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William Chiffinch - © Nash Ford PublishingWilliam Chiffinch (1602-1691)
Born: 1602 possibly at Salisbury, Wiltshire
Page of his Majesty’s Bed-Chamber
Keeper of the King’s Private Closet

Died: July 1691 at Holyport, Berkshire

William was a member of the Chiffinch family of Staplehurst in Kent and younger brother of Thomas Chiffinch, to most of whose offices he succeeded in 1668, as Page of his Majesty’s Bed-Chamber and Keeper of the King’s Private Closet. This made him the closest of all King Charles II’s servants and his influence at court is said to have been incalculable.

His own apartments in Whitehall were immediately adjoining the King’s and were a convenient place for secret meetings with the monarch, especially during troubled times of the Popish Plot. They were also a discreet access point to the King’s closet. In an undated letter to Sir John Shaw, Charles II writes, “I have had so much business these two days past as I could not get time to speak with your man that is come over, but now if you will send him to Will Chifines at seven this evening, he will bring him pri­vately into my closet”. On other occasions, Chiffinch’s rooms were used as Charles’ secret escape route out of the palace, down to the river and to pleasures elsewhere. In Holyport, only a stone’s throw from Windsor Castle, Chiffinch rented Old Philibert’s Manor as a secret rendezvous for King Charles and his many mistresses. It is said that Nell Gwynne was in semi-permanent residence there for some time. Anthony Wood mentions ‘Cheffing’ as holding the greatest trust in harbouring such royal “supper-companions” and he is similarly lampooned in the printed libels of his day:

It happen’d, in the twilight of the day,
As England’s monarch in his closet lay,
And Chiffinch stepp’d to fetch the female prey...

As a useful go-between and lively companion, William was known to everybody about the Royal Court. Pepys frequently mentions him. The diarist was taken, with Sir John Menzies, to see the “great variety of brave pictures,” a private art gallery in the king’s closet, with Chiffinch acting as tour-guide. While they sometimes held backstairs revels together, with wine and pickled herring or cold chicken. Proof of Chiffinch’s ac­tivity and influence is found in more than fifty entries in the secret service lists of often considerable sums of money paid to him between 1679 – when he received £300 – and 1688 – when he received £500. The purchase of wines, pre­sents of hawks, payments for flowers, red coats for falconers, paving Windsor, curious clocks, dog-kennels, “pump work and water carriage in Hyde Park,” provisions or “bounty” totalling £13,792 went through his hands. Of this, £2,300 was marked for his majesty’s own private use. Chiffinch was also the receiver of the secret pensions paid by the court of Louis XIV to the King.

However, Chiffinch was a time-server and libertine, wasteful, unscrupulous, open to bribery and flattery, ingratiating himself into the confidence of courtiers and Royal mistresses alike. He delighted in intrigue of every kind except political plots, though even with these he sometimes meddled in, though seldom skilfully. In 1666, he assisted the Duchess of Cleveland in her plan to cause King Charles II to surprise his latest favourite, ‘La Belle Stuart’ in company of the Duke of Richmond. Above all predecessors, he carried the abuse of backstairs influence to scientific perfection. There are many disdainful contemporary allusions to ‘Chiffinch’ (with­out initial) and the smuggling into the palace of ob­jectionable persons or his wasting of money.

Chiffinch was at the famous loyal feast of the apprentices at Saddlers’ Hall, on 4th August 1681, and, nearly four years later, attended the King upon his deathbed, bringing to him a certain Father Huddleston who converted him to Catholicism just before the end. He continued in favour under James II and it was to his house in Whitehall, that the Duke of Monmouth was brought, after his flight from the Battle of Sedgmoor in 1685. He stayed there with Lord Grey until they were taken to the Tower of London. When not in London, his chief residence was now Philibert’s and he served the nearby town of Windsor as MP from 1685 to 1687. Chiffinch did not, however, survive King James’ downfall in 1688 and he retired to the obscurity of East Berkshire. He died at Philibert’s in July 1691, having married Barbara Nunn, by whom he only had one daughter, also named Barbara, the wife of Edward Villiers, 1st Earl of Jersey.

Edited from Leslie Stephen's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1887).

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