Parsons, Sir William (1570?–1650), lord justice of Ireland, was the eldest son of James Parsons of Leicestershire and his wife Catherine Fenton. As a youth, he was a staunch puritan and client of the earl of Leicester. After Leicester's death (1588), he settled in Ireland and from c.1590 acted as assistant to his uncle Sir Geoffrey Fenton (qv), surveyor general of Ireland, succeeding Fenton in 1602.
Promoter of plantations This promotion could not have been better timed, as the belated completion of the English conquest of Ireland in spring 1603 opened up great opportunities for self-enrichment for well-placed government officials. He acted as commissioner to inquire into the dissolved monasteries of Tyrconnell (1603), commissioner for the creation of the county of Wicklow (1605), and commissioner for and surveyor general of the plantations of Ulster (1610), Wexford (1618), Longford and Ely O'Carroll (1619), and Leitrim (1620). For his work on the Ulster plantation, he received in 1611 a royal pension of £40 a year. Nonetheless, his conduct as supervisor of various plantations outraged the numerous native landowners who were dispossessed by his highly questionable legal machinations: local juries were intimidated into invalidating titles to property, while those dispossessed who sought legal recourse were ruined by expensive and time-consuming counter-suits. From 1611 to 1628 he was heavily involved in the increasingly crude efforts by the government to wrest land in Cosha and Ranelagh, Co. Wicklow, from Phelim McFeagh O'Byrne (qv), which culminated in a failed attempt to frame O'Byrne for murder by torturing witnesses. He also encountered criticism for the manner in which he exercised his office as surveyor of plantation land by deliberately underestimating the extent of plantation land in order to defraud the crown and the church of their revenues. At least twice he had to procure royal pardons for corrupt activities.
By these means, he furthered the crown's policy of supplanting catholic landowners with more politically reliable protestant ones while personally acquiring prime plantation land in Co. Wexford, Co. Tyrone, and Co. Longford, and in King's Co. (Offaly) and Queen's Co. (Laois). Although his grasping nature was widely advertised in Ireland, he escaped royal censure due to his political clout, being a key member of a powerful and tightly knit group of Dublin-based government officials who enriched themselves by obstructing and redirecting royal grants of Irish lands intended for courtiers in London. Reflecting his political influence and widening property interests, he sat as MP for Newcastle Lyons (1613–15), Armagh Co. (1634–5) and Wicklow Co. (1640–41).
In 1619 he clashed with the all-powerful royal favourite George Villiers (then earl, and later duke, of Buckingham), over Villiers's support for recognising the property rights of the overwhelmingly catholic landowners of Connacht. In part, Villiers was warning the ruling Dublin clique that he was no longer prepared to tolerate their self-interested manipulation of royal patronage. Parsons took the hint and travelled to London in early 1620 to report on the progress of the plantations of Leitrim and Longford, but also to assure Buckingham that he and his cronies would be the main beneficiaries in all future Irish plantations. A gratified Buckingham arranged Parsons's knighthood on 7 June and his creation as a baronet at about this time, and was henceforth an ardent advocate of plantations in Ireland.
During summer 1620, the English privy council considered discontinuing the policy of plantations in Ireland. However, Parsons and Buckingham strenuously argued the case for further plantations and, aided by the distraction caused by Spain's invasion of Bohemia, succeeded in browbeating the council into sanctioning the plantation of Leitrim in late September. In autumn 1621, exasperated by the corruption associated with Buckingham and his cronies, James I established a commission to investigate the government of Ireland, and in particular the manner in which the plantations there were carried out. Despite being a member of the 1622 commission, Parsons was a vocal critic of its efforts. For its part, the 1622 commission condemned Parsons's actions as surveyor general of Ireland. Nonetheless, in May 1622 he unapologetically furnished the commissioners with a comprehensive justification of the plantation policy in Ireland, urging its continuance.
Master of the court of wards On 6 September 1622 Buckingham arranged his appointment as master of the newly established Irish court of wards, which was designed to enforce the king's myriad feudal rights in Ireland. These rights had never previously been systematically enforced and could be quite burdensome. Moreover, the most onerous obligations tended to fall on catholic landowners, who rapidly came to resent deeply the ruthless efficiency with which Parsons directed the court's operations. He strongly defended his stewardship of the court against catholic complaints, pointing out that it accounted for nearly a quarter of government revenues. In 1623 he became a member of the Irish privy council.
For the rest of the 1620s a war with Spain and political instability in England served to put a halt to further plantations, much to Parsons's frustration. During this time the Dublin administration became increasingly polarised between those who argued that the government would have to make a temporary accommodation with the Irish catholics and those who favoured a hard-line policy of confiscation of property and intensified persecution of catholicism. Parsons was a prominent member of the latter faction, which was headed by Richard Boyle (qv), 1st earl of Cork, a powerful landowner in Munster and long-standing acquaintance of Parsons. However, the prospects of the hard-liners darkened after the arrival in 1633 of the autocratic lord deputy Thomas Wentworth (qv), who believed that the protestant establishment was hopelessly corrupt and had failed in its civilising mission in Ireland. On taking office, he sidelined Cork and instigated legal proceedings – designed to recover property for the crown – against a number of prominent protestant landowners.
Alarmed by these developments and by Wentworth's barely concealed hostility towards him, Parsons clumsily attempted to gain leverage on the lord deputy in 1634 by divulging to him a scheme to gain vast tracts of land in Wicklow, then held by the O'Byrne family. This land had been granted to the earl of Carlisle, a prominent courtier, but Parsons had held up this grant by deliberately failing to prove the crown's title to the land in question. He intended to dupe Carlisle into accepting £10,000, ostensibly from the land's current holders, in return for relinquishing his claim. In reality, Parsons proposed that Wentworth pay the £10,000 and then claim the land for himself, which was worth far more. However, Wentworth double-crossed Parsons by informing the king of this offer before receiving royal permission to buy out Carlisle and claim the land for himself. Protracted, complex, and shady negotiations then commenced between Wentworth, Parsons, Carlisle, and the O'Byrnes, all of whom had ill-defined claims to the land. Eventually in 1640 Wicklow was planted, with Parsons receiving about 18,000 acres. More immediately, having seen his duplicity exposed to the king, a chagrined Parsons made no further efforts to compromise the lord deputy and focused on his official duties.
Wentworth distrusted Parsons and on one occasion rebuked him for his past role as surveyor general of the Ulster plantation, but was impressed by his efficiency. In 1639 he was involved in preparations for the planned plantation of Connacht and became a member of the court of Castle Chamber in November. Also, he often sat with the commission for defective titles, a body universally detested by Irish landowners for the systematic manner in which it voided their patents, imposing higher rents in the process. Indeed, he was said to have voided 150 patents to land in one morning. The resentment caused by Wentworth's governorship came to a head in June 1640 when, inspired by the English parliament's successful opposition to Wentworth and the king, a constitutionalist party, composed of an unlikely alliance of catholics and protestants, gained control of the Irish parliament.
Lord justice of Ireland Parsons adroitly changed sides at just the right time and played a key, albeit furtive, role in Wentworth's downfall, coordinating attacks on his former master in the Dublin and London parliaments. The first successful opposition within the Irish parliament to the government emerged on 8 June, when a bill for the plantation of Connacht was effectively suppressed. Tellingly, on that same day the Irish house of commons passed a bill endorsing the Wicklow plantation, from which Parsons had benefited. During the second half of 1640 the English and Irish parliaments launched a series of investigations into the manner in which Wentworth abused his position of power to enrich himself. Despite its being a prime example of such abuse, no one of influence in Dublin or London brought up the Wicklow plantation. In November Wentworth was arrested in London for treason and on 3 December Lord Deputy Wandesforde (qv) died; Parsons was appointed lord justice of Ireland and sworn in on 31 December 1640. The other lord justice, Sir John Borlase (qv), sworn in on 10 February 1641, was elderly, infirm, and ineffectual. Parsons had become the effective governor of Ireland during one of the most fateful periods in the island's history.
By the close of 1640 the constitutionalist party, with both catholics and protestants, remained firmly in control of the Irish parliament. This group was determined to secure the Irish parliament's independence from the English parliament, to assert the Irish parliament's control over the Dublin administration, and to guarantee property rights and other fundamental liberties. Initially, Parsons neither had the means nor the desire to halt these developments, particularly as he needed to disassociate himself from Wentworth, who was eventually executed in May 1641. However, Parsons had no principled objection to the arbitrary manner in which Wentworth had governed Ireland. His problem had been with how Wentworth had used the wide powers enjoyed by the crown against protestants as well as catholics. He wanted to preserve these powers in Ireland so they could be used by the protestant establishment solely against the catholic landowners. In late February 1641 the Irish house of commons instigated impeachment proceedings against four of Wentworth's chief ministers. Conscious that he was as deeply implicated in Wentworth's policies as anyone, Parsons was determined to prevent this. He arrested the four ministers in question, but prorogued parliament for two months on 4 March despite protests from many MPs.
During the recess Parsons's position deteriorated further when (4 April) the king agreed to make a number of wide-ranging concessions, including a promise to halt the plantation of Connacht. When the Irish parliament reassembled in May, Parsons attempted to win back control of parliament by playing up divisions between the catholics and protestants. In his letters to the English parliament, he stressed that the opposition to him was mainly catholic. In fact, it was a relatively even mix of catholics and protestants, and Parsons failed in his efforts over the summer to regain protestant confidence in the Irish government. However, he did succeed in delaying the passage of the king's concessions into law by pleading with the king not to give so much away without extracting money from parliament. Shortly before the arrival in Dublin of the bills that embodied the king's intended concessions, Parsons succeeded in having parliament adjourn (7 August), but only after a particularly heated debate and a very close vote.
Many then and since believed that, but for Parsons's delaying tactics, the king's concessions would have been passed by the Irish parliament, the catholics would have felt more secure, and the subsequent disaster would have been averted. However, concessions by the king were devalued by the fact that control over the government of England was falling into the hands of a militantly anti-catholic English parliament. Many Irish catholics feared that an army of Scottish presbyterians would be sent to deprive them of their lands, liberties, and lives. Moreover, the complex constitutional issues that were being debated in Dublin during summer 1641 were the concern primarily of the political elite. The mood of paranoia and apocalyptic fervour that had gripped the three kingdoms after the effective collapse of royal authority (1640) led to a breakdown in confidence in purely political institutions and probably made inevitable an eruption of violence. By pursuing his narrow agenda at this time Parsons worsened an already desperate situation, but he was not primarily responsible for the looming cataclysm, nor was he – yet – trying to provoke the catholics into rebellion.
The 1641 rebellion On the evening of 22 October 1641 Owen Connelly burst into Dublin castle with news of a plot by a number of Gaelic catholic landowners to seize control of the Irish government. Connelly, who was a protestant, had been drinking in Dublin with his foster-brother and some other conspirators, who had revealed their intentions to him. The plotters planned a relatively bloodless coup, but may have exaggerated their hostile intentions towards protestants to Connelly. Thus, a drunk and agitated Connelly spoke wildly to Parsons of a general plan to massacre all the protestants in Ireland. The plot to seize Dublin castle was foiled, but the rebels had also planned the capture of a number of castles and garrisons in Ulster. The Ulster rebellion, headed by Sir Phelim O'Neill (qv), was more successful and began to gather momentum.
Meanwhile, in Dublin Parsons and his government colleagues, perhaps overly influenced by Connelly's claims, fell into a state of panic, fearing that the entire catholic populace was about to fall on the suddenly vulnerable protestant community in Ireland. This fear was to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On 23 October Parsons issued a proclamation declaring a state of rebellion, but also referring to the rebellion as being led by ‘Irish papists’. Although accurate, the wording was impolitic, both offending and scaring wavering catholics. On 24–5 October a number of the leading catholic landowners of the Pale met Parsons to request arms to defend themselves from the rebels. He refused, claiming falsely that the government did not have enough arms to supply them. In reality, he did not trust them. By the start of November Parsons had recovered his composure. The rebellion had engulfed Ulster and was starting to spread south. However, the rebels were encountering fierce resistance from the large protestant community in Ulster.
Meanwhile, Parsons relayed to England appropriately blood-curdling reports of the slaughter of defenceless protestants by Irish catholics. The truth was shocking enough, but wildly exaggerated tales of systematic slaughter soon reverberated around England. Parsons's strategy was to hold Dublin at all costs and wait for help from England. This was the greatest blunder of his career. Firstly, given that England was in the midst of a constitutional crisis, it was by no means certain that help would arrive. Secondly, an aggressive military strategy could well have crushed the disorganised rebel armies, thereby strangling the rising at birth. James Butler (qv), earl of Ormond and general of the Irish army, and Sir William St Leger (qv), president of Munster, urged Parsons to meet the rebels in battle. Instead, he denuded the rest of the country of troops, prioritising the defence of Dublin. St Leger was enraged at this decision and questioned Parsons's motives.
Politics was a factor here. The outbreak of the Irish rebellion had undermined the king's position in England as it reawakened fears there over his sympathy towards catholicism. A too-hasty suppression of the rebellion would ease these fears, to the detriment of Parsons's parliamentarian allies, who were adept at exploiting anti-catholicism as a means of furthering their own agendas. Moreover, Parsons did not trust the army officers, most of whom had been supporters of Wentworth and were staunch royalists. More pertinently, if the rebellion did not spread outside Ulster all Irish catholics could not be blamed, and the government would have no justification for confiscating their land. Whereas Ormond despaired that either protestants or papists would be eliminated, Parsons revelled in this polarisation.
Ormond now emerged as the main opponent to Parsons within the Dublin administration, but his pleas for compromise were disregarded. Parsons grudgingly agreed to reconvene parliament for one day on 16 November in a bid to reach a political solution. However, these slim hopes were dashed after the few catholic MPs who turned up refused to condemn the rebellion. This was understandable, as those catholic MPs lived in the Pale, which was now in the path of O'Neill's army. While Parsons fiddled in Dublin, spontaneous uprisings began to occur in Connacht and Leinster during November, and then finally in Munster by December. Belatedly, two expeditions were dispatched against rebels in Louth and Wicklow on 27 November. They had contrasting fortunes militarily, but were equally disastrous politically. The Wicklow expedition massacred local catholics indiscriminately, while the forces sent to Louth were ambushed and annihilated at Julianstown, Co. Meath. The government was showing itself to be both oppressive and weak.
The defeat at Julianstown was the final straw for the catholic landowners of the Pale, who now faced a stark choice between a marauding rebel army and a momentarily weakened government that seemed set on their destruction anyway. After meetings at Tara and Knockcrofty between the rebel leaders and the Pale gentry, an uneasy alliance was formed. All of Ireland except Dublin, south Cork, and northern and eastern Ulster quickly fell into rebel hands. In practice, Parsons's authority was confined to Dublin and its environs, which were cut off from the other protestant enclaves. Amid the political and military manoeuvring, a tragedy of monumental proportions was occurring throughout the island. The catholic populace saw the rising as a signal variously to rob, drive out, and kill their protestant neighbours. The rebel leaders, dismayed and rendered desperate by the failure of their coup, tacitly encouraged or turned a blind eye to this explosion of murderous sectarianism, which was reciprocated on the protestant side. These developments highlighted the failure of Parsons's plantation strategy, which, owing to the corrupt manner in which it had been executed, had broadly failed to provide for the military security of the protestant settlers.
Fall from power At the outset of 1642 Parsons was confident that the rebellion would be crushed speedily. During the spring Ormond, assisted by 2,000 troops from England, campaigned successfully against the rebels in Kildare and Wicklow, lifted the rebel siege of Drogheda, and recaptured Dundalk. The arrival of English troops also solidified Parsons's previously shaky control over the army, these reinforcements being pro-parliament and militantly anti-catholic. Then, on 26 February a royal proclamation arrived in Dublin, calling on the rebels to surrender and promising them lenient treatment, after which a number of catholic landowners surrendered voluntarily to the government. This development was not to Parsons's liking. To discourage further submissions, he imprisoned and tortured those who had surrendered and even executed a catholic priest who had saved thirty protestants from being murdered in Athy, Co. Kildare. Similarly, in May he condemned the terms by which the city of Galway had submitted to the government as being too lenient. His actions quickly stemmed the flow of submissions that could have brought a peaceful end to the rising. The English parliament's success in forcing the king to sign the adventurers’ act (19 March) meant that there could be no going back for the Irish catholics. As well as declaring all their land confiscate, the act stated that the king could not pardon an Irish rebel without parliament's consent.
With more troops arriving in Dublin from England and the landing of a Scottish army in Ulster, it appeared as if the confiscations set forth in the adventurers’ act would be quickly realised. However, Parsons was soon to regret his success. During summer 1642 the divide between the royalists and parliamentarians in England became increasingly intractable. Hostilities finally commenced in August. To widespread surprise, the king was able to raise an army and came close to defeating parliament that autumn. Suddenly, it was apparent that England was set for a long civil war and that the Dublin government could expect no further aid from there. It also meant that the Dublin government had to choose sides. Parsons declared an official policy of neutrality while privately favouring parliament in every matter. From October 1642 he allowed two parliamentarian representatives to sit at the meetings of the Irish privy council. However, the royalist Ormond had his supporters in the Irish council. The growing factionalism that pervaded the Dublin administration reflected the mistrust between the royalists and parliamentarians in Ireland.
The English parliament's failure to honour its promises of support, and the manner in which troops who had been raised for service in Ireland were redirected to fight the royalists in England, undermined Parsons's credibility. Meanwhile in Ireland the catholics organised their own system of government, the ‘catholic confederation’, and were bolstered militarily by the arrival of experienced officers from the Irish regiments serving in the Spanish Netherlands. The protestant forces, starved of pay and munitions, were pushed back once more. The royalists led by Ormond began courting the disgruntled protestant troops in Ireland. In December army officers presented Parsons and his council with a petition outlining their unhappiness at their lack of pay. Although Parsons maintained his grip on the civil administration, the army increasingly looked to Ormond. This divide manifested itself in acrimonious clashes between the civilian and military authorities in Dublin.
In February 1643 the king ordered that the parliamentary commissioners be barred from attending Irish privy council meetings, prompting Parsons to smuggle them quickly back to England before they could be arrested. In the meantime the king had authorised Ormond to open communications with the confederates, with a view to concluding an alliance with them against parliament. Ormond's victory over the confederates at New Ross in March further raised his standing and sealed Parsons's fate. A letter to the king in March by Parsons and his supporters, urging the king to continue to fight the confederates, availed him nothing and he was dismissed as lord justice on 31 March and replaced by the royalist Sir Henry Tichbourne (qv) who cooperated with Ormond in continuing negotiations with the confederates for a truce. In June Parsons opposed this policy in council, arguing weakly that signing such a truce would antagonise parliament. Again his arguments cut little ice with the king, who ordered his dismissal from the Irish privy council in July and his arrest in August.
Final years on the margins Parsons remained a prisoner in Dublin until autumn 1646. By then parliament had won the English civil war; and with Dublin threatened by catholic forces, Ormond began negotiations to surrender the city to the English parliament. Parsons was released as a goodwill gesture. On arriving in London in November, he praised Ormond and wrote in a friendly manner to Ormond's allies in England. However, Ormond's decision to break off the negotiations led to a renewal of their bitter rivalry. In London, Parsons was part of an influential lobby of exiled Irish protestant landowners who supported the radical Independent faction in parliament, decried Ormond (whom the moderates in parliament courted), and urged the reconquest of Ireland. In January 1647 parliament authorised the dispatch of an expeditionary force led by Lord Lisle (qv) into Munster. Parsons was appointed one of Lisle's privy counsellors, and he clearly intended accompanying this expedition, but did not go in the end possibly due to his age. In any case, the Independents became preoccupied with matters in England and Lisle's expedition achieved little.
Parsons drew up his will in summer 1648, in which he stated he was destitute, and his disillusionment with his English allies was palpable. However, he remained in favour with the parliamentarian authorities, who appointed him commissioner for raising money in England for the reconquest of Ireland in January 1648 and recommended the publication of his proposed tract on the 1641 rebellion in May 1649. By dying in spring 1650 he lived long enough to follow Oliver Cromwell's (qv) devastating and successful campaigns in Ireland from September 1649, which paved the way for the systematic dispossession of all catholic landowners there and can be seen as the culmination of Parsons's oft-proclaimed strategy for safeguarding Ireland for the English protestant interest. He was buried in the church of St Margaret, Westminster, on 2 March 1650.
He married (date unknown) Elizabeth, daughter of John Lany, alderman of Dublin; they had several children. He was succeeded by his grandson Richard, who later became Baron Oxmantown and Viscount Rosse.