Nicholas Fuller (1543-1620)
Born: 1543 possibly in Kent or
Puritan Barrister & Member of Parliament
Died: 23rd February 1620 at Crookham, Berkshire
Nicholas Fuller was the son of Nicholas Fuller Senior of Neat’s Hall on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent who was a London merchant. He entered Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1560 and, graduating as a Bachelor of Arts three years later, he moved on to Gray’s Inn where he was elected a pensioner in 1584 and reader in 1587. It was around
the former date that he married Sarah, one of the daughters of Nicholas Backhouse of Cheapside in Middlesex, an alderman and sometime Sheriff of the City of London, and sister of Samuel Backhouse of
Swallowfield Park in Berkshire. They had seven children
together who, when not in London, were raised at
Chamberhouse Castle at
Crookham, in Thatcham parish, also in
Fuller was a rising star in the English legal profession and was often employed by the Privy Council in National
security matters. He was offered the post of Solicitor-General in Dublin but,
thinking this too far from the centre of things, he managed to avoid the appointment, instead becoming Dean of Gray’s Inn Chapel in 1588 and their Treasurer three years later. However, he soon began
to upset the establishment. In 1590, he defended the Puritan, John Udall, who had been accused of writing a ‘sedious book’. He was very forceful and there was almost a riot in the courtroom. The following year, he was thrown in the Fleet Prison along with William Hackett who had been declared, in Cheapside, the “new messiah and King of Europe” in place of Queen Elizabeth. It is probably that Fuller had offered to represent Hackett. He was kept an
open prisoner for five years.
Despite this, with State commissions having dried up, Fuller turned to politics and was elected MP for St. Mawes in Cornwall. He made a name for himself opposing the Government’s extension of Recusancy
Laws but, after the session was dissolved, he did not return to Parliament until the first
parliament of James I’s reign in 1604. He then took up his position as the Government’s staunchest critic, a place he held for ten years. He spoke up for Puritan ministers deprived of their livings, pushed for strong action against recusant Catholics and presented economic grievances for the London merchants. He argued against duties imposed without parliamentary consent, which he considered illegal, and was prominently opposed to ‘purveyance which allowed the King to buy items at reduced prices. In March 1607, working for the committee of privileges, Fuller tried to get the House of Lords
to treat the Commons as equals, especially on joint-committees.
Fuller was one of those who opposed the union of England and Scotland. In an attempt to
to connect with both the fears of merchants and with the resentment at the promotion of Scottish courtiers, he made a speech, warning of feuding lairds and impoverished Scottish artisans descending on England. He was not as disrespectful as
many though; for Fuller was mostly concerned with the legal issues involved, particularly the independence of Parliament that was not well established in Scotland.
Fuller’s constitutional ideas led him into a prolonged and high profile conflict with the ecclesiastical Court of High Commission. It all began when he defended two men accused of subversive actions against the Church. He considered the court Popish, corrupt and criminal in its actions and took his arguments to Parliament. The MPs supported him and he was proposed as
Chairman of the Committee of the Whole House. However, in July 1607, he was
detained by the Court at the White Lion Inn in Southwark. The higher Court of the King’s Bench eventually allowed the High Commission to charge Fuller with heresy and he was fined £200 and gaoled again, but a writ of habeas corpus meant he could challenge his imprisonment. Fuller’s arguments called into question the very existence of the Court of High Commission, as well as the right of Royal prerogative. Ministers were alarmed, but the King’s Bench refused to intervene and, Fuller was locked up once more. King James I was convinced that the lawyers were out to destroy the power of his Church and he put pressure on Archbishop Bancroft to pursue the case. Fuller was finally convicted at the end of the November and the Fleet Prison became his permanent home.
Nicholas had triumphed in that he had shown the weak position of the Court of High Commission, which could only be protected by his own incarceration. However, he could do little more from behind bars and so signed a submission. This, his wife persuaded him to withdraw, but a second submission was accepted and he was released in January 1608.
It was not long before Nicholas was in trouble again however. His friends amongst the opponents of the bishops had been printing his arguments and circulating them as illegal pamphlets. Nicholas there argued,
in rousing language, that the ecclesiastical courts were technically illegal and opposed to the rules of common
justice. He showed great faith in the independence of the judiciary: a fact that had been little tested at this date but, partly thanks to him, would be in the future. The company were arrested, along with Fuller himself, and charged with sedition at the end of February. Fuller was confined to the precincts of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His case continued in the Court of Star Chamber, but its final outcome is unknown. By April, he was allowed to practice law once more as long as he confined himself to Gray’s Inn. Further action was expected, but no details of this have been found.
Fuller returned to Parliament in 1610, as a respected member and he immediately renewed his conflict with the authorities. He set out his specific ideas on the Royal prerogative, restating that the king, as well as his people, was subject to law, and attacking taxation without Parliament; but his speech was greeted with silence. At the end of the year, he turned on the Court of High Commission again. He continued to oppose the Government for the next four years, but his leading position in Parliament came to an end in the ‘Addled Parliament’ of 1614.
He remained active in local affairs until he died on 23rd February 1620 at home in Chamberhouse Castle. He was buried in the
parish church at Thatcham where he features on a large wall monument in his barrister’s gown and accompanied by his wife and seven
children. He left money to the poor of Newbury and to two preachers, but his main heir was his eldest son, Sir Nicholas Fuller who, unfortunately, only survived him by four months, leaving his three-year-old son, Dowse, to inherit the family estates.