HARRIS, John I (c.1564-1623), of Lanrest, Liskeard, Cornw.

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.1564, 1st s. of John Harris† of Lanrest and his 2nd w. Jane, da. of William Harris† of Radford, Plymstock, Devon. m. Dec. 1589, Joan, da. and h. of Robert Harte of Plimston, Stoke Climsland, Cornw., 4s. 4da. suc. fa. 1579. d. 2 June 1623.1 sig. John Harrys.

Offices Held

J.p. Cornw. by 1600-c.1612,2 provost marshal c.1600,3 collector, tenths and fifteenths 1603-4,4 commr. piracy, Devon 1603, inquiry into Sir Walter Ralegh’s† lands, Cornw. 1608-9,5 duchy of Cornw. assessions 1617.6

Capital burgess, Liskeard c.1602, 1611.7

Recorder, W. Looe, Cornw. by 1620.8


Harris was descended from two distinct strands of the same family. His father, who represented a cadet branch resident at Lanrest by the early sixteenth century, sat for Grampound in 1555 and held several minor offices in Devon and Cornwall.9 Harris’ mother belonged to the senior line, based at Radford since around the fourteenth century, which was more prominent in local affairs. In particular, her brother Christopher Harris† served as vice-warden of the Cornish stannaries and joint deputy vice-admiral of Devon during the 1590s.10 In 1579, while still a minor, Harris inherited a small estate consisting of one manor, two rectories and assorted other properties located mainly in the Liskeard area.11 He was found to be a royal ward, but his uncle Christopher purchased the wardship in combination with his kinsman Tristram Arscott and a leading Cornish gentleman, Hannibal Vyvyan†. Thereafter, Harris remained closely associated with Christopher, and emerged as his heir following the death of the latter’s only child.12

In 1589 Harris married a local heiress, Joan Harte, in controversial circumstances. She had only recently freed herself from an extended legal battle with another suitor, Nicholas Halse, who had alleged breach of promise of matrimony. Her lawyer, Richard Connock*, the son of a prominent Liskeard resident, subsequently claimed that he had also contracted to marry Joan once the Halse case was resolved, and accordingly sued her for compensation. Harris insisted that he had himself been promised Joan’s hand before Connock emerged as a rival, although in fact the wedding was held suspiciously soon after the death of her father, who seems to have favoured the lawyer’s candidacy.13

During the next decade, doubtless with his uncle’s backing, Harris took his place on the Cornish bench and in the county’s militia. About this time his fellow magistrate Richard Carew† commended him for ‘employing his sound judgment and other praiseworthy parts to the service of his prince and country, and the good of his friends and himself’.14 However, Harris’ pursuit of his self-interest also revealed a darker side to his character. Around 1602, he acquired an interest in Liskeard borough’s mills, which he sought to have confirmed by the corporation. Encountering opposition, he recruited the mayor, John Vosper, to his cause, had himself elected temporarily to the corporation, and finally secured a grant of the mills without the full agreement of his fellow burgesses.15 Similarly, when his uncle Christopher lost his post of deputy vice-admiral in 1603, following Sir Richard Hawkins’* appointment as vice-admiral, Harris refused to accept this setback to his family’s local standing. When Hawkins was suspended from office on corruption charges three years later, he complained to the earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) that Harris had orchestrated the campaign which prompted the Admiralty Court’s investigation into his conduct.16

Beyond his West Country career, Harris was allegedly also on familiar terms with the 9th earl of Northumberland. In November 1605, in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot, a government informer reported to Salisbury that the earl had revealed to Harris his discontent with the regime, and had hinted that matters were coming to a head. Following the discovery of the Plot, Harris supposedly disclosed this conversation to his brother-in-law, John Davies. The truth of these statements is difficult to establish. The informer was so reliant on hearsay that he was uncertain of Harris’ full name, and subsequently declined to repeat his allegations under oath. No other evidence of ties between Harris and Northumberland has emerged.17

By now, Harris was increasingly pre-occupied with affairs in Liskeard. The local manor belonged to the duchy of Cornwall, and Harris’ opponents within the borough corporation obtained the assistance of the royal law officers by asserting that his grant of the mills infringed the rights of the Crown. In fact the precise status of the mills was open to question, and a series of lawsuits in the Exchequer between 1604 and at least 1607 apparently failed to resolve the question.18 In the meantime the dispute served to polarize Liskeard, as Harris sought to manipulate the corporation to his advantage. By 1605 he was able to call on three leading families, the Vospers, Hunkins and Hunts, to provide witnesses on his behalf, while John Hunt, who corruptly secured himself two consecutive terms as mayor in 1606-8, was thought to enjoy Harris’ backing.19 However, the situation was transformed around 1608 by the death of John Hunkin, a long-term Harris ally. His son, also named John, nursed ambitions to play a leading role within the borough, and set himself at odds with Harris by suing Hunt and his closest associates for abuse of office. When Hunt died shortly afterwards, Hunkin endeavoured to abort his suit, but Harris scuppered an attempt at mediation between the two sides, leaving Hunkin saddled with legal costs.20 Relations continued to deteriorate until the autumn of 1610, when it appeared likely that the borough would once more try to recover control of the mills. Accordingly, Harris again sought membership of the corporation, and offered Hunkin a deal which would leave the two men running the town between them: dismissing the other capital burgesses as ‘knaves, tinkers and cobblers’, he allegedly argued that ‘it were fit that in such places one or two of authority and discretion should govern all, and the rest to serve only to fill out the place’. Hunkin rejected this proposal, and himself stood for election as mayor that year, but was defeated by Harris’ preferred candidate, John Vosper. In 1611, apparently through intimidation, Harris secured enough votes to rejoin Liskeard corporation, while a subsequent purge of the jury which helped to select the mayor eased Vosper into a second consecutive term of office. However, in November 1611 Hunkin sued Harris in Star Chamber over the mayoral elections, and, about the same time, he appealed to the duchy of Cornwall on the grounds that the relevant provisions of the borough charter had been breached. Harris now gradually lost control of the situation. Hunkin alleged in his Star Chamber bill that Harris had been debarred from public office for misconduct while acting as a Star Chamber commissioner in 1608. This episode had indeed been investigated in February 1611, though with no suggestion that Harris was at fault. Nevertheless, Hunkin’s claims may have had some impact, since Harris was removed from the Cornish bench in around 1612. Meanwhile, the duchy was pursuing the matter of the Liskeard elections. As Hunkin was doubtless well aware, the key official, Prince Henry’s solicitor-general, was Harris’ erstwhile foe Richard Connock, who had no hesitation in launching an inquiry into the corporation’s actions. On the day of the 1612 mayoral election, Harris and Vosper were in London attempting to justify themselves, and Hunkin secured the post virtually unopposed. Harris hit back through the courts, but in mid-1613 Hunkin brought additional charges against him in Chancery, while the earlier Star Chamber suit still remained unresolved.21

In this context Harris sought to enter Parliament in 1614. He was evidently not going to find a seat at Liskeard, where, with Hunkin’s brother-in-law Edward Chapman now installed as mayor and returning officer, the burgesses elected Connock.22 Instead, he secured a place at West Looe, where he held the local rectory and was almost certainly now the borough’s recorder. Harris’ motive for seeking membership of the Commons was clear, for on 10 May he was granted parliamentary privilege in a lawsuit. Apart from being nominated on 8 Apr. to the committee of privileges, a surprising move for a Member with no previous experience, he seems not to have contributed otherwise to the Commons’ proceedings.23

Harris’ public career had now peaked, and he never recovered his dominant position in Liskeard. The Duchy inquiry probably collapsed following Prince Henry’s death in November 1612, and indeed Harris was employed four years later to review Duchy tenancies, ironically working alongside Connock, who was now in semi-retirement. Nevertheless, Hunkin had tightened his grip on the borough, and at least one more legal action against Harris followed around 1622.24 In fact, a combination of land purchases, legal expenses and conceivably wholesale bribery, had seriously weakened Harris’ financial position. As early as 1617 he had placed several key properties in trust for payment of his debts, and when his son Christopher* married the daughter of Sir Bernard Grenville† two years later, he declined to confirm the bride’s jointure arrangements. It seems likely that Grenville was himself having problems in raising the promised dowry of £2,500, since in 1619 Harris was persuaded to act as his agent for the sale of an estate in Ireland. When a deal negotiated by Harris collapsed in the following year, Grenville accused him of attempted fraud, even though he himself seems to have been the principal culprit. Litigation between the two men followed over both this and the jointure settlement. In 1621, in probably his last political act, Harris used his influence as borough recorder to secure Christopher a parliamentary place at West Looe.25

Harris made his will on 1 Feb. 1623. He had been ill for some months, and was concerned to settle his affairs. His debts now ran to more than £4,790, and if he held out any lingering hopes of his long-awaited inheritance from his uncle Christopher, he was to be disappointed, as the old man outlived him. Harris had still not settled his daughter-in-law Gertrude’s jointure, and it was doubtless no coincidence that when he designated further property to be sold toward clearing his debts, he selected a rectory which should have been assigned to the Grenvilles. His son Christopher, who had offended him by agreeing to release to Sir Bernard a £500 legacy due to Gertrude, received no mention in the will, which was mostly concerned with supplementing arrangements already made for Harris’ wife and younger children. Other bequests included £6 to the poor of Liskeard parish and borough, and a generous provision for his household servants, who were all to receive six months’ wages and three months’ maintenance in addition to what they were owed. Harris’ younger sons John III* and Robert were designated as executors, and the will’s overseers were to include his distant cousin Arthur Harris, father of John II*. Harris died four months later.26

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 447-8.
  • 2. F.E. Halliday, Richard Carew of Antony, 159; C66/1897.
  • 3. Halliday, 154.
  • 4. E401/1873-4.
  • 5. C181/1, f. 61v; 181/2, ff. 68v, 91.
  • 6. E306/4/4.
  • 7. C2/Jas.I/L7/42; STAC 8/181/6.
  • 8. Vis. Cornw. (Harl. Soc. ix), 284.
  • 9. Vivian, 447; CPR, 1563-6, p. 342; HP Commons, 1509-58, ii. 304-5; List of Escheators comp. A.C. Wood (L. and I. Soc. lxxii), 36.
  • 10. APC, 1591-2, p. 11; HCA 30/848; C181/1, f. 61v.
  • 11. C142/184/20; CPR, 1572-5, p. 163.
  • 12. WARD 9/221, f. 84v; Vivian, 16-17; R. Carew, Survey of Cornw. (1769), p. 132.
  • 13. STAC 5/C2/15; 5/H54/9.
  • 14. Carew, 132.
  • 15. C2/Jas.I/L7/42; Cornw. RO, B/LIS/255.
  • 16. STAC 8/177/9; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 258.
  • 17. HMC Hatfield, xvii. 489-90; Vivian, 447; M. Nicholls, Investigating Gunpowder Plot, 180.
  • 18. E123/29, ff. 197v, 315v; E124/1, f. 347v; 124/2, f. 252v; 124/4, f. 110v; 124/5, f. 45; E126/1, f. 87.
  • 19. E124/3, f. 51v; STAC 8/164/10; 8/168/23.
  • 20. PROB 11/111, ff. 323v-4; STAC 5/C2/15; STAC 8/164/10.
  • 21. STAC 8/164/10; 8/166/10; 8/181/6; 8/248/10; C2/Jas.I/L7/42.
  • 22. PROB 11/111, f. 323; J. Allen, Hist. Liskeard, 257.
  • 23. CPR, 1572-5; Procs. 1614 (Commons), 33, 187, 195.
  • 24. DCO, ‘Letters and Warrants 1615-19’, ff. 3v-4, 39v-40; Allen, 237-8.
  • 25. STAC 8/166/10; WARD 7/58/57; C78/333/2; Lismore Pprs. ed. A.B. Grosart, (ser. 2), ii. 207, 247-8; iii. 14-17; SP46/72, f. 357.
  • 26. PROB 11/142, ff. 163-4v; C78/333/2; 78/346/9.