BIRCH, John (1615-91), of The Homme, nr. Leominster and Garnstone Manor, Weobley, Herefs.
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Family and Education
b. 7 Sept. 1615, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Samuel Birch of Ardwick Manor, Manchester, Lancs. by Mary, da. of Ralph Smith of Doblane House, Manchester. m. (1) Alice (d. 3 Sept. 1675), da. of Thomas Deane of Bristol, wid. of Thomas Selfe, grocer, of Bristol, 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 3da.; (2) Winifred (d.1717), da. of Matthew Norris of Weobley, 1s. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1669.
Capt. of vol. ft. (parliamentary), Bristol 1643; lt.-col. of ft. 1643-4, colt 1644-5; gov. Bath 1645, Hereford 1645-6; col. of horse 1646-8, ft. Feb.-Oct. 1660.3
Commr. for execution of ordinances, Bristol 1644, assessment, Bristol 1644-8, Herefs. 1647-8, 1649-52, 1657, Jan. 1660-80, Mdx. and Westminster 1679-80, Herefs. and Lancs. 1689-90, London 1690; militia, Bristol and Herefs. 1648, Herefs., Lancs., Mon., Salop, Worcs. and Rad. Mar. 1660; high steward, Leominster 1648-June 1660; j.p. Herefs. Mar. 1660-80, ?1689-d.; commr. for recusants, Cornw. and Herefs. 1675; dep. lt. Herefs. and London 1689-d.4
Commr. for indemnity 1647-9, to Estates [S] 1648; Councillor of State 25 Feb.-31 May 1660; commr. for excise Feb. 1660-4, Admiralty Mar.-July 1660, disbandment Sept. 1660-1, 1679, maimed soldiers Dec. 1660-1; auditor of excise 1661-d.; commr. for trade 1668-72, wine duties 1670-4; treas. for loyal and indigent officers 1671; chairman, committee of elections and privileges 23 Jan.-21 Oct. 1689.5
Birch’s father, who claimed descent from a minor gentry family of Lancashire, bought Ardwick in 1636 and became a Presbyterian elder and county committeeman after the Civil War. Birch liked to boast of his humble origins, but by 1642 he was trading on his own account as a wine merchant from Bristol as far afield as Shrewsbury. After a brilliant military campaign against the Herefordshire Cavaliers, he invested heavily in church lands, and was appointed high steward of Leominster by Parliament in 1648. Imprisoned at Pride’s Purge as a Presbyterian, he attended Charles II before the battle of Worcester, and remained under constant suspicion during the Interregnum. By his own calculations he was imprisoned 21 times, but he was not an active Royalist. George Monck entrusted him with Lambert’s old regiment of foot in 1660; but when he returned with the secluded Members and sat on the Council of State, he was suspected of aiming at the restoration of Richard Cromwell. Edward Massey called him a vile man, but Edward Harley thought he could be brought over if the King confirmed his church lands.6
Whatever his views at this juncture, Birch could not be dislodged from his seat at Leominster, though Massey engaged all his friends against him. In the Convention he was very active, being appointed to 42 committees and making 20 speeches, besides 16 reports. He served on most of the committees of political importance, including that for the indemnity bill, and acted as chairman of those for army commissioners and disbandment. He was given responsibility for three financial measures, the temporary bills for customs and excise and the subsidy bill, made six reports on the book of rates, and was named to the committee that produced the navigation bill. During the debates on religion he asserted that the liturgy was not established by law, and spoke in favour of the Covenant. He seconded the motion for a reward to Sir George Booth, being ordered on 2 Aug. 1660 to seek the concurrence of the Lords in the proposal. On the same day he was ordered to draw up a statement of the debts of the army and navy. The still inexperienced Samuel Pepys found his ‘scrupulous inquiries’ about the navy accounts ‘very impertinent and troublesome’; ‘a mighty busy man’, he confided to his diary, ‘and one that is the most indefatigable and forward to make himself work’. On 8 Aug. Birch was appointed chairman of the grand committee on excise. By Monck’s desire he spoke on behalf of his old colonel, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, in the debate on the pardon bill. During September, he was chiefly occupied with the disbandment bill, under which he was appointed a commissioner, acting as chairman of the committee, taking part in two conferences, reporting one of them to the House, and finally taking the bill to the Lords. In the second session his time was almost entirely given up to finance. Lord Wharton sent him a copy of the case for modified episcopacy, but he took no part in the debates. Two of his numerous reports to the House were interrupted by John Knight and Edward King, who claimed that the excise committee knew nothing of Birch’s estimated £673,000 deficit nor of his proposed excise on all foreign commodities. He was also in the chair for stating the public debt.7
The general election of 1661 found Birch in some straits for a seat. He had lost his stewardship and with it his interest at Leominster; his church lands were likewise threatened with resumption by the bishop of Hereford; and he had not yet completed the purchase of Garnstone from Roger Vaughan, which was to give him an all but impregnable interest at Weobley. He probably owed his seat at Penryn to his commissionership of the excise, though the Duke of York supported another candidate, Sir William Killigrew. In the Cavalier Parliament, Birch was again very active, with 538 committees and some 400 recorded speeches. He was appointed to only one political committee during Clarendon’s administration, that for the execution of those under attainder. Nevertheless the lord chancellor thought it advisable to conciliate him, asking Bishop Croft to renew his leases of church land without an entry fine, which could have been as much as £2,000. He was given a life patent as sole auditor of excise at a salary of £500 p.a. Birch’s work as disbandment commissioner was not yet over; he reported to the House on 11 July and was made chairman of the navy committee. After the Christmas recess he acted as teller on a successful motion for a general excise on beer and ale, and unsuccessfully on the motion for committing a bill to restrain abuses in its collection. He was also active in measures to forbid the wearing of gold and silver lace and to encourage the production of flax and hemp, the latter a continuing interest of his, for which he chaired three bills in this Parliament, one of them failing only on a dispute between the two Houses about tithe composition. He was among the managers of a conference on repairing and cleansing highways in London and Westminster, and on 3 May reported to the House a conference on customs duties. On 30 June 1663 he acted as teller for an unsuccessful proviso to the conventicles bill in favour of occasional conformists, and in the following year he opposed a clause giving new powers to the ecclesiastical courts. Nevertheless his name appears on the list of court dependents, and from 1666, by his own account, he regularly attended Anglican services. In the latter year he was teller (with his old enemy Massey) for the motion to recommit the bill against cattle imports. But he again clashed with Knight over excise, and his report from committee on 2 Nov. failed to satisfy the House. Andrew Marvell accused ‘Black Birch’ of nourishing an incestuous passion for his own offspring, excise. A few weeks later in the debate on the poll-tax it was moved that whoever kept a nonconformist minister in his house should pay an additional £5, which was understood by John Milward as a jocular hit at Birch. He was one of the managers of the conference on the Canary patent. His proposal for comprehensive redevelopment of the devastated areas of the City apparently found little support.8
On the fall of Clarendon, Birch resumed full-scale political activity, and from the 1667 session served on most of the important committees. He ridiculed the charges against Clarendon and acted as teller for the unsuccessful motion to refer them to a committee. ‘I did not believe one word of that which Clarendon was accused of’, he later said. His other activity did not decrease, and he was prominently concerned with a bill against highwaymen and a petition from the silk throwers. The new treasury commissioners, perhaps at the suggestion of their secretary Sir George Downing, began to employ Birch as a trouble-shooter over accounts quite unconnected with the excise, such as the Surrey hearth-tax (which he reported ‘very lame’), the London wine duties and the Herefordshire aid. He was appointed a member of the council of trade, and was most active in the supply debates of 1668, chairing several sub-committees. He was teller for the motion on 30 Mar. to proceed with supply every day instead of every other day. Over the inquiry into the mismanagement of the war, Pepys began by grumbling at him as ‘the high man that do examine and trouble everybody with his questions’, but later noted that ‘Birch like a particular friend do take it upon him to defend us’. He was teller against putting the motion for declaring as a miscarriage the delay in ordering Rupert to rejoin the main fleet in 1666, and he told the House that £600,000 over and above the customs receipts had been spent on the navy in the first four years of the reign. Nevertheless he moved for investigations into the mis-spending of revenue and the failure to defend the Medway, which he called the two great miscarriages of the war. Confident of the King’s dislike of the conventicles bill, he urged that ‘it would prove for the advantage of trade and the interest of religion to comprehend some that were now dissenters’. The fewer the dissenters, the stronger the church would be, he pointed out rather disingenuously, for in private he was assuring Pepys that episcopacy was doomed and leases of bishops’ lands the best investment going. On carrying several supply bills to the Lords on 4 May, Birch was maliciously given the additional instruction to remind their lordships of the conventicles bill, which he carried out punctiliously. In the supply debate in 1669, he defended the Government with his usual bluntness: ‘The great mismanagement has been in this House; unless some course be taken here that moneys be not at 10 per cent we shall never be safe’. Although he again spoke persuasively against the conventicles bill on 2 Mar. 1670, he was marked as a court supporter on both government and opposition lists. Among his other special interests in this session were the bills for ascertaining corn and salt measures, forbidding imports of brandy, and repairing highways.9
Through his cousin, Thomas Birch, who had represented Liverpool under the Protectorate, Birch enjoyed a strong interest there, and it was said that ‘Colonel Birch hath done more for the town than our two Parliament men ten times told since they were chosen’. When a vacancy occurred he nominated the great excise-farmer, Sir William Bucknall, whose brother had recently married his daughter, and brought him in, despite opposition from a follower of Ormonde and a Presbyterian merchant. He had acquired an expert knowledge of the wine duties, both in the House and at the Treasury, and his appointment as commissioner brought him an increase in salary which must have been welcome, since he was in debt. He had first to deal with the arrears and evasions that had flourished under his predecessors, for which purpose he was allowed to draft his own instructions. There are signs that this extension of Birch’s activities was not altogether welcome to Downing, with whom he clashed in the House over the rival merits of customs and excise. Birch subsequently took the chair of the committee to inspect customs accounts in the winter session of 1670-1, and on 15 Dec. reintroduced his bill on corn and salt measures. In the debate over the assault on Sir John Coventry he said: ‘Nothing can be a greater mischief than a division upon this question; and he looks upon these bills of supplies to have their fate accordingly. Cannot believe that any in the Government had a share in the business, because they would have timed it better.’ But when the supply debates were resumed, Birch again became an active government supporter, though on 21 Jan. 1671 he brought down on himself the wrath of the Cavaliers by proposing a tax on church dignitaries. Again in the debate on the conventicles bill, he demanded: ‘Is this the way to treat rational people?’. He helped to draw up reasons for conferences on the subsidy and the excise, and took part in conferences on impositions (twice), the cattle bill, the tobacco bill and wool exports. On 29 Mar. he was given leave to bring in a bill to encourage the immigration of foreign craftsmen, while on 14 Apr. he had at last the satisfaction of carrying the corn and salt measures bill to the Lords. In spite of all this activity, it seems that Birch’s constituents felt that he was neglecting them; Arthur Spry presented a bill for the encouragement of merchant adventurers ‘from the town Birch serves for, and wonders he should speak against it’, and later in the year Birch felt obliged to embark on a dispute with Killigrew over the siting of the local custom house.10
Birch was still in good standing with the Government during the third Dutch war, when he was granted the reversion of his excise post for his son. It was probably about this time that he was attacked by an opposition writer as ‘an old Rumping rogue, one of the commission for all manner of excise and one of the council of trade’. Although he missed no chance of urging relief for Protestant dissenters, desiring that ‘the Church of England men and they may be acquainted with one another, in order to union’, he opposed the Declaration of Indulgence rather than tolerate Popery. He served on the committee that produced the test bill, and thence-forward must be reckoned a consistent opponent of the Court. ‘The kingdom has never been in peace or unity’, he declared on 21 Mar. 1673, ‘since the King’s match with a woman of different religion.’ He helped to manage a conference on the growth of Popery and acted as teller for candles in the debate on the bill of ease for Protestant dissenters. On the order of the House he brought in a bill for the preservation of timber, and he acted as teller for a bill to provide for cleansing London streets and sewers. In the brief autumn session, he seconded the motions against the Modena marriage and the standing army, and was appointed to the committee to draw up an address.11
With the Test Act on the statute-book, Birch spoke for the first time in the 1674 session as a communicant member of the Church of England. He had ‘constantly attended the confession and absolution and the communion, and hopes to be heard without prejudice. When the league [with France] is not honourable nor safe for the King, he cannot find argument to part with our money for the support of it.’ In the attack on the remaining ministers of the Cabal he opened the debate on Buckingham and was teller against seeking the concurrence of the Lords to an address for his dismissal. He was instructed to visit the Tower on 17 Jan. to inspect Arlington’s warrants for the imprisonment of Sir Thomas Modyford, and appointed to the committee to consider the charges against him. In an outspoken attack on the war, he told the House: ‘Had France seized Amsterdam, you had not been debating here now’. On 13 Feb. he adumbrated the exclusion policy in the sentence: ‘Though we have no reason to mistrust the King, yet we tremble to think what we may come under’. He took part in preparing reasons for a conference on a vote of thanks, and as deputy to Sir Thomas Meres presented a report on the Huntingdonshire by-election.12
The attempted impeachment of Lord Treasurer Danby in the spring session of 1675 included a charge of maladministration of the excise which Birch rebutted. ‘If anything had been done amiss in the excise, would have been so faithful a servant to the treasurer as to have told him of it before he told the House.’ But he joined in the attack on naval expenditure: ‘ships might have been built of gold at this rate’, he declared. He was teller for reading the address to desire the recall of British subjects from the French service, and helped to draw up reasons for several conferences on the conflict between the two Houses. The session was brought to a premature end on 9 June, when he was on his way to the Lords with a message. He received the government whip before the autumn session, and spoke in favour of the supply bill, though with some qualifications: ‘For money he has displeased many before, and fears he shall now. Would build as many ships in a year’s time as can be.’ But he favoured paying the revenue raised for this purpose into the chamber of London, provoking an allegation by Downing that no accounts for the money paid there for disbandment in 1660 had ever been received from Birch and his colleagues. This move failing, Birch spoke and acted as teller for the appropriation of tunnage and poundage to the navy on II Nov. With (Sir) William Coventry he was ordered to bring in a bill for the encouragement of linen manufacture, and in a debate on the cloth industry he urged the repeal of the ban on imports of cattle which had encouraged the Irish to turn to wool production instead. In the list of officials in the House, he was marked ‘bad’, and, during the long recess which followed, Sir Richard Wiseman asked: ‘Unless the King were sure of his service, why should he continue him in his employment?’ But Birch’s patent was impregnable, and Danby took no action at this time. Meanwhile Birch was adopted as the country party candidate at Weobley, and took a second wife in a somewhat irregular ceremony.13
Birch joined in the Opposition demand for a new Parliament at the beginning of the 1677 session, but soon came to devote equal attention to the plight of the mad Duke of Norfolk, whose younger brothers prevailed on him to present a petition to the House, and his old panacea for poverty, the cultivation of flax and hemp. On 1 Mar. he introduced a fourth bill providing for the compulsory sowing of half an acre in every 100, and was effectively rebuked by John Swinfen: ‘Thinks it a great confidence in Birch to teach all the gentlemen and farmers in England how to husband their land. ... Let us have no more trouble with this bill which hinders greater affairs.’ Downing also ridiculed the bill, and other Members revived the problem of tithe. Forgetting his conversion to Anglicanism, Birch exclaimed rather wildly: ‘Since the orthodox clergy came home again, land has fallen one-third part, by their keeping money dead in their hands, which they have received by fines’. He opposed a land tax, not without accusations of inconsistency: ‘It has been told him, he has been so free formerly, and what ails him now?’ He was largely responsible for securing on 5 Apr. after seven divisions leave for a bill to be brought in to repeal the ban on Irish cattle. He took part in drawing up addresses promising to raise £200,000 for supply, and demanding the formation of an anti-French alliance. ‘In short, there is no money to be had without alliances, and till then we have no security of our lives or religion.’ Shaftesbury noted Birch as ‘worthy’, and Danby seems to have considered removing him from the excise at the end of this session, but was unable to find a replacement.14
Birch contributed greatly towards stimulating distrust of Charles’s foreign policy in 1678. ‘’Tis strange that in a thing that concerns every man of us we should be left in the dark’, he said on 29 Jan. ‘I would know whether we intend this great work seriously.’ He repeatedly crossed swords with Pepys over the navy, alleging over-manning. On 8 Feb. he was one of eight prominent Members ordered to bring in a bill to prohibit imports from France. ‘The French ambassador’, he complained on 18 Feb., ‘is still at court and everywhere, as if no war was intended.’ Untroubled by his own insularity—‘I know not this Ghent, but it is said to be a great place’—he continued to hold forth on foreign policy throughout the session, invariably stressing, not without reason, the theme of darkness and mystery. He spoke in favour of a tax on new buildings, and took the chair in a committee of the whole House which instructed him, with Meres and Sir Francis Winnington, to bring in a bill. On 29 Apr. he was one of eight Members to attend the lord chancellor regarding the commissions of the peace for Monmouthshire and Northumberland, and on the same day acted as teller for the motion that no further supply should be granted until a more effectual course was taken to check the spread of Popery. He moved that the Dutch alliance was inconsistent with the address of the House and the safety of the nation, and complained that Lauderdale ‘grows fat upon the displeasure of the House of Commons (I am sure he has not grown lean)’. He was appointed to the committee to draw up the address for the removal of counsellors, and on 27 May formally crossed the floor. As the prospects of war diminished, his concern over the standing army increased. ‘Because we cannot employ them where we would, I would not employ them against ourselves’, he said on 30 May. ‘I would therefore disband them to-morrow.’ He was one of six leading Members appointed to bring in a bill for this purpose, and apparently arranged matters with Meres and Henry Powle so that Winnington’s official draft should be discarded. He acted as teller for the Opposition in the debate on corruption of Members on 18 June. He helped to manage a conference on disbandment on 20 June, and to draw up reasons for another conference two days later. On 26 June he acted as teller for a motion to bring in a bill to distinguish Papists from Protestant Dissenters. But with all this political activity he was still prominently concerned with drafting or discussing bills for a land registry, the preservation of fishing, abuses in the alnage (with Powle and Downing), burial in woollen, leather exports and the linen industry (again with Coventry).15
Birch continued to act with the Opposition during the hysterical last session of the Cavalier Parliament. On 4 Nov. 1678 he declared:
Till laws are made to begin in the next king’s time, that, whoever he is, he may not be able to destroy the Protestant religion nor our property, we can never be safe. ... I would advise the Duke, were I near him, to absent himself for some time, that the nation might not say he hinders the making those laws.
He took part in preparing the address for printing Coleman’s letters, and on 19 Nov. moved to address the King not to release (Sir) Joseph Williamson from the Tower for counter-signing commissions to Popish officers. He was one of the Members appointed to draw up reasons for not exempting the Duke of York from the provisions of the bill excluding Papists from Parliament. He would not hear of impeaching the Queen, but helped to draft the address for her removal from Court. He was chairman of the committee to draw up instructions for disbandment, and took part in a conference on 9 Dec. He acted as teller against the motion for re-committing Danby’s impeachment. It was alleged that, with Powle and Meres, he was hoping for a seat on the Treasury board. In private, he is said to have warned the lord treasurer that the only way out of the crisis was to recognize Monmouth’s legitimacy.16
Birch was duly elected for Weobley to the Exclusion Parliaments, and marked by Shaftesbury as ‘worthy’. In spite of frequent clashes with Edward Seymour in the previous Parliament, he nominated him for re-election as Speaker ‘with a blunt, subtle harangue’. The ensuing dispute with the Court he called ‘an unlucky stumble at the threshold’; but when his colleague at Weobley, William Gregory, was proposed as a compromise candidate, Birch declared, perfectly correctly as regards the future: ‘In the choice of a third person, it loses not our liberty, but I believe gains a step’. He helped to manage the conference on Danby on 22 Mar. 1679. ‘As for this pardon’, he told the House two days later, ‘had I a hundred lives to breathe, I would not breathe one of them if these things be endured’, and he was among the Members entrusted with drawing up an address on the subject. He served on the committee for the habeas corpus amendment bill. On 4 Apr. he took part in another conference, which persuaded him to support the Lords’ amendments to Danby’s attainder. Still professing friendship for the fallen minister, he advised him privately to give the House a full account of foreign policy since the Triple Alliance, and of the Popish Plot. He helped to draw up the addresses for the execution of Oates’s victim Pickering and the removal of Lauderdale. In a heated debate on supply on 27 Apr. he demanded:
Are we come here to give money for some few new men being put into the Privy Council, and shall we do such things as we have done before? I hope the King will not leave one of the Council that was at the giving such advice as we have had.
He described Secretary Coventry as ‘an instrument to persuade and deceive us into a French war, and there was not one word of it true’. He helped to draw up reasons for a conference on supply, and took part in another on the lords in the Tower on 8 May. He was one of the Members entrusted with drafting an address for embodying the militia. He spoke in favour of exclusion, was named to the committee to draft the bill, and voted for it. On 14 May he urged that no supply should be granted until the King committed himself irrevocably to the principle of exclusion.17
‘Our friend Colonel Birch’, wrote Sidney Godolphin I on 18 Aug., ‘is, I am told, not like to come in, which many people please themselves with.’ But the Court’s expectations were disappointed, and Birch was re-elected. Before the second Exclusion Parliament met he was removed from the commission of the peace. He began by urging that election cases should be heard at the bar of the House instead of in committee and by opposing the appointment of a committee of secrecy. ‘It may be’, he admitted on 2 Nov. 1680, ‘it was not seasonable when the last Parliament made those resolutions, when they were in a high ferment about the Plot.’ Nevertheless he again helped to prepare the exclusion bill, though he opposed the motion to name a successor, and continued to demand a clean sweep of the ministry. ‘If there be not a change, I will not consent to give one penny. It is not of this, or that, or t’other minister, but the most zealous Protestants that can be picked out must be put in their places.’ He helped to draw up six addresses to the King, including the protest against prorogations and the demand for the removal of Jeffreys, and he took the chair of four committees to examine various aspects of the Popish Plot, the most important being for the alleged Irish plot. But he deplored the tactics of the opposition high-flyers. He rebuked William Harbord for speaking of the ‘advocates’ of Lord Halifax in the Commons, wished the address for the removal of Laudersdale to be recommitted, and objected to the bullying of abhorring grand jurors. He strenuously opposed the impeachment of Seymour: ‘Be upon sure ground, and, that the evidence may be clear, commit it’. Apparently Winnington accused Birch of ‘nibbling about money’. ‘I am auditor of excise’, he replied indignantly, ‘and can any man charge me with taking even sixpence bribe?’ ‘I wonder at the good nature of Birch’, sneered Silius Titus, ‘who is always against great men accused.’ Birch seems also to have done his best to shield the Bristol clergyman, Richard Thompson, from the worst consequences of his indefensibly silly sermons. In all he was appointed to 39 committees and made 58 speeches.18
In the Oxford Parliament Birch, ‘thought warm enough at other times, had now no vogue’. He was appointed to four committees and made three speeches. While continuing of the opinion that ‘we cannot preserve the Protestant religion with a Popish successor to the crown, any more than water can be kept cold in a hot pot’, he urged that a day be appointed to consider expedients. Thomas Thynne I, who had designs on Weobley, considered his moderation ‘mere artifice’. He was one of the Members ordered to prepare for a conference on the repeal of the penal laws against Protestant dissenters. On 25 Mar. 1681 he was named to the committee to impeach Fitzharris, and he moved a vote of thanks to Sir William Waller II. In the debate on exclusion he claimed: ‘Where ten were of the mind for this bill a twelve-month ago, there are now a hundred will bleed for it’. He attended the meeting of Herefordshire Members held in the lodgings of Lord Scadamore (John Scudamore) at the dissolution, and was alleged to have accepted from Shaftesbury the command of a regiment in the revolutionary army. At the summer assizes he obstructed the loyal address as much as he could. But Birch had learnt the art of self-preservation during the Interregnum. He summoned the local Whigs to a meeting at the home of Thomas Coningsby, but did not attend himself, though in 1683 he was still noted as ill-affected to Government.19
At the general election of 1685, a Lancashire Tory gleefully wrote: ‘Birch is laid aside at Weobley, his own town, where he did believe no flesh living could receive any kindness but by his permission’. He appeared before Parliament on 5 June to render his accounts as commissioner for disbandment, which disclosed a deficiency of over £3,000, but his explanations appear to have been accepted. His name appears as one of the most eminent Parliament men hostile to James II. On 29 Nov. 1688, he dined alone with the second Earl of Clarendon (Henry Hyde), and shortly afterwards slipped out of London, using by-roads familiar from his campaigning days, and joined William of Orange at Salisbury. He subscribed £40 to the Herefordshire loan to the Prince.20
Birch was re-elected for Weobley to the Convention, in which he served with undiminished vigour. He was named to 122 committees and made 69 recorded speeches. As chairman of the committee of elections, under Whig control in the first session, he presented 31 reports to the House. His was the first name on the committee to bring in a list of essentials for religion, law and liberty. He helped to prepare reasons for describing the throne as vacant, declaring: ‘Had you spoken plain English t’other day, that the disposal of the crown was in the Lords and Commons, there had been no room for this debate’. He also helped to manage the conference. ‘Smart repartees’ passed between William Williams and Birch, who told the former solicitor-general that he had been ‘very pernicious’ in his office. He moved for an address on the mutiny of Dumbarton’s regiment on 15 Mar. 1689, and took part in drafting it. Fitzharris’s widow selected Birch to present her petition to the Commons on 16 Mar., and he was one of the four Members instructed to commend her case to the King. On 20 Mar. he delivered an account of the excise to the House, and with the law officers was entrusted with bringing in a bill for additional duties. Speaking in favour of religious comprehension on 25 Mar., he emerged somewhat battered from an exchange with the Hon. Heneage Finch I over the doctrines of the church. He took part in managing a conference on the removal of Papists from London and Westminster on 8 Apr., and in preparing reasons for expediting their conviction and disarming on 2 May. He led the demand for retribution for death sentences passed on Whigs, and supported the suspension of habeas corpus. The Popish Plot, he declared on 11 June, ‘was so clearly proved that all England was satisfied, as well as the Lords and Commons’. At the suggestion of John Maynard I he was chosen to carry up to the Lords the impeachment of the Jacobite propagandists on 26 June. He was chairman of the committee of the whole House for imposing additional duties on coffee, tea and chocolate, and later was among those Members instructed to prepare reasons for a conference. On 3 July he helped to draw up an address on the state of Ireland. He was entrusted with the examination of evidence purporting to clear Titus Oates of one charge of perjury, and the preparation of reasons for a conference. He expressed amazement at the proposed address for the dismissal of Halifax on 13 July, ‘a person of so great worth, and had done such service as few men had’. On 16 July, his disbandment accounts were ordered to lie on the table, and he carried the militia bill to the Upper House. He attended the King to request the expulsion of the Duchess of Mazarin, and on 2 Aug. he was one of the managers of the conference on the bill of attainder. He was regarded by the silk-weavers as the great promoter of the bill for wearing wool; ‘foreseeing the storm that was likely to fall on him, he fled into the country, and it was well he did, for had he come to Parliament, I verily believe that he had been torn to pieces’. After the recess he was replaced as chairman of the elections committee by John Grey. He spoke in favour of making an example of George Churchill and of hanging Commissary Shales. ‘Whoever put this man into this trust are friends to King James’, he asserted on 26 Nov., and he was among those ordered to draft an address for discovering them. He was listed as a supporter of the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations. He acted as chairman of two committees, one for raising money on the security of forfeited lands in Ireland, the other to hear a petition regarding King Edward VI’s grammar school, Birmingham.21
Birch was re-elected in 1690, but died on 10 May 1691 and was buried at Weobley. He left the bulk of his property to his daughter Sarah on condition that she married her cousin John Birch, who sat for Weobley as a Whig in every Parliament but one between 1701 and 1735. Birch was unquestionably a great House of Commons man. As an administrator, he was efficient and apparently honest. His moderate Whiggism, expressed in terse, blunt language, often anticipated the verdict of history. His unconventionality, or as Burnet calls it his ‘peculiar character’, appeals to later generations perhaps more than it did to his own. But there were too many elements of paradox about his position—an armigerous merchant, a Presbyterian Royalist, an opposition placeman—to win him the power that his ability deserved. The high-minded churchman, Herbert Aubrey, who was frankly terrified of him, called him simply an ‘immoral man’. Ludlow, to whom Birch showed scant sympathy when he returned to England in 1689, described him as ‘a nimble gentleman, and one who used to neglect no opportunity of providing for himself’. His fellow-Presbyterian Baxter makes the same point, in telling how Birch urged him to conform and accept the bishopric of Hereford at the Restoration, hoping thereby to have his leases of church lands renewed on favourable terms. Burnet, as a Whig and a churchman of Presbyterian background, was perhaps the best qualified to present a balanced picture:
He was the roughest and boldest speaker in the House, and talked in the language and phrases of a carrier, but with a beauty and eloquence that was always acceptable. I heard Coventry say he was the best speaker to carry a popular assembly before him that he had ever known. He spoke always with much life and heat: but judgment was not his talent.22
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: John. P. Ferris
This biography owes much to E. Heath-Agnew, Roundhead to Royalist.
- 1. Secluded at Pride’s Purge, 6 Dec. 1648, readmitted 21 Feb. 1660.
- 2. Excluded.
- 3. Mil. Mem. of Col. Birch, (Cam. Soc. n.s. vii), 55, 94, 104, 120; VCH Lancs. iv. 280; Grey, vi. 366.
- 4. G. F. Townsend, Leominster, 291; HMC Lords, iii. 47.
- 5. HMC 4th Rep. 370; Cal. Treas. Bks. i. 79, 195; iii. 454; iv. 507; vii. 208; CJ, viii. 213; ix. 220.
- 6. VCH Lancs. iv. 280; Trans. Salop Arch. Soc. (ser. 2), vi. 66-67; Duncumb, Herefs. ii. 229; CSP Dom. 1651, p. 467; Grey, ii. 47, 89; vii. 98; Cal. Cl. SP. iv. 572, 573, 592, 603.
- 7. Cal. Cl. SP. iv. 604; Bowman diary, ff. 48, 59; Old Parl. Hist. xxii. 444; xxiii. 58; 64-65; CJ , viii. 64, 68, 109, 115, 153, 157, 163, 165, 167; Pepys Diary , 18, 20, 25 Sept. 1667.
- 8. C. J. Robinson, Mansions and Manors of Herefs. 291; HMC Rutland , ii. 28; CSP Dom. 1678, p. 198; CJ , viii. 314, 415, 444, 565, 631; Milward , 30, 36, 50; D. R. Lacey, Dissent and Parl. Pols. 379; Pepys Diary , 24 Feb. 1667; Grey, iv. 163; Marvell ed. Margoliouth, i. 144.
- 9. Milward , 86, 120, 198, 239-40, 248, 286; Clarendon Impeachment , 47; CJ , ix. 15, 42, 51, 75, 91, 139, 152, 156; Pepys Diary , 25 Oct. 1667, 31 Jan. 21 Feb. 1668; Cal. Treas. Bks. ii. 229, 245, 307, 322; Grey, i. 127, 149-50, 188, 221-2; viii. 84; LJ , xii. 240.
- 10. Cal. Treas. Bks. iii. 454, 957; iv. 206; Trans. Hist. Soc. Lancs. and Cheshire , xciii. 60; Grey, i. 276-7, 340, 360, 361, 422; Dering , 39; CJ , ix. 172.
- 11. Cal Treas. Bks. iv. 24; Harl 7020, f. 4IV; Grey, ii. 90, 190, 222; Dering , 106, 148, 150, 160; CJ , ix. 211, 214, 233, 235, 237, 244, 260, 363, 276, 279.
- 12. Grey, ii. 228-9, 264, 301, 327, 415-16; CJ , ix. 295, 303, 307, 308.