CARLETON, George (1529-90), of Overstone, Northants., Wisbech and Coldham, Isle of Ely.

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. 1529, 2nd s. of John Carleton of Walton-on-Thames, Surr. and Brightwell Baldwin, Oxon; bro. of Anthony. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1543; G. Inn 1552. m. (1) 1559, Audrey (bur. 27 Jan. 1560), wid. of Sir George Harper of Sutton, Kent, s.p.; (2) 1561, Elizabeth (d. c.May 1587), da. and h. of Walter Mohun of Overstone, Northants., wid. of Edward Cope of Hanwell, Oxon., 1s. 2da.; (3) 1589, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Robert Hussey of Linwood, Lincs., wid. of Anthony Crane of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and East Molesey, Surr.1

Offices Held

Capt. at St. Quentin 1557; j.p. Oxon 1564, rem. by 1573, Northants. 1573-82, Lincs. (Holland) 1579-87, Isle of Ely 1582; treasurer of Irish expedition of 1st Earl of Essex 1573; commr. sewers, Lincs. (Holland) 1584-7, Isle of Ely 1578-9; superintendent of recusant prisoners in Wisbech castle from 1580.2


Carleton’s maternal grandmother was Margaret Culpepper, whose sister was the mother of Queen Catherine Howard. His father was at first receiver to the abbot of Westminster and later deputy receiver-general to the dean and chapter. This enabled the son to enjoy a Westminster abbey exhibition at Christ Church. Carleton spent his early years at Walton-on-Thames, where he acquired his father’s property, although this had been conveyed to his younger brother Edward by 1568. He inherited from his father lands in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire; acquired through his second marriage estates in Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire (including the manor of Overstone, where he chiefly resided), and purchased extensive lands in Gloucestershire. In 1576 he was granted the stewardship of the duchy of Lancaster manor of Wollaston, Northants., where 12 years before he and George Burden had acquired the reversion and rent of the rectory. He seems to have secured the stewardship for his step-son Anthony Cope, who, like Carleton, leased other Wollaston properties which had formed part of the estates of the abbey of St. Albans. Carleton and Cope seem to have worked in close partnership. In 1571 the younger man entered into a recognizance with his step-father for £1,000, evidently to secure a loan of £500 which had still not been repaid at the time of Carleton’s death. During the later years of his life Carleton acquired extensive interests in the fenlands bordering the Wash in the neighbourhood of Holbeach and Wisbech. These included leases of former monastic land at Holbeach, where he owned at least 1,000 acres of marshland grazing, a house in Wisbech and the manor of Coldham, purchased in 1584.3

Carleton was a puritan who, both in and out of Parliament, promoted the movement for a ‘further reformation’ of the Church. In all his diverse interests as landowner, entrepreneur, puritan and member of Parliament, he reveals an original mind and a pugnacious spirit. He employed his legal and managerial talents in acting as trustee of the affairs of a number of friends and kinsmen, including his brother-in-law Rowland Lytton, his own brother Anthony, and (with Christopher Yelverton as his fellow-trustee) Sir Richard Knightley. The most onerous of these trusts involved him in the calamitous financial affairs of the 6th Lord Mountjoy, to whom he was related by marriage. Carleton was recommended as a trustee by the Earls of Bedford and Huntingdon, probably in about 1566, when Mountjoy’s debts ran into many thousands of pounds. In partnership with John Hastings he staved off Mountjoy’s creditors, disposed of some of his mortgaged lands in Yorkshire, and attempted to concentrate the remaining assets on the exploitation of the alum and copperas deposits at Canford, Dorset. Later one of these workings seems to have been conveyed to Huntingdon and leased to a partnership which included Carleton. In the fens he was a notable early ‘adventurer’, ‘one of the very first that inned any marsh in Holland’, and with Humphrey Michell a pioneer in the introduction of Dutch methods of mechanical drainage by windmills, ‘engines and devices never known or used before’.4

All these activities involved Carleton in conflict and litigation, which has served to place them on record. The 7th Lord Mountjoy charged him with grave dereliction of trust, and Carleton speaks of the ‘hundred sheets of complaint’ exhibited against him in Chancery, ‘and his four hundred sheets of depositions against me’. In the fens Carleton seems to have antagonized many of the local population, and he was charged by a faction of his fellow commissioners of sewers with introducing innovations to his own private profit and the public loss. He was supposed to have said that ‘he cared not who drowned so he drained’. These complaints were carried repeatedly before Burghley and the Privy Council, and when this course failed, at least one of Carleton’s ‘toys’ and ‘gewgaws’ was sabotaged. For his part, Carleton gave as good as he got. He took one Holbeach farmer into the Star Chamber for bringing an allegedly malicious suit against him for trespass. All his dealings with his adversaries were marked by pride in his own achievements and contempt for what he regarded as reactionary opposition. His mills, dykes and fences, always undertaken ‘at his own cost’, were for the public good as well as his own. ‘The term innovation is not understood of all that use it. For a thing of experience is no innovation.’ 5

In Carleton’s business dealings there is also evidence of an obtrusive puritanism. Mountjoy’s charges could not be answered with a simple purgation, a course ‘not sufficient for me in my Christian deliverance’; the damage to the Holbeach windmill took place ‘at Christ-tide’. Carleton was one of the architects of the remarkable presbyterian movement which began in Northamptonshire about 1570. There is evidence that he was a friend and patron of Percival Wiburn, who inaugurated this revolution as town preacher of Northampton, and that he brought into the county other radical London preachers who consolidated Wiburn’s early gains. After Wiburn had been silenced, the godly came to Carleton’s Overstone on Sundays to hear sermons preached by two of these irregular ministers, Nicholas Standon and Edward Bulkeley. In 1573 a servant of Carleton’s, Robert Smith, made his will before leaving with his master for Ireland. It contains a unique affirmation of faith in the presbyterian form of church polity. Carleton added his signature to that of the testator, and the witnesses and executors were four of the preachers, including Wiburn, Standon and Bulkeley. At about this time Carleton submitted a memorandum to Burghley in which he outlined the possible ways in which the government could respond to the growth of division between three broad religious parties, defined as the papist, the atheist and the protestant (equated with the puritans). These last were ‘the Queen’s own bowels, her dearest subjects, the servants of God and such as do tread the straight path of the Lord to salvation’. Ideally, the first two parties should be not only ‘misliked’ but ‘removed’. Failing this, he proposed alternative policies, one of them anticipating the puritan emigration of the following century and the protestant colonisation of northern Ireland; the other anticipating the Bond of Association formed to protect the Queen’s person in 1584. This second plan was for the formation of a militia to guard the Queen’s person, to be concentrated in the 20 counties nearest London, and to be led by some of the nobility and a hundred gentlemen ‘of credit and ability ... but chiefly of such as be religious, not only by favouring, but also zealous exercising the same’.6

In 1580 when Abbot Feckenham and other prominent Catholic recusants were imprisoned in Wisbech castle, Carleton, with his fellow adventurer Humphrey Michell, was made superintendent of the prisoners under the keeper of the castle, a responsibility he assumed with characteristic bravado: ‘If my boldness might not be disliked, I would make my suit thus: The care shall be mine, much charge shall be mine, and the danger shall be mine ... I and mine, my lands and goods, shall answer for all’. He recommended reliance on two godly preachers to convert the recusants, and suggested four names, including the young Lancelot Andrewes and William Fludd, a preacher later named in the Star Chamber as ‘a chief director’ of the presbyterian movement in Northamptonshire. The sermons preached in the great hall of the castle led to the great preaching fasts and communions, attended by large numbers of puritans, which were witnessed by the Jesuit, William Weston.7

Carleton owed his return to Parliament at Poole in 1571 and, presumably, at Dorchester in 1572 to the 2nd Earl of Bedford, and his principal interest in the House of Commons was the advancement of the puritan cause. He was one of an organised group of puritan members which included his close friend Peter Wentworth and his stepson Anthony Cope. Apart from his membership of two committees on religious matters (10 Apr. and 19 May 1571), Carleton made two significant interventions in that Parliament. On 13 Apr. he introduced a bill which would have abolished the court of faculties of the archbishop of Canterbury by ‘reversing’ the Dispensations Act of 1534 which set it up; ‘by which statute’, ‘procured by the bishops of that time’, ‘the bishop of Canterbury is made as it were a pope’. The licences and dispensations granted by this court (for plurality of benefices, non-residence, marriage at prohibited seasons, etc.) were described as ‘contrary to the word of God’. The court of faculties was unpopular, and the bill reached a second reading in the Upper House. On 20 Apr. as part of what seems to have been a concerted defence of parliamentary liberties, Carleton rose to object to the sequestration of his fellow-puritan, William Strickland, and posited a novel constitutional principle: that whatever Strickland’s offence, the Commons, and not the Crown, had exclusive disciplinary jurisdiction over him.

Carleton is not known to have spoken in either 1572 or 1576, and his only recorded committee in either session concerned the draining of salt marshes (6 Mar. 1576). He was more active in the last session, being appointed to committees on libel (3 Feb. 1581), counterfeit seals (11 Feb.), the excessive number of attorneys in the court of common pleas (17 Feb.), and a private bill for Lord Zouche (17 Mar.). In this session also he showed his old spirit over religious issues. He was the only member not ready to make a public submission when the Queen rebuked the House over Paul Wentworth’s motion for a public fast. First he ‘stood up and offered to have spoken, but was interrupted by the Speaker and the House’. Next, when the Speaker put the question, whether Hatton should carry the submission to the Queen, ‘Mr. Carleton offered again to speak, saying that what he had to move was for the liberty of the House but the Speaker notwithstanding and the House ... did stay him’. He was a member of the committee which moderated the Act of this Parliament ‘against seditious words and rumours uttered against the Queen’s most excellent Majesty’ (1 Feb. 1581), and, in order to protect puritan pamphleteers, managed to have inserted the qualifying phrase, ‘with a malicious intent’, words which, in the event, failed to protect the writers for whom they were devised, John Penry, John Udall and the associates of ‘Martin Marprelate’.8 Carleton himself was of course involved in these libels. In the last year of his life he married a widow who had harboured Robert Waldegrave’s press in her house at East Molesey when it printed the first of the tracts. The second tract appeared from the Northamptonshire home of Sir Richard Knightley, whose affairs were at this time partly in Carleton’s hands. A number of circumstances link Carleton with the tracts, and he cannot be excluded from the short list of those who could have written the three ‘primary’ tracts. He was probably under some suspicion, for in April 1589 he and the near-separatist preacher, Thomas Settle, then preaching in Northampton, were required to give daily attendance upon the Privy Council. Carleton died early in January 1590, making his wife executrix of his will. As a consequence of her imprisonment for refusing to take the ex officio oath ‘a great part’ of his goods and household stuff at Overstone was stolen. The overseers were Peter Wentworth, ‘my beloved in the Lord’, and the above mentioned William Fludd. Bequests went to Mr. Settle and another preacher, ‘the Lord’s ministers’, and £30 to the corporation of Carrickfergus to erect a hospital for ‘poor wearied soldiers at their coming from their journeys, to lie dry in’, which was to bear the inscription ‘The Legacy of Robert Smith’, the godly servant whom Carleton had taken to Ireland in 1573.9

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603


  • 1. SP13/H20/2; Vis. Oxon. (Harl. Soc. v), 123-4; P. A. Carleton, Mems. Carleton Fam., 27-8; Westminster Abbey muniments index no. 43048; Lansd. 51, f. 202; J. N. McCorkle, 'A Note Concerning 'Mistress Crane' and the Martin Marprelate Controversy', Library (ser. 4), xii. 276-83; E. Arber, Intro. Sketch to the Martin Marprelate Controversy, 123; PCC 43 Rowe.
  • 2. Stowe 571, f. 89; Lansd. 22, f: 51; 35, ff. 132-9; 41, ff. 183, 198-206; 44, f. 196; 46, ff. 112-13; 51, f. 202; 683, f. 52; Egerton 2345, f. 25; SP12/145/25, 28; 12/143/17; 12/211/67; E163/14/8; Royal 18 D 111; W. Dugdale, Hist. Imbanking and Drayning Divers Fenns, 349-50; APC, xii. 157-8; Harl. 360, f. 65.
  • 3. Westminster Abbey muniments, 22710, 43048; CPR, 1554-5, p. 355; 1555-7, p. 424; 1563-6, p. 155; LC4/191/21, 23, 198; PCC 33 Bucke, 2 Drury; Hants RO, Cope Pprs. 43M/48/787, feet of fines, Hilary term 26 Eliz.; Northampton archdeaconry ct., bk. P, f. 128, Birmingham dist. prob. reg.; Somerville, Duchy, i. 591; E310/20/101, 106; E310/18/82, 84; Lansd. 52, f. 207.
  • 4. Herts. RO, Lytton deeds, 22845; Surr. RO, acc. 124, bdle. 34; Northants. RO, K. 1017; Emmanuel Coll. Camb. arch. box 1, C6/B13; C. Falls, Mountjoy, Eliz. General, 17-19; SP12/150/78, 189/1, 219/73; 15/13/49; APC, xii. 68-9; Lansd. 41, ff. 181-207; 44, f. 196; 46, ff. 112-13; 51, ff. 202-4.
  • 5. St. Ch. 5/C18/2; Lansd. 51, f. 198.
  • 6. Westminster Abbey muniments, 38956; Lansd. 17, f. 55; PCC 23 Martyn; SP15/21/121; SP63/43/10.
  • 7. SP12/168/1; St. Ch. 5/A49/34; Wm. Weston, Autobiog. of an Elizabethan, tr. P. Caraman, 164-5.
  • 8. Neale, Commons, 197; Parlts. i. 201, 209, 223, 378-81, 395; Trinity, Dublin, anon. jnl. ff. 22, 34; CJ, i. 84, 91, 111, 121, 127, 135; D’Ewes, 160, 175, 181, 186, 284, 294, 298, 307.
  • 9. APC, xvii. 131; xix. 68-9; St. Ch. 5/A49/34; Harl. 2143, ff. 48-9; PCC 2 Drury.