Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/White, John (1590-1645)
WHITE, JOHN (1590–1645), parliamentarian, commonly called ‘Century White,’ was the second son of Henry White of Henllan (now written Hentland), in the parish of Rhoscrowther, Pembrokeshire, where he was born on 29 June 1590. His mother was Jane, daughter of Richard Fletcher of Bangor, who appears to have been a near relative of Richard Fletcher [q. v.], bishop of London (Dwnn, Her. Visitations, i. 129, and cf. p. 161; Phillipps, Pedigrees of Pembrokeshire, pp. 131, 139). White was descended from a family of wealthy merchants of that name which had been closely identified for many generations with the town of Tenby. One of them, Thomas White (d. 1492), who was six times mayor of that town between 1457 and 1481, aided the earls of Richmond and Pembroke to escape from Tenby to Brittany after the battle of Tewkesbury (1471), and was in turn rewarded by receiving from the former, after he had ascended the throne, a grant of all his lands in the neighbourhood of Tenby (Laws, Little England beyond Wales, pp. 216, 226; cf. Owen, Pembrokeshire, i. 30). Thomas's brother, John White, was mayor seven times between 1482 and 1498. Their tombs, with recumbent figures—‘beautiful works of art,’ in a good state of preservation—are in Tenby church (Fenton, pp. 450–2; Norris, Tenby; Laws, pp. 233–4; Arch. Cambr. 4th ser. xi. 130).
John White, who, with his elder brother, Griffith, matriculated at Jesus College, Oxford, on 20 Nov. 1607 (Foster, Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714), proceeded thence to the Middle Temple, where he was called to the bar in 1618, and became autumn reader or bencher in 1641. White is said to have been a puritan from his youth. In 1625 he and eleven others formed themselves into a committee known as the feoffees for impropriations. A large fund was speedily raised by voluntary contributions for the purpose of buying up impropriate tithes, so as to make a better provision for a preaching ministry. Their proceedings were, however, attacked by Peter Heylyn [q. v.], and in 1632 William Noye [q. v.], at the instigation of Laud, exhibited an information against them in the exchequer chamber. On 11 Feb. 1632–3 the court decreed the dissolution of the feoffment and the confiscation of all its funds and patronage to the king's use, while the feoffees appear to have been censured in the Star-chamber (Heylyn, Cyprianus Anglicus, 1668, pp. 210–12; Gardiner, Hist. of England, vii. 258, quoting Exchequer Decrees, iv. 88). It was probably during this time that White had occasion to appear before Laud as counsel about a benefice, and when that business was done Laud ‘fell bitterly on him as an underminer of the church.’
On 26 Oct. 1640 White was returned to parliament for Southwark, his colleague being Edward Bagshaw [q. v.] (Members of Parliament, i. 494). When, in the following month, it was decided that there should be a grand committee of the house to inquire into the immoralities of the clergy, White was at once elected its chairman, and he also presided over an acting sub-committee for considering how to replace the scandalous ministers by puritan preachers. When another committee was appointed in December 1642 to relieve plundered ministers, its proceedings got interwound with the previous one, White being at the head of the whole agency. According to an opponent (Thomas Pierce, The New Discoverer Discover'd, 1659, p. 140), it was White's boast that ‘he and his had ejected eight thousand churchmen in four or five years;’ but according to a recent estimate (Masson) the committee during its whole existence ejected no more than about sixteen hundred. With the view of publishing alike a report and a defence of the proceedings of the committee, White issued on 19 Nov. 1643 ‘The first Century of Scandalous Malignant Priests, made and admitted into Benefices by the Prelates’ (London, 4to). So indecent are the cases reported in this work that, according to Wood, White's own party dissuaded him ‘from putting out a second century,’ while another writer (Pierce, loc. cit.) says that the author ‘was ashamed to pursue his thoughts of any other.’ No second volume ever appeared.
With reference to the episcopacy, White advocated a ‘root and branch’ policy of extirpation, and two of his speeches on this subject were published, namely, that delivered in June 1641 on the introduction of the first bill for the exclusion of the bishops, and another concerning the trial of the twelve bishops, delivered on 17 Jan. 1641–2, on which day he was also appointed a member of the commons' committee to hear the bishops' defence in the House of Lords. He was also occasionally entrusted with the task of licensing publications, and was charged by the church party with being too ready to license works attacking the church (cf. Clarendon, Hist. of England, iii. 56). He gave evidence against Laud on two occasions—first along with (Sir) Richard Pepys the elder [q. v.] on 22 March 1643–4, with reference to Laud's removal of Edward Bagshaw from the readership of the Middle Temple; and secondly, on 5 July, as to Laud's attack upon himself when he appeared before him as counsel (‘Troubles and Trials’ in Laud's Works, iv. 132–3, 304–5). Towards the end of 1643 he published a book called ‘A Looking Glass for Cowardly Governors.’ He was also frequently deputed by the House of Commons to draft letters and impeachments. The first charter of the colony of Massachusetts was procured probably under his advice, and was perhaps actually drafted by him also. His name appears among the members of the company at meetings held before their embarkation, but he did not himself emigrate. He also drew up in October 1629 the articles agreed upon ‘between the Planters and Adventurers for the performance of what shall be determined,’ and was chosen one of the umpires to settle any disputes that might arise (Collections of the Massachusetts Hist. Soc. 4th ser. ii. 217–20, quoting Brook's Lives of the Puritans and Young's Chronicles, pp. 69, 74, 86, 101–2). White has sometimes been confused with John White, the Patriarch of Dorchester, who was also concerned in the settlement of Massachusetts, and is separately noticed below.
He died on 29 Jan. 1644–5, and was buried at the Temple Church, at the high altar, on the Middle Temple side, the members of the House of Commons attending his funeral in a body. The memorial inscription placed over him contained the following verses:
Here lyeth John, a burning, shining light,
His name, life, actions were all White
He was thrice married, his first wife being Janet, daughter of John ap Griffith Eynon of Jeffreston, Pembrokeshire (Pembr. MS. Pedigrees, 1685, penes Henry Owen, esq., F.S.A.) By his second wife, Winifred, daughter of Richard Blackwell of Bushey, Hertfordshire, he had four sons and five daughters, who survived him. His third wife, who survived him, was Mary, eldest daughter of Thomas Style of Little Missenden, Buckinghamshire (Dugdale, Origines Juridiciales, ed. 1671, p. 179; cf. Foster, Alumni Oxon.)
Contemporaries describe White as a grave and learned lawyer, an opinion confirmed by his two published speeches. His hostility to the episcopal system was extreme, and after his death his enemies tried to damage his reputation by charging him with conjugal infidelity and open immorality (Mercurius Aulicus, 31 Jan. 1644–5).
His elder brother, Griffith, who married Elizabeth, daughter of Roger Lort of Stackpole, was high sheriff of Pembrokeshire in 1626, and proved one of the staunchest and most active parliamentarians in that county throughout the whole of the civil war (Phillips, Civil War in Wales, i. 396, ii. 4, 80–1, 85, 150, 164; Laws, Little England, pp. 321, 323, 325, 327, 335, 337).[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. iii. 105, 144; Neal's Hist. of the Puritans, 1822, ii. 361–5, iii. 23–34, 226; Reliquiæ Baxterianæ, i. 19; Fuller's Church Hist. 1845, vi. 67; Clarendon's Hist. of England, iii. 56; Whitelocke's Memorials, p. 128; Commons' Journals, vol. ii.; Masson's Life of Milton, iii. 28–30, 268; Cambrian Journal, viii. 295, ix. 265; Williams's Eminent Welshmen, p. 517.]