Short Biographies of William and Sylvester Petyt

Short Biographies of William and Sylvester Petyt


'Hudibras consulting the Lawyer'
from Old England, A Pictorial Museum of National Antiquities (1844)


William Petyt 1635-1707

William Petyt was born at Storiths, Bolton Abbey in 1635. He was the son of William Petyt, a yeoman farmer, who farmed at both Storiths and Skipton. The family had been established in the area for almost two hundred years, a Thomas Petyt was listed as renting a cottage and two acres of land at Storiths from Bolton Priory in 1473.

William was educated at Ermystedís Grammar School at Skipton under Henry Doughty. On leaving school he went to London to study law. During the period March 1656 to May 1658 Fabian Philips, a barrister of the Middle Temple and a legal antiquarian, employed William as a clerk. No doubt it was Philips who encouraged William in his antiquarian researches and they must have been close because when William died in 1707 left bequests to Philipsís children and grandchildren. During his time in Philipsís office he was studying law at Barnardís Inn; one of the Inns of Chancery. He was admitted as a member of the Middle Temple in June 1660 and in June 1661 he was admitted as a member of Barnardís Inn On 26th April 1660 William was admitted to Christís College, Cambridge as a lesser pensioner. When he returned to London he was specially admitted to the Inner Temple on 25 November 1664.

On his return to London he obtained a post as one of the Exigenters of the Common Pleas, whose duty it was to make out all writs of exigent and proclamations in cases of outlawry. His duties cannot have occupied a great deal of his time, as he was able to begin building up his legal practice and to indulge his interests in antiquarian, constitutional, and historical studies. His association with the Inner Temple was made closer after the riot in 1669 over the bearing erect of the sword of the Mayor of London within the precincts of the Inn, when he prepared the case for the Inner Temple when its members were summoned before the Council on the complaint of the city. The Inner Temple won their case and Petyt was paid a fee of £20 for his services. On 12th February 1671, William Petyt, for his services done in asserting and defending the rights and privileges of the Temple, was called to the bar of The Inner Temple. He was called to the Bench in 1689,was chosen Reader for Trinity Vacation, in 1694, and became Treasurer, 1701-2.

In the meantime Petyt had continued with his historical and legal researches. Almost all his writings dealt with the history of Parliament and were designed to lay the foundations and further the building of the Whig cause, which triumphed in the Great Revolution of 1689, when he got his reward from the government. In that year he was appointed Keeper of the Records in the Tower Of London, a post he held until his death in 1707. William published four books during his lifetime and the Trustees of Silvester Petytís will published a fifth in 1739.

  1. Ancient Rights of the Commons Asserted. 1680
  2. Miscellanea Parliamentaria. 1680
  3. Rights of the Commons Answered. 1681.
  4. Lex Parliamentaria. 1690.
  5. Jus Parliamentaria. 1739.


William had a house at Chelsea and worshiped at Chelsea Old Church. In 1705 William, with the permission of the Vestry of Chelsea Church, he rebuilt the parish school which then contained a vestry room, a schoolroom and one upper room for lodgings for the schoolmaster. William died at Chelsea in October 1707 and was buried in the Temple Church on 9th October. Later his brother, Silvester had a monument erected, which can still be seen. In his will William left his large and valuable collection of historical manuscripts to the Inner Temple, he also left the Inner Temple £150 to build a library to house his manuscripts and £50 to buy books for the library. He also left £50 for the use of the Grammar school at Skipton.

There are three known portraits of William Petyt, one at the Inner Temple, one at The Public Office at Kew, and one at the Skipton Grammar School.



Silvester Petyt 1638-1719

Silvester Petyt was born at Storiths, Bolton Abbey in 1638. He was the son of William Petyt, a yeoman farmer who rented land from the Skipton Castle estate at both Storiths and Skipton. Silvester was the brother of William Petyt, 1637-1707 (q.v.).

Silvester was educated at Ermystedís Grammar School at Skipton and like his older brother, William, he left Yorkshire for London to study law. Like William he started his legal studies at Barnardís Inn and was employed as a legal clerk by Fabian Philips between November 1659 and November 1663 but did not follow William to Cambridge University. Silvesterís association with Barnardís Inn was one that lasted all his life. He was admitted a member on 19th February 1666, an Ancient in 1686 and served as Principal from 1701 to 1704. In 1710 the then Principal and Ancients subscribed fifteen shillings each to pay for a portrait by Richard van Bleeck of Silvester Petyt. This portrait in now in the National Portrait Gallery in London. At various times Silvester lived in chambers at Barnardís Inn and in 1714 along with four of his colleagues he put up money to rebuild some of the older parts of the Inn. This was done, no doubt, with the thought of profit in mind.

In his younger days Silvester was clerk to Lord Chief Justice (Sir John) Holt, a picture of whom he presented to Barnardís Inn. Later Silvester was appointed a Clerk of the Court of Common Pleas and in 1689 he was called, with others by, the Judges to give evidence to Parliament as to the fees charged in the various courts. In the main his very large legal practice and his equally large and profitable money lending business consumed most of his time. Silvester was prepared to lend money to almost anybody provided they could meet the repayments and his clients ranged from members of his own family back in Yorkshire to members of the aristocracy. When he died in 1719 he left an enormous amount of money most of which was to be used for charitable purposes in Yorkshire and it is for this charity that he is chiefly remembered.

Silvesterís will was a very long document but the main points are that after leaving bequests to his near relatives; money to clothe and put out as apprentices poor children in the parishes of Skipton, Bolton Abbey, and St. Andrewís, Holborn; money to provide a school in or near Storiths, money for the upkeep of the library founded by Silvester in Skipton Church; money to buy books for Skipton Grammar School; and money to provide a grant to support a scholar from Skipton Grammar School at Christís College, Cambridge the remainder was to be invested in land and property and the income used for charitable purposes in the Skipton and Bolton Abbey areas. Over the years the charity was very badly managed, the Trustees were all London based with very little interest in Yorkshire and as a consequence no land or property were ever bought. For years all they ever did was to pay out money for apprentices; maintain the Petyt Library; pay the salaries of the teachers at Hazlewood, Barden, and the Girls Charity School at Skipton, and hand out doles to hundreds of people claiming to be poor relations of Silvester Petyt. Eventually the Trustees were brought to book and the whole charity was reorganised in 1879. The main points of the reorganisation were the continuance of the maintenance of Scholars from Skipton Grammar School at Christís College, Cambridge; money for exhibitions tenable at the Grammar School or for ex-pupils tenable at Oxford or Cambridge; and the maintenance of the Petyt Library. The bulk of the Trustís revenues were used to endow the Skipton Girlsí High School.

Silvester died at his home in Belle Savauge Yard, London in 1719. He was buried in the graveyard of St. Andrewís, Holborn according to the statement in his will,í at the back side of the church there, at least ten feet deepí There is no known memorial to him. There are at least three known portraits of Silvester, one in the National Portrait Gallery; one in the Skipton Girls High School and one in the Petyt Library which is now housed in the Town Library in Skipton High Street.



Text © Anthony Petyt 2001.


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