Sir Francis ASHLEY JP (1569 - 1635)

Recorder of Dorchester Dorset

©Compiled by Michael Russell OPC for Fordington March 2009 - Last updated February 2017

Link to separate Biography on History of Parliament website


Francis Ashley was the third son of Sir Anthony ASHLEY (d1627) of Damerham in Wiltshire and Dorothy the daughter of John LYTE of Lytes Cary in Somerset. The Ashley family was an ancient one, with extensive lands in Wiltshire and Dorset, and one branch of the family had been established at Wimborne St Giles since the reign of Henry VI. The family of Anthony Ashley and his wife Dorothy at Damerham consisted of three sons, Anthony (1551/2-1628), Robert (1565-1641), and Francis (1569-1635), and seven daughters. Ashley's eldest brother Anthony Ashley (1551-1627/8) was to inherit the Ashley estates at Wimborne St Giles from a cousin, Sir Henry Ashley, and he united these lands with the property he inherited from his father at Damerham. From Anthony (or Sir Anthony Ashley as he became in 1596 when he was knighted for services in the capture of Cadiz) they descended through his only daughter Anne, who had married Sir John Cooper, to his grandson and heir Anthony Ashley COOPER (1621-1688) who became the First Baron Ashley and First Earl of Shaftsbury.
Birth and Education:

Francis Ashley was born 24 November 1569 at Damerham but no details have been found of his early life , nor of his schooling although the Dictionary of National Biography confirms that his brother Robert was at school under Hadrian Saravia in Southampton and Francis may also have gone there. At the age of 16 he entered Magdalen College Oxford and graduated with a Bachelor or Arts degree on 5 June 1589. From Oxford he went to study law at the Middle Temple where he became a barrister in 1596 and he continued to practice there throughout his life.

Marriage and children:

Francis married Anne the eldest daughter and co heir of Bernard (or Robert) SAMWAYS (1 ) of Toller Fratrum and through his wife he gained lands and property at Winterborne St Martin. In Dorchester Francis Ashley bought the old friary from Thomas Wriothesley which had been in existence from 1267 but surrendered at the dissolution in 1538. He lived there with his family on the north side of the town by the river Frome and made extensive alterations to it incorporating the Arms of the Ashley family and of his mothers family the Lytes of Lyte Cary. The History of Dorchester by James Savage published in 1837 states of this house:-

"The house that stood here a few years ago was altered by Sir Francis Ashley who resided in it in Mr Coker's time. It was a long low and irregular building; the eastern part seemed to be the most ancient by three old windows. At the West end there was a long gallery perhaps once a dormitory. Under it , Insignia Lyte de Lyte's Cary in comitatu Somerset. Near it on the wall '1607'.

In a corner of a little room within the above from which it seemed to have been parted were the Arms of Ashley (azure, a ccinquefoil, Argent, a crescent on the same in a border, Ermine, crest, a plume of feathers). In another room over a chimney , on stucco Amour Service. Under it the Arms and crest of Ashley; under them Anomia Anarchia; and near it on the wall 1623. In another room near the West end was a handsome chimney piece in stucco but without arms or inscription.

Only one of their children survived childhood, Dorothy ASHLEY who became sole heir. She married on 4 June 1626 to become the 1st of three wives of Denzil HOLLES (1599-1679), the younger son of the Earl of Clare who was later to become Lord Holles of Ifield. <<<[ See picture opposite] They had a son born in Dorchester on 19th August 1627 whom they named Francis Holles after her father.

Denzil an ardent parliamentarian and MP for Dorchester in 1628 joined in with the Commons demand for Buckingham's impeachment. On March 2, 1629, when Sir John Finch, the speaker, refused to put Sir John Eliot's Protestations and was about to adjourn the House by the king's command, Holles together with another member, Sir Walter Long, thrust him back into the chair and swore "he should sit still till it pleased them to rise." Meanwhile Eliot, on the refusal of the speaker to read the Protestations, had himself thrown them into the fire; the usher of the black rod was knocking at the door for admittance, and the king had sent for the guard. But Holles, declaring that he could not render the king or his country better service, put the Protestations to the House from memory, all the members rising to their feet and applauding. In consequence a warrant was issued for his arrest with others on the following day and he was committed to the Tower.

On 2nd February 1630 he was fined one thousand marks and imprisoned during the king's pleasure, not to be released except on giving security for good behaviour and confessing his offence. At first he was confined a close prisoner in the Tower but In October he was transferred to the Marshalsea and having paid his fine he was released but banished from London. The Long parliament [1640] treated the prosecution as a breach of privilege and Holles was voted £5,000 in compensation for his losses and sufferings and the thousand marks which he had paid into the exchequer were repaid to him. During the Civil War he had command of a regiment at Edgehill and Brentford. He opposed the independents and projected the impeachment of Cromwell in 1644. He was a Parliamentary representative at the Uxbridge treaty in 1645 and again in 1648 at Newport. Impeached by the Army he fled to France to become Commissioner to Charles II at the Hague. Created Baron Holles of Ifield Sussex in April 1661 and Privy Councilor the same year, he was made Ambassador at Paris in 1663 a post he retained until 1667. He was a negotiator of the treaty of Breda in 1667.

His wife Dorothy died in 1640 and he remarried to Jane FEKE the widow of John FREKE of Cerne who died in 1666 and thirdly to Esther le Lou of Colombiers France who died in 1684. When Francis Ashley died he lived at the old friary until his death at the age of 82 on 17 Feb 1679. He has a magnificent marble memorial in St Peter's church..

Background and Career:

Francis ASHLEY became a barrister-at-law in 1596 and evidently prospered in his profession, perhaps helped by the influence of his brother Anthony who had entered the service of Queen Elizabeth in 1572 and had risen rapidly in royal favour, eventually becoming Clerk of the Privy Council in 1587. Later Anthony Ashley was involved in various important affairs of state, and was thus in a good position to help his younger brothers Robert & Francis, both of whom were at the Middle Temple. A measure of Anthony's position in that circle is that he was present at the funeral of Elizabeth 1st in 1603.

It may have been Robert ASHLEY (1565-1641) who began the family involvement with Dorchester for he represented the borough in the parliament of 1596/7, but nothing more is heard of any connection until 1610 when Francis ASHLEY was appointed recorder or borough Magistrate of Dorchester on the resignation of Trenchard (2). As a Magistrate he was very active sitting regularly at the Quarter Sessions from 1625 until his death and was obviously well respected by his fellow justices for his knowledge of the law and of national affairs. In addition he was chosen as the judge for an extraordinary commission set up on the 17 January 1627 when he condemned 7 soldiers and a tapster to death for burglary although the 6 soldiers were later granted a pardon. His appointment as recorder was confirmed in the charter granted to Dorchester on 22 September 1629 in which it was specified that 'They shall have within the Borough a man learned in the law, as recorder. Francis Ashley Knight Serjeant-at-law shall be the first recorder and hold office for life'.

After becoming recorder in 1610, Francis did not spend all his time in Dorchester; he continued his successful practice at the Middle Temple, becoming reader there in 1616, Serjeant-at-law in 1617 [OXA says 1618] and King's Serjeant in 1625. Like many successful lawyers of the time he also sat in the House of Commons and represented Dorchester in the parliaments of 1614, 1621 and 1625-6. In Parliament he was a strong supporter of the royal prerogative as well as an active member and chairman of committees, and it may have been for this reason that he was knighted in 1618. According to William Whiteway's diary on 22 April 1628 Sir Francis Ashley was imprisoned by the Lords House for speaking against liberty of the subject, but upon recantation and craving pardon, he was soon released. As King's Serjeant, Ashley represented the Crown in various cases including the trial of John FELTON who had assassinated the Duke of Buckingham, and was hanged at tyburn on 28 October 1628. A difficult time in parliament as already outlined above and whilst in London on 7 January 1628/9 he suffered an attack of Palsy but managed to recover. On 19 June 1630 he had to defend himself before the star chamber having been accused of a conspiracy against Sir Thomas Coventry Lord Keeper who 'scandalized him by saying he had taken a bribe of six hundred pounds'. Presumably he pleaded his case well as he was acquitted by a vote of the table.

In spite of his support of the Royal prerogative in parliament, in his religious views he was sympathetic to the Puritan cause. He was greatly influenced by the rector of Holy Trinity and St Peters the Rev. John White and with him and others invested in 1624 in the Dorchester Company. Well before that in 1617 he had granted to Rev. Robert Cheeke, the master of the 'Free School' (when he took on the additional responsibility of becoming the Rector of All Saints Church) all his 'tithes of corne, grayne, hay, woole, lambes, oad etc belionging to the free chapel of Pudle Waterston'. When Sir Francis died he left a bequest of £100 to the Rev. John White as a token of his appreciation. Many of those setting sale for New England left deeds with him for safekeeping. Thomas Purchase for example who emigrated on 'The Lyon' in 1629 left the original copy of his patent for safe keeping with him. In fact many years later when his house caught fire [1677] and he lost the only copy of the patent Thomas Purchase returned to England for it.

Anthony Ashley COOPER (1621-1683)

The best known episode of Sir Francis Ashley's life for which he received much criticism occurred during the three or four years prior to his death in 1635. For the details we have to reply principally upon the obviously biased account written many years later by his aggrieved nephew Anthony Ashley Cooper the first Earl of Shaftsbury. Ashley Cooper's grandfather Sir Anthony ASHLEY (1551-1627/8) who was the eldest brother of Sir Francis Ashley died on 13 January 1627/8 when his grandson was barely eight years old; his mother also died 6 months later on 20 July 1628 and his father Sir John Cooper hung on until 23 March 1630/1 before he also passed away . This left the young Ashley Cooper and the very extensive estates which he had inherited under the control of the Court of Wards. Writing nearly fifty years later Ashley Cooper accused several of his relatives and neighbours of attempting to wrest some of his lands from him while he was still a minor and a Ward of Court.

According to his account , the worst and most avaricious offender was his uncle, Sir Francis Ashley. He claimed that Sir Francis Ashley coveted lands which he had inherited at Damerham and elsewhere including Loders in West Dorset, and that his uncle used his legal abilities and influences to obtain his ends through the Ward of Courts. It is not easy to disentangle the highly complex legal disputes which surrounded the settlement of Ashley Coopers large inheritance , but it does appear that Sir Francis was more concerned about enlarging his own estates than about safeguarding the interests of his young nephew. Ashley Cooper can hardly be thought of as a dispassionate witness and it must be remembered that Sir Francis was only one of many persons that sought to purchase parts of the estate, and that some land had to be sold to satisfy the claim of Sir John Cooper's creditors for he died heavily in debt. Since the land had to be sold there was presumably no reason why Sir Francis should not have purchased it.

Death Sir Francis Ashley - 1635

The long proceedings before the Court of Wards had a dramatic ending for Sir Francis, and one which was witnessed by his young nephew. On the 16th November 1635 as Sir Francis made a long and elegant speech before the Court his nephew who had evidently grown to hate his uncle uttered a prayer to be delivered from the lawyer's arguments and purposes. The dramatic result remained for ever impressed on the boy's mind for Sir Francis collapsed to the floor with a paralytic seizure 'his mouth drawn to his ear' and was carried out of the Court and spoke no more. Sir Francis lived for another 12 days and died at the Serjeant's Inn in Fleet Street on 28 November 1635 aged 66.

His body was brought back to Dorchester and buried in St Peter's church in a vault near Denzil Holles memorial. In another lies his daughter Dorothy the wife of Lord Holles with one of their children. Probate on Ashley's Will was granted on 19 May 1636 in which he testified to his high regard for John White and left him a bequest of £100. His wife Lady Ann was buried at St Peters on 26 Jun 1649. She left a will which is transcribed below and left everything to her grandson Francis HOLLES.
The Will of Anne Lady ASHLEY

Dated: 03 Jul 1645 Buried 26th June 1649 Proved 21 April 1653 Ref PROB 11/231)

    Anne Lady ASHLEY of Dorchester in the County of Dorset Widow being in health and of perfect memory I praise God for the same yet considering the uncertainty of my life do make this my last Will and testament in manner and following

    Impremis: I give and bequeath to such person and persons as I shall at any time hereafter name by any writing under my hand and seal in the presence of two or more witnesses such gifts legacies and bequests as I shall in or by such writing appoint and declare unto him or her or them

    Also my will is that my executors shall perform the last will and testament of Sir Francis ASHLEY Knight my late husband deceased of which will I am named executrix and for performance which I have taken my oath and therefore I do appoint that my executor hereunto named shall perform the same in whatsoever I shall leave unperformed at the time of my death

    And All the Rest and Residue of my goods and chattels I give and bequeath unto Francis HOLLES Esq my grandson whom I make and ordain Executor of this my last will and Testament

    And I do nominate and appoint Dennis BOND Esq and [illegible William?] DERBY to be Overseers of this my Will to see the same performed and in [illegible] that this is my last Will I have hereunto out my hand and seal the third day of the month of July Anno Domini 1645

    Anne ASHLEY

    Dennis BONDE; William DERBY; William BONDE

    PROVED:This will was proved at Westminster the one and twentieth day of April in the year of our Lord God one thousand six hundred fifty and three befor ethe Judges for probate of Wills and granting Administrations according to an Act of Parliament constituted as for probate of Wills and granting Administrations by the Oath of Francis HOLLIS Esq executor named in the said Will to whom administration was committed he being first sworn by commission truly to administer


DNB Sir Anthony Ashley , Robert Ashley & Anthony Ashley Cooper - OXA - PRO - QS - WW - The Casebook of Sir Arthur Ashley by Dorset Record Society Published 1981 which lists additional source material - J Hutchins History of Dorset - Institute of Historical Research, Clerks of the Privy Council - History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell Part III, Chapter 1: page 793 & Maine Hist. Coll., 3, p. 330 - - Victoria County History - Municipal Records of Dorchester by Charles Herbert Mayo published Exeter by William Pollard 1908. The History of Dorchester during the British, Roman, Saxon & Norman periods with an account of its present state by James Savage published 1837 - Page 159

Genealogical Notes:

(1). The DNB page 652 refers to Anne being the daughter of Robert Samways of Toller Fratrum. Among the sources quoted is "The Casebook of Sir Francis Ashley's etc - published by the Dorset Record Society in 1981" from which most of this text appears to have been taken. I have that publication and on page iii of the Introduction to his casebook it states " His link with Dorchester was strengthened by his marriage to Anne, eldest daughter and co-heir of Bernard Samways of Toller Fratrum ....". Whilst I have not located a pedigree for this family I did come across an entry in the 'Visitation to the County of Devon' in 1620 published by the Harleian Society in 1872 which refers on page 119 to the marriage between Francis Fuller & Elizabeth co heir of Bernard Samways of Winterbourne in Dorset which might suggest Bernard is correct. John Hutchins however in his account of 'The History and Antiquities of the County of Dorset' page 366 also refers to Robert Samways as the father so further research is necessary to establish which is correct.

(2). His appointment is recorded in the Municipal Records of Dorchester Pages 452-454 where it states " Francis Ashley Esq elected January 19th 16109/11, and also appointed by the Charter of Charles I, September 22nd 1629 when he was Serjeant-at-Law. His appointment is then recorded in Latinrunning to a page and a half. At the end :- "Sealed and delivered by the mutual assent and consent of the Baillives and Burgesses whose names are subscribed vizr: Mathew Chubbe, John Parkins (Bayllives) Henry Whittell and Richard Blachford (Justices) John Greene; John Yett; Richard baker; William Miller; W Whitaker; james Golde; Olyver Hayne; John Govld; Nycholas Vawter; Joseph Eayers. The next recorder chosen after his death was Henry Rolle Esq.

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