their decisions.

He sympathized with the policy of retrenchment and reform which he was instructed to carry out, but he needed tact to avoid offending either the Queen or courtiers. For example, in 1566 the Earl of Leicester was negotiating an exchange of lands with Elizabeth who, after approving the project, took exception to the property which he chose. As the official through whom the matter was settled, Mildmay had a difficult task. In July of the same year the Queen showed her appreciation of his services by hunting and dining with him on her progress through the Midlands. Later in the month he was sworn a member of the Privy Council, his first recorded attendance being in October. Soon after Sackville’s death, Mildmay was allowed to combine the under-treasurer’s duties with his own—useful, since it provided a link between the upper and lower Exchequer. Winchester’s growing infirmity left control increasingly in his hands. When Cecil became lord treasurer he and Mildmay worked together amicably, being agreed on the necessity for economy, and of avoiding two dangerous methods of acquiring ready money—the sale of crown lands and the raising of short-term loans at high interest. At least temporarily, Mildmay was able to achieve the results he desired. He died just early enough to avoid seeing his system crumble before the demands of war on the treasury: late in 1589 land sales were resumed on a large scale.6

Gradually Mildmay was drawn into wider discussions of Council policy, and many of his letters survive on Scottish affairs. In 1568 he was mentioned as a probable commissioner to treat between the Queen of Scots and her subjects, but Sir Ralph Sadler was chosen. In all, Mildmay was appointed a commissioner for Scotland four times, but he was never allowed to go there, though the Scottish government would have welcomed him. He met Mary Stuart more than once, visiting her at Chatsworth with Cecil when she claimed to have important information for Elizabeth. After the northern rising, during which Mildmay was temporarily appointed lord lieutenant of Huntingdonshire, he was one of those who examined Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, and in 1571, at the time of the Norfolk marriage plot, he interviewed Mary’s agent, the bishop of Ross, and Lord Lumley. He also helped to prepare the evidence against Norfolk himself and was present at his trial. This must have been an unpleasant duty; he was on friendly terms with the Duke, who asked that after the execution Mildmay should have some of his fine glass and gold spoons with pearl handles. When in 1586 Elizabeth finally agreed to have Mary tried, Mildmay went to Fotheringay and informed her of the decision: he was appointed one of the commissioners for the trial. He played a leading part in Council discussions on such topics as the negotiations for Elizabeth’s marriage and English policy in the Netherlands: on both these matters he supported the Leicester-Walsingham section of the Council.7

No activity is recorded for Mildmay in Elizabethan Parliaments until his appearance on the succession and subsidy committees in October/November 1566, some three months after he had become a Privy Councillor. Thenceforth he was active in all his parliaments, including all three sessions of that of 1572. He is recorded as serving on 10 committees in 1571; 11 in 1572; 14 in 1576; 23 in 1581; 22 in 1584-5; 6 in 1586-7; 2 in 1589. His first recorded speech came in the last minutes of the 1571 Parliament when he suggested that as Members

were met together in peace and love, [he] did wish they should so depart; and that no advantage should be taken of any words there passed, but all to the best.

In 1572 he took part in the debates on Mary Queen of Scots, and on financial matters, but he is not recorded as speaking during the radical efforts to establish the legality of puritan rites. Though later, when faced with Whitgift’s rigidity, he clearly showed his puritan sympathies in the House, he was evidently not prepared to support the measures advocated by his brother-in-law Peter Wentworth. Like Walsingham, Mildmay saw the religious problem against a European background, and was aware of the danger of protestant divisions when the Catholics threatened.

From 1576 he began to act as one of the government spokesmen in the House, four speeches being recorded in this session, and seven in 1581. At the beginning of the 1584-5 Parliament (on 28 Nov.) he ‘used a speech for the space of one hour and more’, which, in Recorder Fleetwood’s words, ‘tended to a generality’ on the subject of the Queen’s safety. Altogether in this Parliament he spoke at least 15 times, in 1586-7 five times, and in 1589 three. His opening speech in the debate on supply, 10 Feb. 1576, set a pattern of orderly presentation which he often afterwards followed: how the Queen had found the realm, ‘how she hath restored and conserved it’, and ‘how we stand now’. In contrast to the ‘wretched time and wretched ministers’ of Mary’s reign, he pointed to the financial re-organization of the early years of Elizabeth, reminding the House that the Crown’s debts to London merchants and others had been met, and that in spite of all the efforts of the Pope, ‘the most principal and malicious enemy of this State’, England now stood ‘in wealth and in all prosperity ... and, that which is the greatest, we enjoy the freedom of our consciences, delivered from the bondage of Rome’. He had the gift of imparting details to Members to bring home the seriousness of the financial position: in a similar speech in 1585 he told them that Ireland alone, since the last Parliament, had consumed the whole grant then made for defence, and more. He worked on the anti-Catholic feeling of the House, and its devotion to the Queen, and he was a master of peroration:

for such a Queen and such a country, and for the defence of the honour and surety of them both, nothing ought to be so dear unto us that with most willing hearts we should not spend and adventure freely.

Over religion, he steered a course between an official position as Privy Councillor and support for puritan objections to the Elizabethan religious settlement. Outside Parliament he gave his personal beliefs freer expression—as when he secured Chaderton’s appointment at Emmanuel, or in 1574 signed a letter to Bishop Parkhurst of Norwich asking him to allow ‘prophesyings’ to continue. He supported the puritan petitions in the 1576 House of Commons, joining Hatton, Walsingham and Thomas Wilson in approaching the bishops about them before the next meeting of Parliament early in 1581; and when that session also failed to achieve any results, he gave Walsingham a series of ‘reform articles’ to bring privately before the Queen. During the 1581 debates on the petitions he intervened to blame the ‘negligence and slackness’ of leading bishops for the failure to redress puritan grievances, refusing to admit that the Queen herself was one of the main obstructions to the measure. When tempers rose high and the more ardent Members wanted a delegation, or the whole House, to go to Elizabeth about the matter, Mildmay persuaded them instead to ask the Speaker, in his closing oration, to give the Queen their humble and dutiful thanks, and put her ‘in remembrance for the execution and accomplishment of her promise at her good pleasure’. In 1584 he was responsible for having a committee appointed to study the puritan petitions from the localities and to approach the House of Lords. When, however, a revolutionary measure—Cope’s bill and book—was introduced into the Commons early in 1587, Mildmay joined Hatton and the solicitor-general in attacking it. He stressed the poor judgment and inexperience shown in the bill, and the danger in its proposal to sweep away old laws ‘made so many years past, even from the statute of Magna Carta’. He doubted whether a ‘mere popular election’ of ministers would produce more worthy men. However, he was a strong advocate of a learned ministry: in an earlier Parliament, following a point made by Francis Alford that 2,000 parishes had livings worth only £8 a year, he interjected, ‘There is none of £8 in the Queen’s books, but is worth £20. Besides, who will not contribute to a learned minister?’.

During the 1586-7 Parliament, Mildmay was still junior to Sir Christopher Hatton, but in 1589, when Hatton sat in the Lords, Mildmay made the main government speech on supply, 11 Feb. His son-in-law William Fitzwilliam jotted down its main points, headed ‘Notes touching the Spanish enterprise against England’.

The fire kindled long and carefully nourished by the Pope and his ministers ... broke forth into a terrible and dangerous flame [causing] rebellion in the north, rebellion in Ireland, invasion there, the great king, as they call him, of Spain, his last great navy sent hither this summer with forces from the Duke of Parma out of Flanders, aid from the Duke of Guise out of France. [But] the mighty hand of God, the providence of the Queen’s Majesty; her invincible courage; the magnanimity and constancy of the nobility, the fidelity and readiness of the people; the Queen’s forces by sea; her forces by land; the goodness of the quarrel; the defence of the gospel and the realm; the prayers of good people; the honourable and good dealing of the King and realm of Scotland, tied unto us with bond of religion [had caused] their whole enterprise [to be] disappointed, and that so soon as her Majesty may say, as Caesar did, veni, vidi, vici. [But] this storm is over ... the clouds nevertheless remain still ... wise mariners after a dangerous storm provide to resist another that may follow, doubting the second may be worse than the former ... so we, having overcome this first attempt of our enemies ... we are to think upon a second from enemies ... so proud ... they will seek to repair the credit they have lost ... and therefore provision is to be made [for] a great mass of treasure ... the last contribution not [being] able to bear out half the charge.

Before the next House of Commons met, Mildmay was dead. Perhaps some of the troubles of the last three Parliaments of the reign might have been mitigated if the Councillors in the Commons had been as experienced and respected as Mildmay and Hatton. One reason why Members were prepared to follow his lead was his sense of the dignity of the Commons. He was the perfect spokesman for delegations to the Lords:

They would yield unto their Lordships all dutiful reverence so far as the same were not prejudicial to the liberties of their House, which it behoved them to leave to their posterity in the same freedom they received them.

Again, his respect for Elizabeth did not make him blind to the danger of royal power. In 1576, during discussions on the Lords bill allowing the Queen to settle by proclamation the kind of apparel to be worn, he warned Members that ‘it is seen by daily experience that of precedents great hold is taken, especially in the case of Princes’.[footnote]

Mildmay’s work in the Exchequer left him little time to live as a country gentleman. On various occasions he received extensive land grants in the home counties and the west of England, but this was property speculation. Little information survives about his private life. His will indicates that he managed his own affairs with the same efficiency that he showed over the nation’s finances. His last illness must have been short, for he was active in Parliament and on Council business up to the end of March 1589, and died on 31 May. He was buried in St. Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield. His will, drawn up at the beginning of April, left in cash bequests nearly £4,600, and plate valued at little short of £2,000. He bequeathed his soul to God, ‘being most certainly persuaded that my sins, which be grievous and heavy, are forgiven and my election sealed up in the only blood and merit of my Lord and Saviour’. His executors were ‘to avoid such vain funeral pomp as the world by custom in the time of darkness hath long used, a thing most unfit for us Christians that do profess sincerely the gospel’. The masters and fellows of Emmanuel received £200, as well as the £30 additional bequest of plate made to the college: his own old college, Christ’s, was bequeathed £20. There were many legacies to the poor of London and other places where Mildmay owned property. The ‘poor preachers’ of Northamptonshire received £20, two ministers, White and Clarke, being remembered by name. Specific bequests to servants amounted to £345. The list of court personalities in the will was headed by the Queen, who was to have a jewel worth £100, and included Lord Burghley, the Earl of Huntingdon, Lord Buckhurst and, among Members of the House of Commons, Sir Francis Walsingham, Sir Francis Knollys, Henry Killigrew and Thomas Randolph. The executors were Walsingham, Edward Carey and William Dodington.8

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: S. M. Thorpe


  • 1. Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 452-4; Marriage Licences in Faculty Office (Harl. Soc. xxiv), 7; PCC 51 Leicester; J. H. Round, Family Origins, 62-3.
  • 2. LP Hen. VIII, xviii(1), p. 365; xx(2), pp. 554-5; xxi(1), p. 774; xxi(2), p. 409; Somerville, Duchy, i. 437; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 97; Northants. RO, Westmorland (Apethorpe), box 1, bdle. 1, no. 16; CPR, 1558-60, p. 57; 1566-9, p. 274; cal. patent rolls 1-16 Eliz. PRO 9(11), 218.
  • 3. Bodl. e Museo 17; CPR, 1553-4, pp. 196, 300-2; 1555-7, pp. 23, 304-5; 1557-8, p. 73.
  • 4. DNB ; J. Peile, Biog. Reg. Christ’s Coll. i. 24-5; Shuckburgh, Hist. Emmanuel, 26.
  • 5. A. Peel, Second Parte of a Reg. ii. 58; Sloane 326 passim; EHR, lxv. 96.
  • 6. CPR, 1558-60, 1560-3, 1563-6 passim; CSP Dom. 1547-80 and Add. 1547-65 ; Add. 1566-79, pp. 2-4; HMC 10th Rep. IV, 3; Lansd. 171, f. 408; Read, Cecil, 353; W. C. Richardson, Ct. of Augmentations, 453, 456-65.
  • 7. DNB ; Sir H. Nicolas, Hatton; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 295-7 et passim; 1581-90, pp. 20-139 passim; N. Williams, Duke of Norfolk, 233, 248.
  • 8. CSP Dom. Add. 1547-65, p. 407; CPR, 1560-3, p. 261; PCC 51 Leicester.