GARDINER, William (1531-97), of Bermondsey, Surr.

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. 1531, s. of William Gardiner of Bermondsey by Elizabeth Mitchell of Yorks. m. (1) 7 June 1558, Frances (d.1575), da. of Robert Lucy of London, wid. of Edmund Wayte of Bermondsey, 3 or 4s. 2da.; (2) 27 May 1582, Margaret Lucas of Gloucester, ?s.p. suc. bro. c.1557.

Offices Held

Member, Grey Tawyers’ co. 1556; Leathersellers’ c.1558, fourth warden 1568-9, auditor 1570, second warden 1577-8; servant of Thomas Radcliffe, 3rd Earl of Sussex by 1579; j.p.q. Surr. from c.1581; sheriff, Surr. and Suss. 1594-5.


Francis Langley, owner of the Swan theatre, described Justice Gardiner—as he was commonly called—as ‘a false knave, a false foresworn knave, and a perjured knave’. There were many people in and around Bermondsey who had good reason to share this evil opinion of him, not least the unfortunate members of his own family, one of whom declared him ‘the most singular common wrangler that long had lived about London’. In the opinion of his modern biographer his life was ‘a tissue of greed, fraud, cruelty and perjury’, and he was remarkable only for the number and variety of his misdeeds. Driven by a rapacious avarice which must have bordered on insanity, and served by his mastery of the vagaries of the law, there was no vile and cunning trick too low for him to practise upon those with whom he came in contact, if he saw in it a means of filling his coffers or extending his estates.

Gardiner’s father lived and farmed at Bermondsey Grange, on the borders of Southwark, and the justice also lived there, in what he called his manor house at Bermondsey. He is first heard of in 1555 when he was fined for breaking a fence and pasturing his cattle on a neighbour’s land. The following year he was again fined, this time for having caused a bloody affray. In 1556, when he bought his way into the Grey Tawyers’ Company, it was complained of him in the lord mayor’s court that he was ‘not skilful in the said art, nor yet [did] practise the same’. Next, he joined the Leathersellers, and his first wife Frances was the daughter and the widow of wealthy leathersellers. One of the first of Gardiner’s relatives to suffer at his hands was his stepson William Wayte, whom he successfully defrauded of his inheritance. Gardiner was in trouble at least three times for his misdemeanours and ‘contemptuous and unfitting language’ used towards the warden of the Leathersellers’ Company, and once, in 1565, was committed to prison by the lord mayor’s court.

Gardiner had entered the service of the Earl of Sussex some time before 1579, when he was elected sheriff of London. This being an expensive office, he refused to serve, on the ground that it was incompatible with his duties as servant to the lord chamberlain. As he had also refused to pay the customary fine of £200, the mayor and aldermen complained to the lord chief justice, whereupon Gardiner absented himself in Ireland. Upon his return, he obtained the intervention of Sussex, who had the fine reduced to £50. But it was not until 1582 that Gardiner finally consented to pay. The city of London waited until 1585, when Sussex had died, before trying to be revenged upon Gardiner by again electing him sheriff. Again he refused to serve. The same trouble recommenced and he was sued before Justice Anderson, who, unhappily for the city, was a friend of Gardiner’s, and there is no record that the fine was paid.

All this time Gardiner continued to ‘fat his fingers with many rich forfeitures’. He entrapped victims by feigning friendship, falsified documents relating to the property of illiterate persons, pursued his neighbouts on trumped-up charges of slander or perjury, provoked those who resisted him into saying actionable things against him, and terrorized the Southwark juries into returning verdicts favourable to himself. He even unwisely refused to pay two scriveners whose names he used for the fraudulent transfer of properties. What is more, he was said to be ‘inclined to strange opinions’, and was alleged to have declared that God had nothing to do with the world, which was not governed by Him.

In December 1587 Gardiner lent £600 to Sir Walter and Carew Ralegh and William Sanderson. As Sir Walter was warden of the stannaries, and lord lieutenant of Cornwall, this transaction may be the key to Gardiner’s return to Parliament for two Cornish constituencies. He is not named in the proceedings of the House of Commons. When, in 1594, he was made sheriff of Surrey and Sussex, he did not refuse to serve, though he was fined £100 for negligence during his term of office. In 1596 he quarrelled with Langley, the owner of the Swan theatre, and with William Shakespeare, and it is the investigation into this affair that underlies the contention that Shakespeare modelled Justice Shallow in The Merry Wives of Windsor on William Gardiner rather than on Thomas Lucy. In July 1597 the playhouses were closed for the summer by order of the Privy Council because of the ‘very great disorders’ committed in them, ‘both by lewd matters that are handled on the stages and by resort and confluence of bad people’. Gardiner received a similar order in respect of the playhouses in his district, which presumably did nothing to heal his quarrel with Langley and Shakespeare.

Gardiner’s will, drawn up in September 1597, is of great length and tedium. He required Sir Edmund Anderson, lord chief justice of the common pleas, and Sir John Fortescue I, chancellor of the Exchequer, to ‘order’ any controversy arising from it: each of them received £20 and a horse. It was signed in the presence, among others, of the lawyer Nicholas Fuller. Gardiner commended his soul to the Redeemer, and his body to be buried in the church of St. Mary Magdalen, Bermondsey. He was succeeded by his grandson Christopher, his eldest son, also called Christopher, having predeceased him. Gardiner held property in Kent, and at Dorking and Ewell in Surrey, but most of his property was on the outskirts of London. To his wife Margaret he left £1,400 and the use of his house. He left an annuity of £10 to the poor of Bermondsey, and remembered the inmates of several hospitals and prisons. There were also bequests to friends, servants and relatives, including £6 13s.4d. to his brother-in-law John Luce, whom he had cheated of hundreds, but nothing at all to the greatly wronged stepson William Wayte, whom he had cheated of virtually everything. He died 26 Nov. 1597, ‘a man of whom the world generally speaketh evil’. He was buried in Bermondsey church on 22 Dec.

This biography is based upon J. L. Hotson, Shakespeare versus Shallow. Other sources used are Vis. Surr. (Harl. Soc. xliii), 60; Lansd. 68, f. 175; APC, xxxvii. 313-14; PCC 113 Cobham.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N.M.S.