HARRIS, Thomas I (1547-1610), of London and Cornworthy, Devon.

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. 1547, s. of Edward Harris of Monmouthshire by his 1st w. Philippa, da. of Thomas Vowell of Cornworthy. educ. ?Jesus, Camb. 1562; M. Temple 1566, called by 1573. m. 27 Dec. 1573, Elizabeth (d.1634), da. of Henry Pomeroy of Colquite, Cornw., 2s. 2da. suc. fa. 1592. Kntd. by 1604.1

Offices Held

Burgess, Portsmouth from 1586; Autumn reader, M. Temple 1588, 1589, bencher 1588; serjeant-at-law May 1589; j.p. Devon, ?Herts. from c.1592; of counsel to St. Albans 1596.2


The son of a man who had settled in Devon on purchasing Cornworthy in 1560, Harris owed all his seats in Parliament to his legal connexions. He was first returned for Callington, jointly owned by Sir William Paulet, 3rd Marquess of Winchester and William, 7th Lord Mountjoy, for whom he acted in several legal cases. He was made a burgess of Portsmouth about the time of his first election. His patron at Bossiney was a fellow-member of the Middle Temple, John Hender. In 1601 he may have been returned by Truro especially to protect the town’s interests against the projected development of Falmouth by the Killigrews. In a debate on the return of George Belgrave, 8 Dec. 1601, he said that there ‘ought to be libera suffragia and no man of this House to be chosen by friend or mediation of any great man’, perhaps a calculated reference to the considerable Killigrew patronage at Truro (in the past) and at other Cornish boroughs.

Until 1595, his first Parliament after becoming a serjeant-at-law, it is difficult to distinguish his parliamentary career from that of namesakes. However, it was he who spoke, some time in the 1584-5 Parliament, on the Queen’s safety, and who was appointed to a committee on the subject on 5 Feb. 1585. On 15 Feb. the Lords called for a conference with the Lower House at which they voiced their disapproval of the Commons’ handling of the fraudulent conveyances bill. Harris was present at this joint conference and was one of those appointed to draw up a new bill on 18 Feb. He was also appointed to committees concerning shoemakers (9 Feb.), and the paucity of local officials in Wales (22 Feb.). In 1586-7 he was named to committees concerning the Norfolk elections (9 Nov.), a private bill (9 Mar. 1587), foreign merchants (14 Mar.), and three legal committees (14, 17 Feb.). He also spoke on a case of privilege (27 Feb. 1587). In December 1588 he was one of 16 lawyers asked to suggest statutes for repeal or reform in the forthcoming Parliament, and for suggestions on the better administration of justice. During the 1589 Parliament he served on at least six legal committees, and on a privilege committee (12 Feb.). He was also appointed to the committee on the last day of the Parliament urging a declaration of war on Spain (29 Mar.). He spoke on the purveyors bill (15 Feb.) and a privilege case (21 Feb.).

From 1593 the journals refer to him as ‘Mr. Serjeant Harris’, and he was, as a matter of course, on those committees to which all the serjeants-at-law were appointed, namely in 1593, those concerning the subsidy (26 Feb., 28 Feb.), legal matters (27 Feb.), recusancy (28 Feb.) and the poor law (12 Mar.). On 28 Feb. he rose to urge that the subsidies under discussion that day ‘be to maintain a war impulsive and defensive against the Spaniard’. He spoke again on the subject of the subsidy on 7 Mar. and was against excusing the £3 men ‘for then every man will labour his friends to be set under £3’. On 5 Mar. he moved to free a non-Member, John Legg, servant of the Earl of Northumberland, who had been discovered in the House and committed to the serjeant-at-arms. Harris was an active committeeman. On 5 Mar. a bill on naturalization was committed to him, which he reported 15 Mar. He was appointed to a committee concerning retailers on 15 Mar., and the next day a private bill was delivered to him which he offered to report on 23 Mar. but it was postponed. A legal bill was delivered to him on 17 Mar. and he was appointed to a committee concerning kerseys on 25 Mar. He reported a private bill on 29 Mar., served on committees concerning kerseys (2 Apr.) and recusants (4 Apr.), and was put in charge of a bill concerning coopers on 7 Apr. He spoke on a privilege case on 3 Apr.

He was again very active during the Parliament of 1597 when it is obvious that he and his fellow serjeants-at-law, Mr. Hele and Mr. Warburton, were undertaking a great deal of the routine business of the House. On 14 Nov. Harris was appointed to the committee concerning armour and weapons, and on 24 Nov. moved that a committee be appointed to consider whether or not forestalling, regrating and engrossing should be felonies. A bill concerning leases was committed to him on 5 Dec. and reported by him on 20 Jan. 1598, and a private bill was delivered to him on 6 Dec., which he reported on 10 Dec. He was appointed to a committee considering the import of foreign cards used in the manufacture of wool on 8 Dec. He served on committees concerning vagrants (20 Dec.), legal matters (11 Jan. 1598) and the poor law (12 Jan.), and a bill concerning breaches of trust was delivered to him on 14 Jan. and reported by him on 19 Jan. He served on a committee concerning defence on 16 Jan. and another concerning tenants on 20 Jan. A committee appointed on 13 Dec. to consider unsized bread was reported by Harris on 20 Jan.

A speech of his made during the debate on the tillage bill (17 Dec.), deserves mention on account of its neat use of the classical allusions so fashionable in Elizabethan public speaking:

The fairest day hath a cloud to shadow it, yea, even in the face of Venus there was a mole or wart, and a spot in the neck of Helen, so in every bill, though never so well looked unto, yet there is something unprovided for.

He continued to say that he had hitherto opposed the bill, ‘yet considering the proviso to be added, I am of Saul become Paul, ... I think it now fit to pass’. The proviso in question had exempted Devon, amongst other counties, from the bill, and Harris was a Devon man.

A passage from Hayward Townshend’s journals reports an amusing incident on 28 Jan. 1598. The House was debating the rogues’ bill:

Mr. Donhault [Gregory Donhault], secretary to the lord keeper, moved that hardware men, viz. those that sell knives, bits, nails etc., may be excepted and provided for out of the bill of rogues. To which Mr. Serjeant Harris by way of motion answered, that if they were not already excepted it were not fit they should, for said he, they will find I doubt not another means to live by than by their old trade, for they be neither cherries nor plums, they will not rot. And when the Parliament rose, at my coming out of the door, I chanced to go by Mr. Serjeant Harris and Mr. Donhault, to whom Mr. Donhault said: Mr. Serjeant, you were somewhat too bitter in answering my well meaning motion: to whom Mr. Serjeant answered, i’faith, Mr. Donhault, I meant no hurt, but in truth your motion had been good and allowed of too (I doubt not) if there had been a parliament of women.

On 30 Jan. 1598 he showed the abuses which could result from a motion that a man might enclose as much land as he deemed necessary for the upkeep of his house. He would also during this Parliament have served on those committees to which all the serjeants-at-law were appointed: reform of the penal laws (8 Nov.), the continuation of statutes (11 Nov.), forgery (12 Nov.), the poor law (22 Nov.), monopolies (8 Dec.) and defence (23 Jan. 1598).

In 1601 Harris turned from committee work to debate, the first of his twenty speeches in this Parliament being on 2 Nov., supporting Sir Edward Hoby’s motion for the reform of the penal laws. He was appointed to the committee on the same day. As a member of the privileges and returns committee (appointed on 31 Oct.), he raised the question of the Rutland election (4 Nov.), and on 7 Nov. he spoke in favour of the subsidy. Two days later, during another debate on the subsidy, he reprimanded Robert Wingfield on a point of procedure:

The motion of the gentleman that last spake is not now to be discussed; we are to speak touching the subsidy.

On 16 Nov., during the discussion on pluralities:

We seem to defend the privileges and customs of this House, but if we proceed to determine of this bill, Mr. Speaker, we shall not only infringe a custom which we have ever observed, viz. to meddle with no matter which toucheth her Majesty’s prerogative, but also procure her great displeasure.

And four days later,

For aught I see the House meaneth to have this bill in the nature of a petition; it must then begin with more humility. And truly, sir, the bill is good of itself but the penning of it is somewhat out of course.

It was no doubt because of his moderation that he was appointed to the conference with the Lords on monopolies (11 Dec.), and it must have been one of the highlights of his career to open the debate for the Commons. His humanity can be seen in an intervention in the debate on adultery, 17 Nov., when he objected to a clause which discriminated against women:

Besides there is another gross fault in this bill, for if they both be poor and have nothing but goods, if the man be taken in adultery he shall not be punished because there is nothing of which he should be tenant by the courtesy; but if the woman be taken she is to lose the third of the goods, or if it be in the City by custom she loseth the half, which is jus inequale and not to be admitted by this House.

Similarly, during a discussion on taverns (2 Dec.) he objected to the severity of the penalties:

If two false witnesses come before a justice and swear against a man for a little short measure, he is without remedy, ... and for so small a matter, disability is too great a punishment.

Practical considerations and his natural concern for the legal profession prompted him to speak against a motion to make j.p.s. responsible for licensing and discipline in ale-houses (10 Dec.):

If this bill should pass ... we all should lose the liberties of our corporations; and her Majesty’s justices at the sessions should be troubled with brawls of ale-houses.

On 3 Dec. Harris supported the bill against the double payment of debts on shop books, which had been committed to him the previous day. He spoke in favour of the continuation of the statute concerning tillage on 4 Dec. and the next day spoke concerning church attendance. On 7 Dec. he proposed a conference with the Lords concerning insurance. He recommended that the bill against the export of iron ordnance be committed on 8 Dec. and he was appointed to the committee. On the same day he spoke, as mentioned above, on the George Belgrave privilege case and on 9 Dec. he called for more orderly proceedings in the House. He also supported the bill for the abolition of gavelkind in Kent (10 Dec.), spoke on a privilege case (11 Dec.), and on bastardy (17 Dec.). He was appointed to the committee to debate the Denbighshire election controversy on 13 Nov., but the following day Sir Edward Hoby reported that although six Members were appointed, only five attended: ‘The Serjeant-at-Law (Serjeant Harris) of whose furtherance we best hoped, deceived both your and our expectations.’

His committee work during 1601 included the following topics: the main business committee (3 Nov.), three legal committees (10 Nov., 17 Dec.), Exchequer reform (21 Nov.), and charitable uses (7, 12 Dec.). He was placed in charge of a bill concerning the jointure of the Countess of Sussex on 3 Dec., and reported the findings of the committee on 7 Dec. He may also have attended the committees to which the serjeants-at-law and all the learned counsel were appointed, among them committees on pluralities (16 Nov.), St. Bartholomew’s hospital (17 Nov.), clothworkers (18 Nov.), private bills (19, 21 Nov.), the Severn harbour (21 Nov.), monopolies (23 Nov.), Dunkirk pirates (3 Dec.), and the continuation of statutes (10 Dec.).3

After James I’s accession, Harris retired from public life. He died 17 May 1610 and was buried at Cornworthy, where a monument was erected. His wife was buried there in 1634. His elder son, Edward, became chief justice of Munster.4

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: M.A.P.


  • 1. C142/238/10; Vivian, Vis. Devon, 452, 605, 864; Trans. Dev. Assoc. xxv. 475-8.
  • 2. R. East, Portsmouth Resc. 345; M. T. Bench Bk. (1937 ed.), 85; St. Albans Recs. ed. Gibbs, 52.
  • 3. CPR, 1558-60, p. 318; C. Munro, Acta Canc. 593; HMC Hatfield, xi. 485; APC, xvi. 416; D’Ewes, 346, 349, 353, 354, 363, 396, 410, 414, 415, 416, 432, 433, 436, 439, 445, 446, 447, 449, 452, 454, 477, 478, 488, 492, 501, 502, 507, 508, 512, 513, 515, 517, 519, 553, 555, 556, 561, 568, 570, 571, 575, 577, 579, 580, 581, 583, 584, 622, 624, 632, 633, 635, 637, 640, 641, 642, 645, 647, 665, 666, 669, 672, 675, 676, 677, 678, 679, 680, 681, 687; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 75, 77, 105, 112, 113, 119, 120, 121, 180, 185, 186, 204, 212, 219, 222, 233, 278, 279, 283, 286, 287, 290, 295, 298, 301, 303, 305, 313, 332; Bull. 1HR, xii. 14, 15, 21, 22.
  • 4. Trans. Dev. Assoc. xxv. 475-8.