Though little information exists about the early life of Sir William Cornwallis, we do know he was the eldest son of Charles Cornwallis of Norfolk; that he was well educated, possibly at Oxford; that he married Katherine Parker in 1595 and had eleven children (three of whom died young); and we know his father supported him financially most of his life. William Cornwallis was knighted during the 1599 Essex expedition to Ireland, and shortly afterward began writing regularly. He wrote poetry and prose, as well as political essays, and became friend with John Donne, and others. With financial support from his father ever-present, Cornwallis spent extravagantly, and dedicated much of his time to making a name for himself at court. However, when his father's fortune came under dispute, rather than doing all he could do protect his father's interests, Cornwallis ignored his responsibilities at court, and turned his back on his father.
Of his son's financial woes, Charles Cornwallis wrote: "Of all sorts of people, I most despair of those of his sort, that are philosophers in their words and fools in their works [spelling and grammar updated]." Amid the familial and financial problems that plagued Cornwallis his entire adulthood, he continued to write. He published Essayes Part I, in 1600, and Part II in 1601, and an enlarged form of both in 1610. Several works were published posthumously, including Essayes, or rather Encomions,, Prayses of Sadnesse , and Of the Emperour Julian the Apostata,, published between 1614 and 1617.
One English biographer wrote, "No one can justly claim that he is among the great essayists, but...historically he is the first of the familiar essayists in our literature, and among the confusion of the religious and political writing of the day, it is a welcome relief to linger with one who strove, however imperfectly, to express his better self in the medium which he perceived to be specially suited to that purpose."
(Compiled by Joey Franklin)