POWLE, Henry (1630-92), of Williamstrip, Glos.

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

Constituency

Dates

3 Jan. 1671
Mar. 1679
Oct. 1679
8 Mar. - 25 Nov. 1690

Family and Education

bap. 18 Oct. 1630, 2nd s. of Henry Powle of Shottesbrook, Berks. by Katherine, da. of Matthew Herbert of Monmouth; bro. of Richard Powle. educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1646, L. Inn 1647, called 1654. m. (1) 1659, Elizabeth (d. 28 July 1672), da. of Richard Newport, 1st Baron Newport, 1da.; (2) lic. 28 June 1679, Lady Frances Cranfield (d. 20 Apr. 1687), da. of Sir Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex, wid. of Richard Sackville, 5th Earl of Dorset, s.p. suc. uncle William Powle of Quenington, Coln St. Aldwyn, Glos. 1657.1

Offices Held

Commr. for militia, Glos. Mar. 1660, j.p. Mar. 1660-70, ?1671-d., capt. of militia ft. Apr. 1660; commr. for assessment, Glos. Aug. 1660-80, Westminster 1679-80, New Windsor and Westminster 1689, Berks., Glos., Herefs. and Mdx. 1689-90; dep. lt. Glos. c. Aug. 1660-bef. 1683, commr. for corporations 1662-3, loyal and indigent officers 1662, recusants 1675; bencher, L. Inn. 1689.2

PC 21 Apr. 1679-31 Jan. 1680, 14 Feb. 1689-d.; master of the rolls 1690-d.

FRS 1663-85.

Speaker of House of Commons 22 Jan. 1689-27 Jan. 1690.

Biography

Powle was called to the bar during the Interregnum but it is unlikely that he ever practised. In 1657 he acquired an interest in Cirencester through his purchase of Williamstrip manor from his brother Richard, and, in the same year, by his inheritance of Quenington, both properties being near the borough. Returned to the Convention after a contest, he was an inactive Member. He was named only to the committee of elections and privileges and to that appointed to examine a proviso to the bill for the confirmation of judicial proceedings. On 9 July, in the debate on the religious settlement, he spoke against the motion of Sir Trevor Williams to establish religion according to the 39 Articles rather than merely by the Old and New Testaments, and moved that the whole paragraph be omitted from the bill.3

It is not known whether Powle stood in 1661. He was removed from the commission of the peace in 1670, presumably because of his reluctance to enforce the Conventicles Act, but probably restored in the following year, when he defeated Sir Robert Atkyns at a by-election. In his first session in the Cavalier Parliament he was named to nine committees, taking the chair on those to consider the bill for preventing exports of wool, and to prepare for a conference on it. He acted as teller against a proviso to the conventicles bill and against the intestacy bill. On 22 Mar. 1671 he claimed that juries had never been fined except in Star Chamber, not at common law. He thus already showed his learning ‘in precedents and Parliament journals’ noted by Burnet, who described him as a ‘clear and strong speaker’ when he had time to prepare his speeches. When Parliament met again in 1673, Powle was one of the foremost critics of the long prorogation. Even before the Speaker’s election had been confirmed, he deployed an army of precedent against the validity of election writs issued during the recess on the sole authority of the lord chancellor. In the debate on supply on 7 Feb. he posed the key question ‘whether grievance or supply should precede’. He conceded that the King must be supplied when a foreign invasion threatened, but in general he was to maintain that in the past it had always been the practice for grievances to be dealt with first. He strongly opposed the Declaration of Indulgence, and in a ‘long speech’ on 10 Feb. showed ‘that the King could not dispense, much less suspend, the laws in being’. He chaired the committees which prepared two addresses against the suspending power. In the debate on toleration for Protestant dissenters he said: ‘Here we have a sort of people that teach nothing but the truth, and [I] know not why we should not grant them liberty’. He took the chair of the committee which drew up a bill of ease for them, and carried it up. He was also appointed to the committee for preventing the growth of Popery which produced the test bill, and took part in a conference with the Lords. He was much concerned at the number of Papists in positions of power in Ireland, and on 26 Mar. reported addresses on the state of that kingdom and other grievances.4

On the eve of the autumn session (Sir) William Temple classed Powle and Giles Strangways as leaders of the ‘moderate’ opposition group, which ‘would only secure the business of religion [and] break the war with Holland, both these with all the good measures that can be to the King and no violent ones to the ministers’. He was chiefly responsible for frustrating the Government’s plan for an immediate prorogation on 20 Oct. When he had obliged Edward Seymour to take the chair, he told him that his position as Privy Councillor was incompatible with the duties of a Speaker, and went on to denounce the Modena marriage:

What he had to say was of concern to the whole nation; that we had been very careful to suppress Popery, but it was vain to suppress it elsewhere if it got footing so near the throne; that the Duke of York had intentions to marry a Papist, an Italian lady of the House of Modena, kin to two cardinals; and his humble motion was that we might make an address to the King that this intended match may not be consummated.

This was carried ‘with little contradiction’, but ‘by this time Black Rod was at the door, and the House ... was prorogued for seven days’. The marriage took place during this brief recess, and on 30 Oct. he expressed his ‘sorrow’ that neither Parliament nor the Privy Council had been consulted beforehand. He acted as teller for an address against the marriage and chaired the drafting committee. On 3 Nov., in the debate on grievances, he delivered a long and impassioned speech against standing armies and the quartering of soldiers, asserting that ‘these forces were not raised for the war, but the war was made for raising these people’, and chaired the committee to draw up the address against a standing army. In 1674, Powle led the attack against Lauderdale and Buckingham, concentrating on the break-up of the Triple Alliance, the Stop of the Exchequer, and the employment of popish officers in Ireland. Like Sir Thomas Littleton, 2nd Bt., with whom he was closely associated, he was a follower of Arlington, and was named to the committee to consider the charges against him. He was chairman of the committee ordered to prepare the general test bill to distinguish between Protestants and Papists and his name was first on the committee appointed after the second reading. He strongly supported the habeas corpus bill. Despite his dislike of Popery, he described Bernard Howard as a gentleman ‘of a most inoffensive carriage. ... If you intend any distinction between Papist and Papist, would do it for this gentleman’s sake.’ He opposed the Lords’ bill for regulating the trial of peers, as ‘setting up aristocracy against monarchy; and I would rather be under the government of a lawful prince than the Lords’. On the same day he reported a bill to ascertain the duty on law proceedings, of which Atkyns was comptroller.5

When the new session opened on 13 Apr. 1675 Powle was among those who successfully opposed an unqualified vote of thanks for the speech from the throne. He continued his attack on Lauderdale, acting as chairman of the committee to prepare the address for his removal. When the Hon. William Russell moved the impeachment of Danby, Powle said that he

always had, and still had, an unwillingness to accuse great men, it looking like faction, they being more exposed in their actions than other men.

But ‘out of duty’ he proceeded to deliver a long speech charging Danby with mismanagement of treasury and exchequer funds, to the particular detriment of the navy, and asserted that ‘the punishment of one great officer of state, in such cases as these, is better than any laws you can make’. He acted as teller for retaining the charge in the impeachment. On 4 May he was appointed to the committee to bring in the bill appropriating the customs to the use of the navy. When the King spoke of the ‘contrivers’ who hoped to procure a dissolution by inflaming the controversy between the Houses over the case of Shirley v. Fagg, Powle retorted:

Believes, not only that there is a design of the dissolution of this Parliament, but of all Parliaments. Doubts not those whose boundless ambition makes them hate Parliaments ... would make wounds. First they put the King upon harsh things to his subjects. When addresses are made to him of grievances they tell him we entrench upon his prerogative. The first blow is to dissolve the House, and then they can more easily persuade him to call no more, by telling him there will be tumultuous elections and men of ill principles chosen. ... He cannot imagine but that such contrivers, as the King mentions, must be some of this House. ... ’Tis necessary and just to clear all the Members of this House.

Such a resolution was unanimously passed. He was speaking on the balance of trade between England and France when he was interrupted by Black Rod.6

At the beginning of the autumn session Powle continued his attack on Popery and the King’s advisers. On 20 Oct. in the grand committee on religion he seconded Littleton’s motion for a bill ensuring the education of the children of the royal family in the Church of England, and on the same day was given the responsibility for bringing in the declaratory bill against altering or suspending the established religion. He bitterly denounced the ministers, though not the King, for allowing the navy to decay, and was again named to a committee for an appropriation bill. He was chairman of the committee for the recall of British subjects in the French service, and helped to manage a conference with the Lords. At the end of the session he was still stoutly defending the position of the Commons on the jurisdiction of the Upper House, but he was named to the committee to prepare reasons for deferring further debate.7

Though Powle opposed Shaftesbury’s contention that Parliament was automatically dissolved by the long prorogation which followed, he was marked ‘doubly worthy’ in 1677. He spoke against the demand for parliamentary wages, and was named to the committee to bring in a bill to indemnify constituencies, which made little progress, though he was able to use the issue as one of the arguments against the enfranchisement of Newark by royal charter:

We are to consider what inconveniences might follow if there were left an indefinite power in the crown to make as many burgesses as it will. If need of a Popish Parliament, might not 50 boroughs be found made that are wholly influenced by Papists, and if 50 not enough, undoubtedly 100 such might be found? But what is bad in this case, I doubt ’twas a bargain beforehand. Kings may give a franchise, but not impose a burden or charge, and this, as to wages, is so.

When the Lords sent down a bill to confirm Atkyns and his father in their privilege of executing writs in the seven hundreds of Cirencester, Powle was the first to be appointed to the committee, which never reported. In the debate on expanding the fleet, he argued that ‘looking for alliances abroad is worth a hundred ships’, and that ‘the nation could not bear both a land tax and an excise duty’. Nevertheless he later managed a conference on the naval programme. In the debate on supply on 6 Mar. he said:

The best way for men to get into the right way when they have lost it, is to go back from whence they began. In 1669 the Triple Alliance was made and in 1670 there was a supply given to support that alliance, and when that Parliament was up there was a journey to Dover, and he fears we may date our misfortunes from thence.

A vigorous advocate of a new Anglo-Dutch alliance, he participated in the drafting of five addresses in this session, four of them on foreign policy. He reported the address and the conference on the danger from France, desired the Lords’ concurrence in the address for alliances, and was the first Member appointed to draw up the address promising assistance for a war. He took the chair for the address to request that Howard’s brother, the mad Duke of Norfolk, should be brought over from Italy. He protested against the adjournment of 28 May, but the Speaker declared that he must obey the King’s orders, secured the mace, and left the chamber.8

When Parliament met again on 28 Jan. 1678 Powle at once queried the legality of the adjournment. On the question of peace, he reported an address rejecting any treaty that failed to reduce France to her 1659 frontiers, and made hs opinion clear that the House should not vote supply until the contents of the treaties then being prepared were known. On 4 Feb., in the debate on the King’s answer to the address, he said that

these four years, addresses have been made to prevent the growing greatness of the French, and the ministers declare against him, and yet France grows great under these counsels. I fear some inclination is still amongst the ministers to France, and they have brought us to the brink of ruin. ... The apple of contention in the King’s message is as if the House had no interest to concern themselves in war and peace. ... The King may make war and peace, and the House may advise war and peace; and this might have been done sooner, if you, Mr Speaker, had not leaped out of the chair, and would not suffer gentlemen to speak, but adjourned the House. ... Now we are told, that here is a league offensive and defensive made with Holland, for preservation of Flanders. And money is called for to maintain that treaty, and we know not one word of it. Must we be kept thus in the dark?

On 9 Feb. he returned to the adjournment of the preceding spring, and, quoting many precedents from the Historical Collections of John Rushworth, asserted that the King could only ask the House to adjourn itself. He took time off from matters of high politics and diplomacy to manage a conference on the preservation of fishing, and to make three reports from committees concerned with protecting the woollen industry. He reported the addresses for a declaration of war on France and for the removal of counsellors, and on 2 May delivered a summary of existing treaties. When Parliament met again on 23 May he professed himself ‘amazed’ at the speech from the throne, which he interpreted as ‘an invective against what we have done’. He was at once instructed to inspect the Lords’ Journal, but it was not until 7 June that the speech was read in the House. Powle then proposed ‘something on our books to justify us’ against the charge of preventing the King from making war on France, but his resolution was rejected. He next turned his attention to the bill hindering Papists from sitting in Parliament and to the disbandment of the army, chairing three committees concerned with the arrears due to the forces and the army and navy estimates, and was named to the committees to manage the conference on disbandment and to prepare reasons for disagreeing with the Lords’ amendments.9

Initially a sceptic over the Popish Plot, Powle characteristically described it as a device of Danby’s to justify the maintenance of a standing army. But he later sought, however incoherently, to connect his two obsessions:

The Papists may say to the army, ‘Join with us and we’ll join with you’, and that must be the original of this same plot, and till you be free yourselves from the army there is the source of the plot.

He was on most of the committees connected with the plot, reporting on 7 Nov. the address for printing Coleman’s letters. He was also chairman of the committee to prepare for the conference with the Lords on the failure to issue commissions for administering the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, and on 12 Nov. stated that ‘you will never be free from plots till Whitehall be free from Papists’, adding that

I would address the King, that the oaths ... may be tendered to all persons within any of the King’s houses, unless to such persons [jeeringly] as are licensed by the Privy Council. By this means you will, in a great measure, take off the aspersion of this being a state plot.

He reported the address and conference about raising the militia. He was among those instructed to ask the King for specific charges against Ralph Montagu*, and to draw up the impeachment of Danby. Although he insisted that the charges should be ‘fairly debated’, he expressed dismay at the lord treasurer’s contention that he had only obeyed the royal command, arguing that under his patent he had no right ‘to meddle with foreign affairs’. By this time he was in touch with Barillon, who, impressed with his insistence on disbandment and his enmity to Danby, gave him a pension of £500 per annum. Powle’s last recorded speech in this Parliament was on 28 Dec., when he reported from the conference with the Lords on the disbandment bill. He had been named to 302 committees, showing particular skill in the preparation of addresses. More than 300 of his speeches were recorded and he acted as teller in six divisions.10

At the first general election of 1679 Powle was re-elected unopposed for Cirencester, and also stood for East Grinstead on the scot and lot franchise with the backing of Lady Dorset, whom he was to marry a few months later. He objected strenuously to the King’s rejection of Seymour, now Danby’s enemy, as Speaker, and was himself mentioned as a possible compromise candidate. On 19 Mar. he deplored the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament, ‘when the discovery of the plot and other things were almost brought to perfection’, and proposed a committee (to which he was appointed) ‘to search the Journals, and report how you left things, for the sake of some gentlemen who were not here the last Parliament’. He was also named to the committee of secrecy on the Plot, and took part in the proceedings against Danby, reporting the conference of 22 Mar. He would never agree, he said, that the fallen minister should ‘go away with life and fortune’, and helped to draw up the address for his apprehension. The East Grinstead election was decided in Powle’s favour on 7 Apr., but he opted to retain his other seat, thereby creating a vacancy for his ally Littleton. He was one of the opposition leaders appointed to the re-modelled Privy Council, to the satisfaction of the Duke of York, who wrote:

I am very glad to hear that Mr Powle is to be advanced, and truly I believe he will be firm for me, for I look on him as a man of honour.11

Although Powle continued to attack Danby and the legality of his pardon, his office caused some change in his attitude to the Court. On 24 Apr. he observed that ‘since I had the honour to be near the King, I cannot but observe that there never was a prince more inclinable to give his people satisfaction for the good of the nation’. He reported the conference on habeas corpus on 9 May. Although he had been classed as ‘worthy’ in Shaftesbury’s analysis of the House, on 11 May he expressed his doubts, citing many historical examples, whether an Act of Parliament would be effective in altering the succession, and pointed out the risk of civil war. He went on to outline possible safeguards should a Papist succeed.

If an Act of Parliament be made for securing a Parliament sitting at the death of the King, and for officers of state, bishops and judges to be left in office, I would trust to that. If the successor should be a Papist, sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.

He helped, however, to prepare the address promising revenge if the King should meet an unnatural death. Owing to the indisposition of Henry Coventry Powle had the thankless task of delivering the message from the King of 14 May asking for a supply to fit out a fleet, which he supported with the same ministerial arguments that he had himself attacked in the past. When the Opposition expressed their fears of misappropriation of any supply, Powle declared that he did not intend ‘to argue for miscarriage, which has been great and intolerable; ... but it is not your duty to leave the Crown in this misfortune’. At this point Brome Whorwood observed that Powle would have refused supply himself if he had not become a Privy Councillor. On the next day he urged that the second reading of the exclusion bill should be deferred, saying that ‘if we be too hasty in it, both we and our posterity may repent it’, and he voted accordingly. His last committee was that appointed to prepare an answer to the Lords concerning methods of proceedings in impeachments. Powle had been named to 41 committees and spoke on 52 occasions.12

In the second general election of 1679, the Sackville interest was not strong enough to carry East Grinstead for Powle, who finished a poor fourth in the poll, but he retained his seat at Cirencester. When it became clear that Charles did not intend that Parliament should meet in the winter of 1679-80 and that the Duke of York was to be recalled from Scotland, Powle was one of the four Privy Councillors who resigned on Shaftesbury’s advice. In July 1680 Barillon suggested to Louis XIV that Powle, having proved so useful in securing the fall of Danby, might be offered more money, and described him as an enemy of the Court and the ministers, whom he thought had cheated him.13

When Parliament met in October, Powle was again a candidate for the speakership, but William Williams was preferred. He attempted to speak in favour of supply, though with due caution, but was shouted down. He was appointed to the committees to inquire into abhorring and to draw up the address for preserving the Protestant religion. On 2 Nov. he was named to the committee to prepare the second exclusion bill, though he did not speak for it. He helped to manage a conference on the Irish Plot, and to draw up the answer to the King’s message insisting on the legal succession. He opposed the address for the removal of Halifax, admitting that he had advised the dissolution of the last Parliament, but ‘as to the prorogation, no man was more against it than this lord’. In the debate on the conduct of the judges, Powle mentioned the dismissal of those who had asserted the freedom of the press after the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament, and went on to say that:

There are two reasons for calling Parliaments: one for raising of money, the other for making laws. ... But if judges can be found to make new laws by their interpretation of old ones, and if treasurers can be found to make such retrenchments in the King’s family, you will never have a Parliament. By this, and turning out justices of the peace, you may see how necessary it is that the judges have their places quamdiu se bene gesserint.

In the debate on the disputed Amersham election, he said that ‘by common right’ all those paying scot and lot should vote, a franchise which, in fact, he had been instrumental in securing at East Grinstead in 1679. On 4 Dec. he helped to sum up the evidence against Lord Stafford. He was elected to the chair when the dangers from Popery and arbitrary power were referred to a committee of the whole House, and was among those appointed to bring in the bills recommended in the debate. He supported religious comprehension, though he would not make too many concessions to dissenters, preferring the unity of Protestants to uniformity. He also argued against the general naturalization of Protestants, fearing that ‘England may be filled with foreigners, to our destruction’, but was nevertheless appointed to the committee to bring in the bill. He was one of the leaders in the attack on Lord Chief Justice Scroggs and insisted that the word ‘traitorous’ be included in the impeachment. In this Parliament Powle had been named to 29 committees and was recorded as speaking on 18 occasions.14

In 1681 Powle was returned for Cirencester and also for East Grinstead on the interest of his wife, who had previously been promised the disposal of the seat by the electors. He was named to the elections committee and to that for the impeachment of Fitzharris. A leader of the ‘men of expedients’ as an alternative to exclusion, he said that:

I have always observed that the most deliberate proceedings have had the best success here and the best reputation abroad. ... For my share though I hear of expedients abroad, yet I cannot conceive that a title or name can destroy the nature of expedients. But the King, in his speech, has held you out a handle, etc., and I would not give those about the King occasion to say that this House is running into a break with him. I would pay the King all the respect in the world, and you cannot avoid setting a time apart to consider expedients and I would not mix anything with the debate that day ... I propose Saturday for that consideration.

But on the Saturday the House resolved to bring in the exclusion bill.15

In the following summer Powle’s chances of retaining his seat at Cirencester were considered doubtful, and he was reported to be making an interest at Windsor, near the family estate of White Waltham. But in 1685 he stood only for the former borough, and his petition never reached the House. He had survived the purge of the Gloucestershire commission of the peace, but was absent when the questions on the repeal of the Test Act and Penal Laws were put. Although listed by Danby among those ‘commoners in Parliament, most considerable for parts’, in opposition to James II, he was recommended to Lord Newburgh (Charles Livingstone) as court candidate for Cirencester, probably because of his opposition to exclusion.16

Actually Powle had become one of Bentinck’s correspondents by June 1688. He and Sir Robert Howard had ‘a long time in private with the Prince’ at Windsor on 16 Dec., and it is probable that plans for summoning a Parliament were discussed. On the next day they carried William’s letter to the corporation of London. On 26 Dec., at the suggestion of Thomas Pelham, Powle was elected chairman of the assembly of those Members who had sat in Charles II’s Parliaments, and he helped draft the address to William for a new Parliament. Powle was returned, after a contest, for Windsor, and unanimously elected Speaker in preference to Seymour. On 16 Dec. 1689 he presented the bill of rights to William and Mary. Having first drawn their attention to the grant of £2,000,000 by the Commons, he then proffered the

bill for declaring of their rights and liberties, which were so notoriously violated in the last reign; humbly desiring your Majesties to give life to it by the royal assent, that so it might remain, not only as a security to them from the like attempts hereafter, but be a lasting monument to all prosperity of what they owe your Majesty for their deliverance.

His name appears on the list of those who supported the disabling clause in the bill to restore corporations, though as Speaker he could not have voted in the divisions. But he frequently intervened in the debates from the chair, thereby displaying his grasp of parliamentary procedure. Although his Speakership was described by a Tory pamphleteer as ‘a calamity to the Convention’, the evidence does not indicate that he was unduly partisan.17

Powle was returned for Cirencester at the general election of 1690, but unseated on petition by John Grobham Howe II. He was not re-elected Speaker, but consoled with the much coveted post of master of the rolls. He died on 21 Nov. 1692 and was buried at Quenington. His Gloucestershire estates passed to his only daughter Katherine, whose husband, Henry Ireton, eldest son of the regicide, represented Cirencester as a court Whig in 1698.18

Powle was an able parliamentarian and an effective and often eloquent speaker. He vigorously supported the rights of the Commons against both the Lords and what he felt to be the misuse of the royal prerogative. In his attitude toward exclusion, however, he displayed caution and moderation, and it was only James’s excesses which drove him to support the alteration of the succession.

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: Basil Duke Henning

Notes

  • 1. The Gen. vii. 11, 13; Vis. Berks. (Harl. Soc. lvi), 265; W. R. Williams, Glos. MPs, 162; Glos. RO, D2440; Bristol and Glos. Arch. Soc. Trans. vi. 292-5; VCH Berks. iii. 166, 172, 181.
  • 2. Parl. Intell. 9 Apr. 1660; M. F. Redmond, ‘Borough of Tewkesbury, 1574-1714’ (Birmingham Univ. M.A. thesis, 1950), 53.
  • 3. Bowman diary, f. 65v.
  • 4.</