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Ley, James, first earl of Marlboroughlocked

  • Wilfrid Prest

James Ley, first earl of Marlborough (1550–1629)

by Daniel Mytens, 1627

Collection Harvard University Law School, Cambridge, Massachusetts; © reserved in the photograph

Ley, James, first earl of Marlborough (1550–1629), judge and politician, was (according to a family pedigree of his own compiling) the fourth son of the soldier and landowner Henry Ley (d. 1574), of Teffont Evias, Wiltshire, formerly of Bere Ferrers, Devon, and his wife, Dionysia (d. 1589), daughter and coheir of Walter Seymour of Berwick St John, Wiltshire. Ley matriculated as a pensioner at Queens' College, Cambridge, in 1571, but migrated to Oxford, where he was 'brought up … in Balliol and Brassenos Colledges' (Ley, Wilts. & Swindon HC, 366/1), graduating BA from Brasenose in 1574. Ley later claimed that the death of his father cut short his academic studies, compelling his removal to an inn of chancery; if he could be identified with the James Ley installed as rector of Teffont Evias from 1569 to 1576, it may be that he was originally intended for a career in the church. While sufficiently proficient to be called to the bar at New Inn, Ley chose to enter Lincoln's Inn (rather than New Inn's parent inn of court, the Middle Temple) in February 1577. Here he 'applied the studie of the lawe', being again called utter barrister in 1584, and subsequently serving as reader of Furnival's Inn. In 1600 he joined the governing council of benchers, soon becoming one of four 'Censors or Visitors … for matter of religion and good liff' (Baildon, 2.66), while also successfully promoting a 'project for renewing of the Lybrarye' (Prest, Inns of Court, 166). Several sets of notes survive from his reading of 1602 on the Edwardian Statute of Tenures (1 Ed. VI c. 4).

By now Ley's marriage on 2 June 1590 to Mary Pettie, of Stoke Talmage, Oxfordshire, had brought him two sons and five daughters, including the poet Lady Hester Pulter (1595/6–1678); another three girls (two surviving) arrived before their mother's death on 4 October 1613. Fortunately for this burgeoning family, Ley's considerable abilities were widely displayed: with his return to parliament in 1597 for the borough of Westbury, near the manor of Brembridge which he and his elder brother Matthew had held since 1578; with his service as justice of the peace since c.1593; and with his involvement from the late 1580s onwards as one of four founding members in the London-based Society of Antiquaries. Yet it may well have been the influence of his Lincoln's Inn colleague and fellow Brasenose alumnus Thomas Egerton that secured him in June 1603 a Welsh judge's place on the Carmarthen circuit. Egerton certainly figured as patron at Ley's call to serjeant in November 1603, alongside Charles Blount, earl of Devonshire, whom he had served as high steward since 1597, and with whose sword Ley was knighted by King James at Wilton House on 9 December 1603.

These honours were conferred preparatory to Ley's appointment as chief justice of king's bench in Ireland. He proved a committed and energetic member of the new administration, whether presiding in court and deliberating as a privy councillor at Dublin, or riding out on assize circuit. Besides having the English Book of Common Prayer translated into Irish, Ley was identified as author of a strategy designed to compel prominent individual Catholics to attend protestant church services, under threat of indictment in the court of castle chamber. Concerted protests at this exploitation of viceregal ‘mandates’ fell on deaf ears in both Dublin and London. James I indeed took Ley's zeal as evidence of 'his ability to do him service' (CSP Ire., 1608–10, 116), while some years later Francis Bacon would characterize his service in Ireland as marked by 'gravity, temper, and discretion' (CSP Ire., 1615–25, 166).

Back in England by royal command in October 1608, ostensibly to brief the privy council on the settlement of Ulster, Ley was rewarded with the lucrative office of attorney-general of wards, despite rival bids by Augustine Nicolls and Henry Yelverton. He moved quickly to exploit this influential quasi-judicial position, building up a mutually profitable working relationship with Henry Sherfield, an ambitious Lincoln's Inn barrister and Wiltshire neighbour whose dominance of court of wards practice reflected Ley's patronage. Although still formally a serjeant-at-law, Ley also resumed residence at Lincoln's Inn, where he busied himself with the affairs of the society, serving a term as treasurer (1609–10) and participating in several major building projects.

Given his abilities, age, and experience, Ley might well have regarded his attorneyship as no more than a temporary stopover en route for a Westminster Hall judgeship. Yet further advance proved elusive. In 1612, following the death of Robert Cecil, Ley was named among numerous suitors in contention to be master of the wards. Having sat briefly and unobtrusively as member for Westbury in the second session of James I's parliament (1609–10), he was returned for Bath in 1614, where although named to several committees he is not recorded as having spoken in the house. In 1617 he failed to win the post of attorney-general, despite offering £10,000 and enjoying Buckingham's support. Although made baronet in the summer of 1619, and appointed to the prince of Wales's council the following year, not until January 1621 was he at last raised to the eminence of lord chief justice of king's bench. This promotion undoubtedly anticipated the septuagenarian Ley's marriage on 4 July 1621 to Jane Boteler (d. 1672), Buckingham's seventeen-year-old niece, following the death in 1618 of Ley's second wife, Mary, widow of Sir William Bowyer, whom he had married earlier that year.

Returned once more for Westbury to James's fourth parliament, Ley found himself instead commissioned to preside over the House of Lords, after Bacon's withdrawal in mid-March. He therefore delivered formal sentences on Bacon and other prominent delinquents, without either participating in debate or seeking to lead the house from his chair. Despite its being said that Ley would move to the woolsack as lord keeper, by October 1624 an alternative rumour gained strength, that he would replace the disgraced Cranfield as lord treasurer, even if he might not hold office long, 'by reason of age or some other defect' (Letters of John Chamberlain, 2.583). Finally in mid-December Ley received the treasurer's staff and was sworn in as privy councillor, shortly after joining the peerage as Baron Ley of Ley, Devon. He nevertheless retained his judicial place, with attached profits, until the following Hilary term. Ley served as treasurer until July 1628, when he resigned in favour of his deputy, Sir Richard Weston, at least partly induced by payments of £10,000 and £5000 for his wife, and lateral preferment to the presidency of the council. The broadly unfavourable verdict of contemporaries and historians on his performance in high office possibly underestimates the scale of financial and political crisis that characterized the opening years of Charles I's reign. Marlborough (to use the title of the earldom to which he was raised in February 1626) may indeed deserve credit for resisting the more extreme courses being urged by some royal counsellors during the forced loans crisis of 1626–7. But it was precisely this attitude, together with the loss of Buckingham's support, which explains the king's readiness to dispense with his services.

In a sonnet addressed to Margaret Ley, John Milton depicted her father as an upright statesman, whose death at Lincoln's Inn on 14 March 1629 was hastened by news of the untimely dissolution of parliament (in the first session of which he had actively participated). This eulogy involves some poetical licence. According to Hutton, after resigning the presidency of the council in December 1628, Marlborough had retired to Lincoln's Inn, 'applied himself to divinity, heard prayers and sermons … and prepared himself to die' (Diary, 77). As for integrity, James Whitelocke, another contemporary judge, strongly endorsed Marlborough's reputation for deceit. Sherfield not only labelled him dishonest, but recalled his own part in transmitting a litigant's present of gilt plate to his patron. The balance of Hutton's delicately ambiguous epitaph bears repeating: 'he was a wise, discreet, sober man, of great patience, and profound ingenuity, and had good skill in antiquities and heraldry. And he loved old silver and gold coin of the Romans and others'. He was buried at Westbury.

None of Ley's writings on law, heraldry, and miscellaneous antiquarian subjects was published during his lifetime. However, he bequeathed his collection of books, manuscripts, and works of art to his son and heir, Henry, whose own son James Ley, third earl of Marlborough, may have facilitated the publication in 1642 of Ley's treatise on wardship (written c.1618–1621), and his collection of law reports, which concentrate on wardship matters, in 1659; both had previously enjoyed a wide circulation in manuscript. Four of Ley's papers originally delivered to the Society of Antiquaries were published by Thomas Hearne in his Collection of Curious Discourses (1720).


  • J. Ley, ‘A declaration of the family of Ley’, Wilts. & Swindon HC, 366/1
  • W. R. Prest, The rise of the barristers: a social history of the English bar, 1590–1640, 2nd edn (1991)
  • W. P. Baildon, ed., The records of the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn: the black books, 2 (1898)
  • W. R. Williams, The history of the great sessions in Wales, 1542–1830 (privately printed, Brecon, 1899)
  • The letters of John Chamberlain, ed. N. E. McClure, 2 vols. (1939)
  • M. Jansson, ed., Proceedings in parliament, 1614 (House of Commons) (1988)
  • The diary of Sir Richard Hutton, 1614–1639, ed. W. R. Prest, SeldS, suppl. ser., 9 (1991)
  • R. Lockyer, Buckingham: the life and political career of George Villiers, first duke of Buckingham, 1592–1628 (1981)
  • R. P. Cust, The forced loan and English politics, 1626–1628 (1987)
  • J. Ley, letters, Hants. RO, Jervoise of Herriard papers, 44M 69/XL
  • W. R. Prest, The inns of court under Elizabeth I and the early Stuarts, 1590–1640 (1972)
  • TNA: PRO, PROB 11/155/217
  • CSP Ire., 1608–10; 1615–25
  • G. E. Aylmer, The king's servants: the civil service of Charles I, 1625–1642 (1961), 320


  • Free Library of Philadelphia, MSS, MS LC 14.44 (1)
  • Yale U., Osborn Shelves, Tracts 1 (11)
  • CUL, MSS, MS Dd.5.50, fols.1r–21v; Dd.11.87, fols. 170r–180r
  • Hants. RO, corresp. with Henry Sherfield


  • D. Mytens, oils, 1627, Harvard U., law school [see illus.]
  • tomb effigy, 1629 (with wife), All Saints' Church, Westbury, Wiltshire
  • oils, Lincoln's Inn, London
  • oils (after a portrait, 1615), NPG

Wealth at Death

substantial; portions of £2000 for two daughters: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/155/217

£130—twenty manors: G. S. Fry and E. A. Fry, eds., ‘Abstracts of Wiltshire inquisitiones post mortem returned into the court of chancery in the reign of King Charles the First’, Index Library, 23 (1901)

Hampshire Record Office, Winchester
Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre, Chippenham
H. C. Hamilton & others, eds., , 24 vols., PRO (1860–1910)
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
P. W. Hasler, ed., , 3 vols. (1981)
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Selden Society