Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knollys, William (1547-1632)

Contains subarticles: [[Knollys, William (1547-1632) (DNB00)#Nicholas Knollys |Nicholas Knollys]], 3rd earl; [[Knollys, William (1547-1632) (DNB00)#Charles Knollys |Charles Knollys]], 4th earl; [[Knollys, William (1547-1632) (DNB00)#William Knollys |William Knollys]], 8th earl.
1904 Errata, p. 174

KNOLLYS, WILLIAM, Earl of Banbury (1547–1632), second but eldest surviving son of Sir Francis Knollys [q. v.], was born in 1547, and was educated in early youth by Josceline or Julius Palmer, who fell a victim to the Marian persecution in 1556. William performed his first public service as captain in the army which was sent to repress the northern rebellion in 1569. He was elected M.P. for Tregony in 1572, and for Oxfordshire in 1584, 1593, 1597, and 1601. In November 1585 Queen Elizabeth sent him as ‘one that appertaineth to us in blood’—his mother was the queen's first cousin—to James VI of Scotland to assure him that she had no intention of aiding the banished Scottish lords (Corresp. of Eliz. and James, Camd. Soc., p. 23). In the following January he accompanied Burghley's son Thomas in the expedition to the Low Countries under Leicester (Leycester Corresp., Camd. Soc., p. 58), and was knighted by Leicester on 7 Oct. 1586. He was colonel of the Oxford and Gloucester regiments of foot which were enrolled to resist the Spanish Armada in 1588, and was created M.A. of Oxford on 27 Sept. 1592.

Elizabeth extended to him the favour that she had shown his father, and on the latter's death in 1596 and the consequent changes in court offices, Knollys was made comptroller of the royal household and a privy councillor (30 Aug. 1596). He inherited" his father's estates in Oxfordshire and Berkshire, and became joint lieutenant of those counties on 4 Nov. 1596, sole lieutenant in July 1601, and lord-lieutenant 22 March 1612-13. He was a commissioner to arrange a peace between the Dutch and the emperor in August 1598, and was granted the reversion to the office of constable of Wallingford Castle 8 Feb. 1601. At the final trial of the Earl of Essex (January 1601) he entered the witness-box to deny the statement of the defence that Sir Robert Cecil had in private conversation acknowledged the infanta's title to the crown of England (Cecil, Corresp., Camd. Soc., p. 70 n.),and in August 1601 he entertained his sovereign at his house at Caversham, and in May 1602 at his residence in St. James's Park. On 22 Dec. 1602 he succeeded Roger, lord North, as treasurer of the royal household, a position which his father had filled before him.

On James I's accession Knollys retained all his offices, and was further created, on 13 May 1603, Baron Knollys of Rotherfield Greys. He became cofferer of the household to Henry, prince of Wales, in 1606. In May 1613 he represented his cousin the Earl of Essex in the abortive conference held at Whitehall to arrange a separation between the earl and the earl's wife, Frances, who was a sister of Knollys's second wife. In 1614 he proved his loyalist zeal by putting down the names of persons as willing to subscribe to the benevolence of that year without consulting them. He acted as commissioner of the treasury from 24 Jan. to 11 July 1614, and was made master of the court of wards on 10 Oct. following. On 24 April 1615 he was elected a knight of the Garter, and was promoted in the peerage to the viscountcy of Wallingford on 7 Nov. 1616. In the following month he resigned the treasurership of the household. Wallingford's influence at court was at the time somewhat imperilled by his connection with the Howards, his wife's family. His sister-in-law Frances, then Countess of Somerset, was placed on her trial for the murder of Overbury in 1615, and all her kinsfolk were suspected of complicity. But the chief witness against the Howards, Mrs. Turner, had to admit, respecting Wallingford, ‘if ever there was a religious man, it was he.’ When Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk [q. v.], his father-in-law, fell into disgrace in 1618, his wife openly attributed her family's misfortunes to Buckingham's malice; the words were reported to the king, who declared that he did not wish to be further served by the husband of such a woman. Wallingford was accordingly forced to resign the mastership of the wards (December 1618). He gradually recovered his position, and in April 1621 took a leading part in the House of Lords in the case of Bacon, insisting that the chancellor should furnish a full answer to the charges brought against him. In 1622 he and his wife's relatives patched up a reconciliation with Buckingham, and Wallingford sold to him his London residence, Wallingford House, for 3,000l.

The earldom of Banbury was conferred on Knollys by Charles I on 18 Aug. 1626, possibly, as Mr. Gardiner suggests, in order to complete the king's and Buckingham's reconciliation with the Howard family. The patent contained a clause that ‘he shall have precedency as if he had been created the first earl after his Majesty's accesse to the crowne.’ The lords resisted this grant of precedency as an infringement of their privileges, but when a committee met to consider the question, Charles sent a gracious message, desiring ‘this may pass for once in this particular, considering how old a man this lord is, and childless.’ Accordingly, on 9 April 1628, the lords resolved to allow the earl the ‘place of precedency’ ‘for his life only.’ On 15 April the earl took his seat ‘next to the Earl of Berks,’ the patent for whose earldom dated from 7 Feb. 1625-6. Banbury proved himself no compliant supporter of Charles I's despotic policy, and when in February 1628 he was invited to collect ship-money in Oxfordshire, bluntly declined. He died at the house of Dr. Grant, his physician, in Paternoster Row, London, on 25 May 1632, and was buried at Rotherfield Greys. His age is stated to have been eighty-five, although he ‘rode a hawking and hunting’ within half a year of his death. His will, which makes no mention of children, was dated 19 May 1630, and was proved by his widow, to whom he left all his possessions, on 2 July 1632. The funeral certificate at the College of Arms describes him as dying without issue. He sold Rotherfield Greys to his brother Richard's son, Sir Robert Knollys of Stanford-in-the-Vale, on 4 March 1630-1.

The earl was twice married. His first wife, by whom he had no children, was Dorothy, widow of Edmund Brydges, lord Chandos, and daughter of Edmund Braye, first lord Braye; she died 31 Oct. 1605. Less than two months later (23 Dec.) Knollys, who was then about fifty-eight, married a girl of nineteen, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk; she was baptised at Saffron Walden, 11 Aug. 1586. A daughter of this marriage died young, before 1610; but the countess gave birth to a son, Edward, at her husband's house, on 10 April 1627, and on 3 Jan. 1630-1 another son, Nicholas, was born to her at Harrowden, Northamptonshire, the residence of Edward Vaux, fourth lord Vaux. The paternity of these two sons has given rise to much controversy.

Within five weeks of her husband's death, (before 2 July 1632) Lady Banbury married Lord Vaux. She adopted Roman catholicism, the religion of her second husband, and was consequently an object of much suspicion to the Long parliament. On 19 Aug. 1643 the speaker issued a pass enabling her to go to France, and on 13 June 1644 the House of Commons resolved that should she return she should be seized and kept under restraint. She died in her seventy-second year, 17 April 1658, and was buried at Dorking, Surrey, near the residence of her second husband. The latter survived till 8 April 1661, and is said to have died without issue.

Although the legal doctrine, ‘Pater est quem nuptiæ demonstrant,’ assumes in all cases of children born in wedlock that the husband is the children's father, the House of Lords has repeatedly refused to admit the legitimacy of the Countess of Banbury's sons, or to allow the title to them or their descendants. Between 1641 and 1813 the question has been frequently discussed in the House of Lords and in the law courts, with the curious result that while the judges have distinctly acknowledged the children's legitimacy, the peers have persistently adhered to the contrary view, mainly on the grounds of the earl's age at the date of their birth, and his alleged ignorance of their existence at the time of his death. The peers' inference was that Lord Vaux was their father.

The long controversy opened with a legal decision in favour of the claim to legitimacy. Edward, the elder of the countess's two sons, was styled ‘Earl of Banbury’ in a chancery suit to which in February 1640-1 he was party as an infant, for the purpose of establishing his right to a plot of land at Henley, styled the Bowling Place, and to other property left by his father. Under orders of the court of wards an inquiry into the late earl's property was held at Abingdon 1 April 1641, and the court found that 'Edward, now Earl of Banbury, is, and at the time of the earl's decease was, his son and next heir.’ Edward travelled in Italy in 1644, and in June 1645 was slain in a quarrel on the road between Calais and Gravelines. He was buried in the church of the Friars Minims at Calais.

His younger brother, Nicholas Knollys called third Earl of Banbury (1631-1674), thereupon assumed the title. He had travelled to France with his mother in 1644, but both had returned before 19 Oct. 1646, when Lord Vaux settled all his lands at Harrowden on his wife (Knollys's mother), with remainder to Knollys himself, who was styled Earl of Banbury in the deed. At an early age Nicholas married his first wife, Isabella, daughter of Mountjoy Blount, earl of Newport, and soon fell into pecuniary difficulties. On 27 Feb. 1654-5, as Nicholas, earl of Banbury, he, with his wife, his mother, and Lord Vaux of Harrowden, petitioned Cromwell to remove the sequestration on Lord Vaux's estate, and to allow them to compound or sell some of the lands. The earl and countess, the petitioners stated, were both young, and owed 10,000l., on account of which debt the earl was confined at the time in the Upper Bench prison (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1654-5, p. 55). Soon afterwards Knollys's first wife died, and he married at Stapleford, Leicestershire, on 4 Oct. 1655, Anne, daughter of William, lord Sherard of Leitrim. In June 1660 he attended the Convention parliament in the House of Lords, but it was not until 13 July 1660 that the first attempt was made to dispute his right to his seat there. It was then moved that ‘there being a person that now sits in this house as a peer of the realm, viz. the Earl of Banbury, it is ordered that this business shall be heard at the bar by counsel’ on the 23rd. Knollys attended the house daily in the week preceding that appointed for the hearing, and was present on the day itself. But no proceedings were taken, and on 24 July he was nominated, under the style of Earl of Banbury, to sit on the committee on the Excise Bill. On 21 Nov. it was ordered that the earl ‘hath leave to be absent for some time.’ On 29 Dec. the Convention parliament was dissolved.

No writ of summons was sent to Knollys for the new parliament, meeting 8 May 1661. He therefore petitioned the king for the issue of the writ and for all the old earl's rights of precedency. His petition when forwarded to the House of Lords was referred to a committee of privileges. This committee examined the servants who were at Harrowden at the time of his birth. The attorney-general argued on behalf of the king that the old earl had died childless, but the committee reported on 1 July 1661 that ‘Nicholas, Earl of Banbury, is a legitimate person.’ The House of Lords, after a long debate and an examination of witnesses before the whole house, declined to accept this report, and the committee was directed to reconsider it, and also to examine Knollys's title to the old earl's precedency. In the result another report was issued on 19 July declaring the claimant to be ‘in the eye of the law’ son of the late earl, but denying him his claim to precedency. The House of Lords adjourned before taking this second report into consideration, and after reassembling in November, although it was decided to discuss it on 9 Dec. following, a bill declaring Knollys illegitimate was, on that date, read for a first time. The report was never considered, nor did the bill go beyond the initial stage. When the house met on 26 Oct. 1669, nearly eight years later, the committee of privileges, at the suggestion of some friend of Knollys, was directed to examine the grounds on which the Earl of Banbury's name was omitted from the roll, but their report merely rehearsed the previous proceedings, without suggesting any conclusion. On 23 Feb. 1670 Knollys once more petitioned the lords to admit him to their house, but the petition was passed over without notice. On 14 March 1673-4 Knollys died at Boughton, Northamptonshire. His widow survived till 10 March 1679-80.

Charles Knollys, called fourth Earl of Banbury (1662-1740), son of the above by his second wife, was baptised at Boughton as ‘Viscount Wallingford,’ son of ‘the Earl of Banbury,’ 3 June 1662, and on 10 June 1685 petitioned the House of Lords for a writ of summons; the committee of privileges for a second time issued a report of the earlier history of the case, and the house resolved to hear counsel for and against the claim on 6 July, but owing to adjournments and prorogations the case was not heard. The controversy entered on a new phase in 1692. In that year Knollys fought a duel with his brother-in-law, Captain Philip Lawson, and killed him. He was arrested, and on 7 Dec. 1692 was indicted for murder under the style of ‘Charles Knollys, esq.’ He at once stated, in a petition to the House of Lords, that as Earl of Banbury he was entitled to a trial by his peers. On 9 Jan. 1692-3 the lords heard arguments for and against the plea. Finch and Sir Thomas Powis represented Knollys, while Sir John Somers, attorney-general, appeared for the crown and resisted his pretensions. A proposal to invite the opinion of the judges on points of law was rejected by the lords (17 Jan. 1692-3), and a resolution declaring the petitioner to have no right to the earldom was carried. Twenty peers protested against this decision. Meanwhile Knollys remained in Newgate, but he obtained a writ for the removal of his trial from the Middlesex sessions to the court of king's bench, and when arraigned there in Hilary term 1693 in the name of Charles Knollys, he pleaded a misnomer. The trial was delayed while this plea was under consideration in the law courts, and the prisoner was admitted to bail 3 May 1693. The attorney-general insisted that the resolution of the lords destroyed Knollys's case, but in Trinity term 1694 Lord-chief-justice Holt [q. v.], with the three other judges of the king s bench, unanimously quashed the indictment and set the defendant free on the ground that he was Earl of Banbury, and that his name was wrongly entered. In January 1698, on 19 May 1712, and on the accession of George II in 1727, Knollys again petitioned the crown to issue a writ of summons. On the first of these occasions the lords were once more invited to consider the question. Maintaining their hostile attitude a committee of privileges summoned Holt and the other judges to explain their recent judgment. Holt declined to offer any explanation, and the matter dropped. Owing to accidental circumstances the advisers of the crown arrived at no decision in 1712 and 1728. Knollys died in France in April 1740. One Elizabeth Price issued in 1696 a pamphlet entitled ‘The True Countess of Banbury's Case relating to her Marriage rightly stated in a Letter to the Earl of Banbury,’ Lond. 1696, sm. fol. The writer claimed, after living with Knollys at London, Paris, and Mantua, to have married him at Verona, 7 April 1692, but Knollys denied her statement, and was legally married at the time to Elizabeth, daughter of Edward Lister of Barwell, Leicestershire. The latter was his first wife. By his second wife, Mary (d. 1762), daughter of Thomas Woods of St. Andrew's, Holborn, he left a surviving son, Charles (1703-1771), of Christ Church, Oxford (B.A. 1725, M.A. 1728), who was titular Earl of Banbury, and was vicar of Barford, Oxfordshire, from 1750 till his death. The vicar's two sons, William (1726-1776) and Thomas Woods Knollys (1727-1793), both officers in the army, were also successively titular Earls of Banbury. The latter's son, William Knollys, called eighth Earl of Banbury (1763-1834), took legal steps to reassert his claim to the earldom. He was appointed ensign of the 3rd foot-guards in 1778, and lieutenant, with rank of captain, in 1788. He served throughout the campaign in Flanders in 1793, and became lieutenant-colonel in December of that year, and in 1796 brevet-colonel. He was with the grenadier battalion of guards throughout the expedition to Holland in 1797. In 1802 he was promoted major-general, and in 1808 lieutenant-general. In 1818 he became lieutenant-governor of St. John's, in 1819 general in the army, and was later governor of Limerick.

In 1806 he petitioned the crown for his writ as a peer. On 17 Jan. 1808 the attorney-general, Sir Vicary Gibbs, reported that the resolution of the lords in 1692-3 was ‘not a conclusive judgment’ against the claim, and that no attempt had been made to reverse the decision of the court of king's bench, but that the legitimacy of the Nicholas Knollys, the first petitioner, was doubtful. After five years' discussion and a reconsideration of all the former proceedings by the committee of privileges of the House of Lords, the lords on 15 March 1813 resolved that the claimant was not entitled to the title of earl. An ‘eloquent and forcible’ protest, enunciating the illegality of this decision, was drawn up by Lord Erskine, and was signed by the Dukes of Kent, Gloucester, and Sussex, and six other peers. The general died at Paris of influenza, 20 March 1834 (see Gent. Mag. 1834, ii. 209), leaving by his wife (a daughter of Ebenezer Blackwell of London) a son, Sir William Thomas Knollys [q. v.] Since the decision of 1813 the family have taken no steps to assert their right to the earldom of Banbury.

[For the life of William, earl of Banbury, see Dugdale's Baronage; Spedding's Bacon; Gardiner's Hist. of England; Nichols's Progresses; Doyle's Official Baronage. Much of the earl's official correspondence is in Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. (cf. index for 1854-75). The fullest account of the peerage case is in Sir H. N. Nicolas's Treatise on the Law of Adulterine Bastardy (1836), which includes the reports of proceedings in the House of Lords from 1661 to 1813. A good summary of the litigation appears in G. E. C[okaync]'s Complete Peerage, 1887, i. 229 sq. Burke's version of the story in Romance of the Peerage and in Extinct Peerage is unsatisfactory.]

S. L.