Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/St. John, Oliver (1598?-1673)

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ST. JOHN, OLIVER (1598?–1673), chief justice, born about 1598, was the son of Oliver St. John of Cayshoe, Bedfordshire (a grandson of the first Lord St. John of Bletsho) [see under St. John, Oliver, first Earl of Bolingbroke], by Sarah, daughter of Edward Buckley of Odell in the same county (Wotton, Baronetage, iv. 178; Foss, Judges, vi. 475). St. John was admitted a pensioner of Queens' College, Cambridge, on 16 Aug. 1615, under the tuition of John Preston (1587–1628) [q. v.] He entered Lincoln's Inn on 22 April 1619, and was called to the bar on 22 June 1626 (ib. vi. 477; Noble, House of Cromwell, ii. 15). Lord Campbell erroneously identifies him with the Oliver St. John of Marlborough who was brought before the Star-chamber in 1615 for a letter against benevolences (Lives of the Chief Justices, i. 450; cf. Gardiner, History of England, ii. 268). He also erroneously describes him as member for Bedford county in 1628, and ‘mainly instrumental in carrying the Petition of Right’ (Campbell, i. 452). St. John received employment from Francis Russell, fourth earl of Bedford [q. v.], in his law business, and was sent to the Tower in November 1629 for communicating to Bedford Sir Robert Dudley's ‘Proposition for his Majesty's service to bridle the impertinence of Parliaments.’ He was threatened with the rack and brought before the Star-chamber for circulating a seditious document, but the prosecution was dropped and the offenders pardoned on the occasion of the birth of Charles II (Gardiner, vii. 139; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1629–30, pp. 97, 98, 110; Life of Sir Simonds D'Ewes, ii. 40). St. John was also associated with the Earl of Warwick, Lord Saye, John Pym, and other opposition leaders in the management of the company for the plantation of the island of Providence (Cal. State Papers, Colonial, 1574–1660, p. 123).

Even more important in its influence on his political career was the connection with the Cromwell family, resulting from St. John's marriage, first with a distant relative, and after her death with a cousin of the future Protector. Cromwell's close friendship with the second Mrs. St. John is shown by the remarkable letter which he addressed to her in 1638 (Carlyle, Cromwell, Letter 2). According to Clarendon, St. John never forgave the court his imprisonment in 1629, and ‘contracted an implacable displeasure against the church purely from the company he kept’ (Rebellion, iii. 32). In 1637 his papers were seized in consequence of the suspicion that he had drawn Henry Burton's answer to the information preferred against him in the Star-chamber for his attack against the bishops (Bruce, Documents relating to William Prynne, pp. 77, 83, Camd. Soc. 1877). In the same year he acted as counsel for Lord Saye and John Hampden in their resistance to the payment of ship-money. His speech in Hampden's case gained him an immense reputation, and, though hitherto he had had little practice in Westminster Hall, henceforward he was called ‘into all courts and to all causes where the King's prerogative was most contested’ (Clarendon, Rebellion, iii. 32; Rushworth, ii. 481–544). In the Short parliament of April 1640 St. John represented Totnes. In August of the same year he helped Pym to draw up the famous petition of the twelve peers which led to the calling of the Long parliament (Camden Society Miscellany, vol. viii. ‘Papers relating to the Delinquency of Lord Savile,’ p. 2). When the Long parliament met, St. John, who was again returned for Totnes, became naturally one of its leaders. He was ‘in a firm and entire conjunction’ with Pym and Hampden, and ‘of intimate trust’ with the Earl of Bedford, being thus one of the half-dozen opposition politicians who made up ‘the engine which moved all the rest.’ Clarendon describes him as ‘a man reserved, and of a dark and clouded countenance, very proud, and conversing with very few, and those men of his own humour and inclinations.’ He was ‘very seldom known to smile,’ but could not conceal his cheerfulness when the king dissolved the Short parliament, believing that so moderate a body of men ‘would never have done what was necessary to be done’ (Clarendon, ii. 78, iii. 32). In the Long parliament St. John opened the attack on ship-money. On 7 Dec. 1640 he presented the report of the committee appointed by the commons to deal with the subject, and a month later set forth the case against that impost to the House of Lords (Commons' Journals, ii. 46; Mr. St. John's Speech in the Upper House of Parliament, 7 Jan. 1640–1, concerning Ship-money, 4to, 1640). On 29 Jan. following the king, at the proposal of the Earl of Bedford, appointed St. John solicitor-general, ‘hoping that he would have been very useful in the House of Commons, where his authority was then great; at least that he would be ashamed ever to appear in anything that might prove prejudicial to the crown’ (Clarendon, iii. 85).

Office, however, made no change in St. John's political attitude. He played an important part in Strafford's trial, promoted the bill for his attainder, and argued in his speech to the lords on its behalf that, as Strafford had endeavoured to destroy the law, he was not entitled to its protection. ‘He that would not have had others to have law, why should he have any himself? … We give law to hares and deer because they be beasts of chase. It was never accounted either cruelty or foul play to knock foxes and wolves on the head, as they can be found, because they are beasts of prey’ (ib. iii. 140; An Argument of Law concerning the Bill of Attainder of Thomas, Earl of Strafford, 4to, 1641, p. 72; Sanford, Studies and Illustrations of the Great Rebellion, pp. 341–7). According to Clarendon, both the Root and Branch Bill and the Militia Bill were drawn by St. John (Rebellion, iii. 156, 245). He was also a member of the committee appointed by the commons to sit during the recess in the summer of 1641, and on 26 Oct. 1641 delivered a speech in support of the exclusion of the bishops from votes in parliament (Old Parliamentary History, x. 14). The king, finding he ‘did disserve him notoriously,’ proposed to appoint Hyde solicitor-general in his place, but Hyde refused, and it was not till 30 Oct. 1643 that Sir Thomas Gardiner superseded St. John (Clarendon, Rebellion, iv. 126, viii. 213; FOSS, vi. 480). When the king summoned St. John to follow him to York, the House of Commons refused him leave to go (Commons' Journals, ii. 600). They passed an ordinance enabling him to perform all the duties of the attorney-general, who had joined the king (28 May 1644), and also appointed him one of the six commissioners charged with the custody of the new great seal (10 Nov. 1643), which office he continued to hold till 30 Oct. 1646 (Husband, Ordinances, 1646, folio, pp. 385, 499).

During the civil war St. John came gradually to be regarded as one of the leaders of the independents. He delayed taking the Solemn League and Covenant as long as he could safely do so (Memoirs of the Verney Family, ii. 166). From the close of 1643 he and Vane were the heads of the war party in the lower house. Robert Baillie terms him ‘Mr. Pym's successor’ (Letters, ii. 133). In January 1644 he discovered and revealed Brook's plot for inducing the city to declare for peace (A Cunning Plot to divide and destroy the Parliament and the City of London, 4to, 1643). The original institution of the committee of both kingdoms, of which he was from the first a member (16 Feb. 1644), and the device by which the opposition of the lords to its renewal was frustrated were the work of St. John and Vane (Gardiner, Great Civil War, i. 304, 343; Baillie, ii. 141). St. John, who was an active member of the Westminster assembly, was at first regarded by the Scots as one of their strongest friends; but his share in passing the toleration order of 13 Sept. 1644 produced loud complaints from the presbyterians (ib. ii. 117, 145, 230, 235–7). In the later period of the Westminster assembly he was one of the ‘Erastian lawyers’ who obstructed the establishment of the presbyterian system by their insistence on the rights of the state.

St. John was one of the commissioners appointed to treat for a peace at Uxbridge in January 1645, but took little part in the debates (Gardiner, Great Civil War, ii. 121). He supported the self-denying ordinance, and helped to procure the exemption of Cromwell from its operation (Holles, Memoirs, ed. Maseres, pp. 209–14; Clarendon, Rebellion, viii. 261). A letter which St. John wrote to Cromwell in February 1646, about the lands conferred by parliament upon the latter, supplies a further proof of the political agreement which then existed between the two (Thurloe Papers, i. 75). In 1647, during the quarrel between the army and the parliament, St. John adhered to the army, though remaining rather in the background while the struggle lasted. He signed the engagement of 4 Aug. 1647, to support Fairfax against the city, and was a member of the committee appointed after the army's victory to examine into the late riots (Rushworth, vii. 755; Walker, History of Independency, i. 51, ed. 1661; Clarke Papers, i. 135, 158, 219, 231). St. John doubtless concurred in the vote for no further addresses to Charles I, although during the months which followed he, like Cromwell, made an attempt to open negotiations with the Prince of Wales, and even discussed the desirability of fresh overtures to the king (Gardiner, iii. 57; Hamilton Papers, Camden Society, i. 148, 174). Thus from 1644 to the beginning of 1648 he continually acted in harmony with Cromwell, and Holles gave voice to the general opinion, when in February 1648 he dedicated his memorial to ‘the unparalleled couple’ as being ‘the two grand designers of the ruin of three kingdoms.’ The enthusiastic letter which Cromwell addressed to St. John after his victory at Preston shows how complete his confidence in his associate was (Carlyle, Cromwell, Letter 67). Towards the end of 1648, however, St. John's policy began to diverge from Cromwell's. On 12 Oct. 1648 the commons appointed him chief justice of the common pleas, and on 22 Nov. following he was sworn in. He therefore abstained, in accordance with the usual custom, from attending parliament, took no part in the proceedings which brought Charles I to the block, and, though appointed one of the commissioners for the trial of the king, refused to act (Foss, vi. 481). In the vindication which he printed at the Restoration St. John protested that he had nothing to do with the king's death, Pride's Purge, or the establishment of the Commonwealth (The Case of Oliver St. John, 1660, 4to, pp. 5, 12; Thurloe Papers, vii. 914). His dissatisfaction was shown by the fact that, though a member of the council of state, he attended sixteen only out of 319 meetings during his first year of office. During the second year he attended forty-nine meetings. In June 1650, when Fairfax resigned command rather than invade Scotland, St. John was one of the committee appointed by parliament to satisfy him of the justice of the intended invasion (Whitelocke, Memorials, iii. 207, ed. 1853). The letter in which he congratulated Cromwell on the victory of Dunbar marks his complete reconciliation with the policy of the republic, and is also the fullest exposition of his religious views which has survived (Nickolls, Original Letters addressed to Cromwell, 1743, fol., p. 24). On 14 Feb. 1651 the parliament selected St. John (with Mr. Walter Strickland for his colleague) to negotiate a close alliance between the United Provinces and England. Their instructions directed them to propose not only ‘a confederacy perpetual,’ but, if that were accepted, ‘a further and more intrinsecal union’ between the two nations. Great hopes were built upon the embassy. Marvell addressed St. John in a copy of Latin verses, dwelling upon the significance of his name and his mission, while a suite of nearly 250 persons showed the desire of the English government to enhance the prestige of its negotiators and secure their safety (Marvell, Works, ed. Grosart, i. 413). St. John arrived at the Hague on 17 March, but three months of negotiating ended in failure. The servants of the ambassador were assaulted in the streets by exiled cavaliers, and the lives of their masters were threatened. The proposed league failed because the Dutch refused to expel the English royalists from their dominions, or to make the princess of Orange answerable for their intrigues against the English commonwealth. The political union of the two republics was in consequence never actually proposed. On 20 June St. John left Holland, haughtily telling the Dutch commissioners that they would repent of having rejected his offers (Gardiner, Commonwealth and Protectorate, i. 357–65; Geddes, John De Witt, i. 157; Report on the Duke of Portland's MSS. i. 557, 605; Thurloe, i. 174–195; Grey, Examination of Neal's Puritans, iv. App. li.; Rawlinson MS. C. 366, Bodleian Library). He had shown no great skill as a diplomatist, but he was full of wrath at his failure, and contemporaries asserted that the passing of the Navigation Act was largely due to his resentment (Ludlow, Memoirs, i. 267, ed. 1894; Clarendon, Rebellion, xiii. 155, 169).

On 27 June 1651 parliament rescinded the vote of October 1649, which relieved judges from their attendance in the house while they executed their offices. This enabled St. John to take his seat again without the necessity of expressing his dissatisfaction with the treaty of Newport, which was exacted from other members of the house (Case of Oliver St. John, p. 11). On 2 July 1651 he gave an account of his embassy to parliament. On 6 Sept. he was sent with three other members to congratulate Cromwell on his victory at Worcester (Commons' Journals, vi. 593, 595, vii. 13). Two months later the committee for the reformation of the universities appointed St. John chancellor of the university of Cambridge in place of the Earl of Manchester (27 Nov. 1651; Baker, History of St. John's College, i. 230). As chancellor, however, he interfered very little in the government of the university (Thurloe, vii. 574, 582). St. John was also chosen by parliament as one of the eight commissioners to be sent to Scotland in order to settle the civil government of that country, and to prepare the way for an incorporating union with England (23 Oct. 1651). He arrived in Scotland in January 1652, and returned to England in the following May, having successfully achieved the purpose of his mission (Commons' Journals, vii. 30; Scotland and the Commonwealth, Scottish History Society, 1895, pp. xxiii, 32, 40, 42).

St. John's attitude during the events which led to the elevation of Cromwell to the protectorate is somewhat difficult to define. At the Restoration it was alleged ‘that he was the dark lantern and privy counsellor in setting up and managing affairs in the late Protector's time,’ a charge which he strenuously denied (Case of Oliver St. John, p. 5). He certainly desired to see the Long parliament dissolved, and on 14 Nov. 1651 he was teller with Cromwell for the motion resolving that a date for the dissolution should be fixed (Commons' Journals, vii. 36; cf. Whitelocke, Memorials, ed. 1853, iii. 4). In the conference on the settlement of the government which took place on 10 Dec. 1651, St. John declared ‘that the government of this nation, without something of monarchical power, will be very difficult to be so settled as not to shake the foundation of our laws and the liberties of the people’ (ib. ii. 373). After Cromwell had turned out the Rump he wished, according to Ludlow, to persuade St. John and others to draw up a new constitution, but there is no evidence that St. John had any part in drawing up the instrument of government (Ludlow, Memoirs, i. 358). He did not sit either in the council of state set up by the officers in April 1653, or in the Little parliament. He says himself: ‘In October I fell sick so dangerously, that from that time untill the end of May [1654] my friends expected death.’ Of his conduct during the protectorate he adds: ‘He named me one of the council, and summoned me one of the council, and summoned me to sit in that which was called the other House. I never would come to his council, or sit in the other House. He made me one of the commissioners of the treasury. I never intermeddled, or received salary, either as a councillor or commissioner; I, nor any of my relations, never had one penny advantage by him, or by his means, directly or indirectly, save the continuance of my place as a judge. And in the pretended parliament of 1656, when the petition and advice was made, my relations then that were of the house forbore to sit all that Parliament, few others absenting themselves. As soon as the term was ended, I ever went down into the country and came not up until the beginning of the term following; seldom saw him save before or after the term to take leave, but followed my calling’ (Case, p. 6). St. John's own account is confirmed by other evidence. The domestic state papers show that he was appointed a commissioner of the treasury (2 Aug. 1654), but contain no record of his acting in that capacity. He was named a member of the committee for the advancement of trade (12 July 1655), and of that selected to discuss the readmission of the Jews into England (15 Nov. 1655). He was present at one of the discussions of the latter (Cromwelliana, p. 154). St. John's name appears in the account of the discussions of the committee employed by the parliament of 1656 to persuade Cromwell to accept the crown (Old Parliamentary History, xxi. 69, 70). But this appears to be the result of a confusion between Chief-justice Glyn and Chief-justice St. John; for the journals show that St. John was not a member of the committee (Commons' Journals, vii. 521; cf. Treason's Masterpiece, 8vo, 1680, pp. 6, 7). Thurloe, who was popularly supposed to be the medium of communication between St. John and Cromwell, describes him as opposed to Cromwell's elevation to the protectorate, and a severe critic of the instrument of government. ‘As he had nothing to do with the setting up this government, so neither was there, so far as I know or have heard, any communication of counsels between Oliver and him, mediately or immediately, touching the management of any part of the public affairs, my lord St. John always refusing to meddle in anything but what concerned his place as judge, and in that he refused to proceed upon any of the laws made under that government, for which he was complained of to the council, and it was imputed to his example that the judges refused to act upon the last high court of justice. Nor was he to my knowledge advised with in the Petition and Advice. The truth is that my lord St. John was so far from being a confidant, that some who loved and valued him had something to do to preserve him under that government’ (Thurloe, vii. 914). In one important case St. John gave judgment against the government, and summed up strongly against the arbitrary methods by which freedom of election was destroyed (Ludlow, Memoirs, ii. 35; Commons' Journals, vi. 598).

St. John was not in London when Cromwell died, and seems to have had nothing to do with the elevation of Richard to the protectorate, though in a letter written on 3 Sept. 1658 he expressed his devotion to the Protector and his family, and his willingness to take part in any consultations on the state of public affairs (Case, p. 7; Thurloe, vii. 370). He was not a member of Richard's council, and continued to confine himself to his judicial duties. Nevertheless royalist agents continued to assert that he and William Pierrepoint were, in conjunction with Thurloe, the new Protector's secret advisers, but no direct evidence of the fact exists (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 423, 435, 441). When Richard was overthrown and the Long parliament was restored, St. John came to the front once more, and was elected a member of the council of state (16 May 1659). The parliament employed him to extract a formal abdication from Richard Cromwell (Commons' Journals, vii. 664). According to Ludlow, he contrived to insert a clause in the parliamentary act of indemnity securing himself from the liability of refunding money for places which he had sold under the late government (Memoirs, ii. 97). At the same time, having no great confidence in the stability of the republic, he endeavoured to raise money by selling some of his lands, so as to be prepared for a turn of fortune (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 528). When the army again turned out the parliament, and threatened a rough and ready reformation of the law, St. John treated with the officers on behalf of the lawyers in order to prevent it (Ludlow, ii. 161). On the second restoration of the parliament St. John was again elected one of the council of state (31 Dec. 1659), but forbore to sit in that body, from unwillingness to take the oath abjuring the Stuarts, and opposed the act for imposing such an engagement on members of parliament (Case, p. 12; but see Ludlow, ii. 204). On 17 Feb. 1660 he took part in a conference regarding the readmission of the secluded members, which his election to the new council of state on 23 Feb. shows that he promoted (Ludlow, ii. 228; Kennet, Register, p. 61). Pepys heard on good authority that ‘my Lord St. John is for a free Parliament, and that he is very great with Monk’ (Diary, 7 Feb. 1660), a statement which confirms St. John's own account of his endeavours for that object (Case, p. 13). To the last moment before the Restoration the Royalists suspected him of intrigues to impose conditions upon the king, or to restore Richard Cromwell (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 661, 686, 710, 729, 749).

After the Restoration St. John's conduct during the earlier part of the struggle, and the high offices he had held under the republic and protectorate, led him to fear the worst. To counteract the rumours as to his part in the king's death, and his intimate relations with Oliver and Richard Cromwell, he printed his ‘Case,’ which was backed by a letter testifying its truth from Thurloe to the speaker of the Convention parliament (Thurloe vii. 914). The statements it makes are substantially correct, though it naturally omits many facts which might have told against the writer, and makes no mention of his earlier political career. It was so far effective that while the commons had excluded him from the act of indemnity for some penalty, not extending to life, to be hereafter determined (13 June), the lords were content with his perpetual incapacitation from office (2 Aug. 1660; Commons' Journals, viii. 63; Lords' Journals, xi. 115). St. John's recent co-operation with Monck doubtless secured him the good offices of the latter. Charles II is said to have expressed regret at his escape (Ludlow, Memoirs, ii. 290).

During the earlier part of the reign of Charles II, St. John lived in retirement at Longthorpe in Northamptonshire, where he had built a house which, it is said, Clarendon attempted to extort from him as the price of his safety (Noble, ii. 21). About November 1662 he left England and took ship for Havre, whence he made his way first to Basle, and afterwards to Augsburg (Ludlow, Memoirs, ed. 1894, ii. 419, 493). On 10 July 1667 the English government ordered his return, but he appears to have remained abroad till his death, which took place on 31 Dec. 1673 (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1661–2 p. 567, 1663–4 p. 144, 1667 p. 282; Noble, ii. 23).

St. John's character has been painted in the blackest colours by Clarendon and Holles. The latter describes him as one ‘who has as much of the blood of this kingdom to answer for, and has dipped as deep in all cunning pernicious counsels, as any one man alive.’ He dwells on his fierceness and cruelty, ‘his composition being, as it seems, like that monster emperor's, “lutum sanguine maceratum.”’ Both Holles and Clarendon attribute to him far-reaching ambition, and Holles and other contemporary opponents describe him as avaricious and greatly enriched by his different public employments. He ‘got infinitely,’ adds Holles, ‘by the pardons upon compositions, which was a device only to fill his pockets’ (Memoirs, ed. Maseres, pp. 209, 267). In his apology St. John confines himself to refuting the rumours about the profitable nature of his embassy to the United Provinces: ‘all the reward of that embassy was, that whereas the minster of Peterborough, being an ancient and goodly fabric, was propounded to be sold and demolished, I begged it to be granted to the citizens of Peterborough, who at that present and ever since have accordingly made use of it’ (Case, p. 9; cf. Kennet, Register, p. 202). St. John was concerned in the completion of the Bedford Level, and drew up the act under which that undertaking was managed. His connection with the work is commemorated in the name of ‘St. John's Eau’ (Wells, Bedford Level, i. 199; Foss, vi. 489; cf. Thurloe, v. 383, 475).

St. John married three times: first, Johanna, daughter of Sir James Altham of Marks Hall, Latton, Essex, and of Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Francis Barrington. Elizabeth Barrington's mother was Joan, daughter of Sir Henry Cromwell of Hinchinbroke, aunt both to the Protector Cromwell and to John Hampden (Foss, Judges of England, vi. 476). By his first wife St. John had four children: (1) Francis, member for Peterborough in the parliaments of 1656 and 1659; (2) William (cf. Thurloe, iv. 250); (3) Johanna, married Sir Walter St. John, bart., of Lydiard-Tregoz, Wiltshire (the son of this marriage was Henry St. John, created in 1716 Baron St. John of Battersea, who was father of Henry St. John, viscount Bolingbroke [q. v.]); (4) Catherine, married Henry St. John, younger brother of Sir Walter St. John, mentioned above (cf. Nickolls, Letters addressed to Cromwell, p. 48; Noble, House of Cromwell, ii. 24–9). St. John's second wife, whom he married on 21 Jan. 1638, was Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Cromwell of Upwood, the Protector's uncle (Foss, vi. 478). By her he had two children: (1) Oliver, married Elizabeth, daughter of William Hammond (Chester, London Marriage Licenses, 1176); (2) Elizabeth, married, on 26 Feb. 1655–6, John Bernard of Huntingdon (Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices, i. 477; Noble, ii. 29). St. John's third wife (married 1 Oct. 1645) was Elizabeth, daughter of Daniel Oxenbridge, M.D., of Daventry, and sister of John Oxenbridge, the nonconformist divine [q. v.] She was widow of Caleb Cockcroft of London, merchant, outlived St. John, and took for her third husband Sir Humphrey Sydenham of Cholworthy, Somerset (Foss, vi. 489; Le Neve, Knights, p. 292; Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. p. 454).

[An account of St. John is given by Wood, Fasti Oxonienses, ed. Bliss. Noble, in his Protectoral House of Cromwell, ed. 1787, ii. 15, gives a life of St. John, quoting a manuscript vindication given by his son, and adding much information about his descendants. Lives are also contained in Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chief Justices of England, 1849, i. 447–78, and Foss's Judges of England, 1857, vi. 475–92.]

C. H. F.