Rushworth Arms John Rushworth Rushworth Arms

JOHN RUSHWORTH MP, KC.


The Rushworth Literature Enterprise, which commenced in 1953, is named after someone who made a big contribution to literature, during his life. However, despite all that he achieved, John Rushworth is little known today, and died in very distressing circumstances, under house arrest, in the King's Bench Prison in Southwark, in South London.

His story begins in the big house in Acklington Park, in the parish of Warkworth, in Northumberland, where he was born in 1612, during the reign of James the First. John Rushworth's father was the eminent Lawrence Rushworth, and his grandfather was an extensive land-owner and Justice of the Peace, at Heath, in Yorkshire. They were descendants of an ancient British family, which first settled on the Yorkshire moors, in 1068AD. John's mother was the saintly Margaret - daughter of Cuthbert, the vicar of Carnaby, on Humberside.

After a good schooling, during which he showed great promise, John went to study law at Queen's College, Oxford. Having graduated in 1640, he was admitted as a student barrister at Lincoln's Inn. Twenty years previously, a young Oliver Cromwell had passed through the same doors. Later, these two were to become colleagues, espousing the same cause.

Within a year, and whilst still following a career in law, John became the clerk-assistant at the House of Commons, having attracted the attention of the king - now Charles the First. With hopes of advancement, and being sure of a bright future, John married Hannah Widdrington, the daughter of Lewis Widdrington, and sister of Sir Thomas Widdrington MP, who was then Speaker of the House of Commons, and who later was to become very influential in state matters.

On the 17th April 1640, the veteran politician John Pymn spoke in the House of Commons about the three serious grievances from which the country was suffering. He clearly blamed king Charles for all this. Certainly, inflation was at an all-time high, and the poorest people were in dire circumstances. John Pymn was not a revolutionary, but he was willing to speak his mind against a hopeless government which had the support of a useless House of Bishops! It was then, and after Charles' defeat in Scotland, and so even more short of money, that Oliver Cromwell also became a critic of the king. John Rushworth joined his side.

Oliver Cromwell and John Rushwonh were not just politicians; they were also evangelical Christians, and wished to see the Church reformed completely. So, the antagonism of the king to such changes made them political enemies. In November 1641, John Pymn introduced into the Commons a Grand Remonstrance, detailing the government's errors, and insisting on democratic control over the king's ministers.

King Charles was now exasperated by the politicians who refused to allow him to "rule by divine right" and could stand the situation no longer. With a small contingent of soldiers, he raised his standard on a hill within (then) the grounds of Nottingham Castle, on the 22nd August 1642. This was a most unusual thing to do because it meant that he had declared war on Parliament, and thus had commenced hostilities against his own people. The English Civil War had begun!

John Rushworth became Secretary to the General of the New Model Army, General Fairfax, and also Secretary to the Council of War. John Rushworth was to become the first chronicler of a major war, having been at the various battles, as a first-hand witness.

He accompanied General Fairfax in all the campaigns, watching the battles at Worcester, Edge Hill, Newbury, Marston Moor, Naseby, and Preston. He was also present at the victory celebrations when the Civil War came to an end, in 1648.

John was closely involved with those who sought to change the king's mind, and make him more amenable. He was also involved with the arrangements for the king's trial, and subsequent be-heading. His hand-writing is on many of the most important legal documents during those turbulent years. Although always unwilling to accept the charge of regicide, since he was not a signatory, John was aware that his name would always be associated with this very serious matter. As a Christian, he took the view that king Charles had declared war upon his own people, and so - since the king had "taken up the sword" - he would have to "die by the sword", having failed in his attempt.

Any man who declares war on the people of his own country, creating a nationwide riot, and causing largescale loss of life, would expect to pay with his life, if brought to justice. The logic then was the same as it is today: Charles (by taking up arms, in this way) must be punished just like anyone else, and the punishment must fit the crime. However emotional this was (and, after all, beheading a king is a very serious matter!) the law is the law, and nobody is above it. If - by declaring war on his people - Charles took the risk of not winning, then he had to face the consequences of defeat.

After the death of the king, John became Oliver Cromwell's personal secretary. By now, Cromwell was the undisputed leader. John was given further important roles in Parliament, and was made a member of the Hale Committee, which was charged with the onerous task of "reforming British law".

Three years later, on the 16th December 1653, John was present when Cromwell was inducted to the special (and unique) office of Lord Protector. Despite all the promises that there would be little ceremony, it was a very great occasion. A long procession wound its way to the Chancery Court, and although Cromwell wore only a plain black suit, everyone else was decked out in bright colours. After three hours of proceedings, the momentous ceremony was over, and London re-joiced as much as if the country had a new king. John and his family (by now, they had four daughters) re-joiced as much as anyone else. Within a few months, he was promoted to become one of the Registrars of the Court of Admiralty.

During all these years, John was a close friend of men like John Milton, John Owen, and John Bunyan, as well as everyone in Parliament. Also, he later became a close friend of Samuel Pepys, whose famous diary ran from 1660 until 1669. In the new circumstances provided by the Commonwealth period, John became the MP for Berwick in 1657, and then again in the years 1659, 1660, 1678, 1679, and 1681. He was clearly not an unpopular man in his own home county.

On the 3rd September 1658, the Lord Protector died, aged only 59 years. This created problems, because - although Cromwell had his faults - the country had been unified and was financially sound. The other rulers of Europe eyed Britain with envy. However, although there was peace and prosperity for the first time for years, political changes were necessary.

In 1659, John's great work Historical Collections was completed and was dedicated to Richard Cromwel1, who by now was the new Lord Protector, in succession to his father. Copies of this are in reference libraries, as well as in the British Library in London.

In 1660, as well as being a Member of Parliament, John was elected to the post of Secretary to the Council of State, but this did not last long. The restoration of the monarchy caused many civil servants to lose their jobs! Charles the Second had made promises prior to his enthronement which were not kept. However, soon after that post was taken from him, John was given the office of "Treasury Solicitor". Also, in April 1661, John was made a Knight of the Order of the Bath, along with sixty seven others, in an outburst of celebration, following the coronation on the 23rd April 1661.

The restoration of the royal family was not the only big event in that decade. Two great calamities hit the city of London, causing the deaths of large numbers - the Great Plague (1665-66) and the Great Fire (in 1666). John lived there through all these upheavals.

In 1662, John was distressed when approximately 2,000 ministers in English churches were evicted from their homes, as a result of the Act of Uniformity. Things were getting difficult and it could not be long before John was arrested. However, before it was too late, he entrusted something special to a new library in Oxford. Sir Thomas Bodley had been an expert on ancient Britain, and created a specialised public library outside London, before he died. This is the famous Bodleian Library. For many centuries, the Rushworth family had owned an ancient copy of the Gospels. This was then (and still is) the only original Anglo-Saxon version of the Christian Gospels. Written by a scribe, in old English, they also bear ancient editorial comments (claimed to be in the handwriting of King Alfred).

When it was handed down to him. John could have sold this literary treasure for a large sum of money, but instead donated it to the nation.

Finally, it became unbearable for the new king to know that the man who had actually hand-written his father's death warrant, was still alive. Even if he was not one of the signatories, John had been involved. In any case, the existence of the Historical Collections was an affront to Charles, since they criticised his father. John was committed to the King's Bench Prison, and never released. He died on the 12th May in 1690, away from his family, in that damp building in Rule's Court, Southwark, depressed, under-nourished, and suffering from senile dementia, aged 78.

Two days later, following a private family funeral service, John's body was buried in the churchyard of St George's, in that same parish in Southwark. However, two hundred years later, when the local council redeveloped the area, pulling down old buildings, Rule's Court was renamed Rushworth Street, and the new school built there at the end of the 19th Century, was called Rushworth School. The next road was called King's Bench Street. By doing this, the citizens of Queen Victoria's time tried to make sure that we do not forget a man who had great literary talents.

The British Museum also encourages us to remember John, and especially by retaining a fine etching of him (a facsimile of which appears above). And, of course, John Rushworth is remembered in the charitable literature organisation which bears his name, and which has had the privilege of distributing large quantities of Christian literature to pastors in overseas countries, since 1953.


By courtesy of David Rushworth-Smith
10 October 1999

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