Leader of the political opposition to King Charles in the Long Parliament and architect of Parliament’s victory in the First Civil War
John Pym was born at Brymore House, Cannington in Somerset, where his family had been established since the thirteenth century. His father, Alexander Pym, died a few months after John was born. A few years later, his mother, Phillipa, married Sir Anthony Rous, a client of the Earl of Bedford. Pym attended Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College), Oxford in 1599 and entered the Middle Temple in 1602, though he was never called to the bar. In May 1604, he married Anne Hooke of Bramshott in Hampshire, daughter of John Hooke and Anthony Rous’s sister Barbara. This marriage established Pym as a member of the Rous circle, which in turn influenced the development of his strong Puritanism and fierce opposition to Catholicism and Arminianism. In addition to managing his estates in Somerset, Pym obtained a post in the Exchequer as receiver of the King’s revenue for Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Gloucestershire.
Pym’s political career began when, under the patronage of the Earl of Bedford, he was elected MP for Calne in Wiltshire during the reign of James I. In 1625, he was elected for Tavistock in Devon, which he represented in the first three Parliaments of the reign of Charles I. He emerged as an outspoken enemy of the Roman Catholics and a firm supporter of those who opposed the King’s arbitrary use of his powers. Pym was active in the demands for the impeachment of the Duke of Buckingham in 1625 and 1626, and supported the Petition of Right in 1628.
Pym’s abilities as a financier attracted the patronage of the Earl of Warwick, who employed him to manage his affairs and estate from 1627. Through Warwick, Pym was appointed treasurer of the Providence Island Company, which sought to finance a Puritan colony on Providence Island in the West Indies. The affairs of the Company brought Pym into contact with the Puritan magnates who were to become leaders of the Parliamentarians during the 1640s, including Lord Brooke, Lord Saye and John Hampden.
Pym emerged as a leading Parliamentarian during the brief life of the Short Parliament (1640). King Charles wanted Parliament to grant him money for war against the Scots, but his opponents were unwilling to do so until their grievances in Church and State policy had been addressed. On 17 April, Pym delivered a lengthy speech in which he summarised the nation’s complaints. His skill lay in making his attack appear moderate rather than confrontational. At this stage, he did not demand that any of the King’s ministers should be held responsible, but appealed to the Lords to join the Commons in searching out the causes and remedies of the nation’s troubles. His speech made a deep impression. Unable to get what he wanted, King Charles dissolved Parliament within a month of calling it.
After the dissolution, Pym and his colleagues concentrated their efforts on forcing Charles to recall Parliament. With Oliver St John, Pym drafted the petition signed by twelve peers calling for redress of grievances and a new Parliament. With John Hampden, he travelled through the provinces, rousing support and organising public opinion. When the Long Parliament was summoned in November 1640, Pym was the acknowledged leader of the political opposition to the King.
Pym’s aim was to find the proper balance between the power of the Crown and the power of Parliament. Like other Puritans, he believed that King Charles’ attempt to set up a despotic government during the 1630s was associated with a Roman Catholic plot to destroy the Protestant faith in England. As a first step towards saving the nation’s liberties and religion, Pym initiated the prosecution of the King’s principal advisers, the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud. During March and April 1641, Pym played a leading role in the impeachment proceedings that led to Strafford’s execution on 12 May. This was followed by the abolition of the courts of High Commission, Star Chamber and other archaic institutions that had allowed King Charles to rule without Parliament. Pym was persuaded to support the abolition of Episcopacy because of the great influence of the Bishops in upholding the King’s arbitrary government.
Pym’s greatest concern was that the King would try to use military force against Parliament. When the Irish uprising erupted in October 1641, control of the armed forces become a critical concern. Pym and his supporters realised that if the King raised an army against the Irish rebels, it could easily be used against Parliament. The Grand Remonstrance was part of Pym’s strategy for gaining Parliamentary control of the army by undermining confidence in the King and his ministers. After an attempt to win him over by offering him the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer had failed, Pym was one of the Five Members whom King Charles tried to arrest in January 1642, with disastrous consequences for the Royalist cause. While the King and Royal Family were forced to flee from London, “King Pym” and his supporters returned to Westminster in triumph.
Through the spring and early summer of 1642, civil war looked increasingly inevitable. Pym became a leading figure on the Committee of Safety which was appointed in July 1642 to co-ordinate Parliament’s military strategy. With the final breakdown of relations between King and Parliament, Pym headed the “War Party” which was determined to inflict a decisive military defeat on the Royalists. Pym devoted himself to creating the infrastructure to maintain and finance the Parliamentarian war effort. He organised loans from City merchants, introduced assessments (land tax) and proposed excise duties for the first time in England. The network of committees that administered the nation throughout the Civil War and Commonwealth years was largely the result of Pym’s organisational skills.
In 1643, Pym proposed an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters against the King. Royalist victories in 1643 persuaded Parliament to adopt the proposal. Although the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant made more concessions to Presbyterianism than Pym wished, he realised that a military alliance with the Scots was essential if the King was to be defeated. He was the first of the English Parliamentarians to sign the Covenant on 25 September 1643.
The Scottish alliance was Pym’s last political achievement. He died of cancer on 8 December 1643, two weeks after the final terms had been concluded. He was given a state funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey. After the Restoration in 1660, his body was exhumed and reburied in a communal grave with other leading Parliamentarians in St Margaret’s churchyard, Westminster.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "John Pym, 1584-1643" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/john-pym/, January 17, 2022