The Knollys family, based at Rotherfield Greys near Henley, were pre-eminent in Berkshire and Oxfordshire through much of the sixteenth century, and remained powerful and influential well into the seventeenth. William Knollys (c. 1545-1632) was High Steward of Abingdon from 1601 until his death. It was he who secured for the town the two important charter revisions of 1610 which improved the status of its courts, added certain properties to its endowment, and granted it additional fairs and markets as sources of income.
The Knollyses are especially interesting as a gentry family that rose to power and authority in the time of Queen Elizabeth, was ennobled, but then declined largely through a lack of male heirs.
Their rise started in 1540, when Francis Knollys (?1512-97), a courtier of Henry VIII, married Catherine Carey, a first cousin of the future Queen Elizabeth I. After Elizabeth’s accession he became an active parliamentarian, managing the interests of the Crown in the House of Commons. From 1563 until his death, he was a fixture as knight of the shire for Oxfordshire. He was High Steward of Oxford from 1564 to 1592 and joint Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire and Berkshire from 1585. In about 1575 he rebuilt Greys Court in the latest architectural fashion.
Francis Knollys had seven sons and four daughters and it was to ensure places and functions for them that he worked hard on his regional interests. William shadowed his father in his court and parliamentary functions and succeeded him in them at his death. He cemented his regional authority by accumulating the high stewardships of towns: Reading, Banbury, Wallingford, Abingdon.
William was born as a second son and would not have thought it important to have an heir. In 1573, he married Dorothy Brydges, a widow much older than himself and past childbearing age. But his older brother died in 1582 and the situation changed. In the 1590s, he openly courted Mary Fitton, a young maid of honour to the queen, with the promise of marrying her to legitimise their children when his wife died. She refused him but became pregnant by another man, and there was considerable amusement at his expense at court.
His wife died in 1605. By then, William was Baron Knollys of Greys, and approaching sixty. He incautiously chose for his second marriage Elizabeth Howard, a teenaged daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. The Howard family was renowned for the beauty, but less so for the virtue, of its women who, furthermore, were Catholic. His new connection certainly brought advantages. His influence at court increased, he became Master of the Court of Wards which was highly lucrative, and in 1616 was promoted to be Viscount Wallingford. But the only child of the marriage was a daughter who did not survive.
The position of the Howards depended on Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, a favourite of James I. Carr was the husband of Elizabeth’s sister Frances who had had her first marriage – incidentally, to a grandson of William’s sister Lettice – annulled on dubious allegations of impotence. In 1616 the couple were sensationally accused and convicted of the murder of another courtier, Sir Thomas Overbury, who had opposed their alliance. The king was shamed, and reacted forcefully. The case brought about a power shift at court: the Howards fell along with Carr, and William, though not directly involved, fell with them. It was probably little consolation when the king assured him that his only fault was in his choice of a wife.
William lost the Court of Wards amid accusations of mismanagement and was no longer welcome at court. For the rest of his life he concentrated on his regional responsibilities. It was for his local success in raising government loans that in 1626 Charles I made him Earl of Banbury. Because of his advanced age and lack of an heir, it was deemed safe to give his earldom precedence over other recently created ones. Unfortunately, Elizabeth soon after produced two sons in quick succession. It was understood that their father was Edward Vaux, a childhood friend whom she would marry immediately after William’s death. The children could legally call themselves the second and, after the early death of the elder son, the third Earl of Banbury, but would never be admitted to the House of Lords.
William had meanwhile chosen a nephew, Robert (1589-1659), as his effective successor. Robert was the son of his younger brother Richard, resident at Stanford-in-the-Vale. He was knighted in 1613. By William’s influence as high sheriff and regional magnate, he represented Abingdon in Parliament four times, was once a knight of the shire for Berkshire and once a burgess for Wallingford. Unlike his forbears, he was almost totally inactive in parliament. He offered his services to Abingdon at the election of April 1640, after his uncle’s death, and was politely turned down. But it was Robert who received Rotherfield Greys as a gift from his uncle to ensure that Elizabeth’s offspring would not inherit.
Other members of the Knollys family remained active. William’s brother Francis and his son, also Francis, sat for Reading in the parliament that fought the civil war. The younger died in 1643; the older held his seat until his death in 1648, at the age of 96. A son of Robert Knollys of Rotherfield Greys was briefly knight of the shire for Oxfordshire after the restoration, but died in 1664. The family thereafter ceases to be prominent in the historical record.
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