William Gerard

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Sir William Gerard (1518–1581) was an Elizabethan statesman, who had a distinguished record of government service in England, Wales and Ireland. He sat in the House of Commons for Chester for many years, and was Vice-President of the Council of Wales and the Marches.

He was Lord Chancellor of Ireland for five years. Historians have praised his energetic efforts to reform the Irish legal system, although they differ as to his effectiveness in this task. Despite the fact that he was not a clergyman, he was appointed Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin in 1573, although he admitted to having an "uneasy conscience" about his right to the office.[1]

Early life[edit]

He was born at Ince in Lancashire, son of Gilbert Gerard and Elizabeth Davison, daughter of an alderman of Chester, a city with which William was to have a long association, and where he died. Sir Gilbert Gerard, the English Master of the Rolls, was his cousin, and is said to have advanced William's career.[2]

William entered Gray's Inn in 1543, was called to the Bar in 1546, and became an Ancient of Gray's Inn in 1552. Elrington Ball argues that his legal qualifications were insufficient for the office of Lord Chancellor of Ireland,[3] but in fact William had acquired considerable legal experience prior to that appointment. He was made Attorney General for Wales in 1554, Recorder of Chester in 1556, a justice in Wales in 1559 and vice-justice of Chester in 1561. [4]

Political career[edit]

Starting in 1555 Gerard sat in six consecutive parliaments as a member for Chester — the last two of Queen Mary's reign, her 4th (1555) and 5th (1558) and the first four of Queen Elizabeth's reign, 1st (1559), 2nd (1563), 3rd (1571) and 4th (1572).[4]

Gerard became a member of the Council of Wales and the Marches in 1560, and Vice-President of the Council in 1562. He gained the reputation of being an energetic and efficient administrator, and it was for that reason that the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Sir Henry Sidney, asked for him to be appointed Lord Chancellor of Ireland in 1676. The office had been vacant for three years, and Sidney wanted a zealous official to assist him in his ambitious reform program. He had worked with Gerard during his time in Wales, and had the highest opinion of his abilities.[5] For a time a warm friendship existed between the two men: the unusual first name, Sidney, which Gerard gave to his daughter Lady Wynn may have been a tribute to their friendship.[6]

Lord Chancellor of Ireland[edit]

Even Elrington Ball,[3] who has a rather poor opinion of Gerard, admits that he came to Ireland with good intentions and at first showed himself an energetic and capable Lord Chancellor. He announced his intention of extending the assize system, and quickly established regular sessions throughout the east and south-east. Ball however argues that going on assize so often caused him to neglect the duties of his own office, which was based in Dublin.[3] He initially urged the removal of most of the Irish-born High Court judges as being old and unfit to serve, calling them "scarecrows, mere shadows", and that they be replaced by English judges; later however, he was prepared to appoint Irish judges of sufficient legal ability.[4]

He argued for the need to introduce large numbers of English settlers to Ireland (in Ball's opinion, Gerard constantly interfered in matters which were none of his business). He had a low opinion of his Irish civil servants, finding "not one good man among the whole crew". By March 1577 he was insisting that he must have English lawyers to assist him, or else, he claimed, the job would be the death of him.[4]

Crawford, author of A Star Chamber Court in Ireland, argues that Gerard as Lord Chancellor had a twofold aim - to re-establish the authority of the courts of common law throughout Ireland, and to supplement their authority by using the powers vested in his own office to turn the Court of Castle Chamber, the Irish equivalent of Star Chamber into an effective executive body for maintenance of public order. In the second aim at least he had considerable success in the early years, when Castle Chamber heard a large number of cases dealing with riot, affray and other offences against public order. Gerard has been praised for the meticulous care he took in investigating cases before the Court and his willingness to bring them to resolution.[7]

So heavy indeed was the volume of public order cases that in 1579 he apologised to Lord Burghley for being unable to hear a private case in which Burghley had an interest. One notable private case was brought against the 8th Baron Howth on a charge of cruelty to his wife and daughter Jane. Castle Chamber accepted the evidence that he had beaten his wife so severely that she was in fear of her life, while Jane had died soon after a similar beating, and probably as a direct result of it. Given Howth's social standing the penalties were severe enough: he was briefly imprisoned, subjected to heavy fines and order to pay maintenance to his wife, who was allowed to live apart from him and was given custody of their children.[7]

The cess controversy[edit]

The Sidney administration was weakened by the Anglo-Irish gentry's intense opposition to Sidney's proposals on tax reform, in particular to the levying of cess, a bitterly unpopular tax for the upkeep of military garrisons of the Pale (the counties surrounding Dublin which were under secure Crown control) which the gentry complained imposed a crippling financial burden on them. The cess controversy reached its height in 1577 when Sidney persuaded the Queen to imprison three eminent Irish barristers who had gone to London to petition for his proposals to be withdrawn. At this point differences between Sidney and Gerard, who had originally supported the reforms, emerged: Gerard believed that Sidney's coercive approach was a mistake, and he was friendly with Barnaby Scurlocke, the leader of the deputation which had been imprisoned.[8]

Gerard traveled to London to urge a policy of moderation and to plead for the release of the lawyers, and apparently outlined his own alternative to the levying of cess. The Queen, having initially supported Sidney, was persuaded by Gerard's arguments that the cess was a mistaken policy and rebuked Sidney for trying to introduce it. The Lord Deputy now quarreled violently with Gerard, whose advice he had until then greatly relied on, and whom he had called "my counsellor". Sidney was recalled in 1578.[9]

Last years and death[edit]

Gerard's efforts to reform the Irish legal system slackened off in his later years: his quarrel with Sidney, Sidney's recall and the outbreak of the second Desmond Rebellion in 1579 destroyed his impetus for bringing about radical change. Gerard, who had often been in ill health during his years in Wales, complained about the effect on his constitution of the damp Irish climate; from 1579 on he was in very poor health, suffering from dysentery, shortness of breath, severe pains in his legs, and some form of skin disease. He spent most of his last years in Chester. In 1579 he was given a knighthood, and appointed Master of Requests.[10]

In 1580 it became clear that he could not live long. He had planned to visit London in March, but found himself "lame beyond hope of recovery". He wrote a loyal letter to Elizabeth I, saying that he hoped to see her one more time even if he had to crawl to London, but by then he was too ill to leave Chester, where he died in early May 1581.[11] He was buried in St Oswald's Church, Chester. Much of his will is devoted to a description of his financial troubles and the difficulties he experienced in providing for his family.[4]


Gerard married Dorothy, daughter of Andrew Barton of Smithhills, Lancashire and his wife Anne Stanley, (and sister of Ralph Barton, MP for Nottingham). Dorothy outlived him, although in his will he spoke of her frequent and serious illnesses. They had two sons and four daughters[4] including:

Sir John Wynn, 1st Baronet, who married Gerard's daughter Sidney


Historians agree that Gerard began his career in Ireland with an energetic attempt to reform the legal system. Elrington Ball however argues that he soon abandoned the effort, neglected his proper office and interfered in matters outside his remit. Ball also criticises him for accepting, though with considerable qualms of conscience, the Deanery of St Patrick's, despite the fact that he had never taken holy orders. Ball also suggests he was not free from corruption, although there seems to be little evidence of this: the reference in his will to his "wicked life" may simply be a conventional reflection of his Puritan beliefs.[13]

O'Flanagan, on the other hand, in his rather brief study of Gerard describes him as an energetic and conscientious Lord Chancellor who probably damaged his health by overwork.[14] Crawford goes further in praising Gerard as an outstanding Chancellor. He calls him an energetic and capable reformer who in his early years in Ireland did much to re-establish the authority of the courts and, as the case of Lord Howth shows, was willing to administer impartial justice even against members of the nobility.[7]


  1. ^ His name has also been spelled as William Gerrard.
  2. ^ Ball, F. Elrington The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921 John Murray, London, 1926.
  3. ^ a b c The Judges in Ireland 1221–1921
  4. ^ a b c d e f Fuidge 1981.
  5. ^ Crawford, Jon G. A Star Chamber Court in Ireland-the Court of Castle Chamber 1571–1641 Four Courts Press Dublin 2006.
  6. ^ Thomas, D.L. "John Wynn" Dictionary of National Biography 1885-1900 Vol. 63 p.257
  7. ^ a b c Crawford, A Star Chamber Court in Ireland
  8. ^ Kenny, Colum. The King's Inns and the Kingdom of Ireland Irish Academic Press Dublin 1992.
  9. ^ Richard Bagwell. Ireland Under the Tudors, Vol. II pp. 328-29, Longmans Green London.
  10. ^ "Masters of Requests". Institute of Historical Research. Retrieved 17 June 2013.
  11. ^ Ball, Judges in Ireland
  12. ^ N.M.S. 1981.
  13. ^ Judges in Ireland.
  14. ^ O'Flanagan J. Roderick The Lives of the Lord Chancellors of Ireland 2 Volumes London 1870


Political offices
Preceded by
Archbishop Adam Loftus (as Lord Keeper)
Lord Chancellor of Ireland
Succeeded by
Archbishop Adam Loftus