MANSELL, Sir Robert (c.1569-1656), of Pentney and Norwich, Norf. and Penrice, Glam.

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.1569, 4th s. of (Sir) Edward Mansell of Margam, Glam. by Lady Jane Somerset, da. of Henry, 2nd Earl of Worcester; bro. of Sir Thomas. educ. Brasenose, Oxf. 1587. m. (1) c.1593, Elizabeth, da. of (Sir) Nicholas Bacon, wid. of Francis Wyndham, s.p.; (2) 1617, Anne, da. of Sir John Roper, s.p. Kntd. on Cadiz voyage 1596.1

Offices Held

J.p. Norf. from c.1592, rem. c.1600, rest. j.p.q. c.1601-26; v.-adm. Norf. and narrow seas c.1599; commr. musters, Norf 1601; treasurer of navy 1604-18; v.-adm. England 1618.2


Mansell was a distinguished naval commander and administrator, who presumably owed his career to the patronage of his relative Lord Admiral Howard of Effingham, Earl of Nottingham. His connexion with Norfolk probably began with his first marriage. Justice Francis Wyndham, the first husband of Elizabeth Bacon, died without direct heirs, and Mansell, when he married the widow, was therefore able to settle on Wyndham’s estate at Pentney, about eight miles from King’s Lynn. He also leased a house in Chapel Fields, Norwich. In 1593 he became a justice of the peace but he was none the less considered a ‘stranger’ in the county until at least the end of Elizabeth’s reign, and in spite of his connexion with the influential Bacon and Gawdy families, he failed to gain a county seat. His frequent visits to court in the late 1590s, and his absences abroad, for example on the Cadiz and Islands voyages, prevented his admission into the close circle of Norfolk landed families.

After becoming vice-admiral of Norfolk and the narrow seas, he was employed on active service fairly regularly, and during the last four years of Elizabeth’s reign there are many references to him as a sailor. In 1599 he left Plymouth with victuals for Ireland, and took action against the rebels at Waterford. In October an official there wrote to the Earl of Essex that ‘this honourable knight ... saved me and many gentlemen and our tenants a good portion of cattle and some towns unburnt’. In waters more directly in his sphere of office, he joined ships from the Netherlands in attacking Spanish galleys off Brittany: during 1602 he wrote many letters from the Downs or Dover to Cecil and Nottingham describing his preparations to resist the Spaniards. In September, when he was hourly expecting action, he wrote to the Lord Admiral, ‘Howsoever my pen, through haste or swelling of the sea, may err, I beseech you to rest confident that my actions shall neither taste of shame nor indiscretion’.3

Discretion was not one of his strongest characteristics. Early in October 1600 a longstanding quarrel with the Heydon family culminated in a duel which brought him and his opponent, Sir John Heydon, before the Privy Council. Heydon came from an old and declining Norfolk family, associated with the Earl of Essex, while Mansell, the newcomer, was wealthy and high in court favour, particularly with his relative Lord High Admiral Nottingham, who had doubtless gained for him the coveted office of vice-admiral of Norfolk, earlier held by Heydon’s father. The most likely explanation for the fight, which took place during the Michaelmas sessions, is that it was connected with the county petition against compounding for purveyance — a matter hotly debated among the justices of the peace. Mansell’s relatives, the Bacons, were collecting signatures for the petition, while the Heydon brothers and their ally in the county, Sir Arthur Heveningham, wanted to continue composition. In his later examination, Mansell referred to ‘articles’ which he had forced Heydon to sign at the end of the fight. These ‘articles’ may have been the petition against composition: the Privy Council suspected that signatures had been ‘solicited and laboured’ by unjust methods. In the event, Heydon lost a hand and Mansell the use of his right arm, much of the use of his left, and one of his wounds ‘rattled’. In a letter written perhaps a month after the duel, the weather was ‘such an enemy’ to his right arm that he dared not stir from the fireside. He had left Heydon lying on the ground and it was at first rumoured that both men were dead. By December they were threatening another ‘outrage’, Chief Justice Popham writing to Sir Robert Cecil on 31st that he feared violence during the coming quarter sessions, since the Heydon-Mansell feud had made an even wider breach in a county which was ‘already too much wrought into faction’. Five days later, Popham banned weapons at the sessions. In January the Privy Council summoned both Mansell and Heydon betore them, and Mansell at least was put off the commission of the peace.4

To add to the disturbances in Norfolk, at the end of 1600 a parliamentary election was expected, and Sir Bassingbourne Gawdy, who had decided to stand for the senior seat, began to campaign for Mansell as the junior Member, ‘we being determined to join, myself to have the first voice and he the second’. The Essex rebellion in February 1601 postponed the election, incidentally weakening the position of the Heydons in the county. Mansell, on the other hand, was active against the conspirators, leading a detachment ‘on the waterside’ of Essex house. But he was still unable to muster enough support for the county seat. As Nathaniel Bacon wrote to Gawdy:

He that is appointed by authority a keeper of the peace, and that by oath, should not be a breaker of the peace. And therefore his remove [from the commission is] very just, and this notwithstanding, for him to seek to have himself countenanced here below [by election to Parliament] when he is discountenanced above is not as it should be.

Sir Bassingbourne was apparently still paired with Mansell three days before the election in October, but finally the junior seat went to another member of the Gawdy family, and Mansell had to be content with a borough, being returned for King’s Lynn four days after the county election. His position as vice-admiral and owner of Pentney was no doubt enough to secure his election without need of a patron. He sat on a committee in this Parliament concerned with the export of iron ordnance, 8 Dec. 1601. He showed his gratitude for Sir Bassingbourne’s support in the county by asking Nottingham, who was expected to become lord lieutenant of Norfolk, to make Gawdy one of his deputies.5

During the reigns of James and Charles I, and for much of the interregnum, Mansell remained a leading sailor and naval administrator. After the death of his first wife he returned to Wales, where he achieved his ambition of becoming a knight of the shire. He died intestate in 1656, administration of the estate being granted to his widow.6

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N. M. Fuidge


  • 1. DNB; A. H. Smith thesis, 21; HMC Gawdy, 70, 79.
  • 2. A. H. Smith thesis, 21, 308-10, App. ll; Gawdy mss in custody of Norf. Arch. Soc. at Norwich, ff. 20-1; DNB; APC, xxxi. 227; xxxii. 373.
  • 3. A. H. Smith thesis, 21, 43; HMC Gawdy, 62, 71-2, 79; CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 472; HMC Hatfield, vi. 368; ix. 110-11, 172, 365-6; x. 337; xi. 367; xii. 189, 267, 279, 332, 384, 389, 675.
  • 4. A. H. Smith thesis, 318-22; Add. 27961, f. 36 et passim; HMC Hatfield, x. 432-3; Chamberlain Letters ed. McClure, i. 107, passim.
  • 5. Neale, Commons, 57-60; A. H. Smith thesis, 43-4, 325-6; HMC Bath, v. 278; HMC Gawdy, 74; Add. 36989, f. 11; D’Ewes, 672.
  • 6. PCC admon. act bk. 1656, f. 132v.