Writing Parliamentary Biography. The Commons 1640-1660. Part 2: Sir Simonds D’Ewes (1602-50), the self-fashioning MP

In the second of a four-part series, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, discusses the problems associated with judging the life of a prolific diarist…

Simonds D’Ewes was born into a family recently settled in Suffolk but with roots in the Netherlands. He was the son and grandson of lawyers, and was himself put to the law at a very young age. He was called to the bar at the age of 21, but his inherited landed wealth meant that he did not need to practise law to make a living. He first entered Parliament in 1640 for the Suffolk borough of Sudbury, and sat in the Long Parliament all through the English civil war until Col. Thomas Pride’s purge in December 1648. He was a staunch Puritan of a conservative kind.

D’Ewes’s fame rests on his parliamentary diaries, which provide unrivalled insights into the politics of the House of Commons between 1640 and 1645. D’Ewes was a compulsive diarist, and started keeping a diary 20 years before he entered Parliament. When he arrived at Westminster, he collaborated with other MPs who kept diaries, but by March 1642 he considered himself the chief among them, and over 400 years later few would dissent from that verdict. Because of sensitivities among MPs about the confidential nature of the parliamentary record, he sometimes found himself defending his diary-keeping practices. He insisted that he was composing it at home from memory, and was not usurping the job of the clerk.

D’Ewes in fact kept three series of diaries. All of them are very personal and very opinionated, with D’Ewes himself at the centre of his narrative. The best-known are his parliamentary diaries in English, but he also kept a Latin diary between 1644 and 1647, and also an intermittent series of diaries in virtually impenetrable code or cipher. He devised the cipher as a schoolboy, and in the cipher diary he writes his most critical remarks about fellow-politicians. In his Latin diary he tells us how he spent his time when not in the Commons (mainly in scholarly and pious activities), and he sometimes uses one of his diaries to comment on something in another of them. So when he decided to give up his English parliamentary diary in 1645, he explained in his Latin diary that this was out of disgust at proposals for by-elections even though Parliament was at war with the king. He thought that by-elections proved that the Commons were intent on self-perpetuation and abandoning the ancient constitution.

D’Ewes has come down through the ages as bumptious and conceited, and most of the evidence for that comes from his own unpublished, private writings. The mass of surviving letters and diaries inevitably creates an impression of egotism simply because of D’Ewes’s habit of recording his own doings, and his determination that the record created for posterity should survive. The personal diary by definition has the ego at its centre. Offsetting D’Ewes’s pomposity and egotism are his extraordinary loyalty to his friends, which involved him in countless appearances at parliamentary committees as an agent on their behalf when they were in trouble; and his bravery in holding to unpopular lines of argument, especially since he was acutely sensitive to what other MPs thought of him.

The problem for any biographer of D’Ewes is that he has left so much commentary about his life and work (manuscripts and letters, as well as diaries) that it becomes hard to steer a path between two extremes. One is to take him at his own estimation, and also to take events at his own estimation of them. The other is to discount the autobiographical element as mere boastful egotism. Historians have disputed whether his own speeches, recorded in summary in his parliamentary diaries, might in fact not actually have been delivered in the Commons at all, but were instead just versions of what he might have said, had he been given the opportunity. After studying his parliamentary career in detail and writing his biography, I concluded that in the context of the typical parliamentary day, D’Ewes’s speeches could have been given much as he recorded them, and there seems no reason to believe, in the context of his entire parliamentary activity, that they were contaminated by wishful thinking or an element of fantasy.

The only antidote to the snares and pitfalls posed by such a self-conscious and self-fashioning politician is constantly to be comparing his own version of events and interpretation of them with the official record of the Commons, and (to a lesser degree) with other parliamentary diaries. By doing so, we can learn for example how sophisticated was his understanding of Catholicism compared with that of most MPs. Because of his continental European ancestry and his friendships with visiting ambassadors and various nobles from Catholic territories overseas, he distinguished between ‘moderate and temperate’ Catholics, especially those hostile to the Habsburg dynasty, and those who were treacherous, or ‘Jesuit’, or those thought to be in the pay of Spain. By contrast, the official record, the Commons Journal, bears ample testimony to the fact that most of his colleagues drew no such distinctions, and loathed and feared ‘papists’ of every kind.

In the next blog I will consider a very different figure, whose biography raises a very different problem: the workaholic and ubiquitous John Pym.


You can read the first of Stephen’s blogs in this series: Part 1: Methods‘ here.

There’s also more on parliamentary diaries, see ‘Researching the House of Commons: Parliamentary Diaries‘ and ‘Publication of Proceedings in Parliament 1624: The House of Commons‘.

Watch out for the next in this series, coming soon…

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