The Amazing Story of Sir William Temple


By Eamonn Casey

“Sleaze corruption and greedy land speculation damaging standards of morality and politics in Ireland.” 

While the above quotation sounds like it could have been printed today, it actually comes from the 16th century in an era when the very pillars of Irish society engaged in such activities. What is more alarming is that it specifically refers to a gentleman decorated by the Crown who would serve as Provost of Trinity college and who gave his name to an area in central Dublin: Sir William Temple. This is his amazing story.

Sir William Temple

Sir William Temple (1555 – 1627), the man who would give his name to the Temple Bar area, led an extraordinary life of great contradictions. At the surface level he appears to be a man of high academic achievement, with puritan religious values showing zealous service to patrons and country, but on a deeper level so William led a life of naked political opportunism, engaging in political plotting and treachery, and accused of treason for tempting to overthrow his Queen. In his business and financial life he was immeasurably corrupt, with constant accusations being levelled against him of financial improprieties, sleaze and constant land speculation.

The Early Years

William Temple was born the son of Leicestershire man Anthony Temple, whose family name was said to descend from The Knights Templar, a once powerful monastic order during the crusades, but which was outlawed by the church during the 14th century and its membership suffer great oppression and hardship in the decades that followed. The rituals and the secrets of the order survived and many of the Knights Templar families came to prominence in 16th century England when Protestantism was embraced.

The young William Temple was a gifted academic who studied at Eton and King’s college, Cambridge, where he secured an MA in Philosophy in 1581. A religious puritan, he became Master of Lincoln Grammar School that same year.

1585: Secretary to Sir Philip Sydney

In 1585 William got his first big break when he was appointed secretary to Sir Philip Sydney and accompanied him to the low countries on his appointment as Governor of Flushing. But his career star which appeared to be ascending rapidly came crashing down to earth within one year when his patron, Sir Philip, died in his arms at the siege of Zutfen in October 1586.

1597: Elected MP for Tamworth

Many years of political obscurity followed for William Temple. By 1594 he had found a new patron when attaching his fortunes to that of Robert Devereux 2nd Earl of Essex, the darling favourite of the ‘virgin queen’ Elizabeth. Through the influence of Devereux, William was elected MP for Tamworth in 1597.

1599: Temple Arrives in Ireland to Rebllion

William Temple’s first sight of Ireland committee landed at Howth in April 1599 to take up his position as secretary to the new Lord lieutenant Robert devereux, and 2nd Earl of Essex.

It was baptism of fire as their first great task was to suppress a major rebellion of the native Irish tribes who had now United with the Anglo Normans. While at Essex campaigned around the country, Temple stayed behind in Dublin that summer relaying news of military deployments and successors to the Royal Court. 

Essex, once Elizabeth’s most trusted confidant and intimate adviser, now became the unappreciated and aligned viceroy falling foul of the aging Queen. Both he and William Temple were ignominiously recalled to London that same autumn.

1601: Treason and Treachery

Back in London, Essex became involved in a failed coup to overthrow the queen in February 1601 in which William Temple was heavily implicated. Temple has bedroom is around London, in an effort to gather support against the monarchy, of a non-existent plot to murder Essex. 

Essex was arrested and charged with treason. Directly before his execution he named William Temple as amongst those who had most actively encouraged him in his treasonous efforts to overthrow the Queen. Temple strenuously denied any knowledge of Essex’s plan when interrogated. By February 26th, 1601, he was under close confinement at the Gatehouse prison and accused of  treason.

The government seemed set on William Temples execution but the chief royal minister, Sir Robert Cecil, spared him and he escaped with a £100 fine and his reputation ruined.

He remained in political obscurity for almost a decade, totally distrusted by the monarchy. But Sir Robert Cecil and Dr William Usher worth together in private and arranged for him to become the fourth Provost of Trinity College in 1609.

Temple Returns to Ireland

On his arrival in Dublin, William Temple pretended he had never been to Ireland before, attempting to conceal his association with Essex 10 years previously. But the Essex connection was to play a huge part in his recall from the political wilderness. While Essex’s secretary, he had performed clandestine services for James the 6th of Scotland home Essex had wanted to replace Elizabeth with. James had now become the King of England, having succeeded the throne on the death of Elizabeth in 1603. 

James’s primary aim was to further progress of the Protestant reformation in Ireland and to achieve his aims is set out by granting large tracts of land in Ulster to Trinity college in order to provide you with the means to train Protestant clergyman. They needed a cunning, ruthless and politically-minded Provost to carry out their plans. William Temple was just the man for the job.

1609: Provost of Trinity College

As an administrator William was a meticulous recordkeeper drying up the first set of statutes for Trinity College, which survived into the 19th century. During the early years he journeyed frequently to London persuading the king to Grant an annual subsidy of £388 to the college.

But even in those early days there was considerable unease with in Trinity about his financial probity. His difficulty was that is annual Provost salary of £100 was insufficient to fill his lifestyle of property acquisitions and lavish family life. In 1610 his decision to lease a large college estate in Ulster for just £600 per atom to James Hamilton, a longtime friend and fellow plotted against the previous monarch, to widespread condemnation and public outrage. Further opposition followed from his academic colleagues when he became MP for Trinity college from 1613 to 1615.

1616: Accusations of Corruption

In London 1616, one of the senior fellows Anthony Martin, brought a series of charges against him including corruption, religious nonconformity and general misgovernance of the college. Not for the first time in his life, William Temple found himself sailing to London to defend his reputation, his family fortunes and his career. 

But on this occasion lady luck was on his side as the college authorities rallied around him to protect its good name. In May 1617 William returned to Ireland triumphantly, having successfully defended his reputation and that of Trinity college.

Land Acquisitions & Corruption

Throughout his years in Trinity college, William continue to purchase and release property around the city of Dublin and beyond. He purchase land and properties oxmantown, chapelizod and Essex Street, and in 1612 purchased a property in the area that is today known as Temple bar. So he resided in the Provost’s seat within the college this became his family townhouse. 

However it was his continued leasing of college property to land speculators that continued to alarm the establishment. In particular his decision to lease college lands to his wife was considered totally corrupt, immoral and unprecedented in respectable English society.

His Legacy

His statutes of Trinity college survive well into the 19th century, but William Temple failed in his primary role of advancing Protestantism as Provost. He refused to encourage the Irish language within Trinity and regard the destruction of the Irish language and culture as a necessary prerequisite to defeating the native Irish way of life. This in effect turned the newly educated Protestant clergy unwilling to minister in Gaelic Ireland, which made a mockery of King James the 6th’s grand plan to eliminate Catholicism and replace it with Protestantism in a complete religious and cultural transformation of Irish society.

On a personal level, Temple’s family dynasty flourished after his demise, particularly with the arrival of Cromwell’s puritan age. His descendants included first Lord of the Admiralty, secretaries of state, Keepers of the Privy Seal, First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, whose name came from the family estate that is now a Dublin village.

His son and grandson both lived from time to time in their City townhouse that is now part of the Temple Bar. The family continued to pay Dublin corporation tax and annual ground rent of £40 for this property for almost 200 years.

Knighthood and Continuing Corruption

For his continued devotion to public service he was knighted Sir William Temple on May 4th 1622. However the charges of financial corruption became ever louder, even for a knight of the realm.

Under continuous pressure to step down as Provost of Trinity eventually agreed to do so in January 1627, but the great survivor was to enjoy one final twist of faith: before his appointed departure, William Temple died in office on January 15th 1627 and was buried in the old chapel near the Provost’s seat. 

At the time of his death, he owed some £450 to the college, equivalent to 4.5 year salary that his family was forced to repay with great difficulty.