AUBREY, William (1529-95), of Cantreff, Brec., Doctors' Commons, London and Sydenham, Kent.

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. 1529, 2nd s. of Thomas Aubrey, MD, of Cantreff by Agnes, da. of Thomas Vaughan. educ. Christ’s Coll. Brecon; Oxf. c.1543, fellow of All Souls 1547, BCL 1549, DCL 1554 or 1555; adv. Doctors’ Commons 1556. m. by 1558, Wilgiford, da. of John Williams of Taynton, Oxon., 3s. 6da.1

Offices Held

Principal, New Inn Hall, Oxf. c.1550; (jt. with John Storey, later sole) prof. of civil law, Oxf. 7 Oct. 1553-22 Feb. 1559; judge marshal with army in France 1557; jt. (with William Clerke II) vicar gen., province of Canterbury Jan. 1578; j.p.q. Brec., Carm., Merion., Pemb., other Welsh counties, and Mon., Herefs., Salop, Glos., and member, council in the marches of Wales by 1579; master in Chancery; member of ct. of high commission by 1593; master of requests 20 Jan. 1590.2


Aubrey had a distinguished career at Oxford, and though his great-grandson the antiquary was doubtless correct in thinking it probable that the Earl of Pembroke, his kinsman, was ‘instrumental in his rise’, there is also no doubt that he was of outstanding ability. He left academic life in 1556 and served under Pembroke in the St. Quentin campaign of 1557. During Elizabeth’s reign he became a prominent member of the group of Welsh civil lawyers who played so notable a role in the ecclesiastical, judicial and diplomatic affairs of the period. For some years he was in private practice, ‘an advocate of very good reputation of the civil and canon laws’. In 1561 he was one of the attorneys for the Earl of Hertford before the commission to inquire into the validity of the Earl’s marriage with Lady Catherine Grey. In 1564-5 he went to Bruges as counsel for the Merchant Adventurers’ company during the negotiations for the resumption of trade between England and Flanders. Nicholas Wotton commended him to Cecil for his ‘wit, learning and painfulness’. He was still in Bruges in April 1566.3

Thenceforward he was constantly employed on all manner of commissions and duties; he sat often as judge-delegate in the Admiralty court and, at least after 1577, was active in ecclesiastical affairs. His advice was asked on many important diplomatic and legal points, including the case of the bishop of Ross in 1571. According to his grandson, he was among those favourably inclined to Mary Queen of Scots—indeed, he was accused by his enemies of being in treasonable correspondence with her. These accusations were, no doubt, slanders, and he sat on the commission which tried Mary in 1586. Honours and responsibilities continued to be given him until the end of his life. A favourite of the Queen, who called him her ‘little doctor’, he was also a friend of the Cecils and, according to John Aubrey, popular with the nobles. The bishop of St. David’s, however, regarded him as an ‘insatiable cormorant’ and a malicious enemy.4

It was probably the Earl of Pembroke who secured Aubrey his seats for Carmarthen and Brecon Boroughs. Hindon was owned by the bishop of Winchester, and in 1559 Bishop White had Aubrey and Aubrey’s kinsman, another Welsh civilian, Henry Jones, returned there. His patron at Arundel in 1563 was presumably the 12th Earl of Arundel (a distant relative through the Earl of Pembroke), or the Duke of Norfolk. On 31 Oct. 1566 he was nominated to the joint committee with the Lords to discuss the succession bill. The long gap in Aubrey’s parliamentary career was no doubt due to his Chancery mastership, which involved attendance in the Upper House, and to his office of vicar-general, which gave him a seat in Convocation. When he was again returned to the Commons in 1593, by which time he had become a master of requests, it was for Taunton, a borough subject to ecclesiastical patronage. He was named to two committees during this Parliament dealing with the subsidy (28 Feb., 1 Mar. 1593), and as burgess for Taunton he was nominated to committees concerned with cloth (15 Mar.) and kerseys (23 Mar.).

Aubrey, the seventeenth-century antiquary, has left an account of his great-grandfather, praising his ‘rare skill and science in the law’, and ‘sound judgment and good experience therein’. He describes him as of medium build and ‘somewhat inclining to fatness of visage’, with a grave countenance and a ‘delicate, quick, lively and piercing black eye’. Though living mostly in London or Sydenham, Kent, he remained very much a Welshman, buying up much of the Brecon lands of the elder branch of his family and, with other purchases and grants from the Crown, becoming one of the biggest landowners in the county, able to ride ‘nine miles together in his own land’. He also had lands in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Kent and Wiltshire and died with an estimated income of £2,500 a year from lands alone. As he put it, ‘God of his goodness hath very plentifully bestowed upon me’. In the years preceding his death he settled many of his estates on his wife and made provision for his two older sons. By his will, dated 22 June 1595, he left further lands and the lease of a Welsh rectory to his youngest son John. His town house he divided between John and his son-in-law Daniel Dunne. He made numerous bequests to his children and servants and to the poor in various parishes, and bequeathed a piece of plate to Doctors’ Commons. He was one of the first men in England to keep a private coach: he bequeathed two coaches to his wife, together with plate, furniture and his house at Sydenham. He died 25 June 1595 and was buried at St. Paul’s 24 July. His chief clerk, his ‘loving and trusty servant’ Hugh Georges, proved the will on 29 July, soon afterwards ran away to Ireland and, as John Aubrey put it, ‘cosened all the legatees’.5

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: Roger Virgoe


  • 1. DNB; John Aubrey, ‘Brief Lives’, in Letters written by Eminent Persons from the Bodleian Library (1813), ii(1), pp. 207-221. John Aubrey was William’s grandson; he bases much of his account on a memoir written by Daniel Dunne, who married one of William’s daughters (Lansd. 22, f. 52).
  • 2. CPR, 1553-4, p. 395; C. Coote, Civilians, 41; Nys, Doctors’ Commons, 144; Aubrey, 220; APC, x. 148; xviii. 148; HMC Hatfield, iv. 280-4.
  • 3. APC, xix, 283; CSP For. 1564-5, pp. 201, 471; 1566-8, p. 48; Read, Cecil, 277.
  • 4. APC, vii-xxv, passim; HMC Hatfield, i. 538; ii. 133; iv. 280-4, 364, 510; Aubrey, 212; Corresp. Matthew Parker (Parker Soc.), 267.
  • 5. D’EWes, 127, 478, 481, 501, 507; Aubrey, 207-220; C142/246/99, 247/85; PCC 45 Scott.