1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lenthall, William

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21972201911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 16 — Lenthall, William

LENTHALL, WILLIAM (1591–1662), English parliamentarian, speaker of the House of Commons, second son of William Lenthall, of Lachford, Oxfordshire, a descendent of an old Herefordshire family, was born at Henley-on-Thames in June 1591. He left Oxford without taking a degree in 1609, and was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1616, becoming a bencher in 1633. He represented Woodstock in the Short Parliament (April 1640), and was chosen by King Charles I. to be speaker of the Long Parliament, which met on the 3rd of November 1640. According to Clarendon, a worse choice could not have been made, for Lenthall was of a “very timorous nature.” He was treated with scanty respect in the chair, and seems to have had little control over the proceedings. On the 4th of January 1642, however, when the king entered the House of Commons to seize the five members, Lenthall behaved with great prudence and dignity. Having taken the speaker’s chair and looked round in vain to discover the offending members, Charles turned to Lenthall standing below, and demanded of him “whether any of those persons were in the House, whether he saw any of them and where they were.” Lenthall fell on his knees and replied: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here.” On the outbreak of the great rebellion, Lenthall threw in his lot with the parliament. He had already called attention to the inadequacy of his salary and been granted a sum of £6000 (9th of April 1642); and he was now appointed master of the rolls (22nd of November 1643), and one of the commissioners of the great seal (Oct. 1646–March 1648).

He carried on his duties as speaker without interruption till 1647, when the power of the parliament had been transferred to the army. On the 26th of July a mob invaded the House of Commons and obliged it to rescind the ordinance re-establishing the old parliamentary committee of militia; Lenthall was held in the chair by main force and compelled to put to the vote a resolution inviting the king to London. Threats of worse things came subsequently to Lenthall’s ears, and, taking the mace with him, he left London on the 29th to join the army and Fairfax. Lenthall and Manchester, the speaker of the Lords, headed the fugitive members at the review on Hounslow Heath on the 3rd of August, being received by the soldiers “as so many angels sent from heaven for their good.” Returning to London with the army, he was installed again by Fairfax in the chair (6th August), and all votes passed during his absence were annulled. He adhered henceforth to the army party, but with a constant bias in favour of the king.

At the Restoration he claimed to have sent money to the king at Oxford, to have provided the queen with comforts and necessaries and to have taken care of the royal children. But he put the question for the king’s trial from the chair, and continued to act as speaker after the king’s execution. He still continued to use his influence in favour of the royalists, whenever this was possible without imperilling his own interests, and he saved the lives of both the earl of Norwich (8th March 1649) and Sir W. D’Avenant (3rd July 1650) by his casting vote. The removal of the king had left the parliament supreme; and Lenthall as its representative, though holding little real power, was the first man in the state.

His speakership continued till the 20th of April 1653, when the Long Parliament was summarily expelled. Cromwell directed Colonel Harrison, on the refusal of Lenthall to quit the chair, to pull him out—and Lenthall submitted to the show of force. He took no part in politics till the assembling of the first protectorate parliament, on the 3rd of September 1654, in which he sat as member for Oxfordshire. He was again chosen speaker, his former experience and his pliability of character being his chief recommendations. In the second protectorate parliament, summoned by Cromwell on the 17th of September 1656, Lenthall was again chosen member for Oxfordshire, but had some difficulty in obtaining admission, and was not re-elected speaker. He supported Cromwell’s administration, and was active in urging the protector to take the title of king. In spite of his services, Lenthall was not included by Cromwell in his new House of Lords, and was much disappointed and crestfallen at his omission. The protector, hearing of his “grievous complaint,” sent him a writ, and Lenthall was elated at believing he had secured a peerage. After Cromwell’s death, the officers, having determined to recall the “Rump” Parliament, assembled at Lenthall’s house at the Rolls (6th May 1659), to desire him to send out the writs. Lenthall, however, had no wish to resume his duties as speaker, preferring the House of Lords, and made various excuses for not complying. Nevertheless, upon the officers threatening to summon the parliament without his aid, and hearing the next morning that several members had assembled, he led the procession to the parliament house. Lenthall was now restored to the position of dignity which he had filled before. He was temporarily made keeper of the new great seal (14th of May). On the 6th of June it was voted that all commissions should be signed by Lenthall and not by the commander-in-chief. His exalted position, however, was not left long unassailed. On the 13th of October Lambert placed soldiers round the House and prevented the members from assembling. Lenthall’s coach was stopped as he was entering Palace Yard, the mace was seized and he was obliged to return. The army, however, soon returned to their allegiance to the parliament. On the 24th of December they marched to Lenthall’s house, and expressed their sorrow. On the 29th the speaker received the thanks of the reassembled parliament.

Lenthall now turned his attention to bring about the Restoration. He “very violently” opposed the oath abjuring the house of Stuart, now sought to be imposed by the republican faction on the parliament, and absented himself from the House for ten days, to avoid, it was said, any responsibility for the bill. He had been in communication with Monk for some time, and on Monk entering London with his army (3rd February 1660) Lenthall met him in front of Somerset House. On the 6th of February Monk visited the House of Commons, when Lenthall pronounced a speech of thanks. On the 28th of March Lenthall forwarded to the king a paper containing “Heads of Advice.” According to Monk, he “was very active for the restoring of His Majesty and performed many services ... which could not have been soe well effected without his helpe.” Lenthall notwithstanding found himself in disgrace at the Restoration. In spite of Monk’s recommendation, he was not elected by Oxford University for the Convention Parliament, nor was he allowed by the king, though he had sent him a present of £3000, to remain master of the rolls. On the 11th of June he was included by the House of Commons, in spite of a recommendatory letter from Monk, among the twenty persons excepted from the act of indemnity and subject to penalties not extending to life. In the House of Lords, however, Monk’s testimony and intercession were effectual, and Lenthall was only declared incapable of holding for the future any public office. His last public act was a disgraceful one. Unmindful now of the privileges of parliament, he consented to appear as a witness against the regicide Thomas Scot, for words spoken in the House of Commons while Lenthall was in the chair. It was probably after this that he was allowed to present himself at court, and his contemporaries took a malicious glee in telling how “when, with some difficulty, he obtained leave to kiss the king’s hand he, out of guilt, fell backward, as he was kneeling.”

Lenthall died on the 3rd of September 1662. In his will he desired to be buried without any state and without a monument, “but at the utmost a plain stone with this superscription only, Vermis sum, acknowledging myself to be unworthy of the least outward regard in this world and unworthy of any remembrance that hath been so great a sinner.” He was held in little honour by his contemporaries, and was universally regarded as a time-server. He was, however, a man of good intentions, strong family affections and considerable ability. Unfortunately he was called by the irony of fate to fill a great office, in which governed constantly by fears for his person and estate, he was seduced into a series of unworthy actions. He left one son, Sir John Lenthall, who had descendants. His brother, Sir John Lenthall, who, it was said, had too much influence with him, was notorious for his extortions as keeper of the King’s Bench prison.

See C. H. Firth in the Dict. Nat. Biog.; Wood (ed. Bliss), Ath. Oxon. iii. 603, who gives a list of his printed speeches and letters; Foss, Lives of the Judges, vi. 447; and J. A. Manning, Lives of the Speakers of the House of Commons. There are numerous references to Lenthall in his official capacity, and letters written by and to him, in the Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, and in various MSS. calendared in the Hist. MSS. Commission Series. See also D’Ewes’s Diary, in the Harleian Collection, British Museum, some extracts from which have been given by J. Forster, Case of the Five Members, 233 sq.; and Notes and Queries, ser. iii., vii. 45 (“Lenthall’s Lamentation”), viii., i. 165, 338, 2, ix., xi. 57.