Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Parsons, William (1570?-1650)

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PARSONS, Sir WILLIAM (1570?–1650), lord justice of Ireland, the eldest son of James Parsons, second son of Thomas Parsons of Disworth Grange, Leicestershire, and Catherine Fenton, sister of Sir Geoffrey Fenton [q. v.], was born apparently about 1570. According to Carte (Life of Ormonde, i. 190), whose account, however, is not strictly accurate, he ‘imbibed early puritanical sentiments,’ but after the death of his patron, the Earl of Leicester, in 1588, ‘he made shift to raise up about 40l., and, with this as his whole fortune,’ transported himself to Ireland, where he found employment as assistant to his uncle Sir Geoffrey Fenton, surveyor-general, and eventually, on 26 Dec. 1602, succeeded to his office. He was ‘plodding, assiduous, and indefatigable, greedy of office, and eager to raise a fortune’ (ib.) On 24 Oct. 1603 he was appointed a commissioner to inquire into the dissolved monasteries in Tyrconnel, and on 20 Dec. 1605 a commissioner for the apportionment and erection of the county of Wicklow. His office of surveyor-general afforded him unique opportunities to acquire land; and the eagerness with which he availed himself of them, especially in the case of the O'Byrnes of Wicklow [see under O'Byrne, Fiagh MacHugh], gained him an unenviable notoriety as a land-hunter. But it may at least be said for him that private interest was in his case balanced by a sincere belief in the efficacy of the plantation system as a means to establish the English interest in Ireland on a firm and endurable basis. He took an active part in his double capacity of commissioner of plantations and surveyor-general in the plantation of Ulster in 1610, of Wexford in 1618, of Longford and Ely O'Carrol in 1619, of Leitrim in 1620, and in the subsequent settlement of the O'Byrnes' territory in Wicklow. As an English undertaker in Ulster he obtained one thousand acres of arable land in the precinct of Clogher in co. Tyrone, called by him the Manor of Cecil, the exact position of which is accurately marked in Norden's map (Cott. MS. Aug. i. ii. 44). As a servitor or Irish official, he was allotted one thousand acres in the precinct of Dungannon in the same county, and he subsequently acquired one thousand acres in the precinct of Tullagha in co. Cavan, which, as being concealed lands, were exempted from the usual conditions of plantation. As an undertaker in Wexford he obtained fifteen hundred acres at an annual rent to the crown of 8l., and eight hundred acres in the plantation of Leitrim.

Nor does this by any means exhaust the list of his acquisitions. His salary as surveyor-general amounted to 80l. On 31 Jan. 1611 he received a pension of 30l. in consideration of his services in the plantation of Ulster. He was created a baronet on 10 Oct. 1620, and at the same time received a grant of the manor of Tassagard in co. Dublin, and other lands amounting to a yearly rental to the crown of 100l. He suggested the establishment of a court of wards in Ireland as a means to strengthen the English interest and to augment the revenue of the crown, and on 6 Sept. 1622 he was appointed master of it, with a salary of 300l. His connection with Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork [q. v.], who married his cousin Catherine Fenton, greatly added to his influence, and he was admitted a privy councillor apparently in January 1623. On 4 Aug. 1628 he passed a patent for one thousand acres of arable and 1,126 acres of ‘unprofitable’ or mountain land in Ranelagh in co. Wicklow, and in 1630 he obtained an equally large estate in Fermanagh. When the appointment of Wentworth as deputy was announced, Parsons addressed him a hearty letter of congratulation (Strafford Letters, i. 64). But he had no sympathy with his policy of ‘thorough,’ which he regarded as unconstitutional and detrimental to the interests of the new settlers. He prudently abstained from offering any open opposition, and zealously co-operated in Wentworth's projected plantation of Connaught; but there is little doubt that he regarded his downfall with satisfaction, and that the ‘certificate of the lords justices and council of Ireland concerning the demeanour of the Earl of Strafford in his office of Lord Lieutenant of Ireland’ (Egerton MS. 2533, ff. 101–16), addressed to the king on 2 April 1641, owed something of its bitterness to a feeling of personal hostility on his part towards ‘that strange man’ who ‘was a mischief to many and to himself at last’ (Lismore Papers, 2nd ser. v. 139).

He represented the county of Wicklow in parliament in 1639, and on the death of the vice-deputy, Sir Christopher Wandesford, on 3 Dec. 1640, he and Robert, lord Dillon of Kilkenny West, were appointed lords justices of the kingdom. But the appointment of the latter, ‘a person of great abilities and a shrewd reach, well esteemed of by the Earl of Strafford’—being, in fact, his brother-in-law—proving distasteful to some of the Irish committee of parliament then in England, it was rescinded, and a fresh commission issued to Parsons and Sir John Borlase [q. v.], who were accordingly sworn lords justices on 10 Feb. 1641. Borlase was old and indolent, and the management of affairs devolved mainly on Parsons. His government, particularly after the outbreak of the rebellion, has been severely criticised. It is said that the jealousy with which he regarded the catholic gentry of the Pale was directly responsible for their combination with the rebels of Ulster, and that he purposely stimulated the rebellion in order to furnish an excuse for a fresh conquest and ‘a new crop of confiscations.’ His letters certainly show that he was desirous of turning the rebellion to advantage ‘by settling here very great multitudes of the English,’ and that he was convinced ‘that a thorough destruction must be made before we can settle upon a safe peace.’ His object was to stand on the defensive until the English parliament was in a position to send over an army sufficiently powerful to subdue the Irish ‘without mixing any fresh helps, who shall never join heartily with us.’ He strenuously opposed Ormonde's policy of discriminating between the gentry of the Pale and the mere Irish; and it was on account of the opposition he offered to the proposals for a reconciliation between the former and the king that he was removed from office on 31 March 1643—‘a fair recompense,’ he wrote bitterly to the Earl of Cork, ‘for all my zealous and painful toil to the Crown, which God knows was heartily done. The ground is, as I find, because I have endeavoured to be sharp to those damnable rebels, who now seem to be in a fair way to evade all their villainy’ (ib. v. 139). He continued, however, to reside in Dublin till the autumn of 1648, when, the city being invested on all sides except the sea by the confederates, he deemed it prudent to retire to England. He did not meet with the reception he thought he deserved. Dying early in 1650, he was buried in St. Margaret's, Westminster, on 2 March.

A portrait taken of him in middle life, representing him as a fine, mild-looking man in armour, is preserved in Parsonstown Castle, the property of the Earl of Rosse.

His brothers Sir Lawrence and Sir Fenton Parsons shared his fortune. Sir Lawrence, for some time manager of his Ulster property, obtained a considerable estate in the King's County; became second baron of the exchequer; and was grandfather of Sir Lawrence Parsons (d. 1698) [q. v.] Sir Fenton Parsons married Anne, daughter of Sir John Shurley of Isfield in Sussex, but his branch of the family appears to be extinct.

Sir William Parsons married Elizabeth, eldest daughter of John Lany, an alderman of Dublin, by whom he had several children. His grandson and successor, Sir Richard, was created Baron of Oxmantown and Viscount Rosse in 1681, and his son Richard was created Earl of Rosse in 1706. The title became extinct on the death of Richard, second earl, in 1764, but was revived in the younger branch of the family in the person of Lawrence-Harman Parsons, who was created Baron Oxmantown in 1792, Viscount Oxmantown in 1795, and Earl of Rosse in 1806. Lawrence-Harman died in 1807, and was succeeded by his nephew Sir Lawrence Parsons, second earl of Rosse (1758–1841), noticed separately.

[Carte's Life of Ormonde; Cal. of Fiants, Eliz. 6739; Cal. State Papers, Ireland, James I; Cal. Carew MSS.; Lismore Papers, ed. Grosart; Strafford's Letters, i. 64, 98, 190, 276, 298, ii. 343; State Papers, Ireland, Charles I (Rolls Office); Erck's Repertory; Morrin's Cal. Patent Rolls, Charles I; Hill's Plantation of Ulster; Borlase's Reduction of Ireland; Visitations of Nottingham and Sussex (Harl. Soc.); Harris's Hibernica (Pynnar's Survey); Gilbert's Hist. of the Irish Confederation; A Letter written from Sir William Parsons … to Sir Robert Pye, London, 1642; Temple's Irish Rebellion; Kilkenny Archæol. Soc. Journal, new ser. ii. 236; Addit. MSS. 8883 (containing copies of Parsons's official correspondence in a curious sort of shorthand), 15858 f. 103; Egerton MSS. 80 f. 37, 2533 ff. 101–16, 177, 2597 f. 60; Addit. MSS. 4756, 4794 ff. 153, 445, 473–5, 541, 542; Gardiner's Hist. of Engl.; Lecky's England in the Eighteenth Century; Burke's Peerage.]

R. D.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.215
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
420 ii 47-48 Parsons, Sir William (1570?-1650): omit attorney-general in Ireland and
421 i 27 for Sloane MSS. read Addit. MSS.