Breaching the guidelines: clerical MPs in the mid-seventeenth century

As the country grapples with interpreting the rules of the Covid-19 lockdown, Dr Vivienne Larminie of our Commons 1640-1660 section considers another situation where a seemingly clear-cut ban proved difficult to enforce…

Uncertainty has long surrounded the eligibility of clergy to sit as MPs. Only in 2001 was legislation passed explicitly permitting all ministers of religion to stand for election. This repealed the Clergy Disqualification Act of 1801, which had excluded men ordained by bishops of the Church of England but left ambiguous the status of ministers in other Christian denominations.

Ambiguity pre-dated the 1801 bill by several centuries. Following the Reformation, Parliaments not infrequently discussed curbing the clergy’s involvement in temporal affairs, but, after an initial onslaught on their secular power and privileges under Henry VIII, failed to make further lasting changes. There was a ‘well-established convention’ that clergy did not sit in the Commons, but this was periodically forgotten. In 1553 Alexander Nowell, canon of Westminster, was elected at East Looe, while in 1621 voters in Morpeth, Northumberland, chose their rector, John Robson. After investigations by the privileges committee, both men were excluded from the Commons. The chief rationale was that these men had ‘a voice’ in the clergy’s assembly, Convocation, and were thus represented elsewhere.

While denied his place in Parliament, Robson continued in public life as a justice of the peace, member of the unpopular court of high commission and promoter of the controversial policies of Archbishop William Laud. These were exactly the kind of activities which prompted Parliament in the early 1640s to renew its assault on clerical power. Bishops were disabled from sitting in the Lords; later episcopal government of the church was abolished altogether. Convocation, which in summer 1640 had broken with tradition to meet outside Parliament time and produce Canons supposedly binding on the laity, was suppressed. In 1641 the Commons repeatedly considered bills to ‘disable the clergy to exercise any temporal or lay office’ and prevent them ‘intermeddling with secular affairs’. One result was the Clerical Disabilities Act (13 Feb. 1642, 17 Car. I c.27), which forbade persons in holy orders not only from sitting in Parliament but also from voting in elections.

Yet in succeeding years, ordained MPs may still be found, often with experience in local government. The law might be ignored if politically convenient or invoked if politically expedient. By the 1650s the issue had been muddied by the existence of clergy ordained by persons other than bishops and by the fact that numerous lay politicians, especially army officers, took to the pulpit occasionally. John St Nicholas seemingly received Presbyterian ordination some years before he was selected to represent Warwickshire in the Nominated Parliament of 1653. In this ‘assembly of the saints’, he rubbed shoulders with several lay and sectarian preachers, including Baptist pastor Samuel Hyland, MP for Southwark. John Sadler, MP for Cambridgeshire, had been episcopally ordained (perhaps only as a deacon), but there is no sign that this was mentioned in the Commons chamber, where he was vocal in defence of the payment of tithes.

In the 1654 Parliament clerical MPs had mixed fortunes. By that date Jenkin Lloyd, MP for Cardiganshire, was quite possibly already (as he was by 1658) rector of his native parish of Llandysul, but if so, no-one objected. On the other hand, Colonel Nathaniel Barton, who had sat without problem in 1653, was challenged by a defeated rival at his re-election for Derbyshire in 1654 on the grounds that he was in holy orders. His counter-argument, that the abolition of episcopal ordination made this irrelevant, was still under consideration when Parliament was dissolved. More mysterious was the case of the most high-profile clerical MP. John Owen, frequent preacher and adviser to Parliament, and former chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, was elected by Oxford University. Since he was a controversial vice-chancellor, it is surprising that his enemies there did not immediately invoke his ineligibility to overturn the election. But it is not certain he ever took his seat.

John Owen

Among MPs in the next Parliament was Lewis Audley. Ordained deacon in 1641, he had later been an army officer under Sir Thomas Fairfax and participated as a radical agitator in the Putney debates. In 1656 – now a (still radical) Surrey gentleman – he encountered no visible obstacle to taking his seat, in the first session alone receiving 31 committee appointments and acting twice as a teller.

But by 1659 the situation was more unstable and MPs more alert for opportunities to remove political opponents from the Commons. John Sadler, rather implausibly, re-surfaced as MP for Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, and a leading republican. His election was challenged, but unsuccessfully, and not on the grounds of his ordination. Seeking election for Gatton, Lewis Audley was apparently defeated by Edward Bysshe, a conservative. Presenting himself at Westminster Hall to contest the result, he clashed with Bysshe and the other Gatton candidate, Thomas Turgis, and, it was alleged, called Bysshe ‘a rascal’ and Turgis ‘a stinking base fellow and a shit-breech’ [Journal of the House of Commons vii. 597]. This earned Audley a spell in the Tower for breach of privilege, but it was only later that anti-army elements in the House articulated the objection that, since he was still technically ‘in orders’, he had no right to sit at all. Major-general Thomas Kelsey’s defence that while Audley ‘might at first exercise as a minister’, he had ‘found himself unfit’, and ‘rather than to be unprofitable’ had decided to ‘forbear the calling’, seems plausible in this case and perhaps applicable to some others across the centuries [Burton’s Diary, iii. 40].


Further reading:

Journal of the House of Commons, vols. ii, vii [via]

Diaries of Thomas Burton, ed. J.T. Rutt (1828) [via]

Biographies or further biographies of Lewis Audley, Nathaniel Barton, Edward Bysshe, Oliver Cromwell, Sir Thomas Fairfax, Thomas Kelsey, Jenkin Lloyd, John Owen, John Sadler, John St Nicholas and Thomas Turgis are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

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