CHURCHILL, William (1661-1737), of Dallinghoo and Woodbridge, Suff.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



21 Nov. 1707 - 1 Apr. 1714
1715 - 8 Dec. 1717

Family and Education

bap. 11 Aug 1661, 2nd s. of William Churchill of Dorchester; bro. of Awnsham* and Joshua Churchill†.  m. Rose, da. of John Sayer of Woodbridge, Suff., 1 da.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Stationers’ Co. 1684.2

Bookseller, bookbinder and stationer to Crown 1689–d.; cashier, Ordnance office 1699–1702; commr. sick and wounded 1704–7, salt 1732.3


Like his brother Awnsham, with whom he appears to have been in partnership until 1690, Churchill was active in the 1680s as a radical Whig publisher. In 1685 the government received information that he had ‘printed or had a hand in printing Monmouth’s Declaration’; he had apparently been asked to lend his press to a Quaker, who actually ran off the sheets, though it was probably William rather than his brother who ‘furnished the paper for the printing the said Declaration after that it was declared to him for what use it was to be employed’. Churchill fled to Amsterdam, where he lodged with ‘a notorious bookseller for the rebels’ interest’ named Vandervelde, who also harboured John Locke; and a spy reported that Churchill ‘was going to print some of the archtraitors’ letters writ since he went hence’. The first surviving publication in his name (jointly with Awnsham) is dated 1683, but he was most active at the Revolution when he published many of William of Orange’s Declarations and also the Association. It may also have been in 1688 that he acquired the epithet of Major, by which he was thereafter known, though he may also have had some military expertise, for in 1690 he was one of those approved to be field officers in the auxiliaries of the London lieutenancy. In 1689, possibly to promote the passage of the toleration bill, he issued Samuel Blackerby’s An Historical Account of Making the Penal Laws, dedicated to Charles Mordaunt, Earl of Monmouth, in which the author argued that differences between Anglicans and Dissenters were promoted by papists, and that the Protestants ought to unite. In February 1689 Churchill was rewarded for his services at the Revolution by appointment as stationer to the King, a post which he held throughout his life, and at the beginning of Anne’s reign took his brother-in-law Edward Castle into partnership at the stationer’s office. Although the number of prints issued in his name declined after 1690, Churchill retained an interest in publishing ventures: in 1711, for example, he acted as an agent for one of his brothers, probably Awnsham, concerning an account of the campaign in 1704, which he said Richard Steele* and others had agreed to correct.4

Churchill tried to build on his early success and to exploit his kinship with the Marlboroughs, but although he had his family’s eye for the main chance, he was usually unable to follow his schemes through successfully. His own fiercely Whig principles did not prevent a close friendship with the High Tory admiral George Churchill*: on 29 Nov. 1693 William was one of the witnesses examined about the miscarriage of the fleet the previous summer, which George was attacking; and it may have been on his advice that in 1694 William was providing ships for the transport of prisoners of war. A project to supply the army’s clothing may also have owed something to George Churchill, who had begun an apprenticeship with the Drapers’ Company, though William had himself been active as a clothier since at least 1684. To obtain contracts, William exploited his relationship with Marlborough’s other brother, Charles*, for whom he was acting as a financial agent by 1698, presumably supplying the regiment. A man of diverse interests, he later listed his various services as having included officiating for Colonel Hon. Harry Mordaunt* (Monmouth’s brother) when he was treasurer of the Ordnance 1699–1702. Churchill, who was said to have acted as Mordaunt’s deputy or cashier, had apparently been given a promise to succeed to the post, though this undertaking was never honoured and William’s claim to have saved the public thousands of pounds went unrecognized. It was only in Anne’s reign, with George Churchill’s rise to favour, that he gained office. Although a report at the beginning of the new reign that he was to be added to the reformed prize commission proved unfounded, he was made a commissioner for sick and wounded seamen in April 1704 with the special charge of inspecting accounts and mustering prisoners at the great ports. He later claimed that he had ‘discovered great frauds and proposed a method to the Prince of Denmark which was approved; and the public were saved some thousands of pounds by it and he was promised an additional salary’ of £200, though once again this was never paid, despite a petition for its issue in 1707. By 1704 he was also supplying clothes to the army in Portugal and Spain in partnership with Richard Harnage*. Both fields of activity, as commissioner and clothier, were later to be investigated by anti-corruption inquiries in the Commons.5

Churchill was invited to contest a by-election at Ipswich in 1707 and he accordingly resigned his office on the sick and wounded board, which was incompatible with a seat in Parliament, on the tacit understanding that a place would soon be found for him in some other branch of the naval service; he later claimed that he lost £500 a year by quitting, but had never been rewarded with office. He was successful both in the by-election and the following general election, when supported by the town’s recorder, William Thompson III*. In return he backed Thompson’s candidacy at Orford, whence he had himself received ‘very large promises’. Churchill’s return was marked by Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) as a gain for the Whigs, but in spite of their political differences George Churchill offered him a place on the victualling board if he felt able to keep his seat at the necessary by-election. Nothing came of this, but William’s relationship with George was soon to get him into difficulty. In June the admiral was spreading rumours that the recently dismissed Robert Harley* still carried influence at court, citing as proof the appointment of one of Harley’s nominees to a military commission and naming William as his source, who in turn was said to have heard it from Robert Walpole II’s* secretary. Walpole’s account of the affair to Marlborough shows how close the Churchills were, and how the admiral was prepared to use his relation as a pawn in a political struggle to embarrass the Whigs, for George Churchill must deliberately have distorted what William had reported to him of his investigative missions. Although relations between the two Churchills were not seriously damaged, George was no longer in a position to offer patronage after the death of Prince George in October 1708. William’s career as an army clothier also seems to have ended about this time: he and Harnage received no further contracts after the end of 1707, although the partnership continued for another two years, possibly supplying individual regiments. With the loss of George’s influence, William turned to Marlborough himself. As early as 1705 he had begun zealously petitioning the Duke to advance the military careers of his brother Joshua and son-in-law Francis Negus†, and in 1709 wrote to congratulate Marlborough on his victories and to offer his services. In April 1710 he sent the Duke an account of George Churchill’s illness, but was unable to miss even that opportunity to put in another request for an army post. In Parliament he gave further evidence of his Low Church sympathies in 1709 when he supported the naturalization of the Palatines. On 5 Feb. 1709 he told for a resolution about the franchise at Dunwich which favoured the Whigs, and the following year voted in favour of the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell, whose trial he observed to have plunged the nation into ‘ferment’.6

Again successful for Ipswich in 1710, Churchill was marked as a Whig on the ‘Hanover list’ and on 7 Dec. 1711 voted for the motion of ‘No Peace without Spain’. Earlier that year he had intervened on behalf of the tax receivers of Suffolk, whose only offence had been ‘their voting for Sir Philip Parker [3rd Bt.†, the defeated Whig candidate] for the country [sic], which was upon the account of the right of the guildable part to have one Member and not party, whatever may have been represented’. On three occasions during the Parliament he told for Whigs in divisions over disputed elections: on 3 Feb. 1711 in the Ipswich case, on behalf of William Thompson; on 7 Apr. 1711 in favour of James Stanhope’s* return for Cockermouth; and on 7 Feb. 1712 in support of Edmund Halsey* in Southwark. On 22 Mar. 1711 he was also ‘comforting’ to Bishop Nicolson, probably in relation to the Commons’ censure on the bishop’s having used the Queen’s name when electioneering in Carlisle for (Sir) James Montagu I*. Churchill’s experience in transporting captives made him a natural addition on 10 Feb. 1711 to the committee investigating the exchange of prisoners, and on 30 May 1711 as a teller on a motion concerning the transport of naval stores. By 1712 he was running into financial difficulties, though he resisted the temptation of investing £15,000 which had come into his hands on the death of Dr Richards (deputy to Hon. Edward Russell* as treasurer of the chamber) by which he ‘might have obtained a considerable estate’. He sent a memorial to the Treasury requesting an office ‘on any commission in which he might be useful’ or, at least, payment of £2,048 owing to him from the government. He was perhaps on the lookout for a post as a stamp duty commissioner, for he also claimed to have ‘proposed the [1712] Act for stamping paper and parchment and spent on it £470’. If his boast is true, the scheme was a strange one for a man whose brothers were friendly with John Locke, a staunch advocate of a free press, and who in 1708 was reported to have a ‘share’ in the Daily Courant, the type of newspaper which suffered by the Stamp Act.7

Instead of obtaining payment or office, Churchill found himself increasingly under fire in the House, perhaps because his readiness to subordinate party to personal considerations had lost him friends among the Whigs and made him a relatively easy target. Indeed, an inquiry by the commissioners of public accounts into the state of the sick and wounded service produced an unexpected ally in Viscount Bolingbroke (Henry St. John II*), who wrote on 24 Mar. 1713 to recommend to the Duke of Shrewsbury’s favour ‘a very hard case . . . Mr William Churchill, who has had the honour of your Grace’s patronage formerly and for who I have long had a deep kindness, is deeply concerned in it’. Shrewsbury replied that he would assist him, but the report made to the House on 16 Apr. 1713 was still highly critical, and claimed that Churchill had procured transport contracts for the merchant Robert Michell and William’s brother-in-law John Pearce, at excessively high rates in order to share in the profits. Both contractors had admitted this, and Pearce’s rate of pay had been unnecessarily increased at a meeting of the commissioners attended by Churchill, though Pearce later tried to retract his statement and suggest that because Churchill had bailed Pearce out financially his share was therefore repayment rather than a true partnership. The report was considered on 7 May, when the House, having heard further evidence and Churchill’s defence, resolved

that for any commissioner or other person entrusted by her Majesty in making contracts for public services, to be a partner in such contract, or to reserve a share for any other person, is a high breach of trust and a notorious corruption.

Since his offences had been committed before the Act of Pardon of 1709 it was resolved to take no further action against him, though Churchill had taken the precaution the night before the vote of vindicating himself to Harley, now Lord Treasurer Oxford.8

Oxford may not have been very sympathetic: Sir Robert Davers, 2nd Bt.*, approached him for assistance in unseating Churchill, and, although successful at the poll for Ipswich in 1713, Churchill was duly unseated on petition on 1 Apr. 1714, when he and Thompson saw the House so set against them that they ‘walked out and gave up their cause’. Shortly afterwards he travelled to France, carrying a letter of recommendation from Bolingbroke to Matthew Prior*, a journey which allowed him to escape the further embarrassment of another inquiry conducted by the commissioners of accounts, this time into the army clothing contracts he and Harnage had won in 1706. Bolingbroke’s helpfulness may well have been inspired by the desire to prevent damaging revelations concerning his own close friend, Arthur Moore*, who had been comptroller of army accounts at that time, particularly as the commissioners were more interested in censuring the army administrators than the contractors. The report, presented to the House on 13 Apr. 1714, claimed that the contract with Churchill and Harnage had been irregular in that it had been made through an agent, who did not himself supply any of the goods and was at that time a government employee. The inquiry may also have been designed to smoke out damaging evidence against the previous ministry, since the report stated that the contract had first been ordered by Marlborough, and concluded under the direction of Lord Godolphin (Sidney†); it was also noted that Harnage and Churchill had been in partnership with Marlborough’s confidant James Craggs I*, whom Churchill may have known at the Ordnance office. When questioned, Churchill claimed that since ending the partnership three years earlier he had burnt all his papers; and he left the country before the commissioners could question him on a second set of charges relating to two gratuities, each of £1,000, paid to secure the contracts. He returned to England only after the expiry of the commission for taking public accounts, and no action was taken on the report before the prorogation on 9 July.9

Churchill was re-elected for Ipswich in 1715, when he was ranked as a Whig on all lists which categorized Members, and continued to support the Whig party in the House. In 1717 he obtained a patent for supplying stationery to the crown, and vacated his seat in favour of his son-in-law Francis Negus. Churchill also took over Negus’ debts, which may partly account for the provision in his will to raise £7,000 to pay creditors. Churchill also left £300 to Negus’ son William, though upon his death in February 1737 the estate passed to William Castle, perhaps because Churchill felt guilty about having hindered one of Edward Castle’s chancery suits, an intervention which, he regretted, had brought ‘a very great loss’ to the Castle family.10

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Paula Watson / Mark Knights


  • 1. Soc. of Geneal., St. Peter’s Dorchester par. reg. trans.; Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 384; Plomer, Dict. Booksellers and Printers 1666–1725, p. 70.
  • 2. Stationers’ Co. Apprentices 1641–1700, ed. McKenzie, 112.
  • 3. Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1731–3, p. 229.
  • 4. Add. 41814, ff. 79, 80; 41812, f. 226; 61368, f. 27; Wing A4057, W2323, W2324, W2326; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 74.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1694–5, p. 91; Cal. Treas. Bks. vii. 1272; xiii. 247; xxv. 411; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, p. 456; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 182; Watson thesis, 316.
  • 6. Camb. Univ. Lib. Chomondeley (Houghton) mss, Churchill to Walpole, 12 May 1716; W. Suss. RO, Shillinglee mss Ac.454/857, Ld. Dysart (Lionel Tollemache*) to Sir Edward Turnor*, 6 Feb. 1707–8; 1060, John Hooke to same, 12 Apr. 1708; 1166, Thomas Palmer to same, 6 May 1708; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, p. 40; HMC Portland, iv. 494; Coxe, Walpole, 9–11; Add. 61292, ff. 119, 121, 123; 61293, ff. 3–5; 61366, f. 189; 61367, f. 139.
  • 7. Nicolson Diaries, ed. Jones and Holmes, 562; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1708–14, p. 456; Shillinglee mss Ac. 454/861, Turnor to mayor of Ipswich, [?11] May 1708.
  • 8. Bolingbroke Corresp. iii. 515; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 1198–1200, 1207; Add. 70217, Churchill to Harley, 6 May 1713.
  • 9. HMC Portland, v. 377; Bull. IHR, xxxiv. 212; Bolingbroke Corresp. iii. 516; Boyer, Pol. State, vii. 345–51.
  • 10. Cholmondeley (Houghton) mss, Churchill to Walpole, 12 May 1716; PCC 21 Wake.