WOLSTENHOLME (WORSNAM), Sir John (c.1562-1639), of All Hallows, Barking, London; later of St. Olave, Hart St., London.

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



1628 - 14 Apr. 1628

Family and Education

b. c.1562,1 2nd s. of John Wolstenholme of Great Stanmore, Mdx. and the da. of one Larkin.2 educ. G. Inn 1611.3 m. by 1596, Catherine (bur. 24 Jan. 1611), da. of John Fanshawe of Dronfield, Derbys., 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da.4 suc. fa. 1603;5 kntd. 12 Mar. 1617.6 d. 25 Nov. 1639.7 sig. Jo[hn] Wolstenholme.

Offices Held

Customs officer, London by 1594?,8 collector of Tunnage and Poundage outwards (sole?) by 1604-19, (jt.) 1619-d.,9 New impositions outwards (sole) 1608-19, (jt.) 1619-d.,10 pretermitted customs 1620-at least 1621;11 farmer, French wine duties (jt.) 1607-32, currant duties (jt.) 1613-32, gt. farm of customs (jt.) 1621-38,12 sweet wine duties (jt.) 1623-32,13 tobacco duties (jt.) 1632-7.14

Member, E.I. Co. 1600, cttee. 1619-at least 1627,15 Virg. Co. 1609-19,16 member, Hudson venturers 1610, Somers Is. Co. 1612,17 cttee. N.W. Passage Co. 1612,18 member, Baffin venturers 1615-16,19 Muscovy Co. by 1624,20 Fishery Assoc. 1632-d.21

Commr. reform of king’s Household 1618,22 navy 1618-28,23 transportation of ordnance 1619,24 trade 1621-2, 1625,25 overseas travel licences from 1622,26 sale of decayed munitions 1623,27 pirates evading punishment 1623,28 better plantation of Virg. 1624-5, 1631-3,29 navy provisions from 1625,30 Spanish prize ships from 1625,31 sale of Spanish prizes 1626,32 French prize goods 1627-at least 1630 (treas. 1627-8),33 French bills of exchange 1629,34 Algiers pirates 1632,35 tobacco inquiry 1634,36 Chatham Chest inquiry 1635-7,37 navy victuallers’ accts. 1636.38

J.p. Mdx. 1619-d., Westminster by 1620-d.,39 commr. oyer and terminer, London and Mdx. 1620-5,40 Forced Loan, London 1627,41 piracy, London 1630, 1633, 1635, London and Mdx. Mar. 1639-d.42


Wolstenholme’s roots lay in Derbyshire, though his father settled in Middlesex after acquiring a post in the London custom house in the mid-sixteenth century. Born at Stanmore, Wolstenholme reportedly began his career working for the searcher of the custom house, and in some such capacity he supplied an account for a sale of ordnance in 1594.43 By then he had also attached himself to another Derbyshire family, the Fanshawes, among whose papers is an account from 1589 which reveals that he acted as a clerk or secretary, though his master is not named. Before 1596 he married a sister of Thomas Fanshawe†, the queen’s remembrancer of the Exchequer, and this advantageous union brought him a further significant tie, as Fanshawe’s own wife was the sister of Sir Thomas Smythe*, a prominent London merchant and a leading figure in the East India and Virginia Companies. Wolstenholme joined both companies in the following decade, thereby confirming his own burgeoning prosperity.44 As early as 1603 he was seriously considered as a potential customs farmer, an enterprise on which he finally embarked four years later, while in 1608 he added the collection of new impositions in London to his collectorship of Tunnage and Poundage. In 1604 he and his fellow customs officer Arthur Ingram*, acquired a seven-year licence to export cloth, and in 1609 he engaged in a joint speculation with (Sir) Lionel Cranfield* in the sale abroad of prohibited dye-woods.45 Wolstenholme also came to the fore as a promoter of expeditions to search for the elusive North-West Passage. Working with Smythe and Sir Dudley Digges*, he organized at least three such voyages between 1610 and 1616, and although the desired route to the orient was not located, several landmarks in north-eastern Canada were named after him.46

With this range of experience, it was hardly surprising that Wolstenholme found himself in demand as an expert witness. During the 1614 Parliament one legislative committee was granted the power to summon him for advice on the transportation of ordnance.47 In the following year he was called before the Privy Council with Cranfield to debate the current balance of English trade, while in 1616 he was consulted about proposed revisions to the book of rates. Over the next two years he was also drawn into the financial reform of the king’s Household and the management of the navy, almost certainly through his association with Cranfield.48 Such prominence brought its rewards. He received a knighthood in 1617, and became a Middlesex j.p. two years later. He also successfully renegotiated his collectorships in July 1619 to secure an interest in the posts for his eldest son, John*.

Periodically, however, Wolstenholme found himself at odds with the government. In December 1619 he was placed under house arrest for opposing the creation of a new office within the custom house, while in 1622 the Privy Council summoned him for refusing to contribute to the Benevolence for the Palatinate.49 Conflicts of interest also tended to arise over the management of the lucrative customs farms. In 1613 Wolstenholme and his fellow farmers of the French and Rhenish wine duties had been forced to renegotiate their contract on less advantageous terms after the Crown alleged that the original lease was flawed.50 Such pressures eventually undermined his relationship with Cranfield. Problems quickly emerged when Wolstenholme joined a syndicate to run the great farm of the customs in 1621. Cranfield, now lord treasurer, had to approve the security offered by the shareholders for guaranteeing the rent payments, and he exploited this fact for his personal gain. When he initially expressed an interest in nominating four of the shareholders, the farmers bought him off with the promise of larger New Year’s gifts. Then five shareholders withdrew, and Cranfield delayed agreeing to a revised deal until June 1623, when the farmers in desperation offered him a £500 bribe.51 Ostensibly relations with the lord treasurer remained amicable, and in May 1623 Cranfield, now earl of Middlesex, procured a grant of the London collectorship of pretermitted customs for Wolstenholme’s heir. However, when the great farm bribe became a significant issue during the 1624 impeachment campaign against Middlesex, Wolstenholme emerged as one of the principal prosecution witnesses. Questioned by both Houses of Parliament in turn, he consistently affirmed that bribery had occurred, despite conflicting accounts from other quarters, thereby contributing significantly to the lord treasurer’s guilty verdict.52 His attitude was doubtless partly influenced by Middlesex’s earlier behaviour towards Sir Roger Dallison*, whose daughter Anne had married John Wolstenholme junior. When Dallison died in 1620 with his lands extended for debt to the Crown, Middlesex had by dubious means obtained the property for himself. The injured parties in this saga included Anne’s mother and brother, and Wolstenholme testified to the House of Lords that they had been badly treated.53

While it is not clear that Wolstenholme can be regarded as one of the duke of Buckingham’s instruments in the 1624 assault on Cranfield, he certainly backed his policies during the next few years. He co-operated fully with the government in continuing to collect Tunnage and Poundage despite the 1625 Parliament’s failure to grant the duty to Charles I, and in December 1625 he entered into a new contract for the great farm of the customs on that basis. As a navy commissioner, he worked energetically to prepare the fleets which Buckingham needed for his overseas campaigns, even remaining in London during the 1625 plague outbreak in order to fulfil his duties. Later that year he also dipped into his own pocket to help fund a squadron.54 On 4 Feb. 1626 he carried out Buckingham’s order to re-arrest the St. Peter, a French prize ship which had just been released by the Admiralty Court. This action sparked reprisals in France, and when Parliament met a few days later the Commons launched an investigation. However, Wolstenholme himself apparently escaped criticism, even though his role in the seizure was highlighted on 22 February.55 Over the next two years, his relationship with the Crown grew ever closer. As treasurer of the money raised by the sale of prize goods, he played a key part in the day-to-day funding of the military effort. Meanwhile, as both a collector and farmer of the customs he was paying substantial advances to the government, and it was increasingly important that he retained his offices in order to recoup this outlay in the longer term.56

Wolstenholme was one of five men returned for the two parliamentary seats at Newport on 5 Mar. 1628. He may have owed his election to his connection with Buckingham, but if so no evidence of a nomination survives. Possibly he engaged the assistance of the duke’s West Country agent, (Sir) James Bagg II*, who had worked with him on preparing the recent naval expeditions, and who probably helped to secure places for Wolstenholme’s son, John, at West Looe in 1625 and 1626. Bagg’s near kinsmen, the Estcotts, were prominent figures in the Newport district, and one of them acted as a returning officer for the borough in 1628.57 While Wolstenholme would undoubtedly have sided with Buckingham in this Parliament, he probably sought membership of the Commons in order to represent his own interests as a customs officer. The East India Company may also have informally encouraged him to stand, as he lobbied the House of Lords on their behalf in 1628, probably employing a treatise on overseas trade which he wrote around this time.58 In the event, the Commons rejected his return on 14 Apr., probably because the manner in which it had been drawn up contravened Newport’s electoral customs. Twelve days later he was invited to attend a Lords’ committee on trade. In May 1628 Wolstenholme was also summoned before the Commons’ trade committee, which wished to interrogate him about the ineffective measures taken to protect merchant shipping.59

The 1629 session brought further controversy for Wolstenholme. During the recess he had been involved in the seizure of merchandize belonging to John Rolle, who had refused to pay Tunnage and Poundage on the grounds that these duties had not been sanctioned by Parliament. The Commons asserted that Rolle, one of their Members, was entitled to recover his goods as both he and they were covered by parliamentary privilege, but in order for this strategy to work it was essential to prove that his property had been confiscated for the benefit of the customs farmers rather than the Crown. Ultimately Charles I declined to concede this point, and Wolstenholme proved equally unco-operative. Examined before the House on 20 Feb., he maintained that Rolle’s goods had been seized on the Crown’s behalf for non-payment of duties other than Tunnage and Poundage. Moreover, he denied having any claim on them himself, as he had at the time been operating outside his normal brief and assisting the collectors of customs inwards by royal command. His arguments infuriated the Commons, but Parliament’s dissolution shortly afterwards saved him from punishment.60

Despite encroaching old age, Wolstenholme remained vigorous during his final decade, sponsoring a final search for the North-West Passage and lobbying for the revival of the Virginia Company which, ironically, he had helped to close down during an internal power-struggle in 1624. Although he offloaded some of his customs farms in 1632, he remained a leading figure in the great farm until 1638, when he bowed out in protest at government interference.61 With one eye on posterity, he paid for a new church at Stanmore, consecrated by Laud in 1632, where he established a family vault. His wealth at death is difficult to calculate, but in his will, drawn up on 24 Nov. 1639, he distributed annuities and personal gifts worth nearly £11,000 and assigned £940 to charitable causes. He died on the following day, and was buried at Stanmore. His funerary monument, which cost £200, was supplied by Nicholas Stone, the king’s master mason.62

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Paul Hunneyball


  • 1. Aged 77 in 1639: D. Lysons, Environs of London (1795), iii. 396.
  • 2. Burke Extinct and Dorm. Baronetcies, 578.
  • 3. GI Admiss.
  • 4. Burke, 578; J.E. Cussans, Hist. Herts. i. 139; St. Olave, Hart St. London (Harl. Soc. Reg. xlvi), 143.
  • 5. Lysons, iii. 399.
  • 6. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 161.
  • 7. C142/604/113.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 546.
  • 9. HMC Laing, i. 102; C66/2205/4.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 449; SO3/6, unfol., July 1619.
  • 11. HMC 7th Rep. 253; CD 1621, vii. 425.
  • 12. F.C. Dietz, Eng. Public Finance, 333-5, 346-8.
  • 13. APC, 1627-8, pp. 24-5.
  • 14. Dietz, 355-6.
  • 15. CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, p. 116; 1617-21, p. 283; 1625-9, p. 363.
  • 16. T.K. Rabb, Enterprise and Empire, 407; R. Brenner, Merchants and Rev. 99.
  • 17. Rabb, 407.
  • 18. CSP Col. E.I. 1513-1616, p. 241.
  • 19. Rabb, 407; K.R. Andrews, Trade, Plunder and Settlement, 352.
  • 20. APC, 1623-5, p. 359.
  • 21. SP16/221/1; CUL, Dd. xi. 71, f. 35v.
  • 22. M. Prestwich, Cranfield, 206.
  • 23. Ibid. 212, 217; M. Oppenheim, Admin. of Roy. Navy, 195; SP16/93/63.
  • 24. CD 1621, vii. 416.
  • 25. APC, 1621-3, p. 80; T. Rymer, Foedera, vii. pt. 4, p. 11; viii. pt. 1, p. 59.
  • 26. APC, 1621-3, p. 362.
  • 27. HMC 7th Rep. 252.
  • 28. Rymer, vii. pt. 4, p. 46.
  • 29. Ibid. vii. pt. 4, p. 144; viii. pt. 3, p. 192; APC, 1625-6, p. 23; CSP Col. 1574-1660, p. 171.
  • 30. C181/3, f. 156v.
  • 31. CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 113.
  • 32. C231/4, p. 405.
  • 33. APC, 1627, pp. 86, 288; 1628-9, p. 167; CSP Dom. Addenda, 1625-49, p. 366.
  • 34. APC, 1629-30, p. 194.
  • 35. C115/106/8398.
  • 36. Cal. of Docquets of Ld. Kpr. Coventry, 1625-40 ed. J. Broadway, R. Cust and S.K. Roberts (L. and I. Soc. spec. ser. xxxiv), 40-1.
  • 37. CSP Dom. 1635, p. 543; 1636-7, p. 568.
  • 38. Cal. of Docquets of Ld. Kpr. Coventry, 45.
  • 39. C321/4, f. 95v; C181/3, f. 16; C66/2761.
  • 40. C181/2, ff. 351v, 352v; 181/3, ff. 182v, 183v.
  • 41. Rymer, viii. pt. 2, p. 142.
  • 42. C181/4, ff. 37, 45, 138v; 181/5, ff. 26v, 130v.
  • 43. Burke, 578; PROB 11/181, f. 279v; Ct. of Jas. I ed. G. Goodman, i. 305; CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 546.
  • 44. E192/1/13; Cussans, i. 139.
  • 45. HMC Sackville, i. 58, 119, 149.
  • 46. Andrews, 346-7, 352.
  • 47. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 201-2.
  • 48. APC, 1615-16, pp. 188-9, 366; B.E. Supple, Commercial Crisis and Change in Eng. 182.
  • 49. CD 1621, vii. 347; SP14/127/82.
  • 50. CSP Dom. 1611-18, pp. 166, 187; R. Ashton, City and the Ct. 24.
  • 51. LJ, iii. 351a-b, 356b.
  • 52. SO3/7, unfol., May 1623; ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 121v-2; ‘Holland 1624’, ii. ff. 4v-5; LJ, iii. 324b, 356b.
  • 53. Lincs. Peds. (Harl. Soc. l), 286; Prestwich, 393-7; LJ, iii. 370a.
  • 54. APC, 1627-8, pp. 118-19; HMC Cowper, i. 209; CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 203; SP63/241/145.
  • 55. S.R. Gardiner, Hist. of Eng. 1603-42, vi. 46, 66-7; Procs. 1626, ii. 87, 117.
  • 56. APC, 1626, p. 319; 1627, pp. 224-5, 502-3; 1627-8, pp. 24-5, 122, 205, 441-2; CSP Dom. 1627-8, p. 421.
  • 57. J.K. Gruenfelder, Influence in Early Stuart Elections, 148; SP16/96/36; CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 511; HMC Cowper, i. 320; Vivian, Vis. Cornw. 159, 446; C219/41B/175.
  • 58. CSP Col. E.I. 1625-9, p. 490; SP16/133/65. The date of Jan. 1629 assigned to the treatise by CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 465 is purely speculative.
  • 59. CD 1628, ii. 54, 447; iii. 301-2, 311, 447; v. 349.
  • 60. CD 1629, 86-7, 160, 195.
  • 61. Andrews, 353; Brenner, 102, 132-3; R. Ashton, Crown and the Money Market, 97, 100-1.
  • 62. VCH Mdx. v. 106-7; PROB 11/181, ff. 279v-80v; Notebk. of Nicholas Stone ed. W.L. Spiers (Walpole Soc. vii), 79.