The parliament that George Skutt joined in December 1645 was a remarkable one. It had been in session since 1640 during which time it had broken with the King and lost a third of its members to the King’s Oxford Parliament. These were later replaced by ‘recruiter’ members, Skutt being one. It had financed and conducted a civil war, being the first parliament to raise taxes without royal consent and some of its reforms were to provide a basis for later constitutional monarchy.
After the defeat of the King in 1646, various factions contended to determine his fate and the future direction of the country. The army and the Levellers were involved in debates at Putney in 1647, which were so radical as to alarm leaders such as Cromwell and Ireton. By late 1648, the army had lost faith in negotiations with the King and when Parliament voted to accept his terms, they staged the coup known as Pride’s Purge. On 6th December, Col. Pride’s Regiment of Foot was stationed at the entrance to the House to detain members known to favour accommodation with Charles. Some were imprisoned, to be released a few days later. The membership of the House was reduced from 507 to 200, paving the way for the King’s trial and execution the following month.
George Skutt was one of those ‘secluded’ at Pride’s Purge or earlier and he may be the ‘GS’ who wrote letter addressed to Sir John Evelyn ‘from an ejected member of the House of Commons’. The letter is powerfully written and gives a vivid if partisan view of those few years of political turmoil. The writer describes the pride of each member on taking his seat ‘flattering himself in the honour of being a publique Champion for the almost captiv’d liberty and interest of England’. For GS, the euphoria did not last long as he found himself at odds with many of the other members and exasperated by the endless squabbles, debates and speeches. At late night sessions when the people imagined ‘their Gallant wise Members . . to sit up late anights, making them good Lawes’ he depicts them instead ‘drawing swords about the candles’.
In the eyes of GS, pamphleteers and Levellers like John Lilburne, William Prynne, John Bastwick and others were men of perpetually turbulent spirit. He believed in the future of the monarchy above ‘all the lofty Titles of Members, Chair-men, Committee-men and whatsoever other Offices and Dignities’. It was not surprising therefore that he found himself among the members ejected from a Parliament which he described as ‘neither just, free nor compos mentis’.
Whether George Skutt and GS were one and the same or not, Skutt’s opinions may well have been similar to the writer of the letter. Returning to Poole after a rather bruising experience of national politics, Skutt would have been sensitive to political currents in his home town. Lt. Col. John Rede, the new military governor of Poole, had been appointed with the good will of the inhabitants who vowed in 1649 to ‘assist, maintaine and ioyne with the present Governor . . . in the preservation of this Garrison and Castle of Brownsea’. Among the signatories were William Skutt and George Skutt junior, and Henry Harding (then mayor). As time went by however, relations soured as the town authorities felt that Rede had overstepped his authority. They were also suspicious of his apparent preference for ‘exorbitant Levellers and Raunters’. By March 1651, the mayor, William Williams, was petitioning the Council of State on behalf of the inhabitants to remove Rede and restore Col. Bingham as governor. George Skutt senior and junior and William Skutt were among those signing.
The background to this change of opinion and the confrontation that followed is the subject of John Rees’s recent talk (see the previous post). On the strength of the petition, George Skutt junior now pulled various strings to get himself installed as governor and on 23rd April arrived in Poole to confront John Rede, armed with a letter from Dennis Bond of Dorchester, a member of the Council, and a commission from Col. James Hearne, Governor of Weymouth. Rede at first refused to surrender the garrison without a direct order and had two companies of soldiers drawn up near the towngate to whom he explained the situation. As Rede left to seek more information from the Council, Major Skutt appealed to the troops for their support, first to be met by an embarrassing silence and then a grudging acceptance. However his installation as governor was delayed by a counter appeal from John Rede and the appointment of Lt. Col. Joseph Hunkins as interim governor while the matter was sorted out.
The garrison of 1651 which Major Skutt eventually commanded was made up of two companies of foot, consisting of 160 private soldiers and their officers, a marshal, a chief gunner, two mates, five quarter gunners and a chirurgion or surgeon. There may have been some doubt over the loyalty of these troops whose pay was in arrears, as Major Gen. Desborow was ordered by the Council of State to replace them with two fresh companies. Loyal troops would certainly be needed in the next few years.
Meanwhile, George Skutt junior was involved in other business, obtaining a contract to transport wheat and malt to Ireland and taking a lease of Brownsea Island from the Earl of Salisbury. This was for 99 years and 3 lives, himself, his daughter, Mary and his nephew, Henry Harding. As mayor in 1652/3, he was required to impress seamen and reported that he had read out the resolutions of Parliament ‘by beat of drum’ to encourage them. William Skutt seems to have concentrated more on the brewing side of the family business, renting the Three Mariners Inn in Market Street from the corporation. At some stage he also bought the George in High Street (now Scaplen’s Court) and a small inn next door called the Plume of Feathers from his cousin Thomas Roberts junior.
In the autumn of 1653 there was an insurrection in Dorset and an attempt to surprise the town of Poole which revealed a split between the oldest Skutt brothers. On 29th August, the Council of State resolved to send a letter of thanks to Major George Scutt for his service and give him a commission to take charge of Brownsea Castle with 12 men from Col. Pride’s regiment, and in the same day’s proceedings ordered Major William Skutt to be arrested and brought up for questioning. However the case against William must not have been too serious because he was soon released on his own bond.
George Skutt senior was by this time over 70 and apparently taking less part in public affairs. In December 1653 he made his will and soon after died. His will was a typically businesslike document in its provisions for his widow Jane and 11 surviving children. It also revealed him to be an extremely wealthy man. William inherited the house in which he lived, after the death of George’s widow, and another dwelling house and brewhouse with all its brewing equipment. George junior received land at Sterte and a cellar (storehouse) and lofts near the Quay. As partners in the business ‘consisting of parts of shipping and adventures at sea’, William and George would also receive their father’s share of the stock and proceeds and the residue of his estate. As for his younger children, Thomas and Gregory received £500 each and Benjamin and Joseph, £450 each. His unmarried daughter, Sarah inherited £400, his married daughters, Anna, Mary, Judith and Jane, £100 apiece and all his grandchildren 20s. Jane his widow received all the household goods and stock of his farm at Thickfurzes (Heckford) and £40 a year. To fund these legacies his executors were instructed to sell his house at Grey’s Inn, London and use some of the £3000 of public faith debts owing to him which were to be shared between William, George and Jane senior. His executors were to be his sons-in-law, James Horwood, Robert Boucher and Andrew Kerby.
For decades and throughout the turmoil of the Civil War, George Skutt had been a dominant figure in the business, trade and public affairs of the town and his death was an event of significance to all. The next chapter in this turbulent century now belonged to the younger generation.
Next in the story of the Skutts:- Slaves, kings and legal battles.