Fitzwilliam, William, Earl of Southampton d. 1542, lord high admiral of England, was the younger son of Sir Thomas Fitzwilliam of Aldwarke, West Riding of Yorkshire, by Lucy, daughter and coheiress of John Neville, marquis of Montacute. From the time when he was not more than ten years of age he had been brought up with the king, and was perfectly familiar with his personal habits, his likings and dislikings. He shared in the king's love of sportsmanship, but was ignorant of Latin, and though he spoke French fluently was a poor French scholar (Brewer, Reign of Henry VIII). In 1509, as one of the king's cupbearers, he was awarded many grants and privileges; two years later he obtained the place of esquire of the body in reversion. In 1513, being one of the chief commanders in the fleet sent out against the French, he was sore hurt with a quarell in a fight near Brest in Brittany (Holinshed, Chronicles, ed. Hooker, 1587, iii. 816). Before the end of that year, on 25 Sept., he was knighted for his good services at the siege of Tournay (ib. p. 824), and shortly afterwards created vice-admiral of England. In 1518 he was treasurer of Wolsey's household. In February 1521 Wolsey sent him as ambassador to the French court, seeing that he would be a useful instrument. He was keen, bold, sagacious, able to resist flattery and cajolery, and never lost his presence of mind. The French king received him cordially, talked of sport, and presumed upon his want of experience. Fitzwilliam meanwhile kept his eyes open to all that went on, and gave the highest satisfaction to Wolsey. After many difficulties and much tedious negotiations both powers consented to accept Henry's mediation. When war was declared against France in the following year, Fitzwilliam was appointed vice-admiral of the navy, under the command of the Earl of Surrey, his special duty being to protect the English merchantmen from the attacks of the enemy (Herbert, Reign of Henry VIII, p. 123). He commanded in 1523 the fleet stationed in the Channel to bar Albany's passage to Scotland. On 10 May 1524 he left England to take up his appointment as captain of the garrison of Guisnes in Picardy, where he remained until the spring of 1525. By April 1525 he was again in France, and with Sir Robert Wingfield attended a council at Mechlin, which he quitted for Guisnes on 21 May. In October 1525 he was deputed with John Taylor, Doctor of Law, to take the oath of the lady regent, Louise of Savoy, then at Lyons (Francis I being a prisoner in Spain), for ratifying the articles of a treaty just concluded between the crowns of England and France (Holinshed, iii. 892; Herbert, p. 181). Ill-health obliged him to return home in January 1526. On 24 April of that year, being then comptroller of the king's household, he was elected K. G. (Beltz, Memorials of the Garter, p. clxxiii). At the end of the year he was sent, along with Clerk, bishop of Bath and Wells, to offer Francis I the hand of the Princess Mary, and thus promote an alliance with France.
In June 1528 he narrowly escaped falling a victim to the sweating sickness, then epidemic (Letters and Papers of Reign of Henry VIII, ed Brewer, iv. 1932). In May 1529 he accompanied the Duke of Suffolk on an embassy to France. During the same year he was elected M.P. for Surrey and subscribed the articles exhibited against Wolsey. He was present when the great seal was taken from Wolsey, 17 Oct. 1529, and with Gardiner was appointed to see that no part of the cardinal's goods were embezzled. About this time Fitzwilliam, on the part of the king, mediated a quarrel which had arisen between the two houses of parliament in consequence of Fisher's hasty declaration that nothing now would serve with the commons but the ruin of the church (ib. p. 293). In October 1529 Fitzwilliam succeeded More as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. For a short time in 1533 he acted as lord privy seal. On 26 May 1535 he took passage for Calais to be present at the diet of French and English commissioners, returning in June. In the same capacity of commissioner he arrived at Calais on the following 17 Aug. to redress such things as were out of order in the town and marches, and remained thus employed until October. Soon afterwards he was joined in another embassy to France, with the Duke of Norfolk and Dr. Cox, regarding the marriage of the Duke of AngoulÍme, the French king's third son, with the Princess Elizabeth (ib. p. 383). He was on the council in 1536, when Sir Henry Norris confessed to adultery with Anne Boleyn. He also formed one of the tribunal appointed to try Norris and the three other commoners of a similar crime. Norris at his trial declared that he was deceived into making his confession by Fitzwilliam's trickery (Froude, History of England, cabinet edit., 1870, ch. xi.). He succeeded the Duke of Richmond as lord high admiral 16 Aug. 1536, and held the office until 18 July 1540. In the same year he took part in the suppression of the insurrection in Lincolnshire. On 18 Oct. 1537, having in the meantime been made treasurer of the king's household, Fitzwilliam was raised to the peerage as Earl of Southampton. He remained treasurer for about a year. In November 1538 he was sent down to Warblington in Hampshire to examine the Countess of Salisbury, who was implicated in the nun of Kent's conspiracy (see his letter to Cromwell in Sir H. Ellis's Original Letters, 2nd ser. ii. 110-14). She denied all knowledge of the plot, and was removed to Cowdray, near Midhurst in Sussex, a place belonging to Fitzwilliam himself, where she was detained (Froude, ch. xv.). Cowdray had been sold to Fitzwilliam by Sir David Owen in 1528 (Sussex Archśol. Coll. v. 178, vii. 40). In 1539, when an invasion of England was threatened, he took command of the fleet at Portsmouth. At the parliamentary election of 1539 he put out his utmost strength to secure for the king a manageable House of Commons, going in person round Surrey, Sussex, and Hampshire, where his own property was situated (Letter of Fitzwilliam to Cromwell, Cotton MS. Cleopatra, E. 4, cited in Froude, ch. xvi.). On 11 Dec. 1539 he met Anne of Cleves at Calais to conduct her to her future country. Detained by the bad weather for fifteen days, Fitzwilliam, to beguile the time, taught the princess to play at cards. Meanwhile he wrote to advertise the king of her arrival, and, thinking that he must make the best of a matter which was past remedy, repeated the praises of the lady's appearance. Cromwell afterwards accused Fitzwilliam of having encouraged false hopes in his letters from Calais (Froude, ch. xvii.; deposition of the Earl of Southampton in Strype, Memorials, 8vo ed. vol. ii.). He witnessed the arrest of Cromwell, 10 June 1540, when, according to Marillac, to show that he was as much his enemy in adversity as in prosperity he had pretended to be his friend, he stripped the Garter off the fallen minister (Froude, ch. xvii.). Shortly afterwards, upon some discontent between Henry and the king of France, whereupon the French raised forces in Picardy, Fitzwilliam, with John, lord Russel, then newly made high admiral, carried over two troopes of northern horse into those parts (Herbert, p. 484). He died at Newcastle-upon-Tyne in October 1542, while on his march into Scotland, leading the van of the English army commanded by the Duke of Norfolk. In honour of his memory his standard was borne in the foreward throughout that whole expedition (ib. p. 483). In his will, dated 10 Sept. 1542, he desired to be buried in the parish church of Midhurst, where a new chapel was to be built for a tomb for himself and his wife Mabel, at an expense of five hundred marks, if he should die within one hundred miles of it (abstract of will registered in P. C. C. 16, Spert, in Nicolas, Testamenta Vetusta, ii. 707-9). The chapel remains, but there are no signs of a tomb; he was therefore probably buried at Newcastle. To the king he gave his great ship with all her tackle, and his collar of the Garter, with his best George beset with diamonds. He married in 1513 Mabel, daughter of Henry, lord Clifford, and sister of Henry, first earl of Cumberland, but by this lady, who died in 1535, he had no issue. Consequently the earldom of Southampton at his decease became extinct, while his entailed estates would rightly devolve upon his two nieces, daughters of his elder brother, Thomas Fitzwilliam, who was slain at Flodden Field in 1515: Alice, married to Sir James Foljambe, and Margaret, the wife of Godfrey Foljambe. The Cowdray estate fell to his half-brother, Sir Anthony Browne [qv.]
There is a portrait of Fitzwilliam in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, which is considered to be a copy of the one by Holbein, destroyed at Cowdray by the fire in September 1793 (Sussex Archśol. Coll. vii. 29 n.).
Dugdale's Baronage, ii. 105-6
Letters and Papers of Reign of Henry VIII, ed. Brewer and Gairdner
Cal. State Papers, Venetian, vols. iii. iv. vi. (Appendix)
Collectanea Topographica et Genealogica, i. 360, ii. 69
Sussex Archśol. Coll.
Contributor: G. G. [Gordon Goodwin]