CORNWALLIS, Sir Charles (c.1555-1629), of Brome Hall and Beeston St. Andrews, Suff. and Harborne, Staffs.

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

b. c.1555,1 2nd s. of Sir Thomas Cornwallis† (d.1604), comptroller of the Household to Mary I, and Anne, da. of Sir John Jernegan of Somerleyton, Suff.; bro. of William†; educ. Trin., Camb. 1566.2 m. (1) 1578, Anne (bur. 4 July 1584), da. and coh. of Thomas Fincham of Fincham, Norf., wid. of Richard Nicholls (d.1573/4) of Islington, Norf., 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 1da.; (2) 1585, Anne (bur. 30 Mar. 1617),3 da. of Thomas Barrow of Barningham, Suff., wid. of Sir Ralph Shelton (d. by 1581) of Shelton, Norf., 1da.; (3) 29 Apr. 1620, Dorothy, da. of Richard Vaughan of Nyffryn in Ll?n, Caern., bp. of London, wid. of John Jegon of Coggeshall, Essex, bp. of Norwich (d. 13 Mar. 1618), 3s. 2da.4 kntd. 11 July 1603.5 d. 21 Dec. 1629.6 sig. Charles Cornwaleys.

Offices Held

J.p. Norf. 1601-d., Mdx. 1619-d.,7 commr. musters, Norf. 1602,8 sewers 1604;9 high steward, hundreds of Holte, Taverham, Happinge, Humbleyard, Hensted, Blofield cum Southwalsh, East and West Flegge, Norf. 1604;10 recvr. exch. Norf. and Hunts. 1604,11 Norf. 1606,12 collector, Privy Seal loans, Norf. 1604-5, 1612-13, 1625-6;13 commr. seabreaches, Norf. 1610, 1625,14 oyer and terminer, the Verge 1611-17,15 impressment of mariners, Norf. 1620,16 subsidy 162-2, 1624, 1628,17 piracy 1624, 1627,18 fen drainage, Norf. and Suff. 1625,19 Admlty. causes, Norf. 1627,20 dep. lt. Norf. 1625-d.21

Resident amb. Spain 1605-9.22

Treas. Prince Henry’s Household 1610-12.23

Member, N.W. Passage Co. 1612.24

Commr. Irish parliamentary grievances 1613;25 member, High Commission, Canterbury prov. 1613-at least 1620.26


Descended from a London Vintner, the Cornwallis family of Suffolk had resided at Brome Hall since the early fifteenth century. Both Cornwallis and his brother William were raised as Protestants, though their father was a loyal servant of Mary Tudor.27 Cornwallis’ first two marriages, both to widows, probably brought him substantial lands. In 1595, while resident in Cheap Ward, London,28 he purchased Aldham Hall, Essex.29 Thereafter he sold extensive property acquired through marriage, including the manors of Layer-de-la-Haye, Pebmarsh, Dagworth and Great Henny, Essex.30 In 1602 he purchased Horsham St. Faiths, Norfolk, for £3,000.31 However, as a younger son, he inherited nothing when his father died in 1604 beyond the contents of the latter’s house in Norwich.32

Cornwallis was elected knight of the shire for Norfolk in 1604 alongside Nathaniel Bacon. After some dispute over who should occupy the first seat, Cornwallis agreed to accept the junior position.33 During the 1604 session, Cornwallis made only one recorded speech (2 Apr.), in which he apologized for Sir Francis Goodwin’s* absence during a debate on the Buckinghamshire election dispute.34 He was also appointed to 34 committees, of which nine were to consider land bills concerned with the estates of Norfolk gentry.35 He was also named to joint conferences regarding the petition on wardship to be presented to the king (26 Mar.) and on the Union (14 April). Other bills of Norfolk interest that he was required to consider included the draining of the East Anglian fens (12 May), the restitution in blood of Lord William Howard (15 May) and fishing (20 June).36 He was named to a committee to investigate patentee William Tipper’s attempt to bribe Members to pass a bill regarding hats and felts, but disrupted the proceedings by advising Tipper not to attend its meeting on 11 May.37 No particular pattern of interest can be ascertained among the public bills to which he was appointed, three of which concerned financial matters - two measures on usury (9 May and 9 June) and one on bankrupts (14 May). He was also on the committee to consider the due observation of orders made in the Exchequer court (14 June).38 As a magistrate, Cornwallis may have been particularly interested in bill committees concerned with the relief of plague (18 May), repressing alehouses (23 May), husbandry and tillage (25 May), the preservation of game (30 May), informers (1 June), the voiding of marriage contracts involving infants (4 June) and corporate towns (2 July).39 The remaining legislative committees to which he was named concerned letters patents (16 Apr.), the diminution of the possessions of senior clergy (19 May), the restitution in blood of John Littleton’s children (11 June), the residence of married men with their wives and children in colleges (14 June), a release procured by Edmund Penning (14 June) and abuses in ecclesiastical courts (16 June).40

Cornwallis did not attend the second session of 1605-6, because early in 1605 he was appointed resident ambassador to Spain, a position which had been vacant for 37 years. He undoubtedly owed his sudden advancement to the influence of Robert Cecil†, earl of Salisbury, and to the intervention of his brother, Cecil’s kinsman by marriage.41 He travelled to Spain as part of the retinue of Charles Howard†, 1st earl of Nottingham, who was sent to ratify the 1604 peace treaty. On his arrival he was continually ill and had to be carried in a litter. He also quarrelled over precedence with Nottingham and other peers in the party to such an extent that he remained in his lodgings in Corunna during the official welcoming ceremonies.42 After Nottingham and his entourage had departed, Cornwallis set up house just outside Madrid, but this soon became inconvenient and the Spanish eventually found him a residence near the Prado. Cornwallis’ main role in Madrid was to ensure that the provisions of the 1604 treaty were observed. In general, he seems to have succeeded in enforcing the clause that assured Englishmen of the right to practise their religion in private.43 Greater difficulties were caused by Catholic English exiles, who harassed Cornwallis’ residence on Sundays by shouting abuse and throwing objects while the Protestant service was underway inside.44

Cornwallis’ time as ambassador was mainly spent dealing with English merchants who complained that their Protestantism was being used as an excuse by avaricious inquisitors and other government officials to seize their goods. As confiscation of goods on religious grounds was forbidden by the treaty, Cornwallis was often involved in delicate negotiations.45 Cornwallis also occupied himself by keeping notes on the state of Spain, the structure and workings of the Spanish Court, and the wealth of the nobility, which provided the government in England with much needed intelligence.46 Cornwallis nevertheless found himself impoverished by his stay abroad. After several years of pleading to be recalled, his wish was finally granted in 1609.47 He left Madrid on 7 Sept. and, after a slow journey reached Dieppe on 17 Oct., where he was delayed by bad weather.48

The following year, Cornwallis resumed his seat in Parliament, as an earlier attempt to replace him because of his diplomatic duties had failed.49 On 9 Feb. 1610 he was added to the privileges committee.50 Six days later he was appointed to a joint conference with the Lords on supply.51 His appointments included committees to consider public bills on shipping (28 Feb.), the confirmation of Magna Carta (3 Mar.), the assignment of debts (15 Mar.), the export of goods (16 Mar.), the entailing of female tenants (16 Apr.) and the elopement of wives (8 May). He was also added to the committee considering the naturalization of ambassadors’ children born overseas.52 He was also named to six private bill committees. These concerned the estates of Sir John Heveningham* (20 Feb.), the naturalization of Sir Robert Carr and Margaret Clark (20 Feb.), the Mynne and Beckham estate (21 Feb.) and the lands of Sir Henry Crispe (12 Mar.) and Thomas Mildmay (31 March).53 Cornwallis’ remaining appointment was to consider a bill to drain the marshes in East Anglia (20 March).54 He played no recorded part in the poorly recorded winter session of 1610.

On his return from Spain Cornwallis, doubtless with Salisbury’s assistance, was appointed treasurer of Prince Henry’s Household. In general he found Henry to be an impressive figure, but in his ‘Life of Prince Henry’ he noted that the prince often played tennis three or four hours at a time without changing his shirt, a habit which he found ‘rather becoming an artisan than a prince’. He also accused Henry of eating too much fruit; of being impatient with his younger siblings, Charles and Elizabeth; and of speaking in a manner that was ‘slow and somewhat impedimented’, though he admitted that Henry ‘often [said] of himself [that] he had [the] most unserviceable tongue of any man living’.55 Henry’s death in November 1612, and the demise of Salisbury six months earlier, brought Cornwallis’ career at Court to a grinding halt. However, in 1613 he was appointed to the commission that was sent to Ireland to investigate recent disorders in the Irish Parliament.56 The Catholic Members and lords considered that many of the returns from the newly enfranchised Protestant constituencies were falsely made and that several Members were ineligible because they were non-resident. When the Protestant contingent dismissed these concerns and moved to elect a Speaker, scuffles had broken out and two men ended up in the chair. Cornwallis and his fellow commissioners did find some evidence of doubtful electoral practices, but both they and the government dismissed this as trivial.57 While in Ireland, Cornwallis set down his views on the state of the country, blaming the continual Irish rebellions on ‘the wickedness of their own nature, [the] pride of their lords ... and the practises and conspiracies of malicious traitors at home, begotten by [the] corruption and [torn] stigation of foreign princes’. He called the Irish ‘naked barbarians’ and insisted that they should be made to conform to English customs, language and speech, these being the ‘true marks of a perfect conquest’.58 His recommendations for bringing Ireland under peaceful rule, although eminently sensible from an English standpoint, were also expensive. Cornwallis advocated the creation of a standing army, the appointment of commissioners to discover Jesuits and ‘popish priests’, and the raising of 4,000 foot in England before every Irish Parliament, which should be ready to depart for Ireland at a day’s notice in case of disturbances.59

Cornwallis sought election to the 1614 Parliament on the Bacon interest at the Suffolk borough of Eye, but in his own words ‘failed in my hope by reason the election had passed one day before my going out of London’.60 During his trip to Eye - he travelled as far as Ipswich before hearing the news that the election had already occurred - he discussed the forthcoming Parliament with Thomas Hitchcock* and John Hoskins*, for whom he had obtained letters of nomination from the earl of Northampton. Both Hitchcock and Hoskins were subsequently elected to Parliament, where Hoskins engaged in a vitriolic attack on the Scots in England.61 When questioned by the Privy Council, Hoskins claimed that he was only echoing Cornwallis’ views. Cornwallis, with Hoskins and another offender, was called before the Board, where he denied having told Hoskins to denounce the Scots in Parliament. However, his guilt was seemingly confirmed when a letter by him to the king begging forgiveness was published in London. Cornwallis was forced to admit that he had circulated the letter, but claimed that he had done so simply to clear his name and quieten the rumours about him.62 Despite protesting his innocence, Cornwallis was confined to the Tower.63

Cornwallis’ pleas to be released and his own account of his conduct in the matter reveal inconsistencies which may indicate his guilt. Writing to Secretary Ralph Winwood*, Cornwallis argued that he had merely suggested a way in which future parliaments could be managed. He claimed that he had proposed that, whenever Parliament was summoned, the king should

acquaint the justices of peace [and] principal gent[lemen] of every county ... w[i]th His Ma[jes]ty’s desires for himself [and] purposes of grace to them. To take knowledge fro[m] them what themselves would beseech of him, [and] insist ... the differences [and] difficulties ... might be imparted to His Ma[jes]ty and by his directions evened [and] compounded before [the] choice of their k[nigh]ts [and] burgesses.

The advantage of this manner of proceeding would be to produce Members who were willing to co-operate with the royal will. As matters stood, individual parliament-men ‘in their counties are of themselves like a smooth brook’, but recent evidence suggested that ‘when they meet in [the] broad sea of [the] Parliament’ they ‘are easily tossed [and] turned w[i]th every wind’.64 This account by Cornwallis of the words he had spoken to Hitchcock and Hoskins bears little resemblance to the content of letters he had previously written to the king. These show that he discussed what he intended to say in Parliament in the event of his election, and that he subsequently asked Hitchcock to express his views for him when he learned that he had been unsuccessful at Eye. Cornwallis had wanted to raise the issue of a marriage for Prince Charles, and in particular to speak in favour of a Spanish match and against a marriage alliance with France. He had hoped to draw attention to the increase of papists in England and to demand that Scots should cease coming to England. None of these were topics that the king would have wanted debated openly on the floor of the Commons.65

Cornwallis attempted to gain his release by writing to both Winwood and the countess of Suffolk, asking them to enlist the support of the king’s Scottish favourite, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset.66 In addition, and probably in the hope of a place in his Household, he sent Prince Charles a treatise on marriage, the role of a prince, and the running of a household, which he wrote while in the Tower.67 However, he languished for a year before his release in June 1615.68 Thereafter he retired to the country and was appointed to numerous commissions in Norfolk. He again ran into difficulties in 1627 for keeping £160 he had collected as a Privy Seal loan commissioner.69 Although prosecuted in the Star Chamber, the outcome of the case is unknown.

Shortly before he died, Cornwallis penned a letter of advice to his eldest son, William. It reveals a degree of bitterness about the treatment he had received: ‘my service in Court ... I cannot by any means recommend unto thee - chance, fancy and money, [the] false factors of preferment have had so great a [torn] of thy means, fortune and fashion.’ He argued that

continually [to] accumulate riches, offices and honours, breeds burden and perils innumerable, and in time a disease incurable. But if contrary to my counsel, thy ... shall be disposed to sail in the troubled seas of the Court [and] world w[i]th any assurance or contentment, thy arms and provisions must be [that] of a good conscience and of a mind prepared for all events, which he only enjoyeth [that] perfectly feareth God and levelleth all his intentions and [torn] to [the] service of him and his church.

Cornwallis also counselled his son to observe the Sabbath, and to avoid the sins of the flesh, lying, drinking and playing ‘boys’ games’ such as dice, cards and tops.70

Cornwallis remained active in Norfolk administration in the late 1620s, but also spent time at his Staffordshire property, Harborne, where he died in December 1629. He died intestate and, his eldest son Sir William* having predeceased him, his principal heir was his grandson and namesake.71 The 1632 edition of Sir William’s Essays includes a print showing two men, supposed to be the author and his father.72

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Chris Kyle


  • 1. Suff. RO (Ipswich), Iveagh Collection, Cornwallis mss 1/2.
  • 2. Al. Cant.
  • 3. D. Lysons, Environs London, iv. 102.
  • 4. Vis. Norf. (Norf. Arch. i), 43, 114; Vis. Suff. ed. Metcalfe, 21-2; F. Blomefield, Hist. Norf. v. 268; Oxford DNB; L. Malcolm, Londinium Redivivum, i. 305.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 105.
  • 6. R.H. Jeffers, ‘Manors of Layer-de-lay-Haye, Pebmarsh and Gt. Henny’, Essex Jnl. iv. 191.
  • 7. A.H. Smith, County and Court, 362; C231/1 f. 106; 231/4 f. 84, 85, C193/13/1, f. 63.
  • 8. Norf. RO, WLS XVII/1, bk. 2, ff. 142-3v.
  • 9. C181/1, f. 88v.
  • 10. E315/310, f. 15.
  • 11. Lansd. 168, f. 189.
  • 12. Ibid. 186, f. 352.
  • 13. E401/2585, ff. 40-4, 157-8; 401/2586, p. 138; E403/2732, f. 121v.
  • 14. C181/2, f. 127v; 181/3, f. 189v.
  • 15. C181/2, ff. 158, 179v, 197v, 235, 287.
  • 16. APC, 1619-21, pp. 247-8.
  • 17. C212/22/20, 21, 23; Norf. RO, Hare 6366, p. 144.
  • 18. C181/3, ff. 115v, 236v.
  • 19. C193/8, no. 60.
  • 20. HCA1/32/1, f. 4v.
  • 21. W. Rye, Norf. State Pprs. passim; E401/2586, p. 138.
  • 22. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 257.
  • 23. DWL, Morrice ms 31.I, p. 637 (2).
  • 24. CSP Col. E.I. 1513-16, p. 239.
  • 25. APC, 1613-14, pp. 175-6.
  • 26. R.G. Usher, Rise and Fall of High Commission, 348.
  • 27. P. McGrath and J. Rowe, ‘Recusancy of Cornwallis’, Procs. Suff. Inst. Arch. xxviii. 226-71; Oxford DNB; HP Commons, 1509-58.
  • 28. Top. et Gen. viii. 207.
  • 29. R.H. Jeffers, ‘Manors of Layer-de-lay-Haye, Pebmarsh and Gt. Henny’, Essex Jnl. iv. 191.
  • 30. Ibid. 190, 193-4.
  • 31. Bodl. Tanner 285, f. 39.
  • 32. PROB 11/105, f. 85r-v.
  • 33. A.H. Smith, County and Court, 329-30.
  • 34. CJ, i. 161b.
  • 35. Ibid. 184a, 187a, 195a, 202b, 204a, 210a, 225b, 226b, 233b.
  • 36. Ibid. 207b, 211a, 243a.
  • 37. Ibid. 212a.
  • 38. Ibid. 204b, 235b, 238b.
  • 39. Ibid. 199a, 199b, 213b, 222b, 225b, 230a, 251a.
  • 40. Ibid. 172b, 214b, 236a, 238b, 239a, 240b.
  • 41. CP.
  • 42. J. Stoye, English Travellers Abroad, 331; SP84/11/48.
  • 43. P. Croft, ‘Englishmen and the Spanish Inquisition’, EHR, lxxxvii. 263-5.
  • 44. Stoye, 337.
  • 45. Croft, 249-68.
  • 46. Add. 4149, ff. 132-58; 39853, ff. 23-4v, 29v-69.
  • 47. Add. 12507.
  • 48. Stoye, 356-7.
  • 49. CJ, i. 315b-16a, 324a.
  • 50. Ibid. 392a.
  • 51. Ibid. 393b.
  • 52. Ibid. 402a, 404b, 411b, 412a, 418a, 426a, 428a.
  • 53. Ibid. 397b, 398a, 409b, 417a.
  • 54. Ibid. 413a.
  • 55. Add. 39853, ff. 27v-9; Sloane 3104.
  • 56. APC, 1613-14, pp. 174-5, 188.
  • 57. A. Clark, ‘Plantation and the Cath. Question’, New Hist. Ire. ed. T.W. Moody, F.X. Martin and F.J. Byrne, iii. 211-17.
  • 58. Add. 39853, ff. 2v, 6-11v.
  • 59. Ibid. ff. 2v, 11v.
  • 60. Harl. 1221, f. 96v.
  • 61. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 423, n. 33.
  • 62. Add. 39853, ff. 20v-1.
  • 63. APC, 1613-14. p. 465.
  • 64. Add. 39853, f. 22r-v.
  • 65. Stowe 574, ff. 59-61v; SP14/77/42, 43.
  • 66. Add. 39853, ff. 21, 22r-v.
  • 67. Ibid. 45143, ff. 4-9.
  • 68. SP14/80/115.
  • 69. Royal, 17.C.xxxvi. f. 18v.
  • 70. Add. 39853, ff. 1, 5, 3, 4, 2.
  • 71. Vis. Norf. (Norf. Arch. ii), 394, 405.
  • 72. Oxford DNB.