SWAYNE, William (d.1613), of Hackney, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

m. (1) 1da.; (2) c. May 1612, Bridget, wid. of William Newce of Much Hadham, Herts., s.p.

Offices Held

Barber-surgeon bef. 1565-d.; warden 1575, 1581; steward and collector of manors of Aldworth, St. Leonard Stanley and Bisley, Glos. ?bef. 1589-d.; commr. for sale of Hackney parsonage bef. Aug. 1601.1


William Swayne’s parentage has not been established. The surname was common throughout the country; in Wiltshire it is found at Salisbury, Wilton and Steeple Ashton, while in Dorset the Swaynes of Blandford and Tarrant Gunville were to provide an Elizabethan MP in Richard Swayne. If, as is likely, William Swayne was a native of Chippenham, he was doubtless related to one or more of its inhabitants who bore his name: to the William Swayne alias Bayly whose lease of a tenement in Foghamshere, Chippenham, had occasioned a suit in the court of requests in 1541; to Thomas and William Swane, executors of (perhaps the above-mentioned) William Swayne, who were sued in that court at about the same time; or to John Swayne, weaver or husbandman, who was licensed as a corn badger in 1575 and stood surety for others so licensed. An earlier John Swayne had witnessed the will made in 1533 by the mother of the last abbess of Lacock. The use by this man of the alias Bayly suggests a connexion with William Bayliffe or Bayly, MP for Chippenham in 1572; in his will Swayne was to leave a ring to his ‘cousin’ Richard Bayly. That the Swaynes of Chippenham were modest folk is evident from the absence of any person of that name both from the records as printed by Goldney and from the subsidy list of 1576 for the borough and hundred.2

Whatever his origin, there need be little hesitation in identifying the Member with William Swayne, barber-surgeon and twice warden of his company. This individual’s career exhibits two distinguishing features. The first, his share in the musical life of his age, was to be reflected most clearly in his will; but it is illustrated by an episode from his early life. In January 1565 one David Ellis was sentenced to death at the Middlesex sessions for robbing William Swayne at Westminster. The majority of the articles stolen, a barber’s metal basin and pot, three razors, a pair of shears and two combs, were tools of the owner’s trade, but the thief also took two musical instruments, a pair of clarichords and a gittern. It was then the custom of barbers to furnish their clients with such means of diversion, and William Swayne’s interest in music was doubtless stimulated by his adoption of the practice in his shop.3

It was another connexion which metamorphosed the barber-surgeon into the Member of Parliament and Crown official. How early, or in what way, William Swayne came to the notice of Sir Walter Mildmay has not been discovered. Their association may have derived from the link between Mildmay and Henry Sharington, which was strengthened by a marriage alliance in 1567, for Sharington was the leading magnate in the vicinity of Chippenham; but it is tempting to imagine that Swayne numbered Mildmay among the customers of his Westminster establishment and that the barber’s chair yielded advancement as well as affluence. Its first fruit is perhaps to be seen in the 21-year lease of two Nottinghamshire chantries granted to William Swayne in May 1569. What is almost certain is that Mildmay procured Swayne’s return for Chippenham nearly 20 years later. By that date his son Anthony, who had married one of Sharington’s daughters, was well established in Wiltshire, and Sir Walter’s influence could easily have been brought to bear in support of this local boy who had made good. (It was to Mildmay that the borough had drafted a petition in 1578 against Sir Walter Hungerford.) A point of interest is that, in consequence of the decision to postpone the meeting of Parliament until 4 Feb. 1589, the elections in Wiltshire, as in some other shires, took place in two stages: the elections for the shire and for 12 of the boroughs were held between 14 Oct. and 3 Nov. 1588, and those for three other boroughs between 26 Jan. and 1 Feb. 1589 (the dates for the two remaining boroughs being unknown). Chippenham was one of the boroughs to make its return late, doing so on 26 Jan. Whether its belatedness had any effect upon the election we cannot say; but it may be thought to have increased the competition for the seats thus left open and so to have made Swayne’s success the more notable.4

A seat in Parliament was not to prove, however, the limit of Mildmay’s favour. Two months after the session had ended Sir Walter, conscious that his days were numbered, took the pains to write to Burghley asking that Swayne should be allowed to keep the ‘little office’ which Mildmay had given him and in which he had served very faithfully. The office in question may have been the stewardship of three Gloucestershire manors which Swayne was holding in August 1601; the ‘Mr Swain’ who had been acting three years earlier with one Hussy for Robert Cecil as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster was not William but Richard Swayne. It may have been to Burghley, however, that William owed his appointment as a commissioner for the sale of Hackney parsonage to Ralph Bell, who in 1601 was rendering weekly accounts of his receipts from it to Swayne and his colleagues. This suggests that Swayne had established himself at Hackney already at the turn of the century, although he still had houses in London. Interestingly enough a William Swayne dedicated to Lord Burghley his edition of William Damon’s psalms published in 1591, which, if it is our man (and no other candidate presents himself, illustrates the heights he had attained in the two overlapping worlds of music and the court. It needs but a little imagination to see Swayne as an early example of a character to become an eighteenth-century stereotype, a Figaro, who, through skill and discreet behaviour, could progress from shaving the gentry to dealing quietly and without fuss with unwanted pregnancies and other accidents and emergencies at court. In this manner Swayne would have been able to indulge a taste for theory and practice of music and at the same time accumulate the substantial estate evident from the will he made at Hackney on 13 Oct. 1613. He died on the following 1 Nov. He had married for the second time 18 months before, and had acquired, with their widowed mother, the step-children whom he was to remember in his will; but his revocation, three days after making it, of the generous provision—the use of two houses, a coach and geldings, and £200 in cash—which it contained for his wife appears to reflect some deathbed disharmony between them. The will, whose preamble is that of a devout Anglican, shows Swayne to have died both a wealthy man and a philanthropic one. Among his charitable bequests were sums of £20 each to Christ’s hospital for poor children and St. Botolph’s without Aldersgate for its poor, and of £10 each to St. Bartholomew’s hospital and to the poor in London prisons; he also left £100 with which the parish of Hackney was to buy land for the relief of its poor, a legacy which, under the name of ‘Swain’s Charity’, still survives. To his daughter Ann he left his first wife’s rings and jewels, to his nephews Thomas, Arthur and Nathaniel £300, £400 and £20 respectively, to his ‘cousins’ Thomas Walkeden’ and Mirabile Newett £5 and £10, and to his servants amounts ranging from £5 to £30. He appointed his nephew William Swayne, his brother Edward’s son and perhaps the Cambridge graduate of 1597, his executor, and Sir John Leveson and John Newett overseers.5

The chief interest of the will, however, lies in its revelation of Swayne’s musical interests. His brother Alban was given, besides an annuity of 20 from a lease at Ampthill, Bedfordshire, a chest of viols, a pair of virginals, and ‘all my books of music’; while among the as recipients of rings were ‘Mr. Holborne, Mr. Jones ... and William Bird esquire’, that is to say, presumably William Holborne the cittern player and composer, Robert Jones the lutenist, and the great William Byrd. As a resident at Stondon Massey, Essex, Byrd may well have found Swayne’s house at Hackney a convenient halting-place on the way to and from Westminster and have caused its parlour to echo to some notable music-making. In another sense, too, the friendship could have been of advantage to Byrd; one of Swayne’s circle was his kinsman by marriage Theophilus Elmer or Aylmer, son of the bishop and himself archdeacon of London, and a man whose goodwill would certainly have done Byrd no harm in view of his stubborn recusancy. Elmer was bequeathed a ring, as were three other divines, several prominent Londoners, a leading barber-surgeon, Alexander Baker, and a number of Swayne’s relatives.6

A final point of interest is yielded by the inquisition into Swayne’s property, which was taken at Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, presumably because he held the ex-monastic manor of Oxendon in that county. Among the properties listed the most notable is the inn called ‘the Angils’ at Islington, whose galleries—demolished when the old building was pulled down in 1819—may thus also have resounded to the music of the cistern, as had the barber’s shop in Westminster, and the gentleman’s residence at Hackney.7

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: S. T. Bindoff


We are indebted to the late Thurston Dart for reading and commenting upon a draft of this biography.

  • 1. C142/343/136; S. Young, Annals of the Barber-Surgeons, 6; E315/309/138; CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, p. 410.
  • 2. VCH Wilts. vi. 149-52; Devizes Mus. ms vol. on Swayne fam. of Wilton; Wilts. N. and Q. vi. 371-424 passim, 561; vii, 36, 225, 330; Req. 2/11/43, 76; Mins. Proc. Sess. (Wilts. Arch. Soc. recs. br. iv), 2, 5, 6, 12; PCC 99 Capell.
  • 3. Young, Barber-Surgeons, 6; Mdx. County Recs. i. 52.
  • 4. CPR, 1566-9, p. 344; Chippenham Recs. 296-7.
  • 5. Lansd. 61/128; E315/309/138; HMC Hatfield, viii. 241; CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, p. 410; Index of Dedications and Commendatory Verses (Bibliographical Soc. 1962), ex inf. Professor Thurston Dart; PCC 99 Capell; C142/343/136; W. Robinson, Hist. Hackney, 107, 360-1; Al. Cant. i(4), p. 191.
  • 6. PCC 99 Capell; Grove, Dict. Music (ed. 5), i. 1055 et seq.; iv. 319-20, 660-1; Vis. Herts. (Harl. Soc. xxii), 141; Beaven, Aldermen, i. 92; ii. 46, 51, 68; Young, Barber-Surgeons, 8, 495.
  • 7. C142/343/136; S. Lewis, Hist. St. Mary, Islington, 414-5.