ROPER, William (1495/96-1578), of St Dunstan's, Canterbury and Eltham, Kent and Chelsea, Mdx.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 1495/96, 1st s. of John Roper of St. Dunstan’s, Canterbury and Eltham by Jane, da. of Sir John Fineux of Faversham and Herne, Kent; bro. of Christopher. educ. ?Oxf.; L. Inn, adm. 25 Dec. 1518, called 1525. m. lic. 2 July 1521, Margaret, da. of Sir Thomas More of London and Chelsea, 2s. inc. Thomas 3da. suc. fa. 7 Apr. 1524.3
Bencher, L. Inn 1535, gov. 1553-69/70.
Prothonotary, KB 1524-74; j.p. Kent 1526-54, Mdx. 1543-58/59; abp. Canterbury’s steward, Maidstone, Kent by 1535; commr. relief, Mdx. 1550, heresy, diocese of Canterbury 1556, home counties 1557; other commissions 1530-68; steward, Faversham, Kent 1546-66 or later; sheriff, Kent 1554-5.4
William Roper had a legal ancestry on both his parents’ sides. According to tradition he studied at one of the universities, perhaps Oxford where his brother attended Corpus Christi, before entering Lincoln’s Inn. It was probably in 1518 that he joined the household of Sir Thomas More, for in that year he and More shared a fee from the city of London for the ‘making of a book’ and he was to recall his residence in More’s house ‘by the space of 16 years and more’. At the time of his marriage into More’s family Roper was inclined to Lutheranism, and at length became so enthusiastic in his talk that he was charged with heresy before Wolsey, who, out of respect to More, dismissed him with a friendly warning. More himself, after long reasoning with his son-in-law, saw that he was not able to ‘call him home’ by argument and decided to rely on prayer; and Roper, who during this period had taken a dislike to his father-in-law, soon afterwards returned to his faith and his friendship with More. These two loyalties were to shape his life; it is as More’s ‘son Roper’ and hagiographer that he is remembered.5
Roper’s parliamentary career perhaps began in 1523 when More was Speaker, but in the absence of the returns his Membership is uncertain. In 1529 More replaced Wolsey as chancellor shortly before the opening of the new Parliament and presumably he helped Roper to secure election for a Sussex borough controlled by his friend the 3rd Duke of Norfolk: Roper’s partner Henry See was in chambers with him at Lincoln’s Inn. An Act (21 Hen. VIII, c.23) passed in the first session settled the five year-old dispute which the will of Roper’s father had given rise to and established his right to the greater part of the inheritance. Four sessions later, early in 1533, Roper and See were listed by Cromwell as opposed on religious or economic grounds to the bill in restraint of appeals then passing through Parliament. In the next session, when More was directly threatened by a bill to attaint him and others of misprision of treason in concealing the activities of the nun of Kent, it was to Roper, meeting him in the Parliament house, that Cromwell gave the message that More’s name had been taken out of the bill. The respite was shortlived. Roper was doubtless among those of the Commons who in the autumn of 1534 ‘stuck’ to have the word ‘maliciously’ inserted into the Act (26 Hen. VIII, c.13) making it treason to deny the royal supremacy, in the hope of limiting its scope, but their stand was to avail nothing, and in July 1535 More was executed. Roper may have served for Bramber again in the following Parliament, that of June 1536, when the King asked for the return of the previous Members, and possibly for a third time in 1539, a Parliament for which the names of the Members are lost: his Membership in 1539 receives some colour from the inclusion of his name in the preamble to the Act for changing the custom of gavelkind (31 Hen. VIII, c.3) passed during the first session of that Parliament.6
Roper’s career did not apparently suffer by his father-in-law’s fate. He continued to be prothonotary of the King’s bench, an office in which he had succeeded his father, who had obtained it for him at ‘no little charge’ after the two had worked in it from at least 1519, and which Roper was in turn to pass on in 1574 to his son Thomas. Yet there was always a lurking danger. Early in 1543 Roper was imprisoned in the Tower and fined £100: his offence was ‘relieving by his alms a notable learned man’, John Bekinsau, with whom he was involved in the prebendaries’ plot against Cranmer.7
In 1545 Roper was elected a Member for Rochester, where he was doubtless well known as a magistrate with several minor posts in the locality, and presumably was required to take the oath of supremacy. He was re-elected to the first Parliament of Edward VI’s reign by the same city, but he is not known to have sat in that King’s second Parliament, in which the Duke of Northumberland’s influence was paramount, although his brother Christopher did so for Rochester. Roper himself was a Member of all five of Mary’s Parliaments. To the first of these, summoned for October 1553, he was returned for Winchelsea by Sir Thomas Cheyne, lord warden of the Cinque Ports, although he had not been elected by the port itself, which had chosen William Egleston and (Sir) John Guildford. For the next two Parliaments Roper reverted to Rochester, but in 1555 his shrievalty barred him from election there and he was returned for Canterbury, which as a city was independent of the sheriff of Kent. The Ropers, who had long owned St. Dunstan’s, outside the west gate of the city, were a family of great local renown, and William Roper probably needed no extraneous influence to secure his election: indeed, he seems to have seen to it that the second seat went to a friend of his, More’s nephew William Rastell. The election had clearly been decided beforehand: on 14 Sept. 1555, 11 days after the writs for a new Parliament had gone out, the burmote agreed that Rastell and Roper should be admitted and sworn freemen of the city ‘freely, of the gift and benevolence of the mayor and commonalty’, and thus the statutory obligation to elect citizens could be observed at the election some three weeks later. In the Parliament of 1558 Roper was again a Member for Canterbury, this time serving with his former partner for Winchelsea, Sir Henry Crispe: the names of both men were inserted in a different hand on the indenture.8
Roper’s addiction to the House of Commons—he is known to have sat in eight Parliaments and may have done so in three or four more—was perhaps not unconnected with his headship of the administration of the court of King’s bench. If, as has been suggested, he had a good deal to do with perfecting the procedural devices which at this time brought a much needed revival of business in that court, although amid mounting criticism from outside it, especially from the court of common pleas, he could well have judged it necessary to belong to the only assembly which was capable of interfering in his court’s conduct of its affairs. Thus when the Parliament of 1547 debated a bill ‘for the reformation of the common laws of the realm’, which probably sought to deal with these innovations of procedure, we may be sure that Roper, and doubtless other stalwarts of the King’s bench, would have bestirred themselves to protect an institution which was also their livelihood. This speculation apart, little trace remains of Roper’s activities in the Commons. During the second session of the Parliament of 1547 his aid was enlisted by Thomas Jolye to block a bill depriving the 2nd Earl of Cumberland of an hereditary shrievalty, and in the following session, on 15 Nov. 1549, a bill allowing beneficed priests to be non-resident in time of sickness was committed to him. In February 1558 he was one of those assigned to consider the issue of a writ of privilege for Walter Ralegh and, later in the same month, to peruse the grants of sanctuary in Westminster which the abbot alleged were infringed by a new sanctuary bill. Outside Parliament Roper cut a figure in local government, his activities increasing markedly during Mary’s reign. He was appointed to the commission which heard the appeal of Bishop Bonner of London against his deprivation under Edward VI and to two commissions for the discovery of heresy, the first limited to the diocese of Canterbury. He also received, in consideration of his service, a licence to found a chantry in the church of St. Dunstan, Canterbury.9
So enthusiastic a Marian was unlikely to commend himself to Elizabeth. Roper was immediately removed from the Kent bench and only briefly retained on the Middlesex one, and he did not reappear in Parliament. On 8 July 1568 he submitted himself to the Privy Council for having assisted with money (unnamed) persons who had left England to print books against the Queen’s supremacy; he promised ‘from henceforth to obey all her Majesty’s laws and ordinances set forth by her Majesty’s authority, in all matters of religion and orders ecclesiastical’. Yet the next year, when commissioners came down into Kent to take the oath of all justices or former justices, Roper, being as he said ‘a man very aged and likewise subject to great infirmities and diseases’, besought them to be suitors to the Queen and Council ‘to bear with him touching his conscience’; and instead of signing a subscription to the Act of Uniformity, he was allowed to bind himself in 200 marks to be of good behaviour to the Queen and her people ‘according to the form of the statute in that case had and provided’ and to appear before the Privy Council when summoned. By January 1570 he was no longer a governor of Lincoln’s Inn, an office which he had held every year since 1553, but he still held his prothonotaryship in the King’s bench. In 1577 he was reported as a non-communicant and an absentee from church. All the same he appears to have been left in peace, although directly after his death his London house was searched and vestments for the mass found.10
Roper made his will on 10 Jan. 1577 asking to be buried at Chelsea, ‘in the vault with the body of my dearly beloved wife (whose soul our Lord pardon), where my father-in-law Sir Thomas More (whose soul Jesus bless) did mind to be buried’. Thomas, his elder son, inherited lands in Kent, and Anthony, his younger, lands in London, Middlesex and Oxfordshire. His executors included Dr. James Good, in whose house he had a room, Edmund Plowden and (Sir) Christopher Wray. He died on 4 Jan. 1578 and was buried, not in Chelsea, but if his epitaph there is to be believed, in St. Dunstan’s, Canterbury. About 1538 he and his wife were painted in miniature by Holbein, who had earlier included Margaret Roper in his celebrated depiction of More’s family.11
Ref Volumes: 1509-1558
Author: Helen Miller
- 1. Hatfield 207.
- 2. Bodl. e Museo 17.
- 3. Aged 82 at death according to MI. Vis. Kent (Harl. Soc. xlii), 82; Mar. Lic. London (Harl. Soc. xxv), 2.
- 4. Index 1331, 1342; LP Hen. VIII, iv-xxi; CPR, 1547-8 to 1555-7 passim; 1569-72, p. 220; Val. Eccles. i. 5; Faversham wardmote bk. 43-112 passim.
- 5. Wood, Ath. Ox. ed. Bliss, i. 89; City of London RO, Guildhall, bridge accts. 1509-25, ff. 163, 186; W. Roper, Life of More (EETS cxcvii), 3, 84-88; Elton, Policy and Police, 410-12, 417, 419.
- 6. Black Bk. L. Inn, i. 203; Roper, 71; LP Hen. VIII, viii; ix. 1077 citing SP1/99, p. 234.
- 7. Statutes, iii. 311; Index 1331, 1342; M. Blatcher, Ct. KB 1450-1550, pp. 146, 150; LP Hen. VIII, xvii, xviii; N. Harpsfield, Life of More (EETS clxxxvi), 89; Strype, Cranmer, i. 169.
- 8. Winchelsea hundred ct. bk. 2, f. 55; Canterbury burmote bk. 1542-78, f. 96v; C219/25/143.
- 9. Blatcher, 103-6; Clifford Letters (Surtees Soc. clxxii), 102-4; CJ, i. 11, 48-49; LP Hen. VIII, iv-xxi; CPR, 1550-3 to 1555-7 passim.
- 10. SP12/47/7, 59/37; Black Bk. L. Inn, i. 306-362 passim; Index 1342; Cath. Rec. Soc. xxii. 11, 101; APC, x. 143.
- 11. PCC 27 Langley; C142/181/122; R. C. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 345-8.