NORRIS, Sir John (c.1547-97), of Rycote, Oxon. and Yattendon and Notley, Berks.

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. c.1547, 2nd s. of Sir Henry Norris I and bro. of Edward, Sir Henry II and William. unm. Kntd. 1586.

Offices Held

MP [I] 1585.

Volunteer under Coligny 1571; capt. in Ulster 1573-5, in the Netherlands 1577-84; ld. pres. of Munster from 1584; gen. in the Netherlands Aug.-Dec. 1585; capt. under Leicester ?1585-8; commr. to inspect defences of channel coast Apr. 1588; gen. of the Portugal expedition 1589, of the army in Brittany 1591-2, 1593-4; j.p. Oxon. 1596.1


Sir John Norris, commonly known as ‘general’ or ‘black Jack’ Norris, was the most distinguished of Lord Norris’s six martial sons, and probably the ablest English soldier of his time. As a young man he seems to have spent some time in the care of Sir William Cecil, while his father was ambassador in France. It was while visiting his father during the clashes between the Catholics and the Huguenots, that he had his first experience of fighting, and he became an enthusiastic partisan of the protestant cause. He was the obvious choice for command of the first English troops in the Netherlands, where his early victories brought him a sudden rise to fame, showing that the Spaniards were ‘no devils’ and persuading Elizabeth to become more deeply involved in the struggle. For the rest of his life he remained a professional soldier, to whom Ireland presented opportunities for action when he was not needed elsewhere; from his first acquaintance with Ireland, he maintained that it could not ‘be brought to obedience but by force’. He had a streak of ruthlessness, which caused him to massacre the population of Carrickfergus which he captured in 1575, and a professional’s contempt for noble amateurs such as Leicester and the 2nd Earl of Essex.2

His relationship with the two Earls is the aspect of his military career which most concerns his return to Parliament. He was a valued captain in Ulster under the 1st Earl of Essex, and was recommended by both Knollys and Leicester for the captaincy in the Netherlands, Leicester describing him as the fittest ‘for birth, skill, courage, wisdom, modesty ... faithfulness to the Prince ... religion’ and, considering his youth, ‘good experience’. Yet, according to Sir Robert Naunton, the Knollyses competed with the Norrises for leadership in Oxfordshire and favour with the Queen, and Leicester, married to Sir Francis Knollys’s daughter Lettice, was the ‘pillar’ of that family; while Leicester lived, ‘none of the other side took deep rooting in court’, and thus, the Norrises were forced to live by the sword. Perhaps some such rivalry did grow up as Norris’s fame increased. After Leicester’s arrival in the Netherlands in December 1585, the English cause was undermined by a series of quarrels between the Earl and Norris, who returned to England early in 1588, proclaiming that he would never serve under Leicester again.3

If the Knollyses had hoped for this rift, they presumably did not intend the outcome: that in the autumn of 1588 Norris was in England and able to secure return to Parliament as knight for Oxfordshire along with Sir Francis Knollys. Norris’s service during the Armada threat perhaps increased his eligibility. He was used by the Privy Council to inspect the defences of the south coast and advise the lord lieutenants and the lord mayor of London. He was also the marshal of Leicester’s camp at Tilbury, where he escorted the Queen on her famous visit, but he was rarely at his post, and Leicester complained once more of his conduct.4

The Armada was barely past when Norris put forward a grandiose plan ‘to invade and destroy all who have attempted to invade England’. It may have been in connexion with this venture, for which Norris offered to find half of the £40,000 at which he estimated the cost, that the mayor of Oxford went to London in January 1589 ‘to talk with Sir John Norris touching provision of armour and powder’. Later that year the Portugal expedition set out with Norris and Drake in command, and for the rest of his life Norris had no opportunity to sit in Parliament. He is not mentioned by name in the records of the House, although he may have attended one committee as knight of the shire concerning the possessions of the bishop of Oxford, which was appointed on 13 Mar. 1589.5

Naunton considered that the Earl of Essex, Lettice Knollys’s son by her first marriage, inherited Leicester’s role as the agent of the Knollys family against Norris, who returned to Ireland in 1594, complaining to Sir Robert Cecil as he went, that ‘encouragement is given to my enemies to disgrace me when absent’. In Norris’s remaining years, wrote Naunton, Essex ‘not only crushed and upon all occasions quelled the growth of this brave man and his famous brethren; but therewith drew on his own fatal end, by undertaking the Irish action’. In August 1595, when denying that he had said that Essex neglected better captains than he rewarded, Norris was provoked to write to the Earl: ‘this often manner of expostulating with me makes me doubt that, because I have earnestly sought your good opinion, you do the more condemn me’.6

Incurable differences between Norris and the lord deputy, (Sir) William Russell, at length decided the Privy Council to recall both men. Norris, convinced that the Queen herself had at last turned against him, and suffering from a lame thigh and a ‘falling of rheum in the lungs’, asked for his recall to be hastened. Before relief came, he died at Mallow of gangrene, apparently on 3 July 1597 (though his inquisition post mortem states 28 Sept.) in the arms of his brother Thomas. The Queen wrote to his mother, advising her against ‘immoderate grief’. ‘Nature can have stirred no more dolorous affection in you as a mother for a dear son, than gratefulness and memory of his service past have wrought in us, his sovereign, apprehension of our miss of so worthy a servant’. She promised, perhaps with a slight sense of guilt, to show her ‘estimation of him that was, in our gracious care of you and yours that are left, in valuing rightly all their faithful and honest endeavours’. Norris is said to have been buried at Yattendon, Berkshire, a manor given to him by his father. He is commemorated in a monument in Westminster abbey. Administration of Norris’s estates was granted first in October 1597 to his brother, Sir Henry, then, upon his death, to Sir Edward Norris. When Sir Edward died it passed to Sir Francis Norris (October 1603) who renounced it.7

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: Alan Harding


  • 1. DNB; CP.
  • 2. G. Mattingly, Defeat of Spanish Armada, 59, 291; CSP For. 1566-8, p. 374; 1569-71, p. 96; 1575-7, p. 223; 1577-8, pp. 193, 201, 589; 1578-9, pp. 130-1.
  • 3. CSP Ire. 1509-73, p. 526; CSP For. 1577-8, p. 716; 1578-9, pp. 130-1; Birch, Mems. i. 37; Naunton, Fragmenta Regalia, ed. Arber, 39-40; HMC Hatfield, iii. 168-9; APC, xv. 176; Leycester Corresp. (Cam. Soc. xxvii), 222, 264, 301, 306, 379, 385; Mattingly, 59.
  • 4. CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 473, 511-12; APC, xv. 414; xvi. 20, 145; Mattingly, 294.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 545, 551; Oxf. Council Acts, ed. Salter (Oxf. Hist. Soc. lxxxvii), 53; D’Ewes, 445.
  • 6. Naunton, 41; CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 32; HMC Hatfield, v. 413-14; vi. 290-1.
  • 7. Birch, Mems. ii. 225; APC, xxvi. 421; xxvii. 89; CSP Ire. 1596-7, passim; C142/293/13; Nichols, Progresses Eliz. iii. 420; VCH Berks. iv. 127; PCC Admons. iv (Brit. Rec. Soc. Index Lib. lxxxi), 94.