and it is said (Bacon, Apophthegms) that on being asked by the queen shortly before the prorogation of parliament what had passed in the house, he wittily replied, ‘If it please your Majesty, seven weeks.’ On 1 June 1581 he succeeded Sir Gilbert Gerard [q. v.], created master of the rolls, as attorney-general. He held the post for eleven years, and took a prominent part as crown prosecutor in many state trials (Howell, State Trials, i. 1050–1329). Popham endeavoured to discharge his difficult office with humanity.
In 1586 he was induced to offer himself as an undertaker in the plantation of Munster in conjunction with his sons-in-law, Edward Rogers and Roger Warre, and lands were accordingly assigned to him in co. Cork; but after he spent 1,200l. in transporting labourers thither, the difficulties he encountered led him to desist from the enterprise (Cal. State Papers, Irel. Eliz. iii. 77, 449, 508). He was, however, appointed to assist Chief-justice Anderson and Baron Gent in examining and compounding all claims to escheated lands in Munster in 1588. He landed at Waterford on 22 Aug., returning to England, apparently, in the autumn of the following year. He succeeded Sir Christopher Wray [q. v.] as lord chief justice on 2 June 1592, and at the same time was knighted. He presided over the court of king's bench for the remaining fifteen years of his life. On the occasion of the Earl of Essex's insurrection, he went, with other high officers of state, to Essex House on 8 Feb. 1601 for the purpose of remonstrating with him, and was, with them, confined in a ‘back chamber’ in the house for several hours. He refused an offer of release for himself alone (Devereux, Lives of the Earls of Essex, ii. 143). At the trials arising out of the rebellion he combined somewhat incongruously the characters of witness and judge (Howell, State Trials, i. 1429).
Shortly after the accession of James I, Popham presided at the trial of Sir Walter Ralegh, and very feebly interposed to mitigate the violence of the attorney-general, Sir Edward Coke. His decision that the evidence of one person, whom it was not necessary to produce in open court, was sufficient in cases of treason, was not—as is sometimes supposed—an attempt to twist the law against the prisoner, but the interpretation universally placed upon the law of treason, as it was supposed to have been modified by the statute 1 and 2 Philip and Mary, cap. 10 (cf. Gardiner, Hist. of Engl. i. 130). Though apparently convinced of Ralegh's guilt, he sympathised sincerely with him. As a member of parliament Popham had sat on several committees to devise means for effectually punishing rogues and vagabonds by setting them to work, and as lord chief justice he had assisted in drafting the Act 39 Eliz. cap. 4, whereby banishment ‘into such parts beyond the seas as shall be at any time hereafter for that purpose assigned,’ was for the first time appointed as the punishment for vagrancy. Taken in connection with his exertions in 1606 in procuring patents for the London and Plymouth companies for the colonisation of Virginia, it is perhaps not difficult to see what meaning is to be attached to Aubrey's statement that he ‘first sett afotte the Plantations, e.g. Virginia, which he stockt and planted out of all the gaoles of England.’ Whether the Popham colony was really composed of the offscourings of English gaols is a moot-point which has been discussed at considerable length, and with no little acrimony, in America (Winsor's Hist. of America, iii. 175, 209). Popham presided at the trial of Guy Fawkes and the other conspirators in the ‘gunpowder plot’ in 1606. He sat on the bench till Easter term, 1607.
He died on 10 June 1607, and was buried at Wellington in Somerset in the chapel on the south side of the parish church. His wife lies beside him, and a noble monument was erected over them, with effigies of him and his wife. On the outskirts of the town stood Popham's house, a large and stately mansion, which was destroyed during the civil wars. In accordance with his will, dated 21 Sept. 1604, a hospital was erected at the west end of the town for the maintenance of twelve poor and aged people, whereof six were to be men and six women, and for two poor men's children. During his lifetime he acquired by purchase several considerable estates in Somerset, Wiltshire, and Devonshire. According to an improbable story recorded by Aubrey, and alluded to by Sir Walter Scott in his notes to ‘Rokeby,’ Littlecote in Wiltshire was the price paid to him by Darell, its previous owner, a distant kinsman, for corruptly allowing him to escape the legal consequences of a most atrocious murder. Popham doubtless acquired the property by purchase. Aubrey adds that Popham ‘first brought in [i.e. revived] brickbuilding in London (sc. after Lincolne's Inn and St. James's).’
Popham was a sound lawyer and a severe judge. Shortly after his death Lord Ellesmere alluded to him as ‘a man of great wisdom and of singular learning and judgement in the law’ (Howell, State Trials, ii. 669), and Coke spoke of him with like admiration (6th Rep. p. 75).
According to Fuller (Worthies, ii. 284),