PRYNNE, William (c.1602-69), of Swainswick, nr. Bath, Som. and Lincoln's Inn.
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Family and Education
b. c.1602, 1st s. of Thomas Prynne of Swainswick by 2nd w. Mary, da. of William Sherston† of Bath. educ. Bath g.s. 1614-18; Oriel, Oxf. matric. 24 Apr. 1618, aged 16, BA 1621; L. Inn 1621, called 1628. unm. suc. fa. 1620.2
Commr. for public accounts 1644, obstructions 1648; bencher, L. Inn 1648, treas. 1657-8, reader 1662; keeper of the records Aug. 1660-d.; commr. for disbandment Sept. 1660-1, excise appeals Oct. 1660-d.; elder bro. Trinity House Nov. 1660-d.; commr. for maimed soldiers Dec. 1660-1; chairman, committee of ways and means 10-11 June 1661, 3-13 July 1663; commr. for Chatham chest 1662-d.3
Commr. for assessment, Som. 1644-8, Aug. 1660-d., Bath 1663-d.; visitor, Oxf. Univ. 1647; recorder, Bath 1647-52, 1661-2, Mar. 1669-d.; j.p. Som. by 1647-8, Mar. 1660-d.; elder, Bath classis 1648; commr. for sewers, Som. Aug. 1660.4
Prynne was the great-grandson of a Bristol merchant of Shropshire origins. His father settled in Swainswick in the last decade of the 16th century, and farmed the demesne as tenant of Oriel. Prynne became a learned lawyer and the most prolific writer of the century. A stream of vituperative puritan pamphlets earned him a savage punishment at the hands of the hangman in 1637, and the status of a popular hero. During the Civil War he continued to produce publicity for the parliamentary cause, and bears the chief responsibility for the condemnation of Archbishop Laud; but Independency and levelling were as unacceptable to him as episcopacy. He advocated a settlement with the King in 1648, and was roughly handled by the soldiers when he resisted seclusion at Pride’s Purge. He was imprisoned for three years without trial under the Rump, but during the Protectorate he was not molested, despite his constant pamphlet attacks on the regime and suspicions of correspondence with the Royalists. On the return of the secluded Members, he provided comic relief by tripping up Sir William Waller I with his old-fashioned basket-hilt sword, and appeared as an open advocate of a Restoration.5
At the general election of 1660 Prynne was invited to stand for no less than nine constituencies, but refused all of them except for Bath and Ludgershall, where he probably owed his seat to the influence of his fellow-Presbyterians, Edward Massey and Silius Titus, with the Roman Catholic Brownes of Shefford. He was returned for the Wiltshire borough on both indentures but opted for Bath, where he had been elected unopposed in his absence on the corporation interest. He was marked as a friend on Lord Wharton’s list, though he was exceeded by none in his zeal for the monarchy. Probably the most active Member of the Convention, he was named to 132 committees and made some 90 recorded speeches. He was sent to thank the conformable Presbyterian Dr Reynolds for his sermon at the opening of Parliament. He told the House of foreign agents, presumably French, with £20,000 at their disposal to obstruct a Restoration. As chairman of the committee for examinations, he was chiefly responsible for preserving the records of the trial of Charles I. He served on the committee for the indemnity bill, and reported from those that drafted the bill to confirm parliamentary privileges and the proclamation ordering the regicides to give themselves up. Contrary to the order of the House, he undertook to select nine of them for the death penalty. He also ‘fell very severely’ on Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper for his part in framing the Instrument of Government. On 9 June he produced a list of the members of the high court of justice who had sat on the earlier days of the King’s trial, and he spoke seven times on 18 June alone to propose exceptions from the indemnity bill. He was for disabling the decimators, major-generals and abjurors, as well as all the King’s judges, and would deny the benefit of the bill to those who refused the oaths of allegiance and supremacy; but he proposed that pardons under the great seal should not be required by the bill because of their cost. On 30 June he ‘produced an old proclamation never printed for the reading the Common Prayer and the new book of thanksgiving, and moved against such innovations’; and for the next three weeks he was primarily concerned with the religious issue. He was for the second reading of the bill to maintain the true Protestant reformed religion, but despite his professed reverence for the Thirty-Nine Articles, he would not have them inserted in it. A resolute Erastian, he ‘very earnestly and passionately’ insisted that the decisions of a synod must be confirmed by King and Parliament, and ‘he could not be for bishops unless they derive their power from the King, and not own themselves to be iure divino’. He was in favour of separating questions of doctrine and discipline, and on 20 July urged that the committee should not meet again till further order. A week later he introduced the bill to settle ecclesiastical livings, and complained of legislation held up in the House of Lords, especially the bill against Popish priests and Jesuits. Nevertheless, he was against imposing double taxation on recusants. He brought in a bill for restoring the dukedom of Somerset to the Marquess of Hertford, who controlled the other Ludgershall seat, and on 11 Aug. he reported amendments to two bills, one for celebrating the anniversary of the Restoration, the other to confirm college leases, such as that under which his own property was held. This matter continued to occupy him for most of the month, but he was still able to pronounce on the two political matters that concerned him most deeply, the religious settlement and retribution on the regicides. ‘’Twas a scandal to our religion’, he declared, ‘to have the ministers that were ordained by presbyters to be re-ordained by bishops’. After the conference on the indemnity bill, he reminded the House that he had been for excepting all the regicides from the first, and remained of the same opinion:
An we did not, we should be all guilty of the King’s blood, they being such horrid traitors as never yet were known ... Our oaths bound us more than our votes, which we alter daily.
Charles II ‘of his own mere motion’ appropriately rewarded Prynne with the keepership of the records. Though his salary of £500 p.a. was seldom paid, and the conditions in the Tower were appallingly dirty and unhealthy, he laboured with indefatigable zest, overwhelming visitors with his old-fashioned Jacobean courtesy. When Parliament met again after the recess, he was ‘ordered to take care’ of the marital separation bill, which, as a lifelong bachelor, he could not be persuaded to take seriously. On 16 Nov. he reported progress on the excise bill, presumably with regret, for he ‘inveighed passionately’ against the injustice of transferring to consumers in general the burden previously borne only by tenants-in-chief. Wharton sent him a copy of the case for modified episcopacy, and in the debate on the bill to give statutory effect to the Worcester House declaration, he exclaimed: ‘What a wonder it would be, after they had given the King thanks, to throw out the bill!’. A strong humanitarian streak found expression in his appointment to the commission for sick and maimed soldiers and his persistent efforts on behalf of English slaves in North Africa. His only tellership in the Convention was against Lord Arundell of Wardour’s bill on 17 Dec. During the debate on compensation for officials of the court of wards, he ‘moved jestingly that every man then should be recompensed’.7
Prynne accepted the invitation of the mayor of Bath to stand again in 1661, but although two-thirds of the corporation voted for him, another indenture was sent up in the name of the freemen. He was seated on the merits of the return, and became again a very active Member. Though the debates in the opening sessions of the Cavalier Parliament were seldom recorded, it cannot be doubted that he remained a frequent and copious speaker. In seven sessions he was appointed to 396 committees, for 19 of which he took the chair, and he acted as teller in three divisions. Though Wharton no longer relied on Prynne’s support, he ostentatiously refused to kneel to receive the sacrament with the other Members, opposed a vote of thanks to Dr Gunning for an aggressively Anglican sermon, and bitterly attacked the bill to restore the bishops to the House of Lords. Nevertheless, he was one of those appointed to thank the high churchman Dr Peirce for his sermon on the anniversary of the Restoration (29 May), and on 11 June he was ordered to ask Dr Earle to preach on a fast day to pray for better weather, and afterwards to thank him. He regarded the corporations bill as giving far too much power to the commissioners. He not only attempted to add a proviso and acted as teller against the third reading, but published an anonymous pamphlet charging those borough Members who had voted for it with perjury. He served on the committee for the bill of pains and penalties against the regicides, and chaired the grand committee on the voluntary present to the King. But in his report on the final disbandment of the New Model Army he infuriated the Cavaliers by desiring them to be mindful not to do those things that might bring the soldiers together again. Swift retribution followed; four days later, with tears in his eyes, he was compelled to admit authorship of the offending pamphlet on the corporations bill. The Speaker told him that he deserved to have all his former sufferings renewed, but after a speech of humble submission, ‘with much ingenuity and reverence of the House’, he escaped with a severe reprimand. On the next day his report on the perjury bill, including several amendments and a proviso, was accepted without a division, and on 29 July he helped to manage a conference on censorship. But the proceedings over the pamphlet had been ordered to be published, and his humiliation could not be concealed from his local antagonists. After the corporation of Bath had again chosen him as recorder, he visited his constituency for the first time for two years. In a turbulent municipal election an old Cavalier told him that ‘he deserved to lose his head where he lost something else’, and alleged that he was ‘the first that moved for excise in the House of Commons’. ‘A most notorious falsity’, commented the town clerk fairly enough, though Prynne’s report on the progress of the bill in 1660 and his appointment as sinecure commissioner of excise appeals may have given currency to the scandal. When Parliament reassembled after the autumn recess, he was appointed to the committee for the execution of those under attainder, and instructed to take care of the Lords’ proviso reserving their privilege in the bill against Quakers, which he considered ambiguous in its definition of conventicles. On 19 May 1662 he reported a conference with the Lords on the highways bill. It was probably during this session that he initiated the attack on William Coventry for selling posts in the navy, which was to be followed up later. Although he gave the King £100 from the corporation as a wedding present, and seems to have, enjoyed the royal favour, the commissioners removed him from his recordership in October.8
In 1663 Prynne was voted into the chair of the committee of the whole House both for the subsidy and the militia bills. He was listed as a court dependant in 1664, and received his first payment of salary. He spoke ‘most desperately’ for the repeal of the Triennial Act, which he described as ‘insufferable and dishonourable to the nation’. Probably under the influence of Tillotson, he accepted the new latitudinarian Anglicanism, and was appointed to the committee for the conventicles bill. He took the chair for a Lords’ bill to simplify legal procedure in the Exchequer. But on 13 May the House was informed that Prynne had after commitment and without authority altered the text of the bill to prevent abuses in the sale of wine, beer and ale. Thanks to the King’s personal intervention with the Speaker, ‘this great mistake in so ancient and knowing a Member’ was punished only with another reprimand. In the next session he was given special responsibility for the inquiry into the loyal and indigent officers fund, and on 2 Mar. 1665 he reported the King’s assent to a national day of prayer for victory over the Dutch. In the Oxford session he steered two more minor legal reforms through committee, and took the chair also for the bill to attaint English officers in the Dutch service. On 28 Oct. he was sent to ask the King for a commission of inquiry into the administration of the Chatham chest, though as a commissioner he could only hint at abuses. During the last session of the Clarendon administration he made six speeches, introduced bills to banish Popish recusants and abolish marriage licences, both rejected on the first reading, and reported the articles of Lord Mordaunt’s impeachment. He was also chairman of the inquiry into rising fuel prices, and acted as teller against hearing the petition from the merchants trading to France. When a Roman Catholic chapel was discovered in Bath about this time, Prynne wrote a threatening letter which ignored the danger from the fanatics and inspired a friend of Evelyn’s to remark: ‘He can find high treason in a bulrush and innocence in a scorpion’.9
Prynne was a strong partisan of Clarendon, whose downfall, like Raleigh’s, he ascribed to foreign intrigue. He was appointed to the committee of inquiry into the miscarriages of the second Dutch war (17 Oct. 1667); but for the next few weeks he was fully occupied with measures to correct the woodmongers’ abuses, limit the grant of writs of certiorari, and abolish pluralism. In the impeachment debates, he ridiculed the charge of treason over the sale of Dunkirk, to which the King had been privy, and denied that there was a sufficient ground for imprisonment. He helped to draw up reasons for a conference on 16 Nov., but opposed asking for another conference ten days later. He declared the banishment bill contrary to Magna Carta, in condemning a man unheard, and reminded the House that Cicero’s banishment had earned him more honour than those who had imposed the penalty. Nevertheless he was appointed to the committee for the bill. At a later stage he pointed out that ministers, like Parliaments, might be fallible without being criminal. He took the chair in a committee to inquire into procedure, which resulted in the adoption of stricter standing orders on money bills to prevent snap decisions. In a debate on religion on 11 Mar. 1668 he declared himself
for taking away the causes of separation; and the vacancy of many churches was the main cause, for some churches not having any ministers, the people took a liberty to go where they had a fancy; and therefore moved that painful ministers might be put into such churches.
On the embezzlement of prize goods he moved to impeach all the flag officers who had advised Lord Sandwich (Edward Montagu I) to break bulk, and was appointed to the committee to draw up the charges against one of them, (Sir) William Penn. His researches had given him a high opinion of the powers of the House of Lords, for which he argued ‘poorly and impertinently against reason’ in Skinner’s case. When John Vaughan complained that some Members had carried up precedents to the Upper House, ‘Mr Prynne made a present reply by way of clearing himself, which did bring him to a suspicion of guilt’. With this, the last of his 18 speeches in the session, his parliamentary career closed in anti-climax; but this did not apply to his relations with his constituency. After securing the transfer of the quarter sessions from Taunton to Bath, he was again restored to his recordership in March 1669. When Parliament reassembled on 19 Oct. he was too ill to attend, and he died in his chambers five days later. He was buried in the chapel of Lincoln’s Inn, to which he bequeathed his historical manuscripts, consisting chiefly of transcripts from the public records, while many of his books went to Oriel.10
Francis Finch rightly considered Prynne more notable for learning and industry than for judgment, and told Samuel Pepys in 1666 that ‘the House doth not lay much weight upon him or anything he says’. No other Member in this period had the misfortune to incur two formal reprimands. On the other hand, it is clear that he drafted, and perhaps originated, a large quantity of legislation, both in the Convention and Cavalier Parliament, even if his measures were sometimes ‘full of dirty guage’. But he was unquestionably of more significance as antiquary and publicist than as parliamentarian.11
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Authors: M. W. Helms / Irene Cassidy
- 1. Secluded at Pride’s Purge, 6 Dec. 1648, readmitted 21 Feb. 1660.
- 2. R. E. M. Peach, Annals of Swainswick, 32, 48, 58-59; Vis. Som. ed. Weaver, 126.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1660-1, p. 308; Cal. Treas. Bks. i. 75; CJ, viii. 154, 213; Pepys Diary, 13 Nov. 1662.
- 4. Q. Sess. Recs. (Som. Rec. Soc. xxviii), 45; Prynne, County of Som. Divided into Classes (1648), 5; Bath corp. mss, list of recorders.
- 5. Peach, 33-36; D. Underdown, Pride’s Purge, 139, 144; Aubrey, Lives, ii. 175; Verney Mems. ii. 159.
- 6. Prynne, Brevia Parliamentaria Rediviva, 332; Cal. Cl. SP, iv. 661; CJ, viii. 1, 27, 52, 57, 104; Voyce