Chief Justices of the Court of Kings Bench 1485-1592

1485 William Hussey

Hussey was an influential and independent-minded judge. In 1482 he indicated that if the chancellor committed a suitor for breach of an injunction not to sue at common law, the king’s bench would release him. He recalled in 1485 his sympathy with Edward IV’s attempts to control retaining and, in the same year, maintained that the king of England was superior, concerning temporalities in his realm, to the pope (though in 1489 he declined to comment on ‘the authority of the bishop of Rome’). He protested in 1486 against Henry VII’s consultation of judges before they decided crown cases. The proceedings which followed, in the case of Humphrey Stafford, hastened the demise of sanctuary.

-From ODNB (Norman Doe)

1495 John Fyneux

Fyneux presided over the king’s bench during a period of resurgence and reform to which he himself contributed significantly. The court had lost much of its importance during the fifteenth century, and Fyneux had a material interest in its recovery, especially through the appointment of his son-in-law as chief clerk in 1498; but there are no known contemporary complaints of his motives, and most of the legal innovations in his time were inherently sound and passed into the common law. The decision that the trespass action called assumpsit lay to recover damages for failing to perform a service undertaken, without proof of physical harm, was announced by Fyneux in Gray’s Inn in 1499 and was never again judicially questioned. It was avowedly intended to save occasional litigants the inconvenience of resort to chancery, but it brought a swelling tide of commercial and consumer litigation into the king’s bench and began the development of the modern law of contract. Fyneux at first doubted whether assumpsit could also be used to recover contract debts, thereby avoiding the older procedure which allowed debtors to swear themselves out of liability. But the remedy was soon established, and in 1520 his court sanctioned its use against a deceased debtor’s executors, who until that time had been immune in the absence of a document under seal. Although the common pleas did not approve of these developments, the debt jurisdiction of the king’s bench increased steadily, and in the early seventeenth century Fyneux’s doctrines were upheld by all the judges of England. In an assumpsit action which he brought himself in 1517 he went still further, relying on a purely consensual theory of contractual liability which was not to become orthodox for another generation.

-From ODNB (J H Baker)

1526 John FitzJames

In the spring and summer of 1535 Fitzjames was a prominent member of the special commissions which tried John Fisher, Thomas More, and the Carthusians for expressing treasonable opinions concerning the king’s marriage and the break with Rome. It is possible that he secretly sympathized with the prisoners, preserving a discreet silence throughout most of the proceedings. When the lord chancellor directly appealed to him to say whether More’s indictment was or was not sufficient, Fitzjames gave the most cautious of responses: ‘My Lords all, by St Julian, I must needes confes that if thacte of parliament be not unlawfull, then is not the indictment in my conscience insufficient’ (Roper, 95). This equivocal ruling put an end to More’s defence, and yet it is difficult to see how else he could have answered without rejecting the constitutional supremacy of the king in parliament. His reputation suffered much at the hands of Lord Campbell, whose errors and fabrications were ably exposed by Foss. Earlier biographers were more positive. Lloyd said he was ‘so fearful of the very shadow and appearance of corruption that it cost his chief clerk his place but for taking a tankard … not as a bribe, but as a civility’ (Lloyd, 115). Certainly Fitzjames dismissed a servant (Edward Bosgrave) in 1533, an event which led to an action for slander in the common pleas, but it is impossible from the slender surviving evidence to make a final judgment one way or the other as to his character.

-From ODNB (J H Baker)

1539 Edward Montagu

Montagu was a member of the council of regency appointed by Henry VIII’s will to carry on the government during the minority of Edward VI. In the council he acted with the party adverse to Somerset, whose patent as protector he refused to attest, and in October 1549 he concurred in his deposition. On 12 June 1553, in the council at Greenwich, he was apprised of the duke of Northumberland’s scheme for altering the succession in favour of Lady Jane Grey and asked to draft the necessary clauses for insertion in the king’s will. He objected that they would be void, as contravening the act of parliament settling the succession, and obtained leave to consult his colleagues. The judges met at Ely House, and after a day in conference resolved that the project was treasonable. This resolution Montagu communicated to the council on 14 June, but was answered that the sanction of parliament would be obtained and peremptorily ordered to draft the clauses. He still hesitated, but his scruples were removed by a commission under the great seal and the promise of a general pardon. He not only drafted the clauses, but appended his signature to the will as one of its guarantors. On the accession of Mary he was committed to the Tower, on 26 July, but was discharged on 6 September with a fine of £1000 and the forfeiture of some of his estates. Although he apologized for his conduct and declared in favour of Mary, she declined to reappoint him as chief justice and he retired to the manor of Boughton, Northamptonshire, which he had bought in 1528. A supporter of the queen branded him avarus judex (‘a covetous judge’), but conceded that he possessed a powerful reputation among commoners and nobility alike (MacCulloch, 200).

-From ODNB (J H Baker)

1545 Richard Lyster

(From O’Day, Rosemary. The Tudor Age. 150)

1552 Roger Cholmley

On 11 November 1545 Cholmley was appointed chief baron of the exchequer, without having previously served as a law officer or puisne judge, and from that position was translated on 21 May 1552 to be chief justice of the king’s bench. He held office as lord chief justice for only a year, because Mary I declined to reappoint him. Indeed, he suffered more than a month in prison and a heavy fine for having signed the instrument of succession in favour of Lady Jane Grey.

-From ODNB (J H Baker)

1555 William Portman

On the deathbed of Edward VI he was forced to consent to the settlement of the crown on Lady Jane Grey, despite his prior advice that it would be illegal, but he managed to avoid witnessing the instrument. Notwithstanding this, on 4 October 1553 Queen Mary promoted him to be her first chief justice of the queen’s bench, having decided not to reappoint Sir Roger Cholmeley. He presided over a number of treason trials after Wyatt’s rebellion in 1554, and found himself in disfavour for his conduct of the trial of Nicholas Throckmorton, whose acquittal by the jury was greeted by rapturous shouting in Westminster Hall.

-From ODNB (J H Baker)

1557 Edward Saunders

In 1553 Saunders persuaded the mayor of Coventry to refuse Northumberland’s command to proclaim Lady Jane Grey as queen and to proclaim Mary instead. Mary duly appointed him a justice of the common pleas on 4 October 1553 and conferred a knighthood upon him in 1555. On 8 May 1557 he was translated to the king’s bench as chief justice. Elizabeth renewed his office on her accession, but two months later, on 22 January 1559, demoted him to be chief baron of the exchequer. The reason was probably religion, as in the case of his colleague Sir Anthony Browne of the common pleas, though Saunders had recently been involved in a jurisdictional dispute with the admiralty and had also opposed Bedford and Dudley over their interference with offices in the common pleas. During his time as a judge he kept law reports, which survive in manuscript copies; some extracts were printed in 1994.

-From ODNB (J H Baker)

1559 Robert Catlin

In November 1555 Catlin was created a serjeant-at-law, his patrons at the ceremony being the earl of Shrewsbury and the marquess of Winchester. A year later he was appointed one of the queen’s serjeants, in succession to his cousin Richard, and after two years in the royal service became a justice of the common pleas on 27 October 1558. He was reappointed by Elizabeth I in November, but sat in the common pleas for only one term before his promotion on 22 January 1559 to be chief justice of the queen’s bench in the place of Sir Edward Saunders. Shortly afterwards he was knighted at the coronation. He was generally accounted a good and impartial judge, though in 1566 a disgruntled litigant was indicted for contempt in slandering him by saying that ‘My lord chief justice Catlin is incensed against me, I cannot have justice, nor can be heard; for that court now is made a court of conscience’ (Lost Notebooks, 345).

-From ODNB (J H Baker)

1574 Christopher Wray

On 14 May 1572 Wray was appointed a justice of the court of queen’s bench, and soon sat as a commissioner at the trial for treason of John Hall and Francis Rolston. But promotion came rapidly: he was knighted on 6 November 1574, and on 8 November appointed chief justice of the court of queen’s bench. Promotion brought a move to the sought-after Norfolk circuit, which he rode from 1575 until his death. In 1575 he was a commissioner to inquire into ecclesiastical offences in the diocese of Lincoln. On 23 April 1577 he was in a special commission to visit the University of Oxford, and in November 1577 reported to the privy council on recusants in the inns of chancery. He set bounds to the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical commissioners, prohibiting the commissioners in Lancashire in a charity case, and defended his action in 1581 in a letter to William Chaderton, bishop of Chester, pointing out that the matter belonged to the common law and that the judges could not delay granting justice at the behest of the commissioners. Wray himself was appointed a commissioner in 1589. He was equally stern in his treatment of nonconformist puritans, in 1576 finding ‘great disorder for religion’ in Suffolk and Norfolk (Salisbury MSS, 2.136) and begging Lord Burghley to issue an ecclesiastical commission, and in 1591 he agreed that the puritan Cartwright and his followers, refusing the oath before the ecclesiastical commissioners, should be brought into Star Chamber.

-From ODNB, N G Jones

1592 John Popham

Popham’s severity towards thieves may have been notorious, but it was only the most visible aspect of his deep-seated and almost obsessive concern for the operation of the criminal justice system and for what he clearly recognized as the related question of the relief of poverty. On the one side, as chief justice he was assiduous in his oversight of the mechanics of the criminal law, and on the other side he was in all probability one of the principal architects of the poor law of 1598; but it was in the middle ground between these that his efforts were primarily concentrated. In an unprinted memorandum dated just before his death in 1607, written jointly with James Altham, he proposed the setting up of workhouses in Essex ‘for loose and lewd people which are delivered and set free from imprisonment at every assize, so that they can be kept at some labour’, in the absence of which they would in all probability turn out as common thieves. Similar sentiments underlay the foundation by his will of a house of correction or workhouse in Wellington, Somerset, coupled with a hospital for two orphans (‘not base-born’) and twelve paupers, among whose duties was to be the management of the house of correction.

-From ODNB David Ibbetson


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