Authorised form of nameWilliamson; Sir; Joseph (1633 - 1701); government official
Dates1633 - 1701
Place of birthBridekirk, near Cockermouth, Cumberland, England, Europe
Date of birth25 July 1633
Place of deathCobham Hall, Kent, England, Europe
Date of death3 October 1701
Dates and placesBaptism:
Parish church of Bridekirk, Cumberland, England, Europe (4 August 1633)
Duke of Richmond's vault in King Henry VII's chapel, Westminster Abbey, London, England, Europe (14 October 1701)
OccupationGovernment official, diplomat, politician
Research fieldAntiquities
St Bees free grammar school, Cumberland; Westminster School (1648); Queen's College, Oxford; BA (1654), MA (1657); tutored in natural philosophy and chemistry by Peter Stael at Oxford; Incorporated at Cambridge (1659); Middle Temple, honorary call to bar (1664); Lincoln's Inn, honorary member (1672); DCL (1674)
Clerk to Richard Tolson, MP for Cockermouth; travelled in France and the Low Countries as tutor to young gentlemen (1655-1658); Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford (1658-1679); called to the Bar (1664); Founded the 'London Gazette' (1665); Under-secretary to the Secretary of State for the South, Sir Edward Nicholas then Sir Henry Bennett 'Lord Arlington' (1660-1674) imposing strict order on the administrative running of the office and exerting influence through this position; known to have gathered domestic and international intelligence especially on political plots, using a network of spies and infomers and has been described as de facto head of the restoration government's intelligence system (see DNB); Keeper of the King's Library at Whitehall and of the state paper office (1661); Assistant, Royal Adventurers into Africa (1664-1668), Royal African Company (1673, 1675-1677); Commissioner for Lotteries (1665); Commissioner for Assessment for Cumberland and Thetford (1673-1680), for Middlesex (1673-1679), for Westminster (1673-1674, 1679-1680), for Norfolk (1677-1680), and for Kent and Westminster (1689); Commissioner for seizing prohibited goods (1663); Contractor for the Royal Oak Lottery (1664); Editor of the Oxford Gazette, a newsletter which he used to disseminate offical news and government rhetoric (1665); MP for Thetford, Norfolk (1669, 1679, 1681, 1685), for Rochester (1690, 1701), for County Clare (1692), and for Limerick (1695); Clerk of the Council (1672-1674); played a prominant role in The Royal Declaration of Indulgence (1672) which briefly allowed greater religious freedoms in England before being repealed; Joint Plenipotentiary at the Congress at Cologne (1673-1674); Secretary of State (North) (1674-1679); briefly imprisoned in the Tower during the 'Popish plot' for having supposedly excused Catholics from taking oaths of allegiance whilst Secretary of State (1678); released from the Tower by order of Charles II but was soon after replaced as Secretary of State; Lord of the Admiralty (1674-1679); Privy Councillor (1674-1679, 1696-death); Assistant, Royal Fisheries (1677); Irish Privy Council (1680-1685, 1692-1696); Recorder of Thetford (1682); Joint Plenipotentiary at the peace conference in Rijswijk (Ryswick, 1697); Ambassador at the Hague (1697-1699); held antiquarian interests including in the ages of bibilical figures; a lover of music; benefactor of Queen's College, Oxford to which he bequeathed his library as well as funding buildings, including one designed by Christopher Wren FRS; bequeathed money to build a free school for boys at Rochester which is still called 'Sir Joseph Williamson's Mathematical School' .
Kt 1672
Clothworkers' Company (Master 1675-1677)
Membership categoryOriginal Fellow
Date of election20/05/1663
Age at election29
ProposerThomas Povey
Royal Society activityRoyal Society roles:
Council: 1666; Secretary 1676; PRS 1677-1680; VP: 1686-?
Committee and panels:
Correspondence Committee (1664); Committee for the Improving the English language (1664)
Other Royal Society activityPlaced diplomatic channels at the Society's disposal for the transmission of foreign letters; Involved in attempts to procure His Majesty's grant for Chelsea College and pledged £50; this project never came to fruition; Involved in the possible press to print books after a certain number of subscribers to the Society (1676); The Society's shares in the East India Company were transferred to Williamson, along with Herbert, Pitfield, and Creed; Left a legacy of £200 to the Royal Society
RelationshipsParents: Joseph Williamson and Agnes Bowman
Married: Catherine O'Brien, Baroness Clifton
Brother-in-law: Charles Stuart, 3rd Duke of Richmond
Children: Joseph Hornsby (possibly; illegitimate)
General contextJoseph Williamson was a founding member, stockholder and assistant of the The Royal Adventurers into Africa, later Royal African Company (RAC). The RAC was a British trading company established by Royal Charter in 1660 which enslaved and sold African people. The company was chartered by Charles II, the founding royal Patron of the Royal Society, which was also chartered in 1660. The RAC was made up of and funded by members of the Stuart royal family and London merchants many of whom were, or went on to become, Fellows of the Royal Society. The Royal Society itself held shares in the company until 1699. The RAC held a monopoly on English trade on the west coast of Africa. The original interest of the company was gold and other natural resources. The Company's second charter in 1663 mentions trade in enslaved people, who were mainly transported to British owned estates in the West Indies and America. The Jesus College Cambridge Legacy of Slavery Working Party has stated that the RAC was responsible for selling more Africans into slavery in America than any other institution in the history of the Atlantic slave trade, and that they ran a brutal regime with the full knowledge of their investors. The company became insolvent in 1708, it survived until 1752 when its assets were transferred to the new African Company of Merchants, which lasted until 1821.

Prior to his removal from the position of Secretary of State, Williamson faced arrest on his alleged involvement in the 'Popish Plot', but was released on the order of Charles II. His political career began to fail, in particular following his advantageous marriage to Baroness Clifton in 1679, which was heavily criticised by many due to his marrying into aristocracy.
Related imagesDiscover a selection of related images in our picture library

Williamson P.jpg

Bulloch's Roll; ODNB; Venn; Foster; Davies; Henning
Michael Hunter, 'The Social Bias and Changing Fortunes of an Early Scientific Institution: An Analysis of the Membership of the Royal Society, 1660-1685', NR 1976-7 vol 31 pp 9-114
A. Marshall, 'Sir Joseph Williamson and the conduct of administration in Restoration England', Historical Research, 1996 vol 69 pp 18-41
Mark Govier, 'The Royal Society, Slavery and the Island of Jamaica: 1660-1700', NR 1999 vol 53 pp 203-217
The election date is Williamson's re-election date into the Society after the grant of the second charter in April 1663. All Fellows admitted in a two-month window after this charter, until 22 June 1663, are considered Original Fellows. He was previously admitted into the Society on 5 February 1662.
Associated material:
Correspondence of Joseph Williamson from various repositories is listed in the Early Modern Letters Online catalogue
'Sir Joseph Williamson 1633-1701: the loyal Queensman and great benefactor' online version of a 2011 exhbition by the Queen's College, Oxford (, accessed 19 May 2021)
Virtual International Authority File
Royal Society codeNA8408
Archives associated with this Fellow
Reference numberTitleDate
CLP/19/81Paper, enquiries for Joseph Williamson[1673]
NLB/62/308Copy letter from Francis Alexander Towle, Assistant Secretary of the Royal Society; to Lady Evans20 January 1922
MS/390/23Bond of Sir Joseph Williamson to the Treasurer of the Royal Society26 November 1674
CLP/24/72/3Drawing, Observations of stars and comets17/27 March 1667
DM/5/101A list of benefactors to the Museum, to the value of £5 or upwards at one time c.1737
IM/004936Williamson, Sir Josephnd
P/0143Portrait of Williamson, Sir Joseph
IM/004937Williamson, Sir Josephnd
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