NORTON, Thomas (by 1532-84), of London and Sharpenhoe, Beds.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer




Family and Education

b. by 1552, 1st s. of Thomas Norton, grocer of London, by Elizabeth, da. of Robert Merry of Northaw, Herts. educ. Michaelhouse, Camb. matric. c.1544, MA 1570; I. Temple 1555. m. (1) Margaret, da. of Thomas Cranmer, abp. of Canterbury, s.p.; (2) by 1568, Alice, da. of Edmund Cranmer, bro. of Thomas, 4s. 2da. suc. fa. 10 Mar. 1583.1

Offices Held

Servant of Protector Somerset by 1550; freeman, Grocers’ Co. 1558; counsel to Stationers’ Co. 1562; remembrancer, London 6 Feb. 1571, ?garbler of spices Mar. 1583-d.; commr. to examine Catholic prisoners 1578-83, for Guernsey 1579, for Sark 1583; censor for bp. of London by 1581; solicitor to Merchant Taylors’ Co. 1581.2


Of a Bedfordshire yeoman family,3 Norton was returned to Mary’s last Parliament through the good offices of his Inner Temple friend Thomas Copley, to whom, however, he may by 1563 have become unwilling to be indebted because of Copley’s by then open Catholicism. Norton appears to have found a new patron in William, 13th Lord Grey of Wilton, warden of the east march and governor of Berwick. Grey, like Norton, had been associated with Protector Somerset. Norton’s office as remembrancer of London, granted him in February 1571, accounts for his election for the city to the Parliament which met two months later.

Norton soon acquired a reputation for ‘his sundry excellent speeches in Parliament, wherein he expressed himself in such sort to be a true and zealous philopater’. Contemporaries knew him as ‘Master Norton, the Parliament man’. The author of an anonymous lampoon on the puritans in the 1566 session of Parliament epitomized him as ‘the scold’, saying that he would ‘act, insist, speak, read, write, in session and out’. As early as 26 Jan. 1563 he was in action, reading to the House the committee’s version of the petition to the Queen on the succession. Since the bill had been given to the comptroller of the Household, it is strange that it was Norton who reported it to the House. Perhaps his skill as a draftsman was the reason, or perhaps he and his fellow radicals were dominating the committee. Norton was also a member of the conference with the Lords on the subject, 31 Oct. 1566. The defective journals for this Parliament also record him on an unnamed committee (22 Mar. 1563), and in charge of two others on cloth (5 Apr. 1563), and benefit of clergy (24 Oct. 1566).

During the Parliament of 1571, Norton was one of the leaders of the puritan attack on the 1559 religious settlement. On 6 Apr. William Strickland moved that Norton, ‘a man neither ill-disposed to religion nor a negligent keeper of such matters of charge’ should be asked to produce and explain to the House the Edwardian Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum. As Cranmer’s son-in-law, Norton owned the archbishop’s original manuscript, which he had recently allowed his friend John Foxe to publish, with the permission of Archbishop Parker. Norton, ‘a man wise, bold and eloquent’ in the eyes of the anonymous diarist of this Parliament, expounded the provisions of the Reformatio to the House, and offered a copy for the consideration of Members. He was one of 25 Members immediately appointed to confer with the bishops on these matters. The following day (7 Apr.), Strickland again proposed that Norton ‘might be required to deliver such books as he had’ to the House. These were the six religious bills which had been debated in the previous Parliament: perhaps the fact that they were now in his possession indicates that he was the original draftsman. On 11 Apr. it was decided to confer once again with the Lords ‘for the cause of religion’. Norton supported the idea of the conference, but warned the lay members ‘not to stand at the direction of the bishops further than their consciences should be satisfied’. On 14 Apr. during a debate concerning licences and dispensations granted by the archbishop of Canterbury, Norton moved for the abolition of benefit of clergy.

He proved it might not be said a liberty of the church except they will claim a liberty to sin, wherein indeed their principal liberty hath stood, and for the which they have not spared to hazard, nay give their bodies and souls to become traitors to God and man. Thus did that rebel bishop, Becket, whose principal quarrel and cause of all his stir was that the King would have punished one of his mark, a priest, for an abominable incest committed by him, which trifling fault forsooth, this holy saint could not brook to be rebuked by a temporal judge ... He showed it could not be said a privilege or encouragement to learning, since it was no other but a cloak for their naughtiness, and for such as might be of the Pope’s suite, as well appeared in that it was allowed to none but to such as might enter their holy orders ...

He was given authority by the House to draft a bill against benefit of clergy, which was eventually rejected by the Lords. On 20 Apr. he spoke in favour of the bill concerning church attendance, although he warned that

not only the external and outward show is to be sought but the very secrets of the heart in God’s cause ... must come to a reckoning, and the good seed so sifted from the cockle that the one may be known from the other.

He wanted a proviso concerning irregularly conducted services to be added to the bill, and attended a conference with the Lords on the subject on 19 May. He was also appointed to committees concerning the bill against papal bulls (23 Apr.), a religious bill (28 Apr.), priests disguised as servants (1 May), licences and dispensations granted by the archbishop of Canterbury (4 May), and he was one of a large delegation named to take religious bills to the Lords on 5 May.

Norton’s initiative over the treasons bill proved without doubt to be his major contribution to the 1571 Parliament. On 9 Apr. the bill drafted by the Queen’s learned counsel had its first reading. Norton immediately voiced his opinion that the bill did not go far enough, and proposed an addition to it in the form of a bill he had already drafted himself. He declared that

her Majesty was and is the only pillar and stay of all safety, as well for our politic quiet as for the state of religion, and for religion the very base and pillar throughout Christendom ... therefore that for preservation of her estate, our care, prayer and chief endeavour must be.

The additions he had in mind were firstly that

whosoever in her [the Queen’s] life hath done or shall make claim to the imperial crown of this realm, that he, or they, or their heirs, to be forbarred of any claim, challenge or title to be made to that crown at any time hereafter; and that every person who shall maintain that title to be accounted a traitor.

This proposal was to cause considerable embarrassment to the Queen and government, bringing, as was no doubt the intention, Mary Queen of Scots within its scope. The second proposal was that ‘whosoever shall say the court of Parliament hath not authority to enact and bind the title of the Crown to be adjudged a traitor’. Norton’s bill was strenuously opposed by Henry Goodere, a follower of Mary, on 12 Apr. He made allegations of partiality clearly directed at Norton, which the latter refuted, ‘in his accustomed manner of natural eloquence’.

He protested that he neither thought nor meant any other title than the sole preservation of her Majesty, and to that end was he and the whole House (as he supposed) settled and bent ...

He defended the retrospective nature of his bill claiming that ‘where ambition hath once entered, such is the nature of the same that it never will be satisfied, and the thirst for a kingdom is unquenchable’. Besides, retrospective legislation was not an innovation of his, as he showed by quoting a precedent from Mary Tudor’s reign:

And surely if in the case of a private man, as was this Bennet Smythes, such consideration and so good discretion was, who can imagine it to be odious? No, who is it that would not the like or greater care should be had for a prince and of so good a prince as she for whom our conference now is?

On the theme of partiality, he turned the tables on Goodere:

But yet we are charged with partial affection, unsettled minds, doubleness. Whether this speech now be an offence to the House he earnestly craved the judgment of the House. For that it might seem by the gentleman’s earnestness who spake that some one his friend, whom he was bent to serve, would be touched.

After this speech of 12 Apr. nothing more is known about Norton in the context of the treasons bill, until his appointment to two committees on 11 May. In the end, despite his spirited defence of his bill, the first proviso, concerning retrospective legislation, disappeared and the second was heavily amended. Perhaps Goodere was not the only Member to doubt Norton’s impartiality. On 29 May the committee for examination of fees or rewards taken for voices in the House was reported, and Norton felt impelled to declare that

he heard that some had him in suspicion, justified himself and was upon the question purged by the voice of the whole House, and their good opinion of him, and of his honest and dutiful dealing and great pains taking in the service of this House were in very good and acceptable part declared and affirmed by the like voice of the whole House.

His other activity during the 1571 Parliament included a ‘somewhat long’ speech on usury (19 Apr.) and his intervention in (possibly initiation of) the debate on nonresident burgesses (19 Apr.). He ‘argued that the whole body of the realm and the good service of the same was rather to be respected than the private regard of place, privilege or degree of any person’. On 9 May he moved that on the remaining Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays until the end of the session, the House should sit from 3 p.m. until 5 p.m. in order to read private bills. His committee work during this Parliament included such topics as the Bristol merchants (12 Apr.), order of business (21 Apr., 23, 26 Apr.), tellers and receivers (23 Apr., 26 May), the maintenance of navigation (8 May), conveyances (14 May), fugitives (25 May) and the river Lea (26 May).

In the 1572 Parliament Norton followed a uniquely consistent line in pressing for the execution, first of the Duke of Norfolk and secondly of Mary Queen of Scots, believing the one to be a necessary prelude to the other. On 12 May 1572 he was appointed to a conference with the Lords to consider steps to be taken in ‘the great cause’. Three days later he discouraged any talk of the succession, believing that the Queen ‘in good time will provide for the same’. The Commons’ task was ‘in the meantime to strike down the bushes which lie in the way’.

Execution is the thing he specially moveth [reported Thomas Cromwell] ... when he considereth the peril which is to come in sparing of execution, he is driven to put all fear aside and to utter his conscience, and since he cannot devise how the Queen’s Majesty may be assured in his [the Duke of Norfolk’s] life, he thinketh it necessary she be assured in his death. All ways and means have been attempted, none left to be tried, whereby any hope may be he should ever be a good subject ... Besides the examples of immunity in this case will encourage others to new rebellions and treasons. It will also discourage the revealers if it be more perilous to disclose than to do treason ... The Scot hard to be removed without this execution. They are knit together so as while the one liveth, the faction is strong. Take the one away and weaken the other by all his friends. Mercy is good in some cases but woe worth that mercy which bringeth misery.

He was constantly urging the Commons to petition the Queen in the strongest terms for the execution of the Duke, speaking twice on the subject on 16 May and 19 May. Not surprisingly, on 17 May he wished Arthur Hall to be brought to the bar of the House to justify his speech on Norfolk’s behalf. On 21 May, fearing that Parliament’s bill of attainder against Mary would come to nought, he moved that

Sithence time is to be used in trial of the Queen of Scots, and that it is determined she shall come to her trial, it will occasion her to attempt what she may, for desperate necessity dareth the uttermost mischief that can be devised: therefore necessary the Duke be executed in the mean season, which will be half the execution of the Queen of Scots.

On 23 May, news reached the Commons that the Queen had rejected the bill of attainder. Norton saw ‘now no remedy but to make humble suit for execution of the Duke’:

... though heretofore we did agree the resolution of the House should come to the Queen’s Majesty by way of opinion that was pro re et tempore. Now ... execution of necessity is to be urged during the session. No hope to be had of him [the Duke]. He hath lately received communion with protestations of his faith, and yet most feigned. And therefore we to urge this importunately either jointly with the Lords or by our Speaker without them.

The extant journals give no indication of Norton’s reaction to the Duke’s execution on 2 June 1572. He would have seen it as but a step towards the execution of Mary, and to this he immediately turned his attention. On 6 June he complained that the Commons’ current bill against Mary was not forceful enough. ‘This Parliament called for matters of great necessity, and therefore not good to do nothing, much worse to do stark nought’. He recalled the fate of the treasons bill in the previous Parliament and his own additions to it. His disappointment at the failure of parliamentary legislation against Mary and a sense of resentment at the Queen’s interference in the management of the House may be guessed at. He spoke again against Mary on 7 June, 9 June and 25 June, calling always for the strongest measures to be taken against her, and was included in conferences with the Lords on the subject on 28 May and 6 June.

Other references to him during the 1572 session of the Parliament concern speeches on tellers and receivers (12 May, appointed to the committee 14 May), the vagabonds bill (20 May), the preservation of wood within 20 miles of London (21 May), the Queen’s castles and ships (4 June), a privilege case (27 June) and a private bill (30 June). His committee work included topics such as a private lands bill (20 May), Tonbridge school (23 May), the continuation of statutes (26 June) and the length of kerseys (28 June).

No speeches are recorded in his name in the 1576 journals. He was, however, active in committee. He was appointed to committees concerning the avoiding of idleness (11 Feb.), recoveries (13 Feb.), ports (13 Feb.), private bills (14 Feb., 12 Mar.), coins of the realm (15 Feb.), bastardy (15 Feb.), cloth (16 Feb., 9 Mar.), leather (18 Feb.), the reciprocal treatment of aliens (24 Feb.), the county palatine of Chester (25 Feb.), letters patent (25 Feb., 3 Mar.), fraudulent conveyances made by the northern rebels (25 Feb.), haberdashers (28 Feb.), broggers and drovers (28 Feb.), the Arthur Hall privilege case (28 Feb.), church discipline (2 Mar.), aliens’ children (3 Mar.), assize of wood in the city of London (3 Mar.), excess of apparel (10 Mar.), the Queen’s marriage (12 Mar.), wharves and quays (13 Mar.) and London goldsmiths (13 Mar.).

Throughout his parliamentary career Norton had been actively employed in the drafting of bills. In 1581 a fellow guest at a supper party at William Grice’s house said to him, ‘You have taken great pains this Parliament, and there be few of the acts which either you have not drawn, or travailed about penning them at committees’. In reply, Norton insisted that, ‘all that I have done I did by commandment of the House, and specially of the Queen’s Council there’, but he agreed that he had also ‘written many a bill of articles that the House did not see’. Norton’s leading role in the drafting of the subsidy bill corroborates this story. On 25 Jan. 1581 Sir Walter Mildmay made the customary government speech introducing the subsidy. He was followed by Norton, who proposed the setting up of a committee of the Privy Councillors, and ‘certain other fit persons ... to consult of bills conveniently to be framed according to the said motion’. The committee, to which Norton was named, met that afternoon in the Exchequer chamber where ‘Mr. Norton spake very well ... and did hereupon exhibit certain articles ... which were by the committees considered’. He and four lawyers were then appointed by the committee to ‘set down the matters which they had there agreed, and, having digested them into articles, should exhibit them at the next meeting of the committees’. On 28 Jan. the journals report that ‘the articles which were exhibited by Mr. Norton concerning the bill of subsidy were allowed by the committees, and he appointed to draw the bill accordingly’.

His other activity during this Parliament included speeches on returns (19 Jan. 1581), a public fast (21 Jan.), the clergy (27 Jan.), a legal matter (27 Jan.) and procedure (7 Feb.). He also lodged a complaint on 1 Feb. that ‘two porters of Serjeant’s Inn in Fleet Street have much misused him in his attending the service of this House’. Later that day the two offenders were brought before the bar of the House for breach of parliamentary privilege where Norton testified against them. He spoke in favour of the bill that aliens’ children should not be counted as English on 25 Jan., and was appointed to two committees on the subject (25 Jan., 7 Feb.). He wished Arthur Hall to be brought to the bar to answer for one of his numerous breaches of privilege (4 Feb.), and was appointed to two committees concerning Hall on 6 Feb. and 8 Mar. He was also named to committees concerning the preservation of woods (28 Jan.), defeasances of the statute staple (28 Jan.), cloth (4 Feb.), seals of corporations (11 Feb.), private bills (14, 20 Feb., 9 Mar.), defence (25 Feb.), the city of Carlisle (27 Feb.), heretics (27 Feb.), the corporation of merchant adventurers (2 Mar.), fines and recoveries (10 Mar.), the Queen’s safety (14 Mar.), maintenance of mariners (15, 17 Mar.) and iron mills (18 Mar.).4

The topics of the religious settlement and the succession dominated Norton’s personal writings as they had his parliamentary speeches. He collaborated with Thomas Sackville in the tragedy of Gorboduc, produced by the Inner Temple students before the Queen in January 1562. The plot of the play turns on the uncertainty of the succession to the Crown in default of issue of the reigning monarch and the last act is a scarcely veiled attack on Mary Stuart’s title to the English throne. As the translator of Calvin’s Institutes, he was thoroughly grounded in his theology, and his pamphlets against the Catholics added to his reputation as a puritan leader, within and without Parliament. He found himself in the uncomfortable position of other radicals, pleased that the Queen upheld protestantism in face of the growing Catholic danger, but opposed to much of the Elizabethan church settlement. An original prayer included in his ‘Devices’ to restrain popish recusants asked for a blessing upon

me and my poor hod upon my back among the mortar bearers in the work of God, or rather among the carriers away of dung and rubbish to make room for workmen and builders, in cleansing and reparation of the house of Jesus Christ, the church of England, committed to His Solomon, our gracious Queen.5

There is no need to doubt Norton’s sincerity in stating that he fled from ‘innovations and alterations’, but this was not authority’s view of him. After the supper party at Grice’s house already referred to, he was denounced to the Privy Council by a fellow guest for slandering the bishops. Norton agreed that he had blamed the bishops for not reforming the ministry, and for tolerating abuses in the church, but maintained that his purpose had been to defend Elizabeth herself from slander.

The Queen was most honourable, and did not use to dissemble with her subjects, to make to them openly a show of granting her people’s petition, and under-hand to overthrow it by contrary commandments to bishops.

He admitted that he ‘grew offended’, and might have gone too far in the heat of argument. An opponent ‘said he would complain to the bishops of me, and I bade him not to spare; and so he hath done, contra Jovem hospitalem’. No sequel to this incident is known, but it no doubt entered into the reckoning when some further indiscretions over the projected Anjou marriage (an issue on which the Queen was particularly sensitive) came up towards the end of 1581. Norton was put in the Tower, whence he bombarded his wife and his puritan friends with plans to achieve his release. His wife (15 Dec.) was to keep a note of those who visited him so that Norton might pray for them. If Sir Walter Mildmay understood his case he would intervene with Burghley, who ‘hath a gracious memory of the Cranmers to which race you and our children appertain’. ‘There can no papist feel the grief for offending the Queen that I feel’ (29 Dec.). His wife was to ‘lay up fair’ the book of martyrs for ‘my good daughter Ann’. She was to lobby Mr. Vice-Chamberlain (Christopher Hatton), (Sir) Thomas Heneage ‘and the Speaker himself ... to put my case ... at court’. The poor lady was at this time on the brink of the mental breakdown that was to end in complete insanity in 1582. To another correspondent (28 Dec.),

When all is said and done this is true; that God sent us our Queen in His blessing. It is God that preserveth and blesseth her. It is the only religion of God that knitteth true subjects unto her ... Woe is to me wretch, that in offending her have wounded the profession of that religion.

On 6 Jan. Burghley

knoweth what burdens of labour in the last Parliament I did bear at his and Mr. Vice-Chamberlain’s commandment in hope and zeal to please her Majesty.

To Recorder [William] Fleetwood two days later:

Lord, how I wonder at myself that I should offend my Queen Elizabeth! And therefore no marvel though all the world wonder at me, that wonder at myself.

He was released to house arrest the next month, and in April freed altogether. He did not sit in Parliament again.6

An aspect of Norton’s career that must be mentioned is his work as a government agent against the Catholics. For some months in 1579 and 1580 he was in Rome gathering intelligence, and between 1578 and 1583 there are numerous references to his examining Catholic prisoners in England, among them Campion and Francis Throckmorton. His frequent recommendations to the Privy Council that torture should be used earned him the harsh soubriquet of ‘rackmaster-general’, and on his own admission he threatened to stretch a Catholic prisoner a foot longer than God had made him. As licenser of printing in London he censored or suppressed books and pamphlets the Privy Council thought subversive. In 1582 he became involved in the disputes arising from complaints made by the workmen printers of London against printing monopolies, and he was accused in a petition to Burghley, signed by over 200 London stationers and others, of letting his position as counsel to the company prejudice his advice as city remembrancer. In fact much of Norton’s time and energy was devoted to the corporation of London, and the city companies. In 1574 he wrote

I am born a citizen and here brought up: according to my right, I have accepted my freedom, and bound myself to this city by the oath of a freeman

and many are the city officials mentioned in his correspondence from the Tower in 1581/2, Mr. Recorder, Mr. Whitacre, Mr. Sheriff Martin, Mr. [Thomas] Aldersey, the town clerk, Mr. Wilkes, the dean of St. Paul’s among them.7

Norton died at Sharpenhoe on 10 Mar. 1584. In a nuncupative death-bed will, he asked his brother-in-law, Thomas Cranmer, to care for the widow and their children. He was buried at Streatley. His heir, Henry, was 13.8

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. DNB; C142/203/12; N. and Q. (ser. 3), iv. 480; Harl. 1234, f. 113; 1547, f. 45v; Her. and Gen. iii. 276.
  • 2. Archaeologia, xxxvi(1), pp. 106, 115; Lansd. 33, f. 150; 48, f. 188; APC , viii. 319; xi. passim; xii. 62, 88-9, 264-5; xiii. 37, 144, 164-5; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 48.
  • 3. Beds. RO, A BP/R 15, f. 52, ex inf. Miss J. Godber.
  • 4. Archaeologia, xxxvi(1), 109-14; D’Ewes, 80, 89, 90, 127, 157, 158, 159, 162-3, 165, 167, 168, 174, 177, 178, 179, 180, 181, 182, 183, 186, 188, 189, 190, 206, 212, 214, 220, 222, 224, 244, 247, 248, 250, 251, 252, 260, 281, 282, 285, 288, 289, 290, 291, 292, 293, 294, 295, 304, 306, 307, 308; CJ, i. 63, 72, 75, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 91, 92, 93, 95, 96, 97, 99, 100, 101, 103, 104, 105, 106, 108, 109, 110, 113, 114, 115, 119, 120, 121, 122, 123, 124, 128, 129, 130, 132, 133, 134, 135, 136; Trinity, Dublin, anon. jnl. ff. 6, 8, 12, 15-16, 23, 24, 25, 33, and additions from Cott. Titus, F. 1; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. ff. 5, 13, 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, 25, 27, 29, 33, 36-7, 50, 53, 54, 58, 65, 67, 69.
  • 5. E. St. John Brooks, Hatton, 36-40; Lansd. 155, ff. 87-113.
  • 6. Lansd. 155, ff. 87-113; Archaeologia, xxxvi(1), 105-14; Neale, Parlts. i. 404-6; H. Nicolas, Hatton, 234-5, 242-3; Add. 48023.
  • 7. HMC 2nd Rep. 40-1; APC, viii. 319; xi. xii and xiii passim; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 48; C. Blagden, Stationers’ Co. 67-8; W. W. Greg and E. Boswell, Recs. Stationers’ Co. 1576-1602, p. 14; Archaeologia, xxxvi(1), pp. 101-4.
  • 8. C142/203/38; VCH Beds. ii. 382-3.