NORRIS, William (c.1657-1702), of Frith Street, Soho, Westminster, Mdx. and Waddon, Surr.

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



1695 - Nov. 1701

Family and Education

b. c.1657, 2nd s. of Thomas Norris of Speke, Lancs.; bro. of Edward†, Richard* and Thomas Norris*.  educ. Westminster, KS 1672; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1675, scholar 1676, BA 1679, fellow 1681, MA 1682.  m. lic. 13 Dec. 1689, Elizabeth, da. of Robert Reade of Cheshunt, Herts., wid. of Nicholas Pollexfen of St. Stephen Walbrook, London, and Isaac Meynell of Lombard Street, London, s.pcr. Bt. 3 Dec. 1698. suc. bro. Thomas 1700.1

Offices Held

Chairman of the cttee. of privileges and elections 1697–8.

Ambassador to India 1698–d.


As a younger son, Norris set about establishing for himself an academic career at Trinity College, Cambridge. Having been appointed a fellow, he participated during 1687–8 in the struggle against James II’s attempts to enforce the admission of Catholics to the university, but his marriage to a wealthy widow in 1689 allowed him to leave his academic post, and he moved to London, a change of location which encouraged his keen interest in politics, evidenced by his letter of 25 Mar. 1693 to Hon. Robert Cecil*. Noting the attempts of ‘the High Church men’ to portray Sir John Somers* and Sir John Trenchard* as ‘disaffected to the Church of England’, he informed Cecil ‘that the Archbishop of Canterbury vouched for them both to be true and genuine sons of the Church, who everybody I hope will yield to be the fittest judge in such cases’. Norris’ political sentiments were clearly Whig, and his support for the post-Revolution regime is indicated by his loan of £1,000 to the government in December 1694. Having supported the Whigs at the Liverpool by-election of 1694, he assisted this interest in the corporation’s successful efforts to obtain a new charter in 1695. This activity bore fruit when he was returned for the town in the election of the same year, and embarked on an active parliamentary career which, was staunchly Whig in flavour.2

Much of Norris’ parliamentary activity was concerned with financial matters which quickly came to dominate his discernible involvement in proceedings. Sensitivity to the economic interests of his constituency was also demonstrated early in his appointment to committees to inquire into the establishment of the Darien company (17 Dec. 1695), and later to impeach its directors (21 Jan. 1696), the foundation of which threatened Liverpool’s lucrative sugar and tobacco trade with the Americas. Norris’ Court Whiggery was reflected in the forecast of his likely support for the government in the divisions of 31 Jan. 1696 upon the proposed council of trade, and on that date he was teller for the Court motion that MPs should not be eligible to serve on the proposed council. The following day he discovered that in the ballot for commissioners of accounts he had finished 12th with 134 votes. On 4 Feb. he spoke for Thomas Stringer* in the debate upon the Clitheroe election case, being described by one Tory as ‘a violent man but speaks well’, and eight days later he told in favour of the Whig-supported claim that the Dunwich franchise lay in non-resident as well as inhabitant freemen. The debate of 25 Feb. on the Assassination Plot gave him an opportunity to display the ‘violence’ of his Whiggery. It was reported that Norris

made a speech that the House would vote that the French King and the late King James were the promoters of this wicked design against the King; but the courtiers did not think well of that, because it had not yet appeared so to the House, and Mr Bertie and Sir Richard Atkins [2nd Bt.], two great courtiers, stood up and opposed that, and so there was an end of Mr Norris’s speech.

Not surprisingly, Norris signed the Association immediately. On 10 Mar. he told against engrossing the amended bill to allow Quakers to affirm, and three days later was nominated to audit the accounts of the East India Company and told in favour of the appointment of Sir William Scawen* to this committee. Later the same month he confirmed his support of the ministry by voting for fixing the price of guineas at 22s. On 27 Mar. he was appointed to confer with the Lords over their amendments to the bill to prohibit trade with France and encourage privateers, and his concern with trade and financial matters continued into April, when he told in favour of referring the excise commissioners’ petition regarding the hereditary excise to the committee concerned with wine duties (7th), and for a clause to protect the rights of these commissioners in the drafting of this supply bill (17th). Meanwhile, on the 14th he had told against the motion condemning those who had advised William III to veto the electoral qualifications bill.3

Just before the 1696–7 session Norris confided to his brother Thomas that the Commons remained ‘in the dark’ in relation to the prospective peace, and wrote of his belief that ‘if it is to be honourable and secure, it will be a great blessing at this juncture, for it will puzzle a more politic noddle than mine to find out ways and means to carry on the war . . . if we have not a peace, we are ruined to all intents and purposes’. Financial matters were again a theme of Norris’ parliamentary activity in this session. On 28 Oct. 1696 he was nominated to draft a bill for further ‘remedying’ the coinage, and on 7 Nov. he was teller against a motion that the Bank of England submit their accounts to the Commons. Norris’ most notable parliamentary activity in the early weeks of the session was, however, his role in the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. Having brought Fenwick before the House and told for his attainder on 6 Nov., Norris told on the 16th in favour of allowing counsel to examine Goodman’s evidence, and the following day spoke for the bill of attainder in the debate on the committal. Norris told the House that ‘many things of great weight and importance are before us: here is the life of a man, the preservation of the King and government, and the power of Parliaments to be considered’. He clearly felt that the two final issues outweighed the first, and after stating that ‘we are the Commons of England in Parliament assembled’, claimed that ‘we have a discretionary power to do whatsoever we see is for the good of the kingdom’. For good measure he then compared Fenwick to a gangrene in the body politic. Having supported the attainder so forcefully Norris chaired the committee of the whole on the bill on the 20th, and three days later reported it to the Commons. He again spoke for the attainder in the second reading debate the same day, saying: ‘I think this bill is very plain, and know not what they would have mentioned in it more, unless they would have had the King’s Head Tavern and what wine they drank there.’ Norris naturally voted for the attainder on the 25th, and his leading role was recognized when he was instructed to carry the bill to the Lords.4

Norris continued to be active throughout the session. On 27 Nov. he told in favour of referring a petition from Southwark to a committee on the bill for regulating elections, and on the 30th he reported from the committee inquiring into the author and publishers of the proceedings of the House relating to the recoinage. Three days later he spoke in support of the royal veto of the qualifications bill in the previous session, saying that ‘if the King refused it again it would make him more popular than he was already and the petitions it now sent from the corporations to the House would be addressed to the King’. He was appointed on 5 Dec. to consider deficiencies in the parliamentary funds, and on the 10th told against adjourning the House, enabling it to set a date for the third reading of the bill regulating elections. The 22nd saw him appointed to draft the land tax bill, and the following day he chaired the committee of the whole concerned with making good the deficit upon the transport debt incurred in the reduction of Ireland, part of this debt consisting of money owed to a number of Liverpool merchants. This issue occupied much of Norris’ energy in this session. He chaired committees of the whole on the deficit on 29 Dec. and 5 Mar., and when reporting from the second of these committees on 8 Mar. he was ordered to draft a bill to license hawkers and pedlars. The proceeds of this scheme were to be applied to the deficit, and Norris managed the measure through the Commons in March and April. His concern for financial matters was also evident in his appointment on 14 Jan. to draft clauses explaining the recoinage Acts and investigating alleged abuses at the Mint, and on 26 Jan. he told against receiving a clause to the land tax bill, and for the passage of the bill itself. This concern with finance and his loyalty to the ministry led to his election to the commission of accounts, as one of the Rose Club slate, but the subsequent failure of the bill to renew the commission prevented his taking up the post. This did not, however, end Norris’ involvement in financial matters, as he told on 24 Feb. in favour of re-committing the resolution to grant a civil list of £515,000, and again on 3 Mar. in favour of exempting sellers other than retailers from the cider duty. His interest in supply legislation, and support for the ministry’s financial policy, can also be seen by his telling on 7 Apr. in favour of increasing the land tax by 1s.5

Norris’ other main parliamentary interest in the 1696–7 session was trade. He became involved in the lengthy consideration of the bill to prohibit the wearing of Indian silks and calicoes. On 30 Dec. he told in favour of hearing counsel on petitions relating to this measure, and on 21 Jan. was nominated to investigate the riots provoked by false reports that the bill had fallen. Having reported from this committee on 29 Jan., Norris told on 1 Feb. in favour of engrossing the bill, and on 20 Mar. in favour of naming the Member who at the conference with the Lords upon their amendments had spoken against the bill. His interest in matters of trade can also be seen by his telling, on 6 Feb., to adjourn consideration of the bill for the preservation of the navigation of the port of King’s Lynn, and by his chairing, on 15 Mar., the committee of the whole on the bill to regulate the Africa trade. Two days later he was added to the committee charged with drafting the bill for the effective prohibition of wool exports. Shortly after the end of the session there were rumours that Norris would be appointed to a place in the Admiralty, but they came to nothing.6

Norris’ extensive parliamentary experience was recognized on the opening day of the 1697–8 session when he moved for the Address and was the first-named Member to the committee of privileges and elections, thereby assuming the chairmanship for the session. He reported from the committee four times, mainly in connexion with complaints of abuse and breach of privilege by Members. On 7 Dec. he told against a motion for considering grievances before granting supply, and, although this action indicates his continued support for the ministry, either irritation at his failure to gain office or moral scruples led him to oppose the Court’s requests for a standing army. He spoke for disbanding the army on 10 Dec., and the following day was among the Whigs who ‘spoke warmly against keeping up any forces besides guards and garrisons’. He was a teller on the 11th against recommitting the report calling for the disbandment of forces raised since 1680. Opposition to the standing army, whether on grounds of cost, principle or pique, may also explain Norris’ involvement in the militia bill later in the session. Having been appointed on 14 May 1698 to draft this measure, he presented it five days later, chaired the committee of the whole on the 30th, and reported the following day. That his opposition to the army was not indicative of any weakening of his Whig sentiments can be seen by his telling on 6 Jan. for the continuing the imprisonment of those accused in connexion with the Assassination Plot, and his appointment four days later to the conference committee on the Lords’ amendments to this bill.7

Norris remained active on financial matters. Nominated on 14 Dec. to examine the estimates and accounts, he subsequently chaired this committee and reported from it on four occasions. On 15 Dec. he presented a state of the transport debt incurred in the reduction of Ireland, including an account of the income yielded by the licensing of hawkers and pedlars, and on 29 Apr. was added to the committee drafting the bill to continue both the coffee duties and the licensing of hawkers and pedlars, the revenue from both these schemes to be applied to the transport debt. He subsequently chaired the committee of the whole of 4 May on the bill to continue the coffee duties, reporting from it the following day, and managed the bill to continue the Act licensing hawkers and pedlars through all its Commons stages. His continuing support for the ministry can be inferred from his telling on 21 Dec. against recommitting the resolution for a civil list of £700,000 p.a., and on 3 Jan. he told for allowing the production of hammered coin at provincial mints. When Charles Montagu* came under fire on 16 Feb. for allegedly having an agent of his receive a forfeited Irish estate for him, Norris came to his defence, responding to criticism from Hon. John Granville by saying that ‘he wondered very much to see a gentleman so angry with those that had grants, when his own family had so many and was thereby raised from a mean estate to what they are’. The House had to intervene to prevent a quarrel between the two men, and later the same night Norris told against the motion that Montagu withdraw while the Commons debated the issue. It seems likely that Norris’ appointment to conference committees on the Lords’ amendments to the bill for punishing Charles Duncombe* for the false endorsement of Exchequer bills (7 and 9 Mar.), and to inspect the Lords’ proceedings against Duncombe (16th), were all indicative of his support for Montagu’s attack on Duncombe. April saw Norris telling in favour of removing duties on the transportation of coal to ports by road (21st and 30th), a measure of benefit to his constituency, and in the following two months he managed through the Commons a bill to prevent pilfering from naval stores and abuses in seamen’s pay. On 9 June he told for a clause in the tonnage and poundage bill to protect the bankers’ debt, and on 1 July he chaired the committee of the whole on frauds relative to the wines and spirits duties.8

Trade also occupied much of Norris’ time in this session. On 23 Feb. 1698 he told for the committal of a bill to encourage trade with Russia, and subsequently guided it through the Commons. Having chaired the committee of the whole on the 28th upon the bill to settle the Africa trade, he assumed managerial responsibility for it. On 10 June he told for the bill establishing the £2,000,000 fund. His interest in trade was also apparent in his involvement in the impeachment of individuals for smuggling wool and other goods to France. Another area of involvement during this session was with the attempt by the emerging rock salt industry in and around Liverpool to clarify the right of rock salt producers to claim drawback upon salt duties. Having been forecast a reliable supporter of the rock salt producers’ cause by these same producers, he was teller on 29 Jan. in favour of introducing a bill to explain the law in relation to drawback, and on 17 June told against the reduction of these drawbacks. Finance and trade were by no means the only issues in which he was concerned. On 29 Jan. he was nominated to draft a bill to prevent robberies, and in March he managed through the Commons the bill for the divorce of Lancashire’s leading Whig, the Earl of Macclesfield (Charles Gerard*).

Norris’ activity had been intense in the final session of the 1695 Parliament, and given the support he had offered to the ministry and his prominent role in financial and trade-related legislation, the news in July that he was to be included in the commission of excise would have been welcome and not perhaps unexpected. As with his proposed appointment to the Admiralty a year previously, however, this was not to be. He was left out of the commission for reasons made clear by James Vernon I*: ‘I wish Mr Norris be not piqued at his being left out of the commission of excise. He did not contain himself before on the subject of the forces [the standing army] and if he shall touch that string again angrily, he may make it sound harsh and find a good many followers.’ Returned unopposed for Liverpool in 1698, Norris was classed as a member of the Court party. His disappointment at being excluded from the excise commission was soon ameliorated by his appointment in October as the New East India Company’s ambassador to India. Preparations began for his embassy and he was created a baronet in recognition of his new appointment. His last significant contribution to the 1698 Parliament was to present, on 4 Jan. 1699, a bill to establish a new parish at Liverpool. Having taken his leave of the King on 1 Jan. 1699, Norris set sail for the East later in January with ‘a considerable sum of money in pieces of eight’ to defray his expenses for the voyage, and a salary of £2,000 p.a., arriving in Masulipatam in September. The chief purpose of his mission was to obtain trading concessions for the New Company, but Norris’ arrival in India was greeted by hostility from the factors and servants of the Old Company, who complained that Norris was ‘no ambassador from the King, but employed only by a company of merchants to rob them of their trade and privileges’. He managed, with much difficulty, to obtain an interview with the Grand Vizier, but his insistence upon being greeted in the European fashion alienated the Vizier, and when Norris met with the Grand Mogul in April 1701 his negotiations foundered upon the Mogul’s insistence that he would grant the concessions Norris requested only in return for the New Company’s guarantee to suppress all piracy in the Indian Ocean, an undertaking Norris was powerless to give. Norris and the Mogul were unable to compromise on the issue, and the ambassador left the Mogul’s camp on 5 Nov. 1701 blaming his failure on his inability to offer the Mogul a sufficiently enticing bribe. He sailed for England on 5 May 1702, having achieved none of his objectives but carrying back 87,000 rupees for himself. While returning home Norris died of dysentery near the Cape of Good Hope on 10 Oct. 1702, and was buried at sea. The failure of his embassy led to a slump in the New Company’s stock and forced it to come to terms and amalgamate with the Old Company to form the new United East India Company. Norris’ shares and his India treasure led to subsequent litigation among his brothers.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Eveline Cruickshanks / Richard Harrison


  • 1. Baines, Lancs. ed. Croston, v. 61; Survey of London, St. Anne’s Soho, 152.
  • 2. Add. 33573, f. 171; HMC Kenyon, 320–1; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 910; Norris Pprs. (Chetham Soc. ser 1, ix), 28–29.
  • 3. HMC Kenyon, 399–400, 405.
  • 4. Liverpool RO, Norris mss 920NOR 1/32, William to Thomas Norris, 6 Oct. 1696; Shrewsbury Corresp. 425; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 1026, 1083–5.
  • 5. Northants RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/32, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 3 Dec. 1696; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 191.
  • 6. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 213.
  • 7. Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/159, 163, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 4, 11 Dec. 1697; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 507.
  • 8. Cam. Misc. xx. 1; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 135; CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 96–97.
  • 9. Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 149; Luttrell, iv. 438, 451, 468, 470; Norris mss 920NOR 2/11 William to Thomas Norris, 29 Nov. 1698; Add. 34348, ff. 88–90; 31302, f. 12; Norris Pprs. pp. xxviii–xix.