CHURCHILL, Awnsham (1658-1728), of the Black Swan, Paternoster Row, London and Henbury, 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



1705 - 1710

Family and Education

b. 2 May 1658, 1st s. of William Churchill, bookseller, of Dorchester by Elizabeth, da. of Nicholas Awnsham of Isleworth, Mdx.; bro. of Joshua† and William Churchill*. unmsuc. fa. 1706.1

Offices Held

Freeman, Stationers’ Co. 1681; Dorchester 1705.2

Commr. taking subscriptions to land bank 1696.3


Churchill was distantly related to the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†), but preferred to carve out a strongly independent Whig career. The son of a Dorchester bookseller, he was apprenticed in 1676 to George Sawbridge, one of the principal booksellers in London and Master of the Stationers’ Company. In January 1680 Churchill signed, alongside a number of radical printers and publishers, a mass petition calling on Charles II to allow Parliament to sit, subscribing only a few sheets away from John Locke, with whom he was to have a long friendship and business partnership. Although the first surviving letter between the two men is dated June 1688, they knew each other by 1685 and perhaps as early as their participation in the petitioning campaign of 1680. After the Revolution, Churchill published many of Locke’s works, including the Two Treatises, Letter Concerning Toleration and Considerations of the Consequences of the Lowering of Interest. By the end of the 1690s he was acting as Locke’s financial agent and book dealer in London, holding close to £1,300 of his money in 1701. In 1704 Locke summoned Awnsham to Oates (the home of Sir Francis Masham, 3rd Bt.*, where he had taken up residence) to speak to him before he died. Churchill received £10 in Locke’s will, and he and Peter King* were made responsible for the money Locke left in trust for Francis Cudworth Masham.4

Churchill’s other publications indicate his own strongly Whiggish views. One of his earliest pamphlets was Samuel Bold’s Plea for Moderation towards the Dissenters (1682), which praised Nonconformist divines as ‘shining lights in the church of God’ and for which the author was prosecuted and fined for writing ‘a scandalous libel’. Churchill published many of Bold’s subsequent works, and may have encouraged his vindications of Locke’s Essays on Human Understanding and Reasonableness of Christianity. In 1699 he approached on Bold’s behalf the Duke of Newcastle (John Holles†), who held a strong interest at Dorchester, to request (albeit unsuccessfully) a benefice. In 1682 Churchill had also published another tract sympathetic to Dissent, Daniel Whitby’s Protestant Reconciler, which urged concessions for Nonconformists with a view to their comprehension within the Church. Churchill may have been responsible for urging ‘Whigby’, as the divine was called, to publish An Historical Account of Some Things Relating to the Nature of the English Government (1690), a strongly Lockean pamphlet that upheld the idea that a king’s tyranny broke the contract with his people.5

In 1685 Churchill and his brother William were in contact with Monmouth rebels who had fled to the Netherlands. According to a well-informed double agent, Churchill ‘was in a great conference’ with (Sir) John Trenchard* and others, and lodged with Locke’s landlord (a radical bookseller named Vandervelde). Although he returned to London, Churchill remained an important link between the exiles and the press in England, for in 1687 he was arrested for printing and selling Fagel’s Letter, which outlined William’s position on toleration. Churchill was active at the Revolution as the co-publisher (in partnership with his brother William) of William of Orange’s declarations, by which he made a handsome profit: he was able to invest £500 in Bank stock by 1694. He acted as a land bank commissioner in 1696, and subscribed £200 the following year for the circulation of Exchequer bills. By 1704, the year of the first volume of his publication of Rymer’s Foedera, he was wealthy enough to buy the manor of Henbury in Dorset. His trade continued to flourish, and his publications included Bishop Burnet’s sermons. Fellow bookseller John Dunton noted that the partnership of Awnsham and another brother, John, who joined him in 1690, was

of an universal trade. I traded very considerably with them for several years; and must do them the justice to say that I was never concerned with persons more exact in their accounts and more just in their payments.6

As well as acting as one of Locke’s book dealers and financial agents, Churchill also sent him occasional pieces of news which reveal an intense interest in political affairs. In January 1701 he reported that he believed ‘the Parliament generally speaking is better than the last’, and in March made acerbic comments about Convocation, in which he could see ‘no great difference in the knavery of either side’. In August 1701 he sent Locke ‘Sir Humphrey Mackworth’s* silly book’ against occasional conformity, and a few months later was surprised to find himself chosen as ‘printer for the Church’ when he published Edmund Gibson’s Right of the Archbishop to Continue or Prorogue the Whole Convocation, though his professional relationship with Gibson dated from much earlier. Justifying himself, he wrote that ‘the Church is, or may be made useful to the public at this time, now they think themselves in danger’. The association with Whig clergymen was to continue, for Churchill published works by White Kennett and William Nicolson, and worked actively in support of the latter over the cathedrals bill in March 1708, which involved him in a degree of co-ordination with leading Whig managers of the House. Churchill supported Locke’s host Sir Francis Masham in his decision to stand alone at the second Essex election of 1701, and canvassed on his behalf. He reported in December that Masham had ‘much the greater appearance at Chelmsford’, and hoped he would have ‘the same success at the poll’.

As a peripheral member of Locke’s ‘college’, and possessed of a finely tuned political awareness, Churchill may only have been deterred from seeking a seat in Parliament by the pressure of his business interests and a debilitating lameness in one leg; but in 1705 he no longer felt content to spectate on public affairs. His first thought was to stand for Poole, where he sought the aid of the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony, Lord Ashley*), one of the leaders of the Dorset Whigs and a pupil of Locke. Shaftesbury wrote to him on 29 Jan. 1705 that it was ‘with very great satisfaction that I hear from you of your intentions to appear in the service of your country. ’Tis what I have much wished for and would contribute to all that in me lay’. However, since previous disappointments at Poole prevented Shaftesbury’s intervention there, Churchill, with the Earl’s approval, shifted his attention to Dorchester, where he himself owned property. On 1 Feb. 1705 he wrote to Shaftesbury, expressing his gratitude for a promise of support, and adding ‘I have had long experience of your good opinion and goodness towards me’. Churchill nevertheless took the occasion to reprimand Shaftesbury’s own ‘unwillingness to act’; while he admitted that the Earl had suffered ‘ill usage by our own friends’ he urged his patron to put the past behind him

when the welfare of the public requires it. I am of your lordship’s opinion, that the managers have mistook their own interest in putting into power the enemies of England. I hope England will not suffer by it, but I never expect to see a Court fall into Whig measures by inclination. I believe they will always prefer men of other principles if they can be able to support each other. I cannot but tremble at the thought of a Tory House of Commons . . . I cannot but think it the interest of England to wish it otherwise, especially at this time. If the honest gentlemen will not act, the honest commonalty must be trampled on, and it’s not impossible that the gentlemen may one time or other find the want of them as much as they want protection from them. I shall not think it very comfortable living in Dorset when the T[ories] have got possession of the country, and can let loose the C[our]t or Ch[urch] on those they please at pleasure.7

Churchill appears to have encouraged the Whig Thomas Erle* to stand for the county. His own forebodings about a Tory Parliament proved unfounded, and he was himself successful at the polls, though one disgruntled Tory claimed he had been chosen only ‘for want of a better’. He had become a freeman of the town in May, when he ‘voluntarily gave 10 guineas’. His return was classed by the Earl of Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) as a gain for the Whigs, and he was described as ‘Low Church’ on a list of the new Parliament. He voted on 25 Oct. for the Court candidate for Speaker, but was probably on the Country wing of the Whigs, since his name is absent from the list of those who supported the Court in the proceedings on the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill. Classed as a Whig in the 1708 returns, his activity is difficult to distinguish from that of his brother William, and (until 1709) from that of John Churchill*, though Awnsham’s earlier low profile may suggest that he again took a far from active role. Certainly, he was not mentioned as having participated even in the passage of the Copyright Act of 1710. Nevertheless his recorded votes, in favour of naturalizing the Palatines in 1709 and the impeachment of Sacheverell in 1710, were enough to alienate the High Churchmen of Dorchester, who in 1710 procured an address from the borough which pointedly condemned ‘republican principles and anti-monarchical notions’. The commentator John Oldmixon thought that because Churchill ‘did not give satisfaction to the addressers, they kick at him by saying they’ll take care to be represented in future Parliaments by such as shall after their own hearts be eminently loyal and perspicuously zealous’. Churchill was defeated at the poll, and again in 1713, whereafter he made no further attempts to enter Parliament.8

Despite his strongly Whig sympathies, Churchill remained on friendly terms with his Tory kinsman George Churchill*: he was the first to break the news of the admiral’s death to the Duke of Marlborough, who thanked him for the ‘kind concern’ he had shown, and he was appointed an executor of George’s will. Awnsham had nevertheless always shown a reluctance to approach Marlborough for patronage, preferring the independence his trade gave him. He died on 24 Apr. 1728, leaving £100 to his brother William, the same sum to William’s son-in-law Francis Negus†, and his property and extensive library to his nephews. Further evidence of his non-partisan friendships is a legacy of £50 to the Tory Lord Stawell, who had been a gentleman of the bedchamber to Prince George. Awnsham’s will referred to £4,000 of stock in the Bank of England, and he left £25 to the poor of local parishes.9

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Mark Knights


  • 1. Soc. of Geneal. St. Peter’s Dorchester par. reg. trans.; Hutchins, Dorset, ii. 384.
  • 2. C. H. Mayo, Dorchester Recs. 429; Stationers’ Co. Apprentices 1641–1700 ed. McKenzie, 30; info. from Dr M. Treadwell.
  • 3. CJ, xii. 509.
  • 4. Hutchins, iii. 352; Plomer, Dict. Booksellers and Printers 1668–1725, p. 69; Past and Present, cxxxviii. 106; M. Cranston, John Locke, 311, 463, 474–5; Locke Corresp. vii. 292–3, 385.
  • 5. DNB.
  • 6. Ibid.; Locke Corresp. vi. 598; Add. 41818, f. 79; R. Ashcraft, Revolutionary Pol. 462–3, 486; Wing A4057, H280, W2323, W2326, W2497; Plomer, 69; Hutchins, iii. 352–3.
  • 7. Locke Corresp. vii. 468–9, 500, 575; viii. 333, 410; Nicolson Diaries ed. Jones and Holmes, 412, 454–5, 459, 461, 463, 466; PRO 30/24/22/2/156, 30/24/20/208/214.
  • 8. Churchill Coll. Camb. Erle mss 2/2, Duke of Bolton (Charles Powlett I*) to Erle, 10 May 1705; Bodl. Ballard 21, f. 222; Dorchester Recs. 428; J. Oldmixon, Hist. of Addresses (1711), ii. 227.
  • 9. Add. 61367, f. 151; Marlborough Dispatches ed. Murray, v. 42; PCC 142 Brook.