ATKINSON, Robert (d.1607), of London and Stowell, Glos.
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Family and Education
o. surv. s. of Richard Atkinson, draper, alderman, and five times mayor of Oxford, by his 1st w. Agnes. educ. I. Temple 1554, called c.1561. m. Joyce, da. of Humphrey Ashfield of Heythrop, Oxon., 2s. 5da. suc. fa. 30 May 1574.
Recorder, Oxford 13 Sept. 1566-d 1
Availing himself of the customary privilege accorded to the son of the mayor, Atkinson, while still in his teens, paid his gilt penny and became a freeman of Oxford on 11 Nov. 1549. Five years later he entered the Inner Temple and on 12 Jan. 1561, when in his seventh and presumably final year as a student, was appointed to be of counsel to his native city. His family may have been related to the north-country Atkinsons but no connexion has been found, and his return for Appleby remains unexplained.2
In the first session of the 1563 Parliament he distinguished himself by opposing the bill for extending the obligation to take the oath of supremacy and sharpening the penalties for refusal. Basing himself partly on legal precedent, partly on expediency, he pleaded for toleration in matters of conscience, maintaining that sufficient safeguard was already provided by the 1559 Act and that the proposed new penalties—of praemunire for a first offence, and treason for a second—were so excessive that they would defeat the object of the measure. To escape the consequences of refusing the oath, men would forswear themselves, and once having done so would proceed to greater wickedness against the common good. Better by far that the law should be within the capability of men to keep it, and that a man’s conscience should be left inviolate, than that legislators should force him to take an oath which he might not understand or ‘grope him and see what secretly lyeth in his breast’.3
Atkinson’s reactionary views had their predictable consequence. In 1569, with others of the Inner Temple suspected of popery, he was summoned before the High Commission, disbarred, and ordered to establish his conformity in religion within 12 months on pain of utter exclusion from his inn for ever. He was expelled in 1570; the expulsion was formally recorded in 1572; and in November 1577 two benchers certified that Robert Atkinson of Oxfordshire, a barrister notoriously suspected of papistry and expelled their society, was not known to have conformed, and that his means of livelihood were unknown. Yet since 1566 he had been recorder of Oxford, an appointment which he held without interruption for just over 40 years.4
The order disbarring him forbade Atkinson to plead in any court and required him to refrain from giving ‘any counsel in the law to any of the Queen Majesty’s subjects as appertaineth to a counsel or any minister in the law’. No exceptional ingenuity was needed to get round these prohibitions, but the charge of recusancy was a graver matter. With Sir Francis Knollys, no friend to recusants, as its high steward from 1564 to 1592, the city of Oxford became so puritan in character that its corporation exercised ‘almost an ecclesiastical jurisdiction’. How a recusant could remain its recorder is a mystery, yet he did. Atkinson himself denied the charge in 1569. He admitted that he had been an infrequent church-goer and had taken communion only twice since the beginning of the reign, but he had not observed any popish rites or attended any popish services after they had been forbidden. Another denial by him was reported in 1585. Presumably, and in spite of his wife’s avowed Catholicism, he managed to keep to the middle of the road, aided by his knowledge of the law, his personal wealth, his family’s standing in the city, and his unquestioned loyalty. Even here, however, the record is not clear. He was on a list drawn up in the interests of Mary Queen of Scots in 1574. This does not amount to much, however, as he was no doubt included solely on account of his known Catholic sympathies. As recorder, he made the customary speech of welcome when the Queen visited Oxford in 1592, and his continuance in office was expressly mentioned in the new charter of 1605.5
He is not known to have been formally readmitted to legal practice or to his inn: possibly both penalties were silently rescinded by the efflux of time. In 1585 he asked Oxford to send representatives to meet him in London on business; by 1589, when he contributed £25 to the Armada fund, he had a house in Chancery Lane; in 1600, when lawyers were taxed to meet the cost of the rebellion in Ireland, he was listed with other ‘lawyers of practice’ whose ‘place of gain’ was the Inner Temple, and it is as ‘Atkinson, a famous lawyer’ that he appears in the heralds’ visitation of Essex some years after his death.6
He made his will in 1605, commending his soul to the mercy of God and appointing as his executor his son-in-law William Wentworth of Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, in whose family at this time no trace of recusancy has been found. To each of his three grandsons, among them Wentworth’s son Thomas, the future Earl of Strafford, who had been born in his Chancery Lane house and whose christening in 1593 Atkinson had attended as one of the child’s sponsors, he left a piece of plate worth five marks with his arms enamelled upon it; to a granddaughter went £200, a gold chain, and a border of gold; an ‘old acquaintance’ received his study gown and 4d. a day for life; £10 was g