HETLEY (HEDLEY, HEADLEY), Thomas (c.1569-1637), of Brampton, Hunts. and Gray's Inn, London; later of 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.1569,1 o.s. of William Hetley, tanner of Brampton and Janet, da. of Percival Worme of Peterborough, Northants.2 educ. Staple Inn; G. Inn 1587, called 1595.3 m. 13 Jan. 1606, Elizabeth (admon. 13 Jan. 1650), da. of Richard Gore*, Merchant Taylor of Bow Lane, London, 2s. 4da. (1 d.v.p.).4 suc. fa. 1596/7;5 kntd. 17 Nov. 1623.6 d. 13 Feb. 1637.7 sig. Tho[mas] Hetley.

Offices Held

J.p. Hunts. 1602-d., Huntingdon, Hunts. by 1604-d.;8 commr. sewers, Gt. Fens 1605-9, 1618,9 aid Hunts. 1609,10 swans, Cambs. and Hunts. 1616, subsidy, Hunts. 1621-2, 1624,11 oyer and terminer, Norf. circ. 1631-d, survey, estates of Trin. Cambridge 1631.12

Ancient, G. Inn 1603;13 recorder, Huntingdon, by 1604-?d.,14 Godmanchester, Hunts. 1617-36;15 reader’s asst. G. Inn 1614;16 official reporter, Chancery 1617-?23;17 bencher, G. Inn 1618-23;18 sjt.-at-law 1623.19


While Hetley was consistent in the spelling of his own surname, many of his contemporaries, including the Commons’ clerks, rendered it ‘Hedley’ or ‘Headley’.20 Hetley laid claim to the arms of an earlier gentry family at the heraldic visitation of 1613, although his immediate forbears were of humbler stock.21 His grandfather was a tanner from Riseley, Bedfordshire, and his father, who moved to Brampton, two miles from Huntingdon, followed the same trade, evidently with some success: at his death he left his wife £40 worth of leather and bark, and a life interest in 50 acres of copyhold land in the town fields.22 The business was continued by Hetley’s uncles Robert and Thomas, who moved to Peterborough, but after the latter died in 1609 his son, another Thomas, became a baker.23 The MP was apparently unrelated to James Hetley, a gentleman of the privy chamber to Prince Charles during the early 1620s.24

Hetley would presumably have followed his father into the tanning trade had it not been for the influence of his uncle Richard Worme, a Gray’s Inn lawyer.25 Little is known of his early career, although like many young lawyers, he gained much business from his neighbours: he acted as a trustee for Lord Mordaunt when the latter purchased a Huntingdonshire manor in 1601, and for Bishop Chadderton of Lincoln, whose main seat at Buckden Palace lay only two miles from Brampton, in 1602.26 He was also recorder of Huntingdon by the time the borough returned him to Parliament in 1604.

The only member of his family ever to sit in the Commons, Hetley’s motives in seeking election remain obscure. He proved keen to offer his opinions on the high political issues of the day, and in doing so undoubtedly hoped to advance his own career, for the Commons provided a useful forum in which a young lawyer without patronage could display his talents before an influential audience. However, he was also aware of the need to avoid offending the king where possible, as may be seen in his maiden speech of 30 Mar. 1604 on the Buckinghamshire election dispute. A decision to issue a writ for an election from Chancery, he argued, could be questioned ‘without impeachment to the king’s honour’, as the decision would have been taken by ‘inferior officers’. The question at stake, he asserted, was not whether the Commons’ claim to jurisdiction over elections challenged the prerogative, but merely ‘whether Chancery or Parliament ought to have authority [to issue the writs]’. This speech earned him a place on the committee appointed to draft the House’s justification of its position.27 Nevertheless, he was prepared to express his views more bluntly over the Union with Scotland in the debate of 26 Apr., when several speakers rejected James’s proposal to retitle his realms ‘Great Britain’ on the technical ground that neither the English nor Scottish parliaments could legislate for both kingdoms. Hetley brushed this objection aside, and touched upon the underlying fear of many Members when he confessed that ‘the bare alteration of a name taketh not away [the laws], but an union doth ... alter all laws, customs [and] privileges by uniting’.28

Although Hetley made several other speeches during the session, none was adequately reported. On 13 Apr. he joined in the criticism of Sir Roger Owen’s* conduct during the Shrewsbury election.29 Five days later his voice was heard among a storm of objections to the bill barring outlaws and recusants from standing for Parliament, though he presumably supported its principles, as he was subsequently included on the committee scrutinizing a fresh draft (26 April).30 He spoke in the debate of 2 June on composition for purveyance, although the particular scheme he favoured, if any, was not recorded. His final speech, on 8 June, concerned religion, an issue he rarely commented upon unless it was connected with some secular cause. In this case, the debate was provoked by an assertion from Convocation that the Commons was not entitled to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs, a proposal which evinced universal scorn.31

Hetley played a less prominent role in the second session, perhaps because of his marriage on 11 Jan. 1606. He spoke twice on the subject of purveyance, which John Hare* proposed to reduce from a lucrative subsidy for the royal Household to a mere right of pre-emption. On 24 Feb. Hetley supported the proposal in Hare’s bill to end the jurisdiction of the board of greencloth over purveyance matters. He was also reported to have urged ‘that the king’s prerogative may be provided for’, an ambiguous statement which could be interpreted as support for the government’s demand for an annual composition, but is more likely to have meant the opposite.32 Hetley’s views are clarified by his speech of 11 Mar., by which time the Commons had rejected the idea of an annual composition, and the Privy Council hoped instead for an increase in the two subsidies already granted by the Commons. Hetley thought that the idea of giving additional subsidies was ‘a dangerous precedent’, even worse than composition, presumably because it gave no assurances that the king would not renege on the bargain once the subsidies were voted. He also opposed composition, and called for ‘further consideration to supply the king with less inconvenience’, a remark which suggests that he, unlike many, remained willing to come to some agreement over the issue.33 He left no further trace on the records of the session, either because he was ill or absent practising at the assizes.

Hetley made several of his most important speeches during the next parliamentary session, which was dominated by the question of the Union. His first contribution, on 4 Dec. 1606, appears to have been a point of information about the nature of escuage: ‘where the law does not express the [feudal] tenure, there it must be escuage. Escuage either against Scotland or Wales’.34 A week later, he was appointed to the committee for preparing a joint conference with the Lords on the consequences of the Union for trade and escuage. It was clearly the latter which interested him, and on 15 Dec. he registered his objection to the Proclamation of 20 Oct. 1604 which had asserted that both escuage and the need to naturalize Scots had lapsed on James’s accession. The common lawyers were united in seeing this Proclamation as an arbitrary attempt to alter the law, and, as it became apparent that the Lords intended to uphold the king’s position at the conference scheduled for 17 Dec. 1606, Hetley and several others warned that more time was needed for debate, a tactful but clear refutation of James’s position.35

The House resumed its discussion of the Union in February 1607, and now focused on the other question arising from the 1604 Proclamation: whether Scots born since the Union (the post-nati) were inherently entitled to the rights of Englishmen without seeking naturalization. On 19 Feb. Hetley expounded the common lawyers’ position in detail, in one of the longest speeches on the subject. He conceded that the Scots were entitled to retain their separate legal system, as stipulated by the Instrument of Union, because the two nations had been joined by marriage rather than conquest. However, the concession of naturalization to the Scots raised the frightening prospect of an England overrun by post-nati, who would lease out their English estates at rack rents and impoverish the freeholders to such an extent that they would no longer be eligible for jury service, thus undermining the right to trial by jury, the mainstay of the Common Law. Furthermore, he warned that ‘the freeholders are lawmakers in Parliament, and if the Scots should be so, they might grant subsidy and impose laws upon us, and returning into their country be not under the [laws] themselves’. While Hetley undoubtedly exaggerated these fears for rhetorical effect, he went on to highlight the underlying constitutional dilemma whereby the continuation of the two legal systems within one kingdom would establish Scotland as a palatine liberty outside the Common Law, thus reversing the trend towards a unitary state begun at the Reformation. He conceded that the Crown retained the right to grant letters of denization to individual Scots for life, but insisted that a general naturalization would be disastrous, and assured his listeners that the king ‘will not do it but by good advice, and if he see it inconvenient he will never do it’.36

Hetley’s speech earned him a place on the delegation which laid the Commons’ objections to the naturalization scheme before the Lords on 25 February.37 When pressed to explain the benefits it intended to concede to the Scots in a further conference on 7 Mar., the Commons again chose Hetley as one of their speakers. However, he asked to be excused, because he disagreed with the House’s decision to allow Scottish clergymen to hold English benefices under strict conditions. He argued that the king could already do this by a grant of denization, and warned that any restrictions the Commons chose to impose could be overridden by the prerogative.38 His request was granted, but he must have attended the conference as an observer, as he was appointed to report its proceedings five days later, and was included among the speakers for the next conference.39 Remarkably, at this point Hetley vanished from the debates in which he had hitherto played such a prominent part. As in the previous year, he may have left to ride the assize circuit, or been ill. Alternatively, he may have chosen to keep silent because he opposed even the minimal concessions the Commons were prepared to make to the Scots.

Hetley rediscovered his voice in 1610, joining in the chorus of protest against the civilian lawyer Dr. John Cowell, an apologist for absolutist doctrines. On the following day (9 Mar.) he was appointed to assist Richard Martin in taking notes at the forthcoming conference on the issue.40 He also joined in the attack on the ecclesiastical Canons of 1604, which had never been confirmed by Parliament, supporting moves to add a clause to the petition of grievances on behalf of those ministers suspended for refusing to subscribe to them. On 5 July he was named attend a conference on the issue.41

Although he remained silent over the Great Contract, which formed the main business of the first session of 1610, Hetley made two significant speeches in the concurrent dispute over the Crown’s right to impose customs levies under its own prerogative. The issue became one of freedom of speech after the king ordered the Commons to cease its debate, but on 18 May Solicitor-General Sir Francis Bacon* suggested that the House should circumvent the ban by phrasing its objections in such a way as to avoid an open attack on the prerogative. This was rejected by Hetley, who claimed that while the prerogative was theoretically infinite, ‘yet there is no prerogative but in individuo is disputable’. He argued that the House should use the Treason Act of 25 Edward III, which gave Parliament the right to judge what crimes should be considered treasonous, as a precedent for their claim to review the Common Law judges’ decision on the legality of impositions in Bate’s Case.42 He expanded on the same argument at greater length during the protracted debate on impositions at the end of June, reinforcing his claims to a parliamentary right of judicature by citing the example of bills of attainder. He dismissed Bacon’s claim that the judges were merely embodying the collective wisdom of the Common Law with the observation that ‘the Common Law [is] tried by time, which is wiser than all the judges in the land’; as impositions had not been used for nearly 200 years after the reign of Edward III, he held the right to have lapsed. A distinction needed to be drawn between issues of regality, such as coinage, administration of justice and declarations of war and peace, which were inherent in the Crown, and issues of profit, which were to be decided by Parliament.43 The value of Hetley’s contributions to the debate were recognized on 10 July, when he was appointed to the committee ordered to draw up an official record of the arguments deployed in the impositions debate, which was to be kept among the Commons’ records for a precedent.44

Much of the more routine activity which Hetley undertook within the Commons was a consequence of his professional expertise. He was named to committees for six measures concerning legal technicalities, and was appointed to take charge of the first, restricting the use of common recoveries involving the estates of underage children, on 12 Apr. 1604.45 He may have been retained as counsel by the promoters of some local bills, one of which involved fen drainage, which he reported on 5 June 1604.46 Another confirmed Berwick’s charter (16 May 1604), while two others granted to the London livery Companies the title to their lands (4 May 1607, 20 Feb. 1610). One private bill committee to which Hetley was named concerned the inheritance of his wife’s cousin William Platt.47 Hetley showed little interest in economic legislation, apart from a bill to regulate the London Tanners’ and Curriers’ Companies (28 June 1604), to which he added a proviso on 3 July. Given his family’s experience of the leather trade, this amendment may have concerned one of the bill’s numerous technical clauses, but it is perhaps most likely that he was responsible for the clause which voided any letters patent granting exemption from the Act’s provisions.48

Hetley left no trace on the sparse records of the autumn session of 1610, and never sat in Parliament again. He found a patron in his Gray’s Inn colleague Bacon, who had considered using him as a surety for a loan of £2,000 in 1608, and may have been responsible for his inclusion on a patent for collection of arrears of coat and conduct money with two courtiers in 1609.49 In October 1617, shortly after becoming lord keeper, Bacon appointed Hetley and Edward Wrightington*, another Gray’s Inn lawyer, to the newly created office of official reporter. An attempt to revive the medieval Year Books of legal precedents, the post carried a stipend of £100, which Bacon acknowledged would represent an unacceptable drop in earnings for the incumbent ‘were it not that it will be accompanied with credit, and expectation in due time of preferment’.50 Hetley was understandably keen to defend his patron against parliamentary criticism in 1621, appearing at the bar of the Commons on 16 Mar. to justify Bacon’s decision to allow a hearing in Chancery for a case already under consideration by the Court of Wards. On the following day Sir Lionel Cranfield*, master of the Wards and one of Bacon’s chief critics, complained that Hetley had impugned the decisions of his court, and as a result Hetley was summoned to answer for his alleged ‘words of minion, favourite and injustice’. There is no record that he appeared.51

Hetley’s post as official reporter lost its significance after Bacon’s impeachment, and while still described as ‘one of the reporters of the law’ on being made a serjeant in 1623, the fruits of Hetley’s labours were not published, and no successor was ever appointed.52 He may have owed his serjeanty to the fact that Bacon’s successor, lord keeper John Williams, had become a neighbour at Buckden Palace on his elevation to the bishopric of Lincoln. The appointment caused a controversy, as Hetley had never given a reading at Gray’s Inn, and had probably only been elected a bencher of the Inn in 1618 on the understanding that he would not take up his place until he had done so.53 Although he asserted that his failure to give a reading was unimportant, as he had paid a fine for refusing in 1616, the judges penalized him for his neglect by ruling that he was to lose precedence over 13 of the 14 other serjeants created on the same day.54

On the face of it, Hetley’s loss of seniority was a matter of some significance, as pleas at the bar were heard in order according to the seniority of the counsel making the motion, but in practice the impact of this demotion was negligible as Hetley maintained an active practice for the rest of his life.55 In 1626 the earl of Bristol (Sir John Digby*) chose Hetley as counsel for the impeachment charges brought against him in the Lords by the duke of Buckingham.56 While the Parliament was dissolved before his services were required, this link to the favourite’s enemies damned Hetley’s chances of promotion, although he may have decided that his practice as a serjeant was sufficiently lucrative to forgo any further preferment. A set of law reports relating to cases in Common Pleas during the years 1627-33 was published under Hetley’s name in 1657, but its authorship has since been attributed to Humphrey Mackworth.57

Hetley’s finances flourished in the latter stages of his career, presumably because of his legal practice, and perhaps also because he had access to his father-in-law’s fortune: he bought the manor of Brampton in 1613,58 and by 1622 he was able to lend Sir George Heneage £1,200 in return for a mortgage of lands in Lincolnshire worth £150 a year.59 Two years later he bought the rectory of Chatteris in the Isle of Ely, and in the final years of his life, he spent £1,000 on rebuilding his house at Brampton.60 In his will of 26 June 1636 he left most of his lands to his eldest son Francis. His second son William inherited £1,000 and his patrimony in Riseley, while his three daughters were assigned portions of 1,000 marks each, which were to be further augmented by £400 each over the course of the next four years. His wife was to hold the manor of Brampton for life as a jointure, and to have the profits of Chatteris rectory and half his house at Brampton during her widowhood.61

Hetley died at Serjeants’ Inn on 13 Feb. 1637, and was buried on the same day at St. Dunstan’s-in-the-West.62 After his heir died 18 months later, the estate descended to William Hetley, whose guardian sued his mother when the payment of her children’s legacies fell into arrears following her marriage to Sir Robert Osborne of Godmanchester. This dispute was resolved in 1647 by Sir Edward Wrightington, Hetley’s former colleague as reporter, but the dispute continued until Dame Elizabeth’s death.63 The struggle appears to have left William Hetley in financial difficulty, and although he married a granddaughter of Sir Oliver Cromwell*, the family had sold their estates by 1676.64 In 1684 William’s widow was the only member of the family remaining in the county, her son then being ‘an officer in the Guards at London’; his descent has not been traced.65

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Assuming him to have been aged 18 at entry to Gray’s Inn.
  • 2. Vis. Hunts. (Cam. Soc. xliii), 108; Vis. Northants. ed. Metcalfe, 204-5.
  • 3. GI Admiss.; PBG Inn, i. 108.
  • 4. St. Mary Aldermary (Harl. Soc. Reg. v), 11, 71-4, 166; Misc. Gen. et Her. (ser. 2), ii. 246; PROB 6/25, f. 8v.
  • 5. PROB 11/89, ff. 205-6.
  • 6. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 183.
  • 7. C142/556/104.
  • 8. C231/1, f. 136v; C181/1, f. 87; 181/3, f. 244.
  • 9. C181/1, f. 120; 181/2, ff. 63, 84v, 327.
  • 10. E179/283/12.
  • 11. C181/2, f. 258; C212/22/20-23.
  • 12. C181/4, ff. 69v, 90v.
  • 13. PBG Inn, i. 162.
  • 14. C181/1, f. 87.
  • 15. R. Fox, Godmanchester, 163.
  • 16. PBG Inn, i. 208.
  • 17. C66/2131/3.
  • 18. PBG Inn, i. 233, 252.
  • 19. Order of Sjts.-at-Law ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. v), 333.
  • 20. E.g. CD 1604-7, p. 37.
  • 21. Vis. Hunts. 108.
  • 22. Beds. RO, ABP/AR 13, f. 154v; PROB 11/89, ff. 205-6.
  • 23. PROB 11/98, f. 279; 11/116, ff. 314-15; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 103; C66/1991/14.
  • 24. DCO, Enrolments of Patents, 1618-20, f. 135; LC2/6, f. 69.
  • 25. PROB 11/74, ff. 30-31; Vis. Northants. ed. Metcalfe, 204-5.
  • 26. VCH Hunts. iii. 24; C2/Chas.I/J4/26.
  • 27. CJ, i. 160a, 940a; CD 1604-7, p. 37; R.C. Munden, ‘King, Commons and Reform, 1603-4’, Faction and Parl. ed. K. Sharpe, 53-4.
  • 28. CJ, i. 958b; Munden, 63-5.
  • 29. CJ, i. 945b.
  • 30. Ibid. 183b, 185a, 949a.
  • 31. Ibid. 231b, 235a.
  • 32. Ibid. 273b; P. Croft, ‘Parl. Purveyance and the City’, PH, iv. 24-5; E. Lindquist, ‘Bills against Purveyors’, PH, iv. 38-41.
  • 33. CJ, i. 282b; Bowyer Diary, 73-7; Croft, 25-8.
  • 34. CJ, i. 1007b. See also Bowyer Diary, 201-2.
  • 35. CJ, i. 1011a; Stuart Royal Procs. ed. J.F. Larkin and P.L. Hughes, i. 95.
  • 36. CJ, i. 1017; SP14/26/54.
  • 37. CJ, i. 240a.
  • 38. Ibid. 350a, 1028b. The speech attributed to Hetley in Bowyer Diary, 226-7 was apparently given by Thomas Crewe.
  • 39. CJ, i. 351b, 352a.
  • 40. Ibid. 407b, 408b; C.C.G. Tite, Impeachment and Parl. Judicature, 60-4.
  • 41. CJ, i. 420b, 446b.
  • 42. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 94-5.
  • 43. Ibid. ii. 170-97; Parl. Debates 1610 ed. S.R. Gardiner, 72-5; ‘Paulet 1610’, f. 18.
  • 44. CJ, i. 447b; ‘Paulet 1610’, f. 23.
  • 45. CJ, i. 154b, 945a. The others concerned extortion (172a), secret outlawries (187b, 213a), attorneys in Common Law cts. (244b), restitution in cases of forcible entry (399a) and warrants of attorney (416b).
  • 46. Ibid. 207b, 232b. See the similar bill on 418b.
  • 47. Ibid. 212a, 368b, 397b, 408b; Mdx. Peds. (Harl. Soc. lxv), 55.
  • 48. CJ, i. 247b, 251b; SR, iv. 1039-48, particularly clause 51 on p. 1048.
  • 49. Letters and Life of Francis Bacon ed. J. Spedding, iv. 40; C66/1825/14.
  • 50. Letters and Life of Francis Bacon, v. 86; C66/2131/3; Year Book 6 ed. G.J. Turner (Selden Soc. xxvi), pp. xix-xxiii; J.H. Baker, Legal Profession and the Common Law, 453-4.
  • 51. CJ, i. 559a, 560a; CD 1621, iv. 165-6; v. 304, 306; vi. 459; Nicholas Procs. 1621, i. 179.
  • 52. Baker, Legal Profession, 453-4.
  • 53. PBG Inn, i. 233.
  • 54. PBG Inn, i. 223; Order of Sjts.-at-Law, 64, 339-40.
  • 55. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 571 (misdated); 1635, pp. 129, 351; 1635-6, p. 47.
  • 56. Procs. 1626, i. 372, 379, 486, 494, 496; C. Russell, PEP, 317-21.
  • 57. Baker, 453-4.
  • 58. VCH Hunts. iii. 16.
  • 59. CCC, 1366; C2/Chas.I/H41/20; 2/Chas.I/O4/7.
  • 60. C142/556/104; C2/Jas.I/H20/57, 2/Jas.I/H25/63, 2/Jas.I/H56/2, 2/Jas.I/H65/34, 2/Jas.I/H70/35; C2/Chas.I/O4/7.
  • 61. PROB 11/173, ff. 224-5; C142/556/104
  • 62. C142/556/104; Misc. Gen. et Her. (ser. 2), ii. 246.
  • 63. C2/Chas.I/H33/23; 2/Chas.I/H120/44; 2/Chas.I/O4/7; 2/Chas.I/O8/43; 2/Chas.I/O15/67.
  • 64. VCH Hunts. ii. 67, 70, 194; iii. 16.
  • 65. Vis. Hunts. (Harl. Soc. n.s. xiii), 35.