TREVOR, Sir John (c.1637-1717), of Clement’s Lane, Westminster, Mdx. and Brynkinallt, Denb.
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Family and Education
b. c.1637, 2nd s. of John Trevor (d. c.1643) of Brynkinallt, by Margaret, da. of John Jeffreys of Acton, Denb. educ. St. Paul’s; I. Temple 1654, called 1661, bencher 1673, treasurer 1674, reader 1675. m. 23 Oct. 1669, Jane (d. 1704), da. of Sir Roger Mostyn, 1st Bt., of Mostyn, Flints., wid. of Roger Puleston of Emral, Worthenbury, Flints., 4s. 2da. Kntd. 29 Jan. 1671; suc. bro. c.1679.1
Mayor, Holt 1682–3; freeman, Denbigh 1685; constable of Flint Castle (jt.) 1687–9 (sole) 1705–d.; custos rot. Flints. 1688–9, 1705–14.2
KC 1673–89; chmn., cttees of supply, and ways and means 2–11 Nov. 1675, 31 May–9 Dec. 1678, 16 Apr. 1679; master of the rolls 1685–9, 1693–d.; PC 6 July–Dec. 1688, 1 Jan. 1691–16 Mar. 1695, 18 June 1702–1 Aug. 1714; solicitor-gen. to Queen Mary 1689–94; first commr. great seal 1690–3.3
Speaker of House of Commons 16 May 1685–2 July 1687, 20 Mar. 1690–14 Mar. 1695.
The Trevors were Denbighshire gentry who had long held the Brynkinallt estate around Chirk, together with substantial lands in co. Down, worth in total about £1,400 p.a. The family had played the usual gentry role in local politics and administration, but they were never as prominent in Wales as the cadet branch of the family based at Trevalyn. The Brynkinallt estate passed to the eldest but ‘idiot’ son Edward in about 1643 and, as a younger son, Trevor found himself launched on a legal career. Initially, he went to London to work as a clerk in the chambers of his uncle Arthur, a family connexion that ensured him a swift entry into the Inner Temple as the son of John Trevor of Rose-Trevar, co. Down. By 1661 he had been called to the bar. His successful legal practice brought him attention and connexions at Westminster, and he managed to ingratiate himself at the Stuart court. In 1671 he was knighted and two years later he became one of the King’s Counsel. The same year he entered Parliament for Castle Rising on the Howard interest. By about 1679 Trevor had inherited the Brynkinallt estate, but never gained the Montgomery seat he desired, eventually gaining a Welsh foothold by taking Denbighshire in the third Exclusion Parliament. He continued as a Court supporter, opposing Exclusion and being chosen Speaker in 1685. He was rewarded for his political contribution in October 1685 with the mastership of the rolls. It is no coincidence that the appointment followed soon after the elevation of his cousin Sir George Jeffreys to the lord chancellorship.4
In the late 1680s Trevor’s former loyalty to James II brought him a temporary reversal of fortune. He only sat in the Convention by virtue of a fortuitous by-election at Bere Alston, Devon, but he was deprived of his mastership of the rolls. Trevor had no intention of vanishing into a political wilderness and successfully set about ingratiating himself with William III and his court. Trevor’s legal background served him well and he was appointed solicitor-general to Queen Mary in 1689, thus giving him access to the ears of the powerful once again. The Convention proved to be a truculent assembly which consistently refused to settle the King’s financial future. Trevor was quick to grasp the possibility of a political comeback, and contemporary reports suggest that he was deeply involved in the process of buying votes for the King in the Commons. He became a self-appointed leader of the Tories during the Convention, and managed to convince the King that elections would result in a more compliant assembly.
By the beginning of the 1690 Parliament Trevor had largely recovered his pre-eminence in both the political and legal worlds and was recognized as a leading figure at Westminster. His guile and devious intelligence had ensured him success but had also given him a rather unscrupulous reputation. The new House was distinctly Tory in composition and someone of similar persuasion was required to chair and effectively lead the Lower Chamber. Trevor was ready to resume his former role as Speaker, even though the King had doubts about him, once commenting to the Marquess of Halifax (George Savile†) that he considered Trevor to be ‘such a knave that it would be objected if he was employed’. These qualms were laid aside as Trevor became increasingly indispensable. It was later claimed that ‘no body living is better able [than Trevor] to give you characters of men fit to serve the King in the House of Commons and the ways of gaining them’.5
After receiving an obvious mark of official favour following his return for a borough in which government influence predominated, Trevor was chosen as Speaker on 20 Mar. 1690. He was proposed by Vice-Chamberlain Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. II, and seconded by Sir Thomas Clarges, a Tory, supported by the Whig Richard Hampden I. There was an attempt by a small group of back-bench Whigs to re-elect Henry Powle, but this was not carried through to an actual challenge. So, in a House of 385 Members, Trevor was accepted without opposition. From this point Trevor’s career went from strength to strength. He was appointed first commissioner of the great seal in June 1690 in the place of Sir John Maynard*, and on 1 Jan. 1691 was restored to the Privy Council. It was even suggested at the end of that year that he might be appointed the next lord chancellor. Two years later, he resumed his former post of master of the rolls.6
Lack of evidence makes it difficult to evaluate Trevor’s conduct in the Chair, although the entries in Narcissus Luttrell’s* parliamentary diary do yield some insight into the manner in which he fulfilled his role. The office was still very much a partisan one and as an acknowledged placeman Trevor was committed to furthering the King’s business. At the same time he was seen as the servant of the Commons and so was expected to be the arbiter of debate and to direct proceedings according to accepted rules and orders. These two aspects of the Speaker’s position were not always compatible and often made the office an uncomfortable one. Members were quick to complain if the Speaker seemed to take undue advantage of his position. On 2 Jan. 1692, when he opposed the reading of a bill for the relief of poor prisoners which had been moved by John Arnold, he was warned by Arnold that ‘he must not now think he was in Chancery, but in the House of Commons to whom he was but a servant and that each Member had a liberty of speech’.7
As Speaker, Trevor could disguise some of his pro-Court endeavours by claiming to be protecting the Commons’ privilege. On 7 Jan. 1692, for instance, he showed himself keen to preserve the Commons against any threat from the Upper House. An undeclared part of Trevor’s agenda was to do everything in his power to delay inter-House proceedings on the bill regarding trials for treason. He advised them against a request from the Lords for an immediate conference in the Painted Chamber. He agreed that the Lords had the power to appoint conference times, but asserted that the Commons might postpone these if they saw fit, and argued that without this safeguard ‘the Lords [would] command this House when they please[d]’. His punctiliousness on this issue led him to break the generally accepted rule that a Speaker should not speak in debate. Despite criticism by Clarges and Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt., he refused to admit any error and insisted that in a matter of privilege he was entitled to contribute to debate. It was Heneage Finch I who clarified the situation by saying that ‘if there be any dispute [over] what is the order of the House, it is the duty of the Chair to set the House right in the matter, but not to debate concerning any order of the House’. Trevor’s tactics worked, and upon a division the Commons rejected the Lords’ request. This same session also provides examples of Trevor’s contribution to debates from the floor of the House in the committee of the whole: on 12 Jan. in a supply debate, and on 28 Jan. when, presumably from personal knowledge, he spoke about the Church in Ireland during the proceedings on the Irish forfeitures bill.8
In the new parliamentary session Trevor was less successful in his attempts to block debate on the legislation concerning treason trials. On 11 Nov. 1692 Sir William Whitelocke wished simply to reintroduce the measure which under his supervision had passed the Commons the previous session but had been lost in the Lords. Trevor insisted that it was not regular to introduce any measure without leave of the House. On this occasion the opposition had gathered strength and were unwilling to accept Trevor’s guidance. Clarges claimed that bills could be presented without leave, with the exception of those concerning money, and so the bill was accepted, read and ordered to proceed to second reading. Similarly, later that month he was responsible for tipping off Secretary Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) about a hostile report he expected from the committee on transportation. Trevor’s advice was that ‘your friends do attend, and that one of them may prime me how you will be served’.9
Trevor clearly knew how to influence debate through the judicious use of his power to decide who should speak, although in theory he could be overruled by a majority of MPs in the House. There is little doubt that official spokesmen were given preferential treatment and allowed to take the floor at the most tactically advantageous moments in debate, but there is nothing to suggest that Trevor acted in any way differently from other Speakers. He was far too astute a politician to use this power as a means of obvious favouritism on a regular basis even though anecdotes about his behaviour in the Chair do exist in plenty. Trevor was very obviously cross-eyed, and tales developed about how this affliction meant that during debate more than one Member believed he had ‘caught the Speaker’s eye’. There may be a thread of truth in such tales but there is nothing to substantiate them in reported debates.10
In normal circumstances Trevor managed to balance the various aspects of his role with relative success. Parliamentary procedure could be manipulated with little difficulty but the degree of success varied according to specific circumstances. On 23 Dec. 1692 a debate was held concerning the day on which the land tax should be considered by the committee of the whole House. The motion was put for Friday 30 Dec. but the Court wanted a date sooner than this. The question was stated for Friday but Trevor, ‘irregularly of his own head without it being moved – put the previous question’. In the division which followed he then ordered the ‘ayes’ to go out, which was contrary to order, as it was the ‘noes’ who were against the despatch of business. Since it was generally held that the side who were to leave the chamber were at a disadvantage, Trevor’s incorrect behaviour was noted, though he was not taken to task. The previous question was negated by 200 votes to 119 whereby it was resolved to the Court’s advantage that the committee would be held on Wednesday 28 Dec. Trevor was not averse to using similar tactics when he judged them necessary, such as on 1 Mar. 1693 when he sent the wrong side out during a vote on the orphans bill.11
Trevor did occasionally risk the House’s displeasure by his manipulation of business as occurred, for example, on 23 Feb. 1693 in a debate on extending the time for continuing the customs of tonnage and poundage towards the cost of the war with France. In his desire to advance the issue Trevor decided to take advantage of poor attendance and the lateness of the hour. Instead of stating the question for a committee in the words of the Member’s motion, he framed the question himself, adding the words that the matter should be considered the next day. Musgrave immediately checked Trevor severely for acting ‘contrary to the duty of the Chair’. On this occasion, Trevor’s departure from accepted practice acted against him, and the House’s criticism was reflected in the fact that the motion was lost.12
Trevor’s Speakership came to an abrupt end in March 1695 when he found himself at the centre of a major inquiry into abuse and corruption. On 7 Mar. a disorderly House heard that it ‘was said both public and private business came to market there and neither could be done unless paid for’. The accusations attracted particular attention amid fears and apprehensions about governmental expenditure on the war. At the heart of these concerns were mounting suspicions that certain MPs had received payments from the city of London and the East India Company in return for forwarding the progress of legislation sponsored or favoured by these two powerful groups. Trevor was implicated in action on behalf of both, but it was the money he received from the City which led to his expulsion. The Commons appointed a committee of nine to investigate and then report on the allegations. James Vernon I* commented to Lord Lexington that ‘there is something working in the House of Commons that don’t yet appear; not but that it is sufficiently talked of without doors, particularly against the Speaker for having taken money to promote private bills’.13
In private conversation Trevor had admitted accepting money from the City following the passage of the London orphans bill in 1694, but argued that his actions did not constitute impropriety of any kind. Indeed, there is no direct evidence that Trevor actually did anything to further the progress of the orphans bill, although the City had no doubt been willing to pay handsomely, if only to ensure the Speaker’s goodwill in the Chamber. However, Trevor’s outward assurance soon began to crumble. On 12 Mar. 1695 Paul Foley I reported from the committee that two years previously, on 12 Feb. 1693, the common council of London had ordered that: ‘Mr Chamberlain [should] pay to the Hon. Sir John Trevor . . . the sum of one thousand guineas as soon as a bill be passed into an Act of Parliament for satisfying the debts of the orphans and other creditors of the said City.’ The order was endorsed with the information that the payment had indeed been made on 22 June 1694 in the presence of witnesses (Sir Robert Clayton* and Sir James Houblon*) from the common council. The report led to a four-hour debate on Trevor’s behaviour. At nine o’clock in the evening, after candles had been brought in, Trevor was placed in the unenviable position of having to state the question on a motion condemning his own behaviour. The House decided that he was guilty ‘of a high crime and misdemeanour’. The following day the House met ‘between eleven and twelve o’clock’, but Trevor was absent, having been ‘taken with a violent fit of the colic’ and so the House was forced to adjourn. On 14 Mar. the House met and heard a second letter of apology from Trevor. Comptroller Wharton (Thomas) then announced that the King had given leave for the election of a new Speaker so that business could continue. Two days later, on the 16th, the House ordered Trevor’s expulsion.14
As investigations proceeded into other allegations of bribery and corruption, Trevor’s reputation was blackened even further. A month after his expulsion, the Commons received a report from the joint committee of the Lords and Commons which had been examining the receipt of monies by MPs from the East India Company. The company had been granted a favourable new royal charter in the autumn of 1693, undoubtedly helped by financial rewards for support. Upon examination, Sir Basil Firebrace*, a former interloper against the company, had confessed his knowledge of the distribution of these monies. He claimed that Trevor had received 200 guineas as a new year’s gift and, in addition, the East India Company had set aside £10,000 for distribution among Sir Edward Seymour, the Treasury secretary Henry Guy, and Trevor. Seymour had rejected the offer, telling Firebrace that ‘if he made any more such proffers, he would never have any thing more to do with him’. Firebrace claimed to have paid ‘two thirds of the £5,000 . . . to Sir John Trevor and Mr Guy’. In an atmosphere which had become highly charged such revelations could not be ignored and on 3 May the House of Commons decided that Trevor should be impeached for these misdemeanours. The ex-Speaker only avoided this further disgrace by the prorogation of Parliament the following month.15
To an anonymous contemporary pamphleteer, Trevor had been rightly punished, ‘so just a horror, so noble an indignation had this august assembly for his crime’. This might suggest that the Commons had acted out of an exaggerated sense of moral outrage. But with the Speakership growing more prestigious in this period, it is indeed conceivable that the Commons were now less prepared than formerly to allow financial misdeeds by occupants of the Chair to pass by unnoticed. There was no doubt considerable feeling that Trevor’s misconduct had badly compromised the honour of the House. It seems clear, however, that political factors were uppermost in deciding Trevor’s fate. As one of the few highly placed Tories left in office following the influx of Whigs into office the previous year, Trevor was an obvious target for senior Whig politicians. When accusations began to fly, his remarkable confidence rested on the belief that he had the total support of the ministerialist Whigs led by Charles Montagu, chancellor of the Exchequer, and Comptroller Wharton. In addition, Trevor claimed that he could defend himself from attack by broadcasting ‘things of greater import’, though there is no clear evidence of what he meant by this or whether it was merely an empty threat. In later correspondence with the Earl of Portland, Henry Guy noted how Trevor had indeed been assured of Montagu’s support at a supper meeting. In a matter of days the situation had changed as Montagu joined forces with the Country Whigs under the leadership of Paul Foley. Montagu’s apparent betrayal may have resulted from the need to find a high-placed scapegoat to restore some kind of political calm. It is also possible that Trevor’s fate was part of a more complex political deal between Montagu and Foley.16
Trevor’s implication in charges of corruption brought his career in the Commons to an end, but it did not prevent his survival in public office. He retained the mastership of the rolls with its salary of £4,000 p. a. until his death. In June 1702 he was appointed a Privy Councillor and from 1705 was restored to his Welsh offices. Trevor died intestate in London on 20 May 1717 and was buried in the Rolls Chapel in Chancery Lane ten days later. A man of considerable wealth, he was reputed to have left a fortune of £60,000 which was divided among his children. Trevor’s sons died without heirs and the Brynkinallt estate eventually passed to his daughter Anne whose elder son from her first marriage, Trevor Hill, was created Viscount Hillsborough [I] in 1717; her second husband was Viscount Midleton [I] (Alan Brodrick†).17