HOLT, William (c.1571-1637), of Gray's Inn, London and Ashworth, Lancs.

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.1571, 2nd s. of Robert Holt (d.1624) of Ashworth and 2nd w. Agnes.1 educ. Brasenose, Oxf. 1586, aged 15; G. Inn, 1588.2 m. (1) by c.1599, Elizabeth (d. bef. 1618), at least 1s.;3 (2) by 1618, Anne, ?s.p.;4 (3) Priscilla (d. aft. 1637), da. of Sir Cotton Gargrave† of Nortell Priory, Yorks., s.p.5 d. by Sept. 1637.6 sig. Will[iam] Holt.

Offices Held

Freeman, Preston, Lancs. by 1602;7 steward of Sir John Byron’s court, Rochdale, Lancs. 1609;8 j.p. Lancs. c.1620-7.9

Reader, G. Inn 1614, bencher 1615-d.10


The Holts of Ashworth were a relatively obscure Lancashire family made notorious by the Jesuit William Holt (d.1599), who may have been this Member’s uncle.11 However, not all the family were Catholic: Holt’s elder half-brother, Robert, died in 1609 leaving an avowedly Protestant will which condemned ‘popish religion’, and judging by Holt’s own contributions to parliamentary debates, he sympathized with his brother, who charged him to ‘continue a loving uncle unto all my children’.12 Holt became a successful Gray’s Inn lawyer, despite having been temporarily expelled in 1590 for a student prank.13 Although he presumably spent much of his time in London, he maintained his Lancashire connections, purchasing Bolton manor and surrounding lands by 1618.14

Having sat for Clitheroe in 1597, Holt’s election for Preston in 1604 indicates that he probably enjoyed the backing of the duchy of Lancaster, in whose court he often practised. It also suggests that he had formed good connections with the local gentry, many of whom, such as Sir Cuthbert Halsall*, he frequently served as counsel. A prolific committeeman in every session of this Parliament, he made numerous speeches, earning himself a mention in the scurrilous ‘Parliament Fart’ poem.15 His most important contributions were on the Union with Scotland, which he vehemently opposed. On 20 Apr. 1604 he debated the proposed name of ‘Great Britain’, and on 1 June was among those appointed to consider Bishop John Thornborough’s recent book criticizing the Commons’ stance towards the Union.16 On 3 Dec. 1606 Holt reported from the committee for the bill to repeal the hostile laws, arguing that the constitutions of boroughs were ‘not to be ranked among hostile laws, but are laws of policy and conveniency’.17 He was then appointed to a select committee to prepare for a conference with the Lords on the repeal of both these laws and the feudal tenure found on the Anglo-Scottish border known as escuage (11 December).18 Both his legal training and northern background lent Holt particular expertise on the question of escuage. In the course of several speeches given between December 1606 and February 1607 he repeatedly insisted that the king’s plan to abolish it should be dropped.19

On 19 Feb. 1607 Holt delivered his most comprehensive speech condemning the Union. Several complete texts have survived, suggesting that copies were widely circulated. It was an eloquent critique of the problems inherent in James’s proposals, particularly the naturalization of the post-nati Scots, on whose status the judges were shortly to deliver their verdict. Although he conceded that they ought to be shown ‘all due respect’, Holt began by disputing the right of the judges to decide the question, insisting that all responsibility for doing so lay exclusively with Parliament. He went on to use the theory of the ‘king’s two bodies’ to claim that while the Scots were undoubtedly subjects of the king’s ‘natural’ body, they were not also members of the ‘politic body’ of the English Crown. The crux of this argument was that ‘the person of the king’ had no authority per se to naturalize subjects in England without an Act of Parliament. Holt also went on to refute the alternative assertion that the king’s subjects were automatically naturalized under the Common Law, for he argued that as aliens the Scots were excluded from its provisions. He dismissed his opponents’ attempts to find precedents based on either conquest or the dynastic joining of kingdoms, and also complained that the Union’s advocates had ‘implicatively [armed] their arguments more with terror and threat than any good persuasions’. In conclusion, he expressed horror at a project that would ‘disperse ... the blood out of the veins and the marrow out of the bones of this kingdom’, likening its effect to a ‘consumption’, a ‘tumour’ and an ‘impostume’. Like many other opponents of the Union, Holt ultimately feared that ‘all the commerce, all the offices, all the lands, and in a word all the treasure’ of England would be taken by the Scots, and that this transfer could only pose a ‘danger to the king’.20

Holt was appointed on 7 Mar. 1607 to address the question of naturalization again at a further conference with the Lords, and on 12 Mar. he was among those assigned to report back to the Lower House.21 He at first attempted to excuse himself from reporting, but his protests were disallowed on the grounds that he had ‘attended at the conference all the day, that he had tables in his hand and was seen to write diligently’. This observation would tend to suggest that Holt was a diarist, or that at the very least he took notes of important debates.22 On 30 Apr. Holt supported Sir Edwin Sandys’s call for a ‘perfect’ Union, a proposal designed to derail the naturalization debate by insisting that the full legal union of the two kingdoms must first be achieved.23 Throughout the ensuing debates, Holt continued to follow closely the progress of the hostile laws bill, speaking before the committee of the whole House on the subject of trial for crimes committed in Scotland (26 June), and again during the discussion of an amendment concerning the Scottish legal system (29 June).24

Holt also spoke on a wide range of other business. In the first session he opposed a bill to prevent outlaws from becoming Members of the Commons, an issue that had arisen out of the Buckinghamshire election controversy (18 Apr. 1604).25 On 30 Apr. he described a bill to establish a merchants’ court in London as ‘unnatural [and] tyrannous’.26 He took responsibility for a land title bill ‘for the registering of judgments that may impeach purchasers or farmers of lands’ (5 May);27 and was the sole voice in favour of a bill concerning the executors of wills (25 May).28 On several occasions Holt was involved in questions concerning Members’ privilege. He was named to the committee to consider the predicament of Sir Thomas Shirley I*, who had been imprisoned for debt a few days before the opening of the session (2 May 1604); and in February 1606 Holt presented a petition on behalf of Roger Brereton, who had been elected for Flintshire but was prevented from attending owing to proceedings against him in King’s Bench.29 On 28 May 1607 Holt was added to the committee for privileges in order to consider an attendance bill drawn up in response to the exodus from the House of many barristers on circuit during the previous February and March. The departure of so many Members at a time when the king wished the House to consider the Union had been deeply embarrassing, but Holt himself had apparently remained at Westminster throughout the session.30

Following the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Holt spoke out against Catholic traitors, arguing during the debate on articles of religion (7 Feb. 1606) that ‘no band can bind them ... but a band of imprisonment, a band of banishment, or a band of death’.31 On 4 Apr. 1606 it was Holt who brought in the king’s message deferring the attainder of the plotters,32 and he was twice added to committees to consider religious bills, on simony (18 June 1604) and ecclesiastical canons (5 July 1610).33 On 9 May 1607 Holt questioned the motives of the promoters of a fen drainage bill, asking whether the project was ‘fit for private gain, or rather for public?’34 Like many lawyers, his staple business in the Commons consisted of steering a large number of private estate bills and naturalization cases through committee. One example concerns Sir John Byron’s bill, which was delivered to him in May 1610, evidently as a result of a local connection, for he had served as steward of Sir John Byron’s court at Rochdale in the previous year.35

The subsidy debates of both 1606 and 1610 drew forth scathing attacks from Holt, who railed against what he termed the ‘bottomless gulf of the Exchequer’. On 14 Mar. 1606 he implicitly criticized the king by arguing that ‘a subsidy is a public contribution, not to be employed to private use, bounties, expenses, [and] ceremonies’.36 He was subsequently named, with many other lawyers, to a committee to frame grievances into a petition (18 Apr. 1606), and on 14 May he was one of those appointed to deliver it to the king.37 One such grievance was impositions. On 14 May 1610 Holt was among those Members who vented their spleen on the Speaker after they were initially forbidden to discuss this topic.38 Holt spoke again on the subsidy on 14 June 1610, directly refuting the principle of peacetime taxation, and calling again for attention to be paid to ‘the grievance of the subject’.39 He remained defiant over supply and impositions, and when certain Members were privately summoned before the king in mid-November Holt saw in this an assault upon the liberties of the House, arguing that ‘we are privileged from some commands, as from the king’s writ’, though on this he was not seconded and eventually had to sit down.40 He delivered perhaps his most hostile words against the royal prerogative during the debate concerning Cowell’s Interpreter, which he described on 26 Feb. 1610 as ‘not an error, indiscretion, or presumption; but a contemptuous, seditious, prodigious opinion’; as a result he was required a week later to ‘deliver himself from some misconstruction touching an invective against the Civil Law’.41

Although he did not again sit in the Commons, Holt was occasionally active in the House as counsel at the bar, particularly in 1621, when he defended the election of Sir George Hastings for Leicestershire (9 Feb.) and William Man’s return for Westminster (26 February). In the same Parliament Holt was engaged by the Merchants of the Staple to defend their charter (23 Feb.), and acted as counsel against the patents for concealments (2 Mar.), lighthouses (21 Mar.), glass (30 Apr.) and John Lepton’s grant for copying bills (7 May).42 Furthermore, Holt contributed to the case against lord chancellor St. Alban (Sir Francis Bacon*),43 and defended the attorney-general, Sir Henry Yelverton*, both of whom were disgraced upon charges of corruption.44 Bacon commented maliciously that Yelverton was unwise to rely upon Holt, ‘who is ever retained but to play the fool’.45 In 1629 Holt was one of the lawyers who acted for the arrested Members (Sir) John Eliot*, Denzil Holles*, John Selden* and Walter Long II* at their trials in Star Chamber and King’s Bench following the tumultuous scenes in the Commons on 2 Mar. 1629. It may be inferred that Holt sympathized with his fellow lawyers’ objections to the Crown’s use of arbitrary powers.46

Little of Holt’s life is known outside Parliament. He was married three times, though the identity of his first and second wives remains obscure, and he had at least one son, who followed in his footsteps at both Brasenose College Oxford and Gray’s Inn. He apparently supplemented his lawyer’s income by money-lending, a trade that enabled him to acquire parts of the Lancashire estates of one of his debtors, Sir John Molyneux, though he subsequently sold at least some of this property to his colleague Sir Thomas Ireland* of Bewsey, a fellow Lancastrian Gray’s Inn lawyer.47 Holt incurred financial difficulties himself in 1618 as a result of the bankruptcy of an associate for whom he had stood as surety, though after entering a petition in Chancery Holt was granted protection from arrest.48 Sir George More* rewarded Holt’s ‘long and faithful services’ by granting him the leases of The Unicorn, Southwark, and lands in various counties to the value of £79 16s. 2d. in 1621-4.49 When his father died intestate in 1624, Holt claimed that the old man, then aged over 80, had intended to make provision for him, ‘being then his only son ... remaining unadvanced with any annuity, estate or filial portion’, and in particular to pay off his debts, but through infirmity of mind had not done so before his death. Holt therefore sued his brother’s widow, Mary, and her second husband John Greenhalgh, in Star Chamber, alleging that they had conspired to disinherit him, particularly of the dower lands of his mother Agnes, who had been his father’s second wife, consisting of various property in Quick and Saddleworth, in the West Riding of Yorkshire.50

Holt continued to attend meetings at Gray’s Inn until May 1637, but he was dead by September, when his widow Priscilla filed for administration of his estate.51 At his death he was resident in St. Andrew’s Parish, Holborn, though his place of burial is unknown. None of his descendants sat in Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. DL7/24/95; Lancs. IPMs ed. J.P. Rylands (Lancs. and Cheshire Rec. Soc. xvii), 437-41.
  • 2. Al Ox.; GI Admiss.
  • 3. Lancs. RO, WCW, Will of Robert Holt, 1609.
  • 4. APC, 1618-19, p. 257.
  • 5. Misc. Gen. et Her. i. 226.
  • 6. PROB 6/16, f. 105v.
  • 7. Preston Guild Rolls ed. W.A. Abram (Lancs. and Cheshire Rec. Soc. ix), 55.
  • 8. H. Fishwick, Hist. of Par. of Rochdale, 299.
  • 9. Lancs. RO, QSC 4.
  • 10. PBG Inn, i. 215; W.R. Prest, Rise of the Barristers, 370.
  • 11. Oxford DNB sub Fr. William Holt.
  • 12. Lancs. RO, WCW, Will of Robert Holt, 1609.
  • 13. PBG Inn, i. 87.
  • 14. APC, 1618-9, pp. 222-3, 257.
  • 15. Add. 34218, f. 21.
  • 16. CJ, i. 179b, 230a; Jacobean Union ed. B. Galloway, 248-9.
  • 17. CJ, i. 1006b.
  • 18. Ibid. 329b.
  • 19. Ibid. 328a, 1008a, 1010b, 1013a.
  • 20. Ibid. 1016b; SP14/26/54, 55; Harl. 677, ff. 54-7; B. Galloway, Union of Eng. and Scot. 1603-8, pp. 106-7.
  • 21. Bowyer Diary, 223.
  • 22. CJ, i. 352a,b, 1032b.
  • 23. Ibid. 365b, 1038a; Bowyer Diary, 276-7; Galloway, Union of Eng. and Scot. 110-11, 118.
  • 24. Bowyer Diary, 354, 360-1; CJ, i. 1055a.
  • 25. CJ, i. 949a.
  • 26. Ibid. 960b.
  • 27. Ibid. 199a, 214b, 968a.
  • 28. Ibid. 980a.
  • 29. Ibid. 195a, 209b, 262b.
  • 30. Ibid. 376a.
  • 31. Ibid. 265b.
  • 32. Ibid. 293b, Bowyer Diary, 101.
  • 33. CJ, i. 241a, 446b.
  • 34. Ibid. 371b.
  • 35. Ibid. 430a, 432a.
  • 36. Bowyer Diary, 79; CJ, i. 284a.
  • 37. CJ, i. 300b, 309a.
  • 38. Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 89.
  • 39. CJ, i. 439a; Procs. 1610, ii. 147-8.
  • 40. ‘Paulet 1610’, ff. 19, 31v; Parl. Debates, 1610 ed. S.R. Gardiner, 140-1; Procs. 1610, i. 282-3, ii. 343.
  • 41. CJ, i. 400b, 404a.
  • 42. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 22; CD 1621, ii. 50, 142; iii. 193; iv. 96; v. 106-7, 122; vi. 79, 277.
  • 43. CD 1621, v. 298.
  • 44. CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 191.
  • 45. Letters and Life of Francis Bacon ed. J. Spedding, vii. 140.
  • 46. CSP Dom. 1628-9, pp. 555-6; L.J. Reeve, Chas. I and the Road to Personal Rule, 150.
  • 47. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 552; APC, 1618-19, pp. 222-3; 1625-6, p. 239; 1626, pp. 49-50, 379-80; 1627, 414-15, 444; DL5/28, f. 601; C2/Jas.I/H7/2.
  • 48. Reps. of Cases Decided by Francis Bacon ed. J. Ritchie, 139.
  • 49. C66/2256; 66/2335; C2/Jas.I/H23/58; CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 290.
  • 50. STAC 8/167/30, 31.
  • 51. PROB 6/16, f. 105v.