John Eliot (statesman)

Sir John Eliot (11 April 1592 – 27 November 1632) was an English statesman who was serially imprisoned in the Tower of London, where he eventually died, by King Charles I for advocating the rights and privileges of Parliament.

Sir John Eliot
Born(1592-04-11)11 April 1592
Cuddenbeak, Port Eliot, Cornwall, England
Died27 November 1632(1632-11-27) (aged 40)
Cause of deathtuberculosis
Radigund Gedie (various spellings) (m. 16111628)
  • Richard Eliot
  • Bridget Carswell

Family and early life

The son of Richard Eliot (1546 – 22 June 1609) and Bridget Carswell (c. 1542 – March 1617), he was born at Cuddenbeak, a farm on his father's Port Eliot estate in St Germans, Cornwall. He was baptised on 20 April at St German's Priory, immediately next to Port Eliot. The Eliot family were an old Devon family that had settled in Cornwall.

John Eliot was educated at Blundell's School, Tiverton, and matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford, on 4 December 1607, and, leaving the university after three years, he studied law at one of the Inns of Court. He also spent some months travelling in France, Spain and Italy, in company, for part of the time, with young George Villiers, afterwards 1st Duke of Buckingham.[1]

Parliamentary career

Eliot was only twenty-two when he began his parliamentary career as Member of Parliament for St Germans[2] in the "Addled Parliament" of 1614. In May 1618, he was knighted, and next year through the patronage of Buckingham he obtained the appointment of Vice-Admiral of Devon, with large powers for the defence and control of the commerce of the county. It was not long before the characteristic energy with which he performed the duties in his office involved him in difficulties. After many attempts, in 1623, he succeeded by a clever but dangerous manoeuvre in entrapping the famous pirate John Nutt, who had for years plagued the southern coast, inflicting immense damage upon English commerce. However, the pirate, having a powerful protector at court in Sir George Calvert, the secretary of state, was pardoned; while the Vice-Admiral, upon charges which could not be substantiated, was flung into the Marshalsea prison, and detained there nearly four months.[1]

A few weeks after his release, Eliot was elected Member of Parliament for Newport[2] (February 1624). On 27 February, he delivered his first speech, in which he at once revealed his great powers as an orator, demanding boldly that the liberties and privileges of Parliament, repudiated by James I in the former Parliament, should be secured. In the first Parliament of Charles I, in 1625, he urged the enforcement of the laws against the Roman Catholics. Meanwhile, he had continued the friend and supporter of Buckingham and greatly approved of the war with Spain.[1]

Buckingham's incompetence, however, and the bad faith with which both he and the King continued to treat the parliament, alienated Eliot. Distrust of his former friend quickly grew in Eliot's mind to a certainty of his criminal ambition. Returned to the parliament of 1626 as Member for St Germans and in the absence of other leaders of the opposition whom the King had secured by nominating them sheriffs, Eliot found himself the leader of the House. He immediately demanded an inquiry into the recent disaster at Cádiz. On 27 March, he made an open and daring attack upon Buckingham and his administration. He was not intimidated by the King's threatening intervention on 29 March, and persuaded the House to defer the actual grant of the subsidies and to present a remonstrance to the King, declaring its right to examine the conduct of ministers. On 8 May, he was one of the managers who carried Buckingham's impeachment to the Lords and, on 10 May, he delivered the charges against him, comparing him in the course of his speech to Sejanus.[1]

Next day, Eliot was sent to the Tower. When the Commons declined to proceed with business as long as Eliot and Sir Dudley Digges (who had been imprisoned with him) were in confinement, they were released, and Parliament was dissolved on 15 June. Eliot was immediately dismissed from his office of Vice-Admiral of Devon, and, in 1627, he was again imprisoned for refusing to pay a forced loan, but liberated shortly before the assembling of the Parliament of 1628, to which he was returned as Member for Cornwall. He joined in the resistance now organised to arbitrary taxation, was foremost in the promotion of the Petition of Right, continued his outspoken censure of Buckingham, and after the latter's assassination in August, led the attack, in the session of 1629, on the ritualists and Arminians.[1]

In February the great question of the right of the King to levy tonnage and poundage came up for discussion. On the King ordering an adjournment of Parliament, the speaker, Sir John Finch, was held down in the chair by Denzil Holles and Benjamin Valentine while Eliot's resolutions against illegal taxation and innovations in religion were read to the House. In consequence, Eliot, with eight other members, was imprisoned on 4 March in the Tower. He refused to answer in his examination, relying on his parliamentary privilege and, on 29 October, was again sent to the Marshalsea. On 26 January, he appeared at the bar of the King's Bench, in front of Lord Chief Justice Sir Nicholas Hyde, with Holles and Valentine, to answer a charge of conspiracy to resist the King's order, and refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court (see R v. Eliot, Hollis and Valentine.) He was fined £2000 and ordered to be imprisoned during the King's pleasure and till he had made submission. This he steadfastly refused. While some of the prisoners appear to have had certain liberty allowed to them, Eliot's confinement in the Tower was made exceptionally severe. Charles's anger had always been directed chiefly against him, not only as his own political antagonist but also as the prosecutor and bitter enemy of Buckingham; "an outlawed man," he described him, "desperate in mind and fortune."[1]

Death and burial

In the spring of 1632, he fell into a decline. In October he petitioned Charles for permission to go into the country, but leave could be obtained only at the price of submission and was finally refused.[1] He died of consumption on 27 November 1632, and was buried at St Peter's Ad Vincula Church within the Tower.

When his son requested permission to move the body to St Germans, Charles refused, saying: "Let Sir John Eliot be buried in the church of that parish where he died." The suspicious manner of Eliot's death, as the result of the King's implacability and severe treatment, had more effect, probably, than any other single incident in embittering and precipitating the dispute between King and parliament. Eliot was a great orator, inspired by enthusiasm and high ideals, which he was able to communicate to his hearers by his eloquence.[1]

In 1668, the House of Lords reversed his conviction, restating the law in Strode's case, affirming that the conviction "...was an illegal judgment, and against the freedom and privilege of Parliament".


Eliot languished in prison for some time, during which he wrote several works:

  • Negotium posterorum, an account of the parliament in 1625;
  • The Monarchie of Man, a political treatise;
  • De jure majestatis, a Political Treatise of Government, which is in large part a summary of a work by Henning Arnisaeus;[3]
  • An Apology for Socrates, his own defence.[1]


In 1611, Eliot married Radigund (or Rhadagund), (c. 1595 – June 1628), daughter of Richard Gedie of Trebursye in Cornwall, by whom he had five sons[1] and four daughters:

  1. John Eliot (18 October 1612 – March 1685), who married Honora Norton
  2. Richard Eliot (c. 1614 – unknown)
  3. Elizabeth Eliot (c. December 1616 – unknown), who married Nathaniel Fiennes
  4. Edward Eliot (c. July 1618 – 1710), who married Anna Fortescue
  5. Bridget Eliot (c. April 1620 – unknown), who married Peter Fortescue
  6. Radigunda Eliot (c. October 1622 – unknown)
  7. Susanna Eliot (c. October 1624 – unknown), who married Edward Norton
  8. Thomas Eliot (c. September 1626 – unknown)
  9. Nicholas Eliot (c. June 1628 – unknown), who married a Miss Prideaux

The current Earls of St Germans (1815 creation) are descended from the youngest son, Nicholas.

Richard Eliot

Richard Eliot was the wayward second son of Sir John Eliot and Rhadigund Geddy. Richard went to the University of Oxford at his father's suggestion, but did not fare well with academic life. He became embroiled at Oxford in various difficulties, which are mentioned without further detail in his father's writings. Further problems ensued when Richard failed or refused to visit his father in the Tower. As a result, Richard seems to have disappeared compared to his siblings. It is known that he went to the Low Countries under Sir Edward Howard around February 1632. Richard died before 1669 when his brothers, John and Edward, argued over the inheritance of Richard's lands in Cornwall.

General Granville Elliott (1713 - 1759) spent much time and effort trying to prove that Richard Eliot had married Catherine Killigrew (1618 - 1689), and had a child George Elliott born around 1636. However, documents survive that show that Richard died 'ob cael', i.e. a bachelor, and that, in 1656, Catherine was known as a spinster aged 38. It is likely, however, that George Elliott was the illegitimate son of Richard and Catherine.


  1.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Eliot, Sir John". Encyclopædia Britannica. 9 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 277.
  2. Conrad Russell, 'Eliot, Sir John (1592–1632)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, October 2006 accessed 16 December 2007
  3. J. P. Sommerville, Politics and Ideology in England 1603–1640 (1986), p. 158.


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