Sir John Gell, c.1593-1671

Midlands Parliamentarian commander who dominated the Derbyshire county committe but was later imprisoned for plotting against the Commonwealth.

Portrait of Sir John GellJohn Gell was born at Hopton Hall in Derbyshire. His family was one of the wealthiest in the county through their interests in sheep farming and lead mining. In 1635, he was appointed sheriff of Derbyshire and charged with collecting the controversial ship-money tax, which resulted in a long-standing feud with Sir John Stanhope and his brother the Earl of Chesterfield.

Although Gell was created a baronet in January 1642, he supported Parliament on the outbreak of civil war eight months later. He was commissioned by the Earl of Essex to secure Derbyshire for Parliament and made his base at Derby, where he raised infantry and cavalry regiments and a small train of artillery. As Derby had no castle or walls, Gell ordered the construction of extensive earthworks around the town.

Gell's enemy Lord Chesterfield seized Lichfield early in 1643 and Gell joined Lord Brooke at the siege of Lichfield in March, taking over command of the Parliamentarian forces after Brooke was killed. When Lord Chesterfield surrendered Lichfield two days after Brooke's death, Gell sent him to London in chains.

Gell then joined forces with the Cheshire commander Sir William Brereton with the intention of marching against Stafford. They clashed with the Midlands Royalists at the battle of Hopton Heath where the Earl of Northampton was killed. When the Earl's son refused to return the artillery captured at Hopton Heath or the money Gell had paid to embalm the body, the corpse was paraded through the streets of Derby before its burial at All Hallows Church.

In 1643, Gell was appointed appointed commander of Parliament's forces in Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Warwickshire. After the death of his first wife in October 1644, he married the widow of his late adversary Sir John Stanhope, though the marriage was dissolved within a year. Gell's troops became notorious for plundering and he used his dominance of the Derbyshire county committee to secure important appointments for his friends and relatives which led his opponents to complain to Parliament. Gell's loyalty came under suspicion when he failed to obey an order to bring his troops from the Midlands to join Fairfax on the Naseby campaign in 1645. At the siege of Tutbury Castle in 1646, he offered the Royalist defenders his own favourable terms for surrender in opposition to those offered by his fellow commander Brereton.

In 1648, Gell attempted to secure a pardon from Charles I during his imprisonment at Carisbrooke Castle by offering to lend him £900 in gold. In 1650, he was found guilty of plotting against the Commonwealth and imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1652, after which he lived quietly in London. At the Restoration, Charles II pardoned him for his role in the civil war and granted him a position at court, where he remained until his death in October 1671.


Trevor Brighton, Sir John Gell, Oxford DNB, 2004