RAVENSCROFT, William (1560/1-1628), of Lincoln's Inn, 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. 1560/1, 2nd surv. s. of George Ravenscroft† (d.1591/2) of Bretton, Hawarden, Flints. by Dorothy, da. of John Davies of Hawarden.1 educ. Brasenose, Oxf. 1578, aged 17, BA 1580; L. Inn 1580, called 1589.2 unm. d. 25 Oct.-1 Nov. 1628.3 sig. W[illia]m Rauenscroft.

Offices Held

Clerk of the petty bag, Chancery 1598-d.4

Assoc. bencher, L. Inn 1604-21, bencher 1621-d., treas. 1621-2, librarian 1624-d.5

Commr. survey, G. Inn Fields, Mdx. 1603, annoyances, Mdx. 1613.6


The Ravenscrofts were taxed at £7 in lands at the end of Elizabeth’s reign, placing them in the second rank of Flintshire’s gentry, behind the Mostyns, Hanmers and Pulestons.7 They achieved their greatest influence in county politics when Sir Thomas Egerton†, whose first wife was Ravenscroft’s aunt, held office as lord keeper (1596-1603) and lord chancellor (1603-17): Ravenscroft’s elder brother Thomas was appointed custos rotulorum of Flintshire in 1596, and the MP himself, who had already sat as knight of the shire in 1586, was returned for the county again in 1597 and 1601.8 In local terms, Ravenscroft’s brother would have been a more obvious choice for the seat, but the gentry had no legislative interests during the period, and the MP’s chief qualification may have been his residence at Lincoln’s Inn. Ravenscroft could have anticipated a lucrative legal practice during Egerton’s term of office, but in 1598 he opted for an administrative career as a clerk of the petty bag.9

The Flintshire seat went to Ravenscroft’s second cousin Roger Puleston in 1604, and his nephew Robert Ravenscroft in 1614. On both occasions Ravenscroft was returned for Old Sarum, probably through the efforts of Egerton (newly created Lord Ellesmere), who presumably lobbied one or both of the borough’s rival patrons, the earls of Pembroke and Salisbury (Sir Robert Cecil†). Ellesmere’s death in 1617 closed off this avenue of patronage, but Ravenscroft was returned for Flint Boroughs throughout the 1620s, doubtless with the support of his family: Robert Ravenscroft signed the surviving election indentures of 1620, 1624 and 1628.10

One of Ravenscroft’s most important functions as an MP was to brief friends and patrons about the House’s proceedings. In March 1606 he forwarded Sir John Davies*, a fellow Lincoln’s Inn barrister then serving as Irish solicitor-general, details of the debates on the king’s proposal to naturalize post-nati Scots. He is known to have written to Davies shortly before the opening of the 1604 session, and it is likely that the two men maintained a regular correspondence.11 Ravenscroft also kept Ellesmere and his son, the earl of Bridgwater (John Egerton†), informed about the Commons’ debates. Most of these briefings were probably delivered in person, but a letter from the start of the 1621 session gives details of secretary of state (Sir) George Calvert’s* opening bid for a grant of subsidy, and of the Commons’ resolution on freedom of speech. In the same letter Ravenscroft noted a call for Members to bring in copies of the grievances submitted in former sessions; he had clearly sent copies of these earlier grievances to Ellesmere, as he asked Bridgwater ‘that if mine be obvious your lordship would be pleased to send them me’.12

Although Ravenscroft did not play a significant political role in the Commons, he occasionally contributed to important debates. On 11 Mar. 1606, at the height of the purveyance controversy, his was the sole voice to favour dropping the issue until the following session. He also spoke, to unknown effect, three days later, when the House debated whether to offer additional supply in return for a general composition for purveyance.13 At the third reading of a less radical bill to reform the abuses of purveyance on 25 May 1621, he complained ‘that his cart was taken to go 35 miles for the king’s service’.14 On 3 Mar. 1621, shortly after the monopolist (Sir) Giles Mompesson* absconded while under investigation by the Commons, Ravenscroft was one of the Members who advocated the arrest of Matthias Fowle, Mompesson’s deputy for the gold and silver thread patent, and two days later he supported moves to question the Crown lawyers who had approved the offending patents. The inquiry quickly implicated the Villiers clan, and Ravenscroft may have avoided further involvement for political considerations, as his only other speech on the subject was purely technical, confirming that MPs could waive their parliamentary immunity to testify against the patentees before the Lords.15 Some months later, in a heated debate on the punishment of the Catholic attorney Edward Floyd, who had insulted Princess Elizabeth, Ravenscroft was one of the few who urged that Floyd should not be whipped, but fined £1,000, ‘in respect he is well-born and of good estate’.16

Ravenscroft gave no perceptible support to his departmental chief, lord chancellor St. Alban (Sir Francis Bacon*) during the latter’s impeachment in 1621. He may have felt little obligation towards his superior, as he had intended to remain in Ellesmere’s service when the latter retired from public life in 1617, and proposed to surrender his Chancery office to Sampson Eure* until his patron’s death caused him to reverse his plans.17 He was involved in the debates about law reform which arose from the investigation of judicial corruption: in committee on 7 Apr. 1621 he clarified a technical point about pleading; on 1 May, he assured the House that the master of the rolls (Sir Julius Caesar*) was qualified to remove Sir George Marshall’s* Chancery decree from the file; and on 15 May he suggested that the bill for lawyers’ fees could benefit from the inquiry held by Egerton in 1598.18 More surprisingly, he fuelled discontent over the corrupt practices of the masters in Chancery. On 26 Mar. he stated that fines for alienation of land held in capite had slumped in recent months because of a rise in fees procured by Sir Eubule Thelwall*, one of the masters, which, he alleged, encouraged clients to ‘hold by decree in Chancery, and not care for fines’.19 He attacked the masters once again on 23 Apr. over the excessive fees they charged for reports on lawsuits in Chancery, claiming that

till the lord chancellor [Sir Christopher] Hatton’s† time there was never anything referred to a master in Chancery, and the reason why he referred business to them was because he was a stranger to the law and the proceedings of the Chancery.

He also insisted that the Privy Seal authorising increases in the masters’ fees had passed the Great Seal without due warrant, an assertion which undoubtedly contributed to the Commons’ decision to include the patent in the grievance petition.20

At the start of the 1621 session Ravenscroft informed Bridgwater that there was a general consensus on the need for supply, and observed that ‘I am in good hope we shall proceed roundly to the errands’ a comment which presumably referred to the need to relieve the Elector Palatine. He was apparently more reluctant to support the Palatine benevolence raised after the dissolution, as he was called before the Privy Council in January 1622 to explain his failure to contribute, a summons which elicited a donation of £20.21 He played only a minor role in the passage of the 1624 subsidy bill: towards the end of the key debate of 19 Mar. he advocated deferring a vote on the number of subsidies to be granted to an afternoon session. This motion may have owed as much to a desire to break for lunch as it did to political concerns, but the suggestion cannot have been welcome to those who hoped to use a swift vote of supply as a means of securing a breach with Spain.22 On 12 May, during the bill’s committee stage, he provided one of several precedents for the clause reserving control of the subsidies to treasurers appointed by Parliament. During the Commons’ examination of the same treasurer’s accounts on 1 July 1625, he and a Chancery colleague, Robert Caesar*, were sent ‘to see whether the oath of the treasurer and Council of War be enrolled in Chancery’.23

In his letter to Bridgwater in February 1621, Ravenscroft noted the expulsion of Catholics from London and the Court with satisfaction, but he had very little to do with religious issues in Parliament. In the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot he was twice named to committees for recusancy legislation (27 Mar., 5 Apr. 1606), and in May 1621 he complained about the printing and distribution of Catholic books, a topic he and John Pym managed to include on the list of grievances submitted to the king at the end of the 1624 session.24 Like many common lawyers, he seems to have been instinctively suspicious of the secular pretensions of the clergy. He was one of the committee appointed to investigate ‘an invective sermon’ by a member of Convocation (26 May 1606), and on 1 May 1621, amid accusations that subsidy commissions in county Durham were dominated by clerics, he testified that the lists he received from the lord treasurer (Sir Henry Montagu*) had been altered by Bishop Neile.25 He was also named to the committee for the bill to discourage clergymen from making leases to their families (20 Nov. 1621).

As a lawyer, Chancery official and long-serving MP, Ravenscroft was well qualified to deal with questions of parliamentary privilege and procedure. He was one of those named to draft a justification of the Commons’ claim to adjudicate the Buckinghamshire election case (30 Mar. 1604), and spoke, to unknown effect, in the debate of 8 May 1604 on the punishment of the warden of the Fleet, who had incarcerated Sir Thomas Shirley I in breach of privilege. When a call of the House was proposed on 3 Apr. 1606, Ravenscroft backed Richard Martin’s motion to recall absent Members by a proclamation, and insisted that Speaker Phelips could issue a warrant to draft such a proclamation on his own authority.26 On 23 Apr. 1621, when the House debated whether Sir John Bennett* had to be sent to the Tower while under investigation for corruption, Ravenscroft insisted that ‘we have committed to the Gatehouse and other places within these 30 years, ergo now to the sheriff [of London]’.27 His recommendations were not always heeded: in the debate of 6 Mar. 1621 on the enfranchisement of county Durham he recommended that, like Cheshire, only the county town should return burgesses, a motion that was overturned by Prince Charles’s servants, who insisted upon representation for the Duchy borough of Barnard Castle. Six weeks later, when the House sought to grant the Virginia Company a monopoly of tobacco imports, Ravenscroft advised that legislation would be necessary to impose a ban on other imports, but he was again ignored.28

Like many other lawyers, Ravenscroft was named to a large number of committees for bills which required scrutiny by experienced draftsmen. These included a number of legal and administrative reforms: jointures (26 Feb. 1607), payment of debts (26 Feb. 1607), fees for copying legal documents (12 May 1607), Exchequer procedure for sheriffs’ accounts (15 Mar. 1621, 14 Mar. 1626), restitution of possession in cases of forcible entry (24 Mar. 1621), shortening of the Michaelmas law term (20 Nov. 1621), repeal of the prerogative clause of the 1536 Welsh Act of Union (6 Mar. 1624), prohibition of secret inquisitions post mortem (8 Mar. 1624) and bankruptcy (22 Mar. 1624).29 A further 25 committee appointments concerned legislation of local or private interest, including estate and naturalization bills.30 A handful of these can be connected with Cheshire and north-east Wales, most notably two bills for the enfranchisement of copyholders in the hundreds of Bromfield and Yale, Denbighshire (1 June 1626, 13 June 1628). Other measures which may have been of personal interest to Ravenscroft include the settlement of the estate of the late earl of Derby, which lay in Flintshire, Cheshire and Lancashire (3 June 1607), that for Sir George Booth’s Cheshire lands (24 Mar. 1610), and another bill to allow the master of the rolls, Sir Julius Caesar, to make leases of certain properties (22 Mar. 1624). The extent to which Ravenscroft attended the meetings of any of these committees is unknown, but he is known to have been present at one of the meetings of the committee for another estate bill, confirming the sale of lands in Flintshire and Denbighshire to Sir Francis Lacon* (c.24 Apr. 1624).31

Ravenscroft left little trace on the surviving records of his last two parliaments, perhaps because of failing health: he drafted his will in the summer of 1626, and was ‘visited with an ague’ in May 1627. In a letter of 3 June 1628 he glumly advised Bridgwater

this morning is appointed to consider of His Majesty’s [first] answer [to the Petition of Right] which (albeit beggars should be no choosers, and I ever wished we might have trusted the king’s royal word without these aggravations) yet I see the general voice is either to have more or to do nothing, though it be to their own undoing, which the Lord forbid.

He asked the earl to return his copy of Sir Henry Marten’s speech (doubtless that of 23 May which quashed the Lords’ proposed amendment to the Petition saving the prerogative) and clearly intended to plead for a moderate response to the king’s answer. In the event, Eliot pre-empted the discussion by calling for a remonstrance, and Ravenscroft wisely held his tongue amid the intemperate debates which followed.32

Ravenscroft added a codicil to his will on 25 Oct. 1628, and was dead by 1 Nov., when his successor was sworn in at the petty bag office. Being unmarried, he left his main private income, a 21-year annuity of £400 charged against Bridgwater’s Northamptonshire estates, to his brother Anthony, whom he made his executor. He bequeathed £50-£100 each to his other brothers and their children, £100 to Lincoln’s Inn on condition that the benchers indemnified his estate against two loans for which he had stood surety, and a similar sum to Bridgwater provided the earl discharged Ravenscroft’s estate from liability for £7,000 of his debts. Probate was granted to his brother Anthony on 10 Nov., who thereby secured control of Bridgwater’s annuity and a personal estate worth £5,000; it is hardly surprising that the administration of the will was contested, unsuccessfully, by his brothers Edward and Roger some months later.33

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Dwnn, Vis. Wales ed. S.R. Meyrick, 315-16.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; LI Admiss.
  • 3. PROB 11/154, f. 269v; T.D. Hardy, Officers of Chancery, 127.
  • 4. C216/1/3, 104.
  • 5. LI Black Bks. ii. 85, 220, 225, 248, 281.
  • 6. C181/1, f. 51; 181/2, f. 199v.
  • 7. E179/221/223, 179/221/225, 179/264/42; PROB 11/80, f. 244.
  • 8. Dwnn, Vis. Wales, ii. 315-16; JPs in Wales and Monm. ed. Phillips, 99.
  • 9. Hardy, 12.
  • 10. C219/37/356; 219/38/147; 219/41B/19.
  • 11. HMC Hastings, iv. 1-2; CSP Ire. 1606-8, pp. 127-8.
  • 12. HEHL, EL6470.
  • 13. CJ, i. 282b, 285a; P. Croft, ‘Parl., Purveyance and the City of London’, PH, iv. 28-9.
  • 14. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 104; CJ, 627a; CD 1621, iii. 307.
  • 15. CJ, i. 536a, 539a, 558; CD 1621, ii. 235.
  • 16. CJ, i. 601a; CD 1621, iii. 123; v. 360; vi. 120.
  • 17. Lansd. 163, ff. 278, 280.
  • 18. CD 1621, ii. 283, 334-5, 367; iv. 214; v. 126; CJ, i. 599b; HMC 2nd Rep. 89-90.
  • 19. CJ, i. 575b; CD 1621, iv. 199; v. 323; Kyle thesis, 184-5.
  • 20. Nicholas, i. 305, 335; CD 1621, ii. 315; iii. 61, 97; CJ, i. 594a.
  • 21. HEHL, EL6470; SP14/127/48, 14/156/14.
  • 22. CJ, i. 743b; Holles 1624, p. 46; T. Cogswell, Blessed Revolution, 211. ‘Hawarde 1624’, p. 219 and ‘Holland 1624’, f. 65 garble this speech.
  • 23. ‘Earle 1624’, f. 181v; Procs. 1625, p. 283.
  • 24. HEHL, EL6470; CJ, i. 290b, 294a, 607b, 709b, 712b; CD 1621, iii. 162; iv. 302; ‘Earle 1624’, ff. 190v, 195; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 246.
  • 25. CJ, i. 312b, 599b; CD 1621, iii. 113.
  • 26. CJ, i. 160a, 293a, 967a.
  • 27. Ibid. 588a; Nicholas, i. 301; CD 1621, iii. 58; v. 92.
  • 28. CJ, i. 539b, 581b; CD 1621, v. 28; Nicholas, i. 271.
  • 29. CJ, i. 342b, 343a, 373a, 555a, 572a, 641a, 679b, 730a, 836b.
  • 30. For the bills not mentioned below, see ibid. 198b (Kinloss), 210a, 238b, 447a (Bergavenny), 270a, 271a (Ognell), 1010a (Soham manor), 351a (Desmaistres), 356a (Sackville), 372b (Ibgrave), 398a, 403a (Minehead harbour), 417a (Brooke restitution), 417b (Mildmay), 445b (Damerham manor), 483a (Stolyon), 551b (earl of Holderness), 559b (Lesieur), 598b (Cloughe), 688a (Wharton), 772a (Apothecaries), 883b (Ld. Morley), 893a (Ld. Gerard).
  • 31. Ibid. 378a, 414a, 774b, 865a, 913a; HLRO, main pprs. 20 May 1624.
  • 32. Northants. RO, EB629; CD 1628, iii. 572-80 (Marten’s speech); C. Russell, PEP, 373, 377-82.
  • 33. PROB 11/154, f. 269; 11/155, f. 130; Hardy, 127; C2/Chas.I/W89/62.