LEIGHTON, Sir Thomas (c.1535-c.1611), of Feckenham, Worcs. and Guernsey.

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.1555, 2nd s. of John Leighton of Wattlesborough, and bro. of Edward. m. 1578, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Francis Knollys, 1s, 1da. Kntd. 1579.1

Offices Held

Gent. of privy chamber 1568; capt. and gov. of Guernsey 1570-d.; envoy to France 1574, 1585, 1588, to Netherlands 1577-8; j.p.q. Worcs. from 1601; commr. musters 1601; member, council in the marches of Wales from 1602.2


The younger son of an ancient county family, Leighton became a soldier, establishing his reputation at the siege of Rouen in 1562-3 by bringing reinforcements into the town through the French lines. He was subsequently one of the mainstays of the defence. In the final assault he was wounded and captured, the English ambassador reporting that ‘England won much honour at Rouen, and so did Leighton and Killigrew’. After some months as D’Amville’s prisoner in Paris, during which he was occasionally able to send news to Cecil, he was exchanged in the spring of 1563, and joined the garrison of Le Havre which was being defended by Ambrose Dudley. When conditions for the surrender of the town were drawn up, the French named him one of the English hostages.3

Next, Leighton returned to England and went to court, where Elizabeth employed him on such duties as carrying letters to Mary Queen of Scots in October 1567. He soon joined the group which included the Earl of Leicester, his future father-in-law Sir Francis Knollys, and Sir Francis Walsingham.4

He was stationed near Pontefract during the northern rebellion, then appointed captain of Guernsey, retaining the post until his death 40 years later. He landed on the island for the first time on Whit Sunday 1570, and his initial survey showed the usual deficiencies—the castle undermanned, the fortifications ruinous, the ordnance inadequate, and inefficiency or peculation in the finances. He wintered in the island—as was to be his general practice, unless his presence was required elsewhere—and he was still there on as Mar. 1571. A Thomas Leighton was at Canterbury on 30 Mar. investigating the sudden death of Cardinal Chatillon, but there is no indication that this was the governor of Guernsey, whose letter of as Mar. shows that he had no immediate intention of coming to England. His reputation as an oppressive governor, intent on destroying the island’s liberties, is based on his efforts to exploit his sources of revenue in the interests of military efficiency. This inevitably brought him into collision with the local inhabitants, who claimed that their ancient customs were being infringed. In 1579-81, 1586, 1591, 1598, 1604 and 1607, the Council was obliged to intervene to support Leighton. In 1607, however, possibly because in the altering diplomatic position Guernsey’s strategic value had diminished, the governor’s powers were curtailed. In matters of religion, Leighton and the ‘seditious, vile and disloyal-hearted’ islanders were more at one. The church in Guernsey was on presbyterian lines, and Leighton helped to secure this system. He disliked the Council’s decision in 1579 that Guernsey should come within the see of Winchester, but reflecting, as he wrote to Walsingham, that ‘it is a thing which toucheth not salvation’, he endeavoured to impose it on the islanders lest ‘this beginning of trouble may go on to the manifest peril of the renversing of this God’s church.’ With Walsingham’s help the danger was averted, and Leighton was able to replace with presbyterians the ministers who resigned.5

The Queen also called upon his services in other ways, as envoy to France in May 1574, when Elizabeth was anxious over Alençon’s safety; to the Low Countries with an ultimatum on the subject of an armistice in December 1577; and to urge the French king to oppose the Catholic League in 1588.6

In 1588 Leighton was one of the small group of officers appointed to supervise local defence arrangements, and he was a member of the conference in March which determined the general defence strategy, being placed under Leicester at Tilbury. In 1590-1 he was chosen, as one agreeable to the Earl, to be second in command to Essex at the siege of Rouen. In Essex’s absence he commanded the forces and was generally in charge of the day-to-day administration. The Earl frequently referred to him as one ‘by whose advice I am drawn’. Sometimes he sought to be discharged of his duties. It may be that he was ill, for the Queen, summoning Essex to her side, charged him not to trouble Leighton ‘any further in this time of the winter, so great an enemy to his infirmity’. Nevertheless, Leighton was concerned with affairs in Normandy until 1594.7

In his last years, Leighton may have resided more frequently in England. In 1601 he became a member of the quorum on the commission of the peace in Worcestershire, where most of his estates lay, and in that year sought election as knight of the shire in Parliament. There was evidently some opposition to a comparative stranger whose religious views were unpalatable to the influential Catholic families there, but the Privy Council forestalled trouble by sharp letters to Ralph Sheldon and John Talbot, and Leighton was duly elected in the senior position. He was named to the committee of the penal law reform bill, 2 Nov. 1601 and on that of the bill against blasphemous swearing, 10 Nov. As knight for Worcestershire he was entitled to attend the main business committee (3 Nov.), the monopolies committee (23 Nov.) and one concerning the assurance of certain manors (9 Dec.). In 1601, probably at the suit of Lord Zouche, his daughter-in-law’s father, he was appointed to the council in the marches, but can have attended few sessions as he continued to fulfil his duties in Guernsey personally.8

By his marriage Leighton became a distant relation of the Queen, who favoured him and bestowed considerable lands in Worcestershire upon him, which he augmented from other sources. When his ownership of Feckenham forest gave rise to a dispute with Fulk Greville, various prominent people, including (Sir) John Stanhope, stood by their friend. The authorities differ over the date of Leighton’s death (1 Feb. 1610 or c. September 1611) and his burial place (Feckenham or St. Peter Port).9

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: S. M. Thorpe


  • 1. Vis. Salop (Harl. Soc. xxix), 324; HMC Hatfield , viii. 242; E351/1795, f. 38v.
  • 2. A. J. Eagleston, ‘Guernsey under Sir Thomas Leighton’, Trans. and Rep. Soc. Guernesiaise, xiii. 72-108; LC 2/4/4/; C. Read, Sir Francis Walsingham, iii. 214; APC, xxxi. 403; P. H. Williams, Council in the Marches of Wales, 358-9.
  • 3. CSP For. 1562, 1563, passim.
  • 4. CSP For. 1566-8, no. 2203; 1569-71, no. 474.
  • 5. Sharp, Memorials of the Rebellion, 249; CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 364, 409; 1591-1625, passim; Add. 1566-79, passim; Eagleston, loc. cit.; Trans. and Rep. Soc. Guernesiaise, i. 141; v. 74-5; viii. 269; ix. 209-10, 328; x. 308-9; xii. 480-8; HMC Hatfield, passim; APC, ix-xxviii, passim; Lansd. 149, ff. 31, 49.
  • 6. Read, Walsingham, iii. 214.
  • 7. CSP Dom. 1581-90, 1591-4, passim; HMC Hatfield, iv. passim; APC, xv, xvi, xxi, xxii, passim.
  • 8. Neale, Commons, 296; D’Ewes, 622, 624, 633, 649, 673-4; Q. Sess. Pprs. 1591-1643 (Worcs. Hist. Soc.), i. passim.
  • 9. CPR, 1563-6, no. 3913; CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 660; 1591-4, pp. 539, 576; 1601-3, p. 149; 1603-10, pp. 76, 118; 1611-18, p. 268; HMC Hatfield, v. 24, 197, 311; ix. 373; x. 10; xii. 9, 171; xvii. 240, 609, 610; VCH Worcs. ii. 228-9; iii. 114-15, 374-5; C142/324/126.