BARKER, William (c.1520-aft.Feb. 1576).

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1520. educ. ?St. John’s, Camb. BA 1536-7, MA 1540, ?fellow.

Offices Held

Sec. to 4th Duke of Norfolk c.1554-71.


No fewer than five William Barkers were resident at Cambridge during the 1530s, all graduating at about the same time. The early career of the MP is consequently difficult to define. From his later statements, it is known that he came of a humble family—probably from Norfolk—that he was educated at Cambridge with the assistance of money from Anne Boleyn, and that, on leaving Cambridge, he travelled widely in Italy. He returned, cultured, ‘Italianate’ and broke: though his ‘former fancy of professing nothing particularly was very much increased’, he lamented later that ‘hard fortune drove me to serve’. He obtained a job as secretary to the young Duke of Norfolk at some time during the reign of Mary, and remained close to him during the first decade of Elizabeth’s. He was elected one of the burgesses for Yarmouth in 1558 and 1559, at the request of the Duke, being, on the second occasion, called ‘servant to my Lord of Norfolk his grace’, and it was again Norfolk’s patronage that secured his return at Bramber in 1563 and, no doubt, in 1571 at Yarmouth. He was a trustee for a section of Norfolk’s estates in 1568.1

A list, compiled at some date before 1567, of the religious persuasions of Norfolk’s entourage, named Barker as a Catholic, and it may be assumed that he entered with enthusiasm into his master’s intrigues. In the autumn of 1569 he was arrested shortly after Norfolk, and during the Ridolfi conspiracy he was active. In March 1571 he brought Ridolfi to Howard House for an interview with the Duke. Upon the discovery of the plot he was imprisoned, with other servants of Norfolk, in the Tower, and from the beginning of September 1571 until the end of the year he was interrogated on his relations with the conspirators. Though at first ‘obstinate or foolish rather’, his ‘extreme fear’ of the rack, constant interrogation and, probably, the promise of his life soon determined him to give the most damning evidence against his master. On 20 Sept. Thomas Smith wrote to Burghley that he thought they had got everything from Barker—that he had been the ‘common doer in the practice as appeareth, but rather it may seem, chosen for zeal than for wit’, but, no doubt, fear had affected his intelligence and memory. Every further examination produced new facts about the Ridolfi conspiracy, and further incriminated the Duke of Norfolk: Barker confessed that his own ‘offence was in that he regarded more the pleasing of the Duke his master than of the Prince and of his country, and so freely confirmed the Duke’s guiltiness’. Norfolk, after his trial, spoke of Barker with the utmost scorn as an ‘Italianated Englishman’ whom he had not employed for years, and who accused him falsely, laying his ‘own treason upon my back—I would sooner have trusted one Banester than fifteen Barkers’.2

Barker was tried and sentenced to a traitor’s death but, after languishing for two years in the Tower, he was pardoned on 17 May 1574, and in July of that year his goods were ordered to be restored to him. These goods were the source of a case in the court of requests two years later.3 After 1576 nothing more is known of him; perhaps he obtained his wish to return to study at Cambridge.4 If ‘hard fortune’ had not forced him to enter Norfolk’s service, he might perhaps have had a career as a scholar. To the list of his works in the DNB should be added The Nobility of Women, written and dedicated to Queen Elizabeth in 1559, but not printed until the edition of the Roxburghe Club in 1904, upon which this biography is largely based.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: Roger Virgoe


  • 1. Murdin, State Pprs. 95; Yarmouth ass. bk. A ff. 189, 203; Blomefield, Norf. i. 238.
  • 2. CSP For. 1572-4, p. 351; N. Williams, Duke of Norfolk, 119, 166, 197-8, 211-13, 217, 220-3; Murdin, 87-129 passim; HMC Hatfield, i. 521-40 passim; ii. 6; Howell, State Trials, i. 1019; Lansd. 117, ff. 107, 127.
  • 3. Pat. Roll 16 Elizabeth pt. i. nos. 24-5; APC, viii. 242, 271; Req. 2/107/8.
  • 4. Murdin, 95.