CAVENDISH, Sir William (c.1505-57), of Northaw, Herts. and Chatsworth, Derbys.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. c.1505, ?3rd s. of Thomas Cavendish of Cavendish, Suff. by Alice, da. of John Smith of Padbrook Hall in Cavendish. m. (1) Margaret (d. 9 June 1540), da. of Edward Bostock of Cheshire, 1s. 4da.; (2) 3 Nov. 1542, Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Parker of Poslingford, Suff., 3da.; (3) 20 Aug. 1547, Elizabeth, da. and coh. of John Hardwick of Hardwick, Derbys., wid. of Robert Barlow of Derbys., 3s. Sir Charles, Henry and William 5da. Kntd. 25 Apr. 1546.2

Offices Held

Clerk to Cromwell by 1532; auditor and receiver for monastic lands by 3 Dec. 1533; commr. tenths of spiritualities, Herts. 1535, for monastic lands in Ireland 16 Aug. 1540-2; auditor, ct. of augmentations 24 Apr. 1536-46; j.p. liberty of St. Albans 1540, Herts. 1547, Herts. and Derbys. 1554; treasurer, the chamber 19 Feb. 1546-57, and ct. of gen. surveyors 19 Feb. 1546-2 Jan. 1547; sewer by 1547; steward for William, Lord Paget, unknown property.3


William Cavendish was descended from Sir John Cavendish, chief justice of the King’s bench, who acquired the manor of Overhall in Cavendish in 1359. The pedigrees differ in showing Cavendish as either a second or a third son, but the fact that he is named after his brother Thomas in their father’s will suggests that he came third among the sons: at the time of the will both Thomas and he were under 21, and as the eldest brother George was born in 1500 his own birth may be dated about 1505. The elder Thomas Cavendish was a clerk of the pipe, and it may have been in the Exchequer that William Cavendish obtained his early training, but from about 1526 George Cavendish had begun the service with Wolsey which was to culminate in his Life of his master, and his younger brother perhaps shared in the cardinal’s patronage. It was shortly after Wolsey’s death that Cavendish was given his first known assignment: in December 1530 he was authorized to receive the surrender of Sheen priory. Within two years he had entered Cromwell’s private service, in which he was to handle both his master’s and the King’s money. On the strength of the varied experience thus acquired he was appointed in 1536 one of the ten auditors of the newly constituted court of augmentations, with jurisdiction over the counties of Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey and Sussex, to which were later added all the possessions of the abbey of St. Albans. Four years later he was sent with two other commissioners to take the accounts of the vice-treasurer and receiver of Ireland and he remained for a further year, until 1542, to complete the business. He was highly praised by the deputy of Ireland, Sir Anthony St. Leger, for his conscientiousness, his intrepid journeys in frost and snow, and his readiness to face displeasure from any quarter.4

It was during these years that Cavendish laid the foundations of his own fortune. To the salary and ‘profits’ of his auditorship he added the income from subsidiary offices and from other sources such as his auditorship to Sir Edward Seymour, later Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset. In March 1535 he took a lease from the abbot of St. Albans of the manor of Northaw in Hertfordshire and by the following autumn he had begun to live there: after the abbey was dissolved he bought the property from the augmentations in February 1540 for £769. It was as a proprietor in Hertfordshire that in 1544 he was included in the levy of troops for the army in France, but in August of that year he secured exemption from serving overseas by reason of the demands of his office.5

The last and, as it was to prove, most honorific but least creditable phase of Cavendish’s career opened early in 1546 with his appointment as treasurer of the chamber and of the court of general surveyors, following the deaths in quick succession of Sir Brian Tuke and (Sir) Anthony Rous. He was later to claim that he paid £1,000 for the office; his auditorship he probably surrendered later in the year, receiving the handsome compensation of £200 a year. Although the chamber was no longer a financial organ of first importance, by bringing Cavendish into the royal household its treasurership gave him a new standing at court which was reflected in his knighthood. This preferment was quickly followed by his third marriage, to the celebrated ‘Bess of Hardwick’, who brought to it, besides a brilliant personality, her share of her father’s estate and the legacy of her first husband’s. The wedding took place at two o’clock in the morning at Bradgate, Leicestershire, a house belonging to Henry Grey, Marquess of Dorset, and among the godparents of its first offspring were the King’s cousins Frances (Brandon), Marchioness of Dorset, and Henry Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.6

It is doubtless the same enhanced status that explains Cavendish’s return to Edward VI’s first Parliament as the senior Member for the newly enfranchised borough of Thirsk. Although his Membership is known only from the Crown Office list as revised for the fourth session, he was probably returned at the outset of the Parliament. The patronage of Thirsk then lay either with Edward, 3rd Earl of Derby, the borough’s lord, or with Archbishop Holgate as president of the council in the north, and Somerset himself may have recommended Cavendish to one or other of them. Besides having been the duke’s auditor in earlier years, Cavendish was later to show himself to be a friend of Somerset’s right-hand man (Sir) John Thynne, whose uncle Thomas Eynns, himself a Member for Thirsk in four Parliaments, may already have been deputy secretary of the council in the north. Nothing, however, is known of Cavendish’s role in the Commons or of any part he played at the time of Somerset’s fall.7

His attachment to the Greys might have enlisted Cavendish’s support for the plan to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne, but there is nothing to suggest that he took any part in the crisis of 1553. In the previous November he had been nominated for the shrievalty of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire but was passed over and thus spared the decision of which queen to proclaim; his retention of office and of his place on the commission of the peace shows that Mary had nothing serious against him, and his suing out of a general pardon was probably no more than the customary piece of insurance.8

Thus unaffected by the change of regime, Cavendish seems to have devoted his remaining years to his domestic comfort at the expense of his official duty. It was to please his wife that he had disposed of his property in the south and begun to add to her inheritance in Derbyshire, where in 1549 he bought the manor of Chatsworth and there started to build the first of the family seats; she responded by bearing eight children during the ten years of the marriage. What was going on at the same time in his office at Westminster was only to be revealed in the autumn of 1557. The auditors then appointed to take his accounts found the books in a state of utter confusion: no detailed record of disbursements had been kept, nor were there warrants or receipts to support Cavendish’s own estimate that he was in debt to the office to the tune of more than £5,000. All he could do was to plead for clemency for himself and his family, ‘that mercy may take and rule above justice’.9

It was the appeal of a dying man. The auditors’ report to the lord treasurer was dated 12 Oct. 1557; three days earlier the Privy Council had asked him, because of his illness, to instruct one or two of his clerks to answer on his behalf, and on 25 Oct. he died, leaving his widow to carry on a long struggle with the Exchequer over his liability. No will has been found, but the five year-old Henry Cavendish inherited the extensive lands in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire; his brother William became the ancestor of the Dukes of Devonshire. The widow, who continued work on Chatsworth House, remarried twice, her last husband being George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury. A portrait of Sir William Cavendish at Hardwick is attributed to John Bettes.10

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: M. K. Dale


  • 1. Hatfield 207.
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from that of elder brother. Copinger, Suff. Manors, i. 61; DNB; Shaw, ii. 57 the uncertainty of this reference, given as Easter day 37 Hen. VIII, is resolved by the description ‘Mr. Cavendish’ used by the Privy Council up to and inc. 21 Apr. 1546, APC, i. 412; Add. 19122, ff. 346, 359; A. F. Collins, Hist. Colls. Noble Fams. of Cavendish, Holles, etc. 10-11.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, v, vi, viii, xiii, xv, xxi; W. C. Richardson, Ct. Augmentations, 155-6; Rep. R. Comm. of 1552 (Archs. of Brit. Hist. and Culture iii), xxi, 114; Stowe 571, f. 9; LC2/2, f. 37; CPR 1547-8 p. 84; 1553-4, pp. 18, 20; Staffs, RO, E. P. C. 2/2, no. 20, f. 1.
  • 4. DNB (Cavendish, George and Sir John); PCC 23 Bodfelde; Rymer, Foedera (1741), vi. 161a; Richardson, passim; LP Hen. VIII, v-viii, x-xvii; Elton, Tudor Rev. in Govt. 140, 149n, 153 and n; PPC, vii. 201.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, viii, xi, xv, xix.
  • 6. Richardson, 221 and n; Tudor Chamber Admin. 145 seq.; Collins, 11.
  • 7. Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 2, ff. 250-3v.
  • 8. CPR, 1553, p. 386; 1553-4, p. 441.
  • 9. Ibid. 1548-9, p. 387; 1549-51, pp. 174-5; 1550-3, pp. 288, 413; 1555-7, p. 314; Richardson, Tudor Chamber Admin. 247.
  • 10. CPR, 1560-3, pp. 495-6; APC, vi. 182; E150/765/3, 16; Hardwick Hall, Derbys.: Notes on Portraits (National Trust n.d.), 5, 16.