HELE, John I (c.1542-1608), of Wembury, nr. Plympton, 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. c.1542, 4th s. of Nicholas Hele of South Hele by his 2nd w. Margaret, da. of Richard Dune of Holesworthy. educ. I. Temple 1565, called, m. Mary, da. and coh. of Ellis Warwick of Holbeton, 8s. inc. John II and Warwick 2da. Kntd. 1603.

Offices Held

J.p. Devon from c.1577, Cornw. from c.1591; bencher, I. Temple 1586, Lent reader 1591; recorder, Exeter 1592-1605; serjeant-at-law 1594; Queen’s serjeant 1602, King’s 1603; recorder, Plymouth and Plympton Erle by c.1604.1


Hele was a lawyer and money-lender, who had purchased an estate near Plymouth from the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon and built himself a large manor house. At different times he was owed £1,050 by the Earl of Essex, £6,000 by John Killigrew II, £4,666 by Lord Cobham, and various amounts by the Earl of Hertford, Arthur Hall, George Devereux and Sir William Hatton. He was a close friend of John and William Hawkins and the group who shared their seafaring interests. He acted with Christopher Harris as agent for Sir Francis Drake in the purchase of Buckland Abbey, and on several occasions he worked for (Sir) Walter Ralegh, subsequently acting for the prosecution at his trial. He gave legal advice to Exeter and Plymouth and at Totnes he was adviser to the ‘official’ group of burgesses. He was thrice accused of misconduct in cases in Devon.

Hele was returned for Plympton in 1584, no doubt through his own local influence. His only speech in this Parliament was on the unlikely subject of the law prohibiting the slaughter of calves between Easter and Whitsun. To avoid the penalty ‘we have had 40 killed in ditches’. He was appointed to committees on parsonages (1 Dec.), statutes (24 Feb., 11 Mar. 1585), rogues (5 Mar.), tithes (6 Mar.) and Jesuits (9 Mar.). In 1593 Hele sat for Exeter, where he was recorder. He was appointed to the committee of privileges and returns at the outset of the Parliament (26 Feb.) and on 1 Mar. reported a number of these matters. He took an active part in the consideration of the subsidy, being appointed to the committees set up on 26 and 28 Feb. and to the committee appointed to consult with the Lords, 1 Mar. He spoke 7 Mar., urging ‘more than subsidies ... the richer men must be the more deeply charged’. As for a heavy tax being a bad precedent, ‘precedents of subsidies they are not to be feared’. His other committees this Parliament were on recusants (28 Feb.), depriving Bishop Bonner (9 Mar.), and kerseys (23 Mar., 2 Apr.). In 1597 he was given charge of a bill promoted by Exeter concerning the privileges of the merchant adventurers. Burgesses of several other cities went on to the committee, which reported its ‘utter disliking of the said bill’, and the House decided to proceed no further. Hele was again on the privileges and returns committee (5 Nov.), but seems to have taken no interest in the subsidy this time. His committees concerned penal laws (14 Nov.), the deprivation of Marian bishops (3 Dec.), wool (8 Dec.), letters patent (12 Dec.), lewd wandering persons (20 Dec.), writs of error (11 Jan. 1598), Sir A. Mildmay’s lands (16 Jan.), defence (16 Jan.), and removing benefit of clergy from burglars (18 Jan.). Two speeches by him are known, one on a legal matter (17 Dec.), the other (27 Jan. 1598) for the insertion of a proviso into an army bill to have serjeants-at-law excepted from impressment ‘for if I be pressed, go I must’. Exeter again had a bill brought into Parliament in 1601, to unite the parishes of the city. The bill was opposed by the bishop, who had a spokesman in the Commons ‘against the bill ... and showed how the patron of one of the churches took a piece of the churchyard to make a jakes’. This brought Richard Martin to his feet, protesting that he would not have spoken except that he was ‘himself born in the town’ and that ‘he that last spake spake more for his master’s benefit than for God’s honour’. Martin criticized Hele for not being present to ‘forward so good a bill’. This bill too was lost in committee. Martin already despised Hele (a gentleman that ‘so much flattered his prince’) for his sycophancy over the subsidy, 9 Nov. 1601, when Hele had said:

I do marvel much that the House will stand upon granting of a subsidy or the time of payment when all we have is her Majesty’s and she may lawfully at her pleasure take it from us. ...

At which, notes Townshend, ‘the House hummed and laughed and talked’. Hele was on the main business committee (3 Nov.) and the privileges and returns committee (31 Oct.) in the 1601 Parliament.2

In addition to the committees already mentioned Hele could have served on many committees dealing with the main issues of at least the 1597 and 1601 Parliaments, to which the lawyers were appointed as a group.3

Some contemporary opinions of Hele have survived. A creditor, Lord Keeper Egerton, drew up a memorandum in 1601 when Hele was angling for the mastership of the rolls:

a most greedy and insatiable taker of fees ... a notorious and common ambidexter, taking fee on both sides, to the great scandal of his place and profession ... a great drunkard, and in his drunkenness not only to have commonly used quarrelling and brawling words, but sometimes blows also; and that at a common ordinary, a vice ill becoming a serjeant.

Peter Edgecombe and his nephew (Sir) Richard Champernown also thought Hele an ambidexter, ‘insolent and arrogant’:

His usury, misery, law and pride of his purse has brought him to that height of insolency as he is grown insufferable in our country and ... few or none dare to publish this knowledge or conceit of him.

A report on his first circuit in 1602 said that he had made himself ‘both odious and ridiculous’. On the other hand, Henry Maynard reported to Cecil that Hele, although he had been ‘exceedingly tormented with the stone ... yet has discharged his duty with good liking’. Employed as King’s serjeant at the trial of Sir Walter Ralegh, by the end of 1603 Hele was in the Fleet for extortion. He was still there in October of the following year, but out by 1605, when he was accused of receiving goods belonging to a pirate then in Exeter gaol. He was still friendly with the Hawkins family—Sir Richard Hawkins, the vice-admiral, lost his position temporarily through complicity. On 8 Feb. 1608 Hele obtained a dispensation from his service as serjeant on the ground of his age, and died on 4 June of that year, being buried at Wembury church. His will was proved 1 Oct. 1608. His manor house at Wembury was worth over £20,000, and he had also a house at Kew, and a manor in Warwickshire.4

Plymouth city lib. Heale cartulary, f. 1; W. G. Hoskins, Devon, 513; HMC Hatfield, vii. 375; viii. 155; xi. 369-70, 376, 512; HMC 11th Rep. VII, 156; Egerton Pprs. (Cam. Soc. xii), 391; Harl. 98, f. 64; 6993, f. 109; HMC Rutland, i. 200; A. L. Rowse, Grenville, 232; Lansd. 57, f. 15; E. Edwards, Life of Raleigh, i. 472; Exeter City act bk. 4, f. 26; St. Ch. 5/B7/21, B27/39; Cal. Plymouth Recs. 122, 141; Devon Q. Sess. Order Bk. 1600-7.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 461, 464; DNB; Roberts thesis; Cal. Plymouth Recs. 202.
  • 2. Lansd. 43, anon. jnl. f. 173; D’Ewes, 334, 355, 363, 364, 365, 471, 477, 478, 479, 481, 489, 493, 494, 495, 496, 507, 513, 552, 556, 567, 570, 571, 572, 575, 577, 581, 582, 622, 624, 633; Townshend, Hist. Colls. 105, 113, 115, 205, 206; Bull. IHR, xii. 16, 21.
  • 3. D’Ewes, 553, 555, 556, 561, 570, 586, 634, 635, 641, 642, 647, 649, 651, 657, 658, 662, 666, 668, 672, 674, 677, 681.
  • 4. H. W. Woolrych, Lives of Eminent Serjeants, 175; Egerton Pprs. 315; HMC 11th Rep. VII, 158; CSP Dom. 1601-3, p. 247; HMC Hatfield, xii. 241; Trevelyan Pprs. (Cam. Soc. lxvii), iii. 71; Lansd. 142, f. 53; DNB.