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Sir Richard Willis, 1st Baronet (sometimes spelt 'Willys') (13 January 1614 – December 1690) was a Royalist officer during the English Civil War,[1][2] and a double agent working for the Parliamentarians during the Interregnum.

Early life

Willis was the younger brother of Thomas Willys, both being sons of Richard Willys, a lawyer and Lord of the Manors of Fen Ditton and Horningsey, Cambridgeshire, by Jane, daughter and heir of William Henmarsh, of Balls, in Ware, Hertfordshire. Both were created baronets of Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire by Charles I.[2]


Willis went up to Christ's College, Cambridge in 1631, and was admitted to Gray's Inn in the same year. As a younger son, he stood to inherit little, so became a career soldier, enlisting in the Dutch military and serving at the Siege of Breda in 1637, returning to serve under King Charles I in the Bishops' Wars from 1639 to 1640. Prior to the outbreak of civil war, Willis was a member of the King's Guard based at Whitehall under Sir Thomas Lunsford.[3]

He joined the Royalist cause as an officer in the King's army, being knighted on 1 October 1642 by the King for gallantry in a cavalry skirmish at Shrewsbury, and was promoted to Colonel of a Regiment of Cavalry under William Villiers, 2nd Viscount Grandison, being captured twice during this period but escaping. Imprisoned in the Tower of London for nine months following capture at Ellesmere in 1644, Willis joined Prince Rupert's forces.[3]

Willis eventually became Colonel General of the counties of Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire, and Rutland, and in May 1645 was appointed Governor of Newark. By this time Prince Rupert had been defeated at the Battle of Naseby, and through the machinations of Lord Digby, a rival and advisor to the King, came under suspicion as plotting against the crown. Rupert's subsequent surrender at Bristol caused Charles to dismiss his nephew from his service. While Charles was at Newark, Rupert arrived to confront him over what he considered the injury done to his honour; Willis rode out with Lord Gerard to greet him. The court-martial Rupert demanded exonerated him, but Willis, for what the King considered to be the disloyalty of his attendance on Rupert, was replaced by Lord Belasyse as Governor of Newark. Willis challenged him to a duel, but was stopped by the King; Rupert, his brother Prince Maurice, Gerard and other cavaliers took Willis's side and in the ensuing argument were all dismissed from the King's service.[4] Rupert later reconciled with the King, and Willis, for his previous service, was created a Baronet of Fen Ditton in June 1646, as his elder brother, a landowner and politician, had been five years previously.[3]

Following the Royalist defeat, Willis spent some time in Italy, returning to England in 1652 to join the Royalist underground organisation, the Sealed Knot (his successor as Governor of Newark, Belasyse, was also one of the members).[5]

However, it seems Willis became a double agent. Although twice imprisoned by the Commonwealth, he established contact with Cromwell's secret service, led by John Thurloe, in 1656 or 1657, possibly for money (in A Child's History of England, Ch.XXXIV, Charles Dickens wrote that Willis "reported to Oliver everything that passed among them, and had two hundred a year for it"). Alternatively, Willis may have wanted to secure his safety in case the Royalist cause failed.[6] Notwithstanding critical assessments of his actions, however, no evidence has been uncovered that Willis passed on any significant piece of information, or betrayed any old friends.[7]

In 1659 Willis was denounced to the future King Charles II by Thurloe's secretary, Samuel Morland,[6] who accused him of plotting, with Thurloe and Cromwell, to lure Charles and his brothers to return to England under false pretences (to meet followers in Sussex) and then assassinate them. Morland is said to have learned of the plan while pretending to be asleep in Thurloe's office in Lincoln's Inn.

After the Restoration Willis was banned from court, but no other punishment was imposed, presumably in recognition of his previous service. Having taken a wife of considerable means, he enjoyed a comfortable retirement with his family at Fen Ditton,[8] where his will, dated 16 to 20 May, was probated 10 December 1690.[9]

Personal life

Willis married in or before 1659, Alice, daughter and sole heir of Thomas Fox, M.D., of Warlies, in Waltham Holy Cross, Essex [bur. there 26 Nov. 1662], and of Shipton, Oxon, by Anne, daughter of Robert Honywood, of Pett, in Charing, Kent. Her will, dated 27 October 1684, prorated 28 March 1688.[2] Alice was the great-granddaughter of the martyrologist John Foxe, her grandfather being his son Samuel (1560-1630).[10]

The baronetcy passed to Sir Thomas Fox Willys, of Warlies (30 June 1661 – 1701) who was said by his grandfather Thomas Fox to have been born "bereft of his wits" and died unmarried and without children at the age of 59.[2][11] With his death the Baronetcy created for Willis became extinct.[2]

In literature

Richard Willis appears as a character in Act II of the play Cromwell by Victor Hugo, published in Paris in 1828.[12]

In his afterword to An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears explains that much of the book's plot was inspired by the career of Willis, and his family's later, unsuccessful attempts to clear his name.


  1. ^ Dates used in this article use the Julian calendar with the start of year adjusted to 1 January (see Old Style and New Style dates)
  2. ^ a b c d e Cokayne 1902, pp. 234, 235.
  3. ^ a b c Plant 2007.
  4. ^ Whitehead 2009, p. 62.
  5. ^ Whitehead 2009, p. 163.
  6. ^ a b Agnew & Bidwell 1856, p. 221.
  7. ^ Country Life magazine, 1 October 1964, p.838.
  8. ^ Whitehead 2009, p. 220.
  9. ^ Cokayne 1902, pp. 235.
  10. ^ Nichols & Foxe 1859, p. xv.
  11. ^ Birken 2008.
  12. ^ Cochrane 1828, p. 171.


4 Annotations

First Reading

language hat  •  Link

Willys, Sir Richard
A cavalry officer under Rupert, he had been Governor of Newark in 1644 until dismissed by the King. After a spell in Italy he returned to England in 1652 where he became a member of the royalist underground organisation known as the Sealed Knot. He seems to have played a double game. Though twice imprisoned by the government, he established contact with Cromwell's secret service in 1656 or 1657, possibly for money - he was very poor - or to secure his safety in case the royalist cause failed. In 1659-60 he was denounced to the King by Samuel Morland, Thurloe's assistant and Pepys's old tutor, who accused him of having betrayed Booth's rising in Aug. 1659 [and of being part of a plot to assassinate the King]. Willys's fellow conspirators in the Sealed Knot disbelieved the charges, but Clarendon and the King were convinced by the evidence of the handwriting in the letters which Morland sent over. At the Restoration he was forbidden the court.
(from the Companion entry)

James H. Lister, Jr.  •  Link

After Sir Richard Willys retired from his political life in England he allegedly departed to the United States to reside.

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

There happen'd at this time the discovery of a vile Treachery which had done the King's Affairs much harm; and had it been longer concealed, would have done much more. From the death of Oliver, some of those who were in the secretest part of his Affairs, discern'd evidently, that their new Protector would never be able to bear the burthen and so thought how they might do such service to the King, as might merit from him. One who had a part in the Office of Secrecy, Mr. Moreland, sent an Express to the King, to inform him of many particulars of Moment, and to give him some advices, what his Majesty was to do; which was reasonable and prudent to be done. He sent him word what Persons might be induced to serve him, and what way he was to take to induce them to it, and what other Persons would never do it, what professions soever they might make. He made offer of his Service to his Majesty, and constantly to advertise him of whatsoever was necessary for him to know; and, as an instance of his fidelity, and his usefulness, he advertised the King of a Person who was much trusted by his Majesty, and constantly betrayed him; "that he had receiv'd a large Pension from Cromwell, and that he continually gave Thurlow Intelligence of all that he knew..."
The Gentleman accused, was Sr Richard Willis; who had from the beginning to the end of the War, except at Newark, given testimony of his Duty and Allegiance, and was universally thought to be superior to all temptations of infidelity. He was a Gentleman, and was very well bred, and of very good parts, a courage eminently known, and a very good Officer, and in truth of so general a good reputation, that, if the King had professed to have any doubt of his honesty, his Friends would have thought he had receiv'd ill infusions without any ground; and he had given a very late testimony of his sincerity by concealing the Marquis of Ormond, who had Communicated more with him, than with any Man in England, during his being there. On the other side, all the other informations, and advices, that were sent by the Person who accused him, were very important, and could have no end but his Majesty's Service; and the Offices that Gentleman offer'd to perform for the future, were of that consequence, that they could not be overvalued. This Intelligence could not be sent with a hope of getting Money; for the present condition of him who sent it, was so good, that he expected no reward, till the King should be enabled to give it; and he who was sent in the Errand, was likewise a Gentleman, who did not look for the Charges of his Journey.
---The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, v.3 part 2. Edward Hyde Earl of Clarendon, 1707.

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.



  • Feb