CORNWALLIS, Sir William (c.1579-1614), of Whitehall; formerly of Grimston Hall, Trimley, Suff.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press




Family and Education

b. c.1579, 1st s. of Sir Charles Cornwallis* (d.1629) and his 1st w. Anne, da. and coh. of Thomas Fincham of Fincham, Norf. educ. ?Queen’s, Oxf. m. 26 Aug. 1595, Katharine (d. 30 Jan. 1637), da. of Sir Philip Parker of Erwarton, Suff., 6s. 5da. (3 d.v.p.).1 kntd. 5 Aug. 1599.2 bur. 1 July 1614.3

Offices Held

Vol. Ireland 1599.4

Gent. of the privy chamber 1603-5;5 member, embassy to Spain 1605.6

Freeman, Orford, Suff. 1604.7


Cornwallis has frequently been confused with his uncle, who sat for Lostwithiel in 1597 and died in 1611. However, the Member elected in 1604 is identified as Sir William Cornwallis ‘junior’ in the corporation records.8 In 1595 Cornwallis married the daughter of Sir Philip Parker, a puritan Suffolk knight whose son Calthrop sat for the county in 1601. His father, Sir Charles*, thereupon provided him with property near Ipswich worth £200. Part was purchased from Thomas Cavendish† the circumnavigator in 1591, but within two years much of it had to be sold to Robert Barker† to pay his debts.9 ‘Of all sorts of people’, wrote his father, who vainly sought to curb his extravagance, ‘I most despair of those of his sort, that are philosophers in their words and fools in their works’. Though knighted by Essex during Tyrone’s rebellion, Cornwallis seems to have spent much of the following two years in retirement, during which time he wrote both verse and essays in the style of Montaigne. In 1601, in his twenty-second year, he returned to public life, publishing his essays and visiting Edinburgh, where he introduced the future royal favourite Robert Carr to Thomas Overbury. He also began to attend Court, which his father subsequently complained cost him £5,000.10 It was presumably Cornwallis, rather than his uncle, who helped to support the canopy at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral.11

In the new reign Cornwallis, no doubt capitalizing on the contacts he had made in Scotland, secured a place in the privy chamber and, in 1604, published The Miraculous and Happie Union of England and Scotland in praise of James’ project to unite the kingdoms.12 Elected for Orford the same year in his absence, possibly on the recommendation of his colleague, Sir Michael Stanhope, a fellow member of the privy chamber to whom he may have been related, he was sworn a freeman of the borough by its recorder, the attorney-general Sir Edward Coke*, at the Middle Temple on 11 March.13

Cornwallis received six committee appointments in the 1604 session. The first, on 22 Apr., was to ban the making and selling of false dice, although, according to his father, he was not a gambler. Three days later the text of the bill and the committee list were delivered to him, suggesting that Cornwallis was in the chair, but the measure was reported by Richard Martin on 10 May, when it was dashed.14 He was also among those appointed to consider two Norfolk estate bills (2 and 15 May), and measures to abolish benefit of clergy in cases of stabbing (25 Apr.), to enforce the registry of encumbrances on lands for lease or sale (5 May), and to annul infant marriages (4 June).15 In a letter written to John Donne* on about 13 May, Tobie Matthew reported that Cornwallis, having ‘taken upon him to answer the objections against the Union’, had performed ‘lamely, and (although it scarce seems possible) so much worse than his book’. He expressed astonishment ‘that such simplicity of conceit could not [sic] be joined in him with so impudent utterance’.16 There is no further evidence that Cornwallis spoke in Parliament.

In 1605 Cornwallis acted as courier for his father during the opening months of Sir Charles’s embassy in Spain, but at the end of the year he wrote to the 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) that he was forced to leave the king’s personal service for want of means. ‘My engaged estate will enforce me to attend the protection of the Parliament.’17 In the second session he was named to the committee on the bill for the better enforcement of penal statutes (22 Jan. 1606).18 He left no trace on the records of the third session. His father’s wrath was rekindled by his absence from Court, as Sir Charles feared that his estate and reputation at home were threatened by a dispute between himself on the one hand and his brother, Sir William†, and Sir Thomas Southwell on the other.19 During the recess Cornwallis, being one of his father’s sureties, was arrested by Southwell, but he was freed following the intervention of Salisbury. On 6 July 1607 he thanked Salisbury for being pleased to ‘think me worthy of breathing in liberty, and honest enough to be trusted with my own conscience’.20 Thereafter he seems to have gone overseas, writing to Sir John Hobart I* from Paris, although the letter is only dated 4 February.21

Cornwallis had probably returned to England by November 1608, when he was granted the benefit of his mother-in-law’s recusancy and protection against his creditors; but he was soon reduced to begging Hobart for a loan of £30 for the sake of his family. ‘If we have not some supply I protest before God we fall into the miserablest extremity’.22 He resumed his seat in the fourth session, and was named to five legislative committees: those for the preservation of game (22 Mar.), the prevention of disorderly and unseasonable hawking (29 Mar.), the avoidance of double payment of debts (27 June), and two private bills, one of which was to revoke a trust established by the Suffolk courtier, Sir Robert Drury* (27 March).23

Granted £2,000 by James as a free gift in 1612.24 Cornwallis was erroneously reported as dead in December 1613.25 Re-elected for Orford the following year, his only committee concerned a bill confirming a decree in Chancery (18 May).26 He died soon after the dissolution, when his father was committed to the Tower for instigating John Hoskins’ ‘Sicilian Vespers’ speech, and was buried at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on 1 July, leaving, according to Chamberlain, ‘a miserable widow and eight poor children’. No will has been found and none of his descendants entered Parliament.27

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. P.B. Whitt, ‘New Light on Sir William Cornwallis the Essayist’, in Rev. Eng. Studies, viii. 157-9; Add. 19104, ff. 169, 171.
  • 2. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 97.
  • 3. St. Martin-in-the-Fields ed. T. Mason (Harl. Soc. Reg. xxv), 169.
  • 4. Whitt, 159.
  • 5. HMC 7th Rep. 526; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 564-5.
  • 6. Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, ii. 75.
  • 7. Suff. RO (Ipswich), EE5/2/2, f. 70.
  • 8. HP Commons, 1558-1603, i. 659-60; HMC Var. iv. 267.
  • 9. HP Commons, 1558-1603, iii. 171; Whitt, 158-9; W.A. Copinger, Manors of Suff. iii. 99.
  • 10. Whitt, 157, 159-62, 166.
  • 11. LC2/4/4, f. 46v.
  • 12. Whitt, 162.
  • 13. Suff. RO (Ipswich), EE5/2/2, f. 70.
  • 14. CJ, i. 182a, 205b, 957b; Whitt, 165.
  • 15. CJ, i. 184b, 195a, 199a, 210a, 232a.
  • 16. T. Matthew, Collection of Letters ed. J. Donne (1660), p. 293.
  • 17. Whitt, 163; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 564-5.
  • 18. CJ, i. 258a.
  • 19. Whitt, 164-5; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 275.
  • 20. HMC Hatfield, xix. 175; xxiv. 77.
  • 21. Bodl. Tanner 283, f. 204.
  • 22. Add. 34765, f. 27v; C66/1771; Bodl. Tanner 286, f. 138.
  • 23. CJ, i. 413b, 415b, 416a, 417a, 444a.
  • 24. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 159.
  • 25. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 491.
  • 26. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 280.
  • 27. Chamberlain Letters, i. 547.