Exploring the roots of a regicide: Sir John Danvers, the University of Oxford and gardens

As we look forward to warmer weather and fewer Covid-related restrictions, Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 section, considers the complex and contradictory career of a noted seventeenth-century horticulturalist…

This week the Bodleian Library in Oxford launched an exhibition marking the quatercentenary of the foundation in 1621 of the city’s Botanic Garden. ‘Roots to Seeds’ explores the development of the physic garden, originally intended to supply medicinal herbs, into a resource for research into and teaching about all types of plants. As we face global issues of environmental change and food security, such activity seems every bit as vital as did the search for health cures in the seventeenth century.

The Garden’s founder, Henry Danvers, 1st earl of Danby (1573-1644), was, like several other noble contemporaries, a veteran of military campaigns in Ireland and continental Europe. During his travels he encountered (in person or by repute) the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, dating from 1597, and perhaps its equivalent in Montpellier, founded four years earlier. Inspired by this, he acquired five acres of meadowland on the banks of the river Cherwell, opposite Magdalen College, which had once been a Jewish cemetery. Eventually, he employed Brunswick-born former soldier Jacob Bobart to collect and propagate plants.

The University was very grateful to its benefactor, who gave them the gardens ‘for the advancement … of the faculty of medicine’. In 1632 a bust of the earl was prominently placed in its splendid gateway. Already in 1621 the University had given proof of its appreciation by choosing as one of its MPs Danby’s younger brother, Sir John Danvers (c.1585-1655). He was re-elected in 1625, 1626, 1628 and the spring of 1640.

Oxford Botanic Garden: the entrance arch with the earl of Danby’s bust (copyright Vivienne Larminie)

Sir John shared his brother’s interests, being in contact with an international circle of horticulturalists and botanists. Indeed, like numerous other MPs and peers, he had a made a continental tour which took in the University of Padua, home to the world’s oldest botanical garden still in its original location (1545-2021). He acquired expensive tastes in Italianate architecture, replicated in his villa built at Chelsea in the 1620s, and had the sculptor Nicholas Stone work statues for its garden in complementary style. But his interests were much wider than that. As noted in a recent blog, he was stepfather to the poet George Herbert, and alongside that, associated with literati, scholars and inventors, in person at home and in correspondence abroad. According to John Aubrey, he knew everyone of note.

Yet Danvers was also an enigma. Handsome, charming, intelligent, sophisticated and devoted to his much older first wife Magdalen and her Herbert offspring, he was also known for litigiousness, acquisitiveness and indebtedness. Having been returned again to Parliament in 1645 for his own pocket borough of Malmesbury, he used his position to his own financial advantage. In time he emerged as an adherent of the war party in Parliament and a sympathiser with the New Model army. In January 1649 he astounded contemporaries by not only attending almost every session of the trial of Charles but also then signing his death warrant. The cultivated courtier became a regicide.

Delving into the career trajectory and the motivation of a complex politician like Danvers is the bread and butter of History of Parliament research. As with many other MPs and peers in the pre-modern era and beyond, this must be conducted in the absence of potentially illuminating private papers. In the nominations to committees and tellerships in divisions recorded in the Commons Journal and the signatures to orders issued by Parliament’s executive organs, there is the evidence of activity pointing to public priorities – solidarity with more radical elements in the House and army before 1649; commitment to the republican Rump Parliament thereafter. But in Danvers’s case this is often at startling variance with the periodic glimpses of his life outside Westminster and Whitehall. Here he could be subversive. That realisation is a reminder not to approach civil war politics simplistically.

Even before the regicide, and while among those drafting legislation to pursue and punish defeated royalists, some observers spotted that he was ‘a patron to distressed and cashiered cavaliers’, assisting them to make their peace with the new regime on the most benign terms [John Aubrey, Brief Lives, i. 196]. A member of committees for the visitation of the University of Oxford and for the ordinance for excluding ‘malignant’ ministers and college fellows, in practice he used his influence to protect his old constituency and his old college (Brasenose), to thwart zealous Presbyterians intent on remoulding the University, and to support royalist clergy. In 1648, in defiance of the Visitors, the grateful Brasenose fellows secretly chose as their principal Thomas Yate, one of their number who had fled to the refuge of Danvers’ house in Chelsea. Danvers also sheltered the sequestered (dismissed) minister Thomas Fuller and encouraged him to preach at Chelsea and to publish his sermons; one depicted Danvers as the God-fearing biblical king Hezekiah [T. Fuller, Life out of Death (1655)]. He supervised the remoulding of young Robert Villiers (illegitimate son of Frances, Lady Purbeck and Sir Robert Howard) from Catholic resident of the Oxford royalist court to respectable Protestant and husband of his elder daughter. One of his final actions before his death in 1655 was to marry his younger daughter to Sir Henry Lee, stepson of the exiled royalist Henry Wilmot, earl of Rochester.

After Danvers’ death, and even more after the Restoration, Danvers’ reputation plummeted, much of his covert support for royalists, in Oxford and elsewhere, going unacknowledged. Compromising aspects of the past of Robert Danvers alias Villiers were unmasked in the 1659 Parliament. However, Thomas Fuller lived briefly to become a chaplain to Charles II, while Yate lived longer to dispense, with their grandmother the countess of Rochester, the electoral patronage inherited by Danvers’s infant granddaughters, and to run, with John Fell, the University Press which did so much to uphold the monarchist values of Restoration Oxford.


Further reading:

John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. A. Clark (1898)

Roy Strong, The Renaissance Garden in England (1979)

Margaret Willes, The Making of the English Gardener: Plants, Books and Inspiration 1560-1660 (2011)

A biography of Henry Danvers, earl of Danby, appears in The House of Lords 1604-29, ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).

Biographies or further biographies of Sir John Danvers, Robert Danvers alias Villiers, Sir Robert Howard, Sir Henry Lee and Henry Wilmot are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

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