The Bridge Interviews
Last month a builder working in the loft of a house in Burford discovered a very old document hidden in the eaves. It turned out to be an interview between an unknown person and William Lenthall, former Speaker of the House of Commons and lord of the manor of Burford. We are pleased to be able to publish this unusual find for the first time. We have updated archaic spellings and added some notes for the sake of clarity.
Please tell us how you first came to live in Burford.
I wasn’t a Burfordian by birth. I was born at Henley and went to Thame School and St Alban Hall, Oxford (1) I was called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1616 and built up a successful legal practice. By 1640 I was earning £2500 per year (2) . I married Elizabeth Evans from Loddington in Northamptonshire and was appointed recorder of Woodstock in 1621, with some help of one of my wife’s relatives, Lawrence Tanfield. I bought Besselsleigh Manor near Abingdon in 1630 and then in 1634 I bought Burford manor and rectory for £7,000 from Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland.
(1) Since merged with Merton College
(2) equivalent to over £150,000 today
When did you go into politics?
I entered parliament in 1624 as member for Woodstock. When the Long Parliament (3) was convened in 1640 I was elected as Speaker. At that time the Speaker was in practice appointed by the king and was regarded as a servant of the crown, responsible for managing the business of the House of Commons. I tried to act as a stabilising influence as the political crisis between parliament and Charles I was getting worse and worse. Things came to a head in 1642 when opposition to the king was being led by five very noisy MPs including John Pym. When rumours reached the king that these members were planning to impeach the queen for taking part in an alleged Catholic plot, he decided to act. He went to parliament with armed guards and, in gross breach of parliamentary privilege, entered the Commons chamber. Looking around in vain for the five, he said “I see the birds have flown”. He then demanded that I tell him where they were. This was, frankly, very frightening. I fell to my knees and said "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here."
(3) Quite a few parliaments have been given nicknames. Others include the Short Parliament, the Blessed Parliament, the Addled Parliament and the Useless Parliament (no, that one was actually in 1625).
What was the result of this?
Almost immediately the king left London, moved to Oxford and the Civil War broke out. It lasted until 1649 when Charles had his head removed from his shoulders.
What did you do in the war, William?
I continued as speaker . Technically I was holding an important office of state, but I was not a member of the inner circle of the parliamentary party. Oliver Cromwell and other leaders were involved in the events leading up to the execution of the king but I took no part in that. The period after the execution was called the Commonwealth. The country was ruled by the House of Commons without a king or a House of Lords. I remained speaker during the first part of the Commonwealth. It was a difficult time to be in politics. For example in the summer of 1649 there was a lot of trouble at Westminster when a mob including apprentices and disbanded soldiers created a big disorder. Together with a number of MPs I fled and took refuge with the army until things calmed down and it was safe to go back.
Did the civil war cause you any personal problems?
Indeed so. As I said, Oxfordshire became the king’s headquarters and all of Oxfordshire was pretty much Royalist territory so my estates at Besselsleigh (4) nd Burford were not safe for me to go to. I lost a lot of income but I got by.
(4) Besselsleigh was then in Berkshire but later became part of Oxfordshire after boundary changes.
Did you have any other problems with powerful people?
Too right. By 1653 a lot of MPs had been expelled by the army and those of us who were left were given the rather undignified nickname of the Rump Parliament. Cromwell decided to dissolve this parliament by force. For the second time soldiers entered the House but ironically this time it was parliamentary troops whereas the previous time it was the king’s men. Their commander, Major-General Harrison, ordered me to vacate my chair. At first I said I would not do so unless I was forced to but I could see I really had no choice so accepted the inevitable. However that did not mean the end of my political career. In 1654 Cromwell started a new body called the first protectorate parliament and I was appointed as speaker until it was dissolved four months later. Then there was a second protectorate parliament but this time I was not elected to the chair.
What happened at the end of the Commonwealth, Bill?
By 1659 Oliver Cromwell was dead. He was succeeded as Lord Protector by his son, Richard, but he did not have his father’s ability and things started to fall apart quite rapidly. A group of MPs and officers demanded that the Rump Parliament should be recalled and that I should again be speaker. I was very reluctant to get involved. Apart from anything else, there was doubt about whether the parliament legally existed after the king had been executed. I tried to get out of it by pleading ill health and old age – I was 68 by then. However I was given no choice and in the end had to agree. In theory I was a very powerful man at this time as I was head of the army and keeper of the Great Seal (5) , though in practice my power was limited.
(5) This is thought to be a reference to a seal which was seen in the Thames and which, by tradition, was fed with fish thrown from the terrace of the House of Commons.
And when the monarchy was restored?
I could see the way the wind was blowing. Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis (6) and all that. I quietly got in touch with General Monck who was working for the restoration of the monarchy. When the Rump began sitting I managed to be away for ten days, saying I had gout, so I didn’t have to take the oath swearing to oppose the royal family which the republicans wanted all MPs to do. In February 1660 Monck arrived in London with his army and took control. I received him in state as speaker and the way to restoring Charles II to the throne was clear.
(6) Times change and we change with them. Lawyers have always been Latin lovers.
What happened to you after that?
I hoped that, by being co-operative over the restoration and because I had not been part of the inner circle, I might have been able to carry on in some position. I sent £3000 to Charles while he was still in Holland in the hope that I might at least be allowed to continue in my other job as Master of the Rolls (7) but I was told rather abruptly that someone else had been lined up for that. Those of us who had been involved in politics during this period were divided into three categories. Some were put on trial for their life. Some were forgiven for what they had done under a law called the Act of Oblivion and Indemnity. I had hoped to be one of these but I fell into the third category. I was barred from public office for life but was allowed to live.
(7) A senior judge, not an employee of Huffkins
So what did you do?
I came back here to Burford to live out my remaining years. One of the things I did here was to build a chapel at Burford Priory. I also installed a collection of paintings, some of which had been owned by Charles I.
William Lenthall died in Burford in 1662. He made a deathbed confession about the execution of Charles I in which he said “I confess with Saul, I held their clothes while they murdered him [see Acts 7:57-8:1], but herein I was not so criminal as Saul was, for God, thou knowest, I never consented to his death”. He directed that he be buried without ceremony and should have no monument but only a plain stone inscribed “Vermis sum” (“I am a worm”), a line from Psalm 22. The stone in Burford Church was apparently destroyed during Victorian repairs – the second time he did badly out of a restoration.
William Lenthall was not a major figure in our history but his statement in 1642 is seen as a turning point in our constitutional history since when the independence of the Commons from the authority of the crown has been firmly established. This is still symbolised at the state opening of parliament when Black Rod is sent to the Commons to summon them to hear the Queen’s speech and the door of the house is slammed in his face. His words were quoted in 2008 when the then Speaker tacitly consented to anti-terrorism officers entering parliament to search the office of Damian Green MP.
The Lenthalls continued to live in Burford Priory until 1828 when the Priory, the estate and the lordship of the manor were sold. The paintings were auctioned at Christies in 1833.