‘Cakes, Cheese and Zeal’: Puritan Banbury, the Fiennes family and civil war radicalism

In today’s blog Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 project, returns to our local history exploration of political representation in Oxfordshire. First enfranchised in 1554, the constituency of Banbury developed strong Puritan representation in the 17th century, but it wasn’t always welcome…

In the mid-seventeenth century the small north Oxfordshire market town of Banbury punched above its weight. Situated at the centre of a topographically distinct region straddling county boundaries – sometimes dubbed ‘Banburyshire’ – and at the junction of major trade routes, it was widely known as an entrepôt for midlands wool and celebrated for its cakes and its golden yellow cheese. A recipe for the spicy treat appeared, for example, in Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife (1615), while, weighing up alternatives, Thomas Cogan declared approvingly that ‘Banburie Cheese shall goe for my money’ [The haven of health (1636), 183-4]. But the town was also notorious for its puritanism, and for the sanctimonious hypocrisy and assertive radicalism supposed to go with it. The greedy and judgemental character Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy in Ben Jonson’s play Bartholomew Fair (premiered 1614; published 1631) hailed from Banburyshire, while William Davenant drew on the stereotype and the town’s key industry to pinpoint an equally acquisitive female character. ‘Shee is more devout/ Then a Weaver of Banbury, That hopes/T’intice Heaven (by singing) to make him Lord/ Of twenty Loomes’ [The Witts (1636), sig. B2].

Panorama of Broughton Castle
Vivienne Larminie

In a county rather sparsely provided with parliamentary seats, from the time it was first enfranchised in 1554, the borough of Banbury had only one rather than the usual two. Nevertheless, its preoccupations – promotion of the ‘hotter sort’ of Protestantism and opposition to crown fiscal policies – were ably represented at Westminster by its MPs. In the early Stuart period interrelated puritan gentry families from Banburyshire co-operated with each other and with the well-known local ministers William Whateley and John Dod to dominate the elections and secure the return of on-message candidates, apparently without a contest. In his maiden speech Sir William Cope, Banbury’s MP in 1604, 1614, 1621 and 1625, observed that it was appropriate ‘first to consider of the necessity of the subject and then of the prince’ [Journal of the House of Commons i. 397]; in 1621 he was a strong advocate of military invention to protect Protestant interests on the continent. Calcot Chambre, MP in 1626, sat on committees discussing measures to be taken against inadequate clergy and against adultery and fornication. Alluding to Matthew 22 verse 21, John Crewe revealed his priorities as MP in 1628 when he recommended that a debate on granting money to the crown should be delayed over the weekend so that MPs might ‘serve God first and then give to Caesar’ [Commons Debates 1628, ii. 311, 316].

James Fiennes, the novice MP returned in 1626, made almost no impact in that Parliament, but he was in the same mould. Educated partly at the notably godly Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he had just returned from a continental tour. This was unlikely to have struck the eighteen voters from the Banbury elite as an exotic aristocratic excursion. The borough had earlier housed Willem Teelinck (1579-1629), whose time with William Whateley and appreciation of local puritan ideals and practice helped inspire the foundation of the Dutch Pietist movement, the ‘Further Reformation’.

Tomb of William Fiennes in Broughton Church
Vivienne Larminie

The partnership of like minds between the puritan elite of Banbury and the Fiennes family intensified. William Fiennes, 1st viscount Saye and Sele, who led the town’s resistance to the Forced Loan in 1626, was seated three miles away at Broughton Castle. Lesee of Banbury castle, he became the town’s high steward in 1632 and inspired its recalcitrance in the mid-1630s over paying the non-parliamentary tax of Ship Money. Long a patron of godly clergy, and active in maintaining international Calvinist links, during the personal rule of Charles I (1629-1640) he engaged with friends including Robert Greville, 2nd baron Brooke, and John Pym in schemes to establish puritan colonies in the New World. Since he had stuck his neck out against royal moves against rebellious Scots, the king tried initially to exclude him from the House of Lords when a Parliament was finally called in the spring of 1640.

Against this background Saye and Sele’s second son Nathaniel Fiennes was chosen as MP for Banbury in both the elections that year. Previously untried in public life, he had spent nearly three years studying at the University of Franeker under puritan theologian William Ames. In the early days of the Long Parliament Nathaniel’s constituents petitioned Westminster against the attempts to impose more ceremonial ‘Laudian’ worship by Whateley’s successor John Howes, ‘the wicked vicar at Banbury that put down preaching and vexed those that were godly and sought it elsewhere’ [The Journal of Sir Simonds D’Ewes ed. W. Notestein (1923), 77]. Meanwhile their MP emerged rapidly in the vanguard of the parliamentary onslaught on the authority of bishops.

Nathaniel Fiennes, before 1641.
Broughton Castle via Wikimedia Commons

Neither the town nor its MP fared well during the first civil war. The castle surrendered to the royalists just three days after the inaugural engagement at Edgehill, and the town was not readily recaptured, leaving its puritan inhabitants under destructive occupation. The short military career of Nathaniel Fiennes ended in court martial and he narrowly escaped the death penalty. His skills as an orator and legislative draughtsman and his father’s skills as a political operator saw both recover to become Independent party grandees in Parliament, but Banbury, somewhat overlooked as their attention turned elsewhere, languished with little compensation for its sufferings. While Fiennes was ousted from the Commons at Pride’s Purge, he returned to prominence under the protectorate, but Banbury temporarily lost its representation in Parliament, despite attempts to retrieve it, and the rise of Quakerism divided its pious elite. In 1659 both the seat and the family link were restored, as Nathaniel’s son and namesake, an unobtrusive and inoffensive shadow of his father, occupied the place. But from 1660 the borough sought to distance itself from its puritan past and turned to more cautious and conformable local gentry to take its concerns to Parliament.


Further reading:

A. Beesley, The History of Banbury (1841)

W. J. op ’t Hof, ‘The eventful sojourn of Willem Teellinck (1579-1629) at Banbury in 1605’, Studies in Puritanism and Piety 1 (2015), 5-38 at https://2634babc-f96d-4b9d-982f-d9f9d74732cc.filesusr.com/ugd/78f05f_2102467e6134481c895a8655453b0e28.pdf

R. K. Gilkes, ‘Banbury – the pattern of local government 1554-1835’, pt. 1, Cake and Cockhorse vol. 5 no. 1 (1971) at https://banburyhistoricalsociety.org/uploads/pdf/05/05-01.pdf

A further biography of James Fiennes and biographies of both Nathaniel Fiennes are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 section, together with an article on Banbury constituency in that period. Follow their research at the James I to Restoration section of our blog.

Click here for more blogs from our local history series, exploring Oxfordshire and beyond.

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