PACKER, John (1572-1649), of Westminster, Shellingford, Berks. and Chilton Foliat, Wilts.

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. 12 Nov. 1572,1 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of William Packer of Twickenham, Mdx. and his w. Elizabeth.2 educ. Westminster Sch. by 1589; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1590, BA 1594.3 m. lic. 13 July 1613,4 Philippa, da. of Francis Mylles†, clerk of the privy seal, of Southampton, Hants, 5s. (1 d.v.p.) 3da. (1 d.v.p.).5 suc. fa. 1601.6 d. 9 Feb. 1649.7 sig. Jo[hn] Packer.

Offices Held

Sec. to Sir Henry Neville I* by 1600,8 Visct. Rochester (later earl of Somerset) 1612-c.1615,9 Sir George Villiers (later earl, mq. and duke of Buckingham) c.1616-28.10

Amb. extraordinary, Denmark 1610-11.11

Acting prothonotary of Chancery (jt.) from 1614;12 clerk of the privy seal 1618-43.13

J.p. Westminster 1618-at least 1648,14 commr. subsidy 1624,15 inquiry, Fleet prison abuses, London 1635,16 sewers, Mdx. 1637-8, Westminster 1645,17 assessment, Berks. 1644-at least 1648, Mdx. 1647-at least 1648, Westminster 1648, execution of New Model Ordinance, Mdx. 1645;18 tryer, Westminster 1645-at least 1648; visitor, Oxf. Univ. 1647; commr. militia, Westminster 1648.19

Member, New River Co. 1619,20 Fishery Soc. from 1633.21


Packer’s background was comfortable but relatively obscure. His father, William, joined the privy seal office around the start of Elizabeth’s reign, and in 1577 obtained the reversion of a clerkship, though this possibly never fell in. William was most likely a firm Protestant, as he turned to Sir Francis Walsingham† for help when his job was under threat in 1587. By the early 1560s he had settled at Twickenham, where Packer was born in 1572.22 Although he apparently owned little property, William was wealthy enough to provide his younger son with a decent education, first at Westminster School and then at Cambridge. While at Trinity College, Packer drew attention to himself by writing a set of Latin and Greek verses in praise of the queen, which he dedicated to Lord Burghley (Sir William Cecil†). Nursing ambitions of a diplomatic career, he took himself off to France, where he observed a Huguenot synod in 1598. A year or so later, he attached himself to Sir Henry Neville I, then ambassador to Paris, and in some secretarial capacity accompanied him back to England in 1600.23

Neville’s disgrace following his involvement in Essex’s rebellion in 1601 represented a set-back for Packer’s career, though in 1604 he obtained the reversion of a privy seal clerkship with the help of Sir Thomas Lake I*, another former member of Walsingham’s circle. Packer initially remained heavily dependent on Neville, who provided him with both accommodation at Billingbear, his Berkshire seat, and an annual income of £40. In about 1605, however, he attracted the patronage of the earl of Salisbury (Robert Cecil†), who, on Lake’s recommendation, appointed him a temporary secretary for the French tongue while Sir Thomas Edmondes* led an embassy to the Spanish Netherlands.24 It was presumably also Salisbury who selected Packer for a brief but sensitive diplomatic mission to Denmark in 1610. Shortly after his return in early 1611 he was excused from his official duties so that he could accompany the young 3rd earl of Dorset on a tour of France, Packer’s solid Protestant convictions and knowledge of the country commending him for this task.25

In 1613 Packer reinforced his ties with the privy seal office, marrying the daughter of one of the clerks, Francis Mylles, who, perhaps coincidentally, had once been Walsingham’s secretary. In the following year, he acquired a new administrative role, as acting joint prothonotary of Chancery during the minority of Francis Carew I*, the son of a former ambassador to France, Sir George Carew II*.26 By this time, however, Packer had finally secured significant promotion at Court, having become secretary to James I’s favourite, Viscount Rochester, later earl of Somerset in June 1612. In this capacity he continued to handle foreign correspondence, but was also exposed to a wider range of political issues, including the attempted cover-up of Sir Thomas Overbury’s murder. In October 1615 he allegedly helped to draft an illegal warrant which Somerset used to seize potentially incriminating papers, information which emerged during the earl’s trial. However, Packer’s honest reputation apparently stood him in good stead, and he emerged unscathed.27

Perhaps chastened by this episode, Packer allegedly contemplated retiring from Court, but the king insisted upon him becoming secretary to the new royal favourite, Sir George Villiers, later earl, marquess and duke of Buckingham. Indeed, for the next few years a range of new career openings beckoned. In May 1616 he and his brother Thomas were granted the reversion of the keepership of Star Chamber, though they seem ultimately not to have taken up the post.28 In the spring of 1617 Buckingham pushed hard for Packer to become the official secretary for the French tongue, but the job went to a rival candidate. Early the next year he was offered the surveyorship of the Court of Wards in return for supporting (Sir) Humphrey May’s* bid to become chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. However, Packer was double-crossed as May surrendered the surveyorship to Sir Benjamin Rudyard* instead, prompting a furious Buckingham to force the new chancellor to make over a pension of £292 p.a. to Packer as compensation.29 Following Lake’s fall in 1618, Packer was widely tipped as the next secretary of state, but the favourite’s backing was not enough to prevent the post from going to (Sir) George Calvert* in the following February. A similar rumour two years later that he might replace the suspended (Sir) Robert Naunton* again came to nothing.30

It was therefore as Buckingham’s patronage secretary that Packer reached the peak of his influence in government. His role as a clerk of the privy seal, to which post he had finally succeeded in September 1618 on the death of his father-in-law, left him well placed to procure warrants for grants on the favourite’s behalf. In 1619 alone he obtained at least 85, covering everything from minor offices and baronetcies to patents and pardons, and particularly ecclesiastical appointments. How much Packer was able to influence the system himself is unclear, though he undoubtedly pursued some personal projects, such as the rescheduling of one of his own pensions in March 1622. It is also striking that in 1619 he both procured the incorporation of the New River Company and became a shareholder. His friend lord keeper Williams frequently requested favours, and in 1621 thanked him personally for getting him a dispensation to retain the living of Walgrave, Northamptonshire, one of the 93 or more grants which Packer procured that year.31 In addition to his role as patronage secretary, he maintained his involvement in foreign correspondence, to the extent that in 1619 the ambassador to France, Sir Edward Herbert*, accorded his letters the same status as official dispatches. In the following year the king of Bohemia thanked him several times for unspecified services. He was also at intervals treated as a supernumerary royal secretary, employed to handle messages both to and from James I.32

Such activities naturally brought with them material rewards. In 1617 Packer was granted an annuity of £115, in lieu of two smaller pensions which he had obtained while secretary to Somerset, and in 1618 this was supplemented by the larger pension which Buckingham extracted from May.33 The scale of the fees and gratuities which he attracted as the favourite’s secretary is impossible to judge, but this unofficial income must have been a key factor behind his land investments. In February 1618 he spent £3,400 in purchasing the estate of Groombridge, Kent from his former travelling companion, the earl of Dorset. In the following year the Neville family sold him the reversion to one of their Berkshire properties, Shellingford, for £6,000. He purchased further lands in the same county in 1621-2 for £5,800. These new properties significantly supplemented the small Wiltshire estate of Chilton Foliat which he had acquired through marriage. In 1622 he calculated that his annual income from property, pensions, investments and his privy seal office alone stood at around £1,400, an impressive figure for a man from his background.34

More remarkable, however, was the manner in which Packer spent his money. A deeply religious man, who allegedly memorized the Psalms and most of the New Testament, he made it his practice even as a young man to set aside substantial sums for charitable giving. As his government career blossomed, his philanthropic ambitions developed apace. From around the early 1620s he funded itinerant preachers in dioceses where this ministry was under-resourced, such as Chester, Lichfield, Carlisle and St. Asaph.35 Upon making his home at Shellingford and then Chilton Foliat, one of his first acts was to restore the local church, while at Groombridge he built a new chapel of ease, and provided a stipend for the minister.36 In addition to generous handouts to the poor of the towns and villages around his own seats, his vision embraced the widows of poor clergy, and indigent scholars at the universities. In 1622 he set aside over £1,000 for such purposes, and by 1635 this figure had risen to nearly £1,400, well over half his annual income.37 Such sums placed Packer on a par with the more spectacular benefactors of the age, such as his friend Bishop Williams or Sir Edward Lewkenor II*, though it should be noted that he liked to decide for himself where to direct his donations. In 1632 he purchased Donnington Castle, Berkshire for £3,648, and promptly sued the guardians of a local almshouse to prevent them from claiming a small rent from the property.38

Packer’s influence in government probably declined during the early 1620s. While Buckingham felt the need for puritan friends he was in a strong position, and was credited with helping to secure the godly John Preston’s appointment as one of Prince Charles’s chaplains.39 However, the policy shift towards closer friendship with Spain tended to marginalize him, and his involvement in the procurement of grants tailed off sharply from mid-1622. This trend approximately coincided with (Sir) Francis Cottington’s* recall from Madrid to become the prince’s secretary, and in December that year it was reported that the newcomer was taking on many of Packer’s duties.40 Whether for political reasons or simply on account of his advancing years, he remained in England during the trip to Madrid, and apparently derived some satisfaction from the failure of the marriage negotiations, as Groombridge chapel was ostensibly constructed by him in gratitude for Prince Charles’s safe return from Spain.41 How he viewed the policies of the later 1620s is less certain, but he remained a loyal servant of Buckingham, and his continuing secretarial role led to him being elected for West Looe in 1628, as a favour to the duke.42

Packer’s godly reputation apparently went before him, and in the first session he was nominated to bill committees concerned with maintenance of the clergy, encouragement of preaching, and the punishment of scandalous ministers and adulterers (19 and 22 Apr., 7 and 12 May). On 24 Apr. he was named to a committee to examine the latest lists of recusants, while on 8 May he supported a motion that recusants should pay double the normal subsidy.43 Unsurprisingly he was also appointed to help plan or draft a number of petitions to the king. Topics such as a proposed fast (21 Mar.) or anti-Catholic measures (24 May) presumably presented him with no difficulties. However, requests for Charles to release a Loan refuser (2 May), or reduce a tobacco imposition (16 June) must have placed him in a difficult position. Worse still was his inclusion in the committee to draft a petition demanding the abolition of a wine imposition which had been authorized by a Privy Seal (31 March). Perhaps because of his role as a clerk, he apparently chaired this committee, and brought the petition into the House on 9 April. He was also named on 19 May to the committee to examine Richard Burgess about his notorious sermon defending arbitrary taxation.44 Packer used almost all his speeches to support the Crown in some way. On 2 Apr. he urged the Commons to make a generous grant of subsidy: ‘This is neither the king’s cause, nor our own, so much as God’s, and God loves a cheerful giver’. Two days later he criticized Sir Henry Marten for demanding a fuller picture of the royal finances before settling on an amount. On 31 May he was one of the few Members who tried to force through a vote on subsidy when the rest of the House had decided to stall on the issue.45 As tensions increased between the Commons and the king, he urged a conciliatory response on 2 May and 5 June to Charles’s latest messages. When the two Houses conferred on 19 May over the Petition of Right, he suggested a compromise phrasing to resolve a point of difference. Only on 7 June did he question government policy, expressing doubts about the wisdom of recruiting cavalry in the Low Countries and Germany, his discomfort over this issue all the greater because his brother Thomas had signed the relevant Privy Seal.46 Packer took little part in the proceedings of the 1629 session. He received two legislative committee appointments, one on 20 Feb. which related to another great philanthropist, Thomas Sutton, and another three days later concerned with corrupt presentations to benefices and colleges; he spoke briefly during the second reading debate on the latter measure.47

Packer’s public career effectively ended with Buckingham’s assassination in August 1628, although he retained his privy seal clerkship throughout the following decade, and was occasionally named to minor commissions. The onset of the Bishops’ Wars apparently undermined his habitual loyalty to the Crown, and in 1639 he scandalized former colleagues by refusing to contribute towards the cost of these campaigns.48 His decision to side with Parliament during the Civil War cost him his clerkship, and most of his lands were sequestered by royalist forces for several years. When he drew up his will on 20 July 1645, he had to base its provisions solely on what his Groombridge estate would bear, though he allowed for the eventual distribution of his other lands among his children. The will was curiously devoid of religious sentiments, beyond the wish that half of any profits arising from his £600 investment in the recovery of Ireland should be employed in bringing up Irish children as Protestants. Packer’s urge to charity was undimmed, however, and he made bequests totalling £300 to the poor of 13 parishes. By a codicil of 2 May 1648, he left a further £100 to the hospital in Tothill Fields, London, and £200 to help divinity students at Oxford and Cambridge.49 His appointment as a militia commissioner in December 1648 implies that he had aligned himself politically with the Presbyterians, but it is not known whether he was affected by the purge of this grouping which preceded the king’s trial and execution. Packer died in February 1649, and was buried at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. His son Robert sat for Wallingford three times, starting in 1646.50

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Harl. 7517, f. 88.
  • 2. Soc. Gen., MX/R 205, pp. 12-13, 16; MX/R 207 (unpag.).
  • 3. J. Welch, List of Queen’s Scholars of Westminster Sch. 61 (as Pucker); Al. Cant.
  • 4. Bp. of London Mar. Lics. 1611-1828 ed. G.J. Armytage (Harl. Soc. xxvi), 22.
  • 5. Vis. Berks. (Harl. Soc. lvi), 254; Al. Ox.; Regs. Westminster Abbey ed. J.L. Chester, (Harl. Soc. Regs. x), 65.
  • 6. Soc. Gen. MX/R 207 (unpag.).
  • 7. Harl. 7517, f. 101v.
  • 8. Ibid. f. 88v.
  • 9. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 358; HMC Downshire, v. 510.
  • 10. SP14/90/2; Harl. 7517, f. 90.
  • 11. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 32.
  • 12. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 228.
  • 13. HMC Downshire, vi. 503; HMC 6th Rep. 90.
  • 14. C181/2, f. 331v; A. and O. i. 1191.
  • 15. C212/22/23.
  • 16. CSP Dom. 1635, p. 80.
  • 17. C181/5, ff. 81, 115, 255.
  • 18. A. and O. i. 455, 623, 970, 1078, 1087.
  • 19. Ibid. i. 796, 925, 1191, 1246.
  • 20. Select Charters of Trading Cos. ed. C.T. Carr (Selden Soc. xxviii), 111.
  • 21. CUL, MS Dd.xi.71, f. 31.
  • 22. CPR, 1575-8, p. 372; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 426; Soc. Gen., MX/R 205, p. 12; Harl. 7517, f. 88.
  • 23. E179/142/233; Lansd. 693, ff. 1-13; Harl. 7517, f. 88r-v; HMC Hatfield, viii. 329; Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, i. 319.
  • 24. C66/1658; Winwood’s Memorials, ii. 39, 56; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 199; HMC Hatfield, xxiv. 1; Harl. 7517, ff. 88v, 94.
  • 25. SP75/4, ff. 191-201; Winwood’s Memorials iii. 213, 342; HMC Hatfield, xxi. 281; HMC Downshire, iii. 60, 72; T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, i. 104-5.
  • 26. VCH Wilts. xvi. 95; C66/1624.
  • 27. Chamberlain Letters, 358, 605; HMC Downshire, iv. 6-7, 133, 176, 216, 233, 255, 354; v. 166-7, 510; CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 291, 294; W. McElwee, Murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, 181.
  • 28. Harl. 7517, f. 89v; C66/2116/12.
  • 29. HMC Downshire, vi. 104, 156; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 525; V. Treadwell, Buckingham and Ire. 67; C66/2179/6.
  • 30. HMC Downshire, vi. 619; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 14; Chamberlain Letters, ii. 216, 336-7; R. Lockyer, Buckingham, 69.
  • 31. HMC Downshire, vi. 503; SO3/6-7 unfol.; HMC 2nd Rep. 57, 60; Fortescue Pprs. ed. S.R. Gardiner (Cam. Soc. n.s. i), 159-60, 167-8, 170.
  • 32. PRO 30/53/10/19, 24; Fortescue Pprs. 123, 129; Cent. Kent. Stud. U269/1/ON 14, 189, 7764.
  • 33. C66/2096/15; SO3/5, unfol. (Apr. 1612, Nov. 1613).
  • 34. G.E. Aylmer, King’s Servants, 358; C54/2362/23; 54/2397/33; 54/2434/9; 54/2493/38; VCH Wilts. xvi. 95; Harl. 7517, f. 98.
  • 35. Harl. 7517, ff. 91, 94r-v; HMC 2nd Rep. 57; HMC Exeter, 195; Fortescue Pprs. 180-1; Berks. RO, D/EHY/01, f. 219.
  • 36. C2/Chas.I/P21/58; VCH Berks. iv. 477; VCH Wilts. xvi. 106; E. Hasted, Kent, iii. 292-3.
  • 37. Harl. 7517, ff. 94-5, 96, 98r-v; Berks. RO, D/EHY/01, ff. 347, 349, 351.
  • 38. B.D. Roberts, Mitre and Musket, 124-5; W.K. Jordan, Philanthropy in Eng. 219; C2/Chas.I/D29/24.
  • 39. Lockyer, 114; T. Ball, Life of Dr. Preston ed. E.W. Harcourt, 67.
  • 40. SO3/7, unfol.; BL, HMC Trumbull Transcript VIII.90.
  • 41. Harl. 1581, f. 286; Hasted, iii. 292-3.
  • 42. Harl. 7000, f. 137r-v; SP16/96/36.
  • 43. CD 1628, ii. 383; iii. 22, 61, 301, 328, 367.
  • 44. Ibid. ii. 42, 211, 383; iii. 208, 465, 593; iv. 332.
  • 45. Ibid. ii. 258; iv. 42; vi. 62.
  • 46. Ibid. iii. 215, 468; iv. 127, 180, 187. Packer was also named to bill cttees. on 7, 10 and 17 May: ibid. iii. 300, 355, 466.
  • 47. CJ, i. 931b, 932b; CD 1629, p. 34.
  • 48. CSP Dom. 1639-40, pp. 511, 521-2.
  • 49. HMC 6th Rep. 90; PROB 11/210, ff. 8v-10.
  • 50. Memorials of St. Margaret’s, Westminster ed. A.M. Burke, 621.