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The Noble House of Knollys

British Isles Genealogy | Chapters From the Family Chest

          When, on June 23rd, 1833, General Sir William Knollys, K.C.B., Usher of the Black Rod, paid the debt of nature, there were but few who remembered how that he had entered life, and, 1 believe, had received his first commission in the Army, under the name of Viscount Wallingford, as eldest son of the Earl of Banbury. But about this said earldom there is a story to be told. It has been told before, but as it 's doubtless new to many, if not to most, of my readers, I will tell it again, premising that for the leading facts and dates I stand indebted to the pages of the , ‘Extinct and Dormant Peerage' of Sir Bernard Burke.
     Every reader of English history has heard the name of Sir Francis Knollys, the trusted friend of Elizabeth, and for many years ac guardian of the person of her rival, Mary Queen of Scots. A staunch, open supporter of the Reformation, he thought it prudent to retire into Germany on the accession of King Edward to the throne, though he had held a court appointment under Henry VIII. But as soon as Elizabeth became queen, he returned to England, and, enjoying the confidence of his sovereign, he was made successively Chamberlain and Treasurer of the Royal Household, and invested with the blue ribbon of the Order of the Garter. By his wife, a niece of Queen Anne Boleyn, he had a daughter, Lettice, married to Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, and a son. William, who, having been, like his father, Treasurer of the Royal Household, and a Knight of the Garter, was appointed to the lucrative office of ‘Master of the King's Wards.' By James I he was created Viscount Wallingford and Earl of Banbury, and allowed to take precedence of all earls created before him. His choice of these particular titles doubtless was made because the estate of Rotherfield Greys, near Henley-on-Thames, which had been granted to his grandfather by Henry VIII, lay not far from the one place, and in the same county with the other.
          The earl was twice married; his second wife was Elizabeth Howard, daughter of Thomas, Earl of Suffolk, his neighbor at Ewelme, in Oxfordshire. He died in May, 1632, in his eighty-ninth year, only three or four years after this marriage; and he left behind him a young and sprightly widow. An ‘Inquisition,' after his decease, found and reported that he had died sine prole. ‘His honors were deemed or assumed to have become extinct, and his estates passed to his collateral heirs, except such as he had devised to his widow,' who soon took as her second husband the Lord Vaux of Harrowden. But this did not prevent her from introducing to her friends two fine boys, who had been born in her husband's lifetime, but who had generally been supposed to be Lord Vaux's children. Indeed, they had been called after Lord Vaux's name; but now she set them up as really the children of her first husband, and even caused the elder to take the title of Earl of Banbury. They were both children at the outbreak of those civil wars which so deranged the proceedings and destroyed the authority of the House of Lords. The elder son died in his youth; but his younger brother, Nicholas, stepped into his shoes, and took his seat as Lord Banbury in the Convention Parliament of 1660, voting as such on several occasions. But it would seem that this act on his part did not pass unquestioned. In the July of that year, within two months after the Restoration, it was moved and ordered that the House of Peers should hear counsel at the bar in the matter of I a person now sitting as a peer of the realm, viz., the Earl of Banbury.'
     So irregular, however, to say the least, were the proceedings of the Upper House, that there is no actual record of the point being argued before it by counsel learned in the law. The journals are silent on the subject; though, as Sir Bernard Burke tells us, I they furnish abundant proof that the doubt had been removed by some means, for they show that the said earl was present in the House every day preceding the day appointed for the bearing; that he was also present on that very day; and that the day following he was named (a member) of ;1 Committee on the Excise Bill.' It further appears that he was present, as a peer presumably, on September 13th, when the King was in the House; and, in short, that he was absent only seven days between July and the November following, when we find it expressly ordered ‘that the Earl of Banbury hath leave to be absent for some time.'
          On the assembling of a new Parliament, however, in the May following, we find no Lord Banbury named among the peers summoned to attend at Westminster. His lordship, therefore, was forced to pose as a ‘claimant,' and he presented a petition to the King, asking for his ;writ of summons. This petition was forwarded by his Majesty to the House of Peers, who referred it to a ‘Committee of Privileges.' Witnesses were examined, the Attorney-General, who attended on behalf of the Crown, confessed the law to be clear, and in the end the Committee made its report to the effect that ‘the Earl of Banbury is a legitimate person.’
            It is probable that little or no further opposition Would now have been made to Lord Banbury's claim, had it not been for the obnoxious clause in the patent which gave hire precedence over all his brother earls, including those of Shrewsbury, Derby, and Huntingdon; and, accordingly, the whole question was argued again at the Bar of the House and before the Committee of Privileges. In the end, his brother peers agreed to report that Nicholas, Earl of Banbury was legitimate, but that the precedence granted to him was illegal. Nothing definite, however, seems to have been done in the matter; for, in the following December, a Bill was brought in and read a first time, declaring Nicholas, Earl of Banbury, to be illegitimate. But, 'observed Sir Bernard Burke, such a measure was found too unjust to become law;' the Bill was dropped, and the ‘claimant' died without seeing the question brought to a conclusion. His son Charles was a minor at his father's death, so nothing could be done in the matter till he came of age.
          In 1685, he presented to the House of Lords a petition to the same effect as his father before him had done, and he was met by the same heart-breaking procrastination. The question, however, soon after took a new shape; for the young earl had the misfortune to kill his brother-in-law in a duel, and was indicted for manslaughter at the Middlesex Sessions. Thenceforth the Banbury case became confusion worse confounded; for, when indicted as Charles Knollys, he pleaded that he was a peer; but the Attorney-General refused to allow such a privilege, as the House of Lords had denied his right; but Lord Holt and his brother judges, on the matter coming before them, declared the resolution of the Lords to be invalid. The claimant now again presented his petition for a writ of summons, and the Crown again, in 169 10, referred it to the Lords, who got rid of the affair by sending a message to his Majesty, ‘That they had already determined the question, of which they supposed the King was not aware.' In the reign of (queen Anne the claimant once more petitioned to the same effect, and his petition was referred to the Privy Council; but what became eventually of his petition is not known.
     That a claimant should be thus ‘driven about from pillar to post' was not at all to the credit of English law and the first principles of justice; and it was hardly to be supposed that the claimant would rest contented with a position which made him neither peer nor commoner; so he renewed his petition on the accession of George II. Sir Philip Yorke after wards Lord Hardwicke-was the Attorney General, and, on the petition being referred to him, he reported that ` it vas a matter of discretion, not of law, whether the Crown would refer it to the Lords:' the Crown therefore declined to interfere.
     Thus the claim continued to hang suspended from reign to reign. If Mr. Knollys was Earl of Banbury, he had a right to sit and vote in the Upper House; if not, he was a plain untitled country gentleman. Which, then, was he? The law, on being appealed to, was silent: its oracles were dumb. Sir Bernard Burke attempts to justify this anomalous state of things. He says: ` Lord Hardwicke was undoubtedly right; it was a matter of pure option on the part of the Crown whether it would take the opinion of the House of Lords (on the question); and prudence counseled the negative, after the flame which had been kindled a. few years previously between the House of Peers and the Courts of Law.' This is an easy way of disposing of an awkward and difficult inquiry; but was it just towards 'the claimant,' and is it just to his descendants and representatives? I venture to doubt.
     At length, in 1776, according to Sir Bernard Burke, the heirship of the family devolved on William Knollys, an officer in the army, who had attained the rank of general, and who from that time enjoyed, as his ancestors had enjoyed since the Restoration, the titular honor of Earl of Banbury, and had been so named in all the King's commissions. The awkwardness of his situation, however, impelled him to make an effort in his own person to have the question of his right to a writ of summons finally decided. He accordingly petitioned the Crown, and the case in 108 was referred to the Attorney General, Sir Vicary Gibbs. That able lawyer reported 'that he was bound by the high authority of the judgment of Lord Chief Justice Holt, in 1693, to give it as his opinion that the resolution of the House of Lords on that occasion was not conclusive, because, if that judgment had been erroneous, it might have been reversed by a writ of error.'
     Matters stood thus in 1813, when the case came once more and finally before a Committee of the House of Lords, Sir Samuel Romilly being counsel for the claimant; and the Lords arrived at the conclusion I that the claimant was not entitled to the earldom of Banbury.' The unsuccessful claimant on this occasion, I may add, was the father of the late fir William Knollys. Sir William was one of the most popular men of his time. As Usher of the Black Rod, he was personally known to every member of the Upper House; and he was the intimate friend of the Prince of Wales, who employed him in the superintendence of more than one department of his household at Marlborough House, and also as Receiver-General of the rents of the Duchy of Cornwall.
     The real question at stake from first to last was this: were the Countess of Banbury's children the issue of her first or of her second husband', They were born during the lifetime of the former, and therefore, in the absence of full and certain proof to the contrary, they were his ' in the eye of the law.' Such full and
certain proof was never adduced as could bastardise them; and consequently to the ordinary Englishman it would seem that the earldom of Banbury is not extinct, but belongs to the grandson of the last actual claimant. In all probability the earldom suffered shipwreck in port two centuries back, because of the jealousy provoked by the absurd patent of precedence with which the Scottish Solomon had weighted it: thus showing that the favor of a king is not always a source of prosperity to those on whom he smiles.
     As for the house of Knollys, or Knowlys, or Knowles, for the name is variously spelt, the eralds claim for it a descent from Sir Robert Knollys, K.G., who rose to fortune from a humble rank in the wars, having been chosen by the Black Prince to accompany him to Spain, and was afterwards general of the forces sent by King Edward into France. By Richard II. he was made Governor of Brest, and sent along with Thomas Plantagenet (of Woodstock), Earl of Buckingham, and other nobles to assist the Duke of Brittany against the French, when, landing at Calais, they marched through France without resistance. The next year, on the breaking out of Jack Straw's rebellion, Sir Robert led the citizens of London against the rebels. Besides his military achievements, however, he left behind him some peaceful memorials of himself. It was he, for instance, who built the I stately' bridge over the Medway at Rochester, and he likewise founded a collegiate church of secular priests at Pontefract, in Yorkshire. Though not the founder, he was the chief benefactor and enlarger of the Church of the Carmelites, known as the White Friars, in the City of London, in the body of whose church he was buried, not long after close of that Edwardian Era,' to the glory of which he had largely contributed.

Chapters From the Family Chests, 1887

Chapters From the Family Chest

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