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Insolvency Law

Expert guidance on all aspects of corporate and personal insolvency

19 SEP 2011

Bankruptcy and the ODNB - some Early-Modern Debtors

The ODNB provides a fascinating resources for those interested in insolvency and debt issues. I thought I would provide a brief insight into the debtor and bankruptcy material on the site so as to wet the appetite of readers. I have decided to focus on the seventeenth century for this snapshot of biographical debt material. No single social group of the seventeenth century was left untouched by debt.[1] As will be observed over the following blog post, parliamentarians, churchmen, merchants, and others, were all touched by the hand of over-indebtedness. Indeed, even King James I was vexed by his over-indebtedness, when he observed, “It is a horror to me to think upon the height of my place, the greatness of my debts and the smallness of my means.”[3] 

Debt, and its consequences, did not respect social rank, titles, occupation, vocation, the means to pay back money owed,[4] or even on one occasion the fact that no debt was owed.[5] There is no broad pattern that can be drawn for the individuals who became encumbered with debt during the seventeenth century. So who were the debtors of the seventeenth century and how did they get into the position of being debtors?

The Dean of Lichfield, Lancelot Addison[6] was encumbered with debt as a result of his heir’s schooling and because his rectory was destroyed by fire in 1681. He had to fund the repair of the rectory from his own funds. The churchman remained in this impecunious position despite numerous prebends and a rise to the post of archdeacon of Coventry.[7]

In this tumultuous period where the forces of the Crown fought against Parliament, it was not only the royalists who incurred money on behalf of their masters.[13] The baronet, Sir Thomas Barrington, who died on 18 September 1644 left his estate encumbered with £10,000 worth of debt. Much of this indebtedness had been incurred on behalf of the parliamentary cause.[14] His heir, the third baronet, sought Parliamentary protection from his creditors by petitioning the House of Commons for relief.[15] “Tumbledown Dick”, the Lord Protector’s third son, Richard Cromwell, also caused his father to lament at his heir’s indebtedness.[16] The close vicinity of Parliament could not always provide relief, or even sanctuary, in a literal sense.[17] In the nearby law courts in Westminster Hall, Sir William Button was arrested for debt, and his biographer tells us that this occurred whilst he was in the early stages of a parliamentary career which he had begun in an attempt to avoid his creditors.[18] In relation to parliamentary privilege against arrest for debt, the case of Sir Thomas Sherley is one of utmost importance. For it is after this parliamentarian that we are told we derive the law against arresting members of the house.[19] The law came into force in 1604[20] and was abolished in 1812.[21]

Even fools got involved in the murky world of debt. For it was Archibald Armstrong, the Court Fool, who became embroiled in a dispute in 1638 when another Dean, this time the Dean of York, Dr. John Scott, was arrested for debt. Dr. Scott sought protection from his creditors, who numbered Armstrong among them. Armstrong had advanced the Dean £200. This case progressed to the Privy Council. Armstrong thought the case had been unduly swayed against him by the interjection of Laud.[22]  

In a period particularly marked by war and civil strife it is unsurprising to find many debtors amongst the ranks of fighting men. Richard Atkyns, an army officer and writer, was imprisoned in London in approximately 1645 for non-payment of debts that he had incurred before the outbreak of the civil war.[23] His biographer tells us that, “He also spent more than a year imprisoned in the Poultry and King’s Bench while his wife raised money to clear his debts.”[24] As with the Earl of Stirling, Atkyns was forced to sell his various estates. In 1642 we find another indebted army officer, John Dalbier, languishing in the King's Bench prison. Dalbier found freedom, not because he paid his creditors, but because the Earl of Essex required his martial skills in the war.[25] Sir Thomas Glemham, a royalist army officer, was imprisoned in the Fleet and was only released after the sheriffs were indemnified by parliament.[26] Perhaps the most famous soldier debtor is Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne.[27]

The fields of scholarship and the arts,[28] perhaps unsurprisingly, were not left untouched by debt. Caius Gabriel Cibber, a sculptor, was imprisoned for debt sporadically throughout his life.[29] Lady Eleanor Davies, a prophetess, also suffered intermittent terms of imprisonment because of debt.[30] The poet, Sir John Denham, was arrested for debt in 1646 and probably detained in the King’s Bench.[31] The noted biographer John Aubrey also experienced financial embarrassment causing him to attempt an escape from his creditors.[32] Even educationalists, a Harvard College tutor among them, were not immune. Nathaniel Eaton was arrested twice for debt (1665 and 1674) dying in the King’s Bench prison in Southwark on the second occasion.[33] Payne Fisher, the Latin poet was also imprisoned for debt in the Fleet[34] and John Gamble, the composer and musician had a similar fate.[35] John Hodgson, the husband of the singer Mary Hodgson,[36] encountered numerous debt problems throughout the 1690s, culminating in a dramatic event at a playhouse in 1699 when, “bailiffs trying to arrest him at the playhouse were beaten off by the players, his servant was ‘cowardly run through the back by a baylif, and immediately dyed, having nothing but a stick in his hand’.”[37] The printer, John Streater, died in debtors’ prison in 1677.[38] The craftsman and author Leonard Wheatcroft was imprisoned for debt on no less than three occasions in 1667–8.[39]

An example of an individual who became indebted due to dubious activities can be found in the shape of Stephen Dugdale, an informer. His biographer tells us that he, “stole from his employer to pay for his gambling debts and debauchery” and that, “he was arrested and imprisoned for debt in Stafford in November 1678.”[40] The adventurer and spy, John Scott, was imprisoned in the Gatehouse prison for debt.[41]

Official position did not necessarily provide protection from creditors. The King’s physician, Sir Alexander Fraser, narrowly avoided imprisonment for debt. His creditor, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a magistrate, was not so lucky. After complaining to the King about the physician in 1669 he was imprisoned himself.[42] Perhaps the most notorious of seventeenth century public servants, John Ketch, public executioner, provides one of the most interesting stories of over indebtedness during the period. Ketch was the common hangman of London who in 1679 was imprisoned for debt in the King’s Bench prison and the Marshalsea prison.[43] One restoration judge, Sir Francis Pemberton, combined his Cambridge undergraduate studies with a spell in the debtors’ gaol, but this did not seem to affect his subsequent legal career.[44] Francis Sandford, the herald and genealogist, died on 17 January 1694 languishing in debt in Newgate prison, after a life beset with pecuniary difficultly.[45]  William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania spent a period of time in the Fleet as a result of over indebtedness.[46] 

Sir Maurice Abbot was a merchant[49] and politician who was, inter alia, on the board of the East India Company. He was not made a bankrupt himself (that privilege fell to his eldest son). Sir Maurice had acted as surety for his heir and was liable on that account.[50] The “suave”[51] international financier Philip Burlamachi, was declared bankrupt in 1633 due to, inter alia, interest charges owed by the Earl of Portland, sometime Lord Treasurer. Burlamachi was, however, given Royal protection from his creditors.[52] In 1655 William Courten, the shipowner and merchant, was declared bankrupt. This led to his son changing his name from Courten to Charleton.[53] Another entrepreneur whose endeavours were severely hampered by the Crown was Thomas Foulis, a sometime bankrupt.[54] The Crown’s refusal to pay the mining entrepreneur almost certainly caused his illiquidity.[55] The merchant, John Oldmixon[56], sustained losses in a trading venture in Virginia in 1676. He had been involved in bankruptcy proceedings in 1676, probably owing to losses in the Virginia trade.[57]

The bookseller, Richard Davis was made bankrupt in 1685, the sale of his stock, emptying, “libraries and lecture halls…as scholars flocked to the saleroom.”[58]

We have also been told that commissions of bankruptcy were issued against Andrew Marvell a poet and politician and that as a consequence he went into hiding in 1677 in a house in St Giles-in-the-Fields.[61] Again, Marvell’s profession would preclude him passing into the legal state. The ironmaster Dud Dudley also spent time imprisoned for debt.[62] Alsop provides an interesting account of Gerrard Winstanley’s mid-seventeenth century bankruptcy.[63] Winstanley went on to lead the Digger movement.[64] Winstanley was made a bankrupt in 1643; exactly one hundred years after the first bankruptcy statute came into force. He was involved in the retail cloth trade as a cloth-dealer who purchased and re-sold cloth, sometimes on credit.[65] This seems sufficient to have brought Winstanley within the definition of a trader for the bankruptcy statute. In the National Archive there is documentary discussion of the bankruptcies of a Wagge[66] and Nicholas Benson,[67] amongst others.[68]




[1] On social life generally in the seventeenth century see: Coate, M. Social Life in Stuart England. 2nd Ed. Methuen, New York. 1925. In the legal context see: Harding, A. A Social History of English Law. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1966.

[3] Akrigg, GPV (Ed). The Letters of King James IV & I. 1984, p.261. 

[4] For an example of a seventeenth century money-lender see Hugh Audley, who was owed £30,000 at the date of his death. See: Considine, J. ‘Audley, Hugh (bap. 1577, d. 1662). ODNB.

[5] It has been noted that a naval officer named Richard Bailey (1616-1657) had enemies who used imprisonment for debt as a political tool rather than for its own ends in itself, namely repayment.

[6] 1632-1703.

[7] Hamilton, A. ‘Addison, Lancelot (1632–1703)’, ODNB. We also find the clergy involved in the relief of imprisoned debtors. Richard Perrinchief, a Church of England clergyman, left a provisions in his will that stipulated that the value of his residual estate should be realised and then distributed to ‘Prisoners for debt or others That by these Badd tymes have fallen to decay’ (will, PRO, PROB 11/343, fol. 86r–v). As noted in: Mc Elligott, J. ‘Perrinchief, Richard (1620/21–1673)’, ODNB. A petition is also extant in the NA which shows that the position of an imprisoned widow named Elizabeth Millington was also sufficiently dire to galvanize others to ameliorate her position. See: Elizabeth Millington. Petition on behalf of a widow for half of a bill due to the widow’s late husband, “in regard of her great poverty and imprisonment for debt” ADM 106/283.

[8] Reid, D. ‘Alexander, William, first earl of Stirling (1577–1640)’, ODNB.

[9] Loomie, AJ. ‘Aston, Walter, Baron Aston of Forfar (1584–1639)’, ODNB. The Earl of Middlesex, Lionel Cranfield (1575–1645), was also heavily indebted as was John Egerton, the second Earl of Bridgewater (1623–1686), who in 1649 claimed he owed over £200,000 (see: Espinasse, F. ‘Egerton, John, second earl of Bridgewater (1623–1686)’, rev. Knafla, LA. ODNB). The sixteenth Earl of Kildare was imprisoned for debt twice (Ohlmeyer, J. ‘Fitzgerald, George, sixteenth earl of Kildare (bap. 1612, d. 1660)’, ODNB).

[10] CP Hill, p.152.

[11] ibid p.218.

[12] CP Hill p.295.

[13] A further royalist example can be found in Sir John Pettus, the natural philosopher and politician. It is claimed that he lost £25,000 in the royal service. He was imprisoned for debt in 1679 and 1683. (Porter, S. ‘Pettus, Sir John (c.1613–1685)’, ODNB).

[14] Credit could also be overextended on the Crown’s behalf. This activity caused Sir Allen Apsley’s pecuniary difficulties as Victualler of the Navy (see Aylmer King’s Servants, p.75).

[15] Kyle, CR. ‘Barrington, Sir Thomas, second baronet (c.1585–1644)’ ODNB. The transference of mercantile interests between the generations was not a novel phenomenon. William Heming, the son of Shakespeare’s stage contemporary in the King’s Men, John Heming, ended up in Ludgate debtors’ prison despite inheriting his father’s theatre interests. (Kathman, D. ‘Heming, William (bap. 1602, d. 1649x53)’, ODNB). 

[16] CP Hill p.217. Indeed it has been noted that Richard’s fear of the bailiffs precluded him from leaving Whitehall in 1659.

[17] Rather than in the technical sense of the word ‘sanctuary’ See further: Cox. For sanctuary in a criminal context, see: Barrett, A & Harrison, C. Crime and Punishment in England – a sourcebook. UCL Press, 1999, p.19.

[18] Lancaster, H. ‘Button, Sir William, first baronet (1585–1655)’, ODNB. The precincts of Whitehall were also used to evade creditors. William Howard, the third Baron Howard of Escrick, who was jailed for debt, attempted to escape his creditors as a gentleman of the privy chamber. (Greaves, RL. ‘Howard, William, third Baron Howard of Escrick (c.1630–1694)’ ODNB).

[19] See: Pennington, J. ‘Sherley , Sir Thomas (c.1542–1612)’, ODNB.

[20] See further: Shirley's case.

[21] Members of Parliament (Bankruptcy) Act 1812. There were seventeenth century attempts to abolish parliamentary privilege, most notable from the City of London, see: City of London. Court of Common Council. To the Honovrable the House of Commons assembled in High Covrt of Parliament: the humble remonstrance and petition of the Lord Major, Aldermen, and Commons of the City of London, in Common Councell assembled. London, printed by Richard Cotes, 1646.

[22] Smuts, RM. ‘Armstrong, Archibald (d. 1672)’, ODNB.

[23] Stoker, S. ‘Atkyns, Richard (1615–1677)’, ODNB.

[24] ibid.

[25] Porter, S. ‘Dalbier, John (d. 1648)’, ODNB.

[26] Hopper, AJ. ‘Glemham, Sir Thomas (1595–1649)’, ODNB. Anthony Hungerford, a parliamentarian army officer, was also imprisoned for debt in London (Wright, S. ‘Hungerford, Anthony (1607/8–1657)’, ODNB) and Sir Robert Stewart, a royalist army officer, was arrested for debt in London. (Kelly, WP. ‘Stewart, Sir Robert (d. 1670?)’, ODNB).

[27] Whose treatment inspired the publication of: Liberty Vindicated against slavery: shewing that imprisonment for debt, refusing to answer interrogatories, long imprisonment,…abuse of prisons, and cruell extortion of prison keepers, are all destructive of the fundamentall Laws and common Freedomes of the People. Published…by occasion of the house of lords’ commitment of liet. Col J.Lilburn…to the Tower. By a lover of his country, and sufferer for the common liberty. London, 1646.

[28] For a comparative jurisdictional example of a famous artist in pecuniary difficulties see: Crenshaw, P. Rembrandt's bankruptcy: the artist, his patrons, and the art market in seventeenth-century Netherlands. CUP, Cambridge, 2006.

[29] Gibson, K. ‘Cibber, Caius Gabriel (1630–1700)’, ODNB.

[30] Watt, D. ‘Davies , Lady Eleanor (1590–1652)’, ODNB.

[31] Kelliher, WH. ‘Denham, Sir John (1614/15–1669)’, ODNB. 

[32] CP Hill p.274.

[33] Goodwin, G. ‘Eaton, Nathaniel (bap. c.1610, d. 1674)’ ODNB.

[34] Peacey, JT.  ‘Fisher, Payne (1615/16–1693)’ ODNB. Another poet, John Lyon, was also imprisoned for debt throughout his life (Henderson, TF. ‘Lyon, John, of Auldbar (fl. 1608–1649)’, rev. J. K. McGinley. ODNB).

[35] Spink, I, ‘Gamble, John (d. 1687)’, ODNB.

[36] See: Baldwin,O & Wilson, T. ‘Hodgson , Mary (bap. 1673?, d. 1719?)’, ODNB.

[37] ibid.

[38] Johns, A. ‘Streater, John (c.1620–1677)’, ODNB.

[39] Houlbrooke, R. ‘Wheatcroft, Leonard (1627–1707)’, ODNB.

[40] Marshall, A. ‘Dugdale, Stephen (d. 1683)’, ODNB.

[41] Marshall, A. ‘Scott, John (1632?–1704)’, ODNB.

[42] Marshall, A. ‘Godfrey, Sir Edmund Berry (1621–1678)’, ODNB. Another physician (Nathaniel Hodges) was imprisoned in Ludgate for debt as a result of long financial difficulties. (King, H. ‘Hodges, Nathaniel (1629–1688)’, ODNB). Another physician, who was also an astrologer, William Ramesey (1627–1676?), sometime physician to Charles II, died in debtors’ prison. (Curry, P. ‘Ramesey, William (1627–1676?)’, ODNB).

[43] Wales, T. ‘Ketch , John (d. 1686)’, ODNB.

[44] Halliday, PD. ‘Pemberton, Sir Francis (bap. 1624, d. 1697)’ ODNB.

[45] Sherlock, P. ‘Sandford, Francis (1630–1694)’, ODNB.

[46] CP Hill p.290.

[47] ‘Merchant’ was used as an official legal term to denote social status (Aylmer King’s Servants, p.262.

[48] e.g. Samuel Hartlib the younger, agent for Newcastle went bankrupt (See further: Raymond, J. ‘Rushworth , John (c.1612–1690). ODNB).

[49] Richard Ligon, who gained property interests in exchange for assuming responsibility for debt acting as a form of attorney was himself imprisoned for debt in 1650. His time was not wasted however as he wrote a history of Barbados whilst incarcerated. (see: Ordahl Kupperman, K. ‘Ligon, Richard (c.1585–1662)’, ODNB).

[50] Thrush, A. Abbot, Sir Maurice (1565–1642)’ ODNB.

[51] Aylmer King’s Servants, p.371.

[52] Ashton, R. Burlamachi, Philip (d. 1644), rev. ODNB.

[53] See further: Appleby, JC.  ‘Courten, Sir William (c.1568–1636)’, ODNB.

[54] Goodare, J. ‘Foulis, Thomas (c.1560–1628)’, ODNB.

[55] ibid.

[56] The father of John Oldmixon (1672/3–1742), historian and political pamphleteer (See: Rogers, P. ‘Oldmixon, John (1672/3–1742)’, ODNB).

[57] ibid.

[58] Forey, M. ‘Davis, Richard (1617/18–1693x1700)’, ODNB. Perhaps the most interesting bookseller bankruptcy of the seventeenth century was that of Moses Pitt, because he chose to write and publish his experiences. Moses and his work is discussed below and in the next chapter.

[59] Prest, W. The English Bar, 1550-1700, in: Prest, W (Ed). Lawyers in Early-modern Europe and America. Croom Helm, London, 1981, p.70.

[60] ibid, p.72, citing in footnote 24 the cases of Sir Henry Finch (1558-1625) and Serjeant Richard Digges (c.1564-1634).

[61] Prest, W ‘Finch, Sir Henry (c.1558–1625)’, ODNB.

[62] CP Hill p.193.

[63] Alsop, JD. Ethics in the marketplace: Gerrard Winstanley’s London bankruptcy, 1643 (1989) The Journal of British Studies, vol.28, no.2 (Apr), pp.97-199.

[64] ibid, see also: Davis, JC and Alsop, JD. Winstanley, Gerrard (bap. 1609, d. 1676), ODNB.

[65] ibid.

[66] Ex parte Wagge, Inventories and letters in Wagge’s bankruptcy with seal, (1645-1761) NA-C109/28.

[67] Unknown Causes: Plea and commission of bankruptcy against Nicholas Benson of London, to Richard Spence and others, (1630) NA-C111/193.

[68] Commissions of Bankruptcy citations: NA- C67/76A (18 Chas 1, 1642 March-1643 March); NA-C67/76B (19 Chas 1, 1643 Mar-1644 Mar); NA-C67/77 (20 Chas 1, 1644 Mar-1645 Mar); NA-C67/78 (21 Chas 1, 1645 Mar – 1646 Mar); NA-C67/79 (22 Chas 1, 1646 Mar – 1647 Mar); NA-C67-80 (24 Chas 1 (1648 Mar – 1649 Mar); NA-C67/81 (1650); NA-67/82 (1651); NA-C67/83 (1652); NA-C67/84 (1653); NA-C67-85 (1654); See also: NA-C89/18/19 – Special Commissioners in Bankruptcy: Richard Corbyn: depositions, 12 Chas 1 May 28 (1639 Feb 4th); NA-C104/257: Ex parte Sherrard: Accounts of Benjamin Cater and John Cater, assignees of the commission of bankruptcy awarded against William Sherrard (1687-1721). 

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