1902 Encyclopedia > William Prynne

William Prynne
English Puritan politician and pamphleteer
(1600-69)




WILLIAM PRYNNE (1600-1669), was born at Swairswick near Bath in 1600. He was educated at Bath grammar-school, and became a commoner of Oriel College, Oxford, in 1616, taking his B.A. in 1621; he was ad-mitted a student of Lincoln's Inn in the same year, and in due time became a barrister. His studies led him deeply into legal and constitutional lore, and no less deeply into ecclesiastical antiquities. He was Puritan to the core, with a tenacious memory, a strength of will bordering upon obstinacy, and a want of sympathy with human nature in its manifold variety. His first book, The Perpetuity of a Regenerate Man's Estate, 1627, was devoted to a defence of one of the main Calvinistic positions, and The Unloveliness of Love-locks and Health's Sickness, 1628, were devoted to attacks upon prevailing fashions, conducted without any sense of proportion, and treating follies on the same footing as scandalous vices.

After the dissolution of parliament in 1629 Prynne came forward as the assailant of Arminianism in doctrine and of ceremonialism in practice, and thus drew down upon himself the anger of Laud. Histrio-mastix, published in 1633, was a violent attack, not upon the special im-moralities of the stage of Prynne's day but upon stage-plays in general, in which the author laid himself open to the charge of assailing persons in high position, in the first place by pointing out that kings and emperors who hi^d favoured the drama had been carried off by violent deatl s, which assertion might easily be interpreted as a warning to the king, and in the second place by applying a dis-graceful epithet to actresses, which, as Henrietta Maria was taking part in the rehearsal of a ballet just as the sheet containing the offensive words was passing through the press, was supposed to apply to the queen. On 17th February 1634 Prynne was sentenced by the Star Chamber to be imprisoned and also to be fined £65000, expelled from Lincoln's Inn, rendered incapable of returning to his profession, degraded from his degree in the university of Oxford, and set in the pillory, where he was to lose both his ears. On 7th May Prynne was placed in the pillory and lost his ears. The rest of the sentence, with the exception of the clause relating to the payment of the fine, was carried out. A sharp letter written by him to Laud criticizing his arguments at the trial was made the foundation of a fresh charge. Prynne, however, got the letter into his hands and tore it up. Though he was again brought before the Star Chamber, on 11th June, no addi tional penalty was inflicted on him. There is no reason to suppose that his punishment was unpopular. In 1637 he was once more in the Star Chamber, together with Bastwick and Burton. In A Divine Tragedy lately aclea he had attacked the Declaration of Sports, and in News from Ipswich he had attacked Wren and the bishops generally. On 30th June a fresh sentence, that had been delivered on the 14th, was executed. The stumps of Prynne's ears were shorn off in the pillory. When on 27th July he was sent to what was intended to be perpetual imprisonment at Lancaster his journey was a triumphal progress,—the imposition of ship-money and the metro-political visitation having rendered the minds of English-men far more hostile to the Government than they had been in 1634. Before long Prynne was removed to Mont Orgeuil Castle in Jersey, where it was hoped that he could be so entirely isolated that no word of his would reach the outer world again.

Immediately upon the meeting of the Long Parliament in 1640 Prynne was liberated. On 28th November he entered London in triumph, and on 2d March 1641 repara-tion was voted by the Commons, to be made to him at the expense of his persecutors. As might have been expected, Prynne after his release took the side of the Parliament strongly against the king, especially attacking in his writings his old enemies the bishops, and accusing Charles of showing undue favour to the Roman Catholics. He commented on the words of Psalm cv., " Touch not mine anointed," by arguing that they inhibited kings from injuring God's servants who happened to be their subjects, and in a lengthy work entitled The Sovereign Power of Parliaments and Kingdoms he maintained that the taking arms by parliament in a necessarily defensive war was no treason either in law or in conscience.





Prynne's sufferings had not served to render him compassionate to others. In 1643 he took an active part in the proceedings against Nathaniel Fiennes for the surrender of Bristol. During this and the following year, however, his chief energies as a prosecutor were directed against Archbishop Laud. The cessation of hostilities with the Irish insurgents agreed to on 15th September 1643 brought Charles's relations with the Catholics into increased disrepute, and Prynne attacked Laud as the soul of a great Popish plot by publishing both before and after his execution various collections of documents, one of which at least was garbled to render it more telling. Even before the execution of Laud Prynne found a new enemy in the Independents. In 1644 he published Twelve Considerable Serious Questions touching Church Government, in which he upheld the right of the state to form a national church in accordance with the word of God, and reviled the Independents, partly as advocating an unscriptural discipline, partly as introducing heresy and division, and maintaining that all religions ought to be tolerated. To the principle of individual liberty Prynne was from the beginning to the end irreconcilably hostile. For some time to come he poured forth pamphlet after pamphlet in vindication of his assertions. Flowing out of this controversy came another, beginning in 1645 with Four Short Questions, privately circulated, and followed by A Vindication of Four Serious Questions of Great Importance, in which he denied the right of the clergy to excommunicate or to suspend from the reception of the sacrament otherwise than by law. Prynne, in short, maintained the supremacy of the state over the church, whilst he argued that the state ought to protect the church from the rivalry of sectarian associations.

Early in 1648 Prynne broke new ground. The Levellers Levelled was directed against the dangerous opinion that the Lords should be brought down into the House of Commons, there to sit and vote. As usual, he argued his case on purely antiquarian and technical grounds, without any intellectual grasp of his subject.

On 7th November 1648 Prynne at last obtained a seat in the House of Commons. He at once took part against those who called for the king's execution, and on 5th December delivered a speech of enormous length in favour of conciliating the king, who had inflicted the most grievous injuries upon him and whose misgovernment he had bitterly denounced. The result was his inclusion in Pride's "purge" on the morning of the 6th, when, having attempted resistance to military violence, he was subjected to imprisonment. A fresh protest, published on 1st January 1649 under the title of A Brief Memento to the Present Unparliamentary Junto, coupled with his contemptuous refusal to avow his authorship, brought about a fresh order of imprisonment on 10th January from the House of Commons itself, which, however, does not seem to have been carried out. After recovering his liberty Prynne retired to Swainswick. On 7th June 1649 he was assessed to the monthly contribution laid on the country by Parliament. He not only refused to pay but published A Legal Vindication of the Liberties of England on the ground that no tax could be raised without the consent of the two Houses. In the same year he commenced a long historical account of ancient parliaments, which was evidently-intended to reflect on the one in existence. In 1650 his labours were cut short by a warrant from President Brad-shaw, dated 1st July, and ordering his arrest. For the remainder of the year he was imprisoned in Dunster Castle, whence he was removed in January 1651 to Taunton, and in July to Pendennis Castle. On 1st February 1652 the council of state ordered his discharge on giving a bond of £1000 to do nothing to the prejudice of the Common-wealth. On his resolute refusal to accept the condition an absolute order for his release was given on 18th Febru-ary. From his release till the death of Cromwell Prynne refrained from making any further assault on the existing Government. His strong conservatism, however, found expression in an argument in defence of advowsons and patronages and an attack on the Quakers, both published in the same year, as well as in an argument against the admission of the Jews to England issued in the beginning of 1655.

It was not until the restoration of the Rump Parliament by the army on 7th May 1659 that Prynne again came into prominent notice, though he had in the previous year issued A Plea for the Lords and House of Peers and A New Discovery, Viz., that Quakers were Jesuits in disguise. On that day, in addition to the Rump, fourteen of the secluded members, with Prynne among them, claimed admittance. The claim was of course refused, but on a second attempt on the 9th, through the inadvertence of the doorkeepers, Prynne, Annesly, and Hungerford succeeded in taking their seats. When they were observed, however, no busi-ness was done, and the House purposely adjourned for dinner. At the return of members in the afternoon the doors were found guarded; the secluded members were not permitted to pass, and a vote was at once taken that they should not again be allowed to enter the House. Wrathful at the failure of his protest and at the continuance of the republican form of government, Prynne attacked his adversaries fiercely in print. In England's Confusion, published 30th May 1659, in the True and Full Narrative, and in The Brief Necessary Vindication he gave long accounts of the attempt to enter the House and of his ejection, while in the Curtaine Drawne he held up the claims of the Rump to derision. In Mola Asinaria the ruling powers are described as " a new-fangled Government, compacted of Treason, Usurpation, Tyranny, Theft, and Murder." Wood, however, denies that this was by Prynne. In Shuffling, Cutting, and Dealing, 26th May, he rejoiced at the quarrels which he sees arising, for " if you all complain I hope I shall win at last." Concordia Disco*" "ointed out the absurdity of the constant tendency to multiply oaths, while "remonstrances," "narratives," "queries," "prescriptions," " vindications," " declarations," and " statements " were scattered broadcast. Upon the cry of the " good old cause" he is especially sarcastic and severe in The True Good Old Cause rightly stated and other pamphlets. Loyalty Banished explains itself. His activity and fearlessness in attacking those in power during this eventful year were remarkable, and an ironical petition was circulated in Westminster Hall and the London streets com-plaining of his indefatigable scribbling. On 12th October the Rump was again expelled by Lambert, and on 24th December once more restored. On 26th December Prynne made another fruitless attempt to take his seat. In obedience to the popular voice, however, the ejected members of 1648, with Prynne among them, wearing a basket-hilt sword, re-entered the House and resumed their old seats on 21st February 1660. He boldly declared that if Charles was to come back it were best done by the votes of those who had made war on his father, and was admonished for his language by Monk and the privy council. This parliament recalled Charles and dissolved itself immediately,— Prynne bringing in the Bill for the dissolution on 24th February. On 13th March he appears as one of three appointed to carry out the resolution of the House expung-ing the Engagement.

The Convention Parliament, which met on 25th April 1660, contained a large number of Presbyterians. Prynne, who was returned for two places, Ludgershall and Bath, elected to sit for the latter, and on 16th June presented to the king an address from the corporation, evidently drawn up by himself, under the title of Bathonia Bediviva. On 1st May he was nominated on the committee appointed " to peruse the Journals and Records, and to examine what pretended Acts or orders have passed, inconsistent with the government by King, Lords, and Commons, and report them, with their opinion thereon, to this House," and to secure the steady administration of the law, and the confirmation of the legal judgments of the past years. On 9th May he went to the Lords with various loyal votes of the Commons, and again on 18th May and on 9th June. On 3d June he " fell upon" Ashley Cooper for putting his hand to the "instrument" to settle the Protector in power. On the 13th he moved that Colonel Fleetwood, Bichard Crom-well, John Goodwin, Thorpe, and Whitelock should be excepted from the Act of general pardon and oblivion, the speedy passing of which he strongly urged upon the House. It is said that at the Restoration he applied to be made one of the barons of the exchequer, and that it was in default of this, and to keep so active a man in good temper, that he was appointed chief keeper of the records in the Tower with a salary of £6500 a year by Charles, " of his owne neere motion for my services and sufferings for him under the late usurpers, and strenuous endeavours by printing and otherwise to restore His Majesty." On 2d July he supported a proposal that all officers who had served during the Protectorate should now refund their salaries, and declared that he knew that those persons had received above £6250,000 for their iniquitous doings and to keep out the king, a charge he had previously made on 12th May. In all the debates he was for severity upon any one who had held office under Cromwell. On 9th July he spoke " very honestly and passionately " from the Presbyterian point of view in the first great debate on religion, and on the 16th declared he "would not be for bishops unless they would derive their power from the king and not vaunt themselves to be jure divino." In the debate of the 27th upon the Lords' delay in passing the Act of Indemnity Prynne found an opportunity for expressing his hatred of priests and Jesuits; and on the 30th, in the debate on the Ministers' Bill, he urged a settlement on the principle that the ministers should be compelled to take the oath, but that "all presentations should be good throughout, though not by the right patrons, in time of trouble." On 17th August he spoke passionately against any leniency whatsoever being extended to any of the king's judges. It is curious, however, to find that the House appointed him to carry the petition to the king in favour of Lambert or Vane. When the question of dis-banding came up, for the carrying out of which he was in October made one of the commissioners, Prynne moved that no arrears should be paid to those who had acted with Lambert and did not submit. On 7th November he supported the Bill for the attainder of Cromwell and others who had participated in the king's execution, and were since dead, and particularly desired that the House would take the first and second reading at the same sitting, as was done in the case of the king's trial. At some time in this year (1660) he wrote a letter on the evil custom of drinking healths, a subject discussed in the House on 10th November. There was indeed scarcely any debate in which Prynne's voice was not heard; he spoke against laying the cost of the abolition of the court of wards upon the excise, having been in August appointed on the commission for appeals and regulating the excise, and in favour of Bills against the profanation of the Lord's Day (in which his knowledge of ecclesiastical con-troversy again appeared) and against swearing. He ap-joears at this time to have been officially connected with the Admiralty. He supported on 27th November the abortive attempt to turn the king's declaration concern-ing ecclesiastical affairs into a Bill, and moved against the payment of the debts of the attainted regicides. In December he wrote against the bishops to the king, thus "blemishing his late services." During this year was pub-lished A Seasonable Vindication of the Supream Authority and Jurisdiction of Christian Kings, Lords, Parliaments, as well over the Possessions as Persons of Delinquents, Pre-lates, and Churchmen.





At the elections for the Pensionary Parliament, which met on 8th May 1661, Prynne was again returned as member for Bath in spite of the vehement efforts of the Royalists headed by Sir T. Bridge. This parliament was bent upon the humiliation of the Presbyterians, and Prynne appears in his familiar character of protester. On 30th May, when the members took the sacrament together at St Margaret's, " Mr Prynne and some few others refused to take it kneel-ing. The parson with the bread passed on and refused to give it, but he with the wine, not noticing, gave the wine." With Secretary Morris Prynne opposed the motion that Dr Gunning should receive the thanks of the House and be desired to print his sermon. On the 18th of this month he had moved that the Engagement, with the Solemn League and Covenant, should be burned by the hangman. On 13th July he was the subject of attack, as being in a way the representative of Presbyterianism ; the House in its vehement Anglicanism declared that his paper lately published, Sundry Reasons against the new intended Bill for governing and reforming Corporations, was illegal, false, scandalous, and seditious. Prynne was censured, and so strong was the feeling that he deemed it best to express his sorrow, upon which the offence was remitted. The continued attacks upon the Presbyterians led him to publish his Short, Sober, Pacific Examination of Exuberances in the Common Prayer, as well as the Apology for Tender Consciences touching Not Boiving at the Name of Jesus. In 1662 there appeared also the Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, possibly a portion of the Register of Parliamentary Writs, of which the fourth and concluding volume wyas published in 1664. During 1663 he served constantly on committees, and was chairman of the committee of supply in July, and again in April 1664.

In the third session Prynne was once more, 13th May 1664, censured for altering the draft of a Bill relating to public-houses after commitment, but the House again, upon his submission, while taking severe notice of an irregu-larity committed by "so ancient and knowing a member," remitted the offence, and he again appears on the com-mittee of privileges in November and afterwards. In 1665 and 1666 he published the second and first volumes respectively of the Exact Chronological Vindication and Historical Demonstration of the supreme ecclesiastical juris-diction exercised by the English kings from the original planting of Christianity to the death of Richard I. In the latter year especially he was very busy with his pen against the Jesuits. In January 1667 he was one of three appointed to manage the evidence at the hearing of the impeachment of Lord Mordaunt, and in November of the same year spoke in defence of Clarendon, so far as the sale of Dunkirk was concerned; and this appears to have been the last time that he addressed the House. In 1668 was published his Aurum Regime, or Records concerning Queen-gold, the Brief Animadversions on Coke's Institutes in 1669, and the History of King John, Henry III, and Edward I., in which the power of the crown over ecclesiastics was maintained, in 1670. The date of the Abridgment of the Records of the Tower of London is doubtful, though the preface is dated 1656/57. Prynne died in his lodgings at Lincoln's Inn, 24th October 1669, and was buried in the walk under the chapel there, which stands upon pillars. His will, by which he gave one portion of his books to Lincoln's Inn and another to Oriel College, is dated 11th August 1669. Prynne was never married.

The following curious account of his habits is given by "Wood. "His custom when he studied was to put on a long quilted cap which came an inch over his eyes, serving as an umbrella to defend them from too much light; and, seldom eating a dinner, would every three hours or more be munching a roll of bread, and now and then refresh his exhausted spirits with ale brought to him by his servant." There is a portrait of him in Oriel College, Oxford, and Wood mentions one by Hollar, and an engraving by Stent, as the best extant. (S. R. G. — O. A.)



The above article was written by: S. Rawson Gardiner, LL.D., and Osmund Airy.



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