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9th September 1680:
Henry Marten died on this date of natural causes – which was a pretty impressive achievement given the life he’d led. He was one of the politicians who signed King Charles I’s death warrant, but long before that he was already the most hated man in the British Isles if you happened to be a monarchist. Henry (known as Harry) was a republican before it became fashionable, and a loud one at that. His enemies accused him of supporting democracy and of being an atheist. The king (before he had his head cut off) loathed Marten so much that on one occasion he refused to attend a horse race at Hyde Park unless Marten was first removed: “Let that ugly rascal be gone out of the park, that whoremaster, or I will not see the sport.”
The Puritans weren’t all that keen on Marten either; he was rumoured to have spent his entire inheritance on booze and women, and he was married twice but mostly lived with his long-term mistress.
He was born in Oxford in 1602. His father was a knight, a lawyer and a diplomat, and Harry too became a lawyer. But it was for his political activism and extremist views that he became famous, before entering parliament for the first time in 1640.
What set Marten apart was his early adoption of a principle that he held to for the rest of his life: the monarchy should not be reformed, it should be abolished. Harry openly argued against one man holding power over a whole nation, and in favour of government by elected representatives, “instructed” by “the people.”
Not an enormous amount is known about his formative years, so it’s hard to guess where such radical thoughts came from. In the Commons, it was said he “did always take the part of the oppressed,” though less admiring contemporaries said he placed himself “at the head of the skumme of the people” and that he was constantly guilty of “bringing in the democraticall eliment.” In religion, he advocated freedom of conscience, including for Jews. He opposed the invasion of Ireland.
As an MP, he was almost as well known for his jokes as for his views. In response to a motion that insufficiently godly members should be expelled from the House, he argued that if all the fools were expelled as well there wouldn’t be many people left. To the proposal that “nodders” - members who, like Marten himself, were known to take naps in the chamber – should be kicked out, he countered with a suggestion to exclude the noddees, those bores who caused others to fall asleep.
His wit made him many powerful enemies, but it also helped him on occasions to persuade the House to his point of view, sometimes almost single-handedly. He was a dissident under Cromwell, who he had never trusted, just as he had been under Charles, and bankruptcy in 1655 curtailed his political influence.
It really is quite extraordinary that Harry Marten lived to old age. He was considered a rebel by all three of the regimes he lived under – the monarchy, the commonwealth and the restoration. He was jailed on several occasions, the first in 1643. He was expelled from parliament for some years for his opinions (notably that “it were better one family be destroyed” - meaning King Charles’s - “than many”), and Charles I even tried to have him prosecuted for high treason.
Even after the restoration of the monarchy - when Harry refused to flee the country but courageously remained to stand trial as a regicide, was found guilty and sentenced to death – he still, incredibly, survived. Several others were executed, some of them hanged, drawn and quartered, but public reaction to this victor’s justice was unfavourable and the remainder were given life imprisonment. Marten’s own confinement seems to have been pretty comfortable; he spent the rest of his life living with his mistress at Chepstow Castle, in a set of apartments now known as Marten’s Tower.
When death did finally come for Harry Marten, it was not exactly a peaceful passing – he choked to death on his dinner – but he had somehow avoided ever facing an executioner and had outlived most of his opponents.
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