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John, Baron Williams of Thame

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John, Baron Williams of Thame


John Williams was born c.1500. A consummate survivor, Williams was able to negotiate the turbulent reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I and retain royal office throughout. Appointed Master of the Jewels by Henry VIII in 1535, and then Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations in 1544, he was superbly placed to reap the lucrative rewards afforded by Henry’s suppression of the monasteries. Williams took full advantage, possibly using corrupt means, to build a substantial fortune.

John Williams was the son of Sir John Williams (d. 1508) and his wife Isabel More (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 12 pt. 2, pp. 649-50). The Williams family was apparently of Welsh descent (Lee, Thame, p. 410). He appears to have been in royal service from at least 1528 and in May 1530 was appointed Clerk of the King’s Jewels (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 12 pt. 2, p. 650).

His first major appointment came in 1535 when he was advanced as Master of the Jewels. It was an office he at first shared jointly with Thomas Cromwell. He became sole Master upon Cromwell’s execution in 1540. Williams held the office at a crucial moment in Henry VIII’s reign. He was responsible for receiving into royal custody the treasures seized from the dissolved monastic houses. Williams himself was active as a commissioner in suppressing monastic institutions from 1538. He vacated the jewel house in 1544 upon his appointment as Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations, the body set up to administer monastic lands (LP Henry VIII, vol. 19 pt. 1, p. 643). The two offices presented Williams lucrative opportunities for personal enrichment. He appears to have taken full advantage. During the 1540s and 1550s he was granted vast areas of former monastic lands which he was able to sell or rent at considerable gain.

Williams acquired Rycote from Giles Heron in 1539 (LP Henry VIII, vol. 15, p. 215). He appears to have been living at Rycote prior to this, possibly as early as 1534 (LP Henry VIII, vol. 7, p. 248).  He was granted licence to create a park of two hundred acres at Rycote on 10 December 1539 (LP Henry VIII, vol. 14 pt. 2, p. 300). He entertained Henry VIII and his new bride Katherine Howard during their summer progress the following August. He was evidently an unpopular landowner. During the rebellions of 1549 Rycote was attacked, disparked and all the deer killed (Halliday, 'Oxfordshire Rising', p. 2).

Williams was the archetypal survivor. He managed to negotiate the turbulent reigns of Henry VIII and his three children and retain office throughout. During the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI, however, his loose accounting practices came under close scrutiny. A four-year investigation identified just over £800 (roughly £165,000 in modern money) of unaccounted for plate and jewels (MS. Add. e. 3). In October 1551 Williams was arrested and imprisoned in what was deemed by the Imperial Ambassador, Jean Scheyfve, as a move to reduce public hostility towards the government (CSP Spain 1550-2, pp. 388-9). The following April he was committed to the fleet prison. Edward VI recorded that it was a punishment for “disobeying a commaundment given to him for not paying any pensions without making my counsel prevy” (Nichols, Edward the Sixth, vol. 2, pp. 421-2). He was released and pardoned the following month. Yet he retained his position as Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations.

Upon Edward VI’s death, in July 1553, Williams proclaimed Edward’s half-sister Mary as Queen in Oxfordshire (Nichols, Jane and Mary, p. 9). He is said to have raised six or seven thousand men in the county in opposition to Lady Jane Grey’s succession to the throne. Williams prospered under Mary. In April 1554 she elevated him to the peerage as Baron Williams of Thame and appointed him Chamberlain of the Household to her new Spanish husband King Philip (Nichols, Jane and Mary, p. 72; Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 12 pt. 2, p. 652). He was present, by the Queen’s command, at the burning of the Oxford martyrs in 1555 and 1556 “for feare of any tumult that might aryse” (Foxe Actes and Monuments, book 11, p. 1769). In May 1554 he was charged with overseeing the journey of Princess Elizabeth from the Tower of London to her incarceration at Woodstock. Perhaps with his future prospects in mind, he ensured that Elizabeth “was marvelouslye entertained” at Rycote on the way (BL Add. MS 34563, fol. 13).

The discrepancies in his accounting methods, however, again came back to haunt Williams during Mary’s reign. A commission, set up in March 1554, charged him with missing payments amounting to £31,226 (Richardson, Court of Augmentations, pp. 266-7). On 10 June 1556 Mary granted Williams a pardon for his past financial irregularities in recognition of his service to the Tudor monarchs (CSP Dom. 1555-7, p. 72).

Following the accession of Elizabeth I, Williams was appointed Lord President of the Council of the Marches of Wales in January 1559. He died at the Lord President’s residence, Ludlow Castle, on 14 October 1559. He was buried in a fine tomb in the chancel of Thame Church on 15 November. Williams left substantial bequests in his will including provision for the foundation of a free grammar school and the restoration of the almshouse in Thame.

Williams was twice married, firstly to Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Bledlow and widow of Andrew Edmonds (d. 1523). The marriage took place prior to 4 July 1524 (LP Henry VIII, vol. 4 pt. 1, p. 230). Elizabeth died 25 October 1556 (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 12 pt. 2, p. 653). They had five children, including three sons who all predeceased their father. He married secondly, c.19 April 1557, Margaret (d. 1587), daughter of Thomas, 1st Baron Wentworth. They had no surviving children.

Your comments: Add to the archive

Daniel's last para above.... recommend should read........."And he served only a notional sentence......"

Howard Briggs 15/11/2013

It seems extraordinary that John Williams managed to profit so immensely from his part in the suppression of the monasteries. And he only served a notational sentence when his dubious accountancy was eventually exposed. It’s interesting to see that he was not a popular landowner.

Daniel Snape 18/01/2013

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