James Wilford was the son of Thomas Wilford of Hartridge, Kent, and Elizabeth Colepeper. He married Joyce Barrett, she died in 1580. His sister Cicely (d. 10 February 1584) married Edwin Sandys, Archbishop of York. He was elected Member of Parliament for Barnstaple in 1547.
"He was so noble a capitaine, that he wonne the hartes of all Souldiers. He was in the towne among his Souldiers and friends, a gentle lamme. In the field amongst his enemies a Lyon.
Sir James was one of the captains who supervised the fortification at Lauder on the site of Thirlestane Castle in April 1548. Lord Grey of Wilton recommended him for the command of the English and Italian mercenary force occupying Haddington on 28 April. On 3 June 1548, Wilford and Thomas Wyndham captured Dalkeith Palace, burnt the town, and took prisoner James Douglas, the future Regent Morton. On 1 November 1548, Wilford wrote to Somerset describing the state of Haddington, with a garrison stricken by plague:
"The state of this town pities me both to see and to write it; but I hope for relief. Many are sick and a great number dead, most of the plague. On my faith there are not here this day of horse, foot and Yttalians 1000 able to got the walls, and more like to be sick, than the sick to mend, who watch the walls every 5th night, yet the walls are un-manned."
Wilford was captured at Dunbar in January 1549. One later account relates his capture by Robert Lauder of the Bass while supervising a wagon train of provisions. The French soldier Jean de Beaugué also published the event in his History of the War in Scotland. Mary of Guise described his capture as a "bonne prise" in a letter to her brother, the Duke of Aumale. James Croft succeeded him in command at Haddington. In June 1549 Wilford was imprisoned at Stirling Castle where he was visited by an English herald. The English Privy Council wrote to the Earl of Rutland to organize his release by an exchange of prisoners. Wilford was valued as a "man of special service" and "someone who has notably served", but was now "vexed with much sickness." It was suggested he might be exchanged for the son of Lord Fleming. Wilford was transferred to the keeping of Janet Stewart, Lady Fleming, and was released sometime in November 1549.
James Wilford died in November 1550, and his eulogy was delivered by Miles Coverdale. He was buried at St. Bartholomew's by the Exchange in London. A brass plate from his monument engraved with the Barrett and Wilford arms is preserved at the Museum of London. Coverdale was also buried at St Bartholomew's.
Wilford's portrait was painted, perhaps by Hans Eworth; four copies of this portrait survive, three versions show a view of Haddington. The portraits are (retrospectively) dated 1547 and give Wilford's age as 32.
- Biography of Sir James Wilford - Museum of London
- Portrait of James Wilford with view of Haddington, at Coughton Court, Throckmorton Collection, National Trust
- Portrait & engraving at National Portrait Gallery, London.
- "History of Parliament". History of Parliament Trust. Retrieved 2011-11-04.
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- "Cust, Lionel, 'The Painter HE', Second Annual Volume of the Walpole Society, (1913), 4, 14, 18.".