William FitzWilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton

The Right Honourable
The Earl of Southampton

Portrait of William Fitzwilliam, Earl of Southampton, by Hans Holbein the Younger
Treasurer of the Household
In office
Preceded by Sir Thomas Boleyn
Succeeded by Sir William Paulet

William FitzWilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton, KG (c.1490, Aldwark, North Riding of Yorkshire – 15 October 1542, Newcastle upon Tyne), English courtier and soldier, was the third son of Sir Thomas FitzWilliam of Aldwark and Lady Lucy Neville (daughter of the Marquess of Montagu).

His father died while FitzWilliam was in his infancy, and his mother remarried Sir Anthony Browne senior so that William was half-brother to Sir Anthony Browne. Probably as a result of this connection, he was chosen as a companion for Henry, Prince of Wales (later King Henry VIII) and brought up alongside him. After King Henry's coronation in 1509, he was made a Gentleman Usher and King's Cupbearer, and gradually rose at Court. He began his military career at sea, serving under the Marquess of Dorset in 1512 and Sir Edward Howard in the disastrous second attack on Brest. Unlike his commander, he escaped the debacle, but was badly injured by a crossbow bolt. He had recovered sufficiently to accompany the King into France as an Esquire of the Body, and was knighted on 25 September 1513, the day after the capture of Tournai. In November he married Mabel Clifford, daughter of the Lord Clifford, but the marriage would prove childless.

FitzWilliam achieved distinction as naval commander, as diplomat and as government minister. Much of his time as Vice-Admiral (1513–1525) and Admiral was spent keeping the Channel free from pirates, and he gained praise from Wolsey for his initiative in actions against the French In May 1522 England declared war on France. The Earl of Surrey planned to attack Havre de Grace in June and Morlaix on 1 July, which largely failed due to victually difficulties. Fitzwilliam was appointed as Vice-Admiral, so when Surrey abandoned the siege of Brest, he was left on station to blockade the port. The navy patrolled the Brittany coast for the next three months, but was unable to score a decisive victory with his Spanish allies. During the autumn the sea patrol campaign was abandoned with little achieved.[1]

As ambassador Fitzwilliam at the French court in 1521/2 attracted favourable notice from Wolsey he showed suitability for higher office. Nonetheless later missions failed: Henry's obsession with the divorce gave his ambassadors little scope for initiative.

Fitzwilliam was appointed Treasurer of the Household in 1525, a post which gave him an ex officio seat on the evolving Privy Council. He was appointed Captain of Guines in 1524 and maintained a connection with Calais for the rest of his life, being largely responsible for the Calais Act of 1536; he also played a significant part in defusing religious unrest in Calais in the later 1530s. He served as a Member of Parliament for Surrey from 1529 until his elevation to the peerage as Earl of Southampton in 1537.[2] He was a capable Lord Privy Seal from 1540 to his death in 1542, but he failed to address serious structural faults at the Duchy of Lancaster and the Admiralty administration, probably because with several offices he was overworked - a serious fault in the Tudor system. As regional magnate he eliminated factional strife in Surrey.

He acted as "enforcer" for Henry in the fall of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, the Pilgrimage of Grace and the Exeter Conspiracy. In 1539, as Admiral, he conveyed Anne of Cleves from Calais, and on first meeting her wrote letters in her praise to Henry, 'considering it was then no time to dispraise her, ... the matter being so far passed.'[3]

The Earl of Southampton was appointed Lieutenant- and Captain-General in the North in 1542 to command an expedition to Scotland, but he was a sick man who had to be conveyed to Newcastle upon Tyne in a litter and died in October only three days after his arrival. He was apparently buried in Newcastle, for although under his will a chapel was to be built for his tomb at the parish church in Midhurst, Sussex, no tomb was erected there. Having no legitimate issue, his peerage became extinct.[2]



    1. Dollinger, German Hansa, pp.303-4; Lloyd, England and the German Hanse, pp.180-2; Rodger, Safeguard, p.174
    2. 1 2 Johnson, S.R., History of Parliament online article
    3. Strype, John, Ecclesiastical Memorials, vol. 1 part 2, Oxford (1822), 454, deposition of Southampton.


    Political offices
    Preceded by
    Sir Thomas Boleyn
    Treasurer of the Household
    Succeeded by
    Sir William Paulet
    Preceded by
    Sir Thomas More
    Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
    Succeeded by
    Sir John Gage
    Preceded by
    The Duke of Richmond and Somerset
    Lord Admiral
    Succeeded by
    The Lord Russell
    Preceded by
    Thomas Cromwell
    Lord Privy Seal
    Peerage of England
    New creation Earl of Southampton
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