POPHAM, John (c.1532-1607), of Wellington, Som.

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. c.1532, 2nd s. of Alexander Popham of Huntworth by Joan, da. of Sir Edward Stradling of St. Donat’s, Glam.; bro. of Edward. educ. Balliol, Oxf. and M. Temple, Autumn reader 1568, Lent reader 1573, treasurer 1580. m. Amy, da. and h. of Hugh Adams of Castleton, Glam., 1s. Sir Francis 6da. Kntd. 1592.

Offices Held

J.p.q. Som. from c.1573, Mdx. 1583, Wilts., Bucks., Norf. 1594, Beds., Hunts., Suff., Isle of Ely, Cambs. 1600; custos rot. Som. from c.1594; recorder, Bridgwater 1571-2, Bristol 1571-c.77; serjeant-at-law 1579; solicitor-gen. 1579-81, attorney-gen. 1581-9; 2nd justice of Lancaster 1581-9; j.c.p. 1589-92; cj. Queen’s bench 1592-1607; eccles. commr. Sarum diocese 1599; P.C. 1599; commr. chancellorship, duchy of Lancaster 1601; high steward, Dunwich 1602.1

Speaker of House of Commons 1581.


Popham came of a family settled in Somerset since the thirteenth century. He inherited from his father property in Bridgwater, of which borough both he and his brother became recorder, and which his brother represented in the Parliaments of 1571 and 1572. Popham himself sat for Bristol, where, as recorder, he had a lien on the senior seat. There is obviously room for confusion over the parliamentary activities of the two brothers in the two Parliaments, and it has therefore been assumed that where the clerk has put plain Mr. Popham, John is meant. On this basis it was John Popham who seconded Bell in the debate on the subsidy bill, 7 Apr. 1571, drawing attention to abuses in collection, practiced by

treasurers of the Crown, as many having in their hands great masses of money, with which either they themselves or some others their friends do purchase lands to their own use, and after become bankrupts, and so cause or practice an instalment of their debts ... which occasioned the lack in the prince’s coffers.

On 11 Apr. he spoke in favour of repealing the Act of 1566 restricting Bristol’s trade to the merchant venturers. Thinking of ‘the common commodity of the city’, he described ‘the covin used in the last Parliament in penning of the Act’, for the statute omitted a vital proviso ‘that the guild should not have continuance except it were to the commodity of the city’. The letters patent should have ‘their validity according to the law’. He added ‘a long discourse of the decay of the navy [and] the hindrance of the mariners’. His committees in 1571 were concerned with grievances (7 Apr.), the Bristol Act (12 Apr.), treasons (12 Apr.), promoters (23 Apr.), respite of homage (27 Apr., 2, 17 May), navigation (8 May), attainders and the bill against papal bulls (10 May).

Popham made four reported speeches in 1572, all on narrow legal points: the expenses of the Middlesex free-holders (22 May); bringing minstrels within the meaning of an Act against vagabonds (30 May); and two interventions on the main issue of that session, Mary Queen of Scots (both 9 June). His committees in 1572 were on Mary Queen of Scots (12, 28 May, 6 June), rites and ceremonies (20 May), the Earl of Kent (21 May), the explanation of statutes and recoveries (28 May), grants by corporations (30 May), fraudulent conveyances (3 June), and delays in judgment (24 June). In the 1576 session, he spoke on lands without covin (18 Feb.); and was appointed to committees on the subsidy (10 Feb.), promoters (10 Feb.), the poor (11 Feb.), fines and recoveries (13 Feb.), William Isley’s debts (14, 27 Feb.), the coinage (15 Feb.), jeofails (15 Feb.), cloth (16 Feb.), sheriffs (18 Feb.), dilapidations (24 Feb.), Middlesex jurors (24 Feb.), letters patent (25 Feb.), Arthur Hall (28 Feb.), church discipline (29 Feb.), jurors (5 Mar.), land reclamation (6 Mar.), collateral warranties (7 Mar), the order of business (8 Mar.), dress (10 Mar.), the Queen’s marriage (12 Mar.), Lord Stourton’s bill (12 Mar.) and wharves and quays (13 Mar.).2

Before the next session of Parliament Popham was made first serjeant, then solicitor-general, which caused his appointment as serjeant to be revoked in accordance with the custom of the time, the serjeants regarding the solicitorship as beneath the dignity of their order. As solicitor Popham was made an assistant in the Lords at the beginning of the 1581 session. Whether the Commons would have taken any action about this in other circumstances cannot be known; their concern at the moment was to elect a new Speaker in place of Bell, and Popham was quickly proposed, Mr. Treasurer (Sir Francis Knollys) informing the House

before their proceeding to election, that he and others had erst seen in the Higher House one that is a member of this House, to wit Mr. John Popham, her Majesty’s solicitor-general, being one of the citizens of Bristol.

The Commons thereupon successfully requested Popham’s restoration to them, and made him Speaker, 18 Jan. 1581. Three days later, on Saturday 21 Jan. Paul Wentworth’s motion for a public fast was agreed to, 115 to 100, the time and place were settled, and Popham was immediately in trouble. On the Monday morning, 23 Jan., ‘the House being assembled did sit till eleven of the clock without the Speaker, for that he was, all that time at the Court’. When he arrived he ‘declared unto the House that the time was then so far spent, as leisure could not well serve them to proceed unto the reading of any bill’ and adjourned the sitting. Next day

Mr. Speaker declareth himself for his own part, to be very sorry for the error that happened here, in this House upon Saturday last, in resolving to have a public fast, and showeth her Majesty’s great misliking of the proceeding of this House therein.

In the end it was

agreed that Mr. Vicechamberlain [Hatton] should in our names deliver to her Majesty how sorry we were for her conceived offence ...

and though ‘Mr. Carleton [George, Wentworth’s fellow traveller] was desirous to speak’, Mr. Speaker did ‘rise and would not tarry’. Anthony Cope charged him with partiality on 16 Mar. ‘that is to say ... in some such matters as he hath favoured, he hath ... spoken to the bill, and in some other cases, which he did not favour and like of, he would prejudice the speeches, of the Members of this House, with the question’, but on the whole Popham did quite well for an Elizabethan Speaker, especially in view of the drubbing he had received at the Queen’s hands over the public fast incident. The Queen’s view on the reform of abuses in the church was that any action by the House was unnecessary as the bishops were already considering the grievances. The Commons, anxious to avoid another confrontation, adopted the ingenious device of resolving

that Mr. Speaker, in the name of this whole House, do, in his oration to her Majesty upon the last day of this present session of Parliament ... put her Majesty in remembrance for the execution and accomplishment thereof at her highness’ good pleasure, in such sort as to Mr. Speaker, without receiving instructions or direction of any of this House, shall seem most meet and convenient.

Unlike Speaker Croke, who, in similar circumstances in 1601, omitted mention of the ordnance matter, Popham discharged his trust. On 18 Mar.

he remembered a petition made by the common house the last session of Parliament to the Queen’s majesty for redress to be had of certain enormities to the church, which he noted to be these. The admitting of unlearned and insufficient ministers. Next the abuse of excommunication used in things of small moment. Thirdly the commutation of penance into money even in the greatest offences. And lastly the great inconveniences given by reason of pluralities and dispensations. Whereunto her Majesty [had] made them a most gracious answer, that she had and would give order therein, for the which he rendered to her most humble and dutiful thanks. He remembered likewise that because those things for lack of time were not fully reformed, the House had eftsoons this session presumed to put her Majesty in mind thereof again, whereunto also as to the former they received a gracious answer, that those matters belonging to her as incident to that supreme authority which she hath over the clergy and state ecclesiastical, she would give such direction therein as all the disorders should be reformed so far as should be necessary. For the which answer also be rendered the like most humble thanks, beseeching her Majesty in the name of the whole Commons that it might please her to command that to be done without delay which the necessity of the things did require.

A good speech, illustrating, if illustration were necessary, that Elizabeth’s tactics of procrastination were perfectly apparent to her contemporaries. But Popham’s resilience was no doubt exaggerated. Francis Bacon relates that when the Queen asked ‘Well, Mr. Speaker, what hath passed in the Lower House?’, he replied ‘If it please your Majesty, seven weeks’. His career in the law certainly did not suffer as a result of his having been Speaker, but he may well have been relieved that his part in the next Parliament was limited to attendance in the Upper House as attorney-general, for which he was paid £50.3

As a judge, Popham had a mixed reputation. He was considered harsh towards recusants and seminary priests, took part in proceedings against Campion, Tresham, Throckmorton, Parry, Babington and Lopez, and as chief justice, presided at several state trials. Sent to examine Essex in February 1601, he was shut up in Essex House by the conspirators. During Ralegh’s trial he apologized for excesses in the attacks made by (Sir) Edward Coke upon the prisoner: ‘Mr. Attorney speaketh out of the zeal of his duty for the service of the King, and you for your life; be valiant on both sides’. Lord Ellesmere [Thomas Egerton I] called Popham ‘a man of great wisdom, and of singular learning and judgment in the law’, and Coke described him as

a most revered judge, of a ready apprehension, profound judgment, most excellent understanding and admirable experience of all business which concerned the commonwealth; accompanied with a rare memory, with perpetual industry and labour for the maintenance of the tranquillity and public good of the realm, and in all things with great constancy, integrity and patience.

But his integrity did not go unchallenged. There is extant a letter of 1594 from the Earl of Essex, attempting to influence his judgment in a suit which was to be heard before him; and Aubrey maintained that Popham acquired Littlecote as the price for obtaining a nolle prosequi in favour of the murderer William ‘Black’ Darrell. Littlecote did in fact pass to Popham on Darrell’s death.4

Popham was interested in several commercial ventures, including fen drainage and the mines royal, and in colonial settlement. In 1586, together with his sons-in-law Edward Rogers and Roger Warre, he was made a commissioner for the population of Munster and was granted land there. He tried to interest his west country neighbours in the project and is said to have put £12,000 of his own money into the venture. Together with Sir Ferdinando Gorges he obtained a patent to exploit the territory in America later known as Maine, by which they were granted authority to levy taxes and coin money and to maintain government for 21 years. Popham sent out two expeditions, one in 1606, the other in the following year. His interest in colonial settlement and in vagrancy gave rise to the myth that he was responsible for the introduction of the deportation of vagabonds.5

Popham died 10 June 1607, having amassed the largest fortune of any member of the bar of his day. He left bequests to his wife, son, daughters and sons-in-law, and the poor of Wellington, Taunton, Bridgwater, North Petherton and Ramsbury. He provided for a hospital for six men and six women to be erected at Wellington, where he had built a house only slightly smaller than Montacute. It was destroyed in the civil war. Popham’s magnificent tomb is in Wellington church.6

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Vis. Som. (Harl. Soc. xi), 125; C66/1421; Foss, Judges, vi. 179-81; DNB; Williams, Glos. MPs, 110; W. Barrett, Hist. Bristol, 115; CSP Dom. 1598-1601, pp. 97, 195; Somerville, Duchy, i. 396-7, 474; Dunwich minute bk. 1595-1619, f. 94.
  • 2. PCC 10 Ketchyn; CJ, i. 83, 84, 86, 87, 88, 90, 95, 96, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 104, 105, 106, 108, 109, 111, 112, 113, 114; D’Ewes, 158, 159, 162, 165, 178, 179, 181, 182, 184, 206, 213, 219, 220, 221, 222, 223, 247, 248, 249, 250, 251, 255, 260, 261; Trinity, Dublin, anon. jnl. ff. 7, 13, 14; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. ff. 36, 58, 60; HMC Lords, xi. 8.
  • 3. D’Ewes, 268-9, 273, 280, 281, 282-3, 302, 303, 310; CJ, i. 117, 118, 132, 134; Trinity, Dublin, Thos. Cromwell’s jnl. ff. 96, 99; Northants. RO, Fitzwilliam mss 148; Bacon, Apophthegms (1626), p. 79; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 225; HMC Hatfield, iii. 100.
  • 4. Fuller, Worthies (1840), iii. 98; Dugdale, Origines, 127; State Trials, i. 1095, 1127, 1229, 1250, 1333, 1340, 1344-7, 1409; ii. 1, 10, 159, 217, 669; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 569; 1581-90, pp. 30, 187; 1591-4, p. 448; 1598-1601, pp. 227, 421; APC, xii. 271, 294; xiii. 249, 253, 267, 290, 400, 433; xvii. 338; xxi. 470; Wilts. Mag. xviii. 270; N. and Q. (ser. 2), x. 111-15; Coke 6th Rep. 75.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 320, 323, 325, 403; 1603-10, 300, 326; Add. 1580-1625, p. 457; CSP Ire. 1586-8, pp. 77, 449, 508; APC, xiv. 8; xv. 76; J. Winsor, Hist. America, iii. 175-6, 209; Strachey, Virginia, 35, 158; L. B. Wright, Atlantic Frontier, 101-2.
  • 6. DNB; PCC 58 Windebanck; information from Mr. F. W. Popham, of Kemsing, Kent.