Writing Parliamentary Biography, the Commons 1640-1660. Part 3: John Pym (1584-1643) the ubiquitous but invisible MP

In the third of a four-part series, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, discusses writing the biography of a ‘workaholic’ political leader…

In the last blog, I discussed Sir Simonds D’Ewes, whose compulsive autobiographical instinct has left us with a feast of materials about his own life and opinions, but who poses a challenge to the biographer wanting to move beyond D’Ewes’s own estimation of himself. In stark contrast, the parliamentary career of John Pym raises basic questions of motivation and personality. Born into a Somerset minor gentry family, he was educated at Oxford and the Middle Temple. He held a modest government office, a receivership of crown revenues, but by the time the Short Parliament met in April 1640 he was a veteran of five Parliaments. By April 1640 he had also been a widower for 20 years, and it could be argued that Westminster became his family.

Pym can justifiably be considered leader of the Commons opposition to the government of Charles I, and developed the traits of what would today be called a workaholic. The minister who preached his funeral sermon recalled how Pym would work from 3 a.m. ‘to the evening, and from evening to midnight’, and the official record of the House of Commons confirms that this was hardly an exaggeration. In the period between the opening of the Long Parliament (3 Nov. 1640) and October 1643, when his health failed, Pym reported to the Commons on conferences requested by the Lords on 146 occasions. In the same period, when the Commons asked for a conference with the Lords, he managed the resulting meetings 191 times. Apart from these conferences and their associated meetings, Pym was named to no fewer than 226 Commons committees. He was missing from the Commons for a week in July 1642, and for 5 days in October and another 5 in December that year. He was absent for 5 days in March 1643, for 6 in May and 6 in June. We know this because otherwise his name appears on most of the 1004 pages of vol. 2 of the Commons Journal: meaning that for the rest of the time he was ever-present, and practically lived in the House of Commons.

Faced with this mountain of official evidence, we can also infer things from what is not there. For instance, despite all this committee activity, Pym was never a teller in a single Commons division. And only 18 of the 226 committees he was called to serve on were devoted to producing legislation. Pym was an administrator, not a parliamentary draftsman. But as if to balance the overwhelming volume of committee lists, reports from conferences, and brief accounts of his interventions in debate recorded in diaries such as that of D’Ewes, we have very little on Pym’s private life. He left no substantial collection of personal papers; his surviving letters are few in number and not particularly revealing. The speeches of his that were printed were subject to forgery and distortion by propagandists. Pym was entering old age when Parliament assembled in 1640, and there was nothing dashing, romantic or outstanding about the personality of this staid, hyper-industrious Puritan administrator. Probably for these reasons Pym has attracted very few biographers, and the most celebrated book in which Pym figures in the title, The Reign of King Pym by J. H. Hexter (1941), is not a biography of Pym at all, but a study of party politics in the early years of the Long Parliament.

It is easy to identify the causes which absorbed so much of Pym’s time: the trial of the earl of Strafford in 1641; developing the narrative and rhetoric of the great ‘popish’ conspiracy that drove the opposition to Charles I; co-ordinating and harmonizing the activities of the two Houses of Parliament; courting the City of London, Parliament’s most important source of finance; concluding the Solemn League and Covenant with the Scots, which transformed the course of the Civil War. Particularly after he himself narrowly escaped arrest in January 1642 on charges of high treason, which carried the penalty of death by hanging, evisceration and dismemberment, he became an implacable opponent of Charles I, sceptical of any outcome to the Civil War except the complete defeat of the king. It is much less easy to determine what kind of post-war state Pym envisaged. While a detailed study of all his official activities makes it difficult to believe he was merely a man-of-business for great men in either Lords or Commons, it is much harder to encapsulate the world-view he worked for, especially since he died in November 1643 while the Civil War was raging. As things stood at his death, he has a claim (taking into account his lack of landed wealth, his distance from virtually all offices of state and in the period 1640-3 his independence from any controlling patron) to be considered England’s first career politician.

In the final blog of this series, I will look at the problems of writing the biography of the most famous and controversial MP of them all: Oliver Cromwell.

SR

You can read the other blogs in Stephen’s series here:

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