VILLIERS, William (c. 1682-1721)

VILLIERS, William (c. 1682–1721)

styled 1697-1711 Visct. Villiers; suc. fa. 26 Aug. 1711 as 2nd earl of JERSEY

First sat 13 Nov. 1711; last sat 26 June 1717

MP Kent 1705

b. c.1682, 1st s. of Edward Villiers, later earl of Jersey, and Barbara (d.1735), da. of William Chiffinch, kpr. of royal closet. educ. Queens’, Camb. 1699, MA 1700; travelled abroad (France) 1700–1.1 m. 22 Mar. 1705 (with more than £30,000), Judith (d.1732), da. of Frederick Herne, merchant of London, 2s. 1da. d. 13 July 1721; will 9 July, pr. 4 Dec. 1721.2

Teller of exch. 1701–2.

Freeman, Rochester 1705.

Merchant adventurer 1703.3

Associated with: Squerries, Kent; Golden Sq., London;4 and Castlethorpe, Bucks.

Likenesses: William Villiers, 2nd earl of Jersey, and Mary Granville, Lady Lansdowne, mezzotinte by John Smith, aft. Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1700 (NPG D36508).

A rather enigmatic character, Villiers was reckoned by many to be a Jacobite but he was not averse to voting with the Whigs on occasion and he was a recipient of both a peerage from the Pretender and a pension from King George I.5 Despite his family’s ancient pedigree, he did not possess particularly extensive lands. His principal residence at Squerries Court, near Westerham in Kent, was a recent acquisition by his father, and other estates such as that of Burnham in Buckinghamshire produced only very modest rent-rolls.6 There were further estates in Kent, Suffolk, and Essex but, again, these were not especially lucrative.7 Consequently, he was dependent for much of his adult life on pensions and handouts, which may go some way towards explaining his political flexibility.

On his return from a tour of France in 1701, where Matthew Prior feared that he had developed a worrying propensity towards gambling, Villiers was made a teller of the exchequer, though his appointment does not feature in the official rolls and he seems never to have exercised the office.8 Sir John Stanley officiated during Villiers’s minority; then, at the accession of Queen Anne, Villiers was replaced by James Vernon, relinquishing the post in favour of a pension of £1,000 p.a.9 In 1705 he married Judith Herne, whom he was said to have been courting for the previous year. Narcissus Luttrell reckoned her fortune to be in excess of £30,000 (other sources estimated the figure to have been between £40,000 and £80,000).10 Villiers and his wife soon acquired unsavoury reputations on account of their numerous infidelities. The marriage was reported to have been in trouble as early as 1710, when there were also problems over distribution of the settlement money.11 By May 1711 Villiers, dubbed by society ‘the Marshal’, was reputedly engaged in a very public liaison with the duchess of Montagu and by the end of November that year, his wife (by then countess of Jersey) was also described as being in a ‘pickle’ for her sins.12 Such indiscretions did not prevent Villiers from being classed as a ‘Churchman’ but he was an inactive member of the Commons and at a county meeting of August 1707 several of the Kentish magnates, dissatisfied with his performance, spoke in favour of deselecting him as their candidate.13 He took the hint and did not stand again.

In August 1711 Villiers succeeded his father as earl of Jersey. Shortly after succeeding to the peerage, he was elected to The Society, the group of which Jonathan Swift, Charles Talbot, duke of Shrewsbury, and Jersey’s brother-in-law, George Granville, later Baron Lansdowne, were members. Jersey appears to have been ejected from the club on Swift’s advice a few months later.14 At the close of August, still signing himself ‘Villiers’, he wrote to Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, offering his interest and assuring the lord treasurer that he would ‘always find me true to my father’s memory by being faithful to your service’. A fortnight later he wrote again seeking a convenient time to wait on Oxford, perhaps eager to secure the treasurer’s assistance in the face of an emerging dispute with the dowager countess, who was also intent on gaining Oxford’s interposition.15 Disagreements between the new earl and his mother rumbled on for at least two more years.

Jersey took his seat in the House on the single sitting day of 13 Nov. 1711. He then resumed his place at the opening of the 1711–12 session after which he was present on approximately 48 per cent of all sitting days. In or about December 1711 he was listed as a probable supporter of Oxford’s ministry and he was also included among the peers to be canvassed on the question of no peace without Spain. It is a reflection, perhaps, of the uncertainty with which Jersey was still viewed that his name appeared both as a supporter and as an opponent on lists forecasting votes in the division on whether or not to permit his kinsman James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton [S], from sitting in the House by virtue of his British dukedom of Brandon. In the event, Jersey voted against disabling Hamilton from sitting as an hereditary British peer. The following year, on 9 Feb. 1712, Lionel Sackville, 7th earl (later duke) of Dorset, registered his proxy with Jersey, which was vacated on Dorset’s return to the House on 14 February. Two months later, on 26 Apr., Jersey was entrusted with that of James Berkeley, 3rd earl of Berkeley (like Dorset a member of the Kit Cat Club), which was vacated on 5 May. Following the debates over the address of thanks to the queen for her speech of 6 June outlining the details of the peace treaty, Jersey was one of a number of peers to absent themselves from the vote the next day on whether to append a clause to the address, a decision that contributed to the court securing a substantial majority.16

Jersey attended the single sitting day on 25 Sept. 1712. Over the next few months, his brother-in-law, George Granville, newly ennobled as Baron Lansdowne, sought to link his own interests with those of Jersey. In December Lansdowne wrote to Oxford, concerned that he ‘should be wanting to your lordship’s service if I omitted putting you in mind of my Lord Jersey’ to be considered for one of the places then held by John Berkeley, 4th Viscount Fitzhardinge [I], whose death was imminent. Despite Lansdowne’s efforts, and rumours that he would indeed be gratified, Jersey’s pretensions were overlooked. 17 In what was perhaps a reflection of his resentment at his lack of preferment, his name was added to a list compiled by Swift in March or April 1713 of those expected to oppose the ministry in the new session (the addition being in Oxford’s hand). He resumed his seat in the House on 10 Apr. and in May he was again listed either as a possible opponent or as one of those to be contacted in advance of the vote on the bill confirming the French commercial treaty.

Present for a little under one-third of all sitting days in the session, on 1 June 1713 Jersey joined with Daniel Finch, 2nd earl of Nottingham, in seconding the Whig motion to adjourn the debate on dissolving the Union.18 Later the same month, in spite of earlier predictions that he would oppose the measure, he was thought likely to rally to the ministry over passing the French commercial treaty. During the summer his distant kinsman Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, appears to have recommended Jersey for employment, perhaps hinting that he might replace Robert Sutton, 2nd Baron Lexinton, at Madrid.19 Bolingbroke continued to use his interest on Jersey’s behalf in September, writing to him familiarly as ‘dear doctor’ and professing that he wished to see him distinguished

from the illiterate crew of fops, who disgrace the names they wear: I would have you enter the queen’s service, not because you are related to, or intimate with, those in power, but because you are wanted in it … in the midst of this dearth of capacity, which is but too apparent among the nobility …20

It was an aspiration never to be realized. In October, when Jersey was compelled to return to London, it was not in anticipation of government office but on account of his mother’s behaviour over the settlement of the 1st earl’s estate. Having refused to pay her late husband’s debts, the dowager countess had sold the personal estate and, shortly after, absconded to France, taking with her Jersey’s younger brother, Henry Villiers, despite his being the queen’s ward.21 Residing in Paris openly as a Jacobite agent, the dowager countess’s behaviour created a scandal that necessitated the intervention of both Bolingbroke and Matthew Prior. Alluding to an incident during the 1st earl’s life, Prior lamented that he had been such a ‘puppy’ as to prevent the late earl from murdering his wayward countess.22 Although Henry Villiers returned to England in February 1714, having resisted his mother’s efforts to convert him, legal actions over payment of the 1st earl’s debts, which also entangled Jersey, continued until 1718.23

Jersey returned to the House on 16 Feb. 1714, after which he was present on approximately 65 per cent of all sitting days during the first session of the year. He voted with the Whigs against the government motion that the Protestant succession in the House of Hanover was not in danger.24 Yet in late May or early June Nottingham estimated that Jersey was likely to support the bill sponsored by Bolingbroke for preventing the growth of schism. From 28 May to 4 June, Jersey held his brother-in-law Lansdowne’s proxy. Nine days after its cancellation, Lansdowne again registered his proxy in Jersey’s favour; it was vacated on 1 August. Jersey’s return to the Tory fold no doubt coincided with his renewed efforts to secure a place from Oxford.25 His continuing association with Bolingbroke was reflected at the close of June when it was commented that he and Allen Bathurst, Baron Bathurst (later Earl Bathurst), were acting as Bolingbroke’s ‘pimps’.26

Jersey’s hopes of attaining office died with Queen Anne. He attended just two days of the second session of 1714, but resumed his usual attendance pattern the following year, sitting on 78 days between March 1715 and June 1716. He rallied to the embattled Oxford and on 9 July 1715 dissented from the resolutions not to refer to the judges the question of whether the articles against Oxford amounted to treason and not to delay consideration of the articles against him, and from the resolution to commit him to Black Rod. The following month he subscribed the protest against the resolution to attaint Bolingbroke. Implicated in the Jacobite uprising of that year, Jersey was imprisoned in the Tower in September 1715, along with his sister and brother-in-law, Lansdowne, but it is noticeable that he was able to secure his release much more expeditiously than the other detainees: he was freed in December, while the Lansdownes remained incarcerated until February 1717.

Jersey resumed his seat in the House on 9 Jan. 1716. In April he was created earl of Jersey in the Jacobite peerage, an indication of the exiled court’s refusal to acknowledge his Williamite earldom. His dual honours were almost certainly the result of his mother’s intercession with the Pretender rather than on account of any efforts made by Jersey himself.27 His new Jacobite peerage did not prevent him from continuing to sit in the House and in April he voted with the court in favour of passing the Septennial Act.28 He resumed his seat for the second session of the Parliament on 20 Feb. 1717, but attended for just 16 days before sitting for the last time on 27 June. It was reported that during August and September he indulged in a frenzy of excess, his behaviour said to have been owing to desperation caused by his countess’s continued indiscretions. During one week he consumed nothing but brandy, with the result that by September 1717 he had been rendered senseless.29 Jersey’s relatives doubted whether he would ever recover, but he was sufficiently alert by November to sign his name when he registered his proxy in favour of the Whig peer, Henry Clinton, 7th earl of Lincoln, which was vacated by the close of the session. A full account of his parliamentary career after 1715 will be found in subsequent volumes of this series.

Jersey travelled to France the following May to recover his health, in company with the Jacobite Lucius Henry Cary, 6th Viscount Falkland [S].30 During his absence he ensured that his proxy was registered for each session that he missed. On 11 Nov. 1718 it was registered in Lincoln’s favour, and on 21 Nov. 1719 in favour of Anthony Grey, who sat under a writ in acceleration as Baron Lucas of Crudwell. On 7 Dec. 1720 Jersey registered his proxy in Lincoln’s favour once more.

Indulging perhaps in wishful thinking, Lady Jersey predicted in January 1720 that, given his continued state of ill health, her husband could not live long.31 Her prognosis proved only slightly premature. A year later Jersey had recovered his health sufficiently to return to England and in February 1721 he moved his belongings from his house in Golden Square to that of his executor, Shuckburgh Sill, at Castlethorpe in Buckinghamshire, where he died a few days after making his final will on 13 July. Two days later his final proxy was cancelled. He was buried at Westerham, but no memorial was constructed and no record remains of the precise site of his interment.32

Jersey’s meagre possessions at his death included a one-eyed coach horse and a lame grey mare ‘that cannot go’. In all, his goods at Castlethorpe were valued at just £103 14s. 6d., though it was estimated that at his death he was owed rental income from his estates in Kent, Suffolk, Buckinghamshire, and Essex in excess of £800.33 In his will, Jersey snubbed both his wife and daughter by leaving each just one shilling. To his second son, Thomas Villiers, later earl of Clarendon, he was more generous, providing him with an annuity during his minority and a lump sum of £3,000 on attaining his majority. Jersey named his relative Thomas Chiffinch and his friend Shuckburgh Sill as executors. He was succeeded by his eldest son, William Villiers, as 3rd earl of Jersey.


  • 1 Longleat, Bath mss, Prior pprs. 6 f. 50, xiii. ff. 1–5; HMC Bath, iii. 418; CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 28.
  • 2 TNA, PROB 11/582.
  • 3 Add. 28079, ff. 59–60.
  • 4 G. Leveson Gower, Parochial History of Westerham, 17; Records of the family of Villiers, earls of Jersey, 15; Add. 61589, f. 196; HMC Cowper, iii. 117.
  • 5 HMC Stuart, ii. 131, iv. 32; Add. 61602, f. 111.
  • 6 HMC Bath, iii. 418; VCH Bucks. iii. 173.
  • 7 PROB 5/5853.
  • 8 Longleat, Bath mss Prior pprs. 13 f. 3.
  • 9 Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 67, 187; CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 395; Add. 70073–4, newsletter, 25 June 1702; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 224.
  • 10 Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 187, 532; SCLA, DR98/1649/9; HP Commons, 1690-1715, iv. 342; Wentworth Pprs. 149.
  • 11 Wentworth Pprs. 149.
  • 12 Ibid. 197, 214, 230.
  • 13 Add. 61496, f. 92; HP Commons, 1690–1715, ii. 308.
  • 14 Jnl to Stella, 361, 481.
  • 15 Add. 70261, Jersey to Oxford, 30 Aug. and 14 Sept. 1711; dowager countess of Jersey to Oxford, 6 Oct. 1711.
  • 16 Christ Church, Oxf. Wake mss 17, f. 329.
  • 17 Add. 22222, f. 14; Add. 70288, Lansdowne to Oxford, 12 and 18 Dec. 1712; Wentworth Pprs. 309.
  • 18 Bodl. Carte 211, f. 128.
  • 19 W. Sichel, Bolingbroke and his Times, i. 147; HMC Portland, v. 324.
  • 20 Bolingbroke Corresp. iv. 274–7.
  • 21 Wentworth Pprs. 357-8.
  • 22 Bolingbroke Corresp. iv. 325–7, 373.
  • 23 Add. 70261, dowager countess of Jersey to Oxford, endorsed 28 Feb. 1714; HMC Stuart, i. 304; TNA, E134/5 Geo1/Mich 38.
  • 24 Jones, Party and Management, 141.
  • 25 Add. 70261, Jersey to Oxford, n.d. [c. 23 and 24 May, 3 June] 1714.
  • 26 Wentworth pprs. 395.
  • 27 HMC Stuart, ii. 90–91.
  • 28 Ibid.; Add. 72493, f. 75.
  • 29 Wentworth Pprs. 445–6.
  • 30 HMC Stuart, vi. 411.
  • 31 Add. 61589, f. 196.
  • 32 G. Leveson-Gower, Westerham, 17, 62.
  • 33 PROB 5/5853.