In our latest post, Dr Patrick Little of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section revisits the Parliament of 1659, which opened in such confusion that its membership was unclear and a stranger could sit undetected – with disquieting implications…
On 8 February 1659 the journalist Gilbert Mabbott reported the latest developments in Parliament to Henry Cromwell, the lord deputy of Ireland based in Dublin. Among other news he included the brief statement that the Commons ‘committed one King, a vintner in London, for sitting 3 days in Parliament, he being no Member thereof’ (Henry Cromwell Corresp. 447). What lay behind this extraordinary incident?
The protectorate Parliaments of the 1650s had seen many MPs elected and then excluded by the Cromwellian regime, most notably in 1656, when as many as 98 of the 460 Members returned were kept out of the House by order of the protectoral council. These were not only suspected (or ‘crypto’) royalists but also those ‘rigid’ Presbyterians who had caused difficulties for the government in the previous session in 1654-5, and a small number of republicans who sought, by causing disruption, to bring down the protectorate and re-establish the commonwealth. Richard Cromwell’s Parliament, which met in January 1659, was rather different, as the right of the council to exclude MPs had ended under the terms of the revised constitution, the Humble Petition and Advice, and instead the vetting of the membership was left to Parliament itself. The process was at best ad hoc. In a further complication, the 1659 Parliament had reverted to the old franchise, allowing more MPs to sit, and many of them were new to the Commons, whether young men or political rookies. It was amid the chaos of the opening days of the session that the discovery of an impostor caused alarm in the chamber.
William King, a vintner living at the Royal Exchange Tavern near Stocks Market in London, had been approached by a City alderman, Sir John Dethick, who told him he had been elected as an MP. Believing him, King sat in the House for three days, and was seen distributing a pamphlet to MPs. On 5 February, being ‘observed sitting in the House as a Member, and not being well known, was observed by some Members, who desired the Serjeant to watch when he went out, and ask him whether he was a Member or not’ (Burton’s Diary, iii. 77n). He was brought to the bar of the House and questioned, before being sent to Newgate prison. He was released after a petition by his father, Ralph King, citizen and vintner, on 7 February.
There is little doubt that William King was mentally disturbed. According to Edmund Ludlowe (MP for Hindon), ‘the man was distempered in his head to that degree, that his relations were often obliged to bind him by hand and foot’ (Ludlow, Mems. ii. 54). Guybon Goddard (MP for Castle Rising) concurred, noting that King had a history of illness, ‘having been distracted and being little better now’ (Burton’s Diary, iii. 85n), and this diagnosis is supported by his rambling and incoherent answers to the House, and by the leniency with which his crime was treated: he was released into his father’s custody just two days later. But there were also suspicions that he was being duped by others, and something more sinister was afoot. As James Launce (MP for Mitchell) put it, ‘he is but the fool in the play’ (Burton’s Diary, iii. 78).
Many MPs thought that King was a stooge of the republicans, not least because the pamphlet he had distributed was the anti-protectorate Twenty Five Queries. William Goodrick (MP for Thirsk) first raised the allegation that ‘this is the person that owned the pamphlet… which has treason in every line. It questions the nomination of his highness [i.e. Richard Cromwell], reflects likewise on this House, as if some Members were about the betray the liberties of the people. It reflects upon the army, as if no commission were of force since the protector’s death’ (Burton’s Diary, iii. 78). Goodrick was followed by Colonel Edward Grosvenor (MP for Westminster), who wanted King to be sent to the Tower as a traitor. Colonel John Birch (MP for Leominster) summed up the mood of the House: ‘Haply this man may neither be a wise man nor a fool’ adding that he should be examined further: ‘it may be he will discover more’ (Burton’s Diary, iii. 80). MPs’ suspicions were only allayed when evidence of King’s mental illness was presented to the Commons.
Despite handing out an inflammatory pamphlet, there was no evidence to link King with political radicalism. That did not mean that the republicans did not seek to exploit the situation. Edmund Ludlowe put the incident firmly within the context of a serious debate about the enforcement of an oath on MPs instituted by the Humble Petition, which many opponents of the protectorate refused to take. This debate ‘was at length interrupted by the discovery’ of King, and the distraction proved useful for Ludlowe and his friends, as ‘by this means the Assembly was diverted from resolving to impose the oath’ (Ludlow, Mems. ii. 53-4). The interventions of leading republicans in the House lends some support to Ludlowe’s claims. Once the King affair had been concluded, George Starkey (MP for New Windsor) called for the debate on the oath to be resumed, but Sir Arthur Hesilrige (MP for Leicester) moved ‘not to take it up so late; let us rise and have pity on ourselves, the better to be prepared on Monday’ (Burton’s Diary, iii. 82), and he was seconded in this by another opponent of the regime, Colonel Robert Bennett (MP for Launceston). Abandoning the debate on the oath suited the republicans just fine.
But what of Alderman Dethick? Dethick was a London alderman who had served as lord mayor in 1655-6 and was knighted by Oliver Cromwell in September 1656. He was a prosperous merchant who made it his business to maintain amicable relations with whatever regime was in power, and kept out of politics, declining to sit as an MP during the protectorate. It is interesting that he was knighted again by Charles II after the Restoration, and he may have had royalist sympathies during the 1650s. Having said that, Dethick’s motives in persuading William King to take a seat in the Commons chamber are not obvious from the evidence available. One possibility is that Dethick was using King to make a satirical point about the crypto-royalists recently returned as MPs, and this is hinted at by Ludlowe’s account that the alderman had told his dupe that ‘he had seen the name of one King upon the list of returns’ (Ludlow, Mems. ii. 53). The significance of King’s surname was obvious to others, with Guybon Goddard noting that the case ‘was talked of as ominous abroad, that in the beginning of a Parliament we had called a King to the bar and committed him to Newgate’ (Burton’s Diary, iii. 85). Alternatively, Dethick may have been playing an elaborate practical joke. If so, no one in this self-conscious and divided House of Commons found it remotely funny.
Commons Journals, vii. [https://www.british-history.ac.uk/commons-jrnl/vol7]
Burton’s Diary ed. J. T. Rutt (4 vols. 1828) [https://www.british-history.ac.uk/burton-diaries/vol3]
E. Ludlow, Memoirs ed. C.H. Firth (2 vols. 1894)
The Correspondence of Henry Cromwell ed. P. Gaunt (Camden Society, 5th ser. xxxi, 2008)
Mercurius Politicus, no. 553 (3-10 Feb. 1659), pp. 215-6.
Biographies of Robert Bennett, John Birch, Thomas Burton, Henry Cromwell, Richard Cromwell, Guybon Goddard, William Goodricke, Edward Grosvenor, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, James Launce, Edmund Ludlowe and George Starkey are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.