Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cornwallis, Thomas (1519-1604)

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CORNWALLIS, Sir THOMAS (1519–1604), comptroller of the household, was the eldest son of Sir John Cornwallis, steward of the household to Prince Edward, son of Henry VIII, by his wife Mary, daughter of Edward Sulyard of Otes, Essex. He was knighted at Westminster on 1 Dec. 1548, and in the following year was sent to Norfolk, with the Marquis of Northampton, Lord Sheffield, and others, to quell the insurrection, which was headed by Robert Ket the tanner. Though they contrived to take Norwich, that city was shortly afterwards retaken by the rebels, when Lord Sheffield was killed and Cornwallis taken prisoner. Upon the defeat of the rebels by the Earl of Warwick and the German mercenaries he regained his liberty. In 1553 he served the office of sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and upon the death of Edward VI repaired to Framlingham to offer his assistance to Mary. In October of the same year he was commissioned with Sir Robert Bowes to treat with the Scotch commissioners for the purpose of settling the differences between the two kingdoms, and the treaty of Berwick was signed by them on 4 Dec (Cal. of State Papers, Dom. 1601-3, Addenda, 1547-67, p. 430).

In January 1554 Cornwallis and Sir Edward Hastings were sent by the queen to Dartford in order to confer with Sir Thomas Wyatt, whom they were instructed to tell that she 'marvelled at his demeanour,' 'rising as a subject to impeach her marriage.' When Courtenay in the following month deserted Sir John Gage and fled to Whitehall on the arrival of Wyatt, crying 'Lost! all is lost,' it was Cornwallis who rebuked him by saying, 'Fie, my lord, is this the action of a gentleman?' In March Cornwallis served on the commission for the trial of Wyatt, who after short respite was beheaded on 11 April 1554 (Holinshed, 1587, pp. 1103-4). In the previous February Cornwallis had been despatched with Sir Richard Southwell and Sir Edward Hastings to bring the Princess Elizabeth back from Ashridge in Hertfordshire, whither she had retired in 1553. Though suffering from illness they compelled her to rise from her bed, and by slow stages of six or seven miles a day brought her to London. When it was suggested, with a view of excluding her from the succession, that the princess should be sent out of England, Cornwallis made a successful protest in the council against the scheme. In 1554 he was appointed treasurer of Calais, a post which he retained until his recall, some two months before the town fell into the hands of the French in January 1558. On 25 Dec. 1557 he was made comptroller of the household in the place of Sir Robert Rochester (Strype, vi. 23), and in the following month was elected one of the members for the county of Suffolk. Upon the accession of Elizabeth he was removed from his post in the household as well as from the privy council, and thereupon retired to his Suffolk estates and rebuilt Brome Hall. Being a staunch papist and a trusted servant of the late queen, he was naturally an object of suspicion to Elizabeth's ministers. On the appearance of symptoms of disaffection among the catholic nobles in 1570, Lord Southampton, one of the intended leaders of the insurrection, and Cornwallis were at once arrested. Shortly afterwards the threatened danger of a war with France was averted, and they were then set at liberty. In 1567 Cornwallis attended a conference on religious matters, the result of which was that on 20 June he made his humble submission to the queen, and 'entreated pardon for his offence in having withstood her laws for establishing true religion' (Cal. of State Papers, Dom. 1547-80, p. 293). He seems, however, to have sadly relapsed, for in 1578 various complaints were made of his conduct, among others that he 'shared in drunken banquetings of bishops' servants, and made scoffing excuses for coming to church' {ib. Add. 1566-79, p. 551). In a letter, however, to Lord Burghley, dated 9 July 1584, Cornwallis asserts that 'no action of his life discovers a disobedient or unquiet thought towards her majesty,' and transmits a copy of his letter to the bishop of Norwich justifying his non-attendance at church (ib., 1581-90, p. 190). His name heads the list of recusants for 1587 (Strype, xii. 597). He died on 28 Dec. 1604 in the eighty-sixth year of his age, and was buried in the church at Brome, where a monument was erected to his memory. With regard to his age there is some doubt, as it is stated in 'Excursions through Suffolk' (p. 22) that 'his Portrait when at the age of seventy-four, in 1590, hangs in the dining-room.' This portrait is unfortunately no longer there, but was sold with the rest of the family relics at Brome Hall in 1825-6. Cornwallis married Anne, the daughter of Sir John Jerningham of Somerleyton, Suffolk, by whom he had two sons and three daughters. William, his eldest son, was knighted at Dublin on 6 Aug. 1599 for his services in Ireland under Robert, earl of Essex, and was the father of Sir Frederick Cornwallis, bart., who on 20 April 1661 was created Baron Cornwallis of Eye for his fidelity to Charles I. Of the younger son, Sir Charles Cornwallis, a separate notice is given. The suspicions of Sir Thomas's complicity with the French when treasurer of Calais, which are recorded in the lines,

Who built Brome Hall? Sir Thomas Cornwallis.
How did he build it? By selling of Calais,

appear to be quite unfounded; for in a letter written at Calais on 2 July 1557, Cornwallis warned the queen of the weakness of the garrison, and entreated that a larger force should be immediately sent over.

[Collins's Peerage (1812), ii. 544–6, 548–50; Burke's Extinct Peerage (1883), pp. 137–8; Edmondson's Baronagium Genealogicum, iii. 289; Cobbett's State Trials (1809), i. 862–70; Froude's History of England, v. 206–15, vi. 161–2, 178, 192, 490, vii. 17, x. 71–5; Strype's Works (1820–40), v. 128, 337, vi. 23, 125, 160, ix. 164, xii. 597; Speed (1611), pp. 816, 819, 821–2; Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, i. 103, Domestic Addenda, 1547–65, p. 430; Excursions through Suffolk (1819), ii. 21–3; Notes and Queries, 4th ser. i. 505–6, 7th ser. i. 69, 152; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. i. p. 398.]

G. F. R. B.