JOHNSON, William (fl.1578-1629), of Gray's Inn, London and Tonbridge, Kent
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Family and Education
Servant to Sir Francis Bacon* by 1609, chief gent. usher by 1618.6
?Clerk of the Outlawries 1616.7
The identity of this Member is obscured by several namesakes, among whom were a Lancashire magistrate who died in about 1636,8 and a London merchant who has previously been identified as the MP without firm evidence.9 Liverpool’s town book identifies the Member elected on 11 Dec. 1620 as ‘William Johnson, esquire, servant unto the ... lord chancellor of England [Sir Francis Bacon*]’. The fact that this information was recorded and that Liverpool made Johnson an honorary freeman shortly afterwards suggests that Johnson was a stranger to the borough.10 Johnson’s association with Bacon probably dates back to 1578, when he entered Gray’s Inn, where Bacon had been a student since 1576.11 He subsequently married the widow of another William Johnson, a London Grocer from Tonbridge, whose son and heir, also named William, entered Gray’s Inn in 1605. Together, Johnson and his stepson fought a lengthy Chancery case over a boundary dispute in Tonbridge, which they won in 1612.12
Records relating to Bacon and to Gray’s Inn provide the main sources of information on this Member. In 1602 Johnson paid, as surety, a debt of £233 owed by Bacon.13 By 1609 he was evidently a trusted member of Bacon’s household, as Sir Thomas Gerrard I* advised the 5th earl of Huntingdon to transmit confidential papers to Bacon via ‘Mr. Johnson’, and he frequently witnessed official documents signed by Bacon.14 He remained for many years at Gray’s Inn, where he was often employed in collecting or receiving money on behalf of the society. In May 1606 he was chosen reader for the summer vacation, and fined £10 for refusing.15 He may have been the Mr. Johnson appointed clerk of the outlawries in Common Pleas in 1616. Johnson appears on a list of Bacon’s household in 1618 as his chief gentleman usher, a senior post ranking just below that of secretary.
Bacon presumably used his influence as lord chancellor to secure Johnson’s election for Liverpool, a constituency that he himself had represented in 1589; he may also have applied pressure on the duchy of Lancaster to support Johnson’s candidacy, through his friendship with the chancellor, Sir Humphrey May*.16 Johnson’s only recorded activity in the Commons was to defend Bacon against accusations of corruption and bribe-taking. On 15 Mar. 1621 Bacon’s adversary Edward Egerton alleged that Johnson, whom he described as ‘a member of the House and a moral honest man’, had tried to cover up the evidence of Bacon’s venality, by arranging for (Sir) George Hastings* and Sir Richard Young* to repay gratuities Bacon had accepted from Egerton and others, as if they had been merely loans.17 Johnson denied this, but proved powerless to prevent Bacon’s disgrace. As Member for Liverpool he was appointed to the committee for the duchy of Lancaster’s bill to confirm certain decrees relating to its estates, of which no more was heard after it was committed on 1 December.18
Johnson remained in Bacon’s service until at least November 1622, when he conveyed letters to Bacon from various confidantes, including his chief secretary Thomas Meautys*.19 However, there is no mention of Johnson in Bacon’s will of 19 Dec. 1625, nor in an earlier draft dating from immediately after Bacon’s fall, even though generous bequests were left to most of his other senior household officials.20 Johnson continued to appear in Liverpool’s burgess roll until at least 1629; his date of death is unknown.21
Ref Volumes: 1604-1629
Author: Rosemary Sgroi
- 1. GI Admiss.
- 2. Soc. Gen. Tonbridge par. reg. transcript, p. 69.
- 3. C2/Jas.I/I&J5/39.
- 4. C181/1, f. 129; 181/2, ff. 210, 216v.
- 5. G. Chandler, Liverpool Under Jas. I, 246.
- 6. SP14/95/64; L. Jardine and A. Stewart, Hostage to Fortune, 418.
- 7. Lansd. 273, f. 12.
- 8. Lancs. RO, QSC5-20; Vis. Lancs. (Chetham Soc. lxxxv), 164.
- 9. T.K. Rabb, Enterprise and Empire, 324; A. Brown, Genesis of US, i. 225, ii. 932; A. Friis, Alderman Cockayne’s Project and Cloth Trade, 79, 282n., 326n.
- 10. Chandler, 240-1.
- 11. GI Admiss.
- 12. C2/Jas.I/I&J5/39; C78/181/21; PROB 11/84, f. 117; Cent. Kent Stud. ‘Cal. of Q.S. Recs. 1574-1622’, pt. 2, p. 297.
- 13. Letters and Life of Francis Bacon ed. J. Spedding, iii. 42.
- 14. HEHL, HA 3430; C216/1/63-69.
- 15. PBG Inn, i. 100, 107, 111, 129, 177.
- 16. Duchy of Lancaster Office-Holders ed. R. Somerville, 213.
- 17. CJ, i. 554b; CD 1621, v. 298; iv. 156 n.10; ii. 226; Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, vii. 221-3.
- 18. CJ, i. 654a.
- 19. Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, vii. 322, 396-7.
- 20. PROB 11/152 f. 151; Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, vii. 228-9.
- 21. E.M. Hance and T.N. Morton, ‘The Burgess Rolls of Liverpool during the Seventeenth Cent.’, Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire, xxxvi. 146.