John Hampden

For other men of the same name, see John Hampden (disambiguation).
John Hampden

John Hampden (ca. 1595 – 1643) was an English politician who was one of the leading parliamentarians involved in challenging the authority of Charles I of England in the run-up to the English Civil War. He became a national figure when he stood trial in 1637 for his refusal to be taxed for ship money, and was one of the Five Members whose attempted unconstitutional arrest by King Charles I in the House of Commons of England in 1642 sparked the Civil War.

Hampden died of wounds received on Chalgrove Field during the war and was lionized as a great patriot. The wars established the constitutional precedent that the monarch cannot govern without Parliament's consent, a concept legally established as part of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the subsequent Bill of Rights 1689. A statue of Hampden was selected by the Victorians as a symbol to take its place at the entrance to the Central Lobby in the Palace of Westminster as the noblest type of the parliamentary opposition, sword at his side, ready to defend the rights of Parliament. As one of the Five Members of the House of Commons, Hampden is commemorated at the State Opening of Parliament by the British monarch each year when the doors of the Commons Chamber are slammed in the face of the monarch's messenger, symbolising the rights of Parliament and its independence from the monarch.


He was the eldest son of William Hampden, of Hampden House, Great Hampden in Buckinghamshire (b. 1570), the son of Griffith Hampden and Anne Cavea and descendant of a very ancient family of that county, said to have been established there before the Norman conquest, and of Elizabeth, second daughter of Sir Henry Cromwell, and aunt of Oliver Cromwell.

Early life

By his father's death, when he was still a child, he became the owner of a large estate and a ward of the crown. He was educated at Lord Williams's School in Thame, and on 30 March 1610 became a commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1613 he was admitted as a student of the Inner Temple.


English Parliament

Hampden first sat in Parliament for the borough of Grampound, Cornwall in 1621. Later, he represented Wendover in the first three parliaments of Charles I. In April 1640 he was elected MP for Buckinghamshire in the Short Parliament and was re-elected MP for Buckinghamshire for the Long Parliament in November 1640.[1] He sat until his death in 1643.

In the early days of his parliamentary career, he was content to be overshadowed by John Eliot, as in its later days he was content to be overshadowed by John Pym and to be commanded by Essex.

John Hampden as depicted in the 1851 Illustrated London Reading Book

Yet for many(including Lord Macaulay) it is Hampden, and not Eliot or Pym, who is seen as the central figure at the start of the English Revolution. It is Hampden whose statue rather than that of Eliot or Pym that was selected by the Victorians as a symbol to take its place at the entrance to the Central Lobby in the Palace of Westminster as the noblest type of the parliamentary opposition, sword at his side, ready to defend Parliament's rights and privileges by any means necessary. His statue stands opposite Earl of Clarendon in his Lord Chancellor's robes, a symbol of the respect for the law and royalism.[2]

Views on Ship Money

Something of Hampden's fame no doubt is owing to the position which he took up as the opponent of ship money.[3] But it is hardly possible that even resistance to ship money would have so distinguished him but for the mingled massiveness and modesty of his character, his dislike of all pretences in himself or others, his brave contempt of danger, and his charitable readiness to shield others as far as possible from the evil consequences of their actions. Nor was he wanting in that skill which enabled him to influence men towards the ends at which he aimed, and which was spoken of as subtlety by those who disliked his ends.

Committee Work

During these first parliaments Hampden did not, so far as we know, speak in public debate, but he was increasingly employed in committee work, for which he seems to have had a special aptitude. In 1626 he took an active part in the preparation of the charges against Buckingham. In January 1627 he was bound over to answer at the council board for his refusal to pay the forced loan. Later in the year he was committed to the gatehouse, and then sent into confinement in Hampshire, from which he was liberated just before the meeting of the third parliament of the reign, in which he once more rendered useful but unobtrusive assistance to his leaders.

When the breach came in 1629 Hampden was found corresponding with the imprisoned Eliot, discussing with him the prospects of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Hampden was one of the persons to whom the Earl of Warwick granted land in Connecticut in what was then referred to as the Saybrook Colony and today as Old Saybrook, Connecticut. While some claim there is no foundation but anecdote that Hampden attempted emigration to the colonies with Cromwell, others assert that Cromwell and other future architects of the English Civil War, including Hampden, may have been close to moving to America in the 1630s. The author Kevin Phillips points out that, "Even in the 1770s, residents of Old Saybrook still talked about which prominent Parliamentarian was to have had which town lot."[4]

It was not until 1637, however, that his resistance to the payment of ship money gained him wide fame. Seven out of the twelve judges sided against him, but the connection between the rights of property and the parliamentary system became firmly established in the popular mind. The tax had been justified, says Clarendon, who expresses his admiration at Hampden's "rare temper and modesty" at this crisis, "upon such grounds and reasons as every standerby was able to swear was not law" (Hist. i. 150, vii. 82).

Short Parliament

In the Short Parliament that started on 13 April 1640, Hampden stood forth amongst the leaders. He guided the House in the debate on 4 May in its opposition to the grant of twelve subsidies in return for the surrender of ship money. Parliament was dissolved the next day, and on 6 May an unsuccessful search was made among the papers of Hampden and of other chiefs of the party to discover incriminating correspondence with the Scots. During the eventful months which followed, when Strafford was striving in vain to force England, in spite of its visible reluctance, to support the king in his Scottish war, rumour has much to tell of Hampden's activity in rousing opposition. It is likely enough that the rumour is in the main true, but we are not possessed of any satisfactory evidence on the subject.

Long Parliament

In the Long Parliament, though Hampden was by no means a frequent speaker, it is possible to trace his course with sufficient distinctness. His power consisted in his personal influence, and as a debater rather than as an orator. "He was not a man of many words," says Clarendon, "and rarely began the discourse or made the first entrance upon any business that was assumed, but a very weighty speaker, and after he had heard a full debate and observed how the House was likely to be inclined, took up the argument and shortly and clearly and craftily so stated it that he commonly conducted it to the conclusion he desired; and if he found he could not do that, he never was without the dexterity to divert the debate to another time, and to prevent the determining anything in the negative which might prove inconvenient in the future" (Hist. iii. 31). Unwearied in attendance upon committees, he was in all things ready to second Pym, whom he plainly regarded as his leader.

Hampden was one of the eight managers of Strafford's prosecution. Like Pym, he was in favour of the more legal and regular procedure by impeachment rather than by attainder, which at the later stage was supported by the majority of the Commons; and through his influence a compromise was effected by which, while an attainder was subsequently adopted, Strafford's counsel were heard as in the case of an impeachment, and thus a serious breach between the two Houses, which threatened to cause the breakdown of the whole proceedings, was averted.

Debate on Episcopacy

Statue of John Hampden in Market Square, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire

There was another point on which there was no agreement. A large minority wished to retain episcopacy, and to keep the Book of Common Prayer unaltered, whilst the majority were at least willing to consider the question of abolishing the one and modifying the other. On this subject the parties which ultimately divided the House and the country itself were fully formed as early as 8 February 1641. It is enough to say that Hampden fully shared in the counsels of the opponents of episcopacy. It is not that he was a theoretical Presbyterian, but the bishops had been in his days so fully engaged in the imposition of ceremonies regarded by the Puritans as verging on Papacy that it was difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate them from the cause in which they were embarked. Closely connected with Hampden's distrust of the bishops was his distrust of monarchy as it then existed. The dispute about the church therefore soon attained the form of an attack upon monarchy, and, when the majority of the House of Lords arrayed itself on the side of episcopacy and the Prayer Book, of an attack upon the House of Lords as well.

No serious importance therefore can be attached to the offers of advancement made from time to time to Hampden and his friends. Charles would gladly have given them office if they had been ready to desert their principles. Every day Hampden's conviction grew stronger that Charles would never surrender a position which he had taken up. In August 1641 Hampden was one of the four commissioners who attended Charles in Scotland, and the king's conduct there, connected with such events as the "Incident", must have proved to a man far less sagacious than Hampden that the time for compromise had gone by. He was therefore a warm supporter of the Grand Remonstrance, and was marked out as one of the five impeached members, known thenceforth in history as the Five Members (the others being John Pym] Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles and William Strode) whose attempted arrest brought at last the opposing parties into open collision. In the angry scene which arose on the proposal to print the Grand Remonstrance, it was Hampden's personal intervention which prevented an actual conflict, and it was after the impeachment had been attempted that Hampden laid down the two conditions under which resistance to the king became the duty of a good subject. Those conditions were:

There can be no doubt that Hampden fully believed that both those conditions were fulfilled at the opening of 1642.

English Civil War

A painting of John Hampden by the circle of Godfrey Kneller

When the English Civil War began, Hampden was appointed a member of the committee for safety, levied a regiment of Buckinghamshire men for the parliamentary cause, and in his capacity of deputy-lieutenant carried out the parliamentary Militia Ordinance in the county. In the earlier operations of the war he bore himself gallantly and well. He took no actual part in the Battle of Edgehill (23 October 1642). His troops in the rear, however, arrested Prince Rupert of the Rhine's charge at Kineton, and he urged Essex to renew the attack here, and also after the disaster at Brentford. In the spring of 1643, Hampden's regiment took part in the siege of Reading, which surrendered on 27 April. Although Essex intended to advance on the King's headquarters at Oxford, he remained at Thame because of widespread sickness in the army, a shortage of cavalry and to await a paymaster with funds to pay his troops.

But it is not on his skill as a regimental officer that Hampden's fame rests. In war as in peace his distinction lay in his power of disentangling the essential part from the non-essential. In the previous constitutional struggle he had seen that the one thing necessary was to establish the supremacy of the House of Commons. In the military struggle which followed he saw, as Cromwell saw afterwards, that the one thing necessary was to beat the enemy. He protested at once against Essex's hesitations and compromises. In the formation of the confederacy of the six associated counties, which was to supply a basis for Cromwell's operations, he took an active part. His influence was felt alike in parliament and in the field. But he was not in supreme command, and he had none of that impatience which often leads able men to fail in the execution of orders of which they disapprove.


Hampden's Monument, Chalgrove. A monument to John Hampden, who was mortally wounded 550 yards north of here in 1643 whilst fighting in the English Civil War on Chalgrove Field.

On the night of 17 June 1643, Prince Rupert sortied on a raid out of Oxford to capture the Parliamentarian army's paymaster, but while that failed, did succeed the next morning in overwhelming two of Essex's small garrison outposts at Postcombe and Chinnor. Hampden rode as a volunteer with 1,100 cavalry and dragoons commanded by Sir Philip Stapleton in pursuit of Rupert, with the intention of delaying him long enough for a larger force from Essex's main army to cut off his retreat. Rupert halted his own cavalry at Chalgrove to ambush the pursuit and allow 800 less mobile troops to escape via the ford of the River Thame at Chiselhampton. During the ensuing Battle of Chalgrove Field, Hampden was mortally wounded in the shoulder (some sources claim by two carbine balls, others by fragments from his own pistol exploding[5]) which shattered the bone and forced him to leave the field. He reached Thame, survived six days, and died on 24 June.[6]

Hampden's death so early in the war was a severe blow to the Parliamentarians. During the preceding winter, Hampden had associated himself with John Pym's "Middle Group" in Parliament, which opposed any peace moves to the King except on favorable terms. At the same time he had worked to moderate the militancy of the parliamentary "War Party". Although Hampden was privately critical of Essex for not aggressively attacking after avoiding defeat at Edgehill and the standoff at Turnham Green, he remained publicly loyal and helped Essex resist the criticisms of the War Party. His death took with it a key link between the factions. Hearing of his death, the Member of Parliament Anthony Nichol pronounced: "Never Kingdom received a greater loss in one subject, never a man a truer and faithful friend."[7]

Personal life

Hampden married:

  1. Elizabeth, daughter of Edmund Symeon of Pyrton, Oxfordshire, in 1619, and
  2. in 1640, Lettice (or Letitia), daughter of Sir Francis Knollys "the Young", widow of Sir Thomas Vachell of Coley Park, Reading. Her father was son of the elder Sir Francis Knollys and his wife, Catherine Carey.

By his first wife he had nine children (three sons and six daughters) one of whom, Richard (1631–1695) was chancellor of the exchequer in William III's reign; from two of his daughters are descended the families of Trevor Hampden and Hobart-Hampden, the descent in the male line becoming apparently extinct in 1754 in the person of John Hampden. They lived at Hartwell House, Buckinghamshire, now a National Trust property.


A bust of John Hampden at Stowe House

Hampden is immortalised in St Stephen's Hall in the Palace of Westminster, where he and other notable Parliamentarians look on at visitors to the UK Parliament.[8] In Britain diverse establishments are named after him, ranging from Hampden Park, the home ground of Queen's Park F.C. and the Scotland national football team, to an older persons' mental health unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Several schools use his name: a primary school in Wendover and another in Thame, a grammar school in High Wycombe and a school in Hertfordshire. There is also a statue of him in Aylesbury town centre (illustrated above) pointing to his home in Great Hampden. Aylesbury Vale District Council use an image of the statue as their logo.

Outside of Britain, the towns of Hampden, Maryland; Hamden, Connecticut; Hampden, Maine; and Hampden, Newfoundland and Labrador; as well as the county of Hampden, Massachusetts are named in his honour. Hampden–Sydney College in Virginia is also named in honour of John Hampden and of Algernon Sydney, another English patriot; and Mount Hampden in Zimbabwe.

Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" refers to the heroism of Hampden in the stanza: "Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast / The little tyrant of his fields withstood;/ Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest, / Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood."[9]

As one of the Five Members of the House of Commons, Hampden is commemorated at the State Opening of Parliament by the British monarch each year: the sovereign sits on the throne in the House of Lords and sends their messenger Black Rod to summons the Members of the House of Commons to attend them. At his approach the doors to the Commons Chamber are slammed in his face, symbolising the refusal by the Commons to be entered by force by the monarch or one of the monarch's servants, and also its right to debate without the presence of the Queen's Representative.[10] This is done in relation to the events of 1642, when King Charles I stormed into the House of Commons in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest the Five Members.[11][12] Since that time, no British monarch has entered the House of Commons when it is sitting [meeting].[10] Black Rod then bangs with the end of his ceremonial staff three times on the closed doors which are then opened to him.[10]

The Handley Page Hampden bomber was named in honour of John Hampden.



Further reading

Wikisource has the text of the 1885–1900 Dictionary of National Biography's article about Hampden, John (1594-1643).


  1. Willis, Browne (1750). Notitia Parliamentaria, Part II: A Series or Lists of the Representatives in the several Parliaments held from the Reformation 1541, to the Restoration 1660 ... London. pp. 229–239.
  2. A letter from the Speaker of the House of Commons dated 20 October 1992, to Roy Bailey Esq, of the John Hampden Society
  3. Gross, David (ed.) We Won't Pay!: A Tax Resistance Reader ISBN 1-4348-9825-3 pp. 9-16
  4. Alfred A. Young, "English Plebeian Culture an 18th Century American Radicalism" in Margret Jacob and James Jacob, eds., "The Origin of Anglo-American Radicalism" 9New Jersey, Humanitarian Press International, 19910 Page 195,
  5. Britannica 1911 (article "HAMPDEN, JOHN") "two carbine balls". John Hampden, c.1595-1643 on the British Civil Wars & Commonwealth website "possibly from his own pistol exploding".
  6. John Nichols "The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 181". p. 512. E. Cave, 1847
  7. "Selected Readings in English History". p. 265. Ginn, 1913
  8. "Architecture of the Palace - St Stephen's Hall"
  9. "The Works of Thomas Gray, Containing His Poems and Correspondence: With Memoirs of His Life and Writings, Volume 1". p.120. Harding, Triphook, and Lepard, 1825
  10. 1 2 3 "Democracy Live: Black Rod". BBC. Retrieved 6 August 2008
  11.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Black Rod". Encyclopædia Britannica. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  12. John Joseph Bagley, A. S. Lewis (1977). "Lancashire at War: Cavaliers and Roundheads, 1642-51 : a Series of Talks Broadcast from BBC Radio Blackburn". p. 15. Dalesman,
Parliament of England
Preceded by
Sir Francis Barnham
Thomas St Aubyn
Member of Parliament for Grampound
With: Sir Robert Carey
Succeeded by
John Mohun
Sir Richard Edgecombe
Preceded by
Franchise resumed
Member of Parliament for Wendover
With: Alexander Unton 1624
Richard Hampden 1625
Sampson Darrell 1626
Ralph Hawtree 1628–1629
Succeeded by
Parliament suspended until 1640
Preceded by
Parliament suspended since 1629
Member of Parliament for Buckinghamshire
With: Arthur Goodwin
Succeeded by
George Fleetwood
Edmund West
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