WILLIAMS, Sir William, 1st Bt. (c.1634-1700), of Glascoed, Llansilin, Denb.
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Family and Education
b. c.1634, o. s. of Hugh Williams, DD, of Llantrisant, Anglesey, preb. of St. Asaph 1633–70, by Emma, da. and h. of John Dolben of Caeau Gwynion, Denb. educ. Shrewsbury 1649; Jesus, Oxf. 1650; G. Inn 1650, called 1658, ancient 1676, bencher 1679, treasurer 1681–2. m. 14 Apr. 1664, Margaret (d. c.1705), da. and coh. of Watkin Kyffin of Glascoed, 4s. (2 d.v.p.) 1da. suc. fa. 1670; kntd. 11 Dec. 1687; cr. Bt. 6 July 1688.1
Alderman and recorder, Chester 1667–84, Oct. 1688–d.; freeman, Montgomery 1684; recorder, Llanfyllin by 1685; steward and keeper of cts. Menai manor, Anglesey July 1688–d.; custos rot. Denb. and Merion. 1689–90.2
Speaker, House of Commons 21 Oct. 1680–28 Mar. 1681.
Solicitor-gen. 1687–9; KC May 1689–96; solicitor-gen. to Queen Mary 1692–4.3
Williams had been returned for Beaumaris in 1689 through an unholy alliance with the Bulkeleys of Baron Hill. Despite his continuance in local office by William and Mary, and his nomination as a King’s Counsel, his position was still precarious, and on several occasions in the Convention he found himself forcibly confronted with his past. Whether on account of this recurrent embarrassment, or because he had shown his old party colours in, for example, supporting the disabling clause in the corporations bill, he was dropped in 1690 in favour of a senior representative of the Bulkeley family. Out of Parliament, he continued his busy legal practice, and in December 1692 was retained as a counsel by the interloping syndicate of East India merchants. By this time he had been accorded the additional distinction of appointment as solicitor-general to Queen Mary. Further promotion may not have been out of the question: in 1689 there had even been talk of him as a possible candidate for the seals. Still a staunch Whig, at least in local politics, he offered legal advice in support of Roger Whitley’s* attempts to wrest control of Chester’s corporation from local Tories, and his actions at the Chester mayoral election of 1693 led Roger Kenyon* to complain of the assistance he gave to ‘the fanatic party’. Williams’ Whig loyalties probably explain why nothing came of the 9th Earl of Derby’s suggestion that Williams should stand, with Kenyon’s support, at the Clitheroe by-election of 1693. With the changing political climate, his prospects may have seemed good, and he was considered reliable enough to serve as counsel for the crown against the East India Company in January 1693 and against ‘the bankers’ in an Exchequer case in October. The following year, however, witnessed a turning-point in his fortunes. No more preferments came his way as a new generation of Whigs took the reins of the ministry; indeed, he lost one of his existing offices with the death of the Queen. In October 1694 he had been entrusted, as recorder of Chester, with the prosecution of the Lancashire plotters. His controversial direction of the case provoked later accusations that he had deliberately sabotaged the prosecution. Macaulay, claiming that Williams had been ‘an angry and disappointed man’ ever since the Revolution, implied that he had already thrown in his lot with the Tories. What is clear is that, having omitted to prepare himself properly by a prior perusal of the evidence, he rapidly became disillusioned with the patently corrupt testimony of the crown witnesses. After the remark, ‘none but a fool or knave would press this’, he ‘sat down in court’ and abandoned the case. On his return to London he was the target of increasing criticism, not least during the parliamentary inquiries into the affair. According to Whig sources it was his own comments to the effect that the ‘plot’ was ‘a wicked and horrible contrivance’ that had stimulated these inquiries in the first place. When legal proceedings were begun against the informers he was one of the prosecuting barristers on the side of some of the very Tories in Lancashire and Cheshire whom he had so recently and so deeply offended at elections. Not long afterwards, in May 1695, he took the lead in protesting at the Treasury Board against the proposed grant to Lord Portland of the lordships of Denbigh, Bromfield and Yale, supported by a battery of local Tories.4
In the 1695 election Williams proved that he was still a Whig in Chester politics, standing unsuccessfully for the city against the Grosvenor interest. But in Beaumaris he seems to have regained the backing of the Bulkeley interest and was chosen there without opposition. He was soon active in the House, figuring in the Journals as early as 25 Nov. 1695, when he and Sir John Bolles, 4th Bt., were ordered to bring in a bill ‘for the better regulation of elections’. The association with Bolles may not necessarily have meant anything, though it was to be renewed subsequently, but the involvement in an issue such as an electoral reform was certainly significant, typical as it was of the concerns of the ‘new Country party’. It was an issue with which Williams was to be closely identified, and his original interest may have been stimulated by experiences at Chester, the petition against Grosvenor citing instances of bribery and ‘corruption’. On 2 Dec. Williams presented a bill to ‘prevent charges and expense at elections’, and he subsequently managed this measure through the Lower House before being ordered to carry it to the Lords. On 25 Jan. 1696 he presented a further measure for electoral reform, on this occasion a bill for the landed qualification of Members, a measure on which he took advice from leading figures in the Country opposition such as Paul Foley I* and Lord Ashley (Anthony*). Williams assumed responsibility for guiding this bill through the Commons, and was nominated to carry it to the Lords. The measure was vetoed by the King on 10 Apr. Among other characteristically Country measures which he helped to promote was the bill to regulate juries, where he was named to the drafting committee (7 Dec.). Also early on in the session, on 5 Dec. 1695, he was appointed as one of the managers for a conference with the Lords over the coinage, and the same day leave was given for a bill to reverse the judgment given against him in 1686, when he had been fined £10,000 (£8,000 of which he had paid) for scandalum magnatum in licensing, as Speaker in 1680, Dangerfield’s Narrative of the Late Popish Designs. That permission for such a bill should have been granted at all was an indication that Williams’ stock had risen since 1689, but the fate of the bill was to demonstrate the limits of this increase. The committee hearing, with Sir John Bolles in the chair, was first scheduled for 17 Dec. but was adjourned on a division decided by the narrowest possible margin, and suffered several further postponements until 29 Jan. 1696. When it did pass, it was only with an amendment striking out the provision for financial compensation. As the selection of Bolles to chair the committee may suggest, Williams was now identified, or had identified himself, with the opposition to the Junto administration. He was forecast as likely to vote against the Court in the divisions of 31 Jan. on the proposed council of trade. That same month he had joined other Welsh gentlemen in petitioning the Commons over the grant in North Wales to Lord Portland, and on 14 Jan. he was nominated to prepare the Commons’ address asking the King to stop the grant. To compound the offence to the government he refused the Association. He had opposed the imposition of an abjuration oath on the members of the council of trade, and it was reported that he had argued against the inclusion in the Association of the phrase ‘rightful and lawful’ to describe King William’s tenure of the throne. When it came to subscribing, he
said he had only one reason to offer why he could not sign it, which was an argument taken from the pocket, which struck him in the most sensible part, he remembered that it once cost him £8,000 for setting his hand in that House, and he was resolved never to run the like risk of the loss of such a sum.
Williams cannot have been surprised when in consequence he was dismissed as King’s Counsel, and later even removed from the commission of the peace. He was nominated on 20 Feb. to assist in drafting a bill for regulating the East India Company. On 2 Mar. he was given leave of absence for a fortnight, but appears to have returned to the Commons promptly following the end of this leave, being listed as having voted in March against fixing the price of guineas at 22s., and the following month was nominated to draft an amendment (subsequently carried) to a supply bill.5
During the summer of 1696 Williams took a brief as counsel for Cooke and Snatt, two non-juring clergymen who had attended the Jacobite conspirators Sir John Friend† and Sir William Parkyns to the scaffold and who were subsequently arraigned of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. His continuing hostility to the ministry was made clear in the early weeks of the 1695–6 session, Robert Yard* reporting that Williams and John Grobham Howe ‘are those that appear as yet the most zealous to delay the proceedings about the supply’, to which end they had successfully moved on 28 Oct. for a committee of the whole ‘to consider the state of the nation’. Williams was also included in the committee of 28 Oct. to bring in another bill to regulate elections. On the cause célèbre of the session, the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†, he took a consistent anti-Court line. On 6 Nov. he spoke on the Tory side in a debate over Fenwick’s allegations against leading Whigs; on 13 Nov., before proceedings commenced, he opposed the Court’s attempt to have the mace removed from the table in order to prevent Members from speaking; and three days later he intervened against the reading out of the details of Peter Cook’s conviction. Finally he voted on 25 Nov. against the third reading of the bill of attainder. Less active after the Christmas recess, he was accorded three weeks’ leave of absence on 24 Feb. 1697.6
Williams’ reputation among Tories was probably at its height at this time, and he was supposedly the first choice of High Tory Bishop Watson as counsel for a forthcoming case in October 1697. He was appointed to prepare several bills: a forestry bill (9 Dec. 1697), a measure to regulate abuses in prisons (15 Dec.), and a bill to explain the Creditors’ Relief Act (15 Dec.). His most important appointment, however, was on 6 Jan., when he was first-named to the committee to manage the conference with the Lords on the bill to prevent correspondence with King James. He may have spoken in the debate on 8 Jan. 1698 on the Court proposal to instruct the committee of supply to consider a vote of money for ‘guards and garrisons’; and after nomination on 7 Feb. to a committee responsible for the preparation of another Country-inspired bill, to prevent the alienation of crown revenues, he rather surprisingly spoke against the militia bill on 7 Mar. Whereas fellow Country Members were pressing for a revived militia as an alternative to a standing army, he described the bill as ‘the most pernicious . . . he ever saw, which established the greatest and most lasting tax, and erected a standing army . . . He wondered where this bill was hatched.’ Four days later he was granted indefinite leave of absence.7
It is not known whether Williams was a candidate at Beaumaris in the 1698 general election, which was won by the anti-Bulkeley Whig Owen Hughes. He certainly did not contest a seat at Chester, where on this occasion he supported a Tory, Peter Shakerley*. In a comparative analysis of the old and new Parliaments in about September 1698, he was classed as a member of the Country party ‘left out’ of the new House of Commons. In the previous Parliament Williams had twice been heard in his place, on 3 Feb. and 25 Jun 1698, in response to petitions from two of his creditors, which may indicate the onset of financial difficulties that could have prompted his retirement from Parliament. His health was still good enough for him to remain professionally active, and on 14 Dec. 1699 he appeared before the Commons acting as counsel. Williams died at Gray’s Inn on 11 July 1700, aged 66, and was buried at Llansilin. Both his son, Sir William Williams, 2nd Bt.*, and his grandson, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, 3rd Bt.†, sat in Parliament as Tories, the latter a putative Jacobite.8
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: D. W. Hayton
- 1. A. I. Pryce, Diocese of Bangor, 43–44; J. E. Auden, Shrewsbury Sch. Reg. 37.
- 2. CSP Dom. 1667, p. 44; 1689–90, p. 271; HMC 8th Rep. 361; Ormerod, Cheshire, i. 222; Herbert Corresp. ed. W. J. Smith (Univ. of Wales Bd. of Celtic Studies, Hist. and Law ser. xxi), 289, 312; Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 2010; ix. 158.
- 3. Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 529; iv. 27; ii. 449.
- 4. Bodl. Rawl. C.449 (unfol.); Burnet, iv. 76; HMC Kenyon, 277–8, 385; John Rylands Univ. Lib. Manchester, Mainwaring mss bdle. v. no. 72, 70, Williams to Whitley, 3 Nov. 1692, 24 June 1693; Lancashire RO, Kenyon mss DDKe/HMC/808, Derby to Kenyon, 13 May 1693; HMC Lords, iv. 325–6; n.s. i. 433–55; Luttrell, iii. 216; Boyer, Wm. III, iii. 8–9; Macaulay, v. 2460–2; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 946; Hopkins thesis, 460, 463, 465–6, 469; CJ, xi. 183, 193; Cal. Treas. Bks. x. 1201–2, 1374–5.
- 5. NLW, Canon Trevor Owen mss 202, ‘some amendments proposed by Lord Ashley’, n.d.; 204, ‘Mr Foley’s amendments proposed’, n.d.; 209, draft clause, Apr. 1696; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 177; Luttrell, iv. 11, 27; HMC Lords, n.s. ii. 190–1; Chandler, iii. 9–10; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1557–1696, p. 437; HMC Hastings, ii. 253, 259; D. Rubini, Court and Country, 64; Lexington Pprs. 192; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 123.
- 6. Post Boy, 2–4 July 1696; J. Garrett, Triumphs of Providence, 224–35; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/5, Yard to Alexander Stanhope, 3 Nov. 1696; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, i. 50; Cobbett, v. 1003, 1044.
- 7. HMC Hastings, ii. 302; Cam. Misc. xxix. 358; CSP Dom. 1698, p. 134.
- 8. Trans. Anglesey Antiq. Soc. (1962), 37; Chirk Castle Accts. 1666–1753 ed. Myddelton, 176.