BENNETT, Thomas (c.1645-88), of Shaftesbury, Dorset and Kensington, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. c.1645, 1st s. of John Bennett. educ. Winchester 1659-64; New Coll. Oxf. matric. 11 Nov. 1664, aged 19; M. Temple 1667, called 1673. m. lic. Sept. 1677, Catherine, da. of Sir Edward Berkeley of Pylle, Som., wid. of John Topp of Stockton, Wilts., s.p. suc. fa. 1677.1
Little is known of Bennett’s private life, but like his father he was intimately connected with Lord Shaftesbury to whom he owed his election, at least in part. He took little part in the first session he attended, during which his patron was committed to the Tower for maintaining that the long prorogation had automatically dissolved Parliament. He served on a committee investigating the affairs of the Bermudas Company, a well-known interest of Shaftesbury’s, and he visited him in the Tower five times. It is possible that at this juncture he was recommended, as a sound Protestant, to Prince Rupert. Needless to say, he was marked ‘thrice worthy’ by Shaftesbury. On 10 May 1678 he was teller (with William Harbord) for a motion to proceed with the address for the removal of Lauderdale. This seems to have led to his own dismissal by Rupert. In the following month he made a successful maiden speech, telling a story about Danby which occasioned much mirth in the House and for which Danby’s son (Edward Osborne) challenged him. But Bennett, as Osborne’s second commented, ‘was more valiant in words than deeds, and desired pardon’. In the last session of the Cavalier Parliament he emerged as a spokesman even more extreme than William Sacheverell, echoing Shaftesbury’s most virulent attacks on the Lords. He sat on the inquiry into the Popish Plot, and did not hesitate to mention the Duke of York by name:
The Duke must be removed from the King’s presence also, or else the other was to no purpose. ‘Twas not to be imagined that Coleman entered into all his negotiations of himself, or else so inconsiderable a man could not have had the correspondence of the greatest minister of France’.
Tories might ridicule him as ‘Shaftesbury’s Bennett’; but his persistence and popularity made him dangerous. An observer commented: ‘I scarce remember any one time this session upon any occasion almost whatsoever but he made some reflection upon the Duke’. Nor did he disdain less obvious and lofty targets. He reflected on Halifax as one who talked high without doors and within was for Popery. He even revived Shaftesbury’s old campaign against Samuel Pepys: ‘If Pepys can give you an account of how Popery came to be planted in the Navy, I would hear him willingly’. And on 19 Nov., with the barest minimum of decorous ambiguity, he declared: ‘It is not the ministers that do this, but he that made them; from thence they have their succour and assistance’.3
Bennett reached a new climax of fury on 21 Nov., when the Lords returned the bill disabling Papists with an amendment excepting the Duke from its provisions. This, he considered, had spoilt the bill and made it worthless. ‘If Popery must come in, I would have it come easily without force’. He himself acted as teller for the motion to disagree with the Lords, which was lost by two votes. After these achievements, it was surely rather naive of Bennett to grumble:
When I had the ill luck to displease the Court, they said: ‘There goes such a rogue, he is for a Commonwealth’. ... My father and grandfather were for the King, yet I have heard myself called ‘fanatic’ where I durst not answer again.
Yet for the moment Shaftesbury was thwarted, and on 16 Dec. he and Bennett resorted to the old device of trying to force a dissolution by sowing dissension between the Houses. A more dramatic move, however, was already in preparation; it was Ralph Montagu who exploded the mine, but when the Speaker had read Danby’s letters instructing him to press for a French subsidy, it was Bennett who first mounted the breach:
I wonder the House sits so silent when they see themselves sold for six millions of livres to France. ... Now we see who has played all this game, who has repeated all the sharp answers to our addresses and raised an army for no war. You know now who passes by the secretaries of state. I would impeach the treasurer of high treason.
He was duly named to the committee for that purpose, but the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament for which Shaftesbury had so long been working had now become inevitable. Bennett’s services were considered worthy of reward by the French embassy, and his virtuous indignation over the 6,000,000 livres subsidy proved no obstacle to his acceptance of a modest gratuity of 300 guineas. He then sat on ten committees, besides acting twice as teller and once as messenger to the Lords.4
The poll-list for the Shaftesbury election of 11 Feb. 1679 reveals (among other things) the thoroughness of Bennett’s constituency organization. Whatever its peculiarities, it seems that his position at the head of the poll could not be challenged. He was, of course, set down by Shaftesbury as ‘worthy’, and he shared his patron’s optimistic estimate of the new Parliament: ‘this great assembly is not to be bought and sold, but, I fear, the last was’. He opened the debate on Danby’s pardon with another parliamentary speech: ‘As there has been too much heat used here formerly, I hope the House will not be too cool now. If pardons go on at this rate the King has told us, we are in a desperate condition’. He was named to the committee preparing the bill of attainder against Danby (27 Mar. 1679), and was chairman of the committee which drew up the address demanding his arrest. It is clear that he was in no way inhibited in speech or action by Shaftesbury’s acceptance of office on 21 Apr. He took part in drafting two more addresses—demanding the execution of the Jesuit Pickering and the removal of Lauderdale—and on 11 May moved for an address that the Duke of York should not be allowed to return to England without the consent of the Houses of Parliament. His was the first name on the list of the committee to bring in the exclusion bill, and of course he voted for it on the second reading. He undertook to prove Popery in the fleet, and was authorized to name witnesses to be produced before the committee on which he sat. Before the session closed Bennett, realizing that a majority of the Lords were prepared to accept Danby’s pardon as a bar to the attainder, delivered his most intemperate speech:
My meaning is to impeach any lord that shall play the rogue with us; you must supply the King when you have lords picked out fit to be hanged for the ill they have done. ... When the Lords feel the Commons of England, then they will be honest.
Altogether, he probably served on 14 committees during the first Exclusion Parliament.5
Bennett was re-elected for Shaftesbury on 3 Sept. 1679, though this time in second place. He probably spent little time in his constituency, for he was now chairman of the Green Dragon Club, one of the more respectable Whig organizations, which even admitted the Duke of York’s friend, George Pitt, to membership. In the second Exclusion Parliament, Bennett was named to only three committees, for burying in woollen, and for drawing up the exclusion bill and the address on the state of the kingdom, and he made only six speeches compared with 25 in the previous Parliament. He was severe on Abhorrers, like Sir Francis Wythens; but he reserved his chief eloquence for those like Edward Seymour who sought a compromise on the exclusion issue:
Could any expedient be found out to preserve the Protestant religion, I should be glad not to exclude the Duke of York from the succession. ... When a Catholic King has places to bestow, and power, he will have temptation enough for ransacking the City of London to maintain an army. And we sit patiently here for an expedient! Therefore I move for the bill as before.
In what seems to be another speech, though transmitted by an unfriendly hand, Bennett assumed a more rational tone. He wondered that anyone could doubt the legality of their proceedings, for the legislative power was unlimited, and as for the arguments of conscience, he saw no conscience against it, unless they were in conscience obliged to introduce Popery. He feared that the expedients, when examined, would be found insufficient, ‘that no law would bind Papists who never thought themselves obliged to keep either law, word or promise to Protestants any longer than it was necessary to compass the cutting of their throats’. He concluded by dismissing the danger of civil war. This seems to have been Bennett’s best performance in debate, very different from the bloodthirsty rant of the previous year.6
In the 1681 election the Whigs spared no effort on Bennett’s behalf at Shaftesbury. He was not present himself, but Sir John Coventry, Thomas Freke I and Thomas Thynne II all offered to attend the election. Lord Shaftesbury sent a letter of support, and Thomas Grove gave full assurance of his friends’ assistance. Bennett’s uncle (who was Freke’s steward) proved a capable election agent and triumphantly secured the return of his man at the top of the poll, at the cost of under £200 in ‘randy bills’. At Oxford, Bennett again served on the committee to draw up the exclusion bill, having vigorously opposed the use of a grand committee to consider possible compromises:
I would have the House rightly understand that those who are for going into a grand committee to consider expedients are not for excluding the Duke, and they who are not are for it; and now put the question, if you please.7
Bennett was to live for seven years more, but with the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament he virtually disappears from view. His delivery to the Council of the confession of Stephen College, the ‘Protestant joiner’, on 28 Aug. 1681 shows that he was still in touch with some of the extreme Whigs, but he is not named as a plotter at any time. It is even possible that he may have returned to his old employment with Rupert; certainly the Prince’s papers found their way into Bennett’s possession, and his executors paid him £800 in settlement of all claims. Bennett was listed by the regulators for the commission of the peace in 1688, and about the same time recommended—not very confidently—as court candidate for Shaftesbury. But he probably never gave the ‘full satisfaction’ James’s electoral agents hoped for, as he died on 5 May. After his widow’s life interest, his estates went to his brother-in-law, William Benet (of the Norton Bavant family), ancestor of the Member for Wiltshire from 1819 to 1852.8
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: John. P. Ferris
- 1. Hutchins, Dorset, iii. 51; Winchester Scholars, 190; Salisbury Licences, i. 353.
- 2. Dalrymple, Mems. i. 382; Hoare, Wilts. Salisbury, 477.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1677-8, pp. 267-9; CJ, ix. 479; CSP Dom. 1678, p. 92; Grey, vi. 83, 206, 207, 230; HMC Ormonde, iv. 434; Reresby, Mems. 148; Leics. RO, Finch mss 4 Nov. 1678; Jones, First Whigs, 56.
- 4. Finch mss; Grey, vi. 253-4, 256; CJ, ix. 543, 560; Jones, 34; Dalrymple, Mems. i. 382.
- 5. Wilts. RO, 413/435; Grey, vi. 426; vii. 20, 112, 238, 296; CJ, ix. 589, 601, 620.
- 6. Sitwell, First Whig, 122; Wilts. RO, 413/435; Grey, vii. 386, 405; viii. 34; Clarke, Jas. II, i. 605.
- 7. Pythouse Pprs. ed. Day, 89, 90, 96, 99; CJ, ix. 711; Grey, viii. 314.
- 8. CSP Dom. 1680-1, p. 424; E. Warburton, Mems. of Prince Rupert, i. p. 1; iii. 560; Hutchins, iii. 51; PCC 13 Ent; Burke, Commoners, i. 248.