BELL, Robert (d.1577), of the Middle Temple, London and Beaupré Hall, Outwell, Norf.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

Family and Education

educ. ?Camb.; M. Temple, called. m. (1) Mary, da. of Anthony Chester, s.p.; (2) Elizabeth, wid. of Edmund Anderson, s.p.; (3) 15 Oct. 1559, Dorothy, da. and coh. of Edmund Beaupré of Beaupré Hall, 4s. 3da. Kntd. Jan. 1577.

Offices Held

Of counsel to King’s Lynn 1560, recorder from 1561; bencher M. Temple 1565, Autumn reader 1565, Lent reader 1571; j.p.q. Norf. from 1564, commr. grain 1576, musters by 1576; serjeant-at-law 22 Jan. 1577; chief baron of the Exchequer 24 Jan. 1577.

Speaker of House of Commons 1572-6.

Biography

Bell’s emergence from obscurity dates from a fortunate third marriage, which brought him a large estate in Norfolk, the status and local offices that went with it, and progress in his profession. He became legal counsel, then recorder, and afterwards MP for the local borough of King’s Lynn, some 12 miles from his wife’s estate. After making a thorough nuisance of himself to the government in the 1563 and 1571 Parliaments, Bell became Speaker in 1572, and, finally, poacher turned gamekeeper, ‘a sage and grave man, and famous for his knowledge in the law’.

Apart from an appearance as counsel at the bar in connexion with the bishop of Winchester’s lands (6 Mar. 1559), the first mention of Bell in the journals is in 1566, when he was lampooned in a ‘lewd pasquil’ as ‘Bell the orator’. Speaking on 19 Oct. that year, he ‘did argue very boldly’ to pursue the succession question in the face of the Queen’s command to leave it alone. In her own words ‘Mr. Bell with his complices ... must needs prefer their speeches to the Upper House to have you, my lords, consent with them, whereby you were seduced, and of simplicity did assent unto it’, a reference to the conferences of 23 and 31 Oct. Cecil, too, noted Bell as one of the two leading trouble-makers in this Parliament.

Early in the next Parliament (5 Apr. 1571) Bell launched an attack on the Queen’s purveyors, who took ‘under pretence of her Majesty’s service what they would at what price they themselves liked ...’. This was followed, in the subsidy debate two days later, by the suggestion that grievances should be remedied before supply was granted, the very grievance itself, promoters, anticipating what was to become the subject of contention between Crown and Parliament in the next century. These were

licences and the abuse of promoters, for which, if remedy were provided, then would the subsidy be paid willingly [but] if a new burden should be laid on the backs of the Commons, and no redress of the common evils ... they would lay down the burden in the midst of the way, and turn to the contrary of their duties.

This speech of Bell’s was remembered by Wentworth, when he was in trouble in 1576:

The last Parliament, he that is now Speaker uttered a very good speech for the calling in of certain licences granted to four courtiers to the utter undoing of 6,000 or 8,000 of the Queen’s Majesty’s subjects. This speech was so disliked of some of the [Privy] Council that he was sent for and so hardly dealt with that he came into the House with such an amazed countenance that it daunted all the House.

Perhaps it was this incident that determined Bell to toe the line. His two remaining speeches in this Parliament, both on 19 Apr., were innocuous. He ‘did collect the substance’ of the resident burgesses debate ‘and in a loving discourse showed that it was necessary all places should be provided for’. But because some boroughs had not ‘wealth to provide fit men’ outsiders could sometimes be returned, and no harm done. Mindful, no doubt, of the power of the Duke of Norfolk in his county, Bell ‘wished that there might the penalty of £40 be imposed upon every borough which should make such election at the nomination of any nobleman’. Later the same day, he spoke on usury, saying ‘it standeth doubtful what usury is; we have no true definition’. Bell’s committees in 1571 were on returns (6 Apr.), the prayer book (6 Apr.), grievances (7 Apr.), fraudulent conveyances (11 Apr.), treasons (12 Apr., 11 May), non-resident burgesses (19 Apr.), church attendance (21 Apr., 19 May), procedure (21 Apr.), vagabonds (23 Apr.), promoters (23 Apr.), tellers and receivers (23 Apr.), fugitives (24 Apr.) and respite of homage (17 May).2

As a consequence, no doubt, of discussions behind the scenes, and, perhaps, dissatisfaction with Speaker Wray, Bell was chosen Speaker 8 May 1572. No trace of his past radicalism can be seen in the conventional phrases of his disabling speeches before the Commons that day and before the Queen on 10 May. The Queen, on her part, he was told, had ‘sufficiently heard of your truth and fidelity towards her, and ... understandeth your ability to accomplish the same’. His ‘dealings in this Parliament’ would be ‘such as shall not only satisfy her Majesty’s expectation and confirm that good opinion which she hath conceived of your former doings, but also increasing the same ...’. Bell’s second oration of that day is interesting in that it was not just ornament, ‘too full of flattery, too curious and tedious’, as was usual for the period. Some of it is worth quoting, from the version preserved in the journals of Thomas Cromwell, as an early example of the taste for precedents that became commonplace in the history of the House during the seventeenth century:3

Mr. Bell’s second oration.
Your highness’ noble progenitors kings of this realm not many years after the conquest did publish and set forth divers ordinances and constitutions. But the same was not confirmed by parliament, and therefore proved perilous as well in not sufficiently providing for those which deserved well nor sufficient authority for punishment of them which deserved contrary. Whereupon King Henry III finding no such perfection therein as he did desire, by the mature deliberation and grave advice of his lords and council did condescend to walk in a new course of government, in which he determined that all things should be provided for by authority of parliament; and shortly after called two of the same, the first at Merton, a the second at Marlborough, b in which divers things before set forth but by charter were then confirmed and ratified by parliament, which have since been received and obeyed; who after that experience had taught him the benefit thereof did prosecute the same all the time of the rest of his reign. And King Edward I did the like, who called a parliament for one only cause, which was for that temporal possessions were gathered together by abbots and other spiritual persons and corporations, to restrain the same from that time forwards and to provide that they should live only of their spiritual promotions. c I mean to note principally but two or three statutes for my purpose. In the xiii th year of his reign he called another parliament for the punishment of felonies and robberies done by vagabonds. d In the xiiii th [recte 13 Ed. I] year of his reign he called another parliament for the only cause of the relief of his merchants, called statutum de mercatoribus. e And after him his son King Edward II in the ixth year of his reign called a parliament for the ending of a controversy between the spiritualty and laity concerning discipline. f These few statutes I thought good to recite, whereby it may well appear what diligent care your Majesty’s progenitors had for reformation of every small cause, and what obedience was in the subjects. Every parliament a cause by itself, and the success thereof had good allowance in the time of King Edward III, for he finding by experience the benefit thereof, in the fourth year of his reign procured it to be enacted that there should every year once at the least a parliament be kept, and oftener if need were. g I move this the rather because I think many marvel of the sudden calling of this parliament this time of the year so shortly after the end of the last. These few examples may answer such objections and satisfy every man that it is their duties to attend. If the causes before remembered were allowed sufficient causes [to] call parliaments, then let us weigh them in balances with the weight of those causes for which this parliament is called; and if for punishment of vagabonds were a sufficient cause to call a parliament, as it was indeed then great and now not small; if the relief of merchants were a sufficient cause to call a parliament, if the determination of a controversy between the clergy and laity were a sufficient cause, let us indifferently consider whether now far greater be offered unto us, I mean the preservation of the prince upon which one only cause, who seeth not that all these causes and all other causes which may concern this state doth depend. The want of good provision in one parliament may be an overthrow to the good meaning of all the rest ...

Of course this should not be taken literally. Not all these early assemblies were Parliaments to which representatives from the shires and towns had been summoned, and Bell had done no more than go through the standard books of statutes and precedents picking out a few of the more important to fit his case. There is another reference in the 1572 Parliament to the usefulness of annual Parliaments (16 May), by Recorder Fleetwood. Perhaps, as Bell suggests above, the subject was in their minds because the previous Parliament had been dissolved less than one year before the 1572 Parliament began. The rest of the oration adhered to convention. The Queen’s ‘loving subjects’ desired her preservation ‘more than the chased deer desired the soil for his refreshing’; at the time of her accession the country was ‘subject to ignorant hypocrisy and unsound doctrine’, but God inclined her heart ‘to be a defence to his afflicted church throughout all Europe’. Many benefits from her reign ‘I do forget, and yet do remember divers others which I leave for tediousness’. Bell concluded by asking for the usual ‘ordinary petitions consisting in three points’. The first was liberty of speech

without which it is impossible any great matter be achieved in any conference, for except the objections on every part be heard, answered and confuted, the counsel cannot be perfected. Some speech perhaps singly and nakedly reported hath and may seem odious, which the circumstances considered and well digested carrieth no cause of offence.

The second was access to the Queen, the third

that if by my imperfection I shall mistake and so misreport any message either from the House to your Majesty or from your Majesty to them that I may be received to repair anew for the declaration of the same.

Bell’s closing speech, 30 June 1572, after a session devoted to the question of Mary Queen of Scots, ‘the weightiest [cause] that I have known any Parliament called in my time’, was devoted to urging the necessity for her execution. This speech and Bell’s part in the 1576 session, which included the storms over Peter Wentworth’s sequestration and the Arthur Hall privilege case (Hall ‘injuriously impeached’ Bell’s memory in his book) have been examined elsewhere. At the end of the day the impression is of a Speaker who handled the House firmly enough to satisfy the Queen and Privy Council without compromising too many of his principles. His support for Robert Snagge and his abhorrence of ‘tale tellers’, for example, have to be admired. Snagge made a speech in the House to the effect that

the Queen and the noblemen represented their own voice only, the knights and burgesses of the lower house represented all the commonalty of the realm,

‘sinister reports’ of which extraordinary sentiments soon reached the Lords (and, no doubt, the Queen), and on 11 June 1572, Snagge desired ‘the House to aid him’. Wentworth thought

the freedom of the House taken away by tale tellers, and therefore very necessary to search them out and to send to the Lords to know from whence the information was received.

This was dynamite to a Speaker whose future career depended entirely upon government patronage, but Bell thought it ‘very necessary to be considered of’ and that

it impeacheth the credit of the House that we should suffer [the tale tellers] unreproved. It had been his duty, if no man else had done it, to have reproved such speech.

He remembered Snagge’s original comments ‘very well and tended to such end as hath been declared, that the Lords represented themselves only, the commonalty represented here as it were by attornies’. That all this was not, from Bell’s point of view, a storm in a teacup can be seen from the words of the Queen herself at the end of that session. She disliked

an implication that you all or some of you conceive the reports and messages should be told to her Highness to the drawing of her misliking to some of the House.

Perhaps Bell was lucky that he was Speaker fairly early in the reign; certainly too little is known of what went on behind the scenes. At any rate, by the end of the 1576 session the authorities not only considered that he had done his stint in the Commons, but positively rewarded him. At the New Year promotions following the end of the session he was advanced to serjeant, knighted and made a judge. But at the Oxford assizes that summer he caught gaol fever, moved on to Worcester, and there, after holding the assizes, he died 25 July. He made a codicil to his will that day, directing the sale of certain land for the payment of debts, and bequeathing a lease to John Peyton I who married Bell’s widow, moved into Beaupré Hall, and succeeded him as MP for King’s Lynn for the rest of the 1572 Parliament.4

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler

Notes

  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. DNB; Al. Cant. i(1), p. 128; Foss, Judges, v. 458, 461; King’s Lynn congregation bk.; Muster Returns (Norf. Rec. Soc.), 25, 39; Neale, Parlts. i. 91-2, 146, 162; HMC Hatfield, i. 34; Trinity, Dublin, anon. jnl. ff. 7, 28, 31; I. Temple Petyt ms 538/17, f. 252; CJ, i. 56, 75, 83, 84, 85, 86, 89, 90, 91; D’Ewes, 50, 124, 125, 127, 156, 157, 158, 159, 160, 165, 166, 171, 173, 176, 178, 179, 183, 184, 186.
  • 3. Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. ff. 3-5, citing the following: a: The provisions of Merton (1236), the comprehensive statute setting out the law on land tenure, baronial rights etc. b: The Statute of Marlborough (1267) of similar content. c: The Statute of Mortmain (1279) which restricted grants to religious foundations. d: The Statute of Winchester, crucial in the history of criminal law. e: The Statute of Merchants (1285), which clarified the Statute of Acton Burnell (1283) devised to meet the grievances of merchants who found it difficult to collect their debts. f: The Articles for the Clergy (1315). g: A reference to clause 14 of 4 Ed. III (1330) to this effect. The statute fell into desuetude after the 1340s.
  • 4. Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell