ASGILL, John (1659-1738), of London
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
bap. 25 Mar. 1659, 2nd s. of Edward Asgill of Hanley Castle, Worcs. by his w. Hester. educ. M. Temple 1686, called 1692. m. Jane (d. 1708), da. of Sir Nicholas Browne, s.p.1
Asst. R. Corp. of Eng. 1691, Merchant Adventurers’ Co. 1691; commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696.2
MP [I] 21 Sept.–11 Oct. 1703.
Asgill, a prolific pamphleteer of eccentric views, trained as a lawyer. After qualifying, he quickly achieved success through the patronage of Robert Eyre*, and became a friend and legal adviser to Nicholas Barbon*, the builder and speculator. He and Barbon established a land bank in 1695, which the following year joined with John Briscoe’s similar venture to advance to the Crown, a loan of £2,564,000, needed to establish a national land bank. He was a subscriber to the national bank and acted as its legal adviser, being one of the commissioners who negotiated with the Treasury. The scheme collapsed in June when the bank and the Treasury failed to agree terms, but Barbon and Asgill’s enterprise continued to operate for another four years, despite increasing difficulties. Asgill justified the need for such an institution in a pamphlet entitled Several Assertions Proved in Order to Create Another Species of Money than Gold or Silver published in 1696, in which he advocated the creation of a new type of currency. Barbon died greatly in debt in 1698, naming Asgill as one of his executors. His death further weakened the bank, which finally collapsed in January 1700, when the Flying Post carried a notice that the trustees would be dividing the remaining effects. All this, and the growing confusion of Asgill’s own affairs, made another of Barbon’s legacies more welcome. Barbon had owned 16 burgages at Bramber, which Asgill evidently retained, as he was returned at a by-election there in 1699, thereby protecting himself from prosecution while the bank was wound up, and he doubtless hoped to use his seat to advance his legal career. An analysis of the House of January–May 1700, classifying Members into ‘interests’, listed Asgill with the Junto, but he was not an active Member, his own complicated concerns no doubt taking precedence over Commons’ business.3
In June 1700 Asgill published a pamphlet in which he argued that true Christians had recovered in Christ all that they had lost in Adam and since natural death was the result of Adam’s sin, believers were rendered immortal by Christ and could be ‘translated’ into eternal life without the necessity of dying first. He was henceforward named ‘translation Asgill’. The pamphlet caused a stir and had unforeseen consequences for its author. Two months after its publication Bishop Burnet ordered the confiscation of all unsold copies, ‘as containing things of dangerous consequence’ and Defoe wrote a reply, ‘An Enquiry into the Case of Mr Asgill’s Translation: Shewing that ’Tis Not a Nearer Way to Heaven than the Grave’, which he suppressed before publication, probably after reading a piece of doggerel ‘The Way to Heaven in a String’, which questioned Asgill’s seriousness. Many contemporaries considered Asgill’s pamphlet a joke.4
Meanwhile Asgill had decided to try his fortunes in Ireland, where the Forfeited Estates Act provided much work for an energetic lawyer. At first he prospered, amassing a fortune of, it was alleged, £10,000. He returned to England at least twice in 1701 to fight two unsuccessful elections at Bramber in February and November, finally succeeding in regaining the seat in 1702. But his main interests at this time remained in Ireland, where in 1703 he bought the forfeited estates of Sir Nicholas Browne (2nd Viscount Kenmare in the Jacobite peerage), who was living abroad in exile, for the term of Kenmare’s life. He himself had married Kenmare’s eldest daughter, who had been brought up as a Protestant. Over the following years his mismanagement of the properties, selling off leases at too low a price, double-letting and using the property as security for his increasingly shaky credit, ruined him and almost ruined the Browne family, and from 1708 onwards he was involved in innumerable lawsuits, not least with Anthony Hammond*, the trustee for Kenmare’s children. At this time he was also acting as agent for the Hollow Sword Blades Company, a London corporation set up to buy Irish land cheaply from the trustees for forfeited estates. To further the company’s interests, he secured his election to the Irish house of commons and on 9 Oct. 1703 presented a petition from the Company to be allowed to establish a credit in Ireland of £300,000, to be lent out at 6 per cent interest. Irish MPs showed considerable enthusiasm, but his parliamentary career in Ireland ended two days later. On the first day of the session, 25 Sept., Asgill’s tract on death and translation had been brought before the Dublin house of commons when it had been voted ‘wicked and blasphemous’ and ordered to be burnt by the common hangman. Asgill made his defence on 11 Oct. and at first, it was reported to Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†),
the character of the man and his generosity in his profession, together with several useful proposals he has for the improvement of the country, did at one time, seem to dispose the house very much to bring him off, or at least let the matter drop.
But when two pious members ‘exposed the many indecent expressions in that book’, he was expelled. On 10 Nov. a complaint by Anthony Hammond was heard against him. Hammond claimed that, while acting as a trustee for the Browne family, he had employed Asgill and that Asgill had then acted improperly in purchasing the Kenmare estates for himself, but the house acquitted him of a breach of trust.5
In England, Asgill was named as absent on 25 Nov. 1704, when the House took notice that he had not attended the Commons during this Parliament and decided to consider his case in a fortnight’s time. Despite this threat, which in fact appears not to have been carried out, Asgill became only marginally more active: he was listed as voting against the Tack or absent on 28 Nov. and in February 1705 reported on a petition from the Hollow Sword Blades Company. Successful for Bramber in 1705, he was classed as a ‘Churchman’ in a list of the new Parliament, voted for the Court candidate for Speaker on 25 Oct., spoke twice for the Court on the regency bill in December and January, and was named in the list of those supporting the Court in the proceedings on the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill on 18 Feb. 1706. He also pushed through the House a bill granting him extra time in which to make the third and last payment for the Kenmare estates. On 7 Feb. 1706 the bishop of Salisbury moved to defeat this bill in the Lords because of Asgill’s peculiar religious beliefs, ‘but several noble lords observing that his family ought not to suffer for such a fault, ’twas ordered a second reading’. The bill received the Royal Assent on 16 Feb. On 4 Mar. Asgill spoke against the bill to prevent the growth of popery, on the grounds that it would offend England’s Catholic allies and appear to condone persecution of Protestants in France.6
During the prorogation, in the summer of 1707, three of Asgill’s creditors obtained a judgment against him for a debt of nearly £10,000. He was arrested on 12 June and imprisoned in the Fleet. As soon as Parliament reassembled he wrote to the Speaker claiming his continued detention was a breach of privilege. A committee was set up on 10 Nov. 1707 to consider the complaint and to study precedents, and reported five days later. Because his opponents were at the same time attempting to raise the question of his pamphlet on death and translation, with a view to his eventual expulsion, consideration of the report was adjourned from 20 Nov. until the 25th when it was ordered to be recommitted. On the same day the complaint that his book was blasphemous was raised in the House and referred to a committee of inquiry. Edward Harley, a former associate in Barbon’s land bank, presented the report on 29 Nov., but consideration was postponed until 9 Dec., when, according to James Vernon I,
We sat till six to-night, because we had a long debate about Mr Asgill’s report; some were for proceeding immediately to censure his book, others for delaying it till he could be heard according to his desire by letter, and, therefore, pressed that the matter of his privilege might be first determined, which was carried upon a division of 161 against 154.
Following this decision, the report on his privilege complaint was considered on 16 Dec., and upheld, resulting in an order for his release. He took his place in the House on 18 Dec. to defend himself against the charge of blasphemy, but failed and the book was ordered to be burnt by the common hangman. A motion to adjourn, presumably to give him time to escape the country, was then moved, but lost by 165 votes to 109. Without further delay he was expelled, although his name appears on one further parliamentary list, of early 1708, as a Whig. Having lost the protection of his privilege, Asgill was re-arrested and spent his remaining years within the rules of the Fleet and King’s bench prisons, but was, however, able to publish several political pamphlets, particularly in support of the Hanoverian succession. In 1712 he published a long Defence, claiming that his opponents had misunderstood him, and that the real reason for his expulsion was to enable his creditors to prosecute him. Thomas Burnet, son of Bishop Burnet and a friend of Asgill, thought the Defence ‘witty, but from it I am apt to think him somewhat cracked at present’. Asgill continued to be troubled over the Kenmare properties, and when the 3rd Viscount inherited in 1720 great problems were caused because of the claims of Asgill’s creditors against the estate. After years of wrangling, his surviving interest, although of dubious legal validity, was bought out in return for a small annuity. He died on 10 Nov. 1738, aged 79.7
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: Paula Watson
- 1. N. and Q. ser. 4, v. 569; Kenmare Mss (Irish Mss Commn.), pp. 45, 467.
- 2. CSP Dom. 1691–2, pp. 422, 527; CJ, xii. 508.
- 3. Biog. Britannica, i. 218–19; R. D. Richards, Early Hist. Banking in Eng. 116–20; Add. 70155, jnl. of land bank commrs. 20 May–19 June 1696; PCC 19 Pott; The Case of Bramber Election 1 May 1708.
- 4. J. Asgill, An Argument Proving that According to the Scriptures, Man May Be Translated from Hence into Eternal Life, without Passing through Death; Poems on Affairs of State ed. Ellis, vi. 282.
- 5. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 657; CSP Dom. 1703–4, pp. 130, 156–7, 195; CJ Ire. iii. 15, 45; Kenmare Mss, pp. x, 3, 6, 10–11, 21, 22, 24, 27, 45, 49, 127, 295 et seq.
- 6. Cam. Misc. xxiii. 54, 65, 76; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 372; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. vi. 515.
- 7. Cobbett, vi. 600–1; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 290; Biog. Britannica, i. 221–3; Burnet–Duckett Letters, 14, 23–24, 25, 223; Kenmare Mss, 49; Gent. Mag. 1738, p. 605; N. and Q. 569.