Henry Villiers: Colonel, Governor, Justice and Smuggler

My third historical novel, The Running Wolf, is based on the Shotley Bridge swordmakers who defected from Solingen, Germany in 1687. It focuses on Hermann Mohll, who was imprisoned in 1703 after smuggling a large number of swords from Solingen into England. During my research, I uncovered some archive documents that have not so far been considered in any of the existing books and articles about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers.

3-d cover for The Running Wolf with a black background and gold lettering. The 'o' of Wolf is a pool of molten gold with an etched wolf running across it. Above, a dutch warship sails beneath a starry sky and above is a sunray of 9 swords. The spine is gold with white lettering and shows a small running wolf.
The Running Wolf  by Helen Steadman

I was particularly interested in Hermann Mohll’s sword-smuggling antics, how he came to be freed from gaol in 1704, what happened to the smuggled swords and whether he was working with the Jacobite rebels. As well as uncovering this cache of documents, I also made a suspicious link between Mohll and one of the justices at his trial, Colonel Henry Villiers, which may indicate they were in cahoots with one another, and also potentially with the Jacobite rebels.

Who was Henry Villiers?

Colonel Henry Villiers was Governor of Tynemouth Castle, the man first in possession of the blades smuggled by Hermann Mohll, and one of the justices at Mohll’s trial in 1704. Villiers was a highly influential man, and a member of the powerful Villiers family, who had a great many close royal connections with the Stuarts, which are set out below.

The Villiers Family

Henry Villiers’ background and family connections warrant a mention because they may shed light on Mohll’s release from prison.

Great Uncle: George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham

Henry Villiers’ great-uncle was George Villiers, the 1st Duke of Buckingham. George was a noted favourite of both Charles I and James I, as well as an alleged lover of the latter, who used his popularity at court to gain favour for his family, with many of them given high-ranking positions, and possibly due to the Duke’s influence, his half-brother Edward was knighted in 1616.[1], [2], [3]

Father: Sir Edward Villiers of Richmond

Henry’s father was Sir Edward Villiers of Richmond, Knight Marshal of the Household and later, Governor of Tynemouth Castle. He served in the army under Charles II as Lieutenant Colonel in the Life Guards,[4] held the same post under James II, and notably, was on duty at Whitehall Palace when King James II fled for France following the Glorious Revolution of 1688.[5]

Mother: Frances Howard, governess to Queen Anne

His mother was Frances Howard, (youngest daughter of Theophilus Howard, second earl of Suffolk), who was governess to James II’s daughters, Mary and Anne, both of whom subsequently became queens of England.[6] So dedicated was Villiers’ mother to Queen Anne that she died of smallpox in 1677, after caring for Princess Anne when she was quarantined with that disease as a child. [7]

Cousin: Barbara Villiers, First Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine

Henry’s first cousin, Barbara Villiers, First Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine, a Catholic convert, was a mistress of King Charles II, and bore him several children, who were acknowledged and given titles. Despite protests from the king’s wife, Catherine of Braganza, Barbara became a Lady of the Bedchamber.

According to Samuel Pepys, Barbara petitioned the king to have the 1st Duke of Buckingham freed from imprisonment in the Tower of London to the extent that she was at odds with the king, who reputedly called her ‘a whore, and a jade that meddled with things she had nothing to do with at all’; despite this, the Duke was freed and good relations were restored.[8]

Brother: Edward Villiers, 1st Earl of Jersey, Secretary of State, and Lord Chamberlain

Henry’s brother, Edward, despite having a Catholic wife, was heavily involved with Queen Mary and William III, and accompanied Mary to her wedding. He was employed in many government roles, ultimately rewarded by being made the first Earl of Jersey and Secretary of State for the southern department, and then Lord Chamberlain.

Edward fared less well under Queen Anne, and was dismissed in 1704, although the Earl of Nottingham protested on his behalf. Later, he was considered for a role in the Admiralty, but was blocked by Queen Anne due to being ‘actively involved in Jacobite plots’.[9]

Sister: Elizabeth Villiers, Countess of Orkney, Maid of Honour to Queen Mary and mistress to William III

Henry’s sister, Elizabeth Villiers, was Maid of Honour to Queen Mary and mistress to William III, which was a source of some distress to Queen Mary. William gave her lands in Ireland that had belonged to James II and arranged her marriage. In 1695, she married the Earl of Orkney, George Hamilton (two of whose soldiers were on board the warship with Mohll during his sword-smuggling venture).[10]

There is correspondence from Colonel Nathaniel Hooke, a Jacobite agent working in the French court, which implicates the Earl of Orkney. In his memo to M. de Torcy of 29 September 1706, Hooke describes meeting Orkney overseas during the War of the Spanish Succession; Orkney told Hooke where his quarters were and promised that he could rely on Orkney being his friend; Orkney also loaned Hooke some horses to get his people to Douay.[11]

There is also evidence of Hooke, in dealings with Orkney’s brother, the 4th Duke of Hamilton, as Hooke stated that he had asked a French ship’s captain to take him to see Hamilton and to wait until he had received his answer.[12]

Colonel Henry Villiers in the dock

Smuggling was widespread in England in the early eighteenth century, but even so, this is a surprising legal case. This time, Villiers appears, not as justice, but as defendant.

In 1705, Villiers was implicated in smuggling, alongside an Aberdonian, Captain Thomas Gordon. Treasury documents reveal Villiers was charged with smuggling brandy, white wine, pepper, linen, doeskin and Scottish plaid, after a servant, Thomas Forrest, disgruntled at his paltry payment of eighteen pence for his part in this smuggling operation and perhaps to bargain his way out of his impressment aboard a naval ketch, informed on Villiers.[13],[14]

Parliamentary records show it took only fifteen minutes to convict Villiers, and he was fined £536 and 16 shillings (for context, his pay was £70 per annum).[15],[16] . He died soon after and it is not apparent whether the fine was paid.[17],[18] In any event, by royal warrant, his widow and four children continued to receive £15 annually from the civil list.[19]

A Family Business?

Villiers’ sister, Elizabeth, was married to George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney, two of whose soldiers sailed with Mohll on the dutch warship, the Eufro Angelique.[20] Given that Villiers’ partner in crime, Captain Thomas Gordon, ran regular convoys from Orkney to Tynemouth, it is not impossible that Villiers’ sister and brother-in-law were involved. While not proven, the goods were likely smuggled from Scotland, rather than France, since the 1703 Scottish Wine Act permitted French wine to be imported into Scotland, whereas it was not permitted in England.[21]

Managing to ‘lose’ ten French prisoners

Aside from smuggling, there is further evidence of Gordon and Villiers working together. Gordon had orders in September 1704 to transport French prisoners from Leith in Scotland into Villiers’ keeping at Tynemouth Castle; subsequently, ten escaped, and although they were later shown to have passes, parliament debated this matter for some time.[22]

Captain Thomas Gordon, later Admiral and then Governor of Kronstadt

At the time of his conviction alongside Villiers, Gordon captained the Royal Mary while convoying between Tynemouth and Orkney, and ‘In June, July and August, 1705, Captain Gordon was at Tynemouth running on shore from the Royal Mary, for his friend Colonel Villiers the governor, supplies of French wines and other dutiable goods.’[23] While there is a connection between Villiers and Mohll, there is none documented between Gordon and Mohll, with the former most likely in Italy at the time of the latter’s return from Solingen. In July 1703, Gordon borrowed the Royal Mary to deliver fish to Italy and was not due back until April 1704; however, when agreeing to lend him the ship, Queen Anne asked Gordon to return it sooner, and it was back for recommission in March 1704.[24]

Despite Gordon’s smuggling and controversial treatment of French prisoners, following his capture of an Ostend privateer near Fraserburgh in 1705, he was promoted to commander in November 1705 and received a mark of royal favour as set out in a letter from Queen Anne in 1707.[25]

According to Grant, Gordon was not averse ‘to putting the telescope to his blind eye’ when a French ship fetched Jacobite agents to Scotland and one of them, Nathaniel Hooke (involved in preparations for the aforementioned 1708 Enterprise of Scotland), listed the signals agreed between Gordon and the captain of the ship he was travelling on.[26] Hooke asked the French ship’s captain to avoid the area until he received an answer from James Hamilton, 4th Duke of Hamilton (Orkney’s brother, and imprisoned for his involvement in the Enterprise of Scotland); when no answer came, Hooke decided to depart.[27] Hooke also refers to the Countess of Erroll winning over Gordon to the extent that he gave her notice of his arrival and there is a letter from Gordon to her, advising ‘From thence I design for Newcastle. If your Ladyship has any service for me there, honour me with your commands, which shall be punctually observed.’[28]

Grant argues this might be ‘a typical case of the common practice of Scotsmen in those days giving hostages to fortune on both sides.’[29] However, in 1716, Gordon resigned after refusing to take the oath of allegiance to George I and in 1717 took a commission from Czar Peter the Great as Admiral in the Russian Navy,[30] ultimately becoming Governor of Kronstadt.[31] Between 1725 and 1728, Gordon is listed under Stuart Diplomatic Appointments as receiving ‘full powers in blank’,[32] and there is considerable correspondence between Gordon and the Old Pretender.[33]


These connections between Colonel Henry Villiers and Hermann Mohll, the Stuart family, and Captain Thomas Gordon, combined with Villiers’ conviction for two episodes of smuggling, call into question the ease with which Hermann Mohll seems to have escaped from possible accusations of high treason.

Mohll was released from prison after the Earl of Nottingham, Queen Anne’s secretary of state, wrote to the justices in charge of the trial, saying Mohll could be acquitted, but ultimately left it up to the local justices to decide – one of whom was Henry Villiers…

Further reading

The contents of this article are based on my research findings, and the version of record is published in Northern History, September 2020, a Taylor & Francis journal at https://doi.org/10.1080/0078172X.2020.1802548. If you don’t have an academic library membership, it can be very expensive to buy or borrow this article. The publishers have given me permission to share the article on my own website, and you can access a copy of it here.

Cover of Northern History journal. Navy blue background with white text, shows a map of the seven northern counties of England.
Northern History journal


[1] David M Bergeron, King James and Letters of Homoerotic Desire (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press) p. 98.

[2] Andrew Thrush, ‘Villiers, Sir Edward’ in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2008 [2004]) <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/28288&gt;.

[3] Charles Harding Firth, ‘Villiers, George, first Duke of Buckingham (1592–1628)’ in Sidney Lee (ed), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Volume XX (New York & London: The Macmillan Company & Smith, Elder & Co., 1909). pp. 327–346.

[4] It is worth noting that Benjamin Stone, an English cutler who worked with the Solingen swordmakers at Hounslow later became Quartermaster of the Lifeguard of Foot of Charles I (see Leslie Southwick, p. 31).

[5]  John MacDonald, Historical Records of the British Army: The Second Dragoon Guards, Or Queen’s Bays, (London: Clowes & Sons, 1836), pp. 10, 89.

[6] Horatio A. Adamson ‘The Villiers Family as Governors of Tynemouth Castle and Owners of the Lighthouse’ in Archaelogia Aeliana Vol XXV. (Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Society of Antiquaries, 1903). p. 11.

[7] Edward Gregg, Queen Anne (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), p. 17.

[8] Samuel Pepys, The Diary of Samuel Pepys, entry dated 12 July 1667 <https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1667/07/12/&gt;.

[9] Herbert Eustace Maxwell, ‘Villiers, Edward, first Earl of Jersey (1656–171)’ in Sidney Lee (ed), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Volume XX (New York & London: The Macmillan Company & Smith, Elder & Co., 1909), pp. 325–326.

[10]Thomas Secome, ‘Villiers Elizabeth, Countess of Orkney (1657?–1733)’ in Sidney Lee (ed), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Volume XX (New York & London: The Macmillan Company & Smith, Elder & Co., 1909). pp. 326–327.

[11] William Dunn Macray, Correspondence of Colonel N. Hooke, Agent from the Court of France to the Scottish Jacobites, in the Years 1703–1707, Edited from Transcripts I the Bodleian Library (London: Roxburghe Club, 1871, pp. 70, 79. 

[12] James Grant, The Old Scots Navy from 1689 to 1710, Publications of the Navy Records Society, 44, (London: Navy Records Society, 1913–14), pp. 51, 255, 257, 266, 294–295, 314, 316–317, 346–347.

[13] Joseph Redington, Calendar of Treasury Papers, Volume 3, 1702–1707: Volume 97, (London: HMSO, 1705), pp. 402– 407.

[14] Redington, Calendar of Treasury Papers, pp. 402–07.

[15] Adamson, ‘The Villiers Family’, pp. 15–26.

[16] Grant, p. 255.

[17] Adamson, pp.15–26.

[18] Grant, p.255.

[19] William A. Shaw, Calendar of Treasury Papers, Volume 22, 1708 : Queen’s Warrant Book XXIII (London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1952), p.458.

[20] Weil, Rachel, ‘Villiers Elizabeth, Countess of Orkney (1657?–1733)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (2013) <https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/28290&gt; [accessed 29 August 2019].

[21] Records of the Parliament of Scotland, ‘Act allowing the importation of wines and other foreign liquors’ <https://www.rps.ac.uk/trans/1703/5/200&gt; [accessed 28 August 2019].

[22] Grant, pp. 285–316.

[23] Grant, p.255.

[25] Grant, pp.285–316.

[26] Grant, pp.350–51.

[27] Grant, pp.317.

[28] Grant, pp.346–47.

[29] Grant, pp.316–17.

[30] Grant, pp.51, 251–57, 266, 294–95, 314, 316–17, 346–47.

[31] Grant, p.235.

[32] Cyprian Bridge, The Russian Fleet Under Peter the Great, (London: Navy Records Society, 1899), pp. 56, 62, 90.

[33] Melville Henry Massue, The Jacobite Peerage, (Edinburgh: T.C. & E.C. Jack, 1904), p.233.

[34] Historical Manuscripts Commission, Reports on the Manuscripts of The Earl of Eglinton, Sir J. Stirling Maxwell, Bart., C.S.H. Drummond Moray, Esq., C.F. Weston Underwood, Esq., and G. Wingfield Digby, Esq. (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1885), pp.157–99.

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