THURSBY, William (1630-1701), of Abington, Northants.; Hanslope, Bucks.; and the Savoy, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1698 - 4 Feb. 1701

Family and Education

bap. 18 Apr. 1630, 1st s. of Christopher Thursby of Castor, Northants. by his 1st w. Jane (d. 1632), da. of Sir Thomas Nevill, 1st Bt., of Holt, Leics.  educ. Uppingham sch.; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1646; M. Temple 1649, called 1656, bencher 1673, treasurer 1684.  m. (1) Catherine, da. of Thomas Fleming of Fotheringhay Park, Northants., 1s. d.v.p.; (2) lic. 30 Apr. 1663, Audrey (d. 1704), da. of Sir William Brownlow, 1st Bt.†, of Humby, Lincs., s.psuc. fa. 1690.1

Offices Held

Custos brevium, ct. c.p. 1660–d.; c.j. Isle of Ely.2


William Thursby came into Parliament after many years as a successful lawyer. Late in life he spoke of the study of the law, with obvious reference to his own experience, as ‘a rough and unpleasant study at the first, but honourable and profitable in the end . . . as pleasant (and safe and sure) as any profession’. He was also a pious and philanthropically inclined Anglican. His grandfather and namesake was an Essex gentleman settled at Witham, but his father established himself in the Northamptonshire parish of Castor. Two years after William’s birth his mother died and his father soon remarried. Thereafter he was brought up by his mother’s relations, the Nevills, at Holt in Leicestershire. For the rest of his life, as he stated in his will, he had ‘little or no correspondence’ with his father’s Essex relatives. His father, an ardent Royalist during the Civil War, subsequently suffered sequestration of his estates for non-payment of assessments, and at the Restoration was chosen to be one of the proposed knights of the Royal Oak.3

In 1660, by which time he had qualified as a barrister, Thursby was granted the lucrative office of custos brevium of the common pleas, possibly in recognition of his father’s losses at Parliamentarian hands, and during 1663–5 also served as counsel for Cambridge University. He played an active part in the life of the Middle Temple where he based his legal practice. During the 40 or so years of this association he was involved in much of the physical expansion and modernization of the Temple’s buildings. At some stage, he was appointed chief justice in the Isle of Ely, and showed a characteristic concern with the problems of that region. In September 1683, for instance, he was writing to the secretary of state, Sir Leoline Jenkins†, to forestall an application to reprieve a notorious horse and cattle thief who had been at large in the Fens, warning that if allowed, the reprieve would ‘give great dissatisfaction to this country, where horse and beast stealing . . . are their constant grievance’. Independently of official responsibilities, his clientele steadily increased, and from at least the mid-1660s included an aristocratic element. Apart from advocacy, it seems his professional reputation was particularly well established as a conveyancer of property: on his election to Parliament in 1698 Luttrell refers to him as ‘Mr Thursby the conveyancer’. Thursby amassed a considerable fortune. In 1669 he purchased the Northamptonshire manor of Abington, a mile east of Northampton, for £13,750, although his father’s having a life interest in the property would suggest that he assisted his son with the purchase. An extensive rebuilding of the house was completed in around 1678. He later added to his estate in the county, buying the manors of Weston Favell and Little Billing in 1681 and 1689. He also came to possess property at Hanslope in Buckinghamshire, and a London residence at the Savoy in Westminster.4

It is not clear how Thursby’s philanthropic interests originated, but they were certainly underpinned by an obvious High Anglican concern to improve the health of the Church, and were doubtless encouraged by his contacts among leading churchmen, such as Dr Edward Rainbow and Dr Thomas White, bishops of Carlisle and Peterborough, and Dr Richard Busby, the headmaster of Westminster. His experience in the administration of bequests for pious and charitable uses, combined with this exposure to High Church anxiety, may well have convinced him that this was a field much in need of cultivation. It was probably during his occasional residence in Cambridgeshire, as judge for the Isle of Ely, that he became acquainted with Barnabas Oley, the rector of Gransden and a noted Anglican divine and benefactor, who appointed Thursby as his sole executor. Oley’s death in 1686 presented Thursby with the task of administering a will that was almost entirely taken up with pious benefactions. The depth of Thursby’s religious concerns was later given emphasis in the provisions of his own will in which, for example, he provided £200 for the furtherance of the charities established under Oley’s will, £100 for Peterborough Cathedral, sums for distribution among ‘such religious poor people repairing to the church service’ in the vicinity of his manors and other localities of personal importance, and prayer books for those of his tenants who were literate.5

Thursby’s first bout of electoral activity was at a by-election at Stamford in 1677 where, presumably through the mediation of his in-laws, the Brownlows, he stood with the backing of Lord Exeter’s interest. He cannot, however, have been particularly earnest about entering Parliament at this time since he was indelicate enough to hint to the borough’s mayor that technically he (the mayor) was unqualified to hold the office, having not taken the sacrament. He later withdrew after a canvass confirmed that he was not the favourite candidate. His ambitions for a parliamentary seat did not resurface until 1695. In the approach to the election of that year, Thursby’s attentions were focused on Northampton where there was some ‘industry’ for him. By his own account he engaged in the contest on receiving an undertaking from Sir Justinian Isham, 4th Bt.*, that ‘he would not join with anybody against me which I trusting unto made him all the votes I could’. However, on discovering that Isham was concerting tactics with Christopher Montagu*, Thursby discontinued his own efforts. His concern about contemporary events and their effects on his own professional sphere were reflected in a letter of 1697 to one of his clients, the young Lord Townshend:

some hopes there are of a peace, w[hi]ch God send, for we are exceedingly burdened w[i]th taxes of all kinds upon land and stock (alive and dead), moneys and possessions and trades and anything [that] can be invented – marriage and births and burials and an excise upon several commodities, deeds, paper, parchment, vellum, leather . . . And yet money is so scarce that there is hardly (species) enough to carry on trade.

In 1698 Isham evidently made overtures to him with an offer to combine, but Thursby told Sir Edmund Turner, Isham’s father-in-law, categorically that he would trust Sir Justinian ‘no more’, and that he objected to the practice of bargaining for the borough’s representation: ‘we ought to leave the town true (as I ever did and will do) to choose whom they please’. However, Isham’s transfer to the county soon afterwards paved the way for Thursby to be returned for Northampton without obstruction.6

The differences between the two men were sufficiently calmed by January 1699 for Isham to entrust Thursby with his excuses to the Commons in the event of the House being called over. Thursby’s Country proclivities soon came into view, for he was listed as a supporter of the Country party in about September 1698, and voted against the standing army on 18 Jan. 1699. Although advanced in years and in ill-health Thursby’s brief spell in Parliament saw him involved in much activity. Throughout January 1699, as doubtless in the preceding months, he was busily preoccupied with the promotion of a bill, which he introduced on the 7th, ‘for conveying lands, tenements, rents, tithes and hereditaments to any college, school, for the education of poor scholars or the advancement of learning, or improvement of any parsonage or vicarage or any other charitable use’. Its intention was to encourage philanthropic gifts by simplifying the legal processes involved, but the odds seem to have weighed heavily against such a controversial bill and it was rejected at third reading. The ‘prevailing reason’ was the fear that the Statute of Mortmain would be ‘shaken’ and that Thursby’s proposed legislation would enable the Church once again to ‘acquire so great a share of the lands as they once had’. It was felt that the existing facility to obtain licences of exemption was sufficient for ‘any charity that deserved encouragement’. Thursby was more successful with another bill he introduced the same month for limiting to 20 years the period during which application might be made to reverse legal judgments concerning estates, an adjustment which he had clearly found necessary in the course of his own legal work, and in his supervision of the writs office in the court of common pleas. Attention to the controversial charitable bequests bill prevented him from chairing its committee stage, from which it eventually emerged on 7 Mar., but following its third reading a week later the order for him to convey the bill to the Lords recognized him as its author. Towards the end of the year he became involved in the problem of arbitration between officers and their men in disputes over arrears of pay. He played an active part in the committee appointed on 6 Dec. to recommend suitable palliatives: although his name was not at the head of those nominated, his chairmanship of at least some of its meetings is suggested by his report of the committee’s views on 15 Jan. 1700. The proposal to establish a special court of judicature to determine these differences was approved by the House, and Thursby introduced a bill for the purpose on the 24th, but it got no further than the report stage. In a debate on supply on 8 Mar., he upheld the bankers’ debt as ‘a just debt’, rehearsing arguments that were already familiar to the House.7

During his busy two or so years in Parliament, Thursby continued to conduct his legal practice at the Middle Temple, and in May 1700 he prepared the Duke of Leeds’ (Sir Thomas Osborne†) will. In 1700, and now very ill with ‘the stone’, Thursby drew up his own will, and it is plain from this document that his mind was anguished. The ingratitude and disrespect shown him by younger members of his family had given him considerable hurt. He despaired of the recent trickery of his stepbrother Downhall’s son Richard, his intended heir, who had attempted to obtain from Thursby an advantageous settlement on pretence of an impending marriage, for which Thursby held his stepbrother equally responsible, and excluded them both from the succession to his Northamptonshire estates, giving them mere life interests in the Hanslope estate, and £100 each ‘as an evidence of my forgiving them the wrong they have done me and my family’. Similarly, he disapproved of his niece’s marriage in 1699, referring to her ‘impudent marriage and carriage towards me’. The welfare of his rheumatoid wife in her widowhood was a major worry and he entreated his sister-in-law to be her companion and that they should live together at Abington or at the Savoy. Early in 1701 he was ‘cut for the stone’ by Dr Abraham Cyprianus, but died at the Savoy on 4 Feb., a month after his unopposed re-election for Northampton. His body was ‘carried out of town in great state’, and interred at Abington church. Under his will the Northamptonshire manors passed to another nephew, William, son of his stepbrother John Thursby. As befitted a man who had endeavoured to encourage charitable bequests through legislation, he himself was conspicuously generous. Apart from the provisions already mentioned, other beneficiaries included St. Bartholomew’s and Greenwich hospitals, each given £1,000, and St. Thomas’ Hospital, given £500, and the same amount for the relief of wounded seamen. But when a monument to him was eventually erected in 1736, it was for his ‘most judicious and extensive knowledge of the laws of the kingdom’ that he was best remembered.8

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. IGI, Leics.; Vis. Northants. (Harl. Soc. lxxxvii), 217–18; Baker, Northampton i. 11; PCC 40 Dyer; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 1335.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1660–1, pp. 74–75, 366.
  • 3. Add. 41654, f. 42; W. A. L., Some Notes on Fams. of Thursby of Abington, 3–7, 9–10.
  • 4. Some Notes . . ., 11, 12–13; M. Temple Recs, iii. passim; CSP Dom. July–Sept. 1683, p. 370; Add. 21947, f. 75; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 405; PCC 40 Dyer.
  • 5. DNB, xiv. 1021–3; BL, Stowe 746, f. 100; Some Notes . . ., 16.
  • 6. The Commons 1660–90, i. 307; Egerton 3330, f. 77; Northants. RO, Isham mss IC 1528, Christopher Montagu to Sir Justinian Isham, 17 Oct. 1695; IC 1583, Thursby to Sir Edmund Turner, [July 1698]; IC 1585, Turner to Isham, 14 July 1698; HMC 11th Rep. VII, 107; Add. 41654, f. 42.
  • 7. Isham mss IC 1604, John to Sir Justinian Isham, 3 Jan. 1699; Cam. Misc. xxix. 377–8; Cocks Diary, 58.
  • 8. Egerton 3385B, f. 72; PCC 40 Dyer; Add. 34679, f. 84; Post Boy, 4–6, 13–15 Feb. 1701.