WHITFIELD, Ralph (1588-1645), of Tenterden and Burmarsh, Kent, the Barbican, London and Gray's Inn

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

bap. 3 Mar. 1588,1 1st s. of Herbert Whitfield of Tenterden and Martha, da. of Robert Shephard of Peasmarch, Suss. educ. G. Inn, 1608, called 1627.2 m. Dorothy, da. of Sir Henry Spelman* of Congham, Norf., 5s. 1da.3 suc. fa. 1622.4 kntd. 4 Oct. 1635.5 bur. 15 Sept. 1645.6 sig. Raphe Whitfeld.

Offices Held

Commr. sewers, Kent and Suss. 1622-3, 1625, Suss. 1626, 1630-1, Kent 1629, 1631-2, 1639-40, I. of Wight 1632,7 recusancy, Kent 1623,8 subsidy 1624,9 piracy, Cinque Ports 1625, 1629, 1630, 1638,10 oyer and terminer, Home circ. 1635-42,11 London 1636-41, Mdx. 1641, gaol delivery, London 1636, 1639-41, Newgate, London 1638, 1641;12 bailiff and judge, Battle Ct. of Record, Suss. 1625;13 j.p. Kent by 1625-1642, Suss. c.1625-40;14 steward, Pett manor, Suss. c.1632.15

Member, Guiana Co. 1627.16

Reader, Staple Inn, 1628, G. Inn 1633;17 fee’d counsel to Cinque Ports, by 1633-at least 1641;18 sjt.-at-law 1634;19 KS 1635;20 commr. Londonderry plantation, Ire., 1638-9.21


Whitfield’s family originated in Northumberland, but had settled among the minor gentry of Kent by the 1570s.22 Whitfield himself was a precocious youth: at the age of 16, he initiated a Chancery suit against a neighbouring widow over the lease of 26 acres of woodland in Hawkhurst, Kent.23 He subsequently trained as a lawyer at Gray’s Inn and was appointed fee’d counsel to the Cinque Ports. In 1622 he inherited his father’s modest Tenterden estate, which sometime before 1614 was valued by the Crown at £300 p.a.24

As counsel for the Cinque Ports, Whitfield glimpsed parliamentary procedure in May 1621, when he spoke at a Commons’ committee on the Ports’ charter.25 In 1624 he was returned for the duchy of Lancaster borough of Clitheroe. He had no discernable connection with the town, but the fact that he spoke on two bills in the duchy interest early in the session suggests that he probably owed his election to professional contacts in the duchy’s Westminster Court.26 Whitfield’s numerous committee appointments revealed an unsurprising interest in bills concerning legal matters. For example, he was named to consider measures concerning concealed lands (24 Feb.), Crown tenants (10 Mar.), attainted persons’ estates (10 Mar.) and local courts (3 May). He reported on a bill to prevent delays brought about by removing actions from inferior courts (15 Mar), and was selected to attend a Lords’ conference on 30 Apr. to discuss two bills relating to limitations and pleadings in the Exchequer.27 His maiden speech, on 26 Feb., dealt with a bill concerning drunkards, which he successfully sought to have committed.28 On 10 Mar. he spoke on two bills concerning the duchy of Lancaster. To the first, a bill ‘for the relief of patentees, tenants and farmers of Crown lands in cases of forfeiture or non-payment of rents’, he argued that it should ‘reach to the county palatine of Lancaster as well as to the duchy of Lancaster’.29 To the second, a bill to make the estates of attainted persons liable for their debts, Whitfield moved ‘that the duchy court’s power may be reserved’, and asked that the measure ‘reach to lands accounted for in the duchy’.30 He also mentioned the county palatine in relation to a third bill, ‘for laying actions in the proper counties’, when he argued, contrary to solicitor-general (Sir) Robert Heath*, that ‘if bonds [are] sealed in the Cinque Ports, ... county palatines ... in Ireland, [or the] Low Countries ... those being exempt out of the counties, [there is] no suit but there’; however, the bill was later defeated.31

Most notable among a miscellany of other committees to which Whitfield was appointed was a private bill confirming lands in Kent formerly belonging to Sir Henry James, convicted of praemunire (12 Mar.), and a bill on ‘unworthy ministers’ (22 March).32 Whitfield contributed to the debate on 24 Mar. about Norfolk’s election dispute, supporting Sir Edward Coke’s demand that the committee for privileges’ deliberations be brought before the whole House.33 Like many other lawyers in the Commons, Whitfield was also involved in the monopolies conference on 7 Apr., and was appointed on 19 May to examine the case of the projector Edmund Nicholson, searching for precedents that could be cited against his customs privilege.34

In the year following his election to Parliament Whitfield was appointed to the benches of both Kent and Sussex, and served as bailiff and judge at Battle’s Court of Record. In 1626 he appeared before the Commons as counsel for the duke of Buckingham concerning the second stay of the St. Peter.35 He remained in the regular employment of the Cinque Ports, and continued to build up a lucrative legal practice.36 He went on to invest the profits of his successful career by acquiring substantial amounts of property, including the manors of Burmarsh in Kent, Wivenhoe in Essex, and a house in the Barbican, London.37 In 1627 he bought shares in the newly chartered Guiana Company, presumably at the prompting of his father in law, Sir Henry Spelman*, the Company’s treasurer, though the venture was abandoned within a decade.38 Whitfield also lent money to his aristocratic clients, particularly Robert Sidney*, earl of Leicester.39 By the 1640s he was reputed one of the ‘ablest inhabitants’ of London’s Cripplegate Without Ward.40

In addition to his numerous local offices and commissions, it was Whitfield’s diligence in ‘extending the king’s forests to cover most of Essex’ that gained him royal notice and a rapid series of promotions during the Personal Rule.41 In 1634 he became a serjeant-at-law, and a year later was raised to king’s serjeant, when he was also knighted. He thereafter regularly served on the home circuit. Whitfield remained loyal to King Charles throughout the later 1630s. He made a generous contribution of £50 towards the raising of the king’s army in March 1639,42 and was sent to Ireland between April and November of the same year. There he headed a commission to rearrange the boundaries of the Londonderry plantation, which Charles had reclaimed as Crown estate; they called in the leases of the greater tenants, ordered the eviction of the London settlers, and raised massive rents on the lands, despite the objections of the lord deputy, Sir Thomas Wentworth*, later earl of Strafford, who protested to Laud that Whitfield’s high-handed methods would provoke great trouble in the province.43 Upon his return, Whitfield was tipped for promotion to lord keeper following the death of Sir Thomas Coventry* in January 1640, but in the event the place went to another Kentish lawyer, (Sir) John Finch II*.44 At the elections for the Short Parliament, Whitfield appears not to have sought a place for himself, but instead exerted his influence on behalf of Sir Baynham Throckmorton† for a Gloucestershire seat, petitioning local grandee George, 8th Lord Berkeley, a client who was then deeply indebted to him.45 His brief service in Ireland had immediate benefits, for he was able to obtain positions for his son and a servant as receivers of the king’s rents in Coleraine and Londonderry.46 As an assistant in the Lords, Whitfield was well placed to report the trial of Strafford to his patron, Leicester.47

At the outbreak of Civil War, Whitfield, together with more than half of his fellow serjeants-at-law, sided with the Parliament.48 A moderate Protestant, he had been no supporter of Archbishop Laud, with whom he quarrelled over the presentation of Wivenhoe rectory, and his views were likewise apparent in his choice of the Oxford divine James Wilkins for the Kent living of Rodmersham in 1640.49 Whitfield remained in London as an assistant to the Lords during the early years of the conflict, and in August 1643 was granted an exemption from the weekly assessment after four of his valuable horses were taken for the Parliament’s service.50

Whitfield died in September 1645 and was buried in London at the Temple Church. His will, dated 12 Sept. 1645, lamented that his estates had been ‘much shortened by the present distractions’, but he nevertheless left his widow over £1,500 plus extensive property in London and Kent to be divided with their eldest son, Herbert. To his daughter, Whitfield left a £2,500 portion, and his two youngest sons were each to receive £1,000, together with annuities to provide for them to be ‘well educated ... in the fear and true service of God almighty’, which was to include attendance at Cambridge and a continental tour.51 He bequeathed his books to ‘such of my sons as will to apply themselves to the study of the law’; at least one, the fourth son Roger, followed Whitfield to Gray’s Inn and the bar.52

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. St Mildred, Tenterden, par. reg., Soc. Gen. transcript, unfol.
  • 2. GI Admiss.
  • 3. Vis. London (Harl. Soc. xvii), 348.
  • 4. C142/408/137.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 204.
  • 6. Reg. Burials at Temple Church 1628-1853, p. 7.
  • 7. C181/3, ff. 60, 94, 173v, 189, 210, 253, 255; 181/4, ff. 38, 74, 75v, 89, 101v; 181/5, f. 146v.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1627-8, p. 449, misdated 1627.
  • 9. C212/22/23.
  • 10. C181/3, ff. 175v, 247v; 181/4, ff. 48v; 181/5, f. 131v, 168.
  • 11. C181/4, f. 198v; 181/5, ff. 8v, 36, 50v, 65, 78v, 97v, 109, 129, 138v, 163, 174, 193, 204, 222.
  • 12. C181/5, ff. 59, 90, 119v, 154, 157v, 186, 207v, 213, 214.
  • 13. W. Prest, Rise of the Barristers, 402.
  • 14. C231/4, ff. 190, 191, 219; 231/5, f. 395; PRO 30/26/104, f. 23; ASSI 35/82/6, 7; Cal. Assize Recs. Kent Indictments, Chas I ed. J.S. Cockburn, 421.
  • 15. Add. 38485, f. 239.
  • 16. T.K. Rabb, Enterprise and Empire, 402.
  • 17. PBG Inn, i. 283, 315.
  • 18. Cal. White and Black Bks. of Cinque Ports ed. F. Hull (Kent Recs. xix), 450, 460, 463, 468, 471, 472, 478.
  • 19. CSP Dom. 1634-5, p. 221. Order of Sjts.-at-Law ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. vii), 373.
  • 20. C66/2701; T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 4, p. 114; ix. pt. 1, p. 77.
  • 21. Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, ii. 312.
  • 22. R. Clutterbuck, Hist. Herts. i.190.
  • 23. C2/Jas.I/W12/64.
  • 24. E. Hasted, Kent, iii. 98; HMC Hatfield, xxii. 14, 526; C142/408/137.
  • 25. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, ii. 84, 85.
  • 26. R.E. Ruigh, Parl. of 1624, p. 52.
  • 27. CJ, i. 673a, 681a, 695a, 697a, 737a; ‘Pym 1624’ i. f. 29.
  • 28. CJ, i. 674b; ‘Holland 1624’, i. f. 4.
  • 29. ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 62.
  • 30. CJ, i. 681a; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 61v.
  • 31. CJ, i. 697a.
  • 32. CJ, i. 683b; CJ, i. 746a.
  • 33. ‘Spring 1624’, p. 161.
  • 34. CJ, i. 707a, 757b.
  • 35. Procs. 1626, ii. 201, 204.
  • 36. CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 556; 1634-5, p. 22; 1636-7, p. 395; 1637-8, pp. 136, 274, 481, 606.
  • 37. C66/2062, C66/2424.
  • 38. C66/2411; J.A. Williamson, Eng. Colonies in Guiana and Amazon, 110-12, 118, 130-2.
  • 39. Prest, 176n; HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, vi. 71, 80-2, 89, 154.
  • 40. Misc. Gen. et Her. (ser. 2), ii. 108.
  • 41. P. Clark, Eng. Prov. Soc. 294; Strafforde Letters, i. 335; CSP Dom. 1637-8, p. 254.
  • 42. SP16/538/84.
  • 43. Strafforde Letters, ii. 426; J.H. Ohlmeyer, ‘Strafford, the “Londonderry Business”, and the “New Brit. Hist.”, in The Pol. World of Thomas Wentworth, E. of Strafford, 1621-41 ed. J.F. Merritt, 222-6.
  • 44. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, vi. 224.
  • 45. W.B. Willcox, Glos. 34.
  • 46. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, vi. 226.
  • 47. HMC De L’Isle and Dudley, vi. 385; Procs. in Long Parl. ed. M. Jansson, iii. 42-3.
  • 48. Prest, 277n.
  • 49. Hasted, Kent, ii. 596; SP16/339/77.
  • 50. LJ, vi. 178a.
  • 51. PROB 11/194, ff. 353-354v; CSP Dom. 1636-7, p. 406.
  • 52. PROB 11/221, f. 261.