ASHLEY, Francis (1569-1635), of the Middle Temple, London and Winterbourne St. Martin, Dorset; later of Dorchester Friary, Dorset and Serjeants' Inn, Fleet Street, London

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



13 Dec. 1620 - 13 Jan. 1621
3 Mar. 1621

Family and Education

b. 24 Nov. 1569,1 3rd s. of Anthony Ashley of Damerham, Wilts. and Dorothy, da. of John Lyte of Lyte’s Cary, Som.; bro. of Anthony† and Robert†.2 educ. King Edward VI g.s. Southampton, Hants 1575;3 Magdalen Hall, Oxf., BA 1589; M. Temple 1590, called 1596.4 m. c.1603, Anne (d. 10 June 1649), da. and coh. of Bernard Samways of Winterbourne St. Martin, 1s. d.v.p. 1da.5 kntd. 5 July 1618.6 d. 28 Nov. 1635.7 sig. Fra[ncis] Ashley.

Offices Held

J.p. Dorset by 1608-d., Hants and Wilts. 1628-d.;8 freeman, Southampton 1614,9 Poole, Dorset 1618;10 commr. oyer and terminer, the Verge from 1617,11 Western circ. 1619-d.,12 the Marshalsea 1620-at least 1623,13 subsidy, Dorset 1621-2, 1624,14 piracy 1622, 1631,15 martial law 1626;16 capital burgess, Dorchester 1629-d.;17 commr. knighthood compositions, Dorset 1630-2.18

Recorder, Dorchester 1611-d.;19 autumn reader, M. Temple 1616,20 bencher 1616-17;21 sjt.-at-law 1617-25;22 steward of the Marshalsea 1617-at least 1623;23 king’s sjt. 1625-d.24


Ashley’s ancestors held manorial property in Dorset from the mid-fifteenth century. His uncle, Sir Henry, sat for Shaftesbury in 1547 and also served twice as knight of the shire.25 Ashley himself, the youngest son of a younger brother, became a lawyer, conspicuous for his ‘elocution, learning, and abilities’, according to his great-nephew, the 1st earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper†). He married a Dorset heiress, the daughter of one of his clients, and divided his father-in-law’s estate with Sir Francis Fulford*, thereby acquiring a seat at Winterbourne St. Martin, three miles from Dorchester. In 1611 he became the borough’s recorder.26

In 1614 Ashley was returned to Parliament for Dorchester. Despite his novice status, he made 28 speeches and attracted 15 committee appointments. On 8 Apr., with Members divided over whether the attorney-general (Sir Francis Bacon*) should be barred by his office from sitting in the Commons, Ashley cautiously moved for a committee to establish the precedents before a decision was reached, and was promptly named to it. However, he was much more outspoken three days later. Apparently picking up on concerns that Bacon might imitate Mercury, messenger of the gods, and transmit confidential business to the king, Ashley reminded Members that this deity was also a notorious thief, so that the issue needed to be taken seriously. News of this comment reached James I, possibly via secretary of state Sir Ralph Winwood*, and on 12 Apr. an alarmed Ashley insisted that he had been misreported. He was duly cleared of any wrongdoing, on the motion of Sir Roger Owen and Sir Dudley Digges.27

During the same speech, on 12 Apr., Ashley concurred with Sir Richard Weston that the Commons needed to clear the air of rumours that the Crown might be trying to influence Parliament’s behaviour by means of ‘undertakers’. The next day he was appointed to help draft a Protestation to the king about this matter. Nothing had come of this by 2 May, when Ashley seconded Sir Robert Phelips’ motion for a fresh drafting committee, observing that reports of undertaking were now too widespread to be simply ignored. Three days later he took a much firmer line, arguing that no supply should be granted until this issue had been properly settled, and hinting that he had fresh evidence. However, when finally pushed into explaining himself, he revealed only that he had been given advance details of the Crown’s parliamentary programme, that Sir Reginald Mohun* had told him of a merchant who claimed that there were indeed undertakers, and that certain noblemen had allegedly influenced the election of Members. None of this amounted to firm proof, and Ashley dropped the subject again until 14 May, when Sir Henry Neville I admitted that he had made recommendations to James on how to manage Parliament. Ashley accepted that no harm had been done, but recommended that in future the Commons should guard against attempts to push through supply before grievances had been addressed.28

Not surprisingly, Ashley reacted strongly to news that the chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, Sir Thomas Parry*, had actually interfered in the Stockbridge election. On 9 May he demanded that Parry explain himself at the bar of the House, and the next day called for him to be censured. When the king responded by removing Parry from the Privy Council, Ashley reacted with satisfaction, advising Members on 11 May not to rush to request his reinstatement.29 On 19 Apr. Ashley was nominated to help draft a bill on parliamentary elections, after arguing that the Commons should be able to question witnesses under oath in connection with election disputes. He also prompted the resolution on 14 Apr. that no serving mayors and bailiffs should be returned to Parliament.30 Curiously, though, he resisted moves to enfranchise county Durham, twice conveying to the House the opinion of Bishop James of Durham that the local people were content with the status quo (9 Apr. and 14 May).31

Ashley’s experience as a lawyer naturally influenced his performance in the Commons. He was appointed both to the conference with the Lords on the Palatine marriage settlement bill (14 Apr.), and to the committee to consider the legitimacy of baronetcies (23 May). In speeches on 14 and 20 May he questioned whether the bill on wardship or that to reform the Exchequer’s accounting procedures would actually achieve the results intended.32 On 16 Apr. he was named to help scrutinize the bill against false bail, after proposing an amendment. He was also added on 7 May to the committee for the bridge repairs bill, which he had just denounced as seriously flawed. It was presumably lawyer’s logic that led him on 12 May to support the motion of Sir Thomas Lake I that the Commons confer with Convocation over the bill against non-resident clergy. Sir Edwin Sandys promptly slapped him down for suggesting a breach of parliamentary convention, though Ashley was still nominated to the bill’s committee.33

In general, Ashley showed little interest in economic affairs, though he was named to two committees concerned with debt (11 and 31 May). He was presumably voicing the concerns of Dorchester’s merchants when he called on 3 May for the London-based French Company’s patent to be cancelled, claiming that it was inspired purely by the avarice of London traders. Certainly he showed greater sympathy when Richard Martin* lectured the House on behalf of the Virginia Company, though he agreed on 17 May that Martin should acknowledge his errors at the Bar.34 Nevertheless, as a lawyer he was troubled by the king’s claim to levy impositions as of right. On 5 May he backed calls for a petition to James on this issue, and was appointed to help prepare for a conference with the Lords. He was also nominated on 16 May to establish whether impositions had any legal precedents.35

Accordingly, Ashley was outraged when Bishop Neile of Lincoln attacked the Commons for questioning impositions. On 25 May he suggested that this was an act of revenge for the Lower House’s earlier criticisms of the clergy, and insisted ‘that no greater offence can be than to tax our loyalty and discretion’. He firmly backed the subsequent complaint to the Lords, but on 30 May argued against a suspension of business while this dispute rumbled on.36 When James threatened to dissolve Parliament unless supply was granted immediately, Ashley was deeply perplexed. As he explained on 3 June, the issue of impositions touched both on the king’s power and the subject’s liberties. While recognizing that the Crown must have taxation in some form, and that the current deadlock needed to be broken, he opposed ‘merchandizing’ by the Commons in pursuit of its goals. Instead, he recommended that Members seek a legal challenge to the Bate’s Case ruling of 1606, which had endorsed James’s right to levy impositions. On 7 June, with dissolution now imminent, Ashley lamented this turn of events. The Parliament’s premature end would leave the king without supply and encourage his enemies. Nevertheless, he warned that if subsidies were granted under such duress it would create a fearful precedent. He therefore suggested that the Commons petition James about impositions and other grievances, and then grant him supply in proportion to the generosity of his response. This proposal was seconded by John Drake, but it was already too late for any talk of deals, and the demise of the Addled Parliament followed later that day.37

Ashley was an active local magistrate, as his records of Dorset hearings demonstrate. A major contributor to the erection of the Dorchester workhouse in 1616, he also granted his lease of some local tithes to augment one of the town’s livings in the following year.38 At about the same time, he was made a serjeant-at-law and succeeded Thomas Warre* as steward of the Marshalsea, a prerogative court concerned with offences in the immediate neighbourhood of the royal Household. These promotions occurred even though he evidently lacked an aristocratic patron, and suggest that he had enhanced his reputation at Court by his constructive attitude towards supply during the 1614 Parliament. As Marshalsea steward, he investigated the murder of a servant of Michael Humfrey* while the king was visiting Cranborne in 1618.39 He was knighted in the same year, but in 1619 found himself temporarily in disgrace. One of his clients, the 1st Lord Houghton (Sir John Holles*), was engaged in a long-running legal battle with Sir Edward Coke*, during the course of which Houghton was accused of using a third party, Margaret Langford, to bring charges against Coke. The Privy Council decided to investigate, and Houghton and Ashley were gaoled for contempt after breaching the Council’s order not to communicate with Mrs. Langford. Ashley and Houghton initially challenged their committal, but shortly afterwards secured their release by grovelling apologies. Despite this episode, the two men remained on friendly terms, and Ashley later married his only surviving child, a considerable heiress, to Houghton’s younger son, Denzil Holles*.40

Ashley was apparently earmarked for a seat at Dorchester in the 1620 election, but he ‘resigned over his place unto Sir Thomas Edmondes’, who had been nominated by Prince Charles’s Council. However, when Edmondes chose to sit for Bewdley, Ashley was returned in the Dorchester by-election.41 He attracted seven appointments in the third Jacobean Parliament, and made 23 speeches. Predictably he took a keen interest in legal matters, especially the legislation to restrict the activities of informers. He was appointed to attend three conferences on this topic (19 and 25 Apr.; 1 Dec.), and, as a member of the joint sub-committee of both Houses set up to iron out residual problems, he reported the latest conclusions on 30 May.42 Named to the select committee to consider proposals for reforming Chancery (25 Apr.), he was also nominated to scrutinize the bill against unlawful imprisonment, after recommending that its provisions be extended to cover corporations (5 May).43 He reluctantly conceded on 20 Apr. that an old friend, Sir John Bennet*, should be sequestered from the Commons as a corrupt judge.44 However, he defended another of his acquaintances, Sir John Jephson*, who had annoyed James I with a critical report of the current state of Ireland, and informed the House on 30 Apr. that Jephson ‘was much troubled that he had forgotten some things which would have been for the king’s honour’.45

Appointed to help report the conference of 29 May, when the Parliament’s imminent adjournment was announced, Ashley relayed to Members Prince Charles’s request that the Commons should not try to secure extra time.46 The next day, he argued against presenting any bills for the Royal Assent before the recess, because those that were currently ready were too few to meet the country’s expectations. However, he expressed optimism that Members would get the opportunity in a further sitting to achieve their legislative objectives.47 On 4 June he welcomed the Commons’ declaration of willingness to support a war in defence of the Palatinate, proposing that it should be printed in foreign languages as well as English.48

When Parliament met again in the autumn, Ashley backed calls for a diversionary attack on Spain to aid the Palatinate, recommending on 27 Nov. that Members grant James one subsidy and two fifteenths to fund the military effort for a year, after which the financial requirements might be reviewed.49 The Commons’ subsequent petition to the king in favour of war with Spain offended James, who accused the House of breaching his royal prerogative. On 5 Dec. Ashley argued that Members should petition the king again, not to excuse their behaviour, but to explain that he had been misinformed, and to uphold the Commons’ right to freedom of speech.50 Two days later he agreed with Sir Edward Coke that it was impossible to proceed with legislation until this dispute was resolved.51

On 10 Dec. Ashley abruptly announced that he had again been reported to the king for making a ‘mutinous’ speech. Referring back to the similar episode in 1614, he insisted that his ‘gown and knighting’ would not stop him speaking according to his conscience. At his own request, the House then cleared him of any wrongdoing. Later that day it emerged that Ashley had good reason to shore up his reputation in the Commons, as Members heard a report on the malicious suit brought against Sir Edward Coke in Star Chamber by John Lepton and Henry Goldsmith, both of whom enjoyed the king’s support. This case was widely regarded in the House as an attack on Coke’s parliamentary privilege, but Ashley was obliged to admit that he and Speaker Richardson had been retained as counsel against Sir Edward. Now on the defensive, Ashley controversially maintained that Coke’s status as a Member did not mean that he could not be sued if the Crown wished the case to go ahead, an argument that he reiterated the following day.52

Having now nailed his colours firmly to the royal mast, on 15 Dec. Ashley warmly welcomed James’s latest message to the Commons, which again condemned their petition on war, but offered concessions over Lepton and Goldsmith, and confirmed Members’ privileges: ‘the king washeth with vinegar and oil. He toucheth with the vinegar; yet the oil hath overcome it, and filled his heart with the oil of gladness’. As James was clearly no tyrant, the Commons should now stop contending with him, and get back to business, not least the bill on monopolies, which the Lords had instructed him to say had their broad approval.53 Nevertheless, the dispute over privilege intensified, and on 17 Dec. Ashley suggested that, as a compromise, the Commons should draft a Protestation on this issue but then merely enter it in the Journal rather than send it to the king. He was duly nominated to chair the committee of the whole House while the Protestation was drafted the next day. However, this strategy failed to placate James, who not only brought the Parliament to an abrupt end but also personally ripped the Protestation from the Journal.54

In 1622 Ashley strengthened his ties with Dorchester by purchasing the old Franciscan friary, which he immediately set about rebuilding.55 He did not contest the next election, confining himself to canvassing for John Trenchard* at Wareham.56 However, during the 1624 Parliament he appeared as counsel for Lady Darcy at the committee for the courts of justice in her dispute with lord keeper Williams (21 April).57

At the outset of Charles I’s reign Ashley was promoted to king’s serjeant, and regained his Dorchester seat. He probably also helped to secure the election at Poole of his niece’s husband, Sir John Cooper. During the 1625 Parliament Ashley received 19 appointments and made four speeches. Most of the legislative committees to which he was named concerned either religion or legal issues; their topics included Sabbath abuses, subscription, petty larceny and alienations (22, 25 and 27 June).58 Appointed on 21 June to help draft the petition requesting the king to proclaim a national fast, he agreed with Sir Edward Coke three days later that this matter should take precedence over the Commons’ own private fast. He was subsequently named to help frame a further petition to Charles about religion (24 June).59

A member of the committee for privileges, Ashley was highly critical of Sir William Cope*, who had used habeas corpus to free himself from debtors’ gaol, and then secured election to the Commons in order to obtain protection from his creditors. Complaining on 21 June that the former stratagem was already widely abused, he stated that ‘he would be most troubled to see men come and sit in that House to make laws by habeas corpus’. He was duly nominated to help consider Cope’s case, and also on 27 June to scrutinize the bill to restrain the granting of writs of habeas corpus.60 By comparison, Ashley was sympathetic to the prisoners in the Fleet who petitioned for release on account of the plague outbreak then ravaging London. Named on 8 July to a conference with the Lords on this issue, he also contributed to the following day’s debate. While concerned that the normal strictures of the law should be respected, he argued that the present circumstances were comparable to an outbreak of fire, in which case the freeing of prisoners was not deemed to constitute an escape.61 Ashley had already referred to the plague epidemic on 30 June, when he urged the House to grant two subsidies and two fifteenths to help fund the forthcoming Cadiz expedition. He was appointed the same day to help draft the subsidy bill’s preamble. There is no evidence that he attended the Oxford session .62

In 1625 Ashley relied heavily on the royal prerogative to defend his monopoly of milling at Christchurch, Hampshire, against Sir George Hastings*. The case, which was heard in the Exchequer, perhaps helps to explain why he subsequently abandoned many of his earlier reservations about the Crown’s power.63 Ashley did not sit in the Commons again, but doubtless arranged the election of his son-in-law Holles at Dorchester in 1628. During that Parliament Ashley assisted the attorney-general, (Sir) Robert Heath*, at the conference of 17 Apr., at which both Houses debated the liberties of the subject. According to Sir Edward Coke, he presented ‘five damnable and desperate reasons’ for rejecting the Commons’ arguments, the gist of his case being that any constraints on royal power would result in anarchy. This extreme position offended both Commons and Lords, and he was censured and temporarily suspended from the Upper House until he acknowledged his offence at the bar.64 In reality Ashley was not unduly repentant, writing to Buckingham:

It appears we did not much err, when in two of the three points we prevailed at the last conference, ... viz. that the king’s council may upon just cause commit to prison, and that by mandate only without process; wherein our labours were not altogether fruitless. The third point only remains in difference, for expression of the cause of commitment, which I shall ever absolutely deny to be fit in all cases as the position is generally offered.65

Nevertheless, Ashley’s posthumous reputation has suffered less from his political record than from his determination to recover the money owed to him by his spendthrift kinsman, Sir John Cooper. His great-nephew Shaftesbury’s description of the wicked uncle who corrupted the Court of Wards but was struck down in the midst of his unjust pleadings is false in all ascertainable particulars. Ashley remained active till the last morning of his life, and then passed peacefully away at Serjeants’ Inn, Fleet Street. On 28 Nov. 1635 ‘he rose to go to the hall, but finding himself not well sat down in his chair by the fireside, commanding his man to get the cook to make him a caudle; but at his return he found him dead in his chair’. Denzil Holles reportedly inherited an estate of at least £1,200 a year.66

Ashley was buried at St. Peter’s, Dorchester, where he had requested that a memorial be erected in the chancel, ‘fit rather for decency than ostentation’. His will, signed on 12 Aug., well reveals his unconventional personality.

I do forbear to declare herein the disposition of my soul according to the common course of men’s wills, for every good Christian ought to be prepared at all times to resign into the hands of the Almighty the soul which he first infused when he shall please to call for it; and by using the means of grace in time of health to be furnished with assurance upon the verity of Christ’s gospel and the precious promises therein declared that his soul shall after the separation inherit eternity of glory, and not leave the work for a formal introduction to his will at the last period of his life.

He left £100 to the puritan rector, John White, and 100 marks to the corporation to continue his augmentation to the living of All Saints, together with his law books. His coach and horses he bequeathed to his wife, who proved the will on 19 May 1636.67

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Sloane 2131, f. 16v.
  • 2. MTR, 310; Vis. Wilts. (Harl. Soc. cv-cvi), 233.
  • 3. Sloane 2131, f. 17.
  • 4. Al. Ox.; M. Temple Admiss.
  • 5. Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 387, 697; Sloane 2131, f. 20.
  • 6. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 169.
  • 7. C142/548/20.
  • 8. SP14/33; C231/4, f. 249; C193/13/2.
  • 9. HMC 11th Rep. III, 23.
  • 10. Hutchins, i. 32.
  • 11. C181/2, f. 287v.
  • 12. C181/2, f. 335v; 181/5, f. 5v.
  • 13. C181/3, ff. 1, 97.
  • 14. C212/22/20-1, 23.
  • 15. C181/3, f. 72v; 181/4, f. 104.
  • 16. APC, 1626, p. 221.
  • 17. Municipal Recs. of Dorchester ed. C.H. Mayo, 57, 716.
  • 18. E178/7154, f. 288C; 178/5251, ff. 3, 10, 61.
  • 19. Municipal Recs. of Dorchester, 452-4.
  • 20. Readers and Readings in Inns of Ct. and Chancery ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. xiii), 175.
  • 21. A.R. Ingpen, M. Temple Bench Bk. 178.
  • 22. Order of Sjts.-at-Law ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. v), 497.
  • 23. C181/2, f. 287v; 181/3, f. 97.
  • 24. Baker, 497.
  • 25. Hutchins, iii. 581-2; HP Commons, 1509-58, i. 342.
  • 26. W.D. Christie, Life of Shaftesbury, i. app. 1, p. vii; C78/155/8.
  • 27. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 32-3, 57, 65, 67-8; CD 1621, ii. 510.
  • 28. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 65, 76, 121-2, 125, 150, 159-60, 245.
  • 29. Ibid. 177, 181, 190, 197, 205, 209.
  • 30. Ibid. 80, 103, 106.
  • 31. Ibid. 39, 237, 244.
  • 32. Ibid. 82, 322, 235, 243, 295.
  • 33. Ibid. 91, 171, 217, 220.
  • 34. Ibid. 129, 206, 273, 391.
  • 35. Ibid. 150, 152, 157, 259.
  • 36. Ibid. 341, 349, 352, 381, 386.
  • 37. Ibid. 415-16, 421, 437-8, 444.
  • 38. Case Bk. of Sir Francis Ashley ed. J.H. Bettey (Dorset Rec. Soc. vii); Hutchins, ii. 397; Municipal Recs. of Dorchester, 620-1.
  • 39. Harl. 6715, f. 34.
  • 40. Letters of John Holles, i. ed. P.R. Seddon (Thoroton Soc. xxxi), pp. li-lii; APC, 1618-19, pp. 471, 474; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 245; Hutchins, iii. 595.
  • 41. P.M. Hunneyball, ‘Prince Chas.’s Council as Electoral Agent, 1620-24’, PH, xxiii. 325; William Whiteway of Dorchester (Dorset Rec. Soc. xii), 33-4. Whiteway inaccurately states that Ashley was elected in Dec. 1620, and then resigned his seat on 13 Jan. 1621.
  • 42. CJ, i. 582b, 592a, 632a, 654b; CD 1621, iii. 86; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 133- 4.
  • 43. CJ, i. 590b, 609b-10a; CD 1621, iii. 172.
  • 44. CJ, i. 584a; CD 1621, iii. 31.
  • 45. CD 1621, iv. 280-1.
  • 46. CJ, i. 631a; Nicholas, ii. 121.
  • 47. CD 1621, iii. 355-6; Nicholas, ii. 128.
  • 48. CD 1621, v. 397.
  • 49. Ibid. iii. 469-70; CJ, i. 649a.
  • 50. Nicholas, ii. 287-8; CD 1621, ii. 505.
  • 51. CJ, i. 660b; CD 1621, vi. 229.
  • 52. CD 1621, ii. 510; Nicholas, ii. 304, 306, 309.
  • 53. CJ, i. 664a; CD 1621, ii. 522.
  • 54. CJ, i. 667a-b, 668b; CD 1621, ii. 533; Nicholas, ii. 345.
  • 55. C142/548/20; Hutchins, 365.
  • 56. Add. 29974, ff. 74-6.
  • 57. ‘Earle 1624’, f. 153v.
  • 58. Procs. 1625, pp. 215, 245-6, 253.
  • 59. Ibid. 205, 239, 241.
  • 60. Ibid. 206-7, 213, 253.
  • 61. Ibid. 347, 360, 363.
  • 62. Ibid. 275-6.
  • 63. E112/121/137.
  • 64. CD 1628, iii. 6; T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, i. 330; HMC 4th Rep. 14.
  • 65. SP16/102/26.
  • 66. Christie, i. app. 1, pp. ix-x; Les Reportes de Sir William Jones (1675), p. 364; Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 490.
  • 67. Hutchins, ii. 361; PROB 11/171, ff. 11-13.