I. The Men

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer

It has not been ascertained even approximately when most (64%) of the families who sent Members to Elizabethan Parliaments emerged from obscurity. Of those identified MPs whose family background is known, 104 (4%) were of eleventh to twelfth century origin; 248 (10%) thirteenth to fourteenth century; 341 (13%) fifteenth century, to 1485, and 206 (8%) later than 1485. Almost one third (742) of the identified MPs had had at least one ancestor in the Commons, a fifth (510) were to have descendants in the Commons, and 268, almost exactly 10%, come into both categories, but these calculations certainly under-estimate the true figures, since at the time they were made (1977) the Members for the early Stuart period had not been biographed.

Among the families who had served earlier and were to serve later in the House of Commons were the Wingfields, who supplied eleven Elizabethan MPs; the families of Cecil, Gawdy, Hyde, Manners, Norris, Rogers, Russell and Stanhope, who supplied six each; and those of Bacon, Pelham, Radcliffe, Rithe and Strode, who had five each. Of the 268 MPs whose ancestors and descendants can be recognized in the House 152 (57%) usually represented boroughs, and 100 (37%) usually represented counties, the remaining 16 (6%) having parliamentary careers more or less equally divided between borough and county seats.

Information about a Member’s early education, that is, whether he was privately tutored or sent to a local grammar school, a boarding school or an academy abroad, has been given in his biography, but the number for whom these early educational details have been found is less than 10% of the whole, too small a proportion to be of any value. Perhaps this is because few school registers survive, and fewer have been published. Perhaps, too, and especially in the early years of the reign, the country really was suffering from a serious reduction in the number of its schools. Speaker Williams was concerned enough about the problem to refer to it in his oration before the Queen on 15 Jan. 1563:

... schools so few that I dare say a hundred schools wants in England, which afore this time hath been, and if in every school there had been but 100 scholars, yet that had been 10,000. So that now I doubt whether there be so many learned men in England as the number of want of these scholars. ... For want of 10,000 scholars which those schools were the bringers up of, and for want of good schoolmasters, bringeth ignorance.

Where details of early education have been found they have been for the more prominent men: Sir William Cecil attended two local grammar schools; the brothers Henry and William Cavendish went to Eton together in 1560.

For subsequent or further education the picture is clearer, information being available for about two thirds of the Members. Throughout the period nearly one third (30%) of Members were admitted to one or other of the two English universities and well over one third (39%) to an inn of court. That this last was especially the custom among the landed gentry can be seen from the fact that 40% of country gentlemen MPs entered an inn of court as against 8% of MPs from merchant families. It was quite usual for an undergraduate to enrol at an inn of court while still at his university, and at both the universities and all the inns of court attendance increased throughout the period; until, by 1601, almost half the Members were university men, and more than half had been admitted to an inn of court:


Identified MPs at a university2147
an inn of court3055


Over the whole period more Members are known to have gone to Cambridge (16%) than to Oxford (14%), the disparity being greater in the early years, when Oxford was in the doldrums as a result of the recent frequent changes in religion. The 1563 Parliament had more than three times as many men from Cambridge as from Oxford, but by 1593 the numbers were more or less equal, and by the last Parliament of the period Oxford had moved ahead with 128 against 94 from Cambridge. Many left university without graduating and the majority left an inn of court without being called to the bar. A few, 12 in all, studied civil law at Doctors Commons. The Elizabethan puritans believed that the inns of court sheltered an undue proportion of Catholics opposed to the church settlement, but this is demonstrably untrue in so far as students who were to become MPs were concerned. Of the 1,005 who enrolled at an inn of court, only 104 (10%) were Catholics or had Catholic affiliations, compared with 11% of those who attended a university and 9% of all the identified MPs. It appears that the Middle and Inner Temples had more Catholics than Lincoln’s or Gray’s Inn.

All MPs`Catholic’ MP’s

Middle Temple912
Inner Temple913
Lincoln’s Inn99
Gray’s Inn118


Oxford was more likely to be attended by Catholics than Cambridge, and Cambridge was more likely to be attended by puritans than Oxford:

All MPs‘Catholics’Puritans



Travel abroad was sometimes undertaken as part of a gentleman’s education, particularly if he aspired to a career as courtier or diplomat, though in the unsettled conditions of the period, the end result was frequently grief for all concerned. Of the MPs who became servants of great men, government officials or courtiers, 5.6% travelled as part of their education, compared with 3% among the MPs as a whole. A period of study at a foreign university was included in the tour of 22 of the 79 men who travelled abroad as part of their education. Alternatively a young man—Thomas Cecil is one example, William Hatton another—might have a tutor as his travelling companion. In the biographies travelling abroad has not been shown under education if the purpose was not educational, or if the travelling occurred after he had reached maturity. Accordingly Anthony Bacon, whose travels were not designedly educational, has been excluded from this category although he was only 21 when he went abroad, with disastrous effects on his prospective public career.

An analysis of the figures for the further education of the whole body of Elizabethan MPs, in five occupation groups, yields the following percentages:




Servants of

great men






University abroad*-112
M. Temple922245
I. Temple922245
L. Inn912134
G. Inn1331999
Travelled abroad

(The * indicates more than zero but less than 1%)

The further education of county and borough Members, analysed separately and parliament by parliament, is set out below. As published registers alone have been used, a jump in admission figures may indicate only an increase in the number of registers available.


County Members


University abroad1112232111
M. Temple3346137671212
I. Temple88109109714l1312
L. Inn27467101091314
G. Inn1091121161819191719


Borough Members


University abroad*111112111
M. Temple4779111412121414
I. Temple788810910121112
L. Inn4697101112111112
G. Inn5101011121212101216

(The * indicates more than zero but less than 1%)

Only 98 (4%) of the identified MPs are known to have been unmarried, these being for the most part men who died young. Information is lacking for 207 (8%). Those who married once amount to 1,640 (61%); twice 553 (21%); three times or more 108 (4%). Not unexpectedly, the social status of the MP’s wife reflected his own, or was a little higher than his when he married early in his career. Christopher Yelverton is an example of a man who improved his status in this way: born a younger son ‘and nothing to me but my bare annuity’, he grew to ‘some small practice of the law’, took a wife from a good Northamptonshire family, and was brought into Parliament by his father-in-law, who was sheriff. Edward Coke, another ambitious lawyer, married twice, first into the wealthy Paston family soon after his call to the bar. Within five months of this lady’s death he married a rich widow of superior social status to his own. The first union was happy, the second was not. Successful or otherwise in human terms, such advantageous marriages have been designated here as ‘fortunate’, and they amount to 169, just over 7% of the marriages known. Perhaps the most spectacular, though it took place four years before he was returned to the Commons, was that of Adrian Stokes, the groom of the widowed Duchess of Suffolk, mother of Lady Jane Grey. Stokes, in his early twenties, married the Duchess, she being then almost 40. The brief but happy marriage raised Stokes to knight of the shire status and he went on to make a second marriage into a county family. Francis Newdigate, a gentleman in the house of the Duke of Somerset, attended the widowed Duchess after Somerset’s execution, and married her in 1558. A man of humbler origins who married into the peerage was Thomas Edmondes, son of a Fowey customs official, who graduated through diplomatic service to become treasurer of the Household under James I. Another example, this time from an established gentry family, was Richard Bulkeley I, who succeeded his father in 1572, was widowed the next year, went to court, in 1577 married one of the Queen’s maids of honour, a peer’s daughter, was knighted on the eve of the marriage, set up house at Lewisham and entertained the Queen there. After his own spectacular union he disinherited his son for marrying a cottager’s daughter.

Girls were in general expected to marry men chosen for them by their parents or guardians, and there are many instances of daughters (but few of sons) being cut off for marrying without parental consent. Sir Thomas Chamberlain disinherited his daughter Theophila for her liaison with a ‘lewd fellow of base condition’, but Chamberlain was in debt at the time and desperate for his daughter to make a good marriage. More mature ladies were, as always, subject to the attentions of adventurers looking for a rich widow. Jane West, daughter of the 1st Baron Delaware, married Thomas Wenman, who died, a ruined man, of gaol fever caught from the prisoners he was trying at Oxford in 1577. The wardship of their four year-old son was granted jointly to her and to the Earl of Leicester, who sold his share to the rich but socially inferior James Cressy. Cressy was now able to marry the lady, and they had a daughter. Once more Jane Cressy formerly Wenman née West was widowed. Now appeared an ambitious teller of the Exchequer, Thomas Tasburgh:

This person of the Exchequer knowing a lady that became Catholic in Queen Bess time ... found ways to trouble her in the Exchequer about her religion, and ... at last she could find no rest and would be advised by him what to do. He advised her there was no way but to marry a protestant, and he got her. She had a daughter [Lettice] by Cressy ... worth £10,000 and he married her to his nephew.

The proportion of fortunate marriages drops to 4% for second and subsequent unions, probably because the status of the MP had risen. The following table shows the main social groups into which the MPs (as a whole) married, expressed as percentages of known first, second and third marriages. Fourth and subsequent marriages, uncommon but not unknown, do not alter the general picture and have been excluded.

1st marriages2nd marriages3rd marriages

status unascertained191519


Probably of more interest are the figures for marriages, analysed according to Members’ occupation groups:

















unmarried2 (29)* (2)6 (28)6 (9)7 (14)
no information2 (25)17 (69)7 (32)23 (32)5 (10)
married once64 (748)63 (262)65 (301)54 (75)63 (125)
twice26 (303)15 (64)18 (85)16 (23)23 (45)
three times5 (58)4 (17)4 (19)1 (1)2 (3)
first marriages(1109)(343)(405)(99)(173)
peerage10 (110)- (0)* (2)2 (2)9 (15)
gentry76 (847)10 (36)50 (204)46 (46)54 (94)
merchant4 (48)54 (186)20 (82)10 (10)16 (27)
other1 (9)1 (3)2 (9)4 (4)1 (1)

wife’s status


8 (95)34 (118)27 (108)37 (37)21 (36)
fortunate8 (84)2 (6)5 (21)6 (6)8 (14)



peerage7 (27)- (0)- (0)- (0)19 (9)
gentry74 (267)16 (13)49 (51)54 (13)52 (25)
merchant7 (24)60 (49)21 (22)13 (3)17 (8)
other2 (9)4 (3)6 (6)8 (2)2 (1)

wife’s status


9 (34)20 (16)24 (25)25 (6)10 (5)
fortunate5 (19)- (0)4 (4)- (0)- (0)
third marriages(58)(17)(19)





peerage2 (1)- (0)21 (4)

gentry74 (43)18 (3)42 (8)

merchant7 (4)41 (7)16 (3)

other2 (1)12 (2)11 (2)

wife’s status


16 (9)29 (5)11 (2)

fortunate4 (2)- (0)5 (1)


It will be seen that more is known about the marriages of country gentlemen than the other occupation groups. They were more likely to marry and to re-marry, and more likely to marry into their own class: three quarters of all marriages by country gentry were within their own ranks. Merchants made fewer fortunate marriages than other groups, not one into the peerage, and, unlike lawyers and government officials, they seldom married into the gentry: they were, in fact, the least likely to marry out of their own class. On the other hand, among the lawyers social mobility was high. No less than four of their third marriages took them into peerage families. Of course, as has already been observed, some of the lawyers were from county families to start with. Information is lacking about the marital status of almost a quarter of the servants of great men, or it may be that many of these remained unmarried, possibly because for them mobility was an occupational need. Among those who did marry, fortunate marriages were rare and the wife’s status is often unknown. Government officials were more likely than other groups to make fortunate marriages: nine of the second marriages of government officials were made into the peerage. Up to a quarter of the government officials may have been unmarried.

To conclude these comments on this most complex of human institutions, it may be remarked that two Members were poisoned by their wives, many suffered inconvenience and loss because of a wife’s adherence to Catholicism, and some were ruined either by a wife’s extravagance or by having to pay a wife’s family’s debts.

Only five Elizabethan MPs had more than one forename: Robert Bruce Cotton, Thomas Posthumous Hoby, John Lewis Owen, William John Proger, and Edward Maria Wingfield. The forenames of Elizabethan MPs in order of popularity were John (433), Thomas (363), William (290), Richard (185), Robert (170), Henry (151), Edward (129), George (101), Francis (74), Nicholas (51), James (41), Edmund (38), Christopher (35), Anthony (30), Walter (28), Ralph (25), Roger (25), Charles (24), Hugh (19), Humphrey (19), Giles (17), Michael (15), Arthur (14), Rowland (14), Lawrence (12), Peter (12), Matthew (11), Oliver (11), Simon (11), Philip (10), Alexander (9), Andrew (9), Stephen (9), Reginald (8), Leonard (7), Lewis (7), Martin (7), Gilbert (6), Owen (6), Clement (5), David (5), Gregory (5), Maurice (5), Samuel (5), Ambrose (4), Adrian (4), Bartholomew (4), Cuthbert (4), Gabriel (4), Geoffrey (4), Jerome (4).

Each of the following was borne by three Members: Daniel, Griffith, Herbert, Lancelot, Morgan, Tristram, Valentine; each of the following by two: Adam, Bassingbourne, Carew, Edwin, Ellis, Gervase, Goddard, Jasper, Joseph, Miles, Moore, Paul, Rhys, Ranulf, Sampson, Vincent, Zachariah; and each of the following names by one Member: Alan, Amias, Ashton, Adolphus, Audley, Abraham, Anchor, Arnold, Ashburnham, Alban, Benjamin, Brutus, Brian, Bertram, Benedict, Bruce, Bostock, Barnaby, Bernard, Basil, Cotton, Conrad, Clipsby, Calthrop, Cadwaladr, Chidiock, Dudley, Dru, Digory, Dominick, Denzil, Drew, Evan, Emanuel, Fulke, Ferdinand, Ferdinando, Fabian, Gray, Gawain, Griffin, Guthlac, Godfrey, Gerard, Gelly, Hannibal, Hywell, Hayward, Israel, Ieuan, Jonathan, Julius, Justinian, Joshua, Job, Kenelm, Lionel, Lewen, Leweston, Luke, Levinus, Moyle, Marlyon, Mark, Maria, Marmaduke, Nowell, Nathaniel, Oliffe, Pexall, Percival, Posthumous, Reade, Rice, Sidney, Sharington, Sylvanus, Talbot, Tobias, Warwick, Wilfred, Watkin.

Among MPs wives the most popular forenames were: Elizabeth (450), Anne (347), Mary (302), Margaret (220), Catherine and variants (175), Jane (163), Alice (113), Dorothy (106), Frances (91), Joan (86), Eleanor (51), Agnes (45), Susan (38), Ursula (31), Bridget (30), Margery (29), Barbara (24), Cicely or Cecily (23), Martha (23), Ellen (22), Winifred (19), Judith (18), Christian or Christiana (17), Lucy (17), Thomasine (16), Grace (15), Helen (15), Joyce (15), Phillipa (15), Sara or Sarah (15), Julian or Juliana (14), Lettice (14), Magdalen or Magdalene (13), Isabel (12), Audrey (9), Beatrice (9), Susanna (9), Mabel (8), Sybil (8), Hester (7), Maria (7), Amy (6), Constance (6), Edith (6), Isabella (6), Joanna (6), Prudence (6), Gertrude (5), Griselda (5), Maud (5), Mildred (5), Penelope (5), Avice or Avis (4), Blanche (4), Elin (4), Rachel (4).

Each of the following was borne by three wives: Abigail, Anna, Charity, Cecilia, Douglas, Dionysia, Etheldreda, Florence, Grissel, Muriel, Temperance, Theodosia; each of the following by two: Deborah, Ebbot, Emma, Faith, Helena, Honor, Ida, Lucretia, Leonora, Mirabelle, Millicent, Marian, Mercy, Rebecca, Sylvestra, Timothea; and each of the following names occurs once: Amicia, Averine, Affra, Anastryce, Anstice, Alison, Ankarette, Arminell, Amphillis, Blyth, Blanding, Christina, Clare, Camilla, Cressett, Cordell, Cordelia, Chrysogona, Clara, Christabel, Cheston, Colubria, Clayes, Diana, Dorcas, Denise, Dorabella, Dunes, Emmot, Emelyn, Emmeline, Eva, Ellyw, Ellyn, Eulalia, Francasina, Fortune, Gaynor, Grisold, Gabrielle, Godetha, Godly, Gwen, Grizel, Hannah, Isett, Jacquetta, Janet, Jeronima, Jael, Jean, Kate, Lore, Louisa, Lowry, Marged, Mirabilia, Marie, Matilda, Mareen, Meriel, Olive, Pascha, Prothesia, Philadelphia, Polyxena, Pauline, Patience, Priscilla, Rose, Radigund, Sophia, Sisill, Sydney, Tabitha, Theophila, Tracy, Thompson, Urytha, Willamina, Wilmot, Wilgiford, Wenllian.1

The number of children given in the synopsis at the head of each biography must be treated with reserve. These are minima, obtained by counting the children named or indicated in wills and monumental inscriptions and in the printed heralds’ visitations, which are frequently biased in favour of the male children. Any statistics based on figures which certainly understate the number of children would be valueless. Some Elizabethan families were very large, despite, or even, in a way, as a consequence of the high rate of infant mortality. Goddard Pemberton, for example, was the 18th child in his family (he had no children himself). Edward Dudley alias Sutton had at least 5 legitimate children and 11 illegitimate.

Birth dates of varying degrees of accuracy have been obtained from school, university and inn of court registers, parish registers, inquisitions post mortem, heralds’ visitations, parents’ marriage dates, known date of birth of siblings, family histories and general works of reference. The temptation to make unsupported but informed guesses (which might still be reasonably dependable over the whole field) has been resisted.

Death dates in general were easier to come by, inquisitions post mortem and wills being particularly useful, though, as a rule, the ages given in inquisitions must not be taken literally. Wills are scrupulously dated both as to their making and proof, and a very high proportion of diocesan as well as Prerogative Court of Canterbury will registers for this period have survived. As Elizabethan wills were proved very soon after the testator’s death—weeks not months as a rule2—many death dates can be fixed within this approximation, but the paucity of birth dates has resulted in age being ascertained for only 55% of the Members.

Analysis of MP’s ages at death


In the 20s1(18)
Not known/unidentified45(1207)


It may be assumed that MPs came from the more privileged and therefore healthier strata of society, and of course they had already survived childhood, so their life expectancy was better than for the country as a whole, which at birth has been estimated at 38.3 Most MPs died in their sixties, and there are many instances—Matthew Arundell is one—of a man in what would now be regarded as his prime making his will in the face of certain, painful and lingering death from an ailment seldom fatal today, such as the stone.

The centenarian is William Badger, MP Winchester 1597, who was born about 1523, became a city official in 1553 and was buried in the cathedral on 18 Jan. 1629: his career is clearly traceable in the city records without a break. The ninety year-olds are: Charles Calthrope, a lawyer, later an Irish judge; Dru Drury, a courtier; Henry Duport, a lawyer whose heir was his 40 year-old grandson; Edward Grimston, who, early in the reign, escaped from the Bastille disguised as a Scotchman; William Heyrick, son of a Leicester ironmonger and guardian of the poet Robert Heyrick; Francis Knollys, described in 1643 as ‘the ancientest Parliament man in England’, whose daughter married John Hampdent; Matthew Ley and, lastly, John Smith, whose name creates some doubt about his identity, and consequently his age, though he certainly lived long.

It was not a requirement in this period that an MP should have reached the age of 21: Richard Edgecombe II was 16 when he was returned for Liskeard in 1586, and his fellow-Member for the borough was 17. Edward Dudley alias Sutton was just 17 when elected knight of the shire for Staffordshire in 1584. But Dudley was an early starter: he was married at 14 and a peer at 19. The 1563, 1571 and 1597 Parliaments all had one Member aged under 18; the 1584 and 1586 Parliaments had two and the 1601 Parliament four Members under 18. Every Parliament had at least one Member aged over 70; the 1589 Parliament had 6. The following table shows the age groups of the remaining Members whose birth dates have been ascertained with reasonable certainty:

Age at start of Parliaments

There is negligible difference in the average age of MPs in the various Parliaments:

and between the average age of the county members (40.6) and the borough Members (39.4).




The is, however, an interesting difference in the proportions of county and borough Members who were aged 30 or under at the start of Parliaments:


and between the average of the county Members (40.6) and the borough Members (39.4).


County Members1519918221424172026
Borough Members11131216151514131517


It will be seen that in 1601 there was a significant disparity in age between the younger county and borough Members, perhaps an indication of the new blood then coming into Parliament. In that year over a quarter of county Members (26%) were under 30, and nearly a fifth (18%) were under 25, compared with 17% of borough Members under 30 and 10 % under 25.

Of the identified MPs 6% were of noble parentage, 1% had an eminent untitled courtier as father or mother, 57% had fathers of knight, esquire or country gentleman degree, 2% had fathers of lawyer status, 17% of merchant status, 2% of ‘lower’ status and in 15% of cases the parents’ status has not been ascertained. Parental status has been taken as depending upon occupation, whereas the status of the MP himself is not necessarily that of his occupation, as for example, with the practising lawyers, a number of whom were of country gentleman status. At their first entry into Parliament in this period 64% of the total membership of the Commons had the status of knights, esquires or country gentlemen, 32% were of merchant or lawyer status, 3% of ‘lower’ status and for 1% their status is unknown. Almost a third of the total membership is middle class; lower or working class membership is negligible.

On contemporary usage, it may be pointed out that a ‘gentleman’ was of lower degree than an ‘esquire’, so that a country gentleman in possession of his estates and on the commission of the peace would certainly be described on parliamentary returns, for example, as ‘esquire’, whereas his youngest son, and perhaps even his heir if not yet of a position of authority in the shire, would be described as ‘gentleman’. Lawyers, too, were ‘gentlemen’ unless they were of some superior degree independent of or in addition to their calling. Merchants were usually described as such. ‘Yeoman’ was going out of use, most of that class promoting themselves to ‘gentleman’, although a substantial minority of MPs of minor country gentleman status still called themselves ‘yeoman’ in their wills, using the word in its original sense, ‘a freeman [who] may dispend of his own free hand in yearly revenue to the sum of 40 s. sterling’, rather than with the meaning then becoming general, ‘a man well at ease and having honestly to live, and yet not a gentleman’.4 Another contemporary usage, perhaps more important for the avoidance of confusion over identifications, was well put by Sir Simonds D’Ewes, writing in the 1620s, though the application is wider than he implies: ‘... it is usual in this journal of the House of Commons in this present session de an. 8 and 9 Regin. Eliz., according to the use of former times, to style knights by the term of Mr. prefixed only to their surnames’.5 Thus Sir Thomas Gargrave is referred to in the York civic records sometimes as Sir Thomas, sometimes as Mr. or Master Gargrave. Once, with a fine and typically Elizabethan disregard for consistency, the two forms appear in juxtaposition:

... after knowledge had of the will and pleasure of Sir Thomas Gargrave, knight, it was agreed that if the said Master Gargrave ...6

Similarly Sir Thomas White is called Mr. White three times in the journal for 4 Mar. 1559, 1559, and Sir Robert Whitney, knighted in October 1553 appears as plain Robert on 13 April. Sir John Mason is frequently called ‘Mr.’, and on 9 Feb. 1559 a bill was committed ‘to Mr. Cooke as he is there termed, and elsewhere Sir Anthony Cooke’. Conversely, D’Ewes gives Edward Dyer a knighthood to which he was not entitled in 1589 but this is probably a slip.7 Walsingham’s despatches, particularly in the cases of Sir Henry Cobham and Sir Thomas Smith, abound with examples of knights referred to as ‘Mr.’.

The following tables showing the family background and status of county and borough Members demonstrate clearly that the county membership was still very much the prerogative of the nobility and gentry. Further reference to this is made on page 40.


Family background of county Members



father or

mother noble


father or

mother courtier


father knight/


country gentleman

father lawyerless than 1% in each Parliament
father merchant3% or under in each Parliament
father obscure2% or under in each Parliament
father’s status not known2% or under in each Parliament


Status of county Members




country gentleman

lower/not knownnegligible proportion in each Parliament


Family background of borough Members



father or

mother noble


father or

mother courtier


father knight/


country gentleman

father lawyer111*312113
father merchant23191520161618201619
father obscure4434342331

father’s status

not known



Status of borough Members




country gentleman

not known3531422343


Leaving honours aside, some sixty or seventy Elizabethan MPs have been recorded as significantly improving their standing within their own status groups. For an age of social mobility this may be thought low. Perhaps the MPs as a group were already too high in the social scale to achieve significant advancement; perhaps the evidence is deficient; perhaps the criterion adopted in analysis was too severe. Whatever the explanation, this is what the analysis shows. It shows also that as many Elizabethan MPs moved down the scale as moved up, and that only about one in twenty of them all experienced the extremes of fortune either good or bad. The commonest ways to improvement lay through a fortunate marriage or marriages (discussed on pages 6-9), through the law, through service to a great man, through acquiring a lucrative government post or, of course, through any combination of these. It was rare for a man to rise in status simply through being successful in his occupation, an entertaining example being William Swayne, whose ‘barber’s chair yielded advancement as well as affluence’, taking him, by way of friendship with Sir Walter Mildmay to membership of the House of Commons and a useful ‘little office’. A small minority, of the calibre of Francis Drake and William Wynter, rose through voyages of discovery or martial exploits. More typical of the period was Edward Bashe, whose ‘dad’, according to an unfriendly source, was a shoehorn maker. Through the perquisites of victualling the navy, Bashe rose to the status of country gentleman, sheriff and justice of the peace in two counties. Another man of his time was John Edmonds, the son by a secret marriage of a clerk in holy orders, of whose will Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, was an executor. Edmonds entered Parker’s service, was dismissed for ‘ingratitude and stubbornness’, and was then taken on as butler by the master of Peterhouse, of which college his own father had been master. Next he became, through means perhaps best not investigated too closely, vintner to the university of Cambridge, a wine merchant in the town, and finally, in 1586, mayor and MP. So ‘lusty’ was he by this time for the town against the gown that the university placed his establishment out of bounds to the undergraduates. Nicholas Gaunte, on the other hand, while mayor of Cambridge, reached some agreement with the university, which cost him his place as alderman. He ended his life, to the evident satisfaction of a contemporary, ‘in great want and misery and hateful to all the townsmen’. Roger Slegge and his father-in-law Henry Serle (MPs Cambridge 1563) pursued the vendetta against Gaunte with such acrimony that they were both put in the Fleet. Even their own party thought that they did ‘much consume our quiet governing’, and asked, interestingly enough, that they should be replaced as the town’s MPs for the 1566 session, but this was refused.

Being on the wrong side in a municipal dispute was one of the ways in which status might be lost in this period. Thomas Atkins, town clerk, at Gloucester and George Belgrave, country gentleman and enemy of the 4th Earl of Huntingdon, at Leicester, supported the ‘popular’ party within their respective corporations and suffered for it, the popular party generally losing the day when it opposed the richer merchant members of a corporation. Edward Haynes, at Devizes, was found ‘insufficient’ to remain a common councilman. At a higher level, two secretaries of state experienced painful reversals of fortune: William Davison, for his part in the execution of Mary Stuart, and Thomas Lake, whose career and disgrace belong mainly to the reign of James I. Still severer disaster befell at least one ambassador, Sir Henry Unton, who was unwise enough to affirm on the floor of the House during the heated 1593 subsidy debates that the names of those who had put forward reasoned amendments to the subsidy bill had been so reported to the Queen as to imply that the subsidy had been opposed outright. The Queen had ‘every particular’ of his speeches ‘without book’, and though Essex intervened on his behalf, telling Elizabeth that it was ‘an ill-example ... that for one displeasure or misconceit, all the merit or service of a man’s life should be overthrown’, Unton failed to obtain the appointment he expected, and returned to France in 1595 ‘a disgraced man’, to die there three months later. Others to be included in this category are three ecclesiastical lawyers: George Acworth, ‘put from his place for the dissolute life he led’; Francis Alford, ‘never ... able to climb one step into preferment’; and John Bennet, expelled the House for corruption after the close of this period. The life of another civilian, the Catholic John Story, epitomizes the violent changes that might assail a man’s fortune in times of religious and political change. Of humble birth, he rose through academic ability to responsible positions in church and state before an attack on the prayer book in Parliament in 1549 led to his imprisonment and exile. He returned on Mary’s accession, became Bishop Bonner’s chancellor and persecuted protestants. The bishop of Winchester had him returned for Downton in Elizabeth’s first Parliament, where he spoke ‘wanton words’ regretting that Elizabeth had not been destroyed before she could succeed. He was imprisoned, escaped to the Netherlands and became a customs official at Antwerp. Kidnapped and brought back by some English seamen, he was executed on 1 June 1571, attacking the executioner as he was being disembowelled. He was beatified in 1886.

Among less spectacular instances of men who lost their jobs for reasons other than bad behaviour were: Geoffrey Osbaldeston, incompetent as an Irish judge; Michael Blount, lieutenant of the Tower and imprisoned there for over-familiarity with a Catholic prisoner, and Jerome Horsey, representative in Russia of the Muscovy Company, who forfeited the confidence of his board and the favour of both Elizabeth and the Czar. Others who fell from favour, again excepting the rogues, were Anthony Bacon, talented and well-connected, ruined by a charge of sodomy, by suspected Catholicism, by sickness, lack of money, adherence to the Earl of Essex and by sheer bad luck; William Barker, whose ‘hard fortune’ was to enter the Duke of Norfolk’s service; Thomas Copley, whose ill-timed conversion to Catholicism led to his exile and death abroad: Sir William Courtenay I, thrice knight of the shire for Devon, who died a Catholic abroad; Giles Fletcher, ambassador to Russia in 1588, reduced to torturing seminary priests in the 1590s and refused a mastership of requests in 1596; Richard Gargrave, a Yorkshire knight of the shire who ended up riding with the pack horses; another Yorkshire county Member, Sir Robert Stapleton, who was foolish enough to talk about his finding the archbishop of York in bed with the wife of the landlord of the Bull at Doncaster, and Edward Wingfield, thrice knight of the shire for Huntingdonshire, who campaigned under Leicester, under Essex and in Ireland, where he was wounded. Towards the end of his career he incurred the Queen’s displeasure for a reason that has not been ascertained, was refused permission to go to court and was imprisoned for debt. His estates were sold soon after his death.

Closely allied to a fall in status is financial misfortune, and in this connexion the biographies of 112 ruined men (4.3% of all identified MPs) have been examined. Of these, 65 were country gentlemen; five were merchants; three lawyers; nine government servants abroad, as diplomats, agents or servicemen; 14 were government officials with only ordinary access to public money; 16 government officials with extraordinary access to the government till. What is not known at present is whether the Elizabethan MPs are a representative sub group of Elizabethan ruined men in this context. Are the figures for merchants and lawyers much lower than one might expect, for country gentlemen much higher? Was enclosure, for example, profitable or unprofitable? The biography of Robert Pilkington suggests the latter.

Among the country gentlemen, 21 (including Edward Wingfield) inherited estates insufficient to maintain themselves and their families. Failing a fortunate marriage or government employment their financial ruin was predictable, though it might be hastened or delayed by other factors. Indeed for 20 or more of the ruined country gentlemen no one reason can be adduced, though it may be that some at least, like Thomas Wenman, had borrowed money at high interest on the expectation of an inheritance. Among the rest of the 112 the following were the main reasons for their ruin:

misappropriating public money: 15 (all but one of the 16 government servants who handled extraordinary sums and fell into debt).
spent own money in the performance of insufficiently rewarded government service: 14 lawsuits: 10
building and speculation in land: 8
other failed business ventures, including losses at sea and in foreign expeditions: 7
attending court over a long period hoping for gainful employment: 5
fines other than for recusancy: 4
gambling/personal extravagance: 3
recusancy fines: 2

Much depended upon luck. A young man with an insufficient patrimony who went to court in the hope of gaining remunerative employment might hang about for years, living beyond his means, until ruin was certain, and then be sent packing; worse, he might, like Giles Fletcher, in desperation hitch his waggon to an unlucky star, the Earl of Essex perhaps, or be given employment that cost him more than it brought in, that was not ‘worth the wax’ as Sir William Cornwallis put it. Cornwallis’s father had been comptroller of the household to Mary Tudor, so that when Cornwallis himself went to seek his fortune at Elizabeth’s court in 1570 aged about 21, he had a considerable fortune as well as a close marriage association with the Cecils in his favour. But despite energetic efforts by Cecil he received no worthwhile preferment from either Elizabeth or James, and had finally to withdraw from court, deep in debt. It is true that, as his biographer puts it, Cornwallis was addicted to ‘frequenting the taverns and card tables’, but so were other courtiers, and Cornwallis’s record in his only Parliament was quite impressive. More to be held against him was his leaving the court in a ‘foolish fit of discontent’. Elizabeth did not often give people a second chance. Even when allowance has been made for exaggeration and hard luck stories, some of the biographies are sad reading, showing the high cost to individuals who underpinned with their own fortunes the Queen’s sparing administration of the realm. There are many instances of Elizabeth’s parsimony to her servants, apart from those, such as Robert Worsley, who were ruined by the system. Even the great Francis Walsingham wrote of the ‘mean state’ in which he would leave his wife and children, due to the ‘greatness of his debts’. Sir William Bowes, ambassador to Scotland, received but £33 out of an entitlement of £326, for a period during which he reckoned his outgoings had exceeded £600. Given the chance to recoup these losses by being made treasurer at Berwick, he wrote to Cecil that that post too ‘will be attended by my ruin’. Sometimes the Queen would provide for a widow. When Sir John Wingfield was killed at Cadiz, leaving his lady with ‘not one penny in the house to buy meat’, the Queen sent her £40. Edward Wingfield returned from Ireland, that graveyard of ambition, to be imprisoned in the Fleet for debt and to die intestate. Edward Denny and Sir William Morgan were ruined through service in Ireland. Robert Markham, the grandson of Sir John Markham, an old servant of Henry VII and Henry VIII, inherited few estates, went to court, lost money there, sold his estate and died intestate. Thomas Phillips the decipherer was left without a protector on Walsingham’s death and died in prison owing £11,500. Laurence Tomson, another of Walsingham’s followers, was more sensible, or luckier. He was a friend of William Davison, who was made secretary of state in September 1586. That December Davison, seeing that Tomson would have no prospects after Walsingham’s death, wrote to him suggesting that he might now be able to find him fresh preferment. But Tomson replied that he was not

desirous to turn my cogitations that way, for that I have spent now almost twelve years in those services without any regard or recompense any manner of way, and to my great charges and decay of health.8

And upon Walsingham’s death in 1590, Tomson retired to a modest estate with which he had provided himself, and lived 18 more years.

The government agent in particular was liable to sudden and often disastrous changes in status. William Parry was at one moment (May 1584) hobnobbing with Burghley, Walsingham, even the Queen, and the next (March 1585) detested and despised, on the point of being executed in the most degrading manner possible, his former familiarity with the great used as evidence against him. ‘I see I must die’, were his words, and how revealing they are of this aspect of the Elizabethan scene, ‘because I have not been consistent with myself’. William Herle, described by Burghley as ‘a gentleman of very good quality, wise, learned, of great experience’, rose from political agent to ambassador, could not stand the financial strain, came into Parliament to avoid his creditors, was given a small annuity (£66) and died in obscurity.

The device of being returned to Parliament to avoid creditors is not normally associated with sixteenth-century MPs. It was certainly disapproved of by the Queen, by the Privy Council and by the House itself. Herle is one of the few who are known to have adopted it, and there may have been more who managed to conceal that this was their real reason for wishing to be returned: Thomas Fitzherbert, who belonged to a Catholic family ruined by fines; George Gascoigne, a government agent, who ‘lurked at villages’ until he was returned to Parliament, then showed ‘his face openly in the despite of all his creditors’; and Sir Thomas Ragland, a soldier who died in obscurity, probably in prison for debt.

At least 16 of the ruined men did die in prison, and others, such as Vincent Skinner, in the Elizabethan equivalent of the sponging house, an establishment such as Isaac Bringhurst’s house at Holborn. Many had irregular private lives. Edward Dudley alias Sutton left his wife in London and lived with a ‘lewd and infamous woman’ by whom he had 11 children. ‘Wild’ William Darrell, in the course of just one of many escapades that were to earn him the soubriquet, got his wife’s maidservant pregnant, and threw the newly-born child on the fire, the basis for the incident in Sir Walter Scott’s Rokeby. Very many more of the Members in general had extra marital affairs, and where it is known that there were illegitimate children this has been noted in the biography. Only 17 of the MPs were themselves illegitimate. Sometimes an irregular sex life would attract the attention of the ecclesiastical authorities. Archbishop Parker wrote to Cecil in August 1569:9

I am at this day occupied with all the wit I have to persuade to Gerard Danet and his sister german that their contracting for man and wife and having had two children betwixt them and a third coming is sin. Before God I know not what to do with them.

The affair had been continuing for 10-12 years, and Parker thought he had stopped it six years before.

Among men who speculated heavily with government money, and for the most part ruined themselves in so doing, were Morgan Coleman, who defaulted as a subsidy collector, and was finally reduced to compiling genealogical tables for James I; Sir William Drury, an Exchequer official who fled the country owing at least £5,000; Sir Christopher Hatton, the Queen’s favourite, £40,000 in debt and unable to settle his accounts as receiver of first fruits and tenths; Thomas Heton, a customs collector; Thomas Shirley I, treasurer at war in the Netherlands, who lost in speculation the fortune he had made from misappropriating the soldiers’ pay; Edward Stafford II, who ran up debts as ambassador to France 1583-91, tried to borrow money interest-free from the Queen—a move entitling him to recognition as the prime optimist among the MPs of this period—and died in debt despite a profitable Exchequer post; and Richard Stonely, a teller of the Exchequer, who found himself unable to make up his accounts by £16,000. He had some ingenious excuses: his house had been burgled; he had lost £200 ‘by sundry falls of the coin’, but finally the real reason emerged, in words that condemn the contemporary system of handling public funds: he had been ‘overwhelmed with the receipt of such great sums of money’. Anthony Felton ruined himself by diverting to his own use money belonging to the Earl of Northumberland. The temptation to which those entrusted with government money were subject was well recognized by contemporaries; many resisted it. Francis Flower, applying for a receivership of customs after his master’s death had left him without a patron, promised ‘not to finger her Majesty’s monies an hour longer than I may turn them into her coffers’. George Horsey, an Exchequer receiver ‘extraordinarily attendant’ in handing over the money in his charge, stipulated in his will that his executor should not have ‘the keys of the great coffer where the Queen’s Majesty’s treasure lieth, before the said treasure be delivered out by her Majesty’s warrant’. Peter Osborne, a personal friend of Sir William Cecil, had a responsible post in the Exchequer under Edward VI, lost it under Mary, was reinstated by Elizabeth and spent the rest of his life in this service. No speculator with government money, he built up some small, compact estates and secured the reversion of his remembrancer’s office for his son. The family remained in the royal service and served as Members of Parliament until the nineteenth century.

For nearly half the Members, status and occupation were the same, and remained so throughout their lives: 45% of all identified Members were country gentlemen, the proportion remaining almost constant in each Parliament from 1559 until 1601. The percentage of merchants in the House (16% for the period covered by this section of the History) declined as the years passed: from 17% in the first three Parliaments taken together, to 15% for the term of the middle four, and to 13% for the last three. Merchants showed less tendency than lawyers or servants of great men to mix with other classes (see pp. 8-9). Their fathers were merchants (60%) or of unknown or obscure background (34%). The case of the lawyers was quite different. Their proportion of the House, 17% over the whole period, nearly doubled, rising from 12% in 1559 to 23% in 1601: from 14% as the average for the first three Parliaments to 19% for the term of the middle four, and to 20% for the last three. Nearly half the lawyers (47%) were born to parents of country gentleman status, and well over half (55%) married gentry. A further 19% of lawyers were of merchant origin and 26% of unknown or obscure background. Lawyers were the socially mobile people of the day, the ‘new’ people: only 18% of them had ancestors in Parliament, compared with 42% of the gentry.

The proportion of Members who were servants of great men remained constant at about 6%. Government officials and courtiers, 8% for the whole period, declined slightly in number, from 10% as the average for the first three Parliaments to 9% for the term of the middle four, and to 7% for the last three.

A few other occupations supplying 1% or more of the MPs can be recognized: 3% were from the armed forces, 1% were diplomats, and a further 1% were academics and medical men. The date selected for this calculation is the date of last election to the House; a different base date would have produced somewhat higher figures. Thus a soldier might seek election to the House between campaigns, but he would be more likely to do so after retiring and perhaps buying an estate. Diplomats, on the other hand, were often government officials or courtiers selected for a particular task, who might look forward to reverting to their former, or preferably a better, employment after a successful mission, or to a period in the Fleet prison if things went wrong, as they did for Sir James Croft. Sometimes a man might graduate to overt diplomacy after service as a government agent abroad. William Herle has already been mentioned. Another was Christopher Parkins, epitomized by a contemporary as ‘Jesuit, doctor, dean, master of requests and what not’. Daniel Rogers, poet, humanist, historian, entered the service of Sir Henry Norris, the English ambassador in Paris, as tutor to his children. When Walsingham succeeded Norris, Rogers became one of his agents, then envoy in the Netherlands. Arrested in the autumn of 1580 while on government business in Germany, he spent over a year in prison before the authorities made any attempt to secure his release. This was eventually arranged subject to the payment of a ransom which Rogers had to collect himself from the English clergy. He finally got back to England in 1584, and not surprisingly he avoided a further resident post abroad. He was fortunate in obtaining a clerkship of the Privy Council under the patronage of Burghley, to whom he turned after Walsingham had let him down. But, less than four years later, this great scholar died in his early fifties, leaving a young widow, an infant son and a daughter as yet unborn.

Gifted academics often received government posts. Robert Lougher came from Tenby, one of the contributory boroughs to the Pembroke constituency group. Like many of his countrymen he had a brilliant career at Oxford, where he became a fellow of All Souls. Probably upon his marriage, a fortunate one to the daughter of a judge, he received an ecclesiastical living in Devon, and was soon made an archdeacon. He returned to an academic post at Oxford, where he debated before the Queen in 1566. She then appointed him to the regius chair in civil law, which was his occupation when, still in holy orders, he was returned to Parliament for Pembroke Boroughs in 1572, a case of local boy making good. He became a master in Chancery in 1574, chancellor of Exeter diocese about two years later, and finally vicar general to the archbishop of York. Medical men were sometimes also servants of great men or graduated to service at court: William Swayne, the barber-surgeon and musician, is an example.

The distribution of parliamentary constituencies (see Map A) was densest in the south of England. In order to compare this distribution with that of the localities in which the MPs actually resided, and with the distribution of the population at large, England and Wales have been divided into ten regions, as in the Sample Census 1966 Summary Tables (see Map B).

These regions are:

1.Northern (Cumberland, County Durham, Northumberland, Westmorland).
2.North Western (Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire).
4.West Midland (Herefordshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire).
5.East Midland (Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland).
6.East Anglia (Cambridgeshire, Isle of Ely, Huntingdonshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex).
7.South Eastern (Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire, Kent, Oxfordshire, Surrey, Sussex).
8.South Western (Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Wiltshire).
10.London and Middlesex.


Two consequences of adopting these standard population regions must be emphasized: the English constituencies of Monmouthshire and Monmouth are included in Wales, and London is very strictly London north of the Thames, the south bank of the river being the northern border of Surrey. The adult population for the ten regions in 1603 has been computed from the communicants returns for that year.


Distribution of the Population at Large, 1603

Key to Table:

Colomn marked 1 - Estimated adult population

Column marked 2 - Percentage of estmated total adult population (2,304,812) resident

Column marked 3 - Percentage of all MPs resident

Remaining columns - Percentage of MPs by year (1559-1601)

* South of a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash (i.e. Regions 6, 7, 8, 10)





















& Middlesex


MPs’ residence




Harl. 280, printed in T. H. Hollingsworth, Historical Demog. 82-85. As noted in the remarks on religion, these figures are regarded as useless for ascertaining the degree of non-conformity in 1603, but as ‘close to the truth’ for population totals.

It will be seen from the table that whereas 45% of the total adult population of England and Wales lived in the four regions south of a line from the Bristol Channel to the Wash, the proportion of all MPs who lived in the same four regions was as high as 64%, rising to 69% for the Members of the 1593 Parliament. A quarter (25%) of all MPs were from the South Eastern region alone, the adult population of which amounted to but 11% of the entire population. But in the Northern region, whose population, certainly from the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace, had claimed to be neglected by the governing classes resident in the south, the proportion of MPs’ residences was half that of the population in general, small enough in itself at 6%. The localities where the proportions of MPs’ residences and the population in general most closely corresponded were the West Midlands, East Anglia and the South West. The South West was rather less favoured at the end of the period (17%) than at the beginning (22%), whereas in London and Middlesex the proportion of resident MPs rose from 7% in 1559 to 13% in 1601. This bias towards the south of the country existed notwithstanding the fact that being a Member of Parliament was nowhere near being a full time occupation. Certainly it may have provided an ambitious or ‘different’ man with an excuse to go to the south, but in this context it should also be remembered that several small boroughs, to save expense, returned men who were already based in London.

After the removal from the House of Lords of the abbot of Westminster and the prior of St. John of Jerusalem, both of whom survived from the previous reign to sit in the 1559 Parliament, there were in the 1563 Parliament 24 lords spiritual and 58 temporal, excluding the lord keeper Sir Nicholas Bacon, who, though Speaker of the House of Lords, was not himself a peer. By 1601 there were only 51 lords temporal in Parliament, so that the House of Lords actually decreased in number during this period, a striking illustration of Elizabeth’s reluctance to grant honours. In contrast, new Stuart creations amounted to 49 from among the Elizabethan MPs alone. On one day, 21 July 1603, James I created three earldoms and eight baronies.10

Of the 2,603 identified MPs in these pages only nine received peerages before the end of the period:11

Sir William Cecil1571for his services as secretary
Sir Henry Cheyney1572related to a deceased peer
Henry Compton I1572related to a living peer
Sir Robert Dudley1564related to a deceased peer
Sir Henry Norris I1572related to a deceased peer
Sir William Paulet1572summoned in father’s barony
John Russell I1581related to a living peer
Thomas Sackville1567related to Anne Boleyn
Gilbert Talbot1589summoned in father’s barony


It will be seen that only two, Cecil and Sackville, were new men. The device of calling a son to the Lords in his father’s lifetime, as with Paulet and Talbot, was in later centuries frequently resorted to when it was desired to strengthen the House of Lords without adding permanently to the number of peers. That some thought was given on at least one occasion in this period to the possibility of enlarging the House of Lords is evident, for as part of Burghley’s preparations for the 1589 Parliament a list of ‘knights of great possessions’ who might be ennobled was drawn up.12 Among the dozen names were eight who served in Elizabeth’s House of Commons:

Sir Matthew Arundell Sir Edward Clere Sir William Courtenay I Sir John Danvers Sir Edward Dymoke (Sir)James Harington I Sir Amias Paulet Sir Robert Southwell

In the event none of the eight received a peerage in this period. Not surprisingly a peerage was under discussion in 1588 for Sir Christopher Hatton who had just been made chancellor, Burghley noting that no patent would be necessary, since he might be ‘called by writ and created by any title the Queen pleases. The title must be of some manor house, for it hath been a great error to make men’s surnames bear the title of baronies’—an interesting revelation of his dislike of a practice already common.

In addition to the nine new peers the following 23 MPs became peers by succession:


Charles Blount, 8th Lord Mountjoy1594
Giles Brydges, 3rd Baron Chandos1573
Gray Brydges, 5th Baron Chandos1602
William Brydges, 4th Baron Chandos1594
Sir George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon1596
Thomas Cecil, 2nd Baron Burghley1598
Sir Henry Clinton, 2nd Earl of Lincoln1585
Edward Dudley alias Sutton, 5th Lord Dudley1586
Ralph Eure, 3rd Lord Eure1594
Sir George Hastings, 4th Earl of Huntingdon1595
Charles Howard I, 2nd Baron Howard
(Earl of Nottingham 1597)
Thomas Howard, 3rd Viscount Howard1590
Lewis Mordaunt, 3rd Baron Mordaunt1571
Sir Roger North, 2nd Lord North1564
Sir Henry Paget, 2nd Lord Paget1563
Sir Henry Percy, 2nd Earl of Northumberland1572
Sir Henry Radcliffe, 4th Earl of Sussex1583
Robert Rich, 3rd Baron Rich
(Earl of Warwick 1618)
John St. John II, 2nd Baron St. John1582
Oliver St. John II, 3rd Baron St. John1596
Thomas Scrope, 10th Lord Scrope1592
Edward Stafford I, 3rd Baron Stafford1566
Thomas West II, 2nd Baron Delaware1595


Sir Henry Gray pleaded a ‘slender estate’ for not assuming his title as 4th Earl of Kent. Had it not been for this, Reginald Grey would have succeeded as 5th Earl of Kent before the date of his appearance in the Commons as Member for Weymouth in 1563: he re-assumed the earldom in 1572, took his seat in the Lords in May, and died intestate within a year. Sir Henry Sidney was considered for a peerage in 1572, but his wife pleaded poverty on his behalf and the matter was dropped.

Baronetcies were not instituted until 1611. Nevertheless 46 Elizabethan MPs received, or perhaps one should write purchased, the honour. Thus the only honour at all widely bestowed by Queen Elizabeth was knighthood.

Eleven knights of the Bath were created for the coronation in January 1559, six of whom

Sir Roger North
Sir Nicholas Poyntz

Sir George Speake
Sir Edward Unton
Sir Henry Weston
Sir John Zouche

served at some time in her Commons, and during the whole reign 53 knights of the Garter were created, mostly noblemen and foreign dignitaries. Among the latter was, in 1590, the Queen’s successor James VI of Scotland, whose mother she had executed just over three years earlier.


The Garter knights made by Elizabeth who served in her Commons either before or after being so created were (the styles shown identify their biographies):

Charles Blount1597
Henry Brooke alias Cobham II1599
Sir George Carey1597
Thomas Cecil1601
Sir William Cecil1572
Sir Robert Dudley1559
Christopher Hatton I1588
Charles Howard I1575
Sir Francis Knollys
(aged 80, he had just completed his 12th Parliament)
Sir Henry Lee1597
Sir Henry Radcliffe1589
Thomas Sackville1589
Thomas Scrope1599
Sir Henry Sidney1564
Gilbert Talbot1592


Nearly a quarter (629) of all Elizabethan MPs were knighted but many of these were dubbed by James on his accession. The number was also inflated by the Earl of Essex, who, to the Queen’s fury, knighted many of his followers by virtue of his commission as lord deputy of Ireland, among them Edmund Baynham, ‘a base captain and rascal’ knighted ‘on the sands’ just before Essex returned to England. Men of the calibre of John Fortescue, John Hawkins, Henry Killigrew and William Wynter received their knighthoods only at the end of long and honourable careers. Of course there was always a distinction between those knighted on ‘the carpet’ and those knighted on the field, and a man who failed to obtain the one might, like Thomas Tasburgh, attempt the other. Already by 1595 Tasburgh had ‘long had cause to expect that the Queen would lay the grace of knighthood on him’. In desperation four years later he turned to Essex, who knighted him at Dublin. Tasburgh knew very well what the Queen would think of this, and, sure enough, on his return to England he was imprisoned to ‘dwell in her Majesty’s displeasure’. Another who suffered the same fate was Sir Nicholas Clifford (also knighted by Essex) for accepting a foreign order without her permission. In her ‘passion’ and ‘rage’ at Clifford’s insolence the Queen is supposed to have exclaimed ‘My dogs wear my collars’. Yet when Drake entertained the Queen aboard the Golden Hind after his circumnavigation, the accolade was bestowed, not by his sovereign, but on her behalf by one de Marchaumont, a French diplomat engaged in the Alençon marriage negotiations. There were many anomalies. Why, for example, when so many were excluded from the honour, men of the calibre of Thomas Randolph, the distinguished diplomat, was such a firebrand as Anthony Cope knighted after imprisonment in the Tower and just after his house had been searched for subversive material?

As the religious affiliations of MPs in this period are of more than usual interest, so is their classification of more than ordinary difficulty, largely because the Elizabethan middle and upper classes were under such pressure to conform to the settlement achieved at the beginning of the reign that most of those who adhered to the ‘old’ religion saw their interests best served by keeping quiet about it. Before venturing into these treacherous waters, however, it may be worth considering some contemporary attempts to classify Elizabethan gentlemen (not MPs as such unfortunately) according to their religious attitudes.

On 17 Oct. 1564 the Privy Council asked the bishops to report ‘the names of persons qualified or disqualified for the commission of the peace, as they are affected or disaffected to the established religion’. The replies13 cannot be taken at face value, as the archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, recognized:

What these be and what others be, your honours of the Council know much better than we can inform you, and, as for myself, I know them not, and sometimes informers serve their own turn, and gratify their friends.

Parker was looking for men ‘outwardly conformable’ and of no ‘great extremities’. Even Edwin Sandys, bishop of Worcester, and later to be archbishop of York, replied that ‘men are loth to meddle in matters that may turn to their displeasure’. However, most bishops co-operated, the more business-like sending a brief covering letter and formulating their answers in a ‘schedule here enclosed’. The bishop of Ely had the ‘enterprise to note my fancy’ with a little classification of his own: a ‘g’ against a name meant ‘godly’ or ‘good’; a ‘c’ meant conformable, and, on the ‘misliked’, ‘I have set no sign’. Where there is one, his bishop’s classification of him has been noted in the Member’s biography. Here are some of the categories. A man in favour of the Elizabethan settlement may be classed as godly affected; a favourer of true religion/godly orders/godly proceedings; earnest in religion; a furtherer earnest. For a man indifferent the classification can be indifferent in religion or of no religion; neuter; no hinderer; meet to continue in office; lives quietly and obeys the laws. This last may imply that in the bishop’s view the man was a Catholic, but one not considered dangerous. Others were described as disfavourers/adversaries/hinderers of true religion; mislikers of religion and godly proceedings; wickedly obstinate; extremely perverse; a common harbourer of obstinates; a stout scorner of godliness; very superstitious; not favourable to the ordinary good proceedings of this realm in the orders and courses of religion; a very papist. The bishop of Hereford wrote almost an essay about one man, ‘a daily drunkard, a receiver and maintainer of the enemies of religion, a maintainer of superstition and namely of abrogated holy days, useth to pray upon a Latin primer full of superstitions ... to be short he is a mortal enemy of Christian religion’. Sometimes the distinctions were blurred: enemies or at the least no favourers of the ecclesiastical policy of this realm; very cold; an ill liver. The bishop of Coventry and Lichfield reported that Sir George Vernon was ‘a great jester at religion as well as in all other things’, and the bishop of Lincoln classified Robert Newdigate I as ‘earnest’ in Bedfordshire and ‘indifferent’ in Buckinghamshire, describing him, for good measure, as ‘esquire’ in the one county and ‘gent.’ in the other.

Some bishops advocated (and anticipated) a compulsory ‘solemn oath to be taken on being made a justice’, as Sandys put it, ‘the oath for the Queen’s Majesty’s supremacy [should be] rendered to all such as bear rule or be of authority in their country and yet known to be adversaries to true religion’. Some were bitter against their own cathedral churches. At Hereford ‘all the canons resident [except one] are but dissemblers and rank papists’; at Lincoln there were ‘papistical orders and usages in cathedral and collegiate churches’. The bishop of Carlisle ‘durst have no conference’ with the Catholics, and complained that ‘the justices of assize ... show themselves not favourable towards any man or cause of religion, which the people make much and talk of’. It is, of course, impossible to make any satisfactory analysis of these replies when the categories are so imprecise and when so many bishops resorted to general comments: ‘of the whole council’, reported the bishop of Hereford, ‘there is not one that is counted favourable to this religion’ or ‘the best of them [in Radnor] is but a neuter’: or ‘all that bear authority [in Winchester] except one or two being addicted to the old superstition ...’; or all ‘the justices of peace of this shire be very well affected’. For what it is worth, however, of the eleven hundred or so men actually named (and even here there is uncertainty, names being repeated and diocesan and county boundaries confused), just over half were ‘favourers’ of the existing settlement (that is to say, they were puritans or protestants); 15% were indifferent and about a third, in the bishops’ views, adversaries (meaning Catholics or Catholics conformed or conformable).

A second effort to note religious opinions was that of Sir Thomas Gargrave, who reported on the gentlemen of Yorkshire in the 1570s. He classified 43 as protestant; 18 as ‘the worst sort’; 22 as ‘the mean or less evil sort’; and 39 as doubtful—not such a pessimistic view (from the Elizabethan government’s view) as, for example, that of Sir Ralph Sadler, who thought in 1569 that ‘there be not in all this country [the north of England] ten gentlemen that do favour and allow of her Majesty’s proceedings in the cause of religion ...’, or that of another Member in 1572 who thought that in the north it was ‘a great deal more dangerous to be a protestant than a papist’.

The following table, valid for Yorkshire alone, summarizes the 1564 report on the Yorkshire gentry, the figures in Gargrave’s report (also on the gentry) and figures derived from the biographies of Elizabethan MPs resident in the county in the 1570s:


gentry in 1564


gentry in 1570s


MPs in 1570s

Catholics conformed**}25{1811

* Gargrave’s ‘worst sort’.

** Gargrave’s ‘less evil sort’.

These figures make it clear that, as might be expected, few Catholics were returned to Parliament. Consequently they, as a group, are under-represented in these pages, though perhaps more numerous than had been expected. An example is Sir John Southworth, who, like so many Catholics, came from the north of England; 16% of Elizabethan MPs who resided north of a line from Bristol to the Wash were Catholics, 8% south of it. As Bishop Grindal reported him, Southworth maintained that ‘he would follow the faith of his fathers and ... die in the faith wherein he was baptized.’ Such a man is clearly to be put down as a Catholic without qualification, and in theory the Lower House ought to have contained none of his sort after the 1563 session, for in that year the provisions of the 1559 Act of Supremacy were broadened so that all university graduates, lawyers and MPs were required to take the oath of supremacy.

But not all Catholics were like Southworth. For some of them there was an alternative course, put neatly by the lawyer Robert Atkinson, himself a Catholic, in his speech in the House in 1563 against the new provisions: a man could ‘lay his hand to the book when his heart shall be far off ...’. Atkinson himself did not make this mental reservation. He refused to conform, did not sit again after 1566, was expelled from his inn in 1570, and barred from pleading in any court or giving ‘any counsel in the law’ Yet he retained his recordership of Oxford until his death in 1607, and even, as recorder, made the speech of welcome when the Queen visited Oxford in 1592. Another explanation for the appearance of Catholics in Parliament after 1563, though very few did, was the laxity of the oath-taking ceremonies. There are many examples of local officials evading the oath for years, among them Walter Vaughan and John Wynn. Neither was a Catholic, and both had already sat in Parliament, so their failure to take the oath as local officials until 1592 does not necessarily imply that they had not taken it as MPs. The point is that the proceedings were such that a failure to do so might pass unnoticed. Here is Hayward Townshend describing the swearing in of Members in 1597:

We were sent for by the lord admiral to the great room where the court of requests now is, at the higher (viz. to the north) end whereof there was a little round table set, and a chair for the lord steward and stools for Sir William Knollys, comptroller, and Sir John Fortescue, chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sir Robert Cecil principal secretary to the state, where first the[y] called the whole house by name and every man answered (here or ready) when his name was called on by the crier, there they began to swear some burgesses, but finding no quick dispatch they separated themselves, and Mr. Comptroller and Mr. Secretary went to the room next before the Lower House, and there the one sitting at the one end of the long table and the other at the other, each swearing 7 or 8 at a time, and giving the oath of supremacy in the statute of 1 Eliz. Cap. 1 (see Rastall Crown 4 f. 91C) I, A B do utterly testify etc. And as every man was sworn so went they into the Lower House, and there got them places where they thought best, so that within less than half an hour the House was full and to my judgment above 400.

How easy it would have been for one of the ‘7 or 8 at a time’ to have just not sworn the oath. In 1601 the reporter is explicit about the chaos:

In the meantime, whilst her Majesty was at sermon, the Lord Admiral came into the court of requests, and there began to call the knights and burgesses by the poll; and also, to swear them at the same time. But because that course seemed too tedious, he stayed, whilst Sir William Knollys, comptroller of the House; Sir John Stanhope, vice-chamberlain; Sir Robert Cecil, principal secretary of state; and John Herbert Esquire, second secretary, came; who were all coming up from the Upper House together, and then only the knights and burgesses were called. After that, the Lord Admiral, and Mr. Secretary Cecil, went up to the Upper House; but Mr. Comptroller, Sir John Stanhope, and Mr. Secretary Herbert, went to the space before the Parliament House door; where they sware all the Lower House confusedly, four at one time, six at another, eight at another, taking their names that swore; and who not: and still as every man was sworn, he went into the House, and to his place, as best liked him.

Assuredly there were very few avowed Catholics in the Commons after 1563, but gut the point has to be made that there were some. Sir George Blount, Sir William Courtenay I, William Petre, and Moore Powell are examples. Powell should have taken the oath both as recorder of Monmouth and as MP. Petre’s godfather was Lord Burghley, yet he was brought up by a Catholic tutor and, at the age of 22, elected knight of the shire. There was even a county Member under restraint during the 1581 session for being an open recusant—John Talbot, son-in-law of Sir William Petre. The view that in comparison with the later Parliaments no ‘appreciable difference can be perceived in the Parliaments of 1559 and 1563 which were free from the oath’14 does not stand up to investigation.


Catholics in the Commons


i.e. an average of 7.5% in the Parliaments before the Act, and 1.3% after it

Men known to have had Catholic sympathies, but who fulfilled the minimum requirements of attendance at an Anglican church are designated in this study by the term ‘Catholic conformed’. As the period advanced there was increased resort to the practice of having one member of a family, the head, conform in this way in order to avoid or reduce its liability to recusancy fines. Examples of Catholics who conformed are Thomas Crompton I, so that he could take a degree; Ralph Sheldon; and Francis Stonor, in whose house Campion’s printing press was found in 1581. Through the following years Stonor paid heavily for Sir Robert Cecil’s protection, and in 1601 received the honour of knighthood through Cecil’s intervention. A man known to have been a Catholic at the time he was in Parliament and to have conformed only later, is classed plainly as such, not as ‘Catholic conformed’. Sometimes it is impossible to say whether a man conformed or whether he slipped through the oath-taking net. One example is John Morley II; another, Kenelm Digby, was undoubtedly a Catholic at heart, but he represented Rutland for 40 years, so surely he must have conformed. Similarly, there is no doubt that John Ratcliffe was a Catholic. His being a j.p. and deputy lieutenant suggests that he conformed, but the contrary is just as possible: he lived in the north, where his opinions, though known, might have been tolerated. Edward Morgan I, twice knight of the shire for Monmouthshire, a j.p. and sheriff certainly as late as 1602, refused the oath of allegiance to his new sovereign and was convicted of recusancy in the second year of James’s reign. Had he ever taken the oath, one wonders? The same can be asked about Thomas Russell, a j.p. from 1600, a deputy lieutenant from 1603 and a recusant from 1610, who had given no sign of Catholicism when he represented Worcestershire in 1601. Sometimes the fact of a man’s having been a Catholic all along was revealed only at his death—Charles Danvers is an example. Two Members of the 1601 Parliament, Oliver Manners and Toby Matthew, became Catholic priests. In general the Catholics in Parliament came from the older families15 and from the higher social classes.16


Catholics conformed in the Commons


i.e. an average of about 3% per Parliament

The third category, ‘Catholic affiliations’, means no more than it says, but a man has not been placed in this category if he has already been classed as ‘Catholic conformed’ or on the unsupported evidence of an unfriendly source. For him to be included, his wife or some other member of his immediate family must be known to have been a Catholic, and he himself must have been under suspicion of Catholicism, for, of course, Catholic fathers had puritan sons and vice versa—examples may be found in the Atherton, Bassett, Heigham, Petre and Stroughton families. This definition of ‘Catholic affiliations’ exactly fits Gilbert Talbot, 7th Earl of Shrewsbury. His wife Mary, whose mother Bess of Hardwick and father Sir William Cavendish were unexceptionable protestants, was a convicted recusant who spent some time in prison, and Shrewsbury himself was constantly accused of being a secret Catholic. He was not a Catholic (as far as can be seen), but his Catholic affiliations affected his public career to the point where he felt it necessary to absent himself from meetings of the Privy Council.


MPs with Catholic affiliations


i.e. about 4% on average per Parliament

Sir Nicholas Parker and Richard Lewknor are examples of the category ‘Catholic affiliations’, taken from the south of England for a change. A relation who was an open recusant lived in Parker’s house, and although his own religious attitude was ‘suspect’ in 1583 he was an active j.p., sheriff, deputy lieutenant, knight of the shire and even a recusancy commissioner. A considerable number of ecclesiastical or recusancy commissioners were of suspect religion (e.g. Owen Oglethorpe, Sir Nicholas Poyntz) but this should be no more surprising than the number of piracy commissioners themselves suspected of piracy or of maintaining pirates. The Elizabethans were used to gamekeepers and poachers changing roles. Richard Lewknor, whose own sympathies are obvious, and whose brother was an outright recusant, sentenced to death four seminary priests 1588, and his loyalty to the government was unquestioned.

As it sometimes happened that an MP’s wife was an avowed Catholic, while her husband conformed (see, for example, Sir John Atherton, Francis Stonor), the education of the children of such marriages could and did occasion concern. Nathaniel Bacon, in the House on 28 Feb. 1593, moved that these children should not be committed to the charge of the bishop, on the interesting ground that some diocesan chancellors were so affected to the canon law as to be ‘infected with the popish religion’—an echo of what some of the bishops had written to the Privy Council in 1564. The feeling that lawyers and especially ecclesiastical lawyers were frequently Catholic remained widespread long after the compulsory oaths should have excluded them from practice. The recorder of London, William Fleetwood I, reminded the House in 1572 that informers were active in Queen Mary’s time, reporting to the Queen what Members said: ‘it was the practice of the papists and they were traitors. Some of them be dead since, and some of them walk now in Westminster Hall.’ John Hales I thought in March 1566 that the appointment of George Bromley as attorney of the duchy of Lancaster would ‘win the hearts of a great many protestants who are now discouraged [but]. will take hope if they hear a protestant lawyer beareth some authority in Westminster Hall.’17 To test this hypothesis the religion of MPs has been considered in relation to their occupation. Taking the four largest occupations and the three categories of Catholics, the percentages are as follows:


Religion of Elizabethan MPs in relation to their occupation






All three


country gentlemen%
government officials%

It is evident that the proportion of Catholics was higher among the country gentlemen than among the lawyers. Contributing to the opposite impression was the fact that the Catholics among the close knit group of lawyers could be more easily identified than the Catholics among the country gentlemen.

As might be expected, Catholics were more likely than protestants to run into trouble. Nearly three times as many came to a violent end; 11 Catholics were implicated in the Norfolk marriage plot, as against 3 protestants; and even the Essex rising involved a disproportionate number of Catholics. Altogether 40% of the Catholic MPs got into serious trouble with the Elizabethan government, as against 2% of the protestant.

The classification ‘indifferent’ in religion is used of a man if his contemporaries thought him so, if he is so classified in the bishops’ reports of 1564, or if his record of holding office under both Mary and Elizabeth indicates that he was. See, for example, the career of Robert Weston. As there is no yardstick for measuring ‘indifference’ in the later part of this period, it follows that there are many more of the ‘indifferent’ in the early Parliaments than in the later, by which time the appropriate classification for such a man would probably be protestant, on the later analogy of the old Quaker lady who reported that her niece had given up religion and joined the Church of England. The term Church of England, it may be noted, was not in regular use in the early period of the Elizabethan church settlement. That contemporaries could be defeated by the difficulty of describing the religion of the country is well illustrated by the query put by the Earl of Sussex in April 1567 when he was about to be sent by the Queen to the Archduke Charles of Austria, whom she was supposed to be thinking of marrying:

as to the question of religion he wished to be quite clear about it before he left, because, although he was a native born Englishman and knew as well as others what was passing in the country, he was at a loss to state what was the religion that really was observed here.18

It goes without saying that we are dealing here with outward appearances. Many of those classed as ‘indifferent’ may well have had sincerely held beliefs, which for one reason or another they wished to keep to themselves. Again, all these classifications were made at one or two points in a man’s life, and, in the case of some of the more volatile characters, may well be invalid for other periods. The point is illustrated by Ralph Sheldon’s second wife: born a protestant, she was converted to Catholicism by her second husband, conformed to Anglicanism during her third marriage, and was a Catholic during her marriage to Sheldon and her subsequent widowhood.


MPs believed to be ‘indifferent’


i.e. about 2% on average per Parliament

The presumption has been that MPs were protestant unless there is evidence to the contrary. On this basis, of the identified MPs in this period 1,918 (74%) were protestants.




The term ‘puritan’ as here used, comprises those in the early Parliaments who were classed by bishops known to be sympathetic towards the reformers as ‘zealous’ or ‘earnest furtherers of religion’; those who opposed the wearing of vestments; those who attempted to move the church settlement towards ‘further reformation’, or those others, more extreme, described by Francis Hastings I, with acknowledgment to his old Oxford tutor Dr. Humphrey, as ‘your evangelical puritans who rely wholly upon the scriptures as upon sure ground’. There are 33 active puritans in these pages, the best known being Peter Wentworth, but there were many others imbued with a lesser zeal, some of whom, like William Booth and Henry Killigrew, bear little resemblance to the puritan stereotype.




or an average of about 9% per Parliament

Finally, there are 180 men, amounting to 7% of all the identified MPs, who have been left unclassified because of doubt about their religious views. These amount to an average of about 4% per Parliament.

Religion played a large part in the lives of the Elizabethans, but religious considerations did not invariably override others, as has been noted over Robert Atkinson’s recordership. The puritan 2nd Earl of Bedford supported his friend the Catholic Sir William Dormer for a Buckinghamshire seat in 1571, rather than his own son. Another puritan magnate, the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon, nominated Robert Brokesby at Leicester in 1563, with whose family he had long been on good terms, though Brokesby was later an open recusant. Sir Christopher Hatton was a conservative in religion, a supporter of Whitgift, yet he went to inordinate lengths to help ‘my good friend Sir Richard Knightley’ when that rash puritan was in trouble for sheltering the press on which the Martin Marprelate tracts were printed.

There are, particularly among the ecclesiastical lawyers, many examples of laymen holding promotions or dignities, such as deaneries and prebends, now reserved for clergymen. Ordained ministers, however, had been ineligible for the Commons since the time of Edward I, their place being in convocation, as the Elizabethans well knew. Accordingly, Charles Mathew, MP for Corfe Castle in the 1572 Parliament was replaced in the 1581 session because he had been ‘made a minister’ and ought to ‘attend his cure’. But, not surprisingly, some anomalies have been found. John Foster worked for Romsey abbey before the break with Rome. He took holy orders after an affair with a nun; ceased to officiate as a minister in 1543; and went to Gray’s Inn. By 1561 he was working for Bishop Horne of Winchester, who brought him into Parliament for Hindon in 1563, and in the following year suggested him as suitable to be a j.p. for Winchester on the ground that he would counteract the city’s ‘bad example’ in continuing to favour the old religion. Robert Lougher, already mentioned in another context (see p. 21), held several ecclesiastical livings, became an archdeacon and even proctor for the clergy of Exeter diocese in Convocation in 1562-3, and ten years later was a Member of the Commons. James Bisse, MP for Wells in 1584, was rector of Mells at the time and vicar of Bishop’s Lydiard in 1586-9. Ambrose Coppinger, after being ordained, was presented by his father to the family living, resigned it in 1571, and was returned to Parliament for Ludgershall in 1586. Possibly being a clergyman was thought to disqualify a man only if he had cure of souls at the time. More likely, the statutory exclusion of clergymen from the House of Commons was forgotten or ignored, as long as none drew attention to it.

As a postscript to the subject of religion in this period, it may be well to say something about wills, particularly the pious preambles affected by so many Elizabethans. It has for long been held that these offer some guidance to the testator’s religious views—that, for example, the expression of the hope of being among the elect, or of being saved only through the merits of Jesus Christ, might indicate puritanism; that asking for the intercession of the Saints, and fervent invocation of the Virgin or the Trinity, might indicate Catholic beliefs, and, in a general way, this is true. Doubts, however, arise when formulae open to conflicting interpretations occur in one and the same preamble: examples are to be found in the wills of John Ratcliffe and Thomas Oxborough. Sometimes the repetition of the same pious preamble in the wills of a number of people from the same district suggests that the preambles may have a common source and have been advised or inserted by the testator’s lawyer. That a will might be drawn up by someone other than the testator is exemplified by that of Thomas Colby II. This may explain why the will of John Audley I refers to ‘the day of the annunciation of our blessed lady’ and then goes on to make a bequest to a prominent puritan preacher. Sometimes, of course, the wills show a man’s religion beyond peradventure. Here are three examples, two Catholic, one protestant. In 1568 Sir Robert Brandling left priests’ vestments in his possession to the church of St. Nicholas, Newcastle, ‘if that the service there be allowed according to the Catholic fashion of late used.’ Nicholas Potts, MP 1584, died ‘a member of the true ancient apostolic and Catholic church’ and hoped to join ‘all the holy company of angels and archangels and blessed saints of heaven’. Andrew Newport, at the other end of the spectrum, ‘lived and died in the faith of Jesus Christ [a] true professor of the doctrine according to the best reformed churches in the time wherein [he] lived, ever hating and detesting the imposture and abominations of the Church of Rome as now it standeth’. The argument, therefore, is not that wills in general do not shed light on a man’s religious views, only that the preambles must be used with caution.

Some 45 Elizabethan MPs (1.7%) met their death in a manner that calls for comment, this total including all those who came to a violent end, two of them through causes unknown. Fourteen were killed in action, or died from wounds received on active service. Of these the Netherlands claimed 4, Ireland 4 (of whom two were brothers, Sir Henry and Sir John Norris), and Rouen, Portugal and Cadiz one each. Two (Brutus Browne and Sir Nicholas Clifford) were killed while at table with Drake in the Defiance off Puerto Rico. One (Robert Pierrepont) lived long enough to be killed in the Civil War. Six were executed, seven if Sir Walter Ralegh is to be included, but his story really belongs to the next reign. William Parry was arrested while he was a Member of the 1584 Commons, and while Parliament was in session, though he was expelled the House a week before his trial began: an indiscreet speech he had made in the Commons was a reason for his fall. In addition to those executed, two died or were murdered while prisoners in the Tower. Four were lost at sea, one through a classic recipe for disaster, the ship’s captain trying to enter a harbour (Rye) on a lee shore during a storm. Three died as the result of duels, one of them (William Brooke alias Cobham) while he was knight of the shire for Kent in 1597, thus giving rise to what turned out to be perhaps the most entertaining contested county by-election of the period. Four Members are known to have committed suicide: Sir Gervase Clifton; William Dodington, in trouble with his accounts; Edward Hancock, a servant of Sir Walter Ralegh, who killed himself after Ralegh’s fall; and George Southcote. Sir Henry Percy was found dead in the Tower, shot by a bullet from his own pistol, but at least one eminent contemporary believed he was disposed of because he had become an embarrassment to the authorities. Two Members were believed to have been poisoned by their wives. One of the ladies concerned, Lady Agnes Bulkeley, was said to have concealed her lethal dose under a pair of velvet slippers. The court of arches found that she committed adultery with one William Kenrick, who ‘did use to walk under the said Agnes her window in the night time, play upon an instrument and make love to her when Sir Richard was from home in the Parliament’: a local jury acquitted her of murder. Two Members fell from their horses, including John Glanville, a judge, who ‘toppled down’ head first, while on circuit, breaking his neck. One fell downstairs, one died in the mines royal at Keswick, one was murdered by his manservant, and one, Sir Francis Russell, a younger son of the 2nd Earl of Bedford, was shot while attempting to negotiate with the Scotch. One MP died ‘by the rupture of a vein’ while making a ‘vehement speech’ in 1604 on the evil of purveyors.

Finally here is a list of some rogues from among the men who sat in the Elizabethan House of Commons, additional to those already mentioned among the embezzlers, speculators with government money and the ruined men:

Edmund Baynham, a ‘base captain and rascal’ in Burghley’s words, fled the realm and went to Rome
Thomas Brooke alias Cobham, twice condemned to death, died in the Netherlands
Thomas Chatterton, cattle thief, poacher and rioter
Thomas Fitzherbert, betrayed his father as the price of his own freedom
William Gardiner, a ‘false forsworn knave’, perhaps the model for Shakespeare’s Justice Shallow
Thomas Godwyn, son of the bishop of Bath and Wells, swindled his father and the Exchequer, died abroad
Robert Gregory, deputy vice-admiral and pirate
Richard Hanbury, sold sub-standard iron
Francis Hawley, deputy vice-admiral, had a tariff for extricating pirates from trouble
John Hele I, lawyer and moneylender, imprisoned for extortion
Francis Keilway, stole his mother-in-law’s silver
John Killigrew I, cattle thief, pirate, smuggler, piracy commissioner and j.p.
John Killigrew II, his son, pirate, smuggler and vice-admiral
Lewis Lashbrook, forger and blackmailer
Henry and William Mere, brothers who swindled Sir Walter Ralegh
John Michell, relative and accomplice of the Killigrews
Walter Lee, swindler
Christopher Perne, pickpocket
Thomas Purfrey, accomplice of Thomas Godwyn
James Quirke, accomplice of Lewis Lashbrook
Edward St. Loe, poisoner
Sylvanus Scory, swindler Richard Shute, Burghley’s clerk of the works at Burghley House, stole building materials
Sir Thomas Throckmorton, disabled from office and fined ‘for divers foul matters and extortions committed in his country’
Richard Wennesley, bigamist.

William Parry, who may have been more sinned against than sinning, has been given the benefit of the doubt and excluded from the gallery, which is completed by another man notorious in parliamentary annals, Arthur Hall, whose ‘sundry lewd speeches’ and privilege claims took up so much of the House’s time. Certainly a rogue and probably mad, he was finally shut up in the Fleet, the Queen thinking ‘the place he remained in was too good for him, and Bedlam a fitter’. Two more of the rogues, Gardiner and Perne, were probably insane. Other madmen were: George Buc, ‘in his old age fallen stark mad’; Sir Henry Clinton, unique in this period for shutting the Queen out of his house (no doubt at times others would have liked to do so); and Walter Leveson.

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler

End Notes

  • 1. The lists of names were compiled by Mr. E.G. Webber.
  • 2. Sometimes days. Daniel Rogers died on 10 Feb. 1591 and his will was proved next day.
  • 3. T. H. Hollingsworth, Historical Demog. 84. In 1978 life expectancy was 68.9.
  • 4. OED, citing Sir Thomas Smith, Commonwealth (1584), pp. 30, 32.
  • 5. D’Ewes, Journal, 131.
  • 6. See YORK constituency.
  • 7. CJ, i. 56, 59; D’Ewes, 44, 45, 431.
  • 8. SP12/195/69.
  • 9. Lansd. 11, f. 138.
  • 10. CP, iv. 339.
  • 11. Excluding Charles Howard I who succeeded to a barony in 1573 and was elevated to an earldom in 1597 for his services against the Armada and at Cadiz.
  • 12. Lansd. 1041. ff. 51 seq.
  • 13. Cam. Misc. ix(3).
  • 14. Neale, Parlts. i. 27-28.
  • 15. 40% of the Catholic categories had ancestors in Parliament against 29% of all MPs.
  • 16. 18% of Catholics had parents, compared with 6% for the rest.
  • 17. Lansd. Lansd. 8, f. 15
  • 18. CSP Span. 1558-67, pp. 636-7.