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William Fiennes (1582–1662)

A lay Member of the Westminster Assembly
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His Works:

  1. A speech in Parliament (1642) by William Fiennes
  2. A speech of the right honorable the Lord Vicount Say and Seale, one of his Maiesties Privie Councell. Spoken in Parliament the 25th. day of February, Anno Dom. 1642 (1642) by William Fiennes
  3. Folly and madnesse made manifest (1659) by William Fiennes
  4. In answer to the Lord Arch-bishop of Canterburies last speech, and concerning the liturgie of the Church of England (1641) by William Fiennes
  5. The Scots designe discovered (1654) by William Fiennes
  6. Tvvo speeches in Parliament of the right honourable William, Lord Vicount Say and Seale (1641) by William Fiennes


Biography of William Fiennes:

William Fiennes (1582–1662) first Viscount Saye and Sele (1582–1662), son of Richard Fiennes, lord Saye and Sele, and Constance, daughter of Sir William Kingsmill, was born 28 May 1582, entered at New College as a fellow-commoner in 1596, was admitted a fellow in 1600, and succeeded his father in April 1613 (Doyle, Official Baronage, iii. 271; Wood, Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iii. 546). Clarendon characterises Saye as ‘a man of a close and reserved nature, of a mean and narrow fortune, of great parts and of the highest ambition, but whose ambition would not be satisfied with offices and preferment without some condescensions and alterations in ecclesiastical matters’ (Rebellion, iii. 26). During the latter part of James I’s reign Saye was one of the most prominent opponents of the court. In 1621 he was active against Bacon, and urged that he should be degraded from the peerage (Gardiner, Hist. of England, iv. 102). In 1622 he opposed the benevolence levied by the king, saying that he knew no law besides parliament to persuade men to give away their own goods (Court and Times of James I, ii. 312). For this offence he was imprisoned for six months in the Fleet, and confined for some time afterwards to his own house (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1619–23, p. 487, ib. 1623–5, pp. 31, 168). When Buckingham returned from Spain and proposed to make himself popular by breaking the Spanish match, ‘he resolved to embrace the friendship of the Lord Saye, who was as solicitous to climb by that ladder’ (Clarendon, Rebellion, vi. 409). The promotion of Saye to the rank of viscount (6 July 1624) may be regarded as the fruit of this temporary friendship. It also helps to account for the extreme bitterness with which Saye prosecuted the attack on Cranfield, urging, for instance, that he should be fined 80,000l., the highest sum suggested during the discussion (Lords’ Debates during 1624 and 1626, Camden Society, pp. 81–90). In the parliament of 1626 Saye was again in opposition; he defended the privileges of the peerage against the king in the cases of Bristol and Arundel, and intervened on behalf of Digges when Buckingham accused him of speaking treason (ib. pp. 127, 135, 139, 197). In the autumn of the same year he was among those who refused to pay the forced loan (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1625–6, p. 485). In the parliament of 1628, during the discussions on the king’s claim to commit to prison without showing cause, he proved himself an able debater and skilful tactician, suggesting before the division ‘that all of them that would so ignobly stand against the most legal and ancient liberty of the subject should, together with their name, subscribe their reason to the vote, to remain upon record unto posterity, which motion daunted them all with a lively sense of their ignominy’ (Court and Times of Charles I, i. 349). He employed with great success the right of peers to protest, the value of which as a weapon of parliamentary warfare he seems to have been the first to discover. In the debates on the Petition of Right he opposed the reservations and amendments by which the court party sought to nullify it (Gardiner, Hist. of England). During the eleven years’ intermission of parliaments Saye devoted his energies to schemes of colonisation partly to better his fortunes, but mainly from religious and political motives. In 1630 he established, in conjunction with Lord Brooke [see Greville, Robert], John Pym, and other puritan notables, a company for the colonisation of Providence Island in the Caribbean Sea (Calendar of State Papers, Col. 1574–1660, pp. xxv, 123). In association again with Lord Brooke and ten others he obtained from Lord Warwick and the New England Company a patent for a large tract of land on the Connecticut River (19 March 1631–2). They appointed John Winthrop the younger to act as governor, established a fort at the mouth of the river, to which they gave the name of Sayebrook, and sent over a shipload of colonists (Doyle, English in America; the Puritan Colonies, i. 205, 211; Winthrop, Hist. of New England, ed. 1853, i. 115). In 1633 Saye and Brooke also purchased from some Bristol merchants a plantation at Cocheco or Dover, in what is now New Hampshire (Doyle, i. 277). They both contemplated settling in New England, but demanded as a preliminary the establishment of an hereditary aristocracy, consisting of themselves ‘and such other gentlemen of approved sincerity and worth as they, before their personal remove, shall take into their number.’ From the ranks of this body alone the governors were hereafter to be chosen. These propositions and the answer of the Massachusetts government are printed in Hutchinson’s ‘History of Massachusetts’ (ed. 1795, i. 430). Displeased by this reception of his offer, and discouraged by the difficulties of American colonisation, Saye concentrated his energies on the settlement of Providence Island. To obtain colonists he and his partners were obliged, says Winthrop, ‘to condescend to articles somewhat more suitable to our form of government, although they had formerly declared themselves against it and for a mere aristocracy’ (i. § 333). In his eagerness to attract emigrants to Providence Island Saye spread disparaging reports about New England, which brought upon him the reproofs of Winthrop. In his defence Saye not only complained that the climate of New England was cold and the soil barren, but attacked the whole organisation of the colony, both as to church and state. ‘No wise man would be so foolish as to live where every man is a master and masters must not correct their servants, where wise men propose and fools deliberate.’ Their liberty was not ‘the desirable liberty such as wise men would wish to enjoy and live under’ (Massachusetts Historical Collection, i. 297). With these views it is not surprising that Saye abandoned his enterprises in New England and surrendered his rights there. In 1641 the New Hampshire settlements were made over to Massachusetts, and three years later Seabrook (as Sayebrook is usually termed in American documents) was sold to Connecticut (Doyle, Puritan Colonies, i. 285, 381). On account of this connection with colonisation Saye was one of the commissioners for the government of the plantations appointed on 2 Nov. 1643 (Husband, Ordinances, 1646, p. 378).

In the gradually increasing opposition to the government of Charles I Saye took a leading part. ‘He was,’ says Clarendon, ‘the oracle of those who were called puritans in the worst sense, and steered all their counsels and designs’ (Rebellion, iii. 26). At his house at Broughton, adds Wood, the malcontents used to meet, ‘and what embryos were conceived in the country were shaped in Grays-Inn-Lane near London, where the undertakers for the Isle of Providence did meet’ (Wood, Athenæ, ed. Bliss, iii. 547). Saye headed the resistance to ship-money in Oxfordshire and in Gloucestershire (Cal. State Papers, Dom. 1636–7, pp. 122, 194, 210). In Lincolnshire his goods were distrained, he sued the constable for an illegal distress, and when the constable pleaded the king’s writ, demurred that the writ was not a sufficient warrant (ib. 1637, pp. 155, 252). The government retaliated by proceeding against him in the Star-chamber for depopulation and conversion of houses and lands (ib. p. 248). How these suits ended does not appear. According to Clarendon, Saye refused to acquiesce in the judgment against Hampden, and was so solicitous to have his own case argued that he was very grievous to the judges (Rebellion, iii. 26). The Scotch war afforded another opportunity for resistance. Saye reluctantly followed the king to the army, and refused, in company with Lord Brooke, to take the military oath demanded by the king from the English peers. Both were committed to custody, but as no pretext could be found for punishing them, they were simply sent home (Lismore Papers, ii. iv. 19; Clarendon State Papers, ii. 45; Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. p. 23). In the Short parliament Saye was one of the minority of twenty-five peers who sided with the commons in demanding redress of grievances before supply (Gardiner, History of England, ix. 109). After the dissolution his study was searched in the hope of finding treasonable documents (ib. p. 129). But Saye was much too wary to expose himself to the penalties of high treason, and refused to sign the proposed invitation to the Scots to invade England, though his signature was among those appended by Lord Savile to the forged letter to Johnstone of Warriston (ib. p. 179). The court, however, firmly believed that he had invited the Scots, and Strafford was about to accuse him of treason when he was himself impeached (ib. p. 231; Clarendon, Rebellion, iii. 10). At the opening of the Long parliament Saye held a great position in the House of Lords. He had at once, says Clarendon, ‘very great authority with the discontented party throughout the kingdom, and a good reputation with many who were not, who believed him to be a wise man, and of a very useful temper in an age of license, and one who would still adhere to the law’ (Rebellion, iii. 26). The king strove to win him over by office, and appointed him a privy councillor (19 Feb. 1641), master of the court of wards (17 May 1641), and one of the commissioners of the treasury 21 May 1641 (Doyle, Official Baronage, iii. 271). According to Clarendon, Saye, in the hope of obtaining the treasurership, promised the king to save Strafford’s life, but Lord Savile appears to have been the person really engaged in this intrigue (Rebellion, iii. 193; Gardiner, History of England, ix. 345). Saye’s zeal did not diminish in consequence of his preferment. On 24 May 1641 he made a long speech in answer to the Bishop of Lincoln on the bill for restraining bishops and persons in holy orders from intermeddling with secular affairs (Old Parliamentary History, ix. 314). Another speech, in answer to the charge of being a separatist, is printed in ‘Diurnal Occurrences,’ 1641, p. 423. During the king’s absence in Scotland Saye was one of the commissioners of regency, 9 Aug. to 25 Nov. 1641 (Doyle, iii. 271). He also signed the protests of 9 Sept., 24 Dec. 1641, and 24 Jan. 1642, and acted throughout in concert with the popular leaders in the commons (Rogers, Protests of the Lords, i. 6, 7, 10). Parliament nominated him lord-lieutenant of Oxfordshire, Cheshire, and Gloucestershire, and he was one of the committee of safety appointed 4 July 1642 (Doyle; Gardiner, x. 209). His speech to the Londoners after the battle of Edgehill, and his protest against the lenient treatment of delinquent peers, show that the first failures of the war only strengthened his resolution (Old Parliamentary History, xi. 484; Rogers, p. 13). For these reasons he was excepted from pardon by the king’s proclamation of 3 Nov. 1642, and Charles refused to receive him as one of the commissioners of the parliament in the treaty of March 1643 (Old Parliamentary History, xii. 178, 186). Saye raised a regiment for the parliament, occupied Oxford, and garrisoned his house at Broughton, which surrendered to the king immediately after Edgehill (Beesley, History of Banbury, p. 326; Whitelocke, Memorials, f. 63). He sat in the assembly of divines, and was reckoned a supporter of the independents in it (Baillie, Letters, ii. 146, 240, 344). He was held the only adherent of that party in the House of Lords (Clarendon, viii. 260). Saye thus formed a link between the popular leaders in the lower house and the lords. On 1 Feb. 1644 he introduced the first ordinance for the establishment of the committee of both kingdoms, and was naturally one of the leading members of that body when it was actually appointed (Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War, i. 358). Still more important was Saye’s influence in the passing of the self-denying ordinance. He held the proxy of the Earl of Mulgrave, and by its means turned the scale in favour of the measure on two important divisions. Twice also during the debates he used his right to protest against the amendments by which the presbyterians sought to hamper the ordinance (Old Parliamentary History, xiii. 424, 433–5, 443). When the parliament finally triumphed the court of wards was abolished, and Saye was granted 10,000l. in lieu of the mastership. According to Holles he obtained in satisfaction for 4,000l. of that sum Cottington’s estate of Hanworth, worth really 14,000l. (‘Memoirs of Denzil Holles,’ Maseres, Tracts, i. 269). In the struggle between army and parliament Saye took part with the army, and signed the engagement of 4 Aug. 1647 (RUSHWORTH, vii. 755). From that period he began to change his policy, and became prominent among those who strove to patch up a peace with the king in the summer of 1648. Saye ‘had not the least thought of dissolving the monarchy, and less of levelling the ranks and distinctions of men … he was as proud of his quality, and of being distinguished from other men by his title, as any man alive,’ and he ‘well foresaw what would become of his peerage if the treaty proved ineffectual, and the army should make their own model of the government’ (Clarendon, Rebellion, vi. 409, xi. 155). An appeal to him to use his influence for peace was published in 1648, entitled ‘A Letter from a Nobleman of this Kingdom, now in arms for his King and Country, to the Lord Saye, seriously inviting him to his Allegiance.’ As one of the commissioners at the treaty of Newport, Saye, ‘with more passion than was natural to his constitution,’ urged the king to agree with the parliament (ib. xi. 160). On his return to London he seems to have done his best to obtain the acceptance of the king’s concessions (Walker, History of Independency, ed. 1661, pt. ii. p. 11).

After the king’s death Saye took no part in public affairs. Tradition represents him as living in retirement in the island of Lundy, which had been held for the king during the war, but was recovered by its owner in 1647 (A brief Declaration of the Treaty concerning Lundy, 4to, 1647). He was there in 1651, as a curious letter to him from a royalist privateer who had captured one of his ships proves (Mercurius Politicus, 26 June to 3 July 1651, p. 888). About two years later Dorothy Osborne writes to Temple that she is told that Lord Saye ‘has writ a romance since his retirement in the Isle of Lundy’ (Letters of Dorothy Osborne, p. 162, 1st ed.) The references in his pamphlets prove that he lived at Broughton during the latter part of the protectorate. He published two tracts against the quakers entitled:

  1. ‘Folly and Madness made Manifest: or some things written to show how contrary to the Word of God, &c., the Doctrines and Practices of the Quakers are,’ Oxford, 1659.
  2. ‘The Quaker’s Reply Manifested to be Railing;’ this is appended to the former.

A royalist agent describes Saye in 1658 as favourable to the king, but demanding the confirmation of the articles agreed on at the treaty of Newport (Clarendon State Papers, iii. 392). Saye took his seat in the House of Lords at the opening of the Convention parliament on 25 April 1660, was appointed a member of the privy council in June 1660, and, according to Collins, lord privy seal (Peerage, vii. 22). He was also one of the council of the colonies, appointed 1 Dec. 1660, and on 10 July 1661 wrote to the governor of Massachusetts expressing his affection for the colony, and saying that he had used his influence both with king and council to advance their interest. ‘I was loth to omit writing because it may be my last, my glass being almost run out, and I returning home’ (Hutchinson, History of Massachusetts, 3rd edit., i. 202). Saye died on 14 April 1662, and was buried at Broughton. He married, about 1602, Elizabeth, daughter of John Temple of Stow, Buckinghamshire, who died in 1648 (Doyle, iii. 272; Beesley, History of Banbury, p. 475).

Clarendon gives two long characters of Saye (Rebellion, iii. 26, vi. 409); one by Arthur Wilson is contained in his ‘History of James I,’ 1653, p. 161, and a panegyric in verse is printed in W. Mercer’s ‘Angliæ Speculum,’ 1646. His usual nickname was ‘Old Subtlety,’ which well expresses his astuteness as a parliamentary tactician and his ability in council.

A portrait of Saye is preserved at Broughton, and numerous engravings are contained in the Sutherland ‘Clarendon’ in the Bodleian (Catalogue of the Sutherland Collection, 1837, ii. 90). Wood attributes either to Saye or to Nathaniel Fiennes a pamphlet published in 1654, entitled ‘The Scots’ Design discovered,’ or ‘Vindiciæ Veritatis.’ It contains a statement of the case of the parliament against the Scots, written about 1647, and a vindication of the conduct of Nathaniel Fiennes during the war.

[Doyle’s Official Baronage, iii. 271; Collins’s Peerage, ed. Brydges, vii. 22; Wood’s Athenæ Oxon., ed. Bliss, iii. 546; Walpole’s Royal and Noble Authors, ed. Park, iii. 69; Lloyd’s State Worthies, 1670, p. 972; Clarendon’s Hist. of the Rebellion, ed. Macray.]


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