CONSTABLE, Sir Henry (1556/7-1607), of Burton Constable and Upsall Castle, Yorks.

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



1604 - 15 Dec. 1607

Family and Education

b. 1556/7, 1st s. of Sir John Constable† of Burton Constable and Upsall Castle and 1st w. Margaret, da. of John, 8th Bar. Scrope of Bolton Castle, Yorks.1 educ. L. Inn 1572.2 m. settlement 20 Jan. 1578 (with £2,200), Margaret (bur. 7 Jan. 1637), da. of Sir William Dormer† of Wing, Bucks. and Heythrop, Oxon., 1s. 4da.3 suc. fa. 1579;4 kntd. by 14 Nov. 1586.5 d. 15 Dec. 1607.6 sig. He[nry] Constable.

Offices Held

J.p. Yorks. (E. Riding) c.1582-92/3;7 sheriff, Yorks. 1586-7;8 commr. musters, E. Riding 1600-1, N. Riding 1606,9 sewers, E. Riding 1603-at least 1604, N. Riding 1604.10


The Constables were descended from a Norman knight who came to twelfth-century England as constable to the counts of Aumale and acquired an estate at Burton (later Burton Constable) by marriage; his descendants married into virtually every major family in the East Riding except for their namesakes, the Constables of Flamborough and Holme-on-Spalding Moor.11 The Robert le Constable who was knight of the shire in 1319 and 1337 probably came from the Flamborough family, but Sir John Constable, who sat for Yorkshire in 1379 and whose descendants represented the shire intermittently thereafter, came from Halsham, the parish in which Burton Constable lay. Sir Henry Constable, the subject of this biography, should not be confused with a namesake from the Catholic branch of the Flamborough family who spent much of Elizabeth’s reign in exile in Paris.12

Constable’s father, Sir John, inherited an estate of over 50,000 acres in Holderness, which enabled him to make two prestigious marriages with daughters of the 8th Baron Scrope and the 5th earl of Westmorland. From the latter he also bought the lordship of Holderness, comprising some 40,000 acres and seigneurial rights over hundreds of copyhold tenants.13 Sir John would almost certainly have played a significant role in the politics of Elizabethan England had his brother-in-law, the 6th earl of Westmorland, not been one of the ringleaders of the 1569 northern rising. The Constables themselves do not appear to have been implicated in the rebellion, or in subsequent plots on behalf of Mary, Queen of Scots in which many of the earl’s affinity were involved, but they were regarded with some distrust in official circles.14 These suspicions can only have increased when Constable married into the strongly Catholic Dormer family: one of his sisters-in-law was wife to the loyalist Catholic peer Anthony, 1st Viscount Montagu, while another was the widow of the duke of Feria, a Spanish courtier who was said to have advocated support for the northern rebels in 1569 and the Ridolfi plotters in 1571.15

Despite the Dormer connection, Constable clearly conformed, and was allowed to prove his loyalty after his father’s death. Appointed a j.p. in about 1582 and sheriff in 1586, he served in Parliament twice for the borough of Hedon, which was surrounded by his estates and had returned his family’s nominees virtually since its enfranchisement in 1547. This preferment had its critics: Archbishop Sandys advised against his reappointment to the commission of the peace after his shrieval year on the grounds that ‘his wife is a most obstinate recusant and will not be reformed by any persuasion, or yet by coercion. Her example is very hurtful’. These remarks went unheeded, and Constable was returned as knight of the shire for Yorkshire in 1589, an accolade which recognized his position as the head of one of the county’s largest electoral interests. It is perhaps surprising that lord president Huntingdon allowed him to stand, as his wife had finally been convicted of recusancy in the previous year.16

Constable finally encountered serious trouble in January 1593, when Thomas Clarke, a seminary priest, confessed to saying mass ‘once or twice at the Lady Constable’s ... at Upsall in Richmondshire’; it quickly emerged that two other priests, Cuthbert Johnson and William Richmond, were also regular visitors there.17 His wife was re-convicted for recusancy and perhaps briefly imprisoned at York, where she was bailed to appear before the northern High Commission.18 Constable subsequently removed her from the commission’s jurisdiction, visiting the Dormers in Buckinghamshire, whence he attempted to curry favour by sending Sir Robert Cecil†, then acting secretary of state, the gift of a horse. By September, Constable, Dormer and their wives were at Buxton spa, a former Catholic shrine and one of the meeting places used by the Babington plotters, where they were said to have been briefly joined by Francis Ridcall, a servant (and suspected priest) of Viscount Montagu who had gone into hiding after the arrest of the priests Henry Garnett and Robert Gray.19

The allegations made against Lady Constable were serious, as the priests with whom she was connected were politically suspect because of their close links with Scotland. The government’s fears were heightened by reports that her half-sister, the duchess of Feria, was plotting with Francis Dacre, one of the northern rebels of 1569, and also lobbying for the appointment of herself and her son as joint regents of the Spanish Netherlands. Both rumours had some basis in fact, although neither scheme ultimately yielded any significant fruit.20 However Constable’s links with both the Dormers and the Nevilles does much to explain the close surveillance under which he and his wife were kept for the duration of the war with Spain. He was quickly removed from the commission of the peace, and presumably discouraged from standing for Parliament again. The family’s troubles increased in the autumn of 1593 when Constable’s brother Joseph, another recusant, was reported to be sheltering a priest belonging to the Neville affinity, who rode through the country ‘like Robin Hood’ with Westmorland’s son-in-law David Ingleby. Another report confirmed that Joseph was sheltered by his brother Sir Henry, who ‘keeps all as close as maybe for fear of being had in suspicion, for that he hath married the old duke of Feria’s wife’s sister’:21 the source for this information was probably the priest John Boste, Westmorland’s leading supporter in the north.22

As soon as Constable’s wife returned to Yorkshire in November 1593, she was summoned before lord president Huntingdon, who was apparently moved to show leniency by her sympathizers at Court. She was subsequently prosecuted in Queen’s Bench for harbouring priests, but the case was stayed in March 1596 after Constable petitioned Elizabeth for time to ‘try all good means to win her to conform herself in ... religion’. Constable’s cause was probably solicited by the lawyer (Sir) Edward Stanhope†, who delivered the order staying proceedings to attorney-general Sir Edward Coke*, which perhaps explains why Constable and the Inglebys supported Stanhope’s brother Sir John Stanhope I* and the unpopular puritan Sir Thomas Hoby* at the Yorkshire election of 1597.23 Constable’s troubles decreased after 1596: the duchess of Feria virtually abandoned her ambitions in the Low Countries after the failure of the Armada of that year, while his troublesome brother conformed shortly after he was arrested by John Ferne* near Upsall Castle in March 1597.24 Lady Constable stayed near London, as it was the condition of her discharge from Queen’s Bench that she attend the court at the beginning of each term. She was probably with the Dormers in June 1597, when she declined to read a seditious poem about the Stuart succession, and when re-convicted for recusancy in August 1598 she was living at Clerkenwell, on the outskirts of London.25

Constable’s prospects improved considerably at James’s accession: the Westmorland affinity’s enthusiastic support for a Stuart succession, hitherto a liability, now became an asset;26 while the duchess of Feria appealed for a place in the Household of the crypto-Catholic queen, Anne of Denmark. One indication of Constable’s return to favour was the knighthood conferred on his 15-year-old son Henry in March 1604; another was his own election for Hedon.27 Constable may have hoped to use his seat in the Commons to lobby for alterations to the Elizabethan religious settlement, as Viscount Montagu did in the Lords, or at least to block some of the proposals of the well-organized puritan lobby. In this context, it is significant that his first mention in the Journals was an appointment to a committee preparing for a conference with the bishops on ecclesiastical reform (19 Apr. 1604). He was subsequently named to a committee for two bills to abolish clerical pluralism (4 June), one of the measures discussed at the conference. He was also among those chosen to hear the king set out his initial plans for the Union on 20 Apr.; given his pro-Scottish connections, it is possible that he gave James’s plans a more sympathetic hearing than most. His only other committee nomination was for a private bill to allow the sale of a Norfolk manor (7 June).28

Not surprisingly, Constable laid low after the Gunpowder Plot: he left no trace on the records of the 1605-6 session, and may have stayed away altogether. Despite the new anti-Catholic measures passed by the House, Lady Constable remained largely undisturbed. Lord president Sheffield, however, arrested two priests at one of Constable’s houses, and informed Cecil, now earl of Salisbury, that ‘although he [Constable] profess to be a Protestant, yet his housekeepers and officers are recusants and the only receivers of priests in this country’. Sheffield begged that the priests should not be pardoned immediately, as this made a mockery of his efforts to effect their capture.29 Despite his distrust of Constable, Sheffield was obliged to appoint him to assist in the mustering of North Riding militia in the autumn of 1606.30

Constable may not have attended the 1606-7 parliamentary session, as he left no trace on its records. If present, however, his status as a Yorkshire MP entitled him to attend committees appointed to debate the Instrument of Union (29 Nov. 1606), and to consider (Sir) John Hotham’s* jointure bill, in which he was personally interested as a trustee of the Hotham entail of 1594.31 Constable died at the Savoy in the Strand on 15 Dec. 1607, probably at the house leased by his brother-in-law Sir Robert Dormer; he was eventually buried at Halsham in Holderness on 12 Apr. 1608. He left no will, but his son secured administration of his goods in 1609.32 The latter was a convicted recusant, and there was a flurry of interest in securing the profits of his recusancy fines: one petitioner even suggested that Constable’s non-existent will contained bequests of hundreds of pounds to Catholic seminarists.33 Hopes of quick profits were dashed when the heir conformed, although he reverted to Catholicism in the 1630s, when, with the help of lord president (Sir Thomas) Wentworth*, he compounded for his recusancy at the derisory rate of £250 a year. Constable’s widow refused to conform, leaving crucifixes to her son and daughter-in-law in her will, and generous legacies to her servants, ‘hoping that they all will pray for my soul’.34 Constable’s son purchased a Scottish title in 1620, becoming Viscount Dunbar, but as recusants, none of his descendants sat in the Commons. The male line ended with the death of the 4th viscount in 1718.35

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. C142/185/40; Clay, Dugdale’s Vis. Yorks. ii. 305-6.
  • 2. LI Admiss.
  • 3. Yorks. ERRO, DDCC/133/5; PE15/1, unfol.; PROB 11/57, f. 313; Vis. Bucks. (Harl. Soc. lviii), 41.
  • 4. C142/185/40.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 84. He was already knighted when pricked as sheriff on 14 Nov.: see List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 163.
  • 6. C142/310/79.
  • 7. Lansd. 35, f. 134v; Lansd. 737, f. 175v; Royal 18 D.III, f. 60; E163/14/8; Hatfield House, ms 278.
  • 8. List of Sheriffs, 163.
  • 9. APC, 1599-1600, p. 437; 1601-4, p. 283; Add. 36293, f. 99.
  • 10. C181/1, ff. 117, 153, 161.
  • 11. B. English, Lords of Holderness, 90-1; Clay, Dugdale’s Vis. Yorks. ii. 301-8.
  • 12. DNB sub Henry Constable, 1562-1613.
  • 13. C142/185/40.
  • 14. Ex inf. Prof. Michael Questier.
  • 15. Vis. Bucks. 41; A.J. Loomie, Spanish Elizabethans, 96-101, 113.
  • 16. Lansd. 52, f. 184; Recusants in Exchequer Pipe Rolls ed. H. Bowler and T.J. McCann (Catholic Rec. Soc. lxxi), 42.
  • 17. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 305; SP12/245/24; G. Anstruther, Seminary Priests, i. 76-7, 190, 289.
  • 18. APC, 1592-3, pp. 122-3; Recusant Roll 1 ed. M.M.C. Calthrop (Catholic Rec. Soc. xviii), 100.
  • 19. HMC Hatfield, iv. 362-3; CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 372; Anstruther, 135-6; P. Hembry, English Spa, 21-5.
  • 20. Loomie, 105-6, 112, 115-123.
  • 21. Recusant Roll 1, 94, 103; CSP Dom. 1591-4, pp. 377-8; HMC Hatfield, xiii. 495.
  • 22. Ex inf. Prof. Michael Questier.
  • 23. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 387; SP12/256/81; HMC Hatfield, v. 77; vii. 412.
  • 24. Loomie, 122-4; HMC Hatfield, vii. 105; CSP Dom. 1595-7, p. 369; APC, 1597, p. 92.
  • 25. HMC Hatfield, v. 77; vii. 230; Recusant Rolls 3-4 ed. H. Bowler (Catholic Rec. Soc. lxi), 183.
  • 26. Ex inf. Prof. Michael Questier.
  • 27. Loomie, 125-7; Shaw, ii. 130.
  • 28. CJ, i. 180a, 231b, 233b, 951a; R.C. Munden, ‘King, Commons and Reform, 1603-4’, Faction and Parl. ed. K. Sharpe, 63, 66-8.
  • 29. HMC Hatfield, xviii. 247.
  • 30. Add. 36293, f. 99.
  • 31. CJ, i. 326b; HLRO, O.A. 3 Jas.I, c. 42.
  • 32. E178/4803; PROB 11/128, f. 490; Yorks. ERRO, PE15/1, unfol.; Borthwick, Holderness Deanery AB, unfol.
  • 33. HMC Hatfield, xix. 385; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 389; Lansd. 153, f. 291.
  • 34. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 438, 1628-9, p. 522; SO3/10 unfol. (June 1631); Misc. Recusant Recs. ed. C. Talbot (Catholic Rec. Soc. liii), 321, 378, 420-1; Borthwick, Original Wills, Holderness Deanery, April 1637.
  • 35. Clay, Dugdale’s Vis. Yorks. ii. 306-8.