ROLLE, Henry (c.1590-1656), of the Inner Temple, London; later of Black and White Court, Old Bailey, London and Shapwick, Som.

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.1590,1 2nd s. of Robert Rolle (d.1633) of Heanton Satchville, Petrockstow, Devon and Joan, da. of Thomas Hele of Flete, Devon; bro. of Sir Samuel* and John*.2 educ. Exeter Coll. Oxf. 1607 (aged 17); I. Temple 1609, called 1617.3 m. 5 Apr. 1627, Margaret, da. of Thomas Bennett of St. Pancras, Soper Lane, London, Mercer and alderman, 1s.4 d. 30 July 1656.5 sig. Hen[ry] Rolle.

Offices Held

Fee’d counsel, Liskeard, Cornw. by 1625-at least 1636, London 1636;6 bencher, I. Temple 1633, Lent reader 1638;7 recorder, Dorchester, Dorset, 1636-47;8 sjt.-at-law 1640;9 common pleader, London 1644-5;10 j.k.b. 1645-8, c.j.k.b. 1648-9, c.j. Upper Bench 1649-55;11 justice of assize, Western circ. 1646, 1650, 1654-5, Midland circ. 1647-8, Norf. circ. 1649, 1652-3.12

Commr. oyer and terminer, Western circ. 1641-2, 1654-d.,13 London 1654-d.,14 Mdx. 1654,15 Thetford, Norf. 1654,16 Oxf. circ. 1654-5, Home circ. 1654-5, Midland circ. 1654-5, Norf. circ. 1654-5, Northern circ. 1654-5,17 array, Devon 1642,18 j.p. 1643 (roy.), from 1647,19 Eng. and Wales 1649-55;20 commr. assessment, Som. 1644,21 sewers, London 1654, Som. 1654, Westminster 1656,22 gaol delivery, Thetford Norf. 1654, Ely, Cambs. 1655, Newgate, London 1655-6.23

Licenser of printing, 1643;24 cllr. of state 1649-53;25 commr. Treasury 1654-5.26

Elder, Wells and Bruton classis, Som. 1648.27


Rolle was one of the most distinguished lawyers of his generation. His contemporary (Sir) Matthew Hale† thought him ‘a man of very great natural abilities, of a ready and clear understanding, strong memory, sound, deliberate and steady judgment, ... of great freedom from passions and perturbations, of great temperance and moderation’. During the 1620s he was also a highly regarded figure in the Commons, although he never aspired to parliamentary leadership. Rolle entered the Inner Temple in 1609, and embraced his legal training with enthusiasm. His fellow students included John Selden* and a future lord keeper (Edward Littleton II*), attorney-general (Edward Herbert*) and recorder of London (Thomas Gardiner†); Rolle is said to have regularly met them for informal discussions about legal questions. Called to the bar in 1617, he resolved early on to concentrate on the Common Law, and in due course attached himself almost exclusively to King’s Bench. During his first few years there he made extensive reports of cases which, although intended only for his private use, were to be published posthumously as his Abridgment ... del Common Ley.28

In 1621 Rolle was elected to Parliament at Callington, where his father controlled a seat.29 Most of his contributions to the Commons’ business were, unsurprisingly, linked to legal issues. During the debate on 13 Apr. on Capt. North’s petition for relief against the Spanish ambassador, he cited a precedent from King’s Bench. He also questioned the legality of a Chancery decree which appeared to condone the sale of honours (27 Apr.), and on 7 May outlined some practical disadvantages implicit in Lepton’s patent for engrossing bills for lawsuits before the Council in the North.30 His legal skills doubtless explain why, in his very first Parliament, he was appointed to help draft the revised bill to give the Trinity House of Deptford sole right to erect lighthouses (18 April). Judging from his statement on 7 May, he completed the task by himself. He was subsequently added to the bill committee (12 May), and on 26 May delivered its interim report to the House.31 In the second sitting, he observed that the bill against the transportation of wool and other materials left it unclear which court should deal with offenders (30 November). He was also named to bill committees to consider the revival of the use of writs ad quod damnum, and to confirm decrees made by the duchy of Lancaster Court (21 Nov. and 1 December).32 In addition, he was named or added to bill committees concerned with extortions by customs officials, cloth manufacture and the Frith family’s estates (7, 24 and 26 May).33

Returned for Callington once again in 1624, Rolle remained attentive to legal issues. On 17 Apr. he was appointed to a bill committee concerned with the creditors of people who died while being prosecuted, and during the debate on the York House bill on 28 May, he expressed concern that not all interested parties had been consulted. Two days earlier he reported the recent Lords’ amendments to the bill for restricting the right to remove lawsuits from inferior to central courts. He was also named to the legislative committee concerning the continuance of expiring statutes (25 March). Rolle delivered the committee report on Sir Edward Engeham’s estate bill (1 May), and was nominated or added to committees which scrutinized three other estate measures, along with the bill to restore Carew Ralegh in blood.34 However, Rolle’s involvement in general business also greatly increased during this Parliament, particularly in the fields of trade and finance. On 3 Apr. he was appointed to help examine documents submitted for inspection by the Merchant Adventurers, and to report back to the grand committee for trade, which was considering whether the Company’s privileges were damaging the economy. Four days later he was nominated to attend a conference with the Lords about the monopolies bill.35 Rolle took a particular interest in the Commons’ attack on the pretermitted custom. At the trade committee on 6 Apr., he trawled up medieval precedents to cast doubt on whether the king was entitled to collect this duty, which had been introduced without parliamentary sanction. He returned to the attack on 13 Apr., in his first speech to be recorded at length by the Commons’ diarists. Starting with the overtly modest comment, ‘among lawyers ye puny first begins’, he drew extensively on legislation and events from the fourteenth century onwards to argue that the pretermitted custom could not derive any legal foundation from existing statutes. Not surprisingly, on 5 May Rolle was included among the Members instructed to set down in writing the reasons for the Commons’ opposition to the duty, and on 19 May he was particularly requested to help prepare a petition on the subject.36 On 10 Apr. he was nominated to the committee to draft amendments to the subsidy bill after it had been criticized by the Lords. Although not personally named to two bill committees for regulating inns, Rolle presumably ended up chairing them, since he delivered their reports on 26 April. He was also appointed to review changes to a bill for reforming abuses practised by Crown agents searching for concealed lands which might be liable to feudal dues (22 May). Although not named to the committee for the bill to enfranchise county Durham, he attended one of its meetings.37

In the 1625 parliamentary elections Rolle’s kinsman, Thomas Wise, took the family seat at Callington, and he himself found a place at Truro, where his brother-in-law, Hugh Boscawen, was recorder.38 Rolle may have served on the prestigious committee of privileges this year, although no list of its members survives. Certainly he began to interest himself in the committee’s business. When the Yorkshire election dispute was reported to the Commons on 4 and 5 July, he was highly critical of the sheriff’s behaviour, which he successfully argued had rendered the election void. In the debate concerning Sir William Cope, a Member who had been arrested after the prorogation of the 1624 Parliament and then re-elected, Rolle displayed confusion about the finer workings of parliamentary privilege. However, he observed correctly that Arthur Bassett’s election in 1625 was valid because of the legal process under which Bassett had been detained (23 June and 8 July). Rolle supported the awarding of privilege in both these instances, probably out of a desire to uphold established procedures. Indeed, he took this consideration so seriously that he opposed a bill which would have clarified the Commons’ concern that parliamentary sessions could be ended when the monarch assented to legislation, on the grounds that its provisions broke with convention. He also feared that extended adjournments could tempt Members to abuse their privilege (5 and 7 July).39 He took an equally inflexible stand on 9 July against a petition from debtors imprisoned in the Fleet, who sought their release because of the plague, insisting that the law barred such a move regardless of circumstances. Precedent, however, was a double-edged sword, and in a sign of his future radicalism Rolle deployed medieval examples on 5 July to oppose a life grant of Tunnage and Poundage to Charles I, contrary to recent custom.40

This Parliament saw Rolle’s first nominations to bill committees concerned with the Church. These aimed to prevent abuses on the Sabbath and to allow ministers to take leases of farmland (22 June and 11 July). Of course, both issues had legal overtones, and the law remained a significant theme in Rolle’s parliamentary career. On 24 June he introduced a bill dealing with administrations, but the measure proceeded no further and its details are lost. He was also named to legislative committees concerned with writs of partition of land, bribery in procuring judicial posts, and the sale of estates belonging to the 4th earl of Dorset (Sir Edward Sackville*) (27 and 29 June, and 8 July).41 Curiously, when a committee was established on 25 June to consider a bill on petty larceny, a motion to include all the lawyers in the House except Rolle was noted in the Commons Journal; no explanation for this has emerged. On 8 July Rolle was again appointed to a joint conference with the Lords, this time to address the Fleet prisoners’ petition. He also felt sufficiently confident of his standing in the House to second a proposal on 9 July that the Commons should wind up their business in readiness for Parliament’s adjournment.42

Rolle attended the Oxford sitting, and there revealed a scepticism about Charles I which went well beyond his previous comments on taxation. On 10 Aug. he sided with those Members who questioned the king’s claim that parliamentary supply was urgently needed for the forthcoming military adventure. Rolle insisted that the Crown could obtain adequate credit for this, and he ridiculed the notion that foreign victories could be expected from a navy which was unable to stop Turkish pirates from raiding the English coast. Echoing Sir Robert Phelips, he argued: ‘If the necessity for money [is] now so great, this [is] our time to press for redress [of] our grievances’. By this Rolle seems to have meant concerns already voiced in the House about religion, royal extravagance and the position of the duke of Buckingham, but as a West Country man he clearly took the threat from the Turks seriously. When he returned to the attack the next day, he noted the old convention that Tunnage and Poundage was intended to be spent on guarding the seas, and reminded the House that in Edward III’s reign English merchants had offered to protect themselves in return for receiving these revenues.43

In the 1626 Parliament Rolle again represented Truro, while his merchant brother John took the family seat at Callington. Surviving records of the Commons’ proceedings fail to distinguish between the two men, but while John was entering the House for the first time, Rolle was now one of its more familiar figures, and there can be little doubt that he was the more active party. Certainly all nominations to committees concerned with legal business must be assigned to him. There were six of these, covering corruption in the choice of officeholders (14 Feb.), a Chancery decree (2 Mar.), grants of administration (7 Mar.), erroneous judgments in the equity courts (27 Mar.), an old deed drawn up for Thomas Cecil†, 1st earl of Exeter (24 May), and citations out of ecclesiastical courts (17 March). Rolle contributed to a debate on this last measure on 18 Apr., explaining that part of the proposed legislation was founded on the 1604 Canons. On the previous day he recommended Elizabethan ecclesiastical statutes as the proper guide for assessing Richard Montagu’s controversial tract Appello Caesarem, while refraining from more direct criticism of the work. On 24 May he was appointed to help draft a bill to curb Crown interventions during proceedings in the prerogative courts, though nothing further was heard of this.44 It seems highly likely that it was Rolle who received nine nominations concerned with private legislation, since he had handled such business before. Indeed, one of the matters before the House was a bill to restore Carew Ralegh (24 March), an issue to which Rolle had been linked in 1624.45

Given his previous record in the Commons, it can safely be assumed that it was Rolle who was added to the committee of privileges on 11 Feb., and it follows from this that other mentions of privilege and elections probably also refer to him. On 16 Feb., reviewing the case of Emmanuel Giffard, whose claim of privilege rested on the assertion that his election indenture bore an inaccurate date, Rolle recommended acceptance of this plea providing that the facts were confirmed, noting that any other decision would encourage further false returns. However, on 24 Mar. he delivered the negative verdict of the committee which investigated the election while in prison of Sir Thomas Monck. With his old friends Selden and Littleton he was named to a select committee on 25 Feb. to consider the bishop of Oxford’s breach of privilege in prosecuting Sir Henry Marten, and he was nominated or added to committees which examined the similar cases of Sir Henry Hastings and John More II (22 May). Rolle was also appointed on 2 Mar. to a bill committee addressing the due election of knights of the shire. Controversially, he argued on 14 Feb. in the committee of privileges that the custom which prevented serving sheriffs from sitting in Parliament, recently exploited by Charles I to keep Sir Edward Coke* out of the Commons, lacked statutory force, and might perhaps in this case be ignored.46

This was a bold stance to take in the circumstances, but the critical attitude towards the government which Rolle had revealed in 1625 was undiminished. On 8 Mar. he analysed the wording of the 1624 Subsidy Act, which he had helped to draft, to confirm that the Commons might demand a more satisfactory account from the Council of War of how the money raised had been spent. It was presumably also Rolle himself who referred back to another 1624 Act on 7 June to argue that the Council of War ought to settle debts owed to English subjects before paying out money due to the king’s banker, Philip Burlamachi.47 Predictably, Rolle supported the attack on the duke of Buckingham. When the king threatened to punish Samuel Turner for levelling charges against the duke in the Commons, Rolle was among those sent on 21 Mar. to check for precedents. As the confrontation with the Crown over this incident developed, he proposed an additional clause for the Remonstrance defending the Commons’ behaviour (4 April). Although initially he was concerned to establish the basis of Turner’s claims (22 Mar.), he invoked medieval parallels on 22 Apr. to justify Buckingham’s impeachment on the strength of common fame only. When, on 1 May, the Commons debated whether the duke’s stay of the St. Peter might constitute a further grievance to be used against him, Rolle deployed a fifteenth-century legal anecdote to support his opinion that the ship had been detained illegally, and that Buckingham had exceeded his powers as lord admiral. This particular intervention makes it more likely that it was Rolle, rather than his brother, who had earlier been appointed to a committee to examine the Admiralty Court’s proceedings over the St. Peter and to consider the seizure of merchandise in France (23 February). Rolle was appointed on 3 May to assist with the preparation of formal charges against the duke, while six days later he was named to the committee which was to decide how to request Buckingham’s imprisonment by the Lords. He also chaired the committee of the whole House on 13 May which debated how to respond to the arrest of Sir Dudley Digges* over remarks made during his impeachment speech.48

The most difficult field in which to tell the two brothers apart is that of economic matters. John could offer the Commons the benefit of his experience as a London merchant, but there is evidence to suggest that it was Rolle who actually dealt with most business. For example, on 27 Apr. the Mr. Rolle who called for the summons of customs officials who were collecting Tunnage and Poundage without parliamentary authority included procedural advice to the House in his speech. Similarly, the politically sensitive proposals for a new Book of Rates are unlikely to have been entrusted to a novice Member.49 Three committees for reviewing the wages of mariners and labourers consisted largely of lawyers (2 and 22 Mar., and 15 Apr.), and there were significant legal aspects to bills committed on 18 Feb. and 1 June, which were designed to punish the patentees Edmund Nicholson and Sir Robert Sharpeigh.50 It must surely have been Rolle who was named to select committees on 25 May to prepare a bill to regulate deputy alnagers, and to assemble a list of economic grievances for presentation to the king. He may also have been appointed to help draft a measure on the preservation of timber for shipping (14 Mar.), and if he was nominated to the bill committee for promoting trade in America, he also reported its conclusions (28 Feb. and 4 March). It is possible that it was he who alerted the Commons on 27 Apr. to a court case which affected the merchandise of another Member, John Delbridge, as this raised a question of parliamentary privilege.51 Almost certainly it was Rolle who was once again named to help draft the subsidy bill, along with measures concerned with the upbringing of recusants’ children, and the prevention of contagion (24 Mar., 29 Apr. and 5 May).52 In a handful of other appointments, it is impossible to judge between Rolle and his brother.53

Rolle retained his Truro seat in 1628, and was again joined at Westminster by his brother. Just as in the previous Parliament, the records generally fail to distinguish clearly between them, except for three occasions when they were named to the same committee. On 13 June they were appointed to consider rival petitions from the London Goldsmiths and Exchangers concerned with regulation of the exchange market, and another double nomination followed the next day, involving Henry Billingsley’s petition about the transportation of foreign post. One week earlier, both men had been named to the committee for drafting the preamble of the subsidy bill.54 The fact that John was now demonstrably playing a more active role in the Commons actually renders the overall question of identification more problematic. Undoubtedly Rolle himself continued to be named to committees which handled legal issues. These included bills concerned with excommunication, clergymen serving as magistrates, the procurement of legal posts, and a Chancery decree (14, 21 and 23 Apr., and 10 May). Rolle was also appointed to examine a patent for the office of the register of sales to retailing brokers, and a petition about the granting of administrations (17 and 18 June).55 Certain interventions on legal questions may also be attributed to Rolle. On 25 Apr. he summarized the legal complexities underlying a dispute involving the City of London. He lectured the Commons on 12 May about court practice in cases of contempt, in relation to the summons issued to Cornish deputy lieutenants. Four days later he expressed concern that a legal provision in the bill against scandalous ministers might permit abuses of power by magistrates. On 30 May he dared to dispute Sir Edward Coke’s claims that Sir Thomas Monson’s patent for making bills was illegal. However, he probably mystified many Members on 16 June with his contribution to a debate on the maintenance of the clergy: ‘If the heir of a disseisor of an impropriation present, he is seised by title. Say that cognizees have title to a presentation, and the party that is seised do present, this takes away the title of the cognizee’.56 Although John Rolle received at least one committee nomination for private legislation, the bulk of this business was probably again directed to Rolle himself. However, if he did serve on the committee for the estate bill of the 2nd earl of Devonshire (Sir William Cavendish I*), appointed on 21 Apr., he was unhappy with its proceedings. Although on 10 May he backed a request by the chairman, John Glanville, for the measure to be re-committed for an erroneous detail to be corrected, on 10 June he criticized its main objective, the breaking of an entail which benefited the earl’s infant son, arguing that the courts always sought to protect children until they came of age. On 19 Apr. he also found fault with the Bromfield and Yale tenants’ bill for giving incomplete accounts of certain letters patent, and recommended that it be replaced with a new version.57

Although Rolle was not named to the committee of privileges in this Parliament, he apparently retained his interest in privilege cases. On 1 Apr. he was appointed to two bill committees concerned with oaths taken by Members upon admission to the Commons. He was also nominated on 14 Apr. to help investigate the reported slandering of John Selden by the 2nd earl of Suffolk (Theophilus Howard*), though he failed to participate.58 Similarly, it must have been Rolle who threw himself into the confrontation with Charles I over the liberties of the subject. During the habeas corpus debate on 1 Apr. he clarified an old legal opinion which appeared to be a stumbling block to the Commons’ proposals. Two days later he was named to help plan Members’ next steps in this campaign, while on 4 Apr. he was appointed to assist Sir Edward Coke during the conference at which the Commons’ resolutions on liberties were presented to the Lords.59 Rolle was nominated to the committee to prepare a bill on impressment (3 Apr.), and he encouraged the Commons to suspend one Member, John Baber, who was accused of abuses in billeting (9 April). In his longest recorded speech, delivered on 18 Apr., Rolle laid out an immense set of legal precedents which defined the proper workings of martial law, and cast doubt on whether it should be employed among billeted troops. Any resort to it except in the context of active warfare was firmly condemned: ‘the inheritance of every man is the Common Law. The nature of the martial law is another thing’. He returned to the attack on 7 May, pointing out that a commission for martial law in Hampshire had been so worded as to allow its implementation during peacetime.60

Rolle was appointed to a further conference with the Lords about liberties on 23 Apr., and to the committee for the bill declaring Parliament’s privileges five days later. On 29 Apr., during the debate on the bill for subjects’ liberties, he stressed the importance of a cause being specified in warrants of imprisonment, to maximize the means of redress available to the prisoner concerned. He was alarmed by the king’s warning on 2 May that he would not tolerate any encroachment upon the royal prerogative, and argued the next day that Charles must be reassured on this point immediately, otherwise continued work on the bill would simply anger him further. At the same time, he did not want the Commons to concede too much ground: ‘let us not bind up ourselves in a way as though we would ask nothing else of him’. On 5 May the king reiterated his refusal to accept an explanatory bill of liberties, effectively wrecking this strategy, and Rolle joined calls for debate on Charles’s speech to be delayed for a day, to allow time for its implications to be absorbed.61 He evidently took a keen interest in the Petition of Right which replaced the bill of liberties, and was named on 13 May to help set down in writing the Commons’ reasons for rejecting all but one of the Lords’ proposed amendments to the Petition. On 24 May he objected to the peers’ proposal for a joint committee to resolve the remaining points of dispute: ‘if this privilege belong to the Lords it is a great prejudice to us. ... When they will not join with us in anything, it must presently be referred to a select committee to find out an accommodation’. He was also appointed to the conference to agree on the Petition’s title (20 June).62 Rolle was named on 3 June to the committee to draft charges against Richard Burgess, the anti-puritan vicar of Witney. On 14 June, during the debate on the Remonstrance against Buckingham, he clarified Selden’s proposal that the king should be advised to dismiss the favourite, proposing instead that Charles should be invited to consider whether the duke was a fit man to exercise such power.63 Alongside these dramas, the subsidy bill continued to be dangled as bait for the king, and Rolle, in addition to helping to draft it, regularly participated in its progress. It is unclear whether he or his brother took offence at the filibustering during the debate on 31 May. However, Rolle himself was named with other lawyers on 17 June to report from the conference concerning the Lords’ objections to the bill’s wording, and later that day he recommended that the peers’ proposed amendment be adopted. Ever the stickler for small-print, he expressed reservations on 9 June about the abbreviated bill for continuance of expiring statutes which had been drawn up to save time as the session drew to a close.64 A few other minor items of business could equally well be assigned to Rolle or his brother.65

Although Rolle cannot be seen as a leader of the Commons in either 1626 or 1628, he had certainly lent his firm support to the cause of reform. It is therefore astonishing that when controversy erupted around his brother John in the 1629 session, combining as it did elements of privilege, unparliamentary taxation and the liberty of subjects’ goods, he took no known part in the resultant debates. The motive for his reticence is unclear. If he felt unease at the tactics adopted by the House he might reasonably have said so. One possible consideration is the fact that one of the king’s principal spokesmen, Sir Humphrey May, was his uncle by marriage, though this had not noticeably restrained Rolle during the previous session.66 Whatever the reason, his performance in 1629 was decidedly low-key. Either he or John was appointed on 30 Jan. to help check whether the text of the Petition of Right entered in official records included the king’s second, and fuller answer. On 14 Feb. it was presumably Rolle who was named to a committee for examining the case of Sir John Hippesley, a Member who had been petitioned against in the Lords, in breach of his privilege. Beyond this, the sum of his business in the House was a small selection of committee nominations to legal or estate bills, covering a Court of Wards decree, a Chancery dispute, the settlement of the London Charterhouse foundation, corrupt presentations to benefices, and one John Fleming’s lands (19-21 and 23 February).67

During the 1620s Rolle had gradually taken on more prominent tasks at the Inner Temple, such as auditing the steward’s accounts, and by the end of this decade he was also attracting attention in King’s Bench. According to Hale, Rolle ‘argued frequently and pertinently; his arguments were fitted to prove and evince, not for ostentation; ... his words few, but significant and weighty; his skill, judgment and advice in points of law and pleading ... sound and excellent.’68 He evidently accepted some briefs for other courts, since he drafted a Chancery bill for one of his kinsmen in 1626. He must also have been making a comfortable income from his practice, since he began to invest in land, particularly in Somerset. In 1626 he paid £3,500 for Wookey manor, though some of this money may have been borrowed from his family, and by around 1630 he had acquired Shapwick manor, where he built himself a house. A third manor in the same district was purchased in 1634.69 Rolle’s burgeoning reputation was confirmed in 1633 by his election to the bench of the Inner Temple, alongside his student contemporary Selden. He was chosen as the autumn reader for 1636, but his lectures were delayed by outbreaks of plague until Lent 1638, when he discussed the law of recognizances.70 By now his services were being retained by the corporation of London, and he was also recorder of Dorchester, an appointment which must have been based on his fame as a lawyer since he possessed no other discernible ties with the town. In June 1640 Rolle received his first significant government promotion, becoming a serjeant-at-law. As part of the admission ceremony new serjeants were expected to show off their legal skills in mock hearings between two parties of their own nomination. For his debate on the brief de quo jure, Rolle secured the assistance of the marquess of Winchester and the 10th earl of Northumberland (Algernon Percy, Lord Percy*). Whether he had previously worked for either peer is not known, but in 1636 he had provided advice for the Butler family, earls of Ormonde.71

As the Civil War approached, Rolle’s radical streak resurfaced. In 1639 he apparently declined to lend money towards the king’s expedition against the Scots. At the outbreak of hostilities in England he was one of the 13 serjeants-at-law who sided with Parliament, which duly sought his further promotion. The propositions presented to Charles I in February 1643 included a request for Rolle to become a justice of King’s Bench, and he was finally sworn in two years later.72 As the lord chief justice, (Sir) Robert Heath*, had been suspended, Rolle soon emerged as the dominant figure in the court, adjusting smoothly to the requirements of his new office. As Hale recorded,

he was a patient, attentive, and observing hearer, and was content to bear with some impertinences rather than lose anything that might discover the truth or justice of any cause. ... He ever carried on as well his search and examination as his directions and decisions with admirable steadiness, evenness, and clearness: great experience rendered business easy and familiar unto him, so that he gave convenient dispatch, yet without precipitancy or surprise.

In October 1648, the Commons voted for Rolle to become chief justice himself, and although the House of Lords initially balked at the idea he received his commission the following month.73

The timing of Rolle’s appointment was significant. Although he had been a consistent supporter of the parliamentary cause, his instincts lay with the conservative elements who held sway in the Commons during the autumn of 1648, not with the more radical Rump which survived Pride’s Purge that December. Rolle refused to preside over the king’s trial, and nursed serious reservations about the abolition of the House of Lords.74 Nevertheless, barely a week after Charles I’s execution he agreed to serve under the Commonwealth, one of only six judges to do so, in return for a declaration that Parliament would uphold England’s fundamental laws. On 13 Feb. 1649 he was also numbered among the eminent lawyers recruited to the new Council of State to lend it a greater air of respectability. During the following summer he encouraged the inns of court to resume their readings, and subsequently, when touring the country as a circuit judge, made it his practice to reassure his juries about the government’s legitimacy.75 Rolle’s principal concern was probably preservation of the rule of law, and despite belonging to the Council of State for more than four years he attended its meetings very infrequently, even during the two periods in 1652 when he served as its president.76 In October 1649 he was added to the Council’s committee for the restoration of public order, and naturally he was included in several other committees concerned with legal affairs. He was also called on at intervals to draft legislation on subjects ranging from the export of bullion to religious conformity, and had numerous legal problems referred to him. Nevertheless, except for rare occasions such as his summons in May 1651 to a Council debate on Oliver Cromwell’s* campaign in Scotland, there is little evidence that he participated in political business.77

Rolle lost his place in the central executive when the Rump was dissolved in 1653, though he was appointed a treasury commissioner in the following year. He remained lord chief justice until 1655, and during his final years in this post presided over his most controversial cases. In November 1653 a gang led by the Portuguese ambassador’s brother, Dom Pantaleon Sa, murdered a lawyer at the New Exchange on the Strand, Westminster. Rolle ordered Sa’s committal and, contrary to precedent, ruled during the trial in July 1654 that he was not entitled to diplomatic immunity, because he was not actually the ambassador and the offence was of a criminal nature. Sa was duly convicted and executed.78 Another case in 1654 harked back to the constitutional arguments of the 1620s. A Capt. Streather, who had offended the government, was imprisoned by two separate warrants, one from the Council of State, the other from Parliament, neither of which specified a charge. When Streather sued out a habeas corpus in King’s Bench, arguing that he was detained illegally, Rolle threw out the Council’s warrant, thereby overturning a precedent from 1627 and upholding the principles of the Petition of Right. However, in a landmark verdict, he decreed that the second, parliamentary warrant could not be challenged in a court of law, because the legislature was the country’s supreme judicial body.79

On 12 Mar. 1655 Rolle was at Salisbury for the assizes when the city was seized by royalists in the opening phase of Penruddock’s rising. Dragged from his bed, he was threatened with summary execution until Penruddock himself intervened to save his life. Although Clarendon states that Rolle was released forthwith, it appears that he was in fact detained for two days until government forces reached Salisbury, and he emerged from his ordeal badly shaken. He was named to the commission of oyer and terminer for trying the rebels, but refused to participate in the hearings on the grounds that his status as a victim of the royalists rendered him unfit to deliver impartial judgments. He was probably also instrumental in having the general indictment reduced from treason to the levying of war against the government, contrary to the wishes of attorney-general Edmund Prideaux†. He further irritated his masters by insisting on the recovery of horses taken from him at Salisbury.80 Indeed, Rolle’s independence of mind was becoming inconvenient for Cromwell. At around this time he dismissed a suit of debt recovery brought by the commissioners for the sale of prize goods, on the grounds that they lacked the requisite documentation to enforce payment. In May 1655 he finally went too far. In a case with strong echoes of John Rolle’s battle in 1628-9, the merchant George Cony had refused to pay customs which had not been granted by Parliament. When the disputed dues were taken by force, Cony sued the collector in the Upper Bench, his lawyers arguing that the Ordinances which authorized the customs lacked binding force. At stake here was the legality not only of Cromwell’s powers of taxation, but of the Instrument of Government, which underpinned the Ordinances. While aware of these implications, Rolle hesitated to rule against Cony, and was promptly summoned before the Council on 18 May. The case was rapidly adjourned to the following term, and Rolle, finding his position untenable, resigned as chief justice in early June. This action seems to have mollified the government, and he retained his other offices.81

Rolle died on 30 July 1656, and was buried at Shapwick in early September. His finances were presumably still healthy, since he had bought the manor of East Tytherley in Hampshire two years earlier.82 Rolle’s will, drawn up on 2 July 1656, dealt principally with his provisions for his wife, who was to receive £200 and the lease and contents of his London home, in addition to the income from her jointure. Sums of £10 were left to the parishes of St. Sepulchre, London, and Shapwick. The residue of his estate was bequeathed to his only son Francis, who represented Somerset in Parliament that year, and sat for Bridgwater and Hampshire after the Restoration.83 The Abridgment of Rolle’s reports, which contains an engraving of him in his judge’s robes, was published in 1668, and a second compilation, Reports of divers cases in the Court of King’s Bench, appeared seven years later. Both, in their day, were highly regarded.84

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Al. Ox.
  • 2. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 654.
  • 3. Al. Ox.; I. Temple Admiss.; CITR, ii. 100.
  • 4. GL, ms 5015; Le Neve’s Peds. of Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 30; Vis. London (Harl. Soc. xcii), 65; A.B. Beaven, Aldermen of London, ii. 53.
  • 5. Vivian, 654.
  • 6. Cornw. RO, B/LIS/280, 289; CLRO, Reps. 50, f. 102.
  • 7. CITR, ii. 208, 236, 241.
  • 8. Dorset RO, DC/DOB/16/3, ff. 27v-8, 34v.
  • 9. Order of Sjts.-at-Law ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. v), 187.
  • 10. CLRO, Reps. 57, ff. 235v-6, 240v.
  • 11. Order of Sjts.-at-Law, 534.
  • 12. J.S. Cockburn, Hist. of Eng. Assizes, 272-4.
  • 13. C181/5, ff. 189v, 221v; 181/6, pp. 8, 167.
  • 14. C181/6, pp. 1, 159.
  • 15. Ibid. 3, 63.
  • 16. Ibid. 66.
  • 17. Ibid. 10, 12, 4, 16-17, 85, 87, 89, 91, 93.
  • 18. Northants. RO, FH133.
  • 19. Devon RO, QS 28/1-3, 5-7.
  • 20. C193/13/3, 4; C181/6, p. 73, 96; JPs in Wales and Monm. ed. Phillips, 12-13, 31, 49-50, 76, 111, 144, 169-70, 196-7, 218-9, 241, 272-3, 301-2, 334-5, 359-60.
  • 21. A. and O. i. 545.
  • 22. C181/6, pp. 4, 74, 175.
  • 23. C181/6, pp. 71, 100, 112, 159.
  • 24. A. and O. i. 186.
  • 25. A. and O. ii. 2, 335, 500; CSP Dom. 1651-2, xlvii; 1652-3, xxxiii.
  • 26. CSP Dom. 1654, p. 284; 1655, p. 173.
  • 27. W. Prynne, Som. Divided into Several Classes (1648), p. 7.
  • 28. H. Rolle, Abridgment des Plusieurs Cases et Resolutions del Common Ley (1668), i-ii; Ath. Ox. iii. 416.
  • 29. C2/Jas.I/R4/25.
  • 30. CD 1621, iv. 225; v. 108, 152; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 251.
  • 31. CD 1621, ii. 395; iii. 321; v. 333; CJ, i. 611a, 619a, 628a.
  • 32. CJ, i. 641b, 653b, 654a; CD 1621, vi. 215.
  • 33. CJ, i. 611b, 625b, 627b.
  • 34. Ibid. 694b, 750b, 754b, 758a, 761b, 775a, 769b, 781b, 795a; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 236.
  • 35. CJ, i. 754b, 757b.
  • 36. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 116v; Holles 1624, p. 78; ‘Spring 1624’, p. 214; ‘Pym 1624’, f. 62v-3, 88; CJ, i. 698b, 706b, 765a.
  • 37. CJ, i. 762a, 775a, 793a; C.R. Kyle, ‘Attendance Lists’, PPE 1604-48 ed. Kyle, 211.
  • 38. Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 47.
  • 39. Procs. 1625, pp. 227, 301, 315, 317, 341, 348.
  • 40. Ibid. 314, 360, 363.
  • 41. Ibid. 215, 238, 253, 269, 349, 368.
  • 42. Ibid. 245, 347, 358.
  • 43. Ibid. 445, 448-9, 451, 460.
  • 44. Procs. 1626, ii. 32, 175, 216, 307, 375; iii. 10, 16, 317-18.
  • 45. Ibid. ii. 21, 69, 134, 158, 278, 356; iii. 189, 339-40.
  • 46. Ibid. ii. 21, 36-7, 40, 54, 56, 125, 177, 339, 356; iii. 72, 301.
  • 47. Ibid. ii. 231, 233; iii. 388.
  • 48. Ibid. ii. 103 n. 11, 104, 327, 344, 427; iii. 46-7, 50, 109, 114, 140, 201, 254, 256.
  • 49. Ibid. iii. 84, 387, 397.
  • 50. Ibid. ii. 69, 175, 339, 446; iii. 340.
  • 51. Ibid. ii. 147, 197, 280; iii. 83-4, 330, 332.
  • 52. Rolle was most likely also named to bill cttees. on the king’s revenue and sheriffs’ accounts (7 and 14 Mar.): ibid. ii. 214, 281, 356; iii. 97, 168.
  • 53. Cttees. on wine impositions (20 Feb.), the Dale family’s trading losses (1 May), manufacture of medicines, adultery (both 4 Mar.), recusancy (8 May) and preaching (25 May): ibid. ii. 73, 194, 196; iii. 107, 190, 329.
  • 54. CD 1628, iv. 178, 289, 307.
  • 55. Ibid. ii. 444; iii. 3, 44, 355; iv. 345, 360.
  • 56. He may also have been named to the scandalous ministers bill cttee. (19 Apr.). Ibid. ii. 564; iii. 76, 371, 378, 381, 438; iv. 32, 335.
  • 57. Ibid. ii. 570; iii. 4, 364, 558; iv. 3, 84, 226, 231.
  • 58. Ibid. ii. 227, 446; Kyle, 235.
  • 59. CD 1628, ii. 231, 239, 241, 277, 296
  • 60. Ibid. ii. 277, 379, 386, 541-2, 547-8, 551-2, 556; iii. 316; vi. 70-1.
  • 61. Ibid. iii. 43, 122, 150, 157, 162-3, 165, 167, 241, 247-8, 265.
  • 62. Ibid. 387, 598, 606.
  • 63. Ibid. iv. 60, 310, 327.
  • 64. Ibid. 44, 205, 346, 349-50.
  • 65. Bill cttees. on reform of the Sabbath and timber for shipping (1 Apr., 4 June); also cttees. concerned with a tobacco imposition (4 and 16 June): ibid. ii. 227; iv. 82, 85, 332.
  • 66. Vis. London (Harl. Soc. xv), 64.
  • 67. CJ, i. 924b, 930a, 931a-2b.
  • 68. CITR, ii. 164; E. Foss, Judges of Eng. vi. 472; Rolle, p. ii.
  • 69. C2/Chas.I/R43/13; 2/Chas.I/R39/20; 2/Chas.I/R44/41; J. Collinson, Hist. and Antiqs. of Som. iii. 427.
  • 70. CITR, ii. 208, 229, 231, 234, 236, 241; W. Dugdale, Origines Juridiciales, 168; Add. 42117, ff. 75-102.
  • 71. Order of Sjts.-at-Law, 93, 187, 389; HMC 4th Rep. 556.
  • 72. CITR, ii. p. lxxiii; W.R. Prest, Rise of the Barristers, 277; Clarendon, Hist. of the Rebellion ed. W.D. Macray, ii. 442.
  • 73. J. Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices, i. 422; Rolle, p. ii; B. Whitelocke, Memorials of the Eng. Affairs, ii. 420, 425, 438, 440.
  • 74. S.R. Gardiner, Hist. of Gt. Civil War, iv. 288-9; Campbell, 424; Whitelocke, ii. 494.
  • 75. Whitelocke, ii. 522; Diary of Thomas Burton ed. J.T. Rutt, ii. 431; A. and O. ii. 2; B. Worden, Rump Parl. 178; CITR, ii. p. cxvi; Ath. Ox. iii. 417.
  • 76. CSP Dom. 1650, p. xli; 1651, p. xxxv; 1651-2, pp. xlvii, 219; 1652-3, pp. xxxiii, 61.
  • 77. CSP Dom. 1649-50, pp. 362, 417; 1650, pp. 18, 435; 1651, pp. 67, 200.
  • 78. Whitelocke, ii. 49-50, 114-5, 120; Campbell, i. 427-31.
  • 79. Campbell, 382-3, 426.
  • 80. Clarendon, v. 375-6, 378-9; Thurloe State Pprs. ed. T. Birch, iii. 243, 370-2, 378; Mems. of Edmund Ludlow ed. C.H. Firth, i. 404; CSP Dom. 1655, pp. 187, 604.
  • 81. CSP Dom. 1655, pp. 168, 274; Mems. of Edmund Ludlow, i. 412-3; S.R. Gardiner, Commonwealth and Protectorate, iii. 299-301; Foss, 474.
  • 82. Ath. Ox. iii. 418; VCH Hants, iv. 516.
  • 83. PROB 11/259, ff. 29v-30.
  • 84. Rolle, p. facing frontispiece; Ath. Ox. iii. 418.