This week is Parliament Week, a programme of events and activities that connects people across the UK with Parliament and democracy. To mark it, every day this week we are publishing a blog on ‘unlikely parliamentarians’ – the men and women across history who became parliamentarians only unexpectedly.
Our final blog in the series is from Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section. The chaos of the Civil Wars and Interregnum certainly led to many ‘unexpected’ MPs. Here Dr Roberts discusses the life of William Neast, a religious radical and minor local gentry figure who made it to parliament…
The period of the English Revolution in the mid-seventeenth century threw up many unlikely parliamentarians, whose unlikeliness lay in their social background rather than in their personalities. As in any period, the parliaments of the 1640s and 1650s included colourful characters, eccentrics and people whose morals, financial probity and general character marked them out from the norm. But because of the peculiar social circumstances of the English civil war and its aftermath, many men came to sit in the House of Commons who would not, in more settled times, have aspired to represent their county at Westminster. One of these was William Neast (1622-70) of Chaceley, a small parish on the Worcestershire/Gloucestershire border, near Tewkesbury. Neast came from a long line of yeomen farmers, who had become prosperous enough to deserve the title parish gentry: important figures in Chaceley, but not far beyond it.
William Neast was the first of his family to go to university, at Oxford, and returned evidently to rule the roost at Chaceley. But during the civil war the most important parliamentarian garrison in his district was Gloucester, and in 1643 Neast became firstly the collector in his locality of taxes for the garrison, and soon afterwards, collector of Parliament’s national tax, the assessment, in the western Cotswolds. Whether his commitment to the cause of Parliament against the king preceded or followed these appointments is unclear, but he then became captain of a troop of foot-soldiers at Tewkesbury, and in the Worcestershire militia. These local responsibilities found recognition when the governing council of Tewkesbury elected him as a freeman of the borough in 1646. In normal times, this would have entitled him to progress to be mayor of Tewkesbury after serving through the less desirable minor offices of the town. In Neast’s case, because he was elected in his capacity as a soldier in the service of Parliament, he was allowed the luxury of a special arrangement by which ‘he should serve no office in town without his own consent’, meaning that if he declined to serve in civic office he would face no financial penalty.
Neast’s ambivalent approach to the freedom of the borough of Tewkesbury suggests that his public service ambitions remained strictly limited in 1646. However, the national emergency of 1650-1, when the fledgling English Commonwealth was threatened by a Scots army with the future Charles II at its head, demanded practical action from many supporters of Parliament, from none more so than from those with a background in the county militias. The battle of Worcester of 3 Sept. 1651, when the Scots army was routed by the republican forces under Oliver Cromwell, drew heavily on the militia, both in practical, military terms, but also in terms of rhetoric. The idea that volunteer soldiers had rallied to the Commonwealth flag was vital in the propaganda and imagery of how Worcester was recorded and celebrated. What Neast thought about the execution of Charles I, which had taken place more than two years earlier, or what he made of the inauguration of the republic, for that matter, is lost to us. But we can be confident that he played some local part in the campaign of Worcester, a city less than 20 miles from Tewkesbury. The triumph of what Cromwell called the ‘crowning mercy’ of Worcester emboldened the radical Congregational churches in all regions of England.
Whether Neast became recognized as a friend and supporter of the Gloucestershire/Worcestershire congregations before the battle of Worcester or after it is not known. But after he forcibly expelled the Rump Parliament in April 1653, Lord general Oliver Cromwell turned to the radical elements in the army and to such radical churches to nominate men to serve in a constitutional experiment which derived some of its inspiration from the Jewish Sanhedrin of the Old Testament. Neast was one of those identified by the Gloucestershire churches in 1653 as one who enjoyed a ‘good report for piety and constant adhering to the cause of God and interest of the army’. So as a nominee of his fellow-militiamen and his local churches, Neast went up to London in the summer of 1653 to sit for Gloucestershire in the Parliament known variously as Barebones Parliament or the Nominated Assembly. He did very little while he was there, beyond perhaps playing some small part in the committee for management of the army, and he left early, returning to Chaceley after only two months. He was however evidently comfortable with the dissolution of that Parliament and the accession of Oliver Cromwell to be head of state with the title of lord protector, because he was elected again, this time by a more conventional electoral process, to the Parliament of 1656. In that assembly he was more active, albeit only on matters of local or regional Gloucestershire interest. Parliament asked him to arbitrate in a quarrel among the Puritan ministers at Tewkesbury, men who were almost certainly his friends, and his whole profile as an MP shows how he never transcended, or sought to transcend, his local roots.
In 1660, at the restoration of Charles II, against whom he had fought at Worcester nine years earlier, Neast sought to walk away from his local offices. At Tewkesbury he formally attested that he wished to ‘lay hold upon his majesty’s free and general pardon’, declaring ‘… I am and will continue his majesty’s loyal and obedient subject’. He managed to extricate himself, but not without some close attention from a hostile government that had intercepted a letter to him from the puritan minister of Tewkesbury. In this letter, the minister, who himself was ejected from his living, asserted to Neast that ‘good people are preparing for dark days in order to a glorious appearance’. For ‘good people’, substitute ‘religious radicals’ or adherents to the ‘Good Old Cause’ of Parliament; and for ‘a glorious appearance’, Jesus Christ and a new earthly leader in England, and you see why Neast was monitored closely by the agents of the monarchy for the rest of his life, and was lucky to evade arrest and imprisonment. He died in May 1670 and was buried in Twyning church, near Tewkesbury, where his memorial (in Latin, a nod to his Oxford education) reads: ‘Death alone shows how small are the little bodies of men’.