Creative Writing, History, Research

Cavaliers and Wheatears: The Wilson’s of Eastbourne

A seventeenth century tale of political intrigue set amidst a Jacobean Mansion with a cast of monarch-loyalists and Cromwell’s parliamentarian dragoons. Meet William and Mary Wilson of Bourne Place, Eastbourne.

William Wilson was born in Eastbourne in 1605, the son of Mary Gardener(1585–1613) and Esq. John Wilson(1565–1640). William was a descendant of Sir Thomas Wilson (1524-1581), Knight, Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I. He married Mary Haddon in 1642 and they had their first son, William (second Baronet of Eastbourne) in 1643. They went on to have another six children – one of whom was kidnapped as an adult by pirates and taken to the West Indies – but more on that later.

Mary Haddon was born in London, also in 1605, the daughter of Francis Haddon (1580-1645) and Judith Carter (1585-1665). Judith Carter remarried on the death of Francis, a man named Dr. Edward Burton, Chaplain to Charles I and Rector of Broadwater (1646-1660). Dr. Burton, of the Eastbourne-Burtons, owned Bourne Place (now Compton Place) and sold the estate to William Wilson and his step-daughter Mary, in 1644.

The Wilson’s seven children were baptised in Eastbourne between 1643-1652. Five sons, William, John, Francis, Thomas and Edward, and two daughters, Judith and Philadelphia.

The Wilson’s lived through the reign of Charles I, the English Civil Wars, the Commonwealth, the Restoration of the Monarchy and the reign of Charles II. They were not just bystanders to the events, their loyalties ensured they were involved in the fray. Confrontations between the monarchy and Parliament over power, authority, religion, finances and taxes brought division to the people of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland; the countries were divided in two: those for the monarchy and those for Parliament

William Wilson, a staunch Royalist, was contacted by Charles I from Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, where he had escaped to from imprisonment in Hampton Court in November 1647. Sir William was asked whether he would be prepared to receive the King in Eastbourne, to which he replied that he would with his fortune and his life. It didn’t come to that though, as King Charles subsequently negotiated a deal with the Scots and they provided him with an army – which led to the second Civil War of 1648.

Here, we sense the nature of the Wilson’s devotion to the crown, a loyalty that was generations-deep. William was prepared to put his own life and the well-being of his family and their fortune behind the needs of the King. He wasn’t on his own in his loyalties either, Dr. Edward Burton, Mary’s stepfather, would later have an unequivocal epitaph etched onto his tomb in Broadwater Church:

“He was always a hater and smiter of Presbytarians”. Dr. Edward Burton, 1660

King Charles I Scots-alliance failed and he was recaptured by the Parliamentarians, put to trial and sentenced to death, and publicly beheaded on 30th January 1649 outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. There followed eleven years of Commonwealth, in which England and Wales, then Ireland and Scotland were governed as a republic, with Oliver Cromwell leading the united Commonwealth from 1653-1658 as Lord Protector.

The same year that Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector by the New Model Army, William Wilson of Bourne Place was made Sheriff of Sussex. We can imagine William’s sympathies lying with the exiled son of Charles I – the future Charles II – who had escaped the country to join his Catholic mother, Henrietta Maria, in France while the Puritan Parliament ruled over the Commonwealth and the moral-laws of its people.

While William Wilson lay seriously ill in bed on Good Friday in 1658, a detachment of dragoons sent by Oliver Cromwell arrived at Bourne Place, ordered to search the house for evidence of a Royalist conspiracy. Though William could do nothing to help himself in this circumstance, Mary swiftly realised the danger and sought to distract the soldiers with a fresh-baked wheatear* pie. While they ate, she hurriedly dashed all William’s incriminating paperwork into a blazing fire. By the time the dragoons were ready to search the house, there was nothing left for them to find.

*Wheatear: Small, ground-dwelling bird common in England and Ireland – winters in Africa.

Oenanthe oenanthe 01 II.jpg
Wheatear (By Philippe Kurlapski)

Later in 1658, Oliver Cromwell died of Malaria at the Palace of Whitehall, in London. The Wilson’s daughter, Philadelphia, studying at a school in Hackney at the time, wrote a letter home to her mother:

I have been to Whitehall to wait on my cousin Gardner, and I saw the Lord Mayor’s show, and by her command we saw the Protector lying in state, which is the most stately sight that I ever did see.”

Philadelphia Wilson, 1658

Charles II was restored to the crown in 1660, much to the delight of the Wilson’s of Bourne Place. In 1661, William Wilson was created Baronet for his loyalty to the Crown, by the title of Willelmus Wilson de Eastborne, Master of Horse to Earl of Suffolk, High Sheriff of Sussex, 1st Baronet of Eastbourne.

Sadly, Mary Wilson died just three months later and was buried in the Church of St. Mary’s, but Sir William Wilson lived on at Bourne Place until his death in 1685, when the estate and title passed onto his eldest son, William. Sir William Senior requested to be buried alongside his wife in the church in Old Town: my chancel, belonging to my house, in the East end of the south aisle of the Parish Church of Eastbourne, at the right hand of my dear and loving wife who lies against the doore.”

Sir William Wilson, 1685

Sir William left a curious clause in his will concerning his son, Thomas, who would not receive his inheritance until “he shall become a civil and orderly person, fit to employ and manage the money”. This is the son who later becomes the subject of a kidnapping plot which sees him sold as a plantation slave in Jamaica. But more on this another day..

I’ll be visiting the current Compton Place in January for a tour, so more on the old Wilson’s house next year.


Researching for a Stuart-era story for the History of Eastbourne storybook has led me down a few rabbit holes but has also brought to life this very interesting tale of a family of loyal royalists caught up in the turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Originally flagged up by Jo (Seaman) in his exhibition The Story of Eastbourne, I’m seeing if I can delve a little deeper into the lives of Mary Wilson, nee Haddon; William Wilson (first Baronet of Eastbourne) and their children; and life in a Jacobean Mansion in seventeenth century Eastbourne.


BUDGEN, W, REV., OLD EASTBOURNE, 1912: P.220-224