Prompted by the recent assault on the United States Congress, and the passions which fuelled that incident, Dr Paul Hunneyball, assistant editor of our Lords 1558-1603 section, considers an English MP of the early 17th century who similarly refused to accept defeat…
Benjamin Valentine is remembered today almost entirely for his part in the 1629 ‘riot’ in the House of Commons which helped to precipitate the 11 years of Charles I’s personal rule. Imprisoned throughout that period, and released only when the Short Parliament was about to convene in 1640, he was hailed by the king’s opponents as a martyr who had suffered in the cause of liberty. Predictably Charles’s supporters took a rather different view both of Valentine and his actions, dismissing him as a seditious troublemaker who deserved his punishment. Both characterisations contained a grain of truth, but closer examination of these events reveals a more complex picture where politics and personalities collided with tragic results.
Valentine’s life could, in fact, have taken a very different course. Probably born in 1584, the son of a minor London gentleman, by the middle of James I’s reign he was hanging around the royal court, having entered the service of Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, the king’s male favourite. His exact relationship with Somerset is unclear, but he evidently enjoyed the earl’s trust, and no doubt hoped by this means to secure lucrative grants and offices. Then in 1615 the earl was abruptly disgraced, following his implication in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury. The loss of his patron hit Valentine hard. With any immediate prospect of government employment now dashed, he struggled to build a new life for himself, and fell heavily into debt.
For the next decade we know little about Valentine, though he evidently retained some vestigial connection with the court. In 1624 he participated in a botched attempt to undermine the current royal favourite, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, by promoting a handsome rival for the king’s affections. When that scheme failed, Valentine turned his attention elsewhere, and began associating with the duke’s opponents out in the country. Buckingham retained his dominant position in government after the accession of Charles I, and was widely blamed for the measures introduced to fund England’s unsuccessful wars with Spain and France in the later 1620s. When successive Parliaments failed to grant enough taxes, Charles resorted to unpopular arbitrary levies such as the so-called Forced Loan. Valentine became heavily involved with several Loan refusers in Lincolnshire, and through them also became friends with Sir John Eliot, a former client of Buckingham who was now the duke’s bitter enemy.
It was Eliot who got Valentine into Parliament in 1628, providing a seat for him at St Germans, in Cornwall. Once in the Commons, the novice Member aligned himself closely with Eliot, and attracted attention by the violence of his rhetoric, particularly concerning the perceived threat to liberty posed by the government’s arbitrary policies: ‘I had rather die at sea with my sword in my hand against an enemy, than [live] with a faggot [i.e. burden] on my back!’ In June 1628, after months of heated debate in Parliament, the king accepted the famous Petition of Right, ostensibly agreeing to curbs on the exercise of the royal prerogative. Two months later Buckingham was assassinated. The way now seemed clear for a line to be drawn under the recent controversies, and for Charles to patch up his differences with his critics.
One outstanding point of friction concerned the customs revenues, which were a vital element of the Crown’s finances. By tradition these were granted to each monarch for life during the first Parliament of a new reign, but in Charles’s case this privilege had been withheld in 1625. As the government couldn’t function without this money, the king collected the dues regardless, leading to disputes between his tax collectors and the mercantile community, and yet more complaints that the Crown was acting illegally. Charles agreed to a further parliamentary session in early 1629 in the hope of resolving this issue once and for all. Many MPs were now ready to do a deal, but Valentine and his friends were in no mood to cooperate. The Commons included several merchants, notably John Rolle, whose cargoes had been confiscated after they refused to pay customs on them. Eliot and Valentine both argued powerfully that Rolle’s personal grievance must be addressed before a grant of the customs was voted through, and a fresh impasse ensued.
By the end of February it was clear that Charles would not give way this time, and that Eliot’s parliamentary strategy had failed. With a dissolution now imminent, the Commons assembled on 2 March, whereupon Eliot and his allies staged a final protest. Valentine and Denzil Holles held the Speaker, John Finch, down in his chair, to prevent him from adjourning the sitting, while Eliot read out a statement condemning the government’s policies on the customs revenues, religion and other contentious topics. It was a futile stunt, and retribution swiftly followed. Valentine and the other participants in the 2 March incident were arrested, imprisoned, and prosecuted for riot and sedition. Realising that their case was hopeless, most of the group gradually gave in and made their peace with the government. However Eliot, Valentine and just one other MP, William Strode, still refused to back down. Eliot died in the Tower of London in 1632. Valentine and Strode remained prisoners, albeit in relatively comfortable conditions, until Charles agreed to release them as a sop to public opinion in early 1640. Elected to the Long Parliament, Valentine received a certain degree of sympathy and respect from his fellow MPs, but much of the compensation he was promised for his harsh treatment never materialised. He died in 1652, the causes he had fought for rendered largely irrelevant by the revolutionary upheavals of the previous decade.
Commons Debates for 1629 ed. W. Notestein and F.H. Relf (1921)
H. Hulme, The Life of Sir John Eliot (1957)
Biographies of Charles Stuart, Prince of Wales (later Charles I), Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, and George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, may be found in our volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (published in January 2021).
Additional biographies of Benjamin Valentine, Denzil Holles and William Strode are being prepared by our House of Commons 1640-1660 section.