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Parker, William, thirteenth Baron Morley and fifth or first Baron Monteaglefree

  • Mark Nicholls

William Parker, thirteenth Baron Morley and fifth or first Baron Monteagle (1574/55–1622)

attrib. John de Critz the elder, c. 1615

The Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum, TL-17738, © Denver Art Museum 2004

Parker, William, thirteenth Baron Morley and fifth or first Baron Monteagle (1574/5–1622), discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot, was the son and heir of Edward Parker, twelfth Baron Morley (1551?–1618), and Elizabeth (d. 1585), regarded by contemporaries as suo jure Baroness Monteagle, daughter of William Stanley, third Baron Monteagle, and his wife, Anne Leybourne, daughter and heir of Sir James Leybourne. William Parker was summoned to parliament as Lord Monteagle in 1604. The creation of the barony originated in a proclamation of Henry VIII in 1514 and it is not known whether letters patent were issued restricting the succession to heirs male of the body; if so the summons of 1604 would constitute a new creation. From his father's death he was summoned as Lord Morley and Monteagle.

Monteagle was knighted by the earl of Essex at Dublin on 12 July 1599, one of many knights created during that ill-fated expedition. In June 1600 he appears to have visited the Low Countries to experience campaigning there. The association with Essex led him into rebellion in February 1601. Monteagle was imprisoned in the Tower after Essex's revolt, and, as one of the principal participants, was examined by the privy council on 16 February. He was fined £4000 in May and released from the Tower three months later, though his movements were initially restricted to a 4 mile radius about the house of his cousin Sir John Leventhorpe at Shinglehall, Epping.

Monteagle was brought up a Catholic. During Elizabeth's reign he was closely associated with the extremist Catholic faction which looked for a Spanish military intervention in support of their co-religionists. He was one of those who arranged Thomas Winter's mission to Spain in 1602, but at the accession of James I he told his erstwhile colleagues that he had 'done with all former plots' (Hatfield MS 112/91), and wrote to the new king declaring his intention to conform to the state religion. Rather disingenuously, he argued that earlier errors were a direct result of his upbringing—'I knew no better' (BL, Add. MS 19402, fol. 146). His religious views remained suspect, and his wife, Elizabeth Tresham (b. 1573, d. 1647/8), sister of the gunpowder conspirator Francis Tresham, whom he had married in 1589, appears to have remained a recusant all her life. Nevertheless, it seems as if he meant what he said.

There are immediate signs that Monteagle was accepted into favour with the new regime. He was one of the thirty-nine English commissioners who signed the projected treaty of union with Scotland on 6 December 1604. Nevertheless, he still had friends and connections among the extremist Catholic gentry. Tresham, the last recruit to the Gunpowder Plot, was 'exceeding earnest' to ensure that his brother-in-law escaped the projected destruction of the House of Lords, and it is almost certain that Tresham wrote the anonymous letter which Monteagle received while at dinner at his house in Hoxton on 26 October. As he was eating, Monteagle handed this to one of his servants, a friend of Thomas Winter, or a friend of a friend, asking him to read the message aloud. The letter contained a thinly disguised warning of some explosive enterprise against the opening of parliament, and its substance was duly passed on to the plotters. Winter was, indeed, well known in the Monteagle household: he had served Monteagle as a secretary of some sort for several years, and had attended the prorogation of parliament on 3 October 1605 in Monteagle's entourage. The so-called Monteagle letter survives at the Public Record Office (SP 14/216/2).

Monteagle hastened to Whitehall, where he found some of the most prominent members of the privy council—the earls of Salisbury, Nottingham, Northampton, Suffolk, and Worcester—at supper. Not surprisingly they suspected foul play, though still with half an eye to some hoax or fantasy. When the king returned at the end of the month from hunting at Royston he was inclined to believe that mischief was afoot. The vaults under the House of Lords were searched on 4 November by the lord chamberlain, Suffolk, with Monteagle in attendance. They met Guy Fawkes, posing as Thomas Percy's servant and standing guard over the gunpowder, which was concealed under firewood. Monteagle, who knew Percy well, and who paid an annuity to his wife, Martha, and daughter, derived from an advance of £500, voiced his suspicions. A further search that night, which was left to Sir Thomas Knyvett and other Westminster officials and servants, surprised Fawkes at his post, dark lantern in hand.

When in the Tower, Robert Winter told Fawkes how he had heard rumours that Monteagle had sought pardons for three of the imprisoned traitors, but this seems to have been nothing more than desperate gossip. It is unlikely that Monteagle would have risked opprobrium in asking, and quite certain that any request would have been refused. Instead, he basked in carefully orchestrated glory. For passing on the warning, Monteagle received public praise, lands worth £200 a year, and an annual pension of £500. His part in the Spanish treason of 1602 was glossed over in the published account of the Gunpowder Plot and in the trials of conspirators, and still more damaging accusations laid by the imprisoned Jesuit provincial, Henry Garnett, in March 1606 were similarly ignored. Garnett maintained that he had discussed the possibility of armed rebellion in England with Tresham and Monteagle as late as 1605, Monteagle arguing that drastic steps might indeed have to be taken, the king being 'so odious to all sorts' (Gardiner, 511).

Nevertheless, the gratitude was bounded within distinct limits. It may or may not be significant that, in presenting the prosecution case against the gunpowder plotters at their trial, Sir Edward Coke, the attorney-general, apparently contrived to ‘forget’ specific instructions from the earl of Salisbury to clear Monteagle from slanderous rumours then circulating, at least insofar as the scanty reports of Coke's words permit us to judge. When a bill of thanksgiving for the delivery from the Gunpowder Plot was hurried through parliament early in the 1606 session, an attempt by Sir Henry Poole to include Monteagle in the congratulations was blocked by fellow MPs, ostensibly on the grounds that mention of his name would detract from the paramount role accorded King James in the discovery.

A regular participant in the gaming at court, Monteagle also satisfied his appetite for gambling in other, rather more constructive, speculations. He was among the earliest to adventure money in the Virginia Company, becoming a member of its council in May 1609. The same year he staked £500 in the East India Company, while in 1612 his name is found among those investing in an attempt to discover a north-west passage. The present whereabouts of a portrait by Van Somer, last exhibited at South Kensington in 1866 and then in the collection of Mr John Webb, are unknown. Monteagle died at his Essex residence, Great Hallingbury, on 1 July 1622, where he was also buried. He was succeeded by his son Henry, and a further five children—William, Charles, Frances, Elizabeth, and Katherine—are mentioned in his will, drawn up shortly before his death.


  • TNA: PRO, SP 14/216, SP 14/19
  • TNA: PRO, E 134 [esp. E 134/7 James I Easter/39 E 134/miscellaneous James I/24]
  • Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Salisbury–Cecil MSS
  • BL, Add. MS 19402
  • M. Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot (1991)
  • The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (1939)
  • S. R. Gardiner, ‘Two declarations of Garnet relating to the Gunpowder Plot’, EngHR, 3 (1888), 510–19
  • The parliamentary diary of Robert Bowyer, 1606–1607, ed. D. H. Willson (1931)
  • PROB 11/139, quire 9, fols. 71r–72
  • M. E. Finch, The wealth of five Northamptonshire families, 1540–1640, Northamptonshire RS, 19 (1956)


  • attrib. J. de Critz the elder, portrait, 1615, Denver Art Museum, Colorado [see illus.]
  • Van Somer, portrait, exh. 1866; formerly in possession of John Webb, in 1866

Wealth at Death

considerable property and money: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/139, fols. 71r–72

English Historical Review
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London