RUSSELL, Hon. William (1639-83), of Southampton House, Bloomsbury, Mdx. and Stratton, Hants.

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



17 Dec. 1661
Mar. 1679
Oct. 1679

Family and Education

b. 29 Sept. 1639, 2nd s. of Sir William Russell, 5th Earl of Bedford, and bro. of Hon. Edward Russell, Hon. James Russell and Hon. Robert Russell. educ. privately (John Thornton); Trinity Coll. Camb. 1654; travelled abroad (France, Switzerland, Germany) 1656-60. m. 31 July 1669, Lady Rachel Wriothesley (d. 29 Sept. 1723), da. and coh. of Thomas, 4th Earl of Southampton, wid. of Francis Vaughan, Lord Vaughan, 1s. 2da. styled Lord Russell 14 Jan. 1678.1

Offices Held

Dep. Lt. Beds. c. Aug. 1660-81, j.p. 1662-81; commr. for sewers, Bedford level 1662-3, conservator 1676-82, bailiff 1682-d.; commr. for assessment, Beds. and Bedford 1663-80, Hants 1673-80, Devon and Mdx. 1679-80; freeman, Bedford 1679.2

PC 22 Apr. 1679-31 Jan. 1680.


Russell’s earliest certain ancestor was Stephen Russell alias Gascoyne, MP for Weymouth in 1395. The family rose dramatically in the service of the early Tudors, acquiring a peerage and much monastic property in Bedfordshire, Devon and the fens. Russell’s father, the 5th Earl of Bedford, sat as an opponent of the Court in the Long Parliament both before and after succeeding to the peerage in 1641. He was made general of horse in the parliamentary army, but went over to the King in 1643. He returned to Westminster at the end of the year, and lived privately until the Restoration.3

Russell was educated by a Presbyterian tutor, and travelled abroad with his elder brother, who early in life became a hopeless invalid. Thus it was Russell who stood for the family borough of Tavistock at the general election of 1660. There was a contest and a double return, but his name was on both indentures and he took his seat. An inactive Member of the Convention, he was appointed only to two committees for the drainage of the fens, and to another for making the Covent Garden precinct, most of which belonged to his father, into a parish. Although he never visited Tavistock, he again contested the borough in 1661, and after another double return unseated Sir John Davie, 2nd Bt. on the merits of the election, but took little part in the opening sessions of the Cavalier Parliament. He paid several visits to the Continent, and was so far affected by Restoration standards of conduct as to become involved with his uncle John Russell in ‘affairs of honour’. On 9 July 1663 he undertook to the House neither to send a challenge to the 2nd Earl of Sunderland, who was trying to jilt his cousin, Lady Anne Digby, nor to receive one from him. Perhaps by reason of his intimacy with his uncle, who was colonel of the Guards, he was listed as a court dependant in 1664. After the death of another uncle (the father of Edward Russell), he was appointed to the committee on the bill for the sale of his house at Chiswick, and carried it to the Lords on 22 Jan. 1667. In the next session he acted for the first time as teller, joining with Lord St. John (Charles Powlett I) in opposing the nomination of Sir James Langham to the public accounts commission. In 1668 he was among those ordered to present the King with an address for the wearing of English manufactures, and acted as teller with his friend William, Lord Cavendish, in favour of the motion to appropriate part of the customs revenue to setting out the fleet.4

Russell’s wife brought him an estate of £3,000 p.a., and his father Settled £2,000 p.a. on him at his marriage. ‘He quickly got out of some of the disorders into which the Court had drawn him, and ever after that his life was unblemished in all respects.’ Sir Thomas Osborne listed him among the independent Members who usually voted for supply. In 1670 he was named to the committee for the estate bill promoted by Lord Strangford (Philip Smythe), once his travelling companion. When a servant of his was arrested, he claimed privilege; but three days later he asked the House to authorize the release of the culprits, who were very poor. Always the preux chevalier, he tried to bring Henry Savile to account for his behaviour to Lady Northumberland. ‘He had from his first education an inclination to favour the nonconformists, and wished the laws could have been made easier to them, or they more pliant to the law.’ On the bill of ease for dissenters in 1673 he was teller against the proposal to incapacitate them from sitting in the Commons. But it was his conviction that England was fighting on the wrong side in the third Dutch war that drove him into outright opposition. ‘He was a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment when he considered things at his own leisure.’ Perhaps through his wife’s Huguenot cousins, he learnt that Louis XIV was boasting of a Catholic triumph in the Netherlands, and when the House went into committee on supply on 3 Oct. 1673 he opened the debate with a forthright denial:

Would rather be thought to mean well and speak ill than to betray the trust of his country. Would not vote things hand over head; let us consider what we give this money for, and consider that what we give is destructive to the nation by maintaining this war, and [to] the Protestant religion.

He was included in that group of the country party anxious to make a clean sweep of the remainder of the Cabal, whom he described as

the ill ministers about the King, that prorogued the Parliament; stopped the proceedings of the courts of justice; broke articles, in that attack of the Smyrna fleet; shut up the Exchequer, have pensions from France, and accuse us of being pensioners to Holland.

He was particularly severe on the Duke of Buckingham, at whose house, he said, there met ‘a knot of persons ... who have neither morality nor Christianity, who turn our Saviour and Parliaments into ridicule, and contrive prorogations’. In the 1674 session he was appointed to the committees to devise a test to distinguish between Protestants and Papists and to consider a bill to prevent illegal exactions. He denounced the new-raised forces as a grievance, ‘and he would take care for the future that no army be raised for a cabal interest. ... This government with a standing army can never be safe; we cannot be secure in this House’, he added prophetically, ‘and some of us may have our heads taken off.’5

The new Anglican and Gallophobe administration was no more to Russell’s taste than the Cabal, and when Parliament met for the spring session of 1675 he opposed a vote of thanks for the King’s speech, both in debate and division, and moved for the dismissal and impeachment of Osborne, now Lord Treasurer Danby, who, he said, had ‘acted in a high and arbitrary manner, and disposed of the treasure as he pleased, and has publicly declared at the Treasury that a new proclamation is as good as an old law’. He helped to draw up the address for the removal of Lauderdale and to consider the bill for hindering Papists from sitting in Parliament. In the autumn session he informed the House of a challenge given to Cavendish by a Roman Catholic and of the intimidation of a French convert to Protestantism by a Jesuit. In addition to the usual measures against the Roman Catholics, he was named to the inquiry into dangerous books and to the committee to prevent illegal imprisonment. In the debate on building warships, he acted as teller for the proposal to lodge the revenue raised for this purpose in the chamber of London, instead of the Treasury. During the long recess which followed, Sir Richard Wiseman expressed the hope that Russell’s brother-in-law, William Alington, Lord Alington, and Edward Noel, with whom he had divided the Wriothesley estate, ‘might do some good with him’. But when the House met again in 1677 he earned the grading of ‘thrice worthy’ by Shaftesbury by moving that the King should be asked to dissolve Parliament. He also helped to consider the bill for the recall of British subjects from the French service and brought in a petition from the hackney coachmen about the abuses of the licensing commission.6

It was at this period that Russell transferred his political allegiance once for all to Shaftesbury, whom, after a vain application on 20 Feb., he visited three times in the Tower during his imprisonment. It was perhaps Shaftesbury’s influence that was responsible for the one underhand action of Russell’s life, his negotiations with his wife’s cousin, Ruvigny, in the spring of 1678. Ralph Montagu wrote from the Paris embassy that Russell was expected to introduce Ruvigny ‘into a great commerce with the malcontented Members of Parliament’. Russell admitted that ‘he and all his friends wanted nothing further than the dissolution of Parliament’, but when the French envoy suggested bribery, Russell replied coldly ‘that he should be very sorry to have any commerce with persons capable of being gained by money’. But he offered to modify the Test Act if the Duke of York would co-operate in securing the removal of Danby. On 21 Mar. he was added to the committee to estimate the yield of a tax on new buildings, but his request to be heard by counsel, no doubt with regard to his wife’s Bloomsbury property, was rejected. Denouncing ‘the foolery or knavery of some councillors’, he remarked in the debate of 7 May: ‘when the confederates were weary of the war, then we must come up to it, but not before’. His belief in the Popish Plot was fortified by a foolish brag of Coleman’s, when visiting Woburn. He was appointed to the committee of inquiry, and helped to consider the bill hindering Papists from sitting in Parliament, and to translate Coleman’s letters. ‘In a style beyond his way of speaking’, and presumably provided by Shaftesbury, he proposed on 4 Nov. an address for the removal of the Duke of York from Court:

We have hitherto done nothing for the safety of religion, but only in one bill (viz. that against Papists sitting in Parliament), which obliquely indeed does that which we all aim at. But ’tis below a Parliament [not] to speak plainly in matters of highest importance. ’Twas plain all our dangers proceeded from the Duke of York, who is perverted to Popery, and from him only. I have as great respect for the Duke as any man, for he is a prince of eminent virtue, great courage, and many signal qualities; but all that did but enhance our dangers.

He admitted that Montagu, his neighbour in Bloomsbury, had divulged to him some of the contents of his instructions from Danby, and was among those sent to fetch the papers. When the Government countered by producing Montagu’s dispatches about Ruvigny’s mission, Russell replied: ‘I defy any man alive to charge me with any dealings with the French. My actions here have given sufficient testimony to the converse.’ In the sense of financial dealings this was in fact true, on Ruvigny’s own showing, but it was none the less disingenuous, and Silius Titus rightly commented that later generations might find his conduct harder to understand than those who knew Russell personally. His standing in the House was so high that the damaging passages were not entered in the Journals, and the Government derived no benefit from the revelations. Despite his prominence in the later sessions Russell was not an active Member of the Cavalier Parliament; he was appointed to only 51 committees, acted as teller in six divisions, and made 21 speeches.7

Russell sat in the Exclusion Parliaments for Bedfordshire. He defeated Thomas Bruce, Lord Bruce, at the general election of February 1679, and was marked ‘worthy’ on Shaftesbury’s list. A moderately active Member of the first Exclusion Parliament, he made four speeches and was appointed to as many committees. He carried to the King the address of 8 Mar. about the choice of a Speaker, but was ‘grown sufficiently moderate’ to propose the selection of a third candidate as the solution to the deadlock a week later:

My lord Russell broke the ice, took notice of the difficulties they had hitherto been involved in, the proper expedient the King had contrived to extricate them out, and that now he conceived their proper work was to choose their Speaker, and proposed one Serjeant [William] Gregory as a proper person for that employment.

He was appointed to the committee for the attainder of Danby, and carried up the impeachment of the five Popish lords. He told the House on 27 Apr.:

If we do not something relating to the succession, we must resolve when we have a prince of the popish religion to be Papists or burn, and I will do neither. ... I have abbey lands, but I protest before God and man I could not be more against Popery than I am, had. I none. I despise such a ridiculous and nonsensical religion. ... In the last Parliament I moved something of this nature, which was not a House to do great things; but I hope this House will neither be bribed, corrupted, cajoled nor feasted.

He was sent to desire the concurrence of the Lords in the consequent resolution declaring the Duke of York’s religion the greatest encouragement to the Popish Plot. As a Privy Councillor he pointed out the necessity of supply to pay the seamen; but he voted for exclusion, and in the Council he attacked Lauderdale for provoking the rising of the Covenanters. When the King announced his intention of dissolving Parliament, ‘my lord Russell said that he was afraid the first vote of the next Parliament would be to declare such as gave this advice enemies of his Majesty and the kingdom’.8

Russell was re-elected for Bedfordshire in the autumn, and also, on the initiative of St. John (now Marquess of Winchester), defeated Noel for Hampshire, though ‘at a great distance and knowing nothing of the matter’. In January 1680 the King gave him leave ‘with all my heart’ to resign from the Privy Council, but he was not immediately removed from local office. With the unusual distinction of representing two counties in the second Exclusion Parliament, until he chose to sit for Bedfordshire, he was one of the few old Members able to command a hearing. As Shaftesbury’s lieutenant in the Commons, and virtually leader of the House, he was naturally more active than previously, with fourteen committee appointments and sixteen speeches. His authority was sufficient to ensure the unanimous choice of William Williams as Speaker, though Henry Powle and others were candidates for the post. He was the first appointed to the committee to draft the second exclusion bill, which he introduced on 4 Nov. In grand committee after the second reading he offered a proviso that the bill should apply only to the Duke of York, and not to his heirs. The Duke was told that, having got the bill into his hands, ‘his impetuous temper and exceeding ardour on this occasion hurried him on with such violence that he ran away with it in spite of all opposition’, and carried it to the Lords, as he had been ordered. Alarmed at the danger from ‘conniving Protestants dismissing of juries when the matters relating to Popery are depending, and countenancing of abhorring petitions’, he demanded the punishment of Jeffreys and helped to draw up the address. In the debate on Tangier on 17 Nov. he declared:

Giving of money for support of Tangier is giving of money for Popery, as the chief person that manages affairs is a Papist and a slave to the Pope, and as there are 63 against 31 for throwing out the bill in the Lords’ House. If my father had been one of the 63, I should have thought him an enemy to the King and kingdom. And now to talk of Tangier, when the kingdom is sinking!

Despite his indignation at the rejection of exclusion by the Lords, he remained silent during the debate on Halifax. But on 23 Nov. he produced witnesses from the Middlesex grand jury against Lord Chief Justice Scroggs, and was appointed to the committee of inquiry into the proceedings of the judges; and on the following day, after a long silence, he opened the attack on Sir Francis North. He was involved with Montagu and Titus in abortive negotiations with the Government about this time, and was reported to have been offered the governorship of Portsmouth; but after the Christmas recess he helped to draw up reasons for a conference on the Irish plot, and on 7 Jan. 1681 he advised the House ‘to stick to the bill, as our only security, and to brand those that have hindered it from passing’. On the same day he urged the dismissal of Laurence Hyde with the words, ‘I cannot think but, considering his relation to the Duke, that it is not safe he should be in the Council’.9

In the Oxford Parliament Russell was among those ordered to draw up the impeachment of Fitzharris. He seconded the exclusion bill, explaining that in so doing he was following the instructions of his Bedfordshire constituents as well as his own opinion, and was appointed to the committee. He was among those who visited William of Orange in the summer, and stood security for Shaftesbury in November. He was condemned to death for complicity in the Rye House Plot, though he admitted only to failure to give information of the designs of Sir Thomas Armstrong, and executed on 21 July 1683. Burnet, who attended him in his death cell, wrote:

Lord Russell was a man of great candour and of a general reputation, universally beloved and trusted, [and] of a generous and obliging temper. He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness that I never knew any man who had so entire a credit in the nation as he had. ... His understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent that they would have more than balanced real defects.

Bruce, his political opponent, admitted that he was ‘the best of husbands, of fathers, of sons, and of masters’, while the judicious Sir William Temple described him as ‘an honest, worthy gentleman without tricks or private ambition, and ... known to venture as great a stake as any subject of England’. The attainder was reversed after the Revolution, and his father raised to the dukedom in recognition of his services. His family remained the chief pillar of the Whigs, though owing to a series of premature deaths it was not until 1761 that they again sat for Bedfordshire.10

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: Leonard Naylor


  • 1. J. H. Wiffen, Hist. Mems. House of Russell, ii. 210-11; G. Scott Thomson, Russells in Bloomsbury, 13.
  • 2. S. Wells, Drainage of Bedford Level, i. 350, 461-3; C. F. Farrar, Old Bedford, 198-9.
  • 3. G. Scott Thomson, Two Centuries of Fam. Hist. 65; Keeler, Long Parl. 329-30.
  • 4. CSP Dom. 1655; p. 153; CJ, viii. 3, 251, 334; ix. 36, 92; North, Examen, 381.
  • 5. Russells in Bloomsbury, 14, 17, 58-59; Burnet, ii. 91; CJ, ix. 163, 165, 266; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxii), 68-69; Williamson Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. ix), 22; Grey, ii. 198, 227, 256, 393.
  • 6. Dering Pprs. 59; CJ, ix. 315, 364; Grey, iii. 41, 419-20; iv. 71; Bulstrode, 316; Add. 28091, f. 39v.
  • 7. CSP Dom. 1676-7, p. 564; 1677-8, pp. 267, 269; 1678, p. 159; Browning, Danby, ii. 319, 325; Dalrymple, Mems. i. 185; Clarke, Jas. II, i. 513; CJ, ix. 461; Ailesbury, Mems. 27; Bodl. Carte 72, f. 403; Finch diary, 4 Nov. 1678; Grey, vi. 347, 360.
  • 8. HMC Ormonde n.s. iv. 315, 347, 356, 357, 531; CJ, ix. 587, 605; Grey, vii. 147-8, 276; North, 79.
  • 9. HMC 13th Rep. VI, 21, North, 80; HMC Ormonde, n.s. v. 271, 456, 467, 562; K. H. D. Haley, Shaftesbury, 599; Grey, vii. 358, 418, 431, 460-1; viii. 13, 53, 67, 188, 262, 281; Clarke, Jas. II, i. 616-17; CJ, ix. 651, 653, 661; Burnet, ii. 260.
  • 10. Grey, viii. 310; CJ, ix. 711; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vi. 114; Luttrell, i. 147; Burnet, ii. 91, 350-1; Ailesbury, 72; Temple, Works, i. 352.