MORICE, James (1539-97), of Chipping Ongar, Essex.

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



Family and Education

b. 1539, 1st s. of William Morice of Chipping Ongar by Anne Isaac of Kent. educ. M. Temple 1558, called. m. by 1560, Elizabeth (d.1603), da. of George Medley of Tilty Abbey, Essex and ‘Whitnes’ (?Whitnash), Warws., 4s. inc. John 3da. suc. fa. 1554.1

Offices Held

J.p. Essex from c.1573, q. by 1586, commr. piracy 1577; town clerk, Colchester by 1578; bencher and Autumn reader, M. Temple 1578; treasurer 1596; commr. musters, Essex 1583; recorder, Maldon from c.1586 (though, by 1593, called dep. recorder to Earl of Essex there); attorney of ct. of wards 16 Oct. 1589.2


Morice’s importance as a Parliament man dates from the 1584 House of Commons, but it is likely that he was the James Morice who sat as a young man for Wareham, where his patron was almost certainly the 2nd Earl of Bedford, to whom (it would appear from Lady Elizabeth Russell’s later remarks) he may have been related. Morice’s father, who came from ‘Roydon, Hertfordshire’, bought in 1543 the site of a castle at Chipping Ongar, and there built the house which became the family seat. He died in 1554, when James was still a minor, and the son was not granted livery of his lands until July 1560, by which time he was a student at the Middle Temple.

As well as being an active local official, in Essex, Morice was a natural choice as a legal official in the strongly puritan towns of Colchester and Maldon. When Bishop Aylmer suspended George Northey, the popular town preacher of Colchester, Morice exerted himself to get him restored. In 1579, when the Queen visited Colchester, he delivered, as town clerk, the oration of welcome: he was unable to entertain her, as his children had measles. His first return as Member of Parliament for the borough he owed to the recorder, (Sir) Francis Walsingham, who was granted both nominations by the borough authorities. Before the following election, in the autumn of 1586, the Council sent a circular letter to the sheriffs advocating the return of the same Members as in 1584-5, a recommendation which in this case Walsingham ignored. Morice and his 1584 colleague, Francis Harvey, had already been elected, and Walsingham readily accepted this arrangement, on the ground of the Queen’s wish, ‘as also in respect of their sufficiency for that place’. Walsingham was still recorder at the election of 1589, and in 1593 his successor (Sir) Thomas Heneage seems not to have attempted to replace Morice by a nominee of his own. If Morice had lived to see another parliamentary election, his activities in the 1593 session would almost certainly have lost him Heneage’s supports.3

In the Commons, Morice became known as a foremost supporter of the cause of liberty as he saw it, to be secured through reliance on the common law. His interpretation of the constitution was historically inaccurate, but at a time when Whitgift was using his disciplinary powers harshly to enforce uniformity in the church, Morice’s speeches were invaluable and highly effective. On 8 Dec. 1584 he was ordered to draft a bill concerning recusants and in this Parliament he was appointed to committees on the continuation of statutes (1 Dec., 19 Mar.), private bills (7, 15 Dec., 13 Feb.), informers (9 Dec.), the puritan petitions from the counties concerning a learned ministry (16 Dec.), penal laws (21 Dec.), hue and cry (4 Feb.), a privilege case (11 Feb.), procedure (13 Feb.), fraudulent conveyances (15, 18 Feb., 2, 17 Mar.), Jesuits (18 Feb.), Canterbury hospital (20 Feb.), the order of business (3 Mar.), the punishment of rogues (5 Mar.), the better government of the city of Westminster (22 Mar.) and excessive fines in ecclesiastical courts (22 Mar.). A legal bill was committed to him on 5 Mar. and he was appointed to another legal committee the same day.

In the following Parliament he was again appointed to numerous committees, including those concerning Mary Queen of Scots (4 Nov.), Norfolk returns (9 Nov.), legal matters (24 Feb. 1587), the bill for attainder (25 Feb.), a privilege case (6 Mar.), a learned ministry (8 Mar.), fish (9 Mar.), a private bill (15 Mar.) and the continuation of statutes (20 Mar.). A bill concerning horse stealing was committed to him on 7 Mar. 1587. He spoke twice concerning the subsidy to be levied for the expedition in the Low Countries (6 Mar.), arguing that the prelates, who were exempt from the burden of musters, were better able to bear the expense of a benevolence in addition to the subsidy than were the lay taxpayers. In December 1588 he was one of 16 lawyers asked by the Privy Council to prepare bills on the reform of justice for the forthcoming Parliament and to consider the revision of existing statutes. During the 1589 Parliament he was appointed to the main privilege committee (7 Feb.), and also to committees concerning the subsidy (11 Feb.), the Puleston privilege case (12 Feb.), legal committees (14, 25 Feb.), purveyors (27 Feb., 6 Mar.), the continuation of statutes (20 Mar.), Exchequer reform (20 Mar.), excess of apparel (21 Mar.), almshouses in Lambourn, Berkshire (22 Mar.) and forcible entries (24 Mar.). He was appointed to the committee concerning pluralities and non-residents on 1 Mar. 1589. He reported the bill concerning benefit of clergy on 3 Mar. 1589, spoke on the subject of Tonbridge school on 8 Mar., and reported the committee on presentations to benefices on 22 Mar.

By 1593 Morice had gained the lucrative office of attorney of the court of wards, doubtless by Lord Burghley’s influence: some years later, in a letter to the lord treasurer, he wrote that he believed, ‘besides your lordship and that honourable person your son, I have never an honourable friend’. Burghley appreciated his ability, as he showed by using him to defend Robert Cawdrey, a Rutland clergyman deprived for refusing to accept Whitgift’s articles. Morice certainly found the lord treasurer’s friendship valuable when in 1593 his parliamentary opposition to Whitgift led him into trouble. He had apparently made up his mind some time before Parliament began that he would attack the legality of the court of High Commission’s proceedings, and was dismayed to find that Peter Wentworth was planning the introduction of a bill on the succession question, which would be bound to rouse the Queen’s anger against the puritans. Morice utterly disliked both the matter and form of Wentworth’s speech and refused to confer with Wentworth’s supporters, since ‘never a wise man in the House will like of your motion’. However, though against meddling over the succession, Morice was ready to launch his own attack on the royal prerogative on the second full day of business in the session, 27 Feb., when he asked the House to consider three ‘matters of very great weight and importance’—the ex officio oath, an ‘ungodly and intolerable inquisition’; Whitgift’s articles, ‘a lawless subscription’; and the oath of ecclesiastical obedience required of excommunicated persons before absolution. He claimed that all three were against the law and common justice, violating Magna Carta, and challenged the bishops to ‘declare to the world by what authority they do these things’. ‘We ... the subjects of this kingdom, are born and brought up in due obedience, but far from servitude and bondage; subject to lawful authority and commandment, but freed from licentious will and tyranny.’ This heritage, ‘dearly purchased ... by our ancestors, yea, even with the effusion of their blood’, it was the sacred duty of the present generation to hand on undefiled to posterity. He therefore presented two bills couched as petitions, against unlawful oaths and illegal imprisonment, asking the House to read the first immediately. A stormy debate followed, James Dalton, Sir John Wolley and Dr. William Lewin opposing Morice, and Sir Francis Knollys, the senior Privy Councillor present, upholding his ‘good zeal and meaning’. Finally Robert Cecil tried to ease the tension. Describing Morice as learned and wise, and one whom he loved, he recommended that the Queen should be consulted. He could not carry the House, nor could Speaker Coke, who maintained that the bill was too long to proceed with immediately. Only the length of the debate, which had made it too late to do anything more that morning, prevented Morice from getting his bill read. He was given no further chance to raise the matter. The next day he was examined by five Privy Councillors, and showed himself so impenitent that even Burghley, who intervened several times in his favour, reprimanded him: ‘Some little submission, Mr. Morice, would do well’. He was finally committed to the indulgent custody of (Sir) John Fortescue I at whose London house he remained for two months, until after the end of the session. About a fortnight after the start of his house arrest, Robert Wroth I pleaded in the Commons for his release, but Privy Councillors managed to stifle the motion. When eventually he was set at liberty, the lord keeper and Burghley told him that, in spite of his recent activities, Elizabeth thought him ‘both an honest man and a good subject’; but they reminded him that, since he was of counsel to the Queen, he should complain, if he believed ‘aught were amiss in the church or commonwealth’, to her rather than to the House of Commons. It is doubtful whether Morice would have acted on this advice if he had lived to see another Parliament. During the first few days of the 1593 Parliament he was appointed to several committees as attorney of the court of wards: privileges and returns (26 Feb.), the subsidy (26, 28 Feb.), and a legal committee (27 Feb.). In view of his sequestration on 28 Feb., it is not known how many of these committees he was able to attend.4

It may have been true that Elizabeth had no personal antipathy towards him. Later in 1593 the Earl of Essex (recently appointed recorder of Maldon, with Morice, the former recorder, serving as his deputy), tried to get him appointed attorney-general. Anyone but Essex might have hesitated to suggest him, considering his recent record. Elizabeth’s reaction seems to have been surprisingly mild: she ‘acknowledged his gifts, but said his speaking against her in such a manner as he had done should be a bar against any preferment at her hands’. Another person who tried to help him was Lady Elizabeth Russell, who wrote to Robert Cecil soon after Morice’s release from confinement: ‘My cousin, Morice, has been with me this afternoon, poor man ... Oh, good nephew! the gravity, wisdom, care of maintaining law of the land, learning and piety of the man’ ought to be rewarded by membership of the Council. The mastership of the rolls was the office Lady Russell had in mind for her protégé, whom she described as Burghley’s ‘kinsman and friend’. She reported Morice’s own opinion of his recent treatment:

Himself wished no better, he said, but that he might have been called to answer and to have been chidden of her Majesty than of the Council, for he thinketh it hard measure to be committed two months only upon her Majesty’s displeasure and not to answer it to her Majesty’s self what he had done.5

Despite his temporary disgrace, Morice retained his court of wards office, but he became dissatisfied at receiving no further promotion. In June 1596 he wrote to Burghley describing himself as aged nearly 60, rich only in children and grandchildren, and having not ‘added one foot of land to the little patrimony left me by my father’. He assured his correspondent that his ‘Brief Treatise’ against unlawful oaths had not been intended for publication, but that Dr. Richard Cosin had got hold of a copy, and ‘in the beginning of the last Parliament’ published a confutation of it, ‘perverting it and abusing the author’. Nothing daunted Morice’s spirit for long. ‘By God’s grace’, he had earlier told Burghley, ‘while life doth last, which I hope now after so many cracks and crazes will not be long, I will not be ashamed in good and lawful sort to strive for the freedom of conscience, public justice, and the liberties of my country’.6

He died 2 Feb. 1597, leaving unaccounted for £200 which had passed through his hands as treasurer of the Middle Temple. As late as 1604 the Temple authorities were still trying to obtain the money. The Morice lands, mainly at Chipping Ongar, Sutton and surrounding districts in Essex, descended to John, the eldest son, who was in his mid-twenties. Morice’s will, drawn up on 7 Mar. 1596, was proved in July 1598. His puritanism is evident from the preamble, which speaks of his being called ‘out of this wretched and transitory life’, being in full hope to inherit ‘the blessing of the children of God, even life and joy everlasting’. He asked the executors, his widow and son John, to pay various debts and to supervise legacies to his other children (including £200 to an unmarried daughter). In addition to the lands, John was to have all his father’s ‘books of the laws of England ... Latin, Greek and French books’. Morice besought God ‘so to bless him [John] and the rest of my children that they may spend and pass the time of this their short and miserable life in all virtuous and godly conversation and behaviour, studying and endeavouring (by the grace of God) to be profitable members of Christ’s church and good subjects in the commonwealth’. There were surprisingly few bequests to friends and servants, and the only charitable legacy was £10 to the poor of Chipping Ongar.7

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: J.H.


  • 1. Burke, Landed Gentry (1871), ii. 947; Vis. Essex (Harl. Soc. xiii), 256, 457-8; Morant, Essex, i. 129; CPR, 1558-60, p. 447; will at Essex RO, 231/ER/17.
  • 2. Essex RO Assize File 35/15/3; Lansd. 146, f. 18; Essex Arch. Soc., Morant mss; M. T. Recs. i. 221, 224, 284, 367; Morant, i. 51; Essex RO, Maldon borough recs. DB 3/3/256, 264, 265, 270, 272; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 635, where date of attorneyship is given in error as 1579; pat. roll 31 Eliz. pt. 10.
  • 3. Collinson thesis, 398; Morant mss; Colchester ass. bk. 1576-99 (Nov. 1584); Neale, Commons, 299-300.
  • 4. Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. f. 82; Harl. 7188, anon. jnl. ff. 100-2; D’Ewes, 334, 336, 337, 339, 340, 345, 346, 348, 349, 351, 352, 353, 362, 363, 369, 371, 394, 396, 410, 412, 413, 415, 417, 429, 431, 432, 439, 440, 441, 443, 444, 447, 449, 450, 451, 452, 471, 474, 476, 478; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 17, 22, 27, 60, 61; Neale, Parlts. ii. 257-9, 267-79; APC, xvi. 416; Lodge, Illus. ii. 444; W. Pierce, Hist. Intro. to Martin Marprelate Tracts, 79; Lansd. 68, ff. 104, 106; 73, f. 109.
  • 5. Lodge, ii. 446; HMC Hatfield, iv. 460.
  • 6. CSP Dom. Add. 1580-1625, p. 376; Lansd. 82, ff. 148, 150-1; Lodge, ii. 445.
  • 7. M. T. Recs. ii. 443; C142/258/74; will at Essex RO, 231/ER/17.