A Man of Action

Remembering John Hampden

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

In the United States, John Hampden has slipped into obscurity. Few alumni know anything about him. But the founders of this College used his name for a reason.

He represented something that epitomized the original intent “to form good men and good citizens,” the school’s mission to this day. Perhaps by exploring his life and principles, we can grasp a better understanding of what Samuel Stanhope Smith wanted to convey to future generations when he first came home from Princeton with the idea for this eponym in the summer of 1775.

Who was Hampden? Essentially he was a man of action, a principled statesman, a soldier, and a defender of ancient and inherited rights and privileges. His blood lies on the same path that our American ancestors walked to secure our liberties in 1776. To remember Hampden is to reflect on our own history. It is a history of struggle and sacrifice, of war and power, that refined many of the principles on which our own Constitution is based.

Hampden emerged on the pages of history during the disputes between the kings of England and Parliament during the 17th century. These feuds led to the English Civil Wars, fought from 1642 to 1649, which at first resulted in a commonwealth, then a dictatorship, and finally a restoration of the monarchy—but with major changes in the relationship between king and Parliament. Hampden was a major figure in the House of Commons, serving in each of the Parliaments from 1621 until his battlefield death in 1643.

English Government 

The English central government in the 17th century was an intricate web of governing bodies. Parliament held both legislative and judicial powers. The king held executive powers, along with some legislative and judicial ones. The courts were multi-faceted and semi-independent; some argued that they should have been free from royal influence, and yet to others they were “the lion under the throne.” The church was also woven into the central government, with the king as head of the Anglican Church of England and a number of bishops sitting in the House of Lords. Bribery and favoritism were common, and 

Charles I

jurisdictions and the separations of powers were sometimes unclear. As G.E. Aylmer put it in A Short History of 17th-Century England, according to modern standards, the British government was “ramshackle, inefficient, wasteful, and corrupt.”

The monarch was restrained in at least three respects, according to E.N. Williams in The Ancien Régime in Europe. First, under common law, Parliament could impeach the king’s ministers in the course of their duties, and members of Parliament were free from arrest during Parliamentary sessions; also, individual citizens could issue writs of habeas corpus—which required prisoners to be brought before judges to decide their cases—as protection from arbitrary arrest, and they were entitled to a trial by jury. Members of Parliament were also permitted to speak freely during sessions. Second, Parliament alone, in theory, had the power to change laws and authorize taxation. Third, the British Isles’ isolation from the continent provided little need for a strong, central executive authority, often needed to direct the military in cases of invasion. In England, therefore, local authorities had much latitude in enforcing—or not enforcing—taxes and regulations handed down from the central government. Without money from Parliament to raise an army, the king often needed local cooperation to enforce his prerogatives.

The king could, however, call and dismiss Parliament at will. He was sovereign and, according to many, ruled by the divine grace of God as His representative on Earth. He could institute church policies or domestic economic policies, such as granting monopolies, prohibiting certain exports, and establishing wage and price controls, sometimes through his ministers and by consultation with judges to confirm their constitutionality under common law practices. Sometimes he acted as the final arbiter in court cases. He could wage wars. One key power was his prerogative to collect certain taxes without consent of Parliament, a point of contention leading up to the English Civil Wars.

Background on Hampden’s Role

Upon James’s death in 1625, Charles I assumed the throne and married a Catholic, Henrietta Maria, the third daughter of King Henry IV of France. Many Puritans in the House of Commons, hoping to “purify” the Church of England, found this marriage and Catholic influences, doctrines, and practices within the Church (“popery”) threatening to their Protestantism. They petitioned the king to remove such influence in the Church and to enforce old laws against Catholics and recusants (those refusing to attend Anglican services), efforts that largely fell on deaf ears.

Ineffectual military campaigns against the Spanish and French in the Thirty Years War further soured the atmosphere in London. Some questioned whether there were Catholic sympathies in royal circles. Also, in an effort to curb Charles’s excessive spending on a losing war strategy, Parliament refused to grant the king his lifetime power to impose Tonnage and Poundage duties on imports—one of the Crown’s primary sources of income. Parliament customarily granted the lifetime power to each new monarch, but denied it to Charles, trying to force him to request it every year. Parliament was holding the purse strings, and they wanted Charles’s cooperation on religious and military policies. Charles, however, wouldn’t cooperate.

Parliament attempted to impeach the Duke of Buckingham, the king’s chief advisor and architect of the military campaigns, a move seen by royalists as a direct assault on the king’s ancient right to rule through his ministers. Members largely viewed Buckingham as an incompetent general, a man who lost more than half of an English expeditionary force in a failed campaign on the continent. He had been king James’s favorite as well, and in some circles was rumored to be a furtive papist.

In 1626, sidestepping Parliamentary approval, Charles I and the Privy Council, his body of royal advisors, decided to raise money through a forced loan. To acquire judicial approval, the king replaced the Lord Chief Justice Randolph Crewe with a more receptive judge. It was clear that the monarch was beginning to exceed his prerogatives. Dozens of gentry and peers who refused to pay the forced loan were arbitrarily imprisoned without trial—including Hampden.

The prisoners submitted writs of habeas corpus, and in an effort to avoid a definitive ruling on the legality of the forced loans, Charles released them. Because of the foggy legal footing of the loans, more gentry and peers refused to pay. The king continued to impose medieval-era fines, sell commercial monopolies for stakes in profits—in defiance of Parliament’s Statute of Monopolies prohibiting the practice—and to impose unapproved Tonnage and Poundage duties, among other practices.

On February 11, 1628, the Privy Council issued the first of its infamous Ship-Money writs. These writs imposed taxes on shires and towns bordering the sea, taxes that were supposed to be used solely for building ships for war and securing maritime trade. The writ had roots in ancient royal precedent, but the Council expanded the writs to include collections from all shires throughout the realm. Ship-Money writs are a classic example of taxation without representation.

The first Ship-Money writ was withdrawn after facing fierce resistance among both gentry and peers. The 1628 Parliament passed the Petition of Right, which sought redress from forced loans, from taxation without Parliamentary approval, from arbitrary imprisonment, from compulsory quartering of soldiers, and from the increasing use of martial law. The Petition was written to secure the rights and liberties that Englishmen had inherited through practice and custom. In desperate need of funds, trying in vain to quell Parliamentary fears of royal abuses of power, the king finally assented to the Petition that summer. In return, he received the money for his war efforts and personal expenses.

Puritans in Parliament, perhaps sensing their momentum, immediately renewed their push to purge Catholics and perceived popery from the Church of England. But it was the unapproved royal collection of Tonnage and Poundage duties on imports and a sense of Catholic influence in church and government that spurred the most intense resistance in Parliament. At the king’s urging, Speaker Sir John Finch attempted to adjourn the final 1629 Parliamentary session, only to be forcibly held to his chair. The doors were locked and the remonstrance against “innovation of religion” and the unapproved levying of Tonnage and Poundage were read and voted on. The session was subsequently adjourned, although the king imprisoned the leading members. Eleven years passed before Charles called the next meeting.

John Hampden the Statesman

Hampden had been a strong supporter of Parliamentary rights, representative government, and religious reform, and he worked to restrain royal power during the 1620s. He had witnessed early royal resistance to Parliamentary assertions of rights and privileges: in the Protestation of 1621, the House of Commons asserted their right to free speech and freedom from arrest, among other “ancient and undoubted” liberties and privileges enjoyed during Parliamentary sessions; 

James personally ripped the page from the Journal of the House of Commons.

Hampden’s principles were manifested early in his career. As early as 1624, he had fought to restore the voting rights of three Buckinghamshire boroughs for representation in the House of Commons. Again, the Privy Council had him imprisoned in 1627 for his refusal to pay the forced loan. While on committee, he worked with merchants whose goods had been seized because of their refusal to pay the unlawful Tonnage and Poundage duties.

As a Puritan, Hampden was an early supporter of purging popery from the English Church and protecting Protestantism. He opposed episcopacy, or local church governance by bishops. Half of the committees on which he sat in 1628 were concerned with religious practices or doctrine in some form.

Other committees on which Hampden sat during that time provided him with extensive experience in military and financial affairs. While serving on those committees he gained a reputation as a modest, intelligent, capable, and affable gentleman. He was genuinely humble, and yet he remained stalwart in protecting the ancient rights and privileges to which he and others were accustomed. According to prominent royalist Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, Hampden spoke little, but his words were powerful and influential.

Hampden rose to national prominence when Charles I instituted new Ship-Money writs during the 11-year Parliamentary hiatus. By this new influx of money Charles sought permanent financial independence from Parliament. The writ might have had ancient precedent, but an imminent danger or military emergency was needed to justify the tax. Charles and others argued that only the king could determine what constituted a “military emergency.” Despite England’s neutrality in the continental war, Charles pointed to the strength of French and Spanish navies, as well as Dutch infringements on English fishing waters around the coast, as threats to English security. With some legitimacy, he also pointed to the Muslim Barbary pirates of North Africa, who had been raiding English and Irish villages and ships, kidnapping and enslaving thousands of British subjects. There was no large enemy navy, however, so many believed Charles was merely mining for new sources of income.

Facing growing opposition from peers and commoners alike, the king sought and acquired judicial approval from sympathetic judges. And yet of the first writ, less than half of the money went to the navy.

The Privy Council extended the Ship-Money writ and doubled the tax in 1635, now to include inland shires, not just coastal towns and counties. By the time of the third Ship-Money writ, issued in 1636, it was clear that the king could issue the writs arbitrarily, during peacetime, and that he had finally found a judicially approved means for financial independence from Parliament.

But Hampden, the wealthy landowner and former member of the House of Commons, refused to pay the 20 shillings required of him. The government took him to the Court of Exchequer Chamber, arguing, on the theory of the king’s divine right to rule, that the king alone could determine a national threat as justification for Ship-Money writs, and that to defy the king would undermine the very foundation of English monarchical government.

Hampden himself outlined the main points of his defense. Oliver St. John, Hampden’s attorney, argued before all 12 common law judges. Ship-Money writs had largely been discontinued since the 14th century, he said. The Magna Carta and the Petition of Right were clear in prohibiting the king from raising taxes beyond standard royal revenue practices without Parliamentary consent. Also, there was no evidence of an impending foreign invasion, the country was at peace, and the king had had years to call a Parliament if he truly needed to raise money to stave off foreign military threats. In essence, Hampden was arguing for taxation only with representation and against arbitrary rule, trying to fend off a royal attack on an inherited right of Englishmen. The result of the case would have far-reaching effects on the extent of popular control over royal power. It is no wonder then that “the nation regarded, with the utmost anxiety, every circumstance of this celebrated trial,” as David Hume wrote in The History of England.

John Hampden

In the end, seven judges ruled in favor of the government, and five in favor of Hampden. But such a narrow margin of victory was in effect a moral defeat for Charles. As Hume wrote, “The people were rouzed from their lethargy, and became sensible of the danger, to which their liberties were exposed.”  Both nobility and gentry saw Ship-Money writs as royal attempts “to overthrow the constitution of the kingdom and a threat to the concept of private property,” as John Adair wrote in John Hampden The Patriot. More subjects refused to pay the tax.  Puritan pamphleteers distributed critical literature. By 1640, the navy was receiving only one-third of the Ship-Money requested. The people were beginning to weigh in on their ancient and inherited rights, and it was a composed, courageous, and gentlemanly John Hampden who had tipped the scales.

The Coming War

In an attempt to force the Anglican-based Prayer Book on the Scottish Presbyterian church, Charles I and Archbishop William Laud inadvertently united Scottish nobles, gentry, and commoners in open defiance against the Crown. In “defence and preservation of the aforesaid true religion, liberties and laws of the kingdom,” a great many Scots signed the National Covenant, swearing to uphold their own religious liturgy.

Charles called Parliament to raise money to wage war on the Scots. Hampden took a leading role in the debates. Sensing Covenanter sympathies and a possible prohibition on using the army against the Scots, Charles dissolved what became known as the Short Parliament. The king arrested Hampden and four others to search for papers linking them to the Scots, although none were found among Hampden’s correspondence.

But later that year, Hampden and other opposition leaders did contact the Scots, assuring them of support. In August 1640, a force of 25,000 Scotsmen invaded northern England, then blackmailed the king, threating further invasion unless they were paid. Charles made peace with the Covenanters, bought more time, and called his final Parliament that November.

John Pym led the ensuing Long Parliament while reportedly “much governed” by Hampden, as Adair remarked, and so in this way “Hampden may well have been the true architect of the English revolution.” Even the royalist Clarendon admired Hampden and saw him as the leader of Parliamentary opposition in the time before the war. Hampden led debates, swayed members, and garnered support with his keen mind and natural warmth. He was honest and direct, and according to some contemporaries was the most popular man in the House of Commons.

The king attempted to make peace with Parliament on all fronts. But Pym and others were determined to “pull down the cobwebs” to restore the rights of Parliament and restrain the king. One of the first orders of business was to impeach Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, who was the former Lord Deputy of Ireland and the king’s new chief advisor. Charged with subverting fundamental laws of England and Ireland, as well as undermining the rights of Parliament, Strafford was eventually beheaded under a bill of attainder. In an effort to appease Parliament, the king had reluctantly signed the death warrant despite his assurances to Strafford of his safety. The king could no longer protect his own ministers.

Over time the king gave more ground. Parliament passed bills requiring they meet at least once every three years; judicial courts tied to the king were abolished; Ship-Money and monopolies were declared illegal; certain royal fines were eliminated; and there were new restrictions on Tonnage and Poundage duties. The king agreed to the demands. Peace was made with the Scots and Charles received the money he needed to pay them off.

Fearing royal use of the military to subdue Parliament, the House of Commons tried to remove the army from the king’s control, first by proposing he disband it, and later by asking the king to appoint counselors of their choosing to lead and direct it in the form of a Militia Bill. If he refused, they would raise their own army—a bold assertion of authority over the king’s Trained Bands, as the militia was known.

The king subsequently issued arrest warrants for five members of Parliament, including John Hampden. All fled. Calls for Parliamentary privilege against arrest rang in the House of Commons. Later emerging from hiding, the five members were met with cheering crowds and declarations of loyalty, with thousands vowing to protect Parliamentary privileges. The king called for volunteers and sent his queen to Holland to raise money and soldiers, and Parliament started raising a militia and moved to secure military arsenals and forts. 

The king had given enough ground, he believed, and so refused further compromise. “You have asked that of me in this that was never asked of a king,” he said. “[I] would no more part with [the militia] than [my] crown.”

Hampden the Soldier

Despite fruitless attempts to reach peaceful accords throughout the summer of 1642, it was now clear that bloodshed was inevitable. Parliamentarians, largely Puritans, were fighting for religious reform and their view on the traditional balance of government, to include Parliamentary and individual rights, and restrictions on kingly power; and royalists, largely Anglican, were fighting in loyal support of their king, who believed Parliament was grasping at powers it had never held.

Under the generalship of the Earl of Essex, Hampden raised his regiment of Greencoats in Buckinghamshire, consolidating his forces with Bluecoats, Purplecoats, Redcoats, and other Parliamentary regiments. Hampden led his regiment from the front, and his courage on the battlefield showed in 1642, when his regiment first proved itself by repelling a cavalry attack on an artillery train in the 

Eve of Edgehill

Battle of Edgehill. It was here that he first fought the brash Cavalier Prince Rupert, Charles’s nephew and commander of the royal cavalry.

His natural leadership and ability to persuade were as apparent in the army as they had been in the House of Commons. Both bodies listened to him. Indeed, as Adair described, “Hampden had become the chief link between Essex and [Parliament].”

His reputation in the army became legendary. After the Siege of Reading, for example, the Greencoats were disheartened and morale was low. The besieged royalists were allowed to leave upon surrender, and the troops had been unpaid for many weeks. In May 1643, they refused to march.

“With good words and fair language, [Hampden] wrought so upon them that he made them ashamed for their actions, and they marched cheerfully to Caversham the next morning,” said Sir Samuel Luke, the Scout Master General at the time. Hampden exhibited a keen ability to act on his principles while inspiring men to do the same—a mark of true leadership.

His Death

In June 1643 Prince Rupert led a raiding party of 1800 men and horse out of Oxford to harass Lord Essex, camped largely at nearby Thame. Riding through the night, Rupert raided and ransacked smaller outposts, only to alert larger forces at Parliament’s encampment.

Upon hearing of the raiding party, Hampden was without his Greencoats, but asked to commandeer a troop of horse belonging to a certain Captain Crosse. As Adair recalled from Parliamentary accounts of the event, “The officers and common soldiers freely and unanimously consented, and proffered to adventure their lives with this noble Gentleman, and shewed much cheerfulnesse that they could have the honour to be led by so noble a captain.”

Despite facing a superior force of cavalry, Hampden pursued the prince, “carried on by his fate,” as Hyde later said. Rupert first laid ambush on the road back to Oxford, but then turned to meet Hampden in a field near Chalgrove. The two forces were separated by a dense hedgerow, but the Cavalier prince nonetheless charged upon the Puritans while hundreds of other royalists crashed into Hampden’s flanks. Hampden and his men held their ground, shocking the Cavaliers with a “spirited opposition.”

It was at that time, overwhelmed by royalist forces on all sides, that a Cavalier rode up behind Hampden and shot him in the back with a double-loaded pistol. With two balls planted deep behind his shattered shoulder, Hampden slumped in his saddle, barely able to trot off the field while holding on to the neck of his horse. The Cavaliers continued their onslaught, driving the Puritans from Chalgrove. Hampden made it to Thame, holding on to life for six days before succumbing to his wounds.

Hampden the Man

Parliamentary forces eventually defeated Charles and his Cavaliers. Parliament at first was going to reach concessions with Charles and at one point considered establishing a new constitutional monarchy. But the army, incensed at the prospect of keeping Charles on the throne, purged the House of Commons, arrested members, established the Rump Parliament, and had Charles beheaded. It was an imprudent regicide that led directly to a miserable dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell. Some have speculated on how this might have been averted had Hampden lived.

His principles are worth reviewing. Hampden was no radical. He would not have agreed with the Leveller faction and other extremist groups that emerged soon after his death, some of whom considered the Magna Carta merely a “mess of pottage.” He was largely concerned with preserving the inherited rights of Englishmen and ordering English government in accordance with common law traditions. Never did he advocate the dissolution of the monarchy, nor did he advocate the imposition of untried and abstract individual rights later popularized during the French Revolution. He fought Charles not on the notion that he was a king and therefore despotic by nature, but rather because he believed Charles was attacking religion and undermining the fundamental laws of the land.

It is perhaps these qualities and beliefs that the founders of Hampden-Sydney College recognized on the eve of the American Revolution. Much like Hampden, one might argue, Americans were fighting to preserve their inherited rights as Englishmen from an overbearing English central government. Calls for “no taxation without representation” rolled over the hills of Virginia in 1776 just as they had echoed through the streets of London during the Ship-Money trial in 1635. “What an English King has no right to demand, an English subject has a right to refuse,” as Hampden put it. Our own Constitution holds the same common law principles of government for which Hampden was fighting in the 17th century: protection of habeas corpus; legislative freedom from arrest and speech during sessions; the right to trial by jury; legislative powers of impeachment; exclusive legislative control over taxation; exclusive legislative control of making, amending, and repealing laws; separation of powers; and checks and balances between branches of government. Our legal and constitutional heritage runs deep into English history, and it may serve us to think on the importance of maintaining these inherited principles, a course which so many believed was worth preserving, more than their own lives. That alone is reason enough to remember the man.

But who was he as a person? Neither rash nor reluctant, he held fast to his beliefs and virtues, even when faced with arbitrary imprisonment and physical destruction. His natural warmth and humility made him a natural leader. “A man so religious, and of that prudence, judgment, temper, valour, and integrity, that he hath left few like behind him,” read the papers soon after his death. Both his friends and enemies marveled at his wisdom and rapport in Parliament. The Whigs considered him a martyr. John Adair likened him to Winston Churchill. Even the royalist Clarendon at length described his “universal esteem, courage,” and the “national admiration for his character”; he was “a supreme governor over all his passions and affections.” His friend Arthur Goodwin, who knelt by his deathbed, knew him as “a gallant man, an honest man, an able man, and take all, I know not of any man living second.”

Hampden is worth remembering because he was one of us. His life and death define the very spirit on which this country and College was founded. Not only was he a man of principle, but he was a man willing to die for his principles. He was a good man, but he was also a man who inspired others to be good. He is a model for modern men. He was, in a sense, the original Hampden-Sydney man.