A Short Biography by Michael J Beech
Sometime between 1500 and 1503 John Williams was born in Burghfield, Berkshire. His father came from Glamorgan and was distantly related to Thomas Cromwell who became the most powerful of Henry VIII’s ministers in the 1530s. We can only surmise that this relationship enabled John to come to Court as a servant to Cardinal Wolsey, the earliest of Henry’s chosen ministers, the builder of Hampton Court Palace and the founder of Christ Church, Oxford. Contacts made at Court led John to marry a rich widow, originally from Thame, in July 1524. Not long afterwards he purchased the Rycote estate south of Thame, which he transformed into a magnificent house and the family seat. By his marriage, John fathered three sons, all of whom died without heirs before their father, and two daughters who survived him but could not carry on his name or title.
At the age of 26 John gained his first official office at Court and a little later, he became Keeper of the King’s Greyhound – a symbolic post which brought him status and 20 marks or £13.33, a handsome stipend in those days. It is of significance that a pair of greyhounds formed the supporters to John’s coat of arms which survives on the Lord Williams’s School crest. He next became Master of the King’s Jewels, responsible for buying, selling, storing, cleaning and supplying them as the King required. He soon became a Justice of the Peace for the city of Oxford and for the counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire which bestowed on him great status and influence in the region. At that time he was supervising the closure of hundreds of monasteries in a swathe of England, from East Anglia across to Winchester. Rewards came in October 1537 when he was invited to be present at the baptism of Henry’s only legitimate son, Prince Edward, and later that month he was knighted by the King.
On 3 January 1540 Sir John is recorded as walking in a procession to Blackheath to celebrate the first meeting of Henry and his fourth wife, Anne, Princess of Cleves. The actual marriage occurred on 6 January, but Anne did not please the King (he called her “a Flanders mare”). Henry blamed Thomas Cromwell for organising the marriage and because the latter was already falling out of favour with the King he paid for his mistake with his head. With the fall of Cromwell, Sir John must have feared for his position at Court, but he was certainly reassured when, in August 1540 the Privy Council, the effective governing body of the realm under the king, met at Rycote.
Then Sir John was elected to the 1541 Parliament by the “shout” of other men of property in the county, as one of the two members for Oxfordshire. By 1542 Sir John was accepting grants of land from the Crown and accumulating huge profits for himself from the sale of monastic property. This was an acceptable form of payment for services to the Crown in those days, provided the profits were not such as to attract attention. In 1544 he exchanged the office of Master of the King’s Jewels for that of Treasurer of the Court of Augmentations, with a salary of £320 a year. This Court collected all the revenues from the rent and sale of lands and property of the 800 or so monastic houses taken over by Act of Parliament and surrender between 1536 and 1540. The revenues which came to the Crown enabled Henry to be more independent of Parliament for financial grants and to conduct an expensive war with France, during which Sir John was listed as the Captain of 12 archers and 40 armed men in “The King’s battle against the army of France”.
In 1549 religious changes and inflation had created such discontent that there were rebellions over much of the southern half of England. Sir John savagely put down riots in Oxfordshire and was thus perhaps responsible for preventing an arc of opposition forming from East Anglia to the West Country, which would have cut off London and left it open to a rebel attack. It is at this time that we get a glimpse of the extent to which Sir John was hated by the local rebels. The people of Thame resented the destruction of their traditional church ceremonies and ornaments with which Sir John was associated and they had seen how he personally supervised the closure of the religious houses at Thame, Notley and Studley. Their hatred of all the changes finally expressed itself in riots and rebellion. Sir John had already fenced in confiscated common land for his own purposes – hunting and sheep farming – and so the rebels “arose in great numbers and with great anger towards Sir John Williams, tore down the fences of Thame Park and killed all the deer. They then went to Rycote and killed all his deer there, drank their fill of ale, wine and beer, slaughtered and ate some sheep before moving on elsewhere”. Two hundred rebels were eventually taken prisoner, and those perceived as leaders were selected for public execution by hanging. Two rebel leaders, one of whom came from Great Haseley, within a short distance of Rycote, were selected for hanging in Thame itself.
In August 1549 when order had been restored, Sir John wrote to the Privy Council reporting that some of the “Catholic” rebels had been hanged, “and their heads fastened to the walls” as an example to others. Even though Sir John defended the central government against the rebels to preserve the social order; he was no doubt most concerned about the damage done to his own property by the rebels. He probably blamed the Duke of Somerset, Lord Protector of the Realm and uncle to the 11-year-old King Edward VI, who was accused of encouraging the hopes of the discontented and then not taking firm enough measures to stamp out signs of rebellion. It is not therefore surprising that in October 1549 Sir John rode from London to Windsor with a small company of armed men to arrest Protector Somerset, remove him from the King’s presence and conduct him to the Tower of London where he was to be executed, but not before he had formally transferred back to Sir John, the Manor of Thame which Somerset had recently confiscated. However, in October 1551 Williams was himself arrested for having paid out pensions from Augmentations to former monks without having first obtained the Council’s permission, at a time when the Treasury was nearly empty. In April 1552 he was sent to the Fleet Prison but was soon given permission to receive members of his family and he was released in June. Nevertheless, the episode was a warning to Williams by Somerset’s successor, the Duke of Northumberland, not to overstep his authority. The Duke also wanted to curry favour with the populace as Edward’s health deteriorated and the prospect of putting his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne came closer.
When Edward died and Northumberland proclaimed the 16-year-old Jane, Queen, (for 9 days only), Sir John sent 6,000 troops to support Queen Mary’s legitimate claim. He must have decided that it was more in his interest to desert Northumberland and join Catholic Mary, even though she might have been harbouring a grudge against him for having closed so many monasteries. Fortunately for Sir John, his gamble paid off and Mary was to create him Baron Williams of Thame in 1554 when she made him Lord Chamberlain of the Household of Prince Philip (later Philip II) of Spain, who arrived in England to marry the Queen that year.
Lord Williams was now obliged to respond to the favour shown him by the Queen when, as High Steward of Oxford, he arranged for the public execution by burning of Bishops Ridley and Latimer in October 1555 and of ex-Archbishop Cranmer, the author of the Book of Common Prayer, five months later. Today a cross in the road just outside the gates of Balliol College marks the place where the bishops were burnt.
Although Lord Williams first ingratiated himself with Princess Elizabeth in 1553 the relationship developed in May 1554 when he played host to her at Rycote, as she travelled, a prisoner, to Woodstock on the Queen’s orders, and again when she returned to London, nearly a year later. When Queen Mary died in 1558 Lord Williams was one of 32 favoured Lords who accompanied the newly acclaimed Queen Elizabeth from Hatfield to London. She quickly showed her gratitude to him by appointing him as Lord President of the Council of Wales and the Marches, but he was only in residence at Ludlow Castle for 4 months before he died on 14 October 1559. He was buried by the side of his first wife in Thame Church on 15 November 1559.
Williams made his will on 8 March 1559 when he was already ill, bequeathing most of his property to his second wife and his two daughters, but leaving funds to provide for the building and maintenance of a free Grammar School for boys at Thame.