WILLIS, Simon (d.1613), of Milk Street, London.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
Sec. to Robert Cecil by 1595-1602; clerk of the privy seal in reversion June 1603.1
Willis’s background is obscure. He was certainly in Cecil’s service by 1595 and it is probable that he was his secretary as early as 1593, when he obtained a parliamentary seat for Knaresborough, a borough subject to duchy of Lancaster influence. It seems hardly likely that he could have obtained the seat other than by Cecil’s patronage, exercised probably through Sir Thomas Heneage, chancellor of the duchy. In 1597 and 1601 he sat for Christchurch, where Cecil must again have obtained his nomination, perhaps through Thomas Howard, 3rd Viscount Howard of Bindon. Though Willis’s name has not been found in the journals of the proceedings of any of his Parliaments, as one of the burgesses for Knaresborough he could have sat on any of the following committes in 1593: cloth, 15 Mar., Mar.; weirs, 28 Mar.; maimed soldiers, Apr. and spinners and weavers, 3 Apr.2
His principal responsibility in Cecil’s secretariat was for intelligence, while Levinus Munck concentrated on foreign affairs. The gratifications received by such influential officials from their master’s clients were considerable, and not necessarily in cash, as appears from Roland Whyte’s advice to Sir Robert Sidney in March 1600:
By the bestowing of a toy your Lordship may make Mr. Willis beholding unto you ... Sir William Brown bestowed upon him a desk, such a one as my Lord Herbert hath, which Sir Walter Ralegh hath taken from him, and he exceedingly desires another.
Against the rewards of office had to be set commensurate or even greater risks. In 1602 Willis was dismissed, John Chamberlain then reporting that Walter Cope and Hugh Beeston, two of Cecil’s closest friends, had informed him that Willis’s removal had followed ‘only upon his insolent and harsh behaviour towards his master’. But in 1608 Cecil himself gave a very different explanation (to Sir Henry Wotton ambassador to Venice): Willis was removed
because I was loath he should have come to some discovery of that correspondency which I had with the King our sovereign, which, without great difficulty, I could not have avoided, considering his daily and near attendance as my secretary, to whose eyes a packet or paper might have been so visible as he might have raised some such inferences thereof as might have bred some jealousy in the Queen’s mind if she had known it or heard any such suspicion to move from him.3
When Willis heard that he was dismissed—it was apparently Munck who told him—he begged Cecil for another chance and pressed his three year-old claim to a clerkship of the privy seal in reversion. In December 1602 he wrote again. The tone of the letter was intemperate, very different from what one would expect from a former servant who was addressing the most powerful minister in the country. Nevertheless, in June 1603 he obtained the reversion. In July he was pressing for a lump sum of £300 in return for the surrender of an annuity which Cecil had been paying him. Willis spent a good deal of time abroad in the next few years blackening the character of his former master, who by 29 Mar. 1608, was concerned about his conduct at Rome. Willis, by that time back in England, had already been called before the Council and his account of his actions gave ‘just presumptions pregnant enough to suspect him of some such behaviour abroad as sorteth no way with his loyalty to his Majesty nor with his training under me.’ Willis, who had already been imprisoned in the Gatehouse for a fortnight, wrote to Salisbury two days later, denying an accusation that he had corresponded with Father Persons, and asking vainly for his release. In February 1609, still from prison, he denied that he had betrayed any of Cecil’s secret agents in Italy. Shortly afterwards he secured his liberty, though still forbidden the court. In April he asked for permission to travel abroad again, a request which was no doubt denied.4
Willis had been a poor man before he became Cecil’s secretary. It is clear that he accumulated capital during his years of service and his misfortunes after 1602 did not render him destitute. Cecil was paying him an annuity as early as 1598 and in 1612 was still paying him £40 p.a. When Willis died in London in October 1613 Chamberlain reported that the value of his estate was ‘better than £3,000’, and although his will does not confirm this estimate, it does reveal that he had two houses and some money. Willis was unmarried. Two brothers, William and Isaac, are mentioned, and a sister Eleanor. In the preamble he expressed the conviction that if he achieved salvation it would be by Christ’s merits alone and not by any of his own.5
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
- 1. HMC Hatfield, v. 211; Hatfield ms 184/54; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, i. 163; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 13; PRO Index 6801.
- 2. D’Ewes, 507, 512, 513, 514.
- 3. HMC Hatfield, vii 8, 95, 358; ix. 76-7, 84-5; xi. 549; xii. 230; xiv. 112; Hatfield ms 178/110; SP94/96, f. 248; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 168, 245-6; Add. 1580-1625, p. 419; Border Pprs. ii. 721 HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 449; Chamberlain Letters, i. 163; Sidney State Pprs. ed. Collins, ii. 326.
- 4. Hatfield ms 184/54; 194/135; 125/79, 80, 90; 127/29; HMC Hatfield, xii. 516; xv. 212-13; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 13; PRO Index 6801; Sidney State Pprs. ii. 327; SP14/43/53, 83.
- 5. Sidney State Pprs. ii. 327; Hatfield House estate pprs., general 11/22; deeds 126/17; Chamberlain Letters. i. 483; PCC 94 Capell.