Sir William Staunford in the time of the late Tudors

"William was shrewd as well as very clever. He was intensely religious and Catholic, which at times must have made things difficult for him, but he seems to have stayed clear of politics when it mattered, and steered a middle course ..."

...Our interest now focuses on William [Staunford] ... born [in Islington] on the 22nd August 1509, exactly four months to the day after his illustrious King Henry VIII came to the throne, and his career owes much to the extraordinary legal, matrimonial and religious turmoil prevailing over the latter half of Henry's reign. Not only was England gripped by the doctrinal upheaval arising out of the Reformation, but ministers and advisers, clergy and laity had to contend with Henry's obsession with producing a male heir, which resulted in having to wrestle with the legal niceties of Henry's two divorces and the execution of two of his six queens.

William was shrewd as well as very clever. He was intensely religious and Catholic, which at times must have made things difficult for him, but he seems to have stayed clear of politics when it mattered, and steered a middle course. In this he was helped by his intense loyalty to the Crown, which he served devotedly throughout the reigns of Henry, his son, the poor consumptive-wracked boy King Edward VI, and Henry's eldest daughter, the Catholic Queen Mary. But above all he was a brilliant lawyer, which carried him inevitably to the top of his profession.

After an elementary education in London which revealed his liking for scholarship, he went up to Oxford, perhaps with the early intention of entering the Church. There he discovered his aptitude for philosophical argument and law, so on graduation he returned to London and entered Gray's Inn in 1528.

At Gray's Inn, his progress was rapid, and at the age of twenty-five he was called to the bar in 1536. England, however, was in crisis. Henry's great adviser and Chief Minister, Cardinal Wolsey, had fallen from grace over Henry's divorce from Queen Catherine, and died in 1529. That great Catholic Englishman and lawyer, Sir Thomas More, had perished on the scaffold in July 1535 for refusing the oath recognising 'Henry VIII, being immediately next unto God, the only and supreme head of the Catholic Church of England, and Anne (Boleyn) his wife, and Elizabeth, daughter and heir to them both, our princess.' A month earlier, John Bishop of Rochester, now Cardinal Fisher, that saintly churchman and kinsman of Isabel Fisher of Rowley, had been beheaded for the same treason. Yet the rising star of William Staunford, now using the Staffordshire spelling of his ancestors, continues its upward path with growing brightness.

During the summer of 1536 Royal commissioners toured the country examining the financial affairs of the religious houses and monasteries, which for a long time had been in decline and become increasingly corrupt. As Henry was always short of revenue, the Church properties offered a tempting prize. Wolsey had already closed several smaller houses to finance his new college in Oxford, later called Christ Church, and Henry had since suppressed twenty or more for his own benefit. Now was the time to wind up the rest, a task which the new Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, carried out with ruthless efficiency. One of the young lawyers employed in this task was William Staunford, who set about the winding up of the Austin Friars Priory at Stafford in 1538. As some of the priory's lands were already leased from Sheen Abbey, William Staunford appears to have had no scruples in assigning the house of the Austin Friars and lands in Forebridge, formerly leased by his uncle Thomas Stamford of Rowley, to his first cousin, William, to become an integral part of the Rowley manor estate.

Thereafter William's future was assured. He must have had no difficulty, although an ardent Catholic, in signing the Oath of Allegiance, for on 15th December 1541, he was returned to Parliament as member for Stafford, which he represented again in the parliament which met in January 1544/5 but which was dissolved the following January on Henry's death. During the short reign of Edward VI, William represented Newcastle-under-Lyme from 13th October 1547 to 15th April 1552, during which time England was, on paper at least, a Protestant state. Nevertheless, he must have rendered exceptional service, for his work as an MP was recognised on the 17th May 1554 by the award of 26.13s.4d for his 'travayle and prayers taken in the two late parliaments'. After Edward's death, however, and the sad little inter-regnum of Lady Jane Grey, the sixteen-year-old great-granddaughter of Henry VII, the English throne reverted to Catholicism under Queen Mary, which brought about a new wave of executions and burnings of traitors and heretics of the opposite religious persuasion.

During this unhappy period, William Staunford continues his professional career. He had been appointed Autumn Reader at Gray's Inn in 1544, but had not been able to deliver his lectures until the following Lent, because of the plague that ravaged the City. In the Spring of 1551, however, he was appointed Double Reader, and on the 6th October of that year he was placed on the commission to 'Resolve upon the reformation of the Common Lawes'. That appointment led to others, for in 1552 he was one of the commissioners 'empowered to examine and deprive Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of Durham', of his see; and on 17th October he was made sergeant-at-law, then Queen's Sergeant a year later. In April 1554 he conducted the Crown prosecution against Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, a distinguished former MP and member of the household of Catharine Parr who, on the death of Edward VI had backed an attempt to place Lady Jane Grey on the throne, and was now suspected of complicity in Sir Thomas Wyat's rebellion in January of that year. Sir Nicholas was acquitted for lack of evidence, went into exile for a while but, on being reconciled with Queen Mary, returned to England to become Queen Elizabeth's Chamberlain of the Exchequer.

Undaunted by his failure to secure a conviction, Sir William Staunford now rose to the pinnacle of his legal career by his appointment to the Bench of Common pleas, a post that he held until his death four years later. In his final years he was the author of several legal works of reference, notably 'Pleas of the Crown' (published by Tottel in London in 1560), and he is said to have edited the earliest printed version of Glanville's 'Tractatus de Legibus', published also by Tottel about 1555.

Having served the Crown faithfully through three turbulent reigns, and managed through great skill and diplomacy to keep his head on his shoulders, he deserved his knighthood which he received at the hand of King Philip, Queen Mary's Consort, on 27th January 1554/5. Twelve years earlier the family's coat of arms had been confirmed by the Garter King of Heralds, Christopher Barker on the 16th May 1542 in recognition of the part played by the family to place Henry VII on the throne at Bosworth 1485....

Not Found Wanting, pp.90-2

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