John Pym

The English statesman John Pym (1584-1643) led the House of Commons in the opening years of the English civil war.

John Pym was the son of a lesser landowner of Somerset. When he was a boy, Pym's views on religion were molded by his stepfather, Sir Anthony Rous, who was a devout Puritan. The defeat of the Spanish Armada was his first memory of public events, and the Gunpowder Plot occurred when he reached his majority. These high points of foreign and domestic Catholic aggression were determinants of Pym's public career. In 1599 he entered Oxford and in 1602 took up his legal studies at Middle Temple. He entered Parliament in 1614, probably in the interest of the Earl of Bedford. The earl's family had long favored the Pyms, and the 4th earl remained John Pym's patron until the earl's death in 1641.

In the Parliament of 1614 and again in 1621, Pym was most active in the matter of enforcing penalties against Catholics. He advocated an oath of loyalty by all Englishmen. A popular defense of English liberties was also a hallmark of Pym's political life.

After Charles I dissolved Parliament in 1629, Pym became treasurer of the Providence Company, which projected colonies in Connecticut and then on Providence Island (Isla de Providencia) off the coast of Central America. Although the company had religious and economic ends, its chief importance was as a political rallying point for the opposition during Charles I's personal government.

When Charles called Parliament in 1640, Pym was the most experienced leader of the Commons, and he immediately assumed leadership of that body. In the "Short" Parliament, Pym stressed the desire of the Commons for legal security, but when Parliament was summarily dissolved by the King, Pym keynoted the "Long" Parliament with a speech which stressed that the country was in danger because of its Catholic queen and its proto-Catholic clergy. It was an inflammatory call for the widest popular support for Parliament in a mortal struggle with the King. Pym's first order of business was the impeachment of the Earl of Strafford.

Charles went to Scotland in August 1641 in order to find evidence of the complicity of Pym and others in the 1638 Scots invasion of England. When Charles returned to England in November 1641, Pym faced his greatest trial as leader of the Commons. There was a wave of support for the King, and the rebellion of the Irish in October gave Charles an excuse to raise an army which might have destroyed Parliament before it suppressed the Irish. Pym narrowly gained approval for the Grand Remonstrance, which recited the old faults of the King. Then, on Jan. 4, 1642, he maneuvered the King into making an unconstitutional entry into the House of Commons in order to arrest Pym and the other "Five Members." In that moment popular initiative returned to Pym and Parliament. They, not the King, were able to raise troops to suppress the Irish and prepare to meet the inevitable attempt of Charles to forcibly regain political mastery, which came on Aug. 14, 1642.

Pym secured the passage of the militia and assessment ordinances by Parliament despite their flagrant violation of strict legality. He also secured the passage of the unpopular excise tax to finance the parliamentary war effort and organized associations of counties to administer the war; Cromwell's Eastern Association became the most famous and effective of these. Politically, he was also able to keep persons of such diverse values as the Earl of Essex, Oliver Cromwell, and Oliver St. John steady in their combined defense of Parliament. Pym's last act was to arrange for the entry of the Scots into the war on the side of the hard-pressed parliamentary forces in September 1643. That alliance was sealed by the covenant which bound all Englishmen to support Parliament. With that final program of popular unity, Pym succumbed to cancer and was buried in Westminster Abbey on Dec. 15, 1643.


Further Reading on John Pym

Jack H. Hexter, The Reign of King Pym (1941), is the best study. A standard biography of Pym is Sidney Reed Brett, John Pym, 1583-1643: The Statesman of the Puritan Revolution (1940).

Additional Biography Sources

MacDonald, William W., The making of an English revolutionary: the early parliamentary career of John Pym, Rutherford N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1982.