John Pym

John Pym (20 May 1584-8 December 1643), was an English politician, who helped establish the foundations of Parliamentary democracy. One of the Five Members whose attempted arrest in January 1642 sparked the First English Civil War, his use of procedure to outmanoeuvre his opponents was unusual for the period, and as a result, he was respected, rather than admired.

John Pym

John Pym.jpg
John Pym
Committee of Safety
In office
July 1642 – December 1643
MonarchCharles I
Member of Parliament
for Tavistock
In office
November 1640 – December 1643  
Member of Parliament
for Calne
In office
Receiver-General Exchequer, Glos., Hants and Wilts.
In office
Personal details
Born(1584-05-20)20 May 1584
Died8 December 1643(1643-12-08) (aged 59)
Cause of deathCancer
Resting placeWestminster Abbey; St Margaret's
Spouse(s)Anne Hooke (1604–1620)
RelationsFrancis Rous; Anthony Nicholl
ChildrenPhilippa; Dorothy; Katherine; John; Alexander; Anthony; Charles (1615–1671)
ParentsAlexander Pym (1547–1585); Philippa Colles
Alma materPembroke College, Oxford
OccupationLawyer, politician and businessman

Described as 'a true revolutionary', he led the opposition to arbitrary rule under first James I, then Charles I. His leadership in the early stages of the war was essential to the Parliamentary cause, and his death from cancer in December 1643 a major blow.[1]

His father died when he was seven months old, and Pym was brought up by his stepfather, Sir Anthony Rous, inheriting his Puritan views, and deep opposition to the reforms of Archbishop Laud. He was also a leading member of the Providence Island Company, an attempt to establish a Puritan colony in Central America.

Originally buried in Westminster Abbey; after the 1660 Restoration, his body was dumped in a pit at nearby St Margaret's, along with those of other Parliamentary leaders.[2][3]


His father Alexander Pym (1547–1585) was a member of the minor gentry, from Brymore, Somerset, who became a successful lawyer in London, where John was born in 1584. Alexander died seven months later and his mother, Philippa Colles (died 1620), married a wealthy Cornish landowner, Sir Anthony Rous. A close friend and executor of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Anthony instilled in his step-son a dislike of Spain, strong Puritanism and associated antipathy to Catholicism, and Arminianism.[4]

The Rous were a large and close-knit family, who often wed relatives and friends. In May 1604, Pym married Anne Hooke, a daughter of Barbara Rous and John Hooke, and aunt of the scientist Robert Hooke. Before her death in 1620, they had seven children, of whom four survived into adulthood; Philippa (1604–1654), Charles (1615–1671), Dorothy (1617–1661), and Catherine.[5]


Pym was educated at Pembroke College, Oxford, then known as Broadgates and famous for 'advanced Protestantism.'[6] As legal knowledge was then considered part of an education, he moved to the Middle Temple in 1602. He does not appear to have formally graduated from either, although he made a number of lifelong friends, the most important being William Whitaker.[7]

In June 1605, he was appointed collector of taxes for the Exchequer in Hampshire, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire; this gave him a broader range of connections than many contemporaries, who were often confined to family or county networks. Whitaker's father had been Member of Parliament for Westbury, Wiltshire, and in 1621, Pym was elected for the nearby seat of Calne.[8]

Pym's patron and political ally, the Earl of Bedford, 1587–1641

His diary shows he viewed Parliamentary legislation as a whole, not just issues of interest to himself; combined with an ability to explain them clearly, it led to his appointment to numerous committees. Since direct criticism of the king was considered treason, the only way to express opposition was by attacking his advisors, using the process of impeachment. Pym argued it was for the Commons to decide guilt or innocence, leaving the Lords only to determine the penalty; this would become significant in his future Parliamentary career.[9]

Even in an era when it was common, he was notable for his anti-Catholicism, and opposition to alleged Catholic practices in the Church of England. Genuinely felt, there were a number of reasons for this; first, close links between 17th century religion and politics meant alterations in one were often viewed as implying alterations in the other. Second, like many contemporaries, it reflected concerns James was failing to support Protestant Europe, and his own son-in-law, when it was under attack.[10]

After the dissolution of Parliament in 1621, Pym was arrested, and brought before the Privy Council, but released in August 1622. In 1624, he was elected for Tavistock, a seat controlled by Earl of Bedford, which he retained for the rest of his career.[9] He was one of the prime movers behind an attempt to impeach the Duke of Buckingham in 1626, an action that led to Parliament being dissolved. Only Buckingham's assassination in August 1628 prevented a second attempt, while Pym supported the presentation of the Petition of Right to Charles I in 1628.[9]

Pym, his stepbrother, Francis Rous, and John Hampden, also led the Parliamentary attack on Roger Maynwaring and Robert Sibthorpe, two clergymen who published sermons supporting the Caroline precepts of the divine right of kings, and passive obedience. Although censured by Parliament for preaching against the established English constitution, Charles pardoned them, and dissolved Parliament, initiating the period of Personal Rule that continued until 1640.[11]

Pym became treasurer of the Providence Island Company in 1630, a role that increasingly consumed his time, and he relinquished his Exchequer position in 1639. Participation in the colonial movement was common among Puritan leaders, while company meetings later provided cover for co-ordinating political opposition. Many of these became leaders of the Parliamentary opposition in 1642, among them Hampden, Rous, Henry Darley, Lord Saye, William Waller, and Lord Brooke.[12]

Leader of the Parliamentary opposition; 1640 to 1643Edit


John Hampden; Pym's colleague, and one of the Five Members

Historians like Tim Harris argue that with the exception of a few extremists, there was general consensus prior to 1640 that attempts to rule without Parliament had gone too far. After the Grand Remonstrance in November 1641, constitutional monarchists like Clarendon switched sides, arguing Parliament now wanted too much.[13]

Where Pym differed from Clarendon, and many of his own colleagues, was in accepting the reality Charles would not keep his commitments. Even while negotiating with Parliamentary moderates, he and Henrietta Maria openly told foreign ambassadors any concessions were temporary, and would be retrieved by force if needed. These suspicions were enhanced after October 1641, when Irish Catholic rebels claimed his approval for their actions, an assertion given weight by previous attempts to use Irish troops against his Scottish opponents, and initial refusal to condemn the rebellion.[14]

However, Pym's understanding of Charles' character was hampered by the reality he was essential to a stable government and society. Regardless of religion or political belief, in 1642 the vast majority believed a 'well-ordered' monarchy was divinely mandated; where they disagreed was what 'well-ordered' meant, and who held ultimate authority in clerical affairs. Royalists generally supported a Church of England governed by bishops, appointed by, and answerable to, the king; Parliamentarians believed he was answerable to the leaders of the church, appointed by their congregations.[15]

Puritan was a term for anyone who wanted to reform, or 'purify', the Church of England, and contained many different sects. Presbyterians were the most prominent, and included leaders like Pym and John Hampden, but there were many others, such as Congregationalists, often grouped together as Independents. Close links between religion and politics added further complexity; one reason for opposition to bishops was their presence in the House of Lords, where they often blocked Parliamentary legislation. Their removal by the 1640 Clergy Act was a major step along the road to war.[16]

Most Presbyterians were political conservatives, who believed in a limited electorate, and wanted to keep the Church of England, but as a reformed, Presbyterian body, similar to the Church of Scotland. 1640 England was a structured, socially conservative, and largely peaceful society; the devastation caused by the Thirty Years War in Europe meant many wanted to avoid war at any cost.[17]

The road to warEdit

The trial of the Earl of Strafford, March 1641

Following defeat in the first of the Bishops Wars, Charles recalled Parliament in April 1640; when the Short Parliament refused to vote taxes without concessions, he dissolved it after only three weeks. However, the humiliating terms imposed by the Scots after a second defeat forced him to hold fresh elections in November; Pym became unofficial leader of the opposition.[18]

Shortly after the Long Parliament assembled, it was presented with the Root and Branch petition; signed by 15,000 Londoners, it demanded England follow the Scots, and expel bishops.[19] This reflected widespread concerns about 'Catholic practices', or Arminianism in the Church of England, given weight by Charles' apparent willingness to make war on the Protestant Scots, but not assist his nephew Charles Louis regain his hereditary lands.[a] Many feared Charles was about to sign an alliance with Spain, a view shared by experienced diplomatic observers like Venice, and even France.[20]

This meant ending Charles' arbitrary rule was not only important for England, but the Protestant cause in general. Since respect for the institution of monarchy prevented direct attacks on Charles, the traditional route was to prosecute his 'evil counsellors.' Doing so made it clear that although the king was above the law, his subordinates were not, and he could not protect them; the intention was to make others think twice about their actions. Laud was impeached in December 1640, and held in the Tower of London;[b] in May 1641, the Earl of Strafford, former Lord Deputy of Ireland and organiser of the 1640 Bishops War, was executed.[9]

The Commons also passed a series of constitutional reforms, including the Triennial Acts, abolition of the Star Chamber, and an end to levying taxes without Parliament's consent. Voting as a block, the bishops ensured all these were rejected by the Lords.[21] In June 1641, Pym responded with the Bishops Exclusion Bill, which was rejected by the Lords. The outbreak of the Irish Rebellion in October brought matters to a head; both Charles and Parliament supported raising troops to suppress it, but neither trusted the other with their control.[22]

Victorian re-imagining of the arrest the Five Members, January 1642

Pym helped draft the Grand Remonstrance, presented to Charles on 1 December 1641; unrest culminated in 23 to 29 December with widespread riots in Westminster, led by the London apprentices. Suggestions Pym and other Parliamentary leaders helped organise these have not been proved, but as a result, bishops stopped attending the Lords.[23]

On 30 December, John Williams, Archbishop of York and eleven other bishops, signed a complaint, disputing the legality of any laws passed by the Lords during their exclusion. This was viewed by the Commons as inviting the king to dissolve Parliament; all twelve were arrested.[24] When Charles left London in January, he was accompanied by many Royalist MPs, and members of the Lords; this was a major tactical mistake, as it gave Pym majorities in both houses.[25]

When the First English Civil War began in August, Pym headed the Committee of Safety, and negotiated the 1643 Solemn League and Covenant that ensured Covenanter support. He thus created the foundations for victory, by ensuring Parliament had financial and military resources far beyond those of the Royalists.[26]

Pym died, probably of cancer, at Derby House on 8 December 1643; Parliament agreed to pay off the debts he incurred as a result of neglecting his private business interests, although they were still being disputed in 1665.[1] He was buried in Westminster Abbey; after the 1660 Restoration, his remains were exhumed, and re-buried in a common pit at St Margaret's.[27]

His chief opponent, the Earl of Clarendon, a senior advisor to Charles during the First English Civil War, later wrote; 'he had a very comely and grave way of expressing himself...and understood the temper and affections of the kingdom as well as any man’.[28]


  1. ^ A perspective summarised by Pym's stepbrother Francis in 1641; "For Arminianism is the span of a Papist, and if you mark it well, you shall see an Arminian reaching to a Papist, a Papist to a Jesuit, a Jesuit to the Pope, and the other to the King of Spain. And having kindled fire in our neighbours, they now seek to set on flame this kingdom also."
  2. ^ He was not executed until 1645


  1. ^ a b Royle 2004, p. 278.
  2. ^ "Historical Memorials of Westminster Abbey" Stanley, A.P. pp204/5: London; John Murray; 1882
  3. ^ "The roll-call of Westminster Abbey" Murray-Smith, E.T. pp160/1 London; Smith, Elder & Co; 1903
  4. ^ Russell 1990, p. 221.
  5. ^ MacDonald 1969, p. 43.
  6. ^ McGee 2004, p. 406.
  7. ^ MacDonald 1969, p. 42.
  8. ^ "John Pym". British Civil Wars Project. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  9. ^ a b c d Ferris & Hunneyball 2010.
  10. ^ MacDonald 1969, pp. 45–50.
  11. ^ Little 2008, p. 33.
  12. ^ Duinen 2007, p. 531.
  13. ^ Harris 2014, pp. 457–458.
  14. ^ Wedgwood 1958, pp. 26–27.
  15. ^ Macloed 2009, pp. 5–19 passim.
  16. ^ Wedgwood 1958, p. 31.
  17. ^ Wedgwood 1958, p. 253.
  18. ^ Jessup 2013, p. 25.
  19. ^ Rees 2016, p. 2.
  20. ^ Wedgwood 1955, p. 248.
  21. ^ Rees 2016, pp. 7–8.
  22. ^ Hutton 2003, p. 4.
  23. ^ Smith 1979, pp. 315–317.
  24. ^ Rees 2016, pp. 9–10.
  25. ^ Manganiello 2004, p. 60.
  26. ^ Russell 2009.
  27. ^ "John Pym". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  28. ^ Clarendon 1704, pp. 321–322.


  • Clarendon, Earl of (1704). The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England; Volume III (2019 ed.). Wentworth Press. ISBN 978-0469445765.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Duinen, Jared, van (2007). The Nature of Puritan Opposition in 1630s England in "Prosopography Approaches" and Applications: A Handbook. University of Oxford Linacre College Unit for Prosopographical Research. ISBN 978-1900934121.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Ferris, John; Hunneyball, Paul (2010). PYM, John (1584-1643), of Westminster, Brymore, Som., Whitchurch and Wherwell, Hants; later of Holborn, Mdx. and Fawsley, Northants in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604–1629. CUP. ISBN 978-1107002258.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Harris, Tim (2014). Rebellion: Britain's First Stuart Kings, 1567-1642. OUP. ISBN 978-0199209002.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Hutton, Ronald (2003). The Royalist War Effort 1642-1646. Routledge. ISBN 9780415305402.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Jessup, Frank W. (2013). Background to the English Civil War: The Commonwealth and International Library: History Division. Elsevier. ISBN 9781483181073.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Little, Patrick (2008). Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137018854.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • MacDonald, William W (1969). "John Pym: Parliamentarian". Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church. 38 (1).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Macloed, Donald (Autumn 2009). "The influence of Calvinism on politics". Theology in Scotland. XVI (2).CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Manganiello, Stephen (2004). The Concise Encyclopedia of the Revolutions and Wars of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1639–1660. Scarecrow Press. ISBN 978-0810851009.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • McGee, Sears J (2004). "Francis Rous and "scabby or itchy children": The Problem of Toleration in 1645". Huntington Library Quarterly. 67 (3). doi:10.1525/hlq.2004.67.3.401.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Rees, John (2016). The Leveller Revolution. Verso. ISBN 978-1784783907.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Royle, Trevor (2004). Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638–1660 (2006 ed.). Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-11564-1.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Russell, Conrad (1990). Unrevolutionary England, 1603-1642. Bloomsbury. ISBN 9780826425669.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Russell, Conrad (2009). "Pym, John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/22926.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link) (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • Smith, Steven (1979). "Almost Revolutionaries: The London Apprentices during the Civil Wars". Huntington Library Quarterly. 42 (4). JSTOR 3817210.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Wedgwood, CV (1958). The King's War, 1641–1647 (2001 ed.). Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0141390727.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Wedgwood, CV (1955). The King's Peace, 1637-1641 (1983 ed.). Penguin Classics. ISBN 978-0140069907.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)


  • Glow, Lotte. "Pym and Parliament: The Methods of Moderation." Journal of Modern History 36.4 (1964): 373-397. online
  • Hexter, Jack H. The Reign of King Pym (Harvard UP, 1941).
  • MacDonald, William W. The making of an English revolutionary: the early parliamentary career of John Pym (Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1982).
  • Scott, David. "The Outbreak of the English Civil War: August 1642 – September 1643." in David Scott ed., Politics and War in the Three Stuart Kingdoms, 1637–49 (Macmillan Education UK, 2004) pp. 37–67.

External linksEdit

  • "John Pym". British Civil Wars Project. Retrieved 25 March 2018.
  • "John Pym". Westminster Abbey. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
Parliament of England
Preceded by
Sir Edward Carey
Richard Lowe
Member of Parliament for Calne
With: John Duckett
Succeeded by
John Duckett
Sir Edward Howard
Preceded by
(Sir) Francis Glanville
Sir Baptist Hicks, Bt
Member of Parliament for Tavistock
With: Sampson Hele (1624–1625)
Sir Francis Glanville (1625)
Sir John Ratcliffe (1625–1626)
Sir Francis Glanville (1628–1629)
Succeeded by
Parliament suspended until 1640
Preceded by
Parliament suspended since 1629
Member of Parliament for Tavistock
With: Lord Russell
Hon. John Russell
Succeeded by
Elisha Crimes
Edward Fowell