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Henry Powle (1630-1692)
Born: 1630 at Shottesbrooke, Berkshire
Speaker of the House of Commons
Master of the Rolls
Died: 21st November 1692 at Quenington, Gloucestershire

Henry Powle was born and brought up at Shottesbrooke in Berkshire, being the second son of Henry Powle Senior of Shottesbrooke Park who was Sheriff of Berkshire in 1633, by his wife Katherine, daughter of Matthew Herbert of Monmouth. His brother, Sir Richard Powle, was MP for Berkshire in 1661, was knighted in 1661 and died in 1678.

Henry matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford on 16th December 1646. He was admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 11th May 1647 and became a barrister in 1654 and bencher in 1659. He first entered public life on 3rd January 1671, when he was returned for Cirencester to the Pensioners' Parliament. At the time, he held property at Williamstrip and Quenington in Gloucestershire and was usually described as of the latter place. Powle first appeared in debate in February 1673 when he attacked Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury's practice of issuing writs for by-elections during the recess without the Speaker's warrant. As a result of the debate, all the elections were declared void on 6th February 1673. Subsequently, he opposed the Declaration of Indulgence. He was not anxious to extirpate papists, "but would not have them equal to us". To Protestant dissenters, he was willing to grant a temporary indulgence, but not to repeal all laws against them since Queen Elizabeth's time.

Powle soon fully identified himself with the opponents of the court. He declined to support the King Charles II's claim to the dispensing power. He promoted the passing of the Test Act in March 1673. In the new session in October, Powle led the attack on the proposed marriage between the Duke of York and Princess Mary of Modena and the King, at once, directed a prorogation. But, before the arrival of black rod to announce it, Powle's motion for an address was carried with 'few negatives'. A week later, another short session opened. Powle advised the withholding of supply till the grievances connected with Papist favourites and a standing army were redressed, and he led the attack on the 'villainous councillors', assailing, in particular, Anglesey and Lauderdale on 27th October and 3rd November. Next year, he specially denounced Buckingham and had a large share in driving him from office. In May 1677, Powle vigorously urged the wisdom of a Dutch alliance. When the commons sent an address to the King dictating such an alliance on 4th February 1678, Charles indignantly summoned them to the Banqueting House at Whitehall. After their return to the house, Powle stood up to speak, but Sir Edward Seymour, the speaker, informed him that the house was adjourned by the King's pleasure. Powle insisted, so the speaker sprang out of the chair and, after a struggle, got away. On their re-assembling five days later, Powle declared that the whole liberty of the house was threatened by the speaker's conduct. In May 1678, when Charles sent a message to the house to hasten supply, Powle once more insisted on the prior consideration of grievances. Powle supported the impeachment of Danby, but in the agitation connected with the pretended discovery of the 'Popish plot', he took no important part. It was in this year that Powle inherited the family estate at Shottesbrooke from his brother, but he preferred his Gloucestershire home and it was sold within twenty years.

Powle was returned for both Cirencester and East Grinstead in Sussex, in Charles's second parliament, which met on 6th March 1679. He elected to represent Cirencester. Seymour, the speaker chosen by the commons, was declined by the King. Powle denied that the King had such power of refusal and moved an address "that we desire time to think of it". During the discussion that followed, "Serjeant Streek named Powle himself as speaker, but was not suffered to proceed, as it might mean a waiver of their rights". Finally, Serjeant Gregory was elected. The new parliament pursued the attack on Danby. Lyttleton and Powle led the matters of the House of Commons with the greatest dexterity and care. Meanwhile, Barillon, the French ambassador, anxious to render Danby's ruin complete, had entered into correspondence with Powle and other leaders of the opposition. Of Powle's influence and abilities, Barillon formed a high opinion. "He is a man," Barillon wrote, "fit to fill one of the first posts in England, very eloquent and very able. Our first correspondence came through Mr. [Ralph] Montague's means, but I have since kept it by my own and very secretly". Powle, like Harbord and Lyttleton, finally accepted a pension from Barillon of five hundred guineas a year.

After Danby's committal to the Tower of London and Charles's acceptance of Sir William Temple's abortive scheme of government by a new composite privy council of thirty members, Powle was, with four other commoners, admitted to that body on 21st April 1678. Four days later, James, Duke of York, wrote to Colonel George Legge, "I am very glad to heare Mr Powel is like to be advanced, and truly I believe he will be firm to me, for I look on him as a man of honour". To the new parliament, which was called for October 1679, Powle was returned for Cirencester. But parliament was prorogued from time to time without assembling and Powle, acting on Shaftesbury's advice, retired from the council on 17th April, after Charles had declared, at a meeting of it, his resolution to send for the Duke of York from Scotland. Parliament met at length in October 1680. Powle at once arraigned the conduct of the chief justice, Scroggs, who had just discharged the grand jury before they were able to consider Shaftesbury's indictment of the Duke of York. In the renewed debates on the Exclusion Bill, Powle did not go to all lengths. "The King," he urged, "has held you out a handle, and I would not give him occasion to say that this house is running into a breach with him". Yet, in the proceedings of December 1680 against Lord Stafford, he took a vehement part.

Although returned for East Grinstead to Charles's Oxford Parliament, held on 20th March 1681 and 28th March 1681, Powle thenceforth took little share in politics till the Revolution. The interval, he is said to have spent in the practice of law. But he had other interests to occupy him. He was a member of the Royal Society and was probably, for part of the time, abroad. At the Revolution, he, at once, gained the confidence of King William III. On 16th December 1688, he and Sir Robert Howard held a long and private interview with the Prince at Windsor. When William called together, at St. James', a number of members of Charles II's parliaments and common councilmen, Powle attended at the head of 160 former members of the House of Commons. On their return to Westminster to consider the best method of calling a free parliament, he was chosen as chairman. He bluntly asserted that "the wish of the Prince is sufficient warrant for our assembling" and, on the following morning, he read addresses to William, praying that he would assume the administration and call a convention. To the Convention Parliament, Powle was returned, with Sir Christopher Wren, for the borough of New Windsor, and he was immediately voted, on 22nd January 1689, to the Speakerís Chair over the head of his old opponent, Sir Edward Seymour.

Powle's speech on the opening of the Convention exercised much influence on the subsequent debates. As speaker, he congratulated William and Mary on their coronation, on 13th April 1689, and presented, to William, the Bill of Rights on 16th December 1689. Powle was summoned, with seven other commoners, to William's first privy council and, on the remodelling of the judicial bench, when Hall was appointed Justice of the King's Bench and Sir Robert Atkyns Chief Baron, Powle, on 13th March 1690, received the patent of Master of the Rolls. His patent at first ran 'durante beneplacito,' but on the following 14th June a new one was substituted, bearing the phrase 'quamdiu se bene gesserit'.

So long as the Convention sat, William constantly relied on Powle's advice. When he laid down his office at the dissolution of February 1690, he was allowed, even by his rival Seymour, to have kept order excellently well. Powle was returned for Cirencester for William's first parliament, which met on 20th March 1690, but was unseated on petition. Powle thereupon devoted himself to his duties as Master of the Rolls and successfully claimed, in accordance with precedent, a writ of summons to attend parliament as an assistant to the House of Lords. He spoke in the upper house in favour of the Abjuration Bill on 24th April 1690, yet wished the oath imposed sparingly and only on office holders. He died intestate on 21st November 1692 and was buried within the communion rails of Quenington Church in Gloucestershire, where a monument was erected to his memory. He is there described as Master of the Rolls and one of the judges delegates of the admiralty.

Burnet said of Powle's oratory, "When he had time to prepare himself he was a clear and strong speaker," but Speaker Onslow deprecated the qualification, declaring "I have seen many of his occasional speeches, and they are all very good". Powle's historical, legal and antiquarian knowledge was highly esteemed. With the aid of John Bagford, he formed a large library of manuscripts and records. A few of these now constitute the nucleus of the Lansdowne collection in the British Library. Other portions were dispersed and were, for a time, in the possession of Lord Somers, Sir Joseph Jekyll and Philip, Earl Hardwicke. Powle's arms were placed in the window of the Rolls Chapel and also of Lincoln's Inn Hall. His portrait was painted by Kneller. Powle married, first, in 1659, Elizabeth, daughter of the 1st Lord Newport of High Ercall. She died on 28th July 1672 and was buried at Quenington. His second wife was Frances, a daughter of Lionel Cranfield, 1st Earl of Middlesex, and widow of Richard Sackville, Earl of Dorset. By his first wife he left an only child, Katharine, who married Henry, eldest son of Henry Ireton, the regicide, conveying to him the estates of Quenington and Williamstrip. Powle was subsequently involved in lawsuits over the property of his second wife.

Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1896).

 

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