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  William Legge (1607/8–1670), by Jacob Huysmans, c.1670 William Legge (1607/8–1670), by Jacob Huysmans, c.1670
Legge, William (1607/8–1670), royalist army officer, was the eldest son of Edward Legge (d. 1616), vice-president of Munster, and his wife, Mary, daughter of Percy Walsh of Moyvalley, co. Kildare. The family of Legge had been long established in London, and had occupied several offices in the City; but Edward, as the son of a second son, had had to make his own way, which he did through naval exploits and settlement in Ireland. William was the eldest of six sons; two died in childhood, and the others pursued military or naval careers. His godfather was Henry Danvers, earl of Danby, president of Munster. It was reported later that Danby was instrumental in bringing him out of Ireland and assisting in the search for office, after the death of his father.

Early career

As his younger brothers were to do, Legge embarked on a military career. The details of his service on the continent are lacking, but it was later claimed by his son that he joined the Dutch and Swedish forces in the Thirty Years' War. He certainly returned to England in the deepening political crisis of 1638, and was appointed inspector of the defences of Newcastle and Hull. His experience and natural ability were recognized when he was made master of the armoury and lieutenant of the ordnance for the first bishops' war. From his store at Hull, and with a small staff, he supplied arms and munitions to the forces in the north from September 1638 to the end of the second bishops' war in September 1640. He was required to travel constantly from Hull to the Tower of London, headquarters of the ordnance office, and his own house on Tower Hill; during 1641 he carried messages from the army camped in Yorkshire to the royal court. When some officer–courtiers fell under suspicion in the Long Parliament for plotting to assist the king by direct action, he was examined on oath in the Commons in October. He said that he had brought a petition from the army to London, but had burnt it. Only his powerful friends in the Lords saved him from imprisonment in December, and there was alarm in parliament when he returned to Hull the following month with the king's commission.

Legge's attempt to get the townsmen to admit the earl of Newcastle in January 1642 failed. He was still there when the king moved his court to York in April 1642, and Hull became the focus of the political struggle for the arms of the kingdom. He moved to Newcastle, where the earl was preparing forces to secure the town. In June he was condemned as a delinquent by parliament.

Legge found time, in the midst of this political crisis, to marry (on 2 March 1642) Elizabeth (c.1616–1688), the eldest daughter of Sir William Washington of Sulgrave Manor, Northamptonshire, and sister of another future royalist officer, Colonel Henry Washington. They had several children; their eldest son, , who was to succeed his father as lieutenant-general of the ordnance, was created first Baron Dartmouth in 1682. William's younger brother Robert also held a prominent military—and politically sensitive—post at this crucial juncture, as deputy to Lord Goring, governor of Portsmouth.

First civil war

Legge was among the first to join the king at Nottingham in August, when the latter was preparing to raise the royal standard. It was there that he met the newly arrived Prince Rupert. Together they improvised a petard from an apothecary's mortar, for a projected attack on Coventry. A few days later, at Southam, Warwickshire, mistaking the enemy's quarters for his own, he became one of the first prisoners of war in the unfolding conflict. He was sent to London and lodged in the Gatehouse prison. He escaped in October and was next recorded as captain of the Royal Life Guard of foot at Oxford in January 1643.

But it was as a cavalry officer, and technical expert, patronized by Rupert, now general of horse, that Legge rapidly rose to prominence. By April 1643 he was major of the prince's cavalry regiment, and he was with him in all the actions of the mounted arm that year. He was at the capture of Cirencester; the attack on the besiegers at Lichfield Close, where he was briefly taken and immediately rescued; and the abortive relief of Reading. Taking part in Rupert's celebrated Chalgrove raid on 18 June 1643, he again found himself for a moment captive before John Hampden's hastily assembled force was dispersed (and Hampden mortally wounded). He was present at the siege of Gloucester in August–September 1643. At the battle of Newbury later that month his conduct drew praise from the king himself, who offered him a knighthood. He declined it.

When parliament took over the national machinery for arms production, storage, and distribution, centred on the Tower of London, the king had to recreate his own munitions industry in his new capital of Oxford. Legge had an important part to play as the royalist master of the armoury. He sat on an early council of war when arms supply matters were being discussed in December 1642. Late in 1643 he commandeered the mill at Wolvercote, 3 miles north of the city, for the making of swords. A forge was set up, for the same purpose, at Gloucester Hall, empty of students. Considerable sums were assigned to him from the limited revenues available to the king. He lodged, when at Oxford, in early 1644, in one of the largest houses in St Aldate's parish, near the royal court at Christ Church.

Legge continued close to Rupert during the campaigning of 1644. He was at the relief of Newark in March, and was left in charge of Chester by the prince on his journey north to assist Newcastle at York. Rupert commended Legge to the authorities of the city as his ‘Sergeant-Major and General of my Ordnance’ and a ‘person every way qualified for so great and important a trust’ (Warburton, 2.425–6). He did not remain long in that post, but it is uncertain whether he was with the prince at Marston Moor.

In the winter months that followed Legge was quartered with his troops at Faringdon in Berkshire, but, with the death in action of the previous governor of Oxford, Sir Henry Gage, on 11 January 1645, he was appointed to succeed him. Rupert, now commander-in-chief of the king's forces, was instrumental in the choice. Honours followed; he was elected a freeman and alderman of the city (18 March), made a groom of the bedchamber (12 April), and created DCL by the university (16 April). Rupert further commissioned him, on 7 May 1645, to take charge of the ring of strongholds protecting Oxford. He seems to have been generally popular with the city, court, and army, a remarkable feat in the increasingly divided counsels of the king. He was often spoken of as ‘honest Will’ Legge. Rupert wrote frequently to him, and the thirteen holograph, partly enciphered, letters which survive from the period March–July 1645 provide a telling commentary on royalist strategy and politics in a key period. His intimacy with Rupert aroused jealousy, however, with the factions hostile to the prince.

With the comprehensive royalist defeat at Naseby on 14 June 1645 the smouldering resentments in the high command broke into open warfare. It was to Legge that Rupert confided his bitter feelings about Lord Digby, the royal secretary; while, for his part, the secretary thought it worth while to convince Legge of his innocence. When Rupert surrendered Bristol in September, Digby persuaded the king that the prince and his associates had committed treason, and that other garrisons would soon be betrayed. Rupert was dismissed, and ordered from the kingdom; Legge, in common with others of the prince's appointees, was removed as governor of Oxford, and placed under arrest on 14 September 1645.

But the failure of Digby to produce any evidence of treachery—‘more particular proofs’—and a period of reflection by the king, led to Legge's partial reinstatement. Thereafter he worked tirelessly, when Charles returned to Oxford, to effect a reconciliation between sovereign and prince. Rupert was allowed to remain in the royal headquarters. At the fall of the city to Fairfax on 22 June 1646 Legge was listed among the prince's followers, given a pass, and allowed the benefit of the surrender terms. In due course he compounded for his estate, and was fined at a tenth, £40. This modest sum may have been an indication of his comparative poverty (or successful concealment of lands, perhaps in Ireland), his political acceptability as a go-between in the 1647 negotiations with Charles, or the generosity of the Oxford articles.

Imprisonment and obscurity

Little is known of Legge's whereabouts until he joined the king in captivity at Holmby House in July 1647. With John Ashburnham and Sir John Berkeley he engineered the king's flight to Carisbrooke Castle in the Isle of Wight on 11 November, but escaped the censure this move attracted. ‘Legg had had so general a reputation of integrity and fidelity to his master’, wrote Clarendon, ‘that he never fell under the least imputation or reproach with any man.’
He was a very punctual and steady observer of the orders he received, but no contriver of them; and though he had in truth a better judgment and understanding than either of the other two, his modesty and diffidence of himself never suffered him to contrive bold counsels (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 4.266)
When Legge was ordered by parliament to be restrained, his friendship with the governor, Robert Hammond, delayed but did not prevent his imprisonment. This was, however, brief for by January 1648 he had obtained some limited freedom, and made his way to join other royalists in the Channel Islands. He returned to the mainland to take part in the activities of Kent plotters during the second civil war, and was reported secretly conferring with others, including his brother-in-law, Colonel Henry Washington, at Gravesend in April 1649.

Legge's Irish connections, and longstanding friendship with the king's representative there, the marquess of Ormond, persuaded the new king, Charles II, to send him with a ship of Rupert's fleet to Kinsale in summer 1649. It was captured in July, however, and he was imprisoned in Exeter gaol, where he remained for over three years. A family tradition, repeated in Collins's Peerage, that he went to Scotland with the king, appears to be without foundation. In March 1653 he was granted a pass to go abroad, but there is no record of his activities during the royalists' exile. In 1659 he was named by the king one of five commissioners to treat with potential supporters in England, and was actively involved in plots to restore the king. The failure of these led to his imprisonment in the Tower from July to 30 September 1659.

The Restoration

At the Restoration, Charles II offered to create Legge an earl, ‘which he modestly declined, having a numerous family with a small fortune, but told the king he hoped his sons might live to deserve his majesty's favour’ (Collins Peerage, 4.113). He recovered his old posts of master of the armouries and groom of the bedchamber, and was made lieutenant-general of the ordnance. He was MP for Southampton in the Cavalier Parliament from 1661 until his death. He aided the return of Rupert to England, and travelled to Ireland for a time, where his estates were restored and augmented. As head of the ordnance office at the Tower he occupied a large house in the Minories, the liberty close to the Tower, where many of the arms makers and their workshops were located. He received an income of £2000 p.a. in fees as general, including poundage of 6d. in the pound, a similar amount as treasurer, and profits arising from the lease of royal forests in Hampshire. His wife had a pension of £500 p.a. Under his guidance the department acquired a reputation for good management and financial probity, a contrast to the pre-civil-war office. Unlike the Navy Board it remained creditworthy, in spite of the big expansion of its activities and costs in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

Legge died in the Minories on 13 October 1670, aged sixty-two, and was buried in the north chancel vault of Holy Trinity Church there. Prince Rupert and five dukes, it was said, attended the funeral. He left a sizeable estate, including lands in Ireland and valuable leases, and £4000. In 1673 a memorandum of his services to the crown was drawn up by his eldest son, no doubt to assist his own bid for the generalship, which he achieved in 1679.

Ian Roy


Dartmouth papers, William Salt Library, Stafford [formerly held by the family at Patshull House, near Wolverhampton, and reported on by the HMC, vols. 2, 11 (appx 5), 15 (appx 1); see also stray item printed in I Roy, ed., Royalist ordnance papers, 2 vols., Oxfordshire RS, 43, 49 (1964–75), 227–9] · E. Warburton, Memoirs of Prince Rupert and the cavaliers, 3 vols. (1849) · CSP dom., 1637–40; 1649–53; 1659–62; 1666–7 · Collins peerage of England: genealogical, biographical and historical, ed. E. Brydges, 9 vols. (1812) · DNB · I. Roy, ed., The royalist ordnance papers, 1642–1646, 2 vols., Oxfordshire RS, 43, 49 (1964–75), 25, 28, 179, 427–9, 466 · M. Toynbee and P. Young, Strangers in Oxford: a side light on the first civil war, 1642–1646 (1973), 195–6 · ‘Memoirs of Sir John Berkeley’, Select tracts relating to the civil wars in England, ed. F. Maseres, 1 (1815), 353–94 · Clarendon, Hist. rebellion · P. R. Newman, Royalist officers in England and Wales, 1642–1660: a biographical dictionary (1981) · P. Watson, ‘Legge, William’, HoP, Commons, 1660–90 · H. C. Tomlinson, Guns and government: the ordnance office under the later Stuarts (1979) · E. M. Tomlinson, A history of the Minories, London (1907) · J. Le Neve, Monumenta Anglicana, 5 vols. (1717–19), vol. 2, p. 144


Staffs. RO, MSS · Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp.


W. Dobson, bust, c.1645, NPG · by or after J. Huysmans, oils, c.1670, NPG; repro. in Historical portraits, 1628–1714, 198 · J. Huysmans, portrait, c.1670, priv. coll. [see illus.] · P. Lely?, repro. in Tomlinson, A history of the Minories, London · oils (after a type by J. Huysmans, c.1670), NPG

Wealth at death  

possibly over £5000, including estate, at time of death: Tomlinson, Guns and government