Sir Richard Willys, 1614-90
Fought for the King during the English Civil War and joined the Sealed Knot conspiracy ring during the 1650s. For unknown reasons, he became an informant to the Protectorate government.
The second son of a lawyer of Fen Ditton in Cambridgeshire, Richard Willys was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1631 but preferred to follow a military career. He enlisted in the Dutch service and took part in the siege of Breda (1637) before returning to serve King Charles I against the Scots in the Bishops' Wars (1639-40). During the turbulent period leading to the outbreak of the English Civil War, Willys served under Sir Thomas Lunsford in the King's Guard at Whitehall.
Civil War Service
Willys was knighted for his gallant conduct during a cavalry skirmish near Shrewsbury in October 1642. He was commissioned colonel of a cavalry regiment under Lord Grandison and was taken prisoner with him when Sir William Waller captured Winchester in December 1642. Both Grandison and Willys were accused of breaking their parole when they escaped and returned to the King's service. In 1643, Willys was commissioned major-general to Lord Capel in Cheshire and Shropshire but was again taken prisoner during a Parliamentarian raid at Ellesmere in January 1644. After languishing for nine months in the Tower of London, Willys was exchanged and joined Prince Rupert in the west.
In May 1645, Willys was appointed governor of the vital stronghold of Newark in Nottinghamshire. Within weeks of his appointment, the Royalists suffered a major defeat at the battle of Naseby, which was followed by Prince Rupert's dismissal from the King's service for his surrender of Bristol. King Charles arrived at Newark in October 1645. Two weeks later, Rupert approached, determined to confront the King over his dismissal. In defiance of the King's wishes, Willys rode out with Lord Gerard and other officers to welcome the Prince. In the stormy scenes that followed, Willys was replaced as governor of Newark by Lord Belasyse, whom he at once challenged to a duel. The King intervened to keep them apart and Willys eventually withdrew with Rupert and the rest of the Prince's supporters. Like Rupert, Willys was eventually reconciled to the King. He was formally pardoned in April 1646 and created baronet in June. Willys went abroad after the final defeat of the Royalist cause. He did not return to England until 1652.
Conspirator & Double Agent
Around November 1653, Willys became involved with the Sealed Knot, a secret group of Royalist conspirators commissioned by the exiled Charles Stuart to prepare a Royalist uprising against the Protectorate government. Willys's adversary Lord Belasyse was another member of the Sealed Knot and once again they quarrelled bitterly. Willys was one of a number of Royalists arrested in the aftermath of a reckless Royalist plot to assassinate Cromwell (the Gerard plot of May 1654). Although the Sealed Knot had not authorised the plot and Willys was not involved in it, he believed that Belasyse had named him to the authorities. The Sealed Knot proved largely ineffective and urged the postponement of the insurrection that culminated in Penruddock's Uprising of March 1655, which earned the contempt of the more militant Action Party. Willys was imprisoned again in the widespread arrests of Royalists that followed the uprising.
During the latter half of 1656, Willys entered into a secret pact with Cromwell's spymaster John Thurloe to betray details of further plots against the government. The reasons for Willys's treachery are unclear. As he was notoriously short of money, it has been suggested that his motives were financial. It is more likely that he had come to believe that the King's cause was hopeless and that his actions would prevent useless bloodshed. As a condition of his co-operation with Thurloe, he stipulated that no Royalist's life should be endangered as a result of the information he provided.
Early in 1658, Willys informed Thurloe of the Marquis of Ormond's secret visit to London to co-ordinate the activities of Royalist conspirators. However, Willys refused to say where Ormond was lodging and also warned the Marquis that Thurloe's agents were searching for him, which gave him time to escape. Willys continued as Thurloe's agent for three years, apparently arousing no suspicion among his friends and associates. He was finally betrayed to Sir Edward Hyde by Samuel Morland, one of Thurloe's assistants, in July 1659.
At the Restoration in May 1660, Willys was denounced as a traitor and condemned to death. He was subsequently pardoned on condition that he should never come into the King's presence or attend court. He lived quietly at Fen Ditton until his death in 1690.
Godfrey Davies, The Restoration of Charles II, 1658-60 (San Marino 1955)
C.H. Firth, The Last Years of the Protectorate 1656-58 vol. i (London 1909)
Richard Ollard, Sir Richard Willys, first baronet, Oxford DNB, 2004
David Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy in England 1649-60 (New Haven 1960)