Sir Richard Willys 1614-1690
The Sealed Knot was a secret organisation formed between November 1653 and February 1654. It’s purpose was to co-ordinate and control all Royalist conspiracies in England,to keep the wilder elements in check and to prepare for an uprising against the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Centuries later, this idea conjures up romantic images of gallant gentlemen risking their lives in Scarlet Pimpernel-like activities. Sadly, the reality was rather different … because the Knot never really achieved anything.
It was made up of six members. Five were younger sons of influential and, in most cases, rich families; the sixth man wasn’t.
Lord Belasyse, the second son of Lord Fauconberg was related to both John Lambert and Thomas Fairfax.
Lord Loughborough was the second son of the Earl of Huntingdon.
Sir William Compton was a younger son of the Earl of Northampton.
Colonel John Russell,third son of the Earl of Bedford, was related to Lords Bristol and Newport.
Colonel Edward Villiers, also a younger son, was related to the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Suffolk and Sir Edward Hyde – to name but a few.
Sir Richard Willys was the son of a Cambridgeshire lawyer and wasn’t related to anyone of note.
Willys fought abroad in the Thirty Years War before returning to serve King Charles in 1639. He earned his knighthood and the rank of Colonel during a cavalry skirmish in October 1642. Two months later, he was taken prisoner but managed to escape and in 1643 he became a Major-General of forces in Cheshire and Shropshire. He was captured again in January 1644 and spent nine months in the Tower before being released in an exchange of prisoners. Once free, he joined forces with Prince Rupert at Bristol.
In May of 1645, Willys was appointed Governor of Newark … and this is where bad-timing, conflicting personalities and tactlessness all came into play.
In June, the King’s army was destroyed by the New Model at Naseby. In September, the surrender of Bristol cost Prince Rupert his commission, his uncle’s favour and his reputation. He was ordered to leave the country. He didn’t. Instead, he followed Charles 1 to Newark, intent on getting a court martial to clear his name.
Richard Willys was pro-Rupert and didn’t mind showing it. When the King arrived at Newark, Willys met him at the gate; by contrast, when Rupert turned up shortly afterwards, he greeted him two miles outside the town with a full military escort. Already critical of the behaviour of some of Willys’s men, Charles took this as an act of defiance and a personal affront. Although he allowed Rupert a court-martial (which found the Prince not guilty) he revoked Willys’s appointment as Governor of Newark and replaced him with Lord Belasyse.
The result was an angry, undignified and public quarrel. There were even treasonous rumblings about making Rupert King – an idea the Prince strongly repudiated. (See A Splendid Defiance for more on this). Rupert’s friends took Willys’s dismissal as a further attack on them while Willys himself took umbrage at the slur on his ability to command and challenged Belasyse to a duel. Actually, provoking Belasyse wouldn’t have been very difficult his lordship already had a reputation for duelling. But the King forbade the two men to fight – with the result that ill-feeling between them lingered on and manifested itself a decade later in the affairs of the Sealed Knot.
In May 1654, Willys was arrested in the wake of a plot to assassinate Cromwell – a plot he’d had no part in – and was convinced that he had been betrayed to the authorities by Lord Belasyse. In this, he was mistaken. His arrest was merely one of many at this time – in fact, Edward Villiers was detained along with him. Interestingly, neither arrest was anything to do with the Sealed Knot … for though Secretary of State and Spymaster-General John Thurloe already knew it existed, he didn’t yet have any names. If he’d known he had two of its members in custody, the next phase of Willys’s story might have happened sooner.
In the latter part of 1656 and while still a member of the Knot, Willys started supplying Thurloe with information. His reasons for this are unclear but the most likely one is that he thought the writing was on the wall and the King’s cause irretrievably lost. At any rate, he seems to have been selective about what he told Thurloe and also made it a condition that no Royalist should be executed as a result of his information.
For three years, apparently unsuspected by his friends and associates, Willys remained a double-agent, contributing to the Sealed Knot’s consistent lack of success. And when his treachery finally came to light in July 1659, it wasn’t thanks to the Knot. He nefarious doings were revealed to Sir Edward Hyde by one of Thurloe’s assistants.
As a consequence and regardless of his military achievements, Sir Richard Willys has gone down in history as the man who betrayed the Sealed Knot.
At the Restoration in 1660, he was denounced as a traitor and condemned to death. He was later pardoned on condition that he never attended court or came into the presence of Charles ll. He lived quietly in Cambridgeshire until his death in 1690.