PHILIPPS, John (c.1666-1737), of Picton Castle, Pemb.

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



4 Mar. 1718 - 1722

Family and Education

b. c.1666, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Sir Erasmus Philipps, 3rd Bt.†, of Picton Castle by his 2nd w. Catherine, da. and coh. of Edward Darcy of Newhall, Derbys.  educ. Westminster, KS 1679; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1682–4; L. Inn 1684.  m. 12 Dec. 1697, Mary (d. 1722), da. and h. of Anthony Smith, E. India merchant, of Surat and London, 3s. 4da. (3 d.v.p.).  suc. fa. as 4th Bt. 18 Jan. 1697.1

Offices Held

Custos rot. Pemb. 1697.2

Member, SPCK 1699, SPG 1701; v.-pres. SPG 1703–4.3

Commr. building 50 new churches 1715–aft.1727.4


Philipps, the evangelical philanthropist whom sympathetic contemporaries characterized as a ‘champion of virtue’ and ‘pattern of enlightened patriotism’, hailed from a family with Puritan traditions. His father had been one of the Commonwealth commissioners for the propagation of the gospel in Wales, and had served in local government and in Parliament under the Protectorate. Some 20 years later Sir Erasmus was warning his son against ‘foolish frolics’ at Cambridge. By the time of his own election in 1695 Philipps was thoroughly imbued with this sober piety, which made him a natural ally of the moral reformers in the Commons who at this time constituted the backbone of the ‘Country’ interest. He was forecast as likely to oppose the Court in the divisions of 31 Jan. 1696 on the proposed council of trade, and although he signed the Association promptly, he voted on 25 Nov. against the attainder of Sir John Fenwick†. On 15 Mar. 1697 he reported upon a private bill on behalf of Lord Fairfax (Thomas*) and carried the bill to the Lords two days later. By now he had succeeded to the baronetcy, also taking over from his father as custos of Pembrokeshire. In the same year he married the heiress of an East India merchant. It may be no coincidence that in the following session he was more prominent in the House than hitherto. On 9 Feb. 1698 he moved for an address to the King for a royal proclamation against ‘profaneness and debauchery’, speaking ‘with great ingenuity’ and ‘laying before the House of how dangerous a consequence the increase of irreligion and profaneness must be to the whole nation’. Eventually, as a result of this debate, he and Edward Harley* were ordered to prepare a bill ‘for the more effectual suppressing profaneness, immorality and debauchery’. Before anything further could be done, a similar bill was received from the Lords, directed against ‘atheism, blasphemy and profaneness’, on which Philipps chaired the committee of the whole on 3 Mar. The Lords’ bill was dropped when Philipps introduced his own bill four days later, but its appearance may have influenced the drafting of the Commons’ measure, which was now directed against ‘blasphemy and profaneness’ rather than ‘immorality’, and indeed became known as the ‘Socinian bill’. It was said that Philipps had ‘several bills for reformation’, but the attack on blasphemy was guaranteed widespread support and duly passed into law. In the process Philipps chaired the committee of the whole on the bill itself (15 Mar.), and took a leading role in the conference on the subject of some Lords’ amendments to this measure.5

Before the 1698 election, in which he was chosen again for Pembroke Boroughs, Philipps was added to the county commission of the peace. Although classified as a supporter of the Country party in a comparative analysis of the old and new Parliaments in 1698, he surprised some commentators by coming over ‘voluntarily’ to support the Court in the debate on the third reading of the disbanding bill on 18 Jan. 1699. Salwey Winnington’s* notes record the statement, ‘all the inconveniences that our neighbours have suffered’, and, less cryptically, ‘10,000 men can do no more hurt than 7,000’, as reasons given by Philipps for his vote against the bill. He also proposed that naturalized subjects be included along with the ‘natural born’ in the forces to remain. On 2 Jan. he had introduced a new bill to suppress ‘vice and immorality’, directed on this occasion against licentiousness rather than freethinking, and imposing penalties for adultery and other such ‘lewd practices’. This, more so than the 1698 bill, was specifically a product of the ‘moral reform’ movement spearheaded by the societies for the reformation of manners, in which Philipps had been active. As such, the bill attracted only minority backing, and Robert Harley* described Philipps’ bill as ‘so crude and so little considered that it were to be wished he would consider better or be advised’. He twice chaired committees of the whole on the bill (12 Jan., 9 Feb.), but the measure was eventually defeated, ‘in a scandalous manner’ according to Edward Harley, by a strange coalition of High Church Tories (irritated by what they considered a ‘fanatic’ or ‘Presbyterian’-inspired measure), young rakes (‘the loosest livers in the House’) and radicals. One of the latter, Walter Moyle*, derided what he termed ‘the ridiculous reformation of Sir John P[hilipps]’. In view of Philipps’ vote on the standing army, Moyle was inclined to be bitter about this latest departure, predicting that the Court ‘will gain little by the apostasy of that Welsh owl who was for reforming the nation by a standing army, and dragooning us into morality’. In a lighter vein he recommended to a correspondent that Philipps be despatched forthwith

to Bedlam, for I believe the poor wretch is run mad with reformation. Can you contrive no way in the earth to rid the House of his ghostly authority? . . . Betty Mackrell, or some other discreet bawd, should demand a conference with him in the lobby, lug him out by the ears, and send him upon a mission to the West Indies to preach his morals to Father Hennepin’s nations, who are not civilized into lewdness, nor wise enough to be wicked. On this side of the globe he’ll make no converts but such as his namesake in the Acts made eunuchs.

After the loss of his bill Philipps retired into the country, being granted a six-week leave of absence on 17 Feb.6

While not a founding member of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in March 1699, Philipps was very soon invited to join, and became prominent in the Society’s activities, both locally and nationally. In its original form the SPCK, like the various societies for the reformation of manners, was concerned to combat ‘the growth of vice and immorality’, and Philipps shared this preoccupation, as his bill of January 1699 testifies. Indeed, in April 1699 one SPCK member proposed that an application should be made to the King to advance Philipps to ‘some distinguishing post of honour and profit, as a reward for his great zeal for the interest of religion’. Philipps participated in the agitation against playhouses, though in other respects, most notably in his attitude towards horse-racing, he was more tolerant than many members of the societies. On 28 Nov. Philipps was appointed to prepare the bill to prevent duelling and gambling, and on 21 Dec. he complained to the Commons of an incident in December 1699 (curiously reminiscent of the scenario malevolently imagined by Moyle) which gave him the chance to demonstrate his convictions concerning duelling. ‘Sent for out of the House’ by Simon Harcourt II*, clerk of the peace for Middlesex, who had married the widow of Philipps’ elder brother and with whom a contentious lawsuit was pending, he found himself challenged to a duel. When he refused, Harcourt ‘abused’ him verbally and struck him repeatedly with a cane. Philipps bore this assault

with the patience of an apostle, went again into the House, told ’em how he had been served, declared his conscience would not let him fight, and desired they would take the quarrel upon them, which they did, and . . . ordered the assailant into custody.

His friends in the SPCK passed a resolution thanking him ‘for the noble and Christian example he has shown after refusing a challenge after the highest provocation imaginable’. A number of years later, after the notorious Mohun–Hamilton duel, Philipps was to express a hope that ‘the melancholy story of the Duke of Hamilton will produce an act against duelling’. Much of his work for the Society turned, however, in other directions, towards the erection of workhouses, missionary activity (through the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts), and especially the establishment of charity schools, of which he is known to have personally founded some 22 in Pembrokeshire alone. Such work was regarded by Philipps as but one aspect of his wide-ranging Christian mission: ‘the endeavours of a man truly good’, he wrote, ‘are not confined to this or that particular design, but lay hold on all opportunities of doing the best service he can to the souls and bodies of mankind’. There was also a strong patriotic element: he praised a fellow reformer’s ‘ardent love for the honour of God, and the real benefit of his country’. In the Commons this sense of moral duty was perhaps again manifest in his appointment to the committee of 17 Jan. 1702 to prepare a bill against bribery and corruption at elections. Generally, however, his activity in Parliament decreased as his outside commitments expanded. In early 1700 he was listed as a supporter of the Junto, and Robert Harley classed him with the Whigs in a list of December 1701, but no further speeches or votes of his are recorded.7

Philipps withdrew at the 1702 election, to immerse himself in works of piety. His continuing concern for charity schools led to his involvement in 1705 in a controversial election of a schoolmaster at Haverfordwest, following which a local Tory labelled Philipps as a ‘perfidious little fanatic’. Other judgments were more favourable. He was described as ‘the ornament, and in a great measure the support’ of the SPCK, and Philipps also took an interest in the settlement of the Palatine refugees in 1709, and in the church-building programme inaugurated in 1711. That he retained an interest in political matters is evinced by a letter he wrote to his wife in May 1715, ‘some believe there will be no war notwithstanding the deadness of trade, but the Tories make a handle thereof to raise disturbances’. Little more is known of his political views until in 1718 he put himself forward again as a parliamentary candidate, at Haverfordwest. His letter to the corporation reveals that his highly moralistic view of political life had not changed. He explained that

my declining for several years past to offer my services to my county under that character [of a representative in Parliament] has been ill resented by many of my friends, who I have reason to believe entertain too favourable sentiments of me; which consideration (however) has determined me to give you this trouble, and to request the honour . . . to supply the present vacancy. None who are well-wishers to their country . . . will conceive a prejudice to me for avoiding those unwarrantable methods of obtaining favour that are so commonly put in practice on these occasions, a mischief which this nation has suffered under, and is lamented by all wise and good men, as what in time (without some better provision) may prove hurtful to the constitution.
      Gentlemen, I have no other views in this address than being put into a capacity of serving the public and your worthy corporation in particular, after the most effectual manner I am able. But if you have cast your eye on any other gentleman whom you may judge more fit and likely to answer those purposes I shall most readily concur with ye in the choice, forbearing any further steps that may give occasion for division (the worst of all evils) among you. Earnestly begging God to direct ye in this affair that your election (on whomsoever it falls) may be unanimous.

When returned to the Commons he supported the administration (despite the fact that his niece had married Robert Walpole I*), though his poor eyesight left him ‘by no means master’ of the business of the House and thus ‘oftentimes at a loss to know which way to give my vote’. He retired finally from Parliament in 1722.8

In his latter years Philipps encouraged the Oxford Methodists and was a particular patron of George Whitefield and of the Welsh revivalist Griffith Jones, who became his son-in-law and most intimate friend. Philipps died on 5 Jan. 1737, ‘suddenly, of a fit of apoplexy, as he was sitting in his chair at his house in Bartlett’s Buildings, Holborn’. Griffith Jones bewailed

A great man is fallen in our Israel, a great and general loss to all the world . . . that mouth is closed that was wont to be always full and ready to speak of his God . . . a guardian angel is lost that I know was always upon the watch to discover everything that was offered to the public in prejudice to the church or state.

His career as a Member of Parliament was summarized in the epitaph on his monument in St. Mary’s parish church, Haverfordwest: ‘his constant aim was to promote the cause of virtue and religion’. Two of his sons entered Parliament, the second (Sir) John (6th Bt.) being for a time a ‘very zealous and active Jacobite’.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: D. W. Hayton


  • 1. DWB, 754–5; Rec. Old Westminsters, ii. 738.
  • 2. Collectanea Pembrochiana, 20.
  • 3. Corresp. and Recs. of SPG relating to Wales, ed. Clement, 8, 11, 22.
  • 4. E. G. W. Bill, Q. Anne Churches, p. xxiv.
  • 5. DWB, 755; A. H. Dodd, Studies in Stuart Wales, 144, 165, 172; Add. 70019, f. 21; CSP Dom. 1698, pp. 80, 134; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 234.
  • 6. L. K. J. Glassey, Appt. JPs, 128; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 253; CSP Dom. 1699–1700, p. 28; Cam. Misc. xxix. 385; HMC Portland, iii. 602; Bodl. Carte 130, f. 400; Add. 70275, [Robert] to [Sir Edward Harley†], 17 Jan. 1698–9; E. Suff. RO, Gurdon mss M142(1), Sir William Cook, 2nd Bt.* to Thornhagh Gurdon, 19 Jan. 1698[–9]; Moyle, Works ed. Hammond (1727), 14, 240–2.
  • 7. W. O. B. Allen and E. McClure, Two Hundred Years, 28, 48, 159–60; Chapter in Eng. Church Hist. ed. McClure, 2, 5, 6, 11, 33, 109, 157, 300, 312; M. Clement, SPCK and Wales, 1699–1740, pp. 9, 13, 18, 43–44, 51–52, 72–73, 84–86, 92–94; M. G. Jones, Charity Sch. Movement, 284, 289–91; SPCK Archs. Wanley mss C53/1, pp. 128–30; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, ii. 397; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 596; Add. 17677 UU, f. 108; 45511, f. 93; 7th Duke of Manchester, Court and Soc. Eliz. to Anne, ii. 54–55; CSP Dom. 1700–2, p. 351.
  • 8. M. E. Jones, ‘Parlty. Rep. Pemb. 1536–1761’ (Wales Univ. MA thesis, 1958), 245; Hereford and Worcester RO (Worcester St. Helen’s), Hampton mss, Pakington pprs. 705:349/BA4657/i, John Edwards to Lady Pakington, 16 Apr. 1705; D. L. Brunner, ‘Halle Pietists in Eng. (c.1700–40)’ (Oxf. Univ. D.Phil thesis, 1988), 28, 136; Haverfordwest and its Story, 84.
  • 9. Clement, 63–64; L. Tyerman, Life of Whitefield, 42–43; Hist. Reg. Chron. 1737, p. 62.