Holles was the second son of John Holles, 1st Earl of Clare (c. 1564-1637), by Anne, daughter of Sir Thomas Stanhope. The favourite son of his father and endowed with great natural abilities, Denzil Holles grew up under advantageous circumstances. Destined to become one of the most formidable antagonists of King Charles's arbitrary government, he had been Charles's childhood friend. The earl of Clare was, however, no friend to the Stuart administration, being especially hostile to the Duke of Buckingham; and on the accession of Charles to the throne the king's offers of favour were rejected. In 1624 Holles was returned to parliament for Mitchell in Cornwall, and in 1628 for Dorchester.
He had from the first a keen sense of the humiliations which attended the foreign policy of the Stuart kings. Writing to Strafford, his brother-in-law, on November 29 1629, he severely censures Buckingham's conduct of the expedition to the Isle of Rhé; "since England was England," he declared, "it received not so dishonourable a blow"; and he joined in the demand for Buckingham's impeachment in 1628. To these discontents were now added the abuses arising from the king's arbitrary administration. On March 2 1629, when Sir John Finch, the speaker, refused to put Sir John Eliot's Protestations and was about to adjourn the House by the king's command, Holles with another member thrust him back into the chair and swore "he should sit still till it pleased them to rise."
Meanwhile Eliot, on the refusal of the speaker to read the Protestations, had himself thrown them into the fire; the usher of the black rod was knocking at the door for admittance, and the king had sent for the guard. But Holles, declaring that he could not render the king or his country better service, put the Protestations to the House from memory, all the members rising to their feet and applauding. In consequence a warrant was issued for his arrest with others on the following day. They were prosecuted first in the Star Chamber and subsequently in the King's Bench. When brought upon his habeas corpus before the latter court Holles offered with the rest to give bail, but refused sureties for good behaviour, and argued that the court had no jurisdiction over offences supposed to have been committed in parliament.
On his refusal to plead he was sentenced to a fine of 1000 marks and to imprisonment during the king's pleasure. Holles had at first been committed and remained for some time a close prisoner in the Tower of London. The "close" confinement, however, was soon changed to a "safe" one, the prisoner then having leave to take the air and exercise, but being obliged to maintain himself at his own expense. On October 29 Holles, with Eliot and Valentine, was transferred to the Marshalsea. His resistance to the king's tyranny did not prove so stout as that of some of his comrades in misfortune. Among the papers of the secretary Sir John Coke is a petition of Holles, couched in humble and submissive terms, to be restored to the king's favour; having given the security demanded for his good behaviour, he was liberated early in 1630, and on October 30 was allowed bail. Being still banished from London he retired to the country, paying his fine in 1637 or 1638. The fine was repaid by the parliament in July 1644, and the judgment was revised on a writ of error in 1668. In 1638 we find him, notwithstanding his recent experiences, one of the chief leaders in his county of the resistance to ship money, though it would appear that he subsequently made submission.
Holles was a member of the Short and Long Parliaments assembled in 1640. According to Laid he was now "one of the great leading men in the House of Commons," and in Clarendon's opinion he was "a man of more accomplished parts than any of his party" and of most authority. He was not, however, in the confidence of the republican party. Though he was at first named one of the managers for the impeachment of Strafford, Holles had little share in his prosecution. According to Laud he held out to Strafford hopes of saving his life if he would use his influence with the king to abolish episcopacy, but the earl refused, and Holles advised Charles that Strafford should demand a short respite, of which he would take advantage to procure a commutation of the death sentence. In the debate on the attainder he spoke on behalf of Strafford's family, and later obtained some favours from the parliament for his eldest son. In all other matters in parliament Holles took a principal part.
He was one of the chief movers of the Protestation of May 3 1641, which he carried up to the Lords, urging them to give it their approval. Although, according to Clarendon, he did not wish to change the government of the church, he showed himself at this time decidedly hostile to the bishops. He took up the impeachment of Laud to the House of Peers, supported the Londoners' petition for the abolition of episcopacy and the Root and Branch Bill, and afterwards urged that the bishops impeached for their conduct in the affair of the late canons should be accused of treason. He showed equal energy in the affairs of Ireland at the outbreak of the rebellion, supported strongly the independence and purity of the judicial bench and opposed toleration of the Roman Catholics. On July 9 1641 he addressed the Lords on behalf of the queen of Bohemia, expressing great loyalty to the king and royal family and urging the necessity of supporting the Protestant religior everywhere. Together with Pym, Holles drew up the Grand Remonstrance, and made a vigorous speech in its support or November 22 1641, in which he argued for the right of one House to make a declaration, and asserted: "If kings are misled by their counsellors we may, we must tell them of it."
On December 15 he was a teller in the division in favour of printing it. On the great subject of the militia he also showed activity. He supported Arthur Haselrig's Militia Bill of December 7 1641, and on December 31 he took up to the king the Commons' demand for a guard under the command of Essex. "Holles's force and reputation," said Sir Ralph Verney, "are the two things that give the success to all actions." After the failure of the attempt by the court to gain over Holles and others by offering them posts in the administration, he was one of the "five members" impeached by the king. Holles at once grasped the full significance of the king's action, and after the triumphant return to the House of the five members, on January 11, threw himself into still more pronounced opposition to the arbitrary policy of the crown. He demanded that before anything further was done the members should be cleared of their impeachment; was himself leader in the impeachment of the Duke of Richmond; and on January 31, when taking up the militia petition to the House of Lords, he adopted a very menacing tone, at the same time presenting a petition of some thousands of supposed starving artificers of London, congregated round the House. On June 15 he carried up the impeachment of the nine Lords who had deserted the parliament; and he was one of the committee of safety appointed on July 4.
On the outbreak of the Civil War Holles, who had been made lieutenant of Bristol, was sent with Bedford to the west against the marquess of Hertford, and took part in the unsuccessful siege of the latter at Sherborne Castle. He was present at Edgehill, where his regiment of Puritans recruited in London was one of the few which stood firm and saved the day for the parliament. On November 13 his men were surprised at Brentford during his absence, and routed after a stout resistance. In December he was proposed for the command of the forces in the west, an appointment which he appears to have refused. Notwithstanding his activity in the field for the cause of the parliament, the appeal to arms had been distasteful to Holles from the first.
As early as September be surprised the House by the marked abatement of his former "violent and fiery spirit," and his changed attitude did not escape the taunts of his enemies, who attributed it scornfully to his disaster at Brentford or to his new wife. He probably foresaw that, to whichever side victory fell, the struggle could only terminate in the suppression of the constitution and of the moderate party on which all his hopes were based. His feelings and political opinions, too, were essentially aristocratic, and he regarded with horror the transference of the government of the state from the king and the ruling families to the parliamentary leaders. He now advocated peace and a settlement of the disputes by concessions on both sides; a proposal full of danger because impracticable, and one therefore which could only weaken the parliamentary resistance and prolong the struggle.
He warmly supported the peace negotiations on November 21 and December 22, and his attitude led to a breach with Pym and the more determined party. In June 1643 he was accused of complicity in Waller's plot, but swore to his innocency; and his arrest with others of the peace party was even proposed in August, when Holles applied for a pass to leave the country. The king's successes, however, for the moment put a stop to all hopes of peace; and in April 1644 Holles addressed the citizens of London at the Guildhall, calling upon them "to join with their purses, their persons, and their prayers together to support the army of Essex."
In November Holles and Whitelocke headed the commission appointed to treat with the king at Oxford. He endeavoured to convince the royalists of the necessity of yielding in time, before the "new party of hot men" should gain the upper hand. Holles and Whitelocke had a private meeting with the king, when at Charles's request they drew up the answer which they advised him to return to the parliament. This interview was not communicated to the other commissioners or to parliament, and though doubtless their motives were thoroughly patriotic, their action was scarcely compatible with their position as trustees of the parliamentary cause. Holles was also appointed a commissioner at Uxbridge in January 1645 and endeavoured to overcome the crucial difficulty of the militia by postponing its discussion altogether.
As leader of the moderate (or Presbyterian) party Holles now came into violent antagonism with Cromwell and the army faction. "They hated one another equally"; and Holles would not allow any merit in Cromwell, accusing him of cowardice and attributing his successes to chance and good fortune. With the support of Essex and the Scottish commissioners Holles endeavoured in December 1644 to procure Cromwell's impeachment as an incendiary between the two nations, and "passionately" opposed the self-denying ordinance. In return Holles was charged with having held secret communications with the king at Oxford and with a correspondence with Lord Digby; but after a long examination by the House he was pronounced innocent on July 19 1645. Determined on Cromwell's destruction, he refused to listen to the prudent counsels of Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper, who urged that Cromwell was too strong to be resisted or provoked, and on March 29 1647 drew up in parliament a hasty proclamation declaring the promoters of the army petition enemies to the state; in April challenging Ireton to a duel.
The army party was now thoroughly exasperated against Holles. "They were resolved one way or other to be rid of him," says Clarendon. On June 16 1647 eleven members including Holles were charged by the army with various offences against the state, followed on the 23rd by fresh demands for their impeachment and for their suspension, which was refused. On the 26th, however, the eleven members, to avoid violence, asked leave to withdraw. Their reply to the charges against them was handed into the House on the 19th of July, and on the 20th Holles took leave of the House in A grave and learned speech ... After the riot of the apprentices on the 26th, for which Holles disclaimed any responsibility, the eleven members were again (July 30) recalled to their seats, and Holles was one of the committee of safety appointed. On the flight of the speaker, how-ever, and part of the parliament to the army, and the advance of the latter to London, FIolles, whose party and policy were now entirely defeated, left England on the 22nd of August for Sainte-Mère Eglise in Normandy. On January 26 1648 the eleven members, who had not appeared when summoned to answer the charges against them, were expelled. Not long afterwards, however, on the 3rd of June, these proceedings were annulled; and Holles, who had then returned and was a prisoner in the Tower with the rest of the eleven members, was discharged. He returned to his seat on August 14.
Holles was one of the commissioners appointed to treat with the king at Newport on September 18 1648. Aware of the plans of the extreme party, Holles threw himself at the king's feet and implored him not to waste time in useless negotiations, and he was one of those who stayed behind the rest in order to urge Charles to compliance. On December 1 he received the thanks of the House. On the occasion of Pride's Purge on December 6 Holles absented himself and escaped again to France. From his retirement there he wrote to Charles II in 1651, advising him to come to terms with the Scots as the only means of effecting a restoration; but after the alliance he refused Charles's offer of the secretaryship a state. In March 1654 Cromwell, who in alarm at the plots beinh formed against him was attempting to reconcile some of his opponents to his government, sent Holles a pass "with notable circumstances of kindness and esteem." His subsequent move ments and the date of his return to England are uncertain, but in 1656 Cromwell's resentment was again excited against him as the supposed author of a tract, really written by Clarendon. He appears to have been imprisoned, for his release was ordered by the council on September 2 1659.
Holles took part in the conference with Monk at Northumberland House, when the Restoration was directly proposed, and with the secluded members took his seat again in parliament on February 21 1660. On February 23 he was chosen one of the council to carry on the government during the interregnurn; on March 2 the votes passed against him and the sequestration of his estates were repealed, and on the 7th he was made custos rotulorum for Dorsetshire. He took a leading part in bringing about the Restoration, was chairman of the committee of seven appointed to prepare an answer to the king's letter, and as one of the deputed Lords and Commons he delivered at the Hague the invitation to Charles to return. He preceded Charles to England to prepare for his reception, and was sworn of the privy council on the 5th of June. He was one of the thirty-four commissioners appointed to try the regicides in September and October. On April 20 1661 he was created Baron Holles of Ifield in Sussex, and became henceforth one of the leading members of the Upper House.
Holles, who was a good French scholar, was sent as ambassador to France on July 7 1663. He was ostentatiously English, and a zealous upholder of the national honour and interests; but his position was rendered difficult by the absence of home support. On January 27 1666 war was declared, but Holles was not recalled till May. Pepys remarks on November 14: "Sir G. Cartaret tells me that just now my Lord Holles had been with him and wept to think in what a condition we are fallen." Soon afterwards he was employed on another disagreeable mission in which the national honour was again at stake, being sent to Breda to make a peace with Holland in May 1667. He accomplished his task successfully, the articles being signed on June 21.
On December 12 he protested against Lord Clarendon's banishment and was nearly put out of the council in consequence. In 1668 he was manager for the Lords in the celebrated Skinner's case, in which his knowledge of precedents was of great service, and on which occasion he published the tract The Grand Question concerning the Judicature of the House of Peeres (1669). Holles, who was honourably distinguished by Charles as a "stiff and sullen man," and as one who would not yield to solicitation; now became with Halifax and Shaftesbury a leader in the resistance to the domestic and foreign policy of the court. Together with Halifax he opposed both the arbitrary Conventicle Act of 1670 and the Test Oath of 1675, his objection to the latter being chiefly founded on the invasion of the privileges of the peers which it involved; and he defended with vigour the right of the Peers to record their protests.
On January 7 1676 Holles with Halifax was summarily dismissed from the council. On the occasion of the Commons petitioning the king in favour of an alliance with the Dutch, Holles addressee a Letter to Van Beuninghen at Amsterdam on "Love to our Country and Hatred of a Common Enemy," enlarging upon th necessity of uniting in a common defence against French aggression and in support of the Protestant religion. "The People are strong but the Government is weak," he declares; and he attributes the cause of weakness to the transference of power from the nobility to the people, and to a succession of three weal princes." Save what (the Parliament) did, we have not taken one true step nor struck one true stroke since Queen Elizabeth.
He endeavoured to embarrass the government this year in his tract on Some Considerations upon the Question whether the parliament is dissolved by its prorogation for 15 months. It was held by the Lords to be seditious and scandalous; while for publishing another pamphlet written by Holles entitled The Grand Question concerning the Prorogation of this Parliament (otherwise The Long Parliament dissolved) the corrector of the proof sheets was committed to the Tower and fined £1000. In order to bring about the downfall of Danby (afterwards Duke of Leeds) and the disbanding of the army, which he believe to be intended for the suppression of the national liberties, Holle at this time (1677-1679) engaged, as did many others, in dangerous intrigue with Courtin and Barillon, the French envoys, and Louis XIV; he refused, however, the latter's presents on the ground that he was a member of the council, having been appointed to Sir William Temple's new modelled cabinet in 1679. Barillon described lum as at this period in his old age "the man of all England for whom the different cabals have the most consideration," and as firmly opposed to the arbitrary designs of the court. He showed moderation in the Popish Plot, and on the question of the exclusion followed Halifax rather than Shaftesbury. His long and eventful career closed by his death on the 17th of February 1680.
The character of Holles has been drawn by Burnet, with whom he was on terms of friendship. "Holles was a man of great courage and of as great pride... He was faithful and firm to his side and never changed through the whole course of his life."
He argued well but too vehemently; for he could not bear contradiction. He had the soul of an old stubborn Roman in him. He was a faithful but a rough friend, and a severe but fair enemy. He had a true sense of religion; and was a man of an unblameable course of life and of a sound judgment when it was not biased by passion. Holles was essentially an aristocrat and a Whig in feeling, making Cromwell's supposed hatred of "Lords" a special charge against him; regarding the civil wars rather as a social than as a political revolution, and attributing all the evils of his time to the transference of political power from the governing families to the "meanest of men." He was an authority on the history and practice of parliament and the constitution, and besides the pamphlets already mentioned was the author of The Case Stated concerning the Judicature of the House of Peers in the Point of Appeals (1675); The Case Stated of the Jurisdiction of the House of Lords in the point of Impositions (1676); Letter of a Gentleman to his Friend showing that the Bishops are not to be judges in Parliament in Cases Capital (1679); Lord Holles his Remains, being a 2nd letter to a Friend concerning the judicature of the Bishops in Parliament...
He also published A True Relation of the unjust accusation of certain French gentlemen (1671), an account of Holles's intercession on their behalf and of his dispute with Lord Chief Justice Keeling; and he left Memoirs, written in exile in 1649, and dedicated "to the unparalleled Couple, Mr Oliver St John ... and Mr Oliver Cromwell ..." published in 1699 and reprinted in Baron Maseres's Select Tracts relating to the Civil Wars, I. 189. Several speeches of Holles were printed and are extant, and his Letter to Van Beuninghen has been already quoted.
Holles married (1) in 1628 Dorothy, daughter and heiress of Sir Francis Ashley; (2) in 1642 Jane, daughter and co-heiress of Sir John Shirley of Ifleld in Sussex and widow of Sir Walter Covert of Slougham, Sussex; and (3) in 1666 Esther, daughter and co-heiress of Gideon Le Lou of Columbiers in Normandy, widow of James Richer. By his first wife he left one son, Francis, who succeeded him as 2nd baron. He had no children by his other wives, and the peerage became extinct in the person of his grandson Denzil, 3rd Baron Holles, in 1694, the estates devolving on John Holles (1662-1711), 4th earl of Clare and duke of Newcastle.
Holles's brother, John Holles, 2nd earl of Clare (1595-1666), was member of parliament for East Retford in three parliaments before succeeding to the peerage in 1637. He took some part in the Civil War, but "he was very often of both parties, and never advantaged either." The earldom of Clare, which had been granted in 1624 by James I to his father, John Holles, in return for the payment of £5000, became merged in the dukedom of Newcastle in 1694, when John Holles, the 4th earl, was created duke of Newcastle.
Holles's Life has been written by CH Firth in the Dictionary of National Biography; by Horace Walpole in Royal and Noble Authors, ii. 28; by Guizot in Monk's Contemporaries (Eng. trans. 1851); and by A Collins in historical Collections of Noble Families (1752), and in the Biographia Britannica. See also SR Gardiner. History of England (1883-1884), and History of the Great Civil War (1893); Lord Clarendon, History of the Rebellion, edited by WD Macray; G Burnet, History of His Own Time (1833); and B Whitelock, Memorials (1732).
See: Patricia Crawford, Denzil Holles ISBN 0901050520
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.