HITCHAM, Robert (1573-1636), of Gray's Inn, London and Ipswich, Suff.; later of Serjeants' Inn, Chancery Lane, 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




Family and Education

bap. 8 Mar. 1573, o.s. of Robert Hitcham, yeoman, of Nacton, Suff. and Joan Gillet.1 educ. Ipswich g.s.; Pembroke Coll. Camb. 1587; Barnard’s Inn; G. Inn 1589, called 1595.2 unm. suc. fa. by 1589. kntd. 29 June 1604.3 d. 15 Aug. 1636.4

Offices Held

Att.-gen. to Anne of Denmark 1603-14;5 reader, G. Inn 1605, bencher by 1605-14;6 sjt.-at-law 1614, king’s sjt. 1617-d.;7 recorder, Orford, Suff. 1621-d.8

J.p. Suff. by 1604-d., I. of Ely 1610-?17;9 freeman, King’s Lynn, Norf. 1604;10 commr. (chairman) depopulations Northants. 1607;11 commr. subsidy, Suff. 1608, aid 1609, 1613;12 standing counsel, Camb. by 1610,13 Ipswich 1610;14 c.j. I. of Ely 1610-?17;15 commr. gaol delivery, I. of Ely 1610-17,16 Ipswich 1620-d., Orford 1622, 1625, 1634, Hadleigh, Suff. 1630,17 piracy, Suff. 1614, 1627,18 oyer and terminer, Norf. circ. 1618-30,19 Suff. 1628,20 Home circ. 1630-d.,21 sewers, Suff. 1619-20, 1626,22 subsidy 1621-2, 1624-5,23 martial law 1628.24

Commr. tolls and customs 1618-21.25


In 1563 Hitcham’s father inherited three tenements in the southern Suffolk village of Nacton, and lands in nearby Wherstead and Freston (subject to two life interests).26 Hitcham himself was born in Nacton, and sent to school at Ipswich before going on to Cambridge and the inns of court. According to an early antiquary of Suffolk, he inherited an income of less than £200 a year, but possessing ‘a good wit’, a fine tongue and a good legal brain he ultimately ‘rose to an estate above £1,500 per annum’. However, he was also described as being ‘a passionate man’,27 and his appearance was likened to an ape by John Hoskins*, who derided his ‘writhen face and sneering looks’.28

At the beginning of James’s reign, Hitcham was appointed senior legal adviser to Anne of Denmark, after offering Sir Edward Coke*, Sir Francis Bacon*, and Sir Roger Wilbraham* as referees to his ‘abilities, learning, and condition of life’.29 To the chagrin of Thomas Crewe*, who was four years his senior at Gray’s Inn, he was given precedence at the bar next after the king’s counsel.30 Moreover, he used his position to obtain control of the queen’s Suffolk estates, which were coveted by Sir Michael Stanhope*.31

In 1604 King’s Lynn, perhaps on the recommendation of their high steward, lord chancellor Ellesmere (Thomas Egerton†), broke with a long-established tradition of returning residents when it elected Hitcham to the Commons. In return he bought his freedom of the borough and served without wages.32 A busy Member of the first Stuart Parliament, he was named to 58 committees and made 21 speeches. On many of the most important political issues under consideration, including the Union, religion, taxation, purveyance and impositions, Hitcham generally supported the king, though he always gave careful consideration to the legal aspects of royal policy, and was not afraid of dissenting. During the first session he was among those ordered to draft a statement of the Commons’ position on the Buckinghamshire election (30 Mar.), to attend a conference on the Union (14 Apr.), and to consider bills for the continuance of statutes (24 Mar.) and explain the Common Law in respect of letters patent (16 April).33 In the debate of 27 Mar. on the imprisonment for debt of Sir Thomas Shirley I*, he opined that the creditor might obtain another writ of execution after the session, but that no penalty should be imposed on the sheriff; he was then voted into the chair of the committee.34 On 20 Apr. he spoke on the third reading of the bill for the better execution of justice.35 His chief official business in this session was a bill to confirm the queen’s jointure. He complained to Cecil on 5 May that Coke was delaying the bill ‘so that it cannot be engrossed and laid before Parliament’.36 It was given first and second readings on 24 May and reported by Hitcham two days later with a saving clause agreed in committee.37 Later in the session he helped to prepare for a conference on Bishop Thornborough’s book (1 June), and spoke in favour of the free trade bill (4 June) and the bill to enable Trinity College, Cambridge to exchange lands with Sir Thomas Monson* (7 June).38 On the penultimate day of the first session he told the House that the queen’s interests were inadequately protected in the annexation bill, which was allowed to sleep.39

On 21 Apr. 1605 the judges ordered that Hitcham should be sequestered from the bench of Gray’s Inn ‘in respect of his great excess used in the time of his reading to the ill example of those that shall succeed him’; but he was soon restored.40 When Parliament resumed in 1605-6 Hitcham’s first appointment was to the committee for the suppression of popish practices (21 Jan.), but he resisted the demand for some extraordinary punishment for the Gunpowder plotters, instead proposing to let them be tried by Common Law, ‘and then this court to add a confirmation to it’ (24 January).41 He supported the bill for the better assurance of copyhold lands on its second reading and was named to the committee (28 January). He was also among those instructed to consider two Norfolk estate bills (17 and 21 February).42 On purveyance, he reminded the House on 1 Mar. that the queen enjoyed the same rights as her husband; his contribution to the purveyance debate four days later was described by Robert Bowyer* as ‘a long, senseless speech’, in which Hitcham declared that ‘the king may grant a prerogative as necessarium but not ex necessitate ... neither by prerogative nor Act of Parliament. The king cannot grant that no juries shall go upon trials’.43 He also tried to persuade the House on 14 Mar. that after hearing of the king’s wants their offer of supply should be increased, and since to vote fifteenths would be ‘contrary to what we have spoken’ he proposed two subsidies, provoking much hostile debate.44

Hitcham snatched the limelight once again in response to reports of the assassination of the king on 22 March. Messengers were sent to the Lords for further information, and in the meantime Hitcham declared

that coming over the fields from Gray’s Inn he saw two men pursuing two Jesuits ... He hasted to the Court and went up into the gallery at Whitehall, whither (as he said) Browne, the messenger whom the Lords had sent to the king, returned and reported to their lordships that the king is yet living, at which (said Sir Robert Hitcham) their lordships for joy gave a great hoot.

However, at this juncture Sir William Strode* brought word that the Lords had heard nothing of or from the king, by which ‘Sir Robert Hitcham’s credit, in the opinion of divers, was much impaired’, or so it seemed to the hostile Bowyer.45 On 9 Apr. Hitcham moved successfully that the grant of fines and forfeitures to (Sir) Henry Brouncker* might be added to the grievances.46 Two days later he declared that while the imposition on currants was legal, the rate was excessive.47 He took the chair for the bill to naturalize the Scottish courtier Sir David Foulis (18 Apr.), and was named to help draft the grievances petition.48

In the third session Hitcham opposed the corporations bill (28 November 1606).49 He was named to only a handful of bill committees, but took part in several debates on the Union. On 3 Dec. he told the House that by-laws discriminating against the Scots in certain boroughs were still in force. Two days later he advised against the abolition of escuage, a form of feudal tenure in northern England. In the case of Wales, the service had been suspended, not discharged: ‘where things may by possibility be severed the law does not extinguish’.50 In the debate of 19 Feb. 1607 on naturalization he declared: ‘if the laws of England were to be made again, [there is] as much reason against them as with them. If a kingdom be conquered, the old law stands still till the king proclaims a new law’.51 As the debate continued four days later the clerk of the Commons recorded: ‘Sir Robert Hitcham uttered nothing but cases put before. A speech of great reading, for he read almost two leaves’.52 On 5 June he spoke on the question of whether defendants in felony cases should be allowed to call witnesses under oath, an instance when English practice differed from that in Scotland: ‘obviously true matters do not require proof. In all cases where witnesses are allowed, these upon oath. Something referred to discretion in many cases. In Scotland no witnesses at all allowed’. Bowyer dismissed the speech as ‘not alleging any reason worth the setting down’.53 On the next day Hitcham reported the bill to allow the king and his chief minister to exchange Hatfield for Theobalds.54 He scrutinized the conveyance in draft during the recess, and spent the remainder of the year presiding over the enclosures inquiry in Northamptonshire.55

Though first recommended by Salisbury as chief justice of Ely in 1607, Hitcham was rejected by the bishop as lacking the authority required to deal with the ‘bold and hardy people’ of the isle, and had to wait two years until the high churchman Lancelot Andrewes succeeded to the see.56 Hitcham acquired the principal manor of Levington, Suffolk in 1609, and sought to extend his estate by purchasing a copyhold in the neighbouring village of Nacton. Years of litigation followed with Robert Brooke, the lord of nearby Cowhaugh manor, who was ‘apt to utter and give out speeches and gross terms’ against Hitcham.57

In the fourth session Hitcham chaired the committee of the bill to confirm the sale of three Suffolk manors to Sir John Heveningham* (20 Feb. 1610).58 After all the lawyers in the Commons had been added to the elections committee to consider the Bridgnorth case, he reported on 10 Mar. that the return was good in law, but the allegations of irregularity were fit to be examined by the House.59 Among his 22 appointments of the session, he was named to the committee for the bill for the speedy recovery of marshlands in East Anglia flooded by the sea (20 March).60 In the debate on impositions (23-28 June) he took a middle course, arguing that ‘if any imposition be not for the good of the commonwealth, it is not lawful’, while still maintaining that under certain circumstances, ‘as, for war, upon an invasion’, impositions might become a necessity, for ‘necessitas is lex temporis’. Referring to the vexed question of monopolies, Hitcham made the case that an imposition should similarly be ‘alterable when it is found inconvenient’, and should be subject to trial by the Common Law. By insisting that ‘impositions are not the [king’s] inheritance, they are but temporary’, he tried hard to persuade a hostile House that there was no precedent for impositions or other prerogative grants to be abolished by Parliament.61 Hitcham made no appearance in the sparse records of the fifth session.

At the next election, in 1614, King’s Lynn’s corporation belatedly declared Hitcham ineligible on the grounds of non-residence; however, a similar regulation at Cambridge where he served as counsel to the town, was relaxed at his request.62 He was added to the committee for privileges on 9 Apr. 1614, and named to four legislative committees, including that for the confirmation of Sutton’s charities (9 May).63 In a debate about the Ludlow election, he urged that all Members who had returned themselves should be unseated.64 On the Stockbridge case he declared: ‘this new election was matter of law. If a man be lawfully chosen, he cannot refuse it without consent of the borough ... Sir Walter Cope* ought to hold his place until a new writ were sent down’ (11 May).65 In the case of the Cambridgeshire election he argued on 14 May that the sheriff should not be sent for ‘because the House satisfied the two gentlemen chosen by the greater number’.66 When Sir Henry Neville I was accused of ‘undertaking’, Hitcham

approved the first movers of searching into this aspersion, which proceeded out of their jealousy of wrong to the House, and moved that now it might be concluded by question that the matter of undertakers and undertaking might be no more spoken of hereafter.67

He was supported by Crewe and Nicholas Fuller*. On the morning of 17 May he was visited by the bibulous Richard Martin*, who was ‘in the greatest perplexity that ever he was in his life’ over the speech he was to make to the Commons as counsel for the Virginia Company, and complained of ‘a numbness over all his parts’. Hitcham sent for wine, which operated only too effectively in loosening the tongue, and afterwards contritely supported the motion that Martin should not be brought to his knees at the bar of the House to apologize for his indiscretion.68 When Sir James Perrot complained about the queen’s pension on 3 June, Hitcham replied that her total income did not exceed £20,000.69

Shortly after the dissolution of the ‘Addled’ Parliament Hitcham, then described as ‘a great learned man’, was advanced to the coif; he was promoted to king’s serjeant in 1617.70 As a partner in the concealments monopoly of Sir John Townshend*, Hitcham might have had difficulty in any corporation at the general election of 1620, though he received a letter from Cambridge ‘informing him about the business of choosing for the Parliament’.71 He canvassed energetically on behalf of the Court candidates for Suffolk, Sir Robert Crane* and Sir Lionel Tollemache*.72 Having failed to find a seat for himself, Hitcham was called to the Lords as a legal assistant, and claimed privilege when summoned to testify against Sir John Bennet* before a Commons committee. Coke objected to this, but the chairman, Sir Edward Sackville, accepted Hitcham’s evidence in writing.73 He was several times employed as a messenger to the Lower House, but when he asserted that the Commons had referred Floyd to the Lords for judgment he was compelled to eat his words.74 While his rival Stanhope lay on his deathbed, the corporation of Orford nominated him as recorder in succession to Coke, probably at the instance of Sir William Withypoll*, whose parents had been Hitcham’s ‘very loving and familiar friends’.75 He represented the borough in the next three parliaments.

An active Member in 1624, Hitcham was named to 32 committees and made four speeches. The unexpected firmness of his speech of 3 Mar. demanding a resolution for an immediate rupture with Spain earned him the commendation of Sir William Spring*, who wrote ‘well done, Mr. Serjeant’ in the margin of his diary. If a private person were willing to trust again after being deceived two or three times, Hitcham argued, it would cast an imputation on his judgment. Spanish duplicity was so evident that ‘if Gondomar himself were to plead to it, he would confess it and never put himself upon God nor the country for it’.76 He was therefore appointed to manage the war conference with the Lords.77 He expressed the hope that an immediate ban on the export of wool and fullers’ earth would not be imposed, and was named to the committee (6 March).78 He served under Coke on the bill for the general quiet of the subject against all pretences of concealment. A proviso was inserted on his behalf, but it was opposed in the House on third reading, and the bill was recommitted and lost to sight.79 He attended conferences on recusancy (3 Apr.) and monopolies (7 Apr.), and helped to draft the preamble to the subsidy (10 April). With Sir John Walter he was ordered on 10 Apr. to prepare a bill against secret inquisitions, which was not introduced in this Parliament.80 The only common lawyer of repute to defend the legality of impositions, Hitcham’s speech on 16 Apr. was ‘interrupted by the general mislike of the House’, and on the motion of Sir Thomas Wentworth* was struck out of the record.81

It is possible that two incidents at the Suffolk quarter sessions in 1625 which found their way into the law reports reflect the increasing unpopularity of Hitcham’s defence of the prerogative. Brooke accused him of speaking treason, and an attorney claimed that Hitcham had behaved oppressively by acting as witness, judge and party against him.82 Nevertheless he was re-elected to the first Parliament of the new reign, though he left little trace on its records. He was named to the committee for privileges (21 June 1625), from which he reported against the claim of Sir William Cope*.83 On 23 June, after complaining that the revenue from recusancy was seriously diminished by collusive informers, he was appointed to the committee for the bill to prevent this practice.84 In the following year the Crown demanded from him a loan of £50, but in the event he was discharged from payment.85

Elected again for Orford in 1626, Hitcham was appointed to nine committees, including those to prevent secret inquisitions (17 Feb.) and the use of the Exchequer by private creditors (28 Feb.) and to reduce the number of unskilled attorneys (23 March).86 He took the chair for a private bill which sought to alter the succession to an estate because of the heir’s doubtful paternity. On 27 Mar. he reported that the committee had resolved by 13 votes against four that there was no conspiracy to make the putative father drunk, and declined to examine the other allegations, and the bill was rejected unanimously.87 He was quite unrepentant on finance. ‘Tunnage and Poundage has been granted ever since Richard II’s time till this’, he said, and on the instructions of the attorney-general (Robert Heath*) he brought in the subsidy bill on 5 May.88 Although he was rebuked by Edward Kirton* for a breach of standing orders, they were both appointed to the committee to draft the preamble. His last committee was for the recusants bill (8 May).89

At the 1628 election Hitcham gave up his seat to Tollemache, and retired into private life. He was fined £200 in Star Chamber in 1632 for libelling a local attorney at the Woodbridge assizes who, as John Pory* later reported to Sir Thomas Puckering*, defended himself against Hitcham’s accusations ‘as if a mouse should overturn an elephant’.90 The following year Hitcham urged his claims to a judgeship, but without success.91 In 1634 he bought the castle and manor of Framlingham in Suffolk from the 2nd earl of Suffolk (Theophilus Howard*) for £14,000. However, it was said that ‘the title of the estate was so perplexed that had not he had a strong brain and powerful purse he could not have cleared it’.92 He died on 15 Aug. 1636 and was buried at Framlingham, leaving substantial estates. His sister’s son Robert Butts inherited Levington, but Hitcham’s recent purchases were bequeathed to his old college for charitable and educational purposes.93 A workhouse, a schoolhouse and a dozen almshouses were to be built at Framlingham, and six more at Levington. An endowment was left to Framlingham church of £20 p.a. for the reading of prayers twice a day, and the Arminian Bishop Wren was named overseer of the will; but the testator hedged by assigning the puritan preacher Samuel Ward of Ipswich a legacy of £20.94 Sir Thomas Coventry*, the lord keeper, and the 1st earl of Manchester (Sir Henry Montagu*) were also remembered, and £50 was to be divided among the poor of Nacton. His epitaph set up in 1638 proclaimed:

The children not yet born with gladness shall

Thy pious actions into memory call;

And thou shalt live as long as there shall be

Either poor or use of any charity.95

His good intentions were frustrated for a time by an impracticable provision for the children of Debenham and Coggeshall to share in the benefits of his foundation, and it was not until 1653, under the Commonwealth, that they were carried into effect.96 An anonymous portrait of Hitcham, dressed in his serjeant’s robes, is now held by the National Portrait Gallery, London. No other member of the family entered Parliament.

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: John. P. Ferris / Rosemary Sgroi


  • 1. Suffolk RO (Ipswich), Nacton par. reg.
  • 2. Al. Cant.; GI Admiss.
  • 3. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 133.
  • 4. W.A. Copinger, Suff. Manors, iv. 282.
  • 5. LR6/154/9, unfol.; Add. 27404, f. 38, Add. 31825, f. 10v.
  • 6. PBG Inn, i. 171.
  • 7. List of Eng. Law Officers comp. J. Sainty (Selden Soc. suppl. ser. vii), 17.
  • 8. HMC Var. iv. 268.
  • 9. SP14/33, f. 58; C181/2, f. 125.
  • 10. Cal. Lynn Freemen, 131.
  • 11. HMC Hatfield, xix. 226-7; HMC Buccleuch, iii. 119; C205/5/5.
  • 12. SP14/31, f. 37v; SP14/43/107; SP14/44/51; Harl. 354, f. 68v.
  • 13. C.H. Cooper, Annals of Camb. iii. 41.
  • 14. N. Bacon, Annales of Ipswich, 442.
  • 15. HMC Southampton and King’s Lynn Corp. 151.
  • 16. C181/2, ff. 125, 146, 164, 211, 235.
  • 17. C181/3, ff. 18, 74, 193; 181/4, ff. 57v, 200v.
  • 18. C181/2, f. 174; 181/3, f. 232.
  • 19. C181/2, f. 316.
  • 20. C181/3, f. 244.
  • 21. C231/5, p. 26.
  • 22. C181/2, f. 349; 181/3, ff. 13, 201v.
  • 23. Add. 39245, f. 51v; C212/22/20, 21, 23; Harl. 305, f. 206v.
  • 24. C181/3, f. 244.
  • 25. CD 1621, vii. 461-2.
  • 26. Harl. 781, f. 31; Suffolk RO (Ipswich), IC/AA1/18/350.
  • 27. Add. 15520, f. 119.
  • 28. Anecdotes and Traditions ed. W.J. Thoms (Cam. Soc. v), 45.
  • 29. HMC Hatfield, xv. 379.
  • 30. Illustrations of Brit. Hist. ed. E. Lodge, iii. 36; Add. 31825, f. 10v.
  • 31. Lodge, iii. 64; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 52.
  • 32. HMC Southampton and King’s Lynn Corp. 151, 176.
  • 33. CJ, i. 152b, 160a, 172a, 172b.
  • 34. Ibid. 155b, 167a, 936b.
  • 35. Ibid. 179a.
  • 36. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 106.
  • 37. CJ, i. 226b.
  • 38. Ibid. 230a, 985b, 988a.
  • 39. Ibid. 1002a.
  • 40. PBG Inn, i. 169-70, 171.
  • 41. CJ, i. 257b, 259b.
  • 42. Ibid. 260b, 269b, 272a.
  • 43. Ibid. 276b, 278a; Bowyer Diary, 60.
  • 44. CJ, i. 284a.
  • 45. Bowyer Diary, 89.
  • 46. CJ, i. 295b.
  • 47. Ibid. 297a.
  • 48. Ibid. 300a, 300b.
  • 49. Ibid. 1005b.
  • 50. Ibid. 1006b, 1007b.
  • 51. Ibid. 1017b.
  • 52. Ibid. 1020a.
  • 53. Ibid. 1049a; Bowyer Diary, 315.
  • 54. CJ, i. 1050a.
  • 55. HMC Hatfield, xix. 226.
  • 56. Ibid. 37, 43.
  • 57. C3/312/3.
  • 58. CJ, i. 397b.
  • 59. Ibid. 409a.
  • 60. Ibid. 413a.
  • 61. Parl. Debates, 1610 ed. S.R. Gardiner, 77-79; W. Notestein, House of Commons 1604-10, p. 367.
  • 62. Archaeologia, xxiv. 326-7; Cooper, iii. 61.
  • 63. CJ, i. 458a, 477a.
  • 64. Ibid. 464b.
  • 65. Ibid. 480b.
  • 66. Ibid. 485b.
  • 67. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 245.
  • 68. Ibid. 278.
  • 69. Ibid. 422.
  • 70. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, i. 541; ii. 52.
  • 71. Cooper, iii. 137.
  • 72. Bodl. Tanner 69, f.150.
  • 73. Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 271-3.
  • 74. Ibid. ii. 90-1.
  • 75. CSP Dom. 1628-9, p. 520.
  • 76. ‘Spring 1624’, p. 47; CJ, i. 722b; C. Russell, PEP, 174.
  • 77. CJ, i. 676b.
  • 78. Ibid. 678b.
  • 79. Ibid. 739b.
  • 80. Ibid. 754a, 757b, 762a.
  • 81. ‘Earle 1624’, f. 146; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 160; ‘Pym 1624’, i. f. 67. Russell, 199; R.E. Ruigh, Parl. of 1624, p. 55.
  • 82. R. Hutton, Reps. 75; T. Hetley, Reps. 169.
  • 83. HMC Lords, n.s. xi, 182; CJ, i. 799b, 800a; Procs. 1625, p. 227.
  • 84. Procs. 1625, p. 231.
  • 85. E401/2586, p. 544.
  • 86. CJ, i. 820b, 825b, 840b.
  • 87. Ibid. 842a.
  • 88. Ibid. 856a; Procs 1626, ii. 382; iii. 169.
  • 89. CJ, i. 857a.
  • 90. T. Birch, Ct. and Times of Chas. I, ii. 113; Historical Collections ed. J. Rushworth, iii. app. 35-36.
  • 91. C115/106/8408.
  • 92. Copinger, iv. 279; R. Loder, Framlingham (1798), p. 203.
  • 93. Add. 15520, f. 19.
  • 94. Loder, 206.
  • 95. Copinger, iv. 280-2.
  • 96. Loder, 207.