TRENCHARD, Sir John (1649-95), of Lytchett Matravers, nr. Poole, Dorset

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



Mar. 1679 - Mar. 1681
20 June 1689 - 1690
1690 - 27 Apr. 1695

Family and Education

b. 30 Mar. 1649, 4th but 3rd surv. s. of Thomas Trenchard† of Wolveton, Dorset by Hannah, da. of Robert Henley of Henley, Som.; bro. of Henry† and Thomas Trenchard†.  educ. Winchester 1661–5; New Coll. Oxf. 1665–7; M. Temple 1667, called 1674; travelled abroad (Spain) 1677.  m. lic. 10 Nov. 1682, Philippa, da. of George Speke† of White Lackington, Som., sis. of John Speke*, 4s. 3da.  Kntd. 29 Oct. 1689; suc. bro. Henry 1694.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Lyme Regis 1679, Poole 1681; receiver-gen. Som., Dorset and Bristol 1688–9; comptroller of customs, Bristol Nov. 1688–9; c.j. Chester 1689–d.; recorder, Taunton 1690–d.2

Serjeant-at-law 1689, King’s serjeant 1689–d.; sec. of state (northern dept.) 1693–d.; PC 23 Mar. 1693–d.

Chairman, cttee. of elections and privileges, Nov. 1691–Dec. 1693.


A radical Whig, Trenchard had been imprisoned as a leader of the Rye House Plot in 1683, and later fled to Holland to avoid implication in Monmouth’s rebellion. Pardoned by James II, he was thereafter instrumental in supporting William of Orange, for which he was made a serjeant-at-law (and is identified as such in the Journals) and rewarded with both the chief justiceship of Chester and a knighthood. He was described by Wood as ‘a man of turbulent and aspiring spirit, never contented’, but more favourably by Bishop Burnet as ‘a calm and sedate man; and . . . much more moderate than could have been expected, since he was a leading man in a party. He had too great a regard to the stars and too little to religion.’ In 1690 Trenchard came in for Poole, while possibly assisting the election of his brother-in-law, John Speke, at Taunton – and certainly using his influence to solicit his nephew Thomas Trenchard’s election at Dorchester. Classed as a Whig by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†), Trenchard quickly became established as one of the leading members of that party in the Commons. In the first two sessions, he was named to assist in the drafting of seven bills, and on 1 Nov. reported the committee of the bill enabling surgeons to administer medicines. Robert Harley* classed him as a Court supporter in April 1691, and thereafter his name appears on several parliamentary lists as a placeman.3

Trenchard’s activity in the 1691–2 session centred upon his chairmanship of the committee of elections and privileges to which he was first-named on 22 Oct. 1691. Subsequently, he reported 11 election cases during the session; at the first, for Weobley on 12 Nov., his motion that the clerk of the crown be called in with the return, was opposed by Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt., as being against the procedure of the House. He was named to four drafting committees, and on 11 Dec. presented a bill dealing with bankrupts’ estates. Also in December he seems to have been involved in a legislative initiative from Cheshire as Sir Willoughby Aston, 2nd Bt., believed ‘Sir John Trenchard is for an Act of Parliament, which he will draw up himself, but I think there will scarce be time for it’. This may have been connected to a grievance mentioned by Aston in February 1692 concerning ‘pressed carriages’. Having applied to Trenchard

who you know is concerned for our county, he said ’twas too late, and not having a copy of the bill he could not tell how or where to bring it in coherent with the rest, besides . . . he thought it vain to make any law against an army, and perhaps to make a law and not have it kept would do the government prejudice.

In the new year, he chaired the committees of the whole on bills to revive the commission of public accounts, reporting from it on 19 Jan.; to repair Dover harbour (25 Jan.); and, after some dispute over his nomination, the bill outlawing contact with the Queen’s enemies (20 Feb.). Trenchard had also intervened in debate on 5 Jan. 1692 to support the bill for regulating fishermen on the Thames, but it failed to attain a second reading. On 10 Feb. he presented a clause to be added to the Irish forfeited estates bill. Following the defeat of the public accounts bill, he spoke on 15 Feb. against an attempt to add a clause to the poll bill which would have revived the commission, an action which led Aston to comment ‘our c[hief] j[ustice] was forced to pull off his mask’.4

Trenchard remained chairman of the elections committee in the fourth session of this Parliament, but was only required to report on two election and two privilege cases. Following his involvement in November 1692 in drafting a bill to extend the patent for convex lights, he reported it from committee the following month. In his first recorded speech in this session, on 28 Nov. on the bill regulating treason trials, he proposed that the measure should take effect after the end of the war. On 14 Dec. he spoke in favour of committing the bill on the abjuration oath, and on the following day, regarding the engrossed bill for preventing abuses of weighers of butter and cheese, he spoke against a clause imposing a fee because it constituted a tax on the subject. He thrice chaired the committee of ways and means in February 1693, and on the 20th spoke in a debate on procedure during the report stage of the expiring laws bill, arguing unsuccessfully that a Member could speak to a motion to throw out a clause reviving the laws against unlicensed printing after the amendments made to it had been agreed. On 22 Feb. he was first-named to manage a conference with the Lords on their amendments to a bill to prevent malicious informations in the court of King’s bench, and was subsequently involved in managing a series of conferences on this bill. In his last speech in this session, 6 Mar., he supported a bill setting aside various court judgments in favour of the Earl of Pembroke (Thomas Herbert†).5

In March 1693 the King, on Lord Sunderland’s advice, appointed Trenchard secretary of state for the northern department – at the same time as Sir John Somers* was made lord keeper – although Trenchard retained the chief justiceship of Chester, henceforth executed by deputy. Sunderland had been urging the King for some time to promote some of the younger Whigs within the ministry, and these appointments were timed to offset Whig anger at the royal veto on the triennial bill. The Earl of Monmouth wrote to John Locke that despite Trenchard’s inexperience and the hostility of the Tory ministers ‘the new secretary treads the stage with quite another air than our friend [Somers]: the poor lord keeper looks as if he wants the comfort of his friends, but the other thinks he may depend upon his own parts’. Bonet, the Prussian resident, noted the advantages gained by Trenchard’s connexions and experience of the Continent, and considered him to be ‘un grand crédit dans la chambre basse, où il est des plus distingués par sa capacité. Il est accommodant et adroit.’ During the summer Trenchard was in frequent conference with Somers and Sunderland, who were grooming him to be one of the Court managers in the Commons, particularly in relation to the supply. Trenchard himself wrote to Lord Portland on 1 Aug. that he hoped the King would return in good time for the next session of Parliament, because ‘it will be very requisite to do some things in order to dispose people to be in a good humour and I really believe that the King will find the men of interest ready to do their utmost to support the government, if reasonable terms be proposed to them’.6

On the eve of the 1693–4 session Trenchard found himself sole secretary of state following the dismissal of Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) who, along with two Tory admirals, was made a scapegoat for the loss of the Smyrna convoy. Most Whigs were happy with the new scheme of management, Lord Capell (Hon. Sir Henry Capel*) writing to Trenchard on 15 Nov.:

I am glad you are so much nearer to the King, not doubting but your prudent conduct will so satisfy the King, that those few which he now employs upon our principles, performing their duty to him in his affairs, will by degrees encourage him to believe that the more he adds to that number the safer he will sit upon his throne.

After an initial stormy period of fierce Whig attacks over the loss of the Smyrna convoy and the general failure of the previous summer’s naval campaign, the new managers had brought the situation under sufficient control for Trenchard to inform Capell on 2 Dec. that

a party in the . . . Commons endeavoured to make provision for the fleet alone but would have been contented to lay aside the army in Flanders. Upon a debate Thursday last (26 Nov.) they found themselves much the weaker number, so that the land forces will undoubtedly be maintained, but what addition to them the House will think fit to make is uncertain. I assure you the country gentlemen of the Whig party have adhered to the King’s interest beyond what would be imagined, which I hope will have a very good effect in the future administration.

Trenchard’s other recorded intervention occurred during the debate on the estimates on 5 Dec. Perhaps to assuage Whig opinion he also voted for the triennial bill in December.7

Management tasks notwithstanding, the most important test for Trenchard in the 1693–4 session arose when the Lords revived the inquiry into the Smyrna convoy debacle. The Commons’ inquiry had lapsed after the dismissal of the Tory admirals and the return of Edward Russell* to the head of naval affairs, but in December 1693 the Lords began their own examination. Although they covered the same ground as the Commons in discussing the admirals’ failure to send scouts into Brest for information and the shortcomings in the victualling service, they also brought attention to bear on an intelligence failure before the fleet sailed. On 11 Jan. 1694 Nottingham informed the Lords that at a meeting of the cabinet council on 31 May 1693 he had read a letter just received from France containing information that the French fleet had already sailed from Brest. This information was never sent to the admirals. Nottingham explained that he himself was not responsible since the conduct of all marine affairs had been transferred to Trenchard upon his appointment, and once the letter had been produced in council he had no more to do. On 15 Jan. other members of the Cabinet admitted that the letter had been read on 31 May but claimed they had taken it for granted that the news had been sent to the admirals. The Lords decided to communicate their findings to the Commons with the request that those members of the Cabinet committee who sat in the Commons might be asked to explain why the intelligence was not sent. This was clearly aimed at Trenchard, and one Tory observer noted that the Whigs showed themselves ‘as backwards’ when ‘it is too manifest it will strike upon a brother, I mean Secretary Tr[enchard]’ as they were ‘too precipitate in their first vote’ because ‘they thought of striking only at the admirals’. Trenchard eventually gave his reply on 10 Feb. to the effect that he remembered the letter being produced at the committee of council on 31 May, but there was no resolution by the committee that it should be forwarded to the admirals and it remained in the hands of Nottingham. Subsequently, the list of the French fleet which had been attached to the letter was sent over from Nottingham’s office, together with the information, later proved to be incorrect, that the admirals had been told in a letter dated 31 May that the French Brest fleet had been sighted off the Scillies. Trenchard’s answer was communicated to the Lords, who considered it on 15 Feb., but by this time it was becoming clear that apportioning blame for the intelligence failure was going to be difficult. At the end of the debate a motion to put the question that orders should have been sent to the fleet pursuant to the intelligence revealed in the letter was defeated. Thereafter, further consideration was repeatedly adjourned until the whole inquiry was dropped on 3 Mar. Sunderland still retained his confidence in Trenchard, writing on 13 July 1694 that for getting the King’s business put into a proper method ‘I will be bold to say, no man does so well as [Trenchard], notwithstanding all the complaints which were made of him last year most unreasonably’.8

In the summer of 1694 Trenchard, together with Somers, Lord Godolphin (Sidney†) and Shrewsbury, worked on remodelling the commissions of customs and excise, though two of Trenchard’s proposed candidates were considered unacceptable by the King, who may have been guided by Godolphin’s assertion that these particular nominations favoured party politics rather than royal interest. In June the first information about the Lancashire Plot was laid before Trenchard. Although the warrants for the arrest of the suspects were issued by Shrewsbury as well as Trenchard, and the actual interrogation of the accused in September was done by Shrewsbury while Trenchard was detained in the country, Trenchard came in for a certain amount of criticism about the way in which the case was handled, probably as he was known to be zealous in his pursuit of Jacobites. One pamphlet in particular accused him of issuing warrants for arresting suspects which were improperly drawn in that they did not specify the name of the accused, the nature of the charge or the witnesses on whose sworn deposition the arrest was made. It was alleged that his messengers frequently searched houses without the presence of a constable or magistrate, carried off title deeds and estate papers and planted fake evidence, and that prisoners were often held in poor conditions and generally mistreated. He was further accused of acting in collusion with the Treasury solicitor, Aaron Smith, an old associate of Titus Oates, to bring false charges against people as a means of gaining money either through bribery or acquiring their estates. It was claimed that Trenchard had made some £20,000 in one year by these means. James Vernon I* considered the discontent over the administration’s handling of the plot to be the only thing likely to disturb the coming session of Parliament. Trenchard himself was more confident, writing to Russell on 12 Nov. 1694: ‘The King began the session of Parliament this day; if our friends are not much deceived in their conjectures, our affairs have a very good prospect, and promise us a shorter meeting than we had last year.’ The Tories first brought the subject of the plot into the Commons on 24 Nov., but could not press home their attack and on 16 Feb. 1695 the House resolved that there was sufficient ground for the prosecution and that there had been a dangerous conspiracy. Although Trenchard was exonerated, his close involvement in these proceedings, together with his enthusiastic measures against printers of Jacobite tracts, by which he hoped ‘the insolence of those men will be restrained for the future’, encouraged Bishop Burnet to hold him in contempt as not suited to be trusted with more important matters of state, and to describe him merely as ‘a superintendent of police, charged to look after the printers of unlicensed books, the pastors of nonjuring congregations, and the haunters of treason taverns’.9

During the latter part of 1694 serious ill-health had limited Trenchard’s attendance both at the House and at his office. At the end of August he left London for Dorset to recover. On 14 Sept. Vernon reported that Trenchard would be in town ‘perfectly well’ towards the end of the following week. However, this return to London did nothing to restore him for early in October Vernon recorded that ‘he has got rid of his spitting of blood but I am afraid he has not recovered his former health . . . he is still but pale and thin, and being at Whitehall church last Sunday he was hardly kept from fainting’. Further, on the 19th, Vernon feared that Trenchard’s ‘constitution is altered for the worse, he comes abroad and does business but methinks he has too visible marks of a decay upon him’. By mid-November Narcissus Luttrell* noted that Trenchard had ‘relapsed to his consumption’, and on the 29th he was given leave of absence for two weeks by the Commons, Robert Yard* reporting his departure from town that same day. Thus, he was absent from debates at the beginning of December 1694, and on the 14th John Ellis* remarked on his extremely slow recovery. Any improvement was clearly temporary for by 16 Apr. 1695 Trenchard was ‘given over by his physicians’ and he died, of tuberculosis, at Kensington on the 27th. A contemporary newsletter suggested that ‘his nativity was calculated while he was a refugee in Holland in King James’s reign’ and that aged 44 ‘he should be advanced to mighty dignity in the state, but in his 45th year should be seized with a distemper which should go near to end his days’. His body was carried for burial at the church in Bloxworth, four miles west of Lytchett Matravers, where his son George* set up a commemorative plaque; two other sons died without issue and a fourth was killed aboard a man-of-war. Despite the evident foreknowledge of his impending death, Trenchard died intestate. Other than his estate at Lytchett Matravers he had inherited his younger brother Henry’s properties in October 1694, including the Bloxworth estate worth £700 p.a.10

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Authors: Paula Watson / Henry Lancaster


  • 1. Hutchins, Dorset, i. 182; iii. 326–7.
  • 2. Dorset RO, Lyme Regis mss, B6/11, f. 236; Poole archives, B17; Dorset RO, D60/X2; Morrice ent’ring bk. 2, p. 387; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 186.
  • 3. Wood, Athenae, iv. 405; Burnet, iv. 193–4; Dorset RO, Trenchard mss, D60/F56, John to Henry Trenchard, 29 Mar., 27 Nov. 1690, 7 Mar. 1691; Add. 42592, f. 167.
  • 4. Luttrell Diary, 14, 111, 178, 187, 197; Chester RO, Earwaker mss, CR 63/2/691/101, 106, 109, Aston to Sir John Crewe, 22 Dec. 1691, 2 Feb. 1691[–2], 16 Apr. 1692.
  • 5. Luttrell Diary, 265, 317, 320, 399, 469; Surr. RO (Guildford), Onslow mss, 173/226, p. 7.
  • 6. Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss UI590/050/2, Yard to Alexander Stanhope, 28 Mar. 1692[–3]; H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 114, 115, 116, 125–6, 128; EHR, lxxi. 577, 580, 583n.4, 585, 589; Ranke, v. 66; vi. 233; Nottingham Univ. Lib. Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1212, Sunderland to Portland, 3 May [1693], Trenchard to Portland, 1 Aug. 1693; J. P. Kenyon, Sunderland, 247, 257.
  • 7. Dorset RO, Lane mss D60/X20, Capell to Trenchard, 15 Nov., 20 Dec. 1693; D60/X36, Trenchard to Capell, 2 Dec. 1693; Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 796.
  • 8. HMC Lords, n.s. i. 93–103; Horwitz, 125–6; Add. 17677 OO, f. 161; 35855, ff. 8, 9, 10; Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1238a, Sunderland to Portland, 13 July 1694.
  • 9. CSP Dom. 1694–5, pp. 184–6, 219, 338; Portland (Bentinck) mss PwA 1409, Trenchard to Portland, 9 June 1693; A Letter to Sec. Trenchard (1694); Horwitz, 135; Cobbett, v. 942; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 369; Burnet, iv. 194; Macaulay, Hist. Eng. 2322.
  • 10. Egerton 920, ff. 73, 85, 92; Stanhope mss, U1590/059/3, Yard to Stanhope, 9 Oct. 4 Dec. 1694; U1590/059/4, same to same, 7 May 1695; Luttrell, iii. 401, 466; Som. RO, Sanford mss, DD/SF 2980, Edward Clarke I* to Capell, 4 Dec. 1694; Add. 46527, f. 31; HMC Hastings, ii. 246; CSP Dom. 1695, p. 326; Hutchins, i. 182.