PLOWDEN, Edmund (1519/20-85), of the Middle Temple, London; Plowden, Salop; Shiplake, Oxon. and Burghfield, Berks.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Oct. 1553
Nov. 1554

Family and Education

b. 1519/20, 1st s. of Humphrey Plowden of Plowden by Elizabeth, da. of John Sturry of Rossall, Salop, wid. of William Wollascott. educ.?Camb. and Oxf.; M. Temple. m. Catherine, da. of William Sheldon of Beoley, Worcs., 3s. 2da. suc. fa. 10 Mar. 1558.1

Offices Held

Autumn reader, M. Temple 1557, Lent 1560, treasurer 1561-70.

Steward, manor of Greenham, Berks. 1550; member, council in the marches of Wales 1553; dep. chief steward, duchy of Lancaster, south parts 1557, under steward 1558-d.; j.p.q. Glos., Herefs., Salop, Worcs. 1554; j.p. Berks. 1558/59, q. 1561, rem. 1569; other commissions, Berks. etc. 1564-76.2


The Plowden family, which claimed Saxon descent, had held land at Plowden, near Bishop’s Castle in the south-west of Shropshire, at least since the reign of Richard I. Despite this lineage, Edmund Plowden’s father played little part in local affairs and the son’s own early life is obscure. He is said to have studied at both universities and even to have been admitted to practise ‘chirurgery and physic’ at Oxford in 1552, 14 years after the traditionally accepted date for his entry into the Middle Temple, a date based on his own claim to have begun the study of law in his 20th year. He was named a trustee by John Winchcombe alias Smallwood* in a family settlement of 1548, perhaps as a lawyer, and may then already have resolved to make his own home in Berkshire; his acquisition two years later of the stewardship of Greenham in the Winchcombe parish of Thatcham was the first step he took to establish himself there. The choice was probably prompted by the Englefields, a leading Berkshire family which owned land in Shropshire at Up Rossall, near the home of Plowden’s mother; Sir Francis Englefield is said to have confided the administration of these estates to Plowden, who secured a lease there for his brother-in-law, Richard Sandford.3

Plowden’s parliamentary career was over before he became prominent in Berkshire. Wallingford, where the castle and honor had been transferred from the duchy of Cornwall to the royal manor of Ewelme in 1540, was a decaying town, often open to intruders, so that its return of Plowden to Mary’s first Parliament was not necessarily a sign of his local standing. Reading, with a stronger tradition of independence, normally returned one townsman with one figure prominent in the county, and in November 1554 John Bourne filled the first role. Confusion has arisen over whether Edmund Plowden or his younger brother Edward was the Reading Member, probably because the christian name in the return is represented by an ambiguous abbreviation and because Edward would conveniently fill the gap if Edmund was also returned, as some authorities claim, for Wootton Bassett, although the Crown Office list shows that borough as represented by Giles Payne and William Hampshire. The return for Wootton Bassett is defaced, but a comparison of the abbreviation in that for Reading with other, known, names, together with the entry in the corporation diary and the fact that only the elder brother is known to have lived at any time in Berkshire, all indicate that it was the elder brother who was chosen for Reading: he was certainly returned for Wootton Bassett in 1555 when his name was inserted in the indenture over an erasure and in a different hand from that of the document. Sir Francis Englefield was steward of Reading in 1554 and was granted the lordship of Wootton Bassett early in 1555, so it is likely that Plowden rose under Mary with his help, which he was afterwards to repay. Plowden was later to be favoured by the Wiltshire magnate Sir William Herbert I, 1st Earl of Pembroke, who may also have helped to secure his return in 1555.4

In Mary’s first Parliament there were no Berkshire Members among those marked as opposing the reunion with Rome. The numerous local duties which then fell to Plowden show that the Queen held him to be one of the ‘wise, grave and Catholic sort’ whom she wished to see returned to Parliament in November 1554 and it is at first sight surprising to find him included with those who were absent without licence when the House was called early in January 1555. Informations for contempt were laid by the attorney-general against a first batch of ‘seceders’, including Plowden and his friend Richard Ward I, a Member for Windsor. Six submitted to their fines but Plowden ‘took a traverse full of pregnancy’ and was the only one known to have pleaded that he had not been absent. Eventually the information against him in the King’s bench was withdrawn. A fellow-Member of the Parliament of November 1554, Andrew Tusser, had acted as his attorney, and Plowden for his part may have advised or encouraged his relative George Leigh to plead in the same fashion. Although he failed to find a seat in the last Parliament of the reign, during its first session he appeared before the House with John Story and the abbot of Westminster over the abbey’s right of sanctuary. In October 1558 the abbot granted Plowden a retainer of £4. In the same month Plowden was among those summoned to take the degree of serjeant-at-law in the following Easter term, but Mary died within three weeks and her successor omitted his name from her writs, so that he never achieved the dignity which some later writers have allowed him.5

A career in politics was now closed to Plowden but he could still exercise a weighty conservative influence by defending followers of the old order. He pleaded for Edmund Bonner, the deprived Marian bishop of London, who had refused to take the oath of supremacy, and in 1566 he appeared before the Commons as counsel for Dean Goodman of Westminster to argue for the exclusion of Westminster abbey from the scope of the bill (later defeated on a division) for the abolition of sanctuaries for debt. Twelve years later the Catholic prisoner Francis Tregian was permitted ‘to use the advice of Mr. Serjeant [Francis] Gawdy and Mr. Plowden’. One of several unlikely explanations for the expression that has become proverbial, ‘The case is altered, quoth Plowden’, is that the words were spoken in the lawyer’s defence of a man accused of attending mass, when it was revealed that the supposed priest was a layman and an informer. Another, even less credible, is that it was Plowden himself who had been present at the mass. He was, indeed, known to be a Catholic. In 1564 Bishop Jewell said that he was ‘as it is supposed a hinderer’ and in 1569 he was the only Berkshire justice who refused to subscribe to the Act of Uniformity, although he claimed that he had hitherto been as dutiful in church attendance as any man ‘of his profession in the common law and having as much business as he hath had in term time and out of the term’. He was then bound in 200 marks to be of good behaviour for a year and to appear before the Council when required. In 1577 he was accused of not attending church since the northern rebellion with the result that the Middle Temple was ‘pestered with papists’, and a list of Catholics in the capital a year later included ‘Mr. Plowden who hears mass at Baron Brown’s, Fish Street Hill’.6

Although Plowden was debarred from promotion his services continued to be in demand. He retained his office in the duchy of Lancaster and was one of those assembled early in Elizabeth’s reign to discuss the ‘great case of the duchy’, relating to the sovereign’s rights therein. He also appeared as arbitrator at one stage in a long-standing dispute between the boroughs of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in 1575 and it is probable that, if his own name seldom appears in legal cases under Mary and Elizabeth, he can be identified with the ‘apprentice of the Middle Temple’ who features in his own reports. A sign of the respect in which he was held was the justification given by William Lovelace for a legal opinion, ‘that Mr. Plowden’s hand was first unto it, and that he supposed he might in anything follow St. Augustine’.7

Plowden acted for such leading figures as the earls of Leicester and Pembroke and it was Pembroke who in 1567 obtained for him and (Sir) Edward Saunders the much coveted wardship of Francis, son of John Englefield of Wootton Bassett and nephew and heir presumptive of Sir Francis. Plowden was thus never entirely without influence. He is even said to have been offered the lord chancellorship by the Queen and to have made a dignified refusal on the ground that, as one who found ‘no reason to swerve from the Catholic faith’, he could never ‘countenance the persecution of its professors’. If the offer was ever made, it must have been after the death of (Sir) Nicholas Bacon in February 1579 and before the elevation of Thomas Bromley II two months later or, more probably, in the period between Bacon’s death and Bromley’s admission to the Privy Council during March. Catholic or conservative sympathies might not have barred Plowden but he was by then known as a recusant.8

Plowden’s reputation rests not on the attainment of high office but on his compilation of the important cases which he attended from 1550 to 1579, a work which has ‘come to be regarded as the most accurate and painstaking collection of its kind produced in the 16th and 17th centuries’. Les Comentaries, ou les reportes de Edmunde Plowden were first printed privately, at the author’s own expense, in 1571, but they were reprinted with a second part, seven years later. In a preface of 1578, the lawyer, as a ‘man of simple understanding and of weak memory’, disclaimed any intention of publishing, until he found that the private circulation of his work had led to clerks and others inaccurately transcribing ‘day and night’ and until the justices of both benches had joined with the barons of the Exchequer to urge publication.9

Plowden also wrote a treatise in support of Mary Stuart’s claim to the English throne and against that produced by John Hales II in favour of Lady Catherine Grey. Plowden’s thesis, a ‘locus classicus ... for the theory of the King’s two bodies’, was later adopted by Anthony Browne II and Bishop Leslie. According to a dedication to James I written by Plowden’s son Francis for one of the surviving copies of the treatise, during the Parliament of 1566 the 4th Duke of Norfolk asked for the lawyer’s opinion ‘by way of discourse in speech’ and the work was ready for printing when the Treasons Act of 1571 (13 Eliz. c.1) inhibited discussion of the succession. This account does not square with other surviving prefaces and the projected publication may have been connected with the Ridolfi plot, although no other evidence has been found of Plowden’s involvement therein.10

The will of Humphrey Plowden had been proved on 6 May 1558 and the lawyer was licensed to enter on his father’s Shropshire property on 23 Feb. 1559. His younger brother Edward, who had been left £40 and an annuity of 40s., apparently lived on the ancestral estate, for his will of 1 Apr. 1575 describes him as ‘of Plowden’ and he asked to be buried in the nearby church of Lydbury North, as their father had also requested. Edmund Plowden did not neglect the chance of adding to his patrimony, for in May 1554 he paid £91, and a London merchant, John White, paid £252 for the reversion of the manor of Lydbury North, which White was to enjoy for life and which was then to go to Plowden. At the same time, they bought the manor of Frimley, Surrey. In Berkshire, Plowden acquired the manor of Wokefield and land at Stratfield Mortimer, Sulhampstead Banister and Sulhampstead Abbots, but he lived at Shiplake, where the Thames divides Oxfordshire from Berkshire, and at Burghfield. Shiplake had belonged to the Englefields for some 300 years before its seizure and Plowden, who first began to live there as guardian of the young Francis, was granted a lease of the house, rectory and various lands there for £3 a year in 1574. When his ward came of age, the Englefield estates were surrendered to him by Plowden, who none the less still kept his lease of Shiplake Court from the Queen. Bishop’s Castle was granted a charter in 1574 and Plowden was named one of the head burgesses together with his nephew Andrew Blunden. He probably helped to secure the borough’s enfranchisement ten years later and the first two Members, John Cole and Thomas Jukes, were his relatives and seem to have sat on his nomination.11

When Plowden made his will on 2 Jan. 1582, he gave his residences as Shiplake and Burghfield. Always restrained, he made no defiant declaration of faith and left his executor to decide the funeral expenses ‘which I would not have great’, asking to be buried in the Middle Temple if he should die in London. His wife Catherine already lay there and today there stands an imposing, canopied tomb against the north wall, with a recumbent effigy of the lawyer and a brief epitaph. Plowden’s eldest son and executor, also Edmund, was at least 22 when his father died on 6 Feb. 1585. The younger Edmund, however, died unmarried in August 1587 and was succeeded by his brother Francis, to whom the lawyer had left, among other similar bequests, £6 13s.4d. out of a lease he held at Burghfield from John Talbot of Grafton: Francis Plowden married the daughter of Thomas Fermor. Plowden provided for the marriage of his daughter Mary but left it to the discretion of his son-in-law Francis Perkins, Thomas Vachell II, William Wollascott and Andrew Blunden to increase or decrease the sum suggested as they saw fit: in his own will, Edmund Plowden the younger laid it down that the sum provided should be £1,000. In the meantime, the elder Plowden entrusted Mary to the care of Mrs. Englefield, presumably the mother of his ward Francis, his sister-in-law Philippa, daughter of William Sheldon and widow of Anthony Pollard, and his married daughter Anne Perkins. Mary later married Richard, eldest son of George White of Hutton, Essex. Andrew Blunden was overseer of the will and secured a lease of Shiplake Court. A portrait at Plowden and a bust and a coat of arms in the Middle Temple hall also commemorate a man who was acknowledged as the greatest and most honest lawyer of his day.12

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: T. F.T. Baker


  • 1. Aged 19 on entry into M. Temple. Plowden, Commentaries (1779), preface p. iii. B. M. Plowden, Plowden Fam. 16; Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 448; PCC 20 Noodes, 54 Brudenell; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. lii. 179, 183; Recusant Hist. xiii. 172 n. 1; DNB; information from G. de C. Parmiter.
  • 2. E315/221/308; CPR, 1553-4, pp. 19, 20, 23, 26; 1560-3, p. 434; Somerville, Duchy, i. 432; HMC 11th Rep. VII, 224; APC, ix. 311-12; R. O’sullivan, Edmund Plowden (Autumn reading, M. Temple 1952), 13.
  • 3. O’sullivan, 2, 3; Burke, LG (1952), 2043; J. B. Blakeway, Sheriffs Salop, 132, 222; C142/115/161; LP Hen. VIII, xvii; Mill Stephenson, Mon Brasses, 429; Cooper, Ath. Cant. i. 501-3; Wood, Ath. Ox. ed. Bliss, i. 503; CPR, 1548-9, pp. 89-90; VCH Berks. iii. 319.
  • 4. VCH Berks. iii. 528; Reading MPs, 40; J. B. Hurry, Reading Abbey, 36; C219/23/4, 6, 24/187; Reading Recs. i. 242; CPR, 1554-5, p. 52; VCH Wilts. ix. 191.
  • 5. E. Coke, Institutes, iv (1671), 18-20; KB27/1176, rex roll 16; 1180, rex roll 36; CJ, i. 49; HMC 10th Rep. IV, 409; H. W. Woolrych, Serjeants-at-law, i. 101-31.
  • 6. CJ, i. 74, 76, 79; APC, x. 249; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 355, 689; Add. 1566-79, p. 550; Cam. Misc. ix(3), 38; SP12/144/45, 46; E. Rose, Cases of Conscience, 38; H. Foley, Jesuit Recs. iv. 540-2.
  • 7. Plowden, 212-23; Somerville, i. p. xiii; APC, ix. 312, 368; O’sullivan, 10-11; L. W. Abbott, Law Reporting in Eng. 203, 206; E. J. Climenson, Shiplake, 207-9; Blakeway, 223; CPR, 1566-9, p. 242; Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxviii), 49; Recusant Hist. xiii. 159-77; xiv. 9-25; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), ix. 122-45.
  • 8. Downside Rev. xc. 251-9; xcii. 62-67.
  • 9. Abbott, 198-239.
  • 10. HL Quarterly, xxxvii. 209-26; The Queen’s Two Bodies, passim; M. Levine, The Early Eliz. Succession Question, 92-94, 111-15; W. K. Jordan, Edw. VI, i. 55n; Bodl. Don. c.43.
  • 11. PCC 20 Noodes, 39 Carew; CPR, 1553-4, pp. 268-9; 1558-60, p. 76; 1572-5, pp. 14-15, 491; VCH Berks. iii. 425; Climenson, 202-3, 207-8; E310/22/119, m. 42 ex inf. G. de C. Parmiter.
  • 12. PCC 54 Brudenell; Climenson, 203-6, 214-17; C142/206/13, 221/123; VCH Worcs. iv. 14; VCH Berks. iii. 245; Camden, Eliz. (4th ed.), 304.