SELBY, Sir John (c.1574-1636), of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumb.

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.1574,1 3rd s. of Sir John Selby (d.1595) of Twizel, Northumb. and his w. Margaret. m. 1s. d.v.p. 3da. (2 d.v.p.).2 kntd. 4 May 1605.3 bur. 28 Nov. 1636.4 sig. John Selbye.

Offices Held

Capt. ft., Berwick-upon-Tweed by 1598-1601,5 horse, Neths. c.1605-6,6 ?ft., Danish army by 1611-at least 1612.7

Bailiff, Berwick-upon-Tweed 1614-15,8 member, Council of Twelve 1615-d.;9 j.p. Northumb. 1616-d.;10 commr. suppress malefactors, Borders 1618-at least 1619,11 subsidy, Northumb. 1622, 1624,12 Forced Loan 1627.13


Born at Berwick, Selby belonged to a local gentry family long associated with the defence of the Anglo-Scottish border. His grandfather, father, uncle (Sir William Selby I*) and eldest brother all held the post of gentleman porter of Berwick, while his father also served as deputy warden of the East March.14 Selby’s patrimony amounted to just £30 a year and a small amount of property, obliging him to seek employment. Doubtless through his family’s influence, he secured a captaincy at Berwick while still in his early twenties, but he chafed at the constraints of garrison life, ‘keeping profane and loose company’ to relieve the tedium. Possibly aware that his uncle William had helped to transmit covert correspondence between the Scottish Court and the 2nd earl of Essex, Selby also made at least one unauthorized visit to Edinburgh in May 1600, apparently with a view to offering his services to James VI.15 By now he was at odds with the governor of Berwick, the 13th Lord Willoughy of Eresby, over the appointment of a new lieutenant in Selby’s company. In October 1600, after an 18-month impasse, Willoughby finally handed the post to a nominee of the secretary of state, (Sir) Robert Cecil†. Selby, believing that his own authority had been undermined, first wrote to Cecil to protest at his treatment, and then abandoned his command to pursue his case personally in London.16

Once in the capital Selby attached himself to Essex’s circle. According to his brother William, he was pursuing a wealthy widow related to the earl. However, his disaffection with the government offers an equally plausible explanation, and like many similar young gentlemen he joined Essex’s abortive rebellion in January 1601. As a minor player in the rising, he escaped with a fine of 100 marks, but Willoughby seized his opportunity to dismiss him from his captaincy. Now in financial difficulties, Selby initially returned north, but by the following year he was back in London, mixing with renegade soldiers ‘of the worst sort’.17

Selby’s movements immediately after James’s accession to the English throne are not known, but his rehabilitation was confirmed by a knighthood in May 1605. Five months later, serving in the Dutch army on the king’s recommendation, he distinguished himself during a cavalry attack on Mulheim, in the Ruhr valley. Nevertheless, the Dutch government disbanded his company in December 1606, and he may have returned to Northumberland by the following month, when he was listed as a firm Protestant in a religious survey of the county.18 Without settled employment, Selby once again succumbed to the lure of London. In 1608 he conducted a well-publicized affair with Anne Overall, wife of the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was celebrated in a contemporary doggerel rhyme: ‘The dean of Paul’s did search for his wife, and where d’ee think he found her? Even upon Sir John Selby’s bed, as flat as any flounder’. The liaison came to an abrupt end in July, when Anne was caught trying to elope with Selby, who may have found it advisable to go abroad again.19 Certainly, he was serving Christian IV of Denmark by October 1611, when he turned up at The Hague as a recruiting officer for the Danish army. When James I decided shortly afterwards to send troops to assist his brother-in-law, Christian, in his war with Sweden, Selby secured a commission to serve under the 14th Lord Willoughby, son of his old enemy. However, their departure was delayed until the summer of 1612, and the expedition lasted for only a few months.20

In early 1612 Selby received a welcome boost to his finances, a £600 bequest from his uncle, Sir William Selby. This may have influenced his decision to return to Berwick for good. By now the garrison had been virtually disbanded, and he thus acquired a new role as one of the civilian population’s most prominent members. In this capacity he was elected to represent the borough in the 1614 Parliament, but he left no trace on the session’s records. Thereafter, Selby rose rapidly through the ranks of local government, joining Berwick’s corporation in the autumn of 1614, becoming a Northumberland magistrate two years later, and in 1618 securing appointment as a Border commissioner. He again sat for Berwick in the Parliaments of 1621 and 1625, but made no greater impact on the Commons than he had previously. Compared with his colourful early life, Selby’s later years were apparently respectable but uneventful. He died in 1636, leaving a daughter as his heir. No will or administration grant for him has been found. Selby is the last member of his family known to have entered Parliament.21

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. CBP, 1595-1603, p. 540.
  • 2. J. Raine, Hist. and Antiqs. of North Durham, 315.
  • 3. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 137.
  • 4. Raine, 315.
  • 5. CBP, 1595-1603, pp. 540, 735.
  • 6. C. Dalton, Life and Times of Sir Edward Cecil, i. 125; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 357-8.
  • 7. Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, iii. 296; Letters of Philip Gawdy ed. I.H. Jeayes, 173.
  • 8. Vis. Northumb. ed. G.W. Marshall, 4.
  • 9. Berwick RO, B1/8, p. 25; B1/9, f. 147.
  • 10. C231/4, f. 30; SP16/405, f. 51.
  • 11. T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 3, pp. 38, 96-7.
  • 12. C212/22/21, 23.
  • 13. Rymer, viii. pt. 2, p. 145; C193/12/2, f. 43.
  • 14. Raine, 315; S.J. and S.J. Watts, From Border to Middle Shire, 99, 113-14, 124.
  • 15. Durham Wills and Inventories ed. W. Greenwell (Surtees Soc. xxxviii), 257; CBP, 1595-1603, p. 693, 767, 777-8; P.E.J. Hammer, Polarization of Elizabethan Politics, 171.
  • 16. CBP, 1595-1603, pp. 693, 695-6, 735; HMC Hatfield, x. 419; xxiii. 85.
  • 17. CSP Dom. 1598-1601, p. 573; 1601-3, pp. 262-3; CBP, 1595-1603, pp. 734-5, 767; HMC Hatfield, xi. 75, 212, 564; APC, 1660-1, pp. 314, 356, 488.
  • 18. Dalton, i. 124-5; HMC Hatfield, xviii. 357-8; xix. 5; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, iii. 335.
  • 19. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 262; J. Aubrey, Brief Lives ed. O.L. Dick, 226. Aubrey mistakenly calls Selby a Yorkshireman.
  • 20. Winwood’s Memorials, iii. 296; Chamberlain Letters, i. 314; Letters of Philip Gawdy, 173; CSP Ven. 1610-13, pp. 240, 372, 386, 439.
  • 21. Misc. Gen. et Her. i. 16; CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 48; Berwick RO, B1/8, p. 96; Raine, 315.