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Lord Norreys of Rycote

The subject of this post, Sir Henry Norreys, Baron Norreys of Rycote, did not play much of a role in the history of Abingdon, although he did once hold the office of High Steward of Abingdon. He has multiple connections with the history of Berkshire and Oxfordhire, though, and is important as ancestor of the later Earls of Abingdon, the Berties. Besides, writing about him gives me the opportunity to mention yet more famous Tudor figures.

This starts with Henry Norreys’ father, also Henry (although his surname is almost always spelled ‘Norris’), and as famous Tudor figures go, he is downright notorious. Henry Norris sr. was a courtier at the court of Henry VIII, where he rose rapidly and became one of the king’s closest confidants. In 1536 however, he was accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn, attainted and beheaded, together with four other men the queen supposedly had relations with, and of course Anne herself. His son Henry was at this point about 10 or 11 years old (his exact birth date is unknown). His property would have been forfeit to the Crown, but an Act of Henry VIII restored the inheritance to Henry Norreys jr. in 1539. Henry was now a ward of his uncle, John Norreys of Yattendon in Berkshire, who in 1542 settled his estates on Henry and his bride-to-be, Margery Williams. Margery was designated co-heir of her wealthy father, so the deaths of his uncle and his father-in-law would in time make Henry Norreys rather wealthy himself.

Henry VIII, at whose court Henry Norreys started his career. Portrait by Hans Holbein.

Like his father, Henry started a career at court, with his first known office being Official of the Royal Stable, rising to Gentleman of the Privy Chamber by 1547. Also in 1547 he was appointed as one of the Knights of the Shire for Berkshire, but does not seem to have taken much part in local administration. Neither did he appear much in public life during the reign of Mary, although he held the office of Butler of the Port of Poole. He prospered under Elizabeth I, though, and his relations with the queen were excellent. When Elizabeth was imprisoned at Woodstock during the reign of Mary, Henry Norreys’ father-in-law John Williams had been one of her guards, and he had treated her kindly and had occasionally invited her to his estate at Rycote near Thame. So when she was queen, Elizabeth was inclined to look kindly on Williams’ heirs. Williams died in 1559, and Henry Norreys and his wife inherited Rycote, which they made their chief residence.

Norreys now played a more prominent role in the public life of Berkshire and Oxfordshire. In 1562/63 he was High Sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire at the same time. The office of High Sheriff has existed since Saxon times, and it still exists today, although the role has changed over the course of history. The High Sheriff of a county is always appointed for one year. There is no payment for holding the office, and any expenses must be borne by the individual postholder – one of the reasons why it is limited to one year. Originally they had extensive powers. They judged court cases and had law enforcement powers, collected taxes and levies on Crown lands and were in charge of Crown lands in the shires. They were the principal representative of the monarch in the shires. Even throughout the Middle Ages, though, the powers of the High Sheriff diminished. Today’s High Sheriffs still support the Crown and the judiciary. They also lend their support to crime reduction initiatives, the emergency services and voluntary organisations. They are still appointed directly by the Queen.

In Henry Norreys’ time, the High Sheriff still had a few powers left, although by Elizabeth’s time the main representatives of the Crown in the counties were the newly created Lord Lieutenants. The office was first created by Henry VIII, who appointed a few of them mainly to raise and be responsible for the militias in their counties. The first Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire was Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, another famous Tudor and one of the king’s closest friends.

For Henry Norreys, the diminished power of the High Sheriff didn’t matter so much, because in time he became Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire and Berkshire as well. The office of Lord Lieutenant also still exists today, although the role does no longer include the raising of militias.

At the same time as holding these offices in the shires, Henry Norreys continued his career at court and in politics. For a few years he served as ambassador to France, an office he somehow combined with that of Keeper of the Armoury and Porter of the Outer Gate at Windsor Castle. Later he was a Captain in the Queen’s bodyguard. He also sat in parliament, once for Berkshire and once for Oxfordshire. In 1572 he was created Lord Norreys and entered the House of Lords.

The office which brought his closest connection with Abingdon was that of High Steward of Abingdon. The office of High Steward grew out of that of Steward of the Abbey. Following that, Arthur Preston describes the Stewards thus: “Then, after the dissolution of the monasteries, there had been as stewards of former abbey lands in Abingdon and other monastic towns, influential men who had the ear of the Sovereign and other important persons.” John Mason embodies this transition period, being the Steward of the Abbey Lands and Abingdon’s first High Steward. The second High Steward (now “High Steward of the Borough”) was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. The High Stewards were elected by the Borough Council and appointed for life.

Queen Elizabeth I, by Unknown English artist, oil on panel c. 1600, National Portrait Gallery. Henry Norreys flourished during her reign.

Henry Norreys became High Steward of Abingdon in c. 1580. In 1588 he also became High Steward of Wallingford and held both offices concurrently. Henry Norreys might have seemed a good choice because of his excellent relations with the Queen. It appears that she was quite fond of him and his wife, and she visited them at their estate at Rycote several times. Norreys owned quite a bit of land in Berkshire, so that gave him another connection to the area.

Henry Norreys died in 1601 on his estate at Rycote, having outlived his wife and five of his seven children. He was the first of his family to be High Steward of Abingdon, but the family connection to Abingdon was re-established later and remains to this day.

From the early 18th century the office of High Steward of Abingdon has been held by successive Earls of Abingdon. The first man to be created Earl of Abingdon was James Bertie, a younger son of the Earl of Lindsey. His mother was a great-great-granddaughter of Henry Norreys, and Henry’s title of Baron Norreys of Rycote could be inherited through the female line. Thus James Bertie became the 5th Baron Norreys of Rycote. Arthur Preston speculates that he would have been made High Steward of Abingdon as well, had he lived long enough. However, the encumbent at the time, the 2nd Earl of Clarendon, held the office until he died in 1709, ten years after James Bertie’s death. “Immediately” (says Preston) the Borough Council appointed James’ son, Montagu Bertie, as High Steward.

Silver salver, a gift from the 3rd Earl of Abingdon. The inscription reads: Given By The Right Honourable Willoughby Earl of Abingdon Lord Norreys, Baron Ricott [sic] and High Steward of the Corporation of Abingdon 1744.

Montagu Bertie held a whole bundle of offices, not dissimilar to his forbear Henry Norreys. As well as being High Steward of Abingdon, he was also High Steward of Wallingford and of Oxford, Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire (1701-2) and Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire (twice, 1702-5 and 1712-15). His successors as High Steward of Abingdon were his nephew Willoughby Bertie, his great-nephew (also Willoughby), his great-great-nephew Montagu and so on until today, when the High Steward of Abingdon is still the Earl of Abingdon. The 7th Earl of Abingdon, another Montagu, sold some of the family estates, including Rycote, but retained the title of Baron Norreys of Rycote.

Thus a thin but tangible thread runs from present-day Abingdon all the way back through the Bertie and Norreys families to the court of Henry VIII, where the first Baron Norreys of Rycote started his career, or, if you like, even further back to his father Henry Norris, the ill-fated supposed lover of Anne Boleyn.


The quotes by Arthur Preston have been taken from the book The Abingdon Corporation Plate (Oxford University Press 1958).

Another source of information was the entry for Henry Norreys on


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