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Altham, Sir Jameslocked

(c. 1555–1617)
  • David Ibbetson

Altham, Sir James (c. 1555–1617), judge, was the third son of James Altham (1525?–1583), a prosperous London merchant, and his first wife, Elizabeth, the sister of Sir Thomas Blank, lord mayor of London in 1582. His mother died in 1558; his father then married the formidable widow of Sir Andrew Judd, lord mayor in 1550. In 1562 the family settled at Mark Hall, Latton, Essex. Breaking with family tradition, James chose to enter the law. After a short period from 1571 without taking a degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, he was admitted to Gray's Inn in 1575, called to the bar in 1581, and made an ancient of the inn in 1595. In 1599 he was made bencher, the first non-reader to be granted this distinction. He was reader at Staple Inn in 1591, and at Gray's Inn in 1600 and 1603. In 1603 he was created serjeant-at-law, and in 1607 he was knighted and became a baron of the exchequer, which office he held until his death.

Altham was a very sound technical lawyer, 'a good, learned and discreet judge, of great estimation for his wisdom, gravity, affability and order' (Diary of Richard Hutton, 17). A volume of law reports attributed to him, though never printed, survives in the Inner Temple. Altham played a relatively minor part in public affairs. He represented Bramber, Sussex, in the parliament of 1589, but seems to have taken no active part in its proceedings; although he sat as a member of the court in several of the more important constitutional cases of the early seventeenth century, his role in them was insignificant; and in 1610 he used the influence of Sir Julius Caesar to ensure that his name was struck off a commission of judges to go into Ireland.

Altham was married three times: to Margaret Skinner (d. 1597), in 1584; to Mary Grimes, née Stapers, in 1598; and, at an unknown date, to Helen Hyde, née Saunderson (d. 1638). He had a son, James, from his first marriage and a son (Richard) and two daughters (Elizabeth and Mary) from his second. His third marriage was childless. Altham maintained strong links with the City of London, drawing up on its behalf seven bills for the parliament of 1601. He owned property there, and his first and second wives were buried there. In 1604 he purchased Oxhey, near Watford in Hertfordshire; here he built a fine house, at a cost of £3000, and, in 1612, a chapel. Earnest in matters of religion, Altham was the dedicatee of Iaphets First Publique Perswasion, written by the puritan divine Thomas Taylor; he decried religious vanity, and in his will he expressed the desire that his funeral should take place at night without any pomp.

Altham died at Serjeants' Inn, London, on 21 February 1617, and was buried at his own request in Oxhey chapel, where he had already erected a monument to himself and his third wife, who—despite having borne seventeen children in her first marriage, to John Hyde of London—survived until 1638. He died a wealthy man, leaving lands in London, Essex, and Yorkshire as well as in Hertfordshire.


  • J. E. Cussans, History of Hertfordshire, 3 vols. (1870–81)
  • W. R. Prest, The rise of the barristers: a social history of the English bar, 1590–1640 (1986), 230–31, 340
  • J. Edmunds, History of Latton (1980), 20, 23
  • W. W. Rouse Ball and J. A. Venn, eds., Admissions to Trinity College, Cambridge, 2 (1913), 84
  • J. Foster, The register of admissions to Gray’s Inn, 1521–1889, together with the register of marriages in Gray's Inn chapel, 1695–1754 (privately printed, London, 1889), 48
  • R. J. Fletcher, ed., The pension book of Gray's Inn, 2 vols. (1901–10)
  • A. W. B. Simpson, Legal theory and legal history (1987), 43
  • G. J. Armytage, ed., Middlesex pedigrees, Harleian Society, 65 (1914), 158
  • J. L. Chester and J. Foster, eds., London marriage licences, 1521–1869 (1887), 23
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/129, fol. 209
  • F. G. Emmison, ed., Elizabethan life: wills of Essex gentry and merchants (1978), 51 [father's will]
  • inquisition post mortem, TNA: PRO, C142/362/187
  • father's inquisition post mortem, TNA: PRO, C142/202/176
  • The diary of Sir Richard Hutton, 1614–1639, ed. W. R. Prest, SeldS, suppl. ser., 9 (1991), 17
  • BL, Add. MS 12497, fol. 446


  • BL, corresp. and MSS, Add. MSS 12497, 40746; Harley MS 1546; Lansdowne MS 87
  • Essex RO, Chelmsford, deeds and estate records
  • Inner Temple, London, MSS


  • monumental effigy, Oxhey, Hertfordshire

Wealth at Death

approx. £350 p.a. in lands: will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/129, fol. 209

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
P. W. Hasler, ed., , 3 vols. (1981)
J. Sainty, ed., , SeldS, suppl. ser. 10 (1993)
Selden Society
Essex Record Office, Chelmsford
J. H. Baker, ; SeldS, suppl. ser., 5 (1984)
British Library, London