|Tomb of Sir John Stawell and wife Elizabeth|
Sir John Stawell (1599/1600-1662)
Stawell, Sir John, staunch royalist army officer, born in Cothelstone in Somerset, second of four children and heir of Sir John Stawell (d. 1603) and his wife, Elizabeth (d. 1662), daughter of George Touchet, earl of Castlehaven, who later married (1604) Sir Thomas Griffin of Dingley in Northamptonshire. A king's ward during his minority, Stawell was educated at the Queen's College, Oxford, where he matriculated on 25 October 1616. He married on 9 December 1617 Elizabeth (d. 1657), daughter of Sir Edward Hext (d. 1624) and widow of Sir Joseph Killigrew (d. 1616). They had two daughters and nine sons, including John, Edward, and George, all of whom fought for the king in the civil war, and Ralph, who was created Lord Stawell of Somerton in 1683.
Sir John Stawell, who was first elected MP for Somerset in 1625, was again returned both in 1640 for the Long Parliament and in 1661 for the Cavalier Parliament. An energetic leader in the county, he served as a justice (from 1620), deputy lieutenant (from 1625), and sheriff (1628–9), acting also as a member of various county commissions. He was knighted at the coronation of Charles I (1626) and praised for employing himself ‘heartily in the service’, despite suffering ‘envy, reproaches and the raking of ill tongues’ (CSP dom., 1625–6, 445).
Stawell was a man of mediocre ability, whose interest in chemistry and medicine led him to believe that eating breakfast was bad for the digestion. His irritable temper and impulsive behaviour frequently led him to overstep the mark in county politics, particularly in his support of Lord John Poulett's bitter feud with Sir Robert Phelips. He was, for instance, accused in 1627 of vindictive use of power in pressing into army service the bailiff of Phelips's closest ally; and in 1628 of interfering with not only the Taunton election, by using troops to intimidate the corporation, but also the county election, by physically and verbally abusing the sheriff (for which he was fined £200 in Star Chamber). He twice reported Phelips to the council, once for questioning the legality of trained band musters (1628) and later for undermining the sheriff's collection of ship money (1636). After Stawell had been censured on the first occasion for falsifying evidence and on the second for raising frivolous charges, the king urged both antagonists to work harmoniously together in future for the royal cause.
Both Stawell and Poulett (to whom he was totally subservient) had long since professed to champion the king's service, though their support was tempered by self-interest. Their real objective was to gain supremacy in Somerset, not through courting popular support within the county (as did Phelips), but by achieving status at court. Stawell's underlying indifference to the king's interest before the civil war was illustrated by his readiness to abandon it whenever he became wary of county hostility: hence his lukewarm support for the king's plan to drain and enclose Sedgemoor in the 1630s and his refusal to act as deputy lieutenant in 1640 in halting mass desertions and disorders in the army bound for Scotland.
Nevertheless Stawell's personal contribution to war service was impressive. In 1639 he contributed £100 towards the cost of the expedition to Scotland, followed by a bond for £1000 to help secure the 1640 loan. A man of considerable wealth, who purchased Avebury Manor in 1640 for £8000 and generously helped to fund the king's war effort in 1642 by raising large numbers of troops at his own expense. In March of that year he absented himself from the Commons, before accompanying the marquess of Hertford into the west with the king's commission of array in July, for which he was disabled from sitting in parliament on 8 August. Having joined Hertford at the royalist headquarters in Wells (28 July), he intercepted and routed John Pyne's parliamentary force at Marshall's Elm, near Street, on 4 August, before eventually retreating into Cornwall with Sir Ralph Hopton in September. In 1643 Stawell was appointed not only governor of Taunton (5 June), but also a king's commissioner for Somerset—duties which saw him granted leave of absence from the Cavalier Parliament in Oxford. In 1644 he played a leading part in the king's recruitment drive on King's Moor, near Ilchester, on 23 July, and later launched his peace campaign with a petition to the king at Sturminster Newton in September—a campaign he revived in Oxford a year later under the slogan ‘One and all’. His sincere but naïve plan was that the king should win over the country, weary of his soldiers' oppressions, by putting himself as peacemaker at the head of a popular movement—whereupon thousands of substantial countrymen would accompany a peace petition to parliament. The scheme, however, was twice rejected in favour of renewed military pressure. On 21 July 1645 his regiment fought in vain to save Bridgwater from the New Model Army, before Stawell himself fled to Exeter, which he helped to defend against siege (28 October 1645 – 9 April 1646). Whatever his limitations as a military commander, he was praised by Clarendon as a person of ‘notorious courage and fidelity’ (Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, 4.426).
After the fall of Exeter Stawell was taken to London (15 July 1646), hoping to compound under the terms of the Exeter articles. When, however, he appeared before the committee for compounding on 4 August, he refused to subscribe to the national covenant or take the negative oath; and he was committed by the Commons a prisoner at Newgate for high treason nine days later. Although his intended trial at the Somerset assizes never took place, he was finally removed to the Tower of London in July 1650 and tried by the high court on 17 December. The court, however, gave no judgment, referring his case back instead to parliament (April 1651), where it remained undetermined. Although he was briefly given parole (25 May 1653) his estates had been sold in 1651 for about £64,000. His wife and children were permitted to live in the ruined Cothelstone Manor, receiving a fifth part of his income for support (about £500 per annum). Stawell frequently petitioned parliament about the injustice of his treatment, but without success. Although he remained a prisoner until May 1660 he regained his estates in full after the Restoration. His re-election to parliament in April 1661 was, however, short-lived. Broken in health through years of close confinement, he died on 21 February 1662 at Netherham. He is buried on 23rd April in St. Thomas of Canterbury Church which is in the grounds of Cothelstone Manor.
John Wroughton (edited by Willow)
Sources: G. D. Stawell, A Quantock family: the Stawells of Cothelstone (1910) · T. G. Barnes, Somerset, 1625–1640: a county’s government during the personal rule (1961) · Keeler, Long Parliament · S. W. Bates Harbin, Members of parliament for the county of Somerset (1939) · Proceedings of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 78–85 (1932–9), suppl. · D. Underdown, Somerset in the civil war and interregnum (1973) · D. Underdown, Revel, riot and rebellion: popular politics and culture in England, 1603–1660 (1985) · DNB · Diary of Walter Yonge, ed. G. Roberts, CS, 41 (1848) · Diary of Thomas Burton, ed. J. T. Rutt, 4 vols. (1828) · Clarendon, Hist. rebellion, vols. 2–4 · JHC, 4–7 (1644–59) · JHL, 9 (1646–7) · CSP dom., 1625–31; 1633–4; 1636–7; 1656–61 · M. J. Rawkins, ed., Sale of wards in Somerset, 1603–41, Somerset RS, 67 (1965) · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/307, sig. 43 · sentence, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/333, sig. 112 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/334, sig. 145.
It would seem that Sir John is reluctant to leave Avebury Manor, for it is the aptly named Cavalier Bedroom, now the Withdrawing Room (renamed for the BBC project) where his ghost has been seen gazing out of the south window which overlooks the gardens. He has also been spotted standing quite motionless to the left of the fireplace. He is described as being solid in appearance, just like you or I and suited in the finery of a Cavalier of the time. A melancholy figure by all accounts, who, when encountered, appears to be weeping. Some say his arrival is often preceded by the fragrant smell of roses. During that period, rosewater was often used to disguise body odour, as personal hygiene was yet to establish itself. Sir John is said to have adored his garden and spent a lot of time strolling therein, which may also account for reports of his ghost being seen thereabouts
The Cavalier Bedroom