WYNTER, William (c.1528-89), of Deptford, Kent and Lydney, Glos.
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Family and Education
b. c.1528, 2nd s. of John Wynter (d. by 1546) of Bristol and Deptford by Alice, da. and h. of William Tirrey of Cork. m. Mary, da. and coh. of Thomas Langton of Glos., 4s. inc. Edward 4da. Kntd. 12 Aug. 1573.
Served on expeditions against Scotland 1544, 1547, in Channel fleet 1545, keeper of the Deptford storehouse by 1546; surveyor of ships from June 1549; master of naval ordnance from July 1557; adm. in all seagoing expeditions 1557-88; j.p. Glos. from c.1564, commr. sewers, Kent, Surr. and Suss. 1564; on mission to Prince of Orange 1576; steward and receiver, duchy of Lancaster lands in Glos. and Herefs. from 1580.1
The Wynters provide an excellent illustration of the strength of family tradition in the English maritime history of the sixteenth century. Originally from Wales, they had been Bristol merchants for several generations when John Wynter moved to London and became the navy’s first treasurer after the reorganization of 1545. At least five others of the family in the next two generations were naval administrators or saw service at sea in one capacity or another, but William Wynter was the most prominent, holding senior offices on the navy board for over 40 years and thereby contributing to the success of the fleet which, in the last year of his life, outmanoeuvred and outfought the Spanish Armada. His active career at sea, too, was extraordinary; there was not a naval expedition—as opposed to voyages of exploration or plundering raids—between 1544 and 1588 in which he did not play a prominent part. A man ‘to be cherished’ as Cecil put it in 1559, Wynter was the key figure in naval administration until the appearance of Hawkins in the 1570s, and the only man knighted personally by the Queen for services to the navy.
Unfortunately a date of birth for Wynter has not been ascertained. He was still being referred to as a ‘young gentleman’ in 1559, which, in this period, he would hardly have been if he was much over 30, so at a guess he was born about 1528, and made storekeeper at Deptford in his late teens, just possible with his connexions and having served as a boy at sea. His father left him not only a share in a ship called the George and the reversion of property at Lydney and Bristol, but, far more important, the official contacts which, with his own ability, enabled him to advance rapidly in his profession and to weather the storms of Queen Mary’s reign, particularly his implication in Wyatt’s rebellion of January 1554. The role which Wynter played in this, his only venture into politics, is uncertain. Probably he supplied Wyatt with guns and ammunition from his squadron in the Medway and, according to his own ‘confession’, which was used in the trial of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, he acted as a go-between for Throckmorton and Wyatt. He was sentenced to death, put in the Tower, but pardoned in November 1554, probably having been released some time earlier. An odd episode. He retained his surveyorship and even escorted Philip II on his final return to Spain.2
The story of Wynter’s administration of the navy has still to be written. Until it is, there will remain the temptation to equate Hawkins with efficiency in the dockyards and Wynter with conservative opposition to reform, to write Wynter off (as a modern biographer of Hawkins has it) as a ‘masterful man, greedy for wealth and power, careful of his reputation, intolerant of any rival’. Of course the two men were at odds. A contemporary document ‘Abuses in the Admiralty touching her Majesty’s navy, exhibited by Mr. Hawkins’ accuses Wynter of inefficiency, peculation and, of all things, sabotaging England’s defences in return for Spanish gold. Wynter for his part called Hawkins a ‘dissembling knave’. But the two resolved their differences, and at the end of the day it will no doubt be shown that the navy was not neglected or ill-administered under Wynter, but that most of the credit for the innovations in design of the late 1570s and the 1580s leading to the handier ships that beat the Armada should go to Hawkins. Both men were interested in improving armament.3
Wynter sat in the Commons four times. He was elected to the first Parliament of the reign, suitably enough at Portsmouth. In 1563 the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster tried to bring him in at Liverpool, which resisted the intervention, and Wynter was again returned at Portsmouth. In 1572 he was chosen at another duchy of Lancaster borough, Clitheroe. Finally he was elected knight of the shire for his own county, where, interestingly, he had a duchy of Lancaster appointment. His first known activity in the Commons was to move (6 Feb. 1563) ‘that this House would have regard, by some bill, to the navy’. This was agreed to, and Wynter was put in charge. As it finally emerged the object of the bill was to provide a pool of ships and seamen by encouraging fishing, and this was to be effected by increasing the demand for fish by creating a Wednesday fish-day, but by this time the measure had been adopted by Sir William Cecil. Wynter’s next intervention in debate was on 3 June 1572 when he spoke on the second reading of a bill on arms, urging that light bullets were preferable to heavy as more could be carried, they would pierce better, and ‘fly as far’. He spoke again on the third reading next day, to the same effect. He was appointed to committees on the subsidy (10 Feb. 1576), ports (13, Feb.), arms again (17 Feb.), brokers (28 Feb.), unlawful weapons (2 Mar.), foreign artificers (5 Mar.), salt marshes (6 Mar.) and the Queen’s marriage (12 Mar.). But his most dramatic contribution to the business of the House in 1576 was caused by Arthur Hall’s claim for privilege for his servant Smalley. Wynter was outraged by Hall’s uninhibited behaviour before the committee, and in return Hall accused Wynter of prejudice. Their antipathy continued. On at least two later occasions Wynter attacked Hall in the House, maintaining that on one occasion, when Hall had pleaded illness, he had been gambling at a tavern. In the 1581 session of the 1572 Parliament, after many weary months patrolling off the west of Ireland to prevent a Spanish landing, Wynter’s committees concerned the subsidy (25 Jan.), wrecks (30 Jan.), Aldgate (9 Feb.), the Family of Love (27 Feb.), merchant adventurers (4 Mar.) and Dover harbour (4 Mar.). All that is known of him in his last Parliament is his membership of the committee inquiring into the Norfolk returns (9 Nov. 1586).4
Wynter, in his sixties, saw active service against the Armada. In February 1588 he reported on the morale and efficiency of the navy:
I assure you it will do a man’s heart good to behold them; and would to God the Prince of Parma were upon the seas with all his forces, and we in the view of them. Then I doubt not but that you should hear that we would make his enterprise very unpleasant to him.
By May he was patrolling the eastern approaches in his flagship, the Vanguard, intent on intercepting an invasion from the Netherlands. He realised, however, as no other English commander is known to have done, that Parma’s invasion force of 30,000 would need about 300 ships, a quite unmanageable number against the combined English and Dutch fleets. In the same letter to Walsingham in which he put forward this view, he suggested the inconvenience of stationing the lord admiral at Plymouth, where the wind that brought the Spanish fleet up the channel would prevent the admiral leaving harbour. Again, Wynter judged correctly that his own fleet should be near Dover and not off Dunkirk. A report to Walsingham on 1 Aug. gave an account of the battle of Gravelines. In a meeting on Lord Howard’s flagship, he suggested the use of the fire-ships and in the close fighting which followed—‘most times within speech one of another’—he was injured in the hip ‘by the reversing of one of our demi-cannons’. After the victory, when Howard and other commanders were summoned to London he was left in charge of the fleet. Once again he judged the situation correctly when he thought that the Spanish would circle the British Isles in an attempt to reach home. ‘I think the Duke [of Medina Sidonia] would give his dukedom to be in Spain again’, he commented. All in all, Wynter’s part in the destruction of the Armada was a distinguished one.5
He also managed to find time in that momentous year to begin building the White Cross at Lydney in Gloucestershire. He had bought the manor of Lydney in 1561, investing the profits of his career in lands in that area of Gloucestershire beyond the Severn, but he can have had little time to enjoy it. Even after the victory which would have been a suitable climax to his career, he did not retire. At his death, on 20 Feb. 1589, he was still active and his house still building. In his will, made on 1 Feb. and proved on 15 Mar. 1589, he asked to be buried in the chapel he had built in Lydney church. The executor, his heir Edward, had already been provided for. The next son, William, received half the goods in his London house, a fine collection of weapons, and plate. Large sums of money bequeathed to his daughters, together with items of jewellery, are a further reminder of the proceeds of his long career.