John Pym, 1584-1643

Leader of the political opposition to King Charles in the Long Parliament and architect of Parliament's victory in the English Civil War

Portrait of John PymJohn Pym was born at Brymore House, Cannington in Somerset, where his family had been established since the thirteenth century. His father, Alexander Pym, died a few months after John was born. A few years later, his mother, Phillipa, married Sir Anthony Rous, a client of the Earl of Bedford.

Pym attended Broadgates Hall (now Pembroke College), Oxford in 1599 and entered the Middle Temple in 1602, though he was never called to the bar. In May 1604, he married Anne Hooke of Bramshott in Hampshire, daughter of John Hooke and Anthony Rous's sister Barbara. This marriage established Pym as a member of the Rous circle, which in turn influenced the development of his strong Puritanism and fierce opposition to Catholicism and Arminianism. In addition to managing his estates in Somerset, Pym obtained a post in the Exchequer as receiver of the King's revenue for Hampshire, Wiltshire, and Gloucestershire.

Opposition Politics

Pym's political career began when, under the patronage of the fourth Earl of Bedford, he was elected MP for Calne in Wiltshire during the reign of James I. In 1625, he was elected for Tavistock in Devon, which he represented in the first three Parliaments of the reign of Charles I. He emerged as an outspoken enemy of the Roman Catholics and a firm supporter of those who opposed the King's arbitrary use of his powers. Pym was active in the demands for the impeachment of the Duke of Buckingham in 1625 and 1626, and supported the Petition of Right in 1628.

Pym's abilities as a financier attracted the patronage of the Earl of Warwick, who employed him to manage his affairs and estate from 1627. Through Warwick, Pym was appointed treasurer of the Providence Island Company, which sought to finance a Puritan colony on Providence Island in the West Indies. The affairs of the Company brought Pym into contact with the Puritan magnates who were to become leaders of the Parliamentarians during the 1640s, including Lord Brooke, Lord Saye and John Hampden.

Pym emerged as a leading Parliamentarian during the brief life of the Short Parliament (1640). King Charles wanted Parliament to grant him money for war against the Scots, but his opponents were unwilling to do so until their grievances in Church and State policy had been addressed. On 17 April, Pym delivered a lengthy speech in which he summarised the nation's complaints. His skill lay in making his attack appear moderate rather than confrontational. At this stage, he did not demand that any of the King's ministers should be held responsible, but appealed to the House of Lords to join the Commons in searching out the causes and remedies of the nation's troubles. His speech made a deep impression. Unable to get what he wanted, King Charles dissolved Parliament within a month of calling it.

After the dissolution, Pym and his colleagues concentrated their efforts on forcing Charles to recall Parliament. In collaboration with Oliver St John, Pym drafted the petition signed by twelve peers calling for redress of grievances and a new Parliament. He travelled through the provinces with John Hampden, raising support and organising public opinion. When the Long Parliament was summoned in November 1640, Pym was the acknowledged leader of the political opposition to the King and his supporters.

“King Pym”

Pym's aim was to find the proper balance between the power of the Crown and the power of Parliament. Like other Puritans, he believed that King Charles' attempt to set up a despotic government during the 1630s was associated with a Roman Catholic plot to destroy the Protestant faith in England. As a first step towards saving the nation's liberties and religion, Pym initiated the prosecution of the King's principal advisers, the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud. During March and April 1641, Pym played a leading role in the impeachment proceedings that led to Strafford's execution on 12 May. This was followed by the abolition of the courts of High Commission, Star Chamber and other archaic institutions that had allowed King Charles to rule without Parliament. Pym was persuaded to support the abolition of episcopacy because of the great influence of the bishops in upholding the King's arbitrary government.

Pym's greatest concern was that the King would try to use military force against Parliament. When the Irish Uprising erupted in October 1641, control of the armed forces become a critical concern. Pym and his supporters realised that if the King raised an army against the Irish rebels, it could easily be used against Parliament. The Grand Remonstrance of November 1641 was part of his strategy for enabling Parliament to gain control of the army by undermining confidence in the King and his ministers.

Early in January 1642, the King tried to win Pym over to the Royalist cause by offering to appoint him chancellor of the exchequer but Pym rejected the offer. He was one of the Five Members regarded as the King's leading opponents in Parliament whom Charles tried to arrest on 4 January 1642—with disastrous consequences for the Royalist cause. While Charles and the royal family were forced to flee from London, "King Pym" and his supporters returned to Westminster in triumph.

Civil War Politics

Through the spring and early summer of 1642, tension between King and Parliament increased until an armed confrontation became inevitable. Pym became a leading figure on the Committee of Safety, which was appointed in July 1642 to co-ordinate Parliament's military strategy.

With the final breakdown of relations between King and Parliament, Pym skillfully bridged the conflicting policies of the parliamentary "War" and "Peace" parties: on the one hand he promoted negotiations for a treaty with the Royalists, while at the same time he worked industriously to set up the infrastructure necessary to maintain and finance the Parliamentarian war-effort. He organised loans from City financiers and introduced legislation for several fiscal innovations: assessments (land tax), excise duties and the sequestration (confiscation) of Royalist estates. Pym also played a leading role in organising the network of regional and central committees that administered the nation throughout the civil wars and continued to function during the Commonwealth and Protectorate years.

In 1643, Pym proposed an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters against the King. Royalist victories in 1643 persuaded Parliament to adopt the proposal. Although the terms of the Solemn League and Covenant made more concessions to Presbyterianism than Pym wished, he realised that a military alliance with the Scots was essential if the King was to be defeated. He was the first of the English Parliamentarians to sign the Covenant on 25 September 1643.

The Scottish alliance was Pym's last political achievement. He died of cancer on 8 December 1643, two weeks after the final terms of the alliance had been concluded. Although the civil wars continued for another eight years, Pym had laid the foundation of Parliament's military power and its ultimate victory. He received a state funeral and was buried in Westminster Abbey. After the Restoration in 1660, his body was exhumed and reburied in a communal grave with other leading Parliamentarians in St Margaret's churchyard, Westminster.


S.R. Gardiner, John Pym, DNB, 1896

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

Conrad Russell, John Pym, Oxford DNB, 2004

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

C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1958)


Pym's speech in the Short Parliament