NOWELL, William (1580-1637), of Capelside, Yorks. and Little Mearley, Lancs.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



Family and Education

bap. 18 Sept. 1580,1 1st s. of Christopher Nowell of Little Mearley, and Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Walmesley of Showley, Lancs.2 m. by 1604, Anna, da. of Alan Carr of Capelside, 3s., 3da.3 suc. fa. 20 Jan. 1628.4 d. 23 May 1637.5 sig. W[illia]m Nowell.

Offices Held

Freeman, Clitheroe, Lancs. by 1619;6 steward and bailiff of Barnoldswick manor, Yorks. 1619;7 gov. Giggleswick g.s. Yorks. 1624, Clitheroe g.s. Lancs. 1628, rent collector, Clitheroe g.s. 1636-d.;8 commr. swans, Lancs., Cheshire and elsewhere 1629.9


The Nowells of Little Mearley, near Clitheroe, were distantly related to the famous Nowells of Read, and traced their pedigree back to the early thirteenth century.10 The manor-house of Little Mearley was rebuilt in around 1590 by this Member’s father.11 Nowell himself owned property north of the Lancashire border at Rathmell, Giggleswick and elsewhere in the West Riding. Indeed, following his marriage, and until he inherited Little Mearley in 1628, his main residence was at Capelside, in Yorkshire. Although wealthy, Nowell was considered a rapacious landlord, and as numerous lawsuits demonstrate, was regarded with disdain by many of the neighbouring gentry.12 He was fined £12 for distraint of knighthood in 1632.13

Like his father before him, Nowell built up a reputation for quarrelling with his neighbours, which activity, according to one opponent, ‘he wilfully doth being very rich and one that is given to buying and dealing in broken titles and mightily bent to suits and trouble’.14 When his father was indicted in around 1617 by the attorney-general of the duchy of Lancaster, Sir Edward Mosley*, for enclosing 30 acres of local duchy lands, it was Nowell who dominated the ensuing legal proceedings.15 The Nowells jointly asserted that these lands had been held by their ancestors for over 400 years, and fought bitterly to refute the duchy’s claim to title. Nowell’s appointment in 1619 to the minor duchy office of steward and bailiff of Barnoldswick may have been an attempt to appease him, but following a lengthy hearing in the duchy court in 1619, the case escalated into a personal battle against Mosley and his assistant, Thomas Brograve, whom the Nowells sued in Chancery in about 1627. In Brograve’s defence, Mosley alleged that the Nowells had intimidated witnesses and ‘do daily practice, labour and go about nothing more than setting of strife and debates and occasioning of causeless and troublesome suits among their neighbours’.16

Nowell sought election in 1628 with a determination to accuse Mosley in Parliament of corruption and malpractice. His candidacy disrupted the usual electoral politics of Clitheroe, a duchy borough, and contributed to the town’s first recorded contest. The townsmen were already divided over the governance of Clitheroe’s grammar school, a longstanding source of conflict in which both Nowell and his father were also involved. This complex dispute dated back to the 1580s, when Nowell’s father, Christopher, had accused several of his fellow governors of misappropriating school funds. In 1619 the strife had escalated, as Sir Ralph Assheton, 1st bt. of Whalley, who claimed a share of the school’s lands at Lower Standen, sued the elder Nowell for allegedly embezzling the Standen rents. This fresh action resulted in a trail of cases from Chancery to Star Chamber, in which court the younger Nowell finally sued the baronet in 1623 for conspiring to displace his father as a governor.17 The dispute remained unresolved despite a temporary compromise brokered by John Bridgeman, bishop of Chester. During the 1628 election, Nowell, working alongside his kinsman Richard Shuttleworth† of Gawthorpe (another school governor), who contested the first seat, captured the votes of almost half of Clitheroe’s electorate. While the Nowell faction failed to break the duchy’s traditional control over one of the seats, Nowell himself took the second seat by a clear majority, thereby triumphing over his adversaries in the school dispute, who had fielded at least one rival candidate, Ralph Assheton*, the baronet’s son and heir.

On taking his seat, Nowell presented his petition against Mosley to the Commons. On 20 May it was assigned to the consideration of the committee previously appointed to handle the puritan bookseller Michael Sparkes’ petition against High Commission.18 Further names were added to this committee on 3 June, including Nowell’s fellow Member for Clitheroe, Thomas Jermyn. However, a motion that ‘everyone that will come to have voice’, which could have worked to Nowell’s advantage, was rejected.19 On 12 June the House ordered that Nowell’s counsel would be heard the following afternoon.20 More names were added to the committee a week later, and it was ordered that Mosley was to be informed of its meetings. The petition itself has not survived, but detailed notes of the committee’s proceedings were taken on 19 June by the diarist John Newdigate.21 Together with a recital of Nowell’s decade-long campaign to defend his possession of 30 acres of land against the duchy’s claim, the committee heard that Nowell had attempted to bribe Mosley’s deputy, Thomas Brograve, offering him £80 to obtain a decree confirming his right to the lands. Mosley had in turn accused Nowell of perjury, but later allegedly accepted the gift of a horse in order to bury the case and permit Brograve to draw up the decree. The Commons Journal noted that ‘the horse-keeper to be examined’, and on the following day, Miles Corbet suggested that Sir Humphrey May*, chancellor of the duchy, should ‘inform the committee of his knowledge concerning that matter’.22 However, no further progress was achieved before the prorogation. During the 1629 session Nowell resubmitted his petition, alleging eight counts of ‘oppression, injustice, and vexation’, before the grand committee for the courts of justice on 7 February. A special committee was appointed and met at least twice, but thereafter the matter disappeared from the records.23 Nowell is not known to have been involved in any other Commons business, though as a Lancashire burgess he may have attended the committee for Dutton, Lord Gerard’s bill that was appointed on 7 May 1628.24

Nowell’s campaign against Mosley ultimately failed. Nowell also lost his legal battle over Clitheroe school, being ordered in 1630 to pay costs of £80 to Sir Ralph Assheton and others pro falso clamore.25 He nevertheless remained involved in the school’s affairs until his death in May 1637, serving as collector of its rents during the last year of his life.26 He was succeeded by his eldest son, Thomas, to whom the estate of Little Mearley had been conveyed in trust. In 1631 the trustees included Sir Thomas Walmesley*, a distant cousin.27 Nowell’s Clitheroe burgage was inherited by his second son, John.28 No will has been found; nor was his burial recorded in Clitheroe parish register.29

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. Clitheroe Par. Reg. (Lancs Par. Reg. Soc. cxliv), 8.
  • 2. Vis. Lancs. (Chetham Soc. lxxxi), 33; Vis. Lancs. (Chetham Soc. lxxxviii), 271, 328.
  • 3. DL7/29/44.
  • 4. DL7/27/60.
  • 5. DL7/29/44.
  • 6. C90/38.
  • 7. Duchy of Lancaster Office-Holders ed. R. Somerville, 158.
  • 8. C.W. Stokes, Queen Mary’s G.S. Clitheroe (Chetham Soc. n.s. xcii), 74.
  • 9. C181/3, f. 270v.
  • 10. Vis. Lancs. (Chetham Soc. lxxxii), 65; J. Foster Lancs. Peds.
  • 11. VCH Lancs. vi. 377-9; T.D. Whitaker, Hist. Whalley, ii. 111-13.
  • 12. Stokes, 72.
  • 13. E407/35, f. 130v.
  • 14. STAC 8/222/32; 8/221/16; 8/99/3.
  • 15. DL1/278.
  • 16. DL1/280; C2/Chas.I/N25/35.
  • 17. DL1/280, 281; STAC 8/43/6; 8/222/22.
  • 18. CD 1628, iii. 492.
  • 19. Ibid. iv. 59.
  • 20. Ibid. iv. 280.
  • 21. Ibid. iv. 361-2; Warws. RO, CR136/B385.
  • 22. CD 1628, iv. 362, 389, 396.
  • 23. CJ, i. 927a, 928b, 929a, 931b; CD 1629, pp. 177-8.
  • 24. CD 1628, iii. 301.
  • 25. SP16/170/3.
  • 26. Stokes, 85.
  • 27. DL7/29/44.
  • 28. W.S. Weeks, Clitheroe in the Seventeenth Cent. 139, 324.
  • 29. Lancs. Misc. iv. ed. W.H. Price (Lancs. and Cheshire Rec. Soc. xliii), 71.