Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ley, James (1550-1629)
LEY, JAMES, first Earl of Marlborough (1550–1629), judge and politician, born in 1550, was sixth and youngest son of Henry Ley, who was descended from the Leys of Ley in Devonshire, but was granted by the crown in 1545 the manor and advowson of Teffont-Ewyas, Wiltshire. Ley's mother was Dyonisia de St. Mayne. His father (d. 7 June 1574) and elder brothers, William (d. 5 April 1624) and Matthew (d. 24 May 1632 aged 87), are buried in the church of Teffont-Ewyas, and inscriptions to their memory are extant there (cf. Hoare, Wiltshire Hundred of Dunworth, pp. 113–14). James entered Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1569, as a commoner, and after graduating B.A. (3 Feb. 1573–4) he became a student at Lincoln's Inn. He was called to the bar 11 Oct. 1584, and soon distinguished himself by his ‘great proficiency in the municipal law.’ He became a judge for the counties of Carmarthen, Pembroke, and Cardigan, and he entered the House of Commons as M.P. for Westbury in 1597–8. He was elected a bencher of his inn in 1600 and reader in 1602. In 1603 he was made a serjeant-at-law, and in the following year was appointed lord chief justice of the king's bench in Ireland, and was knighted while on a visit with the king to the Earl of Pembroke's house at Wilton (8 Oct. 1603). He was the first English judge to make a circuit in Wicklow (November 1606) after it had been made a shire. From 6 April to 8 Nov. 1605 he was a commissioner of the great seal at Dublin. In that capacity he seems to have strained his powers by issuing general ‘mandates’ or precepts, directing catholic recusants to attend church under pain of appearing in the Star Chamber, and he made a practice of refusing the defendants copies of the indictments against them when they did appear. He thus became ‘generally hated throughout the kingdom,’ and frequent petitions were sent to Dublin Castle, bitterly complaining of his harsh administration of justice. The English privy council supported his policy (cf. Cal. State Papers, Irish, 1603–1606, pp. 374, 398, 509). He was very regular in his attendance at the meetings of the Irish council, and was an unvarying supporter of very vigorous methods of government. In 1608 he was made a commissioner for the plantation of Ulster (ib. 1606–1608, pp. xxxviii, 397). James I took ‘such a liking to him’ and formed ‘such an opinion of his ability to do him service,’ that in December 1608 he transferred him from the Irish bench to the profitable post of attorney of the court of wards and liveries in England (ib. 1608–10, p. 116). A right of precedence which he claimed over the king's attorney-general, Sir Henry Hobart, was confirmed under the privy seal 15 May 1609. He had been re-elected M.P. for Westbury to the parliaments of 1604–5 and 1609–1611, and sat for Bath in that of 1614. From 1609 to 1622 Ley was a governor of Lincoln's Inn. He failed in his candidature for the attorney-generalship when Bacon vacated it in 1617 on becoming lord keeper, although, according to Buckingham, he offered 10,000l. for the post. On 15 July 1619 he was created a baronet, and on 29 Jan. 1621–2 he became lord chief justice of the king's bench. He was already, in the opinion of Sir Symonds D'Ewes, a ‘decrepit old man’ (Autobiog. i. 160), and he owed his preferment to his marriage in the previous year with a niece of the favourite, Buckingham. When Bacon fell into disgrace in the following March, Ley filled his place as speaker of the House of Lords, and pronounced the judgment of the peers in the cases of Sir Giles Mompesson, of Bacon, and of Sir Henry Yelverton. After his fall Bacon tried to curry favour with Ley, and wrote to him begging him to ‘beware of hardness of heart.’ He finally declared that Ley ‘stood towards him in very good affection and respect’ (Spedding, Bacon, vii. 527–8–9).
On 20 Dec. 1624 Ley retired from the bench to become lord high treasurer and a privy councillor. He had had no previous experience of finance, and displayed no aptitude for it, but Buckingham, who was responsible for the appointment, saw in him a useful ally. On 31 Dec. he was created Lord Ley of Ley in Devonshire. After Charles I's accession, he was ‘appointed a joint commissioner of claims’ for the coronation, and a member of the committee on foreign affairs, and he was created Earl of Marlborough (5 Feb. 1625–6). In July 1627 he found himself unable to comply with the king's request to raise money for the projected expedition to Rhé. In July 1628 he resigned the treasurership to his assistant, Sir Richard Weston, chancellor of the exchequer, and was made president of the council. He retired on 14 Dec. of the same year, and dying on 14 March 1628–9, was buried in the church of Westbury, Wiltshire, where a fine monument was erected to his memory by his son Henry.
Ley, although a feeble statesman, was an able, erudite, and impartial judge. Milton addressed a sonnet to his daughter Margaret, afterwards wife of one Captain Hobson of the Isle of Wight, and described him as
That Good Earl, once President
Of England's Council and her Treasury,
Who lived in both unstained with gold or fee,
And left them both, more in himself content.
On the other hand, Sir James Whitelocke denounces him as ‘an old dissembler,’ who was ‘wont to be called “Vulpone,”’ and says that he borrowed money of the judges when lord chief justice (Liber Famelicus, p. 108). Ley had some antiquarian interests, and was an early member of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries. Before that society he read papers on ‘Sterling Money,’ ‘The Antiquity of Arms in England,’ and ‘The Office of Chancellor,’ on ‘Epitaphs and Mottos,’ and on ‘The Antiquities of Funeral Ceremonies in England.’ All these papers are printed in Hearne's ‘Collection of Curious Discourses.’ Ley also collected, with a view to publication, some early Irish chronicles, including the ‘Annals of John Clynne,’ a Minorite friar of Kilkenny, the ‘Annals of the Priory of St. John the Evangelist’ at Kilkenny, and the ‘Annals of Multifernan, Ross, and Clonmell.’ On his death these manuscripts became the property of Henry Bourchier, earl of Bath. Some extracts from them are in the library of Trinity College, Dublin (Ware, Irish Writers, ed. Harris, p. 336; Bernard, Cat. MSS. Hib. No. 1649). ‘A Learned Treatise concerning Wards and Liveries,’ by him, was published in 1641 and reissued in 1642. In 1659 appeared Ley's ‘Reports of divers Resolutions in Law arising upon Cases in the Court of Wards and other Courts at Westminster in the Regins of King James and King Charles I’ (6 Jac. I–5 Car. I; 1608–29), with the treatise concerning wards reissued as an appendix. A portrait is prefixed. Another portrait is engraved in Hoare's ‘Wiltshire, Hundred of Westbury,’ iii. 35.
Ley married thrice: first, Mary, daughter of John Petty of Stoke Talmage, Oxfordshire; secondly, Mary, widow of Sir William Bower, knt.; and thirdly, on 4 July 1621, when sixty-nine years old, Jane, daughter of John, lord Boteler or Butler, by Elizabeth, sister of the royal favourite, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham. His third wife remarried William Ashburnham, the king's cofferer, and lived till March 1672, when she was buried at Ashburnham (Chester-Waters, Chesters of Chicheley, i. 146). By his first wife he alone had issue—three sons and eight daughters. His heir, Henry, second earl (d. 1638), was father of James Ley, third earl [q. v.] His third son, William, succeeded his nephew in 1665 as fourth earl, and with his death in 1679 the title became extinct.
[Foss's Judges; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Wood's Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, ii. 441; Gardiner's Hist.; Hearne's Curious Discourses, 1775; Burke's Extinct Peerage; Return of Members of Parliament; Doyle's Baronage; Hoare's Wiltshire, iv. Hundred of Dunworth, pp. 111–14, and iii. Hundred of Westbury, pp. 35–6; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1603–29, and Irish, 1603–8.]