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Francis Norris, Earl of Berkshire

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Francis Norris, Earl of Berkshire

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Born 6 July 1579, Francis Norris (also commonly spelt 'Norreys') was the son of William Norris and his wife Elizabeth (d. 1611). He was less than six months old when his father died on Christmas day 1579 (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 9, p. 646). Francis succeeded his grandfather Henry, 1st Baron Norris of Rycote, as 2nd Baron in 1601. He was created Earl of Berkshire by James I in 1621. A volatile man possessing a proud temper, he engaged in a long running feud with the Bertie family which resulted in his conviction for manslaughter; acrimoniously separated from his wife; and following his imprisonment for brawling in the House of Lords, he committed suicide by shooting himself with a crossbow at Rycote in 1622.

Norris married, c.April 1599, Bridget, daughter of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 9, p. 647). The marriage gave Norris a powerful connection right at the heart of Elizabethan, and subsequently Jacobean, government in the shape of Bridget’s uncle Sir Robert Cecil. It was a connection he was not shy to exploit. Immediately upon his succession to the Norris barony, he unsuccessfully petitioned Cecil for his grandfather’s place as one of the joint Lords Lieutenant of Oxfordshire and Berkshire (Calendar of Hatfield Mss., part 11, p. 251). He evidently endured a fractious relationship with his uncle, Sir Edward Norris, and was not above calling on Cecil’s influence to counter him (Calendar of Hatfield Mss., part 10, pp. 251-2; part 15, pp. 173, 177-8, 185).
His marriage was far from happy. In May 1606, following Norris’s return from a year abroad, it was reported that his wife Bridget had separated from him and removed herself to Cope Castle (CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 317). On 29 June Robert Cecil, now Earl of Salisbury, wrote to Norris to inform him that the pregnant Bridget had miscarried (Calendar of Hatfield Mss., part 18, p. 184). A letter of August 1608, from Sir Walter Cope to Dudley Carleton, may suggest that infidelity, or at least Norris’s suspicion of it, on Bridget’s part was responsible for the marriage’s breakdown (CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 454). Cope, at Salisbury’s request, urged Carleton to visit Norris in Bath, who, in the midst of a severe illness, was threatening to disinherit his and Bridget’s only child Elizabeth. Carleton’s dispatch appears to have been motivated by fears that Elizabeth’s disinheritance would give credence to rumours which had circulated about Bridget at the time of the separation. Whatever the cause of the separation, it is clear that Norris held Bridget fully responsible (Calendar of Hatfield Mss., part 18, p. 254, 424).

In August 1612 Norris received the first of five visits to Rycote of James I (MS. Dugdale 25, p. 211; Nichols, James I, vol. 2, p. 462; vol. 3, pp. 11, 24, 186, 436). The King’s 1614 visit, at least in the eyes of Lord Norris, appears to have been less than successful. A disgruntled Norris later complained that James had barely left his bedchamber throughout his stay. He further complained that he had been plagued with questions, from the courtier Sir Thomas Monson, regarding the proximity of Rycote to the seats of other influential men and his lack of a male heir (Portland Mss., vol. 9, pp. 145-7).

Norris’s proud and volatile temper repeatedly embroiled him in controversy. He engaged in a long-running feud with the Bertie family. It came to a head in a Bath churchyard, in September 1615, when Norris killed a servant of Robert Bertie, 14th Baron Willoughby, during an altercation. Norris was subsequently found guilty of manslaughter but obtained a royal pardon (CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 306. 308; MS. Univ. Coll. 152, pp. 53-5).

In January 1621 Norris was created Viscount Thame and Earl of Berkshire by James I (CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 216). The newly created Earl of Berkshire’s temper soon engulfed him in further trouble. On 16 February Berkshire was committed to the Fleet Prison for striking Lord Scrope in the House of Lords whilst the Prince of Wales was in attendance (JHL, vol. 3, pp. 19-20). Berkshire had reacted violently after Lord Scrope had clumsily stepped through a doorway before him (McClure, Letters of John Chamberlain, vol. 2, p. 344). On 19 February Berkshire submitted a written apology to the Lords. The apology was accepted and Berkshire was summoned to the House to kneel before the Prince and to be reconciled with Lord Scrope (JHL, vol. 3, pp. 22-3).

It appears that Berkshire never overcame his humiliation. On 29 January 1622 he shot himself with a crossbow at Rycote. He died from his wounds two days later (Cokayne, Complete Peerage, vol. 9, p. 648). His estates passed to his daughter Elizabeth, who became suo jure Baroness Norris. Berkshire also had an illegitimate son, Sir Francis Norris, with Sarah Rose (Cokayne, Complete Peerage, vol. 9, p. 648).

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I have always thought it would be extremely difficult for Francis to kill himself with the crossbow. I have also been told that the gamekeeper who foound him was due to be dismissed. There is also there problem of lady Elizabeth who did not want to marry Buckingham's brother originally supported by her father but I have been told Francis had changed his mind. There may be grounds for a possible conspiracy theory because the Norris wealth was very great. The punishment of Edward Wray for marrying Elizabeth (who escaped from house imprisonment by Lord Pembroke) was severe although he must have been forgiven by the King by 1625

John Bell 07/06/2014

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