WILLIAMSON, Joseph (1633-1701), of Whitehall and Cobham Hall, Kent.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



22 Oct. 1669
Mar. 1679
Oct. 1679
17 June 1685
4 Jan. - 3 Oct. 1701

Family and Education

b. 25 July 1633, 2nd s. of Joseph Williamson, vicar of Bridekirk, Cumb. 1626-34. educ. St. Bees g.s.; Westminster 1648; Queen’s, Oxf. 1650, BA 1654, MA 1657; travelled abroad (France, Netherlands) 1656-7. m. 12 Feb. 1679, Catherine (bur. 11 Nov. 1702), da. of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur d’Aubigny, suo jure Baroness Clifton and h. to her bro. Charles, 3rd Duke of Richmond, wid. of Henry O’Brien, Lord Ibrackan, s.p. Kntd. 24 Jan. 1672.1

Offices Held

Fellow of Queen’s, Oxf. 1657-79; commr. for assessment, Cumb. and Thetford 1673-80, Mdx. 1673-9, Westminster 1673-4, 1679-80, Norf. 1677-80, Kent and Westminster 1689; member, Clothworkers’ Co. by 1675, master 1676-7, asst. to 1687, recorder, Thetford 1682-d.; j.p. Kent 1683-Feb. 1688, Oct. 1688-d., Mdx. 1685-Feb. 1688, Sept. 1688-9; asst. Rochester bridge 1685-d., warden 1686, 1693, 1700.2

Under-sec. of state July 1660-74; keeper of state papers 1661-d.; commr. for prohibited goods 1663; asst. R. Adventurers into Africa 1664-8, 1670-2; commr. for lotteries 1665; clerk of the PC 1672-4; plenip. congress of Cologne 1673-4, Nymwegen 1676; asst. R. Africa Co. 1673; sec. of state (north) 1674-9; ld. of Admiralty 1674 9; PC 11 Sept. 1674-Apr. 1679, 16 Nov. 1696-d., asst. R. Fisheries 1677; PC [I] 1681; ambassador, The Hague 1696-9.3

FRS. 1663, pres. 1677-80.

MP [I] 1692-9.


The son of a poor Cumbrian clergyman, Williamson first went to London as a boy in the capacity of servant to Richard Tolson, who obtained for him a place at Westminster. Profiting from the pedagogic method of the great Dr Busby, he proceeded to Oxford as servitor to the provost of Queen’s. After graduating he accepted a tutorial post abroad, and on his return he was elected fellow of his college. He continued to draw the emoluments until disqualified by marriage, but he was dispensed from residence at the Restoration to attend on Sir Edward Nicholas, once an undergraduate of the college, to whom he later expressed his gratitude for singling him out ‘when I was young and low in your service’. When Nicholas was compelled to resign to Sir Henry Bennet, later Lord Arlington, Williamson stayed on as undersecretary of state, and with his new master ‘loving his ease more than his business’ he soon became indispensable, never shrinking from adding to his responsibilities. His methodical diligence and administrative capacity were best displayed in his reorganization of the state paper office, for which historians owe him a lasting debt of gratitude. His introduction of an official newsletter service kept the Government far better informed than its predecessors. During the Plague he established the Oxford Gazette, soon to become the London Gazette, with an excellent service of foreign news from official and unofficial sources. Samuel Pepys, whom Williamson resembled in his musical tastes and his rather exacting attitude towards his subordinates, at first found him ‘a pretty understanding and accomplished man, but a little conceited’. Later he described him as ‘a very logical man and a good speaker’, and as they became better acquainted his respect increased. For Evelyn, however, he was a fiddler in every sense of the word.4

With Arlington’s patronage willy-nilly at his disposal, Williamson was not long in looking out for a seat in Parliament; but the quest lasted three years, and took him north, south, east and west. He was recommended to the Earl of Carlisle ( Charles Howard) for Morpeth in 1666, but despite the efforts of his former employer Tolson the electors could not be restrained from returning Carlisle’s son. In the following year he stood unsuccessfully for Dartmouth and Preston. When a vacancy occurred at Appleby he was able to stand as a local landed proprietor, having purchased ‘the ancient seat of his family’ at Winderwath. He enjoyed the support of Sir George Fletcher and Daniel Fleming, with whom he was in correspondence; but the Countess of Pembroke had reserved the seat for one of her grandsons. At length in 1669 he was returned for Thetford unopposed on Arlington’s interest. A moderately active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he was appointed to 73 committees, including the committee of elections and privileges in seven sessions. In his first session he was among those ordered to receive information about seditious conventicles, and to consider bills for auditing the indigent officers fund, and for preventing exorbitances and abuses in parliamentary elections. In his maiden speech he pointed out that official negligence in the late war had not been confined to the English side, a remark that provoked (Sir) Thomas Lee I to reflect on the inadequacy of Arlington’s intelligence service. He did not speak again in this session, and few MPs at any time seem to have shared Pepys’s favourable opinion of his oratorical powers. He may have introduced the bill to open the Little Ouse for navigation above Brandon, much to the benefit of his constituency; he subscribed £26 to the cost, but it was Sir Robert Carr who steered the bill through committee. He was named to both committees for renewing the Conventicles Act in 1670. It was in this session that he began the practice of drawing up instructions for the guidance of the court party. Opposition writers listed him among the government supporters, describing him as ‘formerly a poor servitor, now secretary to the Lord Arlington; receiver and writer of the King’s private letters; worth thousands, and cries snips in the Royal Oak lottery with the poor indigent Cavalier officers’.5

Though Williamson’s name appears on the Paston list he was absent at the congress of Cologne during the sessions of 1673-4, when there was ‘never more need of plausible prudent managers’ of the Commons, as Roger Whitley bemoaned. It is doubtful whether Williamson’s plausibility, never his strong suit, would have been equal to calming the outcry against the Cabal which drove Arlington into resigning the seals. In so doing he secured, at a cost of £6,000 and with Lauderdale’s support, his own promotion, though his old master would have preferred Sir William Temple as his successor. Henceforth he shared with the far more popular Henry Coventry the burden of acting as official spokesman in the Commons, in which capacity he delivered some 250 speeches and 20 messages from the King. He supported Danby’s non-resisting test, summoning several bishops to London for consultations in the autumn of 1674, and his counter-intelligence activities were highly successful. In the following session he was among those ordered to bring in a bill appropriating the customs revenue to the use of the navy for three years. When Sir Thomas Littleton, 2nd Bt. moved for the recall of British subjects from the French service Williamson objected that ‘we ought to have an eye upon some others of our neighbours, as well as the French. Our fears are on the other side (the Hollanders), and ’tis the opinion of the Council already.’ Nevertheless he helped to draft the address, and to present it to the King. He thought the charges against Danby, even if proved, would not be criminal. He helped to manage a conference on Shirley v. Fagg, and to prepare for one on the Four Lawyers. Williamson’s news service kept him in touch with the constituencies; he helped to prepare Danby’s working list of Members, and on 21 Sept. 1675 he sent the following circular letter to court supporters:

The King, being fully resolved that Parliament shall meet 13 Oct., that you may not be surprised with any contrary reports, nor be detained by the business of the sessions, which unhappily is near that time, has commanded me to give you this notice, and to desire you will not fail to be here at or before the time appointed; and I desire you will let me know as soon as you come to town that I may acquaint the King how his commands have been executed.

When this government whip was criticized in the House Williamson replied untruthfully that ‘there was no distinction in these letters amongst such as were of his conversation’. Neither of the secretaries was summoned to the court caucus for this session until Williamson’s friend Sir Philip Musgrave

moved that, considering those of the King’s Council in the House of Commons were they that would be the first called in all matters relating to the King’s service, it would be necessary they were of the meeting, especially the secretaries of state.

His most important committees in this session were to inspect dangerous books and to complain to the King about the failure to apprehend a violent Jesuit.6

When it was suggested on 17 Feb. 1677 that the long recess had automatically dissolved Parliament, Williamson found the debate ‘highly inconvenient’, observing that ‘the acts of the prince are sovereign acts. ... The two Houses may differ in opinion, and neither can judge the thing, and consequently there can be no determination’. Though Shaftesbury classed him as ‘thrice vile’ he was appointed to the committees to consider the bills for recall from French service and the prevention of illegal exactions and the growth of Popery. When the issue of passes to protect English merchantmen from the corsairs was attacked, he pointed out that ‘till these passes were obtained our ships could carry none but English goods, and now they are the carriers of the world’. The pressure for an alliance against France alarmed him; war would hazard the loss of our plantations to the powerful French fleet in the West Indies, ‘and sure we do not mean to enter into the guarantee of all the petty princes among the confederates’. Nevertheless he helped to draw up the address. He was also named to the committees to consider a bill for the Protestant education of the royal children, to manage a conference on the naval programme, and to draft addresses promising a credit of £200,000 and pressing for the expediting of the alliances. He sought to mollify the epicure Lee ‘with a most large hamper of wine’, but without perceptible result. On the resignation of Lord Brouncker he became the second president of the Royal Society, though his interests were antiquarian rather than scientific. The foreign policy debates in the earlier sessions of 1678 were highly embarrassing to Williamson, since he was excluded from the more important negotiations, especially those for a French subsidy. The author of A Seasonable Argument added to the usual reflections on his humble origins the allegation that he was now a ‘pensioner to the French king’; but this is not confirmed by French diplomatic sources. He expressed his doubts in the circumstances about restoring the frontiers established by the Peace of the Pyrenees in 1659, but he was appointed to the committee to draw up an address to this effect. After tabling the establishment for general officers and ordnance, he urged the House to provide the sinews of war:

Will a man have threshing, and no flail? ... The King makes a declaration of war, and has no army, and the French King will let him have none. I believe it will be war, but I said it is in your power to have war or no war.

He was appointed to the committee of 14 Mar. to draft an address for an immediate war, and helped to conduct both Sir Robert Sawyer and Edward Seymour to the Speaker’s chair. On 30 Apr. he brought in copies of the international agreements concluded by the King, and was named to the committee to summarize them. He was also among those entrusted with preparing the address for the removal of counsellors. The pressure of parliamentary business and the rapid expansion of the army, for which the junior secretary of state still bore overall responsibility, adversely affected the routine work of his office. He infuriated the Duke of York by allowing James Vernon to erase the word ‘natural’ before ‘son’ in the Duke of Monmouth’s commission as captain-general; but the worst of his lapses was still to come. Meanwhile Ormonde was told that in the Commons he was a frequent speaker, ‘and his Majesty says that he is improved to admiration’. Presumably Charles was alluding to his capacity for inducing boredom for the Government’s own purposes, for on 10 May Anchitell Grey described how

Williamson talked on, much at the rate of his former speeches on the like occasion, to trifle away time, that the House might be wearied out, and grow thin.

His purpose achieved, he sought to surprise the House into carrying a motion for supply, but the Opposition prolonged the debate until the House filled, and the question was shelved. The next motion for supply, arising from the speech from the throne of 18 June, Williamson totally mishandled, first by failing to warn the leading court supporters to attend, and then by seconding the vote of thanks proposed by the eccentric Michael Malet. This allowed William, Lord Cavendish to ridicule the motion by proposing that the vote should be carried to the King by Williamson and Malet, who was not a Privy Councillor, and the demand was rejected without a division. He was named to the committees to consider the bill for hindering Papists from sitting in Parliament and to prepare reasons for insisting that the new-raised forces should be disbanded before the end of July.7

It is not surprising that Williamson, who had no personal following in the House, fell a victim to the storms aroused by the Popish Plot. In the last session of the Cavalier Parliament he was among those instructed to translate Coleman’s letters and to draw up reasons for belief in the Plot. He did not dare to oppose the motion of the Hon. William Russell for the withdrawal of the Duke of York from Court, but inquired: ‘Is not the King in less danger by having the Duke in his eye?’ Two days later, however, Silius Titus drew the attention of the House to a deliberate error concerning the Plot in the French translation of the Gazette. The translator, a Frenchman and a Roman Catholic, had distinguished himself at sea under Prince Rupert, who had obtained this situation for him. As Williamson explained: ‘the man is a stranger to me, and when I came to be secretary he was found translator by me and left so, and he has no more relation to my business than my hatter or glover’. But it would probably have gone hard with Williamson if Coventry, whose high standing in the House was undiminished, had not insisted on sharing the responsibility. He was less fortunate on the next occasion. On 18 Nov. William Sacheverell produced a list of 60 commissions to Popish officers counter-signed by Williamson within the last month, and noted by William Williams when they passed through Chester. In vain the unfortunate secretary protested that it was Monmouth who had granted the commissions for service in Ireland, and that his own part was a formality. ‘A gentleman said privately that if Williamson signed what he knew, he was a knave; if he signed what he knew not, he was a fool.’ Coventry and Sir Philip Warwick did their best for him, by showing ample precedents, but they could not save him from the Tower. The King at once released him, in spite of an address to the contrary drafted under the chairmanship of Sir Robert Howard; but Williamson was obliged to absent himself for the remainder of the session, not without threats of impeachment. Though talked of as a possible candidate for Oxford University, his usefulness as a crown servant was clearly at an end, and he was obliged to sell his office to Sunderland.8

At the age of 45, Williamson found consolation for his shattered career in a somewhat surprising way. He had long been ‘inward’ in the household of Lord Ibrackan, who died of camp-fever contracted with the British expeditionary force in Flanders. Only a few months later his widow married Williamson; ‘’twas thought they lived not so kindly after marriage as they did before; and she was infinitely censured for marrying so meanly, being herself allied to the royal family’. Probably she required the services of a first-rate administrator to clear the debts on the Cobham estate, valued at £6,000 p.a., which she had inherited from her brother. Arduous though his task was, Williamson did not neglect his interest at Thetford. He built a new court-room and jury chamber for the Guildhall, and was re-elected to the Exclusion Parliaments. Classed as ‘vile’ on Shaftesbury’s list, he was not active in 1679, with two minor committee appointments and seven speeches. In defence of Danby he said:

It is pretty well known I have no obligation to him. ... If justice can be reasonably satisfied by this compliance of the Lords to deprive Danby of honours, etc. ... how advisable is it for you to insist upon the attainder?

But he would have had the bishops excluded from voting on his pardon. He was the first to defend Sir Anthony Deane from the charge of selling naval secrets to the French. ‘It is not happy’, he remarked, ‘when such things as this arise in great assemblies.’ As befitted his new though distant kinship to the Duke of York, he voted against exclusion. He left no trace on the records of the second and third Exclusion Parliaments.9

Williamson was nominated recorder of Thetford in the new charter of 1682, but experienced surprising difficulty in securing re-election to James II’s Parliament, and it was only after the Commons had been in session for a month that he succeeded in unseating Henry Heveningham. He then became an active Member, with six committee appointments. He was the first to be named to the committee for the encouragement of ship-building (25 June 1685). He went into opposition after the recess, helping to draft the address for the removal of Roman Catholic officers, acting as teller for seeking the concurrence of the Lords, and urging (in a speech sometimes attributed to Sir John Werden) a reduction in the supply to £400,000 ‘till the militia is made useful. ... and so leave the door open for coming hither to meet another time’. As a Kent j.p. he replied in the negative to the questions on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws, and was dismissed.10

Williamson had fortified his interest at Thetford by presenting to the corporation an unusually magnificent silver-gilt sword and mace, and he held his recordership for life, despite the dubious position of Charles II’s charter. But at the general election of 1689 he was defeated by the Harbord interest, and his petition was rejected by the Convention. He was successful again for his old borough in 1695 and 1698, but from 1690 to his death he sat for Rochester as a court Whig. Although William III disliked him, describing his speeches as ‘whipped cream’, there were so few experienced English diplomats available that he had to be called out of retirement for the negotiations leading to the Peace of Ryswick. He died at Cobham on 3 Oct. 1701, and was buried in the Duke of Richmond’s vault in Westminster Abbey, leaving most of his fortune to his college and his two constituencies for charitable and educational purposes.11

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: Eveline Cruickshanks


  • 1. DNB; CSP Dom. 1673, p. 459; 1679-80, p. 83.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1675-6, p. 168; T. Girtin, The Golden Ram, 145; PC2/72/506; Le Strange, Norf. Official Lists, 235; information from Mr P. F. Cooper, Bridge Clerk, Rochester Bridge Trust.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1661-2, p. 147; 1663-4, p. 90; 1664-5, p. 438; 1671-2, p. 97; 1672-3, p. 457; 1680-1, p. 136; Sel. Charters (Selden Soc. xxviii), 197.
  • 4. Nicolson and Burn, Westmld. and Cumb. ii. 101; DNB; Eg. 2539, f. 42; CSP Dom. 1660-1, p. 145; Evelyn Diary, iv. 38; J. G. Muddiman, King’s Journalist, 194; P. Fraser, Intell. of Secs. of State, 28-30, 48-49. Pepys Diary, 10 Aug. 1663, 18 Nov. 1664, 1 Mar. 1666.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1666-7, pp. 163, 473; 1667, p. 63; 1667-8, p. 171; 1669-70, pp. 490, 557; 1670, pp. 71, 76; HMC Le Fleming, 60; Grey, i. 187; Blomefield, Norf. ii. 138; CJ, ix. 137; Harl. 7020, f. 36v.
  • 6. Williamson Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. ix), 108; Essex Pprs. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xlvii), 236, 242; Temple, Works, iv. 24-26; CSP Dom. 1673-5, pp. 323, 390; K. W. D. Haley, Wm. of Orange and the Eng. Opp. 66; Grey, iii. 7, 46, 298, 370; CJ, ix. 337, 344, 351.
  • 7. Grey, iv. 82; v. 31, 163, 378, 382; vi. 95; Eg. 3345, ff. 37, 38v; CJ, ix. 406, 418, 464, 476; CSP Dom. 1677-8, p. 318; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 402; Clarke, Jas. II, i. 495-7; Burnet, ii. 150.
  • 8. Grey, vi. 136, 158-60, 216-40; CJ, ix. 541, 542; HMC Ormonde n.s. iv. 476-8; Finch diary, 18 Nov. 1678; HMC Egmont, i. 79; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxii), 175; Luttrell, i. 8.
  • 9. Evelyn Diary, iv. 39; CSP Dom. 1679-80, pp. 82-83; E. C. W. Stratford, Lords of Cobham Hall, 130-40; Ellis Corresp. ii. 44; Clarendon Corresp. ii. 180-1; A. L. Hunt, Capital of East Anglia, 289; Grey, vii. 95, 296, 309.
  • 10. CJ, ix. 738, 757; Lowther diary, f. 48.
  • 11. Hunt, 289-90; CJ, x. 139; Westminster Abbey Reg. (Harl. Soc. x), 249.