An Indispensable Member? Legal expertise in the Long Parliament, ‘an ancient lawyer’ and civil war intimidation

In the past, as with now, it was not uncommon to find those trained in the practice of law seated on the benches of Parliament. In today’s blog Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 project, looks into the tumultuous political career of one such lawyer in the 17th century, John Whistler.

Portrait of John Selden, drawn by Peter Lely, engraved by George Vertue, 1726
via Wikimedia Commons

With their expertise at a premium in the drafting of legislation, lawyers have always found a place in Parliament. When professional experience was combined with long service in the House and a reputation for learning, integrity or judicious pronouncements, a lawyer MP might command such respect that it was considered difficult to operate without him. This was the case with John Selden, a jurist with a European reputation who, when the Long Parliament assembled in November 1640, had the added kudos of having suffered more than two years’ incarceration in the Tower of London for his part in opposition to crown policies and ministers in the 1628 Parliament. Although not always in tune with the trajectory of politics through the civil war period, Selden remained a go-to provider of independent professional advice within the Commons until he fell victim to Pride’s Purge in December 1648, and even afterwards his scholarly retirement was punctuated by requests for counsel.

One colleague whose advice at one point seemed equally indispensable to the House was John Whistler. His story had a less happy ending. A few years older than Selden, he was about 60 in November 1640; like Selden, he was entering his fifth stint in Parliament. He too had defied royal policies, albeit with less dramatic consequences. Recorder of the city of Oxford since 1627, he had represented it in every Parliament from 1624 except in the Short Parliament of spring 1640. At that election, candidates backed by the economically-dominant university had squeezed him out, but when town-gown relations deteriorated sharply over the succeeding summer, he was briefed by the city authorities to put their case to the privy council. As pre-eminent councillor – and university chancellor – Archbishop William Laud remarked in a characteristically heavy joke, the corporation had ‘whistled up their recorder to come and complain at the council table’ [Anthony Wood, History of the University of Oxford ed. J. Gutch (Oxford, 1796), ii. 421-2].

Such jibes did Whistler’s standing among Long Parliament MPs nothing but good. He was nominated to investigate numerous grievances arising from the personal rule of Charles I. He was a frequent and thoughtful speaker in debates, coming up with useful precedents and pointing out flaws in the detail of proposed legislation. He managed the grand committee on Irish affairs and prepared papers for the prospective trial of the king’s chief minister in Ireland, the 1st earl of Strafford (Sir Thomas Wentworth). He was involved in everything from the regulation of salt marshes and disorders in elections to the promotion of preaching the gospel and the limitation of the secular power of bishops. As the pressure of work apparently took its toll, on 17 April 1641 there was a proposal that the ‘ancient lawyer’ be allowed leave of absence for his health. Diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes noted that some MPs ‘out of their respect for him as conceiving him a necessary Member opposed it’, but himself endorsed the grant of a week’s absence that ‘we might the longer enjoy his assistance’ [Procs. LP iii. 604, 605, 608].

Whistler did eventually take a short break, but was soon back in harness. He continued to be an important actor in key aspects of Commons’ business and a guardian of law and precedent until June 1642. As armed conflict looked increasingly likely, he then went back to his constituency. On 10 August he was present in Oxford to hear Thomas Howard, 1st earl of Berkshire, and the vice chancellor, Robert Pinke, outline their plans to implement royal instructions to fortify the city against attack by any forces sent by Parliament. In response, he declared that the plans were impracticable and ‘would draw enemies upon us, and make [the city] a seat of war’ but ‘that night Mr Whistler’s windows were broken, and it was generally given out that he should be mischiefed for speaking against that fortification’ [HMC Portland i. 56-8]. Further intimidation prompted him and others to flee to Abingdon.

Subsequently Whistler made the miscalculation of returning to his home at Great Haseley. As Charles I’s forces converged on Oxford in the aftermath of the indecisive battle of Edgehill, he was taken prisoner into what became the royalist capital, leaving ‘the place of his habitation, and almost all his goods, to the spoil’ as he later claimed [R.F. Whistler, ‘Annals of an English family’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, xxxv. 66-7]. A hostile witness explained that he was committed to the custody of the dean of Christ Church for ‘his adhering to the Parliament, and ever and anon by letters advising citizens not to take up arms, or be helping or contributing towards the fortifying of their city for the king’ [Wood, Hist. Univ. Oxford, ii. 457]. His readiness to speak out and his piety were decried in the local cavalier press: Abraham Cowley in The Puritan and the Papist (Oxford, 1643) bracketed him in this with Oliver Cromwell in a very early sign of the latter’s growing profile.

After a few months Whistler was freed, and – indispensable again? – reappointed by the king to local office. Voluntarily or otherwise he participated in the royalist Oxford Parliament in 1644. As a result he was thrown out of the Westminster Parliament as a delinquent, although his plea that his property ‘lately burnt’ had brought no income for three years averted the imposition of a fine. He died in 1647 having made a will in which he acknowledged the frailty of the flesh, ‘especially of mine that am aged’ [TNA, PROB11/200/317].


Further reading:

Proceedings in the Opening Sessions of the Long Parliament ed. M. Jansson (7 vols. 2000-)

Further biographies of John Selden, John Whistler and Oliver Cromwell are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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