ERLE, Sir Walter (1586-1665), of Charborough, Dorset.
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Family and Education
b. 22 Nov. 1586, 1st s. of Thomas Erle of Charborough by Dorothy, da. of William Pole of Shute, Devon; bro. of Christopher. educ. Queen’s Oxf. 1602; M. Temple 1604. m. 7 May 1616, Anne (d. 26 Jan. 1654), da. and h. of Francis Dymoke of Erdington, Warws., 1s. d.v.p. 2da. suc. fa. 1597; kntd. 4 May 1616.2
Freeman, Poole 1613, Lyme Regis bef. 1631, Weymouth 1640; sheriff, Dorset 1618-19; j.p. Dorset by 1622-6, 1629-48, 1657-d., Devon 1647-8; dep. Lt. Dorset 1625-6, by 1642-3, collector of loan 1626, commr. of sewers 1638, oyer and terminer, Western circuit 1640, July 1660, assessment, Dorset 1640-8, 1657, Aug. 1660-d., Poole Aug. 1660-1, suppression, of enclosure riots, Dorset 1643, sequestration 1643, accounts 1643, chapter, Westminster Abbey 1645, militia, Dorset 1648, Mar. 1660, scandalous ministers 1654, col. of militia ft. Apr. 1660.3
Committee, Virginia Co. 1620; gov. Dorchester New England Co. 1624-7; member, council for Virginia 1621; treas. for reformado officers, 1644; lt. of Ordnance 1644-5, 1647-8; commr. for Admiralty 1645-8, propositions for relief of Ireland 1645, exclusion from sacrament 1646, bishops’ lands 1646, indemnity 1647-9, scandalous offences 1648.
Capt. of horse (parliamentary) 1642-3.4
The Erles were not of much account in their native Devonshire before they moved to Charborough, which they had acquired by marriage, about the middle of the 16th century. Erle, the first of his family to enter Parliament, was a Presbyterian in religion and a moderate opponent of the Court in politics; his principles remained unaltered throughout his long career. After his dazzling triumph in the county election the previous year, he retired in 1660 to the borough for which he had first been elected nearly half a century before. Although in the sunset of his long and eventful political career, he showed no diminution of energy. Twenty-one of his speeches in the Convention are on record, and he was named to 58 committees. As father of the House he was the first Member appointed to the committee of elections and privileges, and in the opening weeks of the session he was also among those named to the drafting committee and the committees for the land purchases and indemnity bills. He did not take a conspicuous part in the prolonged debates on the exceptions to this bill, but in favouring the naming of individuals rather than categories he reduced the danger of a wholesale proscription. On 12 May he moved that the great officers of state should be chosen by Parliament, subject to confirmation by the King. He spoke in favour of the petition from Oliver St. John, and acted as teller in favour of the admission of William Lenthall† to pardon.5
Erle had not forgotten his youthful exploits as a Low Countries soldier, which gave him a lifelong interest in military affairs, more successfully displayed, perhaps, in administration than on the field of battle. He was on the committees to nominate commissioners for the army (23 July), and to settle the militia (6 Nov.). In these capacities, as so often before, he must have been a thorn in the flesh of the court spokesman. Never, he said, had he known any bill entrench so much upon the liberty of the subject as the militia bill, which provided for martial law. He was teller in favour of a motion to hear complaints against the militia commissioners, 16 Nov., and cited examples of the unruly and insulting behaviour of the soldiers. He moved ‘to do somewhat for the good of the people’, instead of making them pay excise to maintain expenditure on defence. He had already opposed excise as a substitute for feudal revenues, preferring instead a perpetual land rate. While at first sight it might seem only fair that compensation for abolishing the court of wards should be borne by the landowners who complained of it, rather than by the public at large, it must be remembered that a substantial imposition on land would have increased the inducements to sell out which Erle was offering at this time to the middling gentry with property adjoining Charborough. His reasons were personal, and explain also his support for Cooper’s motion to give the guardianship of a minor to his grandfather rather than to his mother. Erle’s daughter-in-law, by her second marriage to the younger brother of Francis Hawley, Lord Hawley, had taken Erle’s grandchildren into a royalist household, and Erle’s closing years were dominated by his anxiety to ensure that his heir Thomas Erle should be brought up in the fear of the Lord, ‘not that I have any intention to withdraw him from his duty and all due respects to his mother, but that I have a desire to have him educated by my advice’. The boy must in any case succeed to the settled estate but, by appropriating all his spare cash to the purchase of land, Erle could hold out a substantial bribe to the Hawleys to submit his grandson, in his own interests, to the effective guardianship of such Puritans as Thomas Grove, Thomas Moore and Henry Whitehead, failing which, the unsettled estate was to go to his granddaughter and her husband, Thomas Trenchard I.6
Indeed it was religious issues that moved Erle often to eloquence. He was the only Member to object to the selection of the Royalist Dr Gauden to preach before the House. He wanted a grand committee on the subject (6 July) and protested against the re-imposition of the 39 articles. He justified the attack of Sir John Northcote, his old comrade-in-arms of Civil War days, on the idleness of cathedral clergy. He rebuked Robert Bruce, Lord Bruce, son of the Dorset landowner whose enclosures he had been ordered to defend in 1643 for speaking meanly of those who prayed by the spirit. In the vital debate on religion, he favoured separating the discussion of doctrine and discipline (16 July). He was teller for the motion to hear the petition from the intruded ministers (21 July), having postponed the leave of absence which he had obtained two days before. On 17 Nov. he was added to the committee appointed to bring in a bill for modified episcopacy in accordance with the Worcester House declaration.7
Erle’s long parliamentary experience made him a keen and sometimes cantankerous watchdog in matters of procedure and privilege. In this session he turned a severe eye on the press, whether it was engaged in producing misleading accounts of debates (25 June), specious Anglican propaganda (30 June) or a crack-brained pamphlet called The Long Parliament Revived. His report from committee recommending the apprehension of the printer of this last work was accepted on 17 Nov. Nor was he disposed to allow the Upper House to encroach upon the privileges of the Lower; he was responsible for managing the conference on the Lords’ order forbidding George Pitt to cut timber on his wife’s property in Gloucestershire (4 July). Already he had been sent to the Lords to encourage them to pass speedily the assessment bill, returning with a dusty answer (25 May). It was the Lords who struck out of the Post Office bill Erle’s proviso that Members’ letters should be carried free in session time.8
In most of these issues, Erle was in the minority, and each of his four tellerships ended in defeat. He had many relatives in the Convention but even in that assembly, from which Royalists and their sons were supposed to be excluded, there could be embarrassing moments for a man with Erle’s record. On one occasion he found himself sitting cheek by jowl with young (Sir) Ralph Bankes, whose father’s property at Corfe Castle had been pillaged by Erle’s servants to provide material for repairs to Charborough, previously destroyed by the Royalists. ‘I was about to have asked you how far forth you thought me in equity obliged to that which you seem to require’, he wrote. Erle had emerged from the Civil War with much cleaner hands than the Brownes and Trenchards, for instance, but he was probably well-advised not to seek re-election in 1661. He remained an active justice of the peace till the year of his death, and even when he was too ill to hold a pen the force of his character and the clarity of his mind enabled him to dictate a will complicated in both its testamentary and personal provisions. He was buried at Charborough on 1 Sept. 1665.