Williams, William (1634-1700) (DNB00)

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WILLIAMS, Sir WILLIAM (1634–1700), solicitor-general and speaker of the House of Commons, born in 1634 at Nantanog in the parish of Llantrisant in Anglesey, was the second son of Hugh Williams, D.D. (1596–1670), rector of Llantrisant and Llanrhyddlad in that county, and subsequently canon of Bangor and (Vaenol) prebendary of St. Asaph (Browne Willis, Bangor, p. 170, and St. Asaph, p. 113; Memorial Inscription in Llantrisant Church). His mother was Emma, daughter and sole heiress of John Dolben of Caeau Gwynion, near Denbigh, and niece of David Dolben [q. v.], bishop of Bangor (Arch. Cambr. i. iv. 280; Dwnn, ii. 76, 266 n.; Pennant, Tours in Wales, ed. 1810, iii. 78).

Young Williams became a scholar of Jesus College, Oxford, where he matriculated on 7 Nov. 1650, but did not proceed to a degree. He was admitted student of Gray's Inn on 12 Nov. 1650, was called to the bar in 1658, and was treasurer of his inn in 1681. On 31 July 1661 he was granted, with another, the reversion of the office of prothonotary and clerk of the crown in the counties of Denbigh and Montgomery (Brit. Mus. Sloane MS. 856, No. 32). He was not long in acquiring a practice, for an old story tells how he owed his wife to his having won an important lawsuit at Shrewsbury for Walter Kyffin of Glasgoed, in the parish of Llansilin, Denbighshire, whose eldest daughter and heiress, Margaret, he married on 14 April 1664 (Eyton, Sheriffs of Shropshire, p. 156; the story is given differently in Yorke, p. 99). In the following year he added to his territorial influence by purchasing the Llanforda estate from Edward Lloyd (father of Edward Lhuyd [q. v.]), who described Williams as being even then ‘the leviathan of our laws and lands’ (Eyton; see original correspondence in Byegones, 2nd ser. iv. 265, 324). In 1667 he was appointed recorder of Chester. He unsuccessfully contested the borough in 1672, but was returned in June 1675, and attached himself at once to the anti-court or country party. He frequently took part in the debates, becoming from the outset the recognised champion of the privileges of the house against all extensions of the royal prerogative. Thus in almost his first speech (23 Oct. 1675) he opposed the granting of supplies without previous redress of grievances; he subsequently asserted the illegality of an arrest not by the king's writ but by his verbal command, and when Sir Edward Seymour [q. v.], as speaker, adjourned the house against the will of its members, but in compliance with the wishes of the court, he accused him of ‘gagging his parliament.’ When in March 1678–9 the house re-elected Seymour as their speaker, and the king refused to ratify their choice, Williams repeatedly urged the house not to nominate another speaker. Outside the house he also gave proof of his party zeal, for on the breaking out of the popish plot he busied himself as recorder of Chester in procuring evidence as to the local movements of suspected catholics (see letters between October 1678 and December 1681 in Hist. MSS. Comm. 8th Rep. pp. 390–1, and Willis Bund, State Trials, ii. 1159). In 1680 he acquired further popularity with his party by his defence of Francis Smith for the publication of a libel on Chief-justice Scroggs; Jeffreys, who, like Williams, was a Welshman, led the prosecution, and their mutual dislike soon ripened into the bitterest enmity.

When, after repeated prorogations, the second parliament, elected in 1679, at last assembled on 21 Oct. 1680, Williams was unanimously elected speaker on the proposal of Lord Russell. In the intervals of the discussions on the exclusion bill the house called to account some of the leading ‘abhorrers,’ and among others who were punished with expulsion were Sir Francis Wythens, Jeffreys, and Sir Robert Peyton, whom the speaker reprimanded on their knees at the bar. This he did in such coarse terms that immediately parliament was dissolved Peyton sent him a challenge, but, instead of accepting it, the ex-speaker (who on 25 Oct. 1675 had proposed to the house that duellists be ‘reckoned incapable of pardon’) reported the affair to the privy council, whereupon Peyton was committed to the tower (RALPH). Peyton further retaliated by publishing what he described as ‘A Specimen of the Rhetoric, Candour, Gravity, and Ingenuity’ of Williams, being his speech on Peyton's expulsion, with marginal comments on its extravagances. This led Williams to publish authorised versions of several of the speeches which he subsequently delivered as speaker.

In the early days of this parliament the king appears to have made some overtures to Williams with the view of conciliating him, for, according to the latter's own statement, he was offered the chief-justiceship of Chester—an office peculiarly acceptable to a Welshman, and then held by Jeffreys, whose removal the commons were demanding—but he declined it because ‘he would not be thought to do anything that might seem to incline against the interest of the commons in that trust’ (Wynn, Argument, 88).

In the succeeding parliament which met at Oxford on 21 March 1680–1, to be abruptly dissolved only a week later, Williams was again chosen speaker, and in presenting himself to the king stated, in ‘a tone of firmness unusual on such occasions,’ that the commons intended by his re-election ‘to manifest to your majesty that they are not inclinable to changes.’ Though displeased, the king did not, as in the case of Seymour, withhold his approval, which when granted evoked another bold speech from Williams.

As Charles governed without a parliament for the remainder of his reign, Williams, relieved of the speakership, returned to his practice at the bar. Among the causes célèbres in which he was engaged were those of Count Königsmark [see Thynne, Thomas], whom he prosecuted for murder, and that of Lord Grey of Werk, whom he defended when charged with the seduction of his sister-in-law, Lady Henrietta Berkeley. But the chief sphere of his forensic activity was that of leading counsel on the whig side in cases involving questions of constitutional law, especially those fought on party lines. Among the first cases of this kind in which he appeared was that of Edmund Fitzharris, whom he defended on a charge of treason in 1681 (Luttrell, i. 78–83). He appeared on the whig side in the various trials arising out of the struggle between the whigs and the court party over the election of the city sheriffs in 1682, defending Pilkington and Shute and their partisans for riot, and Sir Patience Ward [q. v.] for perjury in 1683, and Thomas Papillon [q. v.] for false arrest in 1684. He was one of the counsel assigned to Algernon Sidney [q. v.], and appears to have taken much pains in instructing him for his trial. Several papers drawn up by Williams for this purpose are still preserved (Williams Wynn MSS.), and extracts from them were printed in Howell's edition of ‘State Trials’ (ix. 826). He also gave verbal instructions to Sidney in the earlier stages of the trial, for which Jeffreys ‘reproved’ him (ib. p. 823). In February 1683–4 Williams and Richard Wallop [q. v.] who appeared together in a great many cases, defended the younger Hampden, Laurence Braddon, and Hugh Speke [q. v.], who were tried on charges arising out of the ‘Rye House plot.’ A week later Sir Samuel Barnardiston [q. v.], one of the most active of the city whigs, was also defended by Williams on an absurd charge of having libelled the king and his officers. Most of these cases were tried before Jeffreys, who never lost an opportunity of interrupting Williams and of visiting him with severe castigation for any exceptional boldness of speech. In the great case against monopolies, or the East India Company against Sandys, Williams, in a learned argument delivered in Michaelmas term 1684, questioned the legality of the chartered rights granted to the company, and suggested, much to Jeffreys's indignation, that it was a matter as to which the king should consult parliament. When appearing for the defence of Richard Baxter in May 1685, Williams preferred not to address the chief justice, as that would only irritate him and damage his client's case.

Williams already had a foretaste of the royal displeasure for his uncompromising support of constitutional government. Having counselled resistance to the seizure of municipal charters (e.g. in the case of Oxford in October 1681; Prideaux, Letters, Camden Soc. p. 104), he was removed from the recordership of Chester in 1684. In June of the same year, at Jeffreys's instigation, the attorney-general (Sir Robert Sawyer) exhibited an information against him for having licensed as speaker in 1680 the publication of Dangerfield's libellous ‘Narrative.’

Before the case came on in May 1686 the Duke of York, whose ‘exclusion’ Williams had supported, had ascended the throne, and the elections had resulted in the return of an overwhelmingly tory parliament, in which Williams himself had no seat; his return for the town of Montgomery being cancelled on petition, on the ground that the contributory boroughs had no opportunity of voting. The house therefore took no steps to protect their ex-speaker, or support his defence of parliamentary privilege, in his pending trial for sanctioning the publication of Dangerfield's book. His plea to the jurisdiction of the king's bench was overruled. Under these circumstances Williams withdrew his subsequent plea in bar, and allowed judgment to go against him by default. Deserted by the commons, he decided on making his peace with the king, to whom he sent a petition (copy in Williams's autograph among the Williams Wynn MSS.) The chief justice imposed a fine of 10,000l., and Williams actually paid 8,000l., which was accepted in satisfaction of the full amount (Shower, Reports, ii. 471), the balance being remitted by the king. The suggestion that the prosecution was collusively instituted and that the fine was only ostensibly exacted (Lord Campbell, Speeches, p. 290) derives no support from contemporary authorities. Sir Robert Atkyns [q. v.] prepared an elaborate argument for the defendant, which was not delivered, but was published in 1689 under the title of ‘The Power, Jurisdiction, and Privilege of Parliament’ (Howell, State Trials, xiii. 1380, where it is reprinted). But this trial did not give Williams immunity from further attacks for the same offence. In respect of the publication of Dangerfield's narrative the Earl of Peterborough brought an action of scandalum magnatum against Williams, who pleaded the same pleas as in the previous case, but subsequently compromised the matter by paying 150l., which Peterborough, on James's intervention, accepted in satisfaction. The judgment in the libel action was so flagrant a violation of the principle of parliamentary privilege that three years later (12 July 1689) the House of Commons declared it to be ‘illegal and subversive of the freedom of parliament’ (Commons' Journal, x. 215). The committee charged with drafting the bill of rights (of which Williams was a member) also reviewed these proceedings, with the result that the bill, as adopted by both houses, contained articles (No. 8 of grievances, No. 9 of rights) condemning the prosecution, though not by name (cf. also C. W. Williams Wynn, An Argument upon the Jurisdiction of the House of Commons, 1810; Adolphus and Ellis, Reports, ix. 1–243; Lord Campbell, Speeches, pp. 284–299, 379).

Having made his submission, Williams was, by a new charter granted to Chester in October 1687, restored as alderman and recorder of that city, and in December was made solicitor-general, with a knighthood. 12 Dec. (cf. Verney Memoirs, iv. 412). ‘Though in rank he was only the second law officer, his abilities, knowledge, and energy were such that he completely threw his superior into the shade’ (Macaulay). The one great event associated with his tenure of the office was the part he took in the prosecution of the seven bishops on a charge of publishing a seditious libel in questioning the dispensing power claimed by the king. There was a preliminary skirmish in the court of king's bench on 15 June 1688, when the bishops were required to plead. The trial came on, a fortnight later, at Westminster Hall. Williams, who was twice hissed by the audience (Verney Memoirs, iv. 429), strained every nerve to ‘make a good case of it for the king’ (Macaulay, Essays, p. 364). But the main line of his argument was not wholly inconsistent with his former opinions; maintaining the supremacy of parliament, he urged that it was seditious to interfere with the government of the country out of parliament, and that the bishops ought therefore to have awaited its reassembling, when they could have moved the upper house to address the king. When the verdict of not guilty was given, the applause so exasperated him that he asked for the committal of one of the shouting bystanders. Jeffreys, on hearing the news, was seen to smile and hide his face in his nosegay, for it was said the king had promised that if Williams secured a conviction he should replace his old enemy as chancellor. This seems to be referred to in Williams's epitaph, where he is described as ‘tantum non-purpuratis adscriptus.’ Subsequently Williams, by means of corrections in a manuscript report of the trial, softened down some of his harsher expressions, and in his argument in Prynne's case in 1691 he disclaimed any intention of justifying the proceedings of the late government, saying ‘We have all done amiss, and must wink at one another’ (Five Modern Reports, 463).

On 6 July, less than a week after the trial, he was rewarded with a baronetcy, but for the time being he was, next to Jeffreys perhaps, the best hated man in England. Although ever enemies, they were now associated in the common ridicule of a popular ballad (Macaulay, i. 533):

    Both our Britons are fooled
    Who the laws overruled,
    And next parliament each will be plaguily schooled.

Early in October the windows of Williams's chamber at Gray's Inn were smashed and ‘reflecting inscriptions fixt over his door’ (Luttrell, i. 468). He had probably only just returned from Glasgoed, where Sunderland had written to him on 8 Sept. bidding him secure his election for the forthcoming parliament either in Wales or at Wallingford, and to come up to London as the king wanted his services (Williams Wynn MSS.) On 22 Oct. he attended the extraordinary council to which proofs of the birth of the Prince of Wales were submitted. After this, finding that the king had no intention either of dismissing Jeffreys or of summoning parliament, he took care not to commit himself further by identifying himself with his policy. No sooner had the Prince of Orange reached Windsor than Williams proceeded to offer him a welcome (16 Dec.), but the prince at first refused him an audience. A month later (15 Jan.) Williams was returned to the convention as the representative of Beaumaris in his native county, and in the debate on the state of the nation he, along with other lawyers (including his kinsman, Gilbert Dolben), declared that ‘James II by withdrawing himself from England had deprived the kingdom of the exercise of kingly dignity,’ adding in almost republican language that it would be time enough to consider persons to fill the throne when the convention, which he regarded as parliament, had purged corporations and abrogated ‘the arbitrary powers given to the late king by the judges, for weak judges will do weak things.’

Later, Williams was placed on the committee appointed to draft the bill of rights. But, in spite of his return to his old whig principles, it was impossible for the new king to retain him as solicitor-general, and a successor was therefore appointed in May. Williams was, however, consoled by being made king's counsel and lord-lieutenant for Merionethshire (8 Oct. 1689). The latter honour he held only till the following March, while at the elections which also took place in that month he was not returned for any constituency. For the next five years he devoted himself almost exclusively to his practice at the bar. His appearance at appeals before the House of Lords is frequently recorded at this period (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th, 13th and 14th Reps.); he was one of the counsel for the crown in the prosecution of John Ashton in January 1691, and along with Sir Thomas Powis he appeared for Sir John Germaine and the Duchess of Norfolk in the various proceedings instituted by the duke in respect of their adultery. On 12 May 1692 he was made the queen's solicitor-general (Luttrell, ii. 449). At the trial of the Lancashire Jacobites held before a special commission at Manchester on 16 Oct. 1694 he conducted the prosecution, but when one of the chief witnesses for the crown admitted that the evidence was a mere fabrication of himself and accomplices, Williams promptly threw up the case, and ‘set out post for London to remonstrate against the iniquity of the whole proceeding,’ as more careful inquiry should have been made by the government before instituting the prosecu- tion (Hist. MSS. Comm. 14th Rep. pt. iv. pp. 309, 337, 344, 385; Ralph, Hist. ii. 530). He probably gave serious displeasure to the king by opposing (along with Robert Price [q. v.] and other Welsh members) the proposed royal grant of the lordships of Bromfield and Yale to the Earl of Portland (Cal. of Treasury Papers, 1556–1696, p. 437, where Williams's argument, delivered on 10 May 1698, is reproduced). In October 1693 he had exhibited his ‘partiality, precipitancy, and fury’ in an effort to influence the election of sheriff for Chester (Hist. MSS. Comm. 14th Rep. iv. 277), and in the general election of November 1695 he unsuccessfully contested the city with Sir Thomas Grosvenor, against whose return he petitioned on the ground of bribery and corruption. His own election at Beaumaris had, however, been secured. In the ensuing parliament, which was the last he sat in, he served on committees and frequently took part in debates; he was also the author of an act for further regulating elections and for preventing irregular proceedings on the part of returning officers (7 and 8 Will. III, c. 25). He continued his practice at the bar till his death at Gray's Inn on 11 July 1700. He was buried in the centre of the chancel at Llansilin church, and a beautiful monument, with a long Latin inscription (given in Yorke, p. 167), was erected against the south wall of the south aisle (Arch. Cambr. 5th ser. xi. 119). By his will he left the interest of 200l. to be distributed annually among the poor of Llansilin (Report on Llansilin Charities, 1891). An English elegy written by Henry Stuart and published soon after Williams's death, was reprinted in ‘Bye-gones’ for December 1876 (p. 167). A Welsh ode of praise, written in September 1694 by Huw Morris [q. v.], the royalist poet, was published in Morris's collected works (‘Eos Ceiriog’) in 1820.

By his wife, who was also buried at Llansilin on 10 Jan. 1705, he had four sons (two of whom died young) and one daughter. The eldest, Sir William Williams, succeeded as second baronet. The second son, John, on whom the Bodelwyddan and Anglesey property was settled when he married, became an ‘eminent provincial lawyer’ (Yorke), practising as a barrister at Chester; he married Catherine, eldest daughter of Sir Hugh Owen of Orielton, Pembrokeshire, and was succeeded by his third son, John Williams (1700–1787), for thirty-two years chief justice for Brecon, Glamorgan, and Radnor. From him is descended the Williams family of Bodelwyddan. The speaker's only daughter, Emma, was married to Sir Arthur Owen, bart., of Orielton.

Williams has been severely if not savagely criticised for his tergiversation in accepting office under James II, and especially for his conduct in prosecuting the bishops. Macaulay simply revels in describing the ‘infamy’ of this ‘venal turncoat’ and ‘apostate.’ Williams seems, however, to have been a thoroughly conscientious though somewhat fanatical whig, till he realised that Jeffreys had plotted his ruin by his prosecution for acts done as speaker. His bitter reflections on being deserted by the commons, and having to pay so large a fine, made him adopt for a time the ‘Trimmers'’ view that expediency was the only safe guide in the politics of the day. Partly out of hatred for his old enemy he seems also to have resolved on ousting him, if possible, from the chancellorship, which he would, in fact, have accomplished had he obtained a verdict against the bishops. He had abilities and learning beyond most of his contemporaries at the bar, was prompt and resourceful in argument, a hard worker, and a facile, plausible, and even eloquent speaker. He never lacked courage, but frequently lost control of his temper. North describes him as a ‘cunning Parliament man.’ He was somewhat hard and grasping in his dealings, but entirely free from the fashionable vices of his time, and, in spite of his prosecution of the bishops, seems to have been affectionately attached to the church of England. His portraits represent him as strikingly handsome. One was formerly at the Town Hall, Chester, and an engraving of it was published in Yorke's ‘Royal Tribes of Wales.’ A bad portrait hangs in the speaker's house at Westminster. There was also at Wynnstay a portrait of him in his robes as speaker, painted by Lady Tierney, but this was destroyed when the mansion was burnt in 1858. There is, however, a copy of it at Peniarth (Bye-gones, October 1876, p. 131). There is also at Bodelwyddan an enlarged copy of an original miniature formerly preserved at Wynnstay, and a good copy is at Rhiawa belonging to Lady Verney, daughter of Sir John Hay Williams, second baronet of Bodelwyddan, who descended from the speaker's second son John.

Williams evinced his interest in the history and literature of Wales by purchasing the valuable collection of manuscripts belonging to his neighbour William Maurice [q. v.] (cf. Nicholas Owen, British Remains, p. 158; Arch. Cambr. iii. iv. 347). These, together with most of Williams's own papers, perished in the Wynnstay fire in 1858 (Wynnstay and the Wynns, p. 105, where a list of the Maurice manuscripts is given). A small portion of his papers (some of them in his own handwriting) have, however, been preserved, through coming, in the early years of this century, into the possession of Charles Watkin Williams Wynn [q. v.] A liberal use of them was granted to Howell when in 1810–1811 he was preparing his edition of the ‘State Trials,’ and the reports of several cases added to that edition are taken from Williams's notes and papers (see ix. 323, 1358, x. 1330, 1387). These manuscripts, which now belong to Wynn's grandson (C. W. Williams Wynn, esq., of Coedymaen, Montgomeryshire), but have not yet been calendared, contain inter alia Williams's brief against the seven bishops, and other papers relating both to that case and to Williams's own prosecution in respect of Dangerfield's ‘Narrative.’

Williams has been confused with Sir William Williams (sixth and last baronet) of Vaenol, Carnarvonshire, who was M.P. for that county from January 1689 till his death in December 1696 (Williams, Parl. Hist. of Wales, pp. 61–2). He took part in several duels (Luttrell, ii. 351, iv. 157), and in a drunken fit bequeathed his estates to Sir Bourchier Wrey and his sons for their lives, with remainder to William III. The heirs-at-law unsuccessfully contested the will (ib. iv. 163–7, 531), and the estates were afterwards granted by Queen Anne to John Smith, speaker of the House of Commons, in whose descendants they are still vested (Nicholas, County Families of Wales).

[No detailed biography of Williams has been written. Of short sketches the best is by Eyton in his Sheriffs of Shropshire, pp. 156–60, others being given in Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iv. 720; Ormerod's Cheshire, i. 221–2; Manning's Lives of the Speakers, pp. 378–82; and Williams's Eminent Welshmen, p. 538. Most of the important cases in which Williams was concerned are reported in Howell's State Trials, vols. ix. x. xii. and xiii., and they are reviewed generally in Stephen's Hist. of the Criminal Law of England, ii. 307 et seq. Information as to his parliamentary work is found in Cobbett's Parliamentary Hist. vols. iv. and v. and Commons' Journals, vols. ix–xii. passim. See also Luttrell's Diary, vols. i–iv. passim; Burnet's Hist. of his own Times (1823 edit.), ii. 431, iii. 222, iv. 74; Echard's Hist. of England, 1055, 1106–7; Bramston's Autobiography (Camden Soc.), pp. 229, 303, 310; Verney Memoirs, iv. 412, 429; Mackintosh's Hist. of the Revolution (ed. 1834), pp. 267 et seq.; Ranke's History, iv. 356, 497; Macaulay's Hist. (in 2 vols.) i. 496, 512–21, 533, 612, 635, ii. 494; Campbell's Lives of the Lord Chancellors, iii. 531; Irving's Life of Judge Jeffreys, passim; Roger North's Life of Dudley North, and Life of Francis North, Lord Guildford; Wynn's Argument on the Jurisdiction of the House of Commons, App. B. Genealogical details are given in Burke's Peerage (1898), s.v. ‘Wynn of Wynnstay’ (p. 1566) and ‘Williams of Bodelwyddan’ (p. 1534); Foster's Baronetage (pp. 658–9), Alumni Oxon. (1st ser. p. 1646), and Gray's Inn Admission Register (p. 255); Lloyd's Powys Fadog, iv. 263; Wynn's Hist. of Gwydir Family (ed. 1878), Genealogical Table No. 4; Pennant's Whiteford and Holywell, pp. 315–16. See also Yorke's Royal Tribes of Wales, ed. 1887, pp. 99, 104, 167 (with portrait), 181, 196; Breese's Calendars of Gwynedd; Williams's Parl. Hist. of Wales, pp. 11, 149; Parry's Royal Visits to Wales, pp. 407–11; Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, ii. 493, iv. 67; Wynnstay and the Wynns, pp. i–iii, 7, 98–9, 105; Thomas's St. Asaph, pp. 246, 518; Montgomeryshire Collections, v. 150, xxi. 267; Hemingway's Hist. of Chester; Cheshire Sheaf, 1st ser. vol. iii. The writer is indebted to C. W. Williams Wynn, esq., of Coedymaen, for a perusal of his collection of manuscripts referred to in the text as the Williams Wynn manuscripts, and also to the Misses Williams of Bodelwyddan and to Lady Verney for private information.]

D. Ll. T.