DYER, James (1509/10-82), of Carlton cum Willingham, Cambs.; Great Staughton, Hunts. and London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1509-1558, ed. S.T. Bindoff, 1982
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Mar. 1553

Family and Education

b. 1509/10, 2nd s. of Richard Dyer of Roundhill and Wincanton, Som. by his w., da. of one Walton. educ. ?Broadgates Hall, Oxf.; Strand Inn; M. Temple. m. lic. 9 Feb. 1547, Margaret, da. of John Abarough of Downton, Wilts., wid. of Sir Thomas Elyot of Long Combe, Oxon. and Carlton cum Willingham, s.p. Kntd. Mar./June 1553.2

Offices Held

Autumn reader, M. Temple 1552.

J.p. Cambs. 1547-d., Derbys., Lincs., Northants., Notts., Rutland, Warws. 1554- d. , Mdx. 1562, Som. 1564; escheator, Cambs. and Hunts. 1548-9; commr. relief Cambs. 1550, corn prices 1551, goods of churches and fraternities 1553; serjeant-at-law 17 Oct. 1552; King’s serjeant 16 Nov. 1552; second justice, Lancaster Feb. 1553; c.j. June 1553; j.c.p. 8 May 1557, c.j. 22 Jan. 1559- d.; acting justice K.B. 23-27 Apr. 1558; receiver of petitions in the Lords, Parlts. of 1558, 1559, 1563, 1571, 1572; custos rot. Cambs. c.1562, Hunts. c.1573-7.3

Speaker of House of Commons Mar. 1553.


James Dyer was the younger son of a Somerset gentleman. His earliest biographer, the versifier George Whetstone, claims that he studied at Oxford before embarking on the study of law at Strand Inn. Later authorities make New Inn the second stage in Dyer’s education but as Whetstone wrote immediately after Dyer’s death his evidence may be preferred. Campbell’s statement that Dyer’s progress at the bar ‘was not very rapid for both his parts and acquirements are said to have been more solid than brilliant’ is of little authority, but it is likely that Dyer had time on his hands in the early part of his career. The reports which are his chief memorial include a few cases from the early years of Henry VIII obviously copied from other reporters; Dyer’s own reports probably begin in 1536, the year in which he was called to the bar, and it is noticeable that the space devoted to that year is far greater than that for any subsequent year. Although his later reports are mostly very concise, Dyer at first employed the discursive method favoured by the compilers of the Year Books, reporting at length the arguments of judges and counsel; this was a procedure more likely to be favoured by a reporter with leisure for his work than by a busy barrister, especially since Dyer wrote all his reports out in his own hand. Campbell’s account (based upon an unnamed ‘prose authority’) of Dyer’s method of work depicts a young barrister who sat in court for four hours every morning and returned to his chamber each evening to convert his notes into lucid reports.4

Dyer practised in the King’s bench from 1536: he is said to have been Richard Chamond’s counsel when Chamond was sued after the release of William Trewynnard on a writ of privilege. He acquired Trull rectory and Staplegrove chapel through augmentations in December 1539, by which time he must have been making a good living at the bar. ‘Raised by desert and not by fate or friend’, Dyer probably sought the patronage of established figures, among them Sir William Fitzwilliam I, Earl of Southampton, who left him a legacy in 1542. He may have owed his Membership in 1542 to a colleague of his at the Middle Temple, John Mawdley II, who had sat for Wells earlier, but who in that year was Lent reader at the Temple. Dyer’s nomination may also have been favoured by the cathedral since he is known to have held two minor appointments of the dean and chapter within two years of his return.5

Dyer obtained a special licence for his marriage on 9 Feb. 1547, less than 11 months after Sir Thomas Elyot’s death. His name first occurs in the Cambridgeshire subsidy roll in 1547 when he was assessed on lands worth £200 a year; it seems probable, then, that he settled in Cambridgeshire only after his marriage. As Dyer first became a justice for Cambridgeshire in May 1547, it is unlikely that he sat for that county (the returns are missing) in the Parliament of 1545, although he could have sat elsewhere, but not for Wells again. His election as knight for Cambridgeshire to Edward VI’s first Parliament must have been the result of court backing, and that, in its turn, he owed to his legal skill and his Protestantism.6

There are a few glimpses of Dyer’s part in the work of this Parliament. In its second session (1548-9) Thomas Jolye enlisted his aid in opposing a bill to deprive the 2nd Earl of Cumberland of his hereditary shrievalty of Westmorland, and in each of the following ones he had a bill committed to him, both of them relating to landed property. A piece of business outside the House is reflected in a Privy Council order of 6 Oct. 1550 for the payment to Dyer and two others of a sum of £20 12s. in pursuance of warrants by the Earl of Warwick: as this was the day on which the Duke of Somerset was released from the Tower and entered into a recognizance not to interfere in politics, it is tempting to conjecture that Dyer was being paid for services in this connexion, even though such instant remuneration would have been unusual. It is said that in 1551 Cecil considered Dyer eligible for the mastership of the rolls but when a vacancy occurred in 1552 the post went to (Sir) Robert Bowes. In that year, however, Dyer was appointed Autumn reader in the Middle Temple, made a serjeant-at-law and then, a month later, promoted to King’s serjeant.7

No uncertainty attaches to the influence which ensured Dyer’s re-election for Cambridgeshire to the next Parliament, that of March 1553: as the man chosen to be its Speaker he was a nominee of the government. Warwick, by now Duke of Northumberland, had been considering the choice since January, so that the person nominated ‘might have secret warning thereof, as always it hath been used, because he may the better prepare himself towards his proposition’; as soon as the choice fell upon Dyer, he was— short of a mishap such as had befallen Sir John Baker I in 1547— assured of the knighthood of the shire. All that is known of his performance as Speaker is that he made the customary speech on appointment and ‘an ornate oration ... exhibiting therein the subsidy’ on the dissolution. As a King’s serjeant Dyer also received a summons to the Lords, but it is doubtful whether his duties in the Commons left him time to attend the Upper House. He was knighted presumably for his service as Speaker but also perhaps in anticipation of what was soon to be required of him, before 20 June 1553.8

Dyer was one of a number of leading lawyers who signed Edward VI’s letters patent altering the succession to the crown but so far as is known this was the limit of his involvement in the succession crisis. It did not cost him his future, although he was not to sit in the House of Commons again. He was reappointed a Queen’s serjeant (even before the date of his pardon) and as such was summoned to attend the Lords in Mary’s first four Parliaments. On several occasions while serjeant he delivered bills to the Commons from the Lords. ‘Only an indifferent advocate’, if Campbell’s unnamed source is to be believed, Dyer took a minor part in the prosecution of (Sir) Nicholas Throckmorton in April 1554; his few interventions were of a factual nature and show none of the animosity against the accused shared by the other prosecuting counsel and by most of the judges. His conformity in faith is attested by his restoration to religious use in November 1556 of the rectory of Staplegrove, Somerset, which he had purchased in 1539. This act of piety was followed by his appointment as a puisne judge of the common pleas on 8 May 1557.9

The remainder of Dyer’s long public career was devoted to service on the bench; he was re-appointed a puisne judge by Elizabeth but very soon changed places with the Catholic chief justice Anthony Browne II. Dyer was tenacious of the prerogatives of his office and was involved in disputes about them in Elizabeth’s reign, when he resisted what he regarded as infringements of his rights of patronage. As a judge he attended in the Lords until his death, being named among the receivers of petitions between 1558 and 1572. His Reports were left in manuscript and the first full selection was published in 1592. Dyer would doubtless have revised them considerably if publication had occurred in his lifetime; the criticisms that have been made of the brevity or inaccuracy of some reports cannot therefore affect Dyer’s credit as a reporter, any more than the admitted meaninglessness of parts of his reading on Henry VIII’s statute of wills as published in 1638 (probably from a student’s notes) reflects on the value of the reading. That Dyer had contemplated publication was asserted by the two nephews to whom by his will he left ‘all my books of the law as well abridgements and reports of mine own handwriting as other’; in a preface to the published Reports they excuse the brevity of some reported cases on the ground that Dyer ‘wanted time and leisure to polish and beautify the said cases with more large arguments, which he had in full purpose to have done had not death prevented him’.10

Dyer acted as counsel for Cambridge university at least once in early life, but he had no known connexion with the town; most published accounts of Dyer’s life state that he was recorder of Cambridge, but he never filled that office. He probably made his home at Great Staughton before 1569, when his wife died, for he began purchasing land in Huntingdonshire in 1558; he had only a life interest in the Cambridgeshire lands of his wife; he also bought land in Kent and Leicestershire. In 1562 he purchased the Earl of Westmorland’s mansion house adjoining Little St. Bartholomew’s hospital, in St. Sepulchre’s parish London; although valued after Dyer’s death at only £8 a year this, his London residence, must have been worth far more. Dyer died at Great Staughton on 24 Mar. 1582 and was buried next day in the parish church there, where monuments were raised to him and his wife. Several portraits of Dyer survive; they confirm Coke’s description of him as a man ‘of a handsome reverend and venerable countenance and personage’. So far as is known Dyer had no children; his will makes no mention of any, and his heir was a great-nephew, a grandson of Dyer’s elder brother John.11

Dyer’s will included many charitable bequests, of which two were outstanding: he left his London house for the relief of the poor, and each person then in Willingham almshouses 8d. a week for life, to prevent them becoming a charge on the parish ‘by force of the late Act and Statute by reason of their last abode there’. He left 40s. a year to the vicars of Great Staughton in perpetuity ‘towards the augmentation of their small stipend and living’ on condition that they preached at least four sermons there each year. His heir was the residuary legatee and sole executor, and Dyer asked him and his descendants ‘to keep at Staughton an honest and continual house and hospitality’. Among public figures, the Queen was remembered with ‘my collar of SS and my ring with a diamond’ for ‘the great goodness and benefits which she hath freely bestowed on me since her coming to the crown’; his ‘singular good lord’ the Earl of Leicester was left his ‘best stoned horse or £20 in money’ and his ‘very good friend and neighbour’ the bishop of Lincoln a gilt cup. Among relatives who benefited were a niece, who received 500 marks for her marriage-portion, and another nephew who was left all Dyer’s non-legal books except ‘Chronicles, Mr. Elyot’s Dictionary and Thesaurus Lingue Latine of Cowper’s collection’, which had perhaps come to Dyer through his wife. Among the overseers were Dyer’s ‘cousin’ Edward Dyer and Sir William Fitzwilliam II and his eldest son. Before Dyer’s death he had gold rings made for all the chief judicial officers, from chief justices to clerks of the common pleas; these, bearing his initials and the motto Plebs Sine Lege Ruit were to be distributed after his death. Dyer’s chosen motto forms his best epitaph; it may be complemented by Coke’s description of him as ‘a judge of profound knowledge and judgment ... and of a great piety and sincerity who from his heart abhorred all corruption and deceit, of a bountiful and generous disposition and a patron and encourager of men learned in the laws’.12

Ref Volumes: 1509-1558

Author: D. F. Coros


  • 1. Wells act bk. 2, p. 436.
  • 2. Aged 72 at death. DNB; Foss, Judges, v. 479-81; CPR, 1553, p. 210; Vis. Hants (Harl. Soc. lxiv), 202; Vis. Hunts. (Cam. Soc. xliii), 70; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 432; Emden, Biog. Reg. Univ. Oxf. 1501-40, pp. 180-1.
  • 3. CPR, 1547-8 to 1569-72 passim; Somerville, Duchy , i. 470, 473; LJ , i. 513, 542, 580, 667, 703; C66/801; SP12/93, 121 ex inf. J. C. Sainty.
  • 4. Foss, v. 479 seq.; Campbell, Chief Justices, i. 179-80; G. Whetstone, Sir John Dyer, ptd. in Frondes Caducae, i (1816) unnumbered; Dyer, Reps. (1794), i. passim; PCC 28 Tirwhite; E. Coke, 9th Pt. Reps. (1738), 15.
  • 5. M. Blatcher, Ct. K. B. 1450-1550, p. 106 n. 42; Hatsell, Precedents, i. 62; LP Hen. VIII, xiii, xv; PCC 16 Spert; Whetstone; HMC Wells, ii. 260, 262.
  • 6. E179/82/213.
  • 7. APC, ii. 384; Clifford Letters (Surtees Soc. clxxii), 102-4; CJ, i. 16.
  • 8. CJ, i. 24, 26; Whetstone; Strype, Eccles. Memorials, ii. 65-66; CPR, 1553, p. 210; C218/1.
  • 9. Chron. Q. Jane and Q. Mary (Cam. Soc. xlviii), 91; CJ, i. 28, 30, 40, 45; CPR, 1553-4, pp. 162, 442; Campbell, 183-4; Holinshed, Chron. iv. 37 seq.; C218/1.
  • 10. CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 125; Whetstone; W. S. Holdsworth, Hist. Eng. Law, v. 364-5; Dyer, i. cc.2-3; L. W. Abbott, Law Reporting in Eng. 158-62.
  • 11. CPR, 1554-5, p. 214; 1557-8, p. 9; 1560-3, pp. 145, 403; Coke, 15; Corresp. More, ed. Rogers, 249n.; R. C. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 80; C142/196/19; Lansd. 982, f. 26.
  • 12. PCC 28 Tirwhite; Coke, 15.