THOMPSON, Sir John, 1st Bt. (1648-1710), of Haversham, Bucks., Upper Gatton and Richmond, Surr.

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



1685 - 1687
1689 - 4 May 1696

Family and Education

bap. 31 Aug. 1648, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Maurice Thompson, East India merchant, of Worcester House, Mile End Green, and Bishopsgate Street, London by Dorothy, da. of John Vaux of Pemb.  educ. Lee, Kent (Mr Watkin); L. Inn 1664; Sidney Sussex, Camb. 1664, BA 1667; travelled abroad 1670.  m. (1) 14 July 1668, Lady Frances (d. 1705), da. of Arthur Annesley†, 1st Earl of Anglesey, wid. of John Windham of Felbrigg, Norf., 3s. (1 d.v.p.) 8 da.; (2) 10 May 1709, Martha Graham (d. 1724), wid. s.pcr. Bt. 12 Dec. 1673; Baron Haversham 4 May 1696. suc. fa. c.1676.

Offices Held

Sheriff, Bucks. 1669–70.

Commr. public accts. 1695–6; ld. of Admiralty 1699–1701.1


‘Bred up in the republican principles’ by his father, a prominent merchant under the Commonwealth regimes, Thompson’s early career was largely shaped by his association with influential Nonconformist circles. His father’s purchase of the manor of Haversham in 1664 brought him into contact with the Whartons of Winchendon, who, in turn, introduced him to his future father-in-law, the 1st Earl of Anglesey. Thompson had Anglesey to thank for his elevation to a baronetcy, and but for a personal antipathy towards the Court, might also have secured an office in the royal household. His entry into Parliament was secured via his acquisition of an estate at Upper Gatton after the death of his young kinsmen, the sons of his brother-in-law William Oldfield†. However, only with the coming of the Revolution did he make a mark on the national political stage. It was later claimed that he was one of the first to join in inviting William of Orange to come to England, and he certainly cut a Whiggish figure in the Convention Parliament by assuring the House of the loyalty of Nonconformist divines and by supporting the disabling clause in the abortive corporation bill. However, there followed a career of fluctuating fortunes and allegiance, and although his skill as a polemicist was admired by some, the apparent fluidity of principles earned him much mistrust.2

Having been listed as a Whig by Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) at the outset of the 1690–5 Parliament, Thompson immediately established himself as a major figure on the opposition benches by seconding the motion to propose Henry Powle* for the Speakership. However, a ‘dispirited’ Whig challenge to the Court nominee, Sir John Trevor*, failed to gather any momentum. Seven days later Thompson called the House to order when debate on the question of supply had been sidetracked by arguments over the issue of settling a revenue for life on William. The next day he was much more explicit in his denunciation of the Court, professing a willingness to keep the crown adequately funded but also warning of the dangers of a standing army, an issue which he had championed under James II. His principal target on 1 Apr. was once again the misuse of public funds, when he criticized William’s handling of the Convention and the failure of the ministry to use parliamentary subsidies to halt the progress of the war in Ireland. Although he did move that a £1 million supply be raised for the crown to meet the current emergency, he only did so while warning that the sum represented ‘as much as you can raise’. His evident concern to root out governmental corruption led to his appointment on 14 Apr. 1690 to the drafting committee for the bill to inspect the public accounts.3

Later that month the abjuration oath debate gave Thompson further opportunities to denounce those ministers whom he held responsible for the nation’s current predicament. On 26 Apr. he endorsed the introduction of the oath as ‘the great strength’ of national security, and called for its imposition on the legal profession in the hope that the clergy would be inclined to follow their example. However, two days later he thought that a proposal to allow temporary imprisonment without bail was too great a threat to the rights of the subject, melodramatically imploring the House ‘to give me time, and my family, to go out of England’ should such a law be enacted. The next day he was less uncompromising when calling for unity in the face of the Irish crisis, although he did not neglect to bring the House’s attention to the crimes of Commissary-General Shales, the most obsessive of the Country Whig causes in the Convention Parliament. On 13 May, when the House came to discuss arrangements for a regency during the King’s absence in Ireland, Thompson once again alluded to the dangerous precedent set by William’s prorogation of the Convention, and, while warning on the following day that ‘they who sold you to France once, may do it twice’, called for ministerial dismissals. Despite this alarum, he and his fellow Whigs failed to mount any sustained attack on Carmarthen, although some recognition for his outspoken opposition over recent months came with his appointment on 15 May to the committee to prepare a bill to ensure royal security. Beyond his incessant commentary on the dangers facing the nation during that first session, Thompson was also involved with the bill to restore London’s charter, calling for an end to procedural delays on the matter on 24 Apr., and later acting as a teller for the minority opposed to the passage of the measure.4

In the course of the next session Thompson was called to the bar of the House in order to hear charges that he had drunk the health of James II. He hotly denied this accusation and was subsequently cleared of Jacobite sympathies, a personal victory of which the Journal bears no trace. In the light of his vigorous opposition to the administration in the previous session, the slur may have been a ministerial tactic designed to silence him. It certainly seems to have helped to remove him from the political centre-stage, if only temporarily. When Robert Harley* came to analyse the political complexion of the Commons in April 1691, Thompson remained identified with the Country Whigs, a political pedigree which he easily merited by his contributions to debate during the subsequent third session.5

From the outset Thompson revealed an urgent concern for the fleet, rising on 6 Nov. 1691 to oppose a motion that the House review the army and naval estimates simultaneously. The following day he featured as one of the most vehement of the ministry’s critics when the Commons interrogated Admiral Edward Russell* over naval mismanagements. Thompson urged his colleagues to attack the Admiralty rather than the Whig Admiral, ridiculing its members on 9 Nov. as placemen ‘who know so much of the sea that they are sick crossing the Thames’. The next day he broadened his attack into a censure of the proliferation of offices since the start of the reign, and likened Carmarthen’s ministry to that of the first Duke of Buckingham by pointing out that ‘one man has so many offices hanging at his girdle’. He then backed a motion on 14 Nov. for the construction of four more convoy ships from the proceeds of the current naval provision, although four days later he successfully defeated an attempt to increase expenditure on the fleet. Later that day, when debate had turned to the army estimates, he moved the House to address the King to discover the distribution of land forces in the campaign of 1692.6

During the turbulent debate over the size of the army Thompson had the chance to air some of his favourite discontents, most of which he had rehearsed in the first session. On 19 Nov. 1691 he expressed grave reservations over the expected cost of the war, and confessed that ‘really I am afraid of a standing army’, luridly suggesting that a proposed march of 16,000 troops through the heart of England might be ‘a colour’ for more sinister ends. Six days later he strenuously opposed any increase in agreed troop levels when the Court argued that previous figures had not meant to include officers. He spoke to the same purpose on 27 Nov., and, although declaring himself in sympathy with William’s objectives, he feared that ‘the poverty of the nation cannot come up to the greatness and firmness of our King’s spirit’. Six days later the issue of supply permitted him to launch into an attack on the misappropriation of secret service funds, taking the opportunity to declare that he never had accepted, and never would accept, money from the crown. His condemnation of the Treasury stung Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. II*, into a counter-attack which brought up the charges levelled against Thompson in the previous session, a retort which led the latter to observe wryly, ‘touch a sore place and it will wince’. However, Lowther’s barb undoubtedly influenced Thompson’s motion of 9 Dec. which urged the House to react speedily and effectively to the news of yet another Jacobite conspiracy. Two days later he opposed the addition of a clause to the trial of treasons bill, and was named to the conference committee on that measure. Thompson returned to his critique of the ministry on 12 Dec. by predicting that any self-denying legislation was destined to falter in the Commons ‘because there were never more dependencies on the court than now’.7

Having figured so prominently among the government’s critics, Thompson was noticeably reluctant to speak out against the Court for the remainder of that session. This inactivity was even more pronounced in the following session, although on 11 Nov. 1692 he heartily endorsed a motion to examine the terms of the Anglo-Dutch alliance, observing that ‘much money goes out of this nation that way’. He was back to his cantankerous best in the fifth session, lambasting ministerial incompetence and foreign interference on 13 Nov. 1693. Seeking to press home his attack, he warned on 3 Dec. of the insidious effect of ministerial corruption, and two days later condemned the contribution of the allies to the war effort, observing that English wealth had been used ‘to no more effect than to be beaten abroad and beggared at home’. The storm surrounding the King’s rejection of the bill for ‘free proceedings’ in Parliament gave him a golden opportunity to awaken fears of arbitrary government, and although acknowledging the importance of the prerogative on 22 Dec., he implored the House to be vigilant over ‘our liberties’. On 26 Jan. 1694 he warned his colleagues that ‘we shall be underlings to courtiers’ should the Commons back down on the issue, blaming the influence of cabinets for the fact that ‘now all things are huddled up’. He was accordingly nominated to the committee to address the King on the matter, but the King’s response did little to placate Thompson, for on 1 Feb. he called for greater pressure to be exerted on the crown to purge the ministry, reasoning that the House must use force ‘when the government hath need of you’. A month later he denounced the influence of Dutch advisers at court, and made another attack on the financial burden of the war.8

On the eve of the last session of the 1690–5 Parliament came the first obvious sign of Thompson’s ambition when a political observer suggested that the baronet ‘has a mind to be a lord’. This report evidently qualifies the supposed disinterestedness of Thompson’s stance in opposition, even though he had proved most consistent when choosing targets for attack over the course of this Parliament. Earlier in 1694 he had published a defence of the Earl of Anglesey, and while paying tribute to his mentor, dedicated it to William and Mary, using the occasion to advertise his loyalty to the Court. However, he began the new session in a familiar fashion, rising on the opening day to censure Lord Coningsby (Thomas*), and on 21 Nov. 1694 attributing the scandal surrounding the handling of the Lancashire Plot to ‘our being governed by Dutch counsels’, an attack which the King no doubt found most offensive. Recalling his own treatment at the bar of the House, he drew attention the next day to the scaremongering tactics employed by successive administrations, parodying ministerial paranoia with the jibe that ‘the court officers fly out that every word that is said is a reflection of the government’.9

Such harsh words did not preclude Thompson’s appointment on 28 Dec. to a committee to offer condolences to the King on the Queen’s death, but this action marked no significant reconciliation between the Court and himself. Further bolstering his renown as a self-styled crusader against corruption, Thompson topped the poll on 23 Apr. for the choice of MPs to conduct the examination of Sir Thomas Cooke*, and four days later the Cooke inquiry gave Thompson another chance to attack an old adversary when he was first-named to the committee to prepare impeachment articles against Carmarthen (now Duke of Leeds). The victim of a concurrent Commons’ investigation, Treasury secretary, Henry Guy*, listed Thompson as one of his probable supporters. However, his prominence within the House was most effectively highlighted by his success in the ballot for the appointment of commissioners for public accounts.

The general election of 1695 marked a watershed in Thompson’s career as he made the first of several dramatic changes in political orientation. If his yearning for a peerage had led him to advertise his political talents in the previous session as the scourge of the ministry, he thereafter sought to make amends for such activity by a steady adherence to the Court. On 13 Dec. he argued strongly against any army cuts by pointing to the recent success at Namur and by lionizing the role of England as the country to which Europe now looked to ensure ‘cet abaissement de la France’. Such opinions were so diametrically opposed to those he had held in the previous Parliament that there could be little mistaking the self-interest behind them. His support for the Court was also testified by a forecast of the division of 31 Jan. 1696 on the proposed Board of Trade, and by his vote in late March in favour of fixing the price of guineas. The Assassination Plot provided him with the greatest opportunity to prove his loyalty, for he not only signed the Association on 27 Feb. but also moved that all non-subscribers be expelled from the House. This motion was rejected, but he was more successful on 1 Apr. when calling for a committee of MPs to be sent to interview the conspirators Sir William Perkins and Sir John Friend†. Again, such a readiness to root out disaffection had only rarely been associated with Thompson in the past, but the publicity which he gained from the emergency helped to heal his differences with the Court. A month later he secured his much-desired peerage from a monarch grateful for the unexpected backing of a former opponent.10

From the time of Thompson’s elevation to the Lords until nearly the end of the reign, the newly created Lord Haversham proved to be as stubborn in his support of the Court as he had been as its adversary in the 1690–5 Parliament. This radical departure was highlighted by his defence of the standing army during the disbanding debate of January 1699, a complete volte-face but one which earned him further reward from the crown. In May 1699 he was appointed a commissioner of the Admiralty despite lacking the competence in naval affairs which he himself had once demanded of that office. He earned even greater notoriety at the time of the impeachment of the Whig lords, when he stuck to his political allies in the face of the attack of a Tory-dominated Commons. At a conference of delegates from both Houses on 13 June 1701, Haversham bitterly condemned the selectivity of the Commons in targeting only Whig involvement in the Partition Treaties, a reflection which caused the Lower House to demand that charges be brought against him. The Upper House stubbornly refused to censure him and, in common with the impeached Lords, he escaped punishment. However, moves to eject him from the Admiralty were already under way, and only the connivance of Secretary Vernon (James I*) prolonged his tenure of office. By the end of the year, having seen the Earl of Pembroke (Thomas Herbert†) promoted to the Board and having openly clashed with Sir George Rooke*, Haversham accepted his political fate and resigned.11

Disillusioned and bitter over such treatment, Haversham swiftly changed his allegiance to the Tories, a process hastened by the coolness with which he was received at court on the accession of Queen Anne. Although rumours subsequently circulated that ministers were still keen to appease Haversham, most notably in the summer of 1708, he was doomed to remain out of office and instead became the ministry’s chief tormentor in the Upper House. Ridiculed for the pomposity and length of his speeches, he achieved much celebrity by choosing to publish his own orations for the benefit of a wider audience.

The Tory revival came only months in advance of Haversham’s death on 1 Nov. 1710. Significantly, although he had been a strident supporter of Dr Sacheverell, his obituarist still doubted whether he would have won the confidence of the Harley administration. His untrustworthiness as a political chameleon evidently tarnished his reputation, and one pamphleteer chose to speculate that Haversham’s ghost would now confess that ‘the grave has put an end to my ambition, my malice will be no more sharpened by disappointments, nor my judgements misled by prepossessions’. More charitably, a Dissenter commended him for attempting to heal religious divisions, noting that he possessed ‘a quick and generous sense of the miseries of mankind’. He was seen as an associate of Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) and Lord Rochester (Laurence Hyde†), the latter of whom acted as a trustee for his estate, but his career had largely been restricted to the opposition benches. Controversy even dogged his private life, it being alleged that his turn to the Church had been caused by the scandal of an extra-marital affair with his housekeeper, and subsequent second wife, Martha Graham. Described by Macky as ‘a short, red-faced man’ whose speeches were ‘very eloquent, but very passionate and fiery’, Thompson was succeeded by his son Maurice*, a less spectacular, but a far more consistent, adherent of Whiggish principles.12

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Perry Gauci


  • 1. IGI, London, Kent; G. Hill and W. Frere, Mems. of Stepney Par. 189; CSP Dom. 1670, p. 217; Wood, Life and Times, iii. 255.
  • 2. Boyer, Pol. State, i. 21–22; Manning and Bray, Surr. ii. 235.
  • 3. Morrice ent’ring bk. 3, p. 125; Grey, x. 9, 18, 31, 34.
  • 4. Bodl. Rawl. A.79, ff. 72, 87–88; Grey, x. 77, 88, 97, 138, 143.
  • 5. Grey, x. 62, 192–3.
  • 6. Luttrell Diary, 4, 19, 25; Bodl. Carte 130, ff. 326–8; Grey, x. 170.
  • 7. Grey, x. 176–7, 184, 187, 191–3, 206, 215; Luttrell Diary, 58, 75.
  • 8. Luttrell Diary, 217; Carte 130, ff. 330–1, 347–8; Grey, x. 314, 340, 373, 376, 383.
  • 9. Lexington Pprs. 15; Earl of Anglesea’s State of Govt. and Kingdom [1694]; Add. 46527, f. 22; Carte 76, ff. 531–2; 130, f. 353.
  • 10. PRO, SP 9/18, ff. 6–7, 9/22, f. 173; Add. 17677 PP, f. 445; Bath mss at Longleat House, Thynne pprs. 12, f. 113; Carte 239, ff. 77–78.
  • 11. CSP Dom. 1699–1700, pp. 34, 192; W. L. Sachse, Ld. Somers, 183; HMC Cowper, ii. 438–9, 444.
  • 12. Haversham Memoirs, 50–56; Boyer, i. 21, 25; Speech of Ld. Haversham’s Ghost [1710]; Dunton, Life and Errors, 345; PCC 268 Smith; Macky Mems. 104.