SHELLEY, William (by 1479-1549), of London and Michelgrove, Suss.

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



Family and Education

b. by 1479, 1st s. of John Shelley by Elizabeth, da. and h. of John Michelgrove alias Fauconer of Michelgrove. educ. I. Temple. m. by 1508, Alice, da. and event. coh. of Henry Belknap of Knell, Beckley, Suss., 7s. inc. Richard 7da. suc. fa. 3 Jan. 1527. Kntd. aft. 3 Nov. 1529.2

Offices Held

Lent reader, I. Temple 1518, gov. 1520-1.

J.p. Suss. 1512-d., Warws. 1512-15, Surr. 1522-38, numerous other counties from 1528; commr. subsidy, Warws. 1512, Coventry 1512, 1514, musters, Suss. 1512, benevolence 1544/45; other commissions 1520-d.; recorder, Coventry 15 July 1512-22 Feb. 1515; under sheriff, London 27 June 1514-20, recorder 10 May 1520-6; serjeant-at-law 1521; j.c.p. 1526-d.; receiver of petitions in the Lords, Parlts. of 1539, 1542, 1545, 1547; custos rot. Suss. by 1547-d.3


According to his son Richard, William Shelley was, as an eldest son, ‘put to the inns of court but to learn to understand his own evidence’; in the event he became a lawyer and rose high in his profession. His first appointment was to the recordership of Coventry for which he was recommended both by the retiring recorder, Anthony Fitzherbert, who described him as ‘a gentleman of good conscience and well learned in the law of the land’, and by letters from the King and ‘divers great lords’ which he may have obtained through his brother-in-law Sir Edward Belknap, himself connected with Coventry through his servant John Rastell. Shelley resigned the recordership within three years because, like Fitzherbert before him, he could no longer ‘give his attendance ... as he ought to do’: in June 1514 he had been appointed an under sheriff of London, and as judge in the sheriff’s court and legal counsellor to the City he was expected to attend upon the mayor and aldermen at their twice-weekly meeting unless engaged on their behalf in the law courts at Westminster.4

Service as under sheriff was often followed by election to the recordership and on the resignation of that office by Richard Broke in 1520 Shelley succeeded him. In the following year he was made a serjeant-at-law, a promotion which threatened to deprive him of his office under an ancient rule of the City that the recorder should be no more than an apprentice of the law. But Broke had retained office after taking the coif and Shelley’s petition to the mayor and aldermen to be allowed to do the same was granted. The recorder was frequently employed as an intermediary between the City and the crown. In June 1521 Shelley went to see Cardinal Wolsey about the City’s right to appoint to the office of common weigher in London which was disputed by the King. Wolsey reported that the King was ‘highly displeased’ over this matter and, still more, over reports of discontent in London at the execution of the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, and that he intended ‘to punish the City with such sharp and grievous punishment which they be not nor shall be able to bear’. At a meeting of the court of aldermen in the following month, Shelley put forward the City’s suggestions for the prevention of insurrection: either there should be watch kept continually in London for a whole year or all the harness within the City should be removed to safe custody, at the choice of the King. Henry VIII insisted on both precautions and after a long debate Shelley was authorized to ‘pacify and please the King’s grace’ by reporting the willingness of the aldermen to give up their own harness but their inability to ‘promise for all the City’. In 1522 another sharp conflict arose. On 16 May Shelley reported to a special meeting of the court of aldermen the cardinal’s request, revealed two days earlier to Sir John Brydges and himself, for a loan of £100,000. Six days later he delivered the City’s offer of £14,000 and the cardinal eventually agreed to accept £30,000, to be paid in three instalments, the third to be remitted if no longer needed. The City interpreted this as a loan of £20,000 and in the following month Shelley concluded the negotiations by obtaining Wolsey’s agreement to the terms of its repayment.5

As recorder Shelley was elected by London to the Parliament of 1523. The dispute over the right to appoint to certain offices within the City being still unsettled, Shelley and five aldermen were sent to sue to Wolsey for the offices ‘to be granted by the King’s grace to the City and to be ratified by Parliament’, and on 16 May the court of aldermen agreed that ‘a bill of petition made and devised by Mr. Broke and Mr. Recorder to be exhibited to the Parliament concerning certain offices within this City, with a proviso concerning the office of common weigher, shall be exhibited and put up as it is’. But the bill met with no success in a Parliament preoccupied with the demands made upon it for a large subsidy. Before the next Parliament met, Shelley had been made a judge, and from 1529 until his death he was personally summoned to each Parliament by writ of assistance. From 1539 he was regularly appointed a receiver of petitions and was called upon to advise on bills; during the first session of the Parliament of 1547-in which his son Richard sat for Gatton-an Act (I Edw. VI, no. 13) was passed for the assurance of certain lands to him and Sir Richard Rich.6

During the first session of the Parliament of 1529 Shelley was sent to Wolsey to take formal possession of York Place for the King; that task performed he was knighted by Henry VIII in York Place. Soon afterwards, according to his son, he fell out of favour and suffered ‘great loss’ during the ascendancy of Cromwell, and it was not until the end of the reign that the King ‘made much of him again’. If this was indeed so, it can scarcely have arisen from any differences over public policy, for although Shelley was to die a Catholic and his children to become prominent recusants he did not resist the Henrician Reformation and was active as a judge in the prosecution of its opponents. What does give some colour to his son’s allegation is that Shelley was forced by Cromwell to sell to the King the lordship of Knell in Beckley, the ancient residence of the Belknaps, which had been his wife’s dowry, and that in 1541 he was recompensed—‘liberally’, as his son conceded, and with poetic justice—by the grant of two manors in Essex forfeited by Cromwell. When in London Shelley lived in the parish of St. Sepulchre, where he was assessed at 300 marks in goods to the subsidy of 1523; his lands, in an assessment of lawyers to this subsidy, were valued at £140 a year. On the death of his father in 1527 he succeeded to considerable estates in Hertfordshire, Kent and Sussex and took up residence at Michelgrove, in the parish of Clapham. Here he entertained Henry VIII and rebuilt the medieval house into a large mansion, said to have been one of the finest in the county.7

In his will of 6 Nov. 1548 Shelley asked to be buried in Clapham church if he died in the neighbourhood, ‘without any pomp or costly ceremonies’, and provided for the saying of 100 masses. Only three of his younger sons were still alive: he left the manor of Mapledurham and other Hampshire lands to Thomas, £20 a year to Richard and 100 marks to James. Richard Shelley might have received a larger legacy but his father had ‘been at great charges with the finding of him in Italy’: he was, however, to have the £100 owed to Shelley by Henry VIII’s executors (whom the judge had advised), ‘for I lent it to our said late sovereign lord at his being at the siege of Boulogne’—an allusion which shows that Shelley, after being summoned to raise soldiers for the campaign of 1544, had accompanied the King to France. He named his heir John sole executor but provided that in the event of John’s death—and he survived his father by less than two years—that task should be undertaken by his cousin Henry White, his daughter Elizabeth Copley and his friend and servant Thomas Bishop. Elizabeth Shelley’s marriage to Sir Roger Copley and her brother Thomas’s to Sir Roger’s sister Mary led to the return for Gatton of several of Shelley’s family as well as of his servant Bishop; another daughter, Catherine, married Henry Browne of Betchworth Castle, Surrey, several of whose family sat for Gatton after the flight overseas of Shelley’s grandson Thomas Copley. John Shelley’s marriage to Mary Fitzwilliam renewed his family’s relationship with Sir Anthony Cooke, a descendant of Henry Belknap, who had married her half-sister. In a codicil to his will of 29 Dec. 1548 Sir William Shelley forgave debts owing to him, including those of Leonard West. He died six days later. A tomb with figures in Clapham church commemorates him, his wife and their 14 children.8

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: Helen Miller


  • 1. City of London RO, Guildhall, jnl. 12, f. 213v; rep. 4, f. 144.
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from age at fa.’s i.p.m., C142/46/14. Vis. Suss. (Harl. Soc. liii), 36-37; Suss. Arch. Colls. xxiii. 148-9; xxvi. 215; Hasted, Kent, ii. 102; DNB.
  • 3. LP Hen. VIII, i-v, x, xii, xiii, xx; CPR, 1547-8, pp. 74, 75, 77, 82, 85-88, 90; 1548-9, p. 181; Statutes, iii. 82, 85, 116; Coventry Leet Bk. (EETS cxxxviii), 635, 646; City of London RO, jnl. 11, f. 191v; rep. 4, f. 52v; 7, ff. 145, 147; LJ, i. 103, 165, 267, 293.
  • 4. Letters of Sir Richard Shelley, 15; Coventry Leet Bk. 635, 646; City of London RO, rep. 3, ff. 245, 247v.
  • 5. City of London RO, Liber Dunthorne, f. 459v; rep. 5, ff. 191, 199v, 204v, 288, 290, 291 and v, 296v, 297.
  • 6. Ibid. rep. 6, ff. 32, 36v; C218/1; Rymer, Foedera, vi(3), 5, 74; LJ, i. 118, 273, 295, 301-3.
  • 7. G. Cavendish, Wolsey (EETS ccxliii), 116-17; Letters of Sir Richard Shelley, 15; LP Hen. VIII, viii, x, xii-xiv, xvi; E179/251/15v; Cal. I.T. Recs. i. 465 where his christian name is given as John; C142/46/14, 40, 92; Suss. Arch. Colls. lv. 284.
  • 8. PCC 25 Populwell; APC, ii. 42; LP Hen. VIII, xix; Vis. Suss. III; M. E. Finch, Five Northants. Fams. (Northants. Rec. Soc. xix), ped. at end vol.; C142/88/78; Suss. Arch. Colls. xxiii. 149; xxvi. 215.