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Oliver St John
Portrait by Pieter Nason
Chief Justice of the Common Pleas
In office
Preceded byJohn Bankes
Succeeded bySir Orlando Bridgeman, 1st Bt
Solicitor General
In office
Preceded byEdward Herbert
Succeeded byThomas Gardiner
Member of Parliament
for Totnes
In office
Serving with John Maynard
Personal details
Bornc. 1598
Spouse(s)Johanna Altham, Elizabeth Cromwell

Sir Oliver St John (/ˈsɪndʒən/; c. 1598 – 31 December 1673) was an English judge and politician who sat in the House of Commons from 1640-53. He supported the Parliamentary cause in the English Civil War.

Early life

St John was the son of Oliver St John of Cayshoe and his wife Sarah Bulkeley, daughter of Edward Bulkeley of Odell, Bedfordshire and sister of Peter Bulkeley. His sister, Elizabeth St John, married Reverend Samuel Whiting and emigrated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1636.[1] He matriculated from Queens' College, Cambridge at Lent 1616, and was admitted at Lincoln's Inn on 22 April 1619. He was called to the bar in 1626.[2]

St John appears to have got into trouble with the court in connection with a seditious publication, and to have associated himself with the future popular leaders John Pym and Lord Saye. In 1638 he defended John Hampden, along with co-counsel Robert Holborne, on his refusal to pay Ship Money, on which occasion he made a notable speech which established him as a leading advocate. In the same year, he married as his second wife, Elizabeth Cromwell, a cousin of Oliver Cromwell, to whom his first wife also had been distantly related. The marriage led to an intimate friendship with Cromwell.[3]

Political career

In April 1640, St John was elected Member of Parliament for Totnes in the Short Parliament. He was re-elected MP for Totnes for the Long Parliament in November 1640.[4] He acted in close alliance with Hampden and Pym, especially in opposition to the impost of Ship Money. In 1641, with a view to securing his support, the king appointed St John solicitor-general.[3] This did not prevent him from taking an active role in the impeachment of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, and in preparing the bills brought forward by the popular party in the House of Commons. As a result, he was dismissed from the office of Solicitor General in 1643. He defended the decision to proceed against Strafford by way of attainder on the simple ground that there are people who are too dangerous to be given the benefit of the law; he told the Commons: "it was never accounted cruelty or foul play for foxes and wolves to be knocked on the head." Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, although he may have voted in favour of the attainder, later denounced St. John's speech as perhaps the most barbarous and inhumane ever made in the House of Commons.

On the outbreak of the Civil War, St John became recognised as one of the parliamentary leaders. In the quarrel between the parliament and the army in 1647 he sided with the latter, and was not excluded under Pride's Purge in 1649. Throughout this period he enjoyed Cromwell's confidence.[3] Apart from Cromwell, he had few close friends: his manner was described as cold and forbidding, and he had little patience with those he regarded as less gifted than himself.

Judicial and other activities

Thorpe Hall, Peterborough

In 1648 St John was appointed Chief Justice of the Common Pleas and from then on he devoted himself to his judicial duties. He refused to act as one of the commissioners for the trial of King Charles I, and had no hand in the constitution of the Commonwealth.[3] In 1651 he went to The Hague, where he led the mission (alongside Walter Strickland, with John Thurloe acting as his secretary) to negotiate a political union between England and the Dutch Republic. The mission failed entirely, leading to the First Anglo-Dutch War.[5] In the same year he successfully conducted a similar negotiation with Scotland, after the Tender of Union. He became Chancellor of Cambridge University in 1651 and retained the post until 1660.[2]

St John built Thorpe Hall at Longthorpe in Peterborough between 1653 and 1656. He was a member of the Council of State from 1659 to 1660.

Apologia and exile

After the Restoration St John petitioned unsuccessfully to retain his office as Lord Chief Justice.[6] He published an account of his past conduct (The Case of Oliver St John, 1660), and this apologia enabled him to escape any retribution worse than exclusion from public office. He retired to his country house in Northamptonshire until 1662,[3] when he left England and went to Basel, Switzerland and afterwards to Augsburg, Germany.


St John married firstly Johanna Altham, only daughter of Sir John Altham of Latton, Essex, and by her had two sons and two daughters. In 1638 he married Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Cromwell, with whom he had two children. After her death he married, in 1645, Elizabeth Oxenbridge, daughter of Daniel Oxenbridge.[1] His son Francis was MP for Peterborough. His daughter Johanna married Sir Walter St John of Lydiard Tregoze and was the grandmother of Viscount Bolingbroke.[3] His third daughter, Elizabeth, married Sir John Bernard, 2nd Baronet and their daughter Johanna Bernard married Richard Bentley.[7]

St John belonged to the senior branch of an ancient family. There were two branches: the St Johns of Bletsoe in Bedfordshire, and the St Johns of Lydiard Tregoze in Wiltshire, both descendants of the St Johns of Stanton St John in Oxfordshire.

Oliver St John was the great-grandson of Oliver St John, who had been created Baron St John of Bletso in 1559.

A distant cousin of the 4th Baron who was created Earl of Bolingbroke in 1624, Oliver took an active part on the parliamentary side of the English Civil War, his son, the 5th Baron St. John killed at the Battle of Edgehill.[3] Oliver was a distant cousin of the King through Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso, grandmother of Henry VII, whose first husband was Sir Oliver St. John of Lydiard Tregoze (died 1437).

Fictional portrayals

Oliver St John plays a minor role in Traitor's Field by Robert Wilton, published in May 2013 by Corvus, an imprint of Atlantic Books.


  • See the above-mentioned Case of Oliver St John (London, 1660), and St John's Speech to the Lords, 7 January 1640, concerning Ship-money (London, 1640). See also:
  • Mark Noble, Memoirs of the Protectoral House of Cromwell, vol. ii. (2 vols, London, 178-7)
  • Anthony à Wood, Fasti Oxoniensis, edited by P. Bliss (4 vols., London, 1813)
  • Edward Foss, The Judges of England, (9 vols., London, 1848)
  • SR Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War (3 vols, London, 1886 1891), and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate (3 vols., London, 1894–1901)
  • Lord Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (7 vols, Oxford, 1839)
  • Thurloe State Papers (7 vols, London, 1742)
  • Edmund Ludlow, Memoirs, edited by CH Firth (2 vols, Oxford, 1894)
  • Thomas Carlyle, Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches
  • "St. John, Oliver (1598?-1673)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.


12 Annotations

First Reading

Paul Brewster  •  Link

Wheatley footnote (7-Feb-1660):
Oliver St. John born about 1598; called to the Bar as a member of Lincoln's Inn, 1626; M.P. for Totnes, 1640; Solicitor-General, January 1640-1; Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, 1648, and afterwards Lord Chief Justice of the Upper Bench. He died December 31st, 1673. His first wife, Johanna Altham, was aunt to Oliver Cromwell and to John Hampden. His second wife was Elizabeth Cromwell, first cousin to Oliver.

vincent  •  Link

Oliver St. John 6th Baron St. John Of Bletso And 2nd Earl Of Bolingbroke 1634/1687
another source…
Sir John St John (1585-1648) he lost 3 sons fighting for charles 1
Seems to be a lot of St. Johns around with titles
Ironically, Sir John's sixth son, Walter, was a Puritan and was found to be "backward in kissing the king's hand" when the Stuarts were restored to the throne in 1660. He sat on the family seat at Battersea and used Lydiard as a holiday home.
Wheatley footnote best source -googling up just confuses:

Pauline  •  Link

from L&M Companion
(?1597-1673). Lawyer and politician; related by marriage to Oliver Cromwell; 'my Lord' by virtue of his judicial office and membership of the Council of State in 1659-60. He had been a leading protagonist of the parliamentary cause against Charles I, but on becoming Chief Justice of Common Pleas in 1648 ceased to be closely involved in politics, using his judicial position and his ill health to distance himself from them. He refused to sit on the tribunal which tried the King and although accepting office from Cromwell as Councillor of State and Treasury Commissioner took little part in their proceedings. He was reputedly a 'Proctectorian' in 1659-60 but was secretly in favour of a restoration of monarchy. He was declared incapable of office in 1661, and retired into private life. In Nov. 1662--shortly after Pepys saw him at church--he went into exile in Germany.

Wim van der Meij  •  Link

Warrington also says this: [] he was properly called, after the Restoration 'My "late" Lord'

Nix  •  Link

From the Columbia Enyclopedia (6th ed.):

"St. John, Oliver -- (sn-jn), 1598?-1673, English politician. He married (1638) a cousin of Oliver Cromwell. In 1637-38 he was, by his brilliant defense of John Hampden in the ship money case, drawn into the opposition to Charles I. Although Charles appointed (1641) him solicitor general, St. John remained a conspicuous opposition leader in the Long Parliament, taking a leading part in the attainder (1641) of Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford. He supported Cromwell and the army against Parliament in 1647 and was made (1648) chief justice of common pleas. He refused to take part in the trial (1649) of Charles I. St. John was one of the commissioners who negotiated (1652) the union with Scotland. His friendship with Cromwell cooled during the Protectorate, and he cooperated with Gen. George Monck in effecting the Restoration (1660) of the monarchy. In his Case of Oliver St. John (1660) he denied complicity in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth. He was punished only with exclusion from holding office. He lived abroad after 1662."

There is a very long and interesting article on St. John in the Oxford DNB. In the "ship money case" that built his reputation, he defended the exclusive right of Parliament to levy taxes, against an effort by Charles I to impose a tax to support the Navy.

Second Reading

Bill  •  Link

Oliver St. John, one of Cromwell's Lords, and Chief Justice; and therefore, after the Restoration, properly called "My late Lord." His third daughter, Elizabeth, by his second wife, daughter of Henry Cromwell, of Upwood, uncle to the Protector, married John Bernard, who became a baronet on the death of his father, Sir Robert, and was M.P. for Huntingdon. Ob. 1689. There is a monument to his memory in Brampton Church, Huntingdonshire.
---Wheatley, 1899.

Bill  •  Link

ST. JOHN, OLIVER (1598?-1673), chief-justice; educated at Queens' College, Cambridge; barrister, Lincoln's Inn, 1626; connected with company for plantation of Providence island; counsel for Lord Saye and John Hampden in their resistance to payment of ship-money, 1637; M.P., Totnes, in Short and Long parliaments, 1640; opened attack on ship-money, 1640; solicitor-general, 1641-3; promoted bill for Strafford's attainder; drew up Root and Branch and Militia Bills; enabled by ordinance to perform duties of the attorney-general, who had joined Charles I, 1644; took solemn league and covenant; one of commissioners to treat for peace at Uxbridge, 1645; sided with army against parliament, 1647; chief-justice of common pleas, 1648; refused to act as commissioner for trial of Charles I; with Walter Strickland selected by parliament to negotiate alliance (the negotiations failed) between United Provinces and England, 1651; chancellor of Cambridge University 1651; commissioner of treasury, 1654; devoted himself exclusively to judicial duties; member of council of state, 1659 and 1660; published his 'Case' to counteract rumours as to his share in Charles I's execution and his relations with the Cromwells, and escaped punishment other than perpetual incapacitation from office, 1660; left England, 1662. He was related to Cromwell by marriage.
---Dictionary of National Biography: Index and Epitome. S. Lee, 1906.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

When Pepys saw Oliver St.John in 1662, Oliver was married to his third wife, Elizabeth Oxenbridge. She lived until 1680, but there's no note I can find as to whether they stayed together after the Restoration and during Oliver's exile which started in 1662 -- maybe he's here in Brampton saying goodbye to his daughter and family, which would account for him looking grave -- but then, he was known for looking serious.

Lady Elizabeth Oxenbridge Cockcroft Sydenham St.John seems to have died in Somerset; maybe she had nothing to do with Oliver's children by his previous marriages? Maybe she just didn't come to church today? Maybe she had left him by now? So many questions, so few answers.…

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

To clarify things, Justice Oliver "Dark Lantern" St.John, was related by marriage to Cromwell, and became one of his chief advisors. He just managed to keep his head at the Restoration.

Vincent above refers to Oliver St.John, 2nd Earl of Bolingbroke (c. 1634 – 1688), the eldest son of Sir Paulet St.John (d. 1638) and his wife Elizabeth Vaughan, who became heir apparent to his grandfather, Oliver St.John, 1st Earl of Bolingbroke, after the death of his uncle Oliver St.John, 5th Baron St.John of Bletso at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Yes, it was a big family. This Oliver is from the senior branch ... the junior branch of the St.Johns of Lydiard (which included the Villiers mob by marriage) were Royalists. They all are thought to have fought at Edgehill, on opposite sides.

On 24 November 1654, the 2nd Earl married Lady Frances Cavendish (d. 15 August 1678), the daughter of William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, by whom he had no children.

For more, see…

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Oooops ... I overstated things.
Justice Oliver "Dark Lantern" St.John, was a politician, and did not fight at Edgehill. Obviously the bloodletting amongst the cousins didn't involve ALL of them ... just a lot of them.

Third Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

Chief Justice Oliver St.John was one of the critical and influential "monarchical Cromwellians" who, in 1659, Hyde believed could be influenced into supporting the restoration of Charles II.
For an understanding of why St.John did not find favor after that Restoration, see…

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Chart showing the number of references in each month of the diary’s entries.


  • Feb
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  • May