Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Williams, Roger (1540?-1595)

WILLIAMS, Sir ROGER (1540?–1595), soldier, was the son of Thomas Williams of Penrhôs in Monmouthshire, by Eleanor, daughter of Sir William Vaughan, knight. His family, although ancient, was not wealthy. A seventeenth-century tradition represents him ‘as but a taylour at first’ (Anecdotes and Traditions, Camden Soc. p. 47). According to Wood he spent some time at Oxford, probably at Brasenose College. The literary work ascribed to him suggests that he was well educated. But at a very youthful age he adopted the profession of arms. He states that he saw his earliest military service while acting as a page in the household of William Herbert, first earl of Pembroke [q. v.] He claims to have taken part with his master in the storming of St. Quentin in 1557. He spent most of his later life on the continent of Europe, in the capacity of a soldier of fortune. He rapidly acquired a wide reputation for exceptional courage and daring. Like Shakespeare's Fluellen, he was constitutionally of a choleric temper and blunt of speech, but the defects of judgment with which he is commonly credited seem exaggerated.

According to a doubtful statement of Wood, Williams gained his chief instruction in the art of war while serving with Spaniards under the Duke of Alva. The exploits by which he made his earliest fame were achieved in conflict with his alleged tutors in the Low Countries. In April 1572 he joined the band of three hundred volunteers which Captain Thomas Morgan [q. v.] conducted to Flushing to support the cause of the Dutch provinces which had risen in revolt against Spain. Williams proved himself the guiding spirit of the Flushing garrison. But the English met at first with few successes. On Morgan's departure Williams took part with Sir Humphrey Gilbert [q. v.] in August 1572 in what he calls ‘our ignorant poor siege’ of Goes, which ended in disaster for the besiegers. Active hostilities temporarily ceased soon afterwards, and Williams made his way to Germany, where he heard that the Prince of Condé was about to raise an army for carrying on war with Spain. His information proved incorrect, and at Lier in Brabant, on his journey homewards, he fell in with Julian Romero, the best infantry officer in the Spanish service. Romero invited Williams to join his standard, and, in the absence of active hostilities between England and Spain, he consented. He seems to have been treated as a prisoner, and soon returned to his old allegiance. In 1577 he joined the English troops that arrived in the Low Countries under the command of (Sir) John Norris (1547?–1597) [q. v.], and for the greater part of the following seven years acted as Norris's lieutenant. In 1581 a Captain Thomas in the Spanish service challenged Norris to single combat. Norris declined the challenge, but Williams took it up. A duel followed in the presence of the opposing armies. The combatants were evenly matched, and the indecisive engagement ended in a friendly drinking bout (Churchyard, True Discourse, 1602, p. 38).

Williams's valour attracted attention at home (cf. Wright, Elizabeth and her Times, ii. 136). But in 1584 he vainly petitioned the queen for a military position of trust. ‘I would refuse no hazard that is possible to be done in the queen's service,’ he wrote to Walsingham in September of that year; ‘but I do persuade myself she makes no account of me.’ The Spaniards had sought by bribes, he declared, to allure him to their flag. The Spanish generals Parma and Verdugo had begged his countenance. He wished to be true to his country, but if the queen continued to turn a deaf ear to his entreaties, he would be forced to serve Duke Matthias in Hungary, or ‘one of the Turk's bashaws against the Persians’ (Williams to Walsingham, September 1584, in P. R. O.). An anecdote was current in the seventeenth century to the effect that on one of his many attempts to gain the queen's notice at court she, ‘observing a new pair of boots on his legs, claps her hand to her nose and cries “Fah, Williams, I prythe begone, thy boots stink.”’ ‘Tut, tut, madame,’ Williams is reported to have replied with soldierly directness, ‘'tis my suit that stinks’ (Anecdotes and Traditions, Camden Soc. 1839, p. 47). Walsingham showed himself in words at any rate more conciliatory. The minister was as anxious as Williams himself to deal an effective blow against Spain. Williams urged the despatch of a fleet to the Spanish Indies, and in any case rapid and bold action in the Low Countries, where the cause of the protestants was at a low ebb. Williams's importunities at length bore fruit. In 1585 he was sent to the Low Countries with what promised to be an effective English army, under the Earl of Leicester's command.

The effort did not reap the anticipated harvest. Leicester proved singularly inefficient. As of old, Williams was personally conspicuous for his valour, but his exploits produced no permanent result. In June 1586 he and the Dutch general Schenk, with one hundred and thirty English lances and thirty of Schenk's men, made a wild attempt to cut their way at night through the force of Spaniards which was besieging Venloo under the leadership of the Prince of Parma. Williams believed he could enter the city. He and his companions passed through the enemy's lines, slew many Spaniards, and reached Parma's tent, where they killed his secretary. But at the approach of dawn their position was hopeless and they retreated, losing nearly half their number. Two thousand men pursued them, and they found shelter with difficulty in the neighbouring village of Wachtendouk, seven miles distant (cf. Leycester Correspondence, Camden Soc. p. 319). On 2 Sept. in the victorious assault on Doesburg, near Arnhem, Williams was wounded in the arm through his own carelessness. ‘I warned him of it,’ Leicester wrote to Walsingham two days later, ‘being in trench with me [but he] would need run upp and downe so oft out of the trench, with a great plume of feathers in his gylt morion, as so many shotte coming at him he could hardlie escape with so little hurt’ (ib. p. 407). On 22 Sept. Williams took part in the affair before Zutphen, where Sir Philip Sidney was mortally wounded. Leicester wrote to Walsingham on 6 Oct. 1586 (Ouvry MS. fol. 60, copy): ‘Roger Williams is worth his weight in gold, for he is noe more valiant than he is wise, and of judgment to gouerne his doings’ (ib. p. 430). Leicester knighted him by way of publicly confirming his good opinion. Next year Williams appealed to the queen and Walsingham to send further reinforcements. He was besieged in Sluys, and was anxious that the city should be relieved. But the queen was deaf to his appeals. On 30 June the citadel of Sluys fell into the enemy's hands, and the city was surrendered a month later. Parma respectfully saluted Williams as he entered the city, and invited him to enter the Spanish service or take the field against the Turks. Williams replied that his sword belonged to his queen, and that when she had no further use for it it would be placed at the service of Henry of Navarre. Williams was sent by Leicester to bear the tidings of the disaster at Sluys to the queen. Leicester urged the queen to give Williams a horse, but no reward was forthcoming. Williams was inclined to blame Leicester for inadequately pressing his services on the attention of the court, and the two men were thenceforth alienated.

In the summer of 1588, when the camp was formed at Tilbury with a view to resist the possible landing of a Spanish army, Williams was entrusted with the important duties of master of the horse; but Leicester complained that he frequently absented himself without leave (Defeat of the Spanish Armada, Naval Records Soc. i.). As soon as the dangers incident to the Spanish armada were passed Williams returned to the Low Countries, where Peregrine Bertie, lord Willoughby, was in command of the English forces. In March 1589 he finally left the Low Countries with Willoughby, and in the autumn following joined the army that Willoughby conducted to Dieppe in support of Henry of Navarre, who was engaged in a fierce struggle with the forces of the catholic league. The rest of Williams's military career was devoted to the cause of Henry of Navarre, for whom he characteristically declared a passionate attachment.

In May 1590 Williams was present with Henry of Navarre at a conference with representatives of the league and of Spain before the gates of Paris. With some irrelevance he took occasion to announce his personal hatred of both Spain and the league. In May 1591, at the head of six hundred men—four hundred of them English—he attacked two full regiments of the league in the entrenchments at Dieppe. The rout of the enemy was complete. Five hundred were killed or wounded, and four hundred were captured. ‘Glory to God and to the said Sir [Roger] Williams,’ wrote Henry of Navarre's ambassador in London on hearing the news, ‘who has not belied by this action the good opinion that all good people of both nations had of him this long time.’

Other successes for Henry of Navarre's army followed in Normandy. Williams was prominent in many skirmishes, squabbling as of old with his commanders, challenging the enemy to single combat, and writing to the queen with almost insolent frankness of the niggardly support she was according her foreign allies. Reports of the progress of the war were issued in London in pamphlet form, under the title, ‘Newes from Sir Roger Williams. With a discourse printed at Rhemes, containing the most happie victorie, lately obtained by the Prince de Conty, Lieutenant generall ouer the kinges forces in Anjou, Touraine, Maine. … Printed by John Woolfe, and are to be sold by Andrew White, … Anno 1591,’ 4to (a copy is at Lambeth).

In July 1591 the Earl of Essex, the most active and influential of Henry's English friends and sympathisers, brought yet another English detachment to France, and the newcomers aided Henry in besieging Rouen. Williams, who was already favourably known to Essex, was invited to join him, and they were thenceforth on terms of close intimacy. When Essex was recalled to England on 8 Jan. 1591–2, Williams took his place as commander of the English troops which he left in camp before Rouen (Coningsby, Siege of Rouen, Camden Soc. Miscellany, vol. i.).

In 1592 Williams greatly distinguished himself when besieged in the town of Rue, fourteen miles to the north-west of Abbeville. At the head of two hundred musketeers and one hundred and fifty pikemen he, without armour, led his men against five squadrons of Spanish and Italian horse and six companies of Spanish infantry. He singled out and unhorsed the leader of the Spanish troopers, and nearly cut off the head of the Albanian chief, George Basti, with a swinging blow of his sword. Afterwards being reinforced by other English companies, he drove the whole body of the enemy with great loss to their entrenchments. ‘The king doth commend him very highly,’ wrote Sir Henry Unton [q. v.], the English ambassador in France, ‘and doth more than wonder at the valour of our nation. I never heard him give more honour to any service nor to any man.’

Williams remained in France for most of his remaining years, though he occasionally brought news to London. At home he completely identified himself with the interests of Essex (cf. Cal. Hatfield MSS. vols. v. and vi.). Richard Verstegan reported in May 1595 that the queen had given him leave ‘to serve the emperor against the Turk’ (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1595–7, p. 40). On 26 July 1595 he was at Greenwich, and ‘in presence of all the court received of her majesty a friendly public welcome’ (Birch, Queen Elizabeth, i. 269). In September he was sent by the government to France to report on the political situation (ib. pp. 277, 294). He was in England again two months later, and was taken fatally ill. He died in London on 12 Dec. 1595, according to Wood, ‘in his house in the parish of St. Benedict near to Paul's Wharf.’ Rowland Whyte wrote to Sir Robert Sidney next day that Williams ‘died of a surfett in B[aynards] Castell … He gave all he had to my Lord of Essex, who, indeed, saved his sowle, for none but he cold make hym take a feeling of his end, but he died well and very repentant’ (Sydney Papers, i. 377). He was buried on 23 Dec. in St. Paul's Cathedral, ‘in very good martiall sort.’ His kinsmen, Thomas Powell of Usk and Gelly Meyrick [q. v.], made the funeral arrangements. The Earl of Essex and ‘all the warlike men of the city of London’ were among the mourners.

Williams's personal property, which passed to Essex, was considerable. ‘His jewels are valewed at 1000l. Tis sayd he had 1200l. out at interest. In ready gold he had 200l. and 60l. in silver. His plate is worth 60l., his garments 30l., his horses 60l.’ (ib. i. 377). Williams fully deserved the commendations that were heaped upon him by his contemporaries (cf. Thomas Newton's ‘Illustrium aliquot anglorum Encemia’ in Leland's ‘De Rebus Britannicis Collectanea’). He claimed with justice that no living Englishman ‘ventured himself freer and oftener for his prince, state, and friends than he.’ An echo of the esteem in which he was held is found in George Chapman's play of ‘Byron's Conspiracy’ (act ii. sc. i. end), where Henry of Navarre is made to liken ‘the swelling valour’ of Colonel Williams, ‘a worthy captain,’ to that of his own marshal, Byron. Williams's impulsive temper did not render him the less effective on the battlefield. His letters and literary work prove him to have possessed command of a blunt and forcible vocabulary as well as much sagacity as a student of the art of war.

Williams was author of ‘A Brief Discourse of War, with his opinions concerning some part of Martial Discipline,’ London, by Thomas Orwin, 1590, 4to. The book, which was dedicated to the Earl of Essex, contained much personal reminiscence; it was designed to prove the proposition that success in war depended on ‘a good chiefe, a good purse, and good justice.’ Williams commends the generalship of the French officer and military writer De la Noue, and grows especially enthusiastic over the discipline maintained in the Duke of Parma's army in the Low Countries. He strongly advocates the use of the musket, and at close quarters the pike, and wholly condemns the antiquated bow and arrow. The work passed through two editions within a year. At the same date there came out a somewhat similar work, ‘Certain Discourses,’ by Sir John Smith or Smythe [q. v.] Smith set a higher value than Williams on archery, and he reflected so directly on Leicester's efficiency as a general that his book was promptly suppressed. Smith protested to Lord Burghley on 20 May 1590 that, although Williams's book was equally hostile to the English military authorities, it ‘hath bene verie well allowed of and never called in question for anie suppression.’ Next year Humfrey Barwick brought out ‘A Breefe Discourse,’ ‘with his opinion concerning the severall discourses’ of Williams and Smith, both of whom he attacked with asperity. Of the three military tracts, Williams's pamphlet showed the greatest ability and alone achieved any lasting success. Wood also ascribes to Williams ‘A Discourse of the Discipline of Spain,’ but there is no doubt that this is identical with ‘A Brief Discourse of War,’ which deals largely with the military discipline of Spain.

In dedicating his ‘Brief Discourse’ to Essex, Williams stated that he had written in French an account of his action in Holland down to the siege of Sluys, but had lost the greater part of his manuscript through a servant's carelessness. Some portion of this unlucky work apparently survives in ‘A Brief Discourse.’ Another portion appeared posthumously in ‘Actions of the Low Countries, written by Sir Roger Williams,’ London, 1618, 4to. This tract was dedicated to Sir Francis Bacon by Sir Peter Manwood, ‘in whose hands the manuscript has long lyen.’ An introductory address to the reader by Sir John Hayward [q. v.] was prefixed. Hayward, while commending the author's veracity, states that the original was very roughly penned, and that he had thoroughly revised it in both ‘sense’ and ‘phrase.’ It was reprinted in ‘Somers's Tract’ (1806, i. 329–82). It is a contribution to history rather than to autobiography. No dates are given, and the chief incidents which it relates belong to the period 1567–74. A Dutch translation made early in the seventeenth century by Jacob Wijtz was published with a biographical preface by J. T. Bodel Nyenhuis at Utrecht in 1864 under the title ‘Memoriën van Roger Williams.’ The volume forms No. 3 of the ‘Werken uitgegeven door het Historisch Genootschap gevestigd te Utrecht (Nieuwe Reeks).’

[Nyenhuis's introduction to Memorien van Roger Williams, Utrecht, 1864; Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss; Camden's Annals; Lady Bertie's Five Generations of a Loyal House, 1845; Cal. State Papers and Hatfield MSS; Motley's The United Netherlands; Camden Society's Miscellany, vol. i.; Birch's Queen Elizabeth, 1754.]

S. L.