DUCK, Arthur (c.1580-1648), of Wells and Cadbury, Som. and Chiswick, Mdx.; later of Aldersgate 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



c. 1640 (Apr.)

Family and Education

b. c.1580, 3rd s. of Richard Duck (d.1605) of Heavitree, Devon and his w. Joanna; bro. of Nicholas*.1 educ. Exeter Coll. Oxf. 1595, BA 1599, MA Hart Hall 1602, BCL 1607, DCL 1612;2 travelled abroad (France, Italy, Germany) 1612.3 m. by 1625 (with £1,400),4

Margaret (d.1646), da. and coh. of Henry Southworth, merchant of Wells and London, at least 2da., at least 1s. d.v.p. 6 other ch. d.v.p.5 d. 16 Dec. 1648.6

Offices Held

Fell., All Souls, Oxf. 1604, bursar 1608, subwarden 1610.7

Adv. Ct. of Arches, 1612;8 member, Doctors’ Commons 1614-at least 1642, treas. 1632-3;9 master in Chancery extraordinary 1617, ordinary 1645-d.;10 king’s adv., Earl Marshal’s Ct. 1624-40;11 master of Requests 1643-6.12

Vicar-gen., Wells cathedral 1616;13 chan., Bath and Wells dioc. 1616-40,14 London dioc. 1628-41;15 member, Canterbury convocation 1618;16 commr. piracy, London 1622-40,17 Dorset 1622,18 Mdx. 1625;19 member, High Commission, Canterbury prov. 1633-41;20 visitor of hospitals, Canterbury dioc. 1634;21 commr. charitable uses, London 1638.22

Commr. to report on disorders in the king’s chapel in the Tower 1632,23 printers’ licences 1637.24


Duck came from a family of prosperous Devon yeomen who, by the mid-sixteenth century, were resident at Heavitree, near Exeter. His father owned several parcels of land in the area, and was wealthy enough to found an almshouse in Heavitree. However, on his death in 1605 he left Duck just a silver tankard and a silver bowl, the bulk of his property falling to his two eldest sons.25 Obliged to make his own way in the world, Duck found himself drawn to the study of Civil Law, taking his doctorate in 1612 and becoming an advocate in the ecclesiastical Court of Arches the same year.26 He subsequently progressed to diocesan administration, and in 1617 also became a master in Chancery. In April that year he was sent as a legal assistant to Sir John Bennet* on a special embassy to the Archduke Albert in Brussels.27 The objects of the mission were to obtain the punishment of the writers of a satirical pamphlet on James I and his Court and to promote a Spanish match for Prince Charles. The two men returned empty-handed in the following June, but Duck was well-received by James when he briefed him on their activities, and was shortly afterwards instructed to discuss the ‘treaty propositions’ with a group of more senior civil lawyers.28

Despite these encouraging career developments, Duck’s own experiences evidently left him pessimistic about the long-term future of his chosen profession. In his monumental treatise on the history of Civil Law, written in his final years and published posthumously, he observed that in England the practice of employing civil lawyers in negotiations with foreign powers had fallen into disuse. In his view this made little sense, given that Continental legal systems were based on Civil, or Roman Law. Indeed, while he was at pains to assert the equality of Civil with Common Law, demonstrating that both branches had similar origins in Norman times, he acknowledged the impregnable position occupied by the Common Law. Not only was Civil Law ‘utterly excluded from the courts of justice wherein the law of England is practised’, but he could foresee a time when ‘the Civil Law would no longer be in use in this kingdom’.29

Nevertheless, in the short term Duck flourished, particularly as an ecclesiastical lawyer. As chancellor in the diocese of Bath and Wells from 1616, he was reportedly ‘honoured and beloved of Bishop Lake of that place, and more for that reason because he was beholden to him for the right ordering of his jurisdiction’.30 Lake showed little interest in administration, and relied heavily on Duck ‘to steer him through the murky waters of diocesan government’. Both in Somerset and London, where from 1628 he was also chancellor, Duck regularly presided over episcopal visitations. The close relationship between Duck and Bishop Lake is underlined by the fact that they were both godfathers to the archdeacon of Bath’s son. Lake named his ‘good friend Doctor Duck’ as one of the overseers of his will, and also officiated at Duck’s wedding, though the date of the ceremony is unknown.31

Duck undoubtedly owed his election to Parliament for Minehead in 1624 to the patronage of Bishop Lake, who also arranged the return of his own nephew, Sir Arthur Lake. The bishop, who was the ecclesiastical visitor of Wadham College, Oxford, needed supporters in the Commons to steer through a bill to resolve questions concerning the college’s foundation. Duck was named on 9 Mar. to the committee for this bill, which he reported three days later with minor amendments. The measure subsequently reached the statute books.32 Beyond this activity, Duck contributed relatively little to the Parliament’s proceedings, attracting just three other appointments, and making seven more speeches.

Predictably, almost all of Duck’s interventions related to the law. On 19 Mar. he pointed out a potential flaw in the bill on probate of suggestions in cases of prohibition, while on 26 May he delivered a detailed exposition of the lord keeper’s power to block land conveyances, clearly drawing on his knowledge as an officer in the Chancery Court.33 Naturally concerned to defend the current scope of Civil Law, he objected on 24 Feb. to the bill against blasphemous swearing on the grounds that this offence should properly be dealt with by the church courts. However, he was promptly slapped down by the Speaker, Sir Thomas Crewe, a practitioner of the Common Law, who observed that this concern had been addressed when the same bill had come before the Lords in 1621.34 In similar vein, Duck warned on 17 Mar. that the bill against arbitrary imprisonment threatened to interfere with the jurisdictions of the lord admiral, earl marshal and High Commission, which were not governed by the Common Law, and was therefore likely to be blocked in the Upper House unless it were amended. The bill was duly recommitted, with Duck added to the committee, but it failed to complete its passage.35 Duck also tried on 28 Apr. to prevent an inquiry being set up into the fees charged by the heralds, assuring the House that these costs were about to be reined in by the current earl marshal, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel.36 Duck’s two remaining committee appointments related to bills about the behaviour and legal rights of the clergy (22 March). Evidently concerned about the threat posed by indigenous Catholics as the prospect of war with Spain increased, he argued on 2 Apr. that foreign ambassadors could not legally offer recusants any protection and suggested a simple series of tests to winkle out church papists.37

Duck’s familiarity with the Earl Marshal’s Court partly stemmed from his appointment as king’s advocate in January 1624. The surviving case reports confirm that he was an active figure in this arena at least from 1634 until 1640, with formal responsibility for prosecuting those who displayed arms to which they had no right. However, he was more frequently employed as counsel in cases of social defamation. On one such occasion, when it was asserted that his client was ‘not accounted a gentleman, but a soap-boiler’, Duck retorted that the lord mayor of London was a soap-boiler by trade, yet no one would suggest that he was not a gentleman.38 In November 1631 he was involved in a special session of the court, arranged to compose a quarrel between the 1st Lord Reay and David Ramsey before it came to a duel. Addressing doubts over whether the court could be convened for this purpose, Duck ‘made a relation of the whole proceeding of the business until this time; and of the legality in bringing it to this kind of trial, alleging it to be justifiable both out of the writings of learned men, and also by precedents in this kingdom’.39 He was also counsel for the prosecution during a landmark case in May 1634, when the defendant, one Henry Throgmorton, was found guilty of a new offence of using ‘scandalous words likely to provoke a duel’.40

These activities aside, Duck’s later career was notable principally for his association with William Laud, who became bishop of Bath and Wells in 1626. Duck evidently worked well with Laud, and sympathized with his aims, for when the latter was translated to London two years later, Duck followed him to become his chancellor. However, he did not relinquish his post at Bath and Wells, where he worked enthusiastically in support of Laud’s drive for reform. For example, in 1634 he forced the churchwardens of Beckington in Somerset to place their church’s communion table ‘altarwise’, and to rail it in, after they had refused to obey their bishop’s order to do so.41 Perhaps surprisingly, there is no evidence that Duck espoused Laud’s anti-Calvinist views. Rather, the two men shared a predilection for order and hierarchy. Duck was certainly keen to preserve the Church against lay encroachments, for the central episode in his 1617 biography of the fifteenth-century archbishop Henry Chichele is of how the cleric successfully defended the Church during the 1415 Parliament, when the Commons petitioned the king to raise money by seizing ecclesiastical revenues.42

Nevertheless, Duck’s liking for authority did not lead him to embrace the ‘absolutist’ theories of monarchy sometimes associated with civil lawyers. Unlike his fellow civil lawyer, Dr. John Cowell, he did not accord the king a residual power to alter or suspend laws on his own authority. Instead, he held that the law of England consisted of ‘certain customs and the statutes enacted by the king, in and with the advice of Parliament’. If interpretation of the law proved problematic, the final verdict rested with the legislature.43 Duck further acknowledged the importance of Parliament in his biography of Chichele, regularly referring to its meetings, and noting their significance.44

Duck was elected again for Minehead in April 1640, but found no seat in the Long Parliament, which attacked him for his Laudian activities. In 1641 he was identified as one of ‘Canterbury’s agents’ in puritan pamphlets.45 Indeed, his services to Laud were drawn to Parliament’s attention in a rhyme:

There is also one Doctor Duck / The proverb says, what’s worse than ill luck / We hope that the Parliament his feathers will pluck / For being so busy, Doctor Duck.46

Duck was declared a delinquent by Parliament early in 1642. He attended the king at Oxford during the First Civil War, and is said to have donated £6,000 to the royalist cause.47 In September 1648 the king successfully requested that Duck be allowed to assist in the forthcoming treaty negotiations with the parliamentary commissioners in the Isle of Wight.48 However, contrary to the tradition that he ‘lived to see his master murdered before his own door’, he actually died at Chiswick in December 1648.49

Duck had suffered heavy losses as a result of the royalist defeat, but his will, drafted on 1 Apr. 1646, contained financial bequests amounting to £420. He left £20 to his father’s almshouse in Heavitree, and £10 each to the poor of Cadbury, Somerset, where he had bought a ‘house and demesnes’, and the poor of Chiswick, where he was sub-lessee of a manor held from the prebends of St. Paul’s cathedral. This property, comprising about 140 acres and valued at more than £177 in 1649, apparently passed to his nephew, for immediately after his death it was sold by a Richard Duck of Devon. Duck also mentioned an ‘estate which His Majesty hath given me in Grafton Park’, Northamptonshire. He left the rest of his goods and lands to his wife Margaret and two daughters, Martha and Mary. The will was proved by his nephew Richard on 1 June 1649.50 No other member of his family subsequently sat in Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: George Yerby


  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 309; PROB 11/105, f. 180.
  • 2. Al. Ox.
  • 3. Lansd. 713, ff. 2-3; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 330.
  • 4. Som. Wills ed. F. Brown. ii. 7.
  • 5. Vivian, 309; HMC Wells, ii. 387.
  • 6. Musgrave’s Obit. (Harl. Soc. xlv), 220.
  • 7. B. Levack, Civil Lawyers in Eng. 1603-41, p. 225.
  • 8. LPL, Abbot reg. i. f. 112.
  • 9. PRO 30/26/8, ff. 103, 152, 182.
  • 10. Levack, 225.
  • 11. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 145; Cal. of the Docquets of Ld. Kpr. Coventry, 1625-40 ed. J. Broadway, R. Cust and S.K. Roberts (L. and I. Soc. spec. ser. xxxiv), 183.
  • 12. PC2/53, p. 215.
  • 13. HMC Wells, ii. 370.
  • 14. M. Stieg, Laud’s Laboratory, 171.
  • 15. Levack, 225; Stieg, 171; Works of Abp. Laud, i-ii. ed. W. Scott; ed. J. Bliss, v. 358.
  • 16. SP16/88/16.
  • 17. C181/3, f. 79v; 181/4, f. 139.
  • 18. C181/3, f. 73.
  • 19. Ibid, f. 176.
  • 20. CSP Dom. 1633-4, p. 327.
  • 21. CSP Dom. 1633-4, p. 530.
  • 22. C192/1, unfol.
  • 23. Cal. of Docquets of Ld. Kpr. Coventry, 37-8.
  • 24. Ibid. 1637, p. 345.
  • 25. Vivian, 309; Lansd. 713, ff. 2-3; PROB 11/105, f. 180.
  • 26. Lansd. 713, ff. 2-3.
  • 27. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 68.
  • 28. S.R. Gardiner, Hist. of Eng from Accession of Jas. I, iii. 105; APC, 1616-17, pp. 268-9, 300, 303.
  • 29. A. Duck, Of the Use and Authority of Civil Law in Eng. (1724), xxvi, xxxviii. [partial translation of De Usu et Authoritate Juris Civilis Romanorum (1653)].
  • 30. Lansd. 713, ff. 2-3.
  • 31. K. Fincham, Prelate as Pastor, 157; Som. Wills, ii. 112; PROB 11/152, f. 319.
  • 32. CJ, i. 680a, 734a.
  • 33. Ibid. 740a; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 228.
  • 34. ‘Spring 1624’, p. 18; ‘Earle 1624’, f. 15v.
  • 35. CJ, i. 738a-b; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 84v; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 30.
  • 36. CJ, i. 692b, 777b; ‘Holland 1624’, ii. f. 58.
  • 37. CJ, i. 746a; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 47r-v.
  • 38. Ct. of Chivalry Case Reps. (Harl. Soc. cvii), 5-49.
  • 39. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, ii. 146.
  • 40. Cases in the High Ct. of Chivalry 1634-40 ed. R.P. Cust and A.J. Hopper (Harl. Soc. n.s. xviii), pp. xx-xxi, 26.
  • 41. Docs. of the Laudian Period (Som. Rec. Soc. xliii), 182-3.
  • 42. A. Duck, Life of H. Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury under Henry V and VI (1699), pp. 44, 47-63; [originally publ. as Vita Henrici Chichele Archiepiscopi Cantuarensis sub Regibus Henrici V et VI (1617)].
  • 43. Duck, Civil Law, p. xxvii.
  • 44. Duck, Chichele, 44, 75, 103, 111, 121, 135.
  • 45. Levack, 177.
  • 46. Ibid. 195.
  • 47. Vivian, 309.
  • 48. Lansd. 713, ff. 2-3; G. Hillier, Chas. I in Isle of Wight, 251.
  • 49. Lansd. 713, ff. 2-3; D. Lysons, Environs of London, ii. 191; Musgrave’s Obit. 220.
  • 50. PROB 11/208, ff. 346v-7v; CSP Dom. 1637-8, p. 90; Lysons, ii. 191.