ASTLEY, John (c.1507-96), of Allington and Maidstone, Kent.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Family and Education

b. c.1507, 1st s. of Thomas Astley of Hill Morton and Melton Constable, Norf. by his 2nd w. Anne Wood, sis.-in-law of Sir James Boleyn. educ. ?Jesus, Camb. m. (1) ?1545, Catherine Champernown (d. July 1565), s.p.; (2) 13 Oct. 1565, Margaret Lenton alias Grey, illegit. da. of Lord Thomas Grey, 3s. 3da.

Offices Held

Gent. waiter to Prince Edward by 1543; member of Princess Elizabeth’s household, temp. rem. Jan. 1549; gent. of privy chamber and master of jewel house Dec. 1558; steward of manor of Enfield and master forester of Enfield Chase 1560-73; jt. keeper, with his wife, of St. James’s palace and bailiff of St. James’s fair 1560-76; j.p. Mdx. 1562, Kent 1583; commr. musters, Mdx. by 1576.1


Little is known of Astley’s early life, though he is said to have been employed at court at the age of 12. In the early part of Edward VI’s reign he and his wife, who became a close friend of the future Queen Elizabeth, were leading members of the princess’s household. Following the Thomas Seymour scandal of January 1549 they were dismissed after interrogation by the Privy Council. They were soon restored, and during the next few years Astley became friendly with Elizabeth’s tutor Roger Ascham and with other members of the Hatfield circle. His career during Mary’s reign is not closely documented. He may have been in Padua before the end of 1554, but the ‘John Ashley’ whom Thomas Hoby met there was more probably his half-brother. Catherine Astley kept her office with Elizabeth until, following an inquiry into the Henry Dudley plot of 1556, she was again removed. At Elizabeth’s accession she was created chief gentlewoman of the privy chamber, and on 23 Dec. 1558 her husband received his patent as master of the jewel house and treasurer of the Queen’s jewels and plate. His nominal fee was £50, with an additional so marks as a gentleman of the privy chamber. But the jewel house office carried many perquisites, including a poundage of 5 per cent on all gifts to the Crown in coin, the appointment of goldsmiths and jewellers, and a suite of apartments in the palace where the Queen was residing, with free victuals on a lavish scale. For the first few years of Elizabeth’s reign Astley remained one of the intimate circle around the Queen. In September 1561 he entertained the court at Enfield during a hunt, and Sir Nicholas Throckmorton noted that he was attentive to Cecil. During the Queen’s visit to Cambridge in 1564, the university gave him an honorary degree. The award may have been more than a gesture to an influential courtier: Astley, as his letters to Ascham show, was a cultured man and a classical scholar. On one matter during this period the Astleys ventured to differ from the Queen, and so fell temporarily out of favour. They both disliked the Dudley marriage project, and Catherine several times remonstrated with Elizabeth about it. In July 1562 she was once more in trouble, this time for writing a foolish letter to the Swedish Chancellor about King Erik’s suit for the Queen’s hand. The correspondence shows that Astley also had been involved, but Elizabeth knew how to value old friends, and no action seems to have been taken against him.2

The most influential period of Astley’s life ended with the death of Catherine in July 1565. He married again on 13 Oct. in the same year, and thereafter spent more time on his Kent property, where he became an authority on riding and horse breeding. In 1574 he was placed on a Middlesex commission to muster horses, and in 1584 his book, The Art of Riding, was printed. Gabriel Harvey described it as a ‘gallant discourse of horsemanship, penned by a rare gentleman, Mr. John Astley of the court’. It was in 1584 that his reversion fell in to the castle and manor of Allington, which he had exchanged in 1569 for a £50 annuity he received as master of the jewel house. He also acquired an estate at Otterden, but sold it to Dr. William Lewin, the civilian, in 1588. In that year he petitioned the Crown for a grant of the manor of Osmington near Weymouth. He had estates in Dorset as well as in Kent and Middlesex.3

Astley can have found no difficulty in obtaining a parliamentary seat. His patron at Cricklade was presumably the 2nd Lord Chandos, with whose family the Astleys were connected by marriage. At Boroughbridge he probably owed his return to Sir Ambrose Cave, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster: his own stewardship of Enfield was a duchy office. The 2nd Earl of Bedford presumably nominated him for Lyme Regis. Astley missed the 1584 Parliament, and in 1586 and 1588 he came in for Maidstone, where he had taken up residence in about 1581, and which was near his main country seat. Astley is not mentioned frequently by name in the extant records of the Commons, despite his long parliamentary career. In 1566 he served on the succession committee (31 Oct.). In 1571 he was one of those appointed to the delegation to the archbishop of Canterbury (25 Apr.), and to a conference with the Lords concerned with religion (10 Apr.). The following year he was named to the conference with the Lords about Mary Stuart. In his capacity as master of the jewel house, however, Astley sat on a number of committees. On 8 Feb. 1576 he was one of those appointed to examine the case of Peter Wentworth, and on 12 Mar. of the same year he was appointed to petition the Queen on the question of her marriage. In the third session of the 1572 Parliament he served on committees dealing with wrecks (30 Jan. 1581) and the Merchant Adventurers of London (2 Mar.). On the last day of the 1589 Parliament he was a member of the committee which urged a declaration of war against Spain (29 Mar.).4

About 1590 Astley became involved in an Exchequer suit over his Allington property. His wife wrote to her kinsman Vincent Skinner: ‘It will shorten Mr. Astley’s life to see the son of a Welsh cobbler prevail against him by craft, seeing his long service to her Majesty’. In the end the Allington lands seem to have been sequestered to the Crown. By 1595 he was growing infirm, and in August of that year a new patent was issued, granting the mastership of the jewel house jointly to him and to Edward Carey, groom of the privy chamber, who presumably took over the duties of the office. Astley died 1 Aug. 1596, and was buried four days later at All Saints’ church, near Maidstone palace, where his monument gives his age as 89. His will, made in January 1593, was proved by his widow on 10 Aug. 1596. Astley left detailed instructions about the division among his children of his property, including Allington, ‘had of my gracious mistress and sovereign’. The widow and sole executrix, who was to keep the ‘great house’ at Maidstone, was forbidden to cut down trees on the estates. The main charitable bequest was of 40 nobles to 40 poor persons of Maidstone, to be distributed at the discretion of the executrix. To assist her in administering the property, and to sell specified lands if necessary to meet her husband’s debts, five overseers were appointed, including Peter Osborne and Ralph Rokeby.5

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N. M. Fuidge


  • 1. Lansd. 49, f. 168 seq.; 56, f. 168 seq.; 205, f. 46; E179/69/31a; Royal 7, 116, f. 94; Somerville, Duchy, i. 613; CPR, 1558-60, p. 351.
  • 2. Ellis, Orig. Letters (ser. 1), ii. 153-5; CSP Ven. 1555-6, p. 718; C. H. Garrett, Marian Exiles, 73; Lansd. 3, f. 191; 59, f. 43; Somerville; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 534; CSP For. 1562, p. 620; Cooper, Ath. Cant. ii. 182-3.
  • 3. Lond. Mar. Lic. (Harl. Soc. xxv), 31; CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 487.
  • 4. J. Russell, Hist. Maidstone, 220, 347; CPR, 1566-9, pp. 373-4; D’Ewes, 127, 171, 206, 241, 260, 262, 289, 301, 454; CJ, i. 95.
  • 5. CSP Dom. 1591-4, p. 3; Arch. Cant. xxviii. 357-8; PRO Index 6800, p. 540; PCC 61 Drake.