KNIGHT, Sir John (d. 1718), of St. Michael’s Hill, Bristol and Congresbury, Som.

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



1689 - 1695

Family and Education

2nd but 1st surv. s. of John Knight, sugar refiner, of St. Augustine’s Back, Bristol, mayor of Bristol 1670–1, by his 1st w., da. of one Parsons of Som.  m. Anne, da. of Thomas Smyth† of Long Ashton, Som. 1s. 2da.  suc. fa. 1679; kntd. 12 Mar. 1682.1

Offices Held

Member, Merchant Venturers Soc. of Bristol 1675, warden 1681–2; freeman, Bristol 1675, common councilman 1679–85, Oct. 1688–1702, sheriff 1681–2, mayor 1690–1, commr. port regulation, Bristol 1690.2


Knight was a turbulent influence in Bristol’s politics during the 1680s and early 1690s. Having set up as a merchant, he inherited his father’s extensive sugar-refining business in 1679 and in the same year took his seat as a common councillor. His High Church extremism found expression in a coarse, ranting personality, and his hatred of papists and Dissenters knew no bounds. The aggressiveness of his persecuting activities established him at the forefront of the corporation’s Tory faction, and in 1689, with his party enjoying a heyday in civic politics, he was a natural choice for Parliament. He was re-elected in 1690 following an embittered contest which he himself had done much to fuel by levelling insinuations of treason at two leading Whig citizens over the issue of wartime trade with France. Seizing upon hearsay that the intending Whig candidate, Sir Thomas Earle†, had obtained a pass from the French king in order to land munitions at an enemy port, Knight accused him of ‘high treason’, and brought ‘a spiteful and malicious information’ against the essayist and Bristol merchant John Cary for his stout defence of Earle’s conduct. Such accusations coming from Knight, however, were grossly hypocritical in view of his emerging sympathies with the Jacobite cause. Already by June 1691 he assured one of King James’s agents that he had made sufficient ‘interest’ to ‘secure Bristol to his Majesty’s service’.3

On the eve of the 1690 Parliament Knight was noted by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) as a Tory and a probable Court supporter. Determined still to do all he could to antagonize and undermine his Whig opponents in Bristol, he alluded to their questionable trading activities on 22 Mar. when he condemned the continuation of trade with France. On 14 May in a debate on the ‘peace and safety of the kingdom’ he drew attention to the personal force of ‘auxiliaries’ raised by the Whig Earl of Macclesfield whose brace of lord lieutenancies included Bristol. Knight almost certainly intended some element of revenge since it was to Macclesfield that the Whig deputy-lieutenants of Bristol had referred Knight’s accusations against Earle and Cary. During the course of the 1690 session he was teller on three occasions, the last being 17 May when he opposed a motion favouring the Whig candidate in the disputed New Windsor election.4

There can be no doubt that Knight was behind an inquiry which the corporation set up at the beginning of September 1690, the prime purpose of which was to incriminate the Whigs for the recent extremes of factiousness among council members. In the report to the council on 2 Oct., a few days after Knight was sworn as mayor, Earle featured as the main object of attack and was held responsible for bringing members of the ruling Tory faction under the King’s displeasure. By a large majority Earle was expelled from the corporate body, but Knight’s moment of triumph was short-lived as in February 1691 he was compelled by an action in King’s bench to reinstate Earle to the common council. During the 1690–1 session he continued to feature on Lord Carmarthen’s lists as a Court supporter, though by April 1691 Robert Harley* was identifying him, if tentatively, as a supporter of the Country opposition. His willingness to support a ‘blue-water’ policy was displayed on 15 Dec. when he served as a teller (one of two occasions in the session) in favour of an appropriation of duties of £100,000 for the navy.5

Knight and his Tory brethren at Bristol were evidently much affronted by the trial and conviction of the Tory surveyor of the customs at Bristol on charges of fraud, and in a retaliative gesture Knight informed the circuit judge, William Gregory†, that the city would not defray his expenses during his forthcoming visit, pleading the corporation’s indebtedness as an excuse. The judge replied that ‘he knew well enough how to construe their excuse’, and on his arrival to conduct the assizes in Bristol later in the summer Knight ensured that there was a mob ready to offer ‘great insolencies’ and pelt him with ‘dirt’. In court, Gregory declared his resolution ‘that their Majesty’s government should not be so wounded through him’, and fined the city £100 and both sheriffs £20, but on the corporation’s ‘submission’ the fine was afterwards lifted. It is highly probable, too, that Knight was a prime mover in the accusations brought the following year against the Whig collector of customs in Bristol, John Dutton Colt*, but which were rejected by the Treasury as ‘frivolous and partial’.6

In the 1691–2 session Knight spoke on 19 Nov. 1691 in support of the ‘Country’ argument for dealing with the army estimates ‘head by head’, and on 30 Nov. he was appointed to a committee to consider them in detail. On 16 Dec. he spoke in favour of imposing the land tax on the inns of court; and on 8 and 23 Jan. 1692 against the bill for lowering interest rates. He spoke on 19 Jan. against the scheme of Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. II*, for establishing a credit bank, preferring the greater flexibility of the Dutch version where the option of ready money was available ‘if you do not like your note’. On 3 Feb. he supported the imposition of a poll on Dissenting ministers on the grounds that they should bear their share of public charges alongside beneficed clergy. In a further debate on the poll bill on 15 Feb. he supported the addition of a clause to revive the commission of accounts, and quoted precedents for the ‘tacking’ of alien clauses to money bills. On 13 Feb. he was teller against using London port duties to offset the ‘orphans debt’. Five days later he was for withholding the poll bill from the Lords until they had passed the bill for vesting forfeited estates in the crown. His involvement in the sugar trade accounts for the close interest he took in the committee proceedings on two petitions from the West Indian sugar planters and merchants, and which he may have helped to initiate. The first, presented on 18 Dec., complained of the high duties on spirits distilled from molasses, but though Knight’s report on 9 Jan. recommended a drawback on molasses refined at home or re-exported, it was recommitted and failed to re-emerge. The second, which was referred to a committee on 26 Jan., asked for an alteration in the navigation laws to allow English ships carrying goods to or from the West Indies to be manned by foreign seamen. Knight reported on 2 Feb. and was one of three MPs ordered to prepare a bill for these purposes, and later headed the nominees to its second-reading committee.7

During the proceedings on the naval miscarriages of the summer which dominated the opening weeks of the 1692–3 session, Knight showed particular concern with the government’s failure to provide adequate convoys. On 16 Nov. he spoke in favour of appointing a committee to consider the merchants’ petition complaining of shipping losses, and was himself named to it. He was nominated the same day to another committee to examine the recent proceedings of the commissioners of transport. His service on the latter committee enabled him to join in the attack on the Admiralty on 21 Nov., when he argued that the ministers were to be blamed for neglect in allowing transport ships to venture unprotected from Ireland to Minehead. The attack continuing on the 30th, Knight moved an address ‘to his Majesty to remove all the cabinet council from him who appear to have the management of these matters’. On 1 Dec. he opposed two out of the nine heads for proposed expenditure presented by the committee of the whole on the naval estimates, and the following day, after Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt., speaking for the Court in the debate on naval supply, had described vast French invasion plans, he and Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt., were the only two Members to vote against the entire proposed supply for the navy. On 11 Jan. 1693 he supported an opposition motion that only gentlemen experienced in maritime affairs should constitute the Admiralty commission. Knight’s other activities were mainly concerned with trade. He presented two petitions on 14 Feb., one against a bill concerning the import of saltpetre, the other from the Bristol company of pinmakers against a bill for encouraging pinmaking. On 15 Feb., following the third reading of a bill to ease the decay of trade in towns, he was teller against a proposed rider to prevent itinerant tradesmen from selling wool except to shopkeepers. He spoke at length on the 17th against the bill to prevent the export of wool, arguing that it would ruin the Hamburg Company which operated to the advantage of the English wool trade. Another tellership, performed on 6 Mar. 1693, concerned a minor detail in the lottery bill.8

The opening weeks of the 1693–4 session were again much occupied with naval affairs, particularly the loss of the Smyrna convoy in the previous summer. Knight was appointed to the committee to consider the petition on naval mismanagement on 22 Nov. 1693 and on 27 Nov. he acted as a teller against a motion exonerating the Whig-dominated victualling board, which the Tories, in an effort to protect the Tory admirals Henry Killigrew* and Sir Ralph Delaval*, were trying to present as chiefly responsible for the disaster. His most spectacular intervention in the Commons, however, came on 4 Jan. 1694 in a speech violently attacking the bill for naturalizing foreign Protestants, which he claimed was a threat to the liberty and livelihood of Englishmen, since foreigners, by selling their labour cheaply, would cause unemployment and starvation among native-born workers. He extended his attack to the allies, and by implication the Dutch, who, he argued,

are not in our interests, and will spare none of their men for our pay, without great pensions likewise for themselves. Can any man hope to persuade me that our forefathers would have brought foreign soldiers into England and pay them, and naturalize them likewise, and at the same time send the English soldiers abroad to fight in a strange land without their pay?

He continued by criticizing the presence of foreigners at court and in the councils of the King, saying:

Should this bill pass, it will bring us great afflictions in this nation as ever fell upon the Egyptians, and one of their plagues we have at this time very severe upon us; I mean that of their land bringing forth frogs in abundance, even in the chambers of the Kings, for there is no entering the court of St. James and Whitehall, the palaces of our hereditary Kings, for the great noise and croaking of froglanders.

He finished by moving ‘that the serjeant be commanded to open the doors, and let us first kick this bill out of the House, and then foreigners out of the kingdom’. Not surprisingly, he was one of the tellers against the bill. To the fury of their opponents, the Tories published a dressed-up version of Knight’s rough-edged and somewhat incoherent oratory which received wide circulation. On 1 Mar. the print was attacked in the House as a scandalous libel. Knight, threatened with expulsion and even imprisonment, chose to disown the pamphlet, which was ordered to be burnt by the common hangman. But such was the furore generated by the speech that the whole measure was dropped. Meanwhile, on the King’s veto of the place bill, Knight had been named, on 26 Jan., to the committee to produce an address in protest. During the debate on the King’s reply on 1 Feb., he ‘rumbled nothing to the purpose’, having that day been granted leave to go into the country, and was called to order by Sir John Morton, who, seemingly with Knight’s recent attack on foreigners in mind, remarked ‘you have given that worthy Member leave to go into the country, and I desire no further disturbance may be given to the House by him’.9

Knight had continued all the while to dabble in Jacobite schemes and politics. In November 1693 he had received personal assurances from Louis XIV of his plans to restore James II. Knight estimated that there were about 100 crypto-Jacobites in Parliament at this time. During the summer recess in 1694, Owen Banaghan, a Jacobite agent turned government informer, alleged that the exiled King had asked ‘to be remembered to Sir John Knight with thanks for his loyalty and service; that when God restored him he would highly recompense him’. Knight had subsequently met Banaghan in London on 19 Mar., and assured him that ‘where there was one in that city or the county around for the present government, there was six for the late King and so generally throughout the whole kingdom’ and had urged the sending of a French army. During the interview, Knight was particlarly anxious to know whether the King had been apprised ‘of his behaviour while mayor of Bristol and what services he did during his mayoralty’. Later, however, Knight had to warn James that Banaghan was not to be trusted. In the following November, he earned fresh notoriety, when it was reported that his supporters at Bristol lit bonfires and rang the bells as if for a victory when news of Queen Mary’s death was brought to the city.10

In the last session of Parliament Knight chaired a committee on a petition from the merchants of Bristol, complaining that in contravention of the navigation laws goods were being imported from the American plantations directly into Scotland and Ireland, without first being landed in England. Reporting on 28 Feb. 1695, he alone was ordered by the House to prepare the remedial measure which two days later he presented. On 6 Mar. he moved for a bill to continue the commission of public accounts, which he brought in on the 8th. He served twice as teller: on the second occasion on 11 Mar. he, naturally for a Tory, opposed a bill for the enforcement of oaths to the King.

By 1695 the Tory faction on Bristol’s corporation had dwindled to a minority. Knight’s recent behaviour in council could hardly have helped his party’s standing. In 1694 he had threatened legal proceedings when the corporation demurred from meeting his claim for parliamentary ‘wages’, and while the siege of Namur was in progress in late July 1695, he took delight in the military difficulties confronting King William and made ‘great triumphs on the loss of Dixmuyde’. More provocatively, he proposed in council in September that all ‘foreigners’, and those who were not free burgesses, be banned from the liberties of the city. A by-law was subsequently passed but never enforced. So weak was the Tory showing at the October general election that Knight and his fellow MP, Sir Richard Hart, gave up the poll and conceded defeat. He was listed by the Jacobite peer Lord Griffin early in 1696 as one of King James’s principal supporters in the Bristol area, and as having been committed to his cause for the previous four or so years. During the Assassination Plot scare he was treated as an obvious suspect and taken into custody. Released several weeks later, after an inconclusive examination before the Privy Council, he was re-arrested for treason on 13 May and imprisoned in Newgate. It would appear, however, that his renewed detention at this time had more to do with the changing shape of Bristol’s governing elite than with his supposed complicity in the plot to take the King’s life. Two leading city Whigs informed the lords justices at the end of the month that if Knight were released ‘it might disappoint all the measures that had been taken for getting a good succession of magistrates at Bristol’. The ministers procrastinated over his request at the end of June to be released or bailed, and it was not until 5 Sept. that he was finally set at liberty, the charges against him being dropped for want of evidence. A few days later his Tory followers sent for him from London to disturb the election of the mayor and sheriffs, but the recently established Whig ascendancy in the corporation remained intact.11

Knight’s attempt to regain his seat in 1698 was unsuccessful. He remained a member of Bristol’s corporation until 1702 when he resigned. His last years were spent in comparative poverty on the small estate at Congresbury which he had inherited from his father. Although he had been granted an annuity of £20 by the Merchant Venturers’ Company in 1717, he petitioned the Bristol common council in December of that year for assistance, pleading that he was reduced to great poverty by the harsh treatment of his son. He was granted £20, but died on 3 Feb. 1718.12

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. Inhabitants of Bristol 1696 (Bristol Rec. Soc. xxv), 123, 132; Vis. Glos. ed. Fenwick and Metcalfe, 105; N. and Q. ser. 3, iv. 291.
  • 2. Merchant Venturers (Bristol Rec. Soc. xvii), 32; A. B. Beaven, Bristol Lists, 203–5, 208, 225.
  • 3. Add. 5540, ff. 27–8; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 474; Westminster Diocesan Archs. Browne mss no. 101, 4 June 1691, Mr Terne.
  • 4. Cobbett, Parlty. Hist. v. 552; Grey, x. 141a.
  • 5. Bristol AO, common council procs. 1687–1702, ff. 47, 53; J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol 17th Cent. 458–9.
  • 6. Monod thesis, 202; Luttrell, Brief Relation, ii. 255, 277; Portledge Pprs. 120.
  • 7. Luttrell Diary, 33, 84, 117, 140, 150, 169, 187, 188, 194.
  • 8. Ibid. 231, 245, 272–3, 279, 283, 363, 420, 422, 428; Bodl. Carte 130, f. 340.
  • 9. Cobbett, v. 838, 849–57; Latimer, 466–7; CSP Dom. 1695, p. 241.
  • 10. Dalrymple Mems. iii(3), p. 91; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, i. 473; HMC Downshire, i. 446–8; BL, Trumbull Misc. mss 40, info. sworn by Owen Banaghan, 29 Aug. 1694; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iii. 423.
  • 11. Latimer, 472–3, 476, 483; Add. 70241, Robert Henley* to [Robert Harley], 27 July 1695; Bristol common council procs. 1687–1702, f. 126; Ideology and Conspiracy, ed. Cruickshanks, 125; Luttrell, iv. 31, 38, 78, 106; Portledge Pprs. 227; Carte 239, f. 90; CSP Dom. 1696, pp. 193, 258; Add. 28880, f. 330.
  • 12. J. Latimer, Annals of Bristol 18th Cent. 120; N. and Q. ser. 3, iv. 291.