RASTELL, John (by 1468-1536), of London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

b. by 1468, s. of Thomas Rastell of Coventry, Warws. educ. ?M. Temple. m. by 1504, Elizabeth, da. of Sir John More of London, 2s. inc. William 2da.1

Offices Held

Coroner, Coventry 1507-9; servant of Sir Edward Belknap by 1512; commr. tenths of spiritualities, Mdx. 1535.2


John Rastell was the son of a leading Coventry citizen and Warwickshire justice of the peace. Although he is said to have been born in London, he was admitted in 1489 to the guild of Corpus Christi, Coventry. He was probably the Rastell mentioned in 1503 as an utter barrister of the Middle Temple, for in his early manhood he was busy with legal affairs in Coventry. The city was a centre of Lollardry and in 1507 Rastell was named overseer in the will of an ex-mayor whose bequests included a ‘bible in English’. It was soon after his term as coroner that Rastell moved permanently to London. His marriage into the More family does not necessarily imply earlier residence there, for the Mores probably had connexions with Coventry, but it is doubtless to be numbered with Coventry’s wide-ranging business interests among the influences which took Rastell to London and afterwards further afield. In London he entered the service of Sir Edward Belknap, whose many charges in the King’s service included the royal works, and thus exchanged the practice of the law for the supervision of carpenters and labourers.3

Rastell’s duties in this capacity included the preparation of state occasions and the entertainment of the King, his guests and the court. In April 1520 he and Clement Armstrong were employed to make and garnish the roofs of the great banqueting hall built at Guisnes for the Field of Cloth of Gold ‘so that no living creature might but joy in the beholding thereof’. These roofs earned high praise from the chronicler Edward Hall I, as did a pageant devised by Rastell two years later for the King and the Emperor on their way to St. Paul’s cathedral, where ‘there was builded a place like heaven, curiously painted with clouds, orbs, stars and hierarchies of angels’ and with ‘a fair lady’ issuing out of the clouds to the playing of minstrels and the voices of the angels. More terrestrial was the pageant called the ‘Father of Heaven’ which Rastell made at Greenwich in 1527 for the reception of the French ambassadors; on this occasion the roof was ‘like a very map or chart’ of ‘the whole earth environed with the sea’. Rastell’s combination of artistic creativeness with enthusiasm for geography may have owed something to his brother-in-law Thomas More. It was not long after the publication of Utopia in 1516 that Rastell set off in the Barbara of Greenwich on a voyage of discovery to North America. The expedition was thwarted by his seamen, who refused to go further than Waterford: he went ashore there and may have spent the next two years in Ireland. His advocacy of exploration and interest in pageantry were in turn served by his main occupation from about 1512, that of printing; the most famous of his printer’s devices shows the Father of Heaven, the Merman and the Mermaid, the heavenly bodies, and under all the Four Elements. Memories of the medieval pageants of Coventry probably coloured Rastell’s literary projects, but the influence most evident at the beginning of his printing venture was his legal training. He embarked on an ambitious scheme of law-printing, employing the small secretary type which he had seen in use at Rouen: in 1516 he completed La Grande Abbregement de le Ley by Anthony Fitzherbert, recorder of Coventry. Among important non-legal books which he printed were The Mery Gestys of the Widow Edith (1525), The Hundred Mery Talys (1526) and Necromantia(n.d.).4

Rastell’s first press was at ‘the Abbot of Winchcombe’s place’ by the Fleet bridge; later he had a shop on the south side of St. Paul’s and finally, in 1519, he moved to Paul’s Gate in Cheapside. He also acquired a country residence: in January 1515 he leased a house at Monken Hadley, near High Barnet and not far from Sir John More’s. There he did a considerable amount of building, clearing and planting, and ‘entertained Master Cromwell ... at a shooting, running and other games’. In 1524 he leased more land and built himself a house in Finsbury Fields, where he erected the earliest recorded Tudor stage. His property involved Rastell in much litigation, an activity to which he seems to have been prone. In October 1515 Belknap secured for him a grant of the lands and goods of the heretic Richard Hunne and the wardship of Hunne’s two daughters; Rastell undertook to pay the crown the girls’ dowry but he defaulted on this payment and in May 1523 Hunne’s property and Rastell’s deeds and debts were granted to another, although in 1529 he was probably still in possession of the estate.5

From soon after 1526 Rastell was printing works of his own authorship which give him an important place in the history of Tudor drama. Two plays, Of gentylnes and nobylyte and The IIII Elements, may with fair certainty be attributed to him, while a third, Calisto and Melibea, shows signs of his workmanship. The purpose of The IIII Elements is to awaken interest in natural science and discovery. In Of gentylnes and nobylyte, largely a dialogue between a ploughman and a knight, the evils of inheritance are attacked and it is argued that nobility is not a matter of birth. Both plays present the notion of the ‘commonweal’, and the third, Calisto and Melibea, concludes with a moralizing address on his other theme, that natural knowledge and reason are aids to, not enemies of, religion. Rastell’s chronicle The pastyme of people (1529) is a paraphrase of Fabyan’s, but it includes comments which imply a view of Wolsey akin to Edward Hall’s. Like Hall, Rastell looked for improvement to King, Parliament and good laws; he had particular praise for the statutes of Edward I and also showed interest in the history of coinage and the changing value of money. His interests and ideas well qualified Rastell for election to the Parliamant summoned in the autumn of 1529, when Wolsey’s power was broken and opposition to him erupted. Several weeks before the Parliament opened Wolsey lost the chancellorship to More, who probably utilized his new authority to procure his brother-in-law’s return for a borough in Cornwall with which Rastell had no personal links: a possible intermediary was Bishop Veysey of Exeter, who as a native of Sutton Coldfield may well have known Rastell. Rastell was to prove a most active and enthusiastic Member. He first inclined to moderation in his views and eschewed those of the reforming party: he published More’s Dialogue on a number of contemporary issues including the veneration of images, and in 1530 he came to More’s aid with A new boke of Purgatory, in which he defended the doctrine by ‘natural reason and good philosophy’. It was a visit to France, perhaps to canvass support for the King’s divorce, that led to his conversion and to a break with More and his circle. A bill drafted in 1531 calling for the bible in English, and deriving from Christopher St. German (like Rastell a Middle Templar), has been associated with Rastell, who may have been its advocate in the Commons. Two years later a bill to set up an office ‘for the true making of legal instruments’ in London named Rastell and another lawyer as the first holders of the appointment, but nothing came of this.6

The most interesting glimpse of Rastell in the Commons is connected with its discussion of the treasons bill of 1534. This was a measure in which he could hardly fail to have been especially interested, whether as a professed student of the law or as the brother-in-law of its greatest potential victim, and such an interest found fitting expression in his appearance on a list of Members which Cromwell compiled at the time and which may indicate the proposed or actual composition of a committee on the bill. The probability that Rastell was thus closely involved with the measure adds significance to what his son, Judge William Rastell, was later to write about the opposition to it in the Commons and the insistence that the word ‘maliciously’ should be inserted as a qualification necessary to make words treasonable; it is likely that the younger Rastell was here drawing upon his father’s testimony. Not that John Rastell can have been an outright opponent of the bill, for by this time he had both embraced Protestantism and attached himself to Cromwell.7

In the spring of 1535 he went daily to the London Charterhouse to convert the monks, who treated his visits with derision. He submitted to Cromwell a book compiled with the help of Francis Bigod and others, ‘for a charge to be given at sessions by the justices for the instruction of the learned as well as for the people at large to withdraw all confidence from the pope’. This Cromwell returned for revision, but apparently in an encouraging way, for Rastell then urged that at least 10,000 copies should be printed and that he should be given a monopoly. Claiming that he had ‘leaned’ towards Cromwell ‘more than any other of the King’s Council this four or five years’, during which he had spent all his time ‘compiling books in furtherance of the King’s causes and opposing the pope’, he declared that he had a primer of prayers ready for issue, suggested a committee of masters in Chancery to assist the chancellor in matters of heresy and another of learned men to compose sermons for publication, and proposed that ‘before Parliament meets’ pamphlets should be printed against clerical celibacy, the honouring of images and prayers for the dead, and that five bills should be introduced into Parliament against these practices and for the reform of the common law. So radical had his views become by 1536 that they were noted among the heresies which the Pilgrims of Grace wished to suppress.8

It was over the question of the exactions of the clergy, which had brought Hunne to his death, that Rastell’s zeal brought him into conflict with authority. Although a proclamation of February 1535 had ordered the payment of tithes in London under a settlement made by Cranmer between the clergy and the citizens, Rastell denied the clergy’s right to tithes. Brought before Cranmer, he protested that not only were the poor depressed instead of relieved by the curates, ‘but also the rich have [by the payment of tithes] ... a watergate to stop up the plenteousness of their hearts’; in support of his views he ‘sung again his old song of which the archbishop ... was weary’, that is to say, he appealed to ‘the law of nature, of man, and of God’. Perhaps on account of his outspokenness during this examination Rastell was imprisoned and so presumably missed the last session of the Parliament: he was certainly in custody on 20 Apr. 1536, six days after the dissolution, when he made a will providing for his wife and children. He left legacies to Cromwell to enlist his good services and to Chancellor Audley to speed his suit, and to raise money for these bequests he ordered that his books should be sold. He continued:

And because I am most in danger to the King’s grace by bonds and orders of his common law, I make his grace and my poor neighbour Ralph Cressey mine executors not because he is able to match with his most noble grace but because he knoweth many secrets of mine which be necessary for his grace to know.

He was still in prison when Cromwell became lord privy seal on the following 1 July and it was in this capacity that the minister received a letter from Rastell, ‘oppressed by extreme poverty and long imprisonment, forsaken by his kinsmen, destitute of friends’, claiming that he had not offended the King or done anything contrary to law. This was probably Rastell’s farewell utterance for his will was proved on 13 July.9

Rastell had earlier enjoyed some support from Cromwell, with whom and others he had in 1533 shared the grant of mining rights on Dartmoor. The minister also nominated Rastell’s son John to fill the vacancy in Parliament for Tavistock caused by the death of William Honychurch, but his esteem was not sufficient to free Rastell from captivity in 1536.10

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: Alan Harding


  • 1. Date of birth estimated from first reference. This biography draws largely on A. W. Reed, Early Tudor Drama.
  • 2. Dugdale Soc. xix, 14, 172; LP Hen. VIII, i.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, i, iii, iv, viii, xiv; Coventry Leet Bk. (EETS cxxxviii), pp. li, 603, 605, 619; C1/439/10-12, 560/47-48, 1253/20-23.
  • 4. S. Anglo, Spectacle, Pageantry and Tudor Policy, 164-7; ‘The imperial alliance and the entry of the Emperor Charles V into London’, Guildhall Misc. ii. 131-55; LP Hen. VIII, i-iv; J. A. Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots, 244-8; B. Winchester, Tudor Fam. Portrait, 41; C1/562/13, 880/7-9, 883/8; L. W. Abbott, Law Reporting in Eng., 14, 23n, 171.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, iii, vii; C1/560/47-48, 50-51.
  • 6. S. E. Lehmberg, Ref. Parlt. 121-2.
  • 7. LP Hen. VIII, vii. 1522(ii) citing SP1/87, f. 106v; N. Harpsfield, Life of More (EETS clxxxvi), 229; R. W. Chambers, Thomas More, 320.
  • 8. G. R. Elton, Reform and Renewal, 62, 68, 127, 139; Studies in Tudor and Stuart Pol. and Govt., ii. 63-64; Econ. Hist. Rev. xiv. 70-73.
  • 9. Tudor R. Proclamations, ed. Hughes and Larkin, i. 224; LP Hen. VIII, x, xi; PCC 3 Crumwell.
  • 10. LP Hen. VIII, vi, vii, x; SP1/82, f. 59v.