John Hampden was born in London in about June 1595. His father, William Hampden, owned large estates in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Essex. His mother, Elizabeth Hampden, was the daughter of Sir Henry Cromwell, who was related to Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister by Henry VIII. (1)
His father died aged twenty-six, on 2nd April 1597. Despite his large estates he was heavily in debt. Hampden was educated at Thame School and at Magdalen College. After leaving Oxford University in 1613 he became a student at the Inner Temple in London. It has been claimed that his "mother harboured political ambitions for him." (2)
On 24th June 1619 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Edmund Symeon, Oxfordshire. She was a substantial heiress, and this helped to secure his future. Over the next few years the couple had ten children. (3) After her death he married Lettice Vachell, the daughter of Sir Francis Knollys. (4)
Hampden was elected to the House of Commons in 1621. Over the next few years Hampden emerged as one of the leading opponents of King Charles I. Hampden became part of a group that included John Pym, Denzil Holles, William Strode, John Eliot, Oliver St John and Walter Erle. (5)
Hampden argued that his actions was undermining the Protestant religion. "The alteration of government... goes no less than the subversion of the whole state? Hemmed in with enemies; it is now a time to be silent, and not to show his Majesty that a man that has so much power uses none of it to help us? If he be no papist, papists are friends and kindred to him." (6)
Jasper Ridley has argued that Hampden was a very popular figure in Buckinghamshire. "His good looks and personal charm won him many friends. Unlike many of his contemporaries he was courteous to his social inferiors as well as to his equals, and was much loved by his tenants and neighbours. As a young man he was a keen sportsman, riding, hunting, and playing cricket and other outdoor games, and he was known for his joviality and gaiety; but he became more grave and pensive as he grew older and became involved in politics. He was generally regarded as a Puritan, though he never belonged to the more extreme Puritan sects". (7)
In 1635 the king faced a financial crisis. Unwilling to summon another Parliament, he had to find other ways of raising money. He decided to resort to the ancient custom of demanding Ship Money. In the past, whenever there were fears of a foreign invasion, kings were able to order coastal towns to provide ships or the money to build ships. This time he extended the levy to inland counties as well, on the grounds that "the charge of defence which concerneth all men ought to be supported by all." (8)
Charles sent out letters to sheriffs reminding them about the possibility of an invasion and instructing them to collect Ship Money. Encouraged by the large contributions he received, Charles demanded more the following year. Whereas in the past Ship Money had been raised only when the kingdom had been threatened by war, it now became clear that Charles intended to ask for it every year. Several sheriffs wrote to the king complaining that their counties were being asked to pay too much. Their appeals were rejected and the sheriff's now faced the difficult task of collecting money from a population overburdened by taxation. (9)
Gerald E. Aylmer has argued that ship money was in fact a more reasonable tax than the traditional forms of collecting money from the population. Most king's had relied on taxes on movable property (a subsidy). "Ship money had in fact been a more equitable as well as a more efficient tax than the subsidy because it was based on a far more accurate assessment of people's wealth and property holdings." (10)
At the beginning of 1637, twelve senior judges had declared that, in the face of danger to the nation, the king had a perfect right to order his subjects to finance the preparation of a fleet. John Hampden decided to use the Ship Tax as a means of challenging the king's power by failing to pay just one pound of what he owed. (11)
Hampden's biographer, Conrad Russell, has pointed out: "Hampden's motive was not to set out on a disruptive campaign of tax refusal: it was to secure a court judgment on the legality of the demand being made upon him. Once he had that judgment, however narrow and however pyrrhic, there is no suggestion of any further refusal to pay on his part. Hampden was campaigning for the principles of rule of law and taxation by consent, not for an arbitrary right to refuse any tax he did not like." (12)
In November, Hampden was prosecuted for refusing to pay the Ship Money on his lands in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The court case was a test of power between sovereign and subject. The judges voted seven against five in favour of conviction but the publicity surrounding the case made Hampton one of the most popular men in England. (13) More importantly, if "ship money was legal, non-parliamentary government had come to stay". (14)
Oliver Cromwell, who was Hampden's cousin, was also a strong opponent of the Ship Tax. He argued that such a tax was "a prejudice to the liberties of the kingdom" and that there should be no taxation without the consent of Parliament. One of the critics of the tax said "he knew no law besides Parliament to persuade men to give away their own goods". Cromwell agreed and said he was "a great stickler" against the tax. During this period Cromwell developed a local reputation among those opposed to Charles's government. (15)
Diane Purkiss, the author of The English Civil War: A People's History (2007), has argued that by his actions, Hampden had successfully portrayed Charles as "a tyrant" and after the court case many people refused to pay the tax. For the sheriffs and constables forced to collect small sums such as a penny from the poorest people, life became nearly unbearable. (16)
The struggle against the Ship Tax continued in the House of Commons. This was led by John Pym, a Puritan, who was a large landowner in Somerset. He was known for his anti-Catholic views and saw Parliament's role as safeguarding England against the influence of the Pope: "The high court of Parliament is the great eye of the kingdom, to find out offences and punish them". However, he believed that the king, who had married Henrietta Maria, a Catholic, was an obstacle to this process: "we are not secure enough at home in respect of the enemy at home which grows by the suspending of the laws at home".
Pym was a believer in a vast Catholic plot. Some historians agree with Pym's theory: "Like all successful statesmen, Pym was up to a point an opportunist but he was not a cynic; and self-delusion seems the likeliest explanation of this and his supporters' obsession. That there was a real international Catholic campaign against Protestantism, a continuing determination to see heresy destroyed, is beyond dispute." (17)
Puritans and many other strongly committed Protestants were convinced that Archbishop William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, were the main figures behind this conspiracy. Wentworth was arrested in November, 1640, and sent to the Tower of London. Charged with treason, Wentworth's trial opened on 22nd March, 1641. The case could not be proved and so his enemies in the House of Commons, lead by Pym, resorted to a Bill of Attainder. Charles I gave his consent to the Bill of Attainder and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was executed on 12th May 1641. (18) The removal of Stafford meant that the Puritans could now change the laws that they hated and Parliament abolished Ship Money in July 1641. They also stopped Charles from forcing people to buy knighthoods. (19)
Archbishop Laud was also taken into custody. One member of parliament, Harbottle Grimstone, described Laud as "the root and ground of all our miseries and calamities". Other bishops, including Matthew Wren of Ely, and John Williams of York, were also sent to the Tower. In December, 1641, Pym, introduced the Grand Remonstrance, that summarised all of Parliament's opposition to the king's foreign, financial, legal and religious policies. It also called for the expulsion of all bishops from the House of Lords. (20)
In the last week of December it was further agreed that parliament should meet at fixed times with or without the co-operation of the king. The Triennial Act was passed to compel parliaments to meet every three years. The Venetian ambassador to London reported that "if this innovation is introduced, it will hand over the reigns of government completely to Parliament, and nothing will be left to the king but mere show and a simulacrum of reality, stripped of credit and destitute of all authority". (21)
Charles I realised he could not allow the situation to continue. He decided to remove the leaders of the rebels in Parliament. On 4th January 1642, the king sent his soldiers to arrest John Hampden, John Pym, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles and William Strode. The five men managed to escape before the soldiers arrived. Members of Parliament no longer felt safe from Charles and decided to form their own army. After failing to arrest the Five Members, Charles fled from London and formed a Royalist Army (Cavaliers) whereas his opponents established a Parliamentary Army (Roundheads). (22)
Attempts were made to negotiate and end to the conflict. On 25th July the king wrote to the vice-chancellor of Cambridge University inviting the colleges to assist him in his struggle. When they heard the news, the House of Commons sent Oliver Cromwell with 200 lightly armed countrymen to blocked the exit road from Cambridge. On 22nd August, the king "raised his standard" at Nottingham, and in doing so marked the beginning of the English Civil War. (23)
John Hampden raised a regiment in Buckinghamshire and fought with distinction at Edgehill on 23rd October, 1642. (24) The following month he helped to repulse an attack by Prince Rupert at Brentford. In April 1643 he was as active in the successful siege of Reading. On 17th June, 1643, Hampden was shot in the shoulder during a skirmish with royalist troops. He died of his wounds at Thame six days later on 24th June. (25)
Hampden was a very popular figure in Buckinghamshire. His good looks and personal charm won him many friends. Unlike many of his contemporaries he was courteous to his social inferiors as well as to his equals, and was much loved by his tenants and neighbours. As a young man he was a keen sportsman, riding, hunting, and playing cricket and other outdoor games, and he was known for his joviality and gaiety; but he became more grave and pensive as he grew older and became involved in politics. He was generally regarded as a Puritan, though he never belonged to the more extreme Puritan sects.
Like all Puritans, he preferred listening to sermons to watching ritual in church. Attendance at church on Sundays had long been compulsory in England; but Puritans who lived in a parish where the vicar was a High Church ritualist preferred to go to church, not in their own parish, but in some neighbouring parish where they could hear a sermon from a Puritan vicar. In order to prevent this, regulations were issued compelling parishioners to attend service in their own parish church on Sundays. The Puritans tried to evade the order by arranging for Puritan vicars to hold their Sunday services at a different time from the neighbouring vicars, so that Puritans in other nearby parishes could comply with the law by attending service in their parish church and also come, earlier or later, to the service of a neighbouring Puritan vicar. Laud countered this by ordering that all services in all churches should be held at the same hour on Sundays, and that no sermons should be preached on any other days in the week. In 1634 Hampden broke the law by attending church in a neighbouring parish and not in his own parish church, and was prosecuted in the local ecclesiastical court; but he was let off with a warning.
Like other Puritans, Hampden was interested in emigration to America. In i6zo a number of Puritans had sailed for Massachusetts in The Mayflower in order to escape from religious persecution and build up a Puritan society in a free country. In 1629 Hampden discussed with Eliot the possibility of giving financial help to Puritans who wished to go to Massachusetts; and in 1632 the Earl of Warwick, who was a prominent Puritan, sold Hampden a large tract of land in Connecticut for development by emigrants. But Hampden never thought of going to America himself.
As the King's financial difficulties increased, he resorted to all sorts of expedients in order to raise money without having to summon a Parliament. In 1637 he levied the ancient tax known as Ship-Money - a word which future generations would always associate with the name of John Hampden. Ship-Money, like customs dues and other special taxes, could be levied under the Royal Prerogative power without the consent of Parliament. The tax had traditionally been imposed on many coastal towns and counties in times of emergency in order to pay the costs incurred by the navy in the defence of the realm. Charles now imposed the tax on all the counties of England. There was no precedent for levying the tax on the inland counties, and when Hampden was required to pay Ship-Money on his lands in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, he refused, maintaining that the tax was illegal. A test case was brought in the Court of Exchequer on the assessment of twenty shillings on Hampden's property in the parish of Stoke Mandeville.
The king conscripted privately owned ships from coastal towns for the duration of a campaign. They recouped themselves by plunder and ransoms, and the ships, if not sunk, returned to their owners at the close of the campaign. In the changed naval world of the 1630s this right to conscript privately owned ships was of no military use to the king. The tonnage, the manoeuvrability, and the manning were all such as to make the ships unsuitable for modern warfare. As a result the English were in danger of losing naval control of the channel and the North Sea to the French and the Dutch. The legal powers surviving from the middle ages were no help in meeting this danger.
In a well-ordered world this disjuncture between naval needs and legal rights would have been met by a new act of parliament, giving the king the right to a regular tax to finance a navy without which he could not defend himself. In 1634 there was no more chance that this would happen than that John Hampden would be made king. Charles's solution to his desire for naval rearmament was to transform the crown's ancient right to commandeer ships from coastal towns into a semi-permanent source of revenue: ship money. First, the supply of a ship was commuted into a money payment. Second, such payments were levied not only on coastal towns but on the nation as a whole. And third, the finances raised were deployed directly for the support of a national navy. The king therefore had to pretend that what was, in fact, a naval tax was an old-fashioned exercise in conscription. This is why ship-money writs did not command payment of money for the navy, but demanded, in the case of Buckinghamshire, a contribution to sending one ship of war to Portsmouth, where it was to serve for six months, after which it would revert to Buckinghamshire. Since this was not in fact what the king wanted, he had continually to cut corners with the procedure. The money levied never went anywhere near Portsmouth, but went to the treasurer of the navy at Deptford, where it became part of general naval funds. What the king said he was doing may have been legal, but this was definitely not legal. It crossed the boundary from conscription into taxation, and the king's opponents seized upon ship money as a major issue.
The business now talked on in town is all about the question of the ship money. The king is pleased to give way to those subjects that refuses to pay, whereof Mr. John Hampden is one, to have their counsel to argue the case in point of law in the exchequer chamber before all the judges, and Mr. St John hath already argued for the subject very boldly and bravely. Yesterday was the first on the king's part. I cannot relate any particulars because I heard it not. Although I was up by peep of the day to that purpose, I was so far from getting into the room that I could not get near the door by 2 or 3 yards, the crowd was so great.