Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Eliot, John (1592-1632)

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ELIOT, Sir JOHN (1592–1632), patriot, the son of Richard Eliot and his wife Bridget (Carswell) of Port Eliot, near St. Germans in Cornwall, was born on or shortly before 20 April 1592. The impetuosity which was the distinguishing mark of his parliamentary career revealed itself in a boyish outbreak, in which he wounded a neighbour, Mr. Moyle, who had complained to his father of his extravagance. It was also in keeping with his placable disposition that he should be sobered by the incident, and should have craved forgiveness for the wrong which he had done. On 4 Dec. 1607 he matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford (Boase, Reg. Coll. Eron. lxix.), where he remained three years, and though he did not take a degree, his parliamentary speeches showed the thoroughness with which he had conducted his studies. His religion was deep-seated, thoroughly protestant in tone, but not careful to take offence at the small ceremonial scandals which vexed the soul of the ordinary puritan, as long as he had reason to think that they did not cover an attempt to reintroduce papal doctrines and practices. After leaving the university Eliot betook himself to one of the inns of court to master much of the law as was then considered a necessary part of the education of a gentleman. He afterwards travelled on the continent, where he met George Villiers, then an unknown youth, and took great pleasure in his society. On his return to England in the winter of 1611, he married Rhadagund, daughter of Richard Gedie of Trebursye, Cornwall. In 1614 Eliot sat in the Addled parliament for St. Germans. In 1618 he was knighted, and in 1619, by the favour of the companion of his continental travels, who had now become Marquis of Buckingham and lord high admiral, he was appointed vice-admiral of Devon. He did not sit in the parliament of 1621. In 1623, during the absence of his patron in Spain, he first came into collision with the court. He arrested a pirate named Nutt. Nutt, however, had a protector in Sir George Calvert, the secretary of state, and Eliot was committed to the Marshalsea on some trumped-up charges connected with the arrest. He was only liberated on 23 Dec, more than two months after the return of Buckingham, who had now become a duke.

In the parliament of 1624 Eliot sat for the Cornish borough of Newport. His maiden speech on 27 Feb. at once revealed a power of oratory unlike anything which had been heard before in the House of Commons. It also revealed an independence of character which was less unusual. Eliot sympathised deeply with Buckingham's warlike policy directed against Spain, but he had an idealist's reverence for the House of Commons as the depository of the wisdom of the nation. From first to last he was vehement in sustaining its privileges, sometimes even at the expense of what might at the time seem graver interests. He now asked that the question of freedom of speech which had been raised in the last days of the parliament of 1621 might be finally settled. The house was intent on other matters, and Eliot's proposal was shelved in a committee.

Eliot, as might have been expected, gave his voice for a breach with Spain. On 24 April he called for thanks to the king and prince on their declaration that there should be no conditions for the catholics in the French marriage treaty. Before the prorogation he advocated the impeachment of Middlesex. He was still an adherent of Buckingham, and was marked out for a place in his cortège if he had, as was intended, gone to France, shortly after the accession of Charles I, to fetch the future queen, the Princess Henrietta Maria. On 1 April 1625 he wrote to the duke to assure him that he hoped to become 'wholly devoted to the contemplation of his excellence.' In the parliament of 1625, the first parliament of the new reign, Eliot again represented Newport. On 23 June he spoke for the purity and unity of religion, arguing for the enforcement of the laws against the catholics. It was probably the tolerance shown by Charles to the catholics, in defiance of his promise made to the last parliament, which roused Eliot's suspicions of his government. He took a strong part against Wentworth in the case of a disputed election. On 8 July, when it was known that Buckingham had advised Charles to ask for a grant of money for the war in addition to the two subsidies which had been already voted, Eliot was chosen to remonstrate with the duke, evidently as a person who was still on good terms with him. The arguments which he used to induce Buckingham to abandon the demand which had been made for further subsidies avoided the main point at issue, the necessity or otherwise of a large grant for the service of the war, and may, therefore, give rise to a suspicion that though Eliot already shared the general opinion as to Buckingham's incompetency as a war minister, he did not like to tell him this to his face. On 6 Aug., after the adjournment to Oxford, he appeared for the last time as a mediator, declaring his distrust in a war policy which extended to Denmark, Savoy, Germany, and France, but throwing the blame of the late miscarriages, not on Buckingham, but on the navy commissioners. An attempt which was subsequently made to induce Buckingham to make concessions broke down on the duke's persistence, with Charles's support, in refusing to admit to the direction of affairs counsellors who might have the confidence of the House of Commons. It was this refusal which marks Eliot's final breach with him. Yet, though in the warm debates which followed he had taken up some notes of Sir R. Cotton, and had worked them up into a speech of bitter invective against the duke, he allowed his words to remain unspoken, and contented himself with watching events during the remainder of the session (see Gardiner, Hist. of England, 1603-42, v.425).

In the winter which followed, Eliot was witness of the miserable condition of the men who had returned from the Cadiz voyage, and who, ill-clothed and half-starved, crowded the streets of Plymouth. Accordingly, when he was elected to the new parliament which met in 1626, this time as member for St. Germans, he came to it entirely estranged from the man whom he had for many years regarded with affection. Eliot was not one whose feelings were ever at a moderate heat. He had the Eliot oratorical temperament, and as soon as he distrusted Buckingham he believed him capable of the worst crimes. He could not conceive him as he really was, incapable and vain, yet animated with a sincere desire to serve his country in displaying his own power. He set him down as a traitor who was prepared deliberately to sacrifice national interests in order to enrich and aggrandise himself and his kindred.

Eliot's conviction of Buckingham's misdemeanors was increased by the circumstances under which the parliament of 1626 opened. Charles, in order to rid himself of opposition, had kept at a distance from Westminster those among the members of the last parliament who had most severely criticised his policy by naming them sheriffs of their respective counties. It was therefore upon Eliot, who had been allowed to come to parliament, as having taken no part in that criticism, that the leadership of the new house fell. He began by calling for inquiry into the causes of the recent disaster, and when the committee which conducted the examination came upon traces of the misdeeds of the duke, he was inclined to exaggerate them, sometimes from mere want of knowledge of the circumstances under which Buckingham had acted. He soon came to the conclusion that the favourite, having dragged England into a war with Spain, was now about to drag her into a war with France, simply in order to fill his purse with the tenths of prize goods which were the perquisite of the lord high admiral. On 27 March he made a furious attack on Buckingham, and Charles, having intervened, persuaded the house on 4 April to present a remonstrance, asserting its right to question the highest subjects of the crown. It was a claim to render ministerial responsibility once more a reality, and thereby indirectly to make parliament supreme. He had already persuaded the house to vote a resolution granting subsidies, but to postpone the bringing in of the bill which alone could give legality to the resolution, and thus to dangle before the king's eyes the expectation of receiving supplies of war in order to induce him to abandon Buckingham.

As Charles was not to be persuaded, the impeachment of Buckingham, which had long been threatened, took its course. It was carried to the lords on 8 May by eight managers, of whom Eliot was one. It was on Eliot that devolved on 10 May the duty of summing up the charges, and in doing so he compared Buckingham to Seianus. On the 11th Eliot was sent to the tower, together with Sir Dudley Digges. The commons refused to proceed to business till their members were released. Digges was set free on the 16th, and Eliot on the 19th. They were the last members ever imprisoned for words spoken in parliament. As Charles could not stop the impeachment in any other way, he dissolved parliament on 15 June.

When the session was ended Eliot was dismissed from the justiceship of the peace and the vice-admiralty of Devon, and in 1627 was imprisoned in the Gatehouse for refusing to pay his share of the forced loan. He was liberated when it became evident that another parliament must be summoned, and when Charles's third parliament met, l7 March 1628, Eliot sat in it as member for the county of Cornwall. He at once joined in the cry against arbitrary taxation, and made his voice heard from time to time, though during the earlier part of the session the house was more inclined to follow Wentworth, who, though equally firm in his resolution to procure a removal of the subjects' grievances, was less incisive than Eliot in his mode of dealing with, the king. On 5 May Wentworth's leadership came to an end, upon Charles's refusal to concede his demands, and Eliot then came to the front, and joined Coke and the lawyers in promoting the Petition of Right, and in refusing to agree to anything short of its full acceptance by the king. When, after the king's first answer, that acceptance appeared unlikely, Eliot called upon the house to draw up a remonstrance, and, being interrupted by the speaker in a hostile allusion to Buckingham, refused to continue a speech in which he was not free to express all his mind. The king for once gave way, and on 7 June gave his assent to the Petition of Right. During the short remainder of the session Eliot continued the assault on Buckingham.

In the session of 1629, after Buckingham's murder, Eliot led the attack upon the Arminians and ceremonialists, who were, as he held, unprotestantising the doctrine and the services of the church. He pointed out that those who professed the opinions against which the House of Commons protested had been chosen for preferment in the church, and he proposed to meet the one-sided favour of the king by an equally one-sided proscription by parliament. He found, however, that it was easier to point out who were to be excluded from office in the church than it was to define the doctrines which were to be alone accepted. The house followed him in summoning to its bar some of the inculpated persons; but before they appeared on the scene a new question arose. The claim of the king to levy provisionally tonnage and poundage without consent of parliament was disputed, and while Pym wished to discuss the legal Eliot question, Eliot preferred first to take in hand a question or privilege which had arisen by the seizure of the goods of a member of the house who had refused to pay the duties. The officers of the customs who had effected the seizure were summoned to the bar, but the king intervened, and directed the adjournment of the house, that an attempt might be made in the interval to discover a compromise. On his direction of a second adjournment on 2 March, the speaker was held down in his chair, while Eliot, amidst increasing tumult, read out three resolutions which were intended to call the attention of the country to the king's proceedings in respect to religion and taxation. The resolutions were actually put by Holies, just as the king arrived to prorogue parliament.

On 4 March Eliot, with eight other members, was sent to the Tower, and on the 10th parliament was dissolved. When on the 18th Eliot was examined as to his conduct, he replied: 'I refuse to answer, because I hold that it is against the privilege of parliament to speak of anything which was done in the house.' Eliot's position was that he was accountable to the house only, and that no power existed with a constitutional right to inquire into his conduct in it. Charles struck at Eliot not merely as a political antagonist, but as the assailant of Buckingham, and in his anger described him as 'an outlawed man, desperate in mind and fortune.'

With all their wish to strike at Eliot and his fellows, the crown lawyers had some difficulty in discovering the best method of procedure. They did not like to accuse them of words spoken in the house, and it was not till October that Attorney-general Heath determined to bring an information against Eliot, Holles, and Valentine in the court of king's bench. On 29 Oct. Eliot was removed to the Marshalsea, a prison specially connected with that court. On 26 Jan. 1630 the three appeared at the bar of the king's bench. The charge against them was not that they had spoken certain words, but that they had 'formed a conspiracy to resist the king's lawful order, to calumniate the ministers of the crown, and to assault the speaker. The court decided that it had jurisdiction in the case. Eliot simply continued to refuse to acknowledge that jurisdiction, and on 12 Feb. was sentenced, in his absence through illness, to a fine of 2,000l.

Eliot was once more sent back to the Tower. A word of acknowledgment that he was in the wrong would have given him his liberty, but for him to make that acknowledgment was to surrender those privileges of parliament which in his eyes were equivalent to the liberties of the nation. He solaced himself in his confinement by writing an account of the first parliament of Charles I, under the title of the 'Negotium Posterorum,' and a political-philosophical treatise, which he styled 'The Monarchy of Man.' Eliot was not a republican. His ideal state was one in which the king governed with very extended powers, but in which he received enlightenment by constantly listening to the advice of parliament. Eliot's revolutionary work, in short, was rather in tendency than in deliberate judgment. The result of his action, if carried on by his successors, would be the subordination of the crown to parliament; but he was an enthusiastic orator rather than a logical thinker, and he was himself unconscious of the complete change in the balance of force which his genius was creating. It was left for Pym to systematise that which had been sketched out by Eliot.

The spring of 1632 saw Eliot in the beginning of a consumption. In a letter to Hampden, written on 29 March, he expressed his abounding cheerfulness in contemplation of God's goodness towards him. In October he petitioned for leave to go into the country for the benefit of his health. As he still refused to acknowledge that he had erred, Charles rejected his petition, and on 27 Nov. he died. The implacable king closed his ears to a request of his son for permission to transport his corpse to Port Eliot. 'Let Sir John Eliot,' he wrote on the petition, 'be buried in the church of that parish where he died.' By his wife, who died in 1628, Eliot had five sons and four daughters. John, the eldest son, was M.P. for St. Germans from 1660 till 1678, and died in 1685. Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, married Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes.

The following works by Eliot were privately printed for the first time from manuscripts at Port Elliot by Dr. Grosart:

  1. 'The Monarchie of Man,' 1879.
  2. 'An Apology for Socrates (being a vindication of Sir J.E. by himself),' and 'Negotium Posterorum,' 1881.
  3. 'De Jure Majestatis, a Political Treatise of Government,' and the 'Letterbook of Sir John Eliot,' 1882.

[The materials for Eliot's Life are to be found in Forster's Life of Sir John Eliot. For criticisms on that work, see Gardiner's Hist. of England, 1603-42, vols, v-vii. passim.]

S. R. G.