WILLIAMSON, Sir Joseph (1633-1701), of Jermyn Street, London, and Cobham Hall, Kent

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



22 Oct. 1669 - Mar. 1681
17 June 1685 - 1687
1690 - 3 Oct. 1701

Family and Education

b. 25 July 1633, 2nd s. of Joseph Williamson, vicar, of Bridekirk, Cumb. and Anne, da. of one Bowman of Brownrigg, Cumb.  educ. St. Bees g.s.; Westminster; Queen’s, Oxf. 1650, BA 1654, MA 1657, fellow 1657–79, DCL 1674; travelled abroad (France, Netherlands) 1651, 1656–7; M. Temple 1664, called 1664; L. Inn 1672.  m. 12 Feb. 1679, Catherine (d. 1702), da. of Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur d’Aubigny, suo jure Baroness Clifton and h. to her bro. Charles Stuart, 3rd Duke of Richmond, wid. of Henry O’Brien†, Ld. Ibrackan, s.p.  Kntd. 24 Jan. 1672.1

Offices Held

Under-sec. of state July 1660–74; keeper of state pprs. 1661–d.; commr. prohibited goods 1663, lotteries 1665, postmaster-gen. 1667–85; clerk of PC 1672–4; plenip. to congress of Cologne 1673–4, Ryswick 1697; sec. of state (northern dept.) 1674–9; ld. of Admiralty 1674–9; PC 11 Sept. 1674–Apr. 1679, 16 Nov. 1696–d.; PC [I] 1681–5, 1694–d.; ambassador extraordinary at The Hague 1697–9.2

FRS 1663, pres. 1677–80.

Asst. R. Adventurers into Africa 1664–8, 1670–2, R. African Co. 1673, 1675–7; member Clothworkers’ Co. by 1675, master 1676; asst. ?by 1685–7; member, R. Fisheries Co. 1677; asst. sons of the clergy 1678, steward 1680; gov. St. Bartholomew’s Hosp. by 1686, St. Bees Sch. 1687.3

Recorder, Thetford 1682; freeman, Rochester 1683, Dublin 1695; asst. Rochester bridge 1685–d., warden 1686, 1693, 1700; high steward, Gravesend 1686.4

MP [I] 1692–9.


Williamson has most commonly been seen by historians as an ‘efficient’ or ‘competent bureaucrat’, a man suited to operating behind the scenes and a brilliant gatherer of intelligence, but not a great parliamentarian despite delivering over 250 recorded speeches. This may have been an accurate assessment until his fall from office in 1678, but thereafter his career diverged from its previous pattern. Loss of office did not mean the end of his involvement in public affairs, but it coincided with his marriage to the widowed Lady O’Brien, a match which brought him enhanced social prestige (she was a distant cousin of Charles II) and allowed him to utilize his managerial skills in sorting out his wife’s indebted estates in Ireland and Kent (taking over her debts in 1689 and purchasing Cobham Hall in 1696). Williamson retained royal favour, King Charles readily agreeing to the Duke of Ormond’s request that since he had come to reside in Ireland in 1680 he should be appointed to that kingdom’s privy council. Other local office followed in Kent, but Williamson failed to find favour with James II. Indeed, his omission from the new Irish privy council in 1685 and his refusal to support the repeal of the Test Act suggest that Williamson was a Tory opponent of James II’s religious policies. Although his attitude to the Revolution of 1688 is unknown, he had little difficulty in adapting to the new regime. He failed to gain election to the Convention of 1689, but at least one commentator of the time believed him worthy of inclusion on a list of ‘commoners eminent in Parliament, useful men, but not to be trusted’, along with Sir Thomas Clarges*, William Garway†, Sir Thomas Lee, 1st Bt.*, and Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt.* Although out of the Commons, he kept a careful watch on events, being particularly perturbed by ‘the misfortunes of Ireland’ and being thanked in January 1690 by his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Richmond, for helping to protect her interest in the aulnage.5

At the 1690 election Williamson was returned for both Thetford and Rochester. His choice of the latter indicated the increased importance of Kent in his affairs. Also, his long relationship with Thetford, his ownership of a town house there and munificence towards the corporation made it easier for him to maintain his political interest in the Norfolk borough without representing it in person. In an analysis of the new House his long-term associate Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) classed him as a Tory and a Court supporter. From the outset he was involved in the debates of the House. Thus, when the House went into a committee of the whole on 27 Mar. to consider a motion to grant a supply, Williamson was one of the Members wishing to stick to that question rather than extend the debate to settling a revenue on the King. ‘A supply is necessary’, he observed, ‘we cannot sit here else’, but as to the revenue and what part of it should form a fund for credit, he went on, ‘you must think well upon it before you come to a resolution’. On the following day the committee of the whole was instructed by the House to consider settling the revenue on the King and Queen. Williamson spoke in favour of granting for life ‘that moiety of the excise’ allowed to Charles II and James II, with an additional clause to enable it to be used as security for raising loans. This was duly accepted by the House. On 31 Mar. and 1 Apr. the committee of the whole considered the grant of an extraordinary supply. Many criticized the management of the nation’s finances, including Williamson who noted that ‘when we have a prince who will think it for his service to enquire into managements, I hope they will be put in such a way that we shall not do it again’. At the same time Williamson was aware that ‘whatever the sum, it is to make all the rest good, our religion and properties’. However, he then backed a supply of £700,000, far lower than the £1,200,000 eventually agreed by the House, and half the amount requested by the King’s Treasury spokesman, Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. II. On 2 Apr. the committee of the whole discussed and agreed that the King be allowed to borrow £1 million on the security of his revenue, with Williamson appearing to be in favour since he counselled that ‘men must not be put out of the power of their money for a year’. Given that Williamson could scarcely be described as a wholehearted supporter of the ministry’s financial plans, he was an obvious choice on 14 Apr. when the Commons named Members to prepare a bill appointing commissioners of accounts. His essentially Tory outlook was demonstrated in his speech of 24 Apr. when he spoke against admitting counsel for the city of London’s Whig-dominated common council to argue their plans for reversing the quo warranto against the corporation and restoring its ancient privileges. Similarly, on 26 Apr., he spoke against the second reading of the abjuration bill as a partisan measure designed against ‘one sort of persons’, members of the Church of England. Declaring that ‘it has been long known . . . that I have as much zeal for the Protestant religion as anybody’, he defended the Church’s role under James II: ‘none did their duties with more courage than that body of men, nor suffered more deeply’. In his opinion it was necessary ‘to secure the government against all ill-affected persons’ rather than to proceed with this one-sided bill. The Commons agreed with him in rejecting it, and two days later voted to consider heads of a bill to secure the government. Williamson’s speech on that occasion amounted to a plea to allow the crown ‘to commit persons for treasonable correspondence . . . with King James without bail’. When the committee of the whole met on 29 Apr. to consider heads, Williamson, perhaps betraying his relish for the collection of intelligence, lectured the House on the need to identify and disable opponents of the government, for ‘if we do not discover [them] before they begin insurrections, it will be too late to suppress them’. He saw an oath to the government as being the key to tying people to the crown – and, not surprisingly, the Quakers bore the brunt of his strictures as ‘they were in with King James and are factors for him still’. More prosaically, he ended his speech by earmarking the militia as a fit subject for Parliament’s attentions. Presumably because the tenor of Williamson’s contributions was much in line with some of the resolutions adopted by the House, he was appointed to the committee to bring in the bill to secure the government. On the question of the power to be allotted to the Queen in the regency bill debated on 5 May in a committee of the whole, Williamson believed that as ‘the regal power of England doth govern Ireland . . . so much of the regal power as the King may think requisite within the kingdom of England be granted’. When the Lords desired a conference on 13 May on the amendments made by the Commons to the bill, Williamson was appointed a manager by the Lower House. In the wake of Dodsworth’s revelations, Williamson was named to a committee on 15 May to prepare a bill securing the government against people conspiring to raise a rebellion. Perhaps the best testimony to Williamson’s influence in the House during this session occurred on 20 May, when he was elected to the commission of accounts (the legislation for which was lost on the prorogation of Parliament). On the penultimate day of the session, 22 May, he was one of two Members deputed by the House to thank Dr John Sharp (the future archbishop of York) for preaching before the Commons.6

By the time Parliament reassembled in October 1690 Williamson seems to have re-entered the orbit of the Court. His name appears on a list, probably compiled before the new session, of ‘managers of the King’s directions’. He was certainly visible in the opening month of the session, being named to several drafting committees including that on 11 Oct. to prepare a new bill appointing commissioners of accounts and that on the 22nd for a bill to attaint rebels in England and Ireland and to apply the forfeitures to meet the cost of the war. Further evidence of his status in the House is given by Thomas Foley I* on 29 Oct. when reporting the progress of Robert Harley’s* petition against the return for New Radnor of Sir Rowland Gwynne*. Harley had ‘a fair prospect’ of success, Foley wrote, because influential men such as Seymour, Clarges and Williamson were ‘for us’. Some inkling of future ill-health can be gleaned as early as 3 Nov. 1690 when Sir John Banks, 1st Bt.*, wondered if Williamson’s health would allow him to attend the committee of privileges that afternoon. On 6 Dec. he was ordered to prepare a clause for the bill attainting rebels, reserving a proportion of the forfeitures to the King. Meanwhile, he petitioned the Lords on 4 Dec. in order to obtain saving clauses (agreed to on the 9th) protecting his rights to the Duke of Richmond’s Kentish estates in the bill allowing his stepdaughter, Lady Cornbury, to act as if she were of ‘full age’. His name appears on a list of 16–22 Dec. which may be part of Carmarthen’s calculations of the likely outcome of an attack upon his position as a minister. In a further sign of his status, immediately after the close of the session, the King made an overnight stop at Cobham Hall on his way from London to the Continent.7

In April 1691 Robert Harley classed Williamson as a Court supporter, albeit with a qualifying ‘d’ against his name. The 1691–2 session must have removed Harley’s doubts, if that was what the annotation signified, as Williamson spoke frequently on the Court’s side in debate. He made his first recorded speech of the session on 6 Nov. 1691 during a committee of the whole on supply, when he opposed Thomas Neale’s* proposal that since the committee had voted a supply it could proceed to figures. Neale suggested a sum not exceeding £4 million. To Williamson it was ‘a strange motion to vote the sum before you have computed what is necessary’. If this intervention could be construed as mildly obstructive to the Court, he spoke later in the debate in favour of addressing the King for army as well as navy estimates. When the naval estimates were presented on 9 Nov. he was named to the committee to inspect them. As several resolutions reported from this committee to the House on 14 Nov. dealt with supply, they were referred to the committee of the whole which sat the same day. On this occasion Williamson was on the losing side, arguing that the cost of building four new fourth-rate ships should be included in the estimates for 1692. When the House came to consider the army estimates on 19 Nov. in committee of the whole, Williamson was in the majority in arguing that the estimate should be voted in general rather than under each particular head. The figure of 64,924 men voted on the 19th became controversial on 28 Nov. when some Members challenged the ministry’s view that this number excluded officers. Williamson was again with the majority in pressing for the larger number. On 11 Dec., with the Commons considering the Lords’ amendments to the bill regulating treason trials, he spoke against the new clause whereby ‘upon the trial of any peer the whole House of Peers should be summoned’. On 15 Dec. Williamson intervened in the committee of supply to defend the resolution (eventually reported on 2 Jan. 1692) sanctioning the payment of Dutch troops at English rates of pay. He hinted that ‘he heard some offers of considerable advantage were offered to the Dutch for a peace and there had been some unseasonable reflections made on the Dutch this day which had been better spared’. Judging from his interventions in debate Williamson was one of the East India Company’s supporters (in April 1689 he had owned £50 worth of stock), whose aim, one historian has said, was ‘to draw out proceedings in the Commons so as to prevent the numerically superior backers of a new company from completing their bills’. Thus, during the debate on 17 Dec. on the resolutions from the committee of the whole to consider the East India trade, he objected that the company’s opponents were using evidence collected in committee, despite the fact that this had yet to be reported to the House. When the committee resumed on the following day Williamson spoke for the company in support of several resolutions which were to lead, if sufficient security was pledged, to an address to the King ‘to incorporate the present East India Company by charter’. On 23 Dec. the Commons rejected the security proposed by the company, despite Williamson’s speech on their behalf. When the House accepted fresh proposals from the company, on 8 Jan., Williamson was one of nine Members ordered to draft a bill to establish ‘an East India Company according to the regulations and resolutions’ agreed by the House. But at the bill’s first reading on the 22nd Williamson opposed the motion for a second reading on the grounds that the bill had been drafted in secret by three members who had produced legislation dissolving the existing company and vesting its stock in a new company. Despite his arguments, the second reading was carried, but the bill never completed its passage through the House. While the East India controversy raged, Williamson did not remain quiet on other issues. On 1 Jan. 1692, together with Musgrave, he opposed a motion that the informer William Fuller be afforded the protection of the House. On 12 Jan. Williamson was appointed to a committee to consider proposals for raising money on a fund of perpetual interest after arguing in ways and means that such a committee was a more appropriate forum for evaluating such projects than the Treasury commission. Despite some pressure from his Rochester constituents to support the bill suppressing hawkers and pedlars, Williamson was involved on 16 Jan. at the report stage in tactics to drop the bill. He supported a motion to adjourn the debate rather than the course eventually adopted of applying the previous question to the engrossment motion. On 25 Jan. the Commons considered the report of a conference with the Lords on the bill regulating treason trials. Williamson was on hand to proffer advice on exactly what question the Speaker should ask. The clause in question had been added by the Lords, and then amended by the Commons; the Lords had then rejected the Commons’ amendments. Thus the correct question was whether the Commons adhered to its amendments, which it duly did. Williamson helped to ensure that the poll-tax bill was sent up to the Lords on 18 Feb., rather than held back in an attempt to force the Upper Chamber to pass the bills dealing with forfeited estates in England and Ireland. Such was Williamson’s contribution to the Court side in this session that Luttrell noted a rumour in February 1692 that he would be appointed lord privy seal in the expected ministerial reshuffle. Changes were indeed made, as William III made further gestures to the Tories, but Williamson was not a beneficiary.8

From letters sent by his old clerk, Robert Yard*, Williamson appears to have spent the summer of 1692 at Cobham, with a visit for health reasons to Tunbridge Wells. His early presence at Westminster for the 1692–3 session is signalled by the fact that Yard’s last letter to the country was dated 1 Nov., just three days before Parliament reassembled. On 16 Nov. Williamson reported to the House from the committee appointed to translate and prepare abstracts of several diplomatic treaties. His intervention on 29 Nov. in the committee of the whole on the naval estimates was more critical in tone than his comments in the previous session, possibly owing to perceived naval mismanagement, for he seemed keen to ensure that the Dutch navy ‘bear their proportion with us and as we increase so that they do the like’. An example of the vigilance needed to ensure that his wife’s interests were protected occurs in a letter of 9 Jan. 1693, which alerted him to the unlikely possibility that a petition delivered to the Commons on 6 Jan. from the London dyers against the export of unfinished cloth might indirectly attack ‘my lady’s patent’, presumably in the aulnage. Williamson had also to devote time and money to maintaining his electoral interest at Thetford. According to a subscription list dated 10 Jan. 1693, loans to the corporation to enable it to procure an order in Chancery for annulling the ‘late illegal surrender of the charter’ were to be repaid from a gift of £100 donated by Williamson. On 11 Jan. Williamson spoke against a motion emanating from the committee of the whole to consider advice to be given to the King, that William constitute a commission of the Admiralty ‘of such persons as are of known experience in maritime affairs’, and thus helped the Court to defeat the motion. Williamson may have been exhibiting typical concern for the dignity of the Commons on 17 Jan. when he supported the recall of Clarges, who had been sent to desire a conference with the Lords, but who had been kept waiting by their lordships for two hours. In his final recorded speech of the session, on 21 Jan., Williamson backed Musgrave in providing precedents for the Commons to order Burnet’s pamphlet, King William and Queen Mary Conquerors, to be burnt by the hangman.9

Williamson’s election to the Irish parliament in 1692 was clearly intended to be more than merely a badge of status. Although he missed the turbulent session of October 1692, his presence in Ireland was deemed valuable, for in January 1693 the lord lieutenant, Viscount Sydney (Henry Sidney†), suggested to Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) that, should the prorogued parliament sit again, ‘it will be best to have all the members now in London here, before the meeting, Mr Roberts [Hon. Francis Robartes*] and Sir Joseph Williamson especially, for they will prove useful’. In the event, the Irish parliament was not recalled (being dissolved in June), and in April 1693 Williamson decamped ‘for fresh air into the country’.10

Three parliamentary lists, including that compiled by Samuel Grascome, correctly describe Williamson as a placeman in 1693. He does not seem to have attended Parliament until January 1694, when he was on hand on the 23rd to translate a letter concerning naval intelligence, and again on the 27th when he was appointed to the committee charged with redrafting the conclusion to the Commons’ representation to the King on the refusal of the Royal Assent to a place bill. Thereafter, the parliamentary record is silent on Williamson’s activities, but his reputation was such that a group of men from Bury St. Edmunds requested him to help their newly elected Member, John Hervey, pursue legislation against ‘the arbitrary and illegal oppressions of the wardens and assistants of Norwich’. If Williamson had maintained a low profile at Westminster in the 1693–4 session, by July he was in Ireland, having survived a dangerous crossing which saw his ship narrowly miss an encounter with a French privateer. He was sworn an Irish privy councillor in August 1694 and stayed there until December 1695, playing a full part in the management of the parliament which met in August 1695. Indeed, ‘acting covertly by the means of my Lord Chancellor’ (Sir Charles Porter*), Williamson was a possible candidate for speaker until it became clear that the opposition would be too strong. However, that did not prevent him, according to one of John Ellis’* correspondents early in September, from becoming ‘the great director in all putting of questions, for Mr. Speaker Rochfort is not yet grown cunning that way’. Another indication of the effective use to which he put his political skills was Alan Brodrick’s† comment that ‘Sir Joseph hath not forgot how a courtier ought to manage’. Brodrick saw Williamson as ‘the head of the chancellor’s party’, a view endorsed by Porter himself when he noted that of all the privy councillors Williamson had performed his duties admirably ‘and with that affection that he attended twice or thrice to ten of the clock at night, though in great pain and not able either to go or stand’. Williamson’s presence in Ireland meant that he had to conduct the 1695 election campaign in England by post. His letters to the mayor of Rochester reveal neither neglect of the townspeople’s sensibilities nor an economy with flattery. Having been returned for both Rochester and Thetford, by mid-December 1695 Williamson was on his way back to England. On the 18th Sir Clowdesley Shovell* reported that Williamson’s ship had been cast away, but a week later Luttrell recorded his safe arrival at Chester.11

Back at Westminster, Williamson chose on 4 Jan. 1696 to sit for Rochester. He then sought to use his influence with the corporation of Thetford to engineer the election there of James Sloane* as his replacement. Williamson was quickly back in the forefront of parliamentary affairs, being appointed on 6 Jan. to manage a conference with the Lords on the bill regulating the silver coinage. His recent sojourn in Ireland made him the target of the Irish lobby, for on 30 Jan. Sir Robert Southwell† named him – along with Sir William Trumbull*, Hon. Heneage Finch I*, Bishop Lloyd of Lichfield, and Sir Cyril Wyche* – as one of those to be approached to oppose the bill for altering the Act abrogating the oath of supremacy in Ireland. Although there is no evidence to confirm Williamson’s stance against the bill, it failed to become law. Rather surprisingly, he was forecast on 31 Jan. 1696 as likely to oppose the Court on the proposed council of trade. More predictably, he signed the Association in February and voted in March for fixing the price of guineas at 22s. That Williamson remained a supporter of the Court during this session, however, is perhaps best demonstrated by a report in late May that he had ‘pretensions’ of succeeding the ailing Lord Capell (Hon. Sir Henry Capel*) as lord deputy in Ireland. William III ignored Williamson’s claims, however.12

Williamson continued to support the Court in the 1696–7 session. James Vernon I* informed the Duke of Shrewsbury that in the debates on supply on 3 Nov. 1696 Williamson had ‘behaved himself extremely well . . . and arguing as a country gentleman had more credit than anybody’. Of more pressing concern to Vernon was Williamson’s attitude to the accusations of treason made by Sir John Fenwick† against Shrewsbury and others. On 5 Nov., the day before the Commons was to consider Fenwick’s allegations, Vernon reported ‘confidently’ to Shrewsbury that Williamson ‘will act like one that is very desirous to pay you a service’. On the 6th, after Fenwick’s informations had been voted ‘false and scandalous’, Vernon noted that ‘Williamson said something, but less than I expected from him’. When the proceedings against Fenwick resumed on 13 Nov., with the first reading of the attainder bill, Williamson was involved in a procedural dispute over whether the mace should lie on the table or be kept by the serjeant-at-arms at the bar with the prisoner. Williamson argued for the first course as otherwise ‘our mouths are muzzled’, and it would be wrong to ‘pass a vote that the judges shall not ask any questions’. The House decided differently. Later that day he opposed Fenwick’s request for more time to prepare his defence on the grounds that the charge was sufficiently clear in the preamble of the bill. To do otherwise would be conceding a valuable point to the defence counsel and ‘you must mend your bill to their way of expression and to their sense’. The House again thought differently. When the proceedings resumed on 16 Nov. he spoke in favour of allowing the information of Cardell Goodman to be read, to which the House agreed, and in a similar case, later in the day, he argued for reading the record of the trial and conviction of Peter Cook, the House again concurring. Throughout, Williamson was at pains to point out that the normal procedures of the law courts did not apply to Parliament so that Members could determine how they would proceed as long as the course chosen was consistent with justice. Such arguments were of course the stock-in-trade of those in favour of the attainder and he duly voted on 25 Nov. for the bill’s passage. He was then one of a number of Court supporters who questioned the Speaker’s conduct of the division. Other notable incidents during this session included Williamson and Lord Cornbury (Edward Hyde*) waiving their privilege on 9 Nov. to allow a suit for debt to be carried on against the Duke of Richmond’s estate which the two men were in the process of purchasing. November also saw Williamson sworn a member of the Privy Council, an appointment widely rumoured to herald a diplomatic posting as a plenipotentiary at the forthcoming peace conference at Ryswick. Vernon for one recognized Williamson’s credentials as ‘the only person we have of experience in these matters’, a reference to Williamson’s previous attendance at the Congress of Cologne. William Blathwayt* thought ‘his services in Parliament have indeed deserved it’, and regarded him as a possible secretary of state. That Williamson relished his new role can be seen by his signature on conciliar documents around this time, urging tardy lord lieutenants to send in lists of those justices failing to subscribe to the Association. When, on 5 Dec., the Commons turned to the need to restore credit, Williamson was applauded for ‘handsomely’ countering Lord Norreys’ (Montagu Venables-Bertie) opposition to the allowance of a premium for government loans. He was then duly appointed to the committee to consider the deficiencies in public funds. That Williamson was much valued as an advocate of even minor parliamentary business can be seen on 10 Dec. when he received a request to attend the second reading of Warner’s estate bill. On 15 Dec. Vernon confirmed to Shrewsbury that Williamson would be a plenipotentiary at the forthcoming peace congress, but it soon became apparent that his departure would not be immediate. Indeed, Williamson may have been indisposed for part of December, as on 2 Jan. 1697 Vernon reported that he ‘is now come abroad again’. Williamson’s appearance on a ‘waggish’ list of public accounts commissioners, coupled with ‘his man Sloane’, suggests that he was widely seen as a Court dependant. On 14 Jan. he took on the management of a bill to allow one John Spademan to enjoy a sinecure in Wales which was technically forfeit. The sinecure had been given to Joseph Hill as compensation for his losses in writing for the ‘English interest’ in Zealand in the 1670s. Now the dean and chapter of Bangor claimed it, and so, to overcome the relevant Act, Williamson, who presumably knew Hill, was ordered to bring in a bill. After the second reading, Sir Henry Dutton Colt, 1st Bt., took over the management, owing to a recurrence of Williamson’s indisposition. At first his illness appeared to be nothing more than the gout, but by 2 Apr. Vernon reported that he ‘lies very ill with a fever and hath an ill symptom of a great doziness upon him’. This illness delayed the departure of the plenipotentiaries, who eventually left without him, leaving Williamson to embark in May for Flanders.13

Contemporaries believed Williamson was eager to play his role on the diplomatic stage. One observer noted that he took with him his wife, four secretaries and six fiddlers. While at Ryswick he was ill again, being ‘laid up with a kind of gout that makes him complain very much and eat very excessively’. He also quarrelled with his wife, but showed no wish to relinquish his revived career, even staying on after Ryswick as ambassador to The Hague. Clearly he had the King’s confidence which outweighed any arguments that his presence was needed in Parliament. Still, in November 1697, Lord Walden (Henry Howard*) thought Williamson might be able to ‘moderate some heats’ in the Commons. He spent the whole of 1698 abroad, being excused attendance on the Commons on 7 Mar. for that reason. May 1698 saw an acute assessment by Matthew Prior* of his secretive manner in public office: ‘Always managing his papers like his gold, he may, and doubtless has them more perfect, but I doubt if you will ever see them except you make him open his books as you do the East India Company, by an order from the House.’ Extracting official information from him, whether diplomatic material or generally from the Paper Office, of which he was keeper, was obviously very difficult. His name appears on three parliamentary lists for 1698, on two occasions classed as a placeman and once as a Court supporter. Although abroad, Williamson was again returned at the 1698 election for both Rochester and Thetford, opting to sit for the former despite a request from Thetford not to do so. Much ink was spilt in the business of replacing him at Thetford, but Williamson remained aloof, since ‘he pretends to have set himself a rule never to concern himself in second elections but to leave the town at liberty’. In September 1698 Williamson signed the first Partition Treaty, but again fell ill, prompting Blathwayt to lament in October ‘that it will be impossible for you to give us your assistance in Parliament, which would have been of very great use to the King’s affairs’. Williamson arrived back in England in July 1699, and the following month was in Rochester ‘to secure his interest against the next election (which ’tis said is near at hand), and he has scattered a great deal of money’.14

On a list of early 1700 which grouped Members under ‘interests’, Williamson was classed as a placeman. During the 1699–1700 session he sent in two petitions, on 4 Jan. and 7 Mar., designed to protect his own and his wife’s interest in the Duke of Richmond’s estates. November 1700 saw ‘a long hearing in Chancery’ over the sale of Cobham Hall, which remained unresolved at Williamson’s death. Although returned in January 1701 for both Rochester and Thetford, he was too ill to attend the Commons and sent a letter to confirm that he chose to sit for Rochester. It was perhaps just as well that Williamson remained indisposed, because the 1701 session saw fierce criticism of the Partition Treaty to which he had been a signatory. Indeed, Vernon justified his decision to produce documentary evidence of the first treaty to the Commons by claiming that, if questioned, Williamson ‘would have told all he knew, which would have made the same discovery, perhaps in a worse manner’. Lord Haversham’s (Sir John Thompson*) counter-attack in the Lords in June 1701 against the impeachment of the Whig lords who had advised William III on the treaties named Williamson as equally culpable, but no doubt ill-health and party politics combined to protect him. By 2 Sept. 1701 he was ‘now given over’, but survived until ‘his distemper lay lurking in his blood and gathering such strength by time that, meeting with a man of his great age, it killed him’ on 3 Oct. By his will Williamson left his estate in Cumberland, plus one-third of any overplus from his Kentish lands, to Joseph Hornsby, who, if not his own illegitimate offspring, certainly fulfilled the role of adopted son. The estate in Kent was to be sold to raise the money for legacies totalling over £18,000, including £6,000 to Queen’s College, Oxford, which in 1711 spent the money on constructing a quadrangle; £5,000 to Rochester for a school specializing in mathematics and other skills required for service at sea; £2,000 to Thetford which, after prolonged litigation against Lord Cornbury, spent the money on funding apprentices; £300 apiece to Christ’s and St. Bartholomew’s Hospitals, and £200 to the Royal Society at Gresham College. The King (through the Paper Office) received Williamson’s state papers, which Bishop Nicolson sourly remarked in 1705 ‘proves only a restoring of them to the cells from whence they were borrowed’.15

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Stuart Handley


  • 1. DNB; CSP Dom. 1673, p. 459; 1679–80, p. 83; M. Temple Reg. i. 171; J. A. Marshall, ‘Sir Joseph Williamson and the development of the government intelligence system’ (Lancaster Univ. Ph.D. thesis 1991), 26; HMC 4th Rep. 516; Beaufort mss at Badminton House, Ld. Clarendon (Henry Hyde†) to [Duchess of Beaufort], 5 Nov. 1702.
  • 2. Stowe 549, f. 14; CSP Dom. 1663–4, p. 90; 1664–5, p. 438; 1671–2, p. 97; 1680–1, p. 136; 1694–5, p. 276; Marshall thesis, 97; J. C. Wedgwood’s list of PCs, Hist. of Parl.
  • 3. T 70/75; CSP Dom. 1675–6, p. 168; T. Girton, Golden Ram, 328; Clothmakers’ Co. Chs. 51; PC 2/72/506; K. G. Davies, R. African Co. 390; Sel. Charters, 197; N. Moore, Hist. St. Bartholomew’s Hosp. ii. 343; D. R. Hainsworth, Stewards, Lords and People, 108–9.
  • 4. Le Strange, Norf. Official Lists, 235; info. from Medway Area Archs.; Cal. Ancient Recs. Dublin ed. Gilbert, vi. 129; info. from Mr P. F. Cooper, Bridge Clerk, Rochester Bridge Trust; CSP Dom. 1686–7, p. 323.
  • 5. R. Hutton, Charles II, 321; J. Miller, Charles II, 224; Marshall thesis, 57, 72–73, 137, 422; F. H. Millington, Sir Joseph Williamson, 5; Arch. Cant. xi. 298; HMC Ormonde, n.s. v. 548, 555; Duckett, Penal Laws and Test Act (1882), 315; Stowe 746, f. 119; CSP Dom. 1689–90, pp. 385, 418.
  • 6. Blomefield, Norf. ii. 137; A. L. Hunt, Capital of E. Anglia, 289; Grey, x. 11–12, 21, 33, 39, 66, 86–88, 97–98, 117–18; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 53–54, 59; G. S. De Krey, Fractured Soc. 64; Bodl. Rawl. A.79, ff. 78, 88; Add. 42592, f. 117v.
  • 7. Add. 70114, Thomas Foley I* to Sir Edward Harley*, 29 Oct. 1690; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 156; HMC Lords, iii. 26–27; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 156; HMC Le Fleming, 309.
  • 8. Luttrell Diary, 3–4, 19, 33, 48, 75, 82, 86–88, 92, 103, 125, 133, 148, 154, 193; Add. 22185, f. 13; Jnl. Brit. Studies, xvii. 4–5; CSP Dom. 1691–2, p. 34; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 353; Horwitz, 78, 98–99.
  • 9. CSP Dom. 1691–2, pp. 197, 383, 418; 1693, p. 6; Luttrell Diary, 267, 362, 371, 379; HMC Var. vii. 147.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1693, p. 23; Trinity, Dublin, Lyons (King) coll. 1997/269, Southwell to King, 22 Apr. 1693.
  • 11. CSP Dom. 1694–5, pp. 83, 276; BL, Evelyn mss, John to Mrs Evelyn, 31 July 1695; Surr. RO (Kingston), Somers mss 371/14/F5, Capell to Ld. Somers (Sir John*), 25 Aug. 1695; Add. 28859, f. 104; Surr. RO (Guildford), Midleton mss 1248, 1, ff. 274, 278–9; PRO NI, De Ros mss D638/18/59, Porter to Ld. Coningsby (Thomas*), 21 Nov. 1695; Rawl. A.289, ff. 138, 140; HMC Bath, ii. 176; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 566.
  • 12. Nottingham Univ. Lib., Portland (Harley) mss Pw2 Hy 360, Edmund Soame* to [?Harley], 15 Jan. 1695–6; Pw2 Hy 368, Williamson to Sir John Cropley, 2nd Bt.*, 7 Jan. 1695–6; Lyons (King) coll. 1998/484, Southwell to King, 30 Jan. 1696; Shrewsbury Corresp. 121; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 355.
  • 13. Northants. RO, Montagu (Boughton) mss 46/16, 67, Vernon to Shrewsbury, 3 Nov. 1696, 11 Feb. 1696–7; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, i. 44–45, 49, 68, 111, 125, 153, 245, 249; Cobbett, Parlty Hist. v. 1003, 1014–15, 1038–9, 1046; HLRO, HC Lib. ms 12, f. 56; HMC Bath, iii. 95, 108; Lexington Pprs. 230–1; L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 120; CSP Dom. 1696, p. 459; HMC Le Fleming, 348; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/6, Yard to Alexander Stanhope, 23 Mar., 6 Apr. 1697.
  • 14. Bodl. Tanner 114, f. 50; HMC Bath, iii. 162, 214; HMC Downshire, i. 765; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 483; 1698, p. 403; 1699–1700, p. 297; HMC Var. vii. 148; Add. 40772, ff. 23–24; 17677 TT, f. 211; 70276; Macaulay, vi. 2856;.
  • 15. CJ, xiii. 83, 94, 276; Add. 27440, ff. 154, 168; 7074, ff. 31–32; 47000, f. 7; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 144; Arch. Cant. xi. 288–93; C. Bird, Sir Joseph Williamson, Founder of Rochester Mathematics Sch. 8; HMC Portland, iv. 523; HMC Var. vii. 149–50.