Sir William FITZWILLIAM of Gainspark


Born: ABT 1543, Gainspark Hall, Essex, England

Died: 5 Aug 1618

Father: William FITZWILLIAM of Gainspark (Sir Knight)

Mother: Anne (Agnes) SIDNEY

Married: Winifred MILDMAY


1. William FITZWILLIAM (1º B. Fitzwilliam)



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

First son of Sir William Fitzwilliam by Anne, dau. of Sir William Sidney of Penshurst, Kent. Educ. King’s, Camb. 1564. m. Sept. 1569, Winifred, 2nd da. of Sir Walter Mildmay of Apethorpe, Northants. 2s. 1da. Suc. fa. 22 June 1599. Kntd. 11 May 1603. Gent. pens. 1573-1603; j.p.q. Northants. from c.1583, commr. subsidy, musters 1600, sheriff 1607-8; keeper, Fotheringay castle 1599; steward, duchy of Lancaster manors of Glatton and Holme, Hunts.

The survival of Fitzwilliam’s family papers not only provides an account of some of the proceedings of the 1584-5 Parliament of which he was a Member, but also illustrates how a typical country gentleman of average means ran his estates, and, incidentally, how his ruthless and dishonest actions could alienate his closest relatives. The difficulty is to reconcile the unsympathetic figure who was not trusted by his father, and who tried to cheat his brother out of his inheritance, with the godly puritan of 1584.

Fitzwilliam’s childhood may have been spent in Ireland, where his father was a key figure in the government, but by 1564 he was back home to begin his university career a year later than his younger brother John. There is no evidence that he took a degree and before long he was seeking his fortune at court under the patronage of Sir Walter Mildmay, who gave him a secretarial job, his second daughter in marriage, and, no doubt, help in obtaining a place as gentleman pensioner soon afterwards. In May 1578 Fitzwilliam acquired a lease of the alnage and subsidy on the new draperies, at first in partnership with his uncle George Delves. After renewing the lease several times with other partners, a new agreement was sought in 1604 whereby they could double the subsidy rate, but their demands not being met, the monopoly was surrendered. Fitzwilliam was never short of powerful friends. Sir William Cecil’s second wife Mildred Cooke was first cousin to Fitzwilliam’s father. Through his grandmother he was related to the Earl of Bedford, and, through his mother, to Sir Henry Sidney.

Many of these men are of importance in the history of puritanism and of Parliament, two chief elements in Fitzwilliam’s early life. Coming from a county noted for its radicalism in religion and associating at court with men like Bedford, Mildmay and Francis Walsingham, it is no surprise that he held puritan views. His return to Parliament for Peterborough can be explained by his family’s local standing. At Lostwithiel in 1589 his patron could have been one of several leading courtiers, Burghley most likely. Though of little account himself in his four Parliaments, Fitzwilliam’s diary of the 1584 Parliament leaves us greatly in his debt. It concentrates almost entirely on Mildmay’s major speeches and on the subjects so important to the puritans in the House—the Queen’s safety, the bill against Jesuits, the petition to the Lords on religious grievances, the linking of the subsidy bill with religion, and the bill for the reformation of disorders touching ministers of the Church. Fitzwilliam’s own comments on the proceedings are brief but shrewd and show that he was aware of the significance of clashes between government spokesmen, anxious to steer the opposition away from controversial issues, and the radical group, keen to promote their religious programme and to maintain what they considered to be the rights of the House. Fitzwilliam knew of the plans and tactics of the rebel caucus, and his relationship with Mildmay gave him an insight into government policy. On one topic —the right of the Commons to introduce religious bills— he anticipated a device to be used by opponents of the Crown in the early seventeenth century, that of searching medieval and Tudor parliamentary records for precedents to support his argument, without too nice a regard for historical accuracy. In a separate manuscript, Fitzwilliam recorded the arguments used in this Parliament for and against the proposal to make Wednesday another fish day.

Fitzwilliam remained always a strong supporter of the puritan cause. Many years later, on hearing that a minister, Stephen Egerton, had been barred from preaching at Blackfriars by Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, because he was thought to have been in sympathy with Essex’s 1601 rebellion, Fitzwilliam wrote to Robert Cecil:

"His lordship charges him only with a wonderful concourse of people to his church above others, which should argue a schism, and with the sermon he preached the day of the rebellion. If you would look at the copies of the sermon gathered by divers of the auditory, you would be so well persuaded of the poor creature as to endeavour that so many well affected should not be deprived of the blessing they weekly receive from him".

Four years later he wrote a similar letter to Cecil in support of another preacher.

Because of his father’s lengthy absences in Ireland, Fitzwilliam was actively concerned in the management of the family estates before he inherited them. As early as 1574, for instance, he was buying adjoining properties at a cost of more than £2,420. Once or twice he is found visiting Dublin in the early 1570s and again in 1593 when he was involved in a street brawl, but for the most part he divided his time between London and Milton. The Northamptonshire estates, worth perhaps £1,500 a year at the turn of the century, were compactly situated in the soke of Peterborough, near Burghley’s seat at Stamford and Mildmay’s at Apethorpe and not too distant from Holdenby, the mansion belonging to Sir Christopher Hatton. In 1578 Fitzwilliam bought from the Earl of Bedford, Dogsthorpe, an estate near Peterborough containing a house, a farm and 186 acres. This was his home until he inherited Milton in 1599. His household accounts for these years have survived and show how a country gentleman might spend his income. Items as varied as the cost of his sons’ dancing and fencing lessons at Cambridge and the purchase of almonds for a pet parrot are included. The comparatively low expenditure on clothes perhaps reflects the family’s puritanism.

Though Fitzwilliam had a sizeable income from his court post, his draperies lease and his lands, he lived beyond his means for some years, and was at odds with his father, who was himself burdened with a large debt to the Crown. The father, while in Ireland, had given William money to buy lands in trust for a younger son, John, but William took the lands for himself, believing that his father would die before returning from Ireland. When his father did make his will, he thrice warned his eldest son not to try to alter the legacies to his own advantage. ‘My father openly and sharply rebuked him upon his death bed’, John said, ‘and charged my mother never to trust him’. John also claimed that William took full advantage of their father’s request for an inexpensive funeral, leaving the body in a shed and burying it in the open country without ‘honour’ or ‘respect’. Household accounts show this last statement to be untrue, though the funeral cost only some £160.

The property which John, the younger brother, was to receive from his father was Gaynes Park, Essex, but William made strong efforts to hold on to the estate himself. Charges and counter-charges were heard over several years in the King’s bench, the Exchequer and the Star Chamber. Both brothers wrote a series of letters to Robert Cecil, equally confident of his support. At one point William and several of his servants broke into the family’s London home, while his mother was on her deathbed, in order to seize some papers supporting John’s claim to the property. On another occasion John was kept out of Gaynes Park by force. By 1604, however, his right was established. As he was unmarried it was likely that the house would revert to William at his death: John therefore took steps to prevent this, claiming that ‘the son of an ape or an owl’ would inherit it before William.

In 1603 William surrendered his position as gentleman pensioner and retired to Milton, where he concentrated on sheep farming. By that date he had paid off his father’s debts and was able to live in reasonable comfort on the profits from his estates. His favourite pastime seems to have been hawking. He was of some importance in the administration of his county long before his father’s death, appearing on the commission of the peace by 1584. Even while the father was still alive, the son wrote to Cecil seeking his father’s post as governor of Fotheringay castle. He was greatly offended when Thomas Cecil, Earl of Exeter, lord lieutenant of Northamptonshire and Burghley’s eldest son, failed to include him in his list of deputy lieutenants appointed in 1608. Some of his accounts and speeches as a subsidy commissioner in the county have survived.

Fitzwilliam died 5 Aug 1618. In his will, made in the previous month and proved in Apr 1619, he thanked God for granting him ‘long days with prosperity and plenty’. After bequests to servants and a £200 annuity to his younger son Walter, he left the rest of the property to his elder son William, later Baron Fitzwilliam of Lifford. An inventory has survived showing his lands, houses and stock as worth nearly £6,000.

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