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William Knollys (1547-1632)
Born: 1547 probably at Rotherfield Greys, Oxfordshire
Earl of Banbury
Died: 25th May 1632 at the City of London

William was the second but eldest surviving son of Sir Francis Knollys Senior. He was born in 1547, and grew up at Greys Court at Rotherfield Greys and Abbey House in Reading. He was educated in early youth by Jocelyn Palmer, who fell victim to the Marian persecution of 1556. William performed his first public service as Captain in the Army which was sent to repress the Northern Rebellion in 1569. He was elected MP for Tregony in 1572, and for Oxfordshire in 1584, 1593, 1597 and 1601. In November 1585, Queen Elizabeth I sent him as “one that appertaineth to us in blood” - his mother was the queen's first cousin - to King James VI of Scotland to assure him that she had no intention of aiding the banished Scottish lords. In the following January, he accompanied Lord Burghley's son, Thomas, in an expedition to the Low Countries under the Earl of Leicester, and was knighted by Leicester on 7th October 1586. He was Colonel of the Oxford and Gloucester Regiments of Foot which were enrolled to resist the Spanish Armada in 1588, and was created an Oxford Master of Arts on 27th September 1592.

Queen Elizabeth extended to him the favour that she had shown his father and, on the latter's death in 1596 and the consequent changes in court offices, Knollys was made Controller of the Royal Household and a Privy Councillor. He inherited his father's major estates of Greys Court at Rotherfield Greys and Caversham Park at Caversham, both in Oxfordshire, as well as lesser lands in Berkshire, and became joint Lieutenant of both counties on 4th November 1596, sole Lieutenant in July 1601 and Lord-Lieutenant on 22nd March 1613. He was a commissioner to arrange a peace between the Dutch and the Holy Roman Emperor in August 1598, and was granted the reversion to the office of Constable of Wallingford Castle on 8th February 1601. At the final trial of the Earl of Essex in January 1601, he entered the witness-box to deny the statement of the defence that Sir Robert Cecil had, in private conversation, acknowledged the Infanta's title to the Crown of England. In August 1601, William entertained his Sovereign at Caversham Park, and, in May 1602, at his residence in St. James's Park, Westminster. On 22nd December 1602, he succeeded Roger, Lord North, as Treasurer of the Royal Household, the position which his father had filled before him.

On James I's accession, Knollys retained all his offices, and was further created, on 13th May 1603, Baron Knollys of Rotherfield Greys. He became Cofferer of the Household to Henry, Prince of Wales, in 1606. In May 1613, he represented his cousin, the Earl of Essex, in the abortive conference held at Whitehall to arrange a separation between the Earl and his wife, Frances, who was a sister of Knollys' second wife. In 1614, he proved his loyalist zeal by putting down the names of persons as willing to subscribe to the benevolence of that year without consulting them. He acted as Commissioner of the Treasury from 24th January to 11th July 1614, and was made Master of the Court of Wards on 10th October following. On 24th April 1615, he was elected a knight of the Garter and was promoted in the peerage to the Viscountcy of Wallingford on 7th November 1616. In the following month, he resigned the Treasurership of the Household. Wallingford's influence at Court was, at the time, somewhat imperilled by his connection with the Howards, his wife's family. His sister-in-law, Frances, then Countess of Somerset, was placed on trial for the murder of the poet, Thomas Overbury, in 1615, and all her kinsfolk were suspected of complicity. However, the chief witness against the Howards, Mrs. Turner, had to admit, respecting Wallingford, “if ever there was a religious man, it was he.” When Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk, his father-in-law, fell into disgrace in 1618, Wallingford’s wife openly attributed her family's misfortunes to the Duke of Buckingham's malice. The words were reported to the King, who declared that he did not wish to be further served by the husband of such a woman. Wallingford was accordingly forced to resign the Mastership of the Wards in December 1618. He gradually recovered his position however and, in April 1621, took a leading part in the House of Lords in the case of Viscount St. Albans, insisting that the Chancellor should furnish a full answer to the charges brought against him. In 1622, he and his wife's relatives patched up a reconciliation with Buckingham, and Wallingford sold to him his London residence, Wallingford House, for £3,000.

The Earldom of Banbury was conferred on Knollys by King Charles I on 18th August 1626, possibly in order to complete the King's and Buckingham's reconciliation with the Howard family. The patent contained a clause that “he shall have precedency as if he had been created the first earl after his Majesty's access to the Crown.” The lords resisted this grant of precedency as an infringement of their privileges, but when a committee met to consider the question, Charles sent a gracious message, desiring “this may pass for once in this particular, considering how old a man this lord is, and childless.” Accordingly, on 9th April 1628, the lords resolved to allow the earl the ‘place of precedency… for his life only.’ On 15th April, the Earl took his seat “next to the Earl of Berkshire,” the patent for whose Earldom dated from 7th February 1626. Banbury proved himself no compliant supporter of Charles I's despotic policy and when, in February 1628, he was invited to collect ship-money in Oxfordshire, he bluntly declined. He died at the house of Dr. Grant, his physician, in Paternoster Row in the City of London, on 25th May 1632, and was buried at Rotherfield Greys. His age is stated to have been eighty-five, although he “rode a hawking and hunting” within half a year of his death. His will, which makes no mention of children, was dated 19th May 1630, and was proved by his widow, to whom he left all his possessions, on 2th July 1632. The funeral certificate at the College of Arms describes him as dying without issue. He had sold Greys Court to his brother Richard's son, Sir Robert Knollys of Stanford-in-the-Vale, on 4th March 1631.

The Earl was twice married. His first wife, by whom he had no children, was Dorothy, widow of Edmund Brydges, Baron Chandos, and daughter of Edmund Braye, 1st Baron Braye. She died on 31st October 1605. Less than two months later, on 23rd December, Knollys, who was then about fifty-eight, married a girl of nineteen, Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Howard, Earl of Suffolk. She was baptised at Saffron Walden in Essex on 11th August 1586. A daughter of this marriage died young, before 1610. However, the Countess gave birth to a son, Edward, at her husband's house, on 10th April 1627 and, on 3rd January 1631, another son, Nicholas, was born to her at Harrowden in Northamptonshire, the residence of Edward Vaux, 4th Baron Vaux. Within five weeks of her husband's death, Lady Banbury married Lord Vaux. The paternity of these two sons has therefore given rise to much controversy and, although their descendants have claimed the title of Earl of Banbury, this has been accepted by the Judiciary but not the House of Lords.

Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1892)

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