GARDENER, Sir Robert (c.1540-1620), of Elmswell, Suff.; Breckles, Norf. and Serjeants' Inn, Chancery Lane, 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



Family and Education

b. c.1540,1 o.s. of William Gardener, yeoman, of Hartest, Suff. and Alice, wid. of one Ling.2 educ. L. Inn 1562, called 1570.3 m. (1) aft. 1567, Anne (d.1587), da. of Robert Cordall, brewer, of London, 1s. at least 2da. all d.v.p.; (2) Thomasine, da. of John Barker†, merchant, of Ipswich, Suff., s.p.; (3) aft. 1601, Anne, da. of John Trelawny of Poole, Menheniot, Cornw., wid. of John Spring of Pakenham, Suff., s.p. suc. fa. 1566; 4 kntd. by 11 Aug. 1591.5 d. 12 Feb. 1620.6

Offices Held

Reader, Furnivals Inn 1575, L. Inn 1584; bencher, L. Inn 1582-7;7 c.j.k.b. [I] 1586-1603;8 sjt.-at-law 1587-d.9

J.p. Suff. by 1579-d., Norf. by c.1609-d.;10 commr. plantation, Munster [I], 1587-at least 1595,11 inquiry, manorial boundaries, Cambs. 1602, Fenland 1605;12 collector, Privy Seal loan, Suff. 1604-5, 1611-12,13 commr. oyer and terminer, Norf. circ. 1605-d., sewers, Fenland 1605-18, Suff. 1609-19, Suff. and Essex 1617, inquiry, lands of the Gunpowder plotters, Suff. 1606,14 subsidy, Suff. and Bury St. Edmunds 1608,15 commr. and collector, aid 1609, 1612-13;16 commr. sea breaches, Norf. and Suff. 1610, 1616, piracy, Suff. 1612,17 charitable uses 1617.18

PC [I] 1586-at least 1602;19 commr. to examine witnesses in Chancery [I] 1587, ecclesiastical causes [I] 1593, Crown debts [I] 1594-at least 1600, lease royal lands [I] 1594-at least 1600, Court of Wards [I] 1594-at least 1604; ld. justice [I] (jt.) 1597-9;20 government, Channel Is. 1607,21 inquiry into Parl. [I] 1613.22


Gardener was the only son of a substantial yeoman of Hartest in west Suffolk who left bequests to the poor of eight parishes and an estate large enough for his son to be assessed at £15 in land for the subsidy in 1568.23 Despite his landed wealth, Gardener was intent on entering the law and was called to the Lincoln’s Inn bar two years later. In 1586 he was appointed chief justice of Ireland on the recommendation of Christopher Wray†, who described him to Lord Burghley (Sir William Cecil†) as ‘well learned, wise, of good discretion and courage, and circumspect in his doings, and ... not so much occupied as divers others of smaller learning’.24 He soon won the respect of his colleagues, and at the end of the year Sir Henry Wallop† wrote to Burghley that ‘I find hitherto such sincerity, sufficiency and constancy in the chief justice as I must needs say I never saw in any man since my coming to serve in this country’.25 Three years later the lord deputy, Sir William Fitzwilliam†, refused to let Gardener return to England because he was ‘so wise, temperate and useful’ that he could not be spared.26

By June 1592 Fitzwilliam was reporting that Gardener was overburdened with duties, being not only sole judge on Queen’s Bench but also for a time the head of the judicial sides of Ireland’s Exchequer and Chancery.27 Such a dominant position provided Gardener with plenty of opportunities for personal enrichment, but publicly at least he professed to be uninterested in lining his own pockets. Early in his service he wrote to Burghley that by the sale of shrievalties ‘I might have been a partaker of great gain (strange to be believed in so poor a country)’.28 Whatever the limitations imposed by his conscience may have been, Gardener nevertheless managed to purchase land, including the manors of Elmswell and Woolpit in his native Suffolk (in 1590 and 1597 respectively), and Breckles in Norfolk (in 1599).29

Gardener’s period of office coincided with the outbreak of a serious rebellion led by the earl of Tyrone. The humiliating truce which Gardener negotiated with Tyrone earned him a devastating rebuke from the queen in 1596, and he subsequently repeatedly sued for permission to retire.30 However, he remained at his post till the rebellion was crushed, returning to England shortly before the accession of James I, where, according to his funeral monument, he ‘wholly devoted himself to the good acts of piety, justice and charity’ in a private station.31 Nevertheless he was twice recalled from retirement, once to report on the administration of the Channel Islands (1607), and once to investigate the abuses in the elections and proceedings of the Dublin Parliament (1613).

It may have been this last experience that determined Gardener, at the age of 74, to embark on a parliamentary career himself. In a slander case in Star Chamber some years later his opponent paid tribute to his ‘worthy and honourable disposition. ... He hath and doth daily deserve great love ... estimation and regard’. With Sir Robert Jermyn†, (Sir) Nicholas Bacon†, and Sir John Heigham*, he belonged to the puritan quadrumvirate that dominated West Suffolk, and inexperienced justices would often resort to him ‘to be directed by him in matters of doubt and difficulty’. With these advantages the success of his candidature in 1614 was probably a foregone conclusion.32

Gardener made five speeches and was named to 12 committees in the Addled Parliament. Appointed to the privileges committee on 8 Apr., the following day he spoke against sending for the sheriff of Northumberland over the return of Sir George Selby* because there was ‘no testification from any knights or gentlemen of the shire’. He was appointed to the committee for the bill to regulate county elections and the hearing of witnesses on 19 Apr., and argued on 11 May that the sheriff of Hampshire should be fined by the Commons ‘for not returning the party rightly elected’ at Stockbridge, before moving for a new writ.33

On 5 Apr. Gardener spoke at the second reading of the bill for regulating apparel, which he was subsequently appointed to consider. He warned against imposing excessive penalties, arguing that this would make it unworkable, as ‘for either judge or jury will show mercy where blood [is] to ensue’. He then proceeded to move for supply, but ‘he was so interrupted by the murmuring of the House and some that challenged him that he spoke not to the question as he left off abruptly’. During the debate which followed Sir Edwin Sandys’s report from the committee for impositions, Gardener again tried to move for supply, but was once more interrupted, it being ‘alleged that it was against the orders of the House to begin to move any new matter before the old were ended’.34 With the interests of the maritime part of his constituency in mind he preferred a bill ‘for the better increase of fish, especially of herring’ on 24 May, but it failed to advance even to a first reading.35

Now childless, Gardener founded a set of almshouses at Elmswell, entrusting their government entirely to six villagers and increasing the endowment in his will to keep pace with inflation. He died, according to his funeral monument at the age of 80, at Breckles on 12 Feb. 1620. He was described in the parish register as ‘the favourite of his family, the oracle of his acquaintance, the glory of his friends, the stay of his country’. He was buried at Elmswell, in accordance with his instructions in his will dated 5 Nov. 1618. He left his sister, Mary Snow, some of his plate and a life interest in one of his manors, but the bulk of his estate in Suffolk, estimated at £600 p.a., went to his youngest great-nephew Gardiner Webb. His stepson, Sir William Spring, to whom he bequeathed ‘one of my geldings or nags at his choice’, was elected knight of the shire in 1624.36

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. W.A. Copinger, Manors of Suff. i. 288.
  • 2. Suff. RO (Bury St. Edmunds), Sudbury archdeaconry wills 32, ff. 346, 429; inf. from Amanda J.E. Arrowsmith, county archivist.
  • 3. LI Admiss.; LI Black Bks. i. 372.
  • 4. PROB 11/32, f. 128; 11/117, f. 221; Copinger, i. 288; CSP Ire. 1586-8, p. 410; 1592-6, p. 488; Add. 19131, f. 56.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 88; CSP Ire. 1588-92, p. 408.
  • 6. C142/402/143.
  • 7. Readers and Readings in Inns of Ct. and Chancery ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. xiii), 130, 203; LI Black Bks. i. 424, 433.
  • 8. Patentee Officers in Ireland comp. J.L.J. Hughes, 55; CSP Ire. 1603-6, p. 114
  • 9. Order of Sjts.-at-Law ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. v), 513.
  • 10. SP12/145, f. 37; C66/1786; 2174.
  • 11. CP and CR Ire. ii. 129, 172, 352.
  • 12. C181/1, ff. 32, 122.
  • 13. HMC Hatfield, xvi. 385; E401/2585, ff. 61-2, 65-6, 138-9; J.J. M[uskett], ‘Suff. directory’, East Anglian, n.s. viii. 295; E403/2731, f. 194v.
  • 14. C181/1, ff. 104v, 131; 181/2, ff. 3v, 94v, 272v, 326v, 349v; 181/3, f. 4v.
  • 15. SP14/31, ff. 37v, 38v.
  • 16. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 520; SP14/43/107; E163/16/21; Harl. 354, f. 68v.
  • 17. C181/2, ff. 127v, 174v, 263v.
  • 18. C93/9/4.
  • 19. CSP Ire. 1586-8, p. 60; 1601-3, p. 381.
  • 20. CP and CR Ire. ii. 124, 287, 290, 466-7, 564; Patentee Officers in Ireland, 55.
  • 21. HMC Hatfield, xix. 282.
  • 22. APC, 1613-14, pp. 154-5.
  • 23. R. Ryece, Suff. in Seventeenth Cent.: the Breviary of Suff. ed. F. Hervey, 137; Suff. RO (Bury St. Edmunds), Sudbury wills 32, f. 346; Suff. in 1568, ed. S.H.A. H[ervey] (Suff. Green Bks. xii), 20.
  • 24. Harl. 6993, f. 123.
  • 25. CSP Ire. 1586-8, p. 226.
  • 26. Ibid. 1588-92, p. 152.
  • 27. Ibid. 519.
  • 28. Ibid. 1586-8, p. 219.
  • 29. Copinger, i. 287; vi. 155; Norf. Arch. viii. 311.
  • 30. CSP Ire. 1592-6, pp. 44, 468, 488; 1596-7, p. 460.
  • 31. Copinger, i. 288.
  • 32. STAC 8/156/9; Rushbrook Par. Regs. ed. S.H.A. Hervey, 153.
  • 33. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 33, 40, 106, 204, 208.
  • 34. Ibid. 145, 148, 155, 157.
  • 35. Ibid. 335.
  • 36. C142/402/143; J. Nichols, Bibl. Top. Brit. lii. 1; PROB 11/135, f. 209v; Norf. Arch. viii. 312; Copinger, i. 288; Add. 15520, f. 73v.