KNOLLYS, Sir Robert I (c.1547-1619), of Porthaml, Brec. and Vinegarden, St Martin's Lane, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Family and Education

b. c.1547, 4th s. of Sir Francis Knollys† (d.1596) of Rotherfield Greys, Oxon. and Catherine, da. of William Carey of Aldenham, Herts.; bro. of Sir Francis I*, Henry†, Richard† and William†. m. c.1585, Catherine, da. of Rowland Vaughan† of Porthaml, Brec., 2da.1 KB 24 July 1603.2 bur. 20 Jan. 1619.3 sig. R[obert] Knollys.

Offices Held

Porter or usher of Tower Mint 1577-82.4

Kpr. Syon House, Mdx. 1584-7; kpr. woods, Isleworth, Brentford, Twickenham, Heston, Whitton, Sutton and Aydestons, Mdx. 1584-7; steward and bailiff of Crown lands, Isleworth, 1584-7;5 j.p. Brec. 1585-d. (custos rot. 1588-c.1614);6 dep. lt. Brec. by 1590-?d.7

Gent., privy chamber 1587;8 esq. of the Body by 1596-?1603.9


A younger son of the long-serving treasurer of Queen Elizabeth’s Household, Knollys thrived at Court, and despite attaching himself to his nephew Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex, he avoided falling under suspicion after the earl’s rebellion in 1601.10 Indeed, he was considered so far beyond reproach that in March 1602 he was granted the goods of his brother-in-law, Sir Christopher Blount†, who had been executed for his role in the rising.11

Knollys spent most of his time in London, but acquired a Breconshire estate by marrying Catherine Vaughan, heiress of Porthaml. His right to parts of this property was challenged in the 1580s by his wife’s aunt Blanche Parry, chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, who claimed to have been appointed executor to Catherine’s late brother, William Vaughan. She further alleged that Knollys had tried to gain possession of the estate through ‘wicked, ungodly and abominable practices’, including a riot at the Breconshire assizes.12 Knollys had to defend himself, as his finances depended on a favourable verdict: at one point, Parry dismissed Knollys’s bid to purchase the Vaughan lands outright on the grounds that he was ‘not able conveniently without his great loss to disburse so much money’.13 Despite his adversary’s unrivalled connections with the queen, Knollys’s standing at Court did not suffer as a result of this dispute: his father and eldest brother Sir William held senior positions in the Household, and shortly after his father’s death in 1596 he was confident enough of his credit with the queen to seek to renew his father’s lease of the Crown manor of Taunton, Somerset.14

The accession of King James brought the Knollys family further preferment, as Sir William was ennobled, while Sir Robert was knighted and granted a lease of Crown lands in Breconshire.15 In 1604 he was returned as knight for Breconshire – as in the four previous elections – but two years later he sold off his Welsh estates to his son-in-law, Sir Charles Vaughan* and the latter’s father Sir William*.16 In so doing he paved the way for Sir Charles to replace him in the following Parliament. Knollys’s parliamentary ambitions were backed by (Sir) David Williams† of Gwernyfed who, according to Parry, had been behind much of Knollys’s earlier skulduggery in respect of his wife’s inheritance.17 Williams, whose first wife was related to the Porthaml Vaughans, was a significant political force in South Wales, and his influence was increased by his appointment as a justice of King’s Bench shortly before the 1604 election.18

During the first Jacobean Parliament Knollys is recorded to have said very little, but he was named to numerous committees. He showed some interest in religious and moral reform, being named to consider bills against ecclesiastical pluralism (4 June 1604; 19 Feb. 1610), clerical subscription (14 Mar. 1610) and swearing (30 May 1610).19 He was also among those appointed on 19 Apr. 1604 to prepare for a conference with the Lords on religion.20 Matters of a legal and administrative nature also attracted his attention: he was placed on the committee for the bill concerning assart lands (3 May 1604); and others to reform Exchequer abuses against accountants (5 May 1604), explain vagrancy statutes (5 May 1604), prevent overcharging by courts leet (7 May 1604), and avoid surreptitious outlawry (6 June 1607) and abuses in writing legal copies (13 Mar. 1610).21

Knollys’s disposal of his Breconshire estates may have been largely due to financial problems, but he may also have been concerned to obtain the best possible settlement for the two daughters who were his heiresses. Having settled the Breconshire lands on the husband of one, he purchased the wardship of Framlingham Gawdy* in 1606, to whom he married his other daughter (at his London residence) in 1609.22 Thus it is hardly surprising that, by 1610, his interests in the Commons had shifted to East Anglia, where the Gawdy estates lay: he was named to bill committees concerned with Lowestoft’s attempt to reduce the Admiralty jurisdiction claimed by Great Yarmouth (13 Mar.), ‘surrounded lands’ in Norfolk and Suffolk (20 Mar.), and a bequest for establishing a school in Thetford (15 June), the borough which members of the Gawdy family often represented.23 On 15 Mar. Knollys acted as teller for the noes in a division at the first reading of a bill for draining fenland in East Anglia, and presumably because of his opposition was not named to the committee at second reading.24 Two weeks later Knollys was the first named member to the committee on the bill for hawks, a measure which doubtless attracted his interest because he kept hunting birds on the Gawdy’s Norfolk estate. While in London and Westminster, Knollys was kept informed of the health of his birds by correspondents such as his servant Lawrence Stephens.25 His appointment to the committee for the shooting of game (25 Apr. 1604) also reflected his interest in hunting.26

Having disposed of his estates, Knollys attempted to secure fresh income as a projector at Court, and some of his plans were reflected in his parliamentary interests: on 16 Apr. 1604 he was appointed to consider a bill to explain the Common Law in certain letters patent,27 which may have related to his efforts to secure the reversion of Taunton manor, which continued under James.28 However, it may also relate to another project he put to the king to require those who wished to use the title ‘esquire’ to obtain letters patent.29 His presence on the committee for the bill for silk dyers, to which he was appointed on 2 Mar. 1610, and his later motion to add certain members to the committee (29 Mar.), was certainly a product of his own attempts to secure a royal licence to dye and export silks between 1606 and 1610.30

Knollys was named to committees for various private bills: that for assuring the jointure of the new countess of Essex (13 Mar. 1606) recalls his relationship with his nephew, the 2nd earl.31 Another, for the restoration in blood of Rowland Meyrick* (1 Apr. 1606), concerned the Breconshire and Radnorshire estates of Essex’s chief Welsh adherent, Sir Gelly Meyrick†.32 Another Welsh measure to which Knollys was named was the committee for the bill to repair and maintain Chepstow Bridge in Monmouthshire (31 Mar. 1606).33 More important, perhaps, was Knollys’s role in Welsh agitation against purveyance in the first session. Unusually for a courtier looking to curry favour with the new monarch, Knollys was one of those Welsh Members who presented a petition against this levy, which was comparatively new in the principality. The petitioners claimed that a poor economy meant that Wales was unable to provide the commodities required by the royal Household.34 On 7 May 1604, Knollys was one of those asked to give ‘more pregnant proof’ of the impact of purveyance in their localities.35 On 14 May 1606 he was included in the deputation which presented the king with the Commons’ petition of grievances, among which was included purveyance, and he was also named to the committee to consider compounding for purveyance as part of the negotiations over the Great Contract (26 Feb. 1610).36

As a veteran Member, Knollys was well placed to comment on matters of privilege and procedure, and on 19 Nov. 1606 he was named to the select privileges’ committee for that session.37 On 23 Mar. 1607 he was one of those asked to advise on how to proceed in the absence of the Speaker, and earlier that month he was named to a group charged with considering the inconvenience of standing at long conferences with the Lords (12 March).38 On 19 June 1607 he was among those ordered to examine the Journal for entries concerning privilege since 1604.39 The previous November he was named to a committee to consider the procedural ramifications in the case of those Members who were absent from the House on government service.40 As a member of the privileges committee, he was subsequently required to help consider a bill to improve attendance in the House, which received its second reading on 18 Apr. 1610 – yet ironically, he attended none of the committee’s meetings.41

As a Westminster resident, Knollys was named to consider the bill to curb new building in and around the capital and to prevent the division of existing properties into tenements (27 Apr. 1604). This presumably also explains why he was appointed to consider bills for the regulation of Thames watermen (9 May 1604), and the funding of a college at Chelsea (22 June 1610). He was appointed to the large deputation which heard the king’s initial plans about the Union (14 Apr. 1604), and on 29 Nov. 1606 he was appointed to consider the Instrument of the Union, but he otherwise played no part in the debates on this issue, which engendered considerable dispute.42

Financial difficulties dogged Knollys down to his death. A letter from one creditor in February 1613 recounted that, since the time of Elizabeth, Knollys had been complaining of his ‘extraordinary charges and expectation of recompense from the Court’, hopes which had persisted after James’s accession, at which time Knollys had incurred further ‘great expenses and charges in Triumph’ – apparently referring to a type of card game.43 Knollys looked to trade on the culture of projects at the Jacobean Court. In 1606, during the parliamentary session, Knollys lobbied the king, and later the earl of Salisbury (Sir Robert Cecil†), for a licence to dye and transport 50 packs of coloured and black silk. Unsuccessful, he approached the king and Salisbury again in 1610, but this renewed overture also proved fruitless.44 Knollys also devised an enterprising project for charging those who claimed armigerous status but had not obtained it by grant, birth or office. This scheme, akin to the baronetcy project, might, Knollys claimed, yield as much as £500,000, as it would involve between 40,000 and 50,000 individuals in England and Wales. He requested the profits from the drawing and engrossing of the letters patent, for keeping a central register, and such share of the profits as the king saw fit. Again, nothing came of his approach.45

The clamours of Knollys’s debtors echo in the surviving correspondence of his twilight years. In 1616 William Garway reminded Knollys of an outstanding debt, but worried that he ‘neither answers his [Garway’s] letters nor will speak with his man’.46 In May 1618 Knollys was reported to be sick, possibly due to a fall at the house of his brother Sir William, now Viscount Wallingford, at Caversham. The accident led to an ‘impostume’ or swelling which ruptured in January 1619, with fatal results. Knollys died intestate; three months after his death, his servant Thomas Moore complained that he left an estate at least £500 in debt, and that Wallingford refused to discharge this sum. Moore, tormented by his late master’s creditors ‘both in purse and prison’, had been advised to procure letters of administration, but Wallingford refused to allow this without the permission of Knolly’s daughter, Lettice Gawdy. Moore subsequently paid £80 for a grant of Knollys’s goods, which were promptly seized by the bailiffs of Westminster to discharge an outlawry.47

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Lloyd Bowen


  • 1. Harl. 1975, f. 44v; REQ 2/230/87.
  • 2. Shaw, Knights of Eng. i. 154.
  • 3. HMC Gawdy, 111.
  • 4. CPR, 1575-8, p. 541; HP Commons 1558-1603 (Robert Knollys).
  • 5. N and Q, cci. 281-2; CPR, 1575-8, p. 391; VCH Mdx. iii. 104.
  • 6. JPs in Wales and Monm. ed. Phillips, 257-65.
  • 7. Cheshire Archives, DNE 16; Add. 10609, f. 37.
  • 8. C2/Eliz.I/K1/18.
  • 9. LC2/4/4, f. 47.
  • 10. P. Hammer, Polarisation of Elizabethan Pols. 276; Longleat House, Devereux Pprs. (IHR microfilm) i. f. 5; E133/10/1508; E134/44&45Eliz/Mich.6.
  • 11. PSO 5/2, unfol.
  • 12. E112/58/1; STAC 5/P15/4; 5/P18/26; 5/P46/26; SP46/37, f. 138; Lansd. 47, ff. 146-7. See also C3/212/58; C2/Eliz/K1/18; REQ 2/230/87.
  • 13. STAC 5/P15/4.
  • 14. HMC Hatfield, xiv. 107; CPR, 1560-3, p. 16.
  • 15. James also granted Sir Robert a demise of land in Breconshire in Nov. 1603: E112/144/31.
  • 16. NLW, Ashburnham Group II, 2/14, 100/45.
  • 17. Williams acted as Knollys’ attorney in a case in the Ct. of Requests: REQ 2/230/87.
  • 18. J.S. Cockburn, Hist. Eng. Assizes, 293.
  • 19. CJ, i. 231b, 396b, 410b, 434a.
  • 20. Ibid. 178a.
  • 21. Ibid. 197b, 199b, 200b, 373a, 410a.
  • 22. WARD 9/162, f. 1; HMC Gawdy, 106-7; Add. 36990, ff. 100-4.
  • 23. CJ, i. 410a, 413a, 414b, 440a.
  • 24. Ibid. 411b, 414b.
  • 25. Ibid. 404a, 416a; HMC Gawdy, 107, 111.
  • 26. CJ, i. 184a.
  • 27. Ibid. 172b.
  • 28. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 516.
  • 29. For a further discussion of this scheme, see below.
  • 30. CJ, i. 416a; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 275-6; xxi. 229. For further details see below.
  • 31. CJ, i. 283b.
  • 32. Ibid. 291b.
  • 33. Ibid. 291a.
  • 34. Add. 5847, ff. 163v-4; L. Bowen, The Pols. of the Principality, 52-6.
  • 35. CJ, i. 202b.
  • 36. Ibid. 309a, 400a.
  • 37. Ibid. 316a.
  • 38. Ibid. 354a, 352a.
  • 39. Ibid. 386a.
  • 40. Ibid. 316b.
  • 41. C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance Lists’, PPE 1604-48 ed. Kyle, 184.
  • 42. Ibid. 172a, 326b.
  • 43. HMC Gawdy, 108.
  • 44. HMC Hatfield, xviii 275-6; xxi. 229.
  • 45. Add. 25247, ff. 235v-8; Cal. of Mss in I. Temple ed. J. Conway Davies, 844; L. Stone, Crisis of the Aristocracy, 70.
  • 46. HMC Gawdy, 110.
  • 47. Ibid. 111-12.