WILLIAMS, William (c.1634-1700), of Nantanog, Llantrisant, Anglesey and Glascoed, Llansilin, Denb.
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Family and Education
b. c.1634, o.s. of Hugh Williams, DD of Llantrisant, preb. of St. Asaph 1633-70, by Emma, da. and h. of John Dolben of Caeau Gwynion, Denb. educ. Shrewsbury 1649; Jesus, Oxf. 1650; G. Inn 1650, called 1658, ancient 1676. m. 14 Apr. 1664, Margaret (d.1705), da. and coh. of Watkin Kyffin of Glascoed, 4s. (2 d.v.p.) 1da. suc. fa. 1670; kntd. 11 Dec. 1687; cr. Bt. 6 July 1688.1
Commr. for militia, Anglesey Mar. 1660; j.p. Mar. 1660-87, ?Apr. 1688-96, Denb. and Mont. 1670-80, ?Apr. 1688-96, Salop to 1680, Merion. 1689-96; commr. for assessment, Denb. 1664-80, Chester, Salop, Anglesey and Mont. 1673-80, London, Westminster, Flints. and Merion. 1677-80, Cheshire 1679-80, G. Inn 1689, Chester, Mdx., London, Salop, Anglesey, Denb., Flints., Merion. and Mont. 1689-90; alderman and recorder, Chester 1667-84, Oct. 1688-d.; bencher, G. Inn 1679, treas. 1681-2; freeman, Montgomery 1684; recorder, Llanfyllin by 1685; dep. lt. Anglesey, Denb., Merion. and Mont. Feb. 1688-?96; steward of Menai manor, Anglesey July 1688-d.; custos rot. Denb. and Merion. 1689-90.2
Solicitor-gen. 1687-9; KC 1689-96.3
Speaker of House of Commons 21 Oct. 1680-28 Mar. 1681.
Williams came of a minor gentry family which had been seated at Chwaen Issa in Anglesey for four generations. His father, a younger son, became chaplain to the bishop of Bangor, whose niece he married. A Royalist in the Civil War, he was ejected from his livings by the Propagators for ‘delinquency and scandal’. Williams himself became a lawyer, and also acquired wealth, prominence and a wife in the exercise of his profession. On his appointment as recorder of Chester in 1667, (Sir) Geoffrey Shakerley described him as ‘a very ingenious man and true son of the Church’. But it was on behalf of the country party that he opposed Robert Werden at the by-election for the city in 1673, ignoring a demand for his withdrawal from Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury. His ‘over-hastiness’ at the poll led to a disorderly scene in which nine people were suffocated. He was narrowly defeated, and his petition was rejected, but he was successful at the next by-election two years later. A very active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he was probably appointed to about 140 committees, in seven of which he took the chair. He acted as teller in five divisions, and nearly a hundred of his speeches were recorded. In his first session he made his mark as one of the four Members ordered to bring in a bill for the Protestant education of the royal children and as chairman of the committee on illegal exactions; and thereafter his name was seldom missing from committees of major political importance, though he took no part in the attacks on the ministers of the Cabal. It is clear that his boldness was based on a judicious choice of patrons who were both acceptable at Court and popular in the country. Sir Richard Wiseman hoped to manage him through Lord Gerard of Brandon and Gilbert Gerard II, while in the House he quickly attached himself to William, Lord Cavendish. When Cavendish was challenged to a duel, Williams in his maiden speech on 25 Oct. 1675 proposed that this offence should be declared incapable of pardon. On the same day he sharply criticized government finance:
What’s become of all this money? Possibly accounts may have been kept, but he has seen none. ... He would be gladly told when there will be an end of anticipations. ... Observes it was said the other day we are not to give money of courtesy, ’tis matter of right. At this rate, the Commons will be in the condition of deans and chapters; a congé d’élire their bishop, for form’s sake only, sent for and asked. Finds not in all this Parliament money denied when asked, and now in fourteen years’ time it may be a precedent upon us for futurity and posterity; therefore let us deny it now for precedent’s sake. ... Let us leave some records behind us that we are the true representatives of the people.
Two days later he described the government whip as illegal and unjustifiable and demanded the production in the House of the letters that had been sent to Members. Nevertheless, as a rising and ambitious lawyer he was noted on the working lists as susceptible to the lord keeper’s influence. He took the chair for the first time in committee on the bill for rebuilding Northampton, and on 20 Nov. acted as teller against the adjournment.4
Williams could not accept Shaftesbury’s argument that the long recess which followed automatically entailed a dissolution. In his opinion
the Parliament is in being, but whether by prorogation or adjournment is the question. ... We cannot constitute ourselves a Parliament if we be none, but by our solemn debates with reason we may in some measure satisfy the world.
His was the first name on the bill to enable Sir Trevor Williams to settle jointures out of his estate, but if it was of his drafting it did little credit to his skill as a conveyancer, for it had to be supplemented by a further bill in the next session. As counsel for Sir Samuel Barnardiston he attacked the decision of Exchequer Chamber in the Suffolk election case ‘in a very malicious and opprobrious manner’, not by argument, but by simply giving the names of the judges ‘that were of the one opinion and the other’. Still a ‘young’ Member, by his own description, he cited the Statute of Limitations so incorrectly in the debate on parliamentary wages that Cavendish interrupted him with a joke, to save him from further punishment at the hands of Sir Robert Sawyer. When the bill on the education of the royal children was brought in again, he observed: ‘We all know who makes judges, and no doubt but upon any dispute hereafter upon this bill, the judges will give it for the King’. On foreign policy he declared: ‘The thing we are to do is to stop the power of France, which intimidates every man’. After the adjournment he was leading counsel in the King’s bench for Shaftesbury, whose obstinacy over the dissolution question had landed him in the Tower on the orders of the House of Lords; he failed to obtain a writ of habeas corpus, but his grateful client marked him ‘doubly worthy’.5
When the House met again on 16 July 1677 Williams seconded Cavendish’s motion to debate the high-handed conduct of Edward Seymour in adjourning it against its will, and after further frustration succeeded on 28 Jan. 1678 in launching a formidable attack on his conduct:
The question is between the Speaker and the House, whether you have not imposed upon the House by adjourning without their consent by a question. You have declared the right to be in the House, yet you have done the contrary. ... You, Mr Speaker, have repeated this adjournment, without a question or consent of the House, four times over. The privileges of the House are, by course of Parliament, first to be considered and there can be no greater privilege than this freedom of speech. ... This action of yours, Mr Speaker, is gagging the Parliament, and you, by skipping out of the chair, prevented speaking in Parliament.
In the debate of 5 Feb. on supply, he said:
I cannot believe this to be a war. ... The repeated counsels we have given are the safe counsels of the nation. The King, in his speech, is of the same opinion, and still here are the same counsels still continued about him. Are we the great council of England? Have we advised lowering of France and a war with him? And have preparations been made pursuant thereunto? And now when we desire to see what is done, we are answered, ‘You must not see or hear the treaties, or what is done’. In reason, we may and ought to have satisfaction in these matters, and till that be done, I am not for supply. ... My fear is, that by giving our money, we shall have arbitrary power set up.
He told the House that he had advised Thomas Wancklyn to withdraw his letters of protection, and acted as teller for his expulsion. He opposed the land registry bill introduced by John Birch, doubtless for professional reasons, though ostensibly out of concern for the liberty of the subject. He was teller for the rejection of the recusancy bill from the Lords, which would have abolished most of the Penal Laws. On 23 Feb. he reported the Weobley case from the elections committee in favour of the courtier Sir Thomas Williams; but the House rejected the report because of a technical error by the sheriff, which the committee had overlooked. He helped to draw up the address for the removal of counsellors on 7 May, but his energy was chiefly directed against the new-raised forces. ‘I take this army to be merely a handle to raise money’, he said on 30 May, ‘and therefore I would disband them forthwith. ... If paying be in the question before disbanding, it may be dangerous.’ But his warmth led him into a ludicrous constitutional blunder, when he declared that ‘the King can no more raise men in England than he can raise money’, and he had to submit himself to correction from Sawyer. In the summer he helped to draw up reasons for conferences on disbandment, the dimensions of coal-ships, and burial in woollen.6
In the last session of the Cavalier Parliament, Williams was appointed to most of the principal committees concerned with the Popish Plot. On 16 Nov. he reported the draft address demanding the issue of commissions of oyer and terminer for the trial of priests. As recorder of Chester he noted the large number of commissions countersigned by (Sir) Joseph Williamson that were produced by Roman Catholic officers travelling to Ireland; but he left it to William Sacheverell to raise the matter in the House. He was sent with Sir Francis Winnington to request the lord chief justice to attend the House about Bedloe’s pardon. On 22 Nov. he took the chair in grand committee to discuss security against Popery. ‘It is not the Papists that can bring in Popery’, he remarked shrewdly, ‘but Protestants that favour it. ... It was a great part of the cunning to put this army into Protestant hands; but the officers may be changed, and Popish officers put in their places.’ He complained of the extraordinary restraint placed upon Titus Oates by depriving him of pen, ink and paper. When the King rejected parliamentary control of the militia, Williams spoke with ‘some sharpness and resentment at the counsel’ which had been followed. He reported an address against Popery on 4 Dec. and carried it to the Lords for their concurrence. ‘New discovery and new evidence improve daily’, he observed over the Popish Plot, and he was appointed to the committee of secrecy. When Ralph Montagu produced Danby’s letters to the House, Williams declared:
Nothing ought to be imputed to the King. But this man, unless he clears himself upon somebody else, must take this crime upon him. ... When this great person is on the point to make Parliaments useless, it is treason; and the Parliament may declare a treason without making any.
It was as chairman of the committee appointed for the impeachment of Danby that Williams’s conduct became most notorious. No meeting-place had been appointed by the House, and he seized the opportunity to exclude the seven moderates by summoning the others to his chambers in Gray’s Inn. ‘Fifteen had notice of it, and nine were at the place’, he said when complaints were made. He reported the articles on 21 Dec. and was again chairman of the committee to peruse the engrossment.7
Williams was re-elected to the Exclusion Parliaments and marked ‘worthy’ on Shaftesbury’s list. In the dispute with the King over the choice of Speaker, he spoke five times in defence of the Commons’ right:
I have ever observed, that prerogative once gained was never got back again, and privileges lost are never restored. What will become of you when a popish successor comes, when in King Charles II’s time, the best of princes, you gave up this privilege? When you have the oppression of a tyrant upon you, and all ill counsels upon you, what will become of you?
But after the dispute had been settled in a compromise, Williams appears to have flinched from the next business, the attack on the heir to the throne, and departed on circuit. Although he was ordered to return, and may have been appointed in his absence to the two important committees for the security bill and to receive additional evidence against Danby, he was still absent on 25 Apr. 1679, and there is no proof that he resumed his seat until the last day of the month. But he was active during May, serving probably on 14 committees and making 18 speeches. He was among those appointed to inspect the disbandment accounts in the Exchequer, and was given special responsibility, with John Maynard I and Sir Robert Carr, for the inquiry into Barnardiston’s trial. He found Danby’s answers to the impeachment so full of equivocation that they might have been penned by a Jesuit, and he was appointed to the committee to draw up reasons for the conference on the illegality of his pardon. On the appointment to a judgeship of William Ellis, it was proposed by Henry Powle and seconded by Silius Titus that Williams should replace him on the committee of secrecy to prepare the impeachments of the five Popish lords. The purpose, as he protested, was to ‘expose’ him, or rather to compromise him with the Opposition beyond hope of redemption; but his protests were unavailing. It is to his credit that, despite his professed suspicion of Danby’s advisers, he opposed the attempt to deny him counsel. On 11 May he was appointed to the joint committee on the trial of the lords, and spoke in favour of a bill to banish the Duke of York. He was nevertheless appointed to the committee for the exclusion bill, and voted for its second reading. He continued to press for disbandment, and was appointed to the committee to prepare an answer to the message from the Upper House of 23 May on the trial of the Popish lords.8
Williams was re-elected in the autumn, but it was only two days before the second Exclusion Parliament met that he was told by Shaftesbury’s henchman, Charlton, that he was to be proposed as Speaker. He was chosen without dissent, and, instead of protesting his unworthiness, as the tradition was, said:
it were vanity in me by arguments from weakness and unfitness to disable myself for this service in this chair at this time. The unanimous voice of the House calling me to this place precludes and leaves me without excuse. Whom the Commons have elected for this trust, is to be supposed worthy and fit for it; wherefore I must acquiesce in your commands.
When presented to the King his attitude was no more modest, and an offer of the chief justiceship of the Chester circuit from Lord Gerard (now Earl of Macclesfield) failed to win him over. He was described by the Tory Thomas Bruce as ‘a lawyer of competent learning, but of a fiery and vicious temper, and subservient to that party [the Whigs] and pliant to them as a spaniel dog’. On 28 Oct. he was ordered by the House to ask Dr Dove to preach on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, and afterwards returned the thanks of the House, with a request that the sermon be printed. On 9 Nov. 1680 he was authorized by the House to peruse and pass for publication all the informations given about the Popish Plot, and he received £6 a day from the printers for the text of the Journals. The publication of his sentence of expulsion on Sir Robert Peyton (in suitably heightened language) led to a challenge. True to his principles on duelling, he at once informed the authorities. He again served as Speaker in the Oxford Parliament and as ‘counsel for the most noisy demagogues who had been accused of sedition’. There were many complaints from local Tories of his leniency towards those responsible for the Chester riots during the Duke of Monmouth’s visit in 1682, and he was specifically excluded from the corporation under the new charter.9
In June 1684, Sawyer, now attorney-general, exhibited an information for libel against Williams for licensing the publication of Dangerfield’s Narrative of the Late Popish Designs. His defence was that he had acted on the orders of the House, but to make this good he needed to regain parliamentary privilege. His interest at Chester had disappeared, but the Hon. Henry Herbert offered him the Montgomery borough seat. Although Williams was recorder of one of the contributory boroughs, Herbert was determined not to allow their votes, and the candidate therefore had to be prepared to lay out forty or fifty pounds on buying the freedom of Montgomery. He was elected in 1685, and became a moderately active Member of James II’s Parliament, serving on four committees, including that to recommend expunctions from the Journals. He was listed among the opposition lawyers considerable for parts and estates. But on 10 June his election was declared void because of the denial of the franchise to the out-boroughs. The prosecution recommenced, and on 17 May 1686 he was fined £10,000 for scandalum magnatum, though it was observed that no application was made for his committal. Another action was started by the Earl of Peterborough. After Williams had actually paid £8,000, the remainder was remitted at the instance of the Earl of Rochester (Laurence Hyde), to whom he gratefully wrote:
No acts shall be wanting to signalize my duty and loyalty ... and in all things wherein my services may be useful, they shall be paid to his Majesty with sincerity and alacrity.
James took him at his word, ordered Peterborough to drop his case, and on 12 Dec. 1687 made Williams solicitor-general. The most distinguished of the Whig collaborators, he supplied both the defects of the gentlemanly and incompetent attorney-general in the prosecution of the Seven Bishops, sparing none ‘when they came within his circle and reach’. ‘He hath now so endeared himself to the King’, wrote (Sir) John Bramston, ‘that he hath opportunity to recruit himself’, and, despite the failure of the prosecution, James made him a baronet for his care and ability. He was recommended as court candidate for Wallingford, probably on the interest of John Holloway, and was said to stand fair to replace Jeffreys as lord chancellor. But on the news of the Dutch landing the windows of his chamber were broken and ‘reflecting inscriptions’ fixed over the door, and when he came in to William of Orange on 16 Dec. 1688 he was not admitted.10
Williams retreated to his native county for the general election of 1689, and to the indignation of the dean of Bangor was returned for Beaumaris on the Bulkeley interest. A very active Member of the Convention, he was probably appointed to 72 committees and made over 80 speeches, though neither he nor his old antagonist Sawyer was very acceptable to the House. On 28 Jan. he said:
’Tis plain that King James II is gone out of England into France; that is a plain fact. ’Tis a wilful, voluntary or mixed action. I hear of no direction for administration of the Government, when the King has left the kingdom; how he was disposed either of the courts of justice or of the Parliament. If this fact be true, he is become useless, and has left no remedy to preserve the peace of the kingdom. ... I propose it to be the first step, to declare that James II, by withdrawing himself from England, has deprived the kingdom of England of the exercise of kingly dignity.
Nevertheless his speech of 5 Feb. about the vacancy of the throne might be interpreted as agreeing with the Lords, and on Ailesbury’s list he is shown as voting accordingly. He helped to draw up the list of essentials for securing religion, laws and liberties, one of which was specifically inserted for his benefit, and reported from the conference of 12 Feb. on the bill. In Macclesfield’s interest, he opposed the abolition of the court of the marches. When he reflected on the readiness of office-holders to vote for supply, the Whig Birch told him that he had been very pernicious in his office and threatened to prosecute him. He was appointed to the committees for suspending habeas corpus, for inquiring into the authors and advisers of the recent grievances, and for the declaration of rights. On the proposal to publish parliamentary proceedings, he said: ‘Notwithstanding all I have suffered for printing by your order, yet I think it not politic to do it now. ... You will arm your enemies against your counsels’. After an altercation with another Whig, John Grobham Howe II, he secured a hearing for Captain Motley, who had been falsely accused of sedition. On supply, he told the House: ‘If you give the crown too little, you may add at any time; if once you give too much, you will never have it back again’. He was named to the committees to consider the first mutiny bill, the coronation oath, and the new oaths of supremacy and allegiance. He took the chair in the committee which drew up the address of thanks for the King’s message urging the speedy passing of the indemnity bill, and on 1 Apr. brought his reply. On the same day he was appointed to the committees for the repeal of the Corporations Act and the comprehension bill. He was added a week later to the managers of the conference about the removal of Papists from the metropolitan area, and helped to prepare reasons for the conference on the abrogation of the oaths and on the poll-tax. In conference with the Lords on exempting the bishops from the new oaths, he declared: ‘The conscientious men in this case are the dangerous men’. In May he was appointed to the committee for the toleration bill. On 4 June, after inspecting the Lords’ Journals with regard to Oates, he condemned, without asserting his innocence, their refusal to annul his convictions:
I speak not for the sake of Oates, but for the Lords and Commons. By this great example, the little dogs will bark after the great curs. The Lords have affirmed this judgment, and there is no way to avoid it but by Act of Reversal.
On 20 June he warned the House against going too far in their reaction against James’s abuse of the dispensing power.
If that stands for law that the King can have no power to dispense in any case that can happen, then perhaps you will find that the subjects shall suffer more in this than in the dispensing power. Because pardons have been abused in impeachments, shall the crown have no power to pardon?
He was among those ordered to consider the attainder bill and to inspect the records of the Irish committee of the Privy Council. Although Williams had promised the House never to complain about his own sufferings, the House resolved on 12 July that his conviction had been illegal. A bill to reverse the judgment was accordingly introduced by John Trenchard, and received a second reading on 22 July, but no further progress was made in this session. He helped to draw up reasons for the conferences on the coffee, tea and chocolate duties and on the bill to reverse Oates’s conviction, and to manage the conference on the attainder bill.11
Williams was much less conspicuous when the House met again after the recess. His bill was reintroduced, but never got beyond the first reading, possibly because it contained a provision to reimburse him at Sawyer’s expense. His only important committees before Christmas were to inspect the papers of Brent, the Popish solicitor and regulator, and to draw up the address for provision for Princess Anne. He supported the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations, though advocating a ‘middle way’ to include only the wilful and malicious. An ill-advised proposal to enlarge the instructions to the committee on the indemnity bill prompted Lord Falkland (Anthony Carey) to suggest that they should include the punishment of those responsible for the trial of the bishops. On 21 Jan. 1690 he was appointed to the committee to impose a general oath of allegiance. But on the same day it was formally moved by Peregrine Bertie I and seconded by Sir Edward Hussey that Williams should be excepted from the indemnity. He was described by Sir Robert Napier as one of those ‘who sailed with every wind’, but John Hawles asserted that he had acted only out of fear for his life. ‘If he owns that, I hope you will pass him by.’ It was agreed by a small majority not to proceed by naming individuals for exception, and the matter passed off.12
Williams lost his seat at the general election, but regained it in 1695. A country Whig, he was a vehement opponent of the grant of Welsh lands to Bentinck and of the Association. He died in London on 10 July 1700, aged 66, and was buried at Llansilin. His reputation has suffered chiefly from the attacks of Whig historians. Burnet described him as ‘a corrupt and vicious man, who had no principles, but followed his own interest’, while later Macaulay condemned his ‘unblushing forehead’. His singularity as a Whig collaborator, and possibly also his legal ability, may have been exaggerated. But he did found one of the most eminent of Welsh parliamentary families, continuing with his son, who married the Wynn heiress and was returned for Denbigh Boroughs in 1708.13