Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Stephen Roberts, ‘The uses of a parliamentary diary in the making of a royalist: the case of Henry Townshend of Worcestershire’

Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, reports on his paper given at our last ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar: ‘The uses of a parliamentary diary in the making of a royalist: the case of Henry Townshend of Worcestershire, 1640-3’…

Henry Townshend (c. 1602-1663) was a Worcestershire gentleman who lived in Elmley Lovett, a village ten miles north of Worcester. He was the son and a half-brother of men who had sat in parliaments under Elizabeth I and James I, but he himself never became an MP. He was instead prominent in the government of his county. Just before 1640 he began to copy documents on aspects of public administration, and in 1640 he began to keep a diary. His writings, both diary and copies of documents, were eventually bound into a manuscript volume, which is now in the Worcestershire Archives.

This material has long been known to historians and a hundred years ago an edition of it was published under the title The Diary of Henry Townshend. There are many problems with this published text, however, and the Worcestershire Historical Society is bringing out a new edition, edited by Stephen Porter, Stephen Roberts and Ian Roy. Although Townshend’s manuscript contains the widest possible variety of material – at least 292 documents were copied into it – parliamentary historians will be particularly interested in what appears to be a diary or journal of events in parliament in 1640 and 1641, which is to be found near the beginning of Townshend’s manuscript and near the front of both the old and new published editions. Unlike the famous diarists of parliament in the 1640s, such as Sir Simonds D’Ewes or Walter Yonge, who wrote as sitting MPs, Townshend was writing far from London, dependent on material that came to him. His parliamentary writings are therefore a kind of ‘extramural journal’, which is relatively rare.

On close inspection, it emerges that a significant amount of the material in Townshend’s account is taken from printed speeches, and specifically a printed collection of speeches published in June 1641. Townshend took passages of the speeches that interested him and wove them into his account. But within his account of the early months of the Long Parliament, which met on 3 November 1640, he inserts a 1500-word summary of events in the Short Parliament, which had met for a few weeks in April and May of that year. This material is very terse and consists of brief comments and summaries of things said and done in the Short Parliament, and appears to be the work of someone who actually sat in that assembly. There are various possibilities as to who might have supplied Townshend with this diary: two of his neighbours were new MPs in 1640, as was a relative who sat for Much Wenlock in Shropshire. Because material on the Short Parliament is rare, this ‘diary’ is of significance, but its provenance must remain uncertain. In order to receive material to insert into his record, he must have been part of a ‘scribal community’ with whom he exchanged printed and manuscript items of interest and relevance to his concerns.

The question remains as to why Townshend copied out this kind of material. Taking everything we know about him into account, he seems to have been more interested in the Short Parliament than the Long Parliament, as he abandoned making a narrative of parliamentary events after he had covered a mere four months of its life. He seems to have been concerned about the burden of taxation on the country, the county and the individual, and invested effort in trying to work out why the Short Parliament, dissolved by Charles I after only a few weeks, failed. In his account, a deal was on the table whereby the king would have given the irregular and unpopular ‘ship money’ in exchange for a firm and irreversible grant of the subsidy, the regular direct tax granted by parliament. One reason for his growing disenchantment with the Long Parliament was the growing dominance of it by those he saw as Puritans, with whom he had little sympathy. He himself was close to successive bishops of Worcester, and did not share the view prevailing at Westminster that the country was in the grip of a plot by Catholics.

After the outbreak of the civil war in 1642, Townshend became a pillar of royalist administration, and the man concerned about heavy taxes was obliged to levy rates and taxes on behalf of the king. His scribal community was now the king’s party in Worcestershire, and he started to copy other kinds of material relating to the war effort. He also went on to keep a vivid diary of the siege of Worcester in 1646, when he was holed up in the city by the New Model army. He never returned to detailed analysis of parliaments, but his writings on 1640-41 remained by him, perhaps to remind him that there might have been a happier political outcome had the Short Parliament not been dissolved.


The Diary and Papers of Henry Townshend, 1640-1663, edited by Stephen Porter, Stephen K. Roberts and Ian Roy will be published later in 2015. Details will be announced on the website of the Worcestershire Historical Society.

Join us tonight for our next ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar. Rebekah Moore, holder of an AHRC collaborative doctoral award with the History of Parliament and Institute of Historical Research,  will speak on ‘Contested spaces: temporary houses of Parliament and government, 1834-52′ See you there!.

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