YELVERTON, Christopher (c.1537-1612), of Easton Maudit, Northants. and Cripplegate, London.
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Family and Education
b. c.1537, 3rd s. of William Yelverton† of Rougham, Norf. by his 1st w. Anne, da. of Sir Henry Farmer of East Barsham, Norf. educ. Queens’, Camb. 1550; G. Inn 1552, called. m. Margaret (d.1611), da. of Thomas Catesby of Whiston, Northants., 4s. inc. Henry 8da. Kntd. 1603.
Recorder, Northampton 1568-99; j.p. Northants. from c.1573; Lent reader, G. Inn 1574, 1584, treasurer 1579, 1585; serjeant-at-law 1589, Queen’s serjeant 1598; 2nd justice at Lancaster 1598; justice of assize, Yorks. and j.p. many northern counties 1599; justice of Queen’s bench 1602; commr. eccles. causes 1603.2
Speaker of House of Commons 1597.
Yelverton started with few advantages, as he was to recall in his disabling speech when chosen Speaker:
... my father dying left me a younger brother, and nothing to me but my bare annuity. Then, growing to man’s estate and some small practice of the law, I took a wife by whom I had many children, the keeping of us all being a great impoverishing to my estate, and the daily living of us all nothing but my daily industry.
Which perhaps does less than justice to the part played by his wife’s family, for it was not until his marriage that Yelverton began to make real progress in the profession his own family had followed for generations. Further, it was to his father-in-law (sheriff of his adopted county at the time of the election) that he owed his first appearance in the House of Commons. By the 1566 session of this Parliament Yelverton was being lampooned as one of the puritan ‘choir’ in the ‘lewd pasquil’, where he appears as Yelverton the poet, a reference, no doubt, to the epilogue he wrote that year to the blank verse tragedy Jocasta, by his Gray’s Inn friend George Gascoigne, and not the only one of the Society’s masques and entertainments in which the future judge was prominent at this period of his life. His taste for conviviality was noted later by Sir Roger Wilbraham:
Serjeant Yelverton said [at dinner], a poor bachelor wishing to be married had no money to pay the priest, only 8d. The priest ... refused to marry him without full pay. He desired he might be married as far as his money would go and promised to pay the rest, and so was. The priest after[wards] asking the debt, ‘Nay’, said he, ‘I will give ten times as much to unmarry us’.3
As recorder of Northampton, Yelverton found a ready parliamentary seat in 1571 and 1572. His reputation as a puritan orator was consolidated in the puritan Parliament of 1571, when he spoke (often just before his friend Recorder Fleetwood) on the bill to confirm the articles of religion; against the sequestration of William Strickland for his activities in the House violating the royal prerogative; on the puritan George Carleton’s bill against licences and dispensations; and in favour of the treasons bill, when he commended the provision for excluding James from the succession. The most important of many committees on which he served in this Parliament was that of only four members—all strong puritans—appointed to arrange the religious bills in the best order of precedence. Others of his committees were on the treasons bill (12, 21 Apr., 11 May), church attendance (21 Apr., 19 May), tellers and receivers (23 Apr.), fugitives (24 Apr.), the order of business (26 Apr.), priests disguised as servants (1 May), respite of homage (17 May) and privilege (28 May).4
In the first session of the 1572 Parliament, Yelverton was well to the fore in the ‘great cause’ of Mary Queen of Scots. On 12 May he was one of those chosen by the Commons (Fleetwood and Peter Wentworth were two others) to confer with the Lords, and on Friday 6 June it was he who opened the debate on the second reading of the bill against Mary, objecting to the speed with which the Commons were being forced to deal with the matter, and to many details of the bill itself. Another matter that brought Yelverton to his feet in this session (also Fleetwood and Wentworth) was the question of privilege raised by Robin Snagge, who demanded the names of those who carried tales to the Lords about proceedings in the Commons. Yelverton was concerned lest the reporting of indiscreet speeches should bring disgrace upon the whole Parliament, and went on to suggest an inquiry into talk of bribery in the House. On 26 June he and Fleetwood were the star performers in the debate staged for the benefit of the French diplomatic mission, some of whom were present in the House. Yelverton’s committees in this session included those dealing with Mary Queen of Scots (12 May, 6 June), the bill for rites and ceremonies (20 May), the poor (22 May) and various legal matters.5
By the time of the 1576 session Yelverton was ‘of great wealth’, and his behaviour in Parliament became increasingly moderate. After the committal of Peter Wentworth to the Tower, it was by petition rather than by bill that the Commons raised again the subject of religious grievances, and on 29 Feb. Yelverton was appointed a member of the committee to draft this petition, which in the event confined itself to the subject of minor defects in the administration of the Church. He was also a member of the subsidy committee (10 Feb.), various legal and social committees, and the strong committee that met in the afternoon of 12 Mar. to consider the Queen’s marriage. In 1581 he again served on the subsidy committee (25 Jan.) and on several legal committees. He also served (with Fleetwood) on a small sub-committee of lawyers to which was delegated the task of drafting a number of bills.6
It is interesting that such a man should not have been returned to the Parliaments of 1584, 1586 and 1589 (though Yelverton made at least one appearance at the bar of the House, in the 1584 Parliament in his capacity as legal counsel). But the Northamptonshire knights of the shire in 1584 and 1586 being Privy Councillors of the first rank, even such a great country gentleman as Sir Richard Knightley had to take a borough seat on both occasions. Still, there had been similar competition in 1572, and, in the meantime Yelverton, while remaining recorder of Northampton, had purchased (in 1578, from the Earl of Oxford), a country estate, so that it seems unlikely that he could not have obtained a borough seat if he had wanted one. In 1584 his relative by marriage, Thomas Catesby, sat for Northampton, whether through Yelverton’s influence is not known, but he would hardly have got the seat if Yelverton had wanted it for himself. One wonders, therefore, whether Yelverton perhaps aspired to the county seat to the point where he would rather be out of the Commons than sit for even such a ‘respectable’ borough as Northampton. Certainly his pride is obvious in being, in 1593, again, as he put it, ‘thrust into the House ... chosen knight of the shire without either my knowledge or my liking’.7
By this time Yelverton, a serjeant-at-law and seeking further promotion, came into the category of the ‘old, discreet, grave Parliament men’, to the disappointment of such as Peter Wentworth, who realized that it would be useless to attempt to recruit him into the small group who were planning to raise the succession question in the House. Appointed to the first standing committee on priveleges and returns, 26 Feb. 1593, he took an active part in the discussion of the Fitzherbert election case, speaking twice on the subject, 1 Mar., and serving on the Commons committee appointed to discuss this with the Lords. His name appears on a number of committees, placed in the journals immediately after the Privy Councillors. As knight of the shire he was included in the subsidy committee, 26 Feb. and another legal committee, 9 Mar.8
Elected for one of the Northampton borough seats in 1597, his eldest son Henry taking the other, Yelverton, on 24 Oct., was nominated Speaker by Sir William Knollys, comptroller of the Household. Behind the euphuistic language of his disabling speech, preserved in his own account, can be discerned something of the man:
... mean persons can hardly hold the eyes, or enjoy the hearts of a multitude. But yet, neither is the lack of estimation in the face of the world so great disadvantage to this place, or disgrace to myself, as the want of some special favour with her Majesty.
He spoke of his ‘timorous and fearful nature’ and went on to contrast his ‘accustomed pleading in judicial courts’ with his new ‘cause of so deep and weighty importance’:
There sufficeth plain utterance; here it must be accompanied with exact eloquence; there, sound and naked reason is but sought to be delivered; and here, reason must be clothed with elegant speeches.
Perhaps, in his ornate speeches, over which he took such pains, and of which he was clearly proud, he tried too hard. Despite the beauty of the language, they make difficult reading, and at least one contemporary thought them ‘full of elegancies, sweetly delivered, but too full of flattery, too curious and tedious’. Yelverton concluded his disabling speech by expressing his longstanding reluctance to intermeddle with high matters of Parliament.
Then Sir John Fortescue, chancellor of the Exchequer, and one of her Majesty’s Privy Council, commending the choice, and not allowing the excuse, the comptroller and he went down to the place where the serjeant sat, and took him, and carried him up, and placed him in the chair.
Three days later, on the occasion of his presentation by the Commons to the Queen, he made, in accordance with custom, a second disabling speech, followed by an elaborate—and masterly—ornamental oration, of which Yelverton again preserved a full text. His account of these proceedings, rather touchingly moving into the first person, ends:
After her Majesty had confirmed me for Speaker, and after that I had ended my oration, her Majesty passing by me, pulled off her glove and gave me her hand to kiss, and said, ‘You, sir, you are welcome to the butts, sir’, and laid both her hands about my neck, and stayed a good space, and so most graciously departed; and in her privy chamber after, amongst her ladies, said she was sorry she knew me no sooner.9
Yelverton’s part as Speaker in the debates in the Commons during this Parliament on the vexed question of monopolies; the inclusion in his closing oration on 9 Feb. 1598 of the address of humble thanks for the Queen’s most gracious care and favour in the repressing of these abuses; and a detailed consideration of the speech itself appear in print elsewhere. Before the Parliament was dissolved the Queen told him that he had ‘so learnedly and so eloquently’ defended and ‘painfully behaved’ himself that his labour deserved ‘double hire and thanks’, a reference, no doubt, to his getting twice the usual Speaker’s fee of £100 per session. This would not have been an extravagant reward for his service in a Parliament sitting from 24 Oct. to 20 Dec. and 11 Jan. to 9 Feb., even though the whole period was one session. His promotion to Queen’s serjeant came three months later, but it is a comment on the Queen’s frugal policy over honours that he had to wait until the next reign (and the age of 66) for a knighthood.10
Though his desire to please the great is obvious: ‘I did favour it as much as, with the dignity of my place, I could’, he wrote to Cecil about a bill, ‘and I am sorry, if you did anything affect it, that it succeeded no better’; though there is no doubt that he did not rise above the standards of his time over such matters as accepting payments for the furtherance of both public and private measures, yet Yelverton must go on record as one of the most able among the Elizabethan lawyer Speakers, whose grasp of procedure at a time when this was becoming settled helped to lead the House of Commons towards its maturity.
As a judge of assize Yelverton served in the 1601 Parliament as an assistant in the Lords, and he is named in the journals a dozen times or so, bringing bills and messages from the Lords. There were one or two complaints about him as a judge, Sir Thomas Posthumous Hoby writing to Sir Robert Cecil about ‘his very hard dealing’, and the president of the council in the north alleging that he twice postponed the York assizes ‘for his own private gain in the circuit where he practices’. In June 1600 Yelverton was a commissioner for the trial of the Earl of Essex for his misbehaviour in Ireland, and in the following February his name was put forward by the chief justice to examine some of the less important prisoners taken in the Essex rising in London. Though present at the Earl’s arraignment, 19 Feb. 1601, he took no prominent part in the second trial.11
Yelverton died ‘of very age’ 31 Oct. 1612, aged 75, and was buried beside his wife in Easton Maudit church, where there is a monument. Administration was granted to Henry Yelverton 7 Nov. 1612, and £100 was distributed to the poor of the parish. In religion Yelverton was a puritan, described by the preacher Thomas Cartwright as ‘the principal wether of the flock, to go before the rest’.12
Ref Volumes: 1558-1603
Author: P. W. Hasler
- 1. C219/284/27.
- 2. DNB; Bridges, Northants. ii. 166; Al. Cant. 1(4) p. 489; G. Inn Pens. Bk. 14; Foss, Judges, vi. 203-6; Egerton 2345, f. 25; Somerville, Duchy, i. 475; HMC Hatfield, ix. 390; xv. 223.
- 3. Cotton, Titus F II, f. 115-16; Neale, Parlts. i. 91-2; Cam. Misc. x. 18-19.
- 4. D’Ewes, 160-90 passim; CJ, i. 84-93 passim; Trinity, Dublin, anon. jnl. (where the name sometimes appears as Elverton or Ellverton), ff. 9, 12, 24, 35; Parlts. i. 198, 202, 210, 212, 228.
- 5. D’Ewes, 206, 213, 221, 222; Trinity, Dublin, Thos, Cromwell’s jnl., ff. 52-3, 62, 66; CJ, i. 95, 96, 97, 100, 101; Parlts. i. 247, 283-4, 305-6.
- 6. Lansd. 22, f. 52; CJ, i. 104, 105, 106, 108, 109, 111, 112, 113, 114, 120, 121, 122, 244, 247, 248, 254, 248, 254, 255, 260, 261, 288, 289, 291; Parlts. i. 350, 353, 385-6.
- 7. D’Ewes, 349; VCH Northants. iv. 13; Add. 48109, f. 16.
- 8. D’Ewes, 471, 474, 477, 479, 480, 481, 486, 495, 496, 500, 501; Parlts. ii. 258; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 63, 68.
- 9. Add. 48109, ff. 16, 17, 30; Cam. Misc. x. 11-12.
- 10. Neale, Commons, 357-62; Parlts. ii. 328-32, 353-4, 364-7; Bull IHR, xii. 25.
- 11. D’Ewes, 603, 604, 611. 612, 615, 674, 678, 684, 686, 687; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 133, 139, 141, 144, 297-8, 300; HMC Hatfield, ix. 390; xi. 37; CSP Dom. 1601-3, pp. 155-6; Collins, Sidney State Pprs. ii. 199; Lansd. 115, f. 47.
- 12. PCC admon. act bk. 1612, f. 78; Bridges, Northants. ii. 168.