BOSWELL, William (1583-1650), of Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press




Family and Education

bap. 23 June 1583, 1st s. of John Boswell of Hartest, Suff. by Frances, da. of Richard Eliot of Boxted, Suff.1 educ. Jesus, Camb. 1600, BA 1604, MA 1607; incorp. Oxf. 1608; travelled abroad (Italy, Germany, France) 1614-18.2 m. 1629, Margaret (bur. 31 July 1682), da. of Sir Ralph Bosvile of Bradbourne Hall, Sevenoaks, Kent and h. to her bro. Leonard, 1s. suc. fa. 1592; kntd. 25 July 1633. d. 2 Apr. 1650.3

Offices Held

Fell. Jesus, Camb. 1606-29; proctor, Camb. 1623-4; freeman, Boston 1624; master, St. John’s hosp. Northampton 1629-?43.4

Sec. of embassy, Paris 1619-22, Savoy and Venice 1628-9; sec. and commissary to John Williams, bp. of Lincoln 1622-?5; sec. (jt.) to special navy commrs. 1626-7.5

Clerk of PC (extraordinary) 1622-?42; commr. Crown debts 1628; kpr. (jt.) State Paper Office 1629-?42; commr. survey of the Mint 1631; recvr. of American revenues (jt.) 1632; commr. maltsters and brewers 1637.6

Agent, Utd. Provinces 1631-4, amb. 1634-49.7

Gent. of the privy chamber (extraordinary) 1632.8


Boswell’s father, who described himself as a gentleman in his will, left him property in Hartest, subject to his mother’s life interest. Boswell must have had some interest at the Jacobean Court, for he procured a royal letter of recommendation for a college fellowship. After qualifying for diplomacy by continental travel, he became secretary to Sir Edward Herbert*, ambassador to Paris, who thought well enough of him to dedicate to him an unpublished work on law. He returned to England with Herbert in 1621, and entered the service of the new lord keeper, John Williams, as secretary and commissary of his diocese of Lincoln. He was also appointed a clerk of the Privy Council extraordinary, and was presumably allowed to perform his proctorial duties at Cambridge by deputy.9

Boswell was first returned for Boston in 1624, evidently on the recommendation of Bishop Williams, although he signally failed to come to his master’s assistance during the impeachment proceedings which formed a significant part of the session. On 8 Mar. he confirmed the reports of Sir John Pakington and John Borough about suspicious nocturnal activities at Sir Robert Cotton’s* house adjacent to St. Stephen’s Chapel, while on 16 Apr., following complaints against moves by Bishop Harsnet of Norwich to restrict public preaching, he seems to have attempted to lay the blame on Harsnet rather than on Archbishop Abbot. He was also nominated to five bill committees, one of which, to prevent simony in the universities, was of particular interest, as his brother, a fellow of Pembroke, had just sold the rich Suffolk living to which he had been presented by Sir John Rous*. On 23 Aug. he wrote to Sir Robert Cotton for the ‘book of the last sessions of Parliament’ kept by Henry Elsyng, clerk of the Parliaments, ‘for he promised my lord keeper (before he went out of Westminster) to leave them with his lordship’.10 Boswell was re-elected at Boston in 1625, but made only a single speech, refuting Sir Nathaniel Rich’s complaint that the general fast ordered by the Commons was not being generally observed because Williams had failed to send out instructions in good time.11

Boswell seems to have left Williams’ service when he gave up the Great Seal in November 1625. He was succeeded as secretary (and as Boston’s MP) by Richard Oakeley*, and never sat in Parliament again. After serving jointly with William Trumbul* as secretary to the special Navy commission, he resumed his diplomatic career as secretary to the earl of Carlisle, working on a desperate attempt to save La Rochelle by negotiations with Lorraine, Piedmont and Venice. On his return he married the heiress of a Kentish family with which he probably claimed affinity. But she was so ‘basely miserable’ that, to the mirth of his official friends, they hired lodgings in a ‘small, strait house’ belonging to one of the vergers of Westminster Abbey. He succeeded (Sir) Thomas Wilson* as keeper of the state papers and catalogued the library of Sir Robert Cotton*. His appointment as resident ambassador in Holland in 1632 was well received by John Pory*, who esteemed him ‘one of the honestest and ablest men of our nation’. His principal concern was the liberation of the Palatinate, but he was also entrusted with the sale of the Crown jewels, pawned by Buckingham, and the reduction to conformity of the English churches in Holland. His income from the Crown my have exceeded £3,000 p.a. at this time, and his wife inherited a life interest in Bradbourne just before the Civil War. In the 1640s, although his estate was under the control of Parliament, Boswell remained loyal to the monarchy, vainly endeavouring to prevent the States from recognizing the Commonwealth, and yet he could spare a charitable thought for his enemies, writing to a fellow royalist on 23 July 1643, ‘I am very sorry it hath not pleased God to let Mr. John Hampden* survive these troubles’. He died at The Hague on 2 Apr. 1650. No will has been found.12

A considerable scholar, Boswell corresponded with Galileo and acted as one of the literary executors of Sir Francis Bacon*. A friend described him as ‘an excellent philosopher and mathematician ... a learned man, a great encourager of learning, zealous for the Church of England, faithful in the execution of his embassy and highly valued by em