KNIGHT, John (1613-83), of Temple Street, Bristol, Glos.

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



Mar. 1679
Oct. 1679

Family and Education

bap. 24 Nov. 1613, 3rd but 2nd surv. s. of George Knight, mercer (d.1659), of Bristol by Anne, da. of William Deyos of Bristol. m. 9 Apr. 1640, Martha, da. of Thomas Cole, merchant, of Bristol, 3s. 8da. Kntd. 5 Sept. 1663.1

Offices Held

Member, merchant venturers of Bristol 1639, master 1663-4, commr. for assessment Jan. 1660-80, militia, Mar. 1660, common councilman June 1660-2, commr. for loyal and indigent officers 1662, alderman 1662-d., mayor 1663-4, sub-commr. for prizes 1665-7, dep. lt. 1670-?d.; commr. for recusants, Som. 1675.2


Knight came from a merchant family which had held municipal office in Bristol since 1579. His father took no part in the Civil War, but was forced to retire from the bench of aldermen in 1656 because of his disaffection to the regime. Knight, a grocer by trade, was also royalist in sympathy and refused the oaths during the Interregnum. He was returned to the Convention for the city, and proved a moderately active committeeman, with 25 appointments to his credit, but a frequent speaker; 31 of his speeches were recorded. On the religious issue, he soon showed himself a zealous Anglican, urging the imposition of double poll-tax on both Papists and fanatics ‘thereby to know the King’s friends from his enemies’. He was appointed to the committees for settling ecclesiastical livings, re-enacting the Navigation Act, and reducing interest to 6 per cent. In the debate on the indemnity bill on 18 Aug. 1660, he spoke in favour of excepting all the regicides, whose lives were ‘but as a bucket of water to the ocean, in regard that so many more are to receive benefit by the Act of Pardon’. His was the first name on the committee for the bill to enable disbanded soldiers to trade in corporate towns without apprenticeship. During the recess he was elected sheriff, but succeeded in obtaining his discharge by pleading the burden of his parliamentary duties. He spoke with increasing confidence in the second session. On 7 Nov. he moved the second reading of the bill, which he had previously introduced, to prevent the export of wool and fuller’s earth. He opposed the marital separation bill ‘because there were already laws against it; and said they ought not to be so severe on the female kind’. He sought to fend off the excise by proposing a six months’ assessment to clear the naval debt, and a land tax at the modest rate of 2d. in the £. With an eye to Bristol’s import trade, and in accordance with the desires of the merchant venturers, he supported the bill to prohibit the cultivation of tobacco in England. On 7 Dec. he told the House that he had heard a sermon from Hugh Peters urging the execution of the King long before 1647. Knight’s status as a taxation expert was recognized when he was added to the managers of a conference on the assessment bill on 22 Dec.3

Knight was re-elected in 1661 without opposition, and became the most prominent provincial merchant in the earlier sessions of the Cavalier Parliament. Lord Wharton included him in his list of friends. A very active Member by any standards, he was appointed to 624 committees, taking the chair in 16, acted as teller in 20 divisions, and made about 60 recorded speeches. In the first session he served on the committees for the execution of those under attainder, to check the text of the revised Book of Common Prayer and to examine the Lords’ amendments to the uniformity bill, but he was naturally most prominent in trade matters. He was teller against reading the report on alnage, and against imposing a levy on coal shipped from Sunderland as well as Newcastle. He took the chair for the bills to remedy abuses in the packing of butter, another matter in which the local merchant venturers were interested. As chairman of the grand committee on trade he reported on 24 Mar. 1662 in favour of abolishing the monopoly of the London Merchant Adventurers, and acted as teller for a motion to that effect. His name stood first on the bill to curb the activities of the notorious Bristol ’spirits’ who kidnapped children to serve as labourers in the plantations. He again took the chair for the bill to prohibit the export of wool and fuller’s earth, which he carried to the Lords on 28 Apr. In this capacity he also recommended the expansion of the linen industry to reduce unemployment. In 1663 he was chairman for the bill to improve the collection of excise, and on attending the lord treasurer to complain of the activities of one of the local commissioners was accused by another of prejudicing the King’s revenue by his speeches in committee. He continued his campaign against the Merchant Adventurers by acting as teller on 20 Dec. 1664 against a measure to give relief to their creditors. He also opposed the bill for the repair of Hartlepool pier and a proviso to the bill to except government loans from the statutory limitation on interest. He served on all the committees for the Clarendon Code, and took strong action against the Bristol Quakers during his mayoralty. In the 1666 session he acted as teller for the motion to refer the petition of Sir Humphrey Hooke to the elections committee, and spoke against the proposal of John Birch to impose an excise on tobacco. He was one of the Members appointed to prepare reasons for a conference on prohibiting French imports and to attend the King with the address. He also helped to draw up reasons against the Canary Company patent.4

On the fall of Clarendon, Knight was appointed to the committees for the public accounts bill and the French merchants’ petition, but sought to divert the impeachment proceedings by informing the House of large sums received by Henry Brouncker and others, and to cast the blame for English losses in the West Indies on the Presbyterian Lord Willoughby of Parham. He took the chair in the committee to consider the balance of trade with Scotland. He was among those sent on 27 Nov. 1667 to ask the King to take care of the relief and repatriation of English prisoners in Holland. He was appointed to the committee for the banishment of Clarendon. On instructions from his constituents, he pressed for the naturalization of prize ships, and chaired the committee for the bill. He continued to oppose the tobacco excise as ‘the only way to destroy that plantation, and by that means to transport the trade into Holland’, and delivered ‘a long, impertinent speech’ against the additional wine duty. In 1669 he defended Sir George Carteret, urging the House to hear his counsel on matters of fact as well as law, and pointing out that if his accounts were unsatisfactory, the Exchequer must have been at fault to allow them. On 1 Dec. he acted as teller for the motion to appoint a day for the accusers of Lord Orrery (Roger Boyle) to make out their charges. He was appointed to the committees to prevent the transportation of prisoners overseas and to nominate commissioners for union with Scotland. On 7 Nov. 1670 he again attacked the tobacco duties:

This commodity yields £140,000 per annum, one-third part of the customs of England. The port of Bristol has 6000 tons of shipping. The King gains £5 a head by every man that goes into the plantations. It employs half the ships of Bristol. Many leave their tobacco at the custom house, for want of money to pay the custom.

Knight was chairman of the committees of inquiry into the conduct of the London dissenters and the payment of the wine duties. His reference to the affairs of Sir Henry Thompson provoked Andrew Marvell into describing him in a private letter as ‘a talkative wine merchant’. After the attack on Sir John Coventry Knight spoke in favour of deferring all other business until the bill for punishment of the culprits had been passed, and was appointed to the committee to consider the Lords’ amendments. But when he complained to the House that he had himself been assaulted during the exercise of his duty as a magistrate by his cousin and former partner the father of John Knight II, Job Charlton reported on 28 Mar. 1671 that it was not a breach of privilege, though this opinion was immediately reversed by the House without a division and the offender committed to the serjeant-at-arms. At the end of the session Knight was included in the opposition list of the court party.5

In the 1673 session, Knight moved for the suspension of the election writs issued by Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury during the recess, and spoke against giving consideration to the dissenters’ complaints. He took the chair for an estate bill to enable the dean and chapter of Bristol to exchange an advowson with George, Lord Berkeley. He helped to draw up reasons for peace with Holland in 1674, and to consider the bill for a general test. In the summer of 1675 he was appointed one of the managers of a conference on the Four Lawyers. He received the government whip in the autumn, and was included on the working lists, among the government speakers, and in Wiseman’s account. He was appointed to the committee for the appropriation bill, though he thought it damaging to the navy, and acted as teller for the adjournment on 11 Nov. He took the chair for the Ebury manor estate bill promoted by John Tregonwell, and carried it to the Lords on 16 Nov. with a reminder about the bill to hinder recusants from sitting in Parliament. He was also appointed in this session and its successors to the committees for the recall of British subjects from French service, and other measures put forward by the Opposition, with whom concern at the growth of French power led him increasingly to act.6

In 1677, Shaftesbury first marked Knight ‘vile’, but altered it to ‘worthy’ after he had moved for an address against the issue of passes to merchant ships and given information about recruitment in Ireland for the French army. He introduced a bill to prevent abuses in the import of Irish cattle, with a ’retrospect’ reflecting on Hugh Smith. But his most important parliamentary work to date was in connexion with the better preservation of the liberty of the subject. He reported from the committee on 21 Mar. and carried the bill to the Lords three days later. Nevertheless he received a small payment from the French subsidies on 21 May. He opened the debate on the King’s speech on 29 Jan. 1678 with a request for a statement on England’s foreign commitments, and was appointed three months later to the committee to prepare a summary of them. On 3 May he spoke on the negotiations with the Dutch:

When Hannibal is at the gates, we should consider what at present is to be done. Here have been forces raised by Act of Parliament in order to an actual war with France. The confederates did depend upon it. Do you intend to have them lost, and Flanders totally lost, this summer? If you go not on, what will you do with the army you have raised? This treaty is not indeed pursuant to your advice, but it is seasonable at this time to advise the King, and he will stand by your advice. It is every man’s safety that is now the case. If you intend good to the Church, state, King, and kingdom, speedily help yourselves.

He joined in the attack on Lauderdale five days later. By the following month his political and financial distrust of the Government had come to exceed his alarm at the international situation. He opposed the navy vote, and in answer to the King’s demand for a further £300,000 p.a. declared that the existing revenue would be sufficient if it were better managed, and in particular freed from the burden of pensions upon it. ‘At this rate we shall be Normans, and wear wooden shoes.’ He was chairman of the committees for a private bill and for the bill to permit the export of leather, which he alleged would benefit the landed interest by raising the price. On the outbreak of the Popish Plot he was appointed to the committee of inquiry, and took the chair for the bill to hinder Papists from sitting in Parliament, which he carried to the Lords on 28 Oct. Three days later he was one of the four Members who searched the chambers of Robert Wright. As chairman of the committee to translate Coleman’s letters, he produced a licence to ‘dispense with the taking of oaths’ over the seal of Cardinal Barberini, and told the House: ‘I believe Coleman had more communication and interest with ministers than the Parliament had’. When Ralph Montagu produced Danby’s letters on 19 Dec., Knight exclaimed: ‘Take such evil counsellors from the King that have done these things, and he, and his posterity, and we all shall flourish; else we shall be destroyed. I move for impeachment.’ Finally on 27 Dec. he acted as teller against the adjournment of the debate on the respite for three Jesuits convicted of Godrey’s murder.7

Knight was returned, probably unopposed, to the first Exclusion Parliament, and again marked ‘worthy’ on Shaftesbury’s list. He made nine speeches and was appointed to 39 committees. He opposed any compromise on the right of the Commons to choose their own Speaker. On 22 Mar. he was among those ordered to bring in a security bill. He denounced Danby’s pardon, on the grounds that ‘when a man comes to be tried, then is his proper time to plead his pardon. This man must come to trial, to show the world how ill a minister he has been to the King.’ He was again appointed to the committee for the habeas corpus bill. When it became clear that Danby intended to rely on the legality of his pardon, Knight said: ‘I know nothing of law but self-preservation. I would therefore move, seeing there is such a pardon, to bring in a bill of attainder against him.’ He urged the House to lay their hands upon their hearts, and consider, in his favourite metaphor, that Danby was but ‘a bucket to the ocean in comparison of the safety of the nation’. On the exclusion issue he said:

It is impossible that the Protestant religion should be preserved under a Popish prince, as inconsistent as light and darkness. ... If the Pope gets his great toe into England, all his body will follow. Something must be done, but I dare not venture to propose what.

Indeed he did not even dare to vote for the exclusion bill, probably preferring to pair with his Tory colleague, Sir Robert Cann. But the House was still prepared to include him among the Members entrusted on 24 May with drawing up reasons on the trial of the lords in the Tower, and he was reelected unopposed. Before Parliament met he attended the deathbed of Bedloe, who solemnly affirmed that all the information he had given about the Popish Plot was true. In the second Exclusion Parliament Knight remained very active. He was appointed to 22 committees, of which the most important was to inquire into abhorring, and made nine speeches. He gave evidence that Cann had publicly declared his disbelief in the Popish Plot. Cann replied: ‘As for the credit of Sir John Knight in Bristol, it is such that a jury of twelve men, his neighbours, will not believe his testimony’. Anti-Popish zeal brought to Knight’s defence so unlikely a champion as the Presbyterian Richard Hampden, who remarked sarcastically:

It is strange that the corporation of Bristol should send Knight hither to serve in Parliament, and not believe his testimony. This is downright recrimination. No man of the last Parliament but knows that Knight was as diligent and faithful, as equal and impartial, as any man in the examination of the Plot. But at this time of the day, when all the rage of the Papists is against you, a Member to be called all to naught, whose credit is so well known here!

Knight objected to the proposal to prescribe the succession in the second exclusion bill ‘as if you suppose the King should not have an heir of his own’. He was in favour of the address against Lord Halifax (Sir George Savile), but thought that the House should ‘be sure of proof’ before impeaching Edward Seymour. His involvement in high politics did not lead him to neglect the mundane interests of his constituents, and he opposed the proposal to allow Protestant refugees to practise their trades in corporate towns without going through an apprenticeship. ‘Take care’, he warned the House, ‘that this bill of naturalization give them not more privilege than the King’s subjects.’ On his return to his constituency he was met by 196 of the most eminent and loyal persons of Bristol on horseback ‘to