1902 Encyclopedia > John Pym

John Pym
English politician
(1584-1643)




JOHN PYM (1584-1643), was born at Brymore in Somerset in 1584. In 1599 he entered Broadgates Hall, now Pembroke College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner. He is said by Clarendon to have held at a later date an office in the exchequer, in which he no doubt acquired that familiarity with financial business which afterwards dis-tinguished him. His wife, Anna Hooker, died in 1620, and in the following year he entered parliament for the first time as member for Calne, the statement that he sat in the Addled Parliament being now known to have been erroneous. To the patronage of the earl of Bedford no doubt Pym owed the position which he thus acquired. The use which he made of it was all his own. He had none of the fire of Eliot's genius, but he early showed himself to be possessed of the two qualities which in combination make a leader of men, a thorough and honest sympathy with the ideas of the time and a moderation in their applica-tion. There was more of measured force in him than there was in Eliot. His powers as a party leader were as yet unsuspected.

Pym's name was first prominently brought forward by his speech of 8th November 1621, directed against the Catholics. He strove to distinguish between an attempt "to punish them for believing and thinking" what they did and the disabling of them from doing " that which they think and believe they ought to do." His remedy was an oath of association to be taken by all loyal Protestants. Those who object to Pym's counsel as divisive must nevertheless acknowledge that there was a singular consistency in his advocacy of it. By organizing the resistance of the majority of Englishmen, he wished to baffle parties which might be dangerous by their organization or by the assist-ance which they might receive from abroad.
After the dissolution Pym was confined for three months in his house in London. In the following parliament he pleaded for the execution of the penal laws against recusants and for the restoration of the silenced Puritan clergy. In 1626 he was one of the managers of Bucking-ham's impeachment. In 1628 he was equally prominent in advocating the Petition of Right and in carrying on the impeachment of Mainwaring. The political question and the religious question were in Pym's mind fused into one. His intellect was intensely conservative, not easily admit-ting new ideas or projecting itself into the future to deal with growing changes in society, but seeking to rest on the conservatism of existing society rather than on the maintenance of artificial forces. He looked for support to the nation itself, and he found it hard to believe that the national judgment could much differ from his own. In 1629 he found himself differing from those with whom he usually acted. Eliot carried the House with him in turn-ing the dispute with the king on the question of tonnage and poundage into one of parliamentary privilege, whilst Pym thought that the main question of the king's right to levy the duties without a parliamentary grant should be first attacked. He was beaten at the time, but his defeat was full of promise for the future. It is much in a man's favour that he is ready to look a difficulty fully in the face. It is characteristic of Pym that nothing is heard of him either during the riotous proceedings in which this parlia-ment closed or during the eleven years which passed with-out a parliament at all. He had neither the virtues nor the failings which accompany excitability of temperament.

With the Short Parliament Pym's three and a half years of authority begin. His speech of 17th April 1640 on grievances lasted for two hours, a length of time without precedent in the parliaments of those days. It was not eloquent in the sense in which Eliot's speeches were eloquent, but it summed up in a telling manner the grievances under which, in the opinion of the vast majority of thinking Englishmen, the commonwealth laboured. Before the session closed he showed his powers as a parliamentary tactician by proposing to bring forward the Scottish grievances and to make a peace with the Scots the condition of the grant of supplies. This proposal led to a hasty dissolution of parliament, but it laid down the basis of a policy which afterwards stood Pym in good stead. That policy was precisely what had been fore-shadowed in his speech of 1621, the association of the majority who thought alike in civic union against official authority; but that which in 1621 was to be a union of Englishmen alone in 1640 included Scots as well.

With the dissolution of the Short Parliament Pym once more sinks out of sight. There is, however, good reason to suppose that the summer months of 1640 were for him a time of unusual activity, and that he was a leading spirit in those negotiations with the Scots the exact nature of which cannot now be traced. At all events in the end of August lie was in close communication with the leaders of the opposition, and he then drew up, in co-operation with St John, the petition in which twelve peers demanded the redress of grievances and the summoning of parliament. The rout of Newburn gave emphasis to the language of the peers, and on 3d November 1640 the Long Parliament met.

Pym's leadership of the Commons rested on his sympathy with the feelings of the House combined with his skill in directing those feelings into a practical course. He expressed the general sentiment in the impeachment of Strafford and Laud, and in the passing of the Triennial Act, which was to make the long intermission of parliaments impossible for the future. In the trial of Strafford he showed himself resolute. Being determined to give to an act of state policy the character of a vindication of the law, Pym had to contend against the impatience of his followers and against the efforts of Charles, and still more of Henrietta Maria, to save Strafford by force. Overwhelmed for a moment by the impatience of the House, which converted the impeachment into a bill of attainder, he yet carried his point that the change should be no more than nominal, and that the legal arguments should proceed just as if the impeachment had been continued.





The struggle within the House itself was the least jiart of Pym's labours. In meeting the army plot and the other intrigues of the court he had to develop the powers of a commissioner of police, to be as ready in collecting and sifting information as he was prompt in counteracting the danger which he feared. In the protestation which was adopted by the Commons on 3d May he fell back on his old remedy, banding together the majority in resistance to an unscrupulous minority. By the legislation which followed on the death of Strafford—the abolition of the special courts which had been erected to defend the Tudor monarchy, and the abandonment by the crown of its claim to levy customs without a parliamentary grant—he brought the king under the obligation to govern according to law. Much, however, remained to be done. Pym had to provide against the breach by force or fraud of the compact made, and also to provide for the harmonious working of the exe-cutive and legislative bodies. He proposed to attain these ends by demanding that the king's ministers should be responsible to parliament. To effect this it was necessary that parliament should be united, and to obtain this end it was necessary to solve the religious difficulty. In the autumn of 1641 it appeared that a majority of the Peers and a large minority of the Commons wished to maintain the worship of the Prayer Book very nearly intact, whilst a minority of the Peers and a majority of the Commons wished to make very considerable alterations in it. To bind these two parties together against the king needed constructive statesmanship of the highest order, and this neither Pym nor any one else in the House showed signs of possessing. In the Grand Bemonstrance, instead of in-dicating terms of compromise, he proposed to throw the regulation of the church on an assembly of divines to be chosen by parliament,—that is to say, he combined the terrors of a vague threat of impending change with the entire absence of any security that those changes would be moderate. From that moment there were two parties in the state neither of which would give way to the other. Charles's attempt to arrest Pym and four other members on 4th January 1642 embittered but did not produce the conflict. For some months there was much fencing be-tween the two parties, and the Civil War was not begun till Charles raised his standard at Nottingham.

During the remaining months of Pym's life he was the most prominent leader of the war party in the House of Commons. Peace may be made in two ways, by one side capitulating to the other, or by the discovery of a compromise which may give effect to the better aims of both sides. Pym was resolutely set against a capitulation, and he did not rise to the height of a mediator. His adver-saries of the peace party, led by Holies and Maynard, had as little idea of a compromise as he had, and they were foolish enough to suppose it possible to obtain the assent of Charles and his supporters to the establishment of a Puritan Church.

Pym's policy was at least coherent with itself. In 1621, on his first prominent appearance in political life, he had advocated the formation of an association against popery. The protestation of 1641 was an attempt to carry this plan into practice and to make it at the same time available against Royalist intrigues. The Parliamentary covenant promulgated after the discovery of Waller's plot in June 1643 was an enlargement of the same project, and the Solemn League and Covenant in September 1643 embraced the three kingdoms. As long as he lived Pym was the soul of the Parliamentary resistance to the king, but it is in the covenants and associations which he brought into existence that his permanent contribution to English political development is to be found. Eliot hoped to rally parliament and the constituencies as a whole to the cause which he maintained to be just. Strafford hoped to rouse the devotion of the nation as a whole to the king whose crown was supported by his own masterful intellect. Pym was the founder of party government in England. He recognized from the first that there were differences of religious opinion amongst his fellow-countrymen, and he hoped to rally round a common purpose those who on the whole felt as he did himself, with such liberty of opinion as was possible under such conditions. If the enterprise failed it was partly because he was assailed by intrigue as well as by fair opposition, and in his fierce struggle against intrigue learned to cling to doctrines which were not sufficiently expansive for the government of a nation, partly because the limitations of government itself and the insufficiency of force to solve a complicated religious and political problem were in his time very im-perfectly understood. At least Pym prepared the way for the immediate victory of his party by summoning the Scots and by the financial measures which made the campaigns of 1644 and 1645 possible.

He did not, however, live to reap the harvest which was due to his efforts. Worn out by the strain of constant and agitating work, his health broke down, and on 8th December 1643 he died. His body was followed by both Houses when it was carried to be interred in Westminster Abbey. (S. R. G.)






The above article was written by: S. Rawson Gardiner.



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