Sir Thomas's grandfather, the lawyer Thomas Layton (1520-84), had left his family in a fine position through his years of private practice, public service and astute property dealings. The marriage of Thomas's parents in 1594 had completed the work, reuniting the manors of Sexhow and Skutterskelfe under one ownership for the first time since the death of their ancestor John Gower in 1377.
Sir Thomas came into his inheritance as a very young man on his father's death in 1617. Just how young he was, is rather hard to say. He is recorded in the 1612 Visitation [cf Graves' History of Cleveland] as being 15 years old and that would certainly accord with the transcription made of the baptismal register by J W Ord and by the Christian Inheritance Project; they disagree on the month (February or July) but they agree on the year. The Victoria County History entry for East Layton in the parish of Stanwick St John states that he was 23 on his father's death [citing Chan. Inq. p.m. (Ser. 2), ccclxvii, 93]; his parents married on 27 February 1594, so this is possible.
His father arranged for him to be married at a very young age – probably 16 (or at the most 19), for it was in 1613 that Charles settled the manor of Kirkby Sigston upon his son. Thomas's wife was Mary Fairfax, daughter of Sir Thomas Fairfax of Walton and Gilling Castle near Malton. The Fairfax family had been suspected of Catholic sympathies over the years, but most of them had remained loyal to the Crown in the Northern Rebellion of 1569. Sir Thomas Fairfax himself was a committed Protestant and so much trusted by government that he continued to hold office in spite of his wife's open Catholicism. Catherine, daughter of Sir Henry Constable of Burton Constable, was a known recusant and her mother was accused of harbouring priests associated with the exiled Earl of Westmorland. Catherine (who died in 1626) had sent two of her seven sons to Catholic seminaries on the Continent; her daughter Mary's religious affiliations are unknown.
A knighthood was bought for Thomas from King James VI and I – knighthoods were in cheap and plentiful supply during the reigns of James and his son Charles I, who together created 3,281 knighthoods between 1603 and 1641. It was a far cry from the knighthood bestowed on his great-grandfather Sir James Metcalfe of Nappa in Wensleydale. Sir James had served on the Border under the future Richard III and held many high offices for the Crown – and probably fought at Flodden – before Henry VIII knighted him at Windsor at the age of 68. Young Thomas was knighted in 1614, the year after his marriage [Victoria County History: Stanwick St John, citing Chan. Inq. p.m. (Ser. 2), ccclxvii, 93].
The young couple must have begun a family immediately, because Sir Thomas was a grandfather before he was forty. He had married his daughter Mary to Henry Foulis, son of Sir David Foulis, 1st Baronet of Ingleby, and their son David was baptised on 14 March 1633.
This connection with the Foulis family was to bring him to trial before the Star Chamber in 1633.
Sir David Foulis was a Scottish politician and lawyer who had come south with King James and received many honours at his hands, including lands in Yorkshire and being made cofferer for the Princes Henry and Charles. He was Deputy Lieutenant of the County, a member of the Council of the North and a justice of the peace, but he was hostile to the King's chief adviser and Lord President of the Council, Thomas Wentworth, later Earl of Strafford, a most formidable man.
At this time, the ancient custom called Distraint of Knighthood was revived to raise revenue for the King. While James had sold knighthoods to raise cash, Charles contrived to raise cash without selling the knighthoods. All those gentlemen eligible for the honour (generally with lands worth £40 a year) should have attended his coronation and been knighted. Those who had not done so, would now be fined – and were told it would be in their interests to come to an agreement over the amount due (this was called compounding for knighthood). The whole process was viewed with much disfavour, as a cynical ploy which cheapened the honours awarded.
Sir Thomas Layton, as High Sheriff of Yorkshire, found himself at the heart of this deeply unpopular measure, as the sheriffs were supposed to identify those eligible and to collect the sums due.
Sir David Foulis had already clashed with Wentworth, and now he went further. He spoke openly and forcibly against Wentworth, made allegations against his honesty and the legality of his position and encouraged men not to pay the composition.
Ralph Eure and James Pennyman and various Cleveland gentlemen had been summoned to pay their fines of knighthood. Feelings must have been running high in the neighbourhood and the matter must have been hotly discussed whenever men met.
In July 1632 a meeting was held at Sir Thomas Layton's house – whether this was at Skutterskelfe or at Sexhow, we do not actually know – and there Foulis urged them forcibly to ignore the summonses and refuse to compound. The elderly Scotsman rounded upon his Yorkshire neighbours – this is the report of what he said:
"That Yorkshire Gentlemen had been in time past accounted and held stout-spirited Men, and would have stood for their Rights and Liberties, and were wont to be the worthiest of all other Shires in the Kingdom. And that in former times all other Shires did depend, and would direct all their great Actions by that Country. And that other Counties, for the most part, followed and imitated Yorkshire: but now in these days Yorkshire-Men were become degenerate, more dastardly and more cowardly than the Men of other Counties, wanting their wonted Courage and Spirit, which they formerly used to have."He urged them to follow the example of James Maleverer (or Mauleverer), who had refused to pay – "the wisest and worthiest man in the country … a brave spirit and a true Yorkshireman" – and blamed Ralph Eure and James Pennyman for giving in so feebly.
People in Yorkshire were all so afraid of Wentworth, he said, they adored him and feared him and would do anything rather than displease him, but at Court he was just an ordinary man and as soon as he off to his new post as Lord Deputy of Ireland, someone else would be President of the North.
Then he and his son Henry went further. Wentworth was pocketing the fines himself, they said. He wasn't passing the money on to the Exchequer and when the new man came in, everyone who had paid Wentworth would find himself having to pay all over again.
Sir Thomas had just received a summons from Wentworth and the Council. By some mistake, the Exchequer had sent him instructions that a Mr Wivell had failed to pay his fine and that Sir Thomas should send his bailiff in. But Mr Wivell had already paid and very much objected to Sir Thomas's bailiff taking a second payment in goods. He complained to the Council, and Wentworth issued a summons.
"In a great Presence and Assembly of divers Knights and Gentlemen of the County," Sir Thomas showed the letter to Sir David. Sir David told him not to go. He said Sir Thomas's duty as High Sheriff was to receive his instructions from the King. He said the Council was a Paper Court and it had acted beyond its jurisdiction in summoning the High Sheriff.
"If I were you," he said, "I wouldn't care a dog's turd for them."He said the Council had no authority over a justice of the peace – the office of a justice was by Act of Parliament, the office of the Court of the Council was "made but by Commission". This was indeed true – the Council of the North was of dubious legality. It had not been established by law but by an act of prerogative by Henry VIII after the Pilgrimage of Grace, and its powers had steadily and gradually increased.
Some of the gentlemen took alarm at Sir David's vehemence.
"I care not who hears it," he said, "Nor if it were proclaimed at the Cross."He might as well have been proclaiming it in public at the market cross, for it did not remain secret from Wentworth for long. Somebody informed on him.
In February 1633, Sir David and his son and Sir Thomas Layton found themselves facing the court of the Star Chamber.
Sir David simply denied it. He hadn't tried to stop people paying the fines, quite the reverse, and he had urged Sir Thomas to appear to his summons. He did admit that he had said that he did not know how His Majesty would view having one of his High Sheriffs committed and disgraced for executing His Majesty's writ. He also admitted that – Mr Wivel having actually already paid – he had said that if Lord Wentworth had paid in all the monies he had received, he might have done well to make sure that those who had paid would not be made to pay twice.
Henry Foulis and Sir Thomas also pleaded not guilty.
Sir Thomas Layton explained that he was served with a letter from the Lord President, but that before he could be in contempt of court he was arrested by the Court Pursuivant and taken from his own house to York, about 30 miles. He was kept in the custody of the messenger until he had answered the charge laid by Mr Wivell. He had paid the money back to Mr Wivell and 40 shillings more which Mr Wivell said had been exacted by Appleby, the bailiff. He asserted that none of the money had come into his hands.
By this time Wentworth was in Ireland, but he had done his utmost to ensure that Sir David Foulis would be punished in an exemplary manner. He wrote to one of the trial judges explaining his own strong case ("I … find all the material parts of the case fully proved so as I have him soundly upon the hip"). He sent a special messenger to another judge with a short brief of the strong points of his case, saying "I must wholly recommend myself to your care of me in this." It was not only a question of his own authority – though this was clearly of major importance to him – but, he said, it was for the crown as "the sentencing of this man settles the right of knighting business bravely for the crown."
For Sir Thomas he had nothing but contempt:
"For sir Thomas Layton, he is a fool, led on by the nose by the two former, nor was I willing to do him any hurt; so let him go for a coxcomb as he is; and when he comes home, tell his neighbours, it was well for him he had less wit than his fellows."Sir David was accordingly found guilty. He was degraded from his offices, fined £5,000 to the king, £3,000 to Wentworth, ordered to make an abject public apology to the King and Wentworth, in the Star Chamber, the court of York and the open assizes of York, and sent to the Fleet Prison during the King's pleasure. And in the Fleet Prison he remained for most of the next seven years, until freed by the Long Parliament.
His son Henry Foulis was committed to the Fleet as well, and ordered to pay £500 fine to the King. Sir Thomas was found not guilty.
Their revenge came a few years later, when they all testified at Wentworth's trial.
Strafford, as he now was, was brought to bay by his many enemies in 1641. One of the accusations against him was made on the testimony of Sir Thomas Layton. He reported that in July 1632, at the Assizes in York Castle in July 1632, he heard Strafford say from the judge's bench:
"Some would not be satisfied but by Law, but they should have Law enough, for they should find the King's little Finger should be heavier than the Loins of the Law."Another witness backed up Sir Thomas's claim but Strafford defended himself strenuously. Leaving aside the point that one of the witnesses said he had made the remark when he was already in Ireland, the words he had actually spoken were the direct opposite of those alleged. He had said that, "The little Finger of the Law was heavier than the King's Loins."
It had happened in the case of Mr Wivell. He had ordered Sir Thomas to pay back the money and he had spoken a few words to the court on the subject of compounding for knighthood. It was being done by a commission of grace and favour and they would be a great deal better off if they cooperated with it – if the fines were decided by law, they would pay a great deal more. And so he had said, "The little Finger of the Law is heavier than the Loins of the King." He had no intention of threatening those present and nobody complained at the time. It was all a very long time ago and they must have very good memories to swear to the exact words of something said seven or eight years ago – and very much better hearing, he said pointedly, than one of the witnesses produced
"who appears to have such an infirmity in his hearing, that he must be whooped to at the Bar before he can hear."He was referring to Sir Thomas Layton and clearly his contempt for Sir Thomas had only increased with time. Layton's hearing must have grown a great deal worse, said Strafford, for him to be able to swear to the words spoken from the bench to where he sat as High Sheriff in open court. Then he produced two of his own witnesses to confirm what he had said in 1632.
The court called Sir Thomas Layton again. He said that he "had his Hearing well till about Christmas last" and that anyway he was only four yards distant from the Earl at the Assizes.
In any event, said Strafford, the words alleged were not treasonable within the terms of the statute.
Indeed, he defended himself successfully throughout and the impeachment against him failed. As a result Parliament resorted to a bill of attainder, which would require only Charles' signature. Finally Charles decided to sign and so sent his loyal servant to execution on Tower Hill on 12 May 1641.
The following year the Civil Wars began.
Sir David Foulis died in 1642 and was buried at Ingleby. His son Henry became 2nd Baronet and fought on the Parliamentary side in the Civil Wars. Sir Thomas Layton died in 1650.
For the story of Sir Thomas Layton's grandfather, lawyer Thomas Layton, and his family see
'Thomas Milner of Skutterskelfe: the life & times of a Tudor gentleman'
For Wentworth's disparagement of Sir Thomas Layton before the trial in 1633, cf Eminent British Statesmen: Sir John Eliot, by John Forster (1836) online here
for the proceedings in the Star Chamber, cf
cf 'Star Chamber Reports: 9 Charles I', Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 3: 1639-40, pp. 53-69 online here
'Historical Collections: 1633', Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 2: 1629-38 (1721), pp. 175-244 online here
For the report of Sir Thomas Layton's testimony at Strafford's trial, cf
'Historical Collections: 1632', Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 2: 1629-38 (1721), pp. 139-188 online here
History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War vol 7, by Samuel Rawson Gardiner online here
'Thirty-Pound Gentlemen and the Jacobean Inflation of Honours' online here