SWINFEN, John (1613-94), of Swinfen, Weeford, Staffs.

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



30 Oct. 1645
Mar. 1679
1690 - 12 Apr. 1694

Family and Education

b. 19 Mar. 1613, 1st s. of Richard Swinfen of Swinfen by Joan, da. of George Curtal alias Harman of Weeford. educ. Pembroke, Camb. 1628, BA 1632. m. 26 July 1632, Anne (bur. 29 Apr. 1690), da. of John Brandreth of Weeford, 6s. d.v.p. 4da. suc. fa. 1659.2

Offices Held

J.p. Staffs. 1645-7, 1656-?Mar. 1660, Mar. 1688-?d.; commr. for assessment 1645-8, Aug. 1660-80, 1689-90, militia 1648, Mar. 1660, recusants 1675.

Commr. for exclusion from sacrament 1646, indemnity 1647-9, scandalous offences 1648, customs Feb.-Sept. 1660; Councillor of State 25 Feb.-31 May 1660.3


Swinfen’s ancestry can be traced back only to Tudor times, and the family had never attained any importance in the county or sat at Westminster. A Swinfen became an active member of the county committee during the Civil War, and recruiter for Stafford. ‘A rigid Presbyterian of the Long Parliament’, he was briefly imprisoned after Pride’s Purge and again in 1651. After taking an active part in Richard Cromwell’s Parliament, he returned again to Westminster with the other secluded Members, and was appointed to the Council of State and the board of customs.4

At the general election of 1660 Swinfen was returned for Stafford and marked as a friend by Lord Wharton, who reserved him for his own management. He was one of the Presbyterian group who secured the election of Sir Harbottle Grimston as Speaker, and on the same day he was sent to ask Richard Baxter to assist in a day of fasting and humiliation. He could not resist reproving Edmund Ludlow for the ‘paring and straitening’ that had led to the collapse of the anti-royalist cause. An active Member of the Convention, he was named to 57 committees, including the committee of elections and privileges, the drafting committee, and those to consider the confirmation of land purchases and parliamentary privileges, and to confer with the Lords about the King’s reception. In the first of his 19 recorded speeches he supported the petition from the intruded dons at Oxford. He was incensed at the republication of the bishops’ protest against their exclusion from the Long Parliament by mob violence, and was named to the committee of inquiry. He opposed the extension of double taxation to Protestant dissenters. It was always his contention that they differed from the Church only in respect of ceremonies which grated on their consciences, and he therefore favoured separating the discussion of discipline and doctrine. On 27 July he and William Prynne asked the House to give an immediate second reading to a bill to confirm Presbyterian ministers like his brother, who was about to be ejected from a Staffordshire living, and he was named to the committee. He was also appointed to the committees to inquire into the state of the queen mother’s jointure and to settle the revenue. He served on the committee that established the names of the regicides, and urged favour for those who had obeyed the proclamation to give themselves up, though he was far from condoning their crime:

What he spoke for was for the honour of the House. ... The proclamation was obligatory; though there were in it no positive promises, yet ’twas as much as the House could give.

He supported a conference with the Lords, which he helped to manage. He was prepared to give way on excepting John Lambert and Sir Henry Vane, though he hoped that the House would petition for mercy; but to create numerous exceptions would violate the spirit of the proclamation. Before the recess he helped to consider an establishment for Dunkirk, to draft instructions on the order in which regiments should be disbanded, and to manage a conference on settling ministers. In the second session he was added to the committee to bring in a militia bill. Wharton sent him a copy of the case for modified episcopacy, and in the debate of 28 Nov. he was the last speaker to advocate a law to give effect to the Worcester House declaration, saying that ‘nothing was more hoped for by the people’. He took the chair for a Derbyshire estate bill, supported a grant of £1,000 to the sister of John Lane for helping the King to escape, helped to prepare for a conference on the college leases bill, and acted as manager of a conference on wine licences.5

Swinfen was returned unopposed for Tamworth in 1661 on the interest of Lord Paget, whose rents in the borough he collected, though his own income was estimated at no less than £2,000 by a local Royalist, who described him as ‘a very prudent, able man’. He was again active in the Cavalier Parliament, with 200 committee appointments, seven tellerships, and over a hundred recorded speeches. As one of the leaders of the small Presbyterian group, he was sufficiently prominent to be known to Samuel Pepys as ‘great Mr Swinfen, the Parliament man’. His committees in the opening session included those to consider the security bill and to draft a proviso after the third reading debate. He was also named to the committees for restoring the bishops to the House of Lords, the bill against tumultuary petitioning, the uniformity bill, and the bill for the execution of those under attainder. In the second session he was appointed only to a committee for a Sabbatarian bill, a matter always dear to his heart, and on 11 May 1663 he was granted a fortnight’s leave. He probably did not return to Westminster until March 1664 when he was appointed to the committees for the revived Lord’s Day observance bill and the conventicles bill, later acting against an amendment reserving the power of the ecclesiastical courts. He supported the repeal of the Triennal Act, arguing that ‘no coercion ought to be on the King or his Government, other than his oath and honour’. On 14 Feb. 1665 he reported a canal bill and carried it to the Lords. He was probably absent from the Oxford session, in which he was named to no committees.6

Swinfen resumed a more prominent position in the Commons in 1666, when he was among those ordered to inspect the accounts of the navy, ordnance and stores. In the debate of 13 Oct. on prohibiting the import of cattle from Ireland, he ‘made an excellent speech for the bill, which none that opposed him did answer’. Two days later John Milward recorded that ‘Mr Swinfen and that party’ were much against the proposal of Humphrey Orme to redeem the hearth-tax. Apparently in alliance with the Seymour interest in his constituency, he opposed in division and debate the bill to enable (Sir) Thomas Higgons to recover £4,550 from the dowager duchess of Somerset, ostensibly as a breach of the Act of Indemnity. He sought to force the adjournment of the supply debate on 8 Nov. by opposing the motion for candles. When the Irish cattle bill returned from the Lords Swinfen was teller for agreeing to a restricted import for the relief of the London poor. He helped to draw up reasons for a conference on the Canary patent. After taking part in searching for precedents for the impeachment of Mordaunt, he was among those appointed to manage a conference. At another conference on 2 Jan. 1667, on the Irish cattle bill and other matters, Pepys rejoiced at hearing the ‘exceeding good discourses’, especially from Swinfen and Sir Thomas Meres, who did ‘outdo the Lords infinitely’.7

In the session following the dismissal of Clarendon Swinfen was named to the committees to inquire into restraints on juries and the miscarriages of the second Dutch war. He was against sending Peter Pett to the Tower. He was chiefly responsible for the rejection as contrary to the Act of Indemnity of the charge against Clarendon of holding correspondence with Cromwell. But he helped to draw up reasons for a conference, and thought the Lords should be required to commit the fallen minister, despite the lack of satisfactory precedents. After his speech he was added to the conference managers, and on 29 Nov. reported the first part of the conference. On 2 Dec. he proposed a resolution that the Lords were obstructing the public justice of the kingdom. Clarendon’s flight, in his view, justified his attitude, but he objected to the banishment bill, as contrary to honour and justice, especially to do it upon reason of state.

The legislative power of Parliaments is great; it hath no bound but the integrity and justice of Parliaments. ... The precedent is also dangerous, if, having gone so far in a judicial way, you should now go in a legislative. If upon reason of state lords may be banished, it may be by dozens.

Clarendon might claim that ‘he is condemned without hearing on witness, against the law of nature and nations. ... As you proceed justly, so you will be justified.’ Nevertheless he was appointed to the committee for the bill, and helped to prepare reasons for a conference on freedom of speech in Parliament.8

After the recess Swinfen strongly opposed the continuance of the Conventicles Act. On 4 Mar. 1668 he put the case for relaxation:

What has the severity of the laws produced? So many poorer subjects than we had before, and the crown weakened. Does anything of this tend to the honour of this House, or the safety of us abroad? What service is in the bishops’ courts that is answerable to the discontents that this Penal Law gives? He is not for anything of toleration as to parties, but to indulge tender consciences that dissent only in ceremonies.

When the debate was resumed a week later he

urged that by reason of the late wars there has been a long and great separation from the Church, in which time many have been brought up in a form of worship; and knowing no other, it will be hard and not easy upon the sudden to reduce their consciences to that discipline they were never acquainted with.

On 8 Apr. he said that it was very just to refer the problem to the King ‘because of his declaration from Breda, whereby he stands obliged to have regard to their tender consciences and to give them indulgence’, and described the dissenters as ‘a people in communion with us [sic] in doctrine, though not in ceremonies’. He helped to draft the impeachment of (Sir) William Penn and to deliver it to the Lords, and he was among those ordered to manage a conference on Skinner’s case.9

Swinfen may have been disappointed at the failure to obtain relief for nonconformists, for he was considerably less prominent in the next two sessions. Probably because the Seymour interest at Tamworth had been transferred to Lord Clifford (Charles Boyle), he was now reckoned among the friends of Ormonde, who was at odds with Clifford’s uncle Lord Orrery (Roger Boyle). He spoke rather doubtfully in the debate on Orrery’s impeachment in 1669, and disliked the arguments both for and against Sir George Carteret. In March 1670 he was appointed to committees on bills for preventing illegal imprisonment and regulating juries, and acted as teller against Clifford’s election as his colleague. In December he was, surprisingly enough, named to a committee for an additional conventicles bill, and allowed to make a long discourse in supply committee on the problems of tax assessment, though this was quite irregular, since the House had already agreed to a subsidy.

The great point and what deserves our first consideration is the laying it upon intrinsic value of land. By so laying it, you put the whole kingdom to make a new levy. It will be found a vast work, and impossible; you must come to a consideration of every man’s estate, high or low. In sessions it is a hard matter to get a constable in a great parish, where apparently they are unequal, to give in a true value. The rich feeding and meadow lands are known. Of west and north that are on old rents you never know, and never can, the true value; and lands vary in value every year. That strangers be put in commissioners will never do, for you will have strange values brought in every country, who will think it their interest to give in the lowest value and hide it from strangers, because it will be a standing value. ... Therefore would have it well weighed, whether by intrinsic value or a subsidiary way.

He adopted a moderate position over the assault on Sir John Coventry; other business, he urged, should be deferred only until the bill to punish the assailants had passed the Commons. He was added to the committee to bring in the bill on 12 Jan. 1671, and was among those ordered to consider an expedient on one of the Lords’ amendments.10

In the session that opened in February 1673 Swinfen condemned the issue of writs for by-elections by Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury without the Speaker’s warrant. He had ‘not heard one precedent offered where such elections have been allowed of, if notice taken of them’; but inspection of the Journals should decide the matter. He was concerned to retain the benefits of the Declaration of Indulgence for nonconformists without compromising the legislative monopoly of Parliament. He helped to prepare the address against the suspending power, though he thought it would be very dangerous to attempt to distinguish the functions of the three estates in the legislative process; and on the other hand he moved for a bill to relieve Protestant dissenters, ‘which cannot but appear well, both to King and people’. He served on the committees that brought in the bill of ease and produced the test bill, and helped to manage a conference on the address against the growth of Popery. He spoke against the Lords’ amendment to the bill of ease requiring beneficiaries to renounce the Covenant, and was among those ordered to draw up reasons for a conference. On the last morning of the session he acted as teller against adjourning the debate on an address for printing grievances. In 1674 he demanded ‘judicial proof’ against Buckingham before depriving him of his freehold office. He preferred impeachment to addressing against Arlington, and was named to the committee to consider the charges. On the peace with Holland he adhered to the country party line: ‘all he knows is that he does not know how we entered into the war, and that you know the sad effects of it; blood, and treasure, and loss of trade’. He was among those ordered to report on commitments by the Privy Council and on the state of Ireland.11

Swinfen had been asserting the privilege of the Commons against the Lords since his entry into political life, and he was fully involved in the disputes of 1675, though he did not condemn outright the appellate jurisdiction of the Upper House.

’Tis good the Lords have appeals from Chancery. It would be worse to have them under the determination of a chancellor or in a judge’s breast. Much better so many judges in the Lords’ House. ... Now there’s an universal appeal by frequency of Parliaments; the Lords’ House becomes a standing court over the Chancery which could not be when Parliaments were short.

In all, he delivered 11 speeches on the subject, managed two conferences, and prepared for five. He was appointed to committees for the bills to facilitate the conviction of recusants and to hinder Papists from sitting in Parliament. On 25 Oct. he proposed a resolution designed to prevent further provocation of William, Lord Cavendish, over his quarrel with Col. Thomas Howard, took the chair in the drafting committee, and was also named to the committee to bring in a bill to prevent duels and challenges. He helped to manage a conference on British subjects in the French service. In the debate of 12 Nov. on regulating parliamentary elections he could see no possibility of laying down general qualifications that would be free from problems of interpretation; but he hoped to prevent ‘exorbitant corruption’, and was named to the committee to bring in a bill. After the long recess he demanded that the Speaker should form a question on whether the House now sat by adjournment or prorogation, and was marked ‘thrice worthy’ on Shaftesbury’s list. On the second reading of the perennial bill sponsored by John Birch to abolish poverty by compelling every parish to plant half an acre of hemp and flax, he said: ‘He thinks it a great confidence in Birch to teach all gentlemen and farmers in England how to husband their land. If there be any profit in planting hemp and flax, there needs no way to compel men to it’. He thought it ‘scarce honourable or honest’ for Members to demand wages after so long a lapse. He helped to manage the conference of 11 Apr. 1677 on building warships, and five days later carried the bill for better observance of the Lord’s Day to the Upper House.12

Swinfen devoted most of his energies throughout 1678 to obstructing defence expenditure, especially on the army, because ‘when once ’tis raised, no man knows when ’twill be laid aside’. He opposed the tax on new buildings and the poll-tax because of uncertainty over their yield. He helped to manage the conference of 9 Mar. on fresh-water fishing, and was named to the committees to summarize alliances and to draft an address for the removal of counsellors. On 7 May he said: ‘We have an army raised, and plainly see it goes not against France; and by votes from this House the alliances are in no way pursuant to our addresses’. Later in the month he urged immediate disbandment while it was possible for the common soldiers to obtain Summer employment. He attended the conference of 20 June to hear the dispatch from Sir Leoline Jenkins announcing a last-minute hitch in the peace negotiations at Nymwegen. The disbandment bee was still buzzing so loudly in Swinfen’s bonnet that he took little part in the more sensational episodes in the last session of the Cavalier Parliament. He helped to draft the addresses for disarming recusants and against private advices, and he was among those ordered to inquire whether a new militia bill might be brought in after the royal veto. When Danby produced letters implicating the Hon. William Russell in French intrigues, he urged that they should be dismissed with contempt.13

Swinfen retained his seat in the first Exclusion Parliament, though only after an expensive contest with the churchman Sir Andrew Hacket, and in alliance with Thomas Thynne I, who had succeeded to the Seymour interest. Classed as ‘worthy’ by Shaftesbury, he was an active Member, with 15 committees, including the elections committee, and 11 recorded speeches. He was among those entrusted with a report on matters in progress in the last Parliament for the benefit of new Members. He atoned for previous inactivity over the Popish Plot by excessive credulity, telling the House that he had heard from ‘an understanding gentleman’ in Staffordshire of some incriminating expressions in a letter from Lord Aston to Lord Stafford, and found them repeated word for word in the news-sheets. He was named to the committees to consider the bill for security against Popery and to draw up an address for the immediate execution of convicted priests. The Privy Council, he said, had failed the King ‘in the discovery of this horrible plot’, and the episcopate likewise. How was it that in their visitations the bishops had failed to uncover a single Jesuit? ‘Geneva itself’, exclaimed the indignant churchman (Sir) Thomas Clarges, ‘could not more reflect upon the holy hierarchy.’ He was among those ordered to prepare reasons for nominating a joint committee of both Houses for managing the impeachments of the lords in the Tower. In the debate on exclusion of 11 May he spoke at length, and so effectively that he was named to the committee to bring in a bill:

I take this case we are upon to be either the preservation or the ruin of the kingdom, in one short word. ... A prince subjects himself to the laws of that religion that utterly extirpates heretics, and that prince undertakes their extirpation when he undertakes the Romish religion; and by that I would describe the danger we are in. ... With the Duke’s title to the crown as it stands now, I do not see so much as a probability to secure you by the laws that should secure you, because they can never come to be executed. ... I take it for granted that, in case of a Popish successor, all that are considerable persons will either go out of the kingdom, [or] those that remain about the King will adore the rising sun, and no man knows when that sun will set.

On 24 May he was appointed to another committee to prepare reasons on the trials of the lords.14

Swinfen did not Originally intend to stand for reelection in August, but changed his mind under pressure from Lord Paget and Richard Hampden. Hacket defeated him by only one vote, it was alleged, and that cast by the vicar. But after obtaining a copy of the poll he did not pursue his petition. He regained his seat in 1681; there was a double return, but his name was on both indentures, and he took his seat in the Oxford Parliament. He was named to the elections committee, and supported the vote of thanks to those constituencies that had returned Members without charge: ‘where there has been a general corruption, and all have not done their duty, you should distinguish and give thanks to them that have’. His speech on exclusion, rebutting the analogy drawn by Henry Coventry of three physicians proposing different remedies for the same patient, attracted considerable attention. He maintained that ‘all the expedients have been to increase the fears of the kingdom,’ and that there was no need of a grand committee for a thing so often debated.15

Swinfen did not stand in 1685, and unlike his brother he was not taken into preventive custody on Monmouth’s landing. But in 1687 he considered that for ‘honest men’ to decline their candidature, as in 1660, would ‘betray the interest of England’. Although he believed that ‘churchmen must not be trusted’, he was recommended by Thynne (now Lord Weymouth) to the corporation of Tamworth, and it was reported that the chapter of Lichfield were convinced that

Mr Swinfen is the fittest man to serve them, for they now see they were mistaken in him, and understand by information ... that he has carried [himself] in all Parliaments with great moderation and temper.

He was appointed to the Staffordshire bench in March 1688, and proposed as court candidate for Tamworth. But he was rejected by the royal electoral agents as ‘superannuated’; he had suffered a stroke in the previous year, and ‘absolutely declined to stand’. He did not sit in the Convention, but was returned for Bere Alston in 1690 as a court Whig. He died on 112 Apr. 1694, and was buried at Weeford. His grandson Richard was returned for Tamworth as a Whig in 1708 and 1723.16

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Authors: A. M. Mimardière / Basil Duke Henning


  • 1. Secluded at Pride’s Purge, 6 Dec. 1648, readmitted 21 Feb. 1660.
  • 2. Staffs. Parl. Hist. (Wm. Salt Arch. Soc.), ii. 77-78; Shaw, Staffs. ii. 28*, 29*.
  • 3. CJ, vii. 853; Ludlow Mems. ii. 239.
  • 4. Shaw ii. 25, 29*; Committee at Stafford (Staffs. Rec. Soc. ser. 4, i), p. xxiii; Gentry of Staffs. (Staffs. Rec. Soc. ser. 4, ii), 29; CSP Dom. 1651, pp. 114, 132.
  • 5. Bramston Autobiog. (Cam. Soc. xxxii), 116-17; CJ, viii. 1, 128, 162, 197, 233; Voyce from the Watch Tower, 121; Bowman diary, ff. 25v, 37, 69v, 83v, 98, 106, 151v; A. G. Matthews, Calamy Revised, 473; Old Parl. Hist. xxii. 443, 447-8; xxiii. 30, 59.
  • 6. Gentry of Staffs. 29; Pepys Diary, 10 Nov. 1662; CJ, viii. 565; Add. 35865, f. 213.
  • 7. Milward, 22, 24; CJ, viii. 638, 658, 669, 670, 674; Pepys Diary, 2 Jan. 1667.
  • 8. Milward, 108, 155; Clarendon Impeachment, 23-24, 62, 96, 127; CJ, ix. 28; Grey, i. 65.
  • 9. Grey, i. 104, 131; Milward, 217, 249; CJ, ix. 88, 94.
  • 10. Grey, i. 185, 215, 324, 341; CJ, ix. 147.
  • 11. Grey, ii. 7, 27, 67-68, 70, 171-2, 267-8, 307-8, 348; CJ, ix. 259, 263, 281, 296.
  • 12. Grey, i. 103; iii. 169-70, 340; iv. 3, 87, 161, 239; CJ, ix. 339, 372.
  • 13. Grey, v. 110, 150, 186, 199, 344; vi. 21, 363-4.
  • 14. J. R. Jones, First Whigs, 47-48; D. R. Lacey, Dissent and Parl. Pols. 445; Grey, vii. 79, 150, 248-9; R. Morrice. Entering Bk. 1, p. 164.
  • 15. Lacey, 323; Dom. Intell. 9 Sept. 1679; CJ, ix. 639; Grey, viii. 299, 313; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vi. 7.
  • 16. Lacey, 446-7; HMC Portman, iii. 400, 404; Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 28, f. 235; Morrice, 2, p. 215; Add. 40621, f. 3v; Shaw, ii. 29*.