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William Lenthall (1591-1662)
Born: June 1591 at Henley-upon-Thames, Oxfordshire
Speaker of the House of Commons
Died: 9th November 1662 at Besselsleigh, Berkshire

William Lenthall, the Speaker of the House of Commons, was the son of William Lenthall Senior, of North Leigh and Latchford in Great Haseley in Oxfordshire, and Frances, daughter of Thomas  Southwell of St. Faith's, Norfolk. For a short time, he was an undergraduate at St. Alban Hall, Oxford, but he was called to the bar without having taken a degree and was subsequently a bencher at Lincoln's Inn.

As a barrister, he soon built up a large practice. He was made Recorder of Woodstock, which he represented in the Parliament of 1624, and bought Burford Priory from Lord Falkland, in addition to his estate at Besselsleigh in Berkshire. When the Long Parliament met, he was unanimously elected Speaker. His legal knowledge fully qualified him for the position, nor was he wanting in dignity; but he had not force of character sufficient to control the turbulent and excited sittings of the Long Parliament. Moreover, he found their extreme length very burdensome. While the state which he had to maintain was a serious drain upon his income until he was relieved by a large grant from the House in recognition of his courageous and diplomatic action in refusing to betray the famous ‘five members’.

In 1643, he was made Master of the Rolls and other offices soon fell to his lot. In 1646, he was appointed one of the Commissioners of the Great Seal. Thus, although his lands had been plundered by the Royalists, Lenthall nevertheless found his position sufficiently lucrative to be worth maintaining. Hence, he was careful to be found on the stronger side throughout the vicissitudes of the Civil War; and, though opposed to the King's trial, he still presided during the debates upon it, in fear lest he should provoke the wrath of Cromwell and his party.

Under the Commonwealth, he might have played a conspicuous part, as the first man in the nation, but he preferred to preserve an inoffensive respectability: until he was pulled from the chair at the dissolution of the Long Parliament in 1653. In Cromwell's Parliaments he sat as a private member until, in response to his own querulous request (and to his inordinate satisfaction), he was raised to the spurious House of Lords.

When the Long Parliament was restored, he was persuaded to act once more as Speaker. The rapid fluctuations of political power caused him great perplexity and anxiety but, at length, he saw the drift of events and attached himself to Monck. By this foresight, he succeeded in saving his head at the Restoration; but, in spite of a timely gift of £3,000 to King Charles II, he was declared incapable of holding any public office.

He ended his career by bearing witness against one of the regicides as to his utterances in the Commons and by drawing up an abject apology for his life. He died at Burford, directing that the plain inscription Vermis Sum should be put on his grave. The humility of this epitaph cannot altogether rob it of its truth, for Lenthall was a weak man, timorous by nature and incapable of exalting his principles above avarice and self-interest.

Edited from CRL Fletcher's 'Historical Portraits' (1919)


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