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Engraved portrait of Sir Thomas Bromley, Lord Chancellor
Sir Thomas Bromley, Lord Chancellor  (1530-1587)

SIR THOMAS BROMLEY (1530-1587), lord chancellor, descended from an ancient family established since the time of King John at Bromleghe, Staffordshire. A member of this family, Roger, settled at Mitley, Shropshire, and had two sons, William and Roger. Thomas Bromley was the grandson of the former, who lived at Hodnet, Shropshire, his father's name being George, and his grandmother being Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Lacon of Willey in the same county. The family had a considerable legal turn, George Bromley being a reader at the Inner Temple during the reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII, and his brother, Sir George Bromley, chief justice of Chester under Elizabeth and father to Sir Edward Bromley, who was a judge under James I.

Thomas Bromley was born in 1530. He was educated at Oxford, where he took his B.C.L. degree 21 May 1560, entered the Inner Temple, and became reader in the autumn of 1566. He was studious and regular in his conduct, and probably owed something to family influence and to the patronage of Lord-keeper Bacon. On 8 June 1566 he was elected recorder of London, and continued in that office until, in 1569 (14 March), he became solicitor-general. His first considerable case was in 1571, when he was of counsel for the crown on the trial of the Duke of Norfolk for high treason, on which occasion he had the conduct of that part of the case which rested on Rodolph's message. The other counsel for the crown were Gerrard, attorney-general, Barham, queen's Serjeant, and Wilbraham, attorney-general of the court of wards. The Earl of Shrewsbury presided, with twenty-six peers as triers and all the common-law judges as assessors. Bromley's speech came third, and certainly the mode in which the evidence was handled and the prosecution conducted throughout reflects little credit on the fairness of those who represented the crown. Yet Bromley has the reputation of having been an honourable man in his profession, and Lloyd says of him that he was scrupulous in undertaking a case unless satisfied of its justice, 'not admitting all causes promiscuously. . . but never failing in any cause. For five years he was the only person that people would employ.' 1  The duke was found guilty by a unanimous vote of the court; but so much dissatisfaction did the trial create that the execution was deferred for several months. Mary Queen of Scots, however, was much disheartened at the result, and hopes were entertained of favourable negotiations with her. Bromley was accordingly sent, fruitlessly, as it proved, to endeavour to induce her to abandon her title to the Scotch crown, and to transfer to her son all her rights to the thrones of England and Scotland.

In 1574 he was treasurer of the Inner Temple. He was retained by Lord Hunsdon and patronised by Lord Burghley. For some years it was he, rather than Gerrard, the attorney-general, who was consulted on matters of state, and at last, in 1579, he received his reward. On the death of Lord-keeper Bacon there was for some time great doubt as to the appointment of a successor. Between Hilary and Easter terms, 20 Feb.-20 April, there was an interregnum of two months, during which the great seal was in no lawyer's custody, and on the seven occasions within that period on which it was used the queen issued express orders for its use each time. At last legal business was so much impeded, through the impossibility of obtaining injunctions, that Westminster Hall demanded an appointment. The queen's position was difficult. She was resolute not to appoint an ecclesiastic; it would be a scandal to make a mere politician lord chancellor, and Gerrard, long as he had been attorney-general, was, though learned, awkward and unpopular. Bromley was a politician and a man of the world, and at this juncture, by dint of intrigue, succeeded in obtaining promotion over his superior in the profession and in learning. Gerrard was afterwards consoled with the mastership of the rolls in 1581 (30 May), and on 26 April 1579 Bromley received the great seal.

From his speech to the queen made on this occasion, and reported in the 'Egerton Papers'2, it would appear that he was at first lord keeper and afterwards became lord chancellor. But this is erroneous; he had the title of lord chancellor from the first. In this new position he discharged his duties to the satisfaction of the profession. Though his own practice had been chiefly in the queen's bench, his duties as solicitor-general frequently took him into chancery, and hence, though not a great founder of equity, he proved a good equity judge, and there were no complaints of his decisions; and having the good sense to pay great respect to the then very able common-law judges, and to consult them on new points, he was able to avoid conflicts between law and equity. Thus, in Shelley's case, the queen, hearing of the long argument in the queen's bench, 'of her gracious disposition,' and to end the litigation, directed Bromley, 'who was of great and profound knowledge and judgment in the law,' to assemble all the judges, and in Easter term 23 Eliz. they met at his house, York House, afterwards Serjeants' Inn, to hear the case, and his judgment has ever since remained a leading authority in real property law. 3

Camden calls him 'vir jurisprudentia insignis,' and Fuller says: 'Although it was difficult to come after Sir Nicholas Bacon and not to come after him, yet such was Bromley's learning and integrity that the court was not sensible of any considerable alteration.' Knyvett's case is one which shows his fair administration of law. Knyvett, a groom of the privy chamber, had slain a man, and, the jury on the inquiry having found that it was done se defendendo, applied to Bromley for a special commission to clear him by privy session in the vacation. Bromley refused. Knyvett complained to the queen, who expressed her displeasure through Sir Christopher Hatton; whereon the chancellor, in a written statement, so completely justified himself that she afterwards expressed commendation of his conduct. Upon the project of the Alençon marriage, 'Bromley, who with Bacon's office had inherited his freedom of speech',4 offered a strong opposition, and pointed out to the queen that if she married a catholic parliament would expect her to settle the succession to the throne, and this argument seems to have prevailed with her.

In 1580 he was engaged hy the queen's orders in an inquiry as to the removal of one William Crowther from the keepership of Newgate; and several letters of his are extant on the subject. When Drake returned from his second voyage in 1581, Bromley was one of those whose favour he hastened to secure with a present of wrought-gold plate, part of his Spanish spoil, of the value of eight hundred dollars. Bromley took his seat in the House of Lords on 16 Jan. 1582. The first business before the house being a petition of the commons for advice in choosing a speaker, the chancellor, the choice having fallen on Popham, the new solicitor-general, admonished him by the queen's orders 'that the House of Commons should not deal or intermeddle with any matters touching her majesty's person or estate, or with church government.' To this admonition the commons paid no attention, and accordingly, as soon as a subsidy had been voted, the session was closed, the chancellor excluding from the queen's thanks 'such members of the commons as had dealt more rashly in some matters than was fit for them to do.' Shortly afterwards this parliament was dissolved, having lasted eleven years. Bromley continued in favour, and on 26 Nov. of the same year was consulted by the queen upon the proposals made by the French ambassador.

On 21 June 1585 the Earl of Northumberland, then a prisoner in the Tower, was found dead in his cell. Three days afterwards a full meeting of peers was held in the Star-chamber, and the chancellor briefly announced that the earl had been engaged in traitorous designs, and had laid violent hands on himself. A new parliament assembled on 23 Nov. 1585, and was opened with a speech from Bromley, announcing that it was summoned to consider a bill for the trial of Mary Queen of Scots. The bill soon passed. Bromley was at this time active in the prosecution of Babington. After his conviction and execution a court was constituted for Mary's trial. It consisted of forty-five peers, privy councillors, and judges, and the chancellor presided over it. It sat at Fotheringhay Castle, Northamptonshire, where Mary was imprisoned. Bromley arrived on 11 Oct. 1586, having dissolved parliament on 14 Sept. at Westminster as a commissioner, with the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. The court sat, and Mary at once placed a difficulty in the way of the prosecution by refusing to plead, 'she being a queen, and not amenable to any foreign jurisdiction.' There was then a conference between the queen and the chancellor, but at first her firmness baffled him. 'I will never submit myself,' she said,'to the late law mentioned in the commission.' She yielded to his urgency at length, and the trial proceeded.

On 14 Oct. a sitting was held in the presence chamber, the lord chancellor, as president, sitting on the right of a vacant throne, and the commissioners on benches at the sides. Mary's defence was so vigorous that Burghley, in alarm, set aside Bromley and Gawdy, the queen's Serjeant, who was chief prosecutor, and himself replied. At the end of the second day the court was adjourned to 25 Oct., at the Star-chamber, Westminster, when, the chancellor presiding, the whole court—except Lord Zouch, who acquitted her on the charge of assassination—found Mary guilty. On the 29th parliament met, and the chancellor announced that they were called together to advise the queen on this verdict. The commons did not long deliberate. On 5 Nov., after electing a speaker, they agreed with the lords upon an address to the queen, to be presented by the lord chancellor, praying for Mary's execution. For some time Elizabeth hesitated, but on 1 Feb. 1587 she was induced to sign the warrant. Bromley at once affixed the great seal to it, and informed Burghley that it was now perfected. The privy council was hastily summoned, and decided to execute the warrant, the queen having done all that was required of her by law.

Bromley, as head of the law, took on himself the chief burden of the responsibility; but probably he expected to shelter himself behind the authority of Burghley. It is certain that he was very anxious during the trial, and was a party to the execution of the warrant only with great apprehension. The strain proved too much for his strength. Parliament met on 15 Feb., but adjourned, owing to the chancellor's illness; and, as it continued, Sir Edmund Coke, chief justice of the common pleas, dissolved parliament on 23 March, acting for the chancellor by commission from the queen.

Bromley never rallied. He died on 12 April, at three a.m., in his fifty-eighth year, and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey, where a splendid tomb was erected by his eldest son. His seals were offered to, but refused by, Archbishop Whitgift. As an equity judge Bromley was regretted till the end of the reign. In spite of the temper of the age, he was free from religious bigotry, and, as a letter of his (1 July 1582) to the Bishop of Chester, pleading for Lady Egerton of Ridley, shows, he endeavoured to soften the law as to the execution of heretics.

A considerable collection of his letters is preserved among the archives of the city of London. It appears from them that previously to 1580 he occupied a house near the Old Bailey. In 1580 and 1583 he had a house next Charing Cross, and at the same time a country residence in Essex. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Adrian Fortescue, K.B., and by her had four sons and four daughters. His eldest son was Sir Henry Bromley of Holt Castle, Worcestershire, from whose descendants the property passed to John Bromley of Horseheath Hall, Cambridgeshire, the ancestor of the now extinct barons of Montfort of Horseheath. One of Bromley's daughters, Elizabeth, was first wife to Sir Oliver Cromwell of Hinchinbrook Castle, Huntingdonshire, uncle and godfather to the Protector; another, Anne, married Richard Corbet, son of Reynold Corbet, justice of the common pleas; Muriel married John Lyttelton of Frankley, ancestor of the present Barons Lyttelton, who was implicated in Lord Essex's plot; and the fourth, Joan, married Sir Edward Greville of Milcote. Two books were dedicated to him: 'The Table to the Year-Books of Edward V,' published 1579 and 1597, and a sermon preached at St. James's, on 25 April 1580, by Bartholomew Chamberlaine, D.D., of Holiwell, Huntingdonshire, published in 1584.

1. Lloyd. State Worthies, 610.
2. Camden Soc., p. 82
3. 1 Coke, 936. link
4. Froude, History of England. xi. 159. link


      Hamilton, J. A. "Sir Thomas Bromley."
      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol VI. Leslie Stephen, Ed.
      New York: Macmillan and Co., 1886. 400-403.

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