‘Never ending war’ and ‘the enriching of Parliament-men’: MPs and corruption in the 1640s

In the second of two blogs from Dr Vivienne Larminie, editor of our Commons 1640-1660 project, here attention is turned to accusations of corruption and financial incentives in the Parliaments of the 1640s…

In the 1630s the venom-filled pen of pamphleteer William Prynne had excoriated the court of Charles I for what he regarded as immorality and corruption. But by the later 1640s, a seemingly perpetual Long Parliament held the reins of power, Prynne was an MP, and Westminster was itself the target of fierce criticism from the press for its perceived greed, venality and dereliction of duty. Perhaps other commentators did not equal Prynne in the language of vituperation, but some copied his favourite lines of attack.

Certain queries lovingly propounded to Mr William Prynne (1647) employed his habit of posing rhetorical questions, to which the answer was intended to be damningly obvious. Was it ‘more in the power of Parliament-men’ to receive ‘the Kingdomes moneyes, and distribute them amongst themselves … on whatsoever pretences; then it is for so many Apprentices or other servants to … to pick their masters pockets’ [p. 2]? Should not this money ‘be brought into a publike Treasury for paiment of the Kingdomes just debts’ [p. 3]? That only bribery would secure the attention of the House was strongly implied in the proposition ‘whether in this present Parliament have not Petitions been chiefly admitted through favour, or rejected through want of friends?’ Should there not be punishment for Members who failed to voice local concerns? Should there not be greater penalties for non-attendance and a voting record kept for each MP?

Some posed questions with a familiar ring to modern ears. In Englands birth-right justified (1645) the Leveller John Lilburne asked ‘whether it be not most agreeable to Law, Justice, equitie and conscience, and the nature of a Parliament mans place, that during the time of his being a member, hee should lay aside all places of profit in the Common-wealth, and tend only upon that function, for which he was chosen’ [p. 30]? Surely, as Parliament paid its soldiers only 8d a day, MPs could rest content with the daily allowances of 4 shillings to knights and 2 shillings to the others, as laid down in the time of Henry VIII? Among those who should be ‘turned out of their places’ were Sir Henry Mildmay, master of the Jewel House, and Sir Robert Harley, master of the Mint. Lawyers like Speaker William Lenthall and ‘all the Chancery judges’ should resign, ‘for to me it is one of the most unjust things in the world, that the Law-makers should be the Law executors’ [p. 31].

Sir Robert Harley
George Vertue, after Peter Oliver, 1737
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The Self-Denying Ordinance of 1645, by which most MPs and peers were supposed to relinquish any commissions in the army or navy, prompted numerous attempts to publish what amounted to registers of Members’ interests, including any office or reward from the state. These ostensibly exposed substantial profiteering, often at the expense of royalists penalised for their loyalty to Charles. Unsurprisingly, outrage was expressed where the recipients had once themselves been courtiers. Thus Sir Henry Vane the elder was ‘made master of the Roles [i.e. Rolls] ‘for his eagernesse against the King on all occasions, besides, [£2000] given him out of the Earle of Canarvans estate; hee and his son … though they received their first being from his Majesty, are the maddest dogs of the whole pack against him’. Puritan zeal could easily appear hypocritical. MP for Warwick William Purefoy, ‘was the hammer that beat downe all the ancient monuments in the Earles Chappell at Warwick, and in St Maries Church, for which hee received at one time a thousand pounds, at another time five hundred pounds’. MPs whose background was in trade could readily be disparaged. ‘Tom Scot the Brewers Clarke’, son of a very respectable member of a London livery company, ‘whose braines worke perpetually like bottle ale against his Majestie, and who once said openly in the house, that the King was guilty of all the innocent bloud that hath been shed and for it ought to bee brought to a legall triall, and to be hangd’, had received £2,000 and ‘also an Office in Brewers Hall, worth [£500] per annum’ [A second list of the names offices, and rewards of the Parliament men (1648)].

Ten years later, in the context high taxation, the 1656-8 Parliament of ‘upstart Protector’ Oliver Cromwell, was attacked in much the same manner. An unprecedented ‘Company of false-hearted, low-spirited, mercenary Englishmen Sitting in that House’ had countenanced the exclusion from it of MPs deemed politically subversive. The protectoral councillors responsible drew £1,000 a year from their office, but their colleagues in the Commons were doing well too. Sir Thomas Widdrington, for instance, received £35 a week as Speaker, £1,000 a year as a commissioner of the Treasury, £5 for every private bill passed and for every immigrant naturalised, and an unknown amount as recorder of York, while Attorney-general Edmund Prideaux got £5 for every patent and pardon and supposedly £2,000 ‘by great fees’ for pleading at the bar, ‘supposed to amount to in all neer’ £6,000 a year [A narrative of the late Parliament (1658, BL E.935.5), 5, 10].

Sir Thomas Widdrington
attributed to Thomas Athow, early 19th century
© National Portrait Gallery, London

So were MPs guilty as charged? Indisputably, confiscated estates were acquired by Parliament loyalists; offices were re-allocated to those who could be trusted.  But that had been a fact of political life under the crown, as had the exaction of fees for processing petitions and bills. Members received salaries for work in government and also associated sweeteners, but, particularly as the state expanded, that might be justified by the labour involved. The critical questions are whether remuneration was outrageously generous during this period and whether bribery substantially impacted decisions? There was concern within the Commons. Committees to investigate bribery and misuse of privilege were established. In the most high-profile case, Edward Howard, Lord Howard of Escrick, chairman of the Committee for Compounding (which handled royalist submissions to Parliament), was expelled from his seat in 1651 for egregious corruption. Undoubtedly, some modest fortunes were made – and often lost at the Restoration. Clearly, some MPs took undue advantage of opportunities for profit and advancement, and a few were unscrupulous – arguably the otherwise charming Sir John Danvers among them. However, on close examination many allegations by critics of Parliament appear simplistic or exaggerated. Long-time Speaker William Lenthall expected retainers and received presents, but if his interminable hours in the chair, and navigation of multiple complex, tense and dangerous situations gained him the immense fortune his enemies claimed, its fruits were not very visible.


Further reading:

M. Knights, Trust and Distrust: Corruption in Office in Britain and its Empire, 1600-1850 (2021)

G. E.Aylmer, The State’s Servants (1973)

A. B. Worden, The Rump Parliament (rev. edn, 2008)

Biographies or further biographies of all MPs mentioned are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 project.

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