Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Venn, John

VENN, JOHN (1586–1650), regicide, was second son of Simon Venn of Lydiard St. Lawrence, Somerset, where he was baptised on 8 April 1586. He sprang from an old yeoman stock which may be traced back thither to the beginning of the fourteenth century. He was apprenticed in the Merchant Taylors' Company, 8 June 1602, and admitted to the freedom of the company, 27 Aug. 1610. He served as warden of his company in 1640–1, but was excused the mastership in 1648, being then in parliament. He belonged to the Artillery Company, and became ‘captain serjeant major’ in 1636, whence his early title of Captain Venn. He seems to have been always a substantial citizen, contrary to the royalist statements (Noble, Lives of the English Regicides; Universal Mag. December 1751). He was one of the original members of the Massachusetts Bay Company enumerated in the royal charter of 4 March 1628–9; attended their meetings while these were held in England, and is mentioned as a stockholder in 1644 (Records of Massachusetts, vol. i., Boston, 1853). According to Hutchinson (History of the Colony of Massachusetts, i. 18, Boston, 1764), he had intended at one time himself going to New England. At home he was engaged in the silk and wool trade with the west of England and Ireland, being one of the merchants who complained in a petition that their visits to the fairs at Exeter and Bristol were forbidden by the local magistrates from fear of the plague (Cal. State Papers, 1 May 1637). He was elected a burgess for the city of London in 1640, and began at once to take a prominent part on the side of the parliament. He was accused on 2 Dec. 1641 of fomenting the gathering of armed citizens in the neighbourhood of the House of Commons, by saying in a shop in Cheapside, ‘You must go to the parliament with your swords, for that party which is best for the commonwealth is like to be over-voted.’ His defence is given in a brief pamphlet, ‘A True Relation of the most wise and worthy Speech made by Captain Venn to the apprentices of London who rose in Cheapside, upon the Combustion at Westminster …’ (29 Dec. 1641). He was one of six members who, together with those charged with treason, were excepted from the king's pardon on 17 June 1642. He shortly after appears as a colonel of foot in the parliamentary army, and took part in the fight by Worcester on 23 Sept. 1642. In an account in a letter (Cal. State Papers) he is said to have been in command of a party of horse there, employed in guarding the passages of the Severn. He was sent on 28 Oct. 1642 to take possession of Windsor Castle, where he remained as governor till June 1645. In this capacity he showed himself harsh and fanatical. He plundered the chapel of St. George, destroyed the furniture and decorations of the choir, and expelled the canons (Tighe and Davis, Annals of Windsor, 1858). A letter from him, refusing to allow any kind of religious service over the body of one of his prisoners, is given in Malcolm's ‘Anecdotes of Manners and Customs of London’ (i. 266). In his military capacity he was vigorous and successful. While in command at Windsor he repelled, on 7 Nov. 1642, a sharp attack by Prince Rupert, who for a time succeeded in obtaining mastery of the town. ‘Colonel Venn behaved himself very bravely, to the wonder and amazement of the beholders’ (A Most famous Victory obtained by that valiant religious Gentleman, Colonel Venn, against Prince Robert … London, 1642). Another contemporary account says: ‘Colonel Venn's dragooners have done of late very good service. His name is grown so terrible to the cavaliers that for fear of him they have taken up the bridge at Staines’ (A True Relation of two merchants of London who were taken prisoners by the Cavaliers, London, 1642).

By 3 April 1646 Venn was in command at Northampton, whence he was ordered to send recruits for the attack on Woodstock. For these services he received the thanks of parliament on 26 April 1646. For the next few years he resided in or near Hammersmith, but was constantly at Westminster, where he was often in attendance as a member of the army committee of the House of Commons. A grant of 4,000l. had been made to him by parliament on 8 March 1647–8, principally for his outlay and other expenses at Windsor. This he was to receive out of the estates of papists and delinquents discovered by him. He was appointed ‘treasurer of petty emptions’ on 14 Aug. 1649.

Venn was nominated a commissioner for the trial of the king. He was present at all but two of the sittings of the commission, and his name and seal are affixed to the death-warrant. At one time he was much under the influence of Christopher Love [q. v.], who had been chaplain in his regiment, and lived in his house at Windsor; he used to attend his preaching at St. Anne's, Aldersgate, and when he was no longer able to attend had his sermons taken down and sent to him. He died on 28 June 1650 (Smith, Obituary). Bate says that he was found dead in his bed in the morning, an account which is confirmed by his daughter's diary, and which probably gave rise to the royalist report that he committed suicide. It was referred to the committee of the army on 3 July 1650, ‘to consider of some recompence to be given for the faithful service of John Venn.’ His will was proved in London on 1 July 1650. Besides a small family estate at Lydiard, he left lands in several parts of England. He was attainted after the Restoration, 29 Aug. 1660, and it is said that his estates were forfeited.

He married twice: first, Mary, daughter of a city merchant named Neville, who was buried at All Hallows on 1 Aug. 1625; secondly, Margaret, daughter of John Langley of Colchester, and widow of John Scarborrow. In the license, dated 13 Feb. 1625–6, he is described as a silkman of All Hallows, Bread Street. By his first wife he had a son Thomas, ‘Captain Venn,’ who was author of a work on ‘Military Discipline,’ 1672, and was afterwards mayor of Bridgwater. By his second wife he had a son John, and a daughter Anne, whose diary was published in 1658 under the title of ‘A Wise Virgin's Lamp burning.’ Several other children died in infancy. His widow, Margaret, not long after his death married a Mr. Wells (? Thomas Weld, editor of his daughter's diary), a minister. There were many subsequent petitions from her to the House of Commons (Cal. State Papers) for arrears due to Colonel Venn.

His namesake, John Venn (1647–1687), son of his first cousin, Simon Venn of Lydiard St. Lawrence, was master of Balliol College from 1678 to 1687, and vice-chancellor of Oxford in 1686–7.

[Calendars of State Papers and of the Committee for Compounding; House of Commons Journals; George Bate's Lives, Actions, and Execution of the prime Actors … of that horrid murder … of King Charles …, London, 1661—a brief but much more trustworthy account than the one by Noble in his Lives of the Regicides; Notes and Queries, 9th ser. iv. 4; Venn entered his pedigree in the Heralds' Visitation of London (1633–4), as his son Thomas did in 1672.]

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