He was born the son of Richard Winwood at Aynhoe in Northamptonshire and educated at St John's College, Oxford (1577), Magdalen College, Oxford (1582), Padua (1594) and studied law at Gray's Inn from 1617.
In 1599 he became secretary to Sir Henry Neville (c. 1562-1615), the English ambassador in France, and he succeeded Neville in this position two years later, retaining it until 1603. He was Clerk of Privy Council (extraordinary) from 1603 to 1608, and (ordinary) from 1608 to 1609. In 1603 Winwood was sent to The Hague as agent to the States-General of the United Provinces, and was appointed a member of the Dutch council of state on the basis of the Treaty of Nonsuch. His hearty dislike of Spain coloured all his actions in Holland; he was anxious to see a continuance of the war between Spain and the United Netherlands, and he expressed both his own views and those of the English government at the time when he wrote, "how convenient this war would be for the good of His Majesty's realms, if it might be maintained without his charge." He was knighted on 28 June 1607.
In June 1608 Winwood signed the league between England and the United Provinces, and he was in Holland when the trouble over the succession to the duchies of Jülich and Cleves threatened to cause a European war. In this matter he negotiated with the Protestant princes of Germany on behalf of James I. He was appointed Master of Requests for 1609 to 1614.
Having returned to England Sir Ralph became secretary of state and Privy Councillor from 1614 until his death and a Member of Parliament (MP) for Buckingham. In the House of Commons he defended the king's right to levy impositions, and other events of his secretaryship were the inquiry into the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury and the release of Raleigh in 1616. Raleigh was urged by Winwood to attack the Spanish fleet and the Spanish settlements in South America, and the secretary's share in this undertaking was the subject of complaints on the part of the representatives of Spain. In the midst of this he died in London on 28 October 1617. It can hardly be doubted, says Gardiner, that, if he had lived till the following summer, he would have shared in Raleigh's ruin.
He had married Elizabeth, the daughter of Nicholas Ball of Totnes, Devon, with whom he had 5 sons (2 of whom predeceased him) and 4 daughters. One of Winwood's daughters, Anne (d. 1643), married Edward Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Boughton, and their son was Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu.
Winwood's official correspondence and other papers passed to the Duke of Montagu. From 1899, they were in the possession of the Duke of Buccleuch.
They are calendared in the Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission on the manuscripts of the Duke of Buccleuch.
See the Introduction to this Report (1899); and also SR Gardiner, History of England, vols. ii. and iii. (1904-1907).
- "WINWOOD, Sir Ralph (c.1563-1617), of Whitehall, Westminster and St. Bartholomew the Less, London; later of Ditton Park, Bucks.". History of Parliament. Retrieved 18 June 2013.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
as English Councillor
on the Dutch Council of State
|English agent then ambassador to the United Provinces
With: Sir Richard Spencer
as Joint Commissioner 1607–1609
Sir Henry Wotton
Sir Robert Cecil
|Secretary of State
With: John Herbert 1614-1617
Sir Thomas Lake 1616-1617
Sir Robert Naunton
Sir Thomas Lake