(1563? – 1617)

Sir Ralph Winwood, son of Richard Winwood, was diplomatist and secretary of state to King James I, born about 1563 at Aynho in Northamptonshire.  His grandfather, Lewis Winwood, was at one time secretary to Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk.  His father (Richard) was described in the university registers as ‘plebius.'  He owned no land, and possibly was a tenant on the Aynhoe estate which belonged to Magdalen College, Oxford. On his death, before 1581, his widow Joan married John Weekes of Buckingham, yeoman of the guard. She died in May 1617, five months before her son, Ralph Winwood, and was buried in the chancel of Aynhoe church in the tomb of her first husband, Richard Winwood. 

Ralph matriculated from St. John's College, Oxford, on 20 Dec 1577, aged fourteen.  In 1582 he was elected at probationer-fellow of Magdalen College, and retained that position till 1601.  He graduated B.A. 15 Nov.1562 and M.A. 22 June 1587.  A month after the last date he was granted permission to study civil law, and on 2 Feb. 1590-1 he was proctor of the university, and soon afterwards left Oxford for travel on the continent.  On his return his accomplishments were recognized by the Earl of Essex, who recommended him for diplomatic employment.  In 1599, ‘at Lord Essex's command' he was nominated secretary to Sir Henry Neville (q.v.) ambassador to France.  Neville was much in England, and as a partisan of Essex was dismissed from his post in 1601.  Winwood, who performed most of the duties of the embassy in Neville's absence, was appointed his successor.  He was chiefly occupied in reporting the progress of the quarrel between Henry IV and the Due de Bouillon, but he found time to correspond with Sir Henry Savile respecting his projected edition of Chrysostom's Commentaries.' In June 1602, he was superseded by Sir Thomas Parry, but at the wish of Sir Robert Cecil, the queen's secretary, who had a ‘good conceit of him and his services,' he remained till the end of the year in Paris in order to instruct Parry in the business of the embassy. 

Sir Ralph Winwood
Click here to view a copy of this painting at the National Portrait Gallery. 

In February 1602-3 he was finally recalled, and soon afterwards was nominated English agent to the States-General of Holland.  He arrived at The Hague in July 1603, and, in accordance with old treaty arrangements with England, was at once sworn in as councilor of state in the assembly of the States-General. 

As a staunch protestant, Winwood sympathized with the political and religious principles of the Dutch republic.  He loathed Spain, and the house of Austria, and he sought as far as his instructions permitted him to support the republic and the princes of the German union in their policy of hostility to Spain.  He strongly urged the states to refuse permission to Catholics to dwell within their jurisdiction. ‘Let the religion be taught and preached in its purity throughout your provinces without the least mixture.' Said Sir Ralph Winwood in the name of his sovereign.  ‘Those who were willing to tolerate any religion whatever it may be, and try to make you believe that liberty for both is necessary in your commonwealth, are paving the way towards atheism.' 

Winwood revisited England in 1607, and on 28 June of that year was knighted by the king at Richmond.  He returned to The Hague in August, together with Sir Richard Spencer, in order to represent England at the conferences which were to arrange a treaty between Holland and England, and to suggest terms of peace between Holland and Spain after a strife of forty years.  Prince Maurice had little faith in James I and his ambassadors' protestations of good will to the republic, and Winwood and his colleague were warned by the English government to encourage the states to renew the war in Spain if they should find that they were resolute against peace (commission to Winwood and Spencer, 10 Aug., Rymer, xvi. 662; instructions, Winwood, ii. 329). Finally a general pacification was arranged, and the treaty of the states with England was signed by Winwood and Spencer on 26 June 1608. It was stipulated that the debt of the states to England, then amounting to 818,408l. sterling, should be settled by annual payments of 60,000l.  Winwood did not expect to remain abroad longer.  His London agent, John More, took a house for him at Westminster, and he entered into negotiations for the hire of a country house, so as to be near his friend Sir Henry Neville.  But threatening movements in Germany, where war between the protestant and catholic princes was imminent, led to the imposition on Winwood of new duties on the continent. 

The succession to the duchies of Juliers and Clefes was hotly disputed.  In the Autumn of 1609 Winwood was sent to Dusseldorf, in order to join the French ambassador, Boississe, in mediation between the protestant princes and the emperor, who alike laid claims to the territory.  His task was difficult.  James was anxious for peace. ‘My ambassadors,' he wrote, ‘can do me no better service than in assisting to the treaty of this reconciliation.' But no peace was possible, and Winwood returned to The Hague to enlist four thousand men in James I's service to fight against the emperor in behalf of the protestant claimants to the duchies. Nor were the internal affairs of the Dutch republic proceeding as James wished.  In August 1609 Winwood delivered to the assembly of the states James I's remonstrance against the professorship of theology at Leyden of Conrad Vorstius, a champion of Arminianism and Arianism.  Little attention was paid to his protest at the moment.  Subsequently Winwood was directed to negotiate a closer union between James and the protestant princes of the empire.  The elector palatine was to marry James I's daughter Elizabeth.  To show that something more than a merely family alliance was intended, James directed Winwood to attend a meeting of the German protestants at Wesel in the beginning of 1612, and to assent to a treaty by which the king of England and the princes of the union agreed to afford to one another in case of need. 

The death in 1612 of the Earl of Salisbury, with whom Winwood's relations had grown unsatisfactory of late, opened to him the prospect of employment at home.  In July he was in England, and was employed by James in writing letters for him.  The friends who sympathized with his religious and his political views deemed it desirable that he should become James's secretary.  But at the end of July he was ordered to return to The Hague, and he stayed there till September 1613.  He remained in name English agent at The Hague till March 1614, but did not leave England again. 

Winwood lost no opportunity of paying court to the favorite, Rochester.  At the close of 1613, when Rochester, just created earl of Somerset, was entertained, with is newly married wife (the divorced Countess of Essex), by the aldermen of London, the bride sent to Winwood to borrow his horses, on the ground that she had none good enough for her couch on such an occasion.  Winwood answered that it was not fit for so great a lady to use anything borrowed, and begged that she would accept his horses as a present.  Somerset's friendship, which was thus cemented, proved of avail.  On 29 March 1614 Winwood was appointed secretary of state and took the oaths.  A few days later he entered the House of Commons as member for Buckingham.  On 7 April he received the post of secretary for life. 

Winwood's duties included leadership of the House of Commons during the few months in the spring of 1614 that parliament sat.  He was wholly untried in parliamentary life, and was not of the conciliatory temperament which ensures success in it.  The chief question that exercised the house of Commons as James I's claim to levy impositions without their assent. On 11 April 1614 Winwood moved a grant of supplies, and read over the list of concessions which the king was prepared to make; but the grant was postponed.  On 21 May 1614 Winwood spoke in support of the theory that the power of making impositions belonged to hereditary, although not elective, monarchs.  Parliament was soon afterwards dissolved without any settlement with the opposition being reached; it did not meet again in Winwood's lifetime. 

The king's want of money embarrassed his ministers.  His debts amounted to 700,000/., and Winwood next year urged him the wisdom of making some concession to the parliament opposition.  On 25-28 Sept. 1615 the council debated the question of obtaining a liberal grant from a parliament to be summoned anew for the purpose.  Winwood expressed a wish that a special committee might examine the impositions, and suggested that assurance should be given to the parliament that whatever supplies it might grant should be employed upon the public service, and in no other way.  But the proposal was not accepted.  On 24 Jan 1615-1616 Winwood's responsibilities were reduced by the appointment of Sir Thomas Lake to share with him the post of secretary.  Thenceforth less satisfactory means of raising money were adopted, and by them Winwood personally benefited.  In 1616 the need for provided Lord Hay with funds for his mission to Paris was met by the sale of peerages.  The sum obtained by the first sale – to Sir John Roper – was handed to Hay.  The proceeds of the second sale – to Phillip Stanhope – was divided equally between the king and Winwood, who received 10,000/. And was promised 5,000/. More when the next baron was made. 

Winwood did not maintain personal relations with Somerset after his assumed office, and in 1616 was much occupied in arranging for the trial of the earl and countess and their accomplices on a charge of murdering Sir Thomas Overbury four years before.  There is no ground for the widespread suspicion that Winwood in any way connived at the murder of Overbury.  There is no reason to doubt his statements in his letter to Wake: ‘Not long since there was some notice brought unto me that Sir Thomas Overbury…was poisoned in the Tower, whilst he was there a prisoner: with this I acquainted his Majesty, who, though he could not out of the clearness of his judgment but perceive that it might closely touch some that were in the nearest place about him, yet such is his love to justice that he give open way to the searching of this business.' Winwood throughout the proceedings exerted himself in the interest of justice.  Far less creditable were his relations in later years with Sir Walter Ralegh.  Winwood was largely responsible for the release of Ralegh in 1616, and for the grant to him of permission nominally to make explorations in South America, but really, although covertly, to attack and pillage the Spanish possessions there.  Winwood's hatred of Spain was the moving cause of his conduct, but the expectation of pecuniary gain was not without influence on him.   For carrying out the filibustering design Ralegh was executed, but before that result was reached Winwood died, and his complicity was unsuspected while he lived.  It is certain that had his life been spared he would have suffered Ralegh's fate. 

Early in October Winwood fell ill of fever.  Mayerne attended to him, and it is said bled him ‘to soon'.  He died on 27 Oct. 1617 at his London residence, Mordant House, in the parish of St. Bartholomew the Less, in the Church where he was buried.  He left a nuncupative (oral) will. 

According to Lloyd, Winwood was ‘well seen in most affairs, but most expert in matters of trade and war.' His fanatical hatred of Spain impaired his statesmanship, and led him into doubtful courses, as his relations with Ralegh prove.  He sought to do his duty as far as his narrow views permitted, but a harsh and supercilious demeanor prevented him from acquiring popularity.  By his best friends his manner was allowed to be unconciliatory.  The story of a trivial quarrel between him and Bacon in 1617 illustrates his temperament on its good and bad sides.  Winwood, coming into a room where Bacon was, found a dog upon his chair.  He struck the animal.  ‘Every gentleman,' Bacon remarked. ‘loves a dog.'  A few days afterwards Bacon fancied that Winwood pressed too close to him at the council-table, and bade him keep his distance.  When, some months later, the queen, who took Winwood's part in the quarrel, asked Bacon what was its cause, he answered ‘Madam, I can say no more that that he is proud, and I am proud.'  Finally the king reconciled the two men, and said that Winwood had never spoken to him to say any man's prejudice – a strong testimony in his favor. 

In July 1603 Winwood married Elizabeth, daughter and coheiress of Nicholas Ball of Totnes, and stepdaughter of Sir Thomas Bodley, who had married the lady's mother in 1587. By patents dated in 1615 and 1617 he was granted by James I for himself and his heirs male the office of keeper of ‘the capital, messuage, and park of Ditton' in Buckinghamshire.  On 24 Feb 1629-30 the widow Lady Winwood purchased a grant in fee of Ditton Park, and in 1632 her son Richard (1603-1688) bought Ditton Manor.  Winwood left three sons and two daughters, all minors at the date of his death.  The eldest surviving son, Richard, who became owner of Ditton Park and manor, was elected M.P. for New Windsor in 1641, April 1660, 1678-9, 1679, 1681.  A daughter Anne married, in 1633, Edward Montagu, second baron Montagu.  Her son, Ralph Montagu (afterwards first duke of Montagu) inherited her brother Richard's estate of Ditton on his death without issue in 1688. 

A portrait of Winwood by Van Miereveldt is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

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