Denzil Holles, 1st Baron Holles, 1598-1680

The outspoken leader of the Presbyterian "Peace Party" in the House of Commons during the Civil Wars, he became a baron and privy councillor after the Restoration

Portrait of Denzil HollesDenzil Holles was the second surviving son of John Holles (d.1637) and Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Stanhope. John Holles owned substantial lands in Nottinghamshire and property in London. He purchased the barony of Haughton and the earldom of Clare in an unsuccessful attempt to ingratiate himself at the court of King James I. Both titles were inherited by Denzil's older brother, John.

Denzil Holles attended Christ's College, Cambridge, and Gray's Inn, then made an advantageous marriage to heiress Dorothy Ashley in 1626. After Dorothy's death in 1641, Holles married Jane, the wealthy widow of Sir Walter Covert. His third marriage, in 1666, was also to a wealthy widow, Esther Richer, widow of Jacques Richer, a French nobleman.

Political Opposition

Holles's political career began in 1624 when he was elected MP for St Michael in Cornwall. He came to prominence as MP for Dorchester in the second session of King Charles I's third Parliament. During the violent scenes that accompanied the dissolution of Parliament in March 1629, Holles physically held the Speaker, Sir John Finch, in his chair and read out Parliament's declaration of grievances against the King. Holles was arrested with Sir John Eliot and seven others for his part in the protest. He was briefly imprisoned in the Tower, then brought before the court of the King's Bench in February 1630 on a charge of conspiracy. Although he refused to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the King's Bench over offences committed in Parliament, Holles was fined one thousand marks. He eventually paid the fine, but was later compensated by the Long Parliament, which ruled that his prosecution was a breach of parliamentary privilege.

During the early sessions of the Long Parliament, Holles consistently maintained the view that Charles I was a good king, misled by evil counsellors. However, he did not join the attack on the King's most unpopular adviser Lord Strafford, who was married to his sister. Holles attempted to mediate for Strafford's life in Parliament and spoke on behalf of his family. In all other matters, Holles was firmly in opposition to the King. He presented the impeachment of Archbishop Laud in the House of Lords, supported the Root and Branch Bill against Episcopacy, drafted the Grand Remonstrance with John Pym and aggressively supported Hesilrige's Militia Bill. After refusing an attempt to buy him off with the offer of a position at court, Holles was named as one of the Five Members whom the King attempted to arrest in January 1642.

Presbyterian Leader

When the First Civil War broke out in 1642, Holles raised a regiment of foot for Parliament and went with the Earl of Bedford to the unsuccessful siege of Sherborne Castle. He was present at the battle of Edgehill in October 1642, where he courageously held his position and tried to rally the troops scattered by Prince Rupert's charge. The following month, however, his regiment was wiped out when Rupert stormed Brentford during the King's advance on London, One-third of Holles's regiment were killed and most of the rest were taken prisoner. Although he was not present at Brentford, Holles's confidence was badly shaken. He withdrew from the military and turned down the offer of a senior command in the Parliamentarian army.

During the winter of 1642-3, he emerged as a leading member of the "Peace Party" in Parliament, taking an active part in the negotiations that took place between Parliament and the King at Oxford in the spring of 1643, at Uxbridge during the winter of 1644-5 and at Newcastle in the summer of 1646.

Holles's support for a negotiated settlement between King and Parliament brought him to prominence as a leader of the Presbyterian faction against the Independents. He clashed violently with Oliver Cromwell, whom he hated, accusing him of cowardice and saying that all his successes were due to chance and good fortune. In association with Scottish representatives and the Earl of Essex, Holles attempted to impeach Cromwell in December 1644 as an "incendiary between the two nations".

With the ending of the First Civil War in 1646, Holles took a leading role in the bitter dispute between the Presbyterian MPs and the New Model Army. Following the dissolution of the Committee for Both Kingdoms in January 1647, Holles and his Presbyterian allies took over effective control of the government. They planned to pay the Scottish army to return home, after which the English army was to be disbanded and negotiations opened for a settlement with the King. Although the Scots were paid off, the New Model Army refused to disband before arrears of pay were settled and other grievances addressed. In March 1647, Holles denounced the soldiers who petitioned Parliament as "enemies of the state". This resulted in the politicisation of the Army during the spring and summer of 1647 and its alliance with the radical Leveller movement. In June 1647, Holles was foremost among the Eleven Members whose suspension from Parliament and impeachment was demanded by Army leaders. In response, Holles called for the mobilisation of the London militia against the New Model Army, but when General Fairfax led the Army into London in August 1647, Presbyterian opposition quickly melted away. Most of the Eleven Members fled to the Continent. Holles went to Normandy, where he remained for almost a year.

In June 1648, during the Second Civil War, Parliament voted to repeal the impeachment against the Eleven Members. Holles returned to London in August and immediately resumed his attempts to reach a negotiated treaty with King Charles. He was one of the parliamentary commissioners at the Treaty of Newport, where he threw himself at the King's feet, imploring him to accept Parliament's terms. Holles presented the report from the commissioners at Newport to the House of Commons on 1 December and recommended that negotiations should be continued, to which Parliament agreed. This infuriated Army leaders and the Independent faction in Parliament and was the catalyst for Pride's Purge on 6 December 1648. The Army demanded the arrest of Holles and the other impeached MPs who had retaken their seats, but once again he escaped to France.

Interregnum and Restoration

After the execution of Charles I in January 1649, Holles wrote to Charles II urging him to form an alliance with the Scots to regain the throne but he refused an offer to become Charles' secretary of state in 1651. Cromwell attempted a reconciliation with Holles and other exiled Presbyterians in 1654 and he returned to England where he lived quietly until the eve of the Restoration.

Holles was among the secluded MPs who were re-admitted to Parliament when General Monck reversed Pride's Purge in February 1660 and he was one the commissioners appointed to go to the Hague to deliver Parliament's invitation to Charles II to return to England. Holles preceded Charles to England to prepare for his reception and was appointed to the privy council on 5 June 1660. He emerged as the most vindictive of the thirty-four commissioners appointed to try the regicides in September and October. On 20 April 1661, he was created first Baron Holles of Ifield in Sussex.

Holles was English ambassador to Paris from 1662-7, but his obsession with protocol was severely criticised. He was one of the commissioners who negotiated the treaty that ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War in June 1667. In December 1667, Holles was one of four peers who protested at the banishment of the Earl of Clarendon, which almost cost him his place on the privy council. However, he remained active in Restoration politics until his death in 1680. He was buried at Westminster Abbey and a monument to him was erected in St Peter's in Dorchester. His only son Francis (1627-90) succeeded as the second Baron Holles. The peerage became extinct after the death of his grandson Denzil, third Baron Holles, in 1694.


C.H. Firth, Denzil Holles, DNB, 1891

John Morrill, Denzil Holles, Oxford DNB, 2004