BALL, Peter (1598-1680), of Mamhead, Devon and the Middle Temple, London

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press



1640 (Apr.)

Family and Education

bap. 24 Dec. 1598, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Giles Ball of Mamhead and Urith, da. of Humphrey Copleston of Instow, Devon.1 educ. ‘subscribed’ Oxf. 1614, DCL 1644; Lyons Inn; M. Temple 1616, called 1623.2 m. by Dec. 1628 (with £1,000), Ann, da. of Sir William Cooke* of Highnam, Glos., 9s. (1 d.v.p.) 8da. (1 d.v.p.).3 suc. fa. aft. 1610;4 kntd. 7 Oct. 1643,5 ?cr. bt. 22 July 1672.6 bur. 4 Sept. 1680.7 sig. Peter Balle.

Offices Held

Auditor (jt.), duchy of Cornw. 1627-30,8 commr. duchy assessions 1628,9 oyer and terminer, Exeter, Devon 1632, 1641, 1664,10 Western circ. 1637-42, 1662-73,11 Som. 1640, London 1640-1;12 j.p. Devon 1634-15 July 1642, 28 July 1642-at least 1644;13 commr. sewers, Kent 1640, gaol delivery, London 1640-1, Havering-atte-Bower, Essex 1660,14 survey, St. James’s bailiwick, Westminster 1640,15 array, Devon 1643-at least 1644,16 assessment, Exeter 1661, 1663, 1665-6, 1672, Devon 1661, 1665-6, 1672, 1677, 1679.17

Fee’d counsel, Exeter 1628, recorder 1632-c.Mar. 1643, Nov. 1643-46, 1660-76;18 solicitor-gen., Henrietta Maria’s household from 1636, att.-gen. by 1640-at least 1643, 1660-9;19 assoc. bencher, M. Temple 1636-41, bencher 1641-at least 1676, Lent reader 1641, treas. 1653-4;20 KC from 1640.21


Said to have settled in Devon by the thirteenth century, Ball’s forebears were certainly living at Chudleigh, eight miles south-west of Exeter, in the early Tudor period. By 1526 they had acquired property at Mamhead, close to the Exe estuary, and they purchased the manor during Elizabeth I’s reign. Ball himself rebuilt the manor house, and allegedly also undertook an extensive programme of afforestation there.22 With only a small landed estate to his name, he built his career through his talents as a lawyer and antiquarian. In 1622 he assembled the records that allowed the 21st earl of Arundel to assert his rights as a judge in the Marshalsea Court, while around the same time he wrote a history of the Courtenay family, his near neighbours at Powderham castle.23

In 1626 Ball was elected to Parliament for Tiverton, possibly through the influence of the Giffords of Tiverton castle, to whom he was distantly related.24 As a newcomer to the Commons, he made only a modest impact on proceedings, being named to just two legislative committees, both of which concerned legal issues (ecclesiastical patronage and intestacy, 14 Feb. and 7 March). Indeed, for part of the time he was not even present. Between 6 and 11 Mar. he served as counsel in the Lords to the 19th earl of Oxford during the latter’s successful bid to confirm his title, while on 9 Mar. he obtained a fortnight’s leave from the Commons in order to act as a witness at the Devon assizes ‘in a cause concerning the poor of Tiverton’.25 However, he did deliver two speeches. In the first, on 25 Feb., he called for the remaining funds from the 1624 subsidies to be employed to reimburse the costs of maintaining soldiers in the provinces, an urgent issue in Devon in the aftermath of the 1625 Cadiz expedition.26 In the second, on 9 May, he vigorously supported calls for the duke of Buckingham, who was widely blamed for the Cadiz campaign’s failure, to be imprisoned during his impeachment proceedings in the Lords. Countering the argument that there was no precedent for a peer to be detained without a specific charge of high treason, he demonstrated that a general complaint of misdemeanours had been considered sufficient grounds under Richard II, and listed Buckingham’s offences: ‘some against the king’s dignity, some against the Crown, some against the liberties of the subjects and kingdom’. After moving for the House to draw up its reasons for inviting the Lords to imprison the duke, he was appointed to help consider the best form of words.27 Although this request was rejected by the Upper House, Ball had now attracted wider attention in the Commons, and on 25 May he was named to the important committee for drafting the petition of general grievances.28

In the following year, Ball became an auditor of the duchy of Cornwall, a junior position of primarily local significance, but a first step on the ladder of government promotion nonetheless. He retained his Tiverton seat in the 1628-9 Parliament, becoming rather more active in the Commons during the first session at least, when he made 15 speeches and attracted 15 committee nominations. Predictably, he primarily showed an interest in legal matters, on 30 May condemning as a grievance Sir Thomas Monson’s* patent for making bills and process in the Council in the North. Seven days earlier he was named to consider the bill concerning the disputed grant of Sherborne castle, Dorset, to the earl of Bristol (Sir John Digby*). He was clearly familiar with this business, for on 19 June he commented on the related bill for restitution of Carew Ralegh*.29

Perhaps mindful of his new status as a Crown employee, Ball apparently remained silent during the debates on arbitrary taxation and imprisonment that dominated the session’s opening three weeks. He finally intervened on 8 Apr., supplying a precedent from Henry VI’s reign in support of a proposed petition to Charles I against the enforced billeting of soldiers, which was then a major problem in his own constituency.30 His next speech, ten days later, addressed a related issue. When Thomas Eden II and Sir Francis Nethersole defended the use of martial law in England by citing Roman Civil Law and the procedures followed in the Netherlands, Ball dismissed the relevance of their arguments: ‘what the Civil Law or practice of the Low Countries is, [is] nothing to us’. Arguing that the existing scope of English Common Law rendered martial law superfluous, he reminded Members of a ruling by the House of Lords under Richard II, that ‘the kingdom shall not be governed by the Civil Law, but by Act of Parliament’.31

Ball was possibly more vocal behind the scenes, for he was one of the handful of lawyers appointed on 16 Apr. to assist the speakers during the forthcoming conference with the Lords about the Commons’ proposals for defending the liberties of the subject.32 He was also named on 23 Apr. to the subsequent meeting at which the peers presented their own propositions for reform. Most Members were prepared to contemplate only the first three of these, which recommended royal confirmation of existing statutes about liberties. However, Ball also cautiously welcomed the fourth proposition, which obliged the king to proceed according to the Common Law whenever its scope encompassed issues affecting subjects’ liberties. He apparently believed that this might be workable because, in practice, the peer-dominated Privy Council normally dealt with the critical business. Nevertheless, even the pragmatic Ball baulked at the Lords’ fifth proposition, which allowed for the discretionary use of sovereign power in matters of state. Unhappy with this clause, but perhaps also reluctant to question the royal prerogative, he argued that the Commons should avoid discussing this issue, beyond restating the occasions when this privilege had been abused.33

Having demonstrated his preference for specific, limited reform within the traditional legal and constitutional framework, Ball unsurprisingly supported the Commons’ bill to protect subjects’ liberties, and was named on 30 Apr. to help transcribe the texts of the old statutes that it recited.34 Accordingly, he was ‘perplexed with a great perplexity’ when the king indicated on 5 May that he would not accept this bill if it contained explanatory clauses. As Ball commented the next day, some element of explanation was unavoidable; liberties had been breached precisely because of disagreement over the meaning of existing laws, so simply to restate them without clarification would be ‘useless and senseless’. Indeed, there were numerous precedents for confirmations of Magna Carta also providing directions on future practice. Nevertheless, he sought a constructive way out of this impasse, and suggested the explicit linking of reform to supply, following the pattern of an Act of Edward III. Observing that it would be almost impossible for people in Devon to pay taxes while still shouldering the burden of billeting, he proposed a single bill which would include a restatement of liberties, with some glossing; a firm date for the withdrawal of the soldiers; and a grant of subsidies.35

Ball’s solution was not adopted, even though the Commons was already using its power over supply as a carrot to tempt Charles into concessions, and Members instead settled on another medieval precedent, a petition of right. While Ball did not openly oppose this strategy, he clearly nursed doubts about the legal force of such a document. When the Petition was finally ready on 27 May for presentation to the Lords, he requested that it be endorsed in French, ‘which was usual in bills’. Duly appointed to help decide how the Petition should be delivered to the peers, he apparently expressed his reservations more forcibly in committee, and then continued the argument back in the House: ‘if there be that endorsement it is a law. If not, I know not what fruit it shall have’.36 Ball’s pleas fell on deaf ears, but his concerns about the Petition’s legal status were remembered, and on 13 June he was named to help draft the writs for sending it for enrolment in the Westminster courts, an alternative means of enforcing its authority.37

In the meantime, Ball was appointed on 27 May to assist John Pym in preparing charges against Roger Manwaring, a cleric who had preached in support of the 1627 Forced Loan. Appropriately, he drew on this case four days later during the lengthy debate on which university should take precedence in the subsidy bill. When Sir Robert Phelips asked what fault could be held against Oxford, Ball reminded him that it had ‘sent forth Manwaring and many others to disturb our peace’. However, when Sir Nathaniel Rich agreed that this was a good reason for placing Oxford second, Ball even-handedly observed that the Arminian Richard Montagu, who was also under investigation by the Commons, was a Cambridge man.38 This studied impartiality may explain why Ball’s name was deleted from the preliminary membership list of the committee set up on 28 May to prepare charges against Lord (John) Mohun*. The investigation into Mohun’s activities as vice-warden of the Cornish stannaries had become a vendetta driven by his West Country rival, Sir John Eliot. While Ball most likely possessed relevant local knowledge as a duchy of Cornwall officer, and had been appointed on 21 Apr. to consider a contempt committed by some of Mohun’s associates, he was probably too scrupulous for Eliot’s purposes.39

While the final fate of the Petition of Right still hung in the balance, the Commons launched a fresh assault on Buckingham. On 9 June, during a debate on the Remonstrance being drafted against the duke, Members pondered his failure as lord admiral to guard the seas. Ball, a resident of the south Devon coast, informed the House of an episode when the Navy had failed to intercept a Spanish ship which attacked 24 English vessels in the Channel. He then launched into a scathing attack on the current, expensive and restrictive system of letters of marque, which made it difficult for English privateers to retaliate against such raiders, and recommended a relaxation of these rules, as in Elizabeth’s reign. Tellingly, Eliot promptly criticized him for suggesting a remedy rather than simply attacking Buckingham.40 Four days later, Ball reported from the committee established on 24 Mar. to draft a bill for finding arms and regulating the militia. Ironically, this time he had to explain that the committee had failed to agree on the sweeping reforms originally envisaged, and had therefore opted for a short bill modelled on a precedent from Henry IV’s reign. Unimpressed, the House deferred discussion of this draft measure, which was then quietly dropped.41 Despite this setback, Ball was appointed on 13 June to examine old grievances, and to consider how best to prepare the long-overdue bill to grant Tunnage and Poundage revenues to the king. He was also named to help draft the subsidy bill’s preamble (7 June).42

In November 1628, during the recess, Ball became a fee’d counsel of Exeter, on the recommendation of Sir John Walter* and Sir John Denham, two Exchequer barons who were also his colleagues in the duchy of Cornwall’s Council.43 This further evidence of government patronage perhaps discouraged him from engaging with the controversies that dogged the 1629 parliamentary session, and he seems not to have spoken in debate. He received just two committee nominations, to consider the Exchequer barons’ refusal to order the release of goods seized from John Rolle*, and to scrutinize a bill against corrupt presentations of clergy (14 and 23 February).44 Moreover, he was absent from the Commons several times, for on 5 and 13 Feb. he was granted leave to appear as counsel in the Upper House for Algemon, Lord Percy* and Henry, Lord Clifford* in disputes over their titles and precedence.45

During the following decade, Ball made steady if unspectacular progress in his legal career. Promoted to recorder of Exeter in 1632, he became Henrietta Maria’s solicitor-general four years later, and subsequently her attorney-general. In response to these developments, the Middle Temple made him an associate bencher, while in 1640 he was appointed king’s counsel. He naturally continued to represent West Country clients, in 1638 acting for Exeter’s merchants in a dispute with London’s Merchant Adventurers over the Spanish cloth trade. Tiverton also had an interest in this business, and Ball maintained sufficiently close ties with the borough to secure election there to the Short Parliament of 1640.46

Unlike many of his profession, Ball sided with the Crown during the Civil War, eventually compounding on the Exeter articles of 1646.47 However, by 1650 he was again active as a London lawyer, and sought reconciliation with the Interregnum regimes.48 In proposals for legal reform drawn up around this time, he argued that the law should not be altered in substance, but conceded that it must be ‘made [to] conform to the form of government’, and that lawyers should avoid ‘all questions and determinations about the supreme authority’.49 Ball paid for this pliability at the Restoration, recovering his recordership and resuming his service with Henrietta Maria, but otherwise receiving no significant reward for his earlier sufferings. He finally retired from public life in 1676, and died four years later.50 His son William, an amateur astronomer, helped to found the Royal Society, while his grandson Thomas sat for Exeter in the 1730s.51

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: George Yerby / Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 36-7.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; M. Temple Admiss.
  • 3. Vivian, 37; PROB 11/133, f. 260; 11/155, f. 45; J. Hutchinson, Notable M. Templars, 12.
  • 4. Vivian, 37.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 216.
  • 6. CB (grant may not have passed Gt. Seal).
  • 7. Vivian, 37.
  • 8. C66/2409/18; 66/2538/30.
  • 9. CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 7.
  • 10. C181/4, f. 127; 181/5, f. 204v; 181/7, p. 285.
  • 11. C181/4, f. 73v; 181/5, f. 221v; 181/7, pp. 129, 636.
  • 12. C181/5, ff. 183, 186, 214.
  • 13. C193/12/2, f. 15v; C231/5, pp. 530, 532; M. Woolfe, Gentry Leaders in Peace and War, 246.
  • 14. C181/5, ff. 168, 186, 214; 181/7, p. 49.
  • 15. CSP Dom. 1640-1, p. 208.
  • 16. Wolffe, 242, 246, 287 n. 45.
  • 17. SR, v. 330, 457, 529-30, 619, 757, 807, 903.
  • 18. HMC Exeter, 56, 325; R. Izacke, City of Exeter (1681), p. 51; Devon RO, ECA Act Bk. 8, ff. 146v, 153.
  • 19. MTR, 846, 929; CSP Dom. 1639-40, p. 393; J. Prince, Worthies of Devon, 34.
  • 20. MTR, 846, 1052, 1298; Readers and Readings in Inns of Ct. and Chancery ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. xiii), 181.
  • 21. CSP Dom. 1639-40, p. 393.
  • 22. D. and S. Lysons, Devonshire, pp. clxxxv, 301, 327; Vivian, 35-6; Devon RO, 484M/T1/1; B.F. Cresswell, Notes on Kenn Deanery Churches, 124. The landscaping may actually be early 18th century: B. Cherry and N. Pevsner, Devon, 557.
  • 23. SP14/204/3-4; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 436; J. Roberts, ‘A Notable Devon Knight’, Reps. and Trans. Devon Assoc. lxxxviii. 180.
  • 24. Vivian, 227, 399-400.
  • 25. Procs. 1626, i. 114-15, 133-4, 140; ii. 34, 216, 240.
  • 26. Ibid. ii. 128.
  • 27. Ibid. iii. 203, 201, 209-10.
  • 28. Ibid. 332.
  • 29. CD 1628, iii. 558; iv. 25-6, 382.
  • 30. Ibid. ii. 363, 369; CSP Dom. 1634-5, p. 424.
  • 31. CD 1628, ii. 543-4, 553-4, 557, 559.
  • 32. Ibid. 480.
  • 33. Ibid. iii. 43, 98, 108, 118.
  • 34. Ibid. 178.
  • 35. Ibid. 270-1, 276, 281, 285-6, 292.
  • 36. Ibid. 623, 625, 627, 629-31.
  • 37. Ibid. iv. 290.
  • 38. Ibid. iii. 634; iv. 42-3, 48.
  • 39. Ibid. iii. 3, 9; iv. 3 n. 4.
  • 40. Ibid. iv. 203-4, 211.
  • 41. Ibid. ii. 78; iv. 293, 297.
  • 42. Ibid. iv. 178, 289-90.
  • 43. HMC Exeter, 56; G. Haslam, ‘Jacobean Phoenix’, in Estates of Eng. Crown ed. R.W. Hoyle, 276, 284.
  • 44. CJ, i. 930a, 932b.
  • 45. Ibid. 926b, 929b; LJ, iv. 22a, 35a; CD 1629, p. 128; Lords Procs. 1628, v. 446.
  • 46. CSP Dom. 1637-8, pp. 164, 218.
  • 47. W.R. Prest, Rise of the Barristers, 276; CCSP, i. 273; CCC, 1228.
  • 48. MTR, 1006; CCC, 1228.
  • 49. Add. 32096, ff. 177-8; information from Wilfred Prest.
  • 50. Prince, 34; HMC Exeter, 56; MTR, 1298.
  • 51. Hutchinson, 12; HP Commons, 1715-54, i. 430.