WIDDRINGTON (WITHERINGTON, WOODRINGTON), Sir Henry (c.1567-1623), of Swinburne Castle, Northumb.
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Family and Education
b. c.1567,1 1st s. of Edward Widdrington of Swinburne Castle and Ursula, da. and coh. of Reginald Carnaby of Halton, Northumb.2 educ. G. Inn 1590.3 m. by Jan. 1607,4 Mary (d. 6 Oct. 1622),5 da. of Sir Nicholas Curwen† of Workington, Cumb., 1s. 6da. suc. fa. c.1577, uncle Sir Henry Widdrington of Widdrington 1592;6 kntd. 9 Apr. 1603.7 d. 4 Sept. 1623.8 sig. Henry Widdringtun.
Commr. musters, Middle March 1595;9 j.p. Northumb. c.1598-1607, by 1613-c.1619, 1621-d.,10 Cumb. by 1604-1607,11 Westmld. c.1621-d.;12 dep. warden, Middle March by 1599-at least 1602;13 commr. oyer and terminer, Cumb., Northumb., Westmld. 1603-7, 1615-d.,14 Northern circ. 1617-d.,15 member, High Commission, York prov. from 1603;16 dep. lt. Northumb. from 1603, by 1619;17 kpr. Redesdale, Northumb. by 1605-7;18 gov., Tynemouth castle, Northumb. 1605-6;19 sheriff, Northumb. Feb.-Nov. 1606,20 dep. v.-adm. by 1614; commr. piracy, Cumb., Northumb., Westmld. 1614,21 border malefactors 1618-at least 1619,22 wool prices, Northumb. 1619,23 survey royal manors, co. Dur. 1621,24 subsidy, Northumb. 1622.25
Commr. for Union with Scotland 1604.26
Widdrington’s ancestors settled in Northumberland by the twelfth century, when they first acquired the estate from which they took their name. By the Tudor period they constituted one of the county’s most prominent families. Widdrington’s grandfather, Sir John, who sat for Northumberland in the 1552 Parliament, served as sheriff four times and became warden of the English Middle March. His uncle, Sir Henry Widdrington, also exercised the shrievalty, and for more than a decade held the post of knight-marshal in the county’s principal garrison town, Berwick-upon-Tweed.27 Widdrington’s father Edward was a younger son, who apparently owned only the town and castle of Swinburne, just north of Hadrian’s Wall. However, when Sir Henry died childless in 1592, Widdrington inherited his broad estates in the south and west of the county, apart from Widdrington castle and two manors, which passed temporarily to Sir Henry’s widow as her jointure. Moreover, as the new head of his extended family, he now became ‘a gentleman of great command’ on the Anglo-Scottish border.28
By 1595 Widdrington was helping to manage the militia in the Middle March, and he almost certainly aspired to the wardenship once held by his grandfather.29 However, he persistently damaged his chances of promotion by conducting unauthorized raids into Scotland, and quarrelling with rival landowners. A particularly bitter property dispute with (Sir) Ralph Grey* in 1592-3 was described by John Carey† as ‘one of the greatest causes in Northumberland for these 40 years’.30 From the government’s perspective, Widdrington’s lengthy personal feud with Sir Robert Ker, warden of the Scottish Middle March, was even more serious. In 1596, after several years of acrimony, Ker raided Swinburne castle in order to rescue one of his servants, who was being held there illegally by Widdrington. When the warden of the English Middle March, Ralph Eure†, prevented Widdrington from seeking revenge, the latter quit his local duties in protest, and possibly left the county. By July 1597 a number of his family had joined the 2nd earl of Essex’s Islands Voyage, though it is unclear whether Widdrington himself was in this party.31
This stand-off with Eure helped to hasten the warden’s resignation in early 1598, and he was replaced by Sir Robert Carey*, who had married Sir Henry Widdrington’s widow.32 With a close kinsman at the helm of the Middle March, Widdrington himself was quickly restored to local office, becoming both Carey’s deputy and a Northumberland magistrate.33 However, he was soon in trouble again. In August that year, responding to reports of a Scottish raid, he intercepted what turned out to be a hunting party, and drove it back across the border. Several of the intruders were killed on their home soil, and James VI, urged on by Sir Robert Ker, demanded that Widdrington be handed over for trial. The English government, lobbied equally vigorously by Sir Robert Carey, refused the request, but held Widdrington in custody for over nine months while the incident was resolved.34
Given the increasing likelihood that James would eventually succeed Elizabeth I, the latter’s councillors instructed Widdrington to end the feud with Ker. Widdrington, however, showed little interest in complying, and reportedly became disaffected with the government.35 Sent to London on business by Carey in January 1601, he was present during the opening phase of Essex’s rebellion, though he claimed afterwards that he was an innocent bystander, and provided testimony that was used against the earl at his trial.36 Thereafter, he understandably trod more carefully, in 1602 even severing ties with his brother Roger, a prominent recusant, when the latter opposed his efforts to suppress local Catholics.37 The benefits of this new-found circumspection became apparent at the onset of the new reign. Not only was Widdrington knighted by James as the latter headed south to London, but he was also quickly confirmed as one of Northumberland’s leading officials. Within the new administrative framework established in 1603, he became both a deputy lieutenant and a commissioner for Border justice, besides helping to arrange the partial disbanding of the Berwick garrison.38
In 1604 Widdrington was elected to represent his county in Parliament, alongside his former enemy, Sir Ralph Grey. He is not known to have spoken in the Commons during the first session, but he attracted six legislative committee nominations, two of which related to Berwick (16 and 30 May). Appointed on 14 Apr. to attend a conference with the Lords about the proposed Union of England and Scotland, he was subsequently named as a commissioner to help prepare the Union treaty (12 May). He was also nominated on 7 May to a conference concerning purveyance.39
Following the prorogation, Widdrington was excused from meetings of the Union commission, on account of his administrative duties on the Scottish border. Nevertheless, by October he had been persuaded to attend by the Northumberland gentry, who valued him as their representative.40 That endorsement marked the high point of his local popularity. In May 1605 rumours circulated that he was once more reconciled with his brother Roger. This aroused fears in church circles that he would now countenance recusants, but initially he retained the government’s confidence.41 Widdrington presumably attended the start of the next parliamentary session. However, by 12 Nov. he was back home with official instructions to seize the earl of Northumberland’s northern castles, and to interrogate anyone linked to the Gunpowder plotter Thomas Percy, the earl’s kinsman and servant.42 Widdrington returned to London when Parliament resumed, and on 30 Jan. 1606 he was named to the committee for John Hare’s radical bill on reform of purveyance. Once again, though, his attendance was cut short, for he was appointed three days later as Northumberland’s new sheriff.43
Widdrington’s term of office proved controversial. During his investigation into the Gunpowder Plot he had seemingly cast doubt on the loyalty of two of his fellow Border commissioners, Sir William Selby of Branxton, Northumberland, and Sir Wilfred Lawson. They now hit back by complaining to the government in May 1606 that Widdrington was failing in his law-keeping duties, and encouraging Catholics.44 There was certainly some substance to the latter charge. At about this time he married into a prominent Cumberland recusant family, acquiring a sister-in-law who was the widow of a Gunpowder plotter. A survey of religious allegiance in Northumberland in January 1607 found that Widdrington no longer attended church regularly, and was ‘a great discountenancer of the best ministers’.45 In October 1606 Lord Sheffield, president of the Council in the North, also warned the government of Widdrington’s Catholic leanings. Accordingly, shortly afterwards Widdrington was relieved of his command of the strategic Tynemouth castle, which he had retained since his anti-Percy drive in November 1605.46
Widdrington thus returned to Westminster for the next parliamentary session somewhat under a cloud. He probably also arrived late, as he was legally barred from leaving Northumberland until his shrieval term ended, and his successor was chosen only on 17 Nov.1606, the day before the Commons reconvened.47 Despite his status as a Union commissioner, he was not named on 24 Nov. to the conference with the Lords about the Instrument of Union.48 Indeed, his recorded activities all date to the session’s later stages, when debate on Anglo-Scottish relations turned to the controversial policy of remanding, whereby Englishmen could be extradited to Scotland to face trial for crimes committed there. James I was very keen to have provision for remanding included in the bill to abolish hostile laws in each country. Widdrington, no doubt mindful of his experience in 1598, and fearful that his Northumberland enemies would revive that old murder charge against him, was equally determined that remanding should be banned.49 On 28 May he helped to persuade the Commons to challenge the practice. Seven days later, following a committee debate on this issue, he complained when the report to the House omitted all mention of possible punishments for people who persisted illegally in remanding suspects. Widdrington also supported the unpopular proposal that defendants in Border cases, both Englishmen and Scots, should be allowed the benefit of sworn witnesses. However, he conceded that perjury was common in Northumberland trials, and he did not regard this clause as vital. On 5 June he confirmed that his priority was to secure the abolition of the hostile laws by any route acceptable to the Commons. As Speaker Phelips reported on 16 June, Widdrington ‘much labours the passage of the bill, although the witnesses should be abridged, affirming that if the bill should be overthrown, himself and many others were in danger of undoing thereby’. In the end, he got his wish, and while the Act finally approved by the king included concessions on the issue of witnesses, it also effectively abolished remanding.50
Widdrington was now in serious trouble with the government. He had recently been dismissed as keeper of Redesdale in Northumberland by the rigidly Protestant earl of Dunbar, whom James appointed in late 1606 to tighten up justice in the Borders. During the summer of 1607 he was also removed from the Border commission and the Northumberland bench. These latter punishments most likely reflected the king’s displeasure over his recent opposition to remanding, given that Widdrington was placed under virtual house arrest immediately after Parliament was prorogued. He arrived on 6 July at Boston, Lincolnshire, where his movements were carefully monitored on the Privy Council’s instructions. Not until January 1610 did John Chamberlain note that Widdrington had just been ‘released from his restraint or confining’, in readiness for the next meeting of Parliament.51
Understandably, Widdrington’s performance during first session of 1610 was relatively subdued. He is not known to have spoken in the House. Although entitled as a Northumberland Member to attend the committee for the bill on justice in the North, which revived the principle of remanding, he failed to secure a nomination to the conference on this measure (7 May, 4 July).52 Widdrington did, however, take a close interest in the inquiry into Sir Stephen Procter’s abuses of power as a local commissioner. Added on 2 May to the select committee investigating this issue, he was also nominated to help draft a bill to punish Procter, and then appointed to its legislative committee (15 May, 15 June).53 He received personal nominations to four other bill committees, their subjects including the export of ordnance, and the preservation of game (17 and 22 March). Given that he was appointed on 15 Feb. to the conference at which lord treasurer Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) first outlined the current state of the Crown’s finances, he presumably followed the subsequent debates on the Great Contract, but the only clear evidence is his nomination on 26 May to attend the king after these discussions stalled. No record survives of his performance during the brief fifth session.54
By 1611 James’s attitude to Widdrington had softened, and he briefly considered reappointing him as a Border commissioner. In the event, it was another two years before the government signalled his official rehabilitation by restoring him to the Northumberland bench.55 This prolonged period of disgrace clearly had little impact on Widdrington’s local standing, since he was again chosen as a knight of the shire in 1614. This election was marred by claims that the sheriff had influenced the outcome in favour of Widdrington’s kinsman, Sir George Selby, who was adjudged ineligible by the Commons as he was then sheriff of County Durham. No questions were raised about Widdrington’s own return, but the latter was careful on 8 Apr. to distance himself from the sheriff’s actions, asserting that he had not himself been present on the day. Nevertheless, he moved on 23 May for the sheriff to be heard at the bar of the House, and on the following day he ‘justified’ a certificate presented by the erring official in his defence. His supportive attitude was perhaps conditioned by the fact that the losing party in the election was his old adversary, Sir Ralph Grey.56 Widdrington was named to only three bill committees, which were concerned with non-resident clergy, the preservation of fish stocks, and the naturalization of two Scots (12, 21 and 23 May).57 However, he was clearly now recognized as an experienced Member, being nominated on 8 Apr. to help prepare the bill for continuation or repeal of expiring statutes, and on 23 May to consider the legitimacy of baronetcies. With Sir John Sammes he moved the House on 13 May to act over a violent altercation during the previous day’s committee meeting about undertaking. He was also appointed on 28 May to attend the king when the Commons justified its decision to suspend business over the Neile dispute.58
By 1614 Widdrington had secured a new patron, Theophilus Howard, Lord Howard de Walden*, who made him deputy vice admiral of Northumberland and probably arranged his restoration to the Borders commission in the following year. In the process, however, he also exposed himself to attack by Walden’s numerous northern enemies. Between 1616 and 1618, as the Howard family’s standing at Court gradually declined, Widdrington endured repeated allegations that he was failing to maintain law and order, or even encouraging crime.59 For several years he successfully refuted these claims, and continued to find a place on the main judicial commissions on the Borders. Nevertheless, he was once more removed from the Northumberland bench in around 1619, and remained in disgrace until July 1621.60 It was all the more remarkable, then, that Widdrington represented his county for a third time in 1621, even if he had to serve as the junior knight on this occasion. His partner was Sir William Grey, son of Sir Ralph, who claimed seniority on the grounds of his baronetcy. This fact clearly rankled with Widdrington, for on 27 Apr. he launched a spontaneous attack on the order of baronets: ‘it grieved him to see skipjacks prank before men whose ancestors have gained place in the commonwealth and by blood, ... and their patent recites the sum they give’. However, if Widdrington hoped thereby to reawaken the Commons’ earlier hostility to baronetcies he was to be sadly disappointed.61
Widdrington became more heavily involved in the proceedings of the 1621 Parliament than he had in previous assemblies, for during the opening sitting he made 38 recorded speeches and received 25 committee nominations. With six sessions under his belt, he was now one of the Commons’ senior figures, and evidently enjoyed his status. Named at last to the prestigious committee for privileges, he complained on 16 Mar. that he had recently been prevented from participating due to overcrowding: ‘desireth the opinion of the House, whether they of a committee are not to have place before others’. Ironically, given his own early history, he was one of the older Members who attempted unsuccessfully to arbitrate between Clement Coke* and Sir Charles Morrison*, who had brawled on the stairs outside the Commons’ chamber, and he helped to draft the form of satisfaction that finally ended this quarrel (7 and 11 May).62 Widdrington was twice appointed to examine and sort petitions of grievance presented to the House (22 Feb. and 2 Mar.), and was nominated on 26 Apr. to help sort the Commons’ business into order of priority. He was also in the party that attended the king on 2 June to explain that Members wished to curtail rather than extend the sitting.63
Appointed to help draft the petition to James on freedom of speech (5 and 12 Feb.), Widdrington took a lofty view of the Commons’ powers of action. On 30 Apr. he spoke in favour of the House continuing to investigate Irish grievances, provided the king agreed. He also asserted on 15 May that Members should examine complaints levelled at two diocesan chancellors, rather than simply passing the issue straight to the Lords: ‘we sit here to no purpose if we do nothing’.64 Although he apparently remained silent during the Commons’ initial inquiry into Edward Floyd, the Catholic accused of slandering the royal family, he adopted a predictably robust view once Members’ right to judge the offender was questioned. Insisting on 4 May that the House must maintain its claim to exercise judicature, he reasoned: ‘for precedent, why may not we make a precedent upon good reason, as our ancestors before us have done’. Four days later he was named to the joint sub-committee with the Lords set up to resolve this dispute.65
Widdrington adopted a similar approach to the investigation into monopolies, contributing nothing to the legal arguments, but vigorously pursuing suspects and insisting upon the Commons’ powers of inquiry. Having called on 5 Mar. for all referees to be questioned about their actions, he was doubtless angry that no mention of them was made during the first conference with the Lords on monopolies, and on 9 Mar. he accused the Speaker of sabotaging preparations for that discussion. He was duly appointed to attend the next conference on the subject (12 March).66 Even after James himself condemned the patent of alehouses by Proclamation, Widdrington believed that the Commons should continue to take action on it, and he was nominated to help devise a strategy (21 April). Four days later, he drew on his many years of political and administrative experience to urge the House to maintain this campaign: ‘no wise man will speak against any great man of the kingdom, further than the good of the commonwealth requireth. ... direction hath been given to justices of peace (sworn to do justice) to do that which standeth not with law’.67
Widdrington was equally firm with other suspected offenders. Named on 21 Apr. to help draft charges against the corrupt judge, Sir John Bennet*, he expressed the hope two days later that the latter would be hanged for his crimes, and urged that he be sent to the Tower in the meantime. He was nominated on 27 Apr. to the drafting committee for the bill against judicial bribery, and was also an enthusiastic member of the committee set up to regulate Chancery (25 April).68 Widdrington served on the committee sent on 17 Feb. to inspect conditions at the Fleet prison, reporting two days later on the foul stench that he encountered there. Most Members subsequently lost interest in this particular inquiry, but as late as 28 May he was still calling for action to be taken against the warden.69
These investigations apparently represented Widdrington’s main concern in the House, as he contributed little to other business. On 15 Feb. he was, perhaps surprisingly, appointed to attend the conference with the Lords about the proposed joint petition on recusancy. With his extensive military experience, he was an obvious choice for the legislative committee concerned with improving the country’s stock of serviceable arms (7 March). In a rare foray into local affairs, on 16 Feb. he supported the bill for a free market in wool, explaining that conventional clothiers scarcely operated in the north of England. He was also named to scrutinize the subsidy bill (7 March).70
Widdrington missed approximately the first week of the second sitting. However, on 29 Nov. he was appointed to investigate allegations that Sir Henry Spiller* had failed to collect recusancy fines efficiently. The next day he backed Sir William Grey’s argument that Berwick deserved to be exempted from the bill to ban wool exports. In two of his three remaining speeches, he urged the House to establish why Sir Edwin Sandys was absenting himself, well aware that the real reason was the king’s displeasure against him. As he explained on 1 Dec., ‘they told me in the country, you are as like to speak as any man; take heed, you see what is become of Sir Edwin Sandys. You are brave fellows whilst you are together, but what becomes of you when you are parted?’71
On this occasion at least, no action is known to have been taken against Widdrington himself after the Parliament’s dissolution. The final two years of his life were spent quietly in local administration, and in efforts to make provision for his children, most of whom were still under age. He died at Swinburne in September 1623, leaving as his heir his 13-year-old son, William.72 Under the terms of Widdrington’s will, his five youngest daughters were entrusted to his brother Roger, but the government baulked at this arrangement, and spent over a year attempting to remove them from his control. These efforts ultimately failed, and a petition to the 1626 Parliament alleged that Roger had now ‘seduced them all to popery’. William Widdrington subsequently sat for Northumberland in the Short and Long Parliaments.73
Ref Volumes: 1604-1629
Author: Paul Hunneyball
- 1. C142/242/95.
- 2. J. Hodgson, Hist. Northumb. pt. 2, ii. 236-7.
- 3. GI Admiss.
- 4. HMC Hatfield, xix. 4.
- 5. WARD 7/70/187.
- 6. Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 236-7; Vis. Cumb. and Westmld. ed. Foster, 33.
- 7. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 100.
- 8. WARD 7/70/187.
- 9. CBP, 1595-1603, p. 73.
- 10. C66/1482, 1698, 1988, 2174; C231/4, f. 126v; C193/13/1, f. 75.
- 11. C66/1620, 1698.
- 12. C66/2259; C193/13/1, f. 102v.
- 13. S.J. and S.J. Watts, From Border to Middle Shire: Northumb. 1586-1625, p. 127; CBP, 1595-1603, p. 781.
- 14. C181/1, f. 44v; 181/2, ff. 50v, 236v, 310v; 181/3, f. 83; T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 3, p. 42.
- 15. C181/2, f. 266v; 181/3, f. 91.
- 16. HMC Hatfield, xv. 394.
- 17. Watts, 134, 246.
- 18. Ibid. 144, 149.
- 19. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 483; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 490.
- 20. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 99.
- 21. C181/2, f. 215v.
- 22. Rymer, vii. pt. 3, pp. 38, 96.
- 23. APC, 1618-19, p. 470.
- 24. C181/3, f. 38.
- 25. C212/22/21.
- 26. CJ, i. 208b.
- 27. Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 230, 236; List of Sheriffs, 99; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, pp. 75, 326.
- 28. Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 236; C142/242/95; CBP, 1595-1603, p. 110.
- 29. HMC Hatfield, vi. 551-2; Watts, 113.
- 30. CBP, 1560-94, pp. 463, 525; 1595-1603, p. 62; Rymer, vii. pt. 1, p. 184; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 340.
- 31. CBP, 1595-1603, pp. 180, 184, 240, 479-80; Watts, 118-19; SP12/264/61.
- 32. Watts, 119, 122; Hodgson, pt. 2, ii. 236.
- 33. The claim by Watts that Widdrington had previously been purged from the Northumb. bench is unfounded: Watts, 113.
- 34. CBP, 1595-1603, pp. 551, 553, 556, 577, 585, 600; HMC Hatfield, viii. 314, 500; Watts, 126-7.
- 35. CBP, 1595-1603, pp. 622-3; Watts, 127-8; APC, 1599-1600, pp. 372-3.
- 36. CBP, 1595-1603, p. 750; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 577-8; HMC Rutland, i. 372.
- 37. HMC Hatfield, xii. 115.
- 38. Ibid. xv. 134.
- 39. CJ, i. 172a, 202a, 208b, 212a, 228b.
- 40. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 161.
- 41. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 190.
- 42. Ibid. 483, 489, 495; HMC 10th Rep. iv. 240.
- 43. CJ, i. 262a.
- 44. Watts, 143-4; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 316; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 457-9.
- 45. HMC Hatfield, xix. 4.
- 46. Ibid. xviii. 333-4, 366.
- 47. List of Sheriffs, 99.
- 48. CJ, i. 324b.
- 49. B. Galloway, Union of Eng. and Scotland 1603-8, p. 122; Watts, 149-50; HMC Hatfield, xix. 155.
- 50. CJ, i. 1047b, 1048b, 1049b; Bowyer Diary, 314-15; HMC Hatfield, xix. 155. Galloway incorrectly claims that Widdrington himself introduced a bill on these issues: Galloway, 122, 124.
- 51. Watts, 149, 151; HMC Hatfield, xix. 178, 487; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 294.
- 52. CJ, i. 425b, 445b.
- 53. Ibid. 424a, 428b, 440a.
- 54. Ibid. 393b, 412b, 413b, 433b.
- 55. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 21; Watts, 181.
- 56. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 30, 37-40, 324, 334, 337; Watts, 263-5.
- 57. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 218, 309, 320.
- 58. Ibid. 35, 231, 323, 377.
- 59. Watts, 185, 189; CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 355, 362, 366, 399, 456, 465.
- 60. APC, 1616-17, pp. 101-2, 136, 220; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 513.
- 61. CD 1621, iii. 104; v. 109.
- 62. CJ, i. 507b, 557a, 611b, 619a; CD 1621, iii. 187.
- 63. CD 1621, vi. 262, 276; CJ, i. 592b, 637b.
- 64. CD 1621, ii. 26; iii. 265; CJ, i. 518, 598a.
- 65. CD 1621, iii. 166; CJ, i. 614b.
- 66. CJ, i. 539a, 547b, 551a; CD 1621, vi. 48.
- 67. CJ, i. 586a-b, 589b; CD 1621, iii. 43-4.
- 68. CJ, i. 586a, 587b-8a, 590b-1a, 595a; CD 1621, iii. 54-5; C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance Lists’, PPE 1604-48 ed. Kyle, 194.
- 69. CJ, i. 526b, 629a; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 62-3.
- 70. CJ, i. 522b, 543a, 544a; Nicholas, i. 53.
- 71. CJ, i. 652a, 653a, 659a; Nicholas, ii. 260; CD 1621