PARRY (AP HARRY), William (d.1585), of London.

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

s. of Harry ap David of Northop, Flints. by Margaret, da. of Peter Conway, archdeacon of St. Asaph and rector of Northop. educ. ?King’s sch. Chester; DCL Paris 1583.2 m. (1) da. of Sir William Thomas of Carm., wid. of one Powell; (2) Catherine, wid. of Richard Heywood of London.

Offices Held


Parry has a special, if unenviable, place in the parliamentary history of this period as the only serving Member of the House of Commons to be arrested for high treason. So heinous was his treachery considered to be, that his former colleagues petitioned the Queen on 23 Feb. 1585 that

for as much as that villainous traitor Parry was a Member of this House in the time of some of his most horrible and traitorous conspiracies ... her Majesty would vouchsafe to give licence to this House ... to proceed to the devising and making of some law for his execution after his conviction, as may be thought fittest for his so extraordinary and most horrible kind of treason.

Parry’s early career is difficult to reconstruct as the two main sources of information, his own autobiographical letter to Burghley, and government propaganda after his execution, are equally unreliable. According to Parry his father was ‘a gentleman of good family’ who was in royal service for a long time, brought up 30 children by his two wives, and lived to be 108. He also claimed that his mother was descended from the ancient and distinguished Conway family of Flintshire, a claim supported by Sir John Conway’s offer, later, of £1,000 as surety for his good behaviour. Parry was apprenticed early to a Chester lawyer, combining his legal training with attendance at a local grammar school. After several attempts, he ran away to London about 1560. He married a Carmarthenshire widow, whose money ‘was soon consumed with his dissolute and wasteful manner of life’, and then entered the household of William Herbert, 1st Earl of Pembroke, serving him until the Earl’s death in 1570.

It was at this time that Parry entered the Queen’s employment. At first he occupied a minor post (unascertained) which no doubt furnished him with the opportunity to meet his second wife, the wealthy widow of Richard Heywood, a King’s bench official. Government propaganda later asserted that the woman was old enough to be his mother and that he slept with her daughter, but whatever the truth of that accusation, it is certain that he persuaded his wife to make over to him her lands in Lincolnshire and Kent, worth £80 a year. In the early 1570s Parry went abroad for the first time, and it was during this journey that he began his career as a government spy. He sent home regular reports about English Catholics from Paris, Rome and Siena. One aspect of these early despatches merits attention in the light of his controversial speech to the 1584 Parliament on the bill against Jesuits. On several occasions in his letters to Burghley Parry took it upon himself to urge clemency for religious exiles such as Sir Thomas Copley, the Ropers and the Earl of Westmorland. This was an unexpected attitude to find in the letters of a government spy, which Parry justified on grounds of political expediency, arguing that enforced exile and confiscation of their lands merely served to make these men more dangerous. Later, during his trial, much was made of these letters as evidence that he had always had sympathy for the Catholics and was already working for them. Nevertheless, at the time of receiving Parry’s reports Burghley does not appear to have been alarmed. In 1579 for example, when Anthony Bacon, Burghley’s nephew by marriage, was going abroad, the lord treasurer recommended Parry to him, assuring the Queen that Bacon ‘should not be shaken either in religion or loyalty by his conversation with Parry’.

Throughout this period Parry lived beyond his means and in 1577 he was back in London petitioning Burghley for money to meet his expenses. Not long afterwards he fled to France to escape his English creditors. It was his financial difficulties which, in the autumn of 1580, brought him for the first time within the shadow of the scaffold. Parry owed Hugh Hare £600 and in desperation had recourse to violence. Exactly what happened is not clear but Parry was charged with breaking into Hare’s lodgings in the Inner Temple on the night of 2 Nov. 1580, and attempting to rob and murder the usurer. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and then pardoned by the Queen. In his account of the trial given later in his confessions, Parry said: ‘I can prove that the recorder spoke with the jury, and that the foreman did drink’. He also stated that he had been so oppressed by two great men to whom he had of late been beholden that he had never had a contented mind since. However the reprieve was contrived, he appears to have spent a year or more in the Poultry prison. On 2 Jan. 1581 several leading courtiers offered bonds of £100 each on his behalf as surety against the payment of his debt to Hare, and later he was bound over to keep the peace with Hare in two sureties of £1,000 each.

When he was released, Parry obtained a licence to travel abroad for three years and left the country in August 1582 ‘with doubtful mind to return’. Once abroad, he returned to his old occupation as agent for Burghley and also, increasingly, for Walsingham. The latter gave him impressive references in a letter to (Sir) Henry Brooke aliasCobham I, the English ambassador in Paris until 1583. The Catholic community in Paris, into which Parry attempted to re-integrate himself, obviously and naturally distrusted him, so ‘to put all men out of doubt with me’, Parry left for Italy where he ‘justified’ himself ‘before the inquisition’ in Milan. He made a great show of his adherence to Catholicism and hinted widely that he had news from Catholics in England which he wished to impart to the Pope himself. Soon Parry was in negotiation with the papal nuncio to arrange a journey to Rome and an audience with the Pope, but sufficient guarantees of safe conduct were not forthcoming and so he returned to France. Throughout this period there is evidence to show that he was sounding out the attitude of leading Jesuits and Catholic exiles to the idea of assassinating Elizabeth. He spoke to Father Crighton, a Scottish Jesuit at Lyons, asking him in general terms whether assassination was justifiable in the eyes of the Church. He discussed a definite scheme to murder Elizabeth with Thomas Morgan, an agent of Mary Queen of Scots. He broached the idea to the papal nuncio, who forwarded his letter to Cardinal Como in Rome.

Meanwhile, however, Parry was in constant touch with Burghley, Walsingham and (Sir) Edward Stafford II, the new ambassador in Paris. It is significant that despite all Parry’s efforts the papal nuncio attached to his letter to Como a warning that he had received bad reports of Parry and that he was not to be trusted. At the same time as Parry wrote the following in a letter to the Pope (1 Jan. 1584)

Most Holy Father,
I have in mind to undertake an enterprise which, with the grace of God, I shall ere long carry through for the public good, the peace of the whole of Christendom, the restoration of England to its ancient obedience to the Apostolic See, and the liberation from her long and weary sufferings of the Queen of Scotland, that only true and undoubted heiress of the crown of England ...

Stafford wrote two letters on Parry’s behalf, one to Walsingham and the second to the Queen herself, in which he warmly recommended Parry and stated:

Besides that I think he hath some matter of importance that he hath kept to deliver to yourself for the good will he hath to do your service.

Parry himself took both Stafford’s letters to England in January 1584 and obtained an audience with the Queen at Whitehall. He revealed to her at this audience all his dealings on the Continent and specifically that he had been sent back to England by Morgan and other friends of the Queen of Scots in order to assassinate Elizabeth. He claimed that he would shortly receive a letter from Rome which would convey the Pope’s blessing and approval of the deed. The promised letter came from Como, cardinal secretary of state, reached Parry in England in March, and ran in part as follows:

His Holiness hath seen your letter of the first with the certificate [of confession] included and cannot but commend the good disposition and resolution which you write you have towards the public service and benefit: wherein his Holiness does exhort you to persevere and to bring to effect that which you have promised.

Parry showed this letter to the Queen at court as proof of his earlier statements and his story appears to have been accepted. Parry himself was jubilant at his success and in May 1584 wrote to Burghley asking for the mastership of St. Katharine’s hospital in London. This was not forthcoming, but Parry was given a generous pension and was received at court on several occasions with marked favour by the Queen. Apparently he expected more, for in September 1584 he was writing to Burghley again: ‘In the meantime, if it please you to commend me as a fit man for a deanery, provostship or mastership of requests, it is all I crave’. Parry’s activities during the summer after his return to England are almost undocumented. To all appearances he had abandoned his role as government agent. A letter from him to his erstwhile fellow conspirator, Morgan, (dated 22 Feb. 1584) which, unknown to Parry, was intercepted by the government, confirms this:

I have not been careless of the debt undertaken, but being meanly satisfied before my departure from Paris, I laboured for conference with a singular man on this side to be fully informed what might be done in conscience in that case for the common good. I was very learnedly ... assured that it might not fall into the thought of a good Christian. The difficulties besides are so many and in this vigilant time, full of despair. The service you know did never pass your hand and mine: and may therefore with more ease and less offence be concealed and suppressed.

He was evidently in the service of Sir Edward Hoby, Burghley’s nephew, who, being at Berwick, appointed Parry his ‘solicitor’ at court and begged Burghley to give him as much credit as he would himself. It was no doubt through Hoby’s influence that Parry was returned to Parliament for Queenborough in November 1584.

Another man might have been satisfied with a stable, even promising situation. Parry, however, sometime in the summer of 1584, entered into secret negotiations with one Edward Neville, and attempted to persuade him to join a conspiracy to assassinate the Queen. Neville was an agent for the English government recently returned from Rouen, but he was distrusted both by the government and by Parry, who had himself denounced Neville to the Queen as disaffected. Neville had a grudge against Burghley, whose eldest son, Thomas Cecil, had acquired by marriage the lands of the 4th Lord Latimer to which Neville considered himself the rightful heir. The reasons Parry had for contacting such a man and making such proposals can only be guessed, but the similarity between Parry’s dealings with Neville and those earlier meetings with Thomas Morgan makes it probable that Parry was once more playing the role of agent provocateur, this time on his own account. Certainly Walsingham and Burghley were both ignorant of what was happening and it is at least possible, in view of later events, that Parry hoped to take any information he might procure straight to the Queen to his own maximum advantage. Whatever his exact intentions, he was playing with fire. It would seem, however, that Parry was both too confident of his own abilities and too arrogant about his past successes to realize that his activities might be ill-construed.

Rash as these secret meetings with Neville no doubt were, Parry’s behaviour in the House of Commons on Thursday 17 Dec. 1584 was the purest folly. If his aim was to draw the royal attention to himself, his success was spectacular, but instead of impressing the Queen and Privy Council he was from this time on merely a source of embarrassment to them. The events of 17 Dec. 1584 are recorded in the journal of William Fitzwilliam:

the bill of Jesuits being engrossed received its last reading in the Nether House, one burgess among the rest named Parry, a doctor of the civil law, stood up and inveighed against it not in any orderly sort considering the parts by themselves but ex abrupto, saying that it carried nothing with it but blood, danger, terror, despair, confiscation and that not to the Queen’s commodity but to other men’s. And that he doubted not though it passed this House and the Lords, yet it should come to such a blessed hand as would use it thereafter, naming her Majesty, to whom only and to nobody else he said that he would give the reasons of his speech. The House with this found themselves greatly grieved and that for two respects: 1. The first for that one only member thereof should charge the whole body of that grave assembly with so horrible matters as the seeking of blood, danger, terror, despair and confiscation of the subject and that not so much for the Queen’s safety which they would seem to pretend, as for the satisfying of their own greedy desires after such matters. 2. The second that he would give no reason to the House why he used, those words against the bill, a thing contrary to the orders of the House, but as it were in contempt of the whole Council, which had given their consents to so odious a matter as that was, he disdained to yield to them, as men unworthy, the reasons which he conceived against it. Whereupon it was moved that to the end he should neither see the particular men that inveighed against him nor hear their proper invectives, he might, according to the ancient custom of the House in such cases, be delivered to the Serjeant to be conveyed forth until the House’s pleasure were further known. But this was gainsaid by one that thought it not agreeable to the liberties and freedom of the House that any member thereof, for showing his opinion in a bill read among themselves should be taken from his seat and sequestered from the society: for both as he said it would touch the majesty of the House if men should not therein have libera suffragia and also it would be most perilous to such matters as should be propounded among them: for that the only way to have matters perfectly understood and rightly digested was to suffer men freely to utter their conceits of both sides. Besides he thought it was injustice that seeing all men in that place had like authority, one as much as another, any Member there should be punished by his fellow Member. For all this Parry was delivered to the Serjeant by a general consent to be conveyed out. Which done one of the House in answer to the former speech, said that the liberty and freedom of the House suffered every man freely to deliver his opinion of the bill read, either with it or against it, for therein consisted both the majesty of the House, and the perfection of such matters as passed from them. But if any man would speak impertinently to the cause neither fortifying nor confuting the parts thereof, but abruptly would utter a speech to the offence of the whole company (for he that speaks must speak to the matter of the bill either with it or against it) that was by ancient precedents severely to be punished ... Presently ... Parry was by the Serjeant brought to the bar within the House, where kneeling, being demanded by the Speaker, first whether he would stand to words which he had before uttered, and secondly if he would, then whether he would give any reason why he used the same: he answered that the words which he had spoken, he would avow, and thereupon repeated them over as before. And the reasons why he spake them, he would reserve to show to her Majesty and none other.

D’Ewes adds that Parry here entered ‘into some declaration of his own estate, tending altogether to his own credit, as of his sundry good services done to her Majesty, his reputation with persons of good sort, and other suchlike speeches in his own commendation ...’

Hereupon, as a prisoner, was he delivered to the Serjeant, to remain with him, until order were given for his further committing.

The next day, (Sir) Christopher Hatton I, vice-chamberlain of the Household, informed the Commons that, on the Queen’s orders, Parry had been questioned by ‘some of the Lords of the Council’—his plan to gain a private audience with the Queen had thus misfired—and had given his reasons for his speech ‘and that partly to the satisfaction of her Highness’. At the Queen’s suggestion Parry was brought to the bar of the House where ‘kneeling upon his knee in very humble manner [he] affirmed directly that he had very undutifully misbehaved himself and had rashly and unadvisedly uttered those speeches he used and was with all his heart very sorry for it’. Pleading ignorance of the customs of the House as an MP for the first time, Parry was allowed to remain a member of the Commons after much discussion, a second ‘humble submission’ and a promise that ‘if ever after he should give any just cause of offence again to this House or any Member thereof, he would then never after crave any more favour of them’. There the matter ended for the time being.3

It is not known what explanation of his behaviour Parry gave to the Privy Council, but it is tempting to think that he laid before them new information of a Catholic plot, Neville being his source. But however important his information, Parry had done himself irreparable damage. Firstly, he had been pursuing his career as agent provocateur unknown to Walsingham, who prided himself on the tight control he had over his secret service. Secondly, the melodramatic and high-handed manner he had used in the House was hardly calculated to appeal to the cautious, restrained Privy Councillors. Thirdly, he had greatly offended the House of Commons and caused a debate on the liberties of the House and the freedom of speech—topics which the Privy Council discouraged as often as possible. Fourthly, he had, in the most spectacular way imaginable, raised an issue the Privy Council least wanted to hear about—that of religious toleration. Fifthly, he had unambiguously accused those behind the bill against Jesuits of self-interest. Whatever he might have thought, Parry had little to set off on the credit side. His long career as agent provocateur left him exposed and his recent activities open to any interpretation the government cared to place upon them. Government agents were expendable.

The only sources for the events leading from this point up to Parry’s execution are his own confessions and the government’s tract, published after his death, A True and Plain Declaration of the Horrible Treasons practised by William Parry, the Traitor, against the Queen’s Majesty (1585). From these accounts it appears that, sometime during the parliamentary recess (21 Dec.-4 Feb. 1585), Parry contacted Neville on two occasions, again putting forward a plan to assassinate the Queen. On 8 Feb. Neville made a deposition against Parry. Walsingham, who had been watching Parry closely since his intervention in the House, was instructed by the Queen to give Parry a private interview and a chance to clear himself. Walsingham informed Parry that

the Queen had been advertised that there was somewhat intended against her own person, wherewith she thought he could not but be acquainted, considering the great trust that some of her most affected subjects reposed in him; and that her pleasure was that he should declare ... his knowledge therein, and whether the said Parry himself had let fall any speech unto any person (though with an intent only to discover his disposition) that might draw him into suspicion as though he himself had any such wicked intent.

According to the text of the same government pamphlet, Parry denied all knowledge of assassination plots or conversations about them. The following day, when he was confronted with Neville, he merely said that, unless the government could produce a witness, it was only Neville’s word against his and that was not enough to convict a man of treason. He was put in the Tower and a few days later made a full confession. At his trial, which began on 25 Feb., he maintained at first that the confession was made ‘freely and without constraint’ and seemed convinced that he would be pardoned. As it became apparent that he was doomed, however, he changed his story, and declared that the confession was extorted. At the last minute he realized that the confession had been his undoing, saying ‘I see that I must die because I have not been consistent with myself’.

Meanwhile Parliament had been informed of the charges against Parry, and on 18 Feb. on the motion of Thomas Digges he was expelled the House. Even before the trial began, the House was petitioning for ‘some more severe punishment than ordinary’ to be meted out to Parry. On 24 Feb., the day before Parry’s trial began, Sir Christopher Hatton made a lengthy speech to the House in which he set out the government’s version of Parry’s career. With a few minor discrepancies, the details of Parry’s activities abroad were recounted accurately, the facts being only too open to the interpretation that he had been all along in the pay of the Catholics. The letter from Cardinal Como (cited above) was produced as evidence of Parry’s intentions to assassinate the Queen with the Pope’s approval. His letter to Morgan (cited above, 22 Feb. 1584) was suppressed. His revelation of the plots of Morgan and others to the Queen on his return to England was explained away as a piece of devilish cunning designed to gain the Queen’s confidence. Then followed an unconvincing account of Parry’s attempts on the Queen’s life. On the first occasion at Oatlands he failed ‘having in haste left his girdle and dagger behind him in a tent’. On two other occasions ‘when he meant to execute the fact, he was driven to turn about and weep’.

Parry’s confession and government propaganda before the trial, like Hatton’s speech to the Commons, made the verdict of guilty inevitable. Parry’s reaction to the verdict—‘I here summon Queen Elizabeth to answer for my blood’—stands in marked contrast to that of the Catholic conspirator, Anthony Babington, a year later. On 2 Mar. 1585, from the scaffold, Parry once again asserted his innocence:

I die a true servant to Queen Elizabeth; from any evil thought that ever I had to harm her, it never came into my mind; she knoweth it and her conscience can tell her so ... I die guiltless and free in mind from ever thinking hurt to her Majesty.

Parry was hanged, drawn and quartered, according to ‘the ordinary course of law’ for traitors.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: M.A.P.


This account is based upon L. Hicks, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. William Parry’, Studies, xxxvi. 343-62.

  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. ff. 83-6; D’Ewes, 340-2, 352, 355; Fitzwilliam mss, Wm. Fitzwilliam’s jnl. ff. 17-18.
  • 3. Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. ff. 83-6; D’Ewes, 340-2, 352, 355; Fitzwilliam mss, Wm. Fitzwilliam’s jnl. ff. 17-18.