JONES, Sir William (1630-82), of Southampton Square, Bloomsbury, Mdx. and Ramsbury, Wilts.
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Family and Education
bap. 3 July 1630, 2nd s. of Richard Jones (d.1692) of Stowey Court, Chew Magna, Som. by Joyce Woodward. educ. G. Inn 1647, called 1655. m. lic. 11 Sept. 1661, Elizabeth, da. of Edmund Alleyn of Hatfield Peverel, Essex, wid. of John Robinson of Denston Hall, Suff., 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 2da. Kntd. 15 July 1671.1
Standing counsel, Exeter 1668; bencher, G. Inn 1671, reader 1674; j.p. Mdx. 1674-?d.; commr. for assessment, Berks. 1677-80, Mdx. and Westminster 1677-9.2
KC 1671; solicitor-gen. 1673-5; attorney-gen. 1675-9.
Jones’s family had held the small estate of Stowey Court since Elizabethan times. His father was a parliamentary supporter during the Civil War, held county office throughout the Interregnum, and represented Somerset in the first Protectorate Parliament. Jones became a lawyer, and by 1671 he was reckoned among the most learned of his profession. With the Duke of Buckingham’s support he looked for and achieved rapid advancement, and built up a considerable estate on the Berkshire-Wiltshire borders from his earnings; but his manic-depressive temperament put him always one step behind his rival Sir Francis North. As early as 1676 he was ‘much in with that knot’ of opposition politicians, including Sir Thomas Player and Silius Titus, but he remained a crown lawyer until October 1679, leading for the prosecution in the Popish Plot trials. For his resignation from this lucrative post, in which he earned ‘no less than £6,000 per annum’, he gave as his reasons ill-health and the death of his infant son, but it was also asserted that ‘he was very weary of the Plot prosecutions’. He remained politically inactive for another 12 months, refusing all crown appointments, but declining also to sign the petition for the meeting of Parliament. Indeed as late as October 1680 some considered him ‘a firm friend to the Court’.3
Hence it is not surprising that a pamphleteer should inquire how ‘a very worthy knight dwelling in Southampton Square (though otherwise of very great abilities)’ could be ‘sufficiently qualified for a burgess of Plymouth’, when Jones stood for the borough on the death of John Sparke, probably on the interest of John Maynard I. But on his election he at once joined the leaders of the Opposition in the House, despite his total lack of parliamentary experience. A very active Member of the second Exclusion Parliament, he was named to 31 committees and delivered some 50 recorded speeches. His oratorical skill was enhanced by the slight west-country accent that he affected. His commitment to exclusion was total. In his maiden speech he declared:
I have as much respect for the Duke as any person, but I must have respect to religion above all things. ... The question is whether a Popish prince can inherit the crown of England without a loss of all our laws? ... We do not punish the Duke as a criminal, but we are preventing the evil that is likely to befall us from the religion he professes. ... It is for the benefit of the King and Protestant religion that this bill pass and I am for it.
The fact that such a notoriously timid soul, who shrank from the dangers which other men courted, could speak so vigorously for the bill ‘made people generally conclude that the thing was certain and safe and would at last be agreed on all parts’. On 11 Nov. he reported an address attacking the ‘pernicious counsels’ of those who had advised prorogation. He denounced the proclamation against petitioning as taking away ‘the very liberty of Englishmen’, insinuating that his rival North was the real author of the proclamation. He was appointed to the committee for the impeachment of Edward Seymour. As one of the principal managers of Lord Stafford’s impeachment, he was described as ‘mighty sweet in words, but sour enough in sense’. He maintained that ‘the Parliament of England has power over all the subjects of England; we may banish them out of any place’, and was appointed to a small committee on 15 Dec. 1680 to bring in a bill to expel all the considerable Papists ‘out of the King’s dominions’. He supported the idea of an association, but not as a substitute for exclusion, on which he never wavered. ‘Without the exclusion bill’, he said ‘there can be no expedient, but what will leave us in that miserable condition of having first or last a contest with our lawful King.... If the act does not pass to exclude the Duke, an act of association would be treason when the Duke becomes King.’ He was the only lawyer on the committee appointed on 24 Dec. to bring in a bill repealing the Corporations Act, and he spoke in favour of relaxing the laws against Protestant dissenters, because ‘the Papists have offered them larger terms than this, and if they are refused some liberty now, the Papists’ hopes will be more upon this sort of people’.4
After the failure of the Opposition in the second Exclusion Parliament, it was widely rumoured that some of their leaders would privately come to terms, and that Jones would at last be made chief justice of the common pleas. But nothing came of it, and after his re-election he remained firmly committed to exclusion in the Oxford Parliament. He was appointed to the committees to draw up the articles of impeachment against Fitzharris and the third exclusion bill. He argued with Burnet against a regency, and he stated in the House that
it is less evil or injustice to take away from him both the crown and power than to leave him both but the name ... but if this can be made effectual, I am as willing to exclude the Duke’s power as name. ... If there must be an army to maintain the bill of exclusion, there must be four armies to maintain the expedient.
Jones was appointed to a total of five committees during the week-long Parliament. On 26 Mar. he reported reasons for a conference on the loss of the bill of ease for dissenters, and he was on his feet making his seventh and last speech, in support of the Fitzharris impeachment, when Black Rod knocked at the door. After the Parliament was dissolved Jones published A Just and Modest Vindication of the Proceedings of the Two Last Parliaments of King Charles II, in which he claimed that the King’s declaration was composed by a Frenchman, and that the dissolution was due solely to the ‘influence of a few evil men on the King’s mind’. In defence of the Parliaments Jones stated that
never did men husband their time to more advantage; they opened the eyes of the nation; they showed them their danger with a freedom becoming Englishmen; they asserted the people’s right of petitioning; they proceeded vigorously against the conspirators discovered and heartily endeavoured to take away the very root of the conspiracy; they had before them as many great and useful bills as had been seen in any Parliament, and it is not to be laid at their doors that they proved abortive.5
Perhaps Jones ‘grew weary of the restless party’ after the Oxford Parliament, as one friend observed. He certainly was less active and, it is claimed, his dislike of Shaftesbury became obsessive. Nevertheless, he was often seen ‘locked up’ with his friend Lord Russell (Hon. William Russell) and the Prince of Orange in the last year of his life, and he undertook to help in the defence of London’s charter. Jones died ‘very rich’ on 2 May 1682, an event seen by some as a victory for the Court and by others as a loss to the City. Thomas Pelham, who had married his daughter, and Dean Tillotson were his executors. His nephew Richard, who inherited the Ramsbury estate, was returned for Marlborough as a Tory in 1712.6