RUSSELL, William (c.1553-1613), of Thornhaugh, Northants., Northall, Bucks. and Chiswick, Mdx.

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. c.1553, 4th s. of (Sir) Francis Russell, 2nd Earl of Bedford, by his 1st w. Margaret, da. of Sir John St. John of Bletsoe, Beds.; bro. of Sir Francis and John I. educ. Magdalen Coll. Oxf. m. 1585, Elizabeth (d. 1611), da. and h. of Henry Long of Shingay, Cambs., 1s. Kntd. 1581; cr. Baron Russell 1603.1

Offices Held

Gent. pens c.1572-93/6; lt.-gen. of horse in Netherlands 1585; gov. of Flushing 1587-9; j.p.q. Cambs., Mdx. from c.1592; j.p. Northants. from c.1586; ld. dep. [I] 1594-7; cdr. of forces in western counties 1599.2


Various reasons have been advanced against this William Russell having been the Fowey MP. First, that having been born in 1558, he was in 1572 too young to be returned to Parliament. The historian of the Russell family has established, however, a birth date of about 1553, so that Russell would have been 19 in 1572, not at all too young to sit in Parliament at this period. Next, he is known to have spent several years in his youth travelling abroad. This does not mean, however, that he was not in England for at least the first session of the 1572 Parliament, for his licence to go abroad for three years is dated January 1575. In 1572 the 2nd Earl of Bedford would have had no difficulty in returning his son at Fowey. No contribution by Russell to the business of the Commons has been recorded.3

While he was still a child his father settled lands, including the manor of Thornhaugh, upon him, and his position as a wealthy country gentleman was further assured by his marriage in 1585 to the sole heiress of Henry Long. Long’s father, Sir Richard, had profited from the dissolution of the monasteries, and extensive lands in Cambridgeshire and the manors of Clifton, Pilling Shingay and Eversholt in Bedfordshire as well as property in Hertfordshire, passed to his granddaughter’s husband. Russell continued to add to his lands, the principal acquisitions being the lordships of Chenies, Buckinghamshire, and Tuddington in Northamptonshire, which passed to him upon the death of his brother Edward, and the manor of Northaw in Hertfordshire which he acquired from his sister, the Countess of Warwick.4

For a younger son of the puritan 2nd Earl of Bedford, and one who later came under the influence of the Calvinist Dr. Humphrey of Magdalen, the life of a country gentleman was inadequate. Russell therefore became a soldier in the two theatres where protestantism was most threatened—the Netherlands and Ireland. His first major appointment came in 1585, when he accompanied the Earl of Leicester to the Netherlands as lieutenant-general of horse. He was not a novice in military matters, for he had already spent a year in Ireland in 1580-1, commanding a troop in County Wicklow. During his stay in the Netherlands, his reputation as a soldier grew and he played a distinguished part in the battle of Zutphen, in which his friend Sir Philip Sidney lost his life. Russell took over from Sidney not only his best gilt armour, but also the governorship of Flushing, and thereafter his attention was engrossed by the task of maintaining the town and garrison in good order. His difficulties, which were great, all stemmed from the failure of the English government to make adequate payments. In September 1587 the garrison had been unpaid for twelve months, and as late as 1591 Russell and his men were owed £4,046. At times mutiny was prevented only by Russell’s contributions out of his own estate to pay the soldiers, so that his plea that he was ‘greatly impoverished by [the Queen’s] service and not by any foolish humours of my own’ was no exaggeration. Further, he was in constant fear lest some of the companies under his command should be transferred elsewhere and the garrison—which was already ‘so weak, evil armed and worse paid’—thus seriously weakened. To this was added in the autumn of 1587 the dread that the Queen would make peace. He wrote frankly to Sir Francis Walsingham: ‘I am not a little sorry to see her Majesty run so violent a course for peace, which can in no way be good for her nor these countries’, adding that the States hesitated on this account to give the Earl of Leicester greater authority, fearing that he would be ordered by the Queen to make peace. Nor did Russell’s relations with the States make his position any easier. At his arrival he had been popular and remained so in the town of Flushing, but his close adherence to Leicester in his quarrel with the States aroused their hostility, which his own activities after Leicester’s departure intensified. Throughout this period he was closely associated with Leicester and Walsingham, the spokesmen of the protestant cause. It was to Walsingham that his despatches—pleas for money, provisions and support—were addressed, and in October 1587 he asked the secretary to be godfather to his son. It was to these two that he directed his increasingly urgent pleas for recall from a post ‘wherein I neither reap profit, honour nor content’. At first he hoped to be appointed master of the ordnance, ‘that the world might see I parted not with this government in disgrace, the which some of the Estates have already given out’, but when he was recalled in June 1589 he received no consoling office. His departure occasioned rejoicing in Antwerp, where the effects of his good government of Flushing had been wryly appreciated.5

After his return from the Low Countries, Russell was unemployed for some years, until in 1594 he was sent as lord deputy to Ireland. After an initial blunder, when he allowed Tyrone to escape, Russell’s conduct of operations against the Irish leader was exemplary. In Ireland, as in the Netherlands, he put his faith in a vigorous prosecution of the war, rather than in a negotiated peace. This attitude brought him into conflict with Sir John Norris, lord president of Munster, who hoped that a settlement could be reached. The two policies appear to have been tried alternately, neither with success. Norris managed to secure the home government’s approval for a truce with Tyrone, and—what was even more galling for Russell—obtained the recall of Sir Richard Bingham, who was one of the lord deputy’s most active lieutenants. Norris and Russell each believed that the other undermined his efforts, and in the spring of 1597 Norris protested openly when Russell mobilised all his forces to suppress a rising in Wicklow and to capture its ringleader, Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne. In this Russell was successful, but his recall soon followed and he returned home ‘very fat, they say, both in body and purse’.6

Hereafter, Russell’s part in active affairs almost ceased. He was appointed commander of the western forces in the summer of 1599, but the anticipated Spanish invasion did not materialise. He appears to have been regarded as an authority on Irish affairs, upon which he was sometimes consulted by the Privy Council, but with the death of Elizabeth even this passive role ceased. He spent the remaining years of his life in retirement at Northall, having left the court, it is said, in disgust at the licentiousness and profligacy reigning there. He emerged from retirement once only, to attend the funeral of Prince Henry, to whose accession he had looked for the re-establishment of virtue and good government.7

Russell died 9 Aug. 1613. His will, made in the previous October, contains his affirmation of faith,

knowing assuredly that I shall leave this earthly tabernacle and by God’s mercy and the only merits of His only Son mine only Saviour, I shall enjoy and inherit the heavenly and eternal kingdom, whereunto I was ordained and elected before the foundation of the world.

Bequests of jewels and plate were made to his sister, the Countess of Cumberland, to his nieces Lady Anne Clifford and Lady Ann Herbert, and to his cousins Oliver, 3rd Baron St. John of Bletsoe, Mr. Dennys and Mr. George Russell. His nephew, the 3rd Earl of Bedford, was to receive his best horse and sword, and bequests of £10 each went to the poor of Thornhaugh, Northall and Chiswick, while his servants were to receive three years’ wages. The residue of the estate was to go to his son and executor Francis. ‘My loving cousin’, Lord St. John of Bletsoe, and ‘my loving uncle’, Edward Alford, were appointed executors. Russell was buried, as he had directed, in the church at Thornhaugh, where he had already built his tomb.8

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: Irene Cassidy


  • 1. DNB; CP, xi. 239-40; J. H. Wiffen, House of Russell, i. 506.
  • 2. CSP For. 1585-6, p. 277; 1586-7, p. 348; APC, xvii. 421-6; Hatfield ms. 278; CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 482; 1595-7, p. 288; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, i. 80.
  • 3. G. Scott Thomson, Fam. Background, 147-8; E157/1.
  • 4. VCH Northants. ii. 530-1; Bridges, Northants. ii. 395; VCH Herts. ii. 358; VCH Beds. ii. 277; iii. 332, 376; C142/342/117, 362/164.
  • 5. CSP For. 1586-7, pp. 164-5, 312, 348, 364, 432, et passim.; 1587, pp. 76, 79-80, 334-5, 335, 380, 388, 390, 450, 453; 1588 Jan.-June, pp. 25, 28, 53, 290, 398-9, 400, 409-10, 437, 477; July-Dec., pp. 271-2, 281, ,em>et passim; 1589 Jan.-July, pp. 12, 55, 169, 190, 210, 225, 243; 1589-90, passim; APC, xvii. 421-6; CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 64; Wiffen, ii. 2-5.
  • 6. R. Bagwell, Ireland under the Tudors, iii. 242-79; Wiffen, ii. 14, 21-52; CSP Ire. 1592-6 and 1596-7, passim; Cal. Carew Pprs. iii. 220-60, et passim; Chamberlain Letters, i. 30.
  • 7. Chamberlain Letters, i. 80-1, 83; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 297; Wiffen, ii. 54, 89.
  • 8. C142/342/117; PCC 86 Capell; VCH Northants. i. 419-20; ii. 532; Wiffen, ii. 89-93; Walker, A Sermon preached at the funeral of William, Lord Russell.