When we use the term ‘House of Windsor’ nowadays, we’re referring to the royal family, who adopted this name in 1917, thereby celebrating their long-standing association with Windsor Castle. However, back in the early 17th century, the ruling dynasty was the House of Stuart, and the Windsors were a family of reclusive Catholic peers. By coincidence, they also took their name from the famous fortress, since they were descended from Walter fitz Other, castellan of Windsor during the reign of William the Conqueror. Andrew Windsor, keeper of the Great Wardrobe to Henry VIII, was created Baron Windsor of Bradenham in 1529, but his heirs fell out of favour during Elizabeth I’s reign due to their staunch Catholicism. Edward, 3rd Lord Windsor even went into self-imposed exile, dying in Venice in 1575.
By the time the 3rd Lord’s grandson, Thomas Windsor, inherited the barony in 1605, the family were living quietly at Hewell Grange, in Worcestershire. Still only 13, the new 6th Lord Windsor faced an immediate financial crisis, since his father died leaving debts of at least £15,000 (equivalent to several million pounds today). This heavy burden was partially resolved by an Act of Parliament the following year, authorizing the partial sale of his lands. Windsor then sought to improve his social standing by marrying a daughter of Edward Somerset, 4th earl of Worcester, a fellow Catholic but also an influential Jacobean courtier. Unfortunately for Windsor, he proved unable to benefit from this alliance due to a serious illness contracted shortly before his marriage. The nature of this disease has never been established, but the baron himself blamed it on sorcery practiced by one of his Worcestershire neighbours, the notorious astrologer and quack physician John Lambe. Some years later, Lambe was prosecuted for ‘bewitching the Lord Windsor’s implement’, apparently a euphemism for his genitals, and the implication of impotency is indeed borne out by Windsor’s childless marriage.
Whatever the true cause of Windsor’s condition, it was clearly debilitating. In 1618 he complained to his father-in-law of long-term pain and weakness in his right side that was exacerbated by physical exertion, and which was often so severe that he had to shut himself away even from his immediate family. Nevertheless, the symptoms abated at intervals, allowing Windsor to indulge his taste for foreign travel, which reputedly took him to France, Italy and the Low Countries. His financial position had clearly improved by the time he reached adulthood, since such excursions were expensive, and he also acquired a reputation as a connoisseur, collecting books, paintings, coins and antiquities.
In 1623, it finally looked as though Windsor’s career was about to take off. The heir to the throne, Prince Charles (the future Charles I), had recently travelled to Spain in an ill-judged bid to win the hand of the Infanta Maria. At first the marriage negotiations seemed to go well, and in April a fleet of ships was made ready to bring Charles and his bride back to England. In a nod to the Infanta’s religion, three prominent Catholics were appointed to command this expedition: Francis Manners, 6th earl of Rutland; Henry Parker, 14th Lord Morley; and Windsor himself, who was named as rear-admiral. Recognising the significance of this opportunity, Windsor pushed the boat out in more ways than one, travelling in style, providing lavish hospitality for the grandees he encountered in Spain, and reportedly spending as much as £15,000 during the course of the trip. Sadly, this proved to be a poor investment, as the prince returned empty-handed, the wedding was called off, and war with Spain soon followed. Windsor found himself roundly mocked for his extravagant display, being dismissed as a fool even by Charles’s court jester. As one contemporary diarist noted, Windsor and his two colleagues were soon ‘almost out of heart to receive any great recompense for their great cost and gay clothes’.
Indeed, for Windsor himself, things quickly went from bad to worse. The war against Spain became the pretext for renewed persecution of English Catholics. In 1626 he was stripped of his local offices, and suffered the indignity of having his private arsenal confiscated. Using his medical problems as a pretext, he withdrew from public life, and spent the last fifteen years of his life largely in retirement, finally dying in 1641.
Because Windsor had no children of his own, his barony fell into abeyance at his death. However, it was revived in 1660 for his nephew, Thomas Windsor alias Hickman, who was later also created earl of Plymouth. The family line has continued down to the present day, and despite a few twists and turns in the succession, the Windsor-Clives still hold the earldom of Plymouth, besides being viscounts Windsor. And in a nod to their distant ancestor, the castellan of Windsor, and maintaining a tradition begun in the late 17th century, successive generations of Windsors and Windsor-Clives have also borne the baptismal name of ‘Other’.
Biographies of the 6th Lord Windsor, the 4th earl of Worcester, the 6th earl of Rutland and the 14th Lord Morley will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming publication on the House of Lords 1604-1629. For an account of the 1st earl of Plymouth, see our volumes on the House of Lords 1660-1715 (Cambridge University Press, 2016).