Sir Thomas Billing

BILLING, Sir THOMAS (d. 1481?), chief justice, is said by Fuller (Worthies, ii. 166) to have been a native of Northamptonshire, where two villages near Northampton bear his name, and to have afterwards lived in state at Ashwell in that county. Lord Campbell (Lives of the Chief Justices, i. 145) says he was an attorney’s clerk; but this seems doubtful. He was, at any rate, a member of Gray’s Inn. Writing to one Ledam, Billing says: ‘I would ye should do well, because ye are a fellow of Gray’s Inn, where I was fellow’ (Paston Letters, i. 43, 53), and, according to a Gray’s Inn manuscript, he was a reader there. His social position was sufficient to enable him to be on terms of intimacy with the families of Paston and of Lord Grey de Ruthin. In 1448 he was M.P. for London, and was made common serjeant 15 Oct. 1442, and recorder 21 Sept. 1450. He received the coif as serjeant-at-law 2 Jan. 1453–4, and in the Hilary term of that year is first mentioned as arguing at the bar. Thenceforward his name is frequent in the reports. Lord-chancellor Waynflete appointed him king’s serjeant 21 April 1458, and Lord Campbell, citing an otherwise unknown pamphlet of Billing in favour of the Lancastrian cause, says that with the attorney-general and solicitor-general he argued the cause of King Henry VI at the bar of the House of Lords. The entry in the Parliamentary Rolls, however (v. 376), indicates that the judges and king’s serjeants excused themselves from giving an opinion in the matter. About the same time Billing appears to have been knighted, and on the accession of Edward IV his patent of king’s serjeant was renewed, and in the first parliament of this reign he was named, along with Serjeants Lyttelton and Laken, a referee in a cause between the Bishop of Winchester and some of his tenants. He is said by Lord Campbell to have exerted himself actively against King Henry, Queen Margaret, and the Lancastrians, and to have helped to frame the act of attainder of Sir John Fortescue, chief justice of the king’s bench, for being engaged in the battle of Towton, and to have advised the grant of a pardon, on condition that the opinions of the treatise ‘De Laudibus’ should be retracted (see Rot. Parl. vi. 2629). At any rate, in 1464 (9 Aug.), Billing was added to the three judges of the king’s bench, but by the king’s writ only; and the question being thereupon raised, it was decided that a commission in addition to the writ was required for the appointment of a justice of assize. Baker in his ‘Chronology,’ and Hale in his ‘Pleas of the Crown,’ says that on the trial of Walter Walker for treason in 1460, for having said to his son, ‘Tom, if thou behavest thyself well, I will make thee heir to the Crown’—i.e. of the Crown Inn, of which he was landlord—Billing ruled a conviction, and Lord Campbell accepts the story. But it would seem from the report of the judgment of Chief-justice Bromley in the trial of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, 17 April 1554, that the judge at that trial was John Markham [q. v.], afterwards chief justice next before Billing, and that he directed an acquittal (see Stow, 415; Fabyan, 633).

Billing succeeded Markham as chief justice of the king’s bench 23 Jan. 1468–9 (Dugdale and Foss, arts. ‘Billing’ and ‘Markham’), having precedence over Yelverton and Bingham, justices of the king’s bench; and this office he retained in spite of political changes. For when henry VI for a few months regained the throne new patents were at once issued, 9 Oct. 1470; and when Edward IV overthrew him, 17 June 1471 (Dugdale, wrongly, 1472, and so Campbell), he, along with almost all the other judges, was confirmed in his seat. It is suggested that he may have owed this less to his legal talents than to the support of the Earl of Warwick. In 1477 (not as Campbell, 1470; see Hume, iii. 261) Billing tried Burdet of Arrow, in Warwickshire, a dependent of the Duke of Clarence, for treason, committed in 1474, in saying of a stag, ‘I wish that the buck, horns and all, were in the king’s belly,’ for which he was executed (1 State Trials, 275). Billing is also said to have been concerned in the trial of the Duke of Clarence himself (Rot. Parl. vi. 193). He continued to sit in court until 5 May 1481 (1482, Campbell), when he died and was buried in Bittlesden Abbey. His tombstone is now in Wappenham Church, Northamptonshire. His successor was Sir John Hussey or Husee. He was twice married, first to Katerina, who died 8 March 1479, second to Mary, daughter and heir of Robert Wesenham of Conington in Huntingdonshire, who had previously been married to Thomas Lang, and then to William Cotton of Redware, Staffordshire. She died in 1499, and was buried in St. Margaret’s, Westminster, which she and Sir Thomas Billing had rebuilt. By his first wife he had issue four daughters and five sons, one of whom, Thomas, his heir, died in 1500 without male issue, and was buried with his father and mother.

[Foss’s Lives of the Judges; Campbell’s Lives of the Lord Chief Justices; Dugdale’s Origines Juridiciales; Coke’s Institutes, preface; Gairdner’s Paston Letters, i. 302; Close Roll, 13 Edw. IV, m. 5.]

ictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 05
Billing, Thomas by John Andrew Hamilton

Further Reading

Conversations with a medieval MP: Serjeant Billing and the Pastons. History of Parliament.

Image Credits

Brass of Sir Thomas Billing, chief justice of King’s bench, in church of Wappenham.

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