TOWNSHEND, Sir John (1572-1632), of Austin Friars, Ludlow, Salop and Kensington, Mdx.; later of Winforton, Herefs. and Lambeth, Surr.

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. 23 Oct. 1572, 1st s. of Robert Townshend of Ludlow and Anne, da. of John Machell, Clothworker, alderman of London 1553-8.1 m. by c.1595, Mary, da. of ?William Fitzhugh of Wavendon, Bucks., at least 4s., 2da.2 kntd. 11/24 June 1603;3 suc. fa. 1614.4 bur. 21 Feb. 1632.5 sig. Jo[hn] Tounshend.

Offices Held

J.p. Rad. 1602-22, Herefs. 1617-22;6 sheriff, Rad. 1604-6;7 commr. subsidy, Rad. 1608, 1621-2, 1624;8 dep. lt., Rad. 1609;9 steward, Oswestry lordship, Salop by 1614-17, Oswestry bor. 1617-?d.10

Commr. to compound for Crown debts 1609, 1610, market tolls 1619.11

Servant to Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk by 1610-18, to James Hay, earl of Carlisle by 1628-d.12


Townshend was a nephew of Sir Henry Townshend*, and more distantly related to the head of the family, Sir John Townshend† of Raynton, Norfolk, who was killed in a duel in August 1603. His grandfather Sir Robert, a justice of the Council in the Marches from 1545-57, secured a lease of the Austin Friars at Ludlow, worth £70 a year. This passed to his second son Robert after his death, who acquired additional lands in Radnor and leases of Ludlow town lands.13 The latter was excluded from public office under Elizabeth because of his Catholicism, and in 1603 he joined the priest William Watson’s campaign to petition the new king for a toleration. The delivery of this petition, planned for 24 June, was to have been the pretext for the Bye Plot, an attempt to kidnap the king, but while Watson and other leading conspirators went to the scaffold, the majority of the petitioners, who knew nothing of the planned coup, were left alone. Robert Townshend was clearly one of these dupes, as the Privy Council, though informed of his contacts with Watson, did not prosecute him, and in 1609 they quashed a belated attempt to indict him for recusancy, considering him old and harmless.14

Sir John Townshend, who was knighted in London just before the Bye Plot, may have intended to join the petitioners, but unlike his father he was clearly a conformist, having been appointed a Radnor magistrate in 1602. He was returned to the Commons in 1604, not for Ludlow, where the corporation chose two of its own members, but for Chipping Wycombe, where his patron was presumably the borough’s high steward, the Catholic Henry, 5th Lord Windsor, who had nominated both MPs in 1601. On 23 Mar. 1604 Townshend was included on the committee to discuss Sir Edward Montagu’s* proposals for radical ecclesiastical reforms, an unlikely nomination given his religious background. He was later named to attend conferences with the Lords about composition for wardship (26 Mar. 1604), the enforcement of the recusancy laws (3 Feb. 1606) and the Instrument of Union (24 Nov. 1606), while on 20 July 1610 he was appointed to the delegation ordered to present the Commons’ grievances to the king. He played little further part in proceedings. In his only recorded contribution to debate, on 8 May 1607, he opposed the bill for confirmation of lands to All Souls’ college, Oxford and Sir William Smith* ‘with length of speech’; despite his objections the bill passed into law. He took the oath of Supremacy with the rest of the Commons on 5 June 1610, but as his wife was a Catholic it is noteworthy that he was included on the committee to consider amending the clause of the 1610 recusancy bill which proposed to fine the husbands of married women who refused to take the oath of Allegiance (23 July).15 He was named to committees for a range of local and personal legislation throughout the Parliament, but was probably absent from the Commons during most of the second session: his term as sheriff of Radnor only ended on 2 Feb. 1606, and on 8 Mar. the illness of his under-sheriff obliged him to secure leave of absence to settle his affairs there.16

In 1609-10 Townshend was granted two patents, one for collection of Crown debts due from 1547-92, the other for forfeitures arising from the depopulation commissions of 1607-8. Both proved to be lucrative: Townshend exchanged some of the depopulation fines for lands in 1610, and from 1613 he invested thousands of pounds in acquiring the manors of Winforton and Huntington, Herefordshire.17 He doubtless owed these grants to the patronage of the Howard family, who appointed him steward of the lordship of Oswestry, Shropshire at some time after 1603. Townshend was closest to Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Suffolk, who made him a trustee for an annuity charged upon his Saffron Walden estate in 1610. Two years later Townshend received a bribe of £1,000 to influence the trial for control of the inheritance of Thomas Sutton’s Charterhouse estate, and in 1614, when Suffolk became lord treasurer, Townshend negotiated with the farmers of the great customs for a mortgage of £10,000 upon the earl’s Oswestry estate. The notoriously greedy treasurer had no intention of repaying this loan, and the customers were pressured to allow a deduction of £1,500 a year from this mortgage for so long as Suffolk remained in office and the farmers remained in possession of their lease. This agreement came to light during Suffolk’s trial in 1619, as did Townshend’s role in his master’s corrupt practices, when he admitted asking one suitor, ‘what is it to give £3,000 to such a man as my lord, be it but to purchase his favour?’18

Townshend’s actions while in Suffolk’s service were unsavoury but not illegal, and consequently he escaped prosecution. However, his prospects were gloomy in the wake of Suffolk’s fall, and he was threatened by his creditors, particularly Sir Nicholas Salter, one of the customs farmers, who seized some of his goods in 1620. This presumably explains Townshend’s willingness to oblige the customers when he was sued for restitution of the Oswestry mortgage deed, which had come into his possession as steward of the lordship. In the course of this suit Townshend confirmed the customers’ claim that Suffolk had borrowed almost twice the amount guaranteed by this mortgage, an allegation which was irrelevant to the case in hand but put the customers in a strong position to wrest the Oswestry estate from the earl’s grasp, either by forfeiture or by discounted purchase.19 Townshend now urgently required another source of income, which he secured from the Scottish courtier James Hay, Viscount Doncaster, whose patent for concealed lands worth £200 a year he bought for £8,000 in 1618, in partnership with the financier Sir Samuel Tryon. This deal allowed him to pay off his debts to Salter, and to refinance his other debts through loans from fresh creditors. The agents for this patent were particularly zealous in pursuit of hospitals and almshouses which had escaped dissolution under the 1547 Chantries’ Act, and by the end of 1620, 30 such concealments had been identified. Flushed with success, Townshend later bought out (Sir) Thomas Somerset’s* one-third share of another patent allowing corporations to compound for grants of tolls at markets and fairs.20

Townshend was one of the few patentees to be ruined by the attacks on monopolies which occupied the Commons for a large proportion of the 1621 and 1624 sessions. With his patron, Suffolk, long since disgraced, he provided an easy target, and on 19 Feb. 1621 his patents for concealments and market tolls were among the first to be attacked, by William Noye*. Three days later solicitor-general (Sir) Robert Heath agreed to an investigation, and over the following month Townshend’s activities were scrutinized by the Commons’ grievances committee. MPs from across the nation lamented the imminent demise of ancient charitable foundations, and corporations complained of quo warranto proceedings over market tolls, but the substantive case against Townshend’s patents was that the grants were made in contravention of the king’s own 1608 book of bounty, and that charitable foundations such as hospitals were exempted from the chantries’ Act by a judicial ruling of 24 Elizabeth. Both patents were condemned as grievances on 26 Mar. 1621, and were suspended pending a final decision by the king, who revoked them by Proclamation on 10 July.21

As soon as Townshend’s patents were struck down Tryon, who had contracted to buy £5,000 of the concealed hospital lands, began clamouring for compensation. Townshend eventually agreed to sell Tryon his manor of Huntington for £7,040, which would cover Tryon’s claim of £2,400, a further £2,600 Townshend owed to William Smethe, (another of the partners in the concealed lands patent) and other sums owed to minor creditors. Furthermore, Salter’s seizure of Townshend’s estates would be lifted. Negotiations faltered when a survey revealed that the manor was worth nowhere near the £440 a year Townshend claimed, but after considerable litigation other lands were added to the bargain, and Townshend agreed to make up any shortfall in the projected revenue from his main estate, the neighbouring manor of Winforton. The catalyst for the final agreement was a new patent of July 1623 which granted Doncaster (now earl of Carlisle) the forfeitures of all the hospitals against which proceedings had been laid before the earlier concealments patent was quashed in 1621.22

Townshend may have hoped to pre-empt Parliament’s objections to the new patent with a clause permitting the refoundation of hospitals forfeited as concealments, but this stipulation was merely advisory, allowing those deprived no say in the matter. The Commons condemned the new patent on 15 Mar. 1624, and included it in their grievance petition at the end of the session. In 1625 King Charles endorsed this condemnation, and undertook to pass any bill the Commons cared to pass to invalidate all such concealment proceedings.23 The profits due from this patent were Townshend’s last hope for a settlement with his creditors, and its annulment caused a complete collapse of his finances: in the autumn of 1623 he was already seeking refuge from Tryon and his other creditors in the judicial liberty of the Savoy, and from June 1624, at Carlisle’s behest, the Crown granted him immunity from prosecution. Yet only months later he attempted to promote a fresh project, approaching secretary of state Sir Edward Conway I* with a scheme to seize lands worth £1,000 a year for arrears of chief rents due from lands held in socage tenure, while in 1626-7 he managed to broker the sale of the Crown estate of Hanworth Park, Middlesex.24

Townshend’s main Winforton estate technically lay under extent from 1620, but the bewildering complexity of the claims upon his lands prevented any single creditor from gaining complete control of his fortunes, while the royal protections he was granted from 1624-8 allowed him to remain in residence until the end of his life. In his final years he served Carlisle, investigating another concealment project concerning encroachments upon the foreshore of the Thames. After Townshend’s death in February 1632 his creditors resumed hostilities over the remains of his estate, and it seems that Winforton was eventually alienated to pay his debts. The only property which remained in the family was the Austin Friars at Ludlow, which Townshend had assigned to two of his brothers at the start of his financial troubles, and which later reverted to his son and grandson. Many of Townshend’s descendants were Catholics, and consequently none sat in Parliament.25

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Simon Healy


  • 1. Ludlow (Salop par. reg. soc. xiii), 69, 308; Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 464; A.B. Beaven, Aldermen of London, ii. 34, 36.
  • 2. Vis. Norfolk, ed. G.H. Dashwood, i. 311; Ludlow, 148; Kensington (Harl. Soc. reg. xvi), 15-16; STAC 8/31/12.
  • 3. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 110.
  • 4. C142/360/41.
  • 5. Lambeth Churchwardens’ Accts. (Surr. Rec. Soc. xliii), 78.
  • 6. JPs in Wales and Monm. ed. Phillips, 324-9; C231/4, f. 37.
  • 7. List of Sheriffs comp. A. Hughes (PRO, L. and I. ix), 269.
  • 8. SP14/31/1; C212/22/20-3.
  • 9. Cheshire Archives, DNE16.
  • 10. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. iii. 111-12.
  • 11. C66/1790/13, 66/1829/4; CD 1621, vii. 461-2.
  • 12. C2/Chas.I/H78/15; CSP Dom. 1628-9, pp. 335, 342, 387-8.
  • 13. Vis. Salop, 463-4; C142/108/69, 95; 142/360/41; C2/Chas.I/T42/51; Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, xx. pt. 2, pp. 412, 422; Salop RO, LB2/1/1, ff. 4, 6, 11.
  • 14. M. Faraday, Ludlow 1085-1660, pp. 72-3; SP14/2/85; S.R. Gardiner, Hist. Eng. i. 108-13; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 543.
  • 15. HMC Hatfield, xi. 400; CJ, i. 151b, 154b, 263a, 324b, 453b, 1041a, 1042b; CD 1604-7, pp. 14-15, 93-5, 140; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, ii. 254; ‘Paulet 1610’, ff. 15, 28; ‘Earle 1624’, f. 180; ‘Nicholas 1624’, f. 180; LJ, iii. 395b.
  • 16. CJ, i. 280b.
  • 17. C66/1790/13; 66/1829/4; C54/2157/28; C2/Jas.I/T8/13; 2/Jas.I/T12/5; STAC 8/91/30.
  • 18. Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. iii. 111-12; C2/Jas.I/A6/7; 2/Jas.I/G14/34; 2/Jas.I/S1/64; C2/Chas.I/H78/13; L. Stone, Fam. and Fortune, 279; HMC Hatfield, xxii. 98-9.
  • 19. C2/Jas.I/G14/34; 2/Jas.I/S1/64; 2/Jas.I/T4/18; STAC 8/183/50.
  • 20. CD 1621, iv. 147; vi. 57; vii. 343-4; C66/2302 (dorse); 66/2221/18; C2/Jas.I/S3/19; 2/Jas.I/T1/76; 2/Jas.I/T8/75; C54/2403/40.
  • 21. CJ, i. 573; CD 1621, ii. 210, 264; iv. 92, 147, 187-8; v. 52, 66-7, 290, 310; vi. 57, 75, 83, 196, 249, 464; Nicholas, Procs. 1621, i. 63-4, 145-6, 195-6, 218-19, 222-3; Stuart Royal Procs. ed. J.F. Larkin and P.L. Hughes, i. 514-15.
  • 22. CD 1621, v. 290; Nicholas, i. 145-6; C2/Jas.I/S3/19; 2/Jas.I/T8/75; C78/295/13; C66/2302 (dorse); Eg. 2595, f. 183.
  • 23. ‘Nicholas 1624’, ff. 31r-v, 81v; ‘Earle 1624’, f. 61r-v; ‘Pym 1624’, f. 22v; CJ, i. 705b, 777a; Procs. 1625, pp. 302, 307.
  • 24. Scarborough Recs. ed. M.Y. Ashcroft (2nd edn.), (N. Yorks. RO pubs. xliv), 115; CSP Dom. 1623-5, pp. 285, 338, 357; SP16/69, ff. 35. 54, 58; E401/1387, rot. 57.
  • 25. C2/Chas.I/C17/60; 2/Chas.I/T42/51; CSP Dom. 1628-9, pp. 114, 335, 342, 387-8; C54/2953/41; Lambeth Churchwardens’ Accts. 78; E112/211/590; 112/217/951; C6/44/12.