St Leger, Sir William (c.1580–1642), soldier, politician and lord president of Munster, was the son of Sir Warham St Leger (qv) and Elizabeth Rothe (d. 1620) of Kilkenny. The St Leger family, originally from Ulcombe in Kent, had a long history of service in Ireland. William's grandfather Sir Anthony St Leger (qv) travelled to Ireland as a royal commissioner during the reign of Henry VIII and, at various intervals, served as Irish lord deputy for eleven of the sixteen years from 1540 to 1556. William's father, Sir Warham St Leger, lord president of Munster during the reign of Elizabeth I, was killed in 1600, in single combat with Hugh Maguire (qv), lord of Fermanagh, a commander of cavalry under Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone. Ironically, when William St Leger killed a gentleman in 1607, he sought Tyrone's protection and joined the flight of the earls to Brussels in October of that year. He became disillusioned with Tyrone's intentions, however, and shortly afterwards left for Holland to seek a pardon from the king.
Although St Leger was pardoned for his crimes in 1610, he remained in military service in the Low Countries for at least eight years, during which time he came to the attention of the royal favourite George Villiers (1592–1628), who was created earl of Buckingham in 1617, lord admiral of the navy in 1619 and lst duke of Buckingham in 1623. St Leger was knighted on 25 April 1618 and, in July 1619, he received patents for land in Limerick and Queen's County, largely through the favour of Buckingham. In June 1623 he commanded the ship Bonaventure while it was being outfitted for service in Scotland and the following August, on Buckingham's recommendation, he sought permission to command one of the ships designated to collect Prince Charles from Spain. By 1624 St Leger was acting as Buckingham's agent in Ireland, acquiring and administering plantation lands in the barony of Ossory on behalf on the duke. In January 1625, together with Sir John Ogle, St Leger was involved in organising and supplying Count von Mansfeld's army at Dover in preparation for the subsequently ill-fated Anglo–French expedition to the Palatinate, under Mansfeld's command. St Leger was also part of the English force that attacked Cadiz in October 1625, blaming the expedition's commander, Lord Wimbledon, for the failure of the enterprise. He was also involved in the disastrous English expedition to the Île de Rhé in 1627.
St Leger was appointed lord president of Munster and a member of the privy council on 2 March 1627, following the death, in September 1626, of the previous lord president, Sir Edward Villiers, a half-brother of the duke of Buckingham. He was elected a freeman of Cork city on 27 June 1628 and, as lord president, he held many public positions within the province. Throughout 1627 and 1628 a great deal of his time was spent organising the coastal defences of the province. In July 1628 he reported news of the outfitting of a fleet in Spain, which he feared might be used to attack Munster.
According to the army list of 1630, St Leger was in command of fifty cavalry and fifty infantry. In January of that year, he became active against the catholic church in Cork, ordering raids on four religious houses in the city; these raids were largely unsuccessful. In February 1630 he purchased an estate at Doneraile, Co. Cork, and built a church there in 1633. Doneraile became his main residence and was the location of the presidency court. It was burnt by the confederates in 1645, a few years after St Leger's death. By November 1630, St Leger was advocating a scheme for the planting of Ormond, in north Tipperary. The scheme was taken up by Lord Deputy Wentworth (qv) but it never came to fruition. In February 1632 Charles I granted the estate of Murrough O'Brien (qv), 1st earl of Inchiquin to St Leger, during his wardship.
Throughout the 1630s St Leger clashed with Richard Boyle (qv), earl of Cork – perhaps not surprisingly, given the enmity between the earl of Cork and St Leger's patron, the late duke of Buckingham. As lord president, he resented Boyle's ability to utilise his vast fortune and influential connections to flout provincial decisions. He sought to curb Boyle's power in the province, by allying himself with Wentworth. Various attempts were made to end the tax exemptions enjoyed by towns such as Lismore, which were under the earl's control. St Leger was appointed sergeant major of Wentworth's ‘new’ Irish army on 6 December 1639, with responsibility for the recruiting and training of soldiers at Carrickfergus. He pronounced the army fit for service in July 1640 and, after its disbandment, he was actively involved in the effort to send the soldiers abroad into foreign service. St Leger was returned as an MP for Cork in the Irish parliaments of 1634 and 1640. He was active on a number of parliamentary committees in 1634, but was less prominently involved in the 1640 parliament, when his son William was also elected for the borough of Kilmallock in Co. Limerick.
When rebellion broke out in October 1641, St Leger was at his residence in Doneraile. Throughout November 1641, he spent most of the time organising the defences of the province, holding meetings with local protestants and ordering Colonel Barry and his 1,200 men at Kinsale to disband. As an experienced soldier, he advised the earl of Ormond (qv) that he could defend the province and put down any insurrection there, if he were supplied with 3,000–4,000 arms for loyal protestants. He was critical of the lords justices in Dublin for being too easily frightened and stripping him of his infantry companies in order to defend the city. When the rebellion began to spread into Munster in late November and early December 1641, St Leger responded ruthlessly. In early December 1641 he took his small cavalry force and attacked 300 rebels who were stealing sheep in Waterford, killing about 140 of them; a further 50 were taken prisoner and executed by martial law at Waterford. When the sheep and cattle of his brother-in-law William Kingsmill were stolen, St Leger rushed with his force to retrieve the stock and punish the thieves, reportedly killing many people who had no part in the crime. This aggressive stance, adopted largely because of the limitations of his small army, helped to drive many into rebellion. Given the nature of the 1641 rising, however, its spread into Munster was probably inevitable regardless of St Leger's harsh policies.
By the end of 1641, St Leger had been effectively pushed back into Co. Cork, as Viscount Mountgarret (qv) brought a sizeable rebel army into the province. On 16 January 1642 St Leger commanded a force of 1,500 infantry and 400 cavalry that was dependent on locally raised men and money; he complained to the speaker, in March 1642, that he had received no money for his cavalry troop for over a year. Initial attempts to work with the earl of Cork failed, as disputes over money and commissions soon ended any cooperation between the two men. Other protestants complained about his ruthless attitude, including Sir Robert Tynt, when his castle was searched and £4,000 seized. Early in 1642 St Leger brought his small force to face the rebels at Redshard pass but, after negotiations with Mountgarret, both sides withdrew. In February, St Leger was reinforced by the arrival of Sir Charles Vavasour's regiment and two cavalry troops under Inchiquin and William Jephson (qv). In early March, he burnt the area around Cappoquin, before taking his army to Dungarvan, which he managed to capture and where he personally was reputed to have killed ten men. After his success at Dungarvan, he was forced to retreat to Cork city, which an army under Garret Barry (qv) was advancing to besiege.
On his return from Dungarvan, St Leger became ill and never fully recovered. He took no further active part in the war, the military command of the army falling to Inchiquin, Vavasour and other principal officers, who succeeded in lifting the seige on Cork city on 13 April 1642. Despite his illness, St Leger remained active on the administrative side, remonstrating with Ormond and the lords commissioners about the poor state of his army. On 4 June 1642 he was still organising the shipment of supplies. As his illness worsened, however, he entrusted Inchiquin with military command of the province. St Leger died 2 July 1642 at Doneraile. Inchiquin succeeded him as military commander, and the civil government of the province was granted to Lord Barrymore (qv).
As lord president of Munster, St Leger was not particularly effective, lacking the wealth and connections necessary to dominate the province. He was a brave and ruthless soldier, however, and was remembered as such by the earl of Cork, who described him as a ‘brave martial man’ (Townshend, 390). His successful defence of the province ensured the survival of the Munster protestants during the crucial early stages of the rebellion and his selection of Inchiquin as his successor showed capable judgement.
St Leger married first Gertrude de Vries, a Rhinelander, in 1616; they had one son and one daughter. The denization of his German wife and two foreign-born children took place in April 1624. He later married Gertrude Heywood, with whom he had two sons. His son William died on the royalist side at the battle of Newbury in 1644, and another son, John (d. 1696), married Lady Mary Chichester, daughter of the 1st earl of Donegall (qv), in 1655. His daughter Elizabeth (d. 1685) married the earl of Inchiquin in October 1635, just nine months before he received livery of his lands in June 1636.