In our latest blog, Dr David Scott of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looks at the extra-curricular activities of some Members of a supposedly puritan Parliament – at least according to newspaper reports…
Sexual licence and parliamentary politics have always enjoyed an intimate relationship, and not even the great puritan preachers of the seventeenth century ( who regularly addressed assembled MPs in the adjacent St Margaret’s church ) could prize them apart. A group of egotistical men (MPs), removed from the respectable environs of their families and communities and thrust into the fleshpots of London with nothing much to do all day but thump their tubs, posture and get drunk – it was an invitation to sexual misadventure on a grand scale.
And if Parliaments were bad for their participants’ sexual probity, then this was doubly true of Parliaments that presided over rebellions and revolutions. There was nothing like the heady whiff of lèse-majesté to raise testosterone levels in Members to new and unhealthy heights.
The 1640s, the decade of the English civil war, suffered both afflictions – a Parliament and a revolution. Not only that, it boasted perhaps the most famous Parliament in English history, the Long Parliament – so-called because it sat almost continuously from 1640 until 1653. Parliaments before then had been occasional events, called at the monarch’s whim and usually sitting for less than a year (often a lot less). The Long Parliament knew no such constraints. England’s first parliamentary government represented an unprecedented opportunity for MPs to over-indulge both politically and sexually – and some of them grasped it with both hands.
Like Parliaments before and since, the Long Parliament legislated freely for everyone else’s sexual behaviour, passing numerous laws against clandestine marriage, fornication, bastardy and so on. But it generally kept out of its own members’ private lives. Fortunately (for us), the London press after the collapse of censorship in 1640 was not so fastidious. It happily exposed MPs’ sexual antics – or simply made them up when genuine dirt was in short supply.
The Westminster grandees made particularly inviting targets for the mud-slingers. Sexual incontinence was equated with a lack of self-control and, in a political context, with tyranny. A verse libel read in the Commons in 1643 smeared prominent Parliament-men with all manner of vices and crimes. But when it came to John Pym, the unofficial leader of the House and confidant of the parliamentary peers, promiscuity was the libeller’s weapon of choice
…I sit and can looke downe on men
Whilst other bleed and fight
I eate their Lordshipps meate by day
And give it their Wives by nightAnon. The Sence of the House, or the opinion of some Lords and Commons concerning the Londoners petition for peace (Oxford, 1643)
Yet Pym was a God-fearing father and widower of nearly 60 years of age. The only woman who seems to have aroused any great passion in him besides his wife was the ‘Romish Whore’ of Catholicism. Another great Long Parliamentarian and devoted husband, Oliver Cromwell, would be attacked in a similar way, with suggestive references to his large and fiery nose and his alleged attentiveness to the pretty young wives of his military subordinates.
Which is not to say that some MPs didn’t thoroughly deserve their reputations as sex-pests and lechers. The Caernarvonshire MP and turncoat John Griffith was a serial molester of women, who bragged in print about his sexual exploits and, from his jail-cell, staged a public shaming of one of his victims and her husband by having a large dog ‘trimmed up with horns and other things in a fantastic fashion, and, with music and other mimical gestures, exposed to the view of multitudes of unruly people, in scorn of his own offence and to the great dishonour of public justice’ [Journal of the House of Lords, vii. 512]. So vicious were his habits that even the most cavalierish of royalists shunned his company.
At the other end of the political spectrum was the chairman of the Committee for Plundered Ministers – Westminster’s powerhouse for godly reform – the Nottingham MP Gilbert Millington. He scandalised his fellow puritans in 1646 when at the age of 60, ‘and having but lately buried a religious matronly gentlewoman’, he went ‘to an alehouse to take a flirtish girle of sixteen’. At least he had the decency to marry his ‘alehouse wench’ [Lucy Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, ed. J. Sutherland (1973), 146]. Tales of MPs cheating on their wives with serving-maids and prostitutes became commonplace – so much so that by 1648 only adulterers extraordinaire could guarantee their place in the hall of sexual infamy. The recently-married Staffordshire MP John Bowyer rose magnificently to the challenge, taking a ‘common whore’ into the Commons ‘before the Members were come to the House’ and having sex with her in the Speaker’s chair [Mercurius Pragmaticus no. 40 (26 Dec. 1648-9 Jan. 1649), sig. Fff5v]. When MPs spoke of the Long Parliament as the cockpit of English politics, Bowyer seems to have taken them a little too literally.
But there was one area of the parliamentary libido that not even the London gutterpress commented on – homosexuality. Why this was so is hard to say. We can calculate the number of lifelong bachelors in the Long Parliament, but such was the pressure on gentlemen to marry and produce an heir that it would give us, at best, only a very rough minimum of MPs who were sexually attracted to other men, and would include the aggressively heterosexual Griffith, for one, who never married. In a Parliament of well over 500 members there must have been men who were same-sex oriented. But who they were and how they navigated London’s treacherous sexual waters is a mystery.
No sex-survey of the Long Parliament, however brief, can omit its supposedly most libidinous member, the arch-republican MP for Berkshire, Henry Marten. Parliamentarians and royalists alike denounced him as a libertine and ‘whoremaster’. Yet this moral outrage owed less to his womanising than to the shamelessness with which he abandoned his wife and lived openly with his mistress, to whom he seems to have remained faithful to the end of his life in 1680. The greatest sexual offence a Long Parliamentarian could commit was in refusing to acknowledge it an offence at all.
- Sarah Barber, A Revolutionary Rogue: Henry Marten and the English Republic (Sutton: Stroud, 2000)
- Ann Hughes, Gender and the English Revolution (Routledge: Abingdon, 2012)
- David Underdown, Pride’s Purge: Politics in the Puritan Revolution (OUP: Oxford, 1971)
Biographies of John Bowyer, Oliver Cromwell, John Griffith, Henry Marten, Gilbert Millington and John Pym, and an entry on the Committee for Plundered Ministers are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.