BEALE, Robert (1541-1601), of Barn Elms, Surr., Priors Marston, Warws. and of London.

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. 1541, 1st s. of Robert Beale, mercer, of London by Amy Morison. educ. at Coventry; ?Camb.; Strasbourg. m. Edith, da. of Henry St. Barbe of Som., sis.-in-law of Francis Walsingham and cos. of Edward Lewknor, 2s. 9da. (all but 4 ch. d. young).2 suc. fa. by 1548.

Offices Held

Employed in the embassy at Paris 1564; sec. to Walsingham there 1570; clerk of PC from July 1572; acting sec. of state during absence of Walsingham 1578, 1581, 1583; dep. gov. mines royal 1580-95; sec. and keeper of signet, council in the north 1586; bailiff, duchy of Lancaster liberty, Warws. and duchy feodary Warws. 1590; j.p. Dur., Westmld. 1591.3


During Mary’s reign, when he was in his early teens, Beale went to Strasbourg, where he lived in the house of his ‘uncle Morison’ (probably the puritan diplomat Sir Richard Morison), on whose death in 1557 Beale moved with John Aylmer (the future bishop of London) to Zurich, where he studied logic, rhetoric, and Greek. Beale afterwards complained that though he acted as a servant to Aylmer during this period, his friends had been forced to pay for his stay, and that after their return to England on the accession of Elizabeth, his old ‘schoolmaster’ had ignored him. According to a letter of his in 1584 to Archbishop Whitgift, Beale studied civil law before he was 20, either on the Continent or soon after his return to England:

I have by the space of twenty-six years and upwards been a student of the civil laws, and long since could have taken degrees, if I had thought (as some do) that the substance of learning consisteth more in form and title than matter ... In divinity I think I have read as much as any chaplain your lordship hath.

Beale never attended an inn of court (his admission to Gray’s Inn in 1587 was honorary) but the twin interests of religion and law, which were to dominate the remainder of his life, were both involved in the first work he undertook after his return to England in 1559. On Lord Grey’s instructions, he was employed in 1561 to examine the validity of Lady Catherine Grey’s marriage to the Earl of Hertford, visiting continental canonists, and on his return reporting in favour of the marriage. However, he fell out with Hertford, who, he claimed, failed to give him a promised £40 annuity, and later spoke of the Earl’s ‘pretended marriage’.

In 1564 Beale received his first public employment, in the Paris embassy, and he was probably still in France when his brother-in-law Walsingham became ambassador there in 1570. Beale played a part in the discussions on the Anjou marriage project of 1571, and when, later in the year, there was a suggestion that he should succeed Walsingham as ambassador during the latter’s illness, Beale was described as ‘a rare man and of excellent gifts’. He was never appointed to a permanent embassy, but his legal knowledge and experience abroad brought him a number of special missions. From 15 Apr. to 26 July 1576 he was in the Netherlands, trying to persuade William of Orange to release the merchant adventurers’ fleet, detained at Flushing; two years later he paid official visits to a number of German protestant princes whose domestic theological differences prevented them from joining forces against the Catholic powers; and between 1581 and 1587 he was often employed on negotiations with Mary Stuart. As clerk of the Privy Council he had been corresponding with her since 1572, and, though perhaps a little under her spell at one time or another, he was as convinced as any that no real agreement could be reached between her and Elizabeth. In November 1586 he and Thomas Sackville, Lord Buckhurst, had to tell Mary that the death sentence had been confirmed, and in the following February it was he who took the warrant of execution to Fotheringay and he who read it from the scaffold. For a short time Beale shared Davison’s disgrace but by June 1587 he was again being employed on diplomatic work, and between that date and his death carried out at least two other missions to the Netherlands, besides serving on numerous commissions concerned with foreign affairs.

Beale first entered the House of Commons at a by-election in 1576. Both at Totnes and at Dorchester in 1584 it is likely that he was nominated by the 2nd Earl of Bedford, who had married Sir Richard Morison’s widow and was a close associate of Walsingham. Beale was to be a witness and beneficiary of Bedford’s will, proved in 1586, and he continued to represent Dorchester in that year and in 1589. It is not clear how he came to be returned for Lostwithiel in 1593; probably the Cecils were responsible. Beale soon allied himself in Parliament with the extreme protestants, James Morice and his friend ‘honest, poor, plain Norton’. He was an active committeeman throughout, in 1576 being appointed to committees concerning ports (13 Feb.), cloth (16 Feb.), and benefit of clergy (7 Mar.), and in 1581 to committees on seditious practices (1 Feb.), cloth (4 Feb.), the Family of Love (16 Feb.), attorneys (20 Feb.) and the preservation of the Queen’s safety (14 Mar.). He was one of those appointed to examine the case of Arthur Hall (6 Feb. 1581). His committee work in the 1584 Parliament again reflects his two main interests—religion and the law: the bill for the more reverent observing of the Sabbath day (27 Nov.), common informers (9 Dec.), perfecting assurances (16 Dec.), procedure in ecclesiastical courts (18 Dec., 22 Mar.), fraudulent conveyances (15 Feb. 1585) and unlawful marriages (26 Feb.). In the Parliament of 1586 he was named to committees on Mary Queen of Scots (4 Nov.), the ministry (8 Mar.), privilege (13 Mar.), and curriers (14 Mar.), and in 1589 he was appointed to the subsidy committee (11, 26 Feb.), and to a committee considering pluralities (1 Mar.). He also served on a conference with the Lords to discuss the Queen’s dislike of the purveyors bill (27 Feb.). In 1593 he was appointed to the committee on privileges and returns (26 Feb.) and to committees on recusancy and the subsidy (28 Feb.). On 3 Mar. 1593 he made his first recorded speech in the Commons, on privilege.

Beale detested the procedure by ex officio oath, followed by the court of high commission, and objected to Whitgift’s hectoring speech in the House of Lords on 22 Feb. 1585 when a deputation from the Commons had presented puritan petitions from the counties. ‘In all the histories and records of time past’, he wrote later, ‘never any prince or subject gave such an insufficient and opprobrious answer.’ He had already had a brush with the archbishop in the previous year—an interview at Lambeth palace over his treatise on the proper prerogative of bishops—when Whitgift remarked that neither Beale’s divinity nor his law impressed him. In later references to this incident Beale repeatedly declared that he wished only to have the 1559 settlement enforced, with a ‘godly preaching ministry’ and no pluralities.

I protest that I am not either donatist, novatian, anabaptist, puritan, nor yet a wayward or misconceited person ... It is not her Majesty’s authority or the [prayer] book that are misliked, but sundry abuses yet remaining in the church.

The Queen, he said, following pressure from Parliament, had asked the bishops to reform these abuses, but nothing had been done. A draft of a speech in the House of Commons—whether or not it was delivered is unknown—survives among his papers maintaining the same attitude. In its references to Magna Carta, and its insistence on the common law rights of the subject as against the claims of Whitgift’s ecclesiastical courts, it is in line with speeches made by James Morice in the House. From the House of Lords in 1589 Gilbert Talbot reported that ‘Mr. Beale hath made a very sharp speech which is nothing well liked by the bishops’.

In March 1593 Beale gave a final cause of offence: he was reported to have opposed a double subsidy (which he denied) and to have cited a precedent against conferences of the two Houses to settle financial matters (which he admitted). His dislike of joint conferences was shared by others, Robert Wroth I for example, but on 5 Mar. Beale retracted. He had ‘mistaken the question propounded’ and

desired if any were led by him to be satisfied, for that he would have been of another opinion if he had conceived the matter as it was meant.

His disclaimer did not serve, and a week or so later the Queen dismissed him from court and forbade him to attend the Commons.

On 17 Mar. Beale wrote from ‘my poor house in London’ a long mémoire justificatif to Burghley. The assessments for the subsidy were ‘very much underfoot’; he had acknowledged his ‘error and fault’; it grieved him ‘not a little’ to have his speeches ‘so mistaken as though the House were so simple as to be misled by me’.

And touching the hindrance of the subsidy, when my words were expressly to the contrary, I marvel what cause there was to think that I intended any such undutiful action. I can truly say that in the last Parliament I did help to end a great and long strife touching the double subsidy, and yet not long after I was assessed to my full fee. Upon occasion of any services I have contributed in Surrey, and by virtue of your Lordship’s letters concerning such as have houses in the city the like burden is laid upon me in London. And, God be thanked, all hath been answered without any grudging, although I am not so ignorant that the like proportion hath not been laid upon many others, that far exceed my ability ...

Or was he

so much maligned at home and abroad for the carrying down of the commission for the execution of the late Scottish Queen,

since when he had neither ‘credit nor countenance’? Here again he had been let down:

the copy of the same commission under the great seal for mine indemnity hath been denied unto me, contrary to promise, and the very words of the commission. [He had no idea] what answer I shall make if ever I shall be called in question for the same.

Real bewilderment can be discerned in the closing passage of this part of the letter:

I do not like that any undutiful speeches should be anyways used, neither were there any used to my knowledge, and how careful I was that your Lordships might rest satisfied by an humble answer, I do refer myself to the report of the Speaker and of the whole House that at the first heard me.

Perhaps the cause of his disgrace lay elsewhere. Was

the principal cause of my restraint from the court and Parliament that I should be a plotter of a new ecclesiastical government? ... If any man can prove that I ever assented to any new plot of reformation or consented to have the present estate altered I desire no further favour than to be hanged at the court gates. In Parliament and out of Parliament I have always misliked such new devices. I have ... openly and privately declared that I thought the law standing sufficient if it were well executed ... according to her Majesty’s injunctions and articles of anno primo.

Beale admitted sending Burghley

certain notes against the manner of proceeding ex officio by oath ... but ... I am not ashamed of that I did ... The common law [was being] wrested and disgraced.

The supporters of the ex officio oath could produce no warrant or ‘text of law’, only ‘vain alleging’ of ‘popish superstitious writers’; was the church to be governed by ‘the law and customs of this land’ or by the oppression of a ‘tyrannical popish inquisitor’? A new clause had been inserted in the ecclesiastical commission,

however that happened [surely the Queen never intended] to make any such innovation besides law and to have her subjects more burdened than in her father’s, her brother’s and her own time they formerly were?

and so,

for trifles and toys, for the refusal of the lawless [ex officio] oath and subscription, men have been imprisoned and deprived of their livings ... These encroachments are against magna carta ... against ... the common law of England, [and] against the custom of the land,

an argument to become familiar in another context during the following century, an argument with which Burghley may have sympathised, but not an argument likely to obtain Beale freedom and reinstatement as clerk of the Privy Council. As a final point in his appeal Beale mentioned ‘a fit of the stone’ for which physic had been prescribed. This could not be attended to

before I shall be fully discharged. And therefore my most humble suit to your Lordship is either to accept this as mine answer ... or else to be a means that I may be heard speedily before my disease grows to any greater extremity.

Beale need have looked no further for the cause of his disgrace than his old enemy Whitgift, who, at this very time drew up a list of charges against him, the two gravest being that he had published abroad and distributed at home a book against oaths ex officio, and that he had defied a royal command not to speak of ecclesiastical matters in the Commons. It is not known when he was released, probably after the end of the Parliament. He never sat in Parliament again, and did not act as clerk of the Privy Council until 1597. His secretaryship of the council in the north had always been exercised through a deputy. As it happens, it is known that this post brought him in £300 a year, which is interesting in the light of his own estimate of £33 p.a., his comment ‘... whensoever I shall die it will be found that I shall leave the poorest wife and children that ever any of my place did’, and his repeated complaints that he had to sell his goods to cover his expenses. He left a fine library, was a member of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries and wrote a treatise (1592) on ‘the office of a councillor and principal secretary to her Majesty’. Beale resided mainly at Barn Elms, near Walsingham’s house, and there he died 27 May 1601. He was buried at All Hallows, London Wall.4

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Authors: J.C.H. / P. W. Hasler


  • 1. Did not serve for the full duration of the Parliament.
  • 2. DNB; Strype, Annals, iv. 116; PCC 10 Populwell; Lansd. 72, ff. 197-8; J. Comber, Suss. Genealogies. Lewes Centre, 161-2; Vis. Surr. (Harl. Soc. xliii), 78-9; Vis. Suff. ed. Metcalfe, 184.
  • 3. Read, Walsingham, i. 150-7 et passim; APC, viii. 78; BM Quarterly, xix. 3-9; Lansd. 84, f. 4; Reid, Council of the North, 255; Somerville, Duchy, i. 563.
  • 4. Beale’s papers are preserved in Add. 48000-48196. Other sources used include: Read, Walsingham; Burghley; M. Dewar, Sir T. Smith; K. de Lettenhove, Relations Politiques; Strype, Annals; Whitgift; CSP Scot. vi, vii, ix; Lansd. 72, ff. 197-8; 73, ff. 4-13; 79, f. 192; Neale, Parlts. ii. 277; PCC 45 Windsor; D’Ewes, 247, 292, 298, 299, 306, 333, 334, 337, 340, 341, 349, 352, 361, 371, 394, 413, 415, 431, 440, 441, 471, 474, 485, 486, 487; CJ, i. 105, 106, 111, 115, 121, 122, 123, 127, 128, 130, 134; APC, xxvii. 294.