John Pym

John Pym

John Pym, the only son of Alexander Pym and his wife, Philippa Colles Pym, was born in Cannington, Somerset, on 20th May 1584. The Pym family had been established in this area since the thirteenth century and his family owned "property in nearly every parish between Glastonbury and Exmoor". (1)

Alexander Pym died, seven months after John's birth. Philippa Pym married Anthony Rous in 1588 and the family moved to Plymouth. Rous was considered to be a "red-hot" Puritan. (2) According to his biographer, Conrad Russell: "It was in the Rous circle that Pym imbibed a protestantism far hotter than the conventional Calvinism of his Somerset background." (3)

In 1600, when John Pym was sixteen, he went to Pembroke College and three years layer, left Oxford University, he was admitted to the Middle Temple in London. After the usual education of a man of his class, he returned to Somerset to manage his country estates. In May 1614, he married Anne Hooke and over the next six years she gave birth to five children. She died in 1620 and he never remarried nor is he known to have had any further love affairs during the rest of his life. (4)

John Pym and the Monarchy

In 1625 John Pym was elected to the House of Commons where he represented Tavistock and came under the influence of John Eliot and was a strong opponent of the monarchy. "What made Pym a successful parliamentary politician was his total inner certainty, and the emotional force this gave to his performances. He benefited from a curious incongruity which combined the meticulous attention to unemotional detail of a skilled accountant with the driving passion of a religious enthusiast.... He also enjoyed a considerable intelligence, and an exceptional personal force. All this was backed up by a prodigious capacity for hard work." (5)

John Pym became the unchallenged leader of the Puritans in Parliament. 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 Charles I, 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". (6)

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." (7)

The king's main adviser was William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud argued that the king ruled by Divine Right. He claimed that the king had been appointed by God and people who disagreed with him were bad Christians. Laud believed that Church reforms had gone too far. Anglicans tended to support the policies of Laud but the Puritans strongly disagreed with him. When Laud gave instructions that the wooden communion tables in churches should be replaced by stone altars, John Pym accused Laud of trying to reintroduce Catholicism. (8)

Ship Money

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." (9)

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. (10)

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." (11)

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. John Pym agreed with this strategy. (12)

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." (13)

Oliver Cromwell
John Pym by Robert Walker (c. 1640)

In November, John 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. (14) More importantly, if "ship money was legal, non-parliamentary government had come to stay". (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 Grand Remonstrance

John Pym and other Puritans became very concerned about the way William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was introducing church reforms. John Bastwick complained that "the Church is now as full of ceremonies as a dog is full of fleas". William Prynne and Henry Burton also wrote pamphlets attacking Laud and in the summer of 1637 Bastwick, Prynne and Burton were charged of "maligning the bishops of England." (17)

During the trial Bastwick, Prynne and Burton, remained outspoken in their defiance. On 14th June 1637 the Star Chamber judges found all three guilty of seditious libel. They were each to lose their ears after pillorying, to be fined £5,000, and to be sentenced to life imprisonment. They were also branded on the face with the letters "S" and "L" (sign of Laud) by the executioner. (18)

On 13th February, 1638, John Lilburne was found guilty of publishing Puritan pamphlets and was sentenced to be fined £500, whipped, pilloried and imprisoned. The following month he was whipped from Fleet Prison to Old Palace Yard. It is estimated that Lilburne received 500 lashes along the way, making 1,500 stripes to his back during the two-mile walk. An eyewitness account claimed that his badly bruised shoulders "swelled almost as big as a penny loaf" and the wheals on his back were larger than "tobacco-pipes." (19)

When he was placed in the pillory he tried to make a speech praising John Bastwick and was gagged. Lilburne's punishment turned into an anti-government demonstration, with cheering crowds encouraging and supporting him. While in prison Lilburne wrote about his punishments, in his pamphlet, The Work of the Beast (1638). He reported on how he was tied to the back of a cart and whipped with a knotted rope. (20)

In March 1640, Charles I was forced to recall Parliament for the first time in eleven years. John Pym and his Puritan friends saw this as a good opportunity to complain about the way the Puritans were being treated. For example, Oliver Cromwell, made a speech about Lilburne's case. "Cromwell spoke with a great passion, thumping the table before him, the blood rising to the face as he did so. To some he appeared to be magnifying the case beyond all proportion. But to Cromwell this was the essence of what he had come to put right: religious persecution by an arbitrary court." After a debate on the issue in November, Pym was able to persuade Parliament to vote to release Lilburne from prison. (21)

John Pym and other strongly committed Protestants were convinced that Archbishop William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, were the main figures behind this pro-Catholic 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. (22)

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. (23)

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". (24)

English Civil War

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 Pym, Arthur Haselrig, John Hampden, 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). (25)

The Attempted Arrest of the Five Members by Charles West Cope (c. 1855)
The Attempted Arrest of the Five Members by Charles West Cope (c. 1855)

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. (26)

During the early stages of the war, Pym, was the leading figure in the House of Commons. Over the next few months Pym's efforts were devoted to the measures for further reformation of religion. Conrad Russell claims that "Pym created an administrative machine to run the parliamentarian war effort... He built up a system of standing committees at Westminster, and of county committees in the country, which worked." (27)

John Pym died of cancer in London on 8th December 1643.

Primary Sources

(1) Jasper Ridley, The Roundheads (1976)

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.

(2) Conrad Russell, John Hampden : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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.

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(1) Jasper Ridley, The Roundheads (1976) page 22

(2) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 103

(3) Conrad Russell, John Pym : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Jasper Ridley, The Roundheads (1976) page 23

(5) Conrad Russell, John Pym : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 104

(7) Gerald E. Aylmer, Rebellion or Revolution: England from Civil War to Restoration (1986) page 30

(8) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) pages 240-243

(9) Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (1985) page 48

(10) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) page 167

(11) Gerald E. Aylmer, Rebellion or Revolution: England from Civil War to Restoration (1986) page 20

(12) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 24

(13) Conrad Russell, John Hampden : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(14) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014) pages 175-176

(15) Christopher Hill, God's Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution (1970) page 32

(16) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 25

(17) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014) page 171

(18) Frances Condick, John Bastwick : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(19) Pauline Gregg, Free-Born John: A Biography Of John Lilburne (1961) page 65

(20) David Plant, Biography of John Lilburne (2012)

(21) Pauline Gregg, Oliver Cromwell (1988) page 56

(22) Barry Coward, The Stuart Age: England 1603-1714 (1980) pages 194-195

(23) Jasper Ridley, The Roundheads (1976) page 27

(24) Peter Ackroyd, The Civil War (2014) pages 204-205

(25) G. M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 256

(26) John Morrill, Oliver Cromwell : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(27) Conrad Russell, John Pym : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)