BILLINGSLEY, Sir Henry (c.1538-1606), of Fenchurch Street, 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



29 Sept. 1585
1604 - 22 Nov. 1606

Family and Education

b. c.1538,1 3rd s. of William Billingsley (d.1570) of London, Haberdasher and Elizabeth, da. of Thomas Harlowe, wid. of Sir Martin Bowes†.2 educ. St. John’s, Camb. 1550; G. Inn 1591; appr. Haberdasher c.1553.3 m. (1) 1562, Elizabeth (d. 29 July 1577), da. and coh. of Henry Boorne of Yorks., at least 7s. (5 d.v.p.) 3da. (2 d.v.p.); (2) Bridget (d. Sept. 1588), da. and coh. of Sir Christopher Draper of St. Dunstan-in-the-East, London, Ironmonger and alderman, and wid. of Stephen Woodrofe of London, s.p.; (3) by 1591, Katherine (bur. 18 May 1598), da. of Sir John Killigrew I† of Arwennack, Cornw. and wid. of Robert Trapps of London, 1s. d.v.p. 1da. d.v.p.; (4) by 1601, Elizabeth Monslow, wid. of Rowland Martin, ?s.p.; (5) ?aft. 1602, (with £200) Susan (d. 25 Apr. 1633), da. of Richard Tracy of Stanway, Glos., and wid. of Edward Barker† of London (d.1602), register to Ct. of Delegates, s.p. kntd. bet. 19 Jan. and 21 Feb. 1597. d. 22 Nov. 1606.4 sig. Henry Billingsl(e)y.

Offices Held

Freeman, Haberdashers’ Co. 1560, asst. 1583, master 1584-5, 1590-1, 1595-6, 1605-6;5 ? member, Merchant Adventurers’ Co.

Collector of customs, strangers’ goods, London by 1572-at least 1579,6 Tunnage and Poundage 1589-at least 1598;7 auditor, London 1580-2, sheriff 1584-5, alderman, Tower ward 1585-92, Candlewick ward 1592-d., ld. mayor 1596-7;8 gov. St. Thomas’ hosp. by 1580, Pres. 1594-d.;9 commr. sewers, R. Lea by 1587-at least 1589,10 Surr. and Kent 1603,11 London 1606,12 concealed goods of Spaniards, London and Mdx. 1590;13 escheator, London 1597,14 commr. oyer and terminer, Mdx. 1596-d.,15 London 1601-d.,16 subsidy, London 1598, 1603-at least 1604;17 asst. to piracy commrs., London 1601;18 commr. gaol delivery, London 1601-d.,19 charitable uses 1604,20 to administer Oath of Allegiance 1606.21

Commr. prize goods 1587, 1589, 1591, 1596, 1598,22 mariners’ pay 1588-90;23 recvr. of money for armour sold in the Tower, 1588;24 commr. Union 1604-d.25


John Strype, the eighteenth century editor of Stow’s Survey of London, claimed that Billingsley’s father came from Canterbury and was named Roger.26 In fact, Billingsley was the son of a prosperous London merchant named William, whose family originated in Shropshire. William joined the Haberdashers’ Company in 1527 and received confirmation of his armigerous status in 1562.27 Educated at St. John’s College, Cambridge, Billingsley was awarded a Lady Margaret scholarship in 1551 but withdrew before he could graduate. Admitted to the Haberdasher’s Company in 1560 after serving an apprenticeship, he commenced trading abroad, probably as a Merchant Adventurer, exporting items such as velvet, taffata, pins and thread to Antwerp, Middleburg and Stade;28 he may also have acted as a money broker.29 Trade made him wealthy. In 1583 he posted a bond for £1,000 to guarantee the appearance before the lord chancellor (Thomas Bromley†) of the Southampton shipowner Henry Ughtred†.30 On the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth in 1590, Billingsley provided a wedding dinner costing £200, and he later lent his son-in-law John Quarles £3,000.31 In 1591 Billingsley provided a public demonstration of his wealth by endowing his old Cambridge college with three scholarships.32 Seven years later he purchased property in Monmouthshire costing £500, and in 1600 he paid £400 for the Gloucestershire manor of Siston, seven miles east of Bristol, which subsequently became the seat of his eldest son.33

Billingsley’s spell at university undoubtedly fostered in him an interest in mathematics. When the eminent mathematician and former Augustinian friar called Whytehead was made homeless, Billingsley took him in and became an accomplished mathematician himself. In 1570, after Whytehead’s death, Billingsley translated into English and published Euclid’s Elements of Geometry, perhaps with the assistance of the noted astrologer and mathematician Dr. John Dee, who provided the preface.34 Billingsley’s ‘great pains and no small cost’ in translating and publishing this important work was acknowledged in 1602 by Richard More, the author of a treatise on measuring timber, and helped earn him Aubrey’s description as ‘one of the learnedst citizens that London has bred’.35 It was perhaps intellectual curiosity rather than superstition that led Billingsley to call on the astrologer Simon Forman in January 1600.36

By 1572 Billingsley was a London customs official employed by his fellow Haberdasher, Thomas Smythe†. In 1579 he was granted a dispensation from the legislation prohibiting customs officials from engaging in trade.37 Ten years later the queen dispensed with Smythe’s services in favour of direct management of the customs by Billingsley, an alteration which evidently caused annual receipts to rise by more than £10,000.38 After 18 months without receiving any official remuneration, Billingsley was rewarded with an annual allowance of £400.39 Billingsley was duly grateful, not least for Elizabeth’s ‘great good opinion’ of him, but he regretted that his heavy workload forced him to delegate his private affairs to others, who were less capable than himself in turning a profit and whose services were expensive. Consequently, he asked lord treasurer Burghley (Sir William Cecil†) to procure his discharge ‘whensoever it shall please Her Majesty to alter her mind and to commit the same to farm again’, for which favour Burghley ‘shall not find me unthankful’.40 However, this request was ignored, for as late as 1598 Billingsley was still serving as customer. In 1596 Elizabeth even tried unsuccessfuly to prevent Billingsley’s election as mayor of London, fearing perhaps that the office would impinge on his existing duties.41 Four years later the queen actually extended Billingsley’s responsibilities by ordering him and various other men to take over the farm of the sweet wines on her behalf.42

Billingsley was first returned to Parliament for London at a by-election in September 1585, but he never took his seat as the parliamentary session had effectively ended six months earlier.43 Elected to the first Jacobean Parliament, again for London, he made no recorded speeches but was named to numerous committees, many of which reflected his commercial interests. As an exporter of pins, for example, he was named to the bill to ratify the incorporation of the Pinners’ Company on 1 Apr. 1606, and being a Haberdasher he was given charge of the bill for the true making of felts and hats on 12 Apr. 1604.44 That same day he was appointed to consider a bill for increasing shipping and mariners. This subject evidently vexed him, for in November 1604, when the House was in recess, Billingsley wrote a paper predicting that the recent peace with Spain would lessen the demand for big ships and so lead to a decline in the mariner population. He therefore suggested that ‘some good laws and constitutions’ should be ‘conceived and established’ in the next parliamentary session.45 Billingsley was subsequently named to two committees concerning cloth manufacture (19 Feb. and 17 Mar. 1606), and was appointed to committees on free trade (3 Apr. 1606) and impositions (19 Mar. 1606).46 Though not a member of the newly re-founded Spanish Company, he was named to the committee for the bill to consider its incorporation on 5 Nov. 1605). As an important figure in London’s government he was naturally nominated to the committee to secure the title of London’s livery companies to their lands (25 Jan. 1606).47 Long experience as a London customs official explains Billingsley’s nomination to committees for bills to ratify the City’s quays and wharves (16 June 1604), consider the alleged abuses of customs officials (5 May 1604 and 15 Mar. 1606), and repeal part of the 1604 Tunnage and Poundage Act (28 Jan. 1606).48 As a merchant, he was naturally interested in bills concerned with usury (9 May and 9 June 1604) and the payment of debts (18 Apr. 1606).49

Many of the bills to which Billingsley was appointed to consider were introduced by the corporation of London, of which he was a member. One such measure sought to curb the number of new buildings in and around the City (24 Jan. 1606), while another aimed to prevent the subdivision of properties into tenements and to reduce the number of ‘inmates’ in each (27 Apr. 1604). Two more London bills sought to explain the Statute of Bankrupts (14 May 1604) and to improve the City’s water supply by sanctioning the building of the New River (31 Jan. 1606).50 Billingsley probably played a key role in helping to steer this latter measure through the House, as he had previously headed a committee appointed by the City’s common council to consider all the various schemes for improving the capital’s water supply.51 He must equally have played an important part in guiding the inmates’ bill through the House, for on 1 May 1604 the measure was delivered to him, along with the list of the committee’s members.52 Another measure sponsored by the corporation was also entrusted to his care on 18 May 1604. This was the bill to relieve debtors and allow the recovery of small debts, which concerned the City’s Court of Requests. As in the case of the inmates bill, it seems clear that he was chairman of the committee.53 Enacted at the end of the 1604 session, this bill proved inadequate, and consequently fresh legislation was laid before the Commons in 1606, to which Billingsley and his fellow London Members were all named (28 January).54 Poor relief was another concern typical of a London Member, and Billingsley was accordingly named to three committees on this subject (4 and 8 May 1604; 23 Jan. 1606).55

Billingsley’s remaining committee appointments included three measures connected with the House’s response to the Gunpowder Plot: two concerned the better execution of the penal statutes (6 Nov. 1605 and 22 Jan. 1606) and the third dealt with a proposal to hold an annual public thanksgiving (23 Jan. 1606).56 On 22 May 1604 he was appointed to attend a joint conference with the Lords on wardship, and on 10 Apr. 1606 he was named joint treasurer for the House’s Benevolence.57 Much of his remaining parliamentary activity concerned the proposed Union with Scotland. Named to the conference with the Lords on 14 Apr. 1604, and to the committee for the bill concerning the status of the the post-nati on 3 May following, he was one of four merchants appointed to serve as commissioners for the Union on 12 May 1604.58 In November his fellow commissioners placed him on two sub-committees concerned with trade between England and Scotland, and in the following month he was a signatory to the Union Treaty, which was never ratified.59 On 21 Nov. 1606 he and his colleagues were ordered to meet their Scottish counterparts,60 but he was prevented from doing so as he died the following day.

Billingsley drafted his will on 1 Aug. 1606, in which he bequeathed 100 marks to Emmanuel College, Cambridge for the creation of a scholarship. Billingsley’s charitable gifts included £10 each to the poor of Christ’s and St. Thomas’ hospitals and the inmates of the four London prisons. A further £200 was assigned as a stock for the benefit of the poor of his home parish of St. Katherine Coleman, so long as his heirs were permitted to continue renting a piece of the churchyard adjoining his house in Fenchurch Street, where he had built a coach-house. His fifth wife Susan was granted a life interest in the house, together with its contents, which included ‘pictures, maps and painted clothes’.61 Billingsley was buried in a vault under his pew on 18 Dec. 1606 in St. Katherine Coleman.62 He was succeeded by his eldest son, Henry, who had been knighted in 1603. No other member of his family subsequently sat in Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Andrew Thrush


C54/1616; Cal. of Feet of Fines for London and Mdx. ii. 147.

  • 1. C24/303/26.
  • 2. Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 46; Vis. London (Harl. Soc. i), 69; C142/159/55.
  • 3. Al. Cant.; GI Admiss.; Ath. Ox. i. 761.
  • 4. Vis. Glos. (Harl. Soc. xxi), 165; Misc. Gen. et Her. i. 251-2; Ath. Cant. ii. 443; GL, ms 17832/1, ff. 2v, 3r-v, 6, 7, 14, 15, 76r-v, 86, 92; Recs. of Skinners of London, 257, 281-2; C142/225/97; PROB 11/93, ff. 192v-3.
  • 5. M. Benbow, ‘Index of London Citizens involved in City Govt.’, 50; I. Archer, Haberdashers’ Co. 237-8.
  • 6. Lansd. 14, f. 106; Benbow, 50; Archer, 237-8.
  • 7. Lansd. 67, f. 202; E122/90/42; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 56.
  • 8. A.B. Beaven, Aldermen of London, ii. 42.
  • 9. LMA, HO1/ST/A1/4, ff. 1v, 108v, 192v; Suppl. to Memoranda Rel. to Royal Hosps. ed. T.J. Nelson, 113; Archer, 141-2.
  • 10. Lansd. 53, f. 168v; Lansd. 60, f. 90.
  • 11. C181/1, f. 46.
  • 12. Lansd. 168, f. 151.
  • 13. T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 1, pp. 44-5.
  • 14. Ibid. 188, 195.
  • 15. Cooper, ii. 443; 4th DKR, 290; C181/1, f. 13v; 181/2, f. 3v.
  • 16. C181/1, ff. 11; 181/2, f. 11v.
  • 17. E115/146/53; 115/148/120; 115/277/130.
  • 18. Rymer, vii. pt. 2, p. 15.
  • 19. C181/1, f. 11v; 181/2, f. 5v.
  • 20. C93/2/28.
  • 21. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 330.
  • 22. APC, 1589-90, p. 37; 1596-7, p. 109; 1597-8, p. 224; CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 132.
  • 23. APC, 1589-90, pp. 47-50, 153, 158, 184; 1590, pp. 215-16, 254.
  • 24. CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 518, 539; APC, 1588, p. 220; 1588-9, pp. 242, 282.
  • 25. CJ, i. 208a.
  • 26. J. Stow, Survey of London ed. J. Strype, v. 139.
  • 27. GL, ms 15857/1, f. 80, ex inf. Helen Bradley; Grantees of Arms ed. W.H. Rylands (Harl. Soc. lxvi), 23.
  • 28. E190/7/8, ff.23v, 24v, 38r-v; Port and Trade of Early Eliz. London ed. B. Dietz, pp. 21-2.
  • 29. SP46/19, f. 173.
  • 30. HMC Hatfield, xiii. 231, 233.
  • 31. GL, ms 17832/1, f. 54v; C2/Jas.I/Q1/19, pt. 7; Misc. Gen. et Her. i. 253.
  • 32. Baker, Hist. of St. John’s ed. J.E.B. Mayor, 434.
  • 33. C54/1617; Trans. Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. xvii. 178; J. Nichols, Progs. of Jas. I, ii. 647, 666 n. 2.
  • 34. Wood, i. 761-2.
  • 35. R. More, ‘The Carpenters rule to measure ordinarie timber’ (1602), ded.; J. Aubrey, Brief Lives, i. 99-100.
  • 36. A.L. Rowse, Simon Forman, 186.
  • 37. CPR, 1578-80, p. 25.
  • 38. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 64.
  • 39. Sloane 817, f. 13.
  • 40. Lansd. 67, f. 202.
  • 41. Remembrancia ed. W.H. and H.C. Overall, 2-3.
  • 42. Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, i. 271.
  • 43. Beaven, i. 276.
  • 44. CJ, i. 291b, 945a.
  • 45. Ibid. 169a; SP14/10/11.
  • 46. CJ, i. 270b, 285b, 287a, 292b.
  • 47. Ibid. 256b, 260a.
  • 48. Ibid. 243b, 261a, 285a, 964b.
  • 49. Ibid. 204a, 235b, 300a.
  • 50. Ibid. 188a, 209a, 259b, 262b.
  • 51. CLRO, Jors. 26, f. 358.
  • 52. CJ, i. 962a.
  • 53. Ibid. 974b. For the bill’s London origin, see CLRO, Reps. 26/2, f. 378.
  • 54. CJ, i. 260b.
  • 55. Ibid. 198b, 202b, 258b.
  • 56. Ibid. 257a, 258a-b.
  • 57. Ibid. 222b, 296a.
  • 58. Ibid. 172a, 197a, 208a.
  • 59. Add. 26635, ff. 6v, 12v; Reg. PC Scot. 1604-7, p. xxxiv.
  • 60. CJ, i. 319b.
  • 61. Misc. Gen. et Her. i. 251-5.
  • 62. GL, ms 17832/1, f. 92; Ath. Ox. i. 762.