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Godolphin, Sir William (bap. 1635, d. 1696), diplomat, was baptized on 2 February 1635 at St Mabyn church, Cornwall, third but eldest surviving son of Sir William Godolphin (1604/5–1663) of Spargor, Cornwall, and Ruth (d. before 1658), daughter of Sir John Lambe (d. 1659) of East Coulston, Wiltshire. In 1648 he entered Westminster School, where he became a friend of John Locke. On 21 June 1651 he matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, from where he wrote English and Latin verses on the Dutch treaty in 1654. In November that year he was admitted to the Inner Temple. Created MA in 1661, by 1662 he was assistant to Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, secretary of state, his work including sending instructions, receiving intelligence and fees, and questioning state prisoners. Arlington trusted him with important business, and petitioners sought his favour. On 28 September 1663 he was awarded a DCL at Oxford on the same day as his superior; he became FRS in November and on 7 October 1664 he was granted one of the auditorships of the exchequer court for life. On 17 October 1665 he entered parliament at a by-election for Camelford, Cornwall, although he may never have taken his seat.

In 1666 Godolphin was appointed to assist the earl of Sandwich in negotiations for a commercial treaty in Madrid, on a salary of £600. He was Sandwich's most valued assistant in the talks with Spanish councillors; according to Samuel Pepys his superior commended him as ‘the worthiest man, and such a friend to him as he may be trusted in anything relating to him in the world … indeed, they say the gentleman is a very fine man’ (Pepys, 9.52). Godolphin also accompanied Sandwich to Portugal. After the treaty's ratification in November 1667 he was presented with an expensive jewel by the queen regent of Spain, and in January 1668 returned to London. His first encounter with Pepys, on 31 January, led to dinner on a number of occasions. Pepys reported ‘I do find him a very pretty and able person, a man of very fine parts and of infinite zeal to my Lord Sandwich’ (ibid., 9.59). Godolphin also defended Sandwich against complaints in the privy council against his lenience regarding precedence, and on his return joined the homecoming party at Hinchingbrooke. On 28 August that year he received a knighthood in tribute to his exertions.

In spring 1669 Godolphin returned to Spain as envoy-extraordinary, subordinate to the earl of Sunderland, and in autumn 1671 became full ambassador with £1200 p.a. and £1500 for his equipage. However, his arrival in Spain was marred by a serious illness, in the course of which he joined the Catholic church and was granted permission by the Inquisition to receive the sacrament publicly. He entered Madrid in state on 18 January 1672, and proved an able intermediary on complicated naval and commercial disputes, but by July 1673 reports had reached London that ‘many merchants of Cadiz and Seville … declare … as if he and all his family but the cook were professed Romanists’ (CSP dom., 1673, 465). His official denial was laid before the king by Arlington and he remained in post, but he continued openly employing Catholics, most notably his secretary Edward Meredith.

Godolphin returned to England briefly in January 1678, but was absent when in September Titus Oates named him as a popish agent who had been spotted at confession and was allegedly the pope's choice for lord privy seal. The Commons voted an address for his recall on 12 November, and the king replied that he had already sent the order. Godolphin wisely chose to stay in Spain, and continued to draw his salary until autumn 1679. Narcissus Luttrell heard that he had been made a grandee. Although as a Catholic he was disabled under the Test Acts from holding office, he retained his auditorship of the exchequer, but the revolution of 1688 led to renewed attempts to remove it. His cousin Sidney Godolphin, Lord Godolphin, petitioned the privy council in December 1689 that Sir William had intended to resign in his favour but had been prevented by the claims of a rival, now deceased. The council examined the grant in June 1690, and a commission was requested to cancel it in 1691. Godolphin died in Madrid, unmarried and childless, on 11 July 1696, where he was buried, having on 30 March consented to a ‘notarial act’ empowering the procurator-general of the Jesuits and others to make a posthumous will; the size of his fortune doubtless encouraged their efforts. He also left sums to his nephew, Francis, and niece, , children of his brother Francis Godolphin (d. 1670) of Coulston, Wiltshire, and Lord Godolphin assisted in arranging an act of parliament in 1698 to invalidate the posthumous will and secure the other bequests. The fortune, valued at £80,000, was in Spain, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam, and his relatives recovered the money at the latter two places. Godolphin was a shrewd and capable public servant trusted by successive employers; the disposition of his money shows his caution towards the Catholic church: royal favour and powerful friends and relatives mitigated the effects of his conversion.

Timothy Venning


BL, Add. MS 28942; Egerton MS 1509 · CSP dom., 1661–78; 1687–9 · W. A. Shaw, ed., Calendar of treasury books, 2–9, PRO (1905–31), 1667–92 · Hispania illustrata (1703) · Pepys, Diary, vol. 9 · J. L. Vivian, ed., The visitations of Cornwall, comprising the herald's visitations of 1530, 1573, and 1620 (1887) · JHC, 9 (1667–87) · Old Westminsters, vol. 1 · Foster, Alum. Oxon. · W. H. Cooke, ed., Students admitted to the Inner Temple, 1547–1660 [1878] · M. Fitch, ed., PCC wills, 1694–1700 (1960) · W. A. Shaw, The knights of England, 2 (1906) · J. Welch, The list of the queen's scholars of St Peter's College, Westminster, ed. [C. B. Phillimore], new edn (1852) · F. R. Harris, The life of Edward Montagu … first earl of Sandwich, 2 vols. (1912) · E. Cruickshanks, ‘Godolphin, William’, HoP, Commons, 1660–90, 2.407–8 · VCH Wiltshire, 8.234–9 · J. L. Vivian, ed., The visitations of Cornwall, comprising the herald's visitations of 1530, 1573, and 1620 (1887), 187 · private information (2008) [K. Winters]


NL Scot., corresp. · Wadham College, Oxford, collection of Spanish MSS |  BL, letters to Sir Richard Bulstrode, Add. MS 47899; Egerton MSS 3678–3684 · BL, Sloane MSS, corresp. with J. Luke, and papers · BL, papers on legal case relating to his will and fortune, Add. MS 28942, fols. 250–54 · estate office, Warminster, letters to Henry Coventry, librarian and archivist to the marquess of Bath · TNA: PRO, state papers domestic, corresp. as assistant secretary of state · TNA: PRO, state papers foreign, diplomatic letters from Spain


oils, 1656–9, Man. City Gall.

Wealth at death  

approx. £80,000—in Madrid, Rome, Venice, and Amsterdam: BL, Add. MS 28942, fols. 250–54