1902 Encyclopedia > Eliot

Sir John Eliot
English parliamentarian
(1592-1632)




SIR JOHN ELIOT, (1592-1632), one of the greatest among the English statesmen of the reign of Charles I., was born at his father's seat at Port Eliot, a small fishing-village on the River Tamar, in the month of April 1592. He was the son of a country gentleman of hospitable habits, and of considerable influence, if we may judge from Eliot's early entrance into public life. Against his youth no fault has been charged except such as was the natural fruit of a fiery but generous temper, and that it was not entirely spent in idle frolic is proved by the considerable scholarship which he attained. At fifteen he entered Exeter College, Oxford ; and, on leaving the university, he studied law at one of the inns of court. He also spent some months travelling in France, Spain, and Italy, in company, for part of the time, with young George Villiers, afterwards duke of Buckingham. At the age of twenty he married the daughter of one of his neighbours, a wealthy Cornish gentleman. He was only twenty-two when, in the distinguished company of Pym and Went-worth, he commenced his parliamentary career, and only twenty-seven when he obtained the appointment of vice-admiral of Devon, with large powers for the defence and control of the commerce of the county. It was not long before the characteristic energy with which he performed the duties of his office involved him in difficulties. After many attempts, in 1623 he succeeded, by a clever but dangerous manoeuvre, in entrapping the famous pirate Nutt, who had for years infested the southern coast, in-flicting immense damage upon English commerce. The issue is noteworthy, both as the event which first opened Eliot's eyes to the corruptness of the Government, and as an example of one of the causes which produced the Great Rebellion. The pirate, having gained powerful allies at court by means of bribery, was speedily permitted to re-commence his career of plunder; while the vice-admiral, upon charges which could not be substantiated, was flung into the Marshalsea, and detained there nearly four months.

A few days after his release Eliot was elected member of Parliament for Newport (February 1624). From the first he perceived that the success of the popular cause required the entire independence of parliament; and his earliest recorded speech was to propose that, as " misreports" were constantly being carried to the king, the deliberations of the House of Commons should be kept strictly secret. In the days of Eliot, such a measure would have carried with it advantages of the first importance ; and it was only natural that, in his anxiety to make parliament an efficient check upon the crown, he should forget how necessary was the check upon parliament which would thus have been lost.

In the first three parliaments of the reign of Charles I. Eliot was the foremost leader of the House of Commons. The House was at that time rich in great statesmen. Upon its benches sat Pym, Hampden, Selden, Coke, and many other sincere and steadfast patriots. But, though in profoundness of erudition one or two, but only one or two, may have surpassed him, neither in force of genius, in fire and power of oratory, in loftiness and ardour of sentiment, in inflexible firmness of resolution, nor in personal bravery and self-devotion, had he any superior, while in the union of these great qualities which made up his rare and noble character he had no equal. The circumstances of his past life also conduced to fit him for his position. His official intercourse with the duke of Buckingham, and a certain important interview between them, in which the duke had incautiously unveiled his design of governing without parliament, should parlia-ment refuse submission, had given him an early and valuable opportunity of gauging the character of the favourite; and a bitter experience had acquainted him with the corruptness of the court. Undeterred by any vestige of personal fear, he dared, in plain and uncompromising language, to expose all the abuses which oppressed the country through innumerable illegal exactions of many kinds and through the venality of the executive; and to point out how it was disgraced abroad by a foreign policy directed by the mere spleen of the favourite, and by the gross mismanagement of every campaign that had been undertaken. He dared to advise parliament to demand an account of the expenditure of the supplies which it had voted, and to refuse further supplies till such an account had been rendered. Nay, he dared even to brave the king's deadliest hatred by naming repeatedly, with direct and sternest invective, the great duke of Buckingham, the all-powerful favourite, as chiefly responsible for the misgovern-ment of the country. He did not escape unpunished. In 1626, for drawing a bold parallel between Buckingham.and Sejanus, he was sent to the Tower ; but the House of Commons refused to proceed with any business till he should be released, and, on his release, passed a vote clearing him from fault. In the same year he was confined for a time in the Gatehouse, whence, careless of mere personal considerations, he ventured to petition the king against forced loans. He was also accused of having, in his capacity of vice-admiral, defrauded the duke of Buckingham, who, among his innumerable offices, held that of admiral of Devon, and was supplanted by a creature of the duke's. And, finally, a sentence of outlawry was passed upon him.





But the very fact that he was thus specially singled out for vengeance by the king only increased the confidence reposed in him by the people. In 1628, despite the most strenuous opposition of the court, he was chosen member for his own county of Cornwall; and he resumed his work with undiminished zeal and courage. He at once advised the House to adopt, and firmly to maintain, the only policy which could be effective, namely, to vote no further supplies till they obtained redress of the grievances of which they complained. He joined with Coke, Selden, Littleton, Wentworth, and others in framing the Petition of Right, and, when the first evasive answer was given to that peti-tion, and men scarce knew what to do for wondering at the king's madness and audacity, he fearlessly reviewed the events of the whole reign, and proposed a remonstrance to the king, naming the duke of Buckingham as the cause of the kingdom's wretchedness. And, on the last day of that famous parliament, when Holies and Valentine held the Speaker in the chair by force, it was his voice which read a protest against levying tonnage and poundage and other

taxes without consent of Parliament, and against the king's encouragement of Arminians and Papists (for it is charac-teristic both of himself and of his epoch that, though no Puritan, he spoke as strongly against the king's illegal toleration of Papists as against any other of his illegal acts); and also a declaration that whatever minister should " bring in innovation in religion, or seek to extend, or in-troduce Popery and Arminianism," or should advise illegal methods of raising money, should be considered " a capital enemy to the commonwealth," nay, that whoever even yielded compliance to such illegal demands, should be held accessory to the crime. This was the last speech of that session, and Eliot's last speech of all.
A few days after, parliament having been dissolved, he was summoned, with Selden, Holies, Valentine, and three other members, before the council. When examined he refused to answer for his conduct in parliament anywhere except before parliament; and he was then, with his com-panions, committed to " close confinement " in the Tower, books and the use of writing materials being strictly denied. This rigorous treatment was maintained for nearly three months, till Charles found it necessary to give way somewhat to the popular feeling which was expressed by libels against the bishops and the lord-treasurer, and by stern warnings addressed to himself. In May the prisoners were taken before the Court of King's Bench, when Eliot simply repeated the protest he had made before the council. The case was put off time after time till the long vacation came without its having been heard. Eliot was now, however, allowed to communicate with his friends, among whom his most constant and valued correspondent was Hampden, to borrow books from Sir Bobert Cotton's library, and to employ the tedious hours in writing. He drew up a defence of his conduct, under the title of An Apology for Socrates— " An recte fecerit Socrates quod accusatus non respondent^ and wrote a little book of philosophical meditations, which he called The Monarchy of Man, and an account of the first parliament of Charles I., which he describes on the title-page as " a thing that concerns posterity "—Negotium Pos-terorum,—and which is of no slight historical value. In February 1630 the sentence was at last pronounced, the prisoners being all condemned to a fine; to be imprisoned during the king's pleasure; and not to be released till they had given security for their good behaviour, had sub-mitted to the king, and had acknowledged their offences. The largest fine was imposed upon Eliot—a fine of £2000, which, however, he never paid, as he had taken the pre-caution of securing his property against such an event. Twenty-seven years later this sentence was reversed by par-liament, and Eliot's brave assertion of the independence of parliament was confirmed, never to be again questioned.

The confinement of the other prisoners was gradually made less and less strict, till they were at length allowed full liberty ; but Eliot's spirit, which no weariness or suffer-ing could conquer, disdained to submit where he held no submission to be due, and for him there was no mercy. After more than a year had passed since he first entered the Tower, and the king's hate had only increased in malignity, on December 21, 1631, the council met to devise new means to subdue his constancy and force him to submission. All admittance to him was now denied except to his sons. Moved into a room which his letters describe as dark, cold, and wretchedly uncomfortable, at length his health gave way, and the doctors prescribed fresh air and exercise. He now addressed the king, having been referred to him by the Court of King's Bench, to which he had first applied, in a petition, written in simple, manly language, request-ing that, for his health's sake, he might be allowed a temporary release. The answer being that the petition was not sufficiently humble, he expressed himself "heartily sorry that he had displeased His Majesty," but merely repeated his request with no word of submission. To this no reply was given; and fifteen days after Sir John Eliot had died in the Tower (27th November 1632). His sons humbly begged leave to carry his body to Port Eliot, that he might rest with his fathers, but even this poor request Charles had not magnanimity enough to grant; and, by his express command, Sir John Eliot was " buried in the church of the parish where he died."

An excellent life of Sir John Eliot, founded upon elaborate study of his papers and of the history of the period, has been written by John Forster. (T. M. W.)







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