‘Better affected to Mars and Neptune, than to Mercury’: docks, diversity and the representation of Portsmouth in the civil wars and interregnum

In our latest blog Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 project, continues our local history look at port constituencies. Today’s focus is the naval city of Portsmouth, but were its maritime origins echoed in its 17th century parliamentary representation?

The antiquarian and topographer William Camden characterised Portsmouth as ‘a place alwaies in time of warre well frequented, otherwise little resort there is to it’ [Britain, tr. and rev. P. Holland (1637), 268]. Established as a port in Roman times, Portsmouth maintained a consistent strategic importance which encouraged shipbuilding, latterly carried on at the royal dockyard, but which left little room for the development of trade. When troops were mobilised for embarkation on foreign expeditions, the population swelled markedly. The charter of 1627 vested the franchise in 38 members of the corporation, who, traditionally deferring to the town’s crown-appointed ‘keeper’, chose MPs with military or naval connections of some kind. Nevertheless, those who sat in Parliament for the borough in the 1640s and 1650s were from diverse backgrounds; together they illustrate different interests operating at Westminster. Meanwhile, occasionally, Portsmouth played a critical part in the unfolding of national events.

Henry Percy, Baron Percy of Alnwick (1605-1659); Anthony Van Dyck; National Trust via Wikimedia Commons

By 1640, thanks to Charles I’s generosity to a kinsman, the keeper was James Hamilton, marquess of Hamilton and, incongruously, the premier Scottish peer. Distracted by his recent role as commander-in-chief of forces which attempted (unsuccessfully) to quell rebellion by Scottish Covenanters, it took Hamilton three months to respond to the Portsmouth corporation’s polite request for his nomination to what became the Short Parliament. At the last minute, he proposed his brother, William Hamilton, earl of Lanark, promising he would take care to preserve the town’s privileges. Duly elected, and more-or-less simultaneously appointed secretary of state for Scotland, the 23-year-old courtier reconciled these incompatible duties by carrying on life as usual in London – attending playhouses, going shopping, and renovating his new house at Charing Cross. Portsmouth fared little better with its second MP, another courtier. Henry Percy probably owed his election to the interest of his elder brother, Algernon Percy, 4th or 10th earl of Northumberland, who was the lord admiral. Quarrelsome and a relentless seeker after preferment, he was apparently ‘generally unloved’ [Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, iii. 391-3].

In the autumn of 1640, two somewhat more suitable courtiers were elected to the Long Parliament. When Henry Percy opted to sit elsewhere, he was replaced by Edward Dowse, his family’s steward. Handsome and good at dancing, Dowse reportedly boasted later of having been ‘an Adonis chosen to lead measures before the queen’, but at least he had served at sea with the lord admiral [BL, Add. 70002, ff. 152-3]. Alongside him was the swashbuckling George Goring, the disabled veteran of continental wars who had been governor of Portsmouth since January 1639.

Lord George Goring (1608-1657); The Captain Christie Crawfurd English Civil War Collection via ArtUK

While Dowse discreetly played role of the earl of Northumberland’s promoter in the Commons, Goring sailed close to the wind. In 1641 he was drawn into the abortive ‘Army Plot’ to bring forces south from Scotland and spring from the Tower of London the king’s imprisoned minister the earl of Strafford (Sir Thomas Wentworth). When – perhaps encouraged by Charles I – he leaked various details, the gratitude of MPs was recorded in speeches and the Journal. Such was his skill in dissimulation, that they were persuaded to disbelieve rumours of his compromising behaviour in Portsmouth and his complicity in the escape from there to the continent of co-conspirators Henry Jermyn and Sir John Suckling (the poet). But the following year the circumstances of civil war forced him to reveal his hand. Having received money from both king and Parliament to defend this key garrison, in August 1642 he declared for Charles, only to surrender in September when faced with a parliamentarian blockade by land and sea.

Parliamentarian control brought a change of tack. With the earl of Northumberland among the leadership at Westminster, Dowse became somewhat more active in the Commons. Edward Boate, the man elected in 1646 to replace the expelled Goring, stood in almost complete contrast to his predecessor. In his sixties and possibly of Dutch extraction, he had been a shipwright at Chatham before arriving in Portsmouth and marrying a local widow. Now a commissioner for the supply of timber for the navy, he was described as a man of integrity, of ‘diligent and sincere carriage’, although, not unlike Goring, he was renowned for ‘sudden flashes of fury and threatening’ [HMC Cowper, i. 176].

Boate was not the last representative of the burgeoning naval sector. John Child, one of the two MPs elected in 1659 to the Parliament of Protector Richard Cromwell (who himself just might have been returned for the town at a by-election in 1648), had served an apprenticeship as a clothworker before developing shipowning interests along the south coast, marrying Boate’s daughter and joining the Portsmouth corporation. The other MP, Francis Willoughby, was a native of Wapping, but spent a decade in Massachusetts before arriving in Portsmouth as a navy commissioner in 1652. He immediately registered the restive unpaid shipwrights, sickly and needy families, empty stores and damaged ships in the port and his frequent correspondence with his superiors in London gives a vivid picture of mutinies and the sea war against the Dutch. His unanimous election to Parliament rested on his patent concern for the welfare of the sea-faring community.

Meanwhile, the man returned to the first protectorate Parliament in 1654, Nathaniel Whetham, was another military governor (1649-55; 1659-60). Dorset-born but a member of the London Bakers’ Company before rising to be a major of parliamentarian dragoons, Whetham was an efficient operator, raising money for repairs, cracking down on dissent and monitoring suspicious people arriving in the port from the continent. In December 1659 he played a small but decisive role in ending the army officers’ interruption of Parliament when he opened the gates of Portsmouth to forces under the civilian leaders Harbert Morley and Sir Arthur Hesilrige, who hailed him as ‘a very noble true spirited Englishman’ [Life of Col. Nathaniel Whetham, 194].


Further reading

C.D. Whetham and W.C.D. Whetham, History of the Life of Col. Nathaniel Whetham (1907)

J. Webb, The Siege of Portsmouth in the Civil War (Portsmouth, 1977)

Biographies or further biographies of Edward Boate, John Child, Richard Cromwell, Edward Dowse, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Harbert Morley, Henry Percy, Nathaniel Whetham and Francis Willoughby are being prepared by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

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