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See Joseph Williamson (philanthropist) for the Joseph Williamson famous for creating seemingly pointless tunnels in Liverpool (England)
Joseph Williamson
Member of Parliament
for Thetford

In office
Member of Parliament
for Rochester

In office
President of the Royal Society

In office
Personal details
Born (1633-07-25)July 25, 1633
Died 3 October 1701(1701-10-03) (aged 68)
Cobham, Kent
Resting place Westminster Abbey
Spouse(s) Katherine Stewart, Baroness Clifton

Sir Joseph Williamson, PRS (25 July 1633 – 3 October 1701) was an English civil servant, diplomat and politician who sat in the House of Commons of England variously between 1665 and 1701 and in the Irish House of Commons between 1692 and 1699. He was Secretary of State for the Northern Department 1674–79.

Early life[]

Williamson was born at Bridekirk, near Cockermouth in Cumberland, where his father, also called Joseph, was vicar. His father died when he was very young, and his mother remarried the Reverend John Ardery.[1] His relatively humble origins were often referred to unkindly in later life by his enemies. He was educated at St. Bees School, Westminster School and Queen's College, Oxford, of which he became a fellow.[2]

Early career[]

In 1660 he entered the service of the Secretary of State for the Southern Department, Sir Edward Nicholas, retaining his position under the succeeding secretary, Sir Henry Bennet, afterwards Earl of Arlington. He was involved with the foundation of the London Gazette in 1665.

Williamson was elected Member of Parliament for Thetford in 1669 and held the seat until 1685.[3] No less than three previous attempts to enter Parliament had been unsuccessful, due to an increasing "backlash" against Government candidates. Samuel Pepys in his celebrated Diary records that when Williamson appeared at the hustings in 1666, he was shouted down by cries of "No courtiers!"[4] In 1672 he was made one of the clerks of the council and a knight.

During the Third Anglo-Dutch War, he drew up plans for the Zealand Expedition which was intended to land a newly formed English Army in the Netherlands. The strategy was abandoned after the naval defeat at the Battle of Texel and the Treaty of Westminster which ended the war.

In 1673 and 1674 he represented his country at the Congress of Cologne, and in the latter year he became Secretary of State for the Northern Department, having practically purchased this position from Arlington for £6,000, a sum that he required from his successor when he left office in 1679. He served as Master of The Clothworkers' Company in 1676–77. In 1677, he became the third President of the Royal Society, but his main interests, after politics, were in antiquarian rather than in scientific matters.

Popish Plot[]

Just before his removal from the post of Secretary of State, he was arrested on a charge of being implicated in the Popish Plot,[5] but he was at once released by order of Charles II. Williamson was a particular target of the informers because he was one of the few Ministers who openly disbelieved in the Plot:[6] when Israel Tonge first approached him with "information", Williamson, who believed that Tonge was insane, gave him a "rude repulse".[7] As for the other informers, several of whom were members of London's criminal underworld, his efficient intelligence service probably told him everything necessary about their characters. For this reason, the King, who was equally sceptical about the Plot's reality, wished to retain his services, at least in the short term. The actual charge made against Williamson, of commissioning Roman Catholic army officers, was entirely spurious since these officers were intended for foreign service.

Williamson's nerve began to give way under the strain of the Plot, and he soon became a political liability. Charles finally dismissed him after he gave orders to search Somerset House, the Queen's official residence, without the King's permission; the King, "in great anger" told him that "I marvel at your effrontery in searching my house... your head is turning.....I do not wish to be served by a man who fears anyone more than me".[8] Danby was suspected by many of having a part in Williamson's downfall, as he was said to have taken offence at Williamson's recent marriage to Lady Clifton, a wealthy widow and cousin of the King.[9]


His marriage, at the beginning of the Popish Plot, should on the face of it have strengthened him politically: his wife was Katherine Stewart, Baroness Clifton, daughter of George Stewart, 9th Seigneur d'Aubigny, and sister of Charles Stewart, 3rd Duke of Richmond, of a junior branch of the Stuart dynasty.[10] Her first husband, by whom she had several children, was Henry O'Brien, Lord Ibrackan, an old friend of Williamson; she and Williamson had no children.

Despite the obvious advantages of the match, John Evelyn reported that it was very unpopular, and it probably weakened Williamson politically. Since Katherine as well as her first husband was an old friend of Williamson she was not a surprising choice as a bride; but the fact that O'Brien had been dead for only three months when she remarried gave rise to ill-natured gossip that Williamson and Katherine had been lovers during her first marriage: "'Tis said they live together less happily than before they married" ran one gibe. More seriously in an age of marked class distinctions, it was considered improper that the sister of a Royal Duke should marry a country clergyman's son, and even her children are said to have objected to the marriage.[11] Danby, who reportedly thought that Katherine would be a good match for his own son, was suspected of having had a hand in Williamson's downfall.

Later career[]

After a period of comparative inactivity Sir Joseph represented England at the Congress of Nijmegen, and in 1678 he signed the first treaty for the partition of the Spanish Monarchy.

In 1690, Williamson was elected Member of Parliament for Rochester and held the seat until 1701.[12] He was also elected MP for Thetford in three separate elections, but each time chose to sit for Rochester instead.

Between 1692 and 1695, Williamson was also MP in the Irish House of Commons for Clare. In 1695 he represented Portarlington for few months and subsequently Limerick City until 1699. He was awarded the Freedom of the City of Dublin in 1696, as a tribute to his interest in civic improvements in Dublin. In return he presented the city fathers with a silver cup.

Death and reputation[]

Williamson died at Cobham, Kent, on 3 October 1701, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his widow joined him a year later. He had become very rich by taking advantage of the many opportunities of making money which his official position gave him; and despite the heavy debts left by her brother, his wife is also said to have brought him a fortune. He left £6,000 and his library to Queen's College, Oxford; £5,000 to found a school at Rochester, Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School; and £2,000 to Thetford. A great number of Williamson's letters, dispatches, memoranda, etc., are among the English state papers.

He has been described as one of the greatest English civil servants of his time, and is credited with building up an intelligence service as efficient as that which John Thurloe had operated under Oliver Cromwell. His detailed notes of Privy Council meetings are an invaluable source of information about its operation, especially in the political crisis of 1678–79. Despite his gifts he was not popular, being described as dry, formal and arrogant, an uncertain friend and a harsh employer. On the other hand, his will, in which he remembered all those who had a claim on him, suggests that he did not lack a certain generosity of character; and he was capable of forming lifelong friendships, notably with Samuel Pepys.

In fiction[]

He is a recurring character in the Thomas Chaloner series of mystery novels by Susanna Gregory, in which he plays a somewhat villainous role: his wife and her first husband appear in the seventh book in the series, The Piccadilly Plot.

See also[]

  • Popish plot


  1. Secombe p.2
  2. Secombe p.2
  3. Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "T" (part 1)}[better source needed] }}
  4. Diary of Samuel Pepys 21 October 1666
  5. Kenyon pp.117–8
  6. Kenyon p.77
  7. Kenyon p.70
  8. Kenyon p.155
  9. Secombe p.6
  10. Secombe p.6
  11. Secombe p.6
  12. Leigh Rayment's Historical List of MPs – Constituencies beginning with "R" (part 2)}[better source needed] }}


  • Kenyon J.P. The Popish Plot William Heinemann, 1972; Phoenix Press Reissue 2000, pp. 117–18
  •  Seccombe, Thomas (1900). "Williamson, Joseph". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 62. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Henry Coventry
Secretary of State for the Northern Department
Succeeded by
The Earl of Sunderland
Parliament of England
Preceded by
Sir John Banks, Bt
Sir Roger Twisden, Bt
Member of Parliament for Rochester
With: Francis Clerke 1690–1691
Caleb Banks 1691–1695
Sir Cloudesley Shovell 1695–1701
Succeeded by
Francis Barrell
William Bokenham
Preceded by
Sir Francis Guybon
Baptist May
Member of Parliament for Thetford
With: Sir John Wodehouse, Bt
Succeeded by
Sir John Wodehouse, Bt
Preceded by
Sir John Wodehouse, Bt
James Sloane
Member of Parliament for Thetford
With: James Sloane
Succeeded by
James Sloane
Lord Paston
Preceded by
James Sloane
Lord Paston
Member of Parliament for Thetford
With: Edmund Soame
Succeeded by
Edmund Soame
Sir Thomas Hanmer
Unrecognised parameter
Preceded by
Member of Parliament for Clare
With: Sir Donough O'Brien, 1st Bt
Succeeded by
Sir Donough O'Brien, 1st Bt
Sir Henry Ingoldsby, 1st Bt
Preceded by
Daniel Gahan
Richard Warburton
Member of Parliament for Portarlington
With: Richard Warburton
Succeeded by
George Warburton
Richard Warburton
Preceded by
Joseph Coghlan
Sir Charles Feilding
Member of Parliament for Limerick City
With: Joseph Coghlan
Succeeded by
Robert Blennerhassett
Richard Ingoldsby

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