The Rewards of Justice

Who judges a judge? Historians may try. Here we weigh in the balance Sir Richard Choke of Long Ashton.

Sir Richard Choke

This lifelike effigy of Sir Richard Choke adorns his tomb in the Church of Long Ashton.

Power corrupts, the saying goes. Did it corrupt Sir Richard Choke? It is easy to think cynical thoughts about a judge dining off silver plates who pleads for forgiveness of his sins. Visions of lavish 'gifts' to ensure a favourable verdict flash across the mind. Yet a study of Sir Richard's life by Joel Rosenthal tells a different tale. It is a heartening story. Richard Choke was born to the middle rank, but his distinguished career rested on his own efforts. What is more he steadily dispensed justice through a time of national turmoil.

Richard Choke was a son of Somerset. His father John owned the manor of Stanton Drew, six miles south of Bristol. Eventually Richard inherited it, but in the meantime he set out to make his own living. He was educated in law at the Middle Temple in London.

In his early career Richard probably did far more private legal business than public, but state records have a better survival rate. So we know that in 1440s the king sent him on errands in Bristol and Somerset. When Genoese merchants had their ship seized by 'evildoers' who brought it into Bristol harbour, Choke had to stave off an international incident.

He must have impressed Henry VI, for in 1453 he was appointed the king's serjeant-at-law. Serjeant-at-law was the highest rank of barrister at the English bar. The serjeants acted as leading counsel in the Court of Common Pleas. This was the busiest of the central courts at Westminster, hearing disputes over property and debt. As the king's serjeant, Sir Richard was working for the Crown. His fees were paid out of royal revenues from Bristol.

Choke's links with Bristol were strong. He married a Bristol woman. Joan was the daughter of William Pavy, who was an MP for Bristol and merchant in the town. If Choke carried his bride off to Stanton Drew, we can imagine that the pair spent a good deal of time on the road between Stanton and Bristol. Apart from the pull of family ties, the bustling town would provide plenty of legal work. To commuters today Stanton Drew might seem conveniently close to the city, but picture six miles on horseback over badly kept roads. In 1454 Richard Choke bought the manor of Long Ashton. Just two miles from Bristol, it would have been an ideal base for the busy barrister. Ashton Court became his chief home.

Still Choke was constantly on the move. He attended court cases at Westminster. He served as a justice of assize in seven counties. In fact his work took him the length and breadth of England and into Wales. The poor roads of the time must have been the bane of his life. It's not surprising that he left 20 in his will for 'the amending of feeble ways and bridges.'

The parish church of Long Ashton

The parish church of Long Ashton has this astonishingly fine gilded screen.

Choke's career sailed serenely on through the convulsions of the Wars of the Roses. Edward IV snatched the throne from Henry VI in 1461. The new king gave Choke a rapid promotion. He was created a justice of the common pleas. As the struggles for power continued and sovereigns came and went, each one confirmed Choke in office. It speaks volumes for his value. His rewards were status and wealth. Choke was knighted in 1465. Sir Richard bought lands and property, including houses in Bristol, which would give him an income in rents. The wages of a judge were generous. He could well afford to lavish money on a gracious home. Whatever improvements he made at Ashton Court have vanished beneath the work of later owners. But Choke's will mentions his impressive collection of silver plate.

We can see his care for his parish church. It was rebuilt in his day, presumably from his purse. Part of the new plan was the Choke family chapel. He lies in an ornate tomb there, under a pious inscription probably chosen by his second wife, Dame Margaret, who lies beside him. His will had requested simply his name and date of death on his tomb. Instead we read: Jesu for thy great pity of our sins have mercy and for the love of thy passion bring our souls to salvation.

Sir Richard Choke's detailed biography by Joel Rosenthal was published in Somerset Archaeology and Natural History volume 127.