He matriculated at Exeter College, Oxford, on December 4 1607, and leaving the university after three years he studied law at one of the Inns of Court. He also spent some months travelling in France, Spain and Italy, in company, for part of the time, with young George Villiers, afterwards duke of Buckingham. Eliot was only twenty-two when he began his parliamentary career as member for St Germans in the "Addled Parliament" of 1614. In 1618 he was knighted, and next year through the patronage of Buckingham he obtained the appointment of vice-admiral of Devon, with large powers for the defence and control of the commerce of the county. It was not long before the characteristic energy with which he performed the duties in his office involved him in difficulties. After many attempts, in 1623 he succeeded by a clever but dangerous manoeuvre in entrapping the famous pirate John Nutt, who had for years infested the southern coast, inflicting immense damage upon English commerce.
However, the pirate, having a powerful protector at court in Sir George Calvert, the secretary of state, was pardoned; while the vice-admiral, upon charges which could not be substantiated, was flung into the Marshalsea prison, and detained there nearly four months.
A few weeks after his release Eliot was elected member of parliament for Newport (February 1624). On February 27 he delivered his first speech, in which he at once revealed his great powers as an orator, demanding boldly that the liberties and privileges of parliament, repudiated by James I in the former parliament, should be secured. In the first parliament of Charles I, in 1625, he urged the enforcement of the laws against the Roman Catholics. Meanwhile he had continued the friend and supporter of Buckingham and greatly approved of the war with Spain.
Buckingham's incompetence, however, and the bad faith with which both he and the king continued to treat the parliament, alienated Eliot. Distrust of his former friend quickly grew in Eliot's mind to a certainty of his criminal ambition. Returned to the parliament of 1626 as member for St Germans, Eliot found himself, in the absence of other leaders of the opposition whom the king had secured by nominating them sheriffs, the leader of the House. He immediately demanded an inquiry into the recent disaster at Cadiz. On March 27 he made an open and daring attack upon Buckingham and his administration. He was not intimidated by the king's threatening intervention on the 29th, and persuaded the House to defer the actual grant of the subsidies and to present a remonstrance to the king, declaring its right to examine the conduct of ministers. On May 8 he was one of the managers who carried Buckingham's impeachment to the Lords, and on May 10 he delivered the charges against him, comparing him in the course of his speech to Sejanus.
Next day Eliot was sent to the Tower. On the Commons declining to proceed with business as long as Eliot and Sir Dudley Digges (who had been imprisoned with him) were in confinement, they were released, and parliament was dissolved on June 15. Eliot was immediately dismissed from his office of vice-admiral of Devon, and in 1627 he was again imprisoned for refusing to pay a forced loan, but liberated shortly before the assembling of the parliament of 1628, to which he was returned as member for Cornwall. He joined in the resistance now organized to arbitrary taxation, was foremost in the promotion of the Petition of Right, continued his outspoken censure of Buckingham, and after the latter's assassination in August, led the attack in. the session of 1629 on the ritualists and Arminians.
In February the great question of the right of the king to levy tonnage and poundage came up for discussion; and on the king ordering an adjournment of parliament, the speaker, Sir John Finch, was held down in the chair while Eliot's resolutions against illegal taxation and innovations in religion were read to the House by HolIes. In consequence, Eliot, with eight other members, was imprisoned on March 4 in the Tower. He refused to answer in his examination, relying on his privilege of parliament, and on October 29 was again sent to the Marshalsea. On January 26 he appeared at the bar of the king's bench, with Holles and Valentine, to answer a charge of conspiracy to resist the king's order, and refusing to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court be was fined £2000 and ordered to be imprisoned during the king's pleasure and till he had made submission. This he steadfastly refused. While some of the prisoners appear to have had certain liberty allowed to them, Eliot's confinement in the Tower was made exceptionally severe. Charles's anger had always been directed chiefly against him, not only as his own political antagonist but as the prosecutor and bitter enemy of Buckingham; "an outlawed man," he described him, "desperate in mind and fortune."
Eliot languished in prison for some time, during which he wrote several works, his Negotium posterorum, an account of the parliament in 1625; The Monarchie of Man, a political treatise; De jure majestatis, a Political Treatise of Government; and An Apology for Socrates, his own defence. In the spring of 1632 he fell into a decline. In October he petitioned Charles for permission to go into the country, but leave could only be obtained at the price of submission, and was finally refused. He died on November 27, 1632.
When his son requested permission to move the body to Port Eliot, Charles refused, saying: "Let Sir John Eliot be buried in the church of that parish where he died." The suspicious manner of Eliot's death, as the result of the king's implacability and severe treatment, had more effect, probably, than any other single incident in embittering and precipitating the dispute between king and parliament. Eliot was a great orator, inspired by enthusiasm and high ideals, which he was able to communicate to his hearers by his eloquence, but he was inferior to John Pym both as a party leader and as a statesman.
Eliot married Rhadagund, daughter of Richard Gedie of Trebursye in Cornwall, by whom he had five sons, from the youngest of whom Perigrine, the present Earl of St Germans is descended, and four daughters.
The Life of Sir J. Eliot, by J Forster (1864), is supplemented and corrected by Gardiner's History of England, vols. v.-vii., and the article in the Dict. Nat. Biog, by the same author. Eliot's writings, together with his Letter-Book, have been edited by Dr Grosart.
This entry is updated from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.