By his father's death, when he was still a child, he became the owner of a large estate and a ward of the crown. He was educated at the Grammar School at Thame, and on March 30 1610 became a commoner of Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1613 he was admitted as a student of the Inner Temple. He first sat in parliament for the borough of Grampound, Cornwall in 1621, later representing Wendover in the first three parliaments of Charles I, Buckinghamshire in the Short Parliament of 1640, and Wendover again in the Long Parliament.
In the early days of his parliamentary career he was content to be overshadowed by John Eliot, as in its later days he was content to be overshadowed by John Pym and to be commanded by Essex. Yet it is Hampden, and not Eliot or Pym, who lives in the popular imagination as the central figure of the English Revolution in its earlier stages. It is Hampden whose statue rather than that of Eliot or Pym has been selected to take its place in Westminster as the noblest type of the parliamentary opposition, as Falkland's has been selected as the noblest type of parliamentary royalism.
Something of Hampden's fame no doubt is owing to the position which he took up as the opponent of ship money. But it is hardly possible that even resistance to ship money would have so distinguished him but for the mingled massiveness and modesty of his character, his dislike of all pretences in himself or others, his brave contempt of danger, and his charitable readiness to shield others as far as possible from the evil consequences of their actions. Nor was he wanting in that skill which enabled him to influence men towards the ends at which he aimed, and which was spoken of as subtlety by those who disliked his ends.
During these first parliaments Hampden did not, so far as we know, speak in public debate, but he was increasingly employed in committee work, for which he seems to have had a special aptitude. In 1626 he took an active part in the preparation of the charges against Buckingham. In January 1627 he was bound over to answer at the council board for his refusal to pay the forced loan. Later in the year he was committed to the gatehouse, and then sent into confinement in Hampshire, from which he was liberated just before the meeting of the third parliament of the reign, in which he once more rendered useful but unobtrusive assistance to his leaders. When the breach came in 1629 Hampden was found corresponding with the imprisoned Eliot, discussing with him the prospects of the Massachusetts Bay colony. Hampden was one of the persons to whom the earl of Warwick granted land in Connecticut, but for the anecdote which relates his attempted emigration with Cromwell there is no foundation. It was not until 1637, however, that his resistance to the payment of ship money gained him wide fame. Seven out of the twelve judges sided against him, but the connection between the rights of property and the parliamentary system became firmly established in the popular mind. The tax had been justified, says Clarendon, who expresses his admiration at Hampden's "rare temper and modesty" at this crisis, "upon such grounds and reasons as every standerby was able to swear was not law" (Hist. i. 150, vii. 82).
In the Short Parliament of 1640 Hampden stood forth amongst the leaders. He guided the House in the debate on May 4 in its opposition to the grant of twelve subsidies in return for the surrender of ship money. Parliament was dissolved the next day, and on the 6th an unsuccessful search was made among the papers of Hampden and of other chiefs of the party to discover incriminating correspondence with the Scots. During the eventful months which followed, when Strafford was striving in vain to force England, in spite of its visible reluctance, to support the king in his Scottish war, rumour has much to tell of Hampden's activity in rousing opposition. It is likely enough that the rumour is in the main true, but we are not possessed of any satisfactory evidence on the subject.
In the Long Parliament, though Hampden was by no means a frequent speaker, it is possible to trace his course with sufficient distinctness. His power consisted in his personal influence, and as a debater rather than as an orator. "He was not a man of many words," says Clarendon, "and rarely began the discourse or made the first entrance upon any business that was assumed, but a very weighty speaker, and after he had heard a full debate and observed how the House was likely to be inclined, took up the argument and shortly and clearly and craftily so stated it that he commonly conducted it to the conclusion he desired; and if he found he could not do that, he never was without the dexterity to divert the debate to another time, and to prevent the determining anything in the negative which might prove inconvenient in the future" (Hist. iii. 31). Unwearied in attendance upon committees, he was in all things ready to second Pym, whom he plainly regarded as his leader.
Hampden was one of the eight managers of Strafford's prosecution. Like Pym, he was in favour of the more legal and regular procedure by impeachment rather than by attainder, which at the later stage was supported by the majority of the Commons; and through his influence a compromise was effected by which, while an attainder was subsequently adopted, Strafford's counsel were heard as in the case of an impeachment, and thus a serious breach between the two Houses, which threatened to cause the breakdown of the whole proceedings, was averted.
There was another point on which there was no agreement. A large minority wished to retain episcopacy, and to keep the Book of Common Prayer unaltered, whilst the majority were at least willing to consider the question of abolishing the one and modifying the other. On this subject the parties which ultimately divided the House and the country itself were fully formed as early as February 8 1641. It is enough to say that Hampden fully shared in the counsels of the opponents of episcopacy. It is not that he was a theoretical Presbyterian, but the bishops had been in his days so fully engaged in the imposition of ceremonies regarded by the Puritans as verging on Papacy that it was difficult, if not impossible, to dissociate them from the cause in which they were embarked. Closely connected with Hampden's distrust of the bishops was his distrust of monarchy as it then existed. The dispute about the church therefore soon attained the form of an attack upon monarchy, and, when the majority of the House of Lords arrayed itself on the side of episcopacy and the Prayer Book, of an attack upon the House of Lords as well.
No serious importance therefore can be attached to the offers of advancement made from time to time to Hampden and his friends. Charles would gladly have given them office if they had been ready to desert their principles. Every day Hampden's conviction grew stronger that Charles would never surrender a position which he had taken up. In August 1640 Hampden was one of the four commissioners who attended Charles in Scotland, and the king's conduct there, connected with such events as the "Incident", must have proved to a man far less sagacious than Hampden that the time for compromise had gone by. He was therefore a warm supporter of the Grand Remonstrance, and was marked out as one of the five impeached members (the others being Pym, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles and William Strode) whose attempted arrest brought at last the opposing parties into open collision. In the angry scene which arose on the proposal to print the Grand Remonstrance, it was Hampden's personal intervention which prevented an actual conflict, and it was after the impeachment had been attempted that Hampden laid down the two conditions under which resistance to the king became the duty of a good subject. Those conditions were:
When the English Civil War began, Hampden was appointed a member of the committee for safety, levied a regiment of Buckinghamshire men for the parliamentary cause, and in his capacity of deputy-lieutenant carried out the parliamentary militia ordinance in the county. In the earlier operations of the war he bore himself gallantly and well. He took no actual part in the Battle of Edgehill (23 October 1642). His troops in the rear, however, arrested Prince Rupert of the Rhine's charge at Kineton, and he urged Essex to renew the attack here, and also after the disaster at Brentford. In 1643 he was present at the siege and capture of Reading.
But it is not on his skill as a regimental officer that Hampden's fame rests. In war as in peace his distinction lay in his power of disentangling the essential part from the non-essential. In the previous constitutional struggle he had seen that the one thing necessary was to establish the supremacy of the House of Commons. In the military struggle which followed he saw, as Cromwell saw afterwards, that the one thing necessary was to beat the enemy. He protested at once against Essex's hesitations and compromises. In the formation of the confederacy of the six associated counties, which was to supply a basis for Cromwell's operations, he took an active part. His influence was felt alike in parliament and in the field. But he was not in supreme command, and he had none of that impatience which often leads able men to fail in the execution of orders of which they disapprove.
His precious life was a sacrifice to his unselfish devotion to the call of discipline and duty. On June 18 1643, when he was holding out on Chalgrove Field against the superior numbers of Rupert till reinforcements arrived, he received two carbine balls in the shoulder. Leaving the field he reached Thame, survived six days, and died on the 24th.
Updated from 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica