Pelham, Sir William (d. 1587), lord justice of Ireland, was third son of Sir William Pelham of Laughton, Sussex, England, and his second wife, Mary, daughter of William, Lord Sandys of the Vine, near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Pelham joined the army and was made a captain at the siege of Leith in 1560. In 1562, when England supported the huguenot forces in France, he commanded the pioneers at Havre and in February 1563 assisted Admiral Coligny in the capture of Caen. On his return to England he was appointed lieutenant-general of the ordnance, a post he retained until he was sent to Ireland in the summer of 1579 to improve the defences of the Pale. This posting coincided with the onset of the crisis occasioned by the landing of James fitz Maurice Fitzgerald (qv), cousin of Gerald, earl of Desmond (qv), accompanied by a small papal force. Government forces in Munster were small, official reaction was slow, and the situation was exacerbated by the death of the lord deputy, Sir William Drury (qv), in September. It was in these circumstances that Pelham found himself hastily elected lord justice on 11 October 1579.
His immediate task was to restore order, and he appears to have understood the importance of retaining the support of Desmond. The earl, who had been injudiciously harried by the temporary commander, Sir Nicholas Malby (qv), and was finding it difficult to restrain his followers, had yet to declare himself. Pelham moved promptly and had reached Cashel and opened negotiations with Desmond by 25 October. The terms he offered, however, betrayed his distrust, and his approach was peremptory. Desmond was ordered to present himself in Cashel before eight o'clock on the morning of 2 November. When he failed to appear, Pelham, on Malby's advice, proclaimed him a traitor. The earl responded by sacking the port town of Youghal less than two weeks later. The queen, who believed that Desmond had been denied an adequate opportunity to negotiate, was incensed by the prospect of a needless and expensive campaign: Malby was disgraced and Pelham reprimanded. Pleading that those who wielded power in Munster would support him only if he acted decisively, Pelham offered to resign.
As the situation deteriorated, his argument prevailed by default and he was authorised to wage war fully against the rebels and to offer pardons to those who could be reclaimed. He was urged to go to Munster to assist the new provincial commander, the earl of Ormond (qv). Pelham, who was concerned to deal with attacks on the northern borders of the pale and to make logistic preparations for a Munster campaign, delayed his departure and travelled to Limerick by way of Waterford. It was not until 10 March 1580 that he and Ormond met at Rathkeale, Co. Limerick, and began a coordinated and ruthless sweep of Limerick and Kerry that culminated in the capture of Desmond's principal stronghold at Carrigafoyle and the execution of its inhabitants. In June a second and equally destructive expedition, linked to a naval blockade of the coast, devastated Kerry and led many of the Munster chieftains to desert Desmond and make their peace with Pelham, who retired to Limerick to rest the army in preparation for a final onslaught.
In July 1580, however, attention was deflected by the outbreak of a new rebellion in the Pale, led by James Eustace (qv), Viscount Baltinglass, and in August Sir Arthur Grey (qv) arrived as lord deputy. Pelham discussed terms with Desmond's wife Eleanor (qv) (as ‘Butler, Eleanor’) in August; by then his authority had effectively ceased, although it was not until 7 September that he was formally replaced by Grey. The Four Masters treated his brief Irish career respectfully, judging him to have been unusually successful and ‘nobly triumphant’. Later historians have tended to the view that his unfamiliarity with local conditions contributed significantly to the escalation of the war in Munster, and have been less tolerant of the brutality of his campaigning.
The privy council hoped that Pelham would continue to serve under Grey, but he was ill and reputed to be unwilling to stay in Ireland without the recognition of a title. He chose to return to England where he resumed his position as lieutenant-general of the ordnance. The responsibilities of the office involved him in a good deal of expense and by 1585 he owed the crown the sum of £8,000. The queen was unyielding, and it was only through the intercession of the earl of Leicester and Lord Burghley that he was allowed to take out a mortgage on his property to offset the repayments. In July 1586 he went to the Netherlands, where Leicester appointed him marshal of the army. He was wounded in the stomach during the campaign, recovered in time to take part in the battle at Zutphen, and returned to England with Leicester in 1587. Having taken the waters in Bath in the company of the earl of Warwick, he went back to Holland in the autumn of 1587, but died soon after landing at Flushing on 24 November.
Pelham married first Eleanor (d. 1574), daughter of Henry Neville, 5th earl of Westmorland. They had one son, William, who succeeded him. His second wife was Dorothy, daughter of Anthony Catesby of Whiston, Northamptonshire, and widow of Sir William Dormer; they had a son, Peregrine, and a daughter, Ann.