Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lenthall, William
LENTHALL, WILLIAM (1591–1662), speaker of the House of Commons, second son of William Lenthall of Lachford in Oxfordshire, by Frances, daughter of Sir Thomas Southwell of St. Faith's in Norfolk, was born ‘in Henley-upon-Thames, in a house near to the church there, in the latter end of June 1591’ (Wood, Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 603). The Lenthall family, originally of Herefordshire, acquired Lachford by marriage with the heiress of the Pyperds in the fifteenth century (ib.) William Lenthall matriculated at St. Alban Hall, Oxford, on 23 Jan. 1606–7, but left the university without taking a degree (Clarke, Oxford Register, ii. 292). He then entered Lincoln's Inn, was called to the bar in 1616, became a bencher in 1633, and was elected reader in 1638 (Foss, Dictionary of the Judges of England, p. 403; Foster, Alumni Oxon. iii. 902). He was appointed recorder of Woodstock, which he represented in the last parliament of James I, and became also in 1637 recorder of Gloucester (ib.; Names of Members returned to serve in Parliament, i. 458). Lenthall's professional success was rapid. In a later vindication of himself he writes: ‘When I was first called to be speaker, I think it is known to most, I had a plentiful fortune in land and ready money to a good sum, and if I had continued my way of practice I might well have doubled my fortune. … I received by the last years of my practice 2,500 pounds by the year’ (Notes and Queries, i. xii. 358). In 1630 he bought Besselsleigh in Berkshire from the Fettiplaces, and in 1634 paid Lord Falkland 7,000l. for Burford Priory (Wood, iii. 603). Lenthall represented Woodstock both in the Short parliament of April 1640 and in the Long parliament. In the first of the assemblies he was appointed one of the committee on ship-money (21 April), and acted as chairman of the committee of the whole house on grievances (23 April), and again when the house took into consideration the king's message on supply (Commons' Journals, ii. 8, 10, 19). At the opening of the Long parliament on 3 Nov. 1640 Lenthall was unanimously elected speaker. The selection was no doubt influenced by the fact that he had occupied the chair during two of the most important debates of the previous parliament, though Clarendon attributes it entirely to the absence of Sir Thomas Gardiner, whom the king originally intended to designate. He describes Lenthall in his earlier narrative as ‘a lawyer of good practice and no ill affections, but a very weak man and unequal to such a task.’ In his later narrative he adds that he was a man ‘of a very narrow and timorous nature,’ and that ‘not knowing how to preserve his own dignity, or to restrain the license and exorbitance of others, his weakness contributed as much to the growing mischief as the malice of the principal contrivers’ (Rebellion, iii. 1 n. 2, ed. Macray). The Long parliament was unruly and excitable, and the speaker's authority was not always treated with respect. D'Ewes describes in his ‘Diary’ an altercation between Lenthall and Hesilrige, and D'Ewes himself was fond of correcting the speaker on points of order. Lenthall seems to have been easy to irritate and easily appeased. On one occasion a member attacked Lenthall for rebuking another, declaring ‘that he had transgressed his duty in giving so disgraceful a speech to so noble a gentleman.’ The member finally made ‘a conditional apology, with which the house was not satisfied, but the speaker was.’ On 19 Nov. Lenthall complained to the house of the unusual length of their sittings (Forster, Grand Remonstrance, p. 279, ed. 1860; Five Members, p. 218, ed. 1860). The expenses of his position were also very heavy. For the first two years of his speakership Lenthall ‘kept a public table and every day entertained several eminent persons, as well belonging to the court as members of parliament’ (Somers Tracts, vii. 103, ed. Scott). He thought for a moment of resigning, and wrote to Sir Edward Nicholas on 3 Dec. 1641 begging the king's leave to do so. His fourteen months' speakership, he said, had so exhausted the labours of twenty-five years, that though he was willing ‘to offer himself and his fortune a sacrifice to the king's service,’ he must crave leave to retire, ‘that whilst I have some ability of body left I may endeavour that without which I cannot but expect a ruin and put a badge of extreme poverty upon my children.’ He suggested, however, to Nicholas, as an alternative, that the king should recommend him to the house for a grant of money (Nalson, Historical Collections, ii. 713, 714). A month later (4 Jan. 1642) took place the king's attempt to arrest the five members. Charles entered the house, borrowed the speaker's chair, and failing to perceive the accused members asked the speaker if he saw any of them present. Lenthall fell on his knees and replied, ‘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; and humbly beg your Majesty's pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your Majesty is pleased to demand of me’ (Rushworth, Collections, iv. 478; Verney, Notes of the Long Parliament, p. 139; Gardiner, History of England, x. 140). The discretion and dignity of the speaker's conduct gave the parliament great satisfaction, and on 9 April 1642, on his petition representing that his ‘strict and long attendance’ had ‘very much hurt him both in body and estate,’ he was voted a grant of 6,000l. (Commons' Journals, ii. 522; Old Parliamentary History, x. 427). When the parliament raised an army Lenthall promised (10 June 1642) to give fifty pounds and to maintain a horse for its service (Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xii. 358). Parliament rewarded his adherence by appointing him master of the rolls, but he was not sworn in till 22 Nov. 1643 (Foss, p. 404; Gardiner, Great Civil War, i. 85). He was also appointed one of the two commissioners of the great seal, a post which he held from October 1646 to March 1648 (Campbell, Lives of the Chancellors, iii. 13–17). Wood estimates the first of these offices as worth 3,000l. a year, the second at 1,500l. Lenthall was also chamberlain of Chester from 1647 to 1654, and obtained in 1647 the chancellorship of the duchy of Lancaster (Wood, iii. 604). On the other hand, as all Lenthall's estates lay in the king's quarters, his losses were very considerable. On 29 Dec. 1644 the royalists seized and garrisoned his house at Besselsleigh, but a party from Abingdon recaptured it two days later, and rendered it henceforth untenable by breaking down the walls and doors (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1644–5, pp. 204–5).
In 1647 the army and parliament quarrelled. On 26 July a mob of presbyterian apprentices surrounded the house, forced their way in, and obliged the speaker to put and the members to pass resolutions repealing their recent votes (Commons' Journals, v. 259; Ludlow, Memoirs, ed. 1698, p. 206). After this the house adjourned and the speaker left the chair, but was stopped in the lobby by the mob, obliged to reassume his place, and to put a vote for the king's coming to London. Lenthall complains also that the mob did ‘justle, pull, and hale the speaker all the way he went down to his caroch, and force him (to avoid the violence) to betake himself to the next caroch he could get into for refuge.’ He was told that there would be a far greater gathering at the next meeting of the house, and that after they had made it vote what they pleased they would destroy him (A Declaration of Master William Lenthall, Oxford, 1647, 4to). When the house met again on 30 July the speaker was missing, and Henry Pelham, member for Grantham, was elected in his place (Commons' Journals, v. 259). Lenthall, who had left London on 29 July, betook himself first to Windsor, and thence to the headquarters of Sir Thomas Fairfax. According to Ludlow it was chiefly by the persuasion of Sir Arthur Hesilrige that he took this momentous decision; according to Holles it was contrived by Oliver St. John. The presbyterians asserted that the speaker had solemnly denied any intention of flight, and protested that he would rather die in the house and chair than desert them for fear of any tumults. They said that what finally decided him was the threats of Cromwell and Ireton to prosecute him for embezzlement of public money (Ludlow, i. 207; Holles, Memoirs, § 144; The Case of the Impeached Lords, &c., truly stated, 1648, p. 8, 4to; Walker, History of Independency, i. 41, ed. 1661). In his declaration Lenthall speaks solely of the fear of further mob violence; in his deathbed confession he explained that he had been deceived by Cromwell and Ireton, that he knew the presbyterians would never restore the king to his just rights, and that those men swore they would (Old Parliamentary History, xvi. 196, xxiii. 372; cf. Clarke Papers, i. 219).
Lenthall was present at the great review of the army on Hounslow Heath on 3 Aug., and signed the engagement taken the next day by those members of the two houses who had joined Fairfax (Rushworth, vi. 750–5). On 6 Aug. he took his place once more in the chair, and on the 20th an ordinance was passed annulling all votes during his absence (Commons' Journals, v. 268, 280). During the revolutions of 1648 Lenthall continued to side with the army and the independents. The royalists accused him of trying to retard the progress of the Newport treaty by feigning illness, in order to persuade the commons to adjourn for a week (Old Parliamentary History, xvii. 66; Mercurius Pragmaticus, 17–24 Oct. 1648). He made no protest against Pride's Purge, and, after the army came to London, held several conferences with Whitelocke and Cromwell, which were probably connected with the last overtures made by the army leaders to the king (Gardiner, Great Civil War, iii. 553). Lenthall occupied the chair during the progress of the ordinance for bringing the king to trial, but there can be little doubt that he performed his part with reluctance. ‘Even then,’ he says in his confession, ‘I hoped the very putting the question would have cleared him, because I believed there were four to one against it, but they deceived me also.’ Valueless as his apologies may be, his own account of the motives which led him to continue sitting after the king's death is no doubt correct. ‘I make this candid confession, that it was my own baseness, cowardice, and unworthy fear to submit my life and estate to the mercy of those men that murdered the king, that hurried me on against my own conscience to act with them; yet then I thought that I might do some good, and hinder some ill.’
As speaker Lenthall was now theoretically the greatest man in the Commonwealth. When parliament and the council of state were entertained by the city, he took the highest place, and was received with quasi-regal ceremony (Commons' Journals, vi. 226; Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1649–50, p. 174; Blencowe, Sydney Papers, p. 73). Practically, however, he had very little power. Twice he made use of his casting vote in favour of condemned royalists: in the case of the Earl of Norwich (8 March 1649) and in that of Sir William D'Avenant (3 July 1650; Commons' Journals, vi. 160, 436). According to his own account he wished well to the cause of Charles II and secretly sent him advice, and he claims also to have used his influence in defence of the universities (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 713; Old Parliamentary History, xxiii. 372).
On 20 April 1653 Cromwell violently dissolved the Long parliament. Lenthall refused to vacate his chair until he was compelled. According to one account, Cromwell bade Colonel Harrison fetch him down, and Harrison pulled him by the gown and he came down (Blencowe, Sydney Papers, p. 140). Other contemporary accounts agree that he was treated with greater respect (Burton, Cromwellian Diary, iii. 209; Guizot, Cromwell and the English Commonwealth, i. 492). Harrison's own account was: ‘I went to the Speaker and told him, Sir, seeing things are brought to this pass, it is not requisite for you to stay there; he answered he would not come down unless he was pulled out; Sir, said I, I will lend you my hand, and he putting his hand into mine came down without any pulling, so that I did not pull him’ (Lives and Speeches of those Persons lately Executed, 1661, p. 9, 8vo). After this Lenthall for a time took no part in political life. He was not a member of the council of state established by the officers, nor of the ‘Little parliament.’ But when Cromwell became protector and summoned his first parliament, Lenthall was returned to it both for Gloucester city and Oxford county, electing finally to sit for the latter. ‘My intentions,’ he wrote to the corporation of Gloucester, ‘were not bent to so public an employment, having been thoroughly wearied by what I have already undergone’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. ix. 508; Commons' Journals, vii. 381). When the parliament met he was unanimously voted to the chair, ‘in regard of his great experience and knowledge of the order of that house and dexterity in the guidance of it’ (ib. vii. 365; Burton, Diary, i. xx). After its dissolution Lenthall, as one of the keepers of the great seal, came into collision with the protector. In August 1654 Cromwell had issued an ordinance for regulating and limiting the jurisdiction of the court of chancery. On 23 April 1655 the three commissioners of the seal were summoned before the council and commanded to proceed according to that ordinance. They drew up a summary of their objections to it and finally (1 May) a joint letter refusing obedience. But Lenthall before the letter was actually sent was sworn in as one of the six masters of the chancery appointed under the ordinance, and though he had protested ‘that he would be hanged at the Rolls gate before he would execute it,’ now ‘wheeled about’ and submitted. The other two, Widdrington and Whitelocke, persisted and were turned out (Whitelocke, Memorials, ed. 1853, iv. 192–206).
Lenthall was again returned for Oxford county to the parliament of 1656, but was not again elected speaker. He spoke several times in support of the government, was a member of the committee appointed to explain the reasons which moved parliament to offer Cromwell the crown, and delivered two speeches urging him to accept it. ‘His argument,’ says Ludlow, ‘was very parliamentary and rational, had it been rightly applied’ (Old Parliamentary History, xxi. 73, 91; Ludlow, Memoirs, p. 586). Lenthall was not one of the persons originally summoned to Cromwell's House of Lords, and was ‘very much disturbed’ thereat. ‘He complained that he who had been for some years the first man of the nation, was now denied to be a member of either house of parliament; for he was incapable of sitting in the House of Commons by his place as master of the rolls, whereby he was obliged to sit as assistant in the other house.’ Cromwell hearing of his complaint sent him a writ, at which he was much elevated, thinking that himself and his heirs would be for ever peers of England (ib. p. 596).
On the fall of Richard Cromwell the officers determined to recall the Long parliament, and some members of the parliament, with a deputation from the council of the army, came to Lenthall (6 May 1659) to persuade him to return to his seat. He began to make excuses, ‘pleading his age, sickness, and inability to sit long,’ and alleging that he was not fully satisfied that the death of the late king had not put an end to that parliament. But according to Ludlow his real reason was that he was not willing to lose his peerage, and was in league with Richard Cromwell to prevent the parliament's restoration. They told him that if he would not issue his summons to the members, they would do so without him, and thus pressed he consented to head the forty-two members who took their places at Westminster on 7 May 1659 (Ludlow, pp. 648–50; Commons' Journals, vii. 644; England's Confusion, 4to, 1659, p. 10).
In the restored Long parliament the speaker's position was greatly increased in dignity. On 6 June the house voted that ‘all military and naval commissions should be signed by the speaker in the name of the commonwealth of the parliament of England,’ instead of by the commander-in-chief. In pursuance of this vote the officers of the two services received new commissions, personally delivered to them by Lenthall in the presence of the house (Commons' Journals, vii. 672, 674, 675). A new great seal was made and delivered to Lenthall's custody as keeper (14 May) till commissioners should be appointed (ib. vii. 654, 728). On 13 Oct. 1659 Lambert and certain regiments of the army placed guards round Westminster, kept out the members who tried to enter, and stopped the speaker's coach at the gate of Palace Yard. Lieutenant-colonel Duckenfield asked him whither he was going. ‘To perform my duty at the house,’ answered Lenthall; then turning to the soldiers he demanded if they knew what they did, that he was their general, and expected to be obeyed by them. Some of them answered ‘that they knew no such thing; that if he had marched before them over Warrington-bridge they should have known him’ (Ludlow, p. 726; Carte, Original Letters, ii. 266). They even tried to convey him to Fleetwood's quarters at Wallingford House, and one story represents Lambert as taking the mace from him (ib.)
On 24 Dec. 1659 a new revolution took place. The soldiers in London assembled in Lincoln's Inn Fields and resolved to restore the parliament. ‘After this they marched in good order down Chancery Lane; at the Speaker's door they made a stand. … His Lordship came down to them in his gown to the gate in the street, where standing the officers as they passed with the forces made speeches to him … signifying their hearty sorrow for the great defection in this late interruption, with their absolute purpose of a firm adherence for the future; the like was done by the soldiers in their countenances and acclamations to the Speaker as they passed, owning him in words also as their general and the father of their country.’ Lenthall then issued orders to the soldiers, gave them the word for the night, took possession of the Tower and appointed commissioners for its government, and returned in triumph by torchlight to the Rolls House (Mercurius Politicus, 22–9 Dec. 1659). The parliament met again on 26 Dec. and thanked the speaker (29 Dec.) ‘for his very good service done for the commonwealth.’
These revolutions opened Lenthall's eyes to the possibility of a restoration, and he began at once to prepare for it. The republican party sought to impose on all members of parliament an oath abjuring the house of Stuart (Commons' Journals, vii. 803). According to Monck, Lenthall ‘very violently opposed, and in a great measure prevented, the oath’ (Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. p. 122; Old Parliamentary History, xxiii. 372). For ten days he absented himself from the house on the plea of gout, in order, as was supposed, to avoid responsibility for the Abjuration Bill (Commons' Journals, vii. 811, 843; Price, Mystery and Method of His Majesty's Restoration, ed. Maseres, p. 728). When Monck came to London, Lenthall gave him thanks in the name of the parliament, making ‘an eloquent oration agreeable to his own great prudence and the authority of that supreme assembly’ (Mercurius Politicus, 6 Feb. 1660). It is possible that before this he had been in secret communication with Monck; henceforth he certainly acted in agreement with him. The republican party passed an act for filling up the parliament by electing new members, and ordered the speaker to sign a warrant authorising the commissioners of the seal to send out writs according to custom (20 Feb.). This he positively refused to do, ‘submitting himself to their pleasure, if they should think fit to send him to the Tower, or to choose another person to be speaker in his place’ (Ludlow, p. 842; Pepys, 20 Feb. 1660; Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. p. 122). They passed over his opposition, empowered the clerk to sign the warrant, and allowed him to keep his place. The next day Monck restored the secluded members, and the Restoration was made certain. It became simply a question of the terms on which it should take place, and finding, as he said, ‘that the king would be ruined for want of good advice,’ Lenthall sent the king a paper of instructions (28 March). Instead of treating with the presbyterians, he urged Charles to make proposals such as the people would accept, ‘but would have them proceed from the king as a free act of grace, which he offers to confirm to them by a free parliament, legally convened by a special commission, which the king must empower to issue out writs in his name,’ and proceeded to suggest the nature of these proposals (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 711–14, 720). Guizot describes Lenthall's counsels as remarkable for their impartiality and farsightedness (Richard Cromwell, ii. 191).
When the Convention parliament was summoned, Lenthall became a candidate for the representation of the university of Oxford, but in spite of two pressing letters from Monck he was not elected (Wood, Life, ed. Clark, i. 311; Kennett, Register, pp. 100, 111, 112). Nor, though he sent 3,000l. to Charles II at Breda, could he succeed in retaining his office of master of the rolls (Ludlow, iii. 16). The House of Commons resolved on 11 June 1660, by 215 to 126 votes, to include Lenthall among the twenty persons to be excepted from the act of indemnity for penalties not extending to life. But Monck drew up a strong certificate in his favour, stating his services in forwarding the Restoration, and the Earl of Norwich also exerted his influence for Lenthall. The House of Lords accordingly moderated the penalty, and merely incapacitated him from any office of trust in the three kingdoms (Old Parliamentary History, xxii. 347, 403; Hist. MSS. Comm. 7th Rep. p. 122). But, forgetful of his famous words to Charles I, he disgraced himself by appearing at the trial of the regicides as a witness against Thomas Scot, for words spoken in the House of Commons during his tenure of the chair (State Trials, v. 1003; Ludlow, iii. 66). For the rest of his life he lived in retirement at Burford. He died on 3 Sept. 1662, and was attended in his last moments by Ralph Brideoake [q. v.], then vicar of Witney, to whom he confessed his penitence for his political career (Lenthall's ‘Confession’ was first printed in a letter in the Kingdom's Intelligencer, 8–15 Sept. 1662; it is reprinted in the Old Parliamentary History, xxiii. 371, and in the Memoirs of the two Last Years of the Reign of Charles I., 1702, and incorporated in Athenæ Oxonienses, iii. 608). In his will he directed that he should be buried ‘without any pomp or state, acknowledging myself to be unworthy of the least outward regard in this world, and unworthy of any remembrance that hath been so great a sinner. And I do farther charge and desire that no monument be made for me, but at the utmost a plain stone, with this superscription only, “Vermis Sum”’ (Wills from Doctors Commons, Camden Society, 1863, p. 111). Lenthall was buried ‘in a little aisle on the north side of Burford Church.’ ‘As yet,’ wrote Wood in 1691, ‘he hath no monument, nor so much as a stone over his grave’ (Athenæ Oxonienses, iii. 608).
A portrait of Lenthall in his robes as speaker is in the National Portrait Gallery. A number of engraved portraits are contained in the illustrated copy of Clarendon, known as the Sutherland Clarendon, in the Bodleian Library.
Lenthall was capable of behaving with dignity and courage in critical moments, and so long as deportment was sufficient he made an excellent speaker. But when circumstances thrust on him the part of a statesman, he had not sufficient strength of character to sustain it with credit. Contemporaries regarded him as a mere time-server. ‘He minded mostly the heaping up of riches,’ writes Wood, ‘and was so besotted in raising and settling a family that he minded not the least good that might accrue to his Prince.’ Rumour, however, greatly exaggerated Lenthall's gains as speaker (Old Parliamentary History, xxiii. 370; Somers Tracts, vii. 103). He is said to have added to them by receiving bribes for his parliamentary influence, and Lady Verney gave 50l. to his sister-in-law in hope of obtaining his support to a petition (Gardiner, Great Civil War, iii. 317). Sir John Lenthall, the corrupt and extortionate keeper of the King's Bench prison, was reputed to have too great power with his brother (Lilburne, England's Birthright, 1645, p. 28; but see Commons' Journals, iv. 274). The evidence is scarcely sufficiently conclusive to prove that the speaker himself was corrupt.
Lenthall married Elizabeth, daughter of Ambrose Evans of Loddington, Northamptonshire, who died in April 1662 (Turner, Visitations of Oxfordshire, p. 318). His only son, Sir John Lenthall (1625–1681), matriculated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 12 Sept. 1640, entered Lincoln's Inn the same year, and was elected member for Gloucester in 1645 (Foster, Alumni Oxonienses, iii. 902). He was knighted by Cromwell on 9 March 1657–8, and by Charles II 13 March 1677 (Le Neve, Pedigrees of Knights, p. 324; Mercurius Politicus, 4–11 March 1657). On 18 Jan. 1659–60, he was made colonel of a regiment of foot and governor of Windsor (Commons' Journals, vii. 814). Lenthall was returned to the Convention parliament for Abingdon, but expelled from the house on 12 May 1660 (ib. viii. 24). In 1672 he was high sheriff of Oxfordshire, and died at Besselsleigh on 9 Nov. 1681. Wood terms him ‘the grand braggadocio and liar of the age he lived in’ (Athenæ, iii. 902).
[Authorities cited above; lives of Lenthall are given in Wood's Athenæ Oxonienses, ed. Bliss, and Foss's Judges of England, 1870; Wood gives a list of official letters and speeches of Lenthall's printed at the time; letters addressed to him as speaker are contained in the Tanner MSS. in the Bodleian Library, and in the Reports of the Historical MSS. Commission on the MSS. of the House of Lords, and on the Duke of Portland's MSS.]