Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Desborough, John

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1216861Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 14 — Desborough, John1888Gordon Goodwin

DESBOROUGH, DESBOROW, or DISBROWE, JOHN (1608–1680), major-general, second son of James Desborough of Eltisley, Cambridgeshire, by his wife Elizabeth Hatley of Over, in the same county (Egerton MS. 2519, f. 1), was baptised on 13 Nov. 1608. He was bred an attorney, but paid more attention to the cultivation of his farm, worth at that time between 60l. and 70l. a year. On 23 June 1636 he married at Eltisley Jane, sixth daughter of Robert Cromwell of Huntingdon, and sister of the future lord protector. In 1642–3 he had become a captain in the regiment of horse raised by his brother-in-law, and he distinguished himself by his bravery and effective handling of troops on several occasions during the civil war. As major he took part in the action near Langport on 10 July 1645 (Cromwelliana, p. 19; Whitelocke, Memorials, p. 158), in the affray at Hambleton Hill, near Shaftesbury, on the following 4 Aug. (Whitelocke, p. 165), and at the storming of Bristol on 10 Sept. in the same year, where he commanded the horse (Cromwelliana, p. 23). Three months later (8 Dec.) he was sent by Fairfax to assist Colonel Whalley in ‘straitning’ Oxford, and in the ensuing April he was acting as one of the committee to agree on articles for the surrender of Woodstock. As such he brought up the report to the parliament on the 26th of that month, when he was called in and received the thanks of the house and 100l. (Whitelocke, pp. 182, 202). On 15 Sept. 1648, being colonel, he was given the command of the forces at Great Yarmouth (ib. p. 337). Although perfectly willing to approve of the deposition of the king, he took good care to avoid sharing in the trial. In June 1649 he was engaged in the West of England in putting down the royalist risings, in enlisting recruits for the Irish campaign, and in the general work of organisation (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1649–1650, 1650, 1651, passim; Whitelocke, pp. 435, 439, 465). As major-general Desborough fought at Worcester (Cromwelliana, p. 115). In his flight Charles II encountered him near Salisbury, but just managed to escape recognition (Clarendon, History, 1849, bk. xiii. par. 103). During the Commonwealth Desborough was preferred by Cromwell's favour to many places of power and profit. On 17 Jan. 1651–2 he was appointed a member of the committee for law reform (Commons' Journals, vii. 74; Whitelocke, p. 520), received a seat on Cromwell's council of state in 1653 (Cromwelliana, pp. 129, 130; Whitelocke, p. 560; Commons' Journals, vii. 344), was made a commissioner of the treasury also in 1653 (Ludlow, Memoirs, 1751, ii. 39), and was chosen one of the four generals of the fleet in commission with Blake, Monck, and Penn, and a commissioner of the admiralty and navy in December the same year (Commons' Journals, vii. 361, 362; Whitelocke, p. 570). On 24 April 1654 he was made constable of St. Briavell's Castle, Forest of Dean (Coxe, Catal. Codd. MSS. Bibl. Bodl. pars v. fasc. ii. p. 676). The next year (12 March) he received his commission as major-general in charge of Wiltshire, Dorsetshire, Somersetshire, Devonshire, and Cornwall, in which capacity he proved himself an able administrator (Thurloe, State Papers, iii. 221, 486). He sat for Cambridgeshire in Cromwell's parliament of 1654 (Commons' Journals, vii. 372), and for Somersetshire in that of 1656 (ib. vii. 428). In July of the following year he entered Cromwell's privy council (Cromwelliana, p. 167), and shortly afterwards was joined in commission with Blake and Montagu for managing maritime affairs at home (Ludlow, ii. 145). Despite his relationship to the Protector, Desborough vehemently opposed his assuming the title of king. He used every effort to stimulate the opposition of the army against the scheme (Thurloe, vi. 219; Clarendon, bk. xv. par. 34). The next year, however, he accepted without scruple a place in Cromwell's House of Lords (Ludlow, ii. 131–3; Harleian Miscellany, Park, iii. 476).

After Cromwell's death Desborough cast off all restraint and joined the party among the officers whose plan was to make Fleetwood commander-in-chief, independent of Richard Cromwell. Failing in this, the officers sent Fleetwood and Desborough on 22 April 1659 to force Richard to dissolve the parliament. Fleetwood spoke mildly, but Desborough, using ‘threats and menaces,’ told his nephew ‘that if he would dissolve his parliament, the officers would take care of him; but that if he refused so to do, they would do it without him, and leave him to shift for himself’ (Clarendon, bk. xvi. par. 10; Ludlow, ii. 177). This had the desired effect. The Rump, directly it was restored, elected him one of the council of state on 13 May 1659—he had just before been nominated one of the committee of safety—and gave him the governorship of Plymouth and a colonel's commission in July, but so far resented his effrontery in presenting with other officers a petition in the name of the general council of the army on 5 Oct., as to cashier him a week later (Whitelocke, pp. 678, 681, 684). After Fleetwood had broken up the house on 13 Oct. Desborough was nominated by the officers one of a committee of ten of the council of state to consider of fit ways to carry on the affairs of government (17 Oct.), and was also appointed commissary-general of the horse (Whitelocke, p. 685; Clarendon, bk. xvi. pars. 86, 91; Ludlow, ii. 240–1). His conduct, always unruly, had now become so violent as to render him an object of popular derision. ‘Everybody laughs at the lord Fleetwood and Disbrowe,’ writes an anonymous correspondent in Thurloe (vii. 823). Even his regiment rose in revolt against him. On the second restoration of the Rump Desborough was punished by being relegated (January 1659–1660) to his house ‘farthest off London,’ although he proffered more than one abject apology (Whitelocke, pp. 692, 693, 698).

When the Restoration was inevitable, Desborough attempted to leave the kingdom, but was arrested by the sheriff of Essex near the coast and sent up in custody to the council of state (Commons' Journals, 21 May 1660, viii. 39). On 13 June 1660 a resolution was passed excepting him out of the Act of Indemnity, the effect of which was merely to incapacitate him from all public employment, as he was not mentioned in the clause of pains and penalties extending either to life or property (ib. viii. 63). He had scarcely got free when he was again seized in London and sent to the Tower on suspicion of being concerned in a plot to kill Charles II and Henrietta Maria. There was no evidence of any such plot, and he was soon liberated (Ludlow, iii. 80). Finding himself closely watched, he contrived to escape to Holland, where he occupied himself in fruitless endeavours to unite the remains of the republican party (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1660–1661, pp. 550–1, &c., 1663–4, passim). His intrigues coming to the knowledge of the government, he was ordered by proclamation, dated 9 April 1666, to be in England before 23 July on pain of being declared a traitor (ib. 1665–6, pp. 318, 342, 358). He promptly obeyed, and, landing in Thanet, was sent a prisoner to Dover Castle on 13 July, whence he was transferred a few days later to the Tower (ib. 1665–6, pp. 529, 544, 581). Here he remained until 23 Feb. 1667, when he was brought up for examination before Lord-chancellor Clarendon, the Duke of Albemarle, and Lord Arlington (ib. 1666–7, p. 531). In the result he obtained his liberty, and would appear to have been allowed to reside quietly in England for the rest of his life (Pepys, Diary, ed. Bright, iv. 306).

Desborough died at Hackney in 1680 (Probate Act Book, P. C. C., 1680). His will, in which he describes himself as ‘of Hackney, in the county of Middlesex, esquire,’ bearing date 26 March 1678, was proved on 20 Sept. 1680 by his eldest surviving son, Valentine (Reg. in P. C. C. 115, Bath). From it we learn that he died possessed of the manor of Eltisley, his birthplace (cf. Lysons, Mag. Brit. vol. ii. pt. i., Cambridgeshire, pp. 184–185), and of other lands in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, and Essex. Desborough was twice married. His first wife, Jane Cromwell, who was living in December 1656 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1656–7, p. 489), was buried in Westminster Abbey, from which her remains were exhumed at the Restoration (Nichols, Collectanea, viii. 153). By her he had a daughter and seven sons. Jane, the daughter, married John, son of William Burton, M.P. for Yarmouth in 1656, and one of the seventy members who offered the crown to Cromwell (Palmer, Perlustration of Great Yarmouth, i. 385, 387). She died in 1729. Of the sons, John, the eldest, was baptised at St. John the Baptist, Huntingdon, on 27 April 1637. Nathaniel, the second but eldest surviving son, was placed by Cromwell under Lockhart's care at Paris to qualify for foreign embassies (Thurloe, vi. 221). In November 1658 he returned to England (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1658–9, pp. 463, 467, 480), receiving a lieutenancy in Lockhart's Dunkirk regiment on 26 Aug. 1659 (ib. 1659–60, p. 151). He subsequently attained the rank of captain, and on the return of Charles II retired to Holland. He appears to have been employed by Arlington to act as a spy on De Witt and the English exiles in that country, but, being detected in an attempt to play a double game, was committed to the Tower in February 1666, where he remained until September in the following year (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1661–7, passim). He married Anne, one of the ten daughters of Sir John Corbet, bart., of Stoke, Shropshire. Three other sons, Valentine, Samuel, and Benjamin, survived their father, and their fortunes are minutely traced in Noble's ‘Memoirs.’ Desborough married again in April 1658 (Thurloe, vii. 42; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1657–8, p. 356). His second wife is said, on the dubious authority of Betham, to have been Anne, daughter of Sir Richard Everard, bart., of Much Waltham, Essex (Baronetage, iii. 239 n.).

Desborough's patriotism was tempered by a strict regard for his own interests. Deficient in all the qualities of a statesman, he sought to introduce a military despotism under which he might hope to hold a high command. His rustic origin, person, and manners are constantly ridiculed in the ‘Rump’ songs and other effusions of cavalier hate. He figures in ‘Hudibras,’ and Butler has also devoted some lines to him in the ‘Parable of the Lion and Fox’ (Hudibras, ed. Grey, 1744, ii. 245–6). He appears as the ‘grim Gyant Desborough’ in ‘Don Juan Lamberto’ (1661), to which is prefixed a woodcut representing Desborough and Lambert, the former with a huge club in his right hand, leading the ‘meek knight,’ i.e. Richard Cromwell, under the arms. There is a quarto engraving of him on horseback, published by Peter Stent, and another from an original by A. Simon. A fine autograph of Desborough is appended to his letter to Colonel Clarke, 1654 (Addit. MS. 21506, f. 74).

A younger brother, Samuel Desborough (1619–1690), born at Eltisley in November 1619, was obliged to retire to America on account of his religion. He arrived at New Haven in 1639, and became one of the early settlers of Guilford, Connecticut, in 1641. Returning home in the autumn of 1650 he sought employment under the Commonwealth (Savage, Genealog. Dict. ii. 41–2). In 1652 he was acting as a commissioner at Leith (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1651–2, pp. 281, 328, 1652–3, p. 221). On 4 May 1655 he was appointed by Cromwell one of the nine commissioners for Scotland (ib. 1655, pp. 108, 152), and keeper of the great seal of Scotland on 16 Sept. 1657 (Egerton MS. 2519, f. 17), an office in which he was continued by Richard Cromwell. He represented Midlothian in the parliament of 1656 (Thurloe, v. 295, 366), and Edinburgh in that of 1658–9 (ib. vii. 584). Upon the prospect of the Restoration he prudently embraced the declaration of Breda, and signed his submission, in the presence of Monck, on 21 May 1660. He obtained a full pardon, with restitution of goods and lands, on the following 12 Dec. (Egerton MS. 2519, ff. 32, 34). After this he retired to his seat at Elsworth, Cambridgeshire, which, with the manor and rectory, he had purchased in 1656 (Lysons, Mag. Brit. vol. ii. pt. i., Cambridgeshire, p. 183). He died there on 10 Dec. 1690 (Will reg. in P. C. C. 66, Vere). He was twice married: first, to Dorothy, daughter of Henry Whitfield of Ockley, Surrey, the first minister of Guilford (Savage, iv. 517). By her, who died in 1654, he had a daughter Sarah, born in March 1649, and a son James, a doctor of medicine (Munk, Coll. of Phys. 1878, i. 477; Lysons, Environs, ii. 499). The son married, on 9 March 1678–9, Abigail, daughter of John Marsh of St. Albans, Hertfordshire (Chester, Marriage Licenses, ed. Foster, 4941), and had a daughter Elizabeth, who became the wife of Matthew Holworthy, only son of Sir Matthew Holworthy, knight, of Great Palgrave, Norfolk. He died at his house in Stepney Causeway about the same time as his father, for his will, dated on 26 Nov. 1690, was proved on 14 Jan. 1690–1 (Reg. in P. C. C. 4, Vere). Desborough married for the second time in 1655 Rose Hobson, who had previously been married, first to a Mr. Lacey, and secondly to Samuel Penoyer, merchant and citizen of London. She died on 4 March 1698–9, aged 82 (Will reg. in P. C. C. 58, Pett).

[Addit. (Cole) MS. 5810, ff. 72 b, 73 b, 75 b; Egerton MS. 2519; Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (Carlyle), 2nd edit.; Thurloe's State Papers; Whitelocke's Memorials; Ludlow's Memoirs; Clarendon's History (1849); Cal. State Papers, Dom.; Noble's Memoirs of Protectoral House of Cromwell, 2nd edit. i. 89, ii. 274–99, full of the grossest errors; Noble's Lives of the Regicides, i. 178–9; Wood's Fasti (Bliss), ii. 155; Granger's Biog. Hist. of England, 2nd edit. iii. 71–2; Cromwelliana; Somers Tracts, 2nd edit. vii. 104; Commons' Journals, ix. 763; A Perfect Diurnal, No. 144, p. 1151; Hoare's Wiltshire, vi. 425, 430, 431, 435.]

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