WILLIAMS, Thomas (c.1514-66), of Stowford, Devon.

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.1514, 1st s. of Adam Williams of Stowford by Alice, da. of Thomas Prideaux of Ashburton. educ. I. Temple 1539, called. m. Emmeline, da. and coh. of William Cruwys of Chudleigh, at least 2s. 3da.

Offices Held

Attorney, Plymouth from 1546; Lent reader, I. Temple 1558, 1561; feodary, Devon and Exeter in 1559; j.p.q. Devon from c.1559; commr. subsidy 1565.

Speaker of House of Commons 1563.


Williams was a sufficiently committed protestant to oppose a government bill in the Parliament of 1555, to which he was returned through the influence of Sir Richard Edgecombe. Edgecombe brought him in again in 1558 and 1559. By 1563 Williams had a number of friends at court, including Sir Nicholas Bacon the lord keeper, and Thomas Bromley, the future chancellor, as well as wide connexions in the west country. He submitted a report on the re-coinage of 1560 and was paid a retainer as counsel for both Plymouth and Exeter. He was returned to Parliament for Exeter in 1563 after the city had twice rejected requests for a nomination by the 2nd Earl of Bedford. In the event the city had made a good choice, for on 12 Jan. 1563 Williams was chosen Speaker.2

Described as ‘grave, learned and wise’ and ‘a man excellently learned in the laws of this realm’, Williams described himself in his disabling speech

as one among the Romans, chosen from the plough to a place of estimation, and after went to the plough again; even so, I, a countryman, fit for the same and not for this place ...

For his ‘oration’ when he presented himself to the Queen on 15 Jan. 1563, he chose as his themes time past, time present and time to come. Time past concerned the benefits the Queen had bestowed upon her people, ‘for which your humble subjects most heartily give thanks to God and you by the mouth of me their appointed Speaker’. In the present there were ‘three notable monsters: necessity, ignorance and error’. ‘Necessity’ he said, ‘is grown amongst ourselves so that no man is contented with his degree, though he hath never so much’. There was a dearth of schools: ‘I dare say a hundred schools want in England ... and if in every school there had been but a hundred scholars, yet that had been ten thousand’. Want of schools, scholars and good schoolmasters brought in its wake the second monster, ignorance. The third was error, ‘a serpent with many heads’. ‘Pelagians, libertines, papists’ left ‘God’s commandment to follow their own traditions, affections and minds ... Having God’s word and His name ever in our mouths, yet we live as infidels’. In time to come the Queen was asked to build a fort for the safety of the realm

set upon firm ground and steadfast, having two gates, one commonly open, the other as a postern, with two watchmen at either of them, one governor, one lieutenant, four soldiers, and no good thing there wanting. The same to be named the fear of God; the governor thereof to be God, your Majesty the lieutenant, the stones the hearts of faithful people; the two watchmen at the open gate to be called knowledge and virtue, the other two at the postern called mercy and truth; all being spiritual ministers. This fort is invincible if every man will fear God.

Williams was in charge of drawing up the articles for the succession committee, 19 Jan. 1563, and on 28 Jan. in the gallery at Whitehall, he made ‘a notable oration’ on the subject. At the end of the session, at about 3 p.m. on 10 Apr., Elizabeth came by water from Whitehall to Westminster to prorogue Parliament. After she had taken her place in the Parliament chamber, the Commons appeared at the bar, and Williams opened the proceedings:

Thus it is, most excellent and virtuous princess, as nature giveth to every reasonable creature to speak, so is it a grace to be well learned. And I, representing the mouth of such a body as cannot speak for itself, and in the presence of your Majesty’s person and nobles, must most humbly desire and crave of your Highness to bear with my imperfection.

After again pressing her to marry, Williams referred to the work of the Parliament, lacing his oration with many historical examples. Finally, with extraordinary persistence, for his future career depended entirely upon retaining the royal favour, Williams thanked the Queen for bearing with his ‘unfitting words, uplandish and rude speech’ and boldly returned to the charge. The Queen should marry and have children, ‘so that you and they may prosperously and as long time reign over us as ever did any kings or princes’.

The Speaker at this time had considerable discretion in deciding when bills were to be introduced and in choosing the order in which they should be read, so that one wonders whether Exeter might have had foreknowledge of the fact that Williams was to be chosen Speaker, or even whether the city helped to arrange this. At any rate he and his colleague took to Westminster a list of six measures the city wished to see adopted, and no less than five of them were embodied in the legislation of the Parliament. Williams was well rewarded. He was paid £20 outright for ‘preferring the suit and business of the city’, and his annual retainer was doubled. But the wider rewards to which he must have looked forward, promotion to serjeant and the judicial bench, were denied him. He died ‘in his young flourishing age’ on 1 July 1566, and when Parliament reassembled for the second session on 30 Sept., procedure had to be devised to replace him. In his will he hoped to become

one of the lively members of the justicial body or temple of God, united to Christ Jesus our head, together with the faithful congregation of believing men and women by perfect and lively working faith.

He left £40 to his daughter Elizabeth if she were to marry the heir of John Trevelyan of Nettlecombe, or else £200. In the former event she got

no more in consideration of the great charge that I have and must be at about the education and bringing up of the son of the said John Trevelyan.

Williams was depicted on his tomb as an esquire in armour. His epitaph reads:

Here lieth the corpse of Thomas Williams Esquire
Twice reader he in court appointed was
Whose sacred mind to virtue did aspire
Of Parliament he Speaker hence did pass.
The common peace he studied to preserve
And true religion ever to maintain.
In peace of justice where as he did serve
And now in heaven with mighty Jove doth reign.3

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 471-2, 597; HMC Exeter, 22; Manning, Lives of the Speakers, 223-4; Guildford Mus. Loseley 1331/2; PRO, cal. enrolled deeds 1547-55, pp. 114, 250; Devon RO, Tingey 472 et passim; PCC 23 Crymes, 18 Daper; APC, vii. 132; J. Hooker, Life of Sir Peter Carew, 185-6; Lansd. 8, f. 8; Plymouth city archives, old audit bk. f. 266; Exeter city act bk. 3, p. 131.
  • 3. Neale, Commons, 359; Hooker, 185 n; CJ, i. 62, 63, 64; Neale, Parlts. i. 98-9, 106, 125, 134; Roberts thesis, 130; Trans. Dev. Assoc. xlv. 409; A. L. Rowse, England of Eliz. 7; A. I. Dasent, Speakers of the House of Commons, xxv.