Birkenhead, John (DNB00)
|←Birkbeck, George||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 05
BIRKENHEAD or BERKENHEAD, Sir JOHN (1616–1679), author of the ‘Mercurius Aulicus’ and satirical poems, is said by Anthony à Wood to have been son of Randall Birkenhead, of Northwich in Cheshire, saddler, and born there (Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 1208), and T. W. Barlow (Ches. Biogr. 1852, pp. 20-1) says, ‘he was born on the edge of Rudheath,’ which is near Northwich, and partly in Davenham parish and partly in the chapelry of Witton, parish of Great Budworth. In accordance with this, the Witton register contains a number of entries of children of Randall Berchenhead (so spelled) from 1580 to 1631, with his own death, being then ‘parish clarke,’ in 1633; among these, under 24 March 1615-6, is ‘Johes. fil. Randulphi Birchenhead,' Unluckily experts have pronounced this entry to be a comparatively modern forgery, but it gives nevertheless the correct date. Ormerod (under ‘Northwich’) states that Birkenhead ‘descended possibly from the antient family of that name in this county (who first held property here in 1508), but of low immediate origin, being the son of a saddler.
At the free grammar school of the town in the churchyard of Witton, John Birkenhead doubtless received his early education from the worthy schoolmaster, Thomas Farmer. In the beginning of 1632, aged 17 (which harmonises with the forged date in the Witton register), Wood informs us, he proceeded to Oxford, being entered at Oriel College as servitor, and under the tuition of Humphrey Lloyd, afterwards bishop of Bangor. He remained ‘till B.A.’ (Athenæ Oxon.) He was introduced to Laud and appointed his amanuensis, and Laud, ‘taking a liking to him for his ingenuity, did by his diploma make him M.A.’ in 1639. Nor was this all, for ‘his letters commendatory thereupon he was elected probation-fellow of All Souls College in 1640.’ During the civil war, while the king and court were at Oxford, Birkenhead was a leading spirit. The thick-coming events of the time compelled almost daily publication of news. The parliament had their ‘Mercurius Britannicus’ and others. The royalists were in need ofajounlal till Birkenhead devised, and was appointed to write, the ‘Mercurii Aulici' (Athenæ Oxon.) The ‘ftlercurius Aulicus’ communicated ‘the intelligence and affairs of `the court' at Oxford ‘to the rest of the kingdom,' No. 1 is dated January 1642. It went on without break till 1645, and occasionally after, ‘weekly in one sheet’ (a small quarto). The ‘Mercurius Aulicus’ has not received that critical attention which it deserves. When it is remembered that, with very occasional help later by Dr. Peter Heylin and others, the burden of carrying on the ‘Mercurius Aulicus’ fell on Birkciiillead, it must be recognised that he proved himself by this achievement alone a man of intellectual capacity and wit. The ‘Mercurius Aulicus’-now extremely rare complete-has never been reprinted or edited. Its literary quality gives it a far superior interest to that attaching to the ‘Mercurius Britannicus,'
The ‘Mercurius Aulicus’ having proved ‘very pleasing to the loyal party, his majesty recommended him [Birkenhead] to the electors that they would chose him for moral philosophy reader’ (Athenæ Oxon.) His duties were discharged ‘with little proflt,’ says Wood ambiguously.
The year 1648 found him in exile with the prince (afterwards Charles II). We have a glimpse of both in a letter from Birkenhead to John Raymond, worked into the reface of Raymond’s ‘Itinerary contayning a Voyage made through Italy in the Years 1646 and 1647’ (1648). The letter is dated ‘Amiens, 11 July 1648,' and is a characteristic specimen of his style.
After the ‘parliamentary visitors’ finally deprived him of his posts and fellowship, he appears to have gone and come between France, Holland, and England. Ultimately, according to Wood, having suffered several imprisonments, he lived at éxford ‘by his wits in helping young gentlemen out at dead lifts in making poems, songs, and epistles to their respective mistresses, as also in translating a writing several little things and other petite emp1oyments.’ Of his own ‘petite things' we have in 1647 (though not published till 1662-3), ‘The Assembly Man, or the Character of an Assembly Man;' in 1648, ‘News from Pembroke and Montgomery, or Oxford Manchester'd;’ in 1649, ‘Pauls Churchyard, Libri Theologici, Politici, Historici,’ enlarged in 1653 as follows: ‘Two Centvries of Paul’s Churchyard. Unà cum Indice Expurgntorio in Bibliothecam Parliamsnti, sive Librorum, qui prostant venales in vico vulgo vocato Little-Brittain. Done into English for the Benefit of the Assembly of Divines, and the two Universities;’ in 1659, ‘The Four-legg'd Quaker, a Ballad to the Tune of the Dog and Elder’s Maid.’ There were also ‘A Poem on his staying in London after the Act of the Banishment for Cavaliers,' and ‘The Jolt’ on Cromwell’s famous overturn of the coach. There is much drollery in these productions, and his Language is always nervous and effective.
The Restoration brought Birkenhead to the winning side. On 22 Aug. 1649, at St. Germains, he received a ant of arms, and probably his knighthood (Harleian MS. 11-14, f. 82 b). On 6 April 1661, on the king's letters he was created D.C.L. by Oxford, and as such was one of the eminent civilians consulted by the convocation on the question ‘whether bishops ought to be present in capital cases,’ and with the rest on 2 Feb. 1661-2 said ‘Yes.' He was returned M.P. for Wilton, was made a member of the Royal Society, and was appointed one of the masters of requests. But he failed to win the respect of even so ultra a royalist partisan as Anthony à Wood, who says of him: ‘A certain anonymous (“A Seasonable Argument to persuade . . . for a New Parliament, 1677") says he was a poor ale-keeper’s son, and that he got by lying and buffoonery at court 3,0001. … The truth is, had he not been given too much to bantering, which is now taken up by vain and idle people, he might have passed for a good wit, And had he also expressed himself grateful and respectful to those that had been his benefactors in the time of his necessity, which he did not, but rather slighted them (shewing thereby the baseness of his spirit), he might have passed for a friend and a loving companion.'
Except the ‘Assembly-Man'-delayed from 1647-he gave to the press nothing of any extent after the Restoration. He has verses in the Beaumont and Fletcher folio (1675), and Latin lines under Fletcher’s portrait. Probably the ‘Miscellanies’ of ‘Wit and Loyalty’ received contributions from him, but they remain unidentified. He died at Whitehall 4 Dec, 1679, ‘leaving behind him a choice collection of pamphlets, which came into the hands of his executors, Sir Richard Mason and Sir Muddford Bramston' (Ath. Oxon.) He does not appear to have married.
[Wood’s Athenæ, iii. 1203; Hunter's MS. Chorus Vatum in Brit. Mus.; letters from Mr. John Weston, The Heysoms, Hartford, Northwich; Birkenhead's Works; the nuncupative will of Kandall Birkenhead (in Probate Registry at Chester) leaves all his goods to his wife Margaret, not mentioning his occupation or children.]