William Russell, 5th Earl & 1st Duke of Bedford, 1616-1700

Fought for Parliament early in the English Civil War — after defecting to the Royalists and back he became associated with the Presbyterian peace party.

Portrait of William Russell, Earl of BedfordWilliam Russell was the eldest of eight children of Francis Russell, who became fourth Earl of Bedford in 1627, and his wife Catherine, the daughter and co-heir of Giles Brydges, third Baron Chandos. Russell was educated at Magdelen College, Oxford, and made a Knight of the Bath at the coronation of King Charles I in 1626. In 1637, he married Anne Carr (1615-84), daughter and sole heir of the Earl of Somerset, from whom he received a dowry of £12,000.

Russell was elected to both the Short and Long Parliaments as one of the MPs for Tavistock, the other being his father's client John Pym. Russell left the House of Commons for the Lords when he succeeded as fifth Earl of Bedford upon the sudden death of his father in May 1641. He supported Parliament in the build-up to the English Civil War and was appointed lord-lieutenant of Devon and Somerset during the spring of 1642. In July, he was commissioned lord-general of horse in the Parliamentarian army, and in August, he was ordered to the West Country to oppose attempts by the Marquis of Hertford to raise a Royalist army in Somerset.

Bedford mustered his forces at Wells and advanced to besiege Hertford at Sherborne Castle, but many of his troops fled as soon as they came under fire. Faced with desertion and refusal to obey orders, Bedford returned to London at the earliest opportunity. Although severely criticised by Henry Marten and others, his conduct was exonerated by the House of Lords. Bedford joined the Earl of Essex's army in time to command the cavalry on the Parliamentarian right wing at the battle of Edgehill, where his forces were routed in the initial Royalist attack.

During 1643, Bedford became associated with the "Peace Party" in Parliament. When the Commons rejected the Lords' proposal to re-open negotiations with the King in August 1643, Bedford was one of seven peers who left Westminster in protest. He went with the Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, to offer his services to the King. Bedford fought at the siege of Gloucester and the first battle of Newbury but few Royalists trusted him. In December 1643, he wrote to the Speaker of the Lords claiming that he had defected to the King in order to negotiate for peace in person. He returned to London but was not allowed to resume his seat in the Lords so he withdrew from politics and concentrated upon maintaining his estates. From 1649, he revived the massive fen drainage project (the Bedford Level) started by his father, which provoked protests and riots by dispossessed fenlanders in 1653.

Bedford returned to the House of Lords in the Convention Parliament of April 1660 where he was associated with the Presbyterian faction that tried to impose a conditional restoration of the monarchy. He bore the sceptre at the coronation of Charles II in 1661 but his Presbyterian and Whig sympathies kept him in opposition for most of the King's reign. His eldest son, Lord William Russell, was implicated in the Rye House Plot and executed in 1683. Bedford became a privy councillor under William and Mary and was created first Duke of Bedford and Marquis of Tavistock in 1694. He died aged eighty-four in 1700 and was succeeded as second Duke of Bedford by his grandson Wriothesley Russell.


C.H. FIrth, William Russell, first duke of Bedford (1616-1700), DNB 1897

Victor Stater, William Russell, first duke of Bedford (1616-1700) Oxford DNB, 2004