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Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681). Memoirs of Colonel Hutchinson. 1906.

Appendix VI: Sir John Gell

Mrs Hutchinson’s account of Sir John Gell has been often quoted and often criticised, and seems therefore to demand an examination. The first two charges relate to his treatment of Sir John Stanhope. It should be remembered that Sir Thomas Hutchinson’s second wife was the daughter of Sir John Stanhope, and that Sir John Gell’s ill-treatment of a person so nearly allied to Mrs Hutchinson might well incline her to look on all his actions with considerable prejudice. Sir John Gell was Sheriff of Derbyshire in 1635, and in that capacity had to raise £3,500 from the county. Mr Garrard in one of his letters to Strafford (Jan. 8, 1635/6, Strafford Letters, vol. i., p. 505) Rives the following account of Stanhope’s case: ‘Sir John Stanhope was sent for up by a sergeant-at-arms, his misdemeanour thus: the sheriff demanded of him what he was assessed at for the shipping-money. He answered he had no money, but offered to show him plate or cattle: the sheriff took some cows to raise the money and drove them away, not putting them off suddenly he sold them under the money Stanhope was set at, so comes again to drive more. Sir John Stanhope, a choleric man, withstands the sheriff’s bailiffs, gives them ill words, and he and his men rescue the cattle from them. He is not yet come to answer this: the sergeant returned with affidavits from the neighbour justices, that he is so afflicted with the stone and pains of the gout, that he cannot stir without danger of his life’. This account is confirmed by the notices in the Calendars of Domestic State Papers for the years 1635 and 1636. Sir John Stanhope being unable to appear before the council, entered into a bond to conform to their orders, and paid eight pounds, which may have been the sum at which he was originally assessed or the balance due. Sir John Gell himself claims (March 14, 1636) that he was specially considerate in the levy of ship-money: ‘he had special care that the poorer sort paid nothing at all, and that those who were in debt, or had charge of children, to their desire, and any other that came or sent to him was abated’.

The account given of his devastations at Elvaston is thus confirmed by Mercurius Aulicus for Feb. 15, 1643. From Derbyshire the carriage and behaviour of Sir John Gell, the ringleader of the rebels there, was certified in these words that follow: ‘Sir John Gell with his forces consisting of about 400 men came to Elvaston in Derbyshire, an house of the Lady Stanhope’s, widow of Sir John Stanhope’s, to whom Gell (though never a friend), yet in his lifetime durst not declare himself an enemy. But after his death, making use of the power given him by the fundamental laws of the kingdom, he plundered his house of all the arms, money, and goods of worth he could find, to the value of £1,500. Not contented with this, and to make it more plainly appear that his coming was as much for malice as plunder, he went into the garden (in which the good lady, taking very much delight, had made it a very pleasant place, with handsome walks and diversities of the best flowers), which he caused to be digged up, and utterly ruined. He left not here, but to add more to her vexation, and to please himself in doing mischief, he went into the church, where she had lately erected a tomb for her husband which cost her £500, that he caused to be demolished, and the stones to be broken into several pieces, that no possibility was left to repair it. But his act of greatest inhumanity was to go with his soldiers into the vault, where the dead of the family were usually buried, and to run their swords through their dead bodies’. Gell’s soldiers, like most of the local levies of the parliament, were badly disciplined and very irregularly paid; they were therefore generally obliged to subsist by requisitions, and ‘lay upon free quarter’, as they did whilst at Nottingham. Sir John Gell in his True Relation of his services admits, whilst endeavouring to excuse, the plunder of the Earl of Chesterfield’s house at Bretby. A letter of the 2d January, 1643, from the inhabitants of various villages in Derbyshire, accuses him of plundering many other royalist gentlemen. It is given in the Appendix to Glover’s Derbyshire.

Mrs Hutchinson also accuses Gell of cowardice at the battle of Hopton Heath, when ‘some that knew him well said his men held him up, among a stand of pikes, while they obtained a glorious victory’. It is only fair to quote Gell’s own account of the battle. The horse with the exception of about 200 troopers fled and left the foot to contend against the Earl of Northampton’s victorious cavalry. ‘Our colonel quit his horse and went to the foot, being then in great fear and disorder, many of them ready to run and standing with their pikes advanced: the colonel, with his own hands, put down their pikes, encouraged both them and the musketeers, who were all disorderly crowded together; he speedily got them into order and gave the enemy such a volley of shot upon their charge that they first wheeled … and presently fled’. The charge of cowardice is not supported by facts, nor by probability. Gell seems, in short, to have resembled his own soldiers, ‘good, stout, fighting men, but licentious, ungovernable wretches’.

Another charge which Mrs Hutchinson brings against Gell is that he pensioned the diurnal-makers in order to purchase himself a name. Such an accusation it is impossible to prove or disprove. It is certain that Gell is more often mentioned in the diurnals than his services seem to merit, and that very small exploits of his are recorded at disproportionate length. It is worth remarking also that the paper entitled Perfect Occurences possessed, at least during 1644, a correspondent at Derby who hardly allowed a week to pass without a letter about the doings of Sir John Gell, and even chronicled his capture of Major Hacker’s charger.

Two accounts of Sir John Gell’s services were drawn up under his own supervision and are printed in the Appendix to Glover’s Derbyshire. One of them is also printed in the Ninth Report of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, together with numerous extracts from the Gell papers at Hopton Hall. Gell’s narratives supply many valuable illustrations of Nottinghamshire history during this period, but they are both avowedly of the nature of apologies, and therefore to be used with caution.