HERBERT, Sir John (c.1533-1617), of Doctors' Commons, London; Mortlake, Surr. and Neath Abbey, Cadoxton, Glam.; later of Cookham House, Berks., Plas Newydd (New Place), Swansea and Grey Friars, Cardiff, Glam.

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.1533,1 2nd s. of Matthew Herbert (d. bet. 1549 and 1554) of Swansea, and Mary, da. of Sir Thomas Gamage of Coity, Glam.;2 bro. of William I† and Nicholas†. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1554, BA 1558, MA 1561, BCL 1565; Doctors’ Commons 1573; DCL 1587; G. Inn 1592.3 m. by 1579, Margaret (d.1625/6), da. of Watkin (or Rawling) ap Watkin Morgan of Penclawdd, Llantilio Pertholey, Mon., 1da.4 kntd. bef. 2 Oct. 1601;5 suc. bro. 1609.6 d. bet. 5/7 July 1617.7 sig. J[ohn] Herbert.

Offices Held

Judge, High Ct. of Admlty. (jt.) 1575-84;8 master of Requests 1586-1600;9 2nd sec. of state 1600-d.; PC 1600-d.;10 sec. and kpr. gt. seal, Council in the North 1601-4;11 commr. assessment of fines on participants in Essex revolt 1601, arraignment of 2nd earl of Essex 1601, banishment of Jesuits and seminaries 1601-at least 1607,12 member, Council in the Marches 1602-d.;13 commr. Admlty. causes 1604;14 chan., order of the Garter 1607-11;15 sec., Latin Tongue by 1608;16 commr. suits presented to king 1608-12,17 enfranchisement of Crown copyholders 1612,18 sale of Cautionary Towns 1616.19

Special amb., Neths. 1576, 1587-8, Prussia, Poland, Denmark, Hanse Towns 1583-5, amb. extraordinary, France 1598, Denmark 1600;20 commr. resolution of disputes bet. Eng., France and Denmark regarding spoils on seas 1598,21 peace negotiations with Spain 1600, treaty of Bremen 1602-3.22

J.p. Surr. 1588-d., Mon. 1590/1-d., Glam. 1592/3-d. (custos rot. 1601-?d.), Mdx., Hants by c.1603, Berks. by c.1605;23 commr. piracy, S. Wales 1601, London and Mdx. 1606, Glam. 1615, oyer and terminer Mdx. 1601-14, Home circ. 1603, Wales 1606-7, Oxf. circ. 1606-d., Verge 1606-15,24 survey woods, Carm. 1608,25 new buildings, London 1608,26 sewers, Mon. 1609, 1616, Glam. 1615.27

Dean, Wells Cathedral 1590-1602;28 member, High Commission, Canterbury prov. 1601-?d.29 commr. enforcing Act of Uniformity, Winchester dioc. 1603.30

Commr. Union 1604.31


Herbert was descended from Richard Herbert of Ewyas, whose son, George†, established the family’s fortunes around Swansea during the early sixteenth century.32 His father apparently died young, leaving Herbert’s elder brother, William I†, to administer the Glamorganshire estates. Herbert himself was born around 1533, as his funeral monument makes plain (rather than in the mid-1550s as an edition of Glamorgan pedigrees suggests); he attended Christ Church, Oxford from 1554.33

A civil lawyer, Herbert was appointed judge of the High Court of Admiralty in 1575 alongside David Lewis† of Abergavenny; the latter may have introduced Herbert to his future wife, who hailed from the neighbouring parish of Llantilio Pertholey. His training as a civilian, and linguistic aptitude, allowed Herbert to pursue a parallel diplomatic career from 1583. On Lewis’ death in 1584 Herbert relinquished his judgeship, and was subsequently made a master of Requests. He attached himself to Robert Cecil† in the 1590s, and was spoken of in 1599 as a potential chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, which office was then vacant, but he failed to secure the post.34 Cecil was nevertheless determined to procure Herbert’s promotion, not least because he needed support against his rival, the 2nd earl of Essex. Accordingly, in 1600 Herbert joined the Privy Council as second secretary of state. Court wags termed the new appointee ‘Secondary Herbert’, and indeed his role was essentially a supporting one, with contemporaries noting that the position ‘bars him of much power due to a principal secretary’.35 The perception that Herbert, although intellectually gifted, possessed little real political acumen, dogged him henceforth, and was even shared by Cecil himself, who once expressed his doubts about Herbert’s ability to answer his French counterpart in treaty negotiations.36

Cecil’s deft handling of James’s accession allowed Herbert to maintain his position under the new monarch. Yet while he survived politically, Herbert did not prosper under James, who seems to have regarded his second secretary with some affection but little real confidence. In view of Herbert’s advancing age, James referred to him as ‘my father’, and commented playfully on his use of the Welsh language at Court. One observer recalled how, after an ambassador regaled the king with a lengthy Latin oration, James made no answer ‘but gave the honour of entertaining him to Secretary Herbert’.37 It did not help the management of government business in the first three sessions of James’s first Parliament, therefore, that Herbert was one of only two privy councillors in the Commons; indeed for a short while, at the start of the 1605-6 session, he was the only councillor in the House.38 The fact that he was in his seventies when the Parliament assembled must also have reduced his effectiveness.

Herbert was returned for Monmouthshire, where he held some land and had been a member of the county bench since the early 1590s. In 1601 he had served for his native Glamorgan, but may have chosen to make way to accommodate a new royal favourite, Sir Philip Herbert*. Although he had experience of five previous Parliaments, Secretary Herbert had not been particularly active in any of them, and he remained a relatively infrequent speaker in the 1604-10 assembly. It was not an auspicious beginning when Herbert and his fellow privy councillor, Sir John Stanhope, attended the Lords for the king’s opening speech, leaving behind in the Commons’ chamber the majority of Members, who complained that they had not been invited. Matters were made worse by the conduct of a yeoman of the guard, who kept some of the Commons from entering the Lords. Rather lamely, Herbert suggested that the House should adopt ‘a moderate course’ in respect of this apparent snub.39 Following this fiasco, Herbert made a brief report of the king’s speech and, as one of the ‘more eminent’ Members, accompanied Sir Edward Phelips to the Speaker’s chair on his election (19 Mar. 1604).40

As a privy councillor, Herbert was expected to promote James’s favourite project, the Union with Scotland, a task for which he was well equipped by his training in the Civil Law. However, he did not campaign for the Union with any great regularity or effectiveness in Parliament. He answered some of the objections to the proposed change of name to Great Britain on 19 Apr. 1604, but irritated many by suggesting that the ‘Union in name’ would lead to ‘an Union in government’, since James was then advocating only the change of name and a commission to investigate further measures.41 Herbert again supported the change of name on 20, 23 and 25 Apr., but the meagre reports of his contributions suggest that they were not particularly effective.42 It is revealing that he spoke very little about the Union in the 1606-7 session, which was dominated by this issue. The House was thrown into uproar on 13 Feb. 1607, when Sir Christopher Pigott* derided the Scots as ‘rebels and traitors’. Three days later, Sir Herbert Croft moved that Piggott’s ‘general distemper’ be condemned rather than his specific words, but Herbert, presumably speaking to an official brief, claimed that this ‘will not give satisfaction to the king, to the Council, or to the nation’.43 Herbert made only one more speech on the Union, backing Sir Robert Cotton’s unsuccessful motion for the naturalization of the post-nati to be referred to a committee composed of civil lawyers (20 Feb. 1607).44

Herbert naturally supported James’s requests for supply. In June 1604 he joined a number of other Crown spokesmen in calling for a grant of subsidies, acknowledging there was no pressing need for supply other than to allow the king’s subjects, who might otherwise be branded ‘the children of disobedience’, to demonstrate their dutifulness towards their new monarch (19 June).45 However, the demand for subsidies proved too controversial, and was laid aside.46 In 1606, a vote of two subsidies was swiftly agreed on 10 Feb., but four days later, at a conference on purveyance, lord treasurer Dorset (Thomas Sackville†) outlined the Crown’s pressing debts, a move clearly designed to elicit an increase. Back in the Commons, Herbert stressed the Crown’s expenditure in Ireland, and called for the establishment of a committee ‘for consideration of the king’s want’ - which would have paved the way for a fresh supply debate - but once again his intervention was ignored.47 Cecil, now earl of Salisbury, continued to press the Commons to agree to compound for purveyance, which proposal Herbert supported on 7 Mar.; Herbert also provided one of the first indications that the Crown might settle for additional supply rather than composition, indicating that if the existing vote of two subsidies were augmented, the king would ‘yield you such redress for your grievances as you shall hold yourselves bound to him’.48 Members took the hint, voting an extra subsidy and two fifteenths on 18 Mar., immediately after the third reading of their bill to abolish purveyance without composition; but this measure was later frustrated in the Lords. Herbert was noticeably silent during the negotiations for the Great Contract in 1610, when Salisbury mainly used the chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Julius Caesar, as his mouthpiece in the Commons.

As a privy councillor, Herbert figured rather more prominently in the procedural and ceremonial duties of the Commons than he did in debate.49 At the opening of the Parliament the 1st earl of Nottingham (Charles Howard I†) deputed Herbert to help tender the Oath of Supremacy to his fellow Members (19 Mar. 1604).50 Herbert also passed messages between the Commons and the Upper House, although he performed this duty less and less as the Parliament wore on. Advancing age, and the fact that other privy councillors had entered the House at various by-elections, may partly explain this, but Tobie Matthew* offered another reason in 1604, when he noted ‘Sir [John] Herbert mistakes all messages to and from the Lords, even to the corruption of the matter’.51 Herbert’s failings as a messenger lend support to those historians who characterize the 1604 session as blighted by a lack of understanding and co-operation between the two Houses.52 Herbert was frequently called upon to carry bills to the Upper House, and was used on occasion to approach the king on parliamentary business.53

Herbert’s declining role in the latter sessions of the Parliament was also reflected in his committee appointments. In the opening session, Herbert was personally nominated to just three committees, but this number rose to 22 in the 1605/6 session before slipping back to four in 1606/7 and two in 1610. However, it should be added that Herbert was also entitled to attend numerous other committees on account of his status as a privy councillor.54 His position in government helps to explain his nominations to committees concerning matters such as the report on the Lords’ declaration regarding the Union (16 Apr. 1604); anti-Catholic measures in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (11 Jan. 1606); the bill for better execution of laws against purveyors (30 Jan. 1606); and the motion to draft a subsidy bill (10 Feb. 1606).55 Herbert’s legal expertise probably accounts for his membership of the committees to examine the bills for assurance and conveyance of land (29 Jan. 1606) and fees in courts of record (14 Feb. 1606).56 Local concerns lay behind other nominations. For example, Herbert spent a good deal of his time in London, and accordingly was appointed to committees for paving Drury Lane (19 Mar. 1606) and improving navigation on the upper Thames (17 Apr. 1606).57 It was probably also with a view to safeguarding his privileges in Doctors’ Commons that he was the first-named Member to the committee for prohibiting the residence of married men with their families in colleges, a matter on which his fellow civilian, Sir John Bennet, had made a ‘learned speech’.58 Constituency concerns and his connections with South Wales account for his inclusion on committees for the repair of Chepstow bridge (31 Mar. 1606); the trade of butter and cheese, a particular concern for Glamorgan and Monmouthshire farmers and traders (4 Apr. 1606); and the bill for the repair of Minehead harbour (23 Feb. 1610), a measure which had implications for trade from Welsh ports.59

Herbert’s waning activity during the latter stages of the Parliament may have been attributable to age or ill health. In 1609 it was reported that he was intending to retire, having succeeded to the extensive estates of his brother, (Sir) William Herbert I†, which were said to be worth £1,500-£1,600 p.a.60 However, on Salisbury’s death in 1612, Herbert was said to be expecting to take over as senior secretary, even though he was by now approaching his eighties. Indeed, he complained that ‘he is not well used if as lieutenant he succeed not to his captain’s place’.61 However, although he continued as second secretary in name, there is no evidence that he performed any official duties, which were assumed for a time by the king’s favourite, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester. Herbert continued to jockey for the office while James pondered Salisbury’s successor, but his efforts only served to underline the extent to which his political skills failed to match those of the shrewder figures who pursued the same goal. His hopes were shattered by the appointment in March 1614 of Sir Ralph Winwood*, whereupon Herbert suffered the final ignominy of having to surrender his Court lodgings.62

Herbert appears to have retired from the capital shortly after, returning to Cookham in Berkshire before journeying to Glamorgan.63 Some years before his death he settled the majority of his estates on his daughter, Mary, who married Sir William Dodington* of Breamore, while much of his Glamorgan property eventually devolved upon the heirs of his brothers Nicholas† and Richard Herbert, who included William Herbert* of Grey Friars and William Herbert† of Cogan Pill.64 Herbert nevertheless reserved some estates in his own hands, which were to be sold for the satisfaction of debts and annuities and the preferment of any grandchildren.65

In May 1617 it was (most improbably) reported that Herbert was to fight a duel with Sir Lewis Tresham; it is therefore possible that he was killed in the following July, although old age seems a likelier cause of death.66 As he had long since ceased to be of any political consequence, the London newsletter-writers noted his demise only in passing.67 His will, drawn up shortly before his death, was a brief document which appointed, among others, his wife, daughter and son-in-law as executors.68 An inventory of his goods showed that he had lent the king £100 on a Privy Seal in 1604 which was yet to be repaid, and recorded that his books were valued at £165.69 He was buried on 8 Sept. alongside his brother, (Sir) William I†, in St. John’s church, Cardiff.70 A tomb was later erected showing the two brothers kneeling under an imposing figure of Time holding an hourglass, with Herbert represented in his civil lawyers’ gown.71

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Lloyd Bowen / Simon Healy


  • 1. Cardiff Recs. ed. J.H. Matthews, iii. 511-12.
  • 2. G.T. Clark, Limbus Patrum Morganiae et Glamorganiae, 286; Cardiff Central Lib. 5.7. Death of fa. estimated from his disappearance from the Glamorgan bench: JPs in Wales and Monm. ed. Phillips, 286. See also CPR, 1555-7, p. 240.
  • 3. Al. Ox.; G.D. Squibb, Doctors’ Commons, 160, n.3, states that the attribution of Herbert as an adv. appears to be mistaken.
  • 4. J.A. Bradney, Hist. Mon. ii. 218; PROB 11/149, ff. 232v-3v; C142/378/132.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1601-3, p. 246.
  • 6. WARD 7/35/180.
  • 7. C2/Jas.I/H7/29; NLW, Badminton, Group II. 2015.
  • 8. G. Williams, ‘Herberts of Swansea and Sir John Herbert’, Glam. Historian, xii. 54.
  • 9. SO3/1, unfol. (Oct. 1586).
  • 10. C66/1529; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 461.
  • 11. C66/1559; R. Reid, Council in the North, 255.
  • 12. I. Temple Lib., Petyt 538/6, ff. 83, 89, 109, 139; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 330.
  • 13. HMC Dovaston, 249; Cal. Wynn Pprs. 130.
  • 14. B.P. Levack, Civil Lawyers of Eng. 238-9.
  • 15. C66/1786; E214/158; HMC 7th Rep. 674a.
  • 16. Lincs. AO, Worsley 1/30; Beinecke Lib., ms Osborn b.39, unfol.
  • 17. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 467; HMC Hatfield, xxi. 22-3; Remembrancia ed. W.H. and H.C. Overall, 216-17.
  • 18. C181/2, f. 171v.
  • 19. F.M.G. Evans, Principal Sec. of State, 68.
  • 20. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 28, 101, 137, 153, 184, 191, 213.
  • 21. C231/1, f. 61v.
  • 22. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives, 22-3.
  • 23. Cal. Assize Recs. Surr. Indictments, Eliz. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 311; Cal. Assize Recs. Surr. Indictments, Jas. I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 148; JPs in Wales and Monm. 289-94, 348-53; C66/1620, mm. 20d, 24d; 66/1682, m. 31d.
  • 24. C181/1, ff. 6, 13, 66v, 93v; 181/2, ff. 9, 12, 18v, 38v, 51, 228, 235, 284v.
  • 25. HMC 5th Rep. 416b.
  • 26. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 415, 418; CRES 40/18.
  • 27. C181/2, ff. 92v, 234v, 275.
  • 28. C66/1341; PSO 5/2, unfol. (Aug. 1602).
  • 29. R.G. Usher, Rise and Fall of High Commission, 352.
  • 30. T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 2, p. 92.
  • 31. CJ, i. 208a.
  • 32. Williams, 48-53.
  • 33. Cardiff Recs. i. 321, iii. 511-12; Clark, Limbus Patrum, 317. Also WARD 7/35/180.
  • 34. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 74, 111; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 486.
  • 35. Chamberlain Letters, i. 95; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 461.
  • 36. Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, i. 167.
  • 37. Letters of King Jas. VI and I ed. G.P.V. Akrigg, 237; HMC Hatfield, xvii. 121; J. Nichols, Progs. Jas. I, iv. 1060.
  • 38. D.H. Willson, Privy Cllrs. in House of Commons, 56, 58, 82-3; M.A.R. Graves, ‘Common Lawyers and the Privy Council’s Parliamentary Men-of-Business, 1584-1601’, PH, viii. 208-11.
  • 39. CJ, i. 933a-4a.
  • 40. Ibid. 141b.
  • 41. Ibid. 178a; R.C. Munden, ‘Jas. I and the "Growth of Mutual Distrust"’, in Faction and Parl. ed. K. Sharpe, 63-4.
  • 42. CJ, i. 179b, 182b, 955b, 957b.
  • 43. Ibid. 1014a.
  • 44. Ibid. 1019a.
  • 45. Ibid. 995a.
  • 46. Ibid. 995a; SP14/8/69.
  • 47. CJ, i. 272a.
  • 48. Bowyer Diary, 67; CJ, i. 280a.
  • 49. Bowyer Diary, 8; R.C. Munden ‘"All the Privy Council Being Members of this House"’, PH, xii. 121.
  • 50. CJ, i. 140b.
  • 51. Coll. of Letters Made by Sir Tobie Mathew, (1660), p. 291.
  • 52. Munden, ‘Mutual Distrust’, 70-2.
  • 53. On his contacts with the king, see CJ, i. 205a, 241a, 308b, 343b, 433b; Bowyer Diary, 159-60.
  • 54. Munden, 115-25.
  • 55. CJ, i. 172b, 257b, 261b, 266b.
  • 56. Ibid. 261a, 268b.
  • 57. Ibid. 287a, 300a.
  • 58. Ibid. 260a; Bowyer Diary, 58.
  • 59. CJ, i. 291a, 293b, 399a.
  • 60. WARD 7/35/180; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, ii. 486-8; HMC Downshire, ii. 190, 197.
  • 61. Chamberlain Letters, i. 355; T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas.I, i. 88. The king alluded to Herbert’s ambitions for the secretaryship in 1604: Letters of King Jas. VI and I, 238-9.
  • 62. Chamberlain Letters, i. 526.
  • 63. NLW, 17091E, no. 38.
  • 64. C142/378/132; NLW, Bute M81/1; C2/Chas.I/H122/101.
  • 65. NLW, Dynevor A.21-2, Cilybebyll 370; C142/378/132; PROB 11/130, f. 346.
  • 66. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 466.
  • 67. Carew Letters ed. J. Maclean (Cam. Soc. lxxvi), 113; Chamberlain Letters, ii. 90.
  • 68. PROB 11/130, f. 346.
  • 69. NLW, Dynevor A.50.
  • 70. Harl. 6067, f. 68.
  • 71. Acct. of the Official Progs. of ... Henry ... Duke of Beaufort through Wales ed. T. Dinley 351-2; Cardiff Recs. iii. 511-12.