BOWYER, Robert (bef. 1569-1621), of Tower Hill, the Middle Temple and the Palace of Westminster, 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



31 Oct. 1605 - c. 30 Jan. 1610

Family and Education

b. bef. 1569, 2nd s. of William Bowyer II† (d.1569) of Wimbledon, Surr., kpr. recs. in the Tower, and Agnes, da. of Sir John Harcourt† of Stanton Harcourt, Oxon., wid. of John Knyvett of Ashwellthorpe, Norf.1 educ. BA Oxf. 1579; Clifford’s Inn; M. Temple 1580, called 1589.2 unm. d.15 Mar. 1621.3 sig. Ro[bert] Bowyer.

Offices Held

?Dep. kpr. of recs. Chancery 1594;4 jt. kpr. recs. in the Tower 1604-12;5 clerk of the Parls. 1609-d.6

Sec. to 1st Lord Buckhurst (Thomas Sackville†) by 1599-1608.7


Bowyer must not be confused with a namesake who in 1604 was granted the reversion of a couple of minor Exchequer offices that were activated in 1641.8 Originally from Staffordshire, Bowyer’s family were settled in Petworth, Sussex, by the early fifteenth century. Bowyer’s grandfather, Robert, served his adopted town of Chichester in the Parliaments of 1529 and 1547, while his father represented Westminster in 1563. When his father died in 1569, Bowyer was entrusted to the care of an uncle, Francis Bowyer, a wealthy London alderman. Bowyer attended Oxford University before embarking on a legal career. After a short tenure at Clifford’s Inn he entered the Middle Temple in 1580, keeping chambers there with his nephew-in-law, Henry Elsynge, until 1606.9

In 1594 Bowyer was chosen by (Sir) John Parker* as deputy for filing bills and answers in Chancery on a recommendation from Lord Buckhurst.10 However his appointment aroused fierce opposition from the Chancery six clerks, who prevented him from carrying out the duties of his office.11 That same year, Buckhurst wrote to Lord Burghley (Sir William Cecil†) recommending that Bowyer be appointed clerk of the Parliaments.12 The incumbent clerk, Anthony Mason, wished to surrender because of deteriorating eyesight but, despite a petition from Bowyer to the queen, the office did not become vacant until Mason’s death in 1597,13 when Bowyer tried again. However though he continued to enjoy Buckhurst’s support he faced formidable opposition from the clerk of the Privy Council, Thomas Smith†, who informed (Sir) Robert Cecil† that Bowyer ‘is not fit for this place, by reason of a great imperfection he hath in his speech’.14 Smith managed to secure the office, leaving Bowyer to obtain the reversion.15

By 1599 Bowyer was acting as Buckhurst’s secretary, a position which he probably continued to fill until Buckhurst’s death in 1608. It was most likely through Buckhurst, who exercised some influence at Steyning, that Bowyer was elected an MP in 1601.16 In 1604 he became joint keeper of the records in the Tower, a position once held by his father and which he shared with Elsynge. His return for Evesham following a by-election in 1605 may have been arranged by the town’s high steward, Sir Thomas Chaloner*. The latter certainly secured the return of Edward Salter, one of whose neighbours was Bowyer’s cousin, Robert Bowyer of Iver, Buckinghamshire.17 There was apparently no direct connection between Bowyer and Chaloner at this time, but in 1610 Bowyer produced information on the offices held by previous princes of Wales at the urging of Prince Henry and Chaloner, the prince’s chamberlain.18

In Parliament, as befitted his experience and office, Bowyer was often appointed to committees to search for precedents and to provide the House with official records. During the 1605-6 session he was accordingly named to committees to review the privilege case of Roger Brereton (3 Feb.); to examine precedents for sending a message to the Lords to amend a Commons’ bill in the Upper House (10 Apr.); and to search for documents relating to purveyance (14 April).19 In the same session he was also appointed to a joint conference on recusancy laws (3 Feb.) and 11 miscellaneous legislative committees.20 On 31 Jan. 1606 he spoke on whether Sir William Maurice* was guilty of attending Mass. As it had already been established that Maurice had been at the Spanish ambassador’s residence, the salient point was whether the ‘circumstances [can] be established, whether casu or concilio’.21 On 26 Feb., during one of the perennial debates on whether Cambridge or Oxford should be first named in a bill, Bowyer stoutly defended the antiquity of his alma mater, Oxford, petulantly stating that two kings had founded Oxford colleges and that Oxford, unlike Cambridge, had a cathedral and a bishop.22 In early March, Bowyer argued in favour of the bill to prevent married men from residing at university, noting that many founders’ wills prohibited heads of colleges from marrying and seconding William Hakewill’s* comment that women would be a distraction to the students.23 On 14 Mar., during the debate on supply, Bowyer rose to support the motion for granting additional subsidies and to correct William Noye’s use of precedents drawn from the reign of Henry VI. Probably to the acute unease of the assembled Members, he also reminded them of Parliament’s gift to Richard II (the Poll Tax of 1380) and the tithe of corn granted to Edward III in 1339.24 On 31 Mar. Bowyer joined the debate on absenteeism, swaying the House with his argument and use of precedent. Bowyer himself was not especially worried at the small number in attendance:

I could wish the company full in regard of the business which is expected, yet will I not so narrowly impound the discretion and sufficiency of those that remain, as to think them unable to proceed in such matters as they shall have in hand, and for that which remaineth, it will suffice that all that are absent, yea all the realm is intended present, and many times presumptio juris potior est veritate.

Many Members were absent at the assizes, and those remaining had decided to send a letter to the sheriffs of every county requiring them to instruct the absentees to return. Bowyer argued against this course of action, recommending instead that the House fine offenders, as it had done under Elizabeth. He questioned whether the Commons had power to instruct an officer of the king, and suggested that each Member present should write to their friends who were absent. The Commons agreed with Bowyer, and every man was ordered to write to his friends.25

In the 1606-7 session Bowyer made five speeches. On 23 Mar., when the Speaker was absent due to illness, he announced that he could find no precedents to determine how to proceed but thought the matter should be discussed by the privileges’ committee (to which he had been appointed on 19 Nov.) and that the Speaker should be consulted. The House subsequently formed a committee, to which Bowyer was named.26 Four days later he objected when a petition was presented on behalf of William Waller at the reading of the bill to sell part of his lands in accordance with a Chancery decree, and suggested that the committee should again view the bill.27 On 5 May he supported the measure to reform abuses in the Marshalsea Court and on 29 June he provided the House with a precedent for adding a new proviso to a Lords’ proviso to a bill.28 Two days later he became embroiled in a dispute with the Speaker, Sir Edward Phelips, over the correct procedure for reviewing the Commons Journal. Bowyer was on the reviewing committee, and its four members sent for the Journal while the House was sitting. However the Speaker refused to send it out of the House and declared that four was an insufficient number to form a quorum. Angered by this reaction, Bowyer ‘desired that the committees might be discharged of the service, whereof for his own part he would be glad to be freed, and such he conceived to be the desire of the residue, on whom that labour has been imposed’. However, Phelips refused to relent, and was supported by the remainder of the House, which considered that the committee should not call for the book while the Commons was sitting.29

During the session, Bowyer was named to a joint conference to decide how to run meetings between both Houses more smoothly (12 March).30 Of the 12 legislative committees to which he was named, one concerned his close friend and kinsman, William Essex. This measure sought to allow the trustees of Essex’s lands, of whom Bowyer was one, to sell some of Essex’s manors. Although the bill did not pass in 1606-7, it became law in 1610. Bowyer later helped Essex obtain a baronetcy.31

During the Parliament Bowyer compiled a detailed diary of proceedings in the House. An interested and methodical recorder of events, Bowyer often took down committee business and noted points of procedural interest.32 The original document comprises three manuscripts, one of which survives only in copy form.33 The diary as a whole was based upon notes taken in the House, with additions borrowed from the Commons Journal. Indeed, an exchange of information occurred as the clerk of the Commons, Ralph Ewens, occasionally consulted Bowyer for points which he had missed.34 In return Bowyer assisted Ewens in compiling the Commons Journal. On various drafts, Bowyer annotated in the margin the entries which he considered should be included in the final copy using his own shorthand, and in so doing did much to improve the quality of the Journal.35

Bowyer’s reversion to the office of clerk of the Parliaments was activated upon Thomas Smith’s death in December 1609, when he ceased to be eligible to sit in the Commons. The position carried an official salary of just £40 p.a., but the fee income was considerable, and in 1649 the office was estimated to be worth £500 yearly.36 Thanks to Bowyer’s careful record keeping the quality of the Lords Journal in 1610 is noticeably higher than for any earlier session. He scrawled down every word he could catch, later annotating what have become known as the ‘scribbled books’ to indicate the material which should be included in the final volume. Bowyer thoroughly checked his entries to ensure their accuracy and the fair copy illustrates his interest in procedure and precedent. Although only one of the scribbled books has survived for the 1610 session, it provides a vivid illustration of events, speeches and happenings in the Upper House. It also shows the course of events (often different from the final Journal), the order in which Lords were named to committees and his impressions of important speeches.37 In 1610, during the fifth and final session of the first Jacobean Parliament, Bowyer was instructed by Ewens to copy and certify the answers of the king to the grievance petition of the previous session. The Lords, affronted at the Lower House for sending orders to its clerk, told Bowyer to proceed but noted that the Commons had no authority over officers of the Upper House.38

Although now clerk of the Parliaments, Bowyer continued to serve as keeper of the records in the Tower until 1612. William Tipper, who held the patent for concealed lands, was allowed to search for documents and the king’s advocate in Jersey, Peter Marrett, visited to compare copies of records relating to his office. Sir Edward Coke* asked for copies of three Acts of Parliament from Henry VI’s reign, Thomas Lord Ellesmere (Thomas Egerton†) and Archbishop Bancroft, requested documents on various ecclesiastical matters and Bancroft also asked to borrow Bowyer’s book on ‘Church causes’.39 Bowyer, as well as lending books, also borrowed extensively from Sir Robert Cotton’s* collection. Apart from asking Cotton for various books specific to Parliament such as a collection of Parliament Rolls and Sir Walter Raleigh’s† dialogue on Parliament, Bowyer also borrowed books in Saxon, a register of deeds for Westminster and the Lanthorne of Light in Old English.40 Both Bowyer and his father copied and collected numerous historical documents, many relating to the medieval nobility as well as to Parliament. However, they also owned material on the history of Scotland from the reign of Edward I; escheator files; and many copies of Close, Foreign, Patent and Charter Rolls.41

Bowyer attended the early part of the 1621 Parliament but fell ill in March. The lord chancellor (Francis Bacon*) informed the Lords that Bowyer was ‘so dangerous sick, that he might not come to the House without peril of his life and therefore was a humble suitor that he might make Henry Elsynge his deputy’.42 The House agreed, as Elsynge already held the reversion to the Clerkship. Bowyer died on 15 Mar. and six days later Elsynge was sworn in as his replacement.43 As Bowyer was unmarried, the Elsynge family was the principal beneficiary of his will, which was made on 4 Nov. 1619. Henry Elsynge received the plate previously bequeathed to Bowyer by his former employer Lord Buckhurst and £300 towards the education of Elsynge’s son, Henry. The latter also received all Bowyer’s private collection of books and manuscripts while his father was given all the books in Bowyer’s possession concerning records held in the Tower or on Parliament. Another of Elsynge’s sons, Robert, received his two houses at Tower Hill and land which he owned in the parishes of St. Olave Hart Street and Allhallows, Barking. Bowyer appointed as his executor, Henry Elsynge the elder.44 He was buried at St. Dunstan-in-the-West on 16 March.45

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Author: Chris Kyle


  • 1. W. Berry, County Geneal. Suss. 134-5; Vis. Suss. (Harl. Soc. liii), 62; PROB 11/52, f. 20; HLRO, Hist. Collection, 238/2, pp. 103-3a (transcript); GL, ms 17621.
  • 2. Al. Ox.; M. Temple Admiss.
  • 3. HLRO, Braye 99, inside front cover.
  • 4. HEHL, EL 2842.
  • 5. C66/1649.
  • 6. HMC Downshire, ii. 201; HLRO, Braye 99, inside front cover.
  • 7. MTR, 395; Bowyer Diary, ix.
  • 8. Exchequer Officeholders comp. J.C. Sainty (L. and I. Soc. spec. ser. xviii), 251, 260.
  • 9. MTR, 378, ii. 461; E.R. Foster, ‘The painful labour of Elsynge’, Trans. Amer. Phil. Soc. n.s. lxii. 6.
  • 10. Egerton Pprs. ed. J.P. Collier (Cam. Soc. xii), 201.
  • 11. HP Commons, 1558-1603 sub John Parker II.
  • 12. HMC Hatfield iv. 467.
  • 13. Ibid. v. 55; PROB 11/52, f. 20.
  • 14. HMC Hatfield vii. 299.
  • 15. M.F. Bond, ‘Clerks of the Parls.’, EHR, lxxiii. 83.
  • 16. HP Commons, 1558-1603.
  • 17. Evesham Bor. Recs. ed. S.K. Roberts (Worcs. Hist. Soc. n.s. xiv), xiii-xiv, 10; Vis. Suss. (Harl. Soc. liii), 62; Vis. Bucks. (Harl. Soc. lviii), 14, 107.
  • 18. HLRO, main pprs. May 1611.
  • 19. CJ, i. 263a, 296a, 298a.
  • 20. Ibid. 262b, 263a, 268b, 284a, 286a, 292b, 299b, 300a, 307a, 310a, 310b.
  • 21. Bowyer Diary, 14-15.
  • 22. Ibid. 55-6.
  • 23. Ibid. 58-9.
  • 24. Ibid. 80; CJ, i. 284b.
  • 25. Bowyer Diary, 97.
  • 26. CJ, i. 1032a.
  • 27. Ibid. 1033a.
  • 28. Ibid. 1055a; Bowyer Diary, 290-1.
  • 29. Bowyer Diary, 363-4; CJ, i. 386a.
  • 30. CJ, i. 352a.
  • 31. C54/2049; C66/1791, 1806; Cott. Julius C.III, f. 42; VCH Berks. iv. 254; HLRO, O.A. 7 Jas.I, c. 45; CJ, i. 382b, 386b.
  • 32. Bowyer Diary, vii-xxi; Procs. 1610 ed. E.R. Foster, i. pp. xxii-xxiv.
  • 33. HLRO, Braye 59, 60; Harl. 4945.
  • 34. E.g. CJ, i. 1046a.
  • 35. HLRO, Braye 61; I. Temple, Petyt 537/8.
  • 36. Bond, 80; See HLRO, Braye 55 no. 86.
  • 37. HLRO, Braye 61; I. Temple, Petyt 537/8.
  • 38. I. Temple, Petyt 537/38, ff.172-3.
  • 39. Ibid. 538/17, ff. 268, 270, 271, 273, 275, 278, 283, 287, 315, 328.
  • 40. Harl. 6018, f. 148v.
  • 41. E.g. Coll. Arms, B.1-8, 11-13, 15-16, 20-22, 24-6; Vinc. 40 bis; Stowe 357; Add. 12191; Cat. I. Temple Mss ed. J.C. Davies, ii. 610-41.
  • 42. LJ, iii. 41.
  • 43. Ibid. 59.
  • 44. PROB 11/140, ff. 247-8.
  • 45. Coll. Top. and Gen. v. 208.