KNOLLYS, Nicholas (1631-74)

KNOLLYS, Nicholas (1631–74)

suc. bro. June 1645 (a minor) as titular 3rd earl of BANBURY

First sat 4 June 1660; last sat 21 Nov. 1660

b. 3 Jan. 1631, 2nd s. Elizabeth, countess Banbury; bro. of Edward Knollys, later titular 2nd earl of Banbury. m. (1) c.16491 (with £8,000), 2 Isabella (d.1655), da. of Montjoy Blount, earl of Newport, 1da; (2) 4 Oct. 1655, Anne (d. 6 Mar. 1680), da. of William Sherard, Bar. Sherard (I), 2s. 4da. (1 d.v.p.).3 d. 14 Mar. 1674; admon. to wid. 21 June 1681 and 4 July 1683.

Associated with: Boughton (Manor) House (not to be confused with Boughton House near Kettering, the seat of the Montagus) and Harrowden Hall, Northants.

Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Howard, earl of Suffolk, had married William Knollys, Baron Knollys (later earl of Banbury) as his second wife in 1606, when he was 58 and she was 19. Lady Banbury’s elder son, Edward (later titular 2nd earl of Banbury), was born at her husband’s house in 1627, but at the birth of her second son she was living at Harrowden Hall, the home of Edward Vaux, 4th Baron Vaux, whom she subsequently married. Both boys appear to have been known in infancy by the surname Vaux and, not unnaturally, Vaux was suspected of being their biological father. Such suspicions were confirmed by the knowledge that the 1st earl of Banbury had secured a re-grant of the manor of Cholsey after the birth of Edward, and of the manor of Greys after the birth of both Edward and Nicholas on the grounds that his childless state meant that they would otherwise revert to the crown on his death. On both occasions his ‘next heir male’ was identified as his nephew, Sir Robert Knollys.4 Although by statute peerages were accorded precedence with respect to their date of creation, the letters patent creating the earldom of Banbury in 1626 had directed that it be given precedence as if it were the first earldom created after the accession of Charles I. This clause, which displaced six other earls, was much resented as an infringement of privilege. On 28 Mar. 1628 the House was informed of the king’s desire that they accept Banbury’s precedence in a message that specifically referred to Banbury’s childlessness; at that date Edward Knollys, the future titular 2nd earl of Banbury, was already nearly a year old. Banbury made no mention of, or provision for, any children in his will. A report from the committee for privileges on 25 Nov. 1669 noted that when questioned about the Banbury pedigree, garter king of arms had insisted that there was no record of any children of the 1st earl and pointed out that there was no mention of an earl of Banbury in a list of peers created for Parliament in 1640. In 1687, during a chancery action, a witness referred in passing to ‘the Lord Vaux, father of Nicholas, late earl of Banbury’.5

Although the biological paternity of Edward and Nicholas Knollys may have been doubtful, there was a well-established common law maxim that children born in wedlock should be presumed to be the children of the husband. Accordingly, on the death of the 1st earl of Banbury, Edward Knollys assumed the title, and his right to be regarded as the earl’s heir was acknowledged by the courts in 1641.6 Nicholas Knollys claimed the earldom at his brother’s death. In March 1660, when Philip Wharton, 4th Baron Wharton, drew up his list of ‘lords whose fathers sat’ he had no hesitation in including the 3rd earl of Banbury amongst them.

Nicholas Knollys’ right to sit in the House of Lords was soon challenged. He attended only twice in June 1660 and was then absent until 13 July. On that day an unknown peer moved ‘That there being a person that now sits in this House as a peer, who, as is conceived, hath no title to be a peer; videlicet, the earl of Banbury’, as a result of which the House ordered that the matter be argued by counsel at bar. No proceedings ensued and Banbury began to attend assiduously. Between 13 July and his final appearance in the House on 21 Nov. he missed only eight sittings. Banbury was named to three committees, that for continuing the excise on 24 July, for Newport Free School on 8 Sept. and for the highways on 10 November. He also attempted to promote a bill of his own to enable him to sell property at Boughton Latimer for payment of debts. The bill received its first and second readings on 20 and 24 Aug. respectively but went no further.

Whether he was an active participant in any of these committees remains a mystery; nor is there any record of his activity in any debates, divisions, protests, or dissents. The sole indicator of his political loyalties is the survival of two proxies, one undated and one merely dated 1660, given in favour of George Monck, duke of Albemarle. He appears to have been a Protestant, although his mother and his probable biological father were both Catholics.7 An effective evaluation of his character and politics is hampered by a lack of personal papers, although even if an archive did survive, it seems unlikely that it would alter the perception of a man who was unimportant in himself but who attracted a great deal of attention because of the oddities of his claim to a peerage and as a person whose indeterminate status within an intensely hierarchical society made others extremely uncomfortable.

On 21 Nov. 1660 the self-proclaimed earl of Banbury was granted ‘leave to be absent for some time.’ He never sat again for no writ of summons was issued when the new Parliament met on 8 May 1661. On 6 June his petition to the king both for a writ and for the precedence accorded to the 1st earl was read to the House after which the lord chancellor, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, informed the House that the writ had been withheld at the command of the king ‘upon some question that was made last Parliament in this House concerning him.’ The matter was then referred to the committee for privileges.

Discussion within the committee centred on the question of Knollys’ biological parentage particularly whether his and his brother’s births had been kept secret. The committee clearly found it difficult to believe that a man as elderly as the 1st earl (who would have been 80 in the year that Edward was born and 83 at the birth of Nicholas) could father a child. It was also noted that Banbury’s only lands were those settled on him by Vaux. Nevertheless, in view of the common law presumption, the committee decided ‘the matter of fact that according to the law of the land he is legitimate’ and they reported accordingly on 1 July 1661.8 The House ordered the committee to reconsider the matter. The committee’s second report (19 July) also declared him to be legitimate but recommended that his precedence should be according to the date of creation of the earldom rather than according to the letters patent.9 A bill to bastardise Knollys was introduced on 19 Dec. 1661 but did not get beyond a first reading. Banbury’s claim to a writ of summons was revived several times during his lifetime but was never resolved.

In the absence of a clear decision from the House, his contemporaries carried on referring to him as earl of Banbury. He was listed as such in a directory of peers, although, as noted above, no earl of Banbury was recorded in garter’s roll of peers.10 Knollys himself continued to insist that he was entitled to the earldom, and he paid poll and benevolence money accordingly.11 However, Knollys’ finances (and hence his prestige) were precarious. In 1655 he was said to have been imprisoned in the upper bench prison for a debt of £10,000, his attempt to sell Boughton Latimer for debts has already been mentioned and in 1673 £4,500 was levied on his lands for failing to appear to answer a plea of debt in the court of exchequer.12 The size of his wives’ marriage portions is unknown, but he was clearly not in a good bargaining position: £2,000 of his first wife’s portion was secured against his father-in-law’s London house, under conditions that ensured payment was a very distant prospect indeed.13 He appears to have provided for his eldest daughter’s marriage portion, in part, by settling on her lands that her stepmother claimed as jointure.14

Although the Knollys family had once been one of the leading gentry families of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, the 1st earl seems to have left only a small amount of property, little or none of which passed to the titular 3rd earl. Vaux settled his estates on Knollys, to the exclusion of his own heirs but these too seem to have been insignificant, consisting of the manors of Great and Little Harrowden and lands in Irthlingborough and Boughton Latimer in Northamptonshire.15 The sequestrators had valued them at £300 a year and Vaux himself provided a similar figure.16 During a family dispute about the lands of Great and Little Harrowden in the 1680s they were said to be worth between £1,100 and £1,200 a year, but even this sum (which was probably overstated) was scarcely enough to maintain the dignity of an earl.17 In 1665 Knollys succeeded in securing the honour of a visit to his house by James, duke of York, and his duchess only by the expedient of forcibly stopping their coach and pulling the duke’s leg so hard ‘that he had almost drawn off his shoe.’18

Knollys’ descendants continued to use the title of earls of Banbury and the associated title of Viscount Wallingford until 1813, when the House finally rejected their claim. A further petition in 1922 was similarly unsuccessful.19


  • 1 TNA, C7/419/51.
  • 2 Warws CRO, CR 2017/L1/b/2.
  • 3 Ibid.; Soc. Gen. transcript, Boughton, Northants.
  • 4 CSP Dom. 1629-31, p. 199; 1631-3, pp. 53-54.
  • 5 TNA, C22/507/9.
  • 6 VCH Northants, iv. 181.
  • 7 TNA, SP 18/94, stamped f. 226.
  • 8 PA, HL/PO/DC/CP/1/1, 17 June 1661.
  • 9 Ibid. 15 July 1661.
  • 10 An Alphabetical Account of the Nobility and Gentry (1673).
  • 11 CPS Dom. 1665-7, p. 37; LJ, xii. 293.
  • 12 CSP Dom. 1654-5, p. 55; 1673-5, p. 6.
  • 13 TNA, C7/419/51.
  • 14 TNA, C22/543/5; C22/225/26.
  • 15 VCH Northants, iv. 181.
  • 16 HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1, 468; LJ, xi. 67.
  • 17 TNA, C22/543/5; C22/225/26.
  • 18 CSP Dom. 1665-6, p. 498.
  • 19 For a full recital and consideration of the evidence, 1661-1813, see H.N. Nicholas, Treatise on Adulterine Bastardy. For papers relating to the case of 1922-4, see TNA, TS 16/9; HO 45/11251.