Born the son of Anthony Wills of St Goran, Cornwall, by 'Jenofer' (Guinevere), his wife, he was baptised at St. Goran on 23 October 1666. His father, whose family had been settled in Cornwall since early in the sixteenth century, farmed his own land, and, having encumbered his estate with debts, quit the same at the English Civil War and offered his services and those of six of his sons to the Prince of Orange, who, it is said, gave them all commissions. Charles Wills appears to have been appointed a subaltern in Colonel Thomas Erle's foot regiment (disbanded in 1698), with which corps he served in the Irish campaign. On 1 July 1691 he was appointed captain in the 19th Regiment of Foot, the colonelcy of which had been bestowed on Erle on 1 January 1691. Wills served several campaigns in Flanders, including the 1693 Battle of Landen. On 6 November 1694 he was appointed major to Colonel Thomas Saunderson's foot regiment, and on 1 May 1697 was promoted lieutenant-colonel. A few months later Saunderson's foot was disbanded and the officers placed on half-pay. On the formation of Viscount Charlemont's 36th Regiment of Foot in Ireland (28 June 1701), Wills was appointed to the lieutenant-colonelcy, and in the following spring embarked with his corps for Cadiz in Spain.
From Spain Charlemont's regiment was sent to the West Indies, where Wills gained distinction on the island of Guadeloupe, and several towns were burnt after the French troops had been defeated. In the action at La Bayliffe 'Colonel Wills behaved himself with great bravery' (London Gazette, 10 May 1703). He succeeded to the command of the troops on shore in April 1703; and, after burning and destroying the French towns and fortifications along the coast, he embarked his troops on board the squadron on 7 May 1703, bringing away all the captured French guns. After losing many officers and men in the West Indies, the 36th foot returned to Ireland in the winter of 1703–4.
In 1705 Wills accompanied the Earl of Peterborough to Spain as quartermaster-general, and served almost uninterruptedly in the Peninsula until December 1710. He was at the Siege of Barcelona on 4 October 1705, and nine days later was appointed colonel of a regiment of marines (30th foot), vice Thomas Pownall. Wills was subsequently second in command in the district of Lerida, and rendered valuable service in the important action at San Estevan, where he commanded after Major-general Conyngham was mortally wounded (26 Jan. 1706); again distinguished himself at the defence of the town of Lerida, which capitulated after an obstinate defence; was appointed a brigadier-general on 1 January 1707; commanded 1,500 marines and a Spanish regiment in Sardinia (1708), and reduced Cagliari. He was promoted major-general on 1 Jan. 1709, and appointed commander-in-chief of the forces on board Admiral Baker's fleet on 17 June in the same year.
Wills fought at Almenara in 1710, and commanded an infantry brigade at the battle of Saragossa. He was thereupon recommended to Queen Anne for promotion to the grade of lieutenant-general (Marlborough Despatches, v. 168), which rank had been already conferred on him in Spain by Charles III, the titular king. In the unfortunate action at Brihuega on 1 Dec. 1710, Wills earned fresh laurels, and was mentioned in General Stanhope's despatches as having been ‘during the action at the post which was attacked with most vigour and which he as resolutely defended.’ After suffering a rigorous imprisonment of some months, Wills was allowed to return to England.
When Preston was taken by Jacobite forces at the 1715 Battle of Preston, Wills, who was then commanding in Cheshire, assembled his troops at Manchester, and then marched to Wigan, where he arrived on 11 November He had at his disposal the cavalry regiments of Pitt, Wynne, Honeywood, Dormer, Munden, and Stanhope, and Preston's foot regiment. At Wigan, Wills received intelligence that Lieutenant-general George Carpenter was advancing from Durham by forced marches with about nine hundred cavalry, and would be ready to take the enemy in flank. Early on 12 November Wills marched towards Preston, and at one in the afternoon he arrived at the bridge over the Ribble, and found there about three hundred of the rebel horse and foot who upon the approach of the royal troops withdrew hastily into the town, where barricades had been erected. On coming before Preston a reconnaissance was made by Wills in person, and, in consequence of his party being fired upon and two men killed, he ordered an immediate assault by Preston's foot regiment, which corps behaved with great bravery. At the same time Wills ordered the whole town to be surrounded, to the right and left, by the cavalry. The rebels, being well posted behind the barricades, inflicted great loss on Preston's regiment (the Cameronians), which was commanded by Lieutenant-colonel Lord Forester. After two barricades had been gallantly charged, and the troops repulsed with equal courage, Wills drew off his men, and, all the avenues to the town having been effectually secured, the cavalry were ordered to stand at their horses' heads all that night. At nine o'clock next morning General Carpenter arrived with three dragoon regiments. The rebels witnessed the arrival of the reinforcements from the church steeple, and, losing heart, their commander was anxious to capitulate. 'Unconditional surrender' were the only terms that Carpenter and Wills would give, and after stormy debates within the beleaguered town the rebels laid down their arms and surrendered next morning [see Forster, Thomas, 1675?–1738; and Oxburgh, Henry].
A good deal of friction occurred between Carpenter and Wills on this occasion, the former being the senior officer, and it was increased by George I bestowing the rank of lieutenant-general on Wills directly news of the surrender of the rebels at Preston reached London, no notice being then taken of Carpenter's share in the success. In January 1716 Carpenter sent a challenge by General Churchill to Wills, but the duel was honourably compromised by the generous intervention of the Dukes of Marlborough and Montagu. Wills was appointed colonel of the 3rd foot on 5 January 1716, governor of Portsmouth 1717, lieutenant-general of the ordnance on 22 April 1718, KB on 17 June 1725, colonel of the grenadier guards on 26 August 1726, general commanding the foot in 1739, M.P. for Totnes (1714–41), and one of George I's privy council.
It appears from the Political State of Great Britain for September 1726 that there was an intention, unrealised owing to George I's death, of creating Wills a peer with the title of Baron Preston. With the exception of a few legacies and an annuity of £200 per annum to his nephew Richard Wills, Sir Charles bequeathed all his fortune, which was a very considerable one, to his executor, General Sir Robert Rich, bart. This will was unsuccessfully contested by Sir Richard Wills in the probate court.
- Dalton 1900, pp. 43–44.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Dalton, Charles (1900). "Wills, Charles". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 62. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 43–44.
|Parliament of Great Britain|
Sir John Germain
| Member of Parliament for Totnes
With: Stephen Northleigh 1718–1722
Joseph Banks 1722–1727
Exton Sayer 1727–1732
Sir Henry Gough 1732–1734
Sir Joseph Danvers 1734–1741
Sir Joseph Danvers
Sir John Strange
| Colonel of Charles Wills' Regiment of Marines
The Lord Forrester
The Earl of Forfar
| Colonel of Prince George of Denmark's Regiment
The Lord Londonderry
The Earl Cadogan
| Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards
The Duke of Cumberland