POLLEXFEN, Henry (c.1632-91), of Woodbury, Devon and Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.

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



14 Jan. - 4 May 1689

Family and Education

b. c.1632, 1st s. of Andrew Pollexfen of Sherford by Joan, da. of John Woollcombe of Pitton, Yealmpton, bro. of John Pollexfen. educ. I. Temple 1652, called 1658. m. lic. 27 Sept. 1664, aged 32, Mary, da. of George Duncombe of Shalford, Surr., 1s. 4da. suc. uncle Henry bef. 1666, fa. 1670; kntd. 5 Mar. 1689.1

Offices Held

Bencher, I. Temple 1674, reader 1683; commr. for assessment, Exeter 1689, Mdx. 1689-90, G. Inn 1690; dep. lt. London 1689-90.2

Attorney-gen. 4 Mar.-4 May 1689; l.c.j.c.p. 4 May 1689-d.


Pollexfen came from a minor gentry family of Tudor date. His father, a younger son, played no known part in the Civil War. Although Pollexfen was heir-presumptive to the estate he had to make his own way in the world. He intended to enlist in Cromwell’s army, but was encouraged by a cousin to take to the law, supporting himself during his studies by devilling. After qualifying as a barrister, he succeeded the aging John Maynard I as the leading light of the Western circuit, and in London played a vigorous role in resisting the quo warranto and in several political cases. He was counsel for Lord Arundell of Wardour during the Popish Plot, and defended such prominent Whigs as the Hon. William Russell in 1683 and William Sacheverell in 1684. Burnet described him as ‘an honest and learned, but perplexed lawyer’, but according to Roger North:

Pollexfen was deep in all the desperate designs against the crown. He was the adviser and advocate of those who were afterwards found traitors, a thorough-stitch enemy to the crown and monarchy in his time. A fanatic and (in the country) frequenter of conventicles; and one more notorious of this character was not to be found.

His reputation as a prominent Whig suffered severely when he agreed to appear as prosecutor in the Bloody Assizes. One of Jeffreys’s trustees, he was apparently less affected by their horrors than Tories like William Ettrick and Hugh Hodges, but regained public favour as defence counsel for the Seven Bishops. He soon went over to William on the Dutch landing, and was among the prominent lawyers consulted by the Lords on the constitutional position. He told Lord Clarendon (Henry Hyde) on 15 Dec. 1688:

He wondered that the Prince of Orange had done no more; that the King, by withdrawing himself, had left the government, that he had made a cession, and forfeited the right; ... that the Prince of Orange had nothing to do but in the head of his army to declare himself King, and presently to issue out writs for the calling a Parliament according to Cromwell’s model; which, he said, was a far more equal way of election than the old constitution.3

Pollexfen, who owned property in and around Exeter and whose country residence was only seven miles away, was returned to the Convention for the city. He faithfully represented William’s interests as one of the most active Members during its early months. He served on 22 committees, including most of the politically important ones, and made 16 recorded speeches. He was above all concerned to avoid legal pitfalls that might damage the new regime. He argued vigorously on 28 Jan. 1689 for rejecting the fictions that James had voluntarily departed or that the government was demised:

I would not have you catched with this to entangle the debate. It is an unnecessary question to carry at first sight; and if the crown be vacant, trouble yourselves no further in the matter.

On the following day, he pleaded for an immediate and unconditional settlement of the crown on William:

To stand talking and making laws, and in the meantime have no government at all! ... The Prince’s declaration is the cause of your coming hither, that the kingdom may be established, and the laws and government secured from being subverted again. ... A law you cannot make till you have a king. ... If you sit till all these motions are considered, we may think to make our peace with King James as well as we can, and go home.

He was appointed to the committees to draw up a list of the essentials for securing religion, law and liberty and to prepare reasons on the state of the throne, helping to manage the conference of 5 Feb. It was clearly as William’s mouthpiece that he warned Parliament:

We are all subverted, and return to King James, and so to Popery, if we fill not the throne. To talk of regencies is to say then sure there is no vacancy ... [I] have as much inclination to the Princess of Orange as anybody, but you do not really mind the good of your country, and the Protestant religion. If she be now proclaimed Queen, can anything be more desirable than that her husband be joined with her in the Government? ... And does any think the Prince of Orange will come in to be a subject to his own wife in England?

Having helped to win William’s case in the Lower House, Pollexfen then turned his attention to the Lords, in an attempt to persuade them to drop their objections to the word and concept of ‘abdication’, and to accept the contention of the Commons that the throne was vacant. He was appointed one of the managers of the free conference between the Houses, delivering a long but closely reasoned speech in which he insisted that the Lords’ concept of ‘desertion’ failed to deprive James of the legal right to govern.

This is what we do insist upon; that if the right of kingship still (after all that is agreed on both hands) be due to him, we cannot agree to keep him from it. And if it be not his due right, but by these acts (his subversion of the constitution, his breaking the original contract, and violation of the fundamental laws), he hath abdicated it (as we say), and this abdication hath put him by his right, and so his right is gone from him (as we conceive it is); then I think we may lawfully go on to settle the peace and welfare of the nation.

He helped to prepare the bills for regulating elections and suspending habeas corpus, and to draw up the declaration of rights and settlement. He spoke in favour of granting William a supply for supporting his war, and, along with other dissenters, for broadening the coronation oath on religion to include the phrase ‘as it is, or shall be, established’. But he was not a success in the Commons. On 22 Mar. he complained that ‘all great matters were of late continually clogged in the House’, reflecting on (Sir) Christopher Musgrave and William Garway. Called on to explain himself, he preferred to sit down.4

For his role in the Revolution settlement Pollexfen was richly rewarded, becoming attorney-general in March and chief justice of the common pleas two months later. He lost reputation on the bench, like other brilliant counsel, though there is no reason to accept North’s verdict that he became ‘the veriest butcher of a judge that hath been known’. He died from a broken blood vessel on 15 June 1691 at his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, leaving a personal estate valued at £44,000, in addition to his extensive Devon real estate and the 1,380 guineas found tied up in bags and hidden under his chambers in the Temple. His son, an epileptic, played no part in politics, and the property eventually passed to the heirs of Sir Francis Drake, 3rd Bt.5

Ref Volumes: 1660-1690

Author: J. S. Crossette


  • 1. Lady Eliott-Drake, Fam. and Heirs of Drake, ii. 55-59; London Mar. Lic. ed. Foster, 1071; Trans. Devon Assoc, lxii. 209.
  • 2. HMC Lords, iii. 46.
  • 3. Plymouth Lib., J. Prince, Devon Worthies; North, Lives, i. 283-4; Burnet, ii. 219; CSP Dom. 1684-5, p. 231; CJ, x. 303; Clarendon Corresp. ii. 225; Luttrell, i. 490.
  • 4. IHR Bull. xlix. 251; Grey, ix. 20-21, 33-34, 63-64, 114, 127, 153, 157, 163-4, 196; Cobbett, Parl. Hist. v. 86-88; R. Morrice. Entering Bk. 2, p. 512.
  • 5. Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 145; PCC 120 Vere; North, i. 284; Luttrell, ii. 247.