John Hampden, c.1595-1643

Famous for his stand against forced loans and ship-money, his death early in the First Civil War was a great blow to the Parliamentarian cause.

Portrait of John HampdenBorn in London, John Hampden was the eldest son of William Hampden, a Puritan landowner with estates in Buckinghamshire and Middlesex. His mother, Elizabeth, the daughter of Sir Henry Cromwell of Hinchingbrooke, was Oliver Cromwell's aunt.

John Hampden inherited his family's estates while still an infant on the death of his father in 1597. His subsequent wardship resulted in a furious quarrel and extensive litigation between his mother and his father's cousin William Hampden of Ennington that continued for several years.

John was educated at Thame School, Oxfordshire, then Magdalen College, Oxford (1610) and the Inner Temple (1613). In 1619, he married Elizabeth Symeon (d.1634), an heiress of Pyrton, Oxfordshire, with whom he had ten children. His second marriage, to Letitia Knollys (d.1666), widow of Sir Thomas Vachell, took place in 1640 and was childless.

Opposition to the King

Hampden sat as MP for Grampound, Cornwall in the Parliament of 1621 during the reign of James I, then as MP for Wendover, Buckinghamshire, in the first three Parliaments of the reign of Charles I. Like other Puritan country gentlemen, Hampden was critical of the influence of the Duke of Buckingham over both King James and King Charles, and suspicious of Catholic influence at court. He became associated with the opposition Parliamentarians led by Sir John Eliot and the Puritan magnate Lord Saye-and-Sele.

In 1627, Hampden refused to pay the forced loan demanded by King Charles, stating that the loans were illegal and a violation of Magna Carta. Like others who refused to pay, he was imprisoned, first in the grim Gatehouse prison at Westminster, then under milder conditions in Hampshire. In March 1628, King Charles was obliged to call another Parliament following the Duke of Buckingham's disastrous and expensive expedition in support of the Huguenots of La Rochelle. Hampden and the other prisoners were released, but Parliament refused to vote funds until the King gave his consent to the Petition of Right, which stated that collection of taxes without the consent of Parliament was illegal.

After the assassination of the Duke of Buckingham, Parliament switched its attack to the King's religious policy. The King regarded Parliament's intervention in religious matters as an affront to his authority and angrily dissolved Parliament in March 1629. The MPs Denzil Holles and Sir John Eliot were imprisoned. Eliot died in the Tower of London in 1632 and came to be regarded by Hampden and other Puritans as a Protestant martyr.

Ship Money

Hampden lived quietly on his country estates until 1637, when the King attempted to raise money by extending the tax of ship-money which had traditionally been imposed on coastal towns in times of emergency to pay for naval defences. The King now tried to levy the tax on all the counties of England. When Hampden was required to pay ship-money on his lands in Buckinghamshire, he refused to pay the full amount, maintaining that the tax was illegal as it had not been approved by Parliament.

A test case was brought before twelve leading judges at the Court of Exchequer. Hampden's stand aroused widespread public interest, with the attorney-general Sir John Bankes and solicitor-general Sir Edward Littleton putting the case for the Crown, and Oliver St John and Robert Holborn defending Hampden.

On 12 June 1638, the judges found for the Crown by a majority of seven to five. Although the verdict had gone against Hampden, it was regarded as a moral victory against arbitrary tyranny and brought both Hampden and Oliver St John to national prominence as defenders of liberty.

The Long Parliament

In April 1640, Hampden sat as MP for Buckinghamshire In the Short Parliament, where he collaborated with John Pym and other opposition MPs in attempting to overturn the ship-money judgment. He was elected to the Long Parliament later that year and continued to work with Pym in opposing the King's perceived moves towards reintroducing Roman Catholic practices into the English church. Like other Puritans, Hampden sympathised with the opposition of the Scottish Covenanters to Archbishop Laud's Prayer Book, and in August 1641 he was one of the four parliamentary commissioners who accompanied King Charles on his visit to Scotland in the aftermath of the Bishops' Wars. Hampden was an early advocate of Pym's scheme for a Protestant alliance between Parliament and the Scots.

Hampden's greatest skill in the stormy sessions of the Long Parliament was as a tactician and moderator, often defusing volatile situations and winning over his opponents by subtle persuasion. He was admired as a gentleman of honour and integrity by all parties, yet leading Royalists suspected that Hampden was the true author of many of the policies promoted by John Pym. After his support for the Grand Remonstrance of November 1641, Hampden was one of the Five Members accused of treason whose arrest was demanded by the King in January 1642. Hampden declared that there were two conditions under which active resistance to the King became the duty of a good subject: an attack upon religion, and an attack upon the fundamental laws of the land. Hampden had no doubt that King Charles had fulfilled both these conditions.

Civil War

On the outbreak of the First Civil War, Hampden was appointed to the Committee of Safety that was formed to direct Parliament's war strategy. He also played an active military role as colonel of the Greencoat regiment of foot that he raised from his Buckinghamshire estates. Hampden's regiment guarded the artillery train at the battle of Edgehill, halting Prince Rupert's charge and covering the retreat when the Earl of Essex withdrew towards Warwick. After Essex's subsequent withdrawal to London, Hampden's regiment checked the Royalist advance through Brentford on 12 November 1642. The following day, Hampden commanded a brigade sent to outflank the Royalist army during the manoeuvring at Turnham Green before the King finally withdrew his forces and retreated to Oxford.

During the winter of 1642-3, Hampden was associated with John Pym's "Middle Group" in Parliament, which opposed moves towards peace with the King on unfavourable terms while at the same time seeking to moderate the extreme militancy of the parliamentary "War Party". Although Hampden was privately critical of the Earl of Essex for not striking boldly against the King's army after Edgehill or the stand-off at Turnham Green, his public loyalty helped sustain Essex against the criticism of the militants.

In the spring of 1643, Hampden's regiment took part in the siege of Reading, which surrendered to Essex on 27 April. Although Essex intended to advance on the King's headquarters at Oxford, he became bogged down at Thame owing to sickness in his army, a shortage of cavalry and no money to pay his troops.

On 17 June, Prince Rupert mounted a lightning raid out of Oxford on Essex's outposts. Hampden rode as a volunteer with a troop of horse commanded by Sir Philip Stapleton in pursuit of Rupert, with the intention of delaying him long enough for a larger force from Essex's main army to cut off his retreat. Rupert halted his troops at Chalgrove and ambushed the pursuing force. During the skirmish, Hampden received a mortal injury to the shoulder, possibly from his own pistol exploding, which shattered the bone and forced him to leave the field. He died from his wounds at Thame six days later.

John Hampden's death was widely lamented by the Parliamentarians. It was a severe blow to his political ally John Pym because Hampden was a key link between Pym's moderate Middle Group and the militant War Party. Hampden was buried at the parish church of Great Hampden in Buckinghamshire, where a monument to his memory was erected by his great-grandson in 1743.


C.H. Firth, John Hampden, DNB, 1890

J.H. Hexter, The Reign of King Pym (Harvard 1941)

Conrad Russell, John Hampden, Oxford DNB, 2004

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace (London 1955)


John Hampden Society