Brabazon, Sir William (d. 1552), vice-treasurer and lord justice of Ireland, was the son of John Brabazon, a landowner of Eastwell in Leicestershire, and his wife, whose maiden name was Chaworth. By 1526 he had entered the royal service as a land surveyor and accountant, gaining a powerful patron in Thomas Cromwell, who became chief minister of Henry VIII in the early 1530s. On 26 August 1534 he was appointed vice-treasurer of Ireland, a post he held till his death and which gave him control of royal finances in Ireland. He had arrived in Dublin by 8 November and was probably immediately sworn a member of the Irish privy council.
Brabazon's appointment was intended to further Cromwell's plans for centralising power in Ireland on the crown and its officials. As a result Brabazon was immediately confronted with an uprising by the powerful Fitzgeralds of Kildare, led by Thomas FitzGerald (qv), known as ‘Silken Thomas’. Owing to the slow arrival of subsidies from England he struggled to pay the royal soldiers during 1534–6, but he showed great industry and participated actively in military campaigns against the rebels, being given his own troop of horse in 1535. During spring and summer 1535 he distinguished himself in clashes with rebel forces in Kildare and the midlands. By 1536 he was described as the best captain in the royal army – a surprising development given his background as administrator. The king, who disapproved of his involvement in military actions, ordered him to focus on his administrative duties, but Brabazon continued to join government campaigns against Irish rebels in Leinster and further afield.
On taking office Brabazon criticised the slipshod approach of his predecessors to managing the Irish exchequer, but he did nothing to reform the obsolete practices there, particularly the lack of record keeping. These defects became of far greater consequence under Brabazon for several reasons. First, constant military campaigns against the Fitzgeralds and their Gaelic Irish allies from 1534 had to be funded by the English government in the form of massive subsidies to the Dublin administration; the Irish exchequer was suddenly handling much larger amounts of money than before. Further, from 1535 the crown confiscated huge areas of prime land, mainly in Leinster, from Fitzgerald rebels, absentee landowners who lived in England, and suppressed monastic houses. Instead of appointing a dedicated commission, the crown vested the exchequer with responsibility for managing, valuing, and distributing these vast and profitable estates. During 1534–40, enjoying virtually unsupervised control over enormous sums of money and tracts of property, Brabazon and his cronies greatly enriched themselves.
While many royal soldiers went unpaid, Brabazon appears to have pocketed royal revenues and to have made sure that his own troop of horse received more than their fair share of wages. During 1539–40 he was a commissioner for the suppression of the religious houses in Leinster and Munster, and simply purloined many valuables for himself. He also made sure that he received leases on the most lucrative of the confiscated properties: by 1540 he had landed interests in Dublin, Meath, Kildare, Westmeath, and even in Down, though he seems to have received little income from the last estate. Most leading royal officials in Ireland were implicated in the misappropriation of property, but Brabazon benefited to a disproportionate extent. Unsurprisingly, his colleagues resented both this and the autonomous and unaccountable manner in which he discharged his office. In 1536 a number of them openly accused him of corruption, but, as Cromwell's most trusted agent in Ireland, he was politically untouchable, and his position was almost certainly reinforced by his sharing the considerable spoils of his office with the chief royal minister. Accordingly, a royal commission sent to Ireland in 1537 to audit his accounts contrived to find nothing amiss.
Brabazon jealously preserved his independence as vice-treasurer, which brought him into conflict with various lord deputies and his colleagues on the privy council. His argumentativeness also reflects the strong views he held on how Ireland should be ruled. Throughout his career, he promoted an aggressive strategy of conquest and colonisation of Gaelic Irish areas outside the crown's control. After the suppression of the Kildare rebellion in 1535 he successfully urged the destruction of the house of Kildare and proposed the expulsion of all Gaelic Irish from Leinster. As a result, he tried repeatedly to undermine Lord Deputy Leonard Grey (qv), who sought, albeit crudely, to reconcile the rebellious Fitzgeralds and the Gaelic Irish to the crown. Brabazon seems to have believed, mistakenly, that militarised English colonies could conquer Ireland in a financially self-supporting manner, which he sought to demonstrate by his own proceedings. One of the reasons why he received leases on so much crown land was that he was prepared to accept and defend lands in areas bordering hostile Irish clans. His landed interests in Kildare and Westmeath coloured his attitude to the neighbouring O'Connors and O'Mores in Laois and Offaly, against whom he repeatedly urged the government to take military action.
In summer 1540 Cromwell's sudden fall from power left Brabazon in a vulnerable position, particularly as he was at that time locked in a bitter dispute with Grey, who was at court. The master of the rolls, Robert Cowley (qv), who had been an ally of Brabazon, chose this moment to turn on him, and in July launched the most detailed attack that had yet been made on his corrupt practices. However, he was protected by Sir Anthony St Leger (qv), who, having convinced Henry VIII that he could bring stability to Ireland, was made lord deputy in July 1540. As a member of the royal commission that had audited Brabazon's accounts in 1537–8, St Leger had no wish to expose any irregularities. Moreover, he wanted to prevent the king from feeling the need to supervise the Irish exchequer, as he wished to use its land bank to enrich himself and to further his strategy of persuading both the Gaelic Irish and the loyalist Old English of the Pale to support his policies.
In August 1540 a second royal commission was dispatched to Ireland to audit Brabazon's accounts. The commissioners met with no cooperation from government officials or from local jurors and suffered from their lack of knowledge of Irish affairs; in spite of these disabilities their report was damning. The commission found that Brabazon had kept no record of how he had spent several large subsidies from England, or of the sale of property of several suppressed monasteries. His accounts appeared to balance, but there were no records to validate them. The report also drew the king's attention to the amount of crown land leased to Brabazon. However, St Leger defended him to the hilt and eventually persuaded the king to drop the investigation; he also thwarted efforts to strip Brabazon of some of his existing leases on crown lands.
Now beholden to St Leger, Brabazon did nothing to oppose the lord deputy's successful surrender and re-grant programme, which pacified Ireland during the first half of the 1540s. A vital component of this plan was the distribution of confiscated lands to powerful Irish lords as a means of buying their goodwill. In 1540 Brabazon surveyed these lands and deliberately underestimated their true value; they were leased at low rents to powerful lords and royal officials, including St Leger, robbing the royal revenues of £2,100 a year. The losses were compounded as Brabazon made no attempt to collect the rents due, and by 1547 had allowed arrears of £18,640 to accumulate; St Leger was one of the greatest debtors. Brabazon did not neglect his own interests, though he now had to exercise caution because of his tainted reputation. In 1541 he appears, through a trusted associate, to have received a grant of the dissolved monastery of Mellifont, Co. Louth, and formally took ownership of the lease in 1545. This was by far the largest lease he enjoyed: it gave him possession of some forty-three townlands in Meath and Louth. When St Leger visited England in 1544 he requested that Brabazon act as lord justice in his absence and Brabazon served in this office from February to August that year.
Brabazon's alliance with St Leger began to break down in 1546 when the lord deputy was called to London to defend himself against corruption charges. Brabazon became lord justice again, serving from April to December, and he was knighted, probably in April. Encouraged by St Leger's precarious position, he used his office to undermine the accommodation that St Leger had reached with the Gaelic Irish, which was anyway starting to unravel. In April he authorised attacks on the O'Byrnes of Wicklow, then, during the summer, launched a devastating campaign against the O'Connors of Offaly in retaliation for a raid on the Pale. He installed royal garrisons at Dangain and Ballyadams in the heart of the O'Connor and O'More lordships respectively. Contrary to expectation, St Leger cleared his name in London and on his return to Ireland in December rebuked Brabazon for wilfully provoking the O'Connors into rebellion. The presence of garrisons at Dangain and Ballyadams undermined the trust of the O'Connors and the O'Mores in the crown, and by summer 1547 both clans were in open rebellion. Brabazon pressed home his advantage in the struggle against St Leger by anonymously penning two memos to crown officials in London. In one he called for the military conquest of the Irish in Wicklow and the midlands, followed by the establishment of English colonies there. In the second, he accused St Leger of corruption and partiality towards the Fitzgeralds and the Gaelic Irish. The advisers of the young Edward VI (Henry VIII had died early that year) favoured a more aggressive approach in Ireland and dismissed St Leger in summer 1548.
In 1547 Brabazon was made constable of Athlone castle, which he had seized from the local Irish, repaired, and garrisoned. Thereafter, he seems to have spent much of his time at Athlone, regularly leading attacks on the O'Connors. From 1547 the crown was embroiled in a bitter conflict with the O'Connors and the O'Mores, which culminated in the decision to plant Laois and Offaly in 1551; Brabazon had played a decisive role in preventing the revival of the surrender and re-grant policy, but he was to be undone by his own triumph. As military expenses in Ireland escalated again, the English government was obliged to resume subsidising the Irish administration, as during the 1530s. Perplexed by Dublin's failure to pay its way, despite its confiscation of large quantities of land a decade earlier, officials in London began to investigate the management of royal finances and property in Ireland. A permanent Irish auditor was appointed for the first time in 1548, though he was bought off by St Leger. For a time Brabazon maintained his position, and he served as lord justice for the third time from February to September 1550. However, in September 1551, after further investigations by royal auditors in London, he was found to have disbursed £12,000 out of the royal treasury without proper authorisation and was made jointly liable for the sum along with his son-in-law Andrew Wise (qv), who had lately shared his office of vice-treasurer. In 1552 an inquiry was launched into the Irish exchequer, going back to 1538. Only his death on 9 July 1552 (from natural causes) while campaigning in Ulster prevented his disgrace, dismissal, and likely imprisonment. He was buried at St Catherine's church, Dublin.
Brabazon married Elizabeth, daughter and co-heir of Nicholas Clifford of Holme, Kent. They had two sons and three daughters. His grandson William was created earl of Meath in 1627.