1632, Benjamin Couper of Great Yarmouth complains of a vexatious petition against him

Benjamin Couper. SP 16/210 f. 23 (1632)

To the right honourable the lords and others of his majesties most honourable privy councell.

The humble peticion of Benjamyn Couper his majesties servant, alderman of the towne of Great Yarmouth.

Whereas a peticion with articles annexed were presented to this honourable board in the name of the bailiffs, aldermen, burgeses and cominalty of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk complayning against your peticioner, the same being done by unknowne adversaries, and not by consent of the bailiffs, aldermen, burgeses and cominalty, nor according to the custome and ordinances of the towne by calling an assembly, as Master Ezechias Harris one of the bailiffs did averr to your peticioner. Yt was ordered by the board the 14th of December last, that your lordships thought fitt that copies of the said peticion and articles should be signed by the clerke of the councell and delivered to your peticioner, who was thereby required to make aunswere there =unto personally before this honourable board the 20th of January next.

Now for so much as the said articles, peticion, and order were not delivered to your peticioner before the 4th of this present moneth, he being lately sick retired from Yarmouth into the country for preservacion of his health altogether unable to travell this winter season without falling into a relapse to the danger of his life, wanting also time to collect his memory and writings to cleere himselfe of the scandalous imputacions suggested against him and especially his innocency depending upon the testimony of many honest grave and discreet aged persons, altogether unfitt for a winter jorney, with =out endangering their healths.

Your peticioner humbly prayeth your lordships the premisses considered to deferr his apearance untill the first weeke in May next, or other wise to referr the examinacion and hearing of the cause unto such justices and persons neere unto Yarmouth, as your lordships shall thinke fitt, to whose certificate your peticioner will submitt himselfe. And according to his bounden dutie will dayly pray for your lordships etc 

Report by Lesley Scott-Stapleton

In his petition, Benjamin Couper, alderman of Great Yarmouth, stated that a petition about him, to the Privy Council, had not been raised, as claimed, by the bailiffs, aldermen, burgesses and commonalty of Great Yarmouth but by an unknown adversary. A bailiff, Ezechias Harris, had told him he was due to answer the charges against him on 20 January and undertaken to send him a copy of the petition. Couper did not see this copy until 4 January, as he was away sick. He asked now to defer the hearing until May. 

Benjamin Couper and Ezekias Harris

A great deal is known about Benjamin Couper (or Cooper or Cowper), particularly his actions, but a brief biography should be given first. Born in Great Yarmouth in 1564,[1] Couper was to become one of the wealthiest herring merchants in Yarmouth and builder in 1596 of a fine mansion (now called the Elizabethan House) which stands on the South Quay.[2] As a leading politician in the town, he was elected bailiff (effectively mayor) on three occasions, and was returned to Parliament twice.[3] Records show a possible son matriculating from Emmanuel College, Cambridge.[4]  Through the influence of Bishop Harsnet of Norwich, he obtained the post of gentleman waiter to the king in 1630. From the age of sixty-five, he increasingly absented himself from assembly meetings, until in 1635 he sold his town mansion and retired to a country estate at Lound.[5]

Ezekias Harris was another successful Great Yarmouth merchant, who also served as a bailiff on two occasions.[6] Six children are recorded, their baptisms appearing at steady two to three-year intervals.[7]

Bishop Harsnet and the background to the petition

This petition lies some way through a train of events starting in 1622.[8] The conflicts arose initially from the efforts initiated by Bishop Harsnet of Norwich (and endorsed by King James VI & I) to remove the stipendiary church lecturers supported by the puritans; and then attempts by the anti-puritan aldermen to introduce a form of town government more in their interests by revising Yarmouth’s charter. Dealings in Great Yarmouth were low-key until the 1625 Parliamentary election, when Couper was ousted from his position by a puritan faction in the town corporation. Thereafter the political/religious hostilities were largely out into the open

Harsnet’s fears of a populist puritan conspiracy led to his efforts to replace lecturers regarded as prone to inflammatory preaching. As in several other towns, Great Yarmouth had a well-established stipendiary lectureship, consisting of two lecturers, funded and controlled by the corporation and removable at six months’ notice. Since the aldermen also failed to deal quickly with an illegal Anabaptist conventicle, Harsnet moved against the corporation in 1624. This resulted in a Chancery case between the corporation and the dean and chapter of Norwich in February 1627 before Archbishop Abbot. He ordered the town’s appointed lecturers to be replaced by nominees of the dean and chapter, prefacing his judgement with remarks about Yarmouth’s links with Amsterdam, the importing of ‘schismatical books’ and the support which townsmen gave to ‘unconformable ministers’ and ‘conventicles’.

Harsnet’s efforts were then taken over by Alderman Benjamin Couper, who was his ally and probable informant. He continued efforts to maintain a conformist clergy even after his removal from office. His removal seems to have come from a generalised doubt of his honesty following misappropriation of funds in 1623, which was revealed in 1626 and 1627. Couper was formally suspended from acting as the town’s representative in London, ostensibly on the grounds of ill-health. Although Couper never recovered his dominant position, his activities continued and he was elected as bailiff again in 1628-9. Maintaining his efforts to amend the town charter while in office, a petition prompted the king to order a review. The puritan faction managed to delay proceedings until July 1629 when the king instructed the corporation to nominate eight aldermen, from whom he would nominate the next two bailiffs.  The council producing a list unacceptable to Couper, he sent in his own list of names without approval; but he was thwarted when the king’s choices had clearly been made to attempt to bring order and balance. One of the nominees was dismissed, bringing an order from the Privy Council that he be restored. Continued refusal triggered a furious letter from the king, with which the Yarmouth assembly complied, at the same meeting that concluded Couper’s term in office.

A Privy Council hearing regarding the town charter was held in July 1630, at which questioning revealed weak arguments and support for the proposed changes. Sensing success, the puritan group persuaded Couper’s principal supporters to resign, but had to dismiss Couper as alderman in September 1630. Couper immediately petitioned the king, who referred the matter to the Privy Council with a recommendation that Couper be restored; the council sided unequivocally with Couper and ordered his restoration. Initially the corporation refused to accept the order, voting to keep Couper out. But representatives were summoned to London and harangued by the council and forced to submit. Couper was formally restored on 25 July 1631 and, in spite of further petitions against him, was never again seriously threatened.

The subject petition of this report is one of these further petitions, which presumably by now were regarded as vexatious and part of the tactics of contention between the factions. Although ageing, Couper and his allies maintained their attack on the town’s puritan ministry, an attack which ultimately met with considerable success.


[1] Baptism: 16 April 1564, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Father: Thomas Cowper, Mother: Elizabethe, Spouse: Amelia, Children: Isabella.  https://www.ancestry.co.uk/search/?name=Benjamin_Cowper&event=_Great+Yarmouth&count=50&name_x=1_1.

[2] ‘Brief History of Elizabethan House’, Norfolk Museums, https://www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk/elizabethan-house/whats-here/brief-history-of-elizabethan-house.

[3] ‘1620 B. Cowper and. Edward Owner, Esqs., free Burgesses, elected to Parliament. 1623 Benjamin Cowper, Esq., re-elected with G. Hardware, Esq., to serve in Parliament’. William Finch-Crisp, Chronological Retrospect of the History of Yarmouth from AD 46 to 1884 (1871), p. 26.  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/41618/41618-h/41618-h.htm.

[4] ‘Cooper, Benjamin. Adm. Fell.-Com. at Emmanuel, May 16, 1612. Matric. 1612. Perhaps s. of Benjamin, alderman of Gt Yarmouth, and M.P. for Gt Yarmouth, 1620 and 1624-5’, John Venn (ed.), Alumni Cantabrigienses: A Biographical List of All Known Students, Graduates and Holders of Office at the University of Cambridge (1922), p.389. https://archive.org/details/alumnicantabrigipt1vol1univiala.

[5] Richard Cust, ‘Anti-Puritanism and Urban Politics: Charles I and Great Yarmouth’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1 (March 1992), pp. 1-26. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0018246X00025589.

[6] Hezekiah (or Ezekias) Harris (or Harrys). Father: Thomas Harris, Mother: Jone (or Joane) Myddleton. Baptised: 14 December 1573, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk.  Spouse: Katherine Youngs, Children: Joane (or Johan). Recorded in 1635 as a merchant with shipping interests, and owner of rental housing. Served as a bailiff for Great Yarmouth in 1620 and 1631. Burial: 15 December 1639, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. https://www.ancestry.co.uk/family-tree/person/tree/24021488/person/220199475587/facts?_phsrc=gwR250&_phstart=successSource. Francis Blomefield, ‘East Flegg Hundred: Great Yarmouth, bailiffs and mayors’, in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 11 (1810), pp. 322-345. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-hist-norfolk/vol11/pp322-345.

[7] Joane Harris, Christening: 9 Apr 1604, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk. Gender Female, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:J7SR-ZJN. Amy Harris, Christening: 2 Apr 1606, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JWFB-HXT. Rachell Harris, Christening: 9 Sep 1608, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JWFB-HB9. Abigull Harris, Christening: 14 Jun 1611, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:J3XT-97F. John Harris, Christening: 26 Dec 1613, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:NB79-F7Q. Hezechias Harris, Christening: 15 October 1617, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:JWFB-CHC. All entries: Father’s name: Ezekias Harris, Mother’s name: Katheryn.

[8] The following account draws on Cust, ‘Anti-Puritanism and Urban Politics: Charles I and Great Yarmouth’.


This report is part of a series on ‘Petitioners in the reign of Charles I and the Civil Wars’, created through a U3A Shared Learning Project on ‘Investigating the Lives of Seventeenth-Century Petitioners’.