NAUNTON, Robert (c.1563-1635), of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Letheringham, Suff. and Charing Cross, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010
Available from Cambridge University Press

Family and Education

b. c.1563, 1st s. of Henry Naunton of Letheringham and his 1st w. Elizabeth, da. of Everard Ashby of Loseby, Leics. and h. to her bro. William Ashby†. educ. Trin. Camb. 1579, BA 1583, MA 1586; L. Inn 1616. m. by 29 Sept. 1619, Penelope (admon. 23 Mar. 1655), da. and coh. of Sir Thomas Perrot† of Haroldston, Pemb., wid. of Sir William Lower* of St. Winnow, Cornw., 1s. d.v.p. 1da. suc. fa. 1599;1 kntd. 7 Sept. 1615.2 d. 27 Mar. 1635.3 sig. R[obert] Naunton

Offices Held

Fell., Trin. Camb. 1585-92, Trin. Hall 1592-1616; public orator, Camb. Univ. 1594-1611, proctor 1601-2.4

Member, embassy, Scotland 1589-90;5 amb. extraordinary (jt.), Denmark 1603.6

Under-sec. of state by 1612;7 commr. cloth exports 1614;8 master of Requests 1616-18; surveyor of the Wards 1616-18, master 1624-35; sec. of state 1618-23;9 PC 9 Jan. 1618-d.;10 commr. Treas. 1618-20,11 gold and silver thread 1618,12 banishment of Jesuits 1618, 1624, sale of jewels 1619; member, High Commission, Canterbury prov. 1620-d.; commr. Crown leases 1620, revenue 1620, inquiry into export of ordnance 1620,13 tobacco licences 1620,14 defective titles 1625, poor relief 1630,15repair of St. Paul’s Cathedral 1631.16

Commr. oyer and terminer, the Verge 1617, London and Mdx. 1619-d., sewers, London 1617-21, Westminster, Mdx. 1627-d., Essex 1631-3,17 survey, L. Inn Fields 1618,18 new buildings, London 1618, 1625, 1630,19 gaol delivery, London 1619-d., Havering, Essex 1630-3;20 j.p. Westminster 1620-d., Mdx. by 1621-d., Essex 1626-d.;21 commr. Forced Loan, Essex, Mdx., Suff. 1626-7, Cambs., Dorset, Herts., Kent, London, Surr., Isle of Ely, Cambs., Westminster, Mdx. 1627.22

Member, Guiana Co. 1627.23


Naunton’s grandfather entered the service of Charles Brandon, 1st duke of Suffolk, and was elected for Boston in 1547.24 His widow, a lady of the powerful Wingfield family, received a grant of Letheringham priory, Suffolk, in fee in 1553.25 Naunton became a Cambridge academic, but his real ambitions were political. His initial experience of diplomacy was in Scotland in 1589, where his uncle, William Ashby, was ambassador. However, his first task was to arrange for Ashby’s retirement the following year and Naunton, having formed an unfavourable impression of the Presbyterian establishment, may have rendered himself persona non grata by his willingness to provide Richard Bancroft, the future archbishop of Canterbury, with information to attack the Scottish church. Consequently, his employment did not continue under Ashby’s successor.26

Naunton probably met Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex in 1595, and the following year he went to France, ostensibly as tutor to (Sir) Robert Vernon*, but in reality to act as Essex’s intermediary with Antonio Perez, a former secretary of Phillip II of Spain. The mission was a failure and Naunton seems to have acquired an antipathy to the French only outweighed by his profound Hispanophobia. Returning to England, he discovered that his uncle’s assets, some £1,000, had been lost by an incompetent trustee, and was forced, in his own pathetic words, ‘to live a poor scholar in the university, ... so distracted in my state of mind ... as I could not enter or think of any course for my preferment’.27

Struggling to reclaim his uncle’s estate, Naunton transferred his allegiance from Essex to Sir Robert Cecil†, a link which would subsequently stand him in good stead. Moreover, by 1603 he was a public orator at Cambridge and in that capacity he greeted James I on his way south from Scotland on behalf of the university. He was promptly rewarded with a diplomatic mission to Copenhagen, accompanying Roger Manners, 5th earl of Rutland, but, according to James Howell*, when called upon to make an oration before the king of Denmark, he became hopelessly tongue-tied. Howell was writing 30 years after the event, but this may explain why Naunton received no immediate advancement on his return.28

Despite the debâcle in Denmark, Naunton retained Cecil’s confidence and it was presumably the latter, by now 1st earl of Salisbury, who prompted Sir William Killigrew I* to nominate him at the Helston by-election on 3 May 1606, with less than a month to run before the prorogation: it is not therefore entirely surprising that he left no trace on the records of the second session of the first Jacobean Parliament. During the recess he was granted the benefit of a recusancy forfeiture.29

Naunton received 12 committee appointments in the third session, beginning with the conference with the Lords of 25 Nov. 1606 on the Union, but made no recorded speeches. Other matters with which he was concerned in the third session included the naturalization of a Cecil client, Dr. Peter Baro, whose father was the anti-Calvinist Cambridge professor of divinity (6 Dec.), the proposed requirement that ecclesiastical Canons receive parliamentary confirmation (11 Dec.), the maltreatment of English merchants in Spain (28 Feb.), and the extension of the Unlawful Assemblies Act (1 July). He was also named to two further private bill committees, those for settling a Cambridgeshire manor on Sir Roger Aston* (13 Dec.) and for enabling Salisbury to acquire the Crown manor of Hatfield, Hertfordshire in exchange for Theobalds (30 May).30

In the fourth session Naunton again made no recorded speeches, but was named to eight committees, the first of which was to attend the conference with the Lords of 15 Feb. 1610 at which the Great Contract was propounded.31 Thirteen days later he wrote to his friend, John Coke*, stating that the succession dispute over the strategically important German principalities of Jülich and Cleves had ‘proved a material inducement, to draw on a new supply to the king’s coffers by the Parliament’. The Commons had been waiting for permission to bargain for the abolition of wardship, which had only been mentioned ‘en passant’ by Salisbury. Naunton was optimistic that, if the king was ‘borne in hand’ and made a satisfactory reply then the Contract would be a success and ‘we shall have cause to joy that he [James] has brought his coffers to this vacuum’. He also looked forward to the prospect of renewed war on the Continent between a coalition of England, France, the Dutch republic and the Protestant states of Germany on the one hand and the Habsburgs on other which would ‘induce new action upon us, after all this torpido [sic] and lethargy we are grown so benumbed withal’.32

Naunton was among those Members ordered to draft the preamble to the grievances on 11 May. Writing again to Coke on 16 May, he stated that he had ‘rhapsodically posted the relation of our Parliament proceedings’ to Coke’s patron, Sir Fulke Greville* and, joking about his bad handwriting, added that he hoped Greville would employ Coke as his interpreter.33 Unfortunately this account sent to Greville seems to have been lost.

By the time Naunton wrote again to Coke on 24 June his attention had turned to the question of impositions. He related that offers to reduce the levy had been rejected because ‘we stand upon the clearing of the question for all future ages, more than on any alleviation for a honeymoon’. He himself appears to have had no fears that these duties would continue very long, because he calculated that they would prove so disastrous to trade and shipping that the Crown would be forced to abandon them. Encouraged by his colleagues’ firm stand on impositions, grievances and the Contract ‘beyond our own hope and expectation’, he still believed that Parliament would result in ‘good contentation’, both for the king and the subject, although he did not dare offer any ‘divinations’. Nevertheless, he stated ‘by the event of this Parliament I will take and make a judgment of the estate of an English subject what it is like to prove for my lifetime’.34 On 3 July he was appointed to draft the petition against impositions, and his final appointment, the following day, was to attend a conference with the Lords on the enforcement of justice in the North.35 Naunton left no trace on the records of the fifth session.

By February 1612 Salisbury had appointed Naunton one of his under-secretaries of state, although the latter presumably remained in office only until the death of his patron in May of that year. He continued to angle for a diplomatic post, first through his distant kinsman Sir Ralph Winwood*, then through the Howards and the royal favourite, the earl of Somerset.36 It was probably the latter connection which secured him election at Camelford in 1614, presumably thanks to another member of the Killigrew family, Sir Robert*, one of Somerset’s clients. He only appeared once in the records of the Addled Parliament, being named on 14 Apr. to attend the conference with the Lords concerning the bill to settle the succession following the recent marriage of Princess Elizabeth to the Elector Palatine.37

One of the first to benefit from the rise of the new favourite, George Villiers, subsequently duke of Buckingham, to whom he was related through his mother, Naunton was knighted in 1615. He was at last able to turn his back on the academic world, although, as Chamberlain remarked, he was ‘in his declining age’, and both his hearing and eyesight were perceptibly impaired. Despite his lack of legal education or experience, in 1616 he was appointed in quick succession master of Requests and surveyor of the Wards, with an annual pension for life of £100, holding both posts concurrently until Winwood’s death in October 1617 brought him further preferment.38

Identifying him as the front-runner to succeed Winwood at the end of October, Sir Edward Cecil* described Naunton as Buckingham’s ‘kinsman, his creature, herald and honest man’, and it was no doubt his patron’s influence which secured Naunton the post.39 However, rumours that he had undertaken to bequeath his estate to the favourite’s landless younger brother, Christopher Villiers, subsequently first earl of Anglesey, seem to have been without foundation. If such an agreement did exist, it would have been superseded in 1619 by Naunton’s marriage, ‘with much secrecy’ to an heiress connected (through her half-sister) with one of the most influential Scottish courtiers, James Hay, Viscount Doncaster and subsequently earl of Carlisle.40

Naunton’s warm support for international Protestantism and his hostility to Spain provided the necessary counter-weight to the crypto-Catholicism of his fellow secretary, Sir Thomas Lake I*.41 Sitting as a privy councillor in Star Chamber in 1619, he stood out, together with Sir Edward Coke*, for the maximum fine on Lake’s patron, the disgraced lord treasurer, Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, who was reduced to selling him a couple of manors conveniently adjacent to Letheringham. On the death of the queen, Anne of Denmark, the same year Naunton obtained, over the tenants’ heads, a lease of Felixstowe priory in Suffolk and the neighbouring manors of Walton and Trimley, which had formed part of her jointure. He attempted to succeed Suffolk as lord treasurer, but as Chamberlain remarked, his only qualification for the post was ‘his slow and sour austerity’. Consequently, this last step on the ladder eluded him.42

Naunton was elected for Cambridge University on 10 Jan. 1621 in his absence, and received from his constituents an address commending his prudence and eloquence.43 He was also nominated by Prince Charles’ Council at Lostwithiel, presumably by way of insurance, for once his success at Cambridge was known the Council’s influence was transferred to Sir Henry Vane.44 However, before the session started, an informal conversation between Naunton and a French diplomat, who appears to have been one of Naunton’s spies, took a dangerous turn when the diplomat raised the question of a French match for Prince Charles. Naunton’s response seems to have been to protest that France was not offering a large enough dowry, but his remarks implied that if a suitable sum were offered then such a marriage alliance might be possible. News of the conversation was promptly leaked to the Spanish ambassador, who in turn informed James that his secretary of state had made a concrete proposal for a French match without even informing his royal master. James could not stand idly by when such a sensitive matter was broached without his instructions, and consequently, on 17 Jan., Naunton was suspended and placed under house arrest.45

Confinement made it impossible for Naunton to attend the Commons, but he was anxious that the House should not take up his case, as a privilege dispute with the Crown would hamper his rehabilitation at Court. Buckingham appears to have offered his assistance, via his secretary John Packer*, perhaps suggesting to Naunton that he should disclaim his election. However, Naunton, though grateful for his patron’s intervention, was unwilling to disavow his seat. While confessing that ‘I do not hold myself to admit of their choice that elected me, being now none of that body [the University], till I shall receive assurance of His Majesty’s gracious approbation’, he still desired the opportunity to serve James in the Commons ‘when he shall be please to accept thereof’. In the meantime, he had ‘entreated some of my friends to oppose’ any motion in the Commons to summon him.46 Consequently, when the House ordered the serjeant-at-arms to summon all Members to attend, Sir Samuel Sandys, on 6 Feb., moved successfully for Naunton to be exempted, arguing that it ‘may prove distasteful to His Majesty’ to question the restraint of the king’s ‘household servant’ and also ‘hurtful’ to Naunton, who ‘doth rest only upon the king’s grace for his liberty and not upon the privilege of the house’.47

Naunton’s suspension immediately led to a storm of speculation concerning his replacement. However, by early February it was known that Naunton retained the signet and that Buckingham was continuing to visit him, leading to a further wave of speculation that he would be restored.48 This proved equally unfounded, though he continued to receive the official dispatches from English diplomats abroad.49 In August, when Parliament was in recess, he was given permission to go into the country, although it was reported he was in no haste to go. The sudden recall of Parliament in November again led to further speculation that he would be restored, but it is unlikely that he attended the winter sitting.50 Nevertheless, he was not required to hand over the seals to Sir Edward Conway I* until 14 Jan. 1623, when he was finally granted his wish of a pension of £1,000 as compensation.51 He remained suspended from the Privy Council.52

At the behest of lord keeper Williams, Naunton was re-elected for Cambridge University to the last Jacobean Parliament, but, writing to Buckingham on 14 Jan. 1624, he stated that he had no wish to appear in the Commons ‘less than formerly I was’. In reality, he had never attended the House in any official capacity, and although he protested his desire to serve in Parliament ‘with a vigorous and a cheerful heart, not with a drooping and a dejected’ one, his attempt to use his meagre parliamentary talents to extort a return to office from his patron was a failure and there is no evidence that he attended the chamber.53 Nevertheless, he benefited from the impeachment of the earl of Middlesex (Sir Lionel Cranfield*), and assisted by lavish expenditure, ‘which’ Chamberlain reported ‘is not his old wont’, and by Buckingham’s continued favour, he was appointed master of the Wards in October 1624. This was a post for which he possessed few qualifications except integrity; and unfortunately, as his health declined and his activity decreased, the Court fell entirely under the sway of less scrupulous but more experienced officials, such as (Sir) Walter Pye I*.54

Naunton was permitted to resume his place on the Privy Council in January 1625, and in the first Parliament of the new reign again represented his old university.55 He was appointed to the committees to consider bills to abolish concealed tenures (25 June) and the procurement of judicial office, and to hear a petition against the imposition on wines (both 29 June). Emboldened, perhaps, by the transfer to academic surroundings at Oxford he opened the debate on the king’s renewed request for subsidy on 10 Aug. 1625:

After a preamble of reasonable length [he] spake first to the manner of our giving, that it should be readily and freely. ... In the second place he delivered divers reasons why we should give. ... He concluded that if all these reasons did not move us he should apprehend it as a sad period of his discourse and a sign of some great judgment hanging over us.

(Sir) John Eliot observed that Naunton had ‘thought it his duty then to render some demonstration of his skill, but found that the cold rhetoric of the schools was not that moving eloquence which does affect a Parliament’, and he made no further recorded speeches.56

In 1626, Naunton was the only privy councillor to win a county seat, a remarkable achievement, considering that he had never held office in the county in question, Suffolk. His candidacy was initially suggested by Brampton Gurdon*, who quickly won the backing of John Winthrop, later governor of Massachusetts. Winthrop seems to have supported the proposal for mainly ideological reasons, writing that Naunton ‘is known to be sound for religion, firm to the commonwealth (for which he suffered much)’. However, he also recognized that the master of the Court of Wards was ‘the meetest man to further the affairs of our country for our clothiers’. This view was not universally shared, as the town council of Bury St. Edmunds considered Naunton to be ‘tied in so particular an obligation to His Majesty as if there were occasion to speak for the country he would be silent’. Besides, ‘in general they would give no voice to any courtiers’. Despite these misgivings, Naunton was returned.57

The only occasion on which Naunton is known to have spoken in the Commons during the second Caroline Parliament was on 7 Mar., when he reported the response of the Lords to a message he had delivered from the lower House about a proposed conference concerning the defence of the kingdom. He received nine committee appointments, including such important subjects as the inquiry into the detention of the St. Peter (23 Feb.) and the conference of 7 Mar. on defence. He was among those Members instructed to attend the king on 5 Apr. with the Remonstrance rebutting the charge of unparliamentary conduct, drafted a letter to Cambridge about the election of Buckingham as chancellor (6 June), and prepared heads for a Remonstrance against Tunnage and Poundage (8 June).58

In November 1626 it was reported that Naunton was threatened with loss of office ‘for speaking his mind freely and honestly’ against the Forced Loan; but in fact he assisted the 2nd earl of Suffolk (Theophilus Howard*) to collect it, both in Dorset and Suffolk. There is no evidence that he sought re-election in 1628.59 Naunton clung to his much-coveted office until a fortnight before his death. He died on 27 Mar. 1635, and was buried at Letheringham. Having given a portion of £4,000 to his only surviving child on her marriage to the financier Viscount Bayning, he was able to leave the whole of his enlarged estate, except for the Charing Cross house, to his brother William. Under a codicil he devoted the arrears of his pension, estimated at £7,300, together with his books, to establish a new college at Cambridge. But Naunton College, as he intended it should be called, was never built, and even the almshouses for seven women which he had founded at Letheringham fell into decay for want of endowment. During his declining years he had written a valuable account of the Elizabethan Court, first published in 1641 under the title Fragmenta Regalia; but the family relapsed into provincial obscurity, and produced no further Members of Parliament.60

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: John. P. Ferris


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  • 2. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 166
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  • 4. Al. Cant.
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  • 6. Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives comp. G.M. Bell, 32.
  • 7. CSP Dom. 1611-18, p. 119.
  • 8. HMC Downshire, iv. 338.
  • 9. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 15, 30, 128, 474; C66/2151/20; 66/2328/5; E214/1614.
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  • 11. 25th DKR, 61.
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  • 15. Rymer, viii. pt. 1, p. 32, pt. 3, p. 148.
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  • 18. Rymer, vii. pt. 3, p. 83.
  • 19. C66/2165; Rymer, viii. pt. 1, p. 70; pt. 3, p. 114.
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  • 21. C181/3, f. 15v; C66/2234; C231/4, f. 194v; C193/13/2.
  • 22. CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 435; APC, 1626, p. 427; Rymer, viii. pt. 2, pp. 142, 144; Bodl. Firth C4, p. 257; C193/12/2, ff. 4v, 11v, 17v, 23v, 26, 34v, 55, 57, 75.
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  • 24. HP Commons, 1509-58, iii. 2-3.
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  • 29. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 327.
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  • 31. CJ, i. 393b.
  • 32. Add. 64875, f. 40. Calendared in HMC Cowper, i. 68.
  • 33. CJ, i. 427b; HMC Cowper, i. 70.
  • 34. Add. 64875, f. 56. Calendared in HMC Cowper, i. 70-1.
  • 35. CJ, i. 445b.
  • 36. Schreiber, 5-7.
  • 37. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 82.
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  • 41. Schreiber, 14.
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  • 43. Camb. Univ. Trans. ed. J. Heywood and T. Wright, ii. 303.
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  • 45. Schreiber, 50-3, 68-9; Add. 72360, f. 129.
  • 46. Ct. of Jas. I ed. G. Goodman, ii. 226-7.
  • 47. CJ, i. 510b; CD 1621, iv. 18.
  • 48. Add. 72254, ff. 7r-v, 9v, 19; T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Jas. I, ii. 217, 219; CSP Dom. 1619-23, pp. 218, 220.
  • 49. Add. 72254, f. 16; Add. 72360, f. 129.
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  • 51. Chamberlain Letters, ii. 474; Schreiber, 90, 93.
  • 52. Hardwicke, Misc. State Pprs. i. 429.
  • 53. CSP Dom. 1623-5, p. 148; R.E. Ruigh, Parl. of 1624, p. 84.
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  • 55. Birch, Jas. I, ii. 491.
  • 56. Procs. 1625, pp. 245, 268, 269, 447-8, 555-6.
  • 57. Winthrop Pprs. i. 324-6; W.S. Appleton, Cranes of Chilton, 75.
  • 58. Procs. 1626, ii. 103, 213, 216, 430; iii. 377, 392.
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