ISHAM, Sir Justinian, 4th Bt. (1658-1730), of Lamport Hall, Northants.

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



1685 - 1687
1689 - 1690
9 Mar. 1694 - 1698
1698 - 13 May 1730

Family and Education

b. 11 Aug. 1658, 3rd s. of Sir Justinian Isham, 2nd Bt.†, being 2nd s. by his 2nd w. Vere, da. of Thomas, 1st Baron Leigh of Stoneleigh, Warws.  educ. Christ Church, Oxf. 1674; L. Inn 1677.  m. 16 July 1683, Elizabeth (d. 1713), da. of Sir Edmund Turner of Stoke Rochford, Lincs., 8s. 6da. (3s. 3da. d.v.p.).  suc. bro. as 4th Bt. 26 July 1681.1

Offices Held


Isham came to occupy a position of lasting pre-eminence in Northamptonshire, a prime example of the kind of pious, hospitable, Tory gentleman, refined by scholarship and devoted to his family and locality. He engaged in politics out of a restrained sense of public duty honed from his extensive readings of classical authors, but he lacked the crusading zeal of many of his High Church brethren. His sober and patriarchal personality was moulded in the strongly Anglican and scholarly environment of his childhood and youth, and in his maturity, he embodied the classic contradiction of his kind: on the one hand happy to be venerated for his political and social virtues, not least his ‘constant fidelity to Church and monarchy’; yet on the other, finding distasteful, increasingly so as the years passed, the routine of parliamentary attendance, and more, the seediness of electoral activity which he preferred to ignore and leave to others.2

Before his election for Northampton in 1685, Isham acquired a preliminary grounding in county affairs. After succeeding unexpectedly to the family estates and title in 1681, he was almost immediately nominated a deputy-lieutenant and in 1683 was put on the commission of the peace. Although he served in Bishop Compton’s guard for Princess Anne at Nottingham, in the Convention he was one of the Tory minority who on 5 Feb. 1689 voted against the offer of the crown to William of Orange. His fellow Member, Sir William Langham, kept him in ignorance of an instruction from the corporation of Northampton at the beginning of 1690 urging both its Members to vote against the disabling clause proposed for the bill for restoring corporate charters, seemingly in the hope that Isham would imperil his standing with the corporation for remaining at Lamport when the division was taken. In the 1690 election he opted to contest the county, but his chances quickly weakened. At first, the Earl of Nottingham (Daniel Finch†), a friend of the Isham family, attributed this to Sir Justinian’s having stood bail for his neighbour Lord Griffin, who was committed to the Tower on charges of high treason; but a deeper antipathy towards him stemmed from lingering memories of the occasion when Isham had served as foreman of the grand jury that in August 1683 had presented 52 ‘persons of very great quality’, suspected as ‘disaffected and dangerous’, following the discovery of the Rye House Plot. Nottingham realized that ‘this will be much more disadvantageous to him since some of those who can scarce ever forgive an injury will be very violent and clamorous ag[ain]st him’. Rather than stand in the county election, Isham thus decided to avail himself of ‘the encouragement I found in North[amp]ton town to serve again’. But there, too, he was confronted with a ‘powerful’ opposition and was defeated at the poll. Isham spent the next four years languishing quietly at Lamport, and was kept abreast of political news in London by his brother John, who in April 1693 became Nottingham’s under-secretary. Indeed, Nottingham’s high regard for the Isham family, as shown in John Isham’s appointment, contributed to Isham’s rising importance in the county elite though he took care in November to avoid the county shrievalty.3

At a by-election at Northampton in March 1694, Isham was elected unopposed, largely as a result of a pact with Christopher Montagu*, brother of the Treasury commissioner Charles, whereby Isham would have the benefit of the Montagu interest in the town on the understanding that at the forthcoming general election they would contest for the borough jointly. The agreement held good in 1695 and ensured Isham’s re-election. Having resumed his seat in November, he was granted a fortnight’s leave on 29 Jan. 1696, and thereby missed the division on the proposed council of trade on the 31st for which he had been forecast as a Court opponent, but at the end of February he was prompt in adding his name to the Association. In the following session he obtained leave again on 13 Feb. 1697. At the next, which began on 3 Dec., he attended for the first week or so before departing for the country, and, when the House was called over on the 16th, his excuses were made by his cousin, William Bromley II*; he was in attendance again early in the new year. Isham had prepared to stand again for Northampton in the election of 1698 where he felt he had ‘a very fair prospect’ despite a distinct cooling of relations between himself and Montagu, but at no more than four days’ notice he was called upon by the gentry to stand for the county. He held the view that having accepted their last-minute invitation, the onus for mustering sufficient reserves of support lay entirely with his well-wishers. As he put it to Lord Hatton (Hon. Christopher†), ‘I am very sensible they have put me on a very hard task . . . however I hope they will make up in diligence what we have lost in time’. Isham was successful, though Tory control of both county seats was not achieved, his would-be fellow knight being displaced by the Whig contender John Parkhurst.4

Soon after the 1698 Parliament commenced, Isham was classed as one of the ‘Country party’. In November he was gently admonished by his brother John for his previously lax attendance: ‘I hope since you have given yourself the trouble of being elected you will not think much of the attendance nor lose your interest in the county by neglecting the trust reposed in you.’ When the House was called over on 3 Jan. 1699, Henry Heveningham* announced Isham’s intentions of coming to town the next day, but it seems that Isham had in fact given the Northampton Member, William Thursby, instructions to convey a less binding promise of his attendance, since the birth of his 13th child was imminent. His compatriots in London believed his absence was in some way connected with the proceedings anticipated on the disbanding bill. Again, during the 1699–1700 session he enjoyed a prolonged spell at Lamport following the Christmas recess, until warned that the House was due to be called over on 5 Mar. This time he was presumably awaiting the arrival of his 14th child, a son born on the 4th. Returned in the first 1701 election, he was listed in February as likely to support the Court in agreeing with the committee of supply’s resolution to continue the ‘Great Mortgage’. With the approach of the second election at the end of the year, Isham was blacklisted as an opponent of the preparations for war. He remained undecided whether to stand again for the county until encouraged at a meeting of gentry at Northampton on 15 Nov. to join with Thomas Cartwright, an arrangement which he soon saw would be especially acceptable among ‘honest men’. At one of the most ‘hotly engaged’ polls yet seen in Northamptonshire, ‘most of the gentlemen of the country’ joined with Isham, and within two days he finished the poll in first place.5

In the 1701–2 session Isham endured an uncharacteristically long spell of attendance at the House; on 26 Feb. 1702 he supported the motion vindicating the Commons’ late proceedings in the impeachment of the Whig ministers; on 8 Apr. he was teller against the committal of a private bill; and a month later he was still attending sittings of the House. Returned at the head of the poll in the 1702 election, he voted on 13 Feb. 1703 in opposition to the Whig Lords’ amendments to the bill for extending the time allowed for taking the Abjuration. In mid-March 1704 he was listed by Lord Nottingham as a likely supporter in the event of an attack over his handling of the Scotch Plot. It was predicted in October that Isham would support the Tack, but in a list published sometime afterwards, purporting to categorize Members in terms of their churchmanship, he was branded a ‘Sneaker’ for having left the chamber during the vote on 28 Nov. 1704. Concern and confusion in the county over reports of Isham’s absence from this division prompted at least one close neighbour, Sir Robert Clerke, to ask him for an explanation of his conduct. While Isham’s response is not on record, the fact that both he and Cartwright made no subsequent denial of Whig accusations of ‘sneaking’ does indeed suggest their absence had been deliberate. The opening stages of Isham’s campaign for the 1705 election were supervised by his wife Elizabeth. He informed his eldest son and namesake Justinian† of the likelihood of ‘great opposition’ from the Whig candidates, and his trepidation was aggravated by a severe attack of gout. Foreseeing that the occasional conformity bill would be a major preoccupation of the campaign, Isham sent his wife a parcel of copies of the measure for distribution. Unlike many fellow Tories, Isham was prepared to defend toleration, and was at pains to demonstrate that the bill was really levelled ‘against a sort of profligate people that have no religion or conscience at all’. In this light, therefore, and given his deep piety, Isham’s ‘sneaking’ from the division on the Tack is best explained as evidence of his disapproval of a measure which stood to penalize Dissenters of honest and righteous brow. Isham left London on 2 Mar., but because of either continued ill-health or a too heavy reliance on others, his own campaigning was half-hearted and his inattention to certain key areas of the county and such influential figures as the Earl of Exeter (John Cecil*, Lord Burghley), caused irritation to loyal supporters who were compelled to make excuses on his behalf. At the end of this demanding campaign, Isham was nevetheless returned in first place.6

Isham attended Parliament at the opening of business on 25 Oct. 1705, voting against the Court candidate for the Speakership and in support of his cousin, William Bromley II. He was granted a month’s leave on 21 Dec., but resumed his attendance at some point in January, remaining in London for the rest of the session. When in August 1706 the Northamptonshire Whigs launched a premature challenge by putting up their candidates for the next election on a false supposition that Isham and Cartwright would retire, one close friend and supporter, Hon. Charles Bertie I*, urged Isham ‘to be a little active in this matter and contradict the report by your own personal appearance among your friends’, but it was in fact Cartwright, not Isham, who rallied the Tory gentry to a meeting at Northampton. The end of the year found him doubting that the peace, newly signed between the kings of Sweden and Poland would profit the allies, speculating dolefully, ‘I am afraid it will make the hopes we have of late conceived of a peace vanish to nothing’. Later in the session, in March 1707, it was apparent to him that ‘all parties begin to be very weary of the war’, which gave ground to hope for a settlement, but ‘a little time will show what reason there is for it’. With these thoughts he planned his return to Lamport shortly, ‘for the union bill is passed and almost all the money is given’. Early in 1708 he was classed as a Tory, and in the May election was returned unopposed.7

Isham was never happier than when ensconced in the comfortable domesticity and surroundings of Lamport. Elizabeth had borne him a child almost every year between 1685 and 1700, and ten survived infancy. She would often send him commissions when he was in London which she admitted ‘many spouses would not be liking to do, but you are not to be paralleled with the common sort’. Both her own and Sir Justinian’s shared enthusiasm for books ensured that their large family was reared in a household enriched by learning and religious devotion. The works of Horace and Cicero featured strongly among Isham’s own literary preoccupations. By 1708 his older children had already reached adulthood. Justinian, the heir, was sent to the Continent rather than to Oxford, his father’s alma mater. From Sir Justinian’s pen issued a regular flow of shrewd advice: ‘consider what a despicable figure anyone makes that returns from abroad as great a fool as he went’; it gave him some pleasure to hear the ‘English liturgy’ was ‘sometimes’ performed at Hanover, ‘for above all things remember to be firm to the Church of England’. Against young Justinian’s inclination his father insisted that he spend a second year at the Brunswick academy, ‘for this is the only time you have to learn anything in your whole life’. Sir Justinian also percipiently cautioned his son ‘to make your court’ at the Herrenhausen, ‘which I believe may be kindly taken’, and was duly obeyed; in July 1707 young Justinian kissed the Electress’s hand and walked with her in the palace gardens.8

Ill-health prevented Isham from attending the opening months of the 1708–9 session, and he was given a month’s leave on 22 Dec. before finally setting out for London on horseback on 1 Feb. 1709, the House being scheduled to be called on the 3rd. On 9 Mar. he acted as teller against postponement of the tobacco bill. Early in 1710 he voted against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell. Despite an opposition scare on the eve of the 1710 election, Isham and Cartwright were ‘peaceably chaired’. He was listed in April 1711 as a ‘Tory patriot’ who voted for the peace, and as a ‘worthy patriot’ who during the 1710–11 session supported exposure of the previous administration’s mismanagements. He also appears to have had some part in organizing the October Club. On 4 May 1711 he reported from a private bill committee, concerning the estates of one of his neighbours, and conveyed it to the Lords the next day, a rare instance of his involvement in legislative business. At the end of the month he was given a token of the new ministry’s goodwill in the form of his son Justinian’s appointment to a leather duty commissionership. However, Isham was soon complaining of the innumerable demands on him for places in the leather office and of the frustrations he encountered in trying to fulfil his promises to ‘honest men’ of the county.9

With the approach of the new session Isham instructed his son on 20 Oct. 1711 to secure for him his usual lodgings in Bow Street: ‘I had rather be at Watkins near Wills Coffee House, it being the best lodging, or else the next door . . . or Mr Darden’s where I was last. They know a guinea a week is my price.’ During March and April 1712 he took charge of a bill for James Griffin†, son of the late Lord Griffin, outlawed for his Jacobitism, whose family were longstanding neighbours and acquaintances of the Ishams. In July Isham found it ‘inconvenient’ to make a midsummer return to the capital to present the county address on the peace negotiations, yet he was still guiltily aware that the responsibility properly rested with himself: ‘I hope no notice will be taken of my not presenting the address’. In spite of a crippling attack of gout and his wife’s ill-health Isham left Lamport to attend the 1713 session on 25 May. While in London he was pressed by Sir George Beaumont, 4th Bt.*, and (Sir) Gilbert Dolben (1st Bt.)* to appear at the debates on the commercial clauses of the peace at the beginning of June, but in little more than a week he had returned, presumably on hearing of his wife’s worsening condition. By this stage, he was impervious to local reports that the Whigs intended in the forthcoming election to set Hon. Thomas Watson Wentworth* against him in alliance with Cartwright: Isham despaired, ‘if my poor spouse does not grow better, ’twill be very indifferent to me who stands or who is chosen’. Elizabeth deteriorated, however, and died on 22 Aug. Her death was a shattering blow for Isham, and heralded a long and painful passage in his life from which he never fully recovered. Five days after Lady Isham’s death Sir Justinian was re-elected unopposed: his eldest daughter, Vere, told her brother Justinian that on receiving the news her father had

fell into a passion of crying, and sent for me[;] when I went he told me Morpott had brought him the worst news in the world, that if anything could have added to his present affliction this would, that he believed the gentlemen chose him out of kindness, but that it was the greatest trouble to him imaginable, for he designed to lead a private retired life, and to meddle no more with the public, and that since they had chose him they must dispense with his attendance, for he must stay at home and take care of his family.

For many months he remained inconsolably cocooned in grief, bedridden, constantly tearful and avoiding all company and business. ‘She was a very extraordinary woman’, he wrote, ‘and the best wife to the most unworthy husband.’ In the last week of December Vere reported little change: ‘’tis the most melancholy thing in the world to see him, he takes notice of nothing, and seems never to admit of any comfort’. He could bear no thought of London and the coming session, not caring to take lodgings which would force him to frequent social resorts. ‘He is the most altered man that ever was, and is grown extremely devout, reads from the Bible or some good book almost all day long’, but from this he could draw little comfort and in February 1714 was still beside himself with grief, physically run-down and deriving what solace he could from his preparations for a monument to his wife’s memory. Early in April his neighbour James Griffin found him still very depressed: ‘his pious reflections are infinitely commendable, but destroying his constitution is not so’.10

Not until August 1714 did Isham’s interest in public affairs begin to revive, but the course of events could hardly have lifted his spirits. Shortly after the Queen’s death he set off for Westminster, determined to curtail his stay as much as possible, and not to await the arrival of George I. Grudgingly, in September he succumbed to persuasion to stand for re-election, ‘forced against my inclination’ to do battle with the county’s newly confident Whigs. At the beginning of October he concluded that young Justinian’s chances of retaining his office were slim, confiding to him: ‘I am so unhappy now as not to have one I can call a friend in this ministry unless it be L[or]d Nottingham, who I doubt has but little interest, and whether he will make use of it on my account I much question.’ When Justinian was dismissed from the leather office in December, Isham was mortified to discover that the King himself had insisted on it, and protested to Lord Halifax (Charles Montagu*) that he could only conclude that he had been grossly misrepresented as ‘disaffected’ to the new dynasty. Halifax’s assurance of the King’s goodwill and promise of future consideration for employment offered little satisfaction. A further personal crisis befell Isham in March 1715 with the sudden resignation of his second son, John, from the Lamport living to which his father had admitted him a year previously. Isham’s Christian conscience was grievously injured by the fact now made obvious that John Isham had taken up the priesthood devoid of any sense of calling or conviction, ‘had not acted like a Christian’ or a gentleman, and had turned out to be ‘such a sottish wretch as to be a scandal and a reproach to the gown’. Returning to All Souls, John Isham’s downward path continued until November 1716 when, to his father’s anguish, he died of ‘hard drinking’.11

Isham continued to sit for the county up until his death, though he lived a mainly retired existence, immersed in works of divinity and theology, and often in ill-health. He died on 13 May 1730, and in accordance with his will, his body was buried at Lamport next to ‘my dear and truly loving wife’.

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. VCH Northants. Fams. 159–62.
  • 2. G. Isham, The Isham Chapel, n.p.; E. G. Forrester, Northants. Elections and Electioneering 1695–1832, p. 19.
  • 3. Add. 29594, ff. 194, 196; 29568, f. 60; CSP Dom. July–Sept. 1683, pp. 293, 307; 1683–4, p. 89; Luttrell, Brief Relation, i. 615; iii. 81; Northants. RO, Isham mss IC 1476, Nottingham to Isham, 22 Apr. 1693; 1484, 1494, 1498, John Isham to same, 8 Aug., 26 Oct., 4 Nov. 1693.
  • 4. Isham mss IC 1512, Francis Arundell* to Isham, 1 Mar. 1693–4; 1473, corp. of Northampton to same, 1 Mar. 1693[–4]; 1528, Christopher Montagu to same, 17 Oct. 1695; 1561, William Bromley II to same, 16 Dec. 1697; 1575, Henry Benson to same, 21 Mar. 1698; 1586, Sir Gilbert Dolben to same, 17 July 1698; Bodl. Tanner 22, f. 107; Add. 29567, f. 93.
  • 5. Isham mss IC 1597, 1604, 2188, John Isham to Isham, 5 Nov. 1698, 3 Jan. 1699, 27 Feb. 1699–1700; Add. 29568, ff. 37, 46; Northants. Past and Present, vi. 30.
  • 6. Isham mss IC 4983, Edward Morpott to Isham, 9 May 1702; 2207, John Isham to same, 11 Nov. 1703; 2737, Sir Robert Clerke to same, 11 Feb. 1704–5; 1665–8, Elizabeth Isham to same, 12, 17, 22, 24 Feb. 1704–5; 2745, Sir Gilbert Dolben to same, 21 Apr. 1705; 2325, Isham to Justinian Isham, 16 Feb. 1704–5; Verney Letters 18th Cent. i. 224–5.
  • 7. Isham mss IC 2124, 2126, 1696, Isham to Justinian Isham, 22 Mar., 20 Dec. 1706, 11 Mar. 1706–7; 2754, Charles Bertie to Isham, 29 Aug. 1706; 2944, Thomas Cartwright to same, 31 Aug. 1706; Trans. R. Hist. Soc. ser. 3, i. 182–5, 187–8, 191–2.
  • 8. Forrester, 30; Isham mss IC 1696, Isham to Justinian Isham, 11 Mar. 1706–7; IL 5275, diary of [Sir] Justinian Isham [5th Bt.], 3 July 1707, 9 Aug., 29 Sept. 1708.
  • 9. Isham mss IC 1705, 1724, William Bromley II to Isham, 15 Oct. 1708, 29 May 1711; 3740, John to Justinian Isham, 16 Oct. 1708; 2131, 2435–6, Isham to Justinian Isham, 30 June, 6, 10 Oct. 1711; IL 5275, diary, 1 Feb. 1708–9; BL, Verney mss mic. M/636/54, Sir Thomas Cave, 3rd Bt.*, to Ld. Fermanagh (John Verney*), 30 Oct. 1710.
  • 10. Isham mss IC 2437, 3802, 2135, Isham to Justinian Isham, 20 Oct. 1711, 20 July 1712, 13 June 1713; 4902, 1774, 1779, 1783, 1787, 1789, 1791, Vere Isham to same, 28 Aug., 24 Oct., 14 Nov., 26 Dec. 1713, [postmk. 17 Feb.], 27 Feb., 10 Mar. 1713–14; 5014, James Griffin to same, 6 Apr. 1714; 2791, Sir Gilbert Dolben to Isham, 2 June 1713, Justinian Isham to Isham, 15 Dec. 1713; Forrester, 30; Add. 29601, f. 7.
  • 11. Isham mss IC 2447, 2410, 1803, 3838, Isham to Justinian Isham, 14, 19 Aug., 15 Sept., 4 Oct. 1714; Egerton 929, f. 134; Add. 29601, f. 9; Hearne Colls. v. 338; PCC 12 Isham.