JAMES, Thomas (c.1555-1619), of Back Street, Bristol and Sulla, Lydney, Glos.

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.1555,1 s. of Edward James of Woolaston and Margaret, da. and coh. of William Warren of Willsbury, St. Briavel’s, Glos. educ. appr. Bristol 1571. m. by 1589, Anne, 5s. 6da. (1 d.v.p.). d. 23 Jan. 1619.2

Offices Held

Freeman, Bristol 1578,3 common councilman by 1591-1604,4 sheriff 1591-2,5 alderman 1604-d.,6 commr. piracy 1604,7 mayor 1605-6, 1614-15,8 constable of staple 1606-7, 1615-16,9 commr. subsidy 1608,10 cause between Alonsi de Velasco and Matthew Springham 1613,11 sewers, Glos. 1615.12

Commr. Union with Scotland 1604.13

Asst. Spanish Co. 1605;14 cttee. Virg. Co. 1606;15 warden, Bristol Merchant Venturers 1606-7, master 1607-8, 1615-16.16


James’s father migrated from Brecon on his marriage into a family seated on the borders of the Forest of Dean. James himself crossed the Severn to Bristol, served an apprenticeship as a merchant, and was already engaged in trade with Spain before the end of his apprenticeship. It was not the easiest of ways to make a living in Elizabethan times, and though Spanish officials were not above corruption,17 by about 1577 he was petitioning the English government for compensation.18 The domestic market also called for a certain robustness of attitude; in 1587 he enforced his monopoly of calfskins by shooting an interloper. He was subsequently indicted for murder and arraigned at the Marshalsea in Southwark, but ‘when no man gave evidence against him he was released as not guilty’.19 It was safer to seek vengeance on the Spaniards by fitting out his ships as privateers, and contributing a ship to the Cadiz expedition of 1596.20

James seems to have sought election in 1597, but did not enter Parliament until 1604. Among his colleagues in the first Jacobean Parliament was Thomas James, from whom he was not always differentiated in the Commons Journal. He was certainly named to six committees, as in each case he was clearly identified as being ‘of Bristol’, but he may have been appointed to as many as 66 others, mostly concerned with trade and finance. His appointment as a commissioner for the Union on 12 May 1604 suggests that he is likely to have been the Mr. James who was appointed to attend the conference with the Lords on that subject on 14 Apr. 1604.21

James worked closely with his fellow Bristol Member George Snygge in the first session and later with Snygge’s successor John Whitson. On 20 Apr. 1604 he told of his experience of Spanish corruption in the debate on the bill for the better execution of justice, leaving ‘the application to whom it concerned’.22 It was presumably he who took charge of the free trade bill which received its second reading on 24 April.23 He was added to the committee for grievances two days later,24 where he produced a threatening letter from the Board of Green Cloth to Whitson about purveyance. Sir Richard Browne, who sat on the board and was a Member of the House, remarked ominously that James ought to be ‘sent for’ once Parliament was in recess; but the House regarded the threat to freedom of speech as inconsiderable.25 On 7 May he was named to the committee for the address against purveyance, and he was also among those ordered to prepare for the conference with the Lords of 8 May concerning the same subject.26 Four days later he reported the bill against customs abuses as ‘fit to sleep’, and was one of the four merchants named commissioners for the Union.27 Bristol paid him £31 2s. for his attendance at Parliament and a further £10 ‘towards his charges to London to meet with the King’s Majesty’s commissioners touching the Union’.28

Early in 1605 James was among those employed to deliver Bristol’s petition against the impositions on wine and groceries to the king.29 Although one of the four Bristol merchants nominated to the board of the revived Spanish Company, he took the chair when Bristol’s common council decided to recognize the independence of the local merchant venturers.30

Shortly before the opening of the second session James was elected mayor, and therefore the corporation agreed to appoint a deputy during his absence. He was also instructed to seek royal confirmation of municipal taxes.31 His Spanish commercial interests was sufficiently well known to be referred to in the ‘Parliament Fart’, in the couplet ‘Quoth James of Bristol lets not sit in vain / but ship up this fart and send it to Spain’.32 He was appointed, with ‘Mr. James of Newport’, to consider the re-incorporation of the Spanish Company on the opening day,33 and moved for further debate when the House reconvened after the Gunpowder Plot.34 He was also appointed to the committees for the bills to enable bridgework to be undertaken at Upton-on-Severn (27 Feb.) and Chepstow (31 March).35 On 7 Feb. he took charge of the bill to restrain purveyors.36 Worried that previous attempts to restrain purveyance by statute had failed he argued on 7 Mar. that composition would ‘bind our posterity’, to pay annual tax to the Crown, with no guarantee that purveyance would cease.37 He also spoke on the import of currants on 11 Apr. 1606.38 He received £44 1s. 8d. in three payments for wages and charges in this session.39

In the third session James was named to attend the Union conference of 25 Nov. 1606.40 On 11 Dec. he contributed to the debate on the evasion of the navigation laws, arguing that ‘a non obstante doth dispense with the matter’.41 He was among those appointed to consider ‘the Spanish cruelties’ on 28 February.42 On 12 Mar. he was granted privilege after his horse had been requisitioned from an inn by the postal authorities.43 Towards the end of the session the Bristol Members were ordered to appeal for relief from the commission for purveyance of wine.44 James again received his wages in instalments, apparently to a total of £37 2s. 4d.45 and in the summer he obtained a grant from the Crown of two Gloucestershire rectories.46

In the fourth session James and Whitson were together appointed to the committee for preventing the double payment of debt (20 February).47 Three days later James spoke in favour of the Minehead harbour bill.48 He was the first member named to the committee and spoke again at the third reading on 28 March.49 He was also named to the committee for the ordnance export bill (16 Mar.),50 but spoke against it at the third reading debate on 30 May, when it was rejected, and was appointed to help draft a new bill.51 He took the chair for the bill against piracy, brought in by Whitson, but reported it ‘as fit to sleep’ on 16 Apr., and again preferred a new bill from the committee.52 He received £40 7s. 4d. for his parliamentary wages and charges, and was also refunded £11 5s. 8d. ‘spent in the Star Chamber’.53

During the ill-recorded fifth session James distinguished himself by his opposition to the Great Contract, and was consequently among the 30 Members summoned by the serjeant-at-arms on 16 Nov. 1610 ‘to treat familiarly’ with the king about supply. He did not neglect the summons, although he considered that the only correct channel of communication with the Commons was through the Speaker, and ‘fell in contradiction’ with lord treasurer Salisbury (Robert Cecil†) over impositions, ‘affirming that his lordship delivered that the book of rates might be changed with one Act of Parliament, which his lordship denied’.54 On 21 Nov. he moved ‘that the serjeant may declare from whom he had his warrant to warn the gentlemen to appear’.55 He received £17 5s. 4d. for his attendance at this session.56

James and Whitson were employed by the Merchant Venturers to resist the imposition on sweet wines in 1611.57 After their re-election to the Addled Parliament they were instructed to prefer a petition to the Exchequer for payment for wine and other goods taken up for the queen’s Household.58 James was appointed to six committees, including those for privileges and the continuance of expiring statutes on 8 Apr.,59 and made 13 speeches recorded. His main concern was with impositions and the London monopolies. On 15 Apr. he offered to bring in copies of the grievances from the previous Parliament, with the king’s answers,60 although five days later he asked for payment.61 His two legislative committees were against false bail on 16 Apr.,62 and for the government of Wales two days later.63 On 20 Apr. he moved that the London-based French Company should be obliged to repay all monies levied in the outports,64 and on 3 May he accused its members ‘of great uncharitableness in laying the burden only upon their poor neighbours the English, and not on Scots or Irish’.65 On 5 May he was appointed to help to prepare for a conference on impositions,66 and the following day successfully moved that Sir Lionel Cranfield* should produce his patent as surveyor of customs.67 In the debate on the bill against the export of ordnance on 11 May he reminded the House of the bill passed in the previous Parliament, lamenting ‘an arrow shot in it above, by a proviso that it should not extend to any letters patent granted by the king’, and proposed that the new bill should also forbid the export of all English and Irish iron.68 Somewhat impertinently, on 16 May he suggested that the charitable foundations of a Welsh member of the London Haberdashers’ Company should be limited to Monmouthshire, where he had property.69 In debate on the false and deceitful dyeing of silk on 24 May, he instanced ‘an alderman of London [who] raised himself to a great estate by mixing crewel with silk’, and moved that the case be considered at the committee.70 He was among those ordered to attend the king on 29 May to explain the suspension of business in the House.71

James was elected mayor a second time later in 1614, and, despite an earlier ordinance,72 he was licensed to repair to his house in the country or elsewhere ‘for his health’ whenever necessary.73 In 1616 and 1617 he maintained a quarrel over precedence with his fellow alderman Whitson with characteristic violence. After Garter king-at-arms had ruled in Whitson’s favour, however, James ‘yielded the place, and they were made good friends’.74 He drew up his will on 12 Mar. 1618, in which he left £1,000 to each of two younger sons, one of whom was ‘to be set to school in Oxford’, and thus fitted for the family living of Awre. He had married off five of his daughters, and provided a portion of £500 for the sixth, ‘upon condition that she marry not with any widower’. He left his house in Lydney, and most of the extensive properties that he had inherited or purchased in that neighbourhood to his eldest son, Edward, but all his Bristol estate, an inn at Beachley, a wine licence to use with it, ‘with the ninth party of the ferry or passage there’, and other property to another son, Alexander, whom he named executor. He remembered various civic officers, including the four ‘which were my sheriffs’, two of whom, John Guy* and John Langton, he named ‘executors in trust’. He left small sums to the poor of 15 parishes, including Woolaston, ‘where I was born’, Almondsbury, ‘where I was married’, and Lydney, ‘where sometimes I dwell’. He added a last codicil on 13 Jan. 1619 and died ten days later at his house in Bristol. He was buried in the mayor’s chapel and his son being overseas, administration was granted to Guy and Langton.75 No later member of the family sat in Parliament, but Alexander James served as royalist mayor of Bristol during the Civil War.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Alan Davidson


  • 1. Age calculated from date of freedom.
  • 2. Bristol RO, appr. bk. 1566-92, f. 59v; Vis. Glos. ed. Fenwick and Metcalfe, 98; M.E. Bagnall-Oakley, ‘Rural Deanery of South Forest’, Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxv. 166; C142/747/156.
  • 3. Bristol RO, burgess bk. 1557-99, f. 80v.
  • 4. Bristol Lists comp. A.B. Beaven, 298.
  • 5. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 167.
  • 6. Bristol Lists, 298.
  • 7. C181/1, f. 92.
  • 8. Bristol Lists, 298.
  • 9. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1598-1608, p. 122; 1608-27, f. 55.
  • 10. SP14/31/1, f. 15v.
  • 11. HCA 30/348, f. 152.
  • 12. C181/2, f. 240.
  • 13. CJ, i. 208a.
  • 14. Spanish Co. ed. P. Croft (London Rec. Soc. ix), 101.
  • 15. T.K. Rabb, Enterprise and Empire, 323.
  • 16. J. Latimer, Hist. of Merchant Venturers of Bristol, 326.
  • 17. CJ, i. 179a.
  • 18. Docs. Illustrating Overseas Trade of Bristol in Sixteenth Cent. ed. J. Vane (Bristol Rec. Soc. xxxi), 140.
  • 19. APC, 1587-8, pp. 229, 364; Adams’s Chron. of Bristol ed. F.F. Fox, 121.
  • 20. APC, 1596-7, p. 491; J.W.D. Powell, Bristol Privateers, 47.
  • 21. CJ, i. 172a, 208a.
  • 22. Ibid. 179a.
  • 23. Ibid. 183b, 956b.
  • 24. Ibid. 185b.
  • 25. Ibid. 185b, 959a.
  • 26. Ibid. 202a, 202b.
  • 27. Ibid. 207b, 208a.
  • 28. Bristol RO, mayor’s audit bk. 1599-1604, p. 216.
  • 29. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1598-1608, pp. 91, 93.
  • 30. Recs. Relating to Soc. of Merchant Venturers ed. P.W. McGrath (Bristol Rec. Soc. xvii), 3.
  • 31. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1598-1608, pp. 107, 132.
  • 32. Add. 34218, f. 20v.
  • 33. CJ, i. 256b.
  • 34. Bowyer Diary, 9.
  • 35. CJ, i. 275a, 291a.
  • 36. Ibid. 264b.
  • 37. Bowyer Diary, 67.
  • 38. CJ, i. 297a.
  • 39. Bristol RO, mayor’s audit bk. 1605-9, pp. 84, 90.
  • 40. CJ, i. 324b.
  • 41. Bowyer Diary, 205.
  • 42. CJ, i. 344b.
  • 43. Ibid. 352a.
  • 44. J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol in Seventeenth Cent. 29.
  • 45. Bristol RO, mayor’s audit bk. 1605-9, pp. 154, 156.
  • 46. VCH Glos. x. 65; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 365.
  • 47. CJ, i. 397b.
  • 48. Ibid. 399a.
  • 49. Ibid. 416a
  • 50. Ibid. 412b.
  • 51. Ibid. 434a.
  • 52. Ibid. 418b.
  • 53. Bristol RO, mayor’s audit bk. 1610-13, p. 33.
  • 54. HMC Rutland, i. 425
  • 55. Parl. Debates, 1610 ed. S.R. Gardiner, 140.
  • 56. Bristol RO, mayor’s audit bk. 1610-13, p. 86.
  • 57. Recs. Relating to Soc. of Merchant Venturers, 237.
  • 58. Bristol RO, common council procs. 1608-27, f. 45v.
  • 59. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 33, 35.
  • 60. Ibid. 86, 87.
  • 61. Ibid. 110.
  • 62. Ibid. 91.
  • 63. Ibid. 98.
  • 64. Ibid. 114, 117.
  • 65. Ibid. 129.
  • 66. Ibid. 152.
  • 67. Ibid. 165.
  • 68. Ibid. 201, 207.
  • 69. Ibid. 257.
  • 70. Ibid. 330.
  • 71. Ibid. 377.
  • 72. Bristol. RO, common council procs. 1598-1608, p. 131.
  • 73. Bristol. RO, common council procs. 1608-27, f. 50v.
  • 74. Ibid. f. 65v; Adams’s Chron. of Bristol, 204.
  • 75. PROB 11/133, ff. 128v-31v; C142/747/156; I.M. Roper, ‘Effigies of Bristol’, Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. xxvi. 271.