LOWER, Sir William (c.1570-1615), of St. Winnow, Cornw. and Trefenti (Tra'Venti), Llanfihangel Abercowin, Carm.

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.1570,1 1st s. of Thomas Lower of St. Winnow and Jane, da. and coh. of William Reskymer of Reskymer, Cornw.2 educ. Exeter Coll. Oxf. 1586 aged 16; New Inn; M. Temple 1589; ?travelled abroad 1593-6.3 m. settlement 13 Aug. 1605, Penelope (admon. 23 Mar. 1655), da. and coh. of Sir Thomas Perrot† of Haroldston, Pemb., 3s. (2 d.v.p., 1 posth.) 1da.4 kntd. 11 May 1603;5 suc. fa. 1610; d. 12 Apr. 1615.6 sig. Will[ia]m Lower.

Offices Held

Member, Virg. Co. 1612.7


Lower traced his pedigree back through 12 generations. His family acquired St. Winnow manor around 1470, and steadily increased their estates and local standing in Cornwall by a series of marriages to minor heiresses during the sixteenth century. Lower’s grandfather William, who represented Liskeard in the 1555 Parliament, served as the county’s sheriff and vice-admiral. Lower’s father was a Cornish j.p. and also became sheriff in 1593. By 1605 he owned more than 5,400 acres, including at least six manors, with the bulk of these lands situated in parishes near Lostwithiel and Bodmin.8 Lower himself experienced a conventional gentry education until February 1591, when his high spirits set him at odds with the Middle Temple’s authorities. Expelled from the Inn for ‘forcibly breaking open chambers in the night and levying money as the Lord of Misrule’s rent’, and for abusing a bencher, he remained in London and participated in a similar riot the following year.9 In 1593 he was licensed to travel abroad for three years to learn foreign languages, but it is not known whether he went. He was, however, proficient in Latin.10 Lower’s family background suffices to explain his election to Parliament at Bodmin in 1601, and no evidence has emerged to support the contention that the lord warden of the Cornish Stannaries, Sir Walter Ralegh†, backed his nomination.11

Knighted early in the new reign, Lower secured a seat in 1604 at Lostwithiel, just a few miles from St. Winnow. Despite his comparative lack of parliamentary experience, he was selected on 28 Mar. to accompany the Speaker when he explained the Commons’ proceedings in the Buckinghamshire election dispute to the king, and subsequently he was included in a delegation sent on 12 May to check that the warden of the Fleet had been confined to ‘Little Ease’ in the Tower for refusing to release the MP Sir Thomas Shirley I. He was also chosen to attend a conference with the Lords about the Union on 14 April. The fact that his brother Nicholas had recently served in Ireland probably explains Lower’s appointment on 26 Mar. to a committee to consider relief for former officers who had served in the Irish wars. His remaining committee nominations were concerned with bills to restore the earls of Southampton and Essex and the future earl of Arundel (2 Apr.), to confirm Bridewell Hospital’s charter (27 Apr.), and to amend the 1597-8 vagabonds Act (5 May).12

Lower’s appointment to the committee which scrutinized the three restitution bills suggests that he enjoyed aristocratic connections, most likely with the young earl of Essex. Between February and August 1605 two of the earl’s kinsmen, both members of the Knollys family, helped to negotiate Lower’s marriage to Penelope Perrot, Essex’s first cousin. The bride brought with her an estate of around 2,300 acres in Carmarthenshire, including the seat of Tra’Venti which Lower soon adopted as his home. Shortly after the wedding he became a trustee of the lands which Penelope’s mother held in Pembrokeshire. In addition to her ties with Essex, Lower’s new wife was step-daughter to the 9th earl of Northumberland, but this particular relationship proved to be a mixed blessing.13 On 4 Nov. 1605 Northumberland’s dinner-guests at his Syon residence in Middlesex included his kinsman and estate manager Thomas Percy, the leading Gunpowder plotter. Government suspicions that the earl had been warned to avoid the opening of Parliament on the following day led to his arrest and ultimately his imprisonment on suspicion of treason. As Lower had also attended the Syon dinner, he was examined on 2 Dec. about the conversation during the meal. However, his evasive replies revealed little except that the articles for the proposed Anglo-Scottish Union had been discussed, which the Privy Council already knew, and he was spared further interrogation or punishment.14

During the 1605-6 session, Lower received only four bill committee nominations, none of which were demonstrably of personal interest to him. Although named as a trustee in the Act passed for settling Sir Jonathan Trelawny’s* lands in Cornwall, he seems to have played no active role during the passage of this legislation.15 The Trelawny Act proved to be flawed, and in the following session a fresh bill was introduced. This time Lower was entitled as a Cornish burgess to attend the committee (21 Feb. 1607), but otherwise he failed to feature in the Commons’ business. Nevertheless, he was sufficiently well known in the House to merit inclusion in the scurrilous ‘Fart’ poem, which was compiled around this time. In a passage perhaps recalling his involvement in the Shirley case, the poem declaimed: ‘Then all in anger said Sir William Lower, / We may by our privilege commit to the Tower. / Quoth the Lieutenant, you may do as you please / but this fart hath already escaped Little Ease.’16

Lower’s principal claim to fame lies in his friendship with the Jacobean scientist Thomas Harriot. The two men were probably introduced by the earl of Northumberland, Harriot’s patron, as the first definite proof of their relationship dates from late 1605, after Lower’s marriage.17 As Harriot lived primarily at Syon and Lower resided increasingly in Carmarthenshire, their meetings were rare, but their surviving correspondence sheds considerable light on their mutual interests, particularly astronomy. At this time Harriot was England’s foremost authority on this subject, and he effectively adopted Lower as a pupil, directing his studies and providing him with equipment; in return the novice kept his master supplied with records of his observations in Wales and the West Country. Around 1606 Lower wrote to Harriot from Cornwall about the constellation Orion, while in the autumn of 1607 he communicated to him his sightings of Halley’s Comet. By this time he had established a favourite observation point at Mount Martin, near Tra’Venti, and had mastered the technique of measuring the sky with a cross-staff, although his observations were still markedly inferior to those made by Harriot himself.18

No letters survive for the next two years, but by February 1610 Lower had progressed considerably in his studies. Harriot had recently sent him one of England’s first workable telescopes, and presumably at his request he had trained it on the moon. Lower’s written observations at this time are still somewhat fanciful: the moon in an intermediate phase ‘looks like unto the description of coasts in the Dutch books of voyages. In the full she appears like a tart that my cook made me the last week, here a vein of bright stuff, and there of dark’. Nevertheless, to be engaged in this activity at all placed Lower at the cutting edge of European astronomy as it then stood. Moreover, he was immersed in Kepler’s Astronomia Nova, published only in the previous year, and declared: ‘[its theories] have so thoroughly seized upon my imagination as I do not only ever dream of them, but oftentimes awake lose myself, and power of thinking with too much wanting to it’.19 A few months later Harriot sent highlights from Galileo’s latest book, Sidereus Nuncius, in particular the discovery of Jupiter’s four principal satellites. Lower in his reply of June 1610 embraced these new developments with characteristic eagerness, while simultaneously complaining of the shortage of telescopes at Tra’Venti, and reporting how he had had to construct a makeshift armillary sphere from barrel hoops. At this point he ought to have been attending Parliament, and must be presumed to have missed the fourth session. However, he was in London as the final session closed in early December 1610, and at Syon on the night of 7-8 Dec. he and Harriot observed Jupiter’s moons together. Lower was apparently still present at sunrise when Harriot became the first Englishman to observe sunspots through a telescope, though he may not have examined them himself until a year later.20

As was normal for scientists at this time, Lower’s inquiries ranged across several disciplines besides astronomy. Some of his early letters discussed algebra and refraction of light, while in 1610-11 he explored the work of the French mathematician Vi├Ęte. In July 1611, he openly admitted to Harriot that he was dabbling in alchemy and ancient Greek geometrical puzzles simply to pass the time. However, by now he was much more than just an avid and intelligent dilettante, and had recently broken off from a very demanding project, the examination of Kepler’s claims about the orbit of Mars, while he sought Harriot’s guidance. Although thoroughly frustrated by his own intellectual limitations, he was fully aware of the debt of gratitude which he owed Harriot for broadening his horizons. As he put it metaphorically in March 1611: ‘I never loved hunting till you furnished me with dogs. I will henceforward prove another Nimrod’. 21

Unfortunately, although Lower was back at Syon in December 1611, discussing mathematics with Harriot and observing sunspots, nothing more is known of his scientific endeavours. Despite succeeding to his father’s lands, he continued to avoid public life both in Cornwall and Wales, though he remained sufficiently in touch with events in London to invest in the Virginia Company in 1612. He died intestate at or near Tra’Venti on 12 Apr. 1615. His first two sons had predeceased him, and his inquisition post mortem in the following month named his daughter as his heir. However, his wife had conceived again just before Lower’s death, and a posthumous son, Thomas, was born around late November, necessitating further inquisitions. Penelope Lower successfully secured the administration of both her husband’s estate and her son’s wardship, and in 1619 married (Sir) Robert Naunton*. Thomas sat for East Looe in the Long Parliament.