Robert Heath

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Sir Robert Heath
Wenceslas Hollar - Sir Robert Heath (State 2).jpg
Born 20 May 1575
Edenbridge, Kent
Died 30 August 1649
Calais, France
Resting place Brasted Church, Kent

Sir Robert Heath (20 May 1575 – 30 August 1649) was an English judge and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1621 to 1625.

Early life

Heath was educated at Tunbridge Wells grammar school, St John's College, Cambridge from age 14 and Clifford's Inn from age 17. He became a barrister of the Inner Temple in 1603.[1] In 1621 he was elected Member of Parliament for the City of London. He became solicitor-general in 1621, when he was knighted. In 1624 he was elected MP for East Grinstead and was re-elected in 1625.[2][3]

Attorney general

Heath served King Charles I of England as Attorney General, from 1625. He owed his appointment to the influence of the Duke of Buckingham. Despite a reputation as a shadowy, opaque figure, records show him able to argue shrewdly and independently in order to reduce problems for the Crown.[4]

Heath brought a 1625 case in the Exchequer Court for the High Peak lead miners against Francis Leke who claimed a tithe from them. Through the offices of Heath the tithe right was eventually transferred, in a possibly corrupt way, to Christian Cavendish, Countess of Devonshire. From 1629 he was taking an entrepreneurial interest in the lead mines of Derbyshire, engaging Sir Cornelius Vermuyden as partner in a major drainage operation at Wirksworth, at the ore-rich Dovegang Rake.[5]

Heath argued for the Crown in Darnel's Case (the Five Knights' Case) of 1627. The judges rejected his argument on absolute prerogative; and a scandal blighted his reputation the following year, when it was revealed, or alleged, by John Selden that he had interfered with the King's Bench records (a felony), in order to promote the decision in the case to a binding precedent (an interpretation that has recently been disputed by Mark Kishlansky).[6][7] The agitation caused by the business was of major importance for the formulation of the Petition of Right.[8]

Heath notionally founded both North Carolina and South Carolina. He was on a commission to consider the tobacco trade with Virginia in 1627-8.[4] In 1629 he was awarded a patent for the Province of Carolina;[9] but in fact he made no settlements there.[10] The grant also mentioned the Bahamas, the beginning of their colonial history.[11]


Heath became Chief Justice of the Court of Common Pleas in 1631. He lost this position, however, in September 1634. One theory why is that his religious stance had led him to oppose William Laud.[12] In religion he was a Calvinist and anti-Arminian; he had shown some leniency in the Star Chamber case against the iconoclast and extremist Henry Sherfield.[13] Another theory relates to corruption. On the other hand this is not accepted by Thomas G. Barnes, who argues that Heath with Sir Richard Shelton had displeased the King, and on an old matter: plantations in Ulster and the obligations of the City of London in an agreement made under James I, as interpreted in a lax fashion by the law officers of the Crown (Heath as Attorney General, Shelton as Solicitor General). The matter surfaced in a Star Chamber case in mid-1634. The King dismissed Heath with conditions making sure he could not join the defence team in this case.[14]

Heath returned to his practice as a barrister. His reputation as pro-Puritan, anti-Laudian did him no harm with the Long Parliament when Charles brought him back as a judge, making him Lord Chief Justice.[15]

One of Heath's cases as Lord Chief Justice during the First English Civil War led to his downfall. In 1642 he tried Captain Turpin, a blockade-runner, at Exeter. A year later, Sir John Berkeley, the royalist Governor of Exeter, carried out the death sentence on Turpin, as retaliation for the hanging of a Parliamentary commander who had defected to the King. Heath was impeached by Parliament for high treason in 1644. He fled England, and died 30 August 1649 in Calais, France.[16][17]


  • Maxims and Rules of Pleading (1694)


  1. "Heath, Robert (HT587R)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Wilfrid R. Prest, The Rise of the Barristers: A Social History of the English Bar, 1590–1640 (1986), pp. 109–110.
  3. Concise Dictionary of National Biography
  4. 4.0 4.1 Thomas Cogswell, ‘In the Power of the State’: Mr Anys's Project and the Tobacco Colonies, 1626–1628, The English Historical Review 2008 CXXIII (500):35–64; online text.
  5. Jill R. Dias, Lead, Society and Politics in Derbyshire Before the Civil War, Midland History, Vol. 6 (1981); (PDF)
  6. Glenn Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution (1992), pp. 191–4.
  7. Mark A. Kishlansky, Tyranny denied : Charles I, Attorney General Heath, and the Five Knights' Case. Historical Journal, 42 (1999), 53–83.
  9. Heath's patent, Yale Law dept, accessed 13 December 2008
  11. Sandra Riley, Thelma Peters, Homeward Bound: A History of the Bahama Islands to 1850 With a Definitive Study of Abaco in the American Loyalist Plantation Period (2000), pp. 26–7.
  12. John Wroughton, The Routledge Companion to the Stuart Age, 1603–1714 (2006), p. 8.
  13. Glenn Burgess, The Politics of the Ancient Constitution (1992), p. 183.
  14. Thomas G. Barnes, Cropping the Heath: The Fall of a Chief Justice, 1634, Historical Research Volume 64 Issue 155, pages 331–343, Published Online: 12 October 2007.
  15. John Adamson, The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I (2007) , p. 157.
  17. Charles Carlton, Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638–1651 (1994), p. 198.

Further reading

  • Paul E. Kopperman (1989) Sir Robert Heath, 1575–1649: Window on an Age

External links

Parliament of England
Preceded by
Nicholas Fuller
Sir Henry Montague
Robert Myddelton
Sir Thomas Lowe
Member of Parliament for City of London
With: William Towerson
Robert Bateman
Sir Thomas Lowe
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas Middleton
Heneage Finch
Robert Bateman
Martin Bond
Preceded by
Sir Henry Compton
Thomas Pelham
Member of Parliament for East Grinstead
With: Thomas Caldicot 1624
Sir Henry Compton 1625
Succeeded by
Robert Goodwin
Sir Henry Compton
Legal offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Richardson
Chief Justice of the Common Pleas
Succeeded by
Sir John Finch
Preceded by
John Brampston
Lord Chief Justice
Succeeded by
Henry Rolle