Open main menu


BELL, ROBERT (d. 1577), judge, was of a Norfolk family, and was educated at Cambridge. He is mentioned as reader at the Middle Temple in the autumn of 1565 (Dugdale, Orig. 217). In 1558-9 he was of counsel for the patentees of the lands of the bishopric of Winchester on a bill in parliament which touched their interest. His career was at first political. From 1562, when he was first returned for Lynn Regis, until his death he sat in parliament. In October 1566, being a member of a committee to petition the queen as to her marriage, he commented boldly on the unsatisfactory answer returned. A dissolution ensuing, in the next parliament, in April 1571, he was named among those assigned to confer with the lords spiritual on the reformation of abuses in religion. Having pressed, during a subsidy debate, for a reform of abuses connected with licenses to four courtiers, he was sent for by the council, and 'so hardly dealt with, that it daunted all the house in such sort that for several days there was not one that durst deal in any matter of importance.' He is found, however, speaking later on upon a usury bill and on parliamentary reform and non-resident burgesses. A new parliament being summoned in 1572, he was elected speaker on 10 May, and still held that office at the close of the Parliament when, on 8 Feb. 1576, it fell to him to move the queen on the subject of her marriage, and to offer a subsidy. The queen, by the lord keeper, returned a conditional assent, and parliament was prorogued on 14 May.

During this time Bell had pursued his profession, as the occasional mention of his name in Dyer's and Plowden's reports testifies, On 11 Feb. 1562-3 he had been appointed counsel for the town of Great Yarmouth for life at an annual fee of 40s., and in August 1570 he was of counsel for the crown on the trial at Norwich assizes of persons charged with a treasonable rising on behalf of the Duke of Norfolk. In 1573 (20 Oct.) his name occurs in a commission of oyer and terminer for the county of Norfolk. On the death of Sir Edward Saunders, chief baron of the exchequer, Bell succeeded him 24 Jan. 1577, having a short time previously been knighted and raised to the degree of serjeant-at-law (Dugdale, Chron. Ser. 95, citing MS. Ashmol.) No parliament assembling for nearly four years, a successor was not for that time appointed to the speakership. He sat on the bench, however, but a few months; for at the Oxford summer assizes in the same year, when presiding at the trial of Rowland Jenckes, 'a scurvy foul-mouthed bookseller,' for a slander on the queen, Bell, along with Mr. Serjeant Barham, the high sheriff, many  knights and gentlemen, most of the grand jury, and above three hundred more, was taken sick from the stench of the prisoners, and died in a few days. On the same occasion, having been nominated 23 April 1577, he was a member of a commission for a special visitation of the University of Oxford, along with the bishops of London and Rochester, Sir Christopher Wray, lord chief justice, and four others (State Papers, Domestic, Elizabeth, p. 543). His successor as chief baron was Sir John Jeffreys, appointed 12 Oct. 1577. Camden describes Sir Robert Bell as 'a sage and grave man, and famous for his knowledge in the law.' He was thrice married: to Mary, daughter of Mr. Anthony Chester; to Elizabeth, widow of Edmund Anderson, a son of Sir Edmumd Anderson, lord chief justice of the common pleas; and (15 Oct. 1559) to Dorothy, daughter and coheiress of Edward Beaupré, who brought him the manor of Beaupré in Upwell and Outwell, Norfolk, and, surviving him, married Sir John Peyton of Doddington in Kent, lieutenant of the Tower, and governor of Jersey under James I. He had several children: Dorothy, who married Sir H. Hobart, chief justice of the common pleas; Mary, who married Sir Nicholas L'Estrange of Hunstanton in Norfolk; Frances, who was second wife to Sir Anthony Dering of Surenden in Kent; and one son Edmund, who married Ann, daughter of Sir Peter Osborn. His descendants long resided in Norfolk. There are portraits of him in the possession of the Misses Bell of North Runcton, and of the Rev. H. Creed, of Mellis; the latter has been engraved by W. C. Edwards.

[Foss's Lives of the Judges; Dugdale's Origines Juridiciales; Blomefieid's Norfolk, iv. 182; Wotton's Baronetage, i. 375, ii. 17, iii. pt. 2, 427; Parl. History, i. 715, 735, 757, 779, 794; Cal. State Papers, Domestic, Eliz., p. 443; Wood's Annals, ii. 188; Manning's Speakers, 242; Rymer. xv. 725, 773; Manship's Yarmouth, ii. 358; Cooper's Athenæ Cantab., i. 365, 565.]

J. A. H.