ELLIS, John (1646-1738), of St. James’s, Westminster

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



1702 - 1708

Family and Education

b. 1646, 1st s. of John Ellis, fellow of St. Catharine’s, Camb., by Susanna, da. of William Welbore of Cambridge.  educ. Westminster, 1660, aged 14, Christ Church, Oxf. matric. 22 July 1664, aged 18. ?unm.1

Offices Held

Sec. paper office 1672–4, at Nijmegen Dec. 1675–Sept. 1677; priv. sec. to Thomas Butler† (styled Earl of Ossory) 1678–Aug. 1680, to 1st Duke of Ormond, Aug. 1680–Oct. 1682; sec. to revenue commrs. [I] Oct. 1682–Jan. 1689; priv. sec. to 2nd Duke of Ormond, 1689–91; commr. transports Feb. 1690–5 May 1695; under-sec. of state May 1695–1705; comptroller of Royal Mint May 1701–June 1711.2

Gov. sons of clergy 1678; commr. building 50 new churches 1715–d.3

Freeman, Harwich 1702.4


Ellis came from a notorious family. His father, a propagandist, university proctor and former chaplain to Archbishop Abbot, had sided with Parliament in 1643 and openly supported its religious policy, but in 1659 made a dramatic, printed retraction of his views and was allowed to keep his living in Buckinghamshire at the Restoration. Two of Ellis’ brothers were prominent supporters of James II: Sir William served as secretary first to the Earl of Tyrconnel in Ireland and then to the exiled King at St. Germain, while Philip was James’s Catholic chaplain and was appointed vicar-apostolic in 1688. Although Ellis harboured the latter for a short time after the Revolution, John jnr. was a Protestant like his third brother, Welbore, a cleric who rose to become Church of Ireland bishop of Kildare and subsequently of Meath. Heavily influenced by his education at Oxford, John maintained strong links with High Churchmen such as the Earl of Rochester (Laurence Hyde†), Sir Leoline Jenkins†, Bishop Fell and Archbishop Dolben. His own early career showed none of the certainty and conviction shown by other members of his family, and was characterized by self-doubt. As an ‘ingenious man and a good scholar’, he attracted the patronage of Fell, then dean of Christ Church, who recommended him in 1671 to Sir Joseph Williamson* as a man of ‘very good parts’, but Fell doubted ‘whether his radicated melancholy may render him unfit for business, or whether business may not happily cure his melancholy . . . he may be more fit for contemplation than action’. Williamson encouraged the young man to go abroad and learn French prior to appointment in the government’s paper office, and Ellis duly left the university without taking his degree; but, as a long confessional letter makes clear, he suffered a form of nervous breakdown when in France. Williamson had recalled him to England after six months, but Ellis, fearing that his French was not good enough and ‘being of the disposition that [he] had rather not do things at all than not thoroughly’, preferred to risk losing his place than be ‘cast out for insufficiency’. He had therefore hidden himself away in Paris for six months, taking refuge in the pursuit of botanical studies. It was only when his money ran out that he was forced to face reality, and apologize for his behaviour by asking Williamson’s pardon:

Are there not some, and yet no fools, that reason themselves into inextricable doubts and so entangle their own thoughts that they have need of some help to be freed from themselves . . . Am I the only person that suspected himself and called into question his own abilities?

Regretting his ‘pertinacious modesty’ he also refuted Williamson’s suspicions that his absconding had been caused by conversion to Rome: ‘Let me be counted blind, inconsiderate, mad rather than be branded with the anathema of apostasy. Let men say I have undone myself, I have spoiled my own fortunes, but not that I sold my belief and mortgaged my conscience.’5 This unusual display of naivety, sensitivity and honesty seems to have appealed to Williamson, who possessed the opposite characteristics of cynicism and conceit. By July 1672 Ellis was serving under him, and a year later had become such a favourite that he was made responsible for the plenipotentiary’s ever-shifting personal belongings as they criss-crossed the Channel. Nevertheless, in January 1674 Williamson suspected his aide of making disparaging comments about him, perhaps in connexion with the peace treaty with the Dutch, though Ellis pointed out that he could not ‘encounter your lordship’s reputation without at the same time destroying my own’, and was restored to favour, possibly having cleared Williamson when he was summoned before the Lords on the 28th. Even so he lost his job later that year on his patron’s promotion to secretary of state, and may have taken up legal studies, apparently contemplating taking a place at Doctors’ Commons. Indeed, there was talk later of his applying for the chair of law at Oxford, even though he does not appear to have been admitted to an inn of court. Perhaps preparatory to this alternative career, the Duke of Ormond, chancellor of Oxford University, appealed on behalf of Ellis for an MA, stating that the latter’s ‘engagement to the public service’ had prevented his taking a degree at the appropriate time; but it was another Oxford connexion that redirected his life along its earlier lines of state service. In December 1675 Sir Leoline Jenkins†, principal of Jesus College, Oxford, appointed Ellis as his secretary for the peace negotiations at Nijmegen. On his return Ellis became secretary to Ormond’s son, the Earl of Ossory, who commanded troops in the Dutch service, and must have joined the latter in the Flanders campaign of 1677–8, since he later boasted of having won the favour of William of Orange at the battle of Mons. On Ossory’s death in 1680 Ellis was employed as secretary to Ormond himself. There were rumours that he might secure another diplomatic posting or the clerkship of the Privy Council, but in 1682 he became secretary to the Irish revenue commissioners, through the patronage of Ormond, Jenkins and Lord Arlington (Henry Bennet†). Ellis was not happy in Ireland – his friend Humphrey Prideaux feared that he found the country ‘a kind of banishment’ – but the post had a salary of £300, as well as £200 p.a. revenue from wool licensing, and one observer thought the two posts ‘almost as considerable as a commissioner’s place’. Despite his brother Philip’s ascendancy at the Catholic court in England, which Prideaux thought might be used to get his friend appointed as a commissioner of the navy, Ellis merely requested that his name be mentioned to James II ‘only to try the King’s opinion’, otherwise distancing himself from the principles of his brothers and thereby earning the reputation that he ‘never was inclinable to their interests or to change his religion for interest’.6

At the Revolution Ellis returned to England ‘with design’, he later claimed, ‘to serve the King’, but once more found it hard to find employment, though Prideaux thought this unsurprising since his friend was ‘so bad a solicitor’. Ellis fell back on the support of the Ormond family, acting as secretary to the young 2nd Duke, until his appointment in 1691 as a commissioner for transports, in the capacity of secretary and accountant. He appeared before the Commons on 16 Nov. 1692 as the spokesman of the commissioners, but may have considered resignation in 1693 since Prideaux wrote advising him to temporize ‘with them you cannot like’. He was again rescued by his university connexions, for in May 1695 he was appointed under-secretary to another Oxford alumnus, Sir William Trumbull*, a post that he was to fill until 1705. As his voluminous correspondence shows, the office was a demanding one, especially when it meant attending the monarch outside London or when the secretary of state was absent, as was quite often the case with Trumbull. A change of secretary at the top could also create uncertainty and insecurity below, though Ellis survived Trumbull’s fall because the new secretary, James Vernon I*, was his ‘old acquaintance and friend’, and thereafter his experience was probably too valuable to lose. Perhaps the best tribute to his dedication to the job is the comment of another friend, Matthew Prior*, who said that he aspired to be Lord Jersey’s ‘Ellis’ when the latter became secretary of state, an indication that Ellis had made his name a by-word for loyalty and hard work. Despite its drudgery, the post was not without its advantages. One of its main duties was to prepare and send out letters of news (a large number of which are printed with the state papers), and to supervise the publication of the London Gazette, responsibilities which gave Ellis excellent contacts, including some at the Post Office, which were later to be useful to him in a more personal capacity when he stood for Parliament. The salary of under-secretary was not high: Ellis claimed that ‘he hath never made £500 a year since he hath been in it’, and deserved ‘greater encouragement than what arises from that employment’. In February 1699 he was rewarded with the grant of his brother William’s forfeited estate in Ireland, in repayment of a £1,200 loan, and on 11 Apr. 1702 the former secretary of state Sir Charles Hedges* was ordered to introduce a bill confirming the transaction, though it was another High Churchman, Sir Roger Mostyn, 3rd Bt.*, who actually brought in the legislation. Ellis also received a further £500 as comptroller of the mint, to which office he was appointed on 15 May 1701. Additionally, the King recommended him for a post at the Plymouth customs.7

The new political and religious climate created by Queen Anne’s accession encompassed Ellis’ entry into Parliament, about which he had been long labouring. His struggle shows that despite, or perhaps because of, his governmental post his lack of an electoral interest worked against him. In July 1698 he had put himself forward as a candidate for Oxford University by appearing there in person, and procuring about ‘near a 100’ letters of recommendation to be sent to the electors, including one from the bishop of Winchester, and another from the chancellor, Ormond, to the heads of houses which testified to Ellis’ ‘long and affectionate services to me and my family’. Ellis seems nevertheless to have withdrawn from the contest, and in January of the following year he asked Williamson ‘to do me the honour to put me up at Thetford’, though his former employer was probably already engaged to another candidate since the matter was not pursued. In December 1700, having ‘met with encouragement’ to stand at Steyning, he wrote unsuccessfully to the Duke of Somerset for his interest. Ellis does not seem to have followed up the suggestion that Bramber might be ‘a likelier place for a gentleman who is a stranger to succeed at’, preferring instead to make inquiries at Harwich, since there was a possibility of joining with Samuel Atkinson*, whom Ellis knew as a fellow commissioner for transports. He wrote to Atkinson and the agent of the packet boats at the port for further assistance, but was informed that since Dennis Lyddell* had accepted the nomination there it would be ‘to no purpose’ to stand. After the dissolution in 1701 he may have been involved in promoting the election of Sir Charles Hedges at Dover, as well as unsuccessfully pursuing his own candidature at Harwich. Despite a letter of support from a member of his old college in case he contested Oxford University in 1702, he preferred to wear down opposition at Harwich, this time successfully, partly with the support of Atkinson and Lyddell.8

Ellis made very little impression at Westminster, his diffidence possibly overriding his Court loyalties. He was forecast as a probable opponent of the Tack and did not vote for it in the division on 28 Nov. 1704. It was probably on local issues that he was most active. Having received a warning that his constituents expected some return for their choice of him, he worked on behalf of the packet boats at Harwich, and in March 1705 informed the mayor that he had espoused the town’s interest ‘in all places and upon all occasions’ and hoped to have given ‘no reason of being dissatisfied’. He certainly needed local support since at about the time of the election in May there had been moves at a national level to discredit him, ironically coming from Hedges. Ellis was dismissed from office that month, according to the Dutch ambassador ‘pour avoir eu la facilité de permettre qu’un marchand Irlandois fit venir des lettres sous son couvert d’un autre marchand de Bourdeaux avec qu’il était en commerce’. Sir Henry Sheres, however, had heard that Ellis had been turned out ‘on some information of a woman about a French pass and suggestions of his correspondence with France’, though admitting that ‘the whole matter is a mystery’. Fortunately Ellis left notes, possibly intended for a vindicatory speech to the Commons, that reinforce the rumour heard by Sheres. Ellis had been summoned by Hedges to explain about a French pass he had authorized and the matter might have gone no further had not Ellis not been ‘so confident in [his] own innocency and upright intentions’ that he refused to admit any mistake. His concern for his reputation, which he ‘had always been very careful of’, temporarily outweighed his usual meekness, with disastrous consequences. Hedges was ‘uneasy and dissatisfied with Mr Ellis’ account of the passes’, and the matter was laid before the Privy Council, at which the more serious charge was raised that Ellis had corresponded with France. By his own account he

was in much confusion at so unexpected an accident, which was like a blow upon the head that might have astonished a man of greater firmity of mind than I pretend to be. Not long after the elections to the Parliament coming on, I went to Harwich, and was chosen one of the burgesses there.

On his return, Ellis

found it depended on Mr S[ecretary] H[edges] to keep me or drop me, and he did the latter. I was in hopes it was only suspension not a discharge from the office, and so Mr Vernon . . . believed too, because I had served him in that station very diligently and faithfully, as I have always done since I was in it, neither have I discovered directly or indirectly any of the publ[ic] business I was entrusted with to any body whatsoever, or ever had any correspondence with any person in France, though that I find is the mistaken suggestion insisted upon as that which is most to my disadvantage.

Ellis undoubtedly had contacts among the Jacobite community both at St. Germain and in England, for although in 1697 he claimed that he knew ‘none of them’ he had already admitted the year before that he had ‘sounded the hearts of all sorts of ranks and qualities of the discontented party’; but his conduct during the 1680s suggests his extreme caution in becoming involved in uncertain causes, and loyalty to the Court, both under William and Anne, seems to have been one of his guiding principles. More conclusive is a report of 1718 that shows his zealous activity as a Middlesex j.p. against Jacobite conventicles in London, which included making personal appearances at meetings to note down for later prosecution the names and addresses of participants. In July 1705 Prideaux therefore urged his friend not ‘to give up the reputation of your integrity’, but Ellis preferred private entreaty to public justification, and drafted a begging letter to Hedges, for whom he claimed to have ‘a particular honour’, in which he reproached himself for having erred in his work and unsuccessfully asked for forgiveness.9

Ellis was marked as a High Church courtier and a placeman on an analysis of the new Parliament. Despite his removal from office, he supported the Court over the Speakership on 25 Oct. 1705 as well as the proceedings on the ‘place clause’ of the regency bill on 18 Feb. 1706. He had always been able to subordinate his own political views to those of the government, serving under secretaries of state of different allegiances, and there was consequently some doubt about his own political affiliation. In 1708 he was marked on separate lists as, respectively, a Whig and a Tory. This ambiguity, coupled with the loss of office, damaged Ellis’ electoral prospects. As early as March 1707 he was warned that he was ‘in great danger at Harwich’, and was advised to approach the Whig Earl Rivers for support. The following month he formally offered himself to the corporation, but was told in August by one local informant that ‘whatever ground your great merit and your services to them seem to give you at the next election, I am afraid your share of electors will come into no competition with any of the other’ candidates. He decided against standing at the ensuing general election, and it appears that he did not contest a by-election in May 1709, even though it was reported at about this time that he was actively seeking to return to the House. In 1710 he stood unsuccessfully for Rye, and his petition against the result was rejected by the House. Almost immediately afterwards he was removed as a j.p., and four months later was replaced as comptroller of the Mint, perhaps because of his association with Lord Godolphin (Sidney†), who had originally secured him the office.10

After the accession of George I Ellis petitioned for the return of his post at the Mint, identifying himself with ‘others loyal to the Protestant succession’ who had been removed by Harley, but he never again held office higher than that of j.p. He turned instead to providing for what proved to be a prolonged old age, dying ‘immensely rich’ on 8 July 1738 at the reported age of 95. The date of birth given on his admission to both school and university suggests, however, that he had attained the only slightly less venerable age of 92. For the last 20 years or so of his life he had been cared for by his ‘faithful friend’ Samuel Seddon. An Irish estate in Seddon’s trust was bequeathed to his nephew Welbore Ellis; the will also mentions property in Whitehart Yard, Westminster, and at Cambridge. Ellis gave almost £3,000 in personal bequests, as well as £50 to the building of Peckwater quad at his old college, and £50 to the poor of Westminster. He requested burial in a vault or churchyard rather than inside any church ‘which is the house of God and ought not in my opinion to be made a charnel house’. Positive identification is made difficult, in a number of instances, because of possible namesakes. Although he was almost certainly the Ellis who owned £2,000 of Bank stock in 1710, as well as shares in the United East India Company, he was probably not the Ellis ‘of Gray’s Inn’ who was appointed solicitor of the excise in 1710. Assertions made elsewhere that he was the ‘epitome of lewdness’ or a lover of the Duchess of Cleveland should almost certainly be discounted.11

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Mark Knights


  • 1. Rec. Old Westminsters, i. 308; W. S. Ellis, Notices of the Ellises, pt.4, p. 157; Add. 28918, f. 192.
  • 2. DNB; CSP Dom. 1682, p. 500; Cal. Treas. Bks. ix. 197; xvi. 66; xxiv. 281; xxv. 293; Add. 28940, ff. 2–12.
  • 3. BL, Dept. of Printed Bks. 1865 c 13(6); E. S. Bill, Q. Anne Churches, p. xxiv.
  • 4. S. Taylor, Hist. and Antiquities of Harwich, 233.
  • 5. DNB (Ellis, John, Philip, Welbore and William); Add. 28927, f. 27; 46527, f. 89; 28930, f. 320; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vi. 135; Ellis Corresp. i. 99; CSP Dom. 1671, p. 31; Ellis Corresp. i, p. xx; SP 29/295/79.
  • 6. CSP Dom. 1673, p. 465; 1673–5, p. 150; 1680–1, pp. 75, 395, 421; 1682, p. 500; SP 29/360/47; Add. 28875, f. 10; 28927, f. 21; 28930, f. 179; 46527, f. 89; PCC 173 Brodrepp; Cam. Soc. n.s. xv, 25, 125, 134–5, 146; Egerton 929, f. 148; HMC Ormonde, n.s. vi. 43, 424; HMC Downshire, i. 41; Ellis Corresp. i. 82, 116, 125, 239, 243.
  • 7. Cal. Treas. Bks. xiv. 272; xvi. 268; xxiv. 282; xix. 198; Luttrell Diary, 232; Prideaux Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. xv.) 149, 157; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 516; 1699–1700, p. 2; BL, Trumbull Add. mss 58, passim; Add. 28895, ff. 19, 24, 26, 28; 28886, f. 72; HMC Bath, iii. 326, 335; DNB.
  • 8. Trumbull Add. mss 60, Rev. Ralph Trumbull to Sir William Trumbull, July 1698; Add. 28883, f. 52; 28927, f. 127; 28886, ff. 168, 172, 180, 185, 195, 196; 28887, f. 374; 28889, ff. 13, 20, 30, 38, 40; Egerton 2618, f. 182; CSP Dom. 1699–1700, p. 27.
  • 9. Add. 28893, ff. 75, 103, 166; 28890, f. 358; 17677 AAA, f. 295; 28948, ff. 88–91; 70285, f. 27; 28919, f. 1; 61609, f. 191; 28893, ff. 144–6; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 555; HMC Downshire, i. 839; CSP Dom. 1697, p. 280; Prideaux Letters, 197.
  • 10. Add. 28891, ff. 241, 278; 28948, f. 162; Trumbull Add. mss 132, John Tucker to Trumbull, 11 Jan. 1709; Luttrell, vi. 688; Post Boy, 10–22 Feb. 1711; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxv. 293; HMC Downshire, i. 714.
  • 11. Egerton 929, f. 148; Gent. Mag. 1738, p. 380; PCC 173 Brodrepp; Folger Shakespeare Lib. Newdigate newsletter 29 June 1706; DNB; Ellis Corresp. i, p. xvi; Bodl. Rawl. D.747, ff. 368–74; Add. 28886, f. 100; 28948, ff. 204–6, 207–9; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxiv. 298; Boyer, Anne Annals, ix. 417.