Britannia Biographies: John Hampden Part 3
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Biography of John Hampden (1595-1643) MP

J O H N
H A M P D E N
Part 3: Ship-Money Resistance

In the same autumn after the death of Hampden's wife (1634), the scheme of raising a revenue by ship-money was devised. Confined in the first instance to sea-port towns, it proved so profitable, that the levy was soon extended to inland places. In 1636, the charge was laid, by order of council, upon all counties, cities and corporate towns, and the sheriffs were required, in case of refusal or delay, to proceed by distress. Here Hampden resolved to make a stand. The sum demanded of him was but thirty-one shillings and sixpence, but the very smallness of the sum served to show that his opposition was directed against the principle of the exaction and rested on no ground of personal inconvenience or individual injustice. In 1637, proceedings being instituted in the Exchequer for recovery of the money, the case was solemnly argued for twelve days in the Exchequer chamber before the twelve judges who severally delivered their opinions and, by a majority of eight to four, determined in favour of the Crown. "But the judgement," says Lord Clarendon, "infinitely more advanced him, Mr. Hampden, than the service for which it was given. He was rather of reputation in his own county, than of public discourse or fame in the Kingdom, before the business of ship-money; but then he grew the arguement of all tongues, every man inquiring who or what he was that durst at his own charge support the liberty and property of the country, as he thought, from being made a prey to the court. His carriage throughout this agitation was with that rare temper and modesty, that they who watched him narrowly to find sonic advantage against his person, to make him less resolute in his cause, were compelled to give him a just testimony."

These measures, which placed at the King's disposal the property of the country, were accompanied by equally stringent attacks on its liberties. Tutored by the lofty spirit of Wentworth, Charles resolved, and seemed likely to succeed, to rule independently of Parliaments. In the sycophancy of the judges, and the unlimited and illegal severities of the courts of the Star-Chamber and High Commission, he had ample means of suppressing murmur and punishing the refractory. We need not dwell upon the state to which the country was reduced during the eleven years which elapsed without the meeting of a Parliament. So unpromising did it appear that even the most resolute of that party, comprehended by the Royalists under the general name of Puritans, had already begun to withdraw from the tyranny of the court. The government, in various ways, had rendered itself so odious that thousands of men of all ranks had already separated themselves from their native land and twelve millions of property was said to have been thus withdrawn from the country. These emigrations, however, were forbidden by an order in council, dated 6th April 1638, by which masters of ships were prohibited to carry passengers to America without special licence. It has often been dwelt on as a very remarkable circumstance, that Hampden, his cousin Oliver Cromwell and Pym were, at this time actually embarked for New England on board one of eight ships then lying in the River Thames and freighted with emigrants, and that these eight ships were specially ordered to be detained.

A dawn of better times appeared when, in consequence of the King's rash attempt to impose the English ritual upon Scotland and restore Episcopacy, that country rose in rebellion. The expenses of the war rendered it imperative to obtain supplies and Charles, fearing at this juncture to resort to fresh impositions, saw no resource except in summoning that which is commonly called the Short Parliament, which met in April 1640. Hampden was returned for Buckinghamshire. About this time, he married his second wife, Letitia Knollys, widow of Sir Thomas Vachell of Coley Park near Reading in Berkshire. Here, he lived for a while, influencing Tanfield Vachell to follow him in the Parliamentary cause. The quiet happiness of his home-life had, however, been entirely broken up by the disturbances of the times and he never returned to any settled residence at his paternal mansion in Buckinghamshire. In the short and energetic session of this Spring, he displayed his usual diligence and activity. His influence had much increased in consequence of his resistance to the demand for ship-money. This had attracted such notice that Clarendon, in speaking of the opening of the Long Parliament, in the November following, observes, "The eyes of all men were fixed upon him as their Pater Patriae and the pilot that must steer the vessel through the tempests and rocks which threatened it. And I am persuaded his power and interest, at that time, was greater to do good or hurt, than any man in the Kingdom, or than any man of his rank hath held in any time; for his reputation of honesty was universal, and his affections seemed so publicly guided, that no corrupt or private ends could bias them."

Part 4: Prelude to War


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