TOWERSON, William I (c.1563-1630), of Fenchurch Street, London

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.1563, 3rd s. of William Towerson (d.1584), Skinner, of London and 1st w. Margery Hawes.1 m. 21 Sept. 1590, Christian (d. 19 Feb. 1612), da. of ?Matthew Field of London, wid. of Richard Atkinson, lawyer, of Foster Lane, London, 2s. 1da. 7 other ch. d.v.p.2 d. 12 Aug. 1630.3

Offices Held

Freeman, Skinners’ Co. 1585,4 asst. 1600-at least 1627, renter warden 1600-1, 3rd warden 1606-7, 2nd warden 1608-9, 1st warden 1610-11, auditor 1615, 1619, master 1616-17;5 Merchant Adventurer by 1592, dep. gov. by 1613-15, 1617-at least 1624; member, Spanish Co. by 1592,6 freeman and asst. new Spanish Co. 1604;7 member, Muscovy and Eastland Cos. by 1592; dep. gov. Irish Soc. 1610-13;8 member, French Co. 1611;9 cttee. E.I. Co. 1619-22; 10 ?member, Hon. Art. Co. London 1622. 11

Capt. militia ft. London by 1588;12 vestryman, St. Margaret, Lothbury 1595-1614, auditor 1595, 1597, 1603, 1607, 1613, collector for the poor 1598, churchwarden 1599-1601;13 gov. Christ’s hosp. London 1602-19;14 commr. assurance, London 1619-at least 1620.15

Commr. bullion inquiry 1615, trade 1621-2.16


Towerson’s father, of Cumbrian origin, settled in London as a merchant and held office in the Skinners’ Company.17 In 1582 he was granted arms in recognition of three pioneering voyages to West Africa, during the second of which he famously fought off an attack by the Portuguese despite being assaulted by larger vessels.18 Towerson himself took part in an expedition to Sierra Leone in the same year,19 but following his father’s death in 1584 his interests shifted to the Continent, and by 1592 he was not only a Merchant Adventurer but also a member of the Spanish, Eastland and Muscovy Companies.

Towerson was living in St. Margaret, Lothbury by 1590, and remained active in the parish’s administration for many years. In 1599 he and four other London merchants, among them Maurice Abbot*, were hauled before the Privy Council for refusing to contribute to a royal loan. He subsequently compounded his offence by disobeying the Council’s order that he appear before the mayor of London.20 The following year he was elected renter warden of the Skinners’ Company, to which he had been admitted as a freeman in 1585, after William Cockayne declined to serve.21 Like his father before him, he became a governor of Christ’s hospital, and in 1603 borrowed from the hospital’s coffers £100 in order to purchase the manor of Horley, in Surrey.22 A member of the newly reformed but short-lived Spanish Company, he was in the middle rank of London’s cloth exporters by 1606.23 On 20 Feb. 1607 he was charged by the House of Commons with breach of privilege by Sir Warwick Hele* over the arrest of Hele’s servant, who had formerly been employed as Towerson’s apprentice. However, the matter was ‘appeased by mediation’.24

By 1613 Towerson was deputy governor of the Merchant Adventurers, and in January 1614 he remonstrated before the Privy Council against the embargo placed on their cloth by the archdukes.25 Five months later, at a meeting of the Skinners’ Court of Assistants, Towerson and William Cockayne clashed over the garlands that were to be used at the forthcoming election-day dinner. Towerson had donated these garlands to the Company himself, but had set upon them his own coat of arms rather than those of the ‘ancient donor’, in whose memory the feast was held. Cockayne demanded that Towerson, later described by Francis Bacon* as ‘a passionate man’, be forced to apologize for his intemperate language, but a few days later, after tempers had cooled, he was persuaded by the rest of the court to ‘remit those words’ and ‘any other discontents which he had ever conceived against Mr. Towerson’.26 However, it was later alleged that this enmity with Towerson inspired Cockayne to launch his notorious project for the cancellation of the Merchant Adventurers’ charter and the prohibition of exports of undressed cloth.27

In March 1614 it was incorrectly reported that Towerson had been elected to Parliament for London.28 During his year-long term as master of the Skinners’ Company (June 1616- June 1617), Towerson, with the aid of Sir Lionel Cranfield*, an old business associate,29 was able to demonstrate to the Privy Council the disastrous consequences of the Cockayne Project and to secure the restoration of the Merchant Adventurers’ charter, with more effective powers to curb interloping.30 He was rewarded by the Company with a ‘gratification’ of £165, a mere trifle compared with the total outlay, which he estimated at £60,000.31 (Part of this enormous sum consisted of a bribe paid to lord treasurer Suffolk, and following Suffolk’s fall Towerson testified against him).32 To recover the expense the Merchant Adventurers levied a surcharge on cloth exports, which Towerson and his son were personally active in collecting. The Cinque Ports were particularly troublesome, and on 20 Sept. 1620 a consignment of cloth, sent to London for examination by the Privy Council, was intercepted on Shooters’ Hill by ‘highwaymen’ in the shippers’ employ with the collusion of the carriers. A Star Chamber case followed.33

Towerson was a director of the East India Company by 1619, and in July of that year stood for election as deputy governor, but was defeated by his old acquaintance Maurice Abbot.34 Returned by London to the 1621 Parliament, Towerson was appointed by the corporation to help manage the City’s parliamentary affairs.35 Throughout the Parliament, Towerson was named to just ten Commons’ committees, but he delivered no less than 46 speeches, almost all of them on trade, though he also showed concern over such issues as drunkenness and profanity,36 and condemned the attack of Thomas Sheppard* on puritanism. Indeed, on 16 Feb., after less than two weeks in the House, he felt able to assert that Sheppard had spoken ‘with that arrogancy as never heard here’.37 That same day he was required to attend a conference with the Lords on recusancy, a matter which may have been of some personal interest to him, as his late step-mother, Parnella Towerson, had been indicted for this offence.38

Towerson delivered his maiden speech on 13 Feb., after the Commons’ attention was drawn to a large purchase of ordnance by the Spanish ambassador. Speaking as an East India merchant, he pointed out that these guns might be intended for use against English shipping in the Orient, and 26 Mar. was appointed to help to draft the bill to prevent such exports in future.39 It was also as a member of the East India Company that Towerson spoke during the debate on the shortage of coin (26-27 Feb.), in which the Company was accused of exporting massive amounts of bullion to India. He sought to divert attention away from this activity by attacking the Levant Company for dealing in ‘nothing but currants, silks and indigo’. For the scarcity of coin he also blamed ‘the great concourse of strange bottoms that ... carry forth, as it is to be doubted, nothing but money’, the loss of a favourable balance of trade with Spain, and (inevitably) the Cockayne project. Speaking with the authority of a former commissioner for the Mint he described the charge for coinage as excessive. 40

As the leading Commons’ spokesman for the Merchant Adventurers, Towerson was anxious to blame the decline in cloth exports on the Cockayne Project and the recent period of peace on the Continent, during which time England’s competitors had built up their own cloth industries. However, many clothiers were equally keen to lay the blame at the door of the Merchant Adventurers, whose additional levies on cloth, imposed in order to pay for the restoration of the Company, had allegedly reduced exports. In late February one clothier protested to the committee for grievances at the discreditable role played by the Merchant Adventurers in bringing about the collapse of the Cockayne Project. Towerson subsequently complained at this aspersion, but was rebuked by the Speaker for raising a subject which had not yet been reported from committee.41 On 13 Mar. Towerson admitted that there had been a decrease in production, from 74,000 to 36,000 cloths a year, but he argued that prices and profits would soon rise due to the outbreak of the Thirty Years’ War and if ‘by new courses we do not disturb clothing’.42 Four days later, however, Towerson was accused of personally levying impositions on the Merchant Adventurers’ rivals.43

Towerson was anxious to protect the exclusive privileges of the Merchant Adventurers, and not surprisingly attended the committee for the bill to allow free trade in Welsh cloth, even though he was not one of its named members.44 He also claimed that the monopolies bill could damage trade and helped to get it recommitted (20 March).45 So far as the cloth trade was concerned, Towerson was clearly a protectionist, but both he and his fellow London Members were keen free traders when the Commons’ focus switched to food imports, and in particular a bill to ban the import of corn. This measure was designed to protect the profits of English landowners by eliminating foreign competition, but corn imports were needed to feed London, and if they were banned it would prove much more difficult to sell English cloth abroad. On 10 Mar. Towerson warned that the bill, if enacted, would prove ‘a great hindrance to the vent of cloth’.46 Two months later he denounced the measure as ‘dangerous’, claimed that it would ‘destroy the navigation of the kingdom, and the merchants of the kingdom’, and warned that it might cause the capital’s population to starve in a bad year. However, in an assembly dominated by provincial and agricultural interests, these arguments fell largely on deaf ears.47

Towerson supported the bill to restrict the use of gold and silver thread, which was threatened with rejection. ‘Why should we cast away a bill which tends to the suppressing of so great a vanity?’, he demanded on 21 February. ‘ I see ... other nations save this expense and bestow it in maintaining war. But we waste so much in apparel we have nought to maintain war’. He warned against a blanket prohibition on imports, worth between £40,000 and £50,000 p.a., since they represented the principal return on exported cloth, England’s chief commodity, which might otherwise remain unsold. However, he saw this as no reason to ‘reject a bill at the first which tends to so good a purpose. If it be faulty, it may be amended’. He was subsequently appointed to a committee on the bill to prevent the waste of gold and silver on apparel.48

On 6 Mar. Towerson moved to commit the bill to prevent creditors from falsely claiming that they were acting on behalf of the king, a device commonly used to extract prompt payment from debtors, but at the same time he failed to interest the Commons in the patent creating a registry of seizures in the Customs House.49 Six days later he advocated an unconditional grant of supply, which suggests that he appreciated the extent to which the great trading Companies depended on Court favour.50 On 21 Mar. Towerson expressed doubts about whether the bill to improve the quality of English cloth would achieve its purpose, since it would reduce the weight of cloth and deprive merchants of the power of search. He was named to the committee regardless, but subsequently failed to attend when it met.51 Five days later he advised that the offer of Trinity House to take over Dungeness and Winterton lighthouses should be accepted, since the charges imposed by the patentees were more than the merchants could bear.52

After the Easter recess Towerson moved for a total ban on tobacco, without which Spanish produce would continue to be imported by Flemish merchants (18 April).53 On 24 Apr. he was appointed to the committee for the bill to preserve fish fry after warning that unless action were taken there would be no fish left at all.54 The problem of feeding the population of London was undoubtedly uppermost in his mind when he spoke; certainly it determined his response to the bill to ban the import of Irish cattle which, like the corn bill, was designed to protect the profits of English farmers. During the course of the debate (8 and 9 May) he opposed a ban because meat was already so dear in London that many of his constituents scarcely knew the taste of it.55 Towerson regarded the bill to require all commoners to wear English manufactures in winter as far too sweeping, and thought its provisions should be restricted to mourning attire only, but he was nevertheless named to the committee (21 April).56 During the debate on a suitable punishment for the Catholic barrister Edward Floyd, who had insulted the king’s daughter and her husband the Elector Palatine, Towerson recommended a public flogging at the Royal Exchange, where foreign merchants might see it (1 May).57

At the grand committee on trade on 26 Apr., Towerson was accused of conniving at the evasion of double duty by foreigners by the issue of blank warrants for cloth exports at 5s. a time; but he denied that there had been any increase from the customary fee of 2d.58 When the clothiers alleged that the Merchant Adventurers were holding back from the market to reduce prices, he replied (7 May) that they had 30,000 cloths on their hands unsold, 13,000 in England and the remainder overseas.59 A petition from the Cinque Ports was presented the next day,60 and on 14 May the Shooter’s Hill incident was raised in the House by Sir Edwin Sandys*. Towerson replied that if the cloths had been shipped they would have been forfeited, and that the king himself had declared that Star Chamber was the proper court for such abuses. He asked for the Merchant Adventurers to be heard by counsel, and until then ‘to be accounted honest men’. He denied the allegation of Sir William Spencer* that the Company had petitioned the king against having to defend its patent in the Commons, and reminded the House of the great sums of money which they had furnished to the Crown.61 In an adroit counter-offensive he moved on 26 May for special measures to prevent the export of wool, yarn and fuller’s earth from the Cinque Ports, though, as a Skinner, he agreed with Hele that sheepskins were necessary for ordnance on board ship. He had earlier supported a bill to ban the export of these commodities, and had argued for an extension to cover Scotland (30 Apr.), provided that the penalties were not set so high as to discourage prosecutions.62

Towerson favoured the extension of the bankruptcy law, but not so as to enable aliens to benefit.63 On 25 May he successfully opposed a bill to set a time-limit on legal actions, pointing out that merchants sometimes took ten years to recover debts, besides bearing a heavy burden of taxation: ‘Once in seven years the king hath the value of a merchant’s whole estate, which he beginneth withal’.64 On 31 May he opposed presenting any bills for enactment before the recess, probably because so many were against mercantile interests, but urged the House to ‘show no discontent; let us not prejudice the Commons by discontenting the king and hinder ourselves’.65 On 1 June, during a debate about Members’ servants, he expressed concern that joint conferences with the Lords were attended by non-Members.66 When he moved for a reading of the petition against the Merchant Adventurers that same day the House interrupted him. He subsequently accepted the motion of Sir Dudley Digges* for reducing the import of superfluities: ‘We may of ourselves help ourselves in the consumption of our backs and bellies, and therefore to use our cloth for clothing of ourselves’. However, he required more details of Digges’s proposal to lessen the predominance of London by leasing the customs in the outports to local merchants.67 On the final day of the sitting, 4 June, he declared support for the liberation of the Palatinate with almost hysterical enthusiasm: ‘London will be most forward at home and abroad. And if ten subsidies will not serve, 20, yea 30, shall freely come’. He asked that his pledge might be entered twice, and having helped to draft the declaration, moved that it might be published at St. Paul’s cross the following Sunday.68

During the recess Towerson was appointed to the commission of inquiry into the balance of trade. When Parliament reassembled in mid-November, he initially remained silent. However, on 22 Nov. he complained that ‘the Dutch eat us out in our navigation and [take] out our coin, refusing English goods’.69 Four days later he opposed the bill to allow the Merchants of the Staple to export cloth on the grounds that, historically, ‘the Merchant Adventurer had the cloth always and the Stapler the wool’. By now well versed in Commons’ procedure, he pointed out that the bill ‘may be amended but not recommitted because engrossed’.70 His rash promise of 20 subsidies for the Palatinate had not been forgotten, and on 26 Nov. Thomas Crewe suggested that, rather than burden the country with further taxation, the Commons should take up loans in the City and ask the Merchant Adventurers to act as sureties. Towerson, though no financier, was ready with practical difficulties:

We must not imagine the money in specie goes over sea, but by way of exchange, and the purse of London full of the king’s money for the Palatinate, and they have gain for it. I speak out of my element but within my knowledge. ... I doubt not but when we shall find out the enemy we shall find means to increase our money by him.71

Nevertheless, on 28 Nov. Sir George Chaworth also cast Towerson’s words back at him, suggesting that the Adventurers should immediately lay out the subsidy agreed by the Commons, to be repaid by the country when it had been collected.72 Towerson’s final recorded contribution was to move successfully for the reading of a petition from one of those involved in the plot to discredit Sir Edward Coke*.73

Towerson is not known to have stood again. After the execution of his brother Gabriel at Amboyna by the Dutch he retired from the East India board, selling out some years later for £1,000.74 He nevertheless continued to enjoy royal favour, recovering £1,000 from the Muscovy Company in 1625 under threat of the loss of the Greenland fishery.75 In August 1625, at the height of a serious plague epidemic, he advised the Council not to move the cloth staple from London.76 ‘Sick and weak in body’ when he drew up his will on 7 May 1630, he asked to be buried beside his wife in St. Margaret Lothbury, and left £20 to the poor. He had already settled his house in Fenchurch Street on his younger son William and provided a portion for his surviving daughter. He died on 12 Aug. leaving the residue of his property to be divided between his elder son John and his granddaughter Elizabeth Champion.77 His grandson Gabriel Towerson became a distinguished Anglican divine, but none of his descendants entered Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Virginia C.D. Moseley / Andrew Thrush


  • 1. St. Michael Cornhill (Harl. Soc. Reg. vii), 7, 80-1, 188, 199; PROB 11/67, f. 100.
  • 2. Soc. Gen. Boyd’s London Citizens 14142; Vis. London (Harl. Soc. xv), 31; J. Stow, Survey of London (1635), p. 292.
  • 3. C142/478/51.
  • 4. GL, ms 30719/1, p. 392.
  • 5. GL, ms 30708/1, ff. 102v, 114, 156v; 30708/2, ff. 313, 324, 382v; 30708/3, ff. 33, 108v.
  • 6. GL, ms 30719/1, pp. 421, 426; APC, 1613-14, pp. 277, 583; HMC Var. viii. 13; GL, ms 4424, f. 185v.
  • 7. Spanish Co. ed. P. Croft (London Rec. Soc. ix), 8
  • 8. CLRO, Jors. 29, f. 16v.
  • 9. Select Charters of Trading Cos. ed. C.T. Carr (Selden Soc. xxviii), 64.
  • 10. A.B. Beaven, Aldermen of London, i. 290.
  • 11. Ancient Vellum Bk. ed. W.A. Raikes, 34, lists a William ‘Townson’ as a member.
  • 12. HMC Foljambe, 39.
  • 13. GL, ms 4352/1, ff. 74v, 76, 82, 87-8, 90v, 91v, 97v, 104v-5.
  • 14. GL, ms 12806/3, ff. 62v, 219, 224v.
  • 15. C181/2, ff. 336, 357.
  • 16. APC, 1615-16, pp. 272-3; 1621-3, pp. 79, 208.
  • 17. GL, ms 30719/1, p. 166; Recs. of Skinners of London, 233.
  • 18. Grantees of Arms ed. W.H. Rylands (Harl. Soc. lxxvii), 198-200; D.B. Quinn and A.N. Ryan, England’s Sea Empire, 61-2.
  • 19. R. Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation (Hakluyt Soc. extra ser. xxxix), 654.
  • 20. APC, 1598-9, pp. 433, 444, 466-7. Towerson’s date of discharge is not recorded.
  • 21. GL, ms 30708/2, ff. 312v-13v.
  • 22. GL, ms 12806/3, f. 67.
  • 23. A. Friis, Alderman Cockayne’s Project, 84.
  • 24. CJ, i. 338b, 339a.
  • 25. APC, 1613-14, p. 277; HMC Downshire, iv. 12-13.
  • 26. GL, ms 30708/1, f. 128v; 30708/2, f. 429v; Letters and Life of Francis Bacon ed. J. Spedding, vi. 75.
  • 27. CD 1621, iii. 157n.
  • 28. HMC Downshire, iv. 325.
  • 29. HMC Sackville, i. 48.
  • 30. Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, vi. 75; HMC Downshire, vi. 85.
  • 31. HMC Var. viii. 13; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 152-3.
  • 32. Add. 12947, f. 77.
  • 33. Nicholas, i. 152-3; ii. 66.
  • 34. CSP Col. E.I. 1617-21, p. 283.
  • 35. CLRO, Reps. 35, f. 35. See also LONDON.
  • 36. CJ, i. 531b, 548b.
  • 37. Ibid. 524b; CD 1621, v. 502.
  • 38. CJ, i. 522b; HMC Hatfield, xxi. 296; London Sessions Recs. ed. H. Bowler (Catholic Rec. Soc. xxxiv), 50. Parnella died in 1615: St. Michael Cornhill, 220.
  • 39. Nicholas, i. 37; CJ, i. 572b.
  • 40. Nicholas, i. 105. See also CD 1621, v. 262-3, 525-7; Friis, 398-9.
  • 41. CD 1621, v. 529; CJ, i. 531a.
  • 42. CD 1621, ii. 215; iv. 150; vi. 60-1.
  • 43. Nicholas, i. 189.
  • 44. C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance Lists’, PPE 1604-48 ed. Kyle, 191.
  • 45. CD 1621, iv. 114, 173; CJ, i. 564a.
  • 46. CJ, i. 545a, 549b.
  • 47. Nicholas, ii. 87; CD 1621, ii. 379; iii. 323; C. Russell, PEP, 95.
  • 48. CD 1621, ii. 115; Nicholas, i. 74.
  • 49. CJ, i. 540a; CD 1621, vi. 32. For the patent, see ibid. vii. 349-50.
  • 50. Ibid. 549b.
  • 51. CJ, i. 565a-b; Kyle, 186.
  • 52. CJ, i. 573b.
  • 53. CD 1621, v. 77.
  • 54. CJ, i. 588b.
  • 55. CD 1621, iii. 214; CJ, i. 615b.
  • 56. CJ, i. 584b; CD 1621, iii. 36. Each version of his speech conveys slightly different senses.
  • 57. CD 1621, iii. 126; CJ, i. 601b.
  • 58. Nicholas, i. 331-2.
  • 59. CD 1621, iii. 189; vi. 143.
  • 60. Ibid. iii. 199.
  • 61. Ibid. ii. 364-5; iii. 245-6; Nicholas, ii. 66; CJ, i. 620b.
  • 62. CD 1621, ii. 295; iii. 321; CJ, i. 597a, 628a.
  • 63. CD 1621, iii. 296.
  • 64. Ibid. ii. 389; iii. 303.
  • 65. Ibid. iii. 372.
  • 66. CJ, i. 634b.
  • 67. CD 1621, iii. 387, 395; Nicholas, ii. 155.
  • 68. CD 1621, v. 397.
  • 69. Nicholas, ii. 193; CJ, i. 642a.
  • 70. CD 1621, iii. 444.
  • 71. Ibid. v. 220. See also ibid. ii. 459; iii. 472; Nicholas, ii. 216.
  • 72. Nicholas, ii. 244.
  • 73. CJ, i. 662b.
  • 74. Beaven, i. 290; CSP Col. E.I. 1625-9, p. 601.
  • 75. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 442.
  • 76. Ibid. 1625-6, p. 92; B. Supple, Commercial Crisis, 100.
  • 77. PROB 11/159, f. 14; C142/478/51.