FORD, Henry (1617-84), of Nutwell Court, Woodbury, Devon.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



6 Apr. 1664
Mar. 1679
Oct. 1679

Family and Education

bap. 19 Jan. 1617, o. (posth.) s. of Henry Ford of Bagtor, Ilsington by Catherine, da. and h. of George Drake of Spratshayes, Exmouth; half-bro. of John Cloberry. educ. Exeter, Oxf. 1634-6. m. 25 Feb. 1641, Eleanor (d. 3 Feb. 1673), da. of Sir Henry Rowe of Shacklewell, Hackney, Mdx., 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 4da. suc. fa. at birth; kntd. 20 July 1672.1

Offices Held

J.p. Devon 1644, July 1660-d., commr. for oyer and terminer, Western circuit July 1660, assessment, Devon Aug. 1660-80, lt.-col. of militia ft. c. Aug. 1660-?69, commr. for corporations 1662-3, recusants 1675, dep. lt. 1676-d.2

Sec. to ld. lt. [I] 1669-70, 1672-3; commr. for sick and wounded 1672-4.3

FRS 1663-82.


Ford bore a surname which was ancient and widespread in Devon. An ancestor represented the county in 1348. His uncle, John Ford, was the favourite dramatist at the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. After leaving Oxford, Ford spent much of his early youth in litigation with his stepfather. He was present at the trial of Strafford in 1641, but took no part in the Civil War, though his sympathies were undoubtedly royalist, and he was nominated to the commission of the peace at Oxford in 1644. He bought Nutwell for £6,050 in 1649. During the Interregnum he achieved local celebrity as one of the circle of ‘topping wits’ who revolved round Thomas Clifford. By 1659 he had gravitated to London and joined the Rota Club.4

Ford contested Lostwithiel on the Robartes interest at the general election of 1660, an expensive business, for he induced the mayor to make a double return on condition of saving him harmless. It is not known whether he stood in 1661, but he was again defeated in 1662 at Newport; his petition was never reported to the House. Perhaps he was not a very good candidate; ‘his generous mind was above the little creeping arts of insinuation’. But once he entered Parliament at a by-election for Tiverton in 1664, his seat proved impregnable, in spite of adverse political currents. ‘He had a very endearing deportment, and was no less successful than ready in serving and befriending others.’ Ford was a very active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, sitting on 187 committees and acting as teller in 18 divisions. ‘He was an excellent orator, and spoke every thing he had to say with a graceful presence, both of mind and body.’ The diarists mention 36 of his speeches. He had not been many months in Parliament before he was chosen chairman of two committees on private bills, one promoted by Lord Strangford (Philip Smythe), the other by his fellow-Devonian, the Duke of Albemarle (George Monck). He was named to the committee to consider the miscarriages of the war in 1667, and on 8 May 1668 reproved Richard Hampden for speaking in favour of a dissolution, which had been one of the charges against Clarendon. In 1669 he went to Ireland as secretary to Lord Robartes. Robartes was not a success as lord lieutenant, and Ford returned to England with him the following year. He first came to the fore in the Commons in 1671 as a warm defender of the Church. When John Birch proposed a discriminatory tax on church dignitaries, Ford replied that they were not envied by good men, ‘and they had better be envied than pitied by Birch’. It was perhaps in the course of this debate that the following incident occurred, unrecorded by Anchitell Grey:

‘Mr Speaker’, says he, ‘I never heard a good motion from that nook of the House’ (nodding to it), and then paused; whereupon some of the party called, ‘To the bar, to the bar’. ... But being permitted once more to speak, he said, ‘Mr Speaker, I never heard a good motion from that nook of the House— but I was ready to second it’.

He appears in both court and opposition lists at this time as a supporter of the court party, but he was also careful of his constituents’ interests, acting as chairman of the committee for the regulation of serge manufactures, their principal industry.5

In the third Dutch war, Ford succeeded Clifford as commissioner for the sick and wounded, but soon returned to Ireland as secretary to Lord Lieutenant Essex. His intention was obviously to look about him, but he was soon complaining: ‘I find every place full here’. According to his biographer, ‘he was never fortunate in his designs for himself or family; nor may it be concealed that he was sometimes too overweening in his opinion’. His second tenure of office in Ireland lasted little longer than the first, and in December 1673 he was dismissed for disclosing official secrets and replaced by William Harbord. To make matters worse, his patron Clifford (to whom he had conveyed a friendly message from the Roman Catholic archbishop of Dublin) had revealed himself a Papist and fallen from power. Ford himself came under suspicion, and seems to have been unable to find another patron; perhaps he was already recognizable as that pathetic but familiar figure, the politician with a great future behind him. He flattered Lauderdale publicly without response; he was named on the Paston list, attended the meeting of the court caucus on 14 Apr. 1675, and acted as teller against the first article on the impeachment of Danby, who put him down for an excise pension of £300, but omitted to pay it; he attached himself to Edward Seymour, and then offended ‘the King of the West Saxons’ irredeemably by contradicting him on his pet hobby-horse, the ill effects on Devon of the import of Irish cattle. Meanwhile his financial circumstances grew desperate; his paternal estate had to be sold, and the author of Flagellum Parliamentarium sneered: ‘so much in debt he cannot help taking his bribe and promise of employment’. A Seasonable Argument(which seems to have been well informed on all but the most vital point) ascribed to him ‘a pension of £300 p.a., which is almost all he has to subsist on’.6

Ford was never more active in Parliament than in the five years following his second return from Ireland. He was immediately added to the committee for the impeachment of Arlington, whom he threatened to denounce for attending Mass, and named to the committee to consider the state of Ireland. On alnage, however, a real grievance to the woollen manufacturers of his constituency, ‘the House would not endure Sir Henry Ford’s project of repealing the law’. Between 1675 and 1678 he served on five committees for the exclusion of Papists from Parliament or the suppression of Popery, two for the appropriation of the customs for the navy, and two for the better preservation of the liberty of the subject. He appears in 1675 on the working lists as to be influenced by Seymour, and as a government speaker. In this capacity he was sometimes quite effective. ‘If such sums have been spent for secretservice’, he asked William Cavendish, Lord Cavendish, ‘how does that Lord know they have been misspent? Our addresses take no effect, because what things are alleged are not made good.’ On 6 May he was teller for the motion to continue the debate on Lauderdale. He was also prominent in the disputes on jurisdiction with the other House; he was sent to the Lords on 18 May to desire a conference, though he denied that he had accompanied the serjeant-at-arms when the four lawyers were arrested in Westminster Hall. He was teller for the Government on at least three crucial divisions on supply, two in the autumn of 1675 and one on 5 Mar. 1677. But by the latter date, Ford’s attitude was already causing anxiety to Danby’s managers in the Commons. ‘Sir Harry Ford relies upon my friendship to be remembered for something to come in time by your lordship’, wrote Sir Richard Wiseman to Danby. ‘Mr Harbord disserves the King and is put in; Sir Henry Ford serves the King and is put out. Truly, my lord, Sir Harry Ford must not be forgotten.’ It was in the field of foreign policy that he showed his independence, voting against the Government on the alliance with Holland in May 1677, though he was against immediate war with France. Nevertheless Shaftesbury noted him as ‘thrice vile’. His defection from the Court was ascribed to the influence of Seymour, in spite of the brisk exchange between them a few weeks before on the subject of Irish cattle. His speech was well calculated to infuriate his opponent:

Reason has but a few proselytes both within doors and without. ...’Tis the populace that makes the value of the land. There is no reason for Irish land being of low value, but the poverty of the people, and not the fifth part of Ireland peopled. Will you take away so beneficial a thing from your fellow-subjects?... The thing is indifferent to his country, and he will make no motion in it.

His name disappeared from the official lists of government speakers and court supporters from this time, but he was rewarded by a position of new authority in the House, acting as chairman for five bills, though on the bill to prevent the export of wool he had to give way to George Treby. On 29 Apr. 1678, Ford found himself partnered by none other than Birch in a division for maintaining their disagreement with the Lords on the growth of Popery, and the next day he was named to the committee on foreign policy. But he was still essentially moderate and on 15 June opposed the motion for no further supply. He was sent to the Lords on 27 June to desire a conference on disbanding the army, for which he later prepared reasons. With his colleague, Samuel Foote, he opposed the bill to encourage export of leather, but they were beaten on the division by 141 votes to 72. Nevertheless he was ordered to carry the bill to the Upper House. He also took part in two conferences on the bill for burial in woollen. In the autumn session Ford was comparatively inactive, but on 21 Dec. 1678 he courageously defied the storm aroused by the revelations of Ralph Montagu. He would not accept them as proof of treason till he knew whether or not Danby had authority by place or patent to conduct these negotiations.7

Perhaps Ford’s patriotic stand on foreign policy, coupled with his care for the economic interests of his constituency, was sufficient to scare off opposition there. In any case he was returned to the first Exclusion Parliament, though included in the list of the ‘unanimous club’ and labelled ‘vile’ by Shaftesbury. He was again very active, sitting on 18 committees, of which the most important were for the security and habeas corpus bills. He was chairman of the committee to examine the aspersions on the informer Dugdale. He made three speeches, including the perhaps rather uneasy demand that Stephen Fox should name the recipients of secret service money, and the amounts. Despite voting against the exclusion bill, he was reelected in August 1679. He still had influence in government circles, and he was still active in the second Exclusion Parliament, being named to 13 committees, of which the most important was to draft the address for the dismissal of Halifax. He spoke out against the second exclusion bill, pointing out that neither Act of Parliament nor attainder had sufficed to exclude Henry VII from the throne:

I am as fond as any man of the Protestant religion, but I offer to your consideration how far the legality of this bill will be.

He opposed the address for the removal of Laurence Hyde, whose only crime was to have the Duke of York for a brother-in-law. This may well have been Ford’s last appearance in the House, for though he was re-elected in 1681 his name does not appear in the records of the Oxford Parliament.8

Ford’s biographer describes him as

of a sanguine, fair complexion, and consequently of a lively, cheerful humour. For stature, he was something above the common standard, of a very graceful, portly presence, a ready elocution and agreeable conversation. His discourse was neat and historical, the subject of it curious, and out of the common road of entertainment. ... He was looked upon as the glory of the west, for his abilities and steady principles both of Church and state.

This might be regarded as a polite return of favours which Prince acknowledged having received in early life from Ford, but it is in part no more than an echo of the opposition squib, The Chequer Inn:

The western glory, Henry Ford,
His landlord Bales outeat, outroar’d,
And did the trenchers lick.
What pity ’tis a wit so great
Should live to sell himself for meat.

There was indeed a strong element of pathos in Ford’s later years. His one hope lay in an advantageous match for his eldest son, who insisted, however, on marrying a portionless girl. Ford naturally disinherited him, but there was no chance of saving the estate. Ford was buried at Woodbury on 12 Sept. 1684; under his will, his trustees had to raise £1,000 for his daughters’ portions, and next year Nutwell was sold by John Kelland on their behalf to Henry Pollexfen for £6,318.9

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Authors: M. W. Helms / John. P. Ferris


This biography is based on J. Prince, Worthies of Devon (published in 1701).

  • 1. Vivian, Vis. Devon, 350; St. John at Hackney par. reg.; HMC Dartmouth, iii. 116.
  • 2. A. Jenkins, Exeter, 174; HMC 14th Rep. IX, 274.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1671-2, p. 265; 1673-5, p. 63.
  • 4. Trans. Devon Assoc. xlv. 259; Grey, vii. 203; Devon RO, 364M/T409; Aubrey, Brief Lives, i. 290.
  • 5. CJ, viii. 55, 604, 670; ix. 299; Milward, 300; Grey, i. 362.
  • 6. CSP Dom. 1671-2, p. 265; 1672, p. 528, 1673-5, p. 63; Stowe 204, f. 170v; Essex Pprs. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xlvii), 85-86; Grey, iii. 214, iv. 328; Lysons, Devon, 292.
  • 7. Stowe 204, ff. 65, 225; HMC 9th Rep. pt. 2, p. 54; Foxcroft, Halifax, i. 129; Grey, ii. 413; iii, 88, 215, 267; iv. 312, 328; vi. 376.
  • 8. Grey, iv. 238; vii. 322, 426; PC2/69, f. 30; HMC 12th Rep. IX, 113.
  • 9. HMC Lords, n.s. i. II; PCC 85 Cann; Lady Eliott-Drake, Fam. and Heirs of Drake, ii. 61; Devon RO, 364M/T390.