Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knight, John (d.1718)

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KNIGHT, Sir JOHN, ‘the younger’ (d. 1718), Jacobite, is supposed to have been a kinsman of his namesake, Sir John the elder [q. v.] He was a native of Bristol, and was sheriff of that city in 1681, when he rivalled his relative in his zeal against the dissenters. He was rewarded by being knighted during March 1682. A prosperous merchant, like his kinsman, Knight henceforth took an equally prominent part in the town's affairs, and the politics of the two men being very similar their identity has been inextricably confused. Macaulay seems to have confused them, and Garrard, in his ‘Life of Edward Colston,’ is undoubtedly wrong in attributing to Sir John the elder (who was dead at that time) the information given against a popish priest about which Sunderland speaks with irritation in a letter to the Duke of Beaufort dated May 1686. It appears from local records that on 25 April in this year Sir John ‘the younger’ seized eight or ten papists and their priest who were intending to celebrate mass in a house on St. Michael's Hill, and sent them to Newgate. Knight's anti-papist zeal was doubtless the real cause of his committal to the King's Bench prison in 1686, though the ostensible charge was that he had been in the habit of ‘going with a blunderbuss in the streets to the terrifyeing of his majesty's subjects.’ Elected a member of the convention in 1689 and mayor of Bristol in 1690, he signalised his tenure of the latter office by fostering a demonstration against the judges of assize and refusing to entertain them during their visit to the town (Hist. MSS. Comm. 5th Rep. pt. ii. App. p. 382; Luttrell, Diary, September 1691). In the following year Knight was chosen to represent the city in parliament. The only occasion on which he took a prominent part in the house was in 1694, when, speaking with ability, though with great virulence, against the proposal for naturalising foreign protestants in England, he wound up a violent tirade with a proposal ‘that the serjeant be commanded to open the doors, and let us first kick the Bill out of the house, and then all foreigners out of the kingdom.’ The speech was shortly afterwards printed with a preface in which it was said that ‘if other corporations and shires would take the like care as Bristol, they might be happy in their representatives; and then, and never till then, may we hope to see poor England become Old England again, rich and happy at home, glorious and renowned abroad.’ The speech produced an extraordinary effect, and although, in deference to the indignation of the house, which ordered a copy of the printed speech to be burnt, Knight thought proper to disclaim any connection with the publication, his persecution, as it was considered, only served to render him more popular. ‘The people,’ says Macpherson, ‘were inflamed to a degree of madness; as for Sir John Knight, he was discoursed of as a saviour, and in a manner adored, for having made so noble a stand in behalf of his country.’ The government had to drop the bill. Hazlitt includes Knight's speech against the Dutch in his ‘British Eloquence’ (i. 226), and admits a preference for the speaker's ‘downright passion, unconquerable prejudice, and unaffected enthusiasm over the studied eloquence of modern invective.’

At the very time that he delivered this speech, however, Knight was in correspondence with St. Germains, and engaged in a scheme for restoring James by the aid of French arms. On 18 March 1696, after the discovery of the assassination plot, he was arrested as a suspected Jacobite, but no definite charge being brought against him, he was bailed on 30 June, and set at liberty on 5 Sept. following. Having lost his seat at Bristol in the previous year, Knight henceforth lived in obscurity. Falling into poverty he gave much offence in Bristol by threatening to sue the corporation for his ‘wages as a Parliament man,’ but finally retired to Congresbury in Somerset, where he had a small estate. In October 1713 his daughter, Anne, set forth her ‘deplorable estate’ in a petition to the town council, and was granted 20l. In December 1717 Sir John himself made a similar appeal, asserting that he was reduced to great necessity and want by the unnatural treatment of his son, and praying for charitable assistance. Only 20l. was voted. The Merchants' Company had a few weeks previously granted Sir John an annuity of 20l., but he did not live to enjoy it. He died at an advanced age in the following February 1718 (Hist. Reg. ii. 6). Macaulay calls Knight a ‘coarse-minded and spiteful Jacobite,’ and speaks of ‘his impudent and savage nature.’ There is, however, no specific evidence in support of these charges. His brother-Jacobite, Roger North, contrasts him with his kinsman, Sir John the elder, and describes him as ‘a gentleman of as eminent integrity and loyalty as ever the city of Bristol was honoured with’ (Examen, p. 253).

A third John Knight (fl. 1670), also of Bristol, was apparently no relation of his namesakes. He was at first in opposition to the dominant or royalist party in Bristol, and was in 1663 fined 400l. for refusing to become a member of the common council on election. He shortly afterwards became a convert to royalist views, and was elected mayor of Bristol in 1670, but his conversion did not prevent him from being denounced as a fanatic by Sir John Knight ‘the elder’ in the same year. He was summoned to London, and appeared before the privy council, but was cleared of all charges brought against him, returned home without delay, and ‘was honourably brought into Bristoll with 235 horse.’

[Garrard's Edward Colston, passim; Parl. Hist. v. 850; Addit. MS. 5540, ff. 8, 27; Somers Tracts, iv. 272; Luttrell's Diary, passim; Macpherson's History, ii. 52; Macaulay's History; information kindly supplied by Mr. William George, Bristol; authorities cited for Sir John Knight the elder; J. Latimer's Annals of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century, in course of publication in the Bristol Mercury.]

T. S.