GREY (GRAY), Sir Ralph (c.1552-1623), of Chillingham Castle, Northumb.

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.1552, 2nd s. of Sir Ralph Grey (d.1564) of Chillingham and Isabel, da. and coh. of Sir Thomas Grey† of Horton, Northumb.; bro. of Sir Thomas†. m. (1) bef. 6 Oct. 1581, Jane (d. by 1607), da. of William Ardington of Ardington, Berks., 3s. incl. Sir William* (1 d.v.p.) 7da.; (2) by 1609, Dorothy (d. by 19 Mar. 1625), da. of Thomas Malet of Enmore, Som. and wid. of Sir Thomas Palmer (d.1605) of Fairfield, Som., 2s. 1da. suc. maternal grandfa. 1570, bro. Sir Thomas 1590;1 kntd. 6 or 8 Apr. 1603.2 d. 7 Sept. 1623.3 sig. Ra[lph] Gray.

Offices Held

Constable, Dunstanburgh castle, Northumb. 1578-at least 1602;4 commr. survey castles, Borders 1580;5 sheriff, Northumb. 1582-3, 1591-2, 1593-4, 1611-12,6 j.p. by 1587-c.1593, c.1604-d.,7 co. Dur. 1619-d.;8 commr. to reduce garrison, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumb. 1603-4;9 dep. lt. Northumb. by 1604;10 commr. piracy, Northumb. 1604,11 debatable lands, Borders 1604,12 oyer and terminer, Cumb., Northumb., Westmld. 1607-15, 1616-d., Northern circ. 1620-d.,13 aid, Northumb. 1609,14 to suppress malefactors, Borders 1618-19,15 wool prices, Northumb. 1619,16 gaol delivery, Durham 1619,17 survey bridge, Berwick-upon-Tweed 1620,18 subsidy, Northumb. 1622.19

Commr. Union 1604.20


Grey’s ancestors were Northumberland gentry by the early 1300s. In the following century they moved conspicuously onto the national stage, producing two bishops, and marrying into the Yorkist branch of the royal family. At around that time they established their main seat at Chillingham castle, in the north-east of the county.21 Grey’s father and elder brother both served as sheriff of Northumberland, maintaining a long family tradition, while the latter sat for the county in 1586.22 Although Grey was a younger son, he inherited in 1570 most of the lands of his maternal grandfather, Sir Thomas Grey of Horton, himself a former knight of the shire. Twenty years later, he also succeeded to the Chillingham patrimony. With a cumulative estate of almost 250,000 acres, he was possibly Northumberland’s richest resident.23

Grey’s wealth and local standing inevitably drew him into local government. Active from the mid-1570s in the county’s military affairs, he held the shrievalty three times under Elizabeth.24 Nevertheless, he consistently failed to obtain the Border region’s most important offices. In part, this was due to his poor relations with other leading county families. A major dispute in 1592-3 with (Sir) Henry Widdrington* was described by Sir John Carey† as ‘one of the greatest causes in Northumberland for these 40 years’, which threatened ‘the overthrowing of the most of the principal houses therein’. It was probably this quarrel that led to his dismissal as a magistrate in about 1593.25 Another long-running feud with the Selby family, his near neighbours, climaxed in 1597 with an abortive duel in Berwick-upon-Tweed churchyard, after which he allegedly tried to murder his challenger, Ralph Selby.26 More seriously, from the Crown’s point of view, Grey was strongly suspected of being a Catholic, and even of harbouring Jesuits. His candidacy for the wardenship of the English Middle March was opposed in 1594 on these grounds.27 Similarly, although lord treasurer Burghley (Sir William Cecil†) became godfather to Grey’s eldest son, (Sir) William*, in 1593, the government consistently ignored Grey’s requests to be appointed treasurer of the strategically vital garrison at Berwick.28 Despite these repeated rebuffs, he did perform one significant service for Burghley and his son, Sir Robert Cecil†. At intervals during the final decade of Elizabeth’s reign, he secretly played host to his distant Scottish kinsman, the master of Gray, a Catholic who supplied the Cecils with intelligence on James VI’s policies and conducted covert negotiations between London and Edinburgh. Grey’s discreet co-operation earned him much-needed credit at Court, and stood him in good stead when James ascended the English throne in 1603.29

The change of regime brought rapid rewards. Grey was one of the first men knighted by James after he arrived in England, and over the next year or so he was restored to the Northumberland bench, appointed as a deputy lieutenant, and named to several other local commissions.30 In 1604 he capped his return to official favour by winning election as a knight of the shire. However, a personal motive for standing also emerged once he reached Westminster. On 17 Apr. Grey used his maiden speech to introduce the second reading debate on a bill to discharge arrears of recusancy fines. He therefore almost certainly brought in this controversial measure, which would obviously have benefited his numerous Catholic associates had the Commons not swiftly rejected it that same day. This setback apparently silenced him for the remainder of the session, though on 12 May he was appointed to the commission for the treaty for the Union of England and Scotland. He also predictably secured nomination to two bill committees relating to Berwick-upon-Tweed (16 and 30 May). He presumably attended the 1605-6 session, but left no mark on its proceedings.31

As the owner of broad estates along the northern border, Grey was personally affected by the issue of ‘debatable lands’, properties subject to dispute over whether they rightfully lay in England or Scotland. Appointed in 1604 as a commissioner to address this problem, he visited Edinburgh in the following year to defend his title to certain lands before the Scottish Privy Council. Although he scored a partial victory, assisted by James’s favourite, the earl of Dunbar, his decision to seek justice in a Scottish court caused consternation in both capitals, given that the relationship between each country’s legal system had not yet been resolved.32 Surprisingly, in view of his positive attitude towards Anglo-Scottish relations, Grey apparently failed to contribute to the Union debates in the next parliamentary session, although he was entitled as a Northumberland Member to attend the committee which discussed the Instrument of Union (29 Nov. 1606). His only personal nomination, on 18 May 1607, was to the committee for a private restitution bill.33

In August 1607 Grey joined the prestigious commission for enforcing justice in the border counties, but the same problems that had previously hampered his career continued to surface. According to a government survey of religious allegiances in Northumberland at the start of that year, he was ‘not thought to be forward in religion’, seldom attended Anglican services, and surrounded himself with recusants. In 1608 his simmering quarrel with the Selby family came to the boil once again, when Sir William Selby† of Branxton, Northumberland sued him in Star Chamber for trespass in a long-standing property dispute.34

During the first parliamentary session of 1610, Grey was marginally more active than on previous occasions. Entitled as a Northumberland Member to attend the legislative committee concerning the execution of justice on the Scottish border, he presumably did participate, since he was also named personally to the subsequent conference with the Lords on this bill (7 May and 4 July). His status as a shire knight prompted his only speech, during the subsidy bill debate on 14 July, when he moved for the customary proviso exempting the four northernmost counties from this tax. However, this amendment was rejected, on the grounds that the Stuart accession had removed the need for the border region to receive special treatment. His only other committee nomination related to a private estate bill (22 February).35

In June 1611 Grey helped to oversee the final discharge of Berwick’s garrison. A few months later he was pricked as sheriff for the fourth time, and during his term of office he conducted a survey of ordnance in Northumberland’s border fortresses.36 In 1614 he again stood for election as a knight of the shire. However, the presiding sheriff was his old adversary, the recently knighted Ralph Selby. Although Grey reportedly secured an overwhelming majority of the votes, the sheriff instead returned his own kinsman, Sir George Selby. The latter was swiftly discharged from sitting, after the Commons learnt that he was the current sheriff of County Durham, and therefore ineligible. Nevertheless, the inquiry into Ralph Selby’s conduct was delayed until after the ensuing election, in which yet another Selby, Sir William of Shortflatt, Northumberland, emerged victorious. Consequently, by the time the Commons considered a petition on Grey’s behalf on 24 May, his cause was already lost.37

During the final nine years of his life, Grey remained a prominent figure in Northumberland, as well as acquiring administrative responsibilities in County Durham. In 1621 he had the satisfaction of seeing his son, Sir William, elected as Northumberland’s senior knight of the shire. Grey drew up his will on 5 Sept. 1623, assigning properties in three northern counties to his younger sons and two unmarried daughters. He died at Chillingham two days later.38

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Hist. Northumb. (Northumb. Co. Hist. Cttee.), xiv. 328; HMC Hatfield, xix. 3; Vis. Som. ed. Weaver, 57; North Country Wills ed. J.W. Clay (Surtees Soc. cxxi), 60.
  • 2. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 100.
  • 3. Hist. Northumb. xiv. 328.
  • 4. Duchy of Lancaster Office-Holders ed. R. Somerville, 160; HMC Hatfield, xii. 4-5.
  • 5. CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 18.
  • 6. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 99.
  • 7. E163/14/8; Hatfield House, ms 278; C66/1662; C193/13/1, f. 75.
  • 8. C231/4, f. 89; C193/13/1, f. 27v.
  • 9. HMC Hatfield, xv. 335.
  • 10. Ibid. xvi. 13.
  • 11. C181/1, f. 88v.
  • 12. T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 2, p. 116.
  • 13. C181/2, ff. 50v, 138, 249; 181/3, ff. 8, 83, 91.
  • 14. E179/283.
  • 15. Rymer, vii. pt. 3, pp. 38, 96.
  • 16. APC, 1618-19, p. 470.
  • 17. C181/2, f. 346v.
  • 18. APC, 1619-21, pp. 123-4.
  • 19. C212/22/21.
  • 20. CJ, i. 208b.
  • 21. Hist. Northumb. xiv. 328.
  • 22. List of Sheriffs, 99; HP Commons, 1558-1603, ii. 225.
  • 23. North Country Wills, 60; C142/231/82; WARD 7/70/192; S.J. and S.J. Watts, From Border to Middle Shire: Northumberland 1586-1625, p. 113.
  • 24. CBP, 1560-94, pp. 20, 161; 1595-1603, pp. 91-2; HMC Hatfield, v. 261.
  • 25. CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, pp. 340-1; CBP, 1560-94, p. 463.
  • 26. CBP, 1595-1603, pp. 250-1, 278, 286-7; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1580-1625, p. 213.
  • 27. CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 703; Addenda, 1580-1625, pp. 231, 365; CBP, 1560-94, p. 235.
  • 28. CBP, 1560-94, p. 485; 1595-1603, p. 188; HMC Hatfield, v. 261; vi. 134.
  • 29. CBP, 1560-94, pp. 411; HMC Hatfield, x. 368-90; xii. 4-5, 35, 201; xiv. 233.
  • 30. Shaw, ii. 100.
  • 31. CJ, i. 208b, 212a, 228b, 948b.
  • 32. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 168-9, 333, 394; HMC 9th Rep. ii. 198.
  • 33. CJ, i. 326b, 374b.
  • 34. HMC Hatfield, xix. 3; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 435; STAC 8/257/10.
  • 35. CJ, i. 398b, 425b, 445b, 449b.
  • 36. CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 46, 48, 112.
  • 37. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 37-40, 74, 78, 332-3, 337; Som. RO, DD.SF1076; Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 521; Watts, 262-3.
  • 38. Durham Wills and Inventories ed. H.M. Wood (Surtees Soc. cxlii), 163-4; WARD 7/70/192.