Leafing through the Library

Acts of Parliament 1649 and 1650: A Paradise Lost?

Although the library contains many works on scripture, theology and the history of the church and its leaders, there are some surprising inclusions on its shelves. One is a two-volume set of the Acts of English Parliament passed during the years 1649 and 1650. How the library acquired this set is at present not known, although it is mentioned in a handwritten catalogue of 1776.

The two volumes are similarly bound with leather covered boards, decorated with gold tool-work. The second volume also sports the initials ‘R’ and ‘C’ either side of the central decoration on both front and back covers. ‘R. C.’ could stand for ‘Rochester Cathedral’ but they were probably the initials of the previous owner, Richard Combe, whose name is written with a flourish, in a seventeenth-century hand, on both front and back fly-leaves of the second volume. This latter volume appears to have been damaged at some time and rather crudely repaired, for the fly-leaves are torn and the remains of a parchment, medieval account roll, can be seen bound into the spine as the original or replacement backing material. There are also fragments of a red wax seal on the inside front cover, perhaps in a vain attempt to secure the loose flaps of the spine repairs.

Rather than being a single work, the two-volume set is a collection of pamphlets, handbills and posters printed and distributed when the individual acts or proclamations were passed by parliament. Most of the pamphlets still have their unpaginated title pages in place. The first volume also has a bespoke printed table of contents, in which the final few items have been added by hand. In the second volume, the table of contents is totally handwritten, in a different and probably later hand.

Most of the notices and pamphlets were printed by Edward Husbands ‘printer to the Honourable House of Commons,’ and available for sale ‘at his shop in Fleet Street, at the sign of the Golden-Dragon, near the Inner Temple.’ Husbands was later assisted in this work by John Field, who also printed several of the mid-seventeenth century bibles held in the cathedral’s collection. Nevertheless, at least one act was printed by ‘Gilbert Calvert, at the Black Spread Eagle at the West End of Pauls’, so Husbands probably subcontracted work when necessary.

The loose nature of the contents suggests that they were originally collected close to their point of sale and that Richard Combe was the compiler. He was the son and heir of Toby or Tobias Combe of Hemel Hempstead (d. 1663), the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire in 1649. Richard was born circa 1630 and admitted into Gray’s Inn London on 26 May 1646, where his law studies would equip him well as the future head of one of the prominent families of the county, in both public and private matters. It is not known when Richard finished his studies, but he was knighted by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, in August 1656 at Whitehall. When Charles II was restored to the throne, Richard lost this honour, but trimming his sails to the prevailing political winds, it was re-conferred on him in February 1661.

Richard lived at the family seat, The Bury, which once stood near to the Norman church of Hemel Hempstead. All that remains today of this Elizabethan mansion is the ‘Charter Tower’, where the volumes under discussion may once have been stored. It is not known when Richard died; any monument to his memory was destroyed when the family vault in the nearby church was encroached upon for their own use by nineteenth-century parvenus. Nevertheless, a contemporary likeness of him can still be seen today in the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon, as part of the monument he erected in memory of his first cousin and fiancée, Judith Combe, who died on 17 August 1649, “in the arms of him who most entirely loved her and was beloved by her even to the very death.” Nevertheless, despite Richard’s token of undying love, he later married one Anne Freere (d. 18 April 1658), by whom he had a son and heir also called Richard (d. 1692), followed by a further marriage to one Anne Frow.

The contents of the two-volume set clearly reflects the turbulent times in which they were produced. It is noteworthy that they commence just before the trial and execution of Charles I, when the legislation passed by parliament was once again referred to as ‘Acts’, rather than ‘Ordinances’ issued without Royal Assent since 1641. Indeed, among the Acts included in the collection are one ‘for Abolishing the Kingly office in England, Ireland and the Dominions thereunto belonging’; another for ‘Abolishing the House of Peers’ and yet another for the ‘Abolishing of Deans, Deans and Chapters, Canons, Prebends, and other officers or titles belonging to any Cathedral or Collegiate Church or Chapel in England and Wales.’

Many of the Acts refer to the wars that were still on-going between parliament and the supporters of monarchy in Scotland and Ireland, with several proclamations made for ‘Days of Thanksgiving’ to be observed in churches up and down the land for victories achieved. Others relate to the need to raise, organise and pay parliament’s armed forces, as well as to reduce the massive debt incurred during the First and Second Civil Wars. This included the appointment of commissioners and collectors in individual counties, such as Richard’s father in Hertfordshire. Others relate to the sale of the former King’s possessions, as well as those held by Archbishops, Bishops, Deans and Chapters. Former Royalists throughout the country were also fined for their ‘delinquency’. Other acts also forbade any trade with the English colonies in the Americas -  Barbados, Antigua, Virginia and Bermuda – as well as Scotland, all which still adhered to the Royalist cause.

Nevertheless, others reflect the desire of the Puritans to create a new utopia in England and its colonies, by improving public morals and religious observance. Acts were passed suppressing ‘incest, adultery and fornication’ as well as ‘prophane swearing and cursing’ to be achieved through fines, imprisonment and even death for persistent offenders. ‘Unlicensed and scandalous books and pamphlets’, were also banned, including the Fiery Flying Roll, a heretical Ranter text, which was ordered to be publicly burned. To further advance the true religion, an act was also passed for the propagation of the Gospel in Wales, as well as the ‘heathen natives’ in New England who, ‘forsaking their accustomed charms and sorceries and other satanical delusions’ were apparently eager to be drawn ‘into the life and light of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ,’ thanks to zealous preachers who understood the ‘Indian language’.

Although most of the parliamentary acts passed during 1649 and 1650, can be found in these two volumes, some known from other, more complete collections, are not included. Nevertheless, unique material may yet be found in Rochester’s selection. Any printed material is important, because all the legislation passed by the English Commonwealth was revoked on the restoration of the monarchy and the original records in the parliamentary archive disappeared, probably destroyed, as an unwelcome aberration in the statutory record.

All in all, these two volumes offer a fascinating window into a revolutionary time, which if it had been allowed to continue, would have resulted in a very different country – and perhaps world -  to the one we know today.

Randolph Jones

FURTHER READING:

C. H. Firth and R. S. Rait (eds.), Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1600, (London, 1911).