Yelverton, Sir Christopher (1536/71612), judge and speaker of the House of Commons
by David Ibbetson
© Oxford University Press 2004–14
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Yelverton, Sir Christopher (1536/71612), judge and speaker of the House of Commons, was the third of five sons of William Yelverton, of Rougham, Norfolk (b. in or before 1505, d. 1586), lawyer, and his first wife, Anne, daughter of Sir Henry Farmer of East Barsham, Norfolk, and his wife. He had four sisters. He was a member of an East Anglian legal family and was a direct descendant of William Yelverton, judge of the court of king's bench between 1443 and 1471. His father was a member of Gray's Inn and recorder of King's Lynn from 1558 to 1561. Christopher matriculated at Queens' College, Cambridge, in 1550, but is not recorded as having taken a degree. Two years later he entered Gray's Inn.
Yelverton had few advantages as a younger son and had to rely on his own abilities as a lawyer to provide himself with a living. His career was advanced greatly by marriage to Margaret (c.15441611), daughter of Thomas Catesby of Whiston, Northamptonshire, and his wife, on 4 May 1560. They had four sons, including , and eight daughters. Catesby ensured his new son-in-law was elected MP for Brackley, Northamptonshire, in 1563. Yelverton was recorder of Northampton from 1568 to 1599 and JP for Northamptonshire from about 1573. This local consequence guaranteed his election for Northampton in 1571 and 1572 and for Northamptonshire in 1593. He was an active MP and sat on many committees. He was also noted for his speeches, including one opposing the sequestration of William Strickland. His career was thriving and by the mid-1570s he was very wealthy. He purchased an estate in Oxfordshire and did not seek election to the parliaments of the 1580s. He had by his own admission enjoyed a lively youth and played an active part in the revels and masques produced at Gray's Inn. He wrote the epilogue to George Gascoigne's Jocasta, which was performed there in 1566. Notwithstanding his puritanism in religion, several contemporary diarists record his ribald anecdotes and conversation, and John Manningham hints that he was not averse to enjoying himself in the company of gentlewomen when he was well into his seventies. Yelverton was called to the bar, and elected treasurer of Gray's Inn in 1579 and 1585. He read twice: in 1574 and in 1584, when his subject was the statute of 1540 relating to execution for debt. He was created serjeant-at-law in 1589, served as queen's serjeant from 1598 to 1602, and was judge of the court of queen's (then king's) bench from 1602 to 1612. Yelverton was an excellent technical lawyer and was regarded as a good judge, one of the few to escape criticism by Sir Robert Cecil, principal secretary, in his memorandum on the state of the judicial bench in 1603. As queen's serjeant he led the prosecution of those involved in Essex's rebellion in 1601, and he was one of the judges ruling on the Postnati case in 1608. In addition, he had a broader interest in legal culture, passing on to his son a collection of legal manuscripts; and, like many other lawyers of his generation, he made his own reports of cases. These reports remained unpublished and the well-known Yelverton report is by his son Henry Yelverton. Yelverton was a conspicuously successful speaker of the House of Commons in the parliament of 1597, to which Henry Yelverton was also returned, exercising moderation and discretion to defuse tensions between it and the crown. His puritan tendencies were well known. He was an eloquent orator, though his contributions to debates show him to have been as much concerned with careful legal drafting as with rhetorical showmanship, and his conduct as speaker was marked by a lawyerly concern to establish proper procedures for the conduct of the business.
For all his finesse as speaker Yelverton was a man of considerable toughness. He was appointed second justice at Lancaster in 1598. As justice of the assize on the northern circuit and JP of many northern counties from 1599, he was in the forefront of the common lawyers' attack on the council of the north. Friction developed in 1600, when he snubbed Ralph Eure, third Lord Eure, vice-president, who was sitting with Sir John Savile as justice of gaol delivery. Matters came to a head in 1601 when he required the lord president, Sir Thomas Cecil, second Lord Burghley, to leave the court. Legal opinion was at first behind Yelverton, but in June 1602 he was summoned to the Star Chamber and publicly reprimanded for his conduct. There were more complaints about him but he weathered the criticism. Elizabeth I did not bestow a knighthood on him and it was left to James VI and I to do so. The king was more generous still, making him KB on 23 July 1603.
Yelverton, despite his complaints about poverty and the expense of providing for such a large family, was very active in the purchase of land in his adopted county of Northamptonshire, spending in excess of £5000 on properties in his lifetime, most of which descended on his death to his heir, Henry Yelverton. His wife predeceased him. He died on 31 October 1612 of very age at seventy-five (CSP dom., 161118, 154), and was buried on 3 November in the church at Easton Maudit, where a monument with his recumbent effigy in robes survives.
CSP dom., 161118, 154 · HoP, Commons, 15581603 · arms and genealogical data, Northants. RO, NPL 1042 · Baker, Serjeants, 546 · The reports of Sir John Spelman, ed. J. H. Baker, 1, SeldS, 93 (1977), 1.xxii · The reports of Sir John Spelman, ed. J. H. Baker, SeldS, suppl. ser., 5 (1984) · Sainty, Judges, 31 · TNA: PRO, PROB 6/8 [administration], fol. 78v · VCH Northamptonshire, 4.1316 · R. R. Reid, The king's council in the north (1921) · Venn, Alum. Cant., 1/4.489 · monumental inscription (copy), Northants. RO, C(H)95 · Easton Maudit deeds, Northants. RO, NPL 198202 · repertory of evidences of land purchased, Northants. RO, NPL 2937 · HoP, Commons, 150958 · DNB · parish register, Easton Maudit, Northamptonshire
oils, 1602, Gray's Inn, London [see illus.] · R. Dunkarton, mezzotint, 1811 (after portrait, 1602), BM, NPG · effigy on monument, Easton Maudit church, Northamptonshire · oils, second version; in possession of family at Easton Maudit, 1866
Wealth at death
lands valued above £5000: Northants. RO, NPL 2937