BERKENHEAD (BIRKENHEAD), John (1617-79), of Whitehall.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1660-1690, ed. B.D. Henning, 1983
Available from Boydell and Brewer



20 June 1661

Family and Education

b. 24 Mar. 1617, 5th s. of Randall Berkenhead, innkeeper, of the Swan, Northwich, Cheshire by Margaret Middleton. educ. Witton g.s.; Oriel, Oxf. 1634, BA 1637, MA 1639, DCL 1661; advocate, Doctors’ Commons 1661. unm. Kntd. 14 Nov. 1662.1

Offices Held

Fellow of All Souls, Oxf. 1639-48, Aug. 1660-1; commr. for assessment, Wilts. 1661-2, Westminster 1663-d., Mdx. 1665-74, the Household 1671, loyal and indigent officers, London and Westminster 1662.2

Editor, Mercurius Aulicus 1643-5; licenser of the press Oct. 1660-3; master of the faculties, province of Canterbury Nov. 1660-d.; editor-in-chief, Kingdom’s Intelligencer and Mercurius Publicus 1661-3; master of requests 1664-d.; commr. for loyal and indigent officers’ accounts 1671.3

FRS 1663.


Berkenhead entered the household of Archbishop Laud after graduation, and soon became active in the censorship of the press. His experience of journalistic methods of controversy made him one of the most effective and witty of royalist propagandists during the Civil War and afterwards. During the Interregnum he supported himself by literary hack-work and may have supplied intelligence to Secretary Nicholas under the pseudonym of Mills. At the Restoration he became master of the faculties under Archbishop Juxon and licenser of the press. When (Sir) John Nicholas chose to sit for Ripon his father recommended Berkenhead to fill the vacancy at Wilton, although the patron was the son of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, one of Berkenhead’s principal butts, both living and dead. Returned presumably without a contest, he became a very active Member of the Cavalier Parliament. He was appointed to 559 committees, taking the chair in 20 of them, acted as teller in eight divisions, carried 13 bills to the Upper House and 18 messages to the King, Lords and others, and made over 100 recorded speeches. He considered himself an authority on constitutional precedent, usually contradicting William Prynne. Soon after taking his seat he was appointed to the committees for the uniformity and regicides bills, and after the second reading of the bill for regulating the press he was among the Members ordered to perfect it. On 11 Jan. 1662 he was sent to the Upper House to desire their lordships not to deliver original Acts to the printer, by whom they were ‘ripped in pieces, and blotted and abused’. Many of his family were clients of the Earl of Derby, and on 17 Mar. he reported from the committee for the bill to restore the Earl’s estate. He was one of the five Members ordered to attend the King on 3 Apr. with an address for the recovery of the money collected for the redemption of English slaves in North Africa. He continued to play a prominent part in the passage of the uniformity bill, helping to check the text of the revised prayer-book, to redraft the second paragraph, and to draw up reasons for a conference. He acted as chairman of the committee for the press bill, which he carried to the Lords on 19 May, subsequently helping to manage a conference. He was one of the Members ordered to attend the King with an address in favour of draining Lindsey level, a matter which became his principal responsibility in the 1663 session. But meanwhile the fall of Nicholas had undermined Berkenhead’s position. On Nicholas’s instructions (or so he alleged) he refrained from printing the appointment of Sir Henry Bennet until the King personally took notice of it. Bennet obliged him to hand over responsibility for the press to Roger L’Estrange, in spite of an attempt by Berkenhead before the commission for loyal and indigent officers to blacken his supplanter’s reputation. The pluralities bill, introduced immediately Parliament reassembled, struck at the faculty office, Berkenhead’s only remaining source of income. He was appointed to the committee (on which Prynne’s name stands first) on 25 Feb. 1663, and on the second reading delivered a set speech, for which notes and part of the text, largely consisting of learned citations and parentheses, survive. He reported from the Lindsey level committee on 2 Apr. 1663, acted as teller for the amendments it had proposed, helped to redraft the bill and add further clauses, and twice informed the House that their instructions were unworkable. He also acted as chairman of the Mersey and Weaver navigation bill. He was chosen to ask the Dean of Wells to preach on the third anniversary of the Restoration, and afterwards to thank him for his sermon, and he was also one of those chosen to ask the King to grant preferment to the chaplain of the House. On 27 July he was sent to desire a conference on the relief of those disabled from subscribing to the Act of Uniformity. Apparently Berkenhead was considered to have worked his passage in this session, for he was made a master of requests with an annuity of £100, and marked as a court dependant. When a petition was read to the House on behalf of the loyal and indigent officers on 31 Mar. 1664, Berkenhead replied to the debate in the name of the commissioners. He took the chair in the committee to consider the complaints, and recommended that six defaulting receivers (including George Gwynne and William Palmes), should be sent for in custody. He was appointed to the committee for the conventicles bill. On 13 May he reported from the conference on the new church at Falmouth, to be dedicated to King Charles the Martyr. In the autumn session he was one of the 12 Members sent to thank the King on 25 Nov. for defending the nation against the Dutch, and he acted as teller for candles in the supply debate on 30 Jan. 1665. With five other Members he was ordered to bring in a bill for the better repair of London streets on 13 Feb., and on 1 Mar. he was among the six to attend the King with a request for a national day of prayer for victory. He was again busy with the affairs of the loyal and indigent officers, reporting on 2 Mar. a case of irregularity and forgery in Cheshire. During the Oxford session he was appointed, together with Heneage Finch I and Giles Strangways, to convey to the university the thanks of the House for their loyalty. He served on the committee for the five mile bill, and chaired the bill for continuing the regulation of the press, which he carried to the Lords. In 1666 he was among those who attended the King with the vote against the import of French commodities, and he was made responsible for asking Dean Sancroft to preach the Gunpowder Plot sermon. At his own charge he obtained on 25 Oct. the grant of two fairs to Wilton, a last endeavour to boost the dying trade of his constituency.4

Berkenhead was presumably a Clarendonian in 1667, though he was one of the Members appointed to see that the impeachment proceedings were regularly entered in the Journal, and he did not speak till 5 Dec., too late to be of any assistance to the fallen lord chancellor. He served on the committees to consider the miscarriages of the war and to set up a public account commission, and he continued active in the interests of the indigent officers. On 18 Feb. 1668 he spoke against the bill for more frequent holding of Parliaments; but his chief concern was for the suppression of nonconformity. On 4 Mar. he ‘would have his Majesty moved to put the laws into execution’, and on the following day, with Henry Coventry, Sir James Smyth and (Sir) Edmund Wyndham, he returned the thanks of the Commons for the King’s favourable reply. A week later he delivered, according to John Milward, ‘a long and most excellent speech’ against toleration: ‘When we remember the villainies that those men committed under pretence of conscience ... we may well be cautious that we be not cheated and destroyed by indulging their conscience into a new rebellion’. With Samuel Sandys I and Sir Thomas Meres he was sent to ask the lord keeper for copies of the proclamation putting the laws against nonconformists and Papists into force. He was appointed to the committee to consider the militia laws and helped to prepare a statement on the coercion of juries for the concurrence of the Lords. He resisted the proposal to impeach Lord Sandwich (Edward Montagu I) as liable to undermine his authority as ambassador in Spain, and in the next session expressed surprise that any man should deny to Sir George Carteret the common courtesy of reading his own defence. With Sir Charles Harbord he was ordered to bring in a bill against kidnapping on 25 Oct. 1669. But his ‘bantering’ style and manner increasingly jarred on the House; in committee on the Roos divorce bill on 31 Mar. 1670, Edward Seymour observed that it was in order for Berkenhead to speak again, but not to make the same speech twice. In the winter of 1670-1 he was appointed to the committee to consider defects in the conventicles and militia laws, and acted as chairman on the bill for the preservation of shipping. But by opposing the tax on theatres, on the grounds that the players had been of great service to the King, ‘he affronted all the King’s worthy friends, and hazarded Sir John Coventry’s nose’. His indirect responsibility for the assault on Sir John Coventry did not prevent him from serving on the committee to punish the assailants. On 3 Mar. 1671 he reported from the committee for the employment of the poor, and he helped to manage the conference on the customs on 11 Apr. In these sessions he was named as a court dependant in both lists, and slightly later styled by an opposition writer ‘Sir Satan, a poor alehouse keeper’s son. Now has the faculty office and is one of the masters of requests. Never spoke truth this fifty years. An old whoremaster, remarkable for his excellent speech for the players ... and in fine the epitome of insolence.’ When Parliament reassembled in 1673, he defended Shaftesbury’s election writs with the question: ‘If you tie up the hands of the lord chancellor, how will you be supplied with Members when you come to sit?’. But his attack on the Declaration of Indulgence was contemptuously handled by William Garway and (Sir) William Coventry. He served on the committee against Popery which produced the test bill; but even after Thomas Clifford had committed political suicide by his wild attack on the bill in the House of Lords, Berkenhead argued: ‘’Tis of dangerous consequence to blast this person for rumour in the street’. He was ordered to bring in a bill for the relief of poor prisoners in the next session, but the adjournment came before he had done so. He was included in the Paston list of court supporters.5

In 1674 Berkenhead was appointed to the committees for the test and for investigating the condition of Ireland, but he took no part in the attack on the Cabal ministers. He was more active in the following session, serving on the committee which drafted the address for the removal of Lauderdale, but acting as teller against presenting a further address on 31 May 1675. He was also appointed to the committee for excluding Papists from Parliament, and drew up reasons for three conferences on disputes over the jurisdiction of the Lords. But when he alleged on 4 June that the lieutenant of the Tower had express orders not to receive into his custody the Four Lawyers, who had displeased the Commons by pleading in the Upper House, Sandys and Sir Robert Carr immediately got up to deny that there was any such order. Perhaps Berkenhead’s journalistic love of a good story had led him astray. He was noted as an official and a court speaker for the autumn session, when he served on the committees for dangerous books, the appropriation of the customs to the navy, and the liberty of the subject. But his principal oratorical effort, in grand committee on 25 Oct., was laughed at. Answering the proposal of Sir Harbottle Grimston for a dissolution:

When he sees sons and brothers of those who were undone by the rebellion, and paid so dear for their loyalty, put and thrust out to have a new set, he declares he is afraid of a dissolution, because, God is his witness, he’s afraid the next will be worse.

He resisted the assertion that the prolonged recess that followed was equivalent to a dissolution. ‘Because books are printed and papers set upon Westminster Hall door that we are no Parliament, shall we regard such loose objections?’ he asked on 15 Feb. 1677. With reckless disregard for the increasing hostility towards Roman Catholicism, he suggested that Sir Thomas Strickland, like the peers, should be excused from taking the oath of supremacy. He was appointed to the committee on illegal exactions and helped to draw up two addresses on foreign policy and one on supply. For the third session running he chaired Viscount Kilmorey’s estate bill, and was at last able to carry it to the Lords. He helped to manage the conferences on the general naturalization bill and on building 30 warships. He objected strongly to the address of 25 Mar. as unprecedented, demanding (against shouts of ‘Agree’) that the points be discussed one by one. Shaftesbury marked him ‘thrice vile’, and in A Seasonable Argument he was again called a liar, and alleged to have got £3,000 in boons. He sought to persuade the House on 18 Feb. 1678 that England was engaged in ‘an actual war’ against France, and he was appointed to the committee to summarize her international commitments. But his arguments were listened to with increasing impatience. On the address for the removal of Lauderdale, he exclaimed: ‘If you will not hear me to one point, let me go to another. To damn a man thus unheard, neither let him speak for himself, nor anybody else for him!’ It must have been some consolation that the three Members whom he brought in from a tavern, with his own vote, just sufficed to turn the scale in the division. He was appointed to the committee for the exclusion of Papists from Parliament, and to draw up reasons for a conference on colliers on 11 July. On the next day he reported from the committee on the Lords’ bill for the avoidance of unnecessary suits and delays, and returned it to the Upper House. He was on the committee of inquiry into the Popish Plot, and took part in drafting the address for printing Coleman’s letters, moving that ‘all the means possible’ be used to make him confess what Members had received money from the King of France. He was named to the committee to inquire into the French translation of the Gazette. According to Sir Robert Howard, Berkenhead’s arguments over the issue of commissions to Popish officers did Secretary Williamson more harm than good; but his speech on exempting the Duke of York from the disablement of Papists was among his most effective:

Do you think the King will give his consent to this bill, to restrain himself thus? Cannot the King go to see Mr Coleman, if he will? And not go see his brother! You here will make a law that the Duke shall be removed from the King’s presence. Whither shall he go? Into the country? Or will you force him beyond sea? ... Drive him into French hands!

He helped to draw up reasons for the conference that followed, and instructions for disbanding the army on 29 Nov. When he compared the hysteria over the Popish Plot with 1641, Sir Nicholas Carew said that he believed Berkenhead to be a favourer of Popery, and wanted him brought to the bar. On 19 Dec. he pointed out that Ralph Montagu had concealed Danby’s letters since March; if they were treasonable, Montagu was guilty of misprision of treason.6

At the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament, according to Aubrey, Berkenhead

went down to be elected, and at Salisbury heard how he was scorned and mocked at Wilton, whither he was going, and called "Pensioner", etc. He went not to the borough where he intended to stand but returned to London, and took it so to heart that he insensibly decayed and pined away.

He died on 4 Dec. 1679 at his lodgings in Whitehall, and was buried at St. Martin in the Fields. His valuable building land in Lincoln's Inn Fields had to be sold to pay his debts. Berkenhead apparently had few friends, even among the Tories. 'A man witty and well-learned', according to (Sir) John Bramston*, 'but he had some qualities not commendable.' Anthony à Wood charged him with ingratitude and disrespect towards past benefactors, a verdict with which Aubrey agreed, remarking also on his confidence and wit, and his propensity to 'lie damnably'.7

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: John. P. Ferris


  • 1. P. W. Thomas, Sir John Berkenhead, 6-9.
  • 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. iii. 842.
  • 3. Thomas, 214; CSP Dom. 1671, p. 255.
  • 4. Thomas, 4, 20, 226; Bath mss, Thynne pprs. 10, f. 112, Nicholas to Pembroke, 18 June 1661; Aubrey, Brief Lives, ii. 173; CJ, viii. 406, 409, 415, 434, 435, 436, 464, 482, 494, 517, 526, 528, 533, 541, 620, 622, 623, 644, 645; Eg. 2538, f. 186; CSP Dom. 1663-4, pp. 92, 538; 1666-7, p. 218; Lansd. 958, ff. 19-20; VCH Wilts. vi. 28.
  • 5. Grey, i. 60, 83, 105, 159, 257; ii. 2, 38-39, 153; Milward, 218-20, 269; CJ, ix. 65, 183, 228, 233, 279; Harl. 7020, f. 45; Marvell ed. Margoliouth, ii. 307.
  • 6. CJ, ix. 338, 347, 348, 352, 407, 414, 418, 453; Grey, iii. 249, 341-2; iv. 68-69, 103, 378; v. 161, 362; vi. 152, 220, 243-4, 309, 351; Lauderdale Pprs. (Cam. Soc. n.s. xxxviii), 141-2.
  • 7. Aubrey, i. 105; HMC Lords, ii. 304-5; Bramston Autobiog. (Cam. Soc. xxxii), 360.