VAVASOUR, Thomas (1560-1620), of Skellingthorpe, Lincs. and Ham, 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. 1560, 1st s. of Henry Vavasour of Copmanthorpe, Yorks. by Margaret, da. of Sir Henry Knyvet of ?Charlton, Wilts. educ. Eton; Caius, Camb., fellow-com. 1576. m. Mary, da. and h. of John Dodge of Copes, Suff., wid. of Peter Houghton, alderman of London, 4s. 2da. Kntd. bef. Aug. 1595.2

Offices Held

Capt. in the Netherlands Aug. 1585-May 1591, Feb.-Oct. 1598; gent. pens. 1586-1603; butler of port of London from 1603; knight marshal of Household 1604-18; farmer of alnagership of old draperies, Yorks. 1606; forester, Galtres, Yorks.3


Thomas Vavasour came of a family which, long settled in Yorkshire, had also spread into Lincolnshire. Forbears of his had been returned to Parliament from both counties, the most recent of them being his grandfather, Sir William, one of the knights for Yorkshire in Mary’s first Parliament. The family was to remain Catholic and some of its members were to be troubled on this score from the time of the northern rebellion onwards.4

As nephew to (Sir) Henry Knyvet of Charlton and his younger brother Thomas Knyvet, gentleman of the privy chamber, Thomas Vavasour would doubtless have found his way to court even without the example of his sister Anne, who became a gentlewoman of the bedchamber about 1580; but Anne Vavasour’s dissolute career was to impinge considerably on her brother’s. She began—as she was to end—as the mistress of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s champion and jouster-in-chief, and it is as a runner against Sir Henry at the tilt of 6 Dec. 1584 that Thomas is first mentioned. By then, however, he was doubtless already involved in the feud between Thomas Knyvet and the Earl of Oxford, by whom Anne had had a child in March 1581; and it was this scandal which led him in January 1585 to challenge Oxford to a duel in a letter beginning: ‘If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonourable, my house had been as yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown’. Vavasour may have been influenced by the example of Sir Henry Knyvet who five years earlier had fought a duel which nearly cost him his life, but his proposed meeting with Oxford at Newington evidently did not come off.5

Vavasour’s hostility towards Oxford perhaps owed something to the Earl’s conversion to Catholicism and subsequent accusations against leading Catholics. Coming as he did from a Catholic family, Vavasour must have had many ties with members of that Church; there was, for example, his namesake who was imprisoned about 1583 in the Gatehouse and who was later in trouble as a servant of Sir Thomas Tresham. Vavasour’s own career, and his connexion with the strongly protestant Knyvets, make it unlikely that he retained his family’s religious allegiance, and he died believing in the merits of Christ’s Passion.6

At the time of his challenge to Oxford, Vavasour was sitting in Parliament for the first time, as senior burgess for Wootton Bassett; he was returned again in that capacity in 1586 and for the neighbouring borough of Malmesbury to the Parliament of 1589. He owed his election on all three occasions to Sir Henry Knyvet, who exercised influence at Wootton Bassett for upwards of 25 years, and at Malmesbury for 15; and it was doubtless a tribute to Knyvet’s standing rather than to his own that he was styled ‘The Worshipful’ in the return of 1584. His name does not appear in the records of any of these Parliaments, and it is possible that he was an absentee Member during at least part of the second, for in August 1585 he went over to the Netherlands as captain of also foot from Yorkshire, and he retained this command until 1591. He distinguished himself on two occasions, once in an attack on a sconce near Arnhem in October 1585, and again two years later when he went out with Lord Willoughby to fight the Marques del Guasto. Willoughby declared that he loved Vavasour as himself.7

His service in the Netherlands also advanced Vavasour at home. Since December 1585 his company had come under the Earl of Leicester’s command and pay, and in the following March he was sent by Leicester with letters and messages to the Queen. His selection for, and discharge of, this delicate duty—for Elizabeth was still angry with Leicester—alike earned the Queen’s commendation, and he presumably consolidated his position on subsequent visits. In March 1590 he received a ten-year licence to import 8,000 lasts of cod and ling, and when he resigned his captaincy in May 1591 it was in respect of his attendance on the Queen, probably a reference to his appointment as a gentleman pensioner, a capacity in which he was eventually to attend the monarch’s funeral. His services earned for him in July 1591 a respite at the instance of the Privy Council of a lawsuit which was plaguing him. This was a form of protection of which he evidently stood in regular need; in July 1587 he had sought it from Walsingham and ten years later he asked the same favour from Robert Cecil.8

Where Vavasour’s allegiance lay in the struggle between Cecil and Essex is not wholly clear. The matter is complicated by the obscurity surrounding his knighthood. If he was the Thomas Vavasour who accompanied Essex on the Azores expedition, was knighted in the course of it, and was sent abroad on its return with its news, he may be thought to have attached himself, at least ostensibly and for the time being, to Essex; and this view would not be inconsistent with the phrasing of a letter of August 1595 to Cecil containing the assurance that he ‘inwardly’ wished most honour to Cecil and styling Cecil ‘master’. Since, however, this letter was endorsed as coming from ‘Sir Thomas Vavasour’, while there exists another letter to Cecil of probably earlier date and similarly endorsed, Vavasour may have obtained his knighthood in the early 1590s and the man so honoured by Essex have been his relative and namesake.9

Between February and October 1598 Vavasour again commanded 150 men at Flushing; he took over their captaincy from his brother-in-law (Sir) Thomas Shirley II and in his turn passed it on to his brother John. This was the close of his active service; the remainder of his career was passed at court. Until the Queen’s death he was simply a gentleman pensioner, but with the new reign he was first made butler of the port of London, an appointment whose revocation earned him £1,000 compensation, and then knight marshal of the Household, an office which was confirmed to him for life in 1612 but which he sold—for £3,000, according to John Chamberlain—in 1618, two years before his death. The improvement in his finances was reflected by his erection in 1610 of the fine house at Ham which, added to by later owners, remains his most lasting memorial.10

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: S. T. Bindoff


  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. J. Foster, Yorks. Peds. i (unpaginated); Glover, Vis. Yorks. 1584-5, p. 121; Al. Cant. i(4), 297; Abstr. Wills PCC Reg. Soame, ed. Lea, 387; HMC Hatfield, v. 357.
  • 3. HMC Hatfield, viii. 313-14; xv. 323-4; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 164; 1611-18, pp. 159, 586; 1619-23, p. 236; LC 2/4/4; VCH Yorks. ii. 414; PRO Index 6800.
  • 4. CSP Dom. Add. 1566-79, pp. 277, 406; HMC Hatfield, i. 458.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 703; E. K. Chambers, Sir Henry Lee, 135, 151, 158-9, 233-4, 239-40, 292-3; Lansd. 99, f. 252.
  • 6. C. Read, Burghley, 274-5; J. T. Cliffe, ‘The Yorks. Country on the eve of the Civil War’ (London Univ. PhD thesis, 1960), 256; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 145; HMC Var. iii. 43, 46-7, 59-60, 74; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 527-8; APC, xxii. 18, 52-3; PCC 99 Soame.
  • 7. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, iii. p. xxx; HMC Ancaster, 69-70; HMC Hatfield, viii. 313-14; CSP For. Aug. 1584-Aug. 1585, pp. 635, 691; Sept. 1585-May 1586, p. 85; June 1586-Mar. 1587, pp. 109, 311, 394; Apr.-Dec. 1587, p. 351; July-Dec. 1588, pp. 137-412 passim; Jan.-July 1589, pp. 72, 138, 175-6; APC, xxi. 103-4.
  • 8. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, iii. p. xxxiv; HMC Hatfield, vii. 279; LC 2/4/4; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 654; APC, xxi. 268-9; CSP For. Apr.-Dec. 1587, p. 175.
  • 9. HMC Hatfield, iv. 81; v. 357; vi. 214; vii. 279, 443; Shaw, Knights, ii. 94.
  • 10. APC, xxviii. 301; xxix. 139-40, 258; HMC Hatfield, xv. 323-4; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 66; Chambers, Lee, 242; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, ii. 173.