ASHURST, Sir Henry, 1st Bt. (1645-1711), of St. John’s Street, Clerkenwell, Mdx. and Waterstock, Oxon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer

Constituency

Dates

1681
2 Feb. 1689 - 1695
1698 - 1700
Dec. 1701 - 1702

Family and Education

b. 8 Sept. 1645, 1st s. of Henry Ashurst, Merchant Taylor, alderman of London 1668, of Watling Street, London and Hackney, Mdx. by Judith, da. of William Reresby, merchant, of London; bro. of Sir William Ashurst*.  m. lic. 26 Mar. 1670, Diana (d. 1707), da. of William, 6th Baron Paget, and sis. of Hon. Henry Paget*, 1s. 1da.  suc. fa. 1680; cr. Bt. 21 July 1688.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Merchant Taylors’ Co. 1668, asst. 1696; member, Levant Co. 1679, New Eng. Co. 1681; alderman, London Oct. 1688–9; freeman and bailiff, Oxford 1692; manager, Common Fund 1695.2

Agent, Massachusetts Bay by 1689–1701, Connecticut 1699–d., New Hampshire by 1701–2.3

Commr. excise 1689–91, preventing export of wool 1689–92, receiving subscriptions to land bank 1696.

Biography

An important figure in Nonconformist circles, with strong links to the American colonies, Ashurst was lauded by one Dissenter as ‘blessed with an inquisitive genius, a noble freedom of thought, and a generous love of truth’. His ancestors hailed from Lancashire, and since Elizabethan times had been imbued with a zealous Protestantism, most notably in the case of his father Henry, a close friend of Richard Baxter. Ashurst himself acted as executor for Baxter and Robert Boyle, and in his political career was ever keen to protect his co-religionists. His marriage into the family of Lord Paget enabled him to forge close links with other prominent Nonconformist sympathizers such as Philip Foley* and Richard Hampden I*, as well as with Robert Harley*, whom Ashurst once called ‘my affectionate cousin’.4

Ashurst’s first attempt to enter Parliament in 1670 proved unsuccessful, but he later gained election for Truro in 1681. He was subsequently an active supporter of the Whig cause, his prominence recognized by James II, who conferred a baronetcy on Ashurst in July 1688. A rapprochement with the Court may well have taken place over a year before, for in May 1687 William Cowper* had censured him for being ‘a shuffler’. However, Ashurst was quick to recognize the Revolution, riding to William’s headquarters at Windsor in December 1688, and accepting a place at the excise office four months later. This appointment reflected considerable personal wealth, Sir Henry having built upon his father’s fortune by investing in the Levant and West Indies trades. Unlike his brother Sir William, he did not seek advancement in the City, resigning an alderman’s seat early in 1689. Colonial affairs already appeared of greater personal concern, for in August 1689 he was reportedly acting for several North American governments. Moreover, he was said to have relished the task of presenting at court addresses from Massachusetts Bay, regarding the duty ‘as if the Emperor had made him his envoy’.5

Although he had confided to a friend during the 1689 Parliament that ‘I am forced to serve my dear country and the public to the neglect of my private affairs’, at the election of March 1690 he was prepared to fight a contest to retain his Truro seat, and was subsequently identified as a Whig by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†). He was not particularly active in the House, although in the first session he was appointed to the committee to prepare the abjuration bill. In the next session he acted on 27 Dec. as a teller in support of an amendment to a bill to accelerate the determination of election disputes. Three months later he was removed from the excise commission, but there is no clear evidence to suggest that he was the victim of a political purge. He and his partners had demonstrated the value of their support to the new regime by advancing some £175,000 in loans to the crown. His removal may well have been voluntary, for in the course of that year he bought the manor of Waterstock at a cost of almost £16,000, an outlay perhaps reflecting a desire to spend less time in the capital. His father’s purchase of the Oxfordshire manor of Emmington in 1665 had first established Ashurst influence in that county, and as early as 1686 Sir Henry had informed a friend of his wish to establish a country seat.6

His prominence in the Commons undiminished by these personal upheavals, on 18 Dec. 1691 Ashurst spoke against the East India Company. Most significantly, on 3 Feb. 1692 he joined with Hugh Boscawen I and Richard Hampden I in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat a proposal to render Nonconformist divines and teachers liable to a poll tax. Their argument focused on the fact that ‘this was putting a mark upon these people and would rather widen the differences between us’, a danger which Ashurst was evidently keen to avoid, having been charged by Baxter at the time of the Convention Parliament to work for the removal of the penal statutes. Later that year he was still hopeful that talks between Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) and leading Dissenting ministers would have ‘some good effect’ towards the achievement of ‘a comprehension the next sessions of Parliament’. Although Ashurst was obviously committed to the Nonconformist cause, Lord Carmarthen found difficulty in categorizing his political allegiance in the course of that year, querying his support for the Court.7

In the fourth session Ashurst made several contributions to Commons debates, beginning on 2 Dec. with a speech in favour of considering the government’s credit before examining the military estimates. He was then prepared on 13 Dec. to support the motion of Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt.*, for the raising of a supply by monthly assessment. The next day he argued for the committal of an abjuration bill, taking the line that ‘it would be very strange to throw out a bill that is for [the] preservation of their Majesties’ persons’. On 30 Dec. he demonstrated his concern for the City’s interest by moving on its behalf a rider to a bill to extend the contract for the capital’s convex lights. A ‘violent colic’ curtailed his activity for the rest of the session, although he did act as a teller on 8 Jan. 1693 to block an adjournment of a hearing of the committee of the whole’s report on a land tax bill. In the spring of 1693 Samuel Grascome listed him as a placeman, alluding to his former excise post, but indicated that he was not a supporter of the Court. Any animus against the ministry was certainly increased the following summer, for Ashurst lost over £3,000 in the Smyrna disaster, a misfortune which he blamed on the ‘treachery of the Adm[iralty] and some in the Navy’. At the start of the new session he expressed grave reservations at the crisis the country found itself in, decrying the removal of Lord Nottingham and observing that ‘most people tremble for fear’ at the nation’s prospects.8

His opposition to the administration was clearly signalled on 22 Dec. 1693 when he acted as a teller to pass a bill for more frequent Parliaments. In addition, on 29 Mar. 1694 he told against a motion to disagree with the Lords’ amendments to a mutiny bill. Of far greater personal interest, on 18 Apr. he was ordered to carry up to the Lords a bill for the construction of ‘good and defensible’ ships. Also on 23 Apr. he acted as a teller against a clause in a bill to regulate hackney carriages which would have enabled them to ply their trade on Sundays. The next session saw him similarly conspicuous, for he alone was ordered on 21 Dec. 1694 to prepare a bill for the discovery of bankrupts’ estates, a measure which he presented on 16 Jan. 1695. He continued to feature in connexion with government finance, acting as one of the committee to oversee the ballot for the commission of accounts, and telling on 16 Apr. in support of the House going into committee on a bill to levy duties on glassware and coal. His colonial interests subsequently recommended his close involvement with a bill to reverse the attainder of Jacob Leisler, the rebel executed for seizing the government of New York at the time of the Revolution. Eager to thwart the campaign of his rival Joseph Dudley* for the governorship of Massachusetts Bay, Ashurst promoted the bill to expose Dudley’s arbitrary proceedings as the justice presiding over Leisler’s trial. He twice reported from the committee on the bill, and boasted on 5 May that ‘I shall never do New England so much good as by getting this bill passed’.9

Ashurst did not stand at the Truro election of 1695, a decision perhaps reflecting differences with his patron, Boscawen, who had remained loyal to the Court. Political disillusionment had certainly been suggested earlier in the year by the dedication he wrote to the Dissenting peer Lord Willoughby of Parham, for a biography of ejected minister Nathaniel Heywood. Echoing the views of the moral reformers, Ashurst railed against ‘such a degenerate and licentious age’, lamenting ‘all the different parties we are so unhappily broken into’. His alienation from the ministry was further suggested by his appointment in 1696 as one of the commissioners to receive subscriptions to the land bank. Nonconformist divine Philip Henry, to whom he had entrusted the education of son Henry†, actually welcomed his removal from Westminster as ‘a writ of ease to you from a great deal of trouble, which hath hitherto had too much influence upon the impairing of your bodily health’. Freed from parliamentary duties, however, Sir Henry dedicated even more of his energies to colonial affairs. In the summer of 1696 he organized with (Sir) Stephen Evance* a trial shipment of naval stores from New England, and the following year acted as the government’s creditor for the Newfoundland campaign.10

Although Ashurst had no direct ties to the constituency of Wilton, his candidacy at the election of 1698 was welcomed there by an influential Dissenting interest. He was returned unopposed, unseating Sir John Hawles* in the process, but was unable to secure a victory for his son Henry at the Cornish borough of Fowey. At the outset of the new Parliament he was listed by one analyst as a Court supporter, an assessment which suggested a renewal of the alliance with his former Whig allies. He did not prove a prominent Member in the first session, his significant activity confined to the drafting and presentation of a private naturalization bill, and a tellership on 1 Mar. in support of the return of the Whig Hon. Thomas Newport* at Ludlow. He again acted as a teller in the next session, backing a motion on 1 Apr. 1700 to bring up a clause concerning the bill to apply the Irish forfeitures to public use. At that time he was listed by one political commentator as belonging to the Junto interest, but in December of that year he wrote to Robert Harley to offer his support in case Harley should wish to stand for the Speakership in the next Parliament. Most significantly, Ashurst alluded to ‘our former difference in opinion about public matters’, thereby supplying further evidence of his estrangement from erstwhile Country allies. Unfortunately for Ashurst, he was unable to fulfil his promise of support, for he subsequently failed to be returned for Wilton. He petitioned the House on 17 Jan. 1701, alleging bribery against his rival candidates, but the elections committee never reported on the matter.11

Having lost his seat, Ashurst could again devote his time to colonial affairs. In May he was appointed as agent for Connecticut, and for most of the year was involved in an unsuccessful battle to block the appointment of Dudley as governor of New Hampshire and Massachusetts Bay. In November 1701 he regained his seat at Wilton. His victory was regarded by Lord Spencer (Charles*) as a Whig gain, and at the outset of the new Parliament Harley concurred with this verdict, listing Ashurst with the Whigs. Sir Henry proved an inconspicuous Member once more, and his only recorded speech, in defence of parliamentary privileges on 17 Feb. 1702, was dismissed by Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.*, as such ‘a long and tedious oration that he nor anyone else knew what he meant’. The accession of Anne saw another downturn in his political fortunes, unable as he was to overcome two rival Whig candidates at Wilton, both of whom leant heavily on Nonconformist support. He petitioned the House on 27 Oct., accusing the mayor of gross irregularities in the return, but on 16 Nov. withdrew his protest.12

Thereafter Ashurst showed little enthusiasm for re-election, in contrast to his active participation in colonial matters. His vendetta against Dudley continued, reaching a climax in June 1708 when he wrote to the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) to demand Dudley’s dismissal as governor. Accompanying this request was The Deplorable State of New England, a pamphlet drafted overseas but with a dedication penned by Ashurst to Lord Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer). True to his spiritual priorities, he implored Sunderland to respect the colony’s godly foundation, observing that ‘if religion be worth anything, ’tis worth everything’. The campaign failed once again, and although Ashurst maintained his colonial links through his Connecticut office, ill-health restricted his activities from the time of his wife’s death in 1707. Although languishing in ‘a declining condition’ in his final years, he continued to promote religion, appointing trustees in 1709 for the advowsons of Waterstock and Emmington, whom he admonished to choose ministers ‘that believe and preach the old doctrinal articles commonly called Calvinistical’. The following year he predictably voted for the Whigs at the London poll, evidently concerned at the High Church campaign sparked by the trial of Dr Sacheverell. However, even an Anglican cleric lamented Ashurst’s death on 13 Apr. 1711, Sir Henry’s piety having earned him wide respect. Confessing himself to be ‘unworthy to be remembered’, he sought in his will to encourage ‘serious religion’, entrusting Nonconformist divines with various bequests for ‘promoting Christianity here or abroad’ and, more generally, for ‘the glory of God’. His estate, which included the mansion he had erected at Waterstock after 1695, passed to his only son Henry, who subsequently sat for Windsor in the 1715 Parliament.13

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Perry Gauci

Notes

  • 1. J. R. Woodhead, Rulers of London (London and Mdx. Arch. Soc.), 19.
  • 2. Guildhall Lib. mss MF324; ex. inf. Prof. R. Walcott; W. Kellaway, New England Co. 289; Beaven, Aldermen, i. 213; Oxford Council Acts (Oxf. Hist. Soc. n.s. ii.), 231, 233; Dr Williams’ Lib. mss O. D. 68, f. 3.
  • 3. CSP Col. 1689–92, p. 212; 1700, p. 715; 1701, p. 115.
  • 4. J. Dunton, Life and Errors, 350; Bull. John Rylands Lib. xiii. 309–10; Wood, Life and Times, ii. 137; Add. 70020, f. 33.
  • 5. Herts. RO, Panshanger mss D/EP/F81, f. 11; Campbell, Lives, iv. 265; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 523; Woodhead, 19; Recs. Col. Connecticut 167889, 470; Sewall Diary ed. Halsey Thomas, i. 232.
  • 6. Bodl. mss Don. c. 169, f. 71; Som. RO, Sanford mss DD/SF 3110, John Freke to Edward Clarke I*, 31 Mar. 1691; VCH Oxon. vii. 223; viii. 93; Add. 45538, ff. 4–5.
  • 7. Luttrell Diary, 88, 169; Bull. John Rylands Lib. 323–4; mss Don. c. 169, ff. 84–85.
  • 8. Luttrell Diary, 285, 312, 318, 340; mss Don. c. 169, ff. 89–92.
  • 9. T. Hutchinson, Hist. Massachusetts Bay, ii. 64; mss Don. c.169, f. 121.