ROLLE, John (1598-1657/8), of St. Mary Aldermanbury, 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



1640 (Apr.)
1640 (Nov.)

Family and Education

bap. 13 Apr. 1598, 4th 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 Henry*.2 educ. appr. Levant merchant c.1617.3 m. Alice, da. of (Sir) George Chudleigh* of Ashton, Devon, 2s. admon. 13 Jan. 1658.4 sig. John Rolle.

Offices Held

Member, Levant Co. 1624.5

?Member, Art. Co., London 1627.6

Member, navy cttee. 1642-8;7 commr. Admlty. 1642-3,8 W. Indies plantations 1643; member, Admlty. cttee. 1645, excise cttee. 1645.9

Commr. assessment, Devon 1644, 1647-50, 1652, 1657,10 j.p. 1647-53.11

Commr. excommunication 1646, scandalous offences 1648.12


The youngest of four sons, Rolle could not expect to receive a substantial landed inheritance. Instead, his father provided him with £2,000 capital, and had him apprenticed to the Levant Company merchant Simon Edmonds. After completing his training and working abroad for three years, Rolle was made free of the Company in February 1624. As an importer of luxury cloth such as silk and mohair, he claimed to have enjoyed seven very profitable years of trading prior to 1628, at which time he owned stock worth more than £8,000.13

In 1626 Rolle was elected to Parliament at Callington, where his father controlled one of the burgess-ships.14 He was joined in the Commons by his brother Henry, and because surviving records fail to distinguish between the two men, Rolle’s performance is difficult to assess. Henry, a notable lawyer, was by now a respected figure in the House, experienced in procedural matters and the handling of weighty legislation, and the bulk of the references undoubtedly relate to him. Rolle’s activities were therefore probably confined essentially to the subject of trade. He may well have been named on 5 June to a bill committee concerned with the sale of cloth. Conceivably, he also alerted the Commons on 27 Apr. to a court case brought in London which affected the merchandise of a fellow Member, John Delbridge, thereby raising a question of parliamentary privilege.15 However, it cannot automatically be assumed that Rolle was already becoming involved in issues which were to dominate his career three years later, such as Tunnage and Poundage. On balance it was probably Henry who, on 27 Apr., called for the customs officials who were collecting Tunnage and Poundage without parliamentary authority to be summoned, since the speech included procedural advice. Similarly, the politically sensitive proposals for a new book of rates are likely to have been entrusted to the more experienced Member.16 On other trade-related matters it is harder to judge between the brothers, though Henry is frequently the more plausible choice. Two committees for reviewing mariners’ wages, appointed on 22 Mar. and 15 Apr., consisted largely of lawyers, while there were important legal aspects to bills committed on 18 Feb. and 1 June, which were designed to punish the patentees Edmund Nicholson and Sir Robert Sharpeigh.17 Either Member could have been named to the committees concerned with wine impositions and the Dale family’s trading losses (20 Feb. and 1 May). If Rolle was nominated to the bill committee for promoting trade in America he also reported its conclusions, but whether he would have been thought qualified to help draft a bill on the preservation of timber for shipping is unclear (28 Feb., 4 and 14 March).18 Certain miscellaneous committee appointments, mostly involving religious matters, could equally be assigned to either brother.19

In 1628 Rolle was again elected at Callington, while Henry also resumed his seat in the Commons. As with the previous Parliament, the surviving records rarely differentiate between the brothers. Nevertheless, while Henry remained demonstrably the more prominent figure, Rolle himself had by now achieved a measure of recognition. On 13 June, as ‘Mr. Rolle the merchant’, he was nominated to consider the naturalization bill for his fellow Londoner, Giles Vanbrugh. On the same day both brothers were appointed to examine rival petitions from the London Goldsmiths and Exchangers concerned with regulation of the exchange market. Another double nomination followed on 14 June, this time involving Henry Billingsley’s petition about the transportation of foreign post. More significantly, both men were named on 7 June to help draft the subsidy bill’s preamble.20 It is unclear which brother it was who lost patience with the filibustering during the debate on the same bill on 31 May. Rolle was the more likely nominee to committees to examine a bill on cloth manufacture and a petition about local trade impositions in London (26 May and 25 June).21 He may also have been appointed on 4 June to scrutinize a new bill for preservation of timber for shipping. If on the same day he was selected to consider a petition directed against impositions on tobacco, he was presumably also nominated on 16 June to draft a petition to the king on this subject. Whether he should be assigned bill committee nominations concerned with scandalous clergy and the reform of Sabbath abuses (1 and 19 Apr.) is less certain.22

Having emerged from obscurity during the 1628 session of Parliament, Rolle took centre stage when the Commons next met. The issue which propelled him there was the collection of Tunnage and Poundage by Charles I on his own authority, following his failure to secure a statutory grant of these duties. Notwithstanding the king’s plea of necessity, this practice had come to be seen by the Commons as an unconstitutional attack on private property. With this dispute still unresolved at the end of the 1628 session, the House, in a declaration of 25 June, effectively incited English merchants to defend their liberties by refusing to pay Tunnage and Poundage and similar impositions. The king responded by proroguing Parliament, and firmly asserting his right to collect the various levies until a formal grant was made. Faced with a widespread refusal by London merchants to pay duties, the Privy Council in August authorized the seizure of untaxed goods. The resulting confrontation between the Council and the Levant Company over impositions so soured the public mood that the government further prorogued Parliament from 20 Oct. until 20 Jan. 1629, in the hope that calm would be restored.23 Instead, the protest specifically over Tunnage and Poundage intensified, with Levant merchants still taking the lead. On 30 Oct. Rolle refused to pay customs on a consignment of cloth. Although he claimed privilege as a serving MP, and undertook to settle what was owed as and when Tunnage and Poundage received parliamentary sanction, his goods were confiscated. He responded on 12 Nov. by obtaining a Chancery writ of replevin for the recovery of his cloth. However, while one of London’s sheriffs, William Acton, dragged his heels over implementing the writ, the customs farmers persuaded the attorney-general, (Sir) Robert Heath*, to obtain a stay of proceedings in the Exchequer. The barons initially ruled that Rolle’s goods should remain impounded until Parliament settled the whole issue, but on 27 Nov. they concluded that a replevin could not be used to secure the cloth’s release because, in their view, it was being held by the Crown. On 5 Jan. 1629 Rolle had more of his goods seized and, despite the Exchequer’s decision, he obtained a second replevin. However, this met with no greater success than the first.24

On 20 Jan., the very day that Parliament resumed, Rolle had yet more of his stock confiscated. The Commons began the session in a state of heightened anxiety about the erosion of subjects’ liberties, and the statement which Rolle made to them on 22 Jan. about his recent treatment served to confirm their fears. Although (Sir) John Eliot failed to get this business discussed by the House as a whole, an investigating committee was immediately established. The Privy Council had only just learnt that Rolle was claiming parliamentary privilege, and the king, who was still hopeful of securing his much-delayed grant of Tunnage and Poundage, reacted swiftly. His speech to Parliament on 24 Jan., denying any intention of collecting the duties by prerogative right alone, created a good impression. However, an attempt two days later to launch a new Tunnage and Poundage bill in the Commons was promptly sabotaged by Francis Rous’s impassioned plea for religious grievances to be addressed first, a manoeuvre which delayed further discussion of taxation until 12 February. In the meantime, the committee of inquiry, now chaired by Eliot, had its brief widened to cover a number of petitions with similar complaints. In this context it may have been Rolle, rather than his brother, who was appointed on 30 Jan. to check whether the text of the 1628 Petition of Right entered in official records met with the Commons’ approval.25

The extent to which Rolle directly assisted Eliot with his inquiries is unclear. However, he was attending a Commons’ committee on 9 Feb. when a messenger from the attorney-general served him with a subpoena to attend Star Chamber in connection with his refusal to pay Tunnage and Poundage. This was a blatant infringement of parliamentary privilege, and Heath issued a rapid retraction and apology, but the damage was done. On the following day Rolle reported this latest outrage to the House, along with the news that his warehouse had also been closed down. The Commons forthwith confirmed his freedom from arrest, and established a further committee of inquiry, this time into the subpoena. Reports from both Rolle committees were referred to the House for discussion when the debate on Tunnage and Poundage resumed. Other business intervened long enough for Rolle to be nominated on 11 Feb. to a bill committee concerned with the increase of trade.26 On 12 Feb. it became apparent that the Commons would follow Eliot’s lead and seek to recover Rolle’s goods before addressing the wider problem of Tunnage and Poundage. Not only did this place them on a collision course with the Crown, but it exposed their lack of a clear strategy. When a fresh appeal to the Exchequer produced only confirmation on 14 Feb. of its earlier ruling on replevins, the House was forced to pursue the argument that Rolle’s parliamentary membership guaranteed him privilege for all of his impounded goods. There were two problems with this line of reasoning. First, the customary time-limit for a grant of privilege stood at 16 days before and after parliamentary sessions, on which basis the initial seizure of Rolle’s cloth failed to qualify for consideration. It was therefore necessary to invoke the dubious claim that because the current session had originally been scheduled to open on 20 Oct., Rolle had been entitled to privilege for those of his goods which had been confiscated at the end of that month. On 21 Feb. Rolle produced witnesses to back up his assertion that he had informed the customs officials of his status before his goods were impounded, and the Commons after some doubts concluded that he was entitled to privilege. The second obstacle was less easily overcome. If his possessions had been seized for the Crown by officers acting with royal authority, as the Exchequer believed, it was unclear whether a claim of privilege could be enforced. However, if it could be proved that the customs farmers had taken Rolle’s cloth for their own benefit, and not the Crown’s, then the way was open for action against them. Rolle affirmed on 21 Feb. that the goods impounded were liable only to Tunnage and Poundage, to which the king on 24 Jan. had disclaimed any prerogative right. Close examination of both the farmers and their contract on 19-21 Feb. also convinced a majority of Members that the officials had exceeded their mandate and acted on their own behalf. While the Commons were only too ready to accept this fiction, the king was not, and by the time the House formally voted on 23 Feb. to award Rolle his privilege, Charles had already issued a statement taking full responsibility for the farmers’ actions. News of this development brought the Commons’ manoeuvrings to an abrupt halt, and the Parliament’s inevitable demise followed shortly afterwards.27

In January 1630 Rolle received a second subpoena from Star Chamber, apparently as a result of his earlier behaviour in the Commons. No evidence has been found that he was punished by the court, but as the bulk of his stock remained confiscated, he was prevented from resuming his business, and therefore went into temporary retirement. Rolle secured a seat at Truro in both of the 1640 parliamentary elections, and used this platform to pursue redress of his grievances. In 1641 he recovered his impounded goods, and the Commons launched an investigation into his treatment. This resulted three years later in an award by Parliament of £8,641 in compensation for his various losses. However, as the money was supposed to be paid by the former sheriff Acton and the largely bankrupt customs farmers it is uncertain how much Rolle ever actually received. He was secluded from the Commons at Pride’s Purge.28 During the 1650s, if not earlier, Rolle resumed his career as a merchant, and during this time resided in St. Mary Aldermanbury in the City. His will, drawn up on 21 Nov. 1657, reveals that he now owned property in both the West Country and Ireland. He had presumably provided his wife with a jointure, since he left her only £250 and his house at Stokenham, Devon, compared with the sum of £2,600 which he assigned to the younger of his two infant sons. The elder boy was to receive the residue of his estate, including outstanding profits from the sale of merchandise and his interest in ‘adventures’ at home and abroad. Charitable bequests included sums for the poor of both St. Mary Aldermanbury and St. Nicholas Acons in London. He presumably died soon after making his will, which was proved on 13 Jan. 1658. No trace of his burial has been found.29

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Secluded at Pride’s Purge, 6 Dec. 1648.
  • 2. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 654.
  • 3. SP105/148, f. 109v; A.C. Wood, Hist. of Levant Co. 215.
  • 4. PROB 11/272, ff. 17-19.
  • 5. SP105/148, f. 109v.
  • 6. Ancient Vellum Bk. ed. G.A. Raikes, 41.
  • 7. A. and O. i. 27; CSP Dom. 1648-9, p. 297.
  • 8. LJ, v. 407b; K.R. Andrews, Ships, Money and Politics, 188.
  • 9. A. and O. i. 331, 669, 691.
  • 10. Ibid. i. 545, 963, 1080; ii. 32, 295, 463, 660, 1065.
  • 11. Devon RO, QS 28/3-5; C193/13/3-4.
  • 12. A. and O. i. 854, 1209.
  • 13. PROB 11/164, f. 244; SP105/148, f. 109v; CJ, iii. 483a; CD 1629, p. 166.
  • 14. C2/Jas.I/R4/25.
  • 15. Procs. 1626, iii. 83-4, 368.
  • 16. Ibid. iii. 84, 387, 397.
  • 17. Ibid. ii. 69, 339, 446; iii. 340.
  • 18. Ibid. ii. 73, 147, 194, 280; iii. 107.
  • 19. Manufacture of medicines, adultery (both 4 Mar.), recusancy (8 May), and preaching (25 May): ibid. ii. 194, 196; iii. 190, 329.
  • 20. CD 1628, iv. 178, 289, 292, 307.
  • 21. Ibid. iii. 610; iv. 44, 467.
  • 22. Ibid. ii. 227, 564; iv. 82, 85, 332.
  • 23. R. Brenner, Merchants and Rev. 229-31, 233; S.R. Gardiner, Hist. of Eng. 1603-42, vi. 325; vii. 4.
  • 24. CD 1629, pp. 7, 83, 93, 141; CJ, iii. 483a, 530a; Brenner, 232; Gardiner, vii. 5-6.
  • 25. CD 1629, pp. 7, 83-4, 129, 155; CJ, i. 921a, 923b, 924b, 925b, 927a; C. Russell, PEP, 402-4, 406; C. Thompson, ‘Divided Leadership of House of Commons’, Faction and Parl. ed. K. Sharpe, 251.
  • 26. CJ, i. 928a-9a; CD 1629, pp. 55, 136-8, 186-7, 190, 195.
  • 27. CJ, i. 929b, 931a-b, 932b; CD 1629, pp. 83-93, 155, 158-66, 195-202, 221 225-37; Thompson, 265-9.
  • 28. CSP Dom. 1629-31, p. 161; CJ, ii. 154a; iii. 483a, 530a; D. Underdown, Pride’s Purge, 384.
  • 29. GL, ms 3572/1; PROB 11/272, ff. 17-19.