UNTON, Henry (c.1558-96), of Wadley, 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.1558, 2nd s. of Sir Edward Unton of Wadley by Lady Anne Seymour (d.1588), da. of Edward, Duke of Somerset, wid. of John Dudley, 2nd Earl of Warwick; bro. of Edward. educ. Oriel, Oxf. supp. BA Oct. 1573; M. Temple 1575. m. 1580, Dorothy (d.1634), da. of Thomas Wroughton of Broad Hinton, Wilts., s.p. suc. bro. 1589. Kntd. 1586.

Offices Held

Keeper of Cornbury park, Oxon. 1583, j.p.q. from c.1583, dep. lt. 1587-93, j.p. and dep. lt. Berks. from 1593; capt. under Leicester in Netherlands 1586, of Berkshire horse 1588; ambassador to France July 1591-May 1592, Dec. 1595-d.1


Unton, a musician, linguist and literary patron, was the son of distinguished parents. His father’s favourite son, he enjoyed the favour of three great men, Leicester, Walsingham and Hatton. His father had instructed Henry ‘to govern himself’ by Walsingham’s advice and the advice ‘of those of the [puritan] religion’, and at the time of his father’s death, Unton was looking to Walsingham for an office. He soon had to solicit him for help over the detention of his brother Edward.

It was, however, in the household of Sir Christopher Hatton, whose nephew and heir William Hatton became his life-long friend, that Unton was educated. He went to the Netherlands with William Hatton in June 1586, carrying a letter from Burghley to Leicester. The friends distinguished themselves at Zutphen, were knighted by Leicester, and returned to England with a dispatch from the Earl to Walsingham. At the funeral of Sir Philip Sidney in St. Paul’s, they walked together amongst the 12 knights of Sidney’s ‘kindred and friends’. For the next few years Unton performed the normal duties of a country gentleman and consolidated the estates he had been able to acquire through Edward’s misfortune. He bought two more manors in Berkshire and, in 1589, succeeded Edward to what remained in his hands of the Unton inheritance. But by now two of Henry’s patrons, Leicester and Walsingham, were dead and Unton’s expectations were centred upon first Hatton aim then Leicester’s stepson, the Earl of Essex. In the meantime he had sat in Parliament for Woodstock, presumably by virtue of his office at Cornbury park, and no doubt with the support of Leicester and Sir Henry Lee, the high steward. He spoke in the debate on a cloth bill in this Parliament,

of this I am sure, what fault so ever is in our cloth ... the merchant doth answer it to the buyer beyond the sea.2

It was presumably either Hatton or Essex who secured Unton’s appointment as ambassador to France, where he went ‘with great bravery’ in July 1591. He became an admirer and intimate of Henri IV, whom he accompanied at the siege of Rouen, and fell into Elizabeth’s displeasure for seeming to commit her too far to the King’s support against the Catholic League. Hearing that the Duke of Guise had spoken ‘impudently, lightly, and overboldly’ of Queen Elizabeth, Unton sent the Duke an unanswered challenge to a duel; he claimed that there was no ‘inequality of person’ between them, ‘I being issued of as great a race and house every way as yourself’. But in November 1591 Hatton’s death was another blow. He wrote to the Queen:

It has pleased God to call away my lord chancellor, my honourable good lord chancellor ... with whom I was first bred up, and to whom (next to your Majesty) I was most bound.

He asked for the Queen’s protection ‘from the malice and envy of the world, which doth violently burst out since his death against me, by raising untrue reports to defame me’. To Heneage he wrote that he was destitute of friends. The ‘untrue reports’ were evidently that he wished to stay in France, because there he was safe from his creditors. His return to England, he admitted to Cecil, was necessary for the conservation of his ‘poor estate’; he meant ‘wholly and only to be directed’ by Cecil and would ‘never leave to honour and love’ him. In particular he denied that he was committed to the service of the Earl of Essex. Yet it was Essex who was his chief friend at court, and who obtained his release from the expensive and now irksome embassy.3

Back in England, Unton resumed with more urgency his pursuit of a profitable office, turning further towards Essex and finally breaking with Cecil. His growing estrangement from Cecil may very well have played its part in leading Unton to disaster in the Parliament of 1593, to which he was returned as knight for Berkshire, to which county he had just removed from Oxfordshire. Unton was appointed to the first standing committee on privileges and returns (26 Feb. 1593); to committees concerning recusants (28 Feb., 4 Apr.) and poor maimed soldiers (30 Mar.); and to committees on private matters (6, 8 Mar.). But his main contribution to the business of the House, one which in fact ruined him, was on the subsidy. He was given a prominent place on the committee (26 Feb., 1 Mar.) and he spoke, 6 Mar., in favour of the idea of a triple subsidy, painting a vivid picture of the malice of Spain and the Pope, and pointing to the cost in France of ‘preserving a brave and worthy king of our religion’. But, 5 Mar., he protested that the Lords had no right to be joined with the Commons in the matter, and that the names of those who had spoken critically had been reported to the Queen to convey the impression that they were against any grant at all, rather than against reasoned amendments. Cecil denied ‘that men’s names were given up to the Queen’, but in fact Unton’s speeches produced an extraordinary reaction from her. As Essex reported to him, she ‘startles at your name, chargeth you with popularity and hath every particular of your speeches in Parliament without book’; in particular, ‘she stands much upon the bitter speech against Sir Robert Cecil’. Essex told the Queen that it was ‘an ill-example ... that, for one displeasure or misconceit, all the merit or service of a man’s life should be overthrown’, but it was the end of Unton’s hopes for a court office.4

In disgrace, Unton now begged to be allowed to ‘depend on’ Cecil ‘after the old manner’. It was presumably to Cecil and his friends that Essex referred in the summer of 1595, when he reported to Unton that the courtiers were ‘a crew of sycophants, spies and delators’, and that he, Essex, was alone to be trusted. But in the event he could do no more than secure Unton’s reappointment as ambassador in December 1595, with which post Unton was soon ‘infinitely discontented’. His own colleagues made it known that he was ‘a disgraced man in England’ and Essex himself ‘ought to have a better feeling of the imminent perils’.5

Unton had been ill on his first embassy, and early in 1596 he was afflicted by fever accompanied ‘with the purples’. He died at Henri IV’s camp before the Spanish-held town of La F‘re, 23 Mar. 1596. The King visited him in his last hours, despite the risk of infection. On a baron’s hearse, because he died ambassador, he was brought home for burial with great pomp at Faringdon on 8 July. He died intestate and, like his brother, left no children, his heirs being his sister Cicely, wife of John Wentworth, who was granted letters of administration, and the three daughters of his sister Anne by Valentine Knightley. Disputes about the debt-encumbered inheritance were settled only by an Act of the Parliament of 1597. A volume of verses in memory of Unton was produced at Oxford, edited by Robert Wright, his chaplain, later bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. Others who enjoyed Unton’s patronage were Sir Thomas Edmondes (his secretary on both his embassies), Matthew Gwinne, the physician, and Robert Ashley. The picture in the National Portrait Gallery, painted for Unton’s widow, shows Unton surrounded by scenes from his life: his birth, travels, service in the Netherlands, the masque performed at his wedding and the funeral procession into Faringdon church.6

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: Alan Harding


Unless otherwise stated this biography is based upon J. G. Nichols, Unton Inventories and Unton Corresp. (Roxburghe Club lxiii).

  • 1. Vis. Berks. (Harl. Soc. lvii), 223; C142/227/222; CSP For. 1582, p. 87; Leycester Corresp. (Cam. Soc. xxvii), 416; Archaeologia, xcix. 56, 70, 73; APC, xvi. 201; xxiv. 31; CSP Dom. 1591-4, pp. 36, 242; Birch, Mems. i. 342.
  • 2. Lansd. 43, anon. jnl. f. 174.
  • 3. CSP For. 1582, p. 87; 1583, pp. 145, 161, 261, 280, 390; Read, Walsingham, ii. 425-6; Lansd. 39, f. 138; 68, f. 216; CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 74, 91; 1591-4, p. 65; CSP Span. 1580-6, p. 554; Leycester Corresp. 307, 416; VCH Berks. iv. 493, 533; APC, xv. 121; xix. 318; xx. 36, 156; xxiii. 259; Nichols, Progresses Eliz. iii. 85-89; State Pprs. ed. Murdin, 648, 651.
  • 4. State Pprs. ed. Murdin, 655; APC, xxiv. 31; D’Ewes, 471, 474, 476, 477, 478, 481, 486, 487-8, 489, 490, 492, 495, 512, 517; CSP Dom. 1591-4, pp. 333-4; HMC Hatfield, iv. 68, 116, 134, 276, 353, 452; Birch, i. 131.
  • 5. HMC Hatfield, iv. 362, 499, 506; v. 93, 260, 280; vi. 46, 103; xi. 206; xiii. 537; Birch, i. 353, 374, 392-3, 397, 402, 423; State Pprs. ed. Murdin, 701, 706-33.
  • 6. Birch, i. 448-9, 451, 459-60; State Pprs. ed. Murdin, 730, 734; C142/253/100; HMC Hatfield, vi. 119, 131, 303; CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 315; 1601-3, p. 299; D’Ewes, 558, 560, 562, 568; PCC admon. act bk. 1596, f. 162; APC, xxii. 342; Archaeologia, xcix. 67-8.