Sir John POPHAM, Knight

(Lord Chief Justice)

Born: 1531, Huntsworth, Somerset, England

Died: 10 Jun 1607, Wellington, Somerset, England

Father: Alexander POPHAM of Hunworth (Sir)

Mother: Jane STRADLING

Married: Amy GAMES (dau. and heiress of Robert Games of Castleton)


1. Francis POPHAM (Sir Knight) (m. Anne Dudley)

2. Catherine POPHAM (b. ABT 1540 - d. Nov 1588)

3. Penelope POPHAM (m. Son Hannam)

4. Eleanor POPHAM (m. Roger Warre, Esq.)

5. Elizabeth POPHAM (b. 1555 - d. ABT 20 Dec 1637) (m. Richard Champernowne)

6. Catherine POPHAM (m. Sir Edward Rogers of Cannington)

7. Mary POPHAM (m. Sir John Mallett of Enmore)

8. Amy POPHAM (m. Thomas Horner)

Speaker of the House of Commons from 1580 to 1583, Attorney General from 1 Jun 1581 to 1592 and Lord Chief Justice of England from 2 Jun 1592 to Jun 1607.

He was born in Huntworth, near North Petherton in Somerset in 1531 to Alexander Popham and Jane Stradling. It is said he was kidnapped by gypsies when he was a child, and spent his childhood wandering with this lawless group of associates. He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford where he read classics and divinity, and entered the Middle Temple before beginning his legal career. Various sources suggest he supported himself as a highwayman.

Popham is credited with maintaining the stability of the British State, and for being one of the "real colonisers" of the British Empire; hosting two Wabanaki tribesmen kidnapped on the Maine coast in 1605, subsequently funding and orchestrating the aborted Popham Colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River, Maine (1607-1608).

He served as an MP for Bristol in the 1570s and 1580s and was a Justice of the Peace in Somerset. Popham became a very wealthy man, and amongst the many estates he owned was Publow in Somerset, Littlecote in Wiltshire, and Hemyock Castle in Devon.

Popham presided over the trial of the Jesuit, Robert Southwell, in 1595 and passed sentence of death by hanging, drawing and quartering. He also presided over the trials of Mary Queen of Scots (1587), Sir Walter Raleigh (1603) and Guy Fawkes (1606), sentencing Mary and Fawkes to death.

While working as the messenger to Queen Elizabeth, Popham was imprisoned by the Earl of Essex with his henchman. Ever stoic, Popham replied that at his age, death would be but cutting off a few years. However, he was rescued and rowed to safety by Sir Ferdinando Gorges.

Sir John Popham died 10 Jun 1607 at Wellington, Somerset. According to local legend, Popham was killed by being thrown from his horse into Popham's Pit, a deep local dell, dying horribly and descending to Hell. He is named on his wife's grave stone in the nearby Wellington Church, but according to legend his body doesn't lie there. Every New Year's Eve his ghost is supposed to emerge from Popham's Pit and take one cock's step nearer to the grave. Until he has reached it, legend says that his soul will not rest in peace.

Popham's fortune was held in Chancery after his death, and his descendants were prevented for unknown reasons from accessing this inheritance. One story tells how one descendant changed his name to 'Smith' in a fit of rage, giving up on his inheritance.

His only son Francis married Anne Dudley and was the father of Colonel Alexander Popham JP, MP, 1605 - 1669, who fought on the side of the Parliamentarians during the Civil War and had a garrison stationed at Littlecote House.

His daughter Mary married Sir John Mallett of Enmore who was a Knight of the Bath (Knighted at the Coronation of James I) and High Sheriff of Somerset in 1601. Other of his daugthers, Amy, married Thomas Horner of Mells, member of Parliament and Sheriff of Somersetshire. Their son, Sir John Horner, was knighted and was the "Little Jack Horner" of nursery rhymes.

The Dictionary of National Biography has a long and detailed entry on Sir John.


 " Person Page 19580" (genealogy), Darryl Lundy,, Wellington, NZ, 2006-09-16, webpage: TPcom-19580.

Janes, Rowland (2003) Pensford, Publow and Woollard: A Topographical History. Biografix. ISBN 0-9545125-0-2

Popham, Frederick William, A West Country Family: The Pophams since 1150 (privately printed, 1976)
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