Lies, stories, misinformation and collective memory: extracting vipers and unmasking cavaliers in the 1659 Parliament

‘Fake news’ might seem like a modern concept, but there’s nothing new about attempts to disguise, misrepresent or reinvent the past, as Dr Vivienne Larminie of our Commons 1640-60 project explains…

Debates on whether to exclude from the House of Commons MPs deemed ineligible or delinquent always had an element of theatre. By the end of the interregnum they also illuminate the collective memory of the House – or the lack of it. Could MPs identify who among them had once been or was still a royalist? Could they prove it?

‘Prince Rupert and Staff’ (E. Crofts 1875); cc Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

It is improbable that the sole surviving diary for the 1659 Parliament captured accurately all the proceedings on 12 February, but it gives us the gist. Matthew Alured, a spokesman for republicans opposed to the protectorate of Richard Cromwell, announced, ‘You have vipers in your bowels, divers delinquents’. His motion that these MPs be commanded to withdraw received a mixed response. English Attorney-general Robert Reynolds agreed that – ‘nothing ought to intervene a fundamental order of the House, to purge your own House before any thing else’ – and pointed to the risk of covert sympathisers leaking to the exiled royal court what was said under parliamentary privilege in the chamber – ‘would you have your counsels told beyond sea to Charles Stuart?’. Reynolds produced a precedent, ‘when a Member that was the king’s servant discovered the debate of the House to the king, [and] was turned out of the House, and sent to the Tower’. However, soon enough other MPs raised the problem of identification.

Alured began by mentioning ‘particularly one Mr Jones’. This man was temporarily obscured by a fog of namesakes – ‘there are three Joneses in the House’, noted Beaumaris MP Griffith Bodurda helpfully – but not for long. Edmund Jones was, as he declared when he rose to speak, ‘the attorney-general of Wales’; as such he could hardly escape notice. Initially, Jones’s narrative was that he had been in the wrong place (Monmouth) at the wrong time (the outbreak of the second civil war in 1648), but that he had ‘not been in arms’; thereafter he had ‘served your protector … with as much faithfulness as any man’. Protectorate service cut little ice with the republicans, however, and Jones was cornered into admitting that he had gone through the punitive process of compounding for royalist delinquency. In fact, prior to taking his seat in the 1654 Parliament, he had produced a certificate that he had compounded in 1646-7, although that detail may not have surfaced in 1659, in a context of many new MPs. Equally, it is not clear whether colleagues knew then that he had been steward to a leading Catholic royalist and, in the first civil war, treasurer for the king’s cause in Monmouthshire. Nonetheless, a majority were persuaded to expel him from the House and to disable him from sitting again, although not to send him to the Tower.

Bodurda then launched the next attack, raising the stakes by introducing ‘a gentleman that has led a regiment of dragoons against you’. Pointedly, he confessed ‘some difficulty upon me to name him. Some call him Mr Danvers, some Mr Villiers.’ There could be no doubt that this was the MP for Westbury and son-in-law of the late regicide Sir John Danvers, Robert Danvers or Villiers. Samuel Ashe, MP for nearby Heytesbury, affirmed that his very recently deceased brother John ‘was able to have made good [Bodurda’s] information’; he himself ‘thought’ that Sir John ‘did … acknowledge him to be a papist in arms’.

Robert promised to ‘answer totally this charge’. He explained that he had ‘left’ part of his name because he ‘would not be under suspicion’. He ‘utterly’ denied ‘all aiding, abetting or assisting’ of the king’. He insinuated John Ashe’s unreliability as a witness: he ‘was my competitor’ at the Westbury election. Several Cromwellian major-generals had questioned Robert a few years earlier and given a discharge; ‘the Colonel’ had ‘cleared me with a testimony that I was no delinquent’, although ‘I have not this ready to produce about me’.

Former Major-generals William Packer and Tobias Bridge – no friends of the republicans – corroborated Robert’s narrative, while regicide Thomas Scot, who knew him at Chipping Wycombe, surprisingly averred that he had ‘been 20 times in his company, and heard him strongly defend the Parliament’s cause’. Colonel William Eyre, the other Westbury MP, insisted that he had never heard anyone speak so vehemently in favour of Charles I’s execution, while others were inclined to excuse what a youthful Robert might have done when in royalist Oxford. Yet a steady drip of information from some veteran Members eventually extinguished such indulgence. Richard Knightley recalled a disconcerting conversation with Sir John Danvers in 1648 revealing Robert’s past as a papist soldier while Edmund Weaver remembered (correctly) how Sir John had secured the Commons’ agreement to parliamentary preacher Stephen Marshall inducting Robert into the Protestant faith to enable him to compound as a delinquent. Robert’s defence – blaming Sir John (for telling ‘stories’), his mother (for being ‘violent’ in her royalism), and anyone else but himself – eventually provoked disgust. ‘This is the first time that ever I heard a gentleman deal so notoriously disingenuously with you’ pronounced Sir Arthur Hesilrige. ‘Robert Villiers returned [to Parliament] by the name of Robert Danvers’ was expelled that day, narrowly escaping despatch to the Tower.

Frances Coke, Viscountess Purbeck (M.J. van Miereveld 1623); cc National Trust

So, who was he and what was the truth? Baptised Robert Wright in 1624, he was the son of Frances Coke, the unwilling bride of John Villiers, 1st Viscount Purbeck, from her adulterous relationship with Sir Robert Howard. Known in his childhood as Robert Villiers (and perhaps fleetingly Howard), he probably spent time in France and certainly became a Catholic. There are testimonies to his being at Oxford and a royalist officer in Shropshire. After his mother’s death in 1645 he went to London and through the agency of Sir John Danvers and other MPs was reconciled to Parliament and Protestantism. In 1652 ‘Lady Purbeck’s son’ was noticed on a mission to Paris for the English republic. Having staked a claim to the Purbeck estate in the 1640s, Robert had apparently repudiated that by the time Viscount Purbeck died in 1658. Notwithstanding his supposedly permanent exclusion from Parliament, he sat for Malmesbury in the 1660 Convention, where the regicide name of Danvers became a liability. Summoned to the Lords as [2nd] Viscount Purbeck shortly after the Restoration to answer accusations that he had advocated the decapitation of Charles I, he declined to take his seat as a peer, labelling the rank ‘but a shadow, without substance’. He described himself simply as ‘son to the lady that married Lord Purbeck’ [Historical Manuscripts Commission 5th Report, 150, 154, 168; 7th Report, 126-7]. Their lordships deplored his dishonourable conduct, while some labelled him an atheist, but he was released with only financial penalties. Dying in impoverished exile in 1675, he was buried as a Catholic.


Further reading

Diary of Thomas Burton, vol. iii [ ]

Journal of the House of Commons, vol. vii, 602-3 [ ]

Journal of the House of Lords, vol. xi [ ]

Biographies or further biographies of John Ashe, Samuel Ashe, Matthew Alured, Griffith Bodurda, Tobias Bridge, Sir John Danvers, Robert Danvers alias Villiers, William Eyre, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Sir Robert Howard, Edmund Jones, Richard Knightley, William Packer, Robert Reynolds, Thomas Scot and Edmund Weaver are being prepared for publication by the Commons 1640-1660 project.

A biography of John Villiers, 1st Viscount Purbeck features in our recently published volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).

One thought on “Lies, stories, misinformation and collective memory: extracting vipers and unmasking cavaliers in the 1659 Parliament

  1. Great history! The modern reader is nonplussed by the apparent absence of a concept of “representation” in Parliament–the idea that competing viewpoints among the people needed to be present and resolved by debate and compromise. Instead, uncontested “possession” of Parliament seems to have been the goal from the summer of 1642 onward. As for “vipers in their bowels,” they should have looked higher up, to General Monck and Admiral Montague.

    So looking forward to the completion of the mammoth project of 1640-1660 bios!

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