HALSWELL, Sir Nicholas (1566-1633), of Halswell, Goathurst, Som.

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

bap. 30 Nov. 1566,1 1st. s. of Robert Halswell of Halswell, and Susan, da. of Henry Brouncker of Melksham, Wilts.2 educ. Magdalen, Oxf. 1583.3 m. by 1588, Bridget, da. of Sir Henry Wallop* of Fairleigh Wallop, Hants, 6s. incl. Robert* (4 d.v.p.) 2da. (1 d.v.p.). suc. fa. 1570;4 kntd. 11 May 1603.5 bur. 11 June 1633.6

Offices Held

J.p. Som. 1596-1626,7 commr. subsidy 1599, 1608, 1621-2, 1624,8 sewers 1603, 1610, 1616, 1625, 1629,9 dep. lt. by 1608-29,10 commr. aid 1609, 1612,11 treas. of hospitals, W. Som. 1614-17;12 gov. Huish’s almshouses, Taunton, Som. 1616;13 commr. cloth trade, Som. 1616,14 oyer and terminer, Western circ. 1617.15


The Halswell family took their name from a manor three miles west of Bridgwater, Somerset, which they owned from at least the end of the thirteenth century.16 Their first prominent figure was Halswell’s grandfather and namesake, a prosperous lawyer who was probably Bridgwater’s recorder and who represented the borough in the Parliaments of 1553 and 1563. At around that time, he acquired a substantial estate in the immediate vicinity of the town, including West Bower manor in Bridgwater parish, and some lands from the dissolved St. John’s hospital.17 Halswell subsequently inherited this property, along with other smaller landholdings in Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire, and himself made further acquisitions, primarily around Bridgwater.18 In 1593 he was rated for the subsidy at £20 in lands, the standard assessment for a j.p., though he was not appointed to the bench for another three years.19

Halswell was elected for Bridgwater in 1604, undoubtedly on the strength of his local standing. He is known to have spoken only once during this Parliament, and during the first session received just one appointment, to attend the king when the Commons’ defence of its proceedings over the Buckinghamshire election dispute was presented (28 March). Following the prorogation, Bridgwater’s corporation presented him with a salmon worth 4s. 2d., in lieu of conventional parliamentary wages, which suggests that he had agreed to cover his own expenses at Westminster.20 Halswell left no mark on the surviving records of the 1605-6 session, but he maintained regular contact with Bridgwater, and probably arranged for the borough to acquire a copy of the 1604 Act clarifying the rights of magistrates to assess labourers’ pay.21 During the 1606-7 session he was appointed to attend a meeting with the Lords about the proposed Anglo-Scottish Union (24 Nov. 1606), and was added to the committee for the bill to restrict the use of leather made from horsehides or pigskin (2 July 1607). The corporation rewarded him lavishly at the end of this session with a hogshead of claret, costing £6 10s.22

During the first session of 1610, Halswell was named to five legislative committees. Two of these appointments had a hunting theme, namely the preservation of game, and hawking (22 and 29 March). The remainder concerned suits against magistrates, changes to a statute of highways, and a Scotsman’s naturalization (28 and 30 Mar. and 24 April). In his only known speech, probably delivered sometime in March, he explained the absence from the Commons of his brother-in-law, Sir Richard Paulet*. 23 As usual he was in regular communication with his constituents, who sent him a present of two sugar loaves on 26 May, and wrote to him on 6 July, though the letter’s contents are unknown.24 Halswell’s activities during the fifth and final session are known only from a letter that he wrote on 24 Oct. 1610 to Paulet, who was again missing from the House. Discussions with the Lords over the Great Contract were about to resume, but, as Halswell explained, ‘here is now a very slender appearance, and the House will be called very shortly, and messengers sent for those that be absent’. Accordingly, he urged Paulet to ‘come hither with all expedition’ before he was penalized for his unauthorized absence.25

In 1614 Halswell arranged for his eldest son Robert to take his place as Member for Bridgwater. He himself, perhaps inadvertently, was dragged into the controversy surrounding the Somerset election, for he delivered a vital message to Sir Maurice Berkeley* that Sir Robert Phelips* planned to stand with him for the two shire seats. In the event, following a series of misunderstandings, Berkeley stood instead with John Poulett*, and Phelips was defeated at the poll. In the recriminations that followed, Berkeley maintained that Halswell’s message had merely indicated Phelips’ general resolve to seek election. However, the latter insisted that Berkeley should have understood the full import of ‘a message sent by a gentlemen of worth’ such as Halswell.26 Whatever the truth of this matter, Halwell’s loyalties were clear, for although he was not among Phelips’ most active canvassers, he was one of the Somerset magistrates who signed a declaration that the election had been rigged.27 A few months later, Halswell, Berkeley and Poulett were called before the Privy Council, which has led to suggestions that they must have worked together to block Phelips’ candidacy. However, they were actually summoned to answer for the Somerset j.p.s who had protested against 1614 Benevolence.28

By this time Halswell had been actively involved in local government for nearly two decades. Notably, in October 1604 he was among a group of Somerset j.p.s who protested to the Privy Council against an enforced levy on the county to fund a muster-master, while in 1608 he arrested John Gilbert, ‘a fanatical minister, for having on a Sabbath day attempted to preach naked in the parish church of North Petherton’.29 From 1608 to 1622 he was one of Somerset’s most vigorous magistrates, operating mainly in the parishes around Bridgwater.30 However, after 1622 his level of activity markedly declined. His final appearance in the quarter sessions records occurred in January 1626, when he was appointed to raise a tax from the country around Bridgwater, to relieve the town after a severe epidemic.31

The decline in Halswell’s activity as a magistrate was doubtless linked to his mounting financial difficulties, the roots of which lay in the previous decade, when he took on several costly commitments to other Somerset families. In 1610 he participated in a scheme to re-acquire the manor of Honibere and settle it on the heirs of Sir Thomas Palmer.32 Three years later, he helped purchase the wardship of Sir Henry Portman*, which was sold for the exceptionally high price of £2,500.33 In 1618, the ward’s mother, Lady Anne Portman, married Edward Popham*, who was himself heavily in debt. Halswell was soon drawn into the latter’s tangled affairs, becoming a trustee of his estates in 1620 in a bid to restore order to his finances. Unfortunately, this arrangement was undermined by Popham himself who, in 1623, broke the trust by mortgaging his principal manors to moneylenders.34 Some of this property had already been mortgaged in 1613 to another creditor, Robert Shaa, who in 1624 sought to convey his rights to other parties. Halswell challenged this move in the courts, but without success.35

With his own resources severely overstretched, Halswell resorted to land sales in order to raise money, mortgaging or alienating at least 18 properties between 1618 and 1623, often for substantial sums.36 A moiety of Boomer manor went for £450, while £530 was realized from the main portion of the manor of Durborough.37 This strategy temporarily stabilized his affairs, but in April 1628 he took the precaution of conveying the Somerset manors of Halswell, Lexworthy and West Bower, with Blackmore in Wiltshire, to his eldest surviving son Henry.38 Shortly afterwards he was outlawed for debt, dragged down by Popham’s continuing troubles.39 By 1629 Henry Halswell had replaced his father in the subsidy assessment list, at the much reduced rate of £10. This crisis finally eased only in 1632, when Popham sold the bulk of his remaining lands, thereby relieving Halswell and his fellow trustees of their responsibilities.40

Halswell was buried at Goathurst in June 1633. He apparently died intestate, but with his son Henry still in possession of the lands conveyed to him in 1628. This property passed out of the male line by marriage in the following generation. No further members of the family sat in Parliament.41

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: George Yerby


  • 1. Som. RO, Goathurst par. reg.
  • 2. Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 45; Vis. Wilts. (Harl. Soc. cv), 32.
  • 3. Al. Ox.
  • 4. Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 45; Som. RO, Goathurst par. reg.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 107.
  • 6. Som. RO, Goathurst par. reg.
  • 7. C231/1, f. 21v; Q. Sess. Recs. 1625-39 ed. E.H.B. Harbin (Som. Rec. Soc. xxiv), 11.
  • 8. E179/171/321, 349; SP14/13/1; C212/22/20-1, 23.
  • 9. C181/1, f. 70; 181/2, ff. 129v, 245v; 181/3, f. 186; 181/4, f. 21.
  • 10. Earl of Hertford’s Ltcy. Pprs. ed. W.P.D. Murphy (Wilts. Rec. Soc. xxiii), 112; T. Barnes, Som. 1625-40, p. 317.
  • 11. E179/283/12; E403/2732, f. 169.
  • 12. Q. Sess. Recs. 1607-25 ed. E.H. Bates (Som. Rec. Soc. xxiii), 115, 215.
  • 13. E. Toulmin, Taunton, 219.
  • 14. APC, 1616-17, p. 20.
  • 15. C181/2, f. 269v.
  • 16. VCH Som. vi. 48; Collinson, Som. i. 80.
  • 17. HP Commons, 1558-1603, ii. 242-3; VCH Som. iv. 90, vi. 98, 117, 139, 211, 217, 271, 291, 300; Som. RO, DD/S/WH 8, 13.
  • 18. Som. RO, DD/S/WH 3, 5, 10, 11, 14; PROB 11/52, f. 232v; C142/154/86; VCH Som. vi. 57.
  • 19. E179/256/4.
  • 20. CJ, i. 157a; Som. RO, D/B/bw 1589.
  • 21. Som. RO, D/B/bw 1591; SR, iv. 1022-4.
  • 22. CJ, i. 324b, 389b; Som. RO, D/B/bw 1592.
  • 23. CJ, i. 413b, 415b-16b, 420b; ‘Paulet 1610’, f. 16; Vis. Hants (Harl. Soc. lxvi), 26.
  • 24. Som. RO, D/B/bw 1598.
  • 25. Hants RO, 44M69/F2/6/1.
  • 26. Som. RO, DD/PH/216/87, 89; M. Kishlansky, Parl. Selection, 88-9, 94.
  • 27. Som. RO, DD/PH/216/96.
  • 28. APC, 1613-14, p. 611; E. Farnham, ‘Somerset Election of 1614’, EHR, xlvi. 599; S.R. Gardiner, Hist. Eng. 1603-42, ii. 266.
  • 29. HMC Salisbury, xvi. 325; Collinson, i. 266.
  • 30. Q. Sess. Recs. 1607-25, pp. 22, 53(3), 101, 117, 148(3), 177, 204, 214, 219, 226, 235, 240, 296, 320.
  • 31. Q. Sess. Recs. 1625-39, p. 11.
  • 32. Collinson, iii. 534.
  • 33. Sales of Wards 1603-41 ed. M.J. Hawkins (Som. Rec. Soc. lxvii), 142-3; M.J. Hawkins, ‘Wardship and the Portmans in the 17th Century’, Southern Hist. iv. 55-89.
  • 34. Som. RO, DD/PM/7, North Petherton litigation, Sterling v Cannington.
  • 35. Som. RO, DD/PM/3/2/6, 10.
  • 36. Som. RO, DD/S/WH 7, 8, 10, 11, 13, 15, 27, 28, 29, 51, 81; Som. Wills ed. F. Brown, i. 85, iii. 54; VCH Som. vi. 262, 300; Collinson, ii. 302.
  • 37. Som. RO, DD/S/WH 7, 8, 27, 29.
  • 38. Som. Enrolled Deeds ed. S.W.B. Harbin (Som. Rec. Soc. li), 248.
  • 39. CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 361; Som. RO, DD/PM/7, Sterling v Cannington.
  • 40. E179/172/390; Som. RO, DD/PM/3/2/16.
  • 41. Som. RO, Goathurst par. reg.; C142/519/96; Collinson, i. 80.