STEPHENS, Sir William (c.1640-97), of Bowcombe, I.o.W.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1640, 1st s. of William Stephens of Barton, I.o.W. by Anne, da. of one Redman, wid. of Edward Harbert, yeoman, of Birchmore, Arreton, I.o.W. educ. M. Temple, entered 1656; New Coll. Oxf. 1658. m. 1665, Elizabeth (d. 12 Jan. 1696), da. of Henry Hillary, grazier, of Merehay, Dorset, 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 5da. suc. fa. 1658; kntd. 1684.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Newtown 1658-96, capt. militia I.o.W. c.1665, col. by 1697; commr. for assessment, Hants 1666-80, 1689-90; j.p. Hants 1676-d.; lt.-gov. of I.o.W. c.1689-93.


Stephens was descended from a Hampshire yeoman family which was holding property near Christchurch by 1588. They gained their first foothold on the Isle of Wight, a farm in Whippingham, by marriage in 1633. Stephens’s father, as a servant of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, who was appointed governor by the Long Parliament, became recorder of Newport, which he represented as a recruiter, and acquired an estate of £1,200 p.a. He retained his seat in the Rump and sat for Salisbury in 1654. Stephens himself was knighted in 1684, but according to his grandson

this honour chagrined him, for he not only complained of the expense he had been already at in serving the public, the militia being then kept up in that country with spirit, but declared that he did not expect that an empty title, with its expensive appendages, was to have been made the reward of his services.

In 1685 he was returned to Parliament for Newport as a Tory with the support of the governor, Sir Robert Holmes. He was not an active Member of James II’s Parliament, being appointed only to the committees to recommend remedies for the low prices of wool and corn, and to examine the accounts of the commissioners for disbanding the forces. He gave affirmative replies on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws. He again represented Newport in the Convention, in which he was appointed only to the committees to hear a petition against the East India Company and to consider the bill for the sale of the town house of Henry Coventry, and he was twice given leave to go into the country. He soon made his peace with the new regime, but rejected an offer from Holmes to make him his deputy,

thanking the governor for a feather in his cap for one day, which might adorn that of another the next; and, therefore, refused anything less than the King’s commission; which was afterwards granted him, and he was the first lieutenant-governor of that island.

He was marked as a placeman in the 1690 Parliament, but refused the Association in 1696. He died on 26 Sept. 1697 in the 57th year of his age, and was buried at Carisbrooke, leaving debts of nearly £5,000.

From the long experience and persuasion of the folly of engaging in public affairs to the neglect and dissipation of one’s private fortune, he admonished his eldest son but a little before his death, never to have anything to do with the public if he could avoid it with honour.

His son did not follow this advice, sitting as a Tory for two Isle of Wight constituencies from 1702 until 1727, and holding several offices; but it was extravagance, rather than public service, which reduced which reduced him to poverty.2

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: Paula Watson


  • 1. Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 126.
  • 2. VCH Hants, v. 228, 233; Worsley, Isle of Wight, 161; Woodward, Hants, iii. supp. 56.