John Pym

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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

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 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. □

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John Pym (pĬm), 1583?–1643, English statesman. A Puritan opposed equally to Roman Catholicism and to Arminianism in the Anglican church, Pym early became prominent in the parliamentary opposition to Charles I. He organized the impeachment (1626) of George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, and the passage (1628) of the Petition of Right. In the 11-year interval between Parliaments (1629–40), he supported the colonizing ventures of the Providence Island Company in the West Indies. Pym was the unquestioned leader of the House of Commons in the events leading up to the English civil war. His long speech in the Short Parliament (1640) listing popular grievances resulted in the dissolution of that Parliament. Resuming the attack in the Long Parliament (1640), he initiated the prosecution of Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford, and of Archbishop Laud; urged the abolition of the courts of high commission and the Star Chamber; proposed the abolition of episcopacy; and played a major role in drafting the Grand Remonstrance (1641). Pym was one of the five members of Commons whom Charles tried to remove (1642) by military arrest. After the outbreak (1642) of the civil war, Pym organized various taxation reforms for Parliament and imposed the first English excise duties. His last important act was the arrangement of an alliance with the Scots, based on English acceptance of the Solemn League and Covenant (1643; see Covenanters).

See biography by J. H. Hexter (1941); study by W. W. MacDonald (1981).

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Pym, John (1584–1643). Parliamentarian. One of the few members of the Commons who realized that poverty was driving Charles I into arbitrary rule, Pym consistently, but vainly, argued the case for restoring the crown's finances. But his attitude towards the king hardened with the conviction that Charles, by patronizing the arminians, was opening the door to catholicism, and in 1628 he led the impeachment of a royal chaplain who had publicly affirmed the king's right to impose non-parliamentary taxation. Pym was by then a political client of the earl of Bedford, and drafted the petition calling on the king to summon Parliament which was drawn up at Bedford's London house in September 1640. When the Long Parliament met in November, Pym was the driving force behind the impeachment of Charles's chief minister Strafford, but he also supported Bedford's plan to reach an accommodation with the king. Had it succeeded, Pym would have been appointed chancellor of the Exchequer, with responsibility for the royal finances. The revolt of the Irish catholics in 1641 confirmed Pym in his belief that the king was involved in a ‘popish plot’ to destroy English religion and liberties, and in order to compel him to co-operate with Parliament he pushed through the Grand Remonstrance. Not surprisingly, he was one of the five members whom the king sought to arrest in January 1642. Pym's major contribution to the parliamentary cause came in 1643 when he persuaded members to impose an excise to meet the costs of war and to accept the Solemn League and Covenant as the price of Scottish support.

Roger Lockyer

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Pym, John (1584–1643) English leader of the parliamentary opposition to King Charles I. In the Long Parliament (1640) he initiated proceedings against Charles' advisers, Strafford and Laud, and helped draft the Grand Remonstrance (1641). Pym was one of five members whom Charles tried to arrest in the House of Commons (1642), and he helped to arrange the alliance with the Scots in the English Civil War.