ONLEY, John (by 1498-1537), of London and Catesby, Northants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. by 1498, s. of John Onley of Withington, Salop by Jane, da. of Thomas Pontesbury of Salop. educ. New Inn; I. Temple, adm. 25 Oct. 1514. m. (1) by 1519, Jane (d. Sept./Oct. 1529), da. of (?Henry) Smith of Sherborne, Warws., 4s. inc. Edward and Thomas 2da.; (2) by 1537, Elizabeth (d. 3 Aug. 1556) wid. of William Whitlok (d. Aug. 1556), Thomas Lee (d. Aug. 1527), and Robert Wade (d. June 1529), all of London, s.p.2

Offices Held

Master of revels, I. Temple 1515, auditor 1527-8, attendant on reader 1529, 1532, 1536-7, Lent reader 1530.

Common serjeant, London 2 Apr. 1530-17 Mar. 1533, under sheriff 17 Mar. 1533-d.; commr. tenths of spiritualities 1535; solicitor, ct. augmentations 24 Apr. 1536-d.3


John Onley was probably born at Withington in Shropshire, where his parents were buried in 1512 and 1513, but his grandfather was the Sir Robert Olney (or Woneley) who had prospered as a wool merchant at Coventry, becoming mayor about 1480 and one of the town’s Members in 1485. Although his first child was also born at Withington, it was his Warwickshire rather than his Shropshire affiliation which seems to have shaped Onley’s upbringing and early career; he probably owed his early patronage by William Shelley to Shelley’s wife Alice Belknap, sister of Henry VII’s fiscal henchman Edward Belknap, who was a Warwickshire man, and he was himself to marry Jane Smith of Sherborne (close to Warwick), the servant of hers to whom Alice Shelley was to give the manuscript known as the ‘Belknap Hours’. If, as is likely, Onley had been under age when his father died, he could have been brought up in the Belknap household. He had older and younger namesakes, and perhaps kinsmen, at Pulborough, Sussex.4

At the Inner Temple, besides Shelley who had sponsored his entry, Onley was able to cultivate such promising senior members as Thomas Audley, John Baker I and John Baldwin; the last was to stand godfather to one of Onley’s younger children, Shelley having given his name to the first son. It was to Shelley and Baker, as successive under sheriffs and recorders of London, that Onley probably owed his appointments as common serjeant and then under sheriff, although the first of them presumably needed the assent of Richard Rich, who had been promised the next vacancy after he had failed to secure the office in 1526. The decision that Onley should be the first solicitor of the court of augmentations was no doubt Cromwell’s, but both Audley, by then chancellor, in whose opinion he was ‘a right honest discreet man’, and Rich, the head of the new court, may have given their support; it was a signal mark of favour that, when the London court of aldermen called on him to resign as under sheriff, the King intervened to enable him to keep the office. Even during his brief time at the augmentations Onley seems to have made his mark there. Its business involved him in frequent travel, and although Lord Lisle’s agent John Hussee, who judged him ‘of small honesty’, complained of his constant absences, Hussee conceded that nothing could be done without him. That he still found time for private practice appears from a chancery suit begun in Trinity term 1536 in which he wrongly advised Edward Elrington and his wife.5

Onley’s Membership of the Parliament of 1536 is to be inferred from the appearance of his name on the originals of two Acts which it passed, one withholding benefit of clergy from abjurors in certain cases, the other for continuing expiring laws: the names accompanying his own are those of lawyers all of whom are either known or can be presumed to have been Members at the time. The conclusion is strengthened by the passage in the same Parliament of an Act (28 Hen. VIII, c.28) assuring a moiety of the manor of Richard’s Castle, Herefordshire; Onley had bought a moiety of this manor from the 2nd Lord Vaux in November 1535, but the conveyance was found to be defective and had to be replaced, and the Act secured Onley’s title. (In March 1537 he used the moiety as part-payment for the dissolved nunnery at Catesby.) Onley was a natural choice for Membership of this Parliament: it was summoned three days after he was made solicitor of the augmentations, and the three other principal officers of the court, Rich, Thomas Pope and Robert Southwell, were all to sit in it, Rich himself becoming Speaker. For which borough Onley was elected is a matter for speculation. If, like Pope, he was nominated by Cromwell, he could have come in for any one of many and need not have had any personal connexion with the one chosen.6

Onley died in London on 22 Nov. 1537. Three weeks earlier he had chosen to pay a fine rather than read for a second time at his inn and he was a sick man when on 12 Nov. he made his will. He asked to be buried without pomp or pride in his parish church of St. John Zachary, London. As befitted one who had been assessed at £1,000 for the City’s loan of the previous year to the King, he made ample monetary provision for his wife and children, of whom his two surviving sons Edward and Thomas were in their ’teens. Besides making charitable bequests to the prisons and friaries of London, Onley left Audley and Rich £6 13s.4d. each, and Pope and Southwell £3 6s.8d. apiece. He appointed his wife executrix and Baker and John Morris overseers. Before the will was proved Elizabeth Onley fraudulently obtained from augmentations £5 in expenses previously claimed by her husband, but the truth came out.7

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: A. D.K. Hawkyard


  • 1. House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 28 Hen. VIII, nos. 1, 9.
  • 2. Date of birth estimated from marriage. Vis. Northants. ed. Metcalfe, 12, 38-39; Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 401, 403-4; Cat. Lib. Maj. J. R. Abbey (Sotheby and Co. 1 Dec. 1970), 30-31; C142/108/84; PCC 31 Ayloffe, 22 Porch, 8 Jankyn, 17 Dyngeley, 11 Ketchyn.
  • 3. Guildhall Misc. ii. 386; LP Hen. VIII, viii, xiii.
  • 4. Pevsner, Salop, 321; Vis. Northants. 12, 38-39; Cat. Lib. Maj. J. R. Abbey, 30-32; PCC 1 Fetiplace.
  • 5. LP Hen. VIII, v, xi, xii; City of London RO, Guildhall, rep. 9, ff. 51, 100, 141v, 197, 206-7; HMC 8th Rep. pt. 2 (1881), 20-23; W. C. Richardson, Ct. Augmentations, 12, 42, 88, 92-93, 492; C1/783/10-12.
  • 6. House of Lords RO, Original Acts, 28 Hen. VIII, nos. 1, 9; LP Hen. VIII, xii.
  • 7. PCC 17 Dyngeley; C142/108/84; LP Hen. VIII, viii.