DARRELL, William (1539-89), of Littlecote, Wilts.; later of Warwick Lane, London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. 23 June 1539, 1st s. of Sir Edward Darrell of Littlecote by Elizabeth, da. of Sir Thomas Essex of Berks. m. Bonham (or Barham), div. c.1583, issue, presumably daughters. suc. fa. 1549.1

Offices Held

J.p. Wilts. from c.1573.


The Darrells first appeared in Wiltshire in the early fifteenth century, and could claim kinship with the Seymours, Hungerfords and other eminent families. In 1551 William Darrell’s wardship and marriage were granted to John Berwick. On 25 Nov. 1561 he sued out livery and entered on his lands, though the property was encumbered by a trust to the benefit of his father’s mistress, Mary Fortescue—or Lady Darrell, as she preferred to style herself. He immediately proceeded to harass her through lawsuits and otherwise, this being the first of many disputes which were to take Darrell into virtually every court in the country, to bring him on several occasions before the Privy Council and to drain his financial resources. His father had died possessed of 25 manors in Wiltshire, Berkshire and Dorset, the gross annual rent of which must have come to at least £2,000. There were many other properties besides, and in 1576 Darrells lands in Ramsbury alone were assessed at £30. Yet his income fell to between £700 and £800 p.a., while his expenses rose. In 1589 alone his litigation cost him £124 9s.1d., including payments to his counsel, Edward Hext and George Rotheram. He owed money to usurers, tradesmen and neighbours, and these debts produced more litigation. Darrell mortgaged, discounted future rents and pawned his plate. Although he purchased the reversion of the Berkshire manor of West Woodhay, he was usually selling land: Helme farm, Berkshire, to John Curr in 1563; Anvelles, in the same county, to Edward Butler of Reading in the next year; and in 1586 the manor of Charlton went to Edward Rogers and James Clark in trust to John Popham.2

Another long and bitter dispute was with his mother’s family. Sir Edward Darrell had conveyed the manor of Axford to Sir Thomas Essex who in turn devised it to his eldest son, with option of purchase at a stated price to Sir Edward and his heirs. An offer of the purchase money having been turned down, Darrell considered himself life tenant, and began to cut the timber. The resulting litigation lasted 20 years, Darrell accusing his opponents of attempted murder, riots and other misdemeanours. The Essex family for their part, accused him of murder. He was, in fact, imprisoned, the Earl of Pembroke demanding a bribe for his release.3

Darrell engaged in several amorous exploits, including an affair with the wife of Sir Walter Hungerford, subsequently abandoned by her husband. She wrote to Darrell:

I, by the oath I have sworn upon the holy evangelist, do acknowledge that if Sir Walter Hungerford, my husband now living, do depart out of this life ... I will take you to my husband.4

Pembroke and the Earl of Hertford, both involved in lawsuits with Darrell, treated him with contempt. Pembroke said there was neither ‘truth in his words, nor honesty in his deeds’, and promised to ‘blast’ and ‘baffle him like a knave’. On the other hand his relatives Popham and Sir Thomas Bromley gave him support and free legal advice. Popham handled many of his cases, and figures in the most notorious incident of Darrell’s career, incorporated in Sir Walter Scott’s Rokeby, which earned Darrell the soubriquet ‘Wild’ or ‘Black’ Darrell. In 1579 he threw a child to which one of his wife’s servants had just given birth, into the fire, bribing the midwife to keep silent. She went to the authorities, but at the subsequent trial John Popham obtained for him a nolle prosequi, for which favour, tradition has it, he obtained Littlecote, devised to him on Darrell’s death.5

Darrell’s return to Parliament for Downton may be attributed to Bishop Horne of Winchester, two of whose daughters had married into Darrell’s family. In 1581, during the third session of this Parliament, a bill was introduced to ratify an award made between Darrell and William Hyde. During the Armada crisis, Darrell offered his services, with 20 horsemen, to Sir Francis Walsingham. The latter, who had bought Chilton Foliat from Darrell, was not ill-disposed. He wrote several letters to his ‘loving friend’, accepted a gelding, and promised to exert influence to lift the legal oppresion under which Darrell claimed to be living, expressed on another occasion (a letter to Popham in 1582):

Where is become the integrity, clearness of conscience that sometimes hath been? I have learned one rule in the books of the ancient fathers, and I have found it in experience amongst men, that that day that a man would have another’s lands or his goods, that day he would have his life also, if he could. I pray you, pray for me, for I am at this present in sore case.

Darrell finally moved to London, to supervise more closely his various lawsuits. In April 1589, some five months before his death, he was accused of making ‘lewd, slanderous and malicious’ speeches against the Queen. He died 1 Oct. 1589 and is commemorated by a memorial window in the church of St. Mary, Kintbury, Berkshire. He was succeeded by his brother Thomas.6

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: W.J.J.


  • 1. The principal authorities used in this biography are Wilts. Arch. Mag. iv. 209-32; vi. 201-14, 390-6; vii. 45-51, 212-20; viii. 317-18; H. Hall, Soc. in Eliz. Age (1901).
  • 2. Two Taxation Lists (Wilts. Arch. Soc. recs. br. x), 93; CPR, 1550-3, pp. 54-5; 1560-3, p. 365; VCH Berks. iv. 190, 194, 212, 243; St. Ch. 5/1D/36, 7D/8, 8D/12; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxviii. 86; VCH Wilts. v. 32; Hall, passim; APC, xi. 279; xvi. 360, 366-7.
  • 3. St. Ch. 5/2D/9, 10D/20.
  • 4. Hall, 263.
  • 5. Wilts. Arch. Mag. iv. 216; CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 41, 144; Lansd. 29, f. 11; Hall, passim.
  • 6. CJ, i. 124; PCC 26 Bakon; Hall, 270-1; Lansd. 121, f. 66 seq.; APC, xvii, 124-5; PCC 72 Scott; VCH Berks, iv. 216.