BENNET, Sir John (c.1553-1627), of London and Uxbridge, Mdx.; formerly of York

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



1621 - 23 Apr. 1621

Family and Education

b. c.1553, 2nd s. of Richard Bennet of Clapcot, Berks. and Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Tesdale of Wallingford, Berks.;1 bro. of William†. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1573, BA 1577, MA 1580, DCL 1589; incorp. Camb. 1583; adv. 1590; G. Inn (hon.) 1599.2 m. (1) Anne (d. 9 Feb. 1602), da. of Christopher Weekes† of Salisbury, Wilts., at least 4s. 2da.;3 (2) Elizabeth (bur. 14 May 1614), da. of Sir Thomas Lowe*, Haberdasher and alderman of London, ?1ch.;4 (3) by 1617, Leonora (d.1637/8), da. of Adrian Vierendeels of Antwerp and London, wid. of Abraham Tryon, merchant, of London, and Gregory Donhault† (d.1614) master in Chancery 1612-14, of London, 4da.5 kntd. 23 July 1603.6 d. 15 Feb. 1627. sig. Jo[hn] Benet.

Offices Held

Proctor, Oxf. Univ. 1585-6;7 judge, Prerogative Ct., York 1599-1609, Canterbury 1603-22;8 member, Doctors’ Commons 1604-d., High Ct. of Delegates 1605-?22;9 master in Chancery 1608-22.10

Preb. Langtoft, Yorks. 1591-1608;11 j.p. Yorks. (E. Riding) by 1594-1622, W. and N. Ridings by 1601-22, Cawood and Ripon liberties, Yorks. by 1601-22, Southwell liberty, Notts. by 1601-22, co. Dur. 1604, Mdx. 1608-22, Westminster 1618-20;12 chan. to abp. of York 1599-1608;13 member, High Commission, York prov. 1599-1620, Canterbury prov. 1603-22,14 Council in the North 1599-1613;15 freeman, York 1600;16 commr. oyer and terminer, Northern circ. by 1601-23, Mdx. 1613-21, London 1617-21, piracy, Cumb., co. Dur, and Northumb. 1603, London 1609, sewers, E. and W. Riding 1603, Herts. 1615,17 gaol delivery, London 1614-21.18

Commr. Union 1604;19 envoy, Brussels 1617.20

Chan. Queen Anne’s Household 1608-19.21


Born into a modest but rising Berkshire gentry family, Bennet began his career as a civilian in York under the aegis of his kinsman, Archbishop Piers. He secured a seat for his brother William at Ripon in 1593, and for himself in 1597, and was returned for York in 1601. Knighted at the beginning of James’s reign, he was appointed judge of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, the most lucrative post available to a civil lawyer, largely (it emerged) because of the bribes he could expect from grateful suitors. He retained some of his northern offices for several years after his move to London, and at the 1604 election, having been rejected at York, he was returned for Ripon on the interest of Archbishop Hutton.22

Like many experienced lawyers, Bennet was named to a large number of bill committees, more for the benefit of his professional expertise rather than any personal connection with the legislation involved, and it was in this guise that he appeared in the ‘Parliament Fart’ poem: ‘No, that must not be, quoth Sir John Bennet,/ We must have a selected committee to pen it’. The first committee to which he was named considered Sir Edward Montagu’s* complaints against commissaries’ courts (23 Mar. 1604), an innocuous-sounding title for a proposal to redraft the entire corpus of the Canon Law. As an ecclesiastical judge he was equally unlikely to have welcomed a bill to regulate the cost of securing a prohibition in his court, although he was named to the committee (31 May). On 7 June he and his fellow civilian Sir Daniel Dunne* spoke at the third reading of the bill for a godly ministry, when they presumably opposed the intentions of its authors. His lack of sympathy for the godly agenda was certainly made evident on 13 June, for when Sir Francis Hastings tabled a petition opposing the imminent deprivation of ministers for refusing to subscribe to the new ecclesiastical canons, Bennet tartly commented that the petition would do better to enjoin conformity to the prayer book without the need for compulsion.23 Bennet was among those appointed to confer with the judges of the Common Law courts over the Buckinghamshire election dispute (14 April). He took a particular interest in the proposals for the Union of England and Scotland: appointed to attend the conference of 14 Apr. at which James unveiled his initial proposals; he spoke in the debate about the change of name from England to ‘Great Britain’; was nominated as one of the Union commissioners (12 May); and later served on the committee preparing for a conference with the Lords about Bishop Thornborough’s attack on the Commons’ handling of the Union (1 June).24

In the second session Bennet, who held a York prebend, made ‘a long and learned speech’ against the bill to prohibit the residence of married men with their families in colleges and cathedral churches, which passed on 3 Mar. despite his opposition. He also helped Sir Daniel Dunne* defend the court of High Commission two weeks later, following complaints that it was a grievance. He did not register his views on the bill to restore deprived ministers, but though he was named to the committee (7 Mar. 1606) he is unlikely to have agreed with its provisions. On 11 Mar. he reported a bill modifying an Act of Henry VII confirming ordinances made by corporations and guilds, and he was presumably named to the committee for the bill to confirm the endowments of Corpus Christi, Oxford (6 Mar.) with a view to assisting its progress.25

The following session (1606-7) was dominated by the Union, a question of international relations on which the Civil Law had as much bearing as the Common Law. Bennet was appointed to attend the initial conference with the Lords on 25 Nov. 1606, and played a significant role in subsequent debates over whether English and Scottish subjects automatically became naturalized in each other’s realms as a result of the Union. The 1604 Instrument of Union stated that Scots born since James’s accession to the English throne were automatically English subjects, and proposed legislation to extend the same right to those born before 1603. A conference upon this latter point was consequently arranged with the Lords for 25 Feb. 1607, at which Bennet was appointed ‘to assist for matters of Civil Law, as there shall be occasion’. The Commons was hostile to the notion that Scots should be granted English nationality, and much of its case rested upon the Civil Law maxim that two jurisdictions remained separate, even when held by one man. Bennet’s submission to the Lords cited the example of the duke of Brabant, who held Flanders and Artois as a French vassal, but was able to conclude alliances with England even when his overlord was at war with the English. From this, Bennet deduced that a union by inheritance rather than conquest could never involve a union of the laws. However, when Bennet ‘affirmed that it was in the power of the king [of England] by the Civil Law’ to naturalize Scotsmen, he was interrupted by the 1st earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) who observed that only the Common Law of England was relevant to the question of naturalization.26 The judges of the Common Law courts, to whom this point was referred, ruled that the duty of allegiance to the person of the monarch outweighed any implicit subjection to Scots law, whereupon the Commons responded with a list of practical objections to Union which sidelined the naturalization debate. At another conference with the Lords, held on 7 Mar., Bennet urged that Scots should be barred from any ecclesiastical office which had a judicial function, such as those he held himself. The Lords, however, insisted on returning to the question of naturalization, but were unable to reach agreement with the Commons.27 Bennet encountered rather more success over the question of what to do about the hostile laws that still cast a shadow over relations between England and Scotland. In November 1604 he had helped to collate the texts of the hostile laws on both sides of the border for the Union commission, and he was thus included on the committee which prepared for a conference with the Lords on this subject on 11 June 1607. The abolition of the hostile laws was the one item of Union legislation which reached the statute book.28

At the start of the next session Bennet was appointed to attend the conference at which lord treasurer Salisbury outlined the problems of the Crown’s finances (15 Feb. 1610), but as a civilian he had little to offer in the subsequent debates, which were dominated by the Common lawyers. One of a small committee ordered to prepare for a conference with the Lords on the authoritarian views of his fellow-civilian Dr. Cowell (27 February), he was also ordered to help draft a bill on excommunication (4 May), to attend the king with the ‘propositions’ against recusants on 28 May, and to attend a conference with the Lords on the bill for the better execution of justice in the north (5 July). On 3 Nov., during the poorly reported autumn session, Bennet took a conciliatory line after the king insisted upon knowing whether the Commons meant to proceed with the Great Contract. He proposed that the House should specify the financial terms it was prepared to offer, and the abolition of which dues it expected, then to enumerate its misgivings about the project, and finally to specify a willingness to proceed, ‘so as we may have security and our aggrievances [sic] answered’. This was more than many were prepared to concede at the time, and the Commons’ grudging answer brought the session to an unhappy end.29

Bennet maintained close links with Oxford University: in 1610 he was made one of three trustees for a bequest of £5,000 under the will of his uncle Thomas Tesdale, which was eventually applied to the foundation of Pembroke College. His friend Sir Thomas Bodley†, persuaded him to undertake the rebuilding of the University Schools: he solicited donations of £5,000 from former alumni, assigned various ‘commutations and legacies belonging to his office’, and undertook to bear at least a tenth of the charge himself. Named joint executor (with William Hakewill*) of Bodley’s will, he helped to lay the foundation-stone of the Schools on the day after the funeral. It was thus as one of Oxford’s ‘three worthies’ (as the vicar of St. Mary’s termed Bodley, Bennet and Nicholas Wadham) that he was elected unopposed to the University’s senior seat in 1614, though on the return he was placed below Sir Daniel Dunne, who had been re-elected. Competition was so fierce that he ‘could by no means get my son into Parliament’.30

Bennet maintained a relatively low profile in the Addled Parliament, partly, perhaps, because his second wife died during the session. In the opening week he was named to several important committees: for privileges (8 Apr.), for the continuance of expiring statutes (8 Apr.), for drafting a complaint to the king about undertakers (13 Apr.) and for the bill to confirm the place of Princess Elizabeth’s children in the succession (14 April).31 Writing to Dudley Carleton*, he mocked the eagerness of Edward Duncombe, Sir Roger Owen, and others to exclude attorney-general Sir Francis Bacon, while on 10 May he went against the mood of the House in urging that Sir Thomas Parry*, who stood accused of undue influence at the Stockbridge election, should be heard from where he sat rather than at the bar, which was the place for delinquents. Having been named to the committee for preparing the Commons’ arguments against impositions to the Lords (5 May), on 12 May he was ordered to present the complaints of various merchants about retaliatory duties imposed by foreign princes. Reluctant to undertake this task, ‘for that he had no understanding of it’, he was excused because of his ‘great loss’. Thereafter he appeared in the records of the session only twice, being named to committees for the Durham enfranchisement bill (31 May) and the bill concerning the ex officio oath (31 May).32

Bennet subsequently remarried, taking as his new wife a domineering Flemish woman, who accompanied him on a fruitless diplomatic mission to Brussels in 1617 to seek the punishment of the author of Corona Regia, an attack upon the king. It was presumably because of this errand that he was tipped, somewhat improbably, as a candidate for the secretaryship later in the year, following the death of Sir Ralph Winwood*.33

Bennet was re-elected at Oxford University in December 1620, this time for the senior seat. On 5 Feb., the first day of business, the Commons agreed to draft a petition for enforcement of the recusancy laws; Bennet recalled this resolution four days later, and reported the resulting draft on 12 February. The House struck out a clause reserving the king’s dispensing power, but otherwise adopted it unaltered.34 Bennet later seconded Sir Edward Coke, who cited precedents for presenting the petition to the king, and was one of the delegation subsequently appointed to attend James (15 February). When the House debated whether to arrest the patentee (Sir) Giles Mompesson* on 28 Feb., Bennet agreed that he should be detained, even though the investigation was not yet complete, and no formal decision had been made to condemn him as a delinquent. However, when Sir Christopher Villiers was attacked for promoting Sir Robert Lloyd’s* patent for licensing of petty chapmen, Bennet attempted to make light of his involvement.35 As a master in Chancery, Bennet answered Sir Robert Phelips’s complaint of 22 Mar. about the masters’ refusal to take affidavits from those complaining against the patentee John Lepton, claiming that they could only do so in procedural matters. It was perhaps unfortunate that he chose to introduce what proved to be an unpopular petition from the masters only four days later, on the eve of the Easter recess, seeking parliamentary confirmation of increases in their fees.36

Over Easter Bennet was accused of accepting bribes by various petitioners including Richard Kilvert, one of the proctors in the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. He was understandably apprehensive, but it was observed that ‘if they [the Commons] undertake such particular and personal faults, they will have more work on their hands than they shall be able to dispatch’. Bennet was not present when the committee appointed to examine the charges reported on 23 Apr., being (as he claimed through counsel), ‘sick, and hindered by act of God’. Only weeks earlier, Mompesson had feigned sickness and fled abroad, and some suspected that Bennet would do the same, especially in view of his ‘alliance in the Low Countries’. However, Hakewill and Sir Thomas Lowe (father of Bennet’s second wife) vouched for the severity of his illness, and therefore although he was expelled from the House he was not incarcerated, but kept under house arrest instead.37 Six charges were delivered up to the Lords, and on 31 May he appealed for time to consider the allegations, which covered many years. He was granted this and other concessions regarding counsel and witnesses, and offered bail of £20,000. Despite his fears that this was an impossible sum to raise, 11 sureties came forward, including his uncle Sir Thomas Bennet, a London alderman, Lowe, Sir Humphrey May*, whose sister had married Bennet’s brother, and the civilians (Sir) William Byrd* and Sir Henry Marten*, each being bound in £1,200. Bennet’s own bond for the remaining £7,000 was accepted. Many witnesses were examined, but the Lords failed to reach a verdict before the dissolution.38

In 1622 Bennet was prosecuted in Star Chamber, condemned, imprisoned, fined £20,000 and disabled from office. He remained in the Fleet for over a year, where he passed his time in religious meditation, publishing The Psalme of Mercy in 1625. He died intestate on 15 Feb. 1627, and was buried at Christ Church, Newgate. Two of his grandsons sat in the Cavalier Parliament as Court supporters, and were raised to the peerage under the titles of Arlington and Ossulston.39

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Simon Healy


  • 1. A.E. Preston, St. Nicholas Abingdon, 412; Vis. Surr. (Harl. Soc. xliii), 101.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; Al. Cant.; G.D. Squibb, Doctors’ Commons, 167; GI Admiss.
  • 3. F. Drake, Eboracum, 511.
  • 4. G.E. Cokayne, Mayors and Sheriffs of London, 1601-25, pp. 20-1; PROB 11/141, f. 245v.
  • 5. Returns of Aliens ed. R.E.G. Kirk and E.F. Kirk, ii. 213 (Huguenot Soc. x); Reg. Dutch Church Austin Friars ed. W.J.C. Moens, 140; St. Mary Aldermanbury (Harl. Soc. Reg. lxi), 92, 99, 101, 103, 105; PROB 11/177, f. 495.
  • 6. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 113.
  • 7. B.P. Levack, Civil Lawyers, 209.
  • 8. Ibid. 209-10.
  • 9. Squibb, 167; Levack, 209.
  • 10. Levack, 210.
  • 11. Fasti Eccles. Angl. comp. J.M. Horn and D.M. Smith, iv. 46.
  • 12. C181/1, ff. 7v-8, 24v; 181/3, ff. 15v, 66-7.
  • 13. HMC Hatfield, ix. 363; xxi. 150.
  • 14. Ibid. ix. 396; xv. 224, 394; xvi. 290.
  • 15. R. Reid, Council in the North, 496.
  • 16. York Freemen ed. F. Collins (Surtees Soc. cii), 45.
  • 17. C181/1, ff. 4, 57v, 64v; 181/2, ff. 13v, 101, 196v, 229v, 280v; 181/3, ff. 21, 79.
  • 18. C181/2, f. 218; 181/3, f. 25.
  • 19. CJ, i. 208a.
  • 20. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 266.
  • 21. SP14/107/94.
  • 22. Ath. Ox. ii. 836; D.M. Palliser, Tudor York, 73; Yorks. Arch. Jnl. xlix. 103.
  • 23. Add. 34218, f. 20v; CJ, i. 151b, 229b, 234b, 991b; CD 1604-7, pp. 93-5.
  • 24. CJ, i. 166b, 172a, 179b, 208b, 230a.
  • 25. Bowyer Diary, 58; Fasti Eccles. Angl. comp. Horn and Smith, iv. 46; CJ, i. 276b, 279a, 282a, 286a.
  • 26. CJ, i. 324b, 340a, 1016, 1023a; B. Galloway, Union of Eng. and Scot. 104-9; Somers Tracts, ii. 135-6.
  • 27. Galloway, 110-17; CJ, i. 350a; Bowyer Diary, 224-8, 232.
  • 28. CJ, i. 382a; Galloway, 67.
  • 29. CJ, i. 393b, 400b, 424b, 445b; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 398-9.
  • 30. Hist. Univ. Oxf. ed. N. Tyacke, iv. 138-40, 151-4; D. Macleane, Pembroke Coll. (Oxf. Hist. Soc. xxxiii), 159-61; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 334, 413; Add. 34079, f. 29.
  • 31. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 33, 35, 76, 82.
  • 32. Ibid. 194, 219, 226, 389, 394; Add. 34079, f. 29.
  • 33. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 60, 68, 110; HMC Buccleuch, i. 95.
  • 34. CJ, i. 514b, 519a, 522b.
  • 35. Ibid. 532b; CD 1621, v. 291; vi. 20.
  • 36. CD 1621, iv. 82-3, 196; v. 63, 321; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 213, 226-7; CJ, i. 569a.
  • 37. CD 1621, ii. 279-82, 288-93; CJ, i. 574b, 586-8; Chamberlain Letters, ii. 363, 366-8; M. Zaller, Parl. of 1621, pp. 97-8; C. Russell, PEP, 113; C.C.G. Tite, Impeachment and Parl. Judicature, 133-6.
  • 38. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 377; LJ, iii. 146-8, 151.
  • 39. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 444, 465, 623; VCH Mdx. iv. 69.