Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Altham, James
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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Altham, James

ALTHAM, Sir JAMES (d. 1617), judge, descended from Christopher Altham of Girlington, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was the third son of James Altham, Esq., of Mark Hall, Latton, in Essex, sheriff of London in 1557, and of Essex in 1570, by Elizabeth Blancke, daughter of Thomas Blancke of London, haberdasher, and sister of Sir Thomas Blancke, who was lord mayor of London in 1583, was a lawyer and a member of Gray's Inn. He is mentioned in Croke's reports for the first time as arguing a case in the Queen's Bench in 1587. In 1589 he was elected M.P. for Bramber in Sussex. He was appointed reader at Gray's Inn in 1600, and in 1603 double reader (duplex lector) in the barbarous jargon then in vogue. In the same year he was made serjeant-at-law. In 1606 he was appointed one of the barons of the exchequer, in succession to Sir J. Savile, and knighted. In 1610, a question having arisen concerning the power of the crown to impose restrictions on trade and industry by proclamation, the two chief justices, the chief baron, and Baron Altham were appointed to consider the matter. The result of their consultation was that they unanimously resolved 'that the king by his proclamation cannot create any offence which was not an offence before. … That the king hath no prerogative but that which the law of the land allows him … and lastly, that if an offence be not punishable in the Star Chamber, the prohibition of it by proclamation cannot make it punishable there.' Altham was one of the judges whose opinion was taken in 1611 by Lord Chancellor Ellesmere upon the case of 'two blasphemous heretics,' Legate and Wightman, whom Archbishop Abbot was desirous of burning. The selection of Altham for this business was much approved by the archbishop because of his reputed antipathy to Lord Coke, who was not consulted 'leaste by his singularitie of opinion he should give stay to the business.' Probably Altham concurred with his brother Williams, who, Abbot wrote, 'maketh no doubt but that the law is cleere to burne them,' for eventually the two heretics were burned, one at Smithfield, the other at Burton-upon-Trent. Altham's signature, together with those of the other twelve judges, is appended to the celebrated letter to the king relative to his action in the commendam case, in which the power of the crown to stay proceedings in the courts of justice in matters affecting its prerogative is denied. A serjeant-at-law, in arguing a case involving the right of the crown to grant commendams, i.e. licenses to hold benefices which otherwise would be vacated, had in the performance of his duty disputed, first, the existence of any such prerogative except in cases of necessity; secondly, the possibility of any such case arising. The thereupon wrote by his attorney-general, Francis Bacon, a letter addressed to Lord Coke requiring that all proceedings in the cause should be stayed. This letter having been communicated to the judges, they assembled, and after consultation the letter already mentioned was sent to the king. The king replied by convening a council and summoning the judges to attend thereat. They attended, and, having been admonished by the king and the attorney-general, all, with the exception of Coke, fell upon their knees, acknowledged their error, and promised amendment. Altham died on 21 Feb. 1617, and the lord keeper, Sir Francis Bacon, in appointing his successor, characterised the late baron as 'one of the gravest and most reverend of the judges of this kingdom.' He was buried in a chapel built by himself on his estate at Oxhey in Hertfordshire, where a monument still preserves his memory and that of his third wife, who died on 21 April 1638. By his first wife, Margaret, daughter of Oliver Skinner, Altham had issue one child only, a son James, afterwards Sir James Altham of Oxhey, knight. This Sir James Altham married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Richard Sutton of London, and had issue a boy, who died in infancy, and two daughters, Elizabeth and Frances. Elizabeth married Arthur Annesley, second Viscount Valentia and first Earl of Anglesey, whose second son, Altham Annesley, was created in 1680 Baron Altham of Altham, with limitation in default of male issue to his younger brothers. His only son dying in infancy, the title devolved upon the younger branch of the Annesley family, who subsequently succeeded to the earldom of Anglesey. The earldom lapsed in 1771, when the English House of Lords decided against the legitimacy of the last claimant. Frances, the second daughter of Sir James Altham of Oxhey, married the second Earl of Carberry. The title lapsed in 1713. By his second wife, Mary, daughter of Richard Stapers, Esq., Altham had three children, a son Richard, who died without issue; two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth married first Sir Francis Astley of Hill Morton and Melton, knight, then Robert Baron Digby (Irish peerage), and lastly Sir John Bernard, knight and baronet, serjeant-at-law. By his third wife Altham had no children.

[Harl. MS. 1546; Visit of Herts, an. 1572; Archæologia, xxxvi. 408-9; Croke's Reports, Eliz. p. 87, Jac. I, p. 1; Coke's Reports, xii. 74-6; Dugdale's Orig. Juridic. p. 295; Dugdale's Chronica Series, pp. 101-2; Egerton Papers, pp. 388, 446-8; Calendar of State Papers, Dom. Ser., 1603-1610, pp. 469, 470,473, 479, 512, 513, 521, 558, 564, 596, 618; ditto, 1611-1618, pp. 45, 61, 116, 131, 441, 463, 469; Lansd. MSS., clxxiv. f. 217; Stephens' Letters and Memoirs of Sir Francis Bacon (first coll.), p. 140; Resuscitatio, p. 91; Cowell's Law Dict. sub tit. 'Commendam;' Morant's Hist. of Essex, ii. 60, 488; Wotton's Baronetage, iii. 66, 342; Lodge's Peerage of Ireland, iv. 126-9, vi. 290; Berry's County Geneaology, Herts, pp. 172-3; Burke's Landed Gentry, p.22; Burke's Extinct Peerage, pp. 7, 530.]

J. M. R.

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