‘Going into the country’: leave, holidays and political intrigue in the 1640s

As the easing of lockdown encourages many of us to seize opportunities to go on holiday, and especially take ‘staycations’, Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of the Commons 1640-1660 section, looks at the positive and (arguably) negative uses to which civil war MPs put their leave…

The widespread perception that the Parliaments of the mid-seventeenth century cut down on holidays is not inaccurate. As has been discussed in previous blogs, there were repeated attempts to curb the inappropriate celebration of Christmas Day, saints’ days and other festivals deemed by some idolatrous and or liable to encourage morally or politically dangerous behaviour. But on the other hand, there was an equal keenness to keep the sabbath, Sunday, as a day of rest. There were also regular fast days when business – in Parliament or elsewhere in the nation – was suspended to allow for prayer and reflection. Moreover, as parliamentary sittings lengthened and recesses were rare, the Journal was punctuated by orders sanctioning temporary absence from the Chamber.

Frequently leave, often expressed as ‘leave to go into the country’, was granted without specifying a reason. Sometimes the justification was ‘urgent occasions’, and here it may be possible to deduce from other evidence surrounding the MP that these ‘occasions’ involved dealing with a bereavement or an inheritance, fulfilling local government duties, prosecuting a lawsuit, or getting married. Quite often, illness or ‘indisposition’ was invoked. Thus, in August 1641 Sir John Evelyn was given leave to go into the country, ‘his house being visited with smallpox’, while in May 1648 William Pierrepont was excused to seek treatment, ‘he being to enter into a course of physick’. In May and June 1642 no fewer than three MPs gained permission for a spa break: Edward Bysshe, Sir Gervase Clifton and Sir William Uvedale all obtained ‘leave to go to the Bath for the recovery of his health’, Uvedale’s permission lasting a month.

Bath in the early 17th century (John Speed)

Throughout the period there was a minority of MPs whose appearances in the Journal related almost exclusively to grants of leave or notes of absence at calls of the House, when a register was taken. It can be difficult to discern whether this indicates that their usual habit was silent but regular attendance combined with a disinclination to be nominated to committees, or spasmodic appearances in the midst of long periods away. However, it is clear that at times of great political turmoil even quite prominent MPs might make themselves scarce, and that at times of particularly intense factional clashes some of them turned up again. A call of the House in early October 1647 revealed that a sizeable proportion of the Commons had still not returned after the Presbyterian coup that July and its overturning by the army in August. After the regicide, attendance at the Rump Parliament (1648-1653) fell away as Members became disillusioned with the failed attempts of the republic to effect reforms.

As in the case of Uvedale and the others in the summer of 1642, ill-health may well have been merely a pretext for absence. As the civil war approached, more complex motivation, including political disaffection, was in play. In turn, as the House was well aware, ‘going into the country’ could afford an opportunity to engage in subversive activity. In the summer of 1643, when parliamentarian forces experienced a series of crushing defeats on the battlefield, the allegiance of some previously loyal MPs wobbled and there was alarm at Westminster. On 19 August, an order was issued ‘for the speedy repair of all absent members to the house and their future diligent attendance’, which diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes considered ‘contrived by Mr [John] Pym and others in malice to Mr [Denzil] Holles, Sir William Lewis, and some others who had retired into the country’. D’Ewes also heard that ‘Sir John Evelyn … of Wiltshire’ was staying in Sussex at the Petworth seat of Algernon Percy, 10th earl of Northumberland ‘and intended, as was guessed by many, to go with him to Oxford to the king’ [BL, Harl. MS 165, f. 152v]. A few days later Pym produced an intercepted letter from Evelyn to his uncle, Sir John Evelyn ‘of Surrey’ at Godstone, which could be read as indicating that, not content with plotting defection to the enemy with the rest of the earl’s house party, the nephew was encouraging his uncle to do the same. The Evelyns were hauled up to London in custody and, although eventually released, were denied re-entry to Parliament for many months. Meanwhile, the earl was too powerful to be subjected to such treatment and another Petworth guest, William Wheler, rather characteristically escaped investigation.

Nearly five years later Evelyn of Wiltshire, now not only rehabilitated but a stalwart of the Independent party, used a four-week spring break around the Thames to confer on a strategy for imposing a ‘hard’ and secure peace on the captured Charles I. Taking advantage of the fact that his brother Arthur was governor there, he went first to Wallingford, where he met the 1st Viscount Saye and Sele (a veteran schemer in his own home at Broughton Castle), his son Nathaniel Fiennes, Oliver St John and William Pierrepont (before his ‘course of physick’). Several of the party then went to dine with Bulstrode Whitelocke at his house on the outskirts of Henley, where ‘they had much serious discourse together’ [Whitelocke, Diary, 210]. After further time for reflection, what the newspapers referred to as ‘the cabinet council of grandees’ returned from their country conclave to Parliament with a plan for what would turn out to be a challenging summer of royalist insurgency and of negotiations for the Newport Treaty.

The ruins of Wallingford Castle (copyright P.M. Hunneyball)


Further reading:

Journal of the House of Commons, vols. 2-7, via https://www.british-history.ac.uk/search/series/commons-jrnl

The Diary of Bulstrode Whitelocke ed. R. Spalding (Oxford, 1990)

Biographies or further biographies of Edward Bysshe, Sir Gervase Clifton, Sir Simonds D’Ewes, Sir John Evelyn [of Surrey], Sir John Evelyn [of Wiltshire], Nathaniel Fiennes, Denzil Holles, Sir William Lewis, William Pierrepont, John Pym, Oliver St John, Sir William Uvedale, William Wheler and Bulstrode Whitelocke are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section.

Biographies of the 10th (or 4th) earl of Northumberland and 1st Viscount Saye and Sele will appear in our forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629.

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