Who was James Harrington?

Peter Lely's portrait of James Harrington from John Toland's edition of Harrington's works. Image by Rachel Hammersley, with thanks to James Babb.

Peter Lely's portrait of James Harrington from John Toland's edition of Harrington's works. Image by Rachel Hammersley, with thanks to James Babb.

James Harrington, it must be admitted, is not a household name (at least not beyond my odd little household). Indeed, he is not even particularly well known among scholars, unless they happen to be experts on the English Civil Wars or the history of political thought. Consequently, some justification for why he is a worthy focus of attention seems necessary.

One reason why Harrington is interesting is that he made a contribution both to the development of republicanism in the mid-seventeenth century and to the history of the Stuart monarchy. This makes him unusual in that he straddles what is often seen as the fundamental dividing line of the period. 

The Civil War is often presented as, at heart, a conflict between royalists, who insisted on the divine right of the King to rule, and parliamentarians, who asserted the rights and privileges of Parliament (and of the people it represented) and ended up establishing a republic in order to secure those rights and privileges. Scholars have tended to focus on Harrington’s republicanism, ignoring or downplaying his involvement with the Stuarts.

Traditionally, then, Harrington is known as a leading (for some the leading) seventeenth-century English republican. His best known work The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) served a number of purposes in this context. In the first place, it offered a justification as to why a commonwealth or republic was theoretically the best form of government. Secondly, it demonstrated why that form of government was also the most appropriate for England in the mid-1650s. Moreover, in presenting this claim, Harrington also became one of the earliest writers to offer an historical explanation for the outbreak of civil war in England in 1642. His materialist understanding (that it was changes in economic power, crucially the ownership of land, that prompted political change) prefigured Marxist ideas, and was subsequently used as evidence by Marxist historians of the period. Finally, and most significantly, Oceana offered a detailed constitutional blueprint for a more successful and durable English republic than that which was then in existence. For these reasons, Harrington has long been of interest to specialists in seventeenth and eighteenth-century history and thought. There are, however, other aspects of his life that make him a more complex, and therefore an even more interesting, figure than the conventional understanding suggests.

Scholars have always known that Harrington’s other great claim to fame, besides being a republican author, was that he had been gentleman of the bedchamber to the captive Charles I in 1647-8, following the parliamentarian victory in the first Civil War. Harrington was employed in this role by Parliament, which was holding Charles prisoner, and he was appointed to replace some of the King’s former servants whom Parliament did not feel it could trust. Consequently, this office was not as strongly at odds with Harrington’s later role as a leading republican as it might initially appear. However, tensions are created by the testimony of those who knew Harrington, which suggest that he was on good terms with the King and had great respect for him. John Aubrey, who was a friend of Harrington’s and wrote a brief account of his life, described Harrington speaking of the King ‘with the greatest zeal and passion imaginable’ and claimed that the King's execution 'gave him so great griefe, that he contracted a Disease by it; that never any thing did goe so neer to him' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives..., ed. Kate Bennett (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), I, p. 318). Similarly Thomas Herbert, who was gentleman of the bedchamber alongside Harrington, claimed in his Memoirs that Harrington had defended the King’s position on the last peace treaty issued to him, (the Newport Treaty) against some Officers of the Army, and that they had been so angered by his defence of the King’s views that they removed him from his position (Thomas Herbert, Memoirs of the Last Two Years of the Reign of King Charles I (London, 1815), pp. 128-30). Despite these accounts, scholars have tended to play down Harrington’s royal service in the course of emphasising his republicanism. 

Some of the notes that my husband John left me when he died, however, led me to question this interpretation. Further research into Harrington’s own activities, and those of his family, reveal that his role as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I, far from being an aberration in his career, was actually the culmination of a family history of service to the Stuarts that dated right back to the beginning of James I’s reign when Harrington’s grandfather and great uncle capitalised on their kinship with the Stuarts to render service and gain favour.

Memorial to Sir James Harington of Exton (1511-1592), father to Sir James and Sir John and great grandfather of James Harrington (1611-1677). Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Memorial to Sir James Harington of Exton (1511-1592), father to Sir James and Sir John and great grandfather of James Harrington (1611-1677). Image by Rachel Hammersley.

In April 1603 James Harington of Ridlington (the republican author’s grandfather) and his elder brother Sir John Harington of Exton met the new King (who was their twelfth cousin) in Yorkshire as he made his journey from Edinburgh to London. According to contemporary accounts, James Harington of Ridlington was one of a number of Englishmen whom King James knighted during his journey. Soon after, when the King reached Rutland, he spent several nights at Sir John’s house, and the men hunted together. 

Trust appears to have been established between them, since in June 1603 James’s wife, Anne of Denmark, and his two eldest children, Prince Henry and Princess Elizabeth, also stayed with Sir John Harington’s family on their journey south. Friendships were forged between various family members, not least between Sir John’s son, who was also called John, and the young Prince Henry, and it was presumably on account of these connections that Sir John and his wife became guardians for the young Princess Elizabeth on 19 October 1603, after earlier arrangements had fallen through. She was welcomed into their house in December and Sir John was instrumental in preventing her abduction by the Gunpowder plotters two years later. Princess Elizabeth's connection with the Haringtons continued up to and beyond her marriage to Frederick V Elector Palatine in February 1613. Even after Sir John Harington's death later that year, his wife kept up the connection and was with the Electress when her second child, Charles Louis, was born in January 1618. Not long after this, Frederick was asked to become King of Bohemia. Owing to the short tenure of this position, Elizabeth is sometimes referred to as the Winter Queen. In the 1640s the future author of The Commonwealth of Oceana reinvigorated these family connections with the Stuarts in ways that I will explore fully in my book.

Evidently, then, Harrington is of interest not only to those concerned with seventeenth-century English republicanism, but also to those interested in the Stuart family, court politics and royal service in the seventeenth century. Moreover, it is clear that his role as gentleman of the bedchamber to Charles I cannot be as easily explained away as historians have sought to do in the past. Indeed, this information regarding Harrington’s life raises a troublesome problem. How could the author of one of the most significant republican tracts of the mid-seventeenth century also have been a loyal and attentive servant to members of the Stuart family, including Charles I? This is one of the questions I try to answer in the book on which I am currently working. For a preview of this aspect of the argument, you can listen to the paper I presented as the James H. Burns Lecture at the St Andrews Institute for Intellectual History in September 2016.