The Grand Old Man of the Long Parliament

In earlier centuries politics might be seen as a young man’s game, but here Dr Andrew Barclay of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at a veteran Member of the 1640s who had first sat in the 1570s…

MPs in the seventeenth century tended to be rather younger than they are today. The median age of those elected to the Long Parliament in 1640 was probably under 45, whereas the equivalent figure for those elected in 2017 was 50.5. Even more striking is the difference in ages of the oldest MPs. Just three MPs elected in late 1640 were aged over 70 compared to 28 elected in 2017. That difference is only partly explained by the fact that the House of Commons is now larger (650 MPs compared to 507). The more obvious reason is, of course, that life expectancy in the seventeenth century was so much shorter.

Sir Francis Knollys

There was, however, one outlier among those elected to the Long Parliament. Sir Francis Knollys was aged 87 when he was re-elected as the MP for Reading, his home town. He was thus older than the oldest MP elected in 2017; that was Denis Skinner, who was then a mere 85-year old. Just as remarkably, Knollys had first been elected 64 years previously, possibly a quarter of a century earlier than any of his Long Parliament colleagues, and he had sat in eight of the previous 15 Parliaments – see his biography in our 1558-1603 and 1604-29 volumes. A cousin once removed of Queen Elizabeth, he was old enough to have been the brother-in-law of one of her favourites, Robert Dudley, 1st earl of Leicester, and the uncle of another, Robert Devereux, 2nd earl of Essex. In 1640 he had recently become John Hampden’s new father-in-law. It has even been suggested that his mother, Catherine Carey, whose mother had been Mary Boleyn, had been an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII.

When the Reading corporation elected Knollys as their MP in October 1640, they cannot have expected him to do much for them in the Commons. That role would instead be carried out by their other MP, Sir Francis’s son, Sir Francis Knollys junior. So it may have been something of a surprise that Sir Francis senior did actually play some part in events in the Long Parliament. He was able to attend in May 1641 in order to take the Protestation. More impressively, he was present in June 1642 when he tried to move a motion on some unknown subject.

Any hopes that he may have had that he could spend his final years in peace were wrecked by the outbreak of the civil war. Reading was repeatedly fought over by the royalist and parliamentarian armies, changing hands three times between October 1642 and May 1644. Both Sir Francis and his son sided with Parliament and their property there seems to have been targeted whenever the town was under the control of the royalists. In March 1643 Sir Francis junior told the Commons of how the royalists were confiscating their rents. His father attended the House that day, doubtless to heighten the emotional impact of his son’s supplication. Ten weeks later he was present in the House again in order to take the oath sworn by MPs in the wake of ‘Waller’s plot’ [see Edmund Waller].

That may well have been his final appearance. But unfortunately for him, his difficulties only got worse.  The loss of income during the royalist occupations of Reading had caused them to get into debt and the death of his son removed his most obvious advocate at Westminster. Moreover, even once Parliament regained Reading, a dispute with the local sequestrations commission prevented him recovering all his estates as soon as he hoped. His friends at Westminster made sure that he was provided for, however. Firstly, an annuity of £500 was granted to him. Later, a bill was passed confirming his possession of lands confiscated from Francis Cottington, 1st baron Cottington, to which Knollys held reversions. It was all a great struggle for someone who was now a very old man.

Sir Francis finally died in the spring of 1648, aged 94. Born during the early weeks of the reign of Mary I, he had lived to see Charles I being held as a prisoner at Carisbrooke Castle in the custody of his own grandson, Robert Hammond.


Further reading:

Biographies of Sir Francis Knollys, his son, Sir Francis junior, John Hampden, Robert Hammond and Edmund Waller are being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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