LEY, Sir James (c.1552-1629), of Westbury and Heywood, Wilts., Clerkenwell, Mdx. and Lincoln's Inn, 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



1604 - Oct. 1605
18 Sept. 1609
1621 - 19 Jan. 1621

Family and Education

b. c.1552, 6th but 4th surv s. of Henry Ley (d.1574)1 of Bere Ferrers, Devon and Teffont Evias, Wilts. and Dionysia, da. and coh. of Walter Seymour; bro. of Matthew*.2 educ. ?Winchester Coll.; Brasenose, Oxf. BA 3 Feb. 1574; L. Inn 1577, called 1584. m. (1) 2 June 1590, Mary (d. 4 Oct. 1613), da. of John Petty of Stoke Talmage, Oxon. 3s. 8da. (1 d.v.p.);3 (2) lic. 13 Feb. 1618, Mary, da. and coh. of Thomas Preison of Westminster and wid. of Sir William Bowyer I† of Denham, Bucks., s.p.; (3) 4 July 1621, Jane, da. of 1st Lord Boteler (Sir John Boteler, 1st bt.*) of Bramfield Place, Herts., s.p.4 kntd. 8 Oct. or 9 Dec. 1603;5 cr. bt. 20 July 1619,6 Bar. Ley 31 Dec. 1624, earl of Marlborough 5 Feb. 1626.7 d. 14 Mar. 1629.8 sig. James Ley.

Offices Held

Member, Soc. Antiqs. c.1586-1604.9

Commr. subsidy, Wilts. 1588-9, 1608, 1621, 1624;10 j.p. Wilts. 1596, Carm., Card. and Haverfordwest, Pemb. 1603, Pemb. 1604, Bucks., Mdx. and Westmld. 1618-?d., Ripon liberty, Yorks. 1620-?d., Southwell liberty, Notts. 1621-?d., Anglesey, Brec., Glam., Caern., Merion., Denb., Flints., Mont. 1625-?d.;11 j.p. and custos rot. Som. 1625-d.;12 commr. oyer and terminer, Western circ. 1602-21, Mdx. 1619-21, London 1620-1, Home circ. 1621,13 piracy, London 1607, 1614, Essex, Kent, Mdx. 1614,14 aid, London 1608,15 swans, Thames 1609,16 sewers, London 1610, 1621-3, Mdx. 1619, Lincoln 1621,17 gaol delivery London 1619, 1620, Ely 1621, 1624, Newgate 1623-4,18 Forced Loan, Mdx. and Wilts. 1626;19 steward, Steeple Ashton manor, Wilts. 1613, Yarmouth 1625-?d.20

Bencher, L. Inn 1600, Lent reader 1602, treas. 1609, gov. 1609-22; reader, Furnival’s Inn;21 sjt.-at-law 1603-9;22 c.j. gt. sessions, S. Wales 1603-4;23 c.j.k.b. [I] 1604-8;24 judge of assize, Queen’s co., co. Carlogh 1604, Ulster 1605-6, 1608, co. Waterford, co. Wicklow, co. Wexford 1606-7,25 Home circ. 1620;26 att., Ct. of Wards Nov. 1608-21;27 c.j.k.b. 1621-5.28

Member, Council in the Marches of Wales 1603-?4;29 commr. Gt. Seal [I] Apr.-Nov. 1605, May-July 1621,30 Ulster plantation 1608;31 PC [I] 1611;32 commr. to investigate Amboyna massacre 1624;33 PC 1624-d., ld. pres. July-Dec. 1628;34 ld. treas. 1624-8;35 commr. revenue 1626,36 Navy inquiry 1626-7,37 Coronation claims 1626.38

Speaker, House of Lords, May-July 1621.39


Originally from Devon, Ley’s father, Henry was granted the royal manor and advowson of Teffont Evias, Wiltshire in 1545 as a reward for his service during the siege of Boulogne.40 Ley himself, the fourth surviving son, was probably born at Teffont in about 1552, and may have been entered at Winchester College before progressing to Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1569.41 That same year his father presented him to the living at Teffont - worth £60 p.a. - which he resigned in 1576 on being admitted a student at Lincoln’s Inn.42 Called to the bar in 1584, and made a bencher in 1600, he became a serjeant-at-law and a judge for the southern Welsh counties in 1603.

From the late 1590s Ley had begun to purchase burgages at Westbury, which allowed him and his elder brother, Matthew, to be returned for the borough in 1597 and 1604.43 At the start of the 1604 session, Ley was nominated to the committee for considering the right of Sir Thomas Shirley I to take his seat despite having been arrested for debt (27 March). He was also one of those appointed to interrogate the sheriff concerning the Buckinghamshire election (2 Apr.) and to attend a conference with the Lords and judges about this dispute (5 April).44 His other bill committees included the welfare of poor prisoners in gaol (31 Mar.) and the statutory confirmation of letters patent (18 May).45

On being sent to Ireland as chief justice of King’s Bench in the autumn of 1604, Ley relinquished his seat, being replaced at Westbury by another local landowner, Alexander Chocke I.46 His Irish career was not without controversy, for having been appointed commissioner of the Great Seal in 1605 he was accused of hard usage in issuing mandates to enforce religious conformity, and in denying defendants copies of the indictments against them.47 Although his colleagues initially supported Ley, Sir Patrick Barnewall, one of the principal defendants, persuaded them that recusancy as a statutory offence could not be dealt with by the prerogative power of mandates, whereupon the policy was duly abandoned in the autumn of 1607. According to Barnewall, Ley was ‘generally behated throughout the kingdom’, a situation which may have encouraged Ley to apply for leave to return to England two months later. However, illness prevented his departure until November 1608, when he was appointed attorney of the Court of Wards.48

Ley returned to England in time to resume his seat at Westbury, vacated by Chocke’s death in 1607.49 He is recorded as having been named to a handful of bill committees during 1610. Two dealt with private estates - those belonging to William Essex of Berkshire (16 Feb.) and Sir Henry Crispe of Thanet, in Kent (12 Mar.) - while others concerned pluralism and non-residence (19 Feb.), and salt marshes in Norfolk and Suffolk (20 March).50 On 27 Feb. 1610 Ley was named to the committee to consider the substance of Dr. Cowell’s Interpreter.51 In 1614 Parliament Ley made way at Westbury for his son Henry, finding a seat for himself at nearby Bath, where he had no known connection with the corporation. He was named to a joint conference with the Lords regarding the bill to confirm the succession rights of the Elector Palatine’s children (14 Apr.), and to committees to search for precedents concerning the right of the attorney-general to sit in the Commons (8 Apr.), for the continuance of expiring laws (8 Apr.), to prevent the granting of false bail (16 Apr.), to confirm the foundation of London’s Charterhouse hospital (9 May), and to sell the estate of the late Sir Edward Apsley of Fletton, in Huntingdonshire (19 May).52

The profits from his attorneyship of the Court of Wards enabled Ley to complete the purchase of Westbury’s remaining burgages and build a mansion house at nearby Heywood. He was said to have offered £10,000 to succeed Sir Francis Bacon* as attorney-general, and in 1619 he purchased a baronetcy.53 In January 1621 he returned himself to Parliament for Westbury, but within days he was appointed chief justice of the King’s Bench, and so once again relinquished his seat. Six months later, aged 70, he made an astute marriage to the 17-year-old niece of the royal favourite, George Villiers, marquess of Buckingham, to whom Ley owed his further advancement as lord treasurer in 1624, and as earl of Marlborough at the Coronation in 1626.54 By this time the youthful Sir Simonds D’Ewes† considered the 74-year-old Ley ‘a decrepit old man’, while John Chamberlain believed that he would soon vacate the office ‘either by reason of age or by some other defect’.55 However, it was not until July 1628 that Ley was replaced by another of Buckingham’s clients, Sir Richard Weston*. On surrendering the treasurer’s staff Ley gave ‘an infallible testimony of his being a good husband for the king’ by accepting £10,000 and the presidency of the Council rather than the £15,000 he had given for the office.56

Ley’s death, at his chambers in Lincoln’s Inn on 14 Mar. 1629, was ascribed by Milton to his anxiety over the dissolution of Parliament four days earlier.57 As Ley died intestate, the greater part of the 24 manors that he had accumulated in Wiltshire, Somerset and Devon was settled on his son and heir Henry, the second earl. His widow’s jointure estate lay near Ludgershall, Wiltshire, which enabled her second husband, William Ashburnham†, to represent that borough in both the Short and Long Parliaments.58 Ley is remembered by a large ornate monument in Westbury church, and by several legal writings, including A Learned Treatise concerning Wards and Liveries and Reports of Divers Resolutions in Law.59 While serving in Ireland in the 1600s, Ley collected material for three tracts which were never published, ‘The Annals of John Clynne, a Friar Minor of Kilkenny’, ‘Annals of the Priory of St. John, Kilkenny’, and ‘Annals of Multifarnham, Rosse and Clonnell’. Although ineffective at the Exchequer - his detractors contemptuously referred to him as Volpone - he was respected for his legal knowledge and, according to Fuller, was ‘a person of great gravity, ability and integrity’.60 A contemporary portrait of Ley is reproduced in Hoare’s History of Wiltshire.61

Ref Volumes: 1604-1629

Authors: Henry Lancaster / Simon Healy


  • 1. Wilts. RO, 366/1.
  • 2. Vis. Wilts. (Harl. Soc. cv-cvi), 113, 115.
  • 3. Soc. Gen., Stoke Talmage par. reg.; MI, Westbury church; Wilts. RO, 366/1; R.C. Hoare, Hist. Wilts. ‘Dunworth Hundred’, 111.
  • 4. CB; Add. 46376B, f. 22.
  • 5. Shaw, Knights of Eng. ii. 129.
  • 6. CB.
  • 7. CP.
  • 8. J. Aubrey, Wilts. Colls. 404-5.
  • 9. J. Evans, Hist. of Soc. of Antiqs. 12; K. Sharpe, Sir Robert Cotton, 17; Harl. 5177, f. 4; Archaeologia, xxxii. 133.
  • 10. E179/198/327; 179/198/332; SP14/31/1; C212/22/21, 23.
  • 11. SP13/F/11, f. 34; Wilts. RO, A1/150/2, f. 3; C181/2, f. 327v; 181/3, ff. 24v, 33v; C231/4, f. 60; C66/1549; JPs in Wales and Monm. ed. Phillips, 9, 27, 45, 68, 106, 138, 165, 190, 210, 215, 234, 238, 266, 297.
  • 12. C231/4, f. 192.
  • 13. C181/1, ff. 29, 51; 181/2, ff. 5v, 163v, 283v, 310v, 347; 181/3, ff. 6, 15, 20v, 21v, 29v, 30, 45v, 46v.
  • 14. C181/2, ff. 102, 213.
  • 15. SP14/14/43/107.
  • 16. C181/2, f. 89v.
  • 17. C181/2, ff. 140v, 342; 181/3, ff. 27, 35v, 103v.
  • 18. C181/2, f. 351; 181/3, ff. 22v, 68, 74v, 101v, 191, 112, 126.
  • 19. Procs. 1628, vi. 26; SP16/39/55.
  • 20. SO3/5, unfol., Mar. 1613; E315/310, f. 67; HMC 9th Rep. i. 310.
  • 21. Al. Ox.; LI Admiss.; LI Black Bks. ii. 61, 71, 85, 118, 124; Wilts. RO, 366/1.
  • 22. E. Foss, Judges of Eng. vi. 164.
  • 23. CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 74.
  • 24. CSP Ire. 1603-6, p. 114.
  • 25. F. Ball, Judges in Ire. 312-13.
  • 26. C181/3, f. 19v.
  • 27. SO3/4, unfol., Nov. 1608; Lansd. 273, ff. 9, 56; CSP Dom. 1603-10, p. 468.
  • 28. LI Black Bks. i. 267.
  • 29. HMC Hatfield, xv. 392.
  • 30. LJ, iii. 51a.
  • 31. CSP Carew, 1603-24, p. 13.
  • 32. Ibid. 92; CSP Ire. 1611-14, p. 102.
  • 33. CSP Col. E.I. 1622-4, p. 405.
  • 34. Foss, vi. 164.
  • 35. Sainty, Judges, 10; LI Black Bks. i. 258.
  • 36. Univ. London, Goldsmiths’ ms 195, f. 37v.
  • 37. CSP Dom. 1625-6, p. 494.
  • 38. CP.
  • 39. LJ, iii. 51a.
  • 40. VCH Wilts. xiii. 189; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxii. 89.
  • 41. Wilts. RO, 366/1.
  • 42. T. Phillipps, Wilts. Institutiones, i. 224, 228; Aubrey, 404-5.
  • 43. VCH Wilts. vii. 185.
  • 44. CJ, i. 155b, 161a, 166b.
  • 45. Ibid. 160b, 213b.
  • 46. CJ, i. 257a; Bowyer Diary, 188; J. Campbell, Lives of the Ch. Justices, i. 362.
  • 47. R. Bagwell, Ire. under the Stuarts, i. 28; H. Pawlisch, ‘Sir John Davies and the Conquest of Ire.’ (Univ. London Ph.D. thesis, 1981), p. 111.
  • 48. Ball, 313; CSP Ire. 1603-6; p. 373; 1608-10, p. 116.
  • 49. CJ, i. 323b.
  • 50. Ibid. 394b, 396b, 409b, 413a.
  • 51. Ibid. 400b.
  • 52. Procs. 1614 (Commons), 33, 35, 82, 91, 176, 289.
  • 53. Wilts. RO, 967/14; CSP Dom. 1619-23, p. 64; SO3/6, unfol., July 1619; R. Lockyer, Buckingham, 41; W. Jones, Pols. and the Bench, 38.
  • 54. Chamberlain Letters ed. N.E. McClure, ii. 338, 381, 387.
  • 55. Autobiog. of Sir Simonds D’Ewes ed. J.O. Halliwell, i. 160; Chamberlain Letters, ii. 338.
  • 56. HMC 4th Rep. 290.
  • 57. Hoare, Hist. Wilts. ‘Westbury’, 35.
  • 58. Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxiv. 99.
  • 59. Wilts. IPMs ed. G.S. and A.E. Fry (Brit. Rec. Soc. xxiii), 232; Wilts. Arch. Mag. xxii. 86.
  • 60. T. Fuller, Worthies of Eng. iii. 328.
  • 61. Hoare, Hist. Wilts. ‘Westbury’, 35 and facing.