COVENTRY, Sir Thomas (1578-1640), of Croome d'Abitot, Worcs., the Inner Temple, London and Durham House, The Strand, Westminster
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Family and Education
b. 1578, 1st s. of Thomas Coventry of Croome d’Abitot, j.c.p. and Margaret, da. and h. of William Jefferies of Croome d’Abitot.1 educ. Balliol, Oxf. 1592 aged 14; I. Temple 1595, called 1603.2 m. (1) bef. 1606, Sarah, da. of John Sebright of Blacks Hall, Wolverley, Worcs. 1s. 1da.; (2) 20 Apr. 1610, Elizabeth (bur. 25 May 1653), da. of John Aldersey of London, Haberdasher, wid. of William Pichford of London, grocer/apothecary, 4s. 4da.3 suc. fa. 1606; kntd. 16 Mar. 1617; cr. Bar. Coventry of Aylesborough, 10 Apr. 1628.4 d. 14 Jan. 1640. sig. Thomas Coventrye.
Commr. gaol delivery, Worcs. 1603-5,5 London 1614, Newgate, London 1616, assurance, London 1615, sewers, London 1615,6 Westminster 1634;7 j.p. Surr. 1616, Mdx. 1616, Westminster 1619;8 custos rot. Worcs. 1624;9 commr. oyer and terminer, Mdx. 1614, London 1615, the Verge 1617,10 riot at Spanish amb.’s house 1618,11 Oxford circ. 1625,12 tolls in markets and fairs, Wales 1620,13 subsidy, London 1621;14 gov. Charterhouse hosp., London 1621-d.;15 commr. buildings, London and Westminster 1625;16 high steward, Cambridge, Cambs. 1626-d.,17 St. Albans, Herts. ?1633,18 Kingston-upon-Hull, Yorks. 1634-at least 1637,19 Evesham, Worcs. at d.;20 freeman, Droitwich, Worcs.21
Auditor (jt.), I. Temple 1609, 1610, 1612, bencher 1614, reader 1616, treas. 1617-25;22 jnr. counsel, Skinners’ Co. London 1604-at least 1608;23 reader, Lyon’s Inn, London 1609;24 judge, Sheriff’s Ct., London 1614-16,25 Oxf. circ. bef. 1616;26 recorder, London 1616-17, Coventry, Warws. 1634-d.; fee’d counsel, corporation of London 1617, 27 Worcester, Worcs. 1616-d.,28 Merchant Taylors’ Co. London 1617-20,29 ?Camb. Univ. 1617-at least 1625;30 Worcester 1624-d.;31 solicitor gen. 1617-21;32 acting att. gen. 1620-1,33 att. gen. 1621-5;34 ld. kpr. 1625-d.35
Commr. gold and silver thread 1618, enforcement of gold and silver thread patent 1618, right of free warren 1618, markets and fairs 1620,39 abuses in silk-dyeing 1620;40 member, High Commission, Canterbury prov. 1620;41 commr. composition, illegal wine casks 1619,42 trade 1625, defective titles 1625;43 PC 1625-d.44
‘A gentleman by birth and education’, who spoke in a kind of ‘graceful lisping’ and possessed, according to Clarendon, a ‘strange power of making himself believed’,45 Thomas Coventry was the eldest son of a justice of Common Pleas. Originally from Oxfordshire, his father laid the foundations of the family fortune in Worcestershire, buying the manor of Croome d’Abitot from the Clare family in 1592.46 Hopeful that Coventry would follow in his footsteps, he sent him to Balliol, his old Oxford college, and the Inner Temple, of which he was a member. He was not to be disappointed, for at the Inn Coventry quickly made a favourable impression on account of his ‘indefatigable diligence in study’.47
Coventry forged some useful contacts at the Inner Temple, among them Sir Edward Coke*, who was treasurer of the Inn during his second year of study. In later years Sir Francis Bacon* would remind the king that Coventry had been ‘bred by my Lord Coke’, and indeed, Coventry became so closely linked with Coke that, following the latter’s death in 1634, he acted as his executor and erected a monument in his memory.48 Another important contact Coventry made at the Inn was undoubtedly William Sebright, who regularly served as the Inn’s butler over Christmas.49 It was probably through Sebright that Coventry not only met his first wife Sarah but was introduced to City government, as Sebright was town clerk of London. In February 1605 Coventry obtained reversions to the town clerkship, to the judgeships of both sheriff’s courts and the secondaryships of both compters. Although he surrendered his reversion to the clerkship in 1613,50 Coventry became a judge of the sheriff’s court in the following year.
It was probably through his father’s influence rather than as a result of any personal contacts developed at the Inner Temple that Coventry obtained his first employment after being called to the bar in 1603. At the beginning of James’s reign the elder Coventry’s fellow Inner Templar and serjeant-at-law, Thomas Foster, became a counsellor-at-large to Anne of Denmark.51 Realizing that he would no longer be able to devote much time to his accustomed job as their counsel, the governors of the London Skinners’ Company instructed Foster in May 1604 to recruit a young barrister, ‘to be by him acquainted with the titles and suits brought for or against this Company concerning any of their lands and tenements’.52 Foster’s choice settled on Coventry who took over for the company the handling of minor matters, such as bequests. Normally Coventry was simply required to keep Foster regularly briefed, but on one occasion at least Coventry apparently stepped into Foster’s shoes when Foster failed to appear before Sir John Croke†. Coventry subsequently played a key role in a dispute with the churchwardens of nearby St. Michael’s Paternoster over Whittington College, which the Company had recently bought from the Mercers. He pleaded the Skinners’ cause on various occasions, drafted their petition to Archbishop Bancroft53 and made such a favourable impression as junior counsel that he was invited to the Company’s election dinner in June 1606.54 He was also remembered in the will of the Company’s clerk, Edward Balthrop, who not only bequeathed him his signet ring but also ‘my picture of the duke of Norfolk’.55 However, by the time the will was proved, in 1609, Coventry had evidently left the Company’s service.
The death of his first wife afforded Coventry the opportunity to strengthen his links with the City. In 1610 he married Elizabeth Pichford, the ‘lovely, young, rich,’ widow of a London Grocer. That same year, after borrowing money from a leading Grocer, Thomas Moulson*, and John Aldersey, he summarized for the Grocers a bill laid before the Commons by the Apothecaries of London, who sought statutory permission to secede from the Company. He subsequently acted as counsel to the Grocers on an irregular basis, and in 1627 became the first lawyer to be admitted as one of its freemen.56 The Grocers were not Coventry’s only important City clients at around this time. In 1615 or 1616 he acted for the Drapers in a probate case, while in June 1616 he represented the Merchants of the Staple before the Privy Council.57 By 1613 Coventry’s abilities had come to the notice of the City authorities. In October he assisted the recorder of London, Sir Henry Montagu*, on behalf of the merchant Humphrey Slany in an Exchequer action brought against the lieutenant of the Tower, Sir William Waad*.58 Two months later London’s corporation asked him to advise its solicitor in suing out a licence regarding Gresham College.59
Although now based in London, Coventry retained his links with his home county of Worcestershire. In 1609 the advowson of Ombersley church was sold to him and Thomas Sandys, probably as trustees for Sir Samuel Sandys*,60 and in 1616 he was retained by the city of Worcester to act as its legal adviser.61 At some point before 1621 he also became a freeman of Droitwich, where he owned some salt pits.62 In 1624 he became guardian to the son of Sir John Pakington*, who later married one of his daughter,63 and between 1615 and 1639 he acquired 14 Worcestershire manors to add to his inheritance.64
During the mid-Jacobean period Coventry broadened his legal experience by riding the Oxford circuit with James Whitelocke*, John Walter* and Henry Yelverton*.65 In November 1616 he was elected recorder of London in place of recorder Montagu, who became lord chief justice of King’s Bench in place of the dismissed Sir Edward Coke. This sudden promotion was surprising, for as Chamberlain observed, Coventry was ‘no confidant of the Court’. Moreover, although ‘a well learned and an honest man’, he was, as attorney-general Bacon pointed out, ‘seasoned’ in the ways of the now disgraced Coke. However, the king was denied any choice in the matter, for after James’s nominee, Sir Henry Yelverton, refused to accept the recordership, the mayor and aldermen ‘took the advantage ... before any other should be nominated to them’ to appoint Coventry.66 The City’s choice was regarded was regarded with approval by the lawyer Sir Richard Hutton, who described Coventry in his diary as ‘un homme bien erudite et de grand opinion’.67
Coventry did not remain in the recordership for long. Four months after his unexpected advancement, and before he had yet reached his fortieth birthday, he was named solicitor-general after Yelverton succeeded Bacon as attorney-general. It is unclear who was behind Coventry’s appointment, but at least one contemporary believed that, through ‘secret labouring’, he had secured the support of the royal favourite, George Villiers, earl of Buckingham, although ‘it will cost him dear’.68 Further evidence for this view can be found in the statement by Bishop Goodman that Coventry was first introduced to the Court by Sir Lionel Cranfield*, as Cranfield was then well connected with both the City and the favourite.69 If Coventry was the beneficiary of Buckingham’s support it would certainly explain why he was chosen in preference to Prince Charles’s attorney-general, John Walter*, whom ‘all the world’ had expected to be appointed on the grounds that he was ‘the fittest man in England for it, and ancient to Mr. Coventry a dozen years or more’.70 One other possibility is that the king himself was behind Coventry’s appointment. At a time when James was endeavouring to secure a large loan from the City he may have felt that it would be politic to promote its recorder.71
The new solicitor-general soon proved himself to be more effective than his senior colleague, attorney-general Yelverton. During the 1619 Star Chamber prosecution of the former lord treasurer, the earl of Suffolk, one observer contrasted the performance of Coventry, whose remarks were made ‘to no light purpose’, with that of Yelverton, who ‘scarce ever interposed one word’. At one point during the trial Coventry, addressing the charge that Suffolk had embezzled £140 to pay for his a particular piece of building work, ‘took occasion to ejaculate - "Thus the great foundation of the Exchequer must be subverted for the building up of my Lord’s stables"’.72 It is not surprising that Coventry was appointed acting attorney-general when Yelverton was suspended from office in June 1620.
Yelverton’s dismissal in January 1621 opened the way for Coventry to be appointed as his successor. At around the same time he was elected to the 1621 Parliament for the Worcestershire borough of Droitwich. Before he could take his place, however, he was unseated by the Commons as it had been resolved in 1614 that the attorney-general, being a legal assistant in the Upper House, was not eligible to serve. Coventry nevertheless played an active role in the Lords where, on 14 May, he defended Buckingham against Yelverton’s comparison of the favourite with Edward II’s crony, Hugh Despenser.73
In September 1625 Buckingham offered Coventry the post of lord keeper in place of the bishop of Lincoln, John Williams, whom the duke suspected of plotting against him. Coventry’s anonymous biographer observed that Coventry was chosen because he was ‘the only person of the times capable of so high an office’,74 but in fact Buckingham had already offered the post to the master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, John Preston, who had declined it.75 In his letter of acceptance, Coventry, in a revealing statement, thanked Buckingham for having interceded on his behalf ‘in this and in all other occasions that have concerned me,’ both under ‘His Majesty and his royal father’.76
Coventry remained lord keeper for the rest of his life. His hold on office while Buckingham lived was nevertheless precarious, for unlike his patron and the king he emerged as a keen advocate of parliaments.77 Later, in 1633, he apparently annoyed Charles by suggesting that the moment was ripe to summon another Parliament.78 Nevertheless, he was sufficiently well regarded to be elevated to the peerage in 1628, and in 1634 he helped prepare the ground for the introduction of Ship Money.79
Coventry died on the morning of 14 Jan. 1640 in Durham House in the Strand, having been in some pain from ‘the stone’ for several weeks.80 He was buried, in accordance with his wishes, near his parents at Croome d’Abitot. Over the course of his career he had amassed a vast fortune, and in his will, prepared a couple of years before his death, he was able to leave his wife, Elizabeth, a principal residence and six other houses of her choosing. Moreover, he made arrangements that, should his three youngest daughters not be married at the time of his death, he would leave them the enormous sum of £4,000 apiece.81 He was succeeded by his eldest son Thomas, who represented Droitwich in 1625 and 1626 and Worcestershire in 1628.
Ref Volumes: 1604-1629
Authors: Glyn Redworth / Andrew Thrush
- 1. Soc. Antiq., Prattinton Collection, Top. viii, Croome d’Abitot, 13-17.
- 2. Al. Ox.; CITR, i. 405; ii. 1.
- 3. Vis. Cheshire (Harl. Soc. lix), 5; Vis. Warws. (Harl. Soc. lxii), 13; Vis. Worcs, (Harl. Soc. xxvii), 126; Regs. St. Helen’s Bishopsgate (Harl. Soc. Reg. xxxi), 123; E.A.B. Barnard, ‘Coventry’s of Croome’, Trans. Worcs. Arch. Soc. n.s. xx. 34; PROB 11/128, f. 176v; CP. Bramston mistakenly identified Elizabeth Pichford’s maiden-name as Hoskins: Autobiog. of Sir John Bramston ed. P. Braybrooke (Cam. Soc. xxxii), 251.
- 4. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 161; CP.
- 5. C181/1, ff. 46v, 106v.
- 6. C181/2, ff. 218, 237v, 243v, 253.
- 7. C181/4, f. 191.
- 8. C231/4, f. 34; 181/2, f. 331v.
- 9. C231/4, f. 172.
- 10. Ibid. ff. 214, 238, 287.
- 11. Ibid. f. 319.
- 12. C181/3, f. 179.
- 13. CD 1621, vii. 462.
- 14. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, ii. 246.
- 15. G.S. Davies, Charterhouse in London, 852; LMA, ACC/1876/G/02/02, f. 21.
- 16. T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 1, p. 70.
- 17. C.H. Cooper, Annals of Cambridge, iii. 185, 295.
- 18. A.E. Gibbs, Corp. Recs. of St. Albans, 6, 297.
- 19. Hull RO, Bench Bk. 5, ff. 166, 215.
- 20. Evesham Bor. Recs. of the Seventeenth Century 1605-87 ed. S.K. Roberts (Worcs. Hist. Soc. n.s. xiv), 41.
- 21. C7/305/4.
- 22. CITR, ii. 44, 52, 69, 88, 92, 95, 104, 110, 115, 126, 134, 140, 145.
- 23. GL, ms 30727/5, unfol. 1604-8 accts.
- 24. Readings and Moots at Inns of Ct. II ed. S.E. Thorne and J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. cv), p. cvi.
- 25. W.R. Prest, Rise of the Barristers, 357; CLRO, Remembrancia viii. no. 18.
- 26. Liber Famelicus of Sir J. Whitelocke ed. J. Bruce (Cam. Soc. lxx), 54.
- 27. CLRO, Reps. 33, ff. 5r-v, 72r-v; VCH Warws. viii. 249.
- 28. Chamber Bk. of Worc. (Worcs. Hist Soc. n.s. viii), 141.
- 29. GL, ms Merchant Taylors’ accts. vols. 11 and 12, unfol.
- 30. D.M. Owens, Cambridge Univ. Archives: A classified list, 45; Life of the Renowned Dr. Preston ed. E.W. Harcourt, 117.
- 31. Chamber Bk. of Worcester, 29.
- 32. C231/4, f. 37.
- 33. APC, 1619-21, p. 268.
- 34. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 558.
- 35. Rymer, viii. pt. 1, p. 157.
- 36. A. Brown, Genesis of US, ii. 866; Recs. Virg. Co. ed. S.R. Kingsbury, iii. 65.
- 37. Ancient Vellum Bk. ed. G.A. Raikes, 22.
- 38. GL, ms 11592A, unfol.
- 39. CD 1621, vii. 366-7, 411, 466-7.
- 40. HMC Rutland i. 458.
- 41. R.G. Usher, Rise and Fall of High Commission, 348.
- 42. CD 1621, vii. 471.
- 43. Rymer, viii. pt. 1, pp. 33, 59, 70. Following his appointment as ld. kpr. in Nov. 1625, Coventry was an ex officio member of numerous commissions which, for the sake of brevity, are omitted here.
- 44. APC, 1625-6, p. 223.
- 45. ‘Thomas, Lord Coventry: Some notable observations in the course of his life and ultimum vale to the world’, Sloane 3075, ff. 2, 4v; Clarendon, Hist. of the Rebellion ed. W.D. Mackray, i. 57-8.
- 46. T. Nash, Colls. for Hist. of Worcs. i. 260; VCH Worcs. iii. 314.
- 47. Sloane 3075, f. 2v.
- 48. CITR, ii. p. lxvii; C.W. James, Chief Justice Coke, 49.
- 49. CITR, ii. 6, 12, 53, 69, 92, 97, 104, 109. Prest mistakenly describes William as Sarah’s grandfather: Prest, 352. For the real relationship, see Vis. Worcs. (Harl. Soc. xxvii), 126.
- 50. CLRO, Reps. 31, pt. 1, f. 87v.
- 51. Illustrations of British History ed. E. Lodge, iii. 66; Foss, Judges of Eng. vi. 157. Foster and Coventry’s father were appointed sjt.-at-law at the same time: CITR, i. 453.
- 52. GL, ms 30708/2, f. 356v.
- 53. GL, ms 30727/5, unfol. 1604-8 accts.
- 54. Recs. of Skinners of London ed. J.J. Lambert, 301.
- 55. PROB 11/114, f. 247v.
- 56. GL, ms 11571/9, f. 356; 11571/10, ff. 34v, 124, 261v, 354v-5; 11588/3, p. 104; LC4/197, f. 39; CD 1621, vii. 324-5; B. Heath, Co. of Grocers, 267.
- 57. Drapers’ Hall, London, WA 6/13, f. 19v; CD 1621, vii. 497.
- 58. E126/2, f. 1.
- 59. CLRO, letter bk. FF, f. 32.
- 60. VCH Worcs. iii. 468.
- 61. Chamber Bk. 141.
- 62. C7/305/4.
- 63. Trans. Worcs. Arch. Soc. xiii. 38.
- 64. Prest, 352.
- 65. Liber Famelicus, 54.
- 66. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 39; Letters and Life of Francis Bacon ed. J. Spedding, vi. 92; CLRO, Remembrancia, viii. no. 21; Reps. 33, f. 5r-v.
- 67. Diary of Sir Richard Hutton ed. W.R. Prest (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. ix), 16.
- 68. HMC Hastings, iv. 16.
- 69. Ct. of Jas. I ed. G. Goodman, i. 318.
- 70. Liber Famelicus, 53-4.
- 71. For the loan, see R. Ashton, Crown and the Money Market, 122-4.
- 72. HMC Hatfield, xxii. 95, 97.
- 73. LD 1621, 82; R. Lockyer, Buckingham, 103.
- 74. Sloane 3075, f. 3v.
- 75. Preston ed. Harcourt, 117; Lockyer, 277.
- 76. Harl. 1581, f. 328.
- 77. R. Cust, Forced Loan, 13, 44-5; Holles Letters ed. P. Seddon (Thoroton Soc. rec. ser. xxv), 337, 345.
- 78. Strafforde Letters (1739) ed. W. Knowler, i. 141.
- 79. K. Sharpe, Personal Rule, 550-2.
- 80. CSP Dom. 1639-40, p. 340.
- 81. PROB 11/182, ff. 1-4v.