Gerrard, Sir William (d. 1581), lord chancellor of Ireland, was son of Gilbert Gerrard of Ince, Lancashire, and his wife Eleanor, daughter of William Davison, alderman of Chester. He was a cousin of Sir Gilbert Gerrard, master of the rolls in England. William Gerrard entered Gray's Inn in 1543, was called to the bar in 1546, became an ‘ancient’ of Gray's Inn in 1552, and was elected reader there in 1560. He served as MP for Preston in 1553 and for Chester in successive parliaments from 1555 to 1572. He was appointed recorder (1556) and vice-justice (1561) of Chester, justice of Brecknock circuit (1559), and a member of the council of Wales (1560). In 1562 he became vice-president of the council under the presidency of Sir Henry Sidney (qv), and subsequently presented Sir Francis Walsingham with a number of important proposals for the reform of Welsh government.
When Sidney was appointed lord deputy of Ireland for the second time in 1575, Gerrard joined him as lord chancellor of Ireland (23 April 1576), with a grant of the deanery of St Patrick's to augment his earnings. The regard in which he was held by Sidney, who described him as a principled and hard-working man well fitted for the responsibilities of state, was clearly genuine for Gerrard had been an independent-minded deputy in Wales. In Dublin he objected strongly to the deference shown to the lord deputy by the councilors, who followed his lead ‘like sheepe to the water’ (Crawford, Anglicizing the government, 35). He was also extremely critical of nepotism and corruption within the central administration and attempted to reorganize the exchequer, an undertaking that was frustrated by the network of patronage that protected its largely supernumerary staff.
In the area of his main official responsibility, he soon concluded that the deficiencies in the judicial system could only be remedied by the replacement of the existing elderly Anglo-Irish judges with English judges, who could improve standards and initiate reform without being encumbered by local connections. Increasingly he became convinced that progress in controlling Ireland could best be achieved by the gradual extension of English law and the machinery of justice throughout the island and that this process must start by putting an end to lawlessness within the Pale counties. These views challenged Sidney's policy, which relied on a combination of negotiation and force to impose local taxation, or composition, to support a system of provincial presidencies that would both extend the authority of the government and make it self-financing.
At the outset, Gerrard cooperated with Sidney, whose success depended upon persuading the Palesmen to follow the other provinces by agreeing that the existing liability to ‘cess’ (an increasingly burdensome form of purveyance levied for upkeep of the army and the governor's household) should be commuted into a fixed annual composition payment. When the Palesmen responded to Sidney's proposals by denying the legality of cess and sending a delegation to England in February 1577, Gerrard was dispatched to London where he presented a masterly defence of conciliar policy and of the prerogative powers on which it was based. He was not, however, committed to the policy of national composition and his recommendation of compromise with the representatives of the Pale, together with his promotion of a policy of ‘justice without the sword’ (Brady, Chief governors, 156), undermined Sidney, who was replaced by Sir William Drury in April 1578.
Drury's instructions were based on Gerrard's recommendations, and after his return from England in July 1578 Gerrard became involved in the protracted negotiations with the Palesmen which concluded, in their favour, in May 1579. The implementation of his wider proposals – to divide the country into judicial circuits, to reduce the army and to rely on the local support of sheriffs and seneschals instead – was frustrated by the outbreak of the Desmond rebellion later in 1579. Gerrard was knighted by the new lord justice, Sir William Pelham (qv) on 11 October 1579. Immediately afterwards he went to England, and was appointed a master of requests on 23 November. He became ill and the queen sent her own physician to treat him (January 1580); in August she gave him permission to retire to Chester if his health did not improve. He was back in Ireland in the summer of 1580 and was promised the office of head of the commission for ecclesiastical causes, in which he had taken an active interest since his arrival in Ireland. The preamble to his will, in which he expressed sorrow for his sins and trusted that he would be placed among God's elect, reveals his puritan inclinations.
In January 1581 he returned home to Chester where he died on May 1. He was buried in St Oswald's Church, Chester. He married Dorothy, daughter of Andrew Barton of Smithhills, Lancashire, with whom he had two sons and four daughters.