DUNCOMBE, Sir John (1622-87), of Battlesden, Beds. and Pall Mall, Westminster.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



14 May 1660

Family and Education

bap. 20 July 1622, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of William Duncombe of Battlesden by Elizabeth, da. of Sir John Poyntz of South Ockendon, Essex. educ. Eton c.1634-8; Christ’s, Camb. 1638; travelled abroad 1641-?46; Leyden 1643. m. 12 July 1646, Elizabeth, da. of Sir Humphrey May of Carrow Priory, Norf., chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster 1618-30, 1s. 6 other ch. Kntd. 1648; suc. fa. 1655.1

Offices Held

Commr. for militia, Beds. Mar. 1660, oyer and terminer, Norfolk circuit July 1660; j.p. Beds. July 1660-?83, dep. lt. c. Aug. 1660-80; commr. for assessment, Beds. Aug. 1660-80, Suff. 1661-80, Bury St. Edmunds 1661-9, 1677-80, Bucks. 1673-4, complaints, Bedford level 1663, wastes and spoils, Beds. 1669.2

Commr. of the Ordnance 1664-70; ld. of treasury 1667-72; PC 22 May 1667-21 Apr. 1679; commr. for prize appeals 1672-4; chancellor of Exchequer 1672-6.3


Duncombe’s great-grandfather acquired Battlesden and two other Bedfordshire manors in the Russell sphere of influence about the middle of the 16th century, and his grandfather was twice returned for Tavistock under James I. Although his father was posthumously described as ‘of perfect loyalty to his Majesty of blessed memory’, he was a parliamentary supporter in the Civil War, serving on the county committee from 1643-48. It was later asserted that Duncombe used to carry his father’s papers to the committee as ‘a kind of attorney’, but in fact he was on his travels, and when he returned to England he married into a strongly royalist family. He was dubbed at Carisbrooke by Charles I, who snatched a sword from one of his startled guards and told him that ‘it was to perform a promise to his relations’. At the Restoration he was proposed for the order of the Royal Oak with an income of £1,000 p.a., but the Earl of Cleveland thought his estate was worth double and recommended him for the lieutenancy, adding that ‘by reason the late troubles’ he had ‘lived out of the county of Bedford’, but was now returned.4

Duncombe’s wife had been living at Bury St. Edmunds during the Interregnum, and her sister married (Sir) Thomas Hervey. It was probably on this interest that Duncombe contested the borough at the general election of 1660. After a double return he and Sir Henry Crofts were seated on the merits of the election. No doubt he was a court supporter, since his brother-in-law, Baptist May, stood high in the King’s favour; but he was not active in the Convention. His only committee was for the recovery of the queen mother’s jointure, but he twice acted as teller. He opposed the motion of 1 June to limit to 20 the number of those to be excepted from indemnity, and that of 20 Dec. to permit taverns to be licensed for the sale of wine.5

Duncombe was re-elected in 1661 with Crofts’s son-in-law, Sir Edmund Poley. A very active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, he was appointed to 226 committees, acted as teller in 22 divisions, and made over 120 recorded speeches. One of the tellers for the committal of the corporations bill on 20 June, he was the first Member named to the committee. He was again a teller in the third reading debate in favour of the proviso that the commissioners should not be members of the corporations which they were to regulate, or have stood for the borough in question at the previous election. He served on the committee for the bill of pains and penalties, and helped to manage a conference on 27 July. After the recess he was sent to the Lords to desire a conference on the corporations bill, which he again helped to manage. He was also appointed to the committee for the execution of those under attainder, but he was even more prominent in measures of less overtly political import. On 6 Feb. 1662 he was teller against an amendment to the bill for settling the poor in their parishes. His only chairmanship was on the estate bill promoted by his brother-in-law, Thomas Knollys, which he carried up on 21 Feb. He was not long in attaching himself to the faction forming round Crofts’s nephew, Sir Henry Bennet, and attacking the financial policy of the Clarendon administration. On 8 Mar. he took the bold step for a private Member of introducing a bill for returning the receipt of the revenue to the old course of the Exchequer. A second reading was ordered, but never reached. On 24 Apr. he was given leave to bring in a bill to authorize the levying of tolls for the repair of Watling Street between Dunstable and Hockliffe, ‘the most dismal piece of ground for travelling that ever was in England’, and immediately adjoining his own estate. Before the first session ended he had also taken a conspicuous part in the progress of the bills for settling the militia, relieving sheriffs, confirming ministers in their livings, and cleaning the streets in the capital. He helped to prepare reasons for two conferences on these measures, and three times acted as a manager.6

Duncombe was appointed to the principal committees of the 1663 session. His Watling Street bill received its first reading on 23 Feb. and he was the first to be named to the committee, which, however, failed to report. He was also among those appointed to bring in a bill to prevent the growth of Popery and to consider the petition from the loyal and indigent officers. He was sent to the Lords to desire a conference about the expulsion of Jesuits and Popish priests, and to the King to thank him for issuing a proclamation for this purpose. He was also among those ordered to devise remedies for the meetings of sectaries, to consider the bill to prevent abuses in the sale of offices and honours, and to inquire into the conduct of Sir Richard Temple. He returned to the Lords on 13 July to remind them of the bills against Popery and nonconformity, and helped to manage a conference on a bill to provide relief from the Act of Uniformity. He was appointed to the committees to draft the conventicles bill in 1664 and to consider the five mile bill in the following year. Meanwhile his official career had begun with a seat on the ordnance commission formed after the death of Sir William Compton. Pepys found him ‘a very proper man for business, being very resolute and proud and industrious’, and he was clearly the driving force behind the reforms which followed. Andrew Marvell described him as chief of the ‘projectors’, and the House rejected by a narrow majority his bill to nationalize the gunpowder trade in times of war. But he was not solely concerned with departmental matters, and acted as teller during the second Dutch war for going into committee of supply and imposing double taxation on dissenters.7

The ordnance commission had been so successful that on the death of Lord Treasurer Southampton the King determined to put the Treasury also into commission, and nominated Duncombe to the board. There was jealousy at Court of his rapid rise, and after complaints that the Medway forts had been unable to protect Chatham from the Dutch owing to shortage of gunpowder, Marvell wrote:

All men admired he to that pitch could fly;
Powder ne’er blew man up so soon so high,
But sure his late good husbandry in petre
Show’d him to manage the Exchequer meeter;
And who the forts would not vouchsafe a corn,
To lavish the King’s money more would scorn. ...
But the true cause was that, in ’s brother May,
Th’ Exchequer might the privy purse obey.

On his first visit to the new commission Pepys observed with amusement that ‘Duncombe looks so big, and takes as much state on him as if he had been born a lord’, lolling at the table with his feet up. He took no part in the attack on Clarendon in the autumn of 1667, though he was appointed to the committees to inquire into restraints on juries and to consider the public accounts bill. As spokesman for the Ordnance, he blamed the negligence of the workmen employed to fortify Sheerness. ‘Being reproved for it by Sir Edward Spragge’, he told the House, ‘they fell into a mutiny for want of pay.’ He defended the board ‘with great imperiousness and earnestness’, but Pepys thought that ‘the House is resolved to be better satisfied in the business of the unreadiness of Sheerness, and want of arms and ammunition there and everywhere’. Later he declared that there had been everything necessary for the fortifications but time. On 5 Mar. 1668 he attended the King with a resolution from the House demanding the enforcement of the laws against unlawful assemblies of Papists and nonconformists, and in the following month he was appointed to the committee for the continuation of the Conventicles Act. He spoke regularly on finance, declaring on 1 May that the proposal to appropriate the additional customs duties to the fleet would so ‘disorder the course of the Exchequer, that no man will know what to do, nor with what safety to act in the greatest emergencies’. He defended Carteret’s method of repaying loans on the Privy Seal in three instalments as helping to maintain the Government’s credit. He formed a close alliance at the Treasury with the Hon. William Coventry, and his old patron Bennet (now Lord Arlington) convinced himself ‘that these two were his enemies, and designed his ruin’; but the breach was only temporary. The Duke of Buckingham was also hostile, and in a scene in The Country Gentleman (a play written jointly with Sir Robert Howard) ridiculed him as Coventry’s ape, under the name of ‘Sir Gravity Empty’. The outcome was to drive Coventry out of office, but Duncombe did not follow him, as was expected. On 28 Mar. 1670 he objected to a clause that nothing in the conventicles bill should affect the royal supremacy in ecclesiastical affairs, on the ground that ‘if the King has power of dispensation, he has it without this proviso’. On 20 Dec. he announced that in accordance with the desires of the House the King had reduced the duty on wine. As a government spokesman, he naturally opposed the deferment of supply until the bill to punish the assailants of Sir John Coventry had passed. He was among those ordered to prepare reasons for a conference on the additional excise (6 Mar. 1671) and to consider the bill for the sale of fee-farm rents. During a further debate on conventicles he declared that he was

sorry such a stubborn people should be thus countenanced. Did not the City tremble under the menace of these people? And these are the people we must indulge. If you once come to weaken the hands of the deputy lieutenants, the Government will be in danger. Nothing but numbers will content this people; they began the troubles and will do so again. [He] expects nothing from them but misery and ruin; no age nor government that ever trusted them was secure.

Duncombe’s name of course appeared on both lists of the court party during these sessions, while an opposition writer described him as one of the managers of the duty on legal proceedings and May’s brother-in-law, ‘and if that be not enough, Old Nick reward him’.8

The Stop of the Exchequer occurred during the ensuing recess, but Lord Shaftesbury (Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper) later exonerated both himself and Duncombe, his successor as chancellor, from responsibility, all of which he laid at the door of Thomas Clifford, the lord treasurer. When Parliament reassembled, Duncombe conducted the new Speaker, (Sir) Job Charlton, to the chair, and on 5 Feb. 1673 he opposed the suspension of all Members elected on Shaftesbury’s writs during the recess. The Declaration of Indulgence can hardly have commanded his genuine approval, but, rather as an upholder of the prerogative than an advocate of toleration, he tried to persuade the House that there would be ‘no peace now without it’. With more sincerity he spoke against the bill for the ease of Protestant dissenters, since no question of the prerogative was involved, saying that

this may sway the very government so as to over-balance it. [He] will never think it fit that those men should have ‘ease’. ... Their principles are not consistent with honest people; let them not set up a government by themselves, for the Presbyterians will ever be for a Commonwealth.

If a bill were passed he suggested it should be operated for a trial period of a year. On 22 Feb. during a debate on a motion to desire a speedy answer from the King to their address on the suspension of the Penal Laws, he said

Will you precipitate an answer from the King? ... Why so hasty? No man in common conversation is pressed at this rate.

When the King’s reply was received he spoke in favour of an address of thanks, saying

Could the King say a more kind thing than his message? ... How could the King keep all things quiet but by suspending the laws?

He was appointed to the committee to draw up an address on the suspending power. On 3 Mar. he opposed an address to the King to prevent the growth of Popery by making all officials and all army and navy officers take the sacrament because he did not ‘like to expose holy things in this manner’, and because men pressed for the navy would ‘refuse it at sea to avoid the service’. While anxious for the comprehension of all Protestants in the Church, he would give no encouragement to dissent, and supported the exclusion of dissenters from the Commons. When the committee to prevent the growth of Popery, on which he served, produced a test to exclude Roman Catholics from office, he expressed the fear that ‘some will let religion and all go, if preferment lies in the way’.9

The forced resignation of Clifford under the Test Act and his replacement by Danby eventually undermined Duncombe’s position, though he continued as a government spokesman in the autumn session of 1673, and was named on the Paston list. He supported a vote of thanks for the King’s speech and defended the Modena marriage. In the debates on the remaining ministers of the Cabal in the New Year, he thought it was hard to condemn Lauderdale unheard and expressed great compassion for Buckingham’s misfortunes. But in defence of Arlington he was more eloquent:

Possibly, when you come to examine things, this gentleman will appear of great temper and worth. He had no concealments in his discourse here. Has, in his conversations with him, always heard him speak well of this House. ... Must Arlington wash himself in the Thames, night and morning, from suspicions of Popery? ... For the ‘French war’ ... knows that the difference betwixt Buckingham and Arlington was pretty high about it. The shaking of the Triple Alliance is laid to his charge. Lord Clifford said ‘Arlington did defend himself in it to the last extremity, and that he was an honest man to his King and country’. Arlington did as great service to the nation as possible by it. Speaks this to show how dark things are in common fame; therefore would have things made clear. ... Proceed by impeachment, and he shall be as ready to give his vote as any man.

On 23 Jan. 1674 he supported Coventry’s demand for building restrictions, to prevent the construction of too many tenement houses:

At this end of the town whole fields go into buildings, and are turned into alehouses filled with necessitous people.

Six days later he informed the House that it was often necessary for the Treasury to take a man into custody ‘for fear of losing the King’s money’, and to send such a person overseas was better than keeping him in an English prison, where he might be ruined by bad company. Nevertheless he was appointed to the committees for the extension of habeas corpus, the prevention of illegal exactions, and the inquiry into the condition of Ireland. He asserted that there were no complaints about the present judges, and denied that giving them patents to hold office during good behaviour rather than at the royal pleasure would be effective.10

Shortly before the next session Danby appointed Richard Kent as cashier of excise, and authorized him by patent not only to make disbursements on the direct order of the lord treasurer but to provide advances on the credit of the running cash. Duncombe, horrified at this breach of the traditional Exchequer procedure, petitioned the King, while the Opposition, suspecting that the improvement in government credit would facilitate corruption of Members, made it the main charge in the attempt to impeach Danby. As the chief witness, Duncombe said that he would have prevented the sealing of the patent if he had not been ill at the time, but refused to be drawn on the question of its legality. But he could not resist telling the House that ‘the order of the Exchequer, if known, would be found to be the greatest beauty and economy in the world’. In the dispute over the jurisdiction of the House of Lords, he urged the Commons not to ‘let the Government be torn in pieces by these unfortunate differences’. ‘You have been a happy Parliament’, he told them and he hoped they would continue so. He was again listed among the officials in the House in the autumn session. Urging a further supply in the autumn session, he suggested that a refusal might ‘put extremities to work’. William Sacheverell demanded the meaning of this portentous phrase, which Duncombe somewhat lamely explained as ‘making the crown, and them that depend upon it, uneasy’. He had clearly lost the ear of the House, and when he proffered a statement of revenue and expenditure he was refused a hearing. As an ardent churchman, his contribution to the debate of 25 Oct. on the state of the nation was remarkable:

Many places are so unprovided that the parson must work for his living, and at this rate the Church will fall of itself. Ill use is made even of the power of the Church; it does the Church no good. Not for the ends intended by the ecclesiastical courts; speaks not to oppose them, nor to lessen the authority of the Church.

He spoke frequently in support of the naval construction programme, though unable to withhold the comment that ‘the excise is so anticipated that the King has no profits of it’.11

During the recess Danby arranged for a proclamation suppressing all public coffee-houses, which the Opposition used as meeting-places. On 7 Jan. 1676 a petition from the coffee sellers, asking to be allowed time to get rid of their existing stocks, was presented to the Privy Council by Duncombe, which ‘looks like an opposition to the treasurer’. Aided by the Duke of York, Danby succeeded in securing Duncombe’s removal. On 25 Apr. Christopher Hatton wrote

Last Friday night the King told Sir John Duncombe that he must resign his place. He desired to know for what crime. The King told him that he did believe him to be a very honest gentleman, but that he did obstruct his affairs by interfering with the treasurer, and that he would not have his treasurer be uneasy.

Shaftesbury hopefully marked Duncombe and his son as ‘worthy’, but altered the rating to ‘vile’, perhaps because of the pension of £2,000 p.a. which had been granted as compensation. There is no evidence that he attended the House again, and in November 1678 his pension was cancelled, no doubt at the instigation of Danby, who at the end of that year included Duncombe’s name in a list of his enemies.12

Duncombe did not stand in 1679, and was dropped from the Privy Council. In May 1680 there was a rumour that he would be restored to the chancellorship of the Exchequer, but it proved to be unfounded. He contested Eye in 1681 on the Cornwallis interest in partnership with George Walsh, but their petition was not heard before the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament. He died at Battlesden on 4 Mar. 1687. Burnet described him as

a judicious man but very haughty, and apt to raise enemies against himself. He was an able Parliament man, but could not go into all the designs of the Court; for he had a sense of religion, and a zeal for the liberty of his country.13

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: Paula Watson


  • 1. Beds. N. and Q. ii. 48; PC Reg. xii. 195; Westminster City Lib. St. Martin in the Fields par. reg.; Beds. Par. Reg. xxxvii (Battlesden), 12.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. iii. 193.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1664-5, p. 41; 1667, p. 115; 1670, p. 224; 1671-2, p. 419; 1672-3, p. 171; 1676-7, p. 91; T. D. Hardy, Principal Officers of Chancery , 111.
  • 4. Beds. N. and Q. ii. 40; Wood, Athenae Oxon. iv. 12; Pepys Diary, 31 May 1667; SP29/8/178.
  • 5. Bristol Letter Bks. (Suff. Green Bks. i), 15; CJ, viii. 59, 224.
  • 6. CJ, viii. 291, 314, 315, 331, 368, 382, 402, 433, 434; Burnet, i. 478; Defoe, Tour, ii. 524.
  • 7. CJ, viii. 459, 466, 533, 669, 672; Trans. R. Hist. Soc. (ser. 5), xxv. 58-59; Pepys Diary, 24 Apr. 1667; Marvell ed. Margoliouth, i. 146.
  • 8. Pepys Diary, 31 May, 3, 4 June, 22 Oct. 1667, 29 Jan. 1668; 6, 10 Mar. 1669; Marvell, i. 160; Milward, 93, 188; Bulstrode, 28; Grey, i. 148, 172, 246, 418; Carte, Ormond, iv. 353; Dering, 45; Harl. 7020, f. 39v.
  • 9. K. H. D. Haley, Shaftesbury, 296; CJ, ix. 245; Dering, 106, 132, 142; Grey, ii. 31, 41, 49, 58, 80, 90, 93, 99, 117.
  • 10. Grey, ii. 183, 193-4, 240-1, 266, 306-7, 337, 366, 416-17; CJ, ix. 300.
  • 11. C. D. Chandaman, English Public Revenue, 64-65; Grey, iii. 57-58, 64, 66, 255, 264, 304, 309, 317, 321, 347-8, 396; CJ, ix. 361.
  • 12. Browning, Danby, i. 194; Add. 29555, f. 192; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxii), 122; Cal. Treas. Bks. v. 217, 1163.
  • 13. BL M636/32, Lady Gawdy to Sir Ralph Verney, 6 Feb. 1679; HMC Finch, ii. 78; Beds. N. and Q. ii. 49; Burnet, i. 478.