SHILTON (SHELTON, SHELDON), Sir Richard (1578-1647), of the Inner Temple, London and West Bromwich, Staffs.

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. 1578, 2nd s. of John Shilton (admon.1602), mercer of Birmingham, Warws. and Barbara, da. of Francis Stanley of West Bromwich. educ. Clement’s Inn; I. Temple 1597, called 1606.1 m. Lettice (bur. 23 July 1642), da. of Sir Robert Fisher of Pakington, Warws., s.p.2 kntd. 31 Oct. 1625.3 bur. 7 Dec. 1647.4 sig. Ri[chard] Shilton.

Offices Held

Reader, Lyon’s Inn 1618, I. Temple 1625;5 steward, reader’s dinner, I. Temple 1622, bencher, 1622-d., treas. 1628-9;6 fee’d counsel, Camb. Univ. 1625-31;7 sol. gen. 1625-34; KC 1634-d.8

J.p. Staffs. 1627-42, Mdx. 1629-42;9 commr. oyer and terminer, the Verge 1627-42, Mdx. 1628-42, London 1629-42, recusancy composition, N. parts 1628, sewers, London 1629-42, new bldgs., 1630;10 member, Council in the Marches 1633;11 commr. piracy, Thames estuary 1633.12

Member, High Commission, Canterbury prov. 1626-?34; commr. St. Paul’s cathedral repair 1631.13


Shilton’s great-uncle was a prominent Birmingham mercer, whose business was taken over by the MP’s father and elder brother. Shilton himself was sent to the Inner Temple, where his career made little headway until he attracted the attention of Sir Thomas Coventry*, who by 1619 was using him as a trustee of his west Midlands estates.14 In December 1620 chancellor of the duchy (Sir) Humphrey May* reportedly nominated ‘one Mr. Shelton’, perhaps meaning Shilton, for election at Clitheroe, Lancashire, but he was not returned.15 Coventry doubtless endorsed Shilton’s preferment as a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1622, and probably recommended him to the duke of Buckingham, who was retaining him as counsel by 1625; Shilton may also have claimed some distant kinship with Elizabeth Shelton, who married the favourite’s younger brother Sir Christopher Villiers in 1623.16

Despite these connections, Shilton’s appointment as solicitor general in November 1625 came as a surprise to many: several newsletter-writers felt the need to explain his identity to their correspondents, one specifying that he was ‘Mr. Sheldon (not [John] Selden*)’.17 (Sir) Heneage Finch*, recorder of London, initially tipped for the solicitorship, would have been a more obvious candidate for the job. However, as he was intended for the Speakership of the Parliament summoned only a few weeks later, it was presumably felt that he would be unable to perform both jobs concurrently, although Sir John Croke had combined the two posts as recently as 1601. As solicitor, Shilton was expected to find a parliamentary seat, an awkward task for a man who had no landed estates until his purchase of the Staffordshire manor of West Bromwich from his cousin William Stanley a few months after the 1626 general election. On 18 Jan. he was returned at Bridgnorth, Shropshire, where Stanley had some family connections, although Shilton probably owed his return to the financier (Sir) William Whitmore, a local man who had represented the town in the three preceding parliaments. Shilton had no personal connection with Whitmore, and, apparently unaware of his election, he took the precaution of finding another seat at Guildford 17 days later. There, his name was entered on a blank indenture, probably at the behest of attorney-general (Sir) Robert Heath*, who had formerly served the borough as legal counsel.18

With no prior parliamentary experience, Shilton was ill-prepared for his official role within the Commons, and his strident tone went down badly in the House, as became clear on 14 Feb. during a debate on the validity of Sir Edward Coke’s return as knight of the shire for Norfolk. Coke had been appointed sheriff of Buckinghamshire specifically to disqualify him from election, a ruse which irked his many friends, and when Sir Humphrey May sought to close the issue with a list of routine precedents for the exclusion of sheriffs, he was faced with a host of objections. Shilton retorted that ‘this [was] not fit to question, a thing that has continued these 200 years’, and proceeded to cite the relevant statutes and the precise wording of the writ of election in justification of May’s position. However, several other lawyer-Members immediately cast doubt upon his interpretation, and Coke’s return was referred for further investigation. On 20 Feb. a report on the arrest of merchants who had refused to pay impositions on wine laid one of the Crown’s most contentious prerogatives open to debate. Shilton insisted that ‘the question not to be disputed’, but a committee was nevertheless appointed to investigate the legality of impositions placed on wines since 1604.19

Shilton was thereafter absent from the Commons, being excused due to illness at the roll-call of 5 April. The timing and duration of his indisposition was, to say the least, convenient, as it absolved him from the thankless task of defending Buckingham against the Commons’ charges of impeachment; he was later to claim that sickness had also prevented him from playing an active role in the Five Knights’ case in 1627.20 However, his status as the Crown’s senior law officer in the Commons required him to take a leading role in defending the government’s actions during the 1628 session. He handled this difficult brief by adopting a far more conciliatory tone than in 1626, consistently urging co-operation with the Crown rather than demanding acquiescence, an approach which aligned him with the moderate faction on the Privy Council who hoped to see a return to regular parliaments.21

In the opening weeks of the 1628 session senior government officials in the Commons mounted a notably half-hearted defence of the legality of the Crown’s actions during the collection of the Forced Loan. The investigation began on 25 Mar. with an examination of the judgment in the Five Knights’ case, when it emerged that the official record of the proceedings in King’s Bench only noted the prisoners’ remand, omitting any mention that this contentious ruling was based upon the royal prerogative. Shilton confessed that he had been too ill to attend the hearing, and asked for time to confer with attorney-general Sir Robert Heath*. The notion that Shilton, ill or not, might have failed to familiarize himself with the circumstances of the most contentious lawsuit of the decade was patently absurd, and undermined the impact of his advice that ‘we should all be tender not to trench upon the liberty and prerogative of the king’.22 Shilton was clearly anxious to postpone the moment when he would have to justify the Crown’s case for arbitrary imprisonment, and when the House returned to the question on 27 Mar. he employed another evasive tactic, stating that the judges’ order had not endorsed the principle of arbitrary imprisonment, but merely signified ‘that the court would take further time to advise of it’. Two days later, Shilton finally claimed to have assembled 40 precedents in support of the Crown’s cause, chief among which was a ruling of 1613 in which Coke himself had endorsed the Privy Council’s right to imprison without cause shown. Coke, who had changed his mind following his own incarceration in 1622, blustered that ‘that report is not yet 21 years old, but under-age’, but was clearly taken aback by this coup de the√Ętre. Shilton’s researches were referred to a sub-committee for precedents chaired by John Selden, who dismissed them on 31 Mar. as ‘the notes of students quite mistaken’. Selden also noted that, while the full sentence in the Five Knights’ case had not been recorded in King’s Bench, Shilton had produced a draft copy containing the damning phrase remittitur per mandatem regis, which proved that the Crown’s case was founded upon the prerogative. Shilton unwisely tried to shift the blame for this mistake, naming Heath as the originator of the draft judgment and insisting that he needed more time to muster his 40 precedents. Secretary Coke thereupon attempted to halt the debate, but half a dozen speakers heaped scorn upon the hapless solicitor before proceedings were interrupted by a message from the king. This exchange knocked the heart out of Shilton’s case, and on the following day the Crown’s claim to arbitrary imprisonment was unanimously voted down without a word of objection from the government benches.23

This disaster left the Crown’s senior spokesmen struggling to reassert their credibility. On 26 Mar. Sir Robert Phelips, Sir Edward Coke and Sir Nathaniel Rich argued that the instructions to the Forced Loan commissioners were illegal and should have been vetoed by Chancery. Rich quoted the words of King James to bolster this point, which allowed Shilton to concede gracefully, moving that the matter be submitted to Charles by means of a petition and suggesting that ‘we shall prevail with His Majesty very easily in this matter’. On 3 Apr. Selden spoke at length against forcible impressments, whereupon Shilton warned ‘what a noise will this make in the country. Let us take care that we enter not into this point’. His opponents conceded, and Shilton and three privy councillors were duly named to a committee to draft a bill regulating impressment. On 15 Apr. the debate focused on martial law: May insisted that military discipline required its enforcement, while Shilton, having pointed out the benefit of the prerogative in cases of necessity, suggested a petition to the king not to use martial law in England again. Yet none of these interventions had any lasting effect, as all three issues ultimately found their way into the Petition of Right.24

The session reached another crisis point at the beginning of May, when Charles, having humoured his critics thus far for a grant of supply, sought to resolve the constitutional issue with a bare confirmation of Magna Carta and six other medieval statutes relating to the liberties of the subject. This offer, widely perceived as inadequate, prompted various barbed comments on 2 May about those who misinformed the king of proceedings within the House. Shilton observed that Charles had made a conciliatory gesture by requesting rather than demanding their co-operation, and suggested that acceptance of the proposal would ‘take away the jealousy of the king, which is the subject’s greatest grievance’. This opinion was hardly likely to appeal to the Commons, and Shilton’s combative tone was notably at odds with that of his earlier speeches; it may be speculated that his brief came from the king himself, perhaps via attorney-general Heath. This deadlock was resolved by the adoption of the unusual legislative format of a Petition of Right. The Lords attempted to water down the wording of the Petition, and on 20 May the Commons balked at the rejection of their description of the oath tendered by the Forced Loan commissioners as ‘unlawful’. Shilton, in a speech reminiscent of his remarks of 26 Mar., stepped in with an alternative formula, ‘an oath not warranted by law’, which was eventually accepted.25

The entire issue was thrown back into the melting pot by the king’s answer to the Petition on 2 June, which offered a bare confirmation of both legal and prerogative rights. This went no further than the offer which had been rejected a month earlier, and on the following morning Sir John Eliot replied with a blunt recital of the evils facing the kingdom. This met with a remarkably well-organized response, with Sir Humphrey May and Sir William Beecher attacking Eliot personally, while Sir Thomas Jermyn and Sir Robert Harley urged the House to offer a completed subsidy bill in tandem with any Remonstrance they might agree upon. In this context, Shilton’s advice ‘that our liberties and the supply go hand in hand together’ was eminently reasonable. Yet the king’s subsequent refusal to contemplate any further elucidation of his answer undermined this careful manoeuvre, and a further instruction of 5 June to cease debating the Remonstrance which arose from this debate incensed the Commons. Sir Edward Coke retaliated by naming Buckingham as the cause of the evils enumerated in the Remonstrance, and the debate rapidly spiralled out of control. Many of the duke’s clients attempted to defend his reputation, while Shilton moved to petition the king ‘that if there be cause we may fall upon particular men’, a device doubtless intended to warn Charles of the explosive nature of the motion under debate.26 The king came within a whisker of ordering a dissolution the same night, but was ultimately persuaded to back down and concede a satisfactory answer to the Petition two days later. Yet the attack on Buckingham continued, coming to a head on 11 June in a bruising confrontation, in which the duke’s supporters gave as good as they got. With heavy irony, Shilton cited Acts 25:27 as a reminder that the duke, like the Five Knights, was entitled to know the specific charges against him, and pleaded ‘I do not see how it is proved that this man is in so great fault. Let us remember what grace we received from His Majesty’. This and several similar pleas were ignored, and Buckingham named as the general cause of the grievances listed in the Remonstrance.27

No government minister was permitted to interfere with the Commons’ constitutional agenda in 1628, but Shilton was allowed at least the illusion of influence over more routine matters. He was appointed to pen the long-delayed subsidy bill on 8 May, which he tabled the following morning, and was later co-opted to chair the bill committee. This complex piece of legislation was necessarily the subject of lengthy debate, although control of the timetable lay outside Shilton’s control, as it was linked to the Commons’ satisfaction over the Petition of Right. Thus on 31 May, while awaiting the king’s first answer, the House wasted an entire morning arguing whether Oxford or Cambridge should take precedence; towards the end of this filibuster Shilton protested ‘I cannot put the question so long as any man will speak’. One diarist attributed this remark to the solicitor’s professional links with Cambridge, whose alumni were losing the debate, but the remark is more generally illustrative of his impotence in the face of an obdurate House. He was only allowed to report the bill on 10 June, after the second answer to the Petition, while two days later Eliot successfully moved that the bill should not be sent up to the Lords until 16 June, eking out a few more days in which to prepare other legislation for royal approval.28 Shilton was then required to produce the details of the statutory pardon; on 13 June he offered apologies that the attorney-general had not finished preparing the bill, but was subsequently dragged into a gratuitous dispute over the Commons’ entitlement to see the draft while it lay before the House of Lords. Its contents proved contentious, and it failed to complete its passage through the Commons before the prorogation on 26 June.29

From the Crown’s perspective, the most crucial issue before the House in the closing days of the session was the long-dormant Tunnage and Poundage bill. Shilton secured its first reading on 2 Apr., but progress was halted by the need to revise the Book of Rates, which Sir Edward Coke seized as a pretext to grill the customs farmers about their accounts. Nothing more was heard from the committee for two months, and when the issue resurfaced it was in response to a complaint about forthcoming increases in customs rates drafted by Exchequer auditor Sir Edmund Sawyer*. On 21 June Shilton delivered a message from the king that Sawyer had acted at his express command, which merely provoked the incarceration of the hapless auditor. Three days later the House embarked upon a malicious recapitulation of the impositions debates of 1610 and 1614. Shilton helplessly pleaded ‘it is late to dispute’ and appealed to the preamble of the 1559 Tunnage and Poundage Act, which stated that customs had been granted ‘time out of mind’. However, a succession of speakers insisted that this statute had erred, and debate ended with a resolution to send the king another Remonstrance, this time attacking both the collection of customs without legal warrant and the Crown’s failure to mount an adequate defence of shipping.30

The parliamentary session of 1629 was marked by a divergence of opinion between those who aimed to attack Catholics and Arminians, and others who intended to revive the fight over Tunnage and Poundage, none of which boded well for government officials charged with the management of the House. The Crown’s longstanding policy on religion was to ignore all attempts to bring the ecclesiastical prerogative under parliamentary scrutiny, although on 21 May 1628 Shilton could not resist the tart observation that the subscriptions’ bill, which ‘seems to be a fair bill and carries a fair show ... will open a gap to silenced ministers’. In 1629, despite considerable provocation, this policy was maintained: Shilton’s only recorded comment on religion was the legalistic observation that the recent appointment of the controversial Arminian cleric Richard Montagu as bishop of Chichester was covered by the prerogative, and thus an artisan who had objected at his formal election by the dean and chapter was acting out of turn.31

The customs issue resurfaced when the MP John Rolle complained about the seizure of his goods for non-payment of Tunnage and Poundage: his plea for restitution had been rejected in Michaelmas term 1628 by the Exchequer barons, who ruled that the matter was political and should be referred to the forthcoming Parliament. When Eliot reported the case on 12 Feb., Selden insisted that the customers’ original application for a stay of Rolle’s goods for non-payment of unspecified ‘duties’ was invalid, and demanded that the barons be ordered to reverse their previous ruling. Shilton attempted to water down this motion, advising that the request be made in proper legal form by counsel, and warning that the seizure might prove to be legal if the duties owed proved to be other than Tunnage and Poundage. The truth of these words was borne out on 19 Feb., when two of the customs officers who had seized Rolle’s goods testified that the debt had been due for customs arrears dating from James’s reign. Despite this revelation, Eliot led the calls for the customers to be punished for breach of Rolle’s parliamentary privilege, whereupon Shilton warned that claims of parliamentary privilege against the Crown were contentious. Two days later a precedent was cited to prove the Commons’ case. Meanwhile, a close examination of the customers’ leases established that these documents, while they granted the right to levy customs, did not authorize the seizure of goods for non-payment, leaving the collectors open to prosecution for trespass. Shilton tried to overcome this point by arguing that if the lease was invalid then the farmers must have been acting on the king’s authority, but this legal hairsplitting convinced no-one, and Rolle was granted privilege.32

Shilton’s overall performance in three parliamentary sessions failed to demonstrate any notable ability to handle a contentious brief, and it is not altogether surprising that he was absent from the prosecution team assembled for the trial of Eliot and the other hotheads who had provoked the dissolution of March 1629. Yet he was twice tipped for a judgeship during the next 18 months, and was subsequently among the counsel at the trials of the earl of Castlehaven (Sir Mervyn Audley alias Tuchet*) and Henry Sherfield*. He and Heath were dismissed from office in October 1634 as part of the reshuffle which followed the death of attorney-general William Noye*, but Shilton was appointed king’s counsel as a consolation, having apparently declined a serjeanty.33

Sir Edward Hyde†, with the benefit of hindsight, scorned Shilton as ‘an old, useless, illiterate person’ who lacked the talents of his successor, Edward Littleton II*, and evidently believed that he was dismissed in 1634 because he would not have been able to handle the Ship Money case. The rough handling Shilton received in the Commons hardly suggests a man who commanded the automatic respect of his peers, but the key factor in the fall of Heath and Shilton was probably not lack of talent, but rather the doubts they had expressed in 1626/7 over the contention that the Ulster estates of the London corporation should revert to the Crown for the corporation’s failure to fulfil the terms of its 1609 patent. With this potentially lucrative case about to come to trial in Michaelmas 1634, the king could not afford to indulge any misgivings that may have been held among his legal team.34 Shilton probably harboured private doubts about the authoritarian ethos of the Caroline Court throughout his time in office: although perceived as Buckingham’s creature, he notably managed to avoid pleading the Crown’s cause in any of the constitutional test cases of the later 1620s, while his behaviour in the Commons during the same period was largely that of a moderate who hoped to retain a place for Parliament within the constitution.

In 1637 Shilton was said to be in contention with Sampson Eure* for the post of chief justice of Chester, but neither man was successful. Shilton demonstrated his continued loyalty to the Crown in 1639, volunteering £100 towards the war effort against the Scots, but had an uncomfortable time in Staffordshire during the Civil War, where he paid contributions to garrisons from both sides. He did not survive long thereafter, being buried at West Bromwich on 7 Dec. 1647. In his will, drafted shortly after his wife’s death in 1642, he provided for the continuation of the £100 life annuity he owed to his cousin William Stanley, and left the bulk of his estates to his sister Alice, with a reversion to his nephew John Shelton. The latter’s descendants, none of whom sat in Parliament, ran into debt and sold the estate in 1720.35

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. I. Temple Admiss.; CITR, ii. 21.
  • 2. Vis. Warws. (Harl. Soc. lxii), 34; W. Bromwich par. reg. (Staffs. par. reg. soc.), 69.
  • 3. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 190.
  • 4. W. Bromwich par. reg. 74.
  • 5. Readers and Readings at Inns of Ct. and Chancery ed. J.H. Baker (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. xiii), 98, 208, 429.
  • 6. CITR, ii. 130, 136, 170.
  • 7. CD 1628, iv. 40.
  • 8. C66/2371/4; List of Eng. Law Officers comp. J. Sainty (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. vii), 62, 85.
  • 9. C231/4, f. 230.
  • 10. C181/3, ff. 217, 244, 255v; CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 205; T. Rymer, Foedera, viii. pt. 3, p. 114.
  • 11. Rymer, viii. pt. 4, p. 6.
  • 12. C181/4, f. 138v.
  • 13. R.G. Usher, Rise and Fall of High Commission, 358.
  • 14. PROB 11/190, ff. 77-8; C2/Jas.I/S26/13; C66/2303/14.
  • 15. Beaumont Pprs. ed. W.D. Macray (Roxburghe Club cxiii), 45-6.
  • 16. C.R. Mayes, ‘Early Stuarts and the Irish peerage’, EHR, lxxiii. 239n wrongly identifies Shilton as the recipient of £2,000 for the creation of an Irish peerage in 1622 (Harl. 1581, f. 411): see V. Treadwell, Buckingham and Ire. 114.
  • 17. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, i. 61; List of Eng. Law Officers, 62; CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 143; Strafforde Letters (1738) ed. W. Knowler, i. 28; NLW, 9060E/1376.
  • 18. C103/127/1/3B; VCH Staffs. xvii. 16; Vis. Staffs. (Harl. Soc. lxiii), 215; Vis. Warws. 43; GUILDFORD; CJ, i. 817b.
  • 19. Procs. 1626, ii. 36, 40, 74; C. Russell, PEP, 268.
  • 20. Procs. 1626, ii. 431; CD 1628, ii. 109.
  • 21. R. Cust, Forced Loan, 44-5.
  • 22. CD 1628, ii. 100, 104, 107, 109, 124, 131, 135; vi. 60; Russell, 346.
  • 23. CD 1628, ii. 185, 191-2, 196-7, 201-2, 207-8, 212, 218, 220-2, 231.
  • 24. Ibid. ii. 152, 155-6, 159-60, 162, 277, 281, 465, 469, 474-5; iii. 339-40.
  • 25. Ibid. iii. 210, 215, 219-20, 225, 499; Russell, 363-76.
  • 26. CD 1628, iv. 67, 70, 75, 117, 121, 127; Russell, 377-80.
  • 27. CD 1628, iv. 248, 255, 260, 266; Russell, 384.
  • 28. CD 1628, iii. 325, 345; iv. 40, 44, 220-1, 228; Russell, 376.
  • 29. CD 1628, iv. 282-4, 291, 294-5, 298, 302, 331, 333-7, 345, 347. 350, 353-4, 468, 484.
  • 30. Ibid. ii. 244, 255, 415; iii. 339-40; iv. 403, 406, 408, 411, 448-9, 455, 458; Russell, 386-8.
  • 31. C. Thompson, ‘Divided leadership of the Commons in 1629’, in Faction and Parl. ed. K. Sharpe, 245-84; CD 1628, iii. 513, 517, 522; CD 1629, p. 123; CJ, i. 926a.
  • 32. CD 1629, pp. 90, 143, 164, 199, 223, 231; HMC Lonsdale, 70; Thompson, 264-70.
  • 33. Birch, ii. 35, 84; State Trials ed. T.B. Howell, iii. 405, 519-39; CSP Dom. 1634-5, p. 221.
  • 34. Clarendon, Hist. of the Rebellion ed. W.D. Macray, ii. 110; T.G. Barnes, ‘Cropping of the Heath’, BIHR, 331-43.
  • 35. Strafforde Letters, ii. 152; SP16/538/84; HMC Hastings, ii. 115; Cttee. at Stafford ed. D.H. Pennington and I.A. Roots, 322; PROB 11/204, ff. 323v-5; VCH Staffs. xvii. 16.