Ashburnham, John 1603-1671, royalist, was the eldest son of Sir John Ashburnham by Elizabeth, daughter of Sir Thomas Beaumont. Sir John died in 1620, having wasted his estate, and leaving his family in penury. But within two years his heir had so far repaired their broken fortune, that (says the epitaph in Ashburnham church, Sussex) there were none of them but were in a condition rather to be helpful to others than to want support themselves.
Elizabeth Beaumont was of the same family as Lady Villiers, mother of the Duke of Buckingham, and under Buckingham's patronage began the court career of John Ashburnham. In 1627 he was already known to the king, who styled him Jack Ashburnham in his letters to the duke. In 1628 he was elected M.P. for Hastings. The murder of Buckingham in that year did not injure his fortunes; he was in November sworn into the place of groom of the bedchamber. The Calendars of State Papers contain ample evidence that he and his friend, the secretary Nicholas, omitted few of the many opportunities given them by their position at court to enrich themselves by money-lending or by the purchase of land at easy rates. In 1638 the Star-chamber fine of two thousand marks, inflicted on Sir Walter Long and his brother, was assigned to Ashburnham in satisfaction of so much due from his majesty to him, and in December of the next year a warrant under the privy seal enabled him to regain his ancestral estate of Ashburnham, which had become a ruinous burden to its actual possessors. If the dates assigned in the printed calendars be correct, Ashburnham had not obtained the favour of this warrant until six years after his petition for it. His friends, Nicholas and Goring, were very careful of his interest (as he himself acknowledges), in promoting his appointment as provided to the army then in preparation for Scotland (January 1640). Their success prevented his election for Hastings when the commons were summoned in April, only to be dissolved in May; but he was returned for that place in November, when the failure of the war, the necessities of the king, and the exasperation of the people, had rendered inevitable the meeting of anotheróthe Longóparliament. No speech of his is recorded, but his name frequently occurs as on committees, or as a teller on divisions, during the earlier sessions of that assembly. As time went on, his two functions of member of parliament and servant of the king became incompatible, and when his attendance on his master prevented his obeying the summons of the house, he was proceeded against for contempt (6 May 1642). The king wrote a letter to the commons in his justification, but the house maintained its prior right to the obedience of its member. Ashburnham was discharged and disabled (5 Feb. 1643-4), his estate was sequestrated (14 Sept.), and his wife's petition for some allowance for his children was rejected. He became the treasurer and paymaster of the king's army. For the next three years his name occurs in several negotiations for peace. He was one of the commissioners at Uxbridge (1644), and one of the four appointed to lay the king's proposals before parliament (December 1645). When Fairfax prepared to besiege Oxford, and Charles determined upon flight, Ashburnham and Dr. Hudson were the sole attendants of the king in the perilous journey to the Scotch camp. Hudson was released, and his troubled life was ended by his barbarous murder (6 June 1648). Ashburnham was positively commanded by the king to fly before confirmation of the order to send him up to London as a delinquent could be received. He got safely to Holland, and thence to the queen at Paris. In 1647 the king's fortune seemed upon the turn. The army had taken possession of him at Holmby, had treated him with respect, and allowed him to have what servants about him he pleased. Ashburnham resumed his attendance on his master at Hampton Court. But the army leaders changed their tone. Charles was haunted by the dread of assassination. He was constantly receiving warnings, anonymous and avowed, that his murder was resolved upon. At Ashburnham's suggestion he made proposals to the Scotch commissioners for his sudden journey to London and personal treaty with the parliament. But the arrangement fell through, the commissioners dreading the responsibility. Charles, resolved to stay no longer in Hampton Court and impatient to be gone, commanded Ashburnham and his other confidants, Sir John Berkeley and Legge, to propose some place for him to go to. Ashburnham mentioned Sir John Oglander's house in the Isle of Wight as a place where the king might be concealed till the disposition of the governor of the island, Colonel Robert Hammond, could be ascertained. If Hammond were not to be trusted, the fugitive could secretly take ship for France. There was nothing impracticable in the plan, but its success depended upon keeping the royal whereabout from the knowledge of Hammond, until the governor had fully engaged himself to respect the king's liberty of action. This particular was neglected, and the secret divulged by Berkeley. The governor, having given assurances of loyalty, was taken to the house wherein Charles was awaiting the result of the interview. When informed of his approach, the king exclaimed, O Jack, thou hast undone me! The foreboding was true. Refusing the desperate offer of Ashburnham to make all safe by killing Hammond, Charles again became virtually a prisoner.
His share in this transaction exposed Ashburnham to the suspicions of the royalists, and his explanation, printed in 1648, was of necessity so guarded as to be ineffective. A full narrative drawn up by him and shown to many of his contemporariesóClarendon among the restóremained unpublished until 1830, when his descendant, Lord Ashburnham, printed it with full elucidation, and accompanied it with a complete, caustic commentary on all the passages wherein Clarendon has made mention of the writer. The reputation of Ashburnham is cleared, and the treachery and malevolence of the noble historian are exposed with unsparing severity. Ashburnham was parted from his master by order of the parliament 1 Jan. 1648, was imprisoned in Windsor Castle (May), and when the second civil war broke out was exchanged for Sir William Masham. He was not allowed to attend the king during the treaty at Newport (August), and was included among the delinquents who were to expect no pardon (13 Oct.). His position after the king's death was unenviable. He had acquired an estate by his second marriage with the Dowager Lady Poulett (1649), and Charles II gave him permission to stay in England to preserve it. The loyal party suspected his fidelity, and (March 1650) in a memorial to the king asked whether they might trust him. He was harassed by the victors. He was sued for debts contracted for the late king. He was forced to compound for one half of his estate, an unparalleled severity. He was bound in heavy securities to appear, when required, before the council of state. His private journeys were licensed by a pass from the same authority. For three years he was so persecuted by committees to discover who had lent the king money during the wars that I had scarce time to eat my bread. Five years more, he continues, were spent in close imprisonment at London, and three banishments to Guernsey Castle, the cause being for sending money to his majesty. In a list of the Tower prisoners furnished by Colonel Barkstead (2 June 1654), John Ashburnham appears as prisoner for high treason; but this is probably a slip for William, who was at that time in custody for complicity in the plot of Gerard and Vowel. John's case was (27 Dec. 1655) referred to the major-generals of the counties where his estate lay. At the Restoration Ashburnham came back to his old place of groom of the bedchamber. Of his zeal therein Pepys makes a half-pathetic record (2 Sept. 1667), recalling Shakespeare's Adam and the goodly service of the antique world. The same authority elsewhere mentions him as a pleasant man, one who hath seen much of the world and more of the court. Of the Hampton Court business, Pepys notes that, after solemnly charging each other with its failure, and being publicly at daggers drawn about it, Ashburnham, Berkeley, and Legge are now the best friends in the world. Besides his place Ashburnham received what acknowledgment of his loyalty the royal treasury, impoverished by many claimants, could afford. He was (September 1661) the head of a commission to inquire into the abuses in the post office. His house at Chiswick, with its contents, was purchased by the king for the Duke of Monmouth, of whom (January 1665) he was made one of the guardians. His loans to Charles I were paid by grants of crown leases, but his schemes for the acquisition of land do not appear to have run so smoothly as in the former reign. The dean and chapter of Exeter are menaced (November 1662) with the royal displeasure if they carry out their projected lease to John Ashburnham or to any other. He was M.P. for Sussex from 1661 till his expulsion in 1667 for taking a bribe of 500l. from French merchants. He and his brother William shared in an enterprise for reviving the manufacture of tapestry at Mortlake (1667). Ashburnham died in 1671. His grandson was raised to the peerage in 1689. His portrait by Mytens has been engraved as a frontispiece to his Narrative quoted above.
Narrative, edited by Lord Ashburnham, 1830
Cal. State Papers, Dom.
Contributor: R. C. B. [Richard Charles Browne]