Sir Thomas VAVASOUR of Skellingthorpe, Knight

Born: 1560, Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire, England

Died: 1620

Father: Henry VAVASOUR

Mother: Margaret KNYVETT

Married: Mary DODGE (dau. of John Dodge of Copes) (w. of Peter Houghton)








Thomas Vavasour of Skellingthorpe


Attributed to Hieronymus Custodis

The details in this biography come from the History of Parliament, a biographical dictionary of Members of the House of Commons.

First son of Henry Vavasour of Copmanthorpe by Margaret, dau. of Sir Henry Knyvett of Charlton, Wilts. Educated Eton; Caius, Camb., fellow-com. 1576. Married Mary, dau. and heiress of John Dodge of Copes, widow of Peter Houghton, alderman of London, 4s. 2da. Kntd. bef. Aug 1595. Capt. in the Netherlands Aug 1585 - May 1591, Feb -Oct 1598; gent. pens. 1586-1603; butler of port of London from 1603; knight marshal of Household 1604-18; farmer of alnagership of old draperies, Yorks. 1606; forester, Galtres, Yorks.

Thomas Vavasour came of a family which, long settled in Yorkshire, had also spread into Lincolnshire. Forbears of his had been returned to Parliament from both counties, the most recent of them being his grandfather, Sir William, one of the knights for Yorkshire in Mary's first Parliament. The family was to remain Catholic and some of its members were to be troubled on this score from the time of the northern rebellion onwards.

As nephew to Sir Henry Knyvett of Charlton and his younger brother Thomas Knyvett, gentleman of the privy chamber, Thomas Vavasour would doubtless have found his way to court even without the example of his sister Anne, who became a gentlewoman of the bedchamber about 1580; but Anne Vavasour's dissolute career was to impinge considerably on her brother's. She began as she was to end as the mistress of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen's champion and jouster-in-chief, and it is as a runner against Sir Henry at the tilt of 6 Dec 1584 that Thomas is first mentioned. By then, however, he was doubtless already involved in the feud between Thomas Knyvett and the Earl of Oxford, by whom Anne had had a child in Mar 1581; and it was this scandal which led him in Jan 1585 to challenge Oxford to a duel in a letter beginning: ‘If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonourable, my house had been as yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown’. Vavasour may have been influenced by the example of Sir Henry Knyvett who five years earlier had fought a duel which nearly cost him his life, but his proposed meeting with Oxford at Newington evidently did not come off.

Vavasour's hostility towards Oxford perhaps owed something to the Earl's conversion to Catholicism and subsequent accusations against leading Catholics. Coming as he did from a Catholic family, Vavasour must have had many ties with members of that Church; there was, for example, his namesake who was imprisoned about 1583 in the Gatehouse and who was later in trouble as a servant of Sir Thomas Tresham. Vavasour's own career, and his connexion with the strongly protestant Knyvetts, make it unlikely that he retained his family's religious allegiance, and he died believing in the merits of Christ's Passion.

At the time of his challenge to Oxford, Vavasour was sitting in Parliament for the first time, as senior burgess for Wootton Bassett; he was returned again in that capacity in 1586 and for the neighbouring borough of Malmesbury to the Parliament of 1589. He owed his election on all three occasions to Sir Henry Knyvett, who exercised influence at Wootton Bassett for upwards of 25 years, and at Malmesbury for 15; and it was doubtless a tribute to Knyvett's standing rather than to his own that he was styled ‘The Worshipful’ in the return of 1584. His name does not appear in the records of any of these Parliaments, and it is possible that he was an absentee Member during at least part of the second, for in Aug 1585 he went over to the Netherlands as captain of also foot from Yorkshire, and he retained this command until 1591. He distinguished himself on two occasions, once in an attack on a sconce near Arnhem in Oct 1585, and again two years later when he went out with Lord Willoughby to fight the Marques del Guasto. Willoughby declared that he loved Vavasour as himself.

His service in the Netherlands also advanced Vavasour at home. Since Dec 1585 his company had come under the Earl of Leicester's command and pay, and in the following Mar he was sent by Leicester with letters and messages to the Queen. His selection for, and discharge of, this delicate duty  for Elizabeth was still angry with Leicester  alike earned the Queen's commendation, and he presumably consolidated his position on subsequent visits. In Mar 1590 he received a ten-year licence to import 8,000 lasts of cod and ling, and when he resigned his captaincy in May 1591 it was in respect of his attendance on the Queen, probably a reference to his appointment as a gentleman pensioner, a capacity in which he was eventually to attend the monarch's funeral. His services earned for him in Jul 1591 a respite at the instance of the Privy Council of a lawsuit which was plaguing him. This was a form of protection of which he evidently stood in regular need; in Jul 1587 he had sought it from Walsingham and ten years later he asked the same favour from Robert Cecil.

In 1591 Elizabeth Southwell, a maid of honor, suffered from “lameness in her leg” — she was pregnant. Thomas Vavasour took the blame for her condition and was imprisoned for misconduct. What happened to Elizabeth is unclear, other than that she gave birth to a boy named Walter (b. 1591 - d.1641) who was given to Lettice, Countess of Essex and Leicester, to be raised at Drayton Bassett. She may have returned to court, but more likely she was simply still referred to as a maid of honor. In May 1595, the Queen learned that the father of young Walter was not Thomas Vavasour but rather Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Queen Elizabeth was furious, not only because the child had been fathered by Essex, her on and off again favorite, but because she had been deceived.

Where Vavasour's allegiance lay in the struggle between Cecil and Essex is not wholly clear. The matter is complicated by the obscurity surrounding his knighthood. If he was the Thomas Vavasour who accompanied Essex on the Azores expedition, was knighted in the course of it, and was sent abroad on its return with its news, he may be thought to have attached himself, at least ostensibly and for the time being, to Essex; and this view would not be inconsistent with the phrasing of a letter of Aug 1595 to Cecil containing the assurance that he ‘inwardly’ wished most honour to Cecil and styling Cecil ‘master’. Since, however, this letter was endorsed as coming from ‘Sir Thomas Vavasour’, while there exists another letter to Cecil of probably earlier date and similarly endorsed, Vavasour may have obtained his knighthood in the early 1590s and the man so honoured by Essex have been his relative and namesake.

Between Feb and Oct 1598 Vavasour again commanded 150 men at Flushing; he took over their captaincy from his brother-in-law Sir Thomas Shirley and in his turn passed it on to his brother John. This was the close of his active service; the remainder of his career was passed at court. Until the Queen's death he was simply a gentleman pensioner, but with the new reign he was first made butler of the port of London, an appointment whose revocation earned him £1,000 compensation, and then knight marshal of the Household, an office which was confirmed to him for life in 1612 but which he sold for £3,000, according to John Chamberlain in 1618, two years before his death. The improvement in his finances was reflected by his erection in 1610 of the fine house at Ham which, added to by later owners, remains his most lasting memorial.


E. K. Chambers, Sir Henry Lee

Read, Burghley

J. T. Cliffe, ‘The Yorks. Country on the eve of the Civil War’ (London Univ. PhD thesis, 1960)

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