If the Committee on Standards in Public Life had existed 400 years ago, it would have needed a rather different remit. While Jacobean politicians periodically attacked corruption and venality in government, it was taken for granted that money was an essential lubricant of the system, and that the highest offices in the land frequently went to the highest bidders. Key components of the civil administration were run as personal fiefdoms and traded as though they were private property. A prime example was the prothonotaryship, or chief clerkship, of the court of King’s Bench, which in 1603 was occupied by John Roper. This office was reckoned to generate a net annual profit of around £4,000 (roughly £1.4 million today), equivalent to the income of a reasonably affluent peer. By dint of purchasing reversionary grants of the prothonotaryship, the Ropers had monopolised this role for more than a century, growing very rich in the process. John, the fourth member of his family to hold the post, had been in office since 1573, and was now aged about 69. For some reason he had not obtained a further reversion for any of his relatives, so although his own tenure was secure until he either died or resigned, thereafter the clerkship was up for grabs.
Unsurprisingly, the prospect of an imminent vacancy – Roper was already quite old by the standards of the time – aroused considerable interest within government and legal circles, and also at court. In July 1603, less than four months after James I’s accession, a reversion to the prothonotaryship was procured by one of the king’s Scottish favourites, James Elphinstone (later 1st Lord Balmerino). Unlike Roper, Elphinstone wasn’t a lawyer, and had no intention of running the office in person – not least because he spent much of his time in Scotland, where he was James’s secretary of state. Accordingly, he struck a deal with an up-and-coming English lawyer, Robert Heath, whereby the latter would do the actual work, and the two of them would split the profits. In the event, Roper was still going strong when, in 1609, Balmerino was disgraced and convicted of treason, as a result of which his reversion was deemed to be void.
At this juncture the king decided to grant a fresh reversion to his current favourite, Robert Carr, another Scot. Roper and Heath both made difficulties over this, but after three years of wrangling the grant was confirmed. However, in the interim Carr (now Viscount Rochester) had struck a deal with a rival for the post, John Harington (later 2nd Lord Harington), whereby they became joint reversioners. As before, surrogates were selected to run the office, the choice falling this time on Heath and another promising young lawyer, James Whitelocke. And once again these arrangements failed to come to fruition. Harington died in 1614, while two years later Carr (by now earl of Somerset) was convicted of the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury and disgraced.
The circus duly resumed. King James indicated his intention to settle a new reversion on his latest favourite, George Villiers. Roper was by now was aged around 82, and more than ready to retire. He duly offered to simplify matters by surrendering the prothonotaryship – but in return he demanded a peerage. He had in fact been angling for a title since at least 1606, when he offered to purchase a barony. However, he lacked the family background normally considered a prerequisite for such an honour, and he was also a covert Catholic. Moreover, while the sale of peerages would become relatively commonplace by the end of James’s reign, the issue was still considered highly sensitive at this juncture. His offer was rejected, and although he again broached the subject while negotiating with Robert Carr in 1612, he was once more turned down.
By 1616, however, the climate had changed. The king had failed to secure a grant of taxes from the Addled Parliament two years earlier and was now short of funds. In 1615 the first explicit sale of a peerage occurred, breaking that taboo. And so Roper’s request was this time taken seriously, even though his proposal to trade in his office for a title would benefit Villiers rather than the crown. Word soon spread that the prothonotary would indeed get a peerage, but before the details had been settled James suffered a cash crisis and decided that he needed the money after all. Roper, sensing his opportunity, drove a hard bargain. He agreed to pay the king £10,000 for a barony, but in return he insisted on retaining a life interest in the clerkship, with trustees managing the office on his behalf and handing him the profits. A desperate James approved this deal, and in July 1616 Roper became Lord Teynham – or ‘Ten Ms’, as one contemporary wit suggested (the letter M signifying 1,000 in Roman numerals). Four months later the somewhat irregular new arrangements for the prothonotaryship were signed off by the lord chief justice of King’s Bench, Sir Henry Montagu (later 1st earl of Manchester), in return for a £500 pension out of the profits of the clerkship. Teynham finally died in August 1618, at the grand old age of 84, by which time the continuing flow of profits from the prothonotaryship must have cancelled out at least half of the cost of his peerage.
G.E. Aylmer, The King’s Servants (1961)
C.R. Mayes, ‘The Sale of Peerages in Early Stuart England’, Journal of Modern History, vol. 29 (1957)
L.L. Peck, Court Patronage and Corruption in Early Stuart England (1990)
Biographies of John Roper, 1st Lord Teynham, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, John Harington, 2nd Lord Harington, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, and Henry Montagu, 1st earl of Manchester appear in the History of Parliament’s new volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).