Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Phelips, Robert

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PHELIPS, Sir ROBERT (1586?–1638), parliamentarian, eldest son of Sir Edward Phelips [q. v.], and his first wife Margaret, daughter of Robert Newdegate of Newdegate, Surrey, is said to have been born in 1586. He entered parliament as member for East Looe, Cornwall, in 1603–4, and sat in it till its dissolution on 9 Feb. 1610–11. In 1603 he was knighted with his father. In July 1613 he was travelling in France, and in the same year was granted the next vacancy in the clerkship of the petty bag. In April 1614 he was elected to parliament as member for Saltash, Cornwall, and made some mark by joining in the attack on Richard Neile [q. v.], then bishop of Lincoln, for his speech in the House of Lords reflecting on the commons. In 1615 he went to Spain in attendance on John Digby, afterwards Earl of Bristol [q. v.], who was engaged in negotiating the Spanish match. He kept a diary of his movements for a few days (printed in Hist. MSS. Comm. 1st Rep. App. pp. 59–60), and wrote an essay on the negotiation, which is among the manuscripts at Montacute House. Probably, like Digby, he was not favourably disposed towards it.

In 1621 Phelips was returned to parliament as member for Bath, and at once took a prominent part in its proceedings. On 5 Feb. he accused the catholics of rejoicing at Frederick's defeat in Bohemia, and meditating a second ‘gunpowder plot.’ It was on his motion (3 March) that the house turned its attention to the patent for gold and silver thread; he served on the committee appointed to inquire into the matter, and brought up its report, which furnished the main charges against Sir Giles Mompesson [q. v.] (Gardiner, iv. 47). In the same month he served as chairman of the committee to inquire into the charges of bribery brought against Bacon; on the 17th he presented its report in a speech of great force and moderation, and was ordered to lay the evidence before the House of Lords. In May he was one of the first to urge the house to punish Edward Floyd [q. v.] In November he warmly attacked Spain, and proposed to withhold supplies; a few days later he supported the commons' petition against the catholics and the Spanish marriage. For his share in these proceedings he was on 1 Jan. 1622 arrested at Montacute, whither he had retired, and on the 12th imprisoned in the Tower. Here he remained, in spite of his brother's petition, until 10 Aug.

In January 1623–4, when James was induced to summon another parliament, he insisted that Phelips and others should be excluded. Phelips was, however, elected for Somerset, and allowed to take his seat, probably by Buckingham's intercession. He again demanded war with Spain, but came into no open collision with the court. In the first parliament of the new reign Phelips again sat for Somerset, and assumed an attitude of pronounced hostility to Buckingham. In the first days of the session he supported an abortive motion for immediate adjournment, in order to defer the granting of supplies. A few days later he carried a motion that two subsidies only should be granted. On 5 July he wished the house to discuss the question of impositions, and rebutted the king's claim to impose duties on merchandise at will. He also objected to the liberation of priests at the request of foreign ambassadors. In August, when parliament reassembled at Oxford, Phelips pursued his former policy. On 10 Aug., in a high strain of eloquence, he defined the position taken up by the commons, and laid down the lines on which the struggle was fought until the Long parliament (Forster, Life of Eliot, i. 239–241). Next day parliament was dissolved. ‘As far as the history of such an assembly can be summed up in the name of any single man, the history of the Parliament of 1625 is summed up in the name of Phelips. … At Oxford he virtually assumed that unacknowledged leadership which was all that the traditions of Parliament at that time permitted. It was Phelips who placed the true issue of want of confidence before the House’ (Gardiner, v. 432).

Another parliament was summoned for 6 Feb. 1625–6. Phelips was naturally one of those pricked for sheriff to prevent their election as members. Nevertheless he secured his election, and attempted in vain to take his seat (Forster). In the same year he was struck off the commission of the peace for Somerset, and refused to subscribe to the forced loan. In March 1627–8 he was once more returned for Somerset. He was present at a meeting of the leaders at Sir Robert Cotton's house a few days before the session began, and again took an active part in the proceedings of the house. He protested against the sermons of Sibthorpe and Mainwaring, and was prominent in the debates on the petition of right, but the informal position of leader was taken by Sir John Eliot.

From this time Phelips is said to have inclined more towards the court. In 1629 Charles wrote, urging him to look to the interest of the king rather than to the favour of the multitude, and in 1633 he sided with the court against the puritans on the question of suppressing wakes. In the same year he protested his devotion to the king, and was again put on the commission for the peace. But in 1635 he took part in resisting the collection of ship-money. He died ‘of a cold, choked with phlegm,’ and was buried at Montacute on 13 April 1638.

Phelips was an impetuous, ‘busy, active man, whose undoubted powers were not always under the control of prudence.’ According to Sir John Eliot, his oratory was ready and spirited, but was marred by ‘a redundancy and exuberance,’ and ‘an affected cadence and delivery;’ he had ‘a voice of much sweetness,’ and spoke extempore. A portrait by Vandyck, preserved at Montacute, represents him holding a paper which formed the ground of the impeachment of Bacon. He married Bridget, daughter of Sir Thomas Gorges, knt., of Longford, Wiltshire. By her he had four daughters and three sons, of whom the eldest, Edward (1613–1679), succeeded him, became a colonel in the royalist army, and had his estates sequestrated. The second son Robert also became a colonel in the royalist army, helped Charles II to escape after the battle of Worcester, was groom of the bedchamber to him, M.P. for Stockbridge 1660–1, and Andover 1684–5, and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster from 25 May 1687 till 21 March 1689. He died in 1707, being buried in Bath Abbey. The notes he drew up of Charles's escape are in Addit. MS. 31955, f. 16.

[Cal. State Papers, Dom. Ser. 1603–35, passim; Hist. MSS. Comm. App. 1st and 3rd Rep. passim, 12th Rep. App. pt. i. p. 464; 13th Rep. App. pt. vii. passim; Brit. Mus. Addit. MSS. 31955 f. 16, 32093 f. 32, 34217 f. 15; Journals of House of Commons, passim; D'Ewes's Journals; Parl. Hist.; Official Return of Members of Parliament; Strafford Papers, i. 30–1, ii. 164; Nichols's Progresses of James I, i. 207, 213 n.; Archæologia, xxxv. 343; Spedding's Bacon, v. 61, 65, vii. passim; Forster's Life of Eliot, throughout; Gardiner's Hist. of England, passim; Metcalfe's Book of Knights; Genealogical Collections of Catholic Families, ed. Howard; Visitation of Somersetshire (Harl. Soc.); Burke's Landed Gentry.]

A. F. P.