1902 Encyclopedia > John Hampden

John Hampden
English parliamentary leader

JOHN HAMPDEN, (1594-1643), the eldest son of William Hampden of Great Hampden in Buckinghamshire, by Elizabeth, second daughter of Sir Henry Cromwell, and aunt of Oliver, the future Protector, was born in 1594. By his father's death, when he was but a child, he became the owner of a good estate, and a ward of the crown. He was educated at the grammar school at Thame, and in 1609 he became a commoner of Magdalen College at Oxford. In 1613 he was admitted a student of the Inner Temple, and in 1619 he married Elizabeth Symeon. He first sat in parliament for the borough of Grampound in 1621. From that time he was a member of every suc-ceeding parliament till he died.

To the biographer who does not wish to become an historian under the pretence of narrating the incidents of his hero's life, Hampden's career must appear to give little scope for narrative. The letters which he left behind him are few. His speeches are scarcely more numerous and are extremely brief. In the early days of his parliamentary career he was content to be overshadowed by Eliot, as in its later days he was content to be overshadowed by Pym, and to be commanded by Essex. Yet it is Hampden, and not Eliot or Pym, who lives in the popular imagination as the central figure of the English revolution in its earlier stages. It is Hampden whose statue rather than that of Eliot or Pym has been selected to take its place in St Stephen's Hall as the noblest type of the parliamentary opposition, as Falkland's has been selected as the noblest type of parliamentary royalism.

Something of Hampden's fame no doubt is owing to the position which he took up as the opponent of ship-money. But it is hardly possible that even resistance to ship-money would have so distinguished him but for the mingled massiveness and modesty of his character, his dislike of all pretences in himself or others, his brave contempt of danger, and his charitable readiness to shield others as far as possible from the evil consequences of their actions. Nor was he wanting in that skill which enabled him to influence men towards the ends at which he aimed, and which was spoken of as subtlety by those who disliked his ends. During the last two parliaments of James and the first three parliaments of Charles, Hampden did not, so far as we know, open his lips in public debate, but he was increasingly employed in committee work, for which he seems to have had a special aptitude. In 1626 he took an active part in the preparation of the charges against Buckingham. In January 1627 he was bound over to answer at the council board for his refusal to pay the forced loan.

Later in the year he was committed to the gate-house, and then sent into confinement in Hampshire, from which he was liberated just before the meeting of the third parliament of
\ the reign, in which he once more rendered useful but unobtrusive assistance to his leaders.

When the breach came in 1629 Hampden is found in epistolary correspondence with the imprisoned Eliot, discussing with him the prospects of the Massachusetts colony, or rendering hospitality and giving counsel to the patriot's sons now that they were deprived of a father's personal care.

It was not till 1637, however, that his resistance to the payment of ship-money gained for his name the lustre which it has never since lost. Seven out of the twelve judges sided against him, but the. connexion between the rights of property and the parliamentary system was firmly established in the popular mind.

In the Short Parliament of 1640 Hampden stood forth amongst the leaders. During the eventful months which followed, when Strafford was striving in vain to force England, in spite of its visible reluctance, to support the king in his Scottish war, rumour has much to tell of Hampden's activity in rousing opposition. It is likely enough that the rumour is in the main true, but we are not possessed of any satisfactory evidence on the subject.

In the Long Parliament, though Hampden was by no means a frequent speaker, it is possible to trace his course with sufficient distinctness. Unwearied in attendance upon committees, he was in all things ready to second Pym, whom he plainly regarded as his leader. In the earlier proceedings of the Commons there was practically unanimity in the House, though a difference afterwards arose as to the form in which the attack upon Strafford should be conducted. All were agreed in desiring that the constitu-tion should rest upon a combination between the king and the two Houses, and that legal questions in which the king was concerned should be decided only by the judges of the ordinary courts.

There was another point on which there was no agreement. A large minority wished to retain Episcopacy, and to keep the Common Prayer Book unaltered, whilst the majority were at least willing to consider the question of abolishing the one and modifying the other. On this sub-ject the parties which ultimately divided the House and the country itself were fully formed as early as February 8, 1641. The details of the contest between Episcopacy and Presbyterianism will be more fitly told in connexion with the life of Pym. It is enough to say that Hampden fully shared in the counsels of the opponents of Episcopacy. It is not that he was a theoretical Presbyterian, but the bishops had been in his days so fully engaged in the imposition of obnoxious ceremonies that it was difficult if not impossible to dissociate them from the cause in which they were embarked. Closely connected with Hampden's distrust of the bishops was his distrust of monarchy as it then existed. The dispute about the church therefore soon attained the form of an attack upon monarchy, and, when the majority of the House of Lords arrayed itself on the side of Episcopacy and the Prayer Book, of an attack upon the House of Lords as well.

No serious importance therefore can be attached to the offers of advancement made from time to time to Hampden and his friends. Charles would gladly have given them office if they had been ready to desert their principles. Every day Hampden's conviction grew stronger that Charles would never abandon the position which he had taken up. He was therefore a warm supporter of the Grand Bemon-strance, and was chosen out to be one of the five impeached members whose attempted arrest brought at last the op-posing parties into open collision. In the angry scene which arose on the proposal to print the Grand Remon-strance it was Hampden's personal intervention which prevented an actual conflict, and it was after the impeach-ment had been attempted that Hampden laid down the two conditions under which resistance to the king became the duty of a good subject. Those conditions were an attack upon religion, and an attack upon the fundamental laws. There can be no doubt that Hampden fully believed that both those conditions were fulfilled at the opening of 1642.

When the civil war began Hampden levied a regiment of Buckinghamshire men for the parliamentary cause. In the earlier operations of the war, and in the undecided fight of Edgehill, he bore himself gallantly and well. But it is not on his skill as a regimental officer that Hampden's fame rests. In war as in peace his distinction lay in his power of disentangling the essential part from the non-essential. In the previous constitutional struggle he had seen that the one thing necessary was to establish the supremacy of th House of Commons. In the military struggle which followed he saw, as Cromwell saw afterwards, that the one thing necessary was to beat the enemy. He protested at once against Essex's hesitations and compromises. In the formation of the confederacy of the six associated counties, which was to supply a basis for Cromwell's operations, he took an active part. His influence was felt alike in parliament and in the field. But he was not in supreme command, and he had none of that impatience which often leads able men to fail in the execution'of orders of which they disapprove. His precious life was a sacrifice to his unselfish devotion to the call of discipline and duty. On June 18, 1643, when he was holding out on Chalgrove Field against the superior numbers of Rupert till reinforcements arrived, he received two carbine balls in the shoulder. Leaving the field he reached Thame, and after nearly six days he died on the 24th praying for his country and his king. (S. E. G.)

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