John Popham (Lord Chief Justice)

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Sir John Popham
Sir John Popham (1531-1607), Lord Chief Justice. 1602 portrait by unknown artist, collection of Harvard Law School
Born 1531
Huntworth, nr North Petherton, Somerset
Died 10 June 1607(1607-06-10) (aged 76)
Wellington, Somerset
Occupation Speaker of the House of Commons, Attorney General, Lord Chief Justice
Spouse(s) Amy Games
Parent(s) Alexander and Jane Popham (née Stradling)
John Popham signature.png
Sr. John Popham knight Lorde Cheife Justice of England & of her Maj. most honorable Privie Counsell. Sir John Popham (1531-1607), Lord Chief Justice. Left: Copy by George Perfect Harding (1779-1853) of lost original by unknown artist. National Gallery, London, NPG 2405; right another existing version, possibly original or further copy from same source
Arms of Popham: Argent, on a chief gules two stag's heads cabossed or

Sir John Popham (1531 – 10 June 1607) [1] was Speaker of the House of Commons from 1580 to 1583, Attorney General from 1 June 1581 to 1592 and Lord Chief Justice of England from 2 June 1592 to June 1607.

Early life[edit]

He was born in Huntworth, near North Petherton in Somerset in 1531 to Alexander Popham by his wife Jane Stradling, daughter of Sir Edward Stradling of St Donat's Castle, Glamorgan.[2] He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford where he read classics and divinity, and entered the Middle Temple before beginning his legal career as Recorder of Bridgwater and of Bristol.[3]


He served as an MP for Lyme Regis in 1558 and for Bristol in 1571 and 1572 and was a Justice of the Peace in Somerset. He was promoted to serjeant-at-law in 1578 and appointed solicitor-general in 1579. In 1581 he was elected speaker of the House of Commons and later that year appointed attorney-general. In 1592 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Queen's Bench on the death of Sir Christopher Wray, retaining the position until his death.

Popham is credited with maintaining the stability of the British State, and for being one of the "real colonisers" of the British Empire; hosting two Wabanaki tribesmen kidnapped on the Maine coast in 1605, subsequently funding and orchestrating the aborted Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River, Maine (1607–1608).

Popham became a very wealthy man, and amongst the many estates he owned was Publow in Somerset,[4] Littlecote in Wiltshire, and Hemyock Castle in Devon. In Peter Blundell's will[5] of 1599 Popham was asked to establish a free grammar school in the town of Tiverton, Devon, which resulted in his founding of Blundell's School which opened in 1604 and still exists to this day.

Famous trials[edit]

Popham presided over the trial of the Jesuit, Robert Southwell, in 1595 and passed sentence of death by hanging, drawing and quartering. He also presided over the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh (1603) and the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot, including Guy Fawkes (1606). He was also involved in the trial at Fotheringay of Mary, Queen of Scots (1587) which resulted in her execution.

While working as the messenger to the Queen, Popham was imprisoned by the Earl of Essex with his henchman. Ever stoic, Popham replied that at his age, death would be “but cutting off a few years.” However, he was rescued and rowed to safety by Sir Ferdinando Gorges (1565–1647).

He was noted for his severity towards thieves and strict enforcement of the Penal Laws.

Marriage & family[edit]

John Popham married Amy Games, daughter and heiress of Hugh Games of Caselton, Glamorganshire. Their progeny included the following:

  • Sir Francis Popham (c.1573-1644), MP, of Wellington, Somerset and Littlecote, Wiltshire, his only son and heir. He married Anne Gardiner Dudley and was the father of Edward Popham (1610–1651), General-at-Sea, and of Colonel Alexander Popham (1605-1669), JP, MP, who fought for the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and had a garrison stationed at Littlecote House. Another of his descendants was Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham (1762–1820), who developed the Signal Code adopted by the Navy in 1803.
  • Penelope Popham
  • Elinor Popham
  • Elizabeth Popham
  • Mary Popham
  • Amy Popham

His nephew was George Popham, founder of Popham Colony, of which John was one of the principal financial backers.

Death & burial[edit]

Popham died on 10 June 1607 at Wellington, Somerset. He was buried in the church of St John the Baptist, Wellington where exists his large free-standing monument under an elaborate canopy showing effigies of himself and his wife recumbent in the centre, with many little figures praying around the base representing his parents, his six daughters, three maidservants, his only son and his wife and their thirteen children. Inscribed on a stone tablet on the entablature supported by eight Corinthian columns is the following text: Sr John Popham Knighte and Lord Chief Justice of England and of the Honorable Privie Councell to Queene Elizabeth and after to King James, aged 76, died the 10th of June, 1607 and is here interred.[6]


His estate was held in Chancery after his death, and his descendants were prevented for unknown reasons from accessing this inheritance. One descendant is said to have changed his name to 'Smith' in a fit of rage, giving up on his inheritance.


  1. ^ " Person Page 19580" (genealogy), Darryl Lundy,, Wellington, NZ, 2006-09-16, webpage: TPcom-19580.
  2. ^ Skinner, A.J.P., Armory on Pole Monument in Colyton Church, published in Devon Notes & Queries, Vol. 9, Jan 1916-Oct 1917
  3. ^ "Sir John Popham". North Petherton. Retrieved 24 August 2011. 
  4. ^ Janes, Rowland (2003) Pensford, Publow and Woollard: A Topographical History. Biografix. ISBN 0-9545125-0-2
  5. ^
  6. ^ Image of Wellington monument at

Further reading[edit]

Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Christopher Wray
Lord Chief Justice
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Fleming
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Sir Amias Paulet
Custos Rotulorum of Somerset
bef. 1594–1607
Succeeded by
Sir Edward Phelips
Political offices
Preceded by
Sir Robert Bell
Speaker of the House of Commons
Succeeded by
Sir John Puckering