SEYMOUR, Edward (1633-1708), of Maiden Bradley, Wilts. and Berry Pomeroy, Devon.
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Family and Education
b. 1633, 1st s. of Sir Edward Seymour, 3rd Bt., and bro. of Henry Seymour II. m. (1) 7 Dec. 1661, Margaret, da. and coh. of Sir William Wale, Vintner, of Throgmorton Street, London and North Luffenham, Rutland, 2s.; (2) 11 Aug. 1685, Letitia, da. of Sir Francis Popham of Littlecote, Wilts., 6s. (2 d.v.p.) 1da. suc. fa. as 4th Bt. 7 Dec. 1688.2
Col. of militia ft. Wilts. by 1661-at least 1670; commr. for assessment, Devon and Wilts. 1661-80, Mdx. 1673-9, Som. 1673-80, Hants 1677-9, Exeter 1677-80, Devon, Exeter, Som. and Wilts. 1689-90; asst. R. Adventurers into Africa by 1664-5, 1671, R. Fishing Co. 1664, R. Fishery Co. 1677; j.p. Devon 1664-70, 1672-July 1688, Oct.1688-96, Som. and Wilts. 1668-70, Som. 1672-87, Wilts. 1680-7, 1693-6, Devon and Wilts. 1700-d.; sub-commr. for prizes, London 1665-7; dep. lt. Wilts. 1668-72, Devon 1676-86, 1703-?d.; freeman, Portsmouth 1676, 1682, Totnes by 1684; ranger, Savernake forest 1676, Windsor Great Park 1702-d.; recorder, Exeter Aug.-Sept. 1681, Oct. 1681-Feb. 1683, June 1683-4, Totnes 1695-d.; Rev. Exeter Nov.-Dec. 1688.3
Gent. of the privy chamber (extraordinary) July 1660, (ordinary) 1670-?72; chairman, supply committee 21 Feb.-13 Alar. 1668, ways and means 6 Dec. 1669, 11 Nov. 1670-17 Mar. 1671, 7 Feb. 1673; commr. of the navy 1672-3; treasurer of the navy 1673-81, PC 9 Apr. 1673-89, 1 Mar. 1692-12 Mar. 1696; ld. of the Treasury 1691-4; comptroller of the Household 1702-4.4
Speaker of House of Commons 18 Feb. 1673-11 Apr. 1678, 6 May 1678-24 Jan. 1679, 6-15 Mar. 1679.
Although as a Cavalier’s son Seymour had been declared ineligible, he stood for Hindon, eight miles from Maiden Bradley, at the general election of 1660, but withdrew before the poll in favour of Sir Thomas Thynne. His chief objective was to defeat the regicide Edmund Ludlow, on whose estate he had designs. When Sir Charles Harbord chose to sit for Launceston on 11 Apr. 1661, Seymour appears to have immediately replaced him as Member for Hindon, for he was named to the committee of elections on the same day. He had not long taken his seat before the Speaker had to intervene to prevent a duel between him and his uncle, probably over his marriage settlement. ‘It is impossible to imagine to what height of pride and undutifulness Ned has arrived at’, complained his much-tried father, who nevertheless made over to him the Wiltshire estate, valued at £800 p.a. But Seymour soon settled down as a very active Member of the Cavalier Parliament, serving on the committees for the corporations and uniformity bills and the bill of pains and penalties. He made his first report to the House on 26 June, the subject being the provision of carriages for the royal progresses. On 26 July he helped to manage a conference on the corporations bill. After the Christmas recess he took the chair in the committee on wine licences, and on 3 Feb. 1662 he was ordered to attend the King with a petition from the tavern-keepers. Perhaps as a consequence, Seymour seems to have insisted on presenting a minority report from the committee on excise on 18 Feb. He also took part in preparing reasons on confirming incumbents in their livings, and managing a conference on the highways bill. In 1663, he was chosen chairman of a more important committee, charged with settling the Duke of York’s revenue, of which the wine licences formed a major part. He piloted the bill successfully through the report stage, acting as teller in favour of the committee’s amendments, and resisting a further amendment from the floor of the House on 15 June. On 23 Mar. 1664, still a useful Member from the Court standpoint, he was teller against postponing the debate on the repeal of the Triennial Act, and on 12 May he was sent to the Lords to desire a conference on the conventicles bill. At Oxford he was appointed to the committee for the five mile bill, and instructed with five other Members to ask the King for a national day of prayer for victory over the Dutch.5
During the second Dutch war Seymour acted as sub-commissioner of prizes, in which capacity Samuel Pepys, detected in sailing close to the wind, found him ‘mighty high’. But he soon ranged himself openly with the Opposition. He took the chair on the public accounts bill and on that to prohibit the import of fish and cattle, especially Irish cattle, which were competing all too successfully with the produce of Seymour’s west country. He was also prominent in connexion with the measure against imports from France, preparing reasons for a conference with the Lords, and desiring the King by order of the House to extend the prohibition to all his dominions. During this session Seymour first raised the question of the Canary wine monopoly granted by Clarendon. On 29 Oct. 1666 he presented a report ‘very near an hour long’, and was ordered to obtain the concurrence of the Lords in a joint address, and on 17 Dec. he acted as chairman of a committee to prepare reasons for a conference. Andrew Marvell applauded ‘daring Seymour, that with sword and shield had stretched the monster patent in the field’. As the session progressed, tempers sharpened. ‘Mr Seymour affronted the Speaker most peremptorily about putting the question; he did the Speaker manifest wrong’. He supported the tacking of a proviso for a commission of public accounts on to the poll bill, acting as teller with the proposer, William Garway, and when the Court secured its removal four days later he did what he could to delay progress with supply. When Parliament resumed after the brief Christmas recess, Seymour continued his activity over accounts, drawing up reasons for conferences on 3 and 8 Jan. 1667. When the Irish cattle bill returned from the Lords he secured by a majority of 116 to 58 the retention of the word ‘nuisance’, which was held to constitute an invasion of the prerogative by disabling the King from licensing imports. Meanwhile Seymour appears to have taken the lead in the impeachment of Lord Mordaunt, widely interpreted as a dress rehearsal for Clarendon. After taking part in a conference on 29 Dec. he was entrusted with managing the evidence for the prosecution. He was chairman of a committee to prepare reasons for a further conference on 4 Feb. in which he led the Commons team, and on the following day he expounded precedent. He further disobliged the King, or so it was believed, when the divorce bill of Lord Roos ( John Manners) was ‘mainly opposed by Mr Seymour in a long impertinent speech’.6
As a client of Buckingham, Seymour took the lead in the attack on the Clarendon administration in 1667, and his name appears in connexion with all the measures brought forward by the country party, the miscarriages of the war, the petition against Mordaunt, the examination of public accounts, the misappropriation of prize money, and the impeachments of Clarendon and Penn. Clarendon ascribed Seymour’s hostility to revenge for not being made lord privy seal, an office which he certainly coveted later in his career. He opened the impeachment debate on 26 Oct. and undertook to prove the article concerning the Canary monopoly. He was particularly indignant at the fallen chancellor’s enrichment. ‘I suppose you need no proof the sun shines at noonday’, he said when this was queried. ‘He makes the earth groan by his building (the monument of his greatness) as we have done under his oppression’. But his allegation that Clarendon had called the King ‘insufficient for government’ backfired when the republican Andrew Marvell pressed for details of this damaging statement. On 31 Oct. Seymour presented a petition against Ormonde’s rule in Ireland ‘with an harangue, telling them that it began in bribery and ended in oppression’. But Lord St. Albans, with whom he shared lodgings, persuaded him to drop the subject. He was teller for the motion to impeach Clarendon on the charge of advising the King to rule by a standing army. On 12 Nov. Seymour was accorded the honour of carrying the impeachment to the Lords, and a fortnight later he was chosen chairman of the grand committee on trade. On 19 Feb. 1668 he joined with Sir Richard Temple in demanding that the text of the newly signed Triple Alliance should be read to the House. ‘I cannot say I have made so good use of my knees as I ought to do’, he admitted, but he took a prominent part in the debates on toleration, though Milward noted that ‘in his discourse he drives at an interest more than at religion’. He opposed persecution, citing the atheist Hobbes: ‘when reason is against a man, a man is against reason’. The effects of the Act of Uniformity, he pointed out, had been much for the good of Holland in point of trade. He was not for ‘rending a seamless coat by schism, but would have every man to wear his coat after his own fancy’, and moved that ‘we should try a more easy way by taking the restraint off tender consciences’. He became chairman of the grand committee on supply on 24 Feb. 1668, but was again unhelpful to the Court, though he was defeated on almost every issue by the Clarendonians. He was unable to prevent the Government from raising the £300,000 required by a tax on retailers. ‘We may date our miseries from our bounty’, he said, and on 1 May he supported the clause for the appropriation of the customs to the navy, which he had helped to draft.7
As ‘one of the chief agitators in the Commons’, Seymour’s late arrival for the 1669 session was noted by the French ambassador. He appeared in the House for the first time in the debate on the conventicles bill, which he vigorously opposed: ‘the Inquisition of Spain is a cause of the decay of that monarchy’. He joined in the attack on Sir George Carteret, and acted as teller against the impeachment of the Earl of Orrery (Roger Boyle) which he pointed out was no more than a device of Ormonde’s friends to protect their master. For the winter session of 1670, he was still reckoned by the French Ambassador as a leader of the Opposition, but his speeches were less controversial, and his only important committee was for union with Scotland. He was among Members who prepared reasons for a conference with the Lords on the conventicles bill.8
Between sessions Seymour was dismissed from the commission of the peace as an opponent of the persecution of dissenters, and the shock appears by his own account to have been effective. Sooner than live the life of a ‘cashiered justice’, he would become a placeman. In November 1670, according to Marvell, Seymour and others ‘took their leave of their former party, and fell to head the King’s business’. One pamphleteer gave the honour of Seymour’s ‘conversion’ to the Duchess of York, ‘who by agreement lost £1500 at cards to him, and promised him if he would vote for taxes for her he should be a rich man, whose advice he hath faithfully followed’. As chairman of ways and means with a subsidy bill of 105 clauses, besides other measures, Seymour was in action almost every day of sitting from November till the following March, and his ingenious manipulation of divisions greatly benefited the Court. On the floor of the House he tried to disguise his change of party by blaming Clarendon for all their financial and other misfortunes, and to placate the country gentlemen by attacking the bankers. When the assault on Sir John Coventry threatened to supersede all other business, he remarked: ‘Hire some persons to assault some Members of this House, and supply may be hindered at any time’. On 16 Jan. 1671 he carried the committal of the subsidy bill by 170 votes to 109, and on 1 Mar. he was among the Members appointed to draw up reasons for a conference. He had earned some reward for his share in producing ‘by far the richest harvest since the revenue had first been established at the beginning of the reign’, and in August 1672 it came in the shape of a seat on the navy board. Colbert recognized him as one of France’s bitterest enemies, notwithstanding his friendship with St. Albans, from whom he had learnt how to live the life of a man of pleasure without damage to health, purse or reputation. Meanwhile, Parliament was to meet on 4 Feb. 1673, and a new Speaker had to be chosen. Seymour was considered ‘if he would behave’, but the choice fell on (Sir) Job Charlton and Seymour began the session by joining in the attack on Shaftesbury for issuing election writs during the recess. On the other hand, he defended the Declaration of Indulgence, and was named to the committee to prepare an address on the subject. This attitude was probably responsible for the choice of Seymour to succeed Charlton, who had quickly proved himself inadequate. On 18 Feb. 1673 he was led to the chair in his belt and sword, ‘the first Speaker of the House that had no knowledge of the law’. As a private Member he had been appointed to 303 committees, taking the chair in eight besides acting as teller in 41 divisions and speaking frequently.9
Burnet notices Seymour’s pride of birth ‘my family were instrumental in the Reformation, and not any has been pointed at for Popery’, he once told the Commons — and goes on to describe him as
the most assuming Speaker that ever sat in the chair. He knew the House and every man in it so well that by looking about he could tell the fate of every question. So if anything was put when the court party were not well gathered together, he would have held the House from doing anything by a wilful mistaking or misstating the question, so that he gave time to those who were appointed for the mercenary work to go about and gather in all their party.
Edmund Waller I congratulated Seymour on uniting ‘the vivacity of youth and wisdom of age’, and honours were heaped on him during the 1673 recess. In April he was sworn of the privy council, and soon afterwards he succeeded Sir Thomas Osborne as treasurer of the navy at a salary of £2,800, later increased to £3,800. As Speaker he received £1,500 per session, the same as his predecessor (Sir) Edward Turnor, without which, he told the King, he could not afford to accept the post; as it was, if his enemy William Harbord is to be believed, he sat for many years in the chair under sentence of outlawry for debt. When Parliament met again on 20 Oct. Seymour on instructions endeavoured to delay proceedings so that it might be prorogued without discussion of the Modena marriage, but he was thwarted by Shaftesbury’s dilatoriness in the Upper House. At the beginning of the new session a week later, a French sabot was placed under his chair by a lawyer named Ayliffe, whom Seymour had wished to expel from the parliamentary bar for professional misconduct. The country party tried to force his resignation on the grounds that the Speakership was incompatible with his other offices. ‘You are too big for the chair and for us’, said Sir Thomas Littleton, 2nd Bt., and Harbord told him that his frequenting of gaming houses and stews ‘with foreigners as well as Englishmen’ lowered the reputation of the House. But the motion for Seymour’s withdrawal from the chair found only some 20 supporters in a house of 300.10
When Buckingham appeared before the Commons on 13 Jan. 1674 Seymour was accused of partiality, though he had long been disillusioned by his former patron’s political ineptitude. A fortnight later in the debate on foreign affairs, he left the chair in order to refute the allegation that England’s trade had been damaged by the third Dutch war, and, according to Ruvigny, upset the House by stating that the country was unable to furnish either provisions or vessels to hold the sea. Seymour’s reputation as a strong Speaker was enhanced during the two sessions of 1675. When the House was debating in committee the recall of English subjects from French service, tempers grew hot over a disputed division and the tellers, William, Lord Cavendish and Sir John Hanmer had all but drawn on each other. Brushing aside constitutional nicety, Seymour ‘with great dexterity and nimbleness’ displaced the chairman, restored order, ‘everyone in his place rising up with his hat off to show his submission’, and when the House ultimately rose carried off the two principals to dinner. ‘The Speaker’s prudence saved the House ... from some grave misfortune.’ During the dispute between the two Houses over Shirley v. Fagg, Seymour on his own authority arrested one of the four lawyers in Westminster Hall, and it was said of him as Speaker that he ‘plays his game so well on both sides that he cannot easily be removed’. Not that he was without critics in the House. Sir Thomas Meres observed that when former Speakers erred, they retracted and mended, but he had not known this Speaker to do so. In a debate on bribery, another prominent spokesman of the country party, Sir John Hotham, declared ambiguously: ‘Yourself, Mr Speaker, have had good things from the King, and have deserved them. The labourer is worthy of his hire.’ On 25 Oct. Seymour contemptuously opposed the motion of Sir Harbottle Grimston for a dissolution, although he was suspected by Harbord of exacerbating the differences between the Houses which were making Parliament unworkable. It was observed that Danby’s supporters in this session ‘thinking their strength greater in the House, by reason of the dexterity of the speaker, than in committee’ endeavoured to arrange business accordingly.11
In 1677 Seymour again defended naval administration from the floor of the House, though he had rather the worst of the debate with the opposition spokesman, (Sir) William Coventry. He rebuked his fellow Devonian, (Sir) Henry Ford, for advocating the easing of restrictions on the import of Irish cattle, by which, he alleged, their county was £30,000 p.a. the worse. Seymour’s relations with Danby had deteriorated, and it was noted that his friends voted with the country party on foreign policy in this session. Shaftesbury, however, saw no reason to revise his assessment as ‘thrice vile’. But his physique — ‘he was a graceful man, bold and quick’ — was again of service to the Court and himself when, on no less than four occasions, he adjourned the House by the King’s command without putting the question. Memories of Speaker Finch in 1629 were revived: ‘This (as was moved), being without precedent did so discompose the House that some were offering to hold the Speaker in his chair; but he leapt from it very nimbly’. When Parliament met again on 28 Jan. 1678 William Sacheverell charged him with these offences. (Sir) Thomas Clarges joined in the attack:
This adjourning the House has been usurped by you more than any Speaker before you. Gentlemen stand up to speak, and you adjourn the House and will not hear them.
The Court did not dare take his part, though Coventry, no friend to Seymour, admitted: ‘If the debate has held so long, ’tis some excuse to the speaker, that ’twas a doubtful case’. Eventually the House agreed by 131 votes to 121 to adjourn without reaching a decision; but the Government had been so shaken that Seymour was ordered to feign a diplomatic illness before the House met again on 11 Apr. This was a serious misjudgment of the mood of the Commons; John Birch (who, like Coventry, had more than one tussle with Seymour) said: ‘I have been at many choices of Speakers, and am heartily sorry for the loss of Mr Seymour’. After another brief recess Seymour’s health had as conveniently recovered as his deputy’s had collapsed, but the episode had fatally injured his relations with Danby and the Administration.12
The effects were at once apparent. In a debate on foreign affairs on 7 May, Seymour said, apparently from the chair: ‘I think it must be our duty to lay before the King the miserable condition the Kingdom will be in by those leagues and treaties, and to show your disapprobation’. His arrogance reached new heights after his recall to the chair. He told Birch (who was too well able to look after himself to resent the ingratitude) that it was indecent of him to brush his beard without a looking-glass. When he reproved Meres for lateness, Garway remarked: ‘I hope the Speaker will not pretend to so absolute a command over the House as to say sharp things, and no man be permitted to reply upon him’. He ‘always believed as little of the Plot as any man’, according to his satellite Conway, though he participated in the examination of Coleman, and he took care ‘that nothing was wanting in the chair for the discovery of it’. On 23 Oct. he was appointed to ask the Dean of St. Paul’s to preach on a fast day, and the Dean of Canterbury to preach on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. He was the first to propound what was afterwards called the policy of expedients, to limit the power of a Popish successor. The speech with which he opened the debate in the grand committee on 22 Nov. 1678 unfortunately found no support on the court benches:
I wish that a representation may be made to the King of the too familiar access that foreign ministers have to him. ... The next thing that I shall present to your consideration is that those who have had a hand in the Plot may meet with the severest judgment. ... Where there are not two witnesses, I would make no scruple to hang them with one. ... Their interest and their purse have saved them; therefore I propose that they may be convicted by Act of Parliament. Now having said what I would do, I will present you with my thoughts on what I would not do. First, I would not disturb the right line, nor impeach the succession. It is not your interest to make the heir to the Crown desperate. ... I would not have any Popish prince be left in a condition to wound or disturb the Protestant religion. I would not scruple to take from him dependences in church and state, and power to dispose of the public revenue or the militia. I would not scruple to make a law that upon the demise of the King, the Parliament then sitting, or if there be none, the last Parliament shall meet again and continue for a time certain. This in a great measure will provide your security. But if gentlemen would carry it further it will neither be secure for the present or the future.
Danby, aggrieved at Seymour’s failure to avert the thunderstorm that burst over him in the closing days of the Cavalier Parliament, reckoned among his enemies ‘the Speaker’s party’, consisting of the Devonshire men generally and many of the Cornish Members, and described the Speaker as ‘the promoter of the most desperate addresses and proceedings of the House of Commons last session’. Although Seymour threatened to send his Tory uncle Trelawny to the Tower for brawling behind the chair with William Ashe, he had probably done all that was possible for Danby by saying privately to Anchitell Grey and others of the Opposition ‘that the Treasurer was no more popishly affected than he was, on his conscience’.13
Seymour was the only member of the Government to foresee the catastrophe which overwhelmed them at the general election. He had long been promised the county seat, but his name was included in the opposition list of the ‘unanimous club’, and on 5 Feb. 1679 he wrote that he could have wished his father ‘could have kept Totnes in hand for fear of the worst’. In the event he was returned unopposed for Devon, ‘but so attended as I shall have no great pleasure in the election’, as a result of a bargain with the Whigs. Danby now exerted himself to prevent Seymour’s return to the Chair. But Seymour’s attacks on Popery in 1678 had made him very popular, despite Shaftesbury’s rating of ‘vile’, and he was all but unanimously elected Speaker. The King took the almost unprecedented step of rejecting the choice of the Commons, though in the evening he privately assured Seymour of his approval. Again Birch spoke out in favour of his old antagonist:
I have reason to believe Mr Seymour very proper for the employment, and that he would be acceptable to his Majesty; but he that did this with the King may do more.
To Danby’s fury, the House refused to accept Meres, the Court candidate, and Danby addressed the King again in Seymour’s favour. He wrote to the King that Seymour
would now be Speaker, whether you would or not, or otherwise he would create the dispute now in being. ... He values not the treasurer’s power of a fiddlestick, for that he has more powerful friends than myself at Court.
Thus ended one of the most notable Speakerships of the period. A court supporter commented:
Most certainly the Court could never have a better speaker than Mr Seymour, [who was] very desirous of this station for the honour and profit of it, ... and really because he was more considerable in that post by his dexterity than any other.
Seymour’s ignorance of the law — ‘it is my duty to inform the House in point of law, and I wish I had more law’, he confessed in an unwonted moment of self-criticism — was a grave handicap. Even in procedural matters he produced some unwarranted obiter dicta, such as the statement that ‘no man, by the ancient rules of the House, is to be of a committee of a thing he is against’. But a professional lawyer (and a political opponent) like Grimston could agree that ‘Mr Seymour has declared his abilities’. Enough has been said of Seymour’s high-handedness in the House; impartiality was not expected of him, but of the Opposition only Harbord seems to have borne him a grudge. Outside the House, he was no less mindful of the dignity of his office. The story is well-known of how when his own coach broke down, he commandeered the next private coach that passed, merely explaining to the ejected owner that it was fitter for him to walk the street than the speaker. In this, as in more serious matters, Seymour’s habit of command did more for his office than the most extensive constitutional learning.15
A private Member again, though retaining his other government employments, Seymour was very active in the first Exclusion Parliament. He was appointed to 22 committees and made 19 recorded speeches. His recent dispute with Danby earned him a place on the committee of secrecy, and on five other committees of major political importance: for security against Popery, for the surrender of Danby, for the habeas corpus amendment bill, for drawing up reasons against Danby’s pardon and for the trial of the lords in the Tower. He took part in four conferences with the Lords, including one on disbandment and another on supply. On the Popish Plot, he took a moderate line, censuring Oates for sauciness to the King and incivility to the Commons, and defending Sir Robert Southwell against Dugdale’s aspersions. On one occasion, he helped the inexperienced Gregory by wording a motion for him. His popularity with the Opposition was short-lived, and he came to realize that they would not place him in the chair again, even if it were to become vacant. On the other hand he warned the Government against foreign subsidies, and took a leading part in discussing the technicalities of the trials of Danby and the Popish lords. With his vote against the exclusion bill on 21 May and his naming as a pensioner by (Sir) Stephen Fox two days later, his authority in the House declined, and on 26 May he exclaimed: ‘Till gentlemen have more patience, and order, to hear me, I will trouble you no more’.16
For the second general election of 1679, Seymour had to fall back on the family borough of Totnes. He was now restored to favour at Court, especially with the Duke of York, and regarded as one of the King’s chief advisers on parliamentary affairs. ‘I see Mr Seymour is a true and bold friend’, wrote the Duke, ‘and lays hold of all opportunities to serve me.’ He was out of town and disclaimed all responsibility for the prorogations which delayed the assembly of Parliament till 21 Oct. 1680. At a meeting of the Privy Council, he opposed the Duke’s return to exile before Parliament met saying that those who so readily gave their opinions for it ‘would as readily vote another time for the King to quit the kingdom if the people would have it so. ... Playing tricks with Parliament would not do.’ A moderately active Member of the second Exclusion Parliament, he was named to the committee of elections and privileges and to two committees on his old bugbear, cattle imports. On 2 Nov. he opposed exclusion in a notable speech:
I am one of those that suffer under those wind-guns in corners of being ‘popishly affected’. ... I am unhappy when I take notice that the only thing the King excepts in his speech should be the first thing you resolve on. ... It would be so desperate an attempt to offer at changing the religion so well established by law that it was highly improbable a prince of his prudence and wisdom should endeavour a thing so impossible to be effected. This law, if made, would be counted binding by all in England, by few in Ireland and by none in Scotland, which must needs occasion a fatal separation and a civil war in the end. ... When you seclude the Duke for religion, you make a war for religion; and that great King, who makes war for his glory, will be glad to take this as a handle for your disturbance. And when once you are put to raise an army to support your law, adieu to all the liberties of England.
It is a fair measure of the effectiveness of this speech that the Opposition at once trumped up articles of impeachment against Seymour accusing him of malversation of naval funds. Thomas Bennett implied that as a Privy Councillor he was in some way personally responsible for an abhorring address from the Somerset grand jury. The articles were brought in on 20 Nov. by Gilbert Gerard II in terms which made the real offence clear:
This gentleman (if what fame says be true) has laboured with industry to prorogue or dissolve this Parliament. ... With what imperiousness did he put the Commons in contempt, and talk of ‘wind-guns’.
Seymour’s ‘dexterity and eloquence’ were not severely tested by these charges, though it is highly probable that his accounts were not all they should have been. But only Harbord (who wanted his place) and Sir Francis Winnington made any attempt to press the attack home, and Ralph Montagu admitted: ‘If Seymour has done as well as he has spoke (which is always well) he may come off well’. Seymour then proceeded to deal with the real charges latent in Gerard’s speech:
The first step I ever made in public was being a Member of Parliament, and what my carriage has been is no secret. ... In that Parliament, I cannot justify but that I was subject to mistakes, and those were questioned; but reasons and precedents were produced which made the House doubt by letting fall the debate. I know that the chair could not wander but in paths untrodden; the resolution of the House once taken was punctually observed by me.
Seymour went on to remind the House how he had defended its rights in contest with the Upper House; how he had incurred the King’s anger by refusing to leave the chair till the Lords had returned a bill; how he had promised the Opposition to hinder any measure from being pushed through a thin House at the end of the session; how he had refused a bribe from the City over the bankrupts’ bill — ‘if I could have been prevailed with, that bill had been an Act’. Seymour still had friends in the country party, notably Birch and Henry Booth, and Lemuel Kingdon discredited Sir Robert Howard’s allegations of misappropriation. Harbord cut a poor figure by contrast, as he was well aware, but in the partisan temper of the House, the motion for impeachment passed, and Seymour withdrew for the remainder of the session. In a final sputter of venom, the impeachers tried to vote (Sir) Christopher Musgrave, the only court supporter, off the committee; but fortunately for Seymour his rule on the composition of committees was ignored, and the move failed by 131-85. Seymour’s brother-in-law (Sir) Joseph Tredenham was allowed to attend the committee, and on their report argued forcefully against Harbord’s extremely selective precedent. Ashe, another brother-in-law, though a Whig, remembered Seymour’s attitude in his dispute with Trelawny and offered to stand security for him. On 3 Jan. 1681, a committee was appointed to manage the impeachment, and but for the dissolution (for which he was chiefly responsible) an address would doubtless have been passed for the removal of Seymour from the King’s counsels.17
Although not elected to the third Exclusion Parliament, Seymour was certainly present, for it was in his coach that the King left Oxford after the dissolution, which he advised, and he now reached the zenith of his political power. He brought in Conway as secretary of state, and disposed of the treasurership of the navy to Lord Falkland (Anthony Carey) in anticipation of a higher office. He was active in purging Whigs from the commission of the peace, and it was at his instance that Dryden produced Absalom and Achitophel. ‘Mr Seymour is very violent’, wrote Henry Sidney ‘despairs of being well with the King if he is well with the people, and therefore does endeavour every day to make the breach more irreconcilable.’18
In his prosperity Seymour’s pride became intolerable. Roger North describes his arrogant and disrespectful behaviour in Council, where he reduced his witty sovereign to indignant mumbling with the outrageous query: ‘How long will Your Majesty prevaricate with yourself?’ This description is confirmed by a much.humbler witness, a Welshman living in Devon who came before the Council to give information against the Whigs. ‘Mr Seymour ... interrupted His Majesty by asking me what countryman was I, where I dwelt, and if in Devon why should he not know me, and why did I not come to him?’ Seymour’s incredulity that among the 8,000 freeholders of Devon there should be one whose face was unfamiliar to him is slightly comic, but it confirms his thoroughness as a grassroots politician, which had exempted him from the unfounded Tory optimism of February 1679. But when inevitably he quarrelled with Halifax, the other leading figure in the Government, it is hardly surprising that it was Seymour’s services that were dispensed with. Sir Francis North regretted his loss, however, as ‘a man of honour and cordial to the true English interest’, and it is at least possible, as Sir Keith Feiling suggests, that he retired from Court not through mere sulkiness but out of distaste for the policy of truckling to France. Affairs went all in favour of France and the Papists, he grumbled in November 1682.19
With regard to Seymour’s political future, he was perhaps lucky to go at this time. He did his duty as recorder at Exeter after the Rye House Plot, but he was not identified with the Tory purge of the corporations, and his record in James II’s Parliament was beyond praise. In the first session he formed virtually a one-man opposition, alone in resisting the grant of the revenues for life. An active Member he was named to 15 committees, including those to recommend erasures in the Journals and to hear the accounts of the commissioners for disbanding the army in 1679. He attacked the conduct of the general election, urging that no Members returned under new charters should sit on the elections committee, and stressing the peril in which they stood of seeing the introduction of the ‘papist religion and unconstitutional government’. His speech was neither followed nor applauded; indeed, according to Thomas, Lord Bruce, it was actually hissed. It was a very different story after the recess, when his attack on the standing army and its popish officers found many willing hearers:
The militia might be [made] so useful that there would be no need of an army, and so no need for a supply. ... Supporting an army is maintaining so many idle persons to lord it over the rest of the subjects. ... For officers to be employed not taking the Tests, it is dispensing with all the laws at once. ... Therefore I would have the question be, ‘That the safety of the kingdom does not consist with a standing force’.
Seymour’s motion was not pressed to a division, but on 14 Nov. he was named to the committee to draw up the address for the removal of popish officers, which obliged the King to give up his hope of a submissive Parliament. He was called to the chair on the militia on 18 Nov., but refused for reasons of health.20
Seymour was dismissed from local office in 1687, but there is no evidence of complicity in the invitation to William of Orange in 1688, unless his readiness to be reconciled with James in June may be considered suspicious. But when William landed, Seymour acted promptly and decisively. On 17 Nov. he joined the Prince at Exeter, and drafted the Exeter Association
to stick firm to this cause and to one another until our religion, laws and liberties are so far secured to us in a free Parliament that we shall be no more in danger of falling under Popery and slavery.
Seymour’s example swung the west country Tories behind William, and sharply contrasted with the cautious attitude of the Devon Whigs. He was left behind at Exeter as governor, but the development of the political situation during December so alarmed him that by the New Year he had hurried up to London. He told Clarendon (Henry Hyde):
All honest men were startled at the manner of the King being sent from Whitehall. All the West went to the Prince of Orange upon his declaration, thinking in a free Parliament to redress all that was amiss, but now began to think that the Prince aimed at something else, and that the countenance he gave the dissenters gave too much cause of offence to the Church of England.
William’s attitude to Seymour may have been affected by Sidney’s unfavourable report in 1681, although Burnet, who regarded Seymour as ‘the ablest man of the party’ was less hostile. William’s celebrated genealogical gaffe at his first meeting with Seymour, whom he assumed to belong to a cadet branch of the Duke of Somerset’s family, did nothing to improve relations; but in any case it is unlikely that Seymour would have accepted any higher title for the Prince than Regent.21
Seymour’s position in his constituency was so unassailable that he was re-elected, presumably in his absence, at a total cost of a mere £15 18s.5d. He expected to be made Speaker in the Convention, but his known opposition to the transfer of the crown made him unacceptable. A moderately active Member, he was named to 22 committees and made 35 recorded speeches, although he was absent a good deal in the west, no doubt on business connected with the family estate which he had just inherited. He urged the House to go into committee on the state of the nation on 22 Jan. 1689, and helped to draft the address of thanks to the Prince of Orange and the list of essentials for securing religion, laws and liberties. His xenophobia found expression in accusing the Dutch army of eating up all the fodder in the west country, and he told Halifax and Burnet on 1 Feb. that the English army would not fight against their King, ‘nor was it possible for England and Holland to be heartily united, they both courting the same mistress, trade’. Four days later, after complaining of pressure from the mob, he voted to agree with the Lords that the throne was not vacant, and he insisted that the Convention could not constitutionally be converted into a Parliament. But he expressed his attitude to the new regime in the Hobbesian sentence: ‘I was not for the abdicating vote, but I am for preserving the government’. He served on the committees for altering the coronation oath, suspending habeas corpus, and inquiring into the authors and advisers of grievances, and helped to draft clause A of the bill of rights. He appeared promptly for the second session of the Convention, having heard that Ludlow had returned from his long exile. Tredenham raised the matter in the House, and Seymour was ordered to present an address to the King for Ludlow’s arrest. On 7 Nov. Seymour ‘with a noble company of gentlemen waited on King William’, who promised to issue a proclamation accordingly; and Ludlow was forced to return to Switzerland without claiming his forfeited land. William considered appointing Seymour to the Treasury board, but probably changed his mind after a speech in which he alleged that ‘all our trade and riches were carried to Amsterdam, and that in exchange we were likely to bring from thence nothing but their religion’. He was particularly active over the miscarriage of the war. He complained of negligence in the navy and of gross ignorance among the commissioners, and moved for the severest punishment of George Churchill. ‘Does any man believe’, he asked on 14 Dec. ‘that if the war be carried on by the same men, we shall not have the same success?’22
At the dissolution of the Convention, Seymour had many years of political activity before him. A steadfast Tory, he led the opposition to the Association in 1696. He died on 17 Feb. 1708, and was buried at Maiden Bradley. His son sat for Totnes and other constituencies under William III and Anne, and in 1750 his grandson succeeded to the dukedom of Somerset.
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: John. P. Ferris
- 1. N. and Q. cxlvii. 33-34; Kingdom’s Intell. 6 May 1661; CJ , viii. 246.
- 2. Top. and Gen. iii. 590.
- 3. Add. 32324, f. 125; Sel. Charters (Selden Soc. xxviii), 183; Q. Sess. Recs. (Som. Rec. Soc. xxxiv), p. xvii; Nat. Maritime Museum, Southwell mss 17/15; Cal. Treas. Bks. i. 688; vi. 2; Harl. 1510, f. 686; CSP Dom. 1667-8, p. 608; R. East, Portsmouth Recs. 362, 365; A. Jenkins, Hist. Exeter, 196; HMC 14th Rep. VII, 104; Devon RO, Exeter corp. act bk. 11, ff. 211, 214, 231, 237.
- 4. LC3/2; Add. 35107, f. 35.
- 5. HMC 14th Rep. VII, 94; Hoare, Repertorium Wiltonense, 16.
- 6. Pepys Diary, 11 Oct. 1665; Milward, 33, 51, 77; CJ, viii. 666, 671; Marvell ed. Margoliouth, i. 147.
- 7. Carte, Ormond, iv. 307, 315; Clarke, Jas. II, i. 434; Clarendon Impeachment, 1, 21, 22, 27; Grey, i. 15, 85, 104, 114, 149; viii. 77-78; Milward, 105, 191-2, 221; PRO 31/3, bdle. 117, f. 5v; CJ, ix. 91; Bodl. Carte 36, f. 201.
- 8. PRO 31/3, bdle. 123, f. 32v; bdle. 124, f. 146; Grey, i. 161, 171, 183; CJ, ix. 112.
- 9. Marvell ed. Margoliouth, ii. 305; Harl. 7020, f. 45; CSP Dom. 1673, p. 299; PRO 31/3, bdle. 141, f. 78; Grey, i. 271-2, 338; ii. 16-17; Dering, 3, 106, 121; Browning, Danby, i. 120; CJ, ix. 251; Burnet, ii. 79.
- 10. Burnet, ii. 80; Grey, ii. 157, 186; vii. 323; viii. 76, 179; Cal. Treas. Bks. iv. 363, 548; CJ, ix. 207; CSP Ven. 1673-5, p. 168; Hatton Corresp. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxii) 168; Dering, 152-4.
- 11. Grey, ii. 252, 254, 353; iii. 129, 247, 320, 369; vi. 257; Browning, i. 119; PRO 31/3, bdle. 130, f. 57; Bramston Autobiog. (Cam. Soc. xxxii) 199-200; Essex Pprs. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, xxiv) 9, 11; Marvell, ii. 150; HMC 7th Rep. 466; Bulstrode Pprs. 322.
- 12. Grey, iv. 130, 328, 390-1; v. 5, 12, 142, 144, 269; Burnet, ii. 79; Essex Pprs. 143; Reresby, Mems. 123-4; Foxcroft, Halifax, i. 129; Marvell, ii. 203; PRO 31/3, bdle. 138, ff. 56, 70v; Browning, i. 273, 317-18; CJ, ix. 463.
- 13. Grey, v. 343; vi. 39, 91, 132, 264-5, 387; viii. 77; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 478-9; v. 485; Browning, ii. 71; iii. 7.
- 14. HMC 15th Rep. VII, 106; CSP Dom. 1679-80, p. 77; Burnet, ii. 204; Grey, vi. 403, 408, 410, 425; Browning, ii. 71-72; PRO 31/3, bdle. 142, f. 66.
- 15. HMC Finch, ii. 47; Grey, vi. 125, 373, 428-9.
- 16. Grey, vii. 49, 58, 65, 97, 323, 340; HMC Ormonde, n.s. iv. 502.
- 17. HMC Dartmouth, i. 46; PRO 31/3, bdle. 147, f. 50; bdle. 148, f. 29; Dalrymple, Mems. i. 350; Grey, vii. 407-8; viii. 34, 38-39, 73-78, 79, 84-85, 176-81; Clarke, Jas. II, i. 605-6, 622-3; Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 36-37; CJ, ix. 664, 697, 702; HMC Ormonde, n.s. v. 524.
- 18. Ailesbury Mems. 42-43, 57; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vi. 51, 233; CSP Dom. 1680-1, p. 476; Sidney Diary, ii. 217.
- 19. North, Lives, i. 299-30; CSP Dom. July-Sept. 1683, p. 217; PRO 31/3, bdle. 151, f. 55, bdle. 153, f. 69v.
- 20. HMC Dartmouth, i. 86; Archives Estrange‘res CP Ang. 155, ff. 106-7; Ailesbury Mems. 105; R. Morrice, Entering Bk. 1, p. 462; Grey, vii. 358; Bramston Autobiog. 212; PRO 31/3, bdle. 162, f. 188v; Harl. 7181, f. 165v.
- 21. Luttrell, i. 441; HMC 7th Rep. 417; Clarendon Corresp. ii. 238; Sidney Diary, ii. 217; Burnet, ii. 79, 281.
- 22. HMC 14th Rep. VII, 113; Grey, ix. 6-7, 45, 93, 355, 397-8, 400, 413, 433, 444, 489, 499; Reresby, 547; Dalrymple, pt. ii, bk. i. 11; Ludlow Mems. ii. 511; Foxcroft, Halifax, ii. 242; Wood’s Life and Times (Oxf. Hist. Soc. xxvi) 316.