WILLIAMS, Sir John (by 1503-59), of Rycote and Thame, Oxon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Mar. 1553
Oct. 1553

Family and Education

b. by 1503, 2nd surv. s. of Sir John Williams of Burghfield, Berks. by Isabel, da. and coh. of Richard More of Burghfield. m. (1) by July 1524, Elizabeth (d. 25 Oct. 1556), da. and coh. of Thomas Bledlow of Bledlow, Bucks., wid. of Andrew Edmonds (d. 23 June 1523) of Cressing Temple, Essex, 3s. inc. Henry 2da.; (2) settlement 19 Apr. 1557, Margaret, da. of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Lord Wentworth, of Nettlestead, Suff., 1da. Kntd. 15 Nov. 1538/28 June 1539; cr. Lord Williams of Thame 1554.1

Offices Held

?Chancery official by 1526; clerk of the King’s jewels 8 May 1530, jt. (with Thomas Cromwell) master c. Jan. 1535, sole 1540-44, receiver, lands formerly of 3rd Duke of Buckingham Mar. 1531, Thame abbey by 1535; j.p. Bucks. 1535, Oxon. 1535-7. 1542-7 or later, Berks. 1544, Northants. 1554; sheriff, Oxon. and Berks. 1538-9; 1544-5, Sept.-Nov. 1553; visitor of monasteries 1538, commr. subsidy, Oxon. 1540, benevolence 1544/45, chantries, Northants., Oxon., Rutland 1546, 1548, of Admiralty in Nov. 1547, relief, Berks., Oxon., Northants. 1550, musters, Salop, Staffs., Warws. 1559; steward, manors of Grafton and Hartwell, Northants. Feb. 1540, Easton Neston, Northants. 1542; master of cygnets in Thames Mar. 1542; treasurer, ct. augmentations Mar. 1544-Jan. 1554; high steward, Oxford ?by 1553; chamberlain to King Philip Apr. 1554-8; trier of petitions in the Lords, Parlts. of Nov. 1554, 1555 and 1559; pres. council in the marches of Wales Feb. 1559-d.2


John Williams was of Welsh descent. His father was the first of the line to anglicize his name and probably the first to seek his fortune in England. He was a kinsman of Morgan Williams who married Cromwell’s sister, a relationship which must have helped his son in his early career: in 1535 Gregory Cromwell wrote to his own father from Rycote that he had been splendidly entertained by all the neighbourhood, especially by Williams. In 1544 Richard Cromwell alias Williams*, Morgan Williams’s son, left Sir John Williams two of his best horses.3

It is not certain which of the family first became established in the region of Thame. John Williams’s sister Anne married William King, of Thame, and by 1535 another sister was prioress of Studley, but it was Williams’s own marriage which was probably decisive, for Bledlow is only five miles from Thame. The marriage, to the widow of an important Londoner, also suggests that by 1524 Williams was a royal servant with London connexions; these may have included Sir John Dauntesey, his neighbour at Thame.4

In 1536 Williams increased his reputation by his prompt and effective action against the Lincolnshire rebellion. In 1537 he was commissioned to investigate allegations against the abbots of Eynsham and Osney and to sit with Dauntesey to hear charges of sedition at Thame. Although he was probably responsible for the reprieve of Studley in that year, he was assiduous in receiving the surrender of monasteries and particularly, as master of the jewels, in ransacking their shrines. Early in 1538 he took 5,000 marks’ worth of gold and silver from Bury St. Edmunds; between 7 and 11 Mar. he stripped Abingdon and was reported to have left 100 barge-loads of spoils at the waterside; and at three o’clock on a Saturday morning in September, he and two others ‘made an end’ of the shrine of St. Swithun at Winchester, taking the trouble to ‘sweep away all the rotten bones called relics’ lest the citizens think that they came only for the treasure. In the previous May he and Thomas Lee I had taken the surrender of Woburn, where he heard accusations of treason against the abbot and eventually became the receiver of the property. In Oxfordshire he took the surrenders of Eynsham, Godstow, Osney, Studley and Thame, that of Studley from his own sister. Between 1542 and 1557 he pulled down and sold the materials of Gloucester Hall, Oxford.5

The abbot of Thame was Anne Williams’s brother-in-law Robert King, for whom Williams had secured the abbacy of Osney in commendam in 1537 and who in 1541 became bishop of Thame and Osney and in 1545 first bishop of Oxford, no doubt with Williams’s continued assistance. If he could look after a relative in this way, Williams was able to do much more for himself. He had begun by securing a 21-year lease of the crown’s demesne lands at Grafton, Northamptonshire, in 1528 and the reversion of lands at Upper Winchendon, Buckinghamshire, four years later. With the Dissolution there began an impressive series of grants and purchases. He had already bought the house at Rycote, which became his chief seat, from Giles Heron and had secured an interest in the estates of Thame abbey. His possession of Rycote was confirmed by an Act of 1539 (31 Hen. VIII, c.19), introduced into the Lords by Williams himself, and reaffirmed in the following year by a proviso to Heron’s Act of attainder (32 Hen. VIII, c.58). In 1538 he purchased Wytham, Berkshire, from Leonard Chamberlain and began to form a second cluster of properties west of Oxford, while his purchase of a manor in Monmouthshire may reflect some awareness of his origins. In Cripplegate, London, he purchased the priory of Elsingspital for some £530 and up to 1547 he made five further purchases, in conjunction with other speculators, of monastic lands to a total value of about £8,000, much of which was resold. At the beginning of Edward VI’s reign he bought the abbeys of Thame and Notley, near Thame, from the Duke of Somerset and Sir William Paget. His last major purchase was that of the priory of Marlow in 1555.6

The fall of Cromwell does not seem to have affected Williams’s position, save in making him sole master of the jewels. On 26 Aug. 1540 the Privy Council met at Rycote and a week later it added his name to the Oxfordshire subsidy commission. In 1544 he was licensed to retain ten men in addition to his household servants and was listed as the captain of 20 archers and 40 billmen in the King’s battle of the army against France. His career in royal administration culminated in his appointment as treasurer of the augmentations in 1544 with a yearly salary of £320.7

Williams is first known to have been elected to the Parliament of 1542, although he could have sat for a borough in its precursor of 1539, for which most of the returns are lost. His shrievalty doubtless excluded him from the last Parliament of the reign, but he was to sit in the three summoned before his ennoblement. It was presumably he rather than his son Henry, knight of the shire for Northamptonshire, who as Mr. Williams had a bill concerning sheriffs committed to him after its second reading on 8 Dec. 1547, and certainly he to whom one concerning tithes and another on regrators and forestallers were committed during the second session of that Parliament on 22 Feb. and 1 Mar. 1549. In the third session he was doubtless the recipient of a bill to encourage husbandry, first read on 4 Jan. 1550, and another for putting away old service books after its second reading ten days later. On 21 Jan. 1549 he secured privilege for his servant Anthony Butler. He was himself an unpopular landlord and a victim of the rising in Oxfordshire in the summer of 1549 when the commons ‘disparked his park(s) ... and killed all the deer’ at Rycote and Thame. It is not surprising, therefore, in view of Somerset’s alleged leniency to the rebels, that Williams was one of the three ordered to Windsor in October 1549 to ‘protect’ the King and arrest Somerset.8

In October 1551 the imperial ambassador reported that Williams himself had been arrested, an act which, since Williams possessed a huge amount of livestock and was loathed by the people, was meant to show that the Duke of Northumberland wanted to ease the people’s burdens. There is no other evidence of the arrest before 8 Apr. 1552, when the Privy Council ordered the warden of the Fleet prison to receive him and to allow none to converse with him. By 25 Apr. the confinement was affecting his health and he was allowed to exercise and to be visited by his family and friends; the ill-health seems to have persisted, for on the Crown Office list of the Parliament of October 1553 he is described as ‘infirmus’. According to the King’s journal, Williams had disobeyed an order not to pay pensions without the Council’s foreknowledge, and it was for ‘lack of doing his duty in his office’ that he made his humble submission on 22 May 1552, when he was released. The Privy Council continued to issue warrants to Williams throughout his imprisonment. There is little reason to question the official version of his offence, although his unpopularity may have made him a target, and there are other pointers to his having fallen short of even the far from rigorous standards of the time. Only in May 1552 were his accounts as master of the jewels cleared, and in Mary’s reign he was to be in trouble over his augmentations accounts. On 5 June 1556 he was charged with a debt of £2,500; he promised to pay within a fortnight but five days later, in consideration of his service, he was pardoned all arrears both as master of the jewels and treasurer of augmentations. At the end of Edward VI’s reign these arrears had already stood at over £28,000. Despite the pardon, the Privy Council was still discussing Williams’s accounts in May 1558.9

The Council recommended to the sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire that Williams should be returned for Oxfordshire to the Parliament of March 1553, but he had to yield first place to Northumberland’s brother Sir Andrew Dudley, whose recent acquisitions in the county were making him a threat to Williams’s local preponderance. On grounds of self-interest Williams might therefore have been expected to go over to Mary and in the event he sprang to her support with the alacrity he had shown in 1536 and with the same reward for himself. He is said to have raised 6,000 men, including cavalry recruited among the peasantry, and the news of the response to his summons was believed to have had a decisive effect on the Council in London. On 22 July he was ordered to dismiss his men and to wait upon the Queen who continued to employ him in a military role; on 12 Aug. 1553 he and Leonard Chamberlain were given £2,000, on 14 Aug. 400 lances and 500 corselets and on the 15th six field pieces. In the following February he was commanded to provide 100 horse and 100 foot for the Queen’s retinue.10

He discharged the office of sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire for a few weeks in the autumn of 1553 and Mary thereafter treated him as her henchman in Oxfordshire. In this capacity he was involved in the custody and execution of Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, and the safe-keeping of Princess Elizabeth. On 19 May 1554 he joined Sir Henry Bedingfield and Sir Leonard Chamberlain to escort Elizabeth from the Tower to Woodstock. It is not clear either that he was ever in sole charge of her, or that he was replaced by Bedingfield for his leniency, but he gained a lasting reputation for kindness to Elizabeth on her journeys to and from Woodstock. On both occasions he entertained her at Rycote and, according to Foxe, protested that he would die for her if necessary and clashed with Bedingfield over the respect he paid her. There is some likelihood, therefore, that he was the ‘Lord William’ reported by the imperial ambassador in March 1555 to be conspiring with Elizabeth and plotting to marry her to Courtenay. Williams’s favourable reputation with Protestants is also clear from Foxe’s report of his treatment of the condemned bishops, whom he conducted to Oxford from the Tower in March 1554 and at whose executions he presided in October 1555 and March 1556. The rumour is therefore intelligible which is reported to have been rife in September 1554, that the see of Canterbury ‘was given to a Spanish friar; and the Lord Williams was out of his chamberlainship, and Secretary Petre out of his office’.11

There is no evidence that Williams ever betrayed his allegiance to Mary and he remained in favour throughout the reign. In April 1554 he was summoned to Parliament as Lord Williams of Thame; this was in part to compensate him for his loss of office when the court of augmentations was dissolved and in part to give him the dignity necessary to his new office of chamberlain to King Philip. It was he who with the 12th Earl of Arundel met Philip at the gates of Southampton on 20 July 1554. On losing his augmentations office Williams was granted an annuity of £320, and in March 1554 he received a gift of 200 crowns from the Queen and in July a pension of 1,000 crowns from the King. He was fairly regular in his attendance in the Lords throughout the remainder of the reign and had several bills committed to him in the Parliaments of April 1554 and 1555, including one to confirm the articles of the Spanish marriage. In 1555 he was one of four peers who voted against a bill ‘for the keeping of milch kine’ and the sole dissenter from a bill for the repeal of an Act of 1497 concerning merchant adventurers (12 Hen. VII, c.6); in 1558 he was again the sole dissenter from a bill to cancel import licences for French or Gascon wines.12

With Elizabeth on the throne Williams’s ability to keep on good terms with all parties once more paid him well. One of his servants brought the Queen’s proclamation to Oxford, and he was one of the lords appointed to attend Elizabeth from Hatfield to London. Two months later he was appointed president of the council in the marches of Wales, but by the following March he was seriously ill and before he was able to make any impression on the marches he died at Ludlow on 14 Oct. 1559. Only at the very end of his life is there a suggestion that he was other than a leading example of the profiteer from the religious revolution: in his last illness he received into his house for a period Bishop Jewel, once vicar of Sunningwell, near Oxford, where Williams had an estate, and in 1559 just returned from exile.13

Williams was buried with great pomp at Thame on 15 Nov. 1559, and his tomb remains in the church. His sons having predeceased him, the barony became extinct and the heirs to his property were his sons-in-law Henry Norris and Richard Wenman. To his wife Williams left several manors, his house at Elsingspital and cups given by the Queen, the Duchess of Norfolk and Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, at the christening of one of her children; she later married in turn William Drury and James Croft. To Bedford he left his personal armour and to Sir Robert Dudley a black mare called ‘Maud Mullford which mare I take to be the best mare in England’. Several rectories were assigned for the endowment of a free school at Thame and provision was also made for the restoration of the footway between Oxford and Botley and the support of Botley road upon stone arches: a bill for the amendment of causeways and highways had been committed to Mr. Williams, either Sir John or Thomas Williams I, a Member for Oxford, in the Parliament of October 1553. The executors included Sir Walter Mildmay and the supervisors the Earl of Bedford and Sir William Cecil.14

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: Alan Harding


  • 1. Date of birth estimated from marriage. DNB; CP; N.J. O’Conor, Godes peace and the Queen Vis. Hants (Harl. Soc. lxiv), 39-40; Vis. Berks. (Harl. Soc. lvi), 55; PCC 28 Bennett; F. G. Lee, Thame Church, 414-18; Strype, Eccles. Memorials, iii(1), 507.
  • 2. Rep. R. Comm. of 1552 (Archs. of Brit. Hist. and Culture iii), 5, 75, 78; Lee, 410; LP Hen. VIII, iii-v, viii, x, xv, xvii-xxi; Elton, Tudor Rev. in Govt. 100; Machyn’s Diary (Cam. Soc. xlii), 59; LJ, i. 465, 492, 542; C. A. J. Skeel, Council in the Marches of Wales, 84-85; CPR, 1548-9, p. 137; 1553, pp. 351, 356-7; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 139; Val. Eccles. ii. 213-14; Oxf. Recs. 220, 225-6, 258-60, 266-7; NCA 14/2.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, ix, xx.
  • 4. Lee, 385; Val. Eccles. ii. 186.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, xi-xiv; VCH Oxon, iii. 2198, 306.
  • 6. LP Hen. VIII, iv, v, xiii-xxi, add.; DNB (King, Robert); LJ, i. 112, 136; VCH Berks. iv. 399, 429; CPR, 1547-8, p. 208, 1550-3, pp. 11, 51, 85; 1555-7, p. 212; M. C. Rosenfield, ‘The disposal of the property of London monastic houses’ (London Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1961), 312, 313.
  • 7. Wriothesley’s Chron. i (Cam. Soc. n.s. xi), 133; PPC, vii. 12; 313.
  • 8. CJ, i. 2, 6, 8, 9, 14; A. F. Pollard, Eng. under Somerset, 227-8; Cam. Misc. xii. 18; APC, ii., 342; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 520.
  • 9. CSP Span. 1550-2, p. 389; APC, iv. 16-17, 26, 54; v. 279; vi. 319; Bodl. e Museo 17; Lit. Rems. Edw. VI, 421-2; LP Hen. VIII, xxi; Strype, ii(2), 76, 257; CPR, 1553-4, p. 264; 1555-7, p. 72; W. C. Richardson, Tudor Chamber Admin. 436.
  • 10. Strype, ii(2), 66; CSP Span. 1553, p. 107; Narr. Ref. (Cam. Soc. lxxvii), 80; Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii), 9, 12; APC, iv. 301, 310, 316, 318, 320, 392.
  • 11. APC, iv. 406; vi. 101, 180; CPR, 1553-4, p. 27; Wriothesley’s Chron. ii (Cam. Soc. n. s. xx), 116; Strype, iii(1), 22; Machyn’s Diary, 37, 57; Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary 76, 82; CSP Span. 1554-8, pp. 145, 148; Narr. Ref. 228; Foxe, Acts and Mons. vi. 439, 553; vii. 549-50; viii. 83, 90, 606, 614-15, 619; Norf. Arch. iv. 151-4.
  • 12. Richardson, 330; Strype, iii(1), 186; APC, v. 31; CSP Span. 1554, pp. 158, 266, 297, 315; 1554-8, pp. 374, 456; 1558-67, pp. 59, 66; Foxe, vi. 554; M. A. R. Graves, ‘The Tudor House of Lords 1547-58’, (Otago Univ. Ph.D. thesis, 1974), ii. 362.
  • 13. Oxf. Recs. 276; Strype, Annals, i (1), 192; (2), 391; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 126; VCH Berks. iv. 424; DNB (Jewel, John).
  • 14. Machyn’s Diary, 217, 377; Lee, 427-30, 457; Strype, Eccles Memorials, ii (1), 494; CPR, 1558-60, p. 448; PCC 11 Mellershe; CJ, i. 31.