The good, the bad and the visually memorable: characterising the Commons 1640-1660

With Westminster once more ringing with allegations of corruption, it is as well to recall that MPs have rarely been elected on account of their unimpeachable conduct. And, as Dr Vivienne Larminie of our Commons 1640-60 section explains, while modern politics is sometimes dubbed a ‘beauty contest’, quite a few mid-seventeenth-century Members were eye-catching for the wrong reasons

The make-up of the House of Commons over the later 1640s and 1650s was almost certainly more diverse than at any time before the twentieth century. The expulsion or exclusion of some Members for their loyalty to the Stuarts, and the refusal of others among the elite to participate in elections called by republican and protectorate regimes, left the way open for some men slightly further down the social scale to be returned to Westminster. But the preparation of biographies that is at the core of work for the History of Parliament project reveals fascinating glimpses of more constant diversity. MPs were definitely not ‘all the same’.

Undoubtedly, the chamber contained a fair sprinkling of miscreants, ranging from ‘idle Dick Norton’ (so dubbed by Oliver Cromwell) to much worse. Alongside those, including Speaker William Lenthall, who were confidently asserted to take bribes, there were numerous others whose chief motivation for being in Parliament was to escape debtors’ prison, whether because of their own or inherited obligations. There were gamblers like German Pole, MP for Derbyshire in 1656, whose fondness for playing cards and dice (among other indulgences) got him into considerable financial difficulty, and those dangerously dependent on alcohol like lawyer Mr Shafto, MP for Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1659, known to contemporaries as ‘Six-bottle Mark’ owing to his predilection for port. In times of supposedly ‘puritan’ rule, Sir Edward Bayntun, the serial adulterer already featured in a blog, was not the only one to father illegitimate children. Several MPs’ history included at least one duel (illegal in England, so necessitating a quick trip across the Channel) or fatal encounter. Notably, Sir Edward Bishoppe had run the playwright Henry Shirley through with a sword between sitting for Steyning in 1626 and for Bramber in 1640. Seventeen years before his election for Wells in 1646, Clement Walker had stabbed his wife at the dinner table, and when she survived, had subjected her to coercive control because of his suspicions of her infidelity. He was apparently never prosecuted, but in 1643 royalist opponents remembered that he ‘had his hands stained with his own wife’s blood’ [The Two State Martyrs (1643), 11].

But there were other MPs who gained wide respect. The value placed on the wisdom of the ‘ancient lawyers’ like John Selden and John Whistler has been noted in another blog. The grandee William Pierrepont was known to his fellow Independents as ‘wise William’, while Norfolk MP Sir John Potts was recognised as ‘a man of judgement and integrity’. Sir Francis Norreys, elected for Oxfordshire in 1656, put behind him the embarrassment of illegitimate birth and the misfortune of a violent and depressive father, becoming an affectionate and generous parent, and gaining general esteem. Sir Benjamin Rudyerd, MP from 1640 for the 4th earl of Pembroke’s pocket borough of Wilton, and an even-tempered foil to his volatile patron and friend [see Sir Philip Herbert], had the rare distinction of having treated those who came before the unpopular court of wards, of which he was surveyor, with compassion and humanity. An eloquent orator in the chamber, he contributed reason and moderation to debate and won many friends in the House – at least until peace-making ran into the ground in 1648.

Sir Benjamin Rudyerd (W. Hollar)

While some MPs were known inside and outside Westminster by their character, others captured attention because of their physical attributes. Industrious committee-man and merchant George Thomson, first elected in 1645 as a war hero, was distinguished also by the wooden leg which in no way impeded his parliamentary service. Sir Robert Pye the elder, who lived next door to Parliament and was a constant attender until the purge of 1648, was said to have ‘a healthful constitution of body’, but other Members were constantly seeking leave of absence because of their ailments. Even Sir Philip Stapilton, a leader of the Presbyterian party, had ‘a thin body and weak constitution’ and was ‘not able to endure much hardship’.

Meanwhile, Cumberland MP Richard Barwis, called ‘Great Barwis’ or ‘Great Richard’ owing to his formidable strength and stature, evidently towered over some of his colleagues. The scandalous poet and playwright Sir John Suckling, famous for his playboy lifestyle and gambling debts, and Member for Bramber in the Short Parliament, was disconcertingly slight. This did not stop him labelling the equally small Cornish Member Sidney Godolphin – albeit before they met in the Commons chamber – as ‘Little Sid’. In an age when many doubtless looked prematurely aged on account of their chronic health conditions, Devonian William Strode struck fellow MPs as ‘perennially youthful looking’. Great Yarmouth lawyer and leading light of several executive committees, Miles Corbett, was ‘famously swarthy’. In contrast, diarist Sir Simonds D’Ewes readily recognised young Wiltshire Member Edward Bayntun by his red hair, and associated it with his behaviour as one of the ‘fiery spirits’ he distrusted.

The diminutive Sir John Suckling (A. Van Dyck; Frick Collection, via Wikipedia)

A sizeable proportion of MPs coming to the House for the first time encountered friends and relatives with whom they were familiar. But the hitherto unprecedented prolonged sittings of the mid-seventeenth century enabled them to spot and note the features and foibles of those previously strangers to them. The emerging press also began to record pen portraits of politicians. But perhaps the most lasting visual impression was created by the greatest new man of the age. This will be the subject of our next James I to Restoration post.


Biographies (or further biographies) of all the MPs mentioned in this blog are being prepared by the Commons 1640-60 section. You may also read more about the 4th earl of Pembroke and Francis Norris, earl of Berkshire in our new volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush, published earlier this year.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s