The Controversy Over John Hampden’s Death – the Truth.

John Hampden was one of the school’s most illustrious alumni, although in truth nothing is known of his schooldays when he was enrolled as a boarder. Born in 1595 this would have been in the mid 1600s as by 1610 when fifteen, he matriculated as a commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford.

His fame comes, of course, from his opposition to the Ship Money levy, and his role as one of the leading Parliamentarians in resisting Charles I’s execution of the monarchy, which ultimately led to the Civil War (1642–1651).

Thame is said to have divided loyalties in the conflict. Oxford was the Royalists’ regional centre whereas Aylesbury was in Parliamentary hands – Thame found that it hosted both Roundheads and Cavaliers, though the antiquarian Anthony Wood who attended the school during the Civil War, thought it leaned towards the Parliamentarians, and the commander of the Roundheads, the Earl of Essex, was able to use the town and surrounding area as a camp for his troops in 1643.

On 18 June of that same year, John Hampden was mortally wounded in a skirmish between the Roundheads and troops led by Prince Rupert in a field outside the Oxfordshire village of Chalgrove. Despite his wounds, Hampden was able to leave the melee, ride to Thame and, according to tradition, seek sanctuary in the house of Ezekiel Browne (which later became the Greyhound Inn). He survived six days, but on 24 June died, most likely of tetanus and loss of blood. His friend Arthur Goodwin was probably the last person to see him alive and wrote a letter to his daughter Lady Wharton.

“He was a gallant man, an honest man, an able man, and take all, I know not to any man living second… I would lay it to heart that God takes away the best amongst us”

Two days later, he was buried in, Great Hampden church, close to his home and the ancestral family seat.

But how was Hampden mortally wounded? Two theories exist. Both agree that it was a wound sustained in the very first stage of the Chalgrove skirmish but one claims he was shot by troops loyal to the King, while the second says his wounds were the result of his own pistol exploding when being fired.

Inevitably there is no substantive evidence to make an incontrovertible and definitive conclusion either way so the purpose of this short paper is to examine the known evidence and to reach a point of view as to which of the two is more likely to be true.

We draw our conclusion at the end.

The immediate documentary evidence surrounding the circumstances of Hampden’s wounding is scant and comes down to a single piece: the letter written by the Earl of Essex, leader of the Roundhead army, to the Speaker of the House of Commons in which he mentions the wounding of Hampden. The letter was written the day after the Chalgrove skirmish but was headed ‘…the true state of the skirmish at Chinnor between the KINGS and parliaments forces…’ and gives a Parliamentary view of events that omits rather than adds detail. Perhaps most importantly Essex fails to mention Chalgrove by name, and his description of what happened to Hampden is a single sentence:

‘Colonel Hampden put himself in Captain Cross his troop, where he charged with much courage, and was unfortunately shot through the shoulder.’

A number of other accounts appeared shortly thereafter. In chronological order:


  1. A Parliamentarian news pamphlet entitled ‘A true relation of a Gret fight’ printed in London some days after the skirmish, apparently as Hampden lay wounded in Thame and before he died, claimed,

‘certain that Colonel Hampden, that noble and valiant gentleman, received a shot with a bullet behind in the shoulder, which stuck between the bone and the flesh, but is since drawn forth, and himself very cheerful and hearty, and it (through God’s mercy) more likely to be a badge of honour, than any danger of life’.

The writer was living in London and receiving various accounts but he says that he ‘shall omit uncertain reports rather than commit them to writing, which hereafter may be questionable…and write only those things which are authentic.’

In fact the pamphlet is, to all intents, a copy of Essex’s letter with some embellishment, and was not adding anything new other than hearsay. His report on Hampden was clearly erroneous or indeed ‘uncertain.’

A true relation of a great fight between the Kings forces and the Parliaments, at Chinner neer Tame on Saturday last: With the manner how the Kings forces made the assault, and by what meanes they were forced to retreat. Also in what manner Colonell Hampden is wounded, with the names of the chiefe commanders that were killed and taken prisoners on both sides: as also the firing and burning of the towne of Chinner, by the Kings forces, and many other remarkable passages concerning the said fight Published 1643, London : Printed by B. A. for Robert Wood, and Iohn Grenesmith,


  1. Mecurius Aulicus was an English newspaper, printed in Oxford by Leonard Lichfield of the Oxford University Press. At the time of Hampden’s wounding it was printed daily. On Sunday 18 June it fails to mention Hampden in its account of the skirmish (albeit it mentions other Roundhead casualties) but does so the following day on Monday 19 June,

‘Hampden himself (who did most eagerly persuade to give the order) being so sore wounded in two places, and his body so extremely bruised, that it was verily conceived he could not live.’

(Essex had not commented on the severity of the wound possibly because he did not want to be alarmist, or give the Royalists succour or perhaps when he wrote the letter he did not possess any details. In fact there is no record of Essex either having visited Hampden on his deathbed or attending the funeral.)


  1. The most detailed contemporary account of the skirmish was published by the Royalists a week or so later and printed by Leonard Lichfield (as above). His Highness Prince Rupert’s Late Beating Up the rebel quarters. However, when it comes to Hampden, it only repeats what Essex’s description of Hampden’s wounding i.e. he was shot through the shoulder (and acknowledges the source). It adds though ‘so we heard to, and the anguish of it had put him into a fever of which he is since dead.’


  1. On Saturday 24 June Merurius Aulicus published an update,

‘This day we were advertised that Master John Hampden (the Principle Member of the Five) was dead of the wounds he received on Sunday last. If so, the reader may remember that in the first week of this Mercurium we told the world what fair warning Master Hampden had received from the beginning of this rebellion (whereof he was Chief Incendiary), how he had buried his son and heir and his two daughters, two only sons surviving, whereof one was a cripple and the other a lunatic, which though this desperate man was unwilling to make use of, yet sure it may startle the rest of his faction especially if they consider that Chalgrove field (where he now received this mortal wound) was the self same place where he first mustered and men in arms to rebel against the King. But whether the life and death of Master Hampden be the better lesson against Treason and Rebellion let posterity judge.’


  1. Certaine Intelligence from different Parts of the Kingdom was printed for Parliament in London. The story published on 26 June simply says that ‘Colonel Hampden was shot into the shoulder.’


  1. The Parliament Scout communicating his intelligence to the Kingdom has a very brief account published on 27 June. After referring the reader to Essex’s letter for the full particulars of the skirmish the articles says,

‘Colonel Hampden and Sergeant Major Gunter were hurt in the first charge…Colonel Hambden (sic) who came by accident into this Skirmish and charged in Captain Croft’s Troop was shot in the shoulder but is now dead.’

It was to be some decades later before the first full scale account of the Civil War was published in the form of The History of the Rebellion by Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. This work was originally published in 1702–1704 and was not only a detailed history of the Civil War but one written by a key player. However it is not recognised for its scrupulous accuracy but none the less it became the most common source for historians and biographers to quote from over the next one hundred and fifty years or so.

Within Vol. IV, Clarendon refers to the wounding of Hampden on three separate occasions, each in a slightly different way:

‘…Colonel Hampden with a brace of pistol bullets, of which wound with very sharp pain, he died within ten days.’

In another MS, Clarendon records that Hampden ‘…received a pistol shot to his shoulder that broke the bone and put him in great torture…’

In a third iteration, he writes that Hampden ‘…shot into the shoulder with a brace of pistol bullets that brake the bone, within three weeks after died in extraordinary pain…’

Clearly he is incorrect when describing how long Hampden lingered before dying and with all the contemporary sources making it clear that Hampden died within days it is wondered why Clarendon made such an elementary mistake. (Perhaps the magazine Notes and Queries Vol VIII Dec 1853 comment that his account of the war was ‘imaginary’ was not being harsh.)

So far as is known it was another century before the the next piece of new evidence appeared: a record of Hampden’s death written by one Edward Clough sometime in 1643 but which only appeared for the first time when published in The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle May 1815 (page 395). Clough was apparently present when Hampden died – and in his account makes it clear that he was a Parliamentarian and fighting in the army.

It was sent to the Gentleman’s Magazine by someone who only identified himself as ‘A’ and who, apparently, lived in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. ‘A’ claimed it had been in possession of his family for many years.

Most of Clough’s account records Hampden’s last words and final moments but he notes that he had been injured in the arm by two carbine shots.

However, John Howard Brown in his History of Thame Grammar School in his essay on Hampden writes that the account is a ‘shameless forgery’ that was exposed by Charles Harding Firth who wrote the biography of Hampden for the early editions of the Dictionary of National Biography. Here, in reference to the Clough manuscript, he writes,

‘This, though accepted as genuine by Hampden’s biographers, is an impudent forgery, largely based on hints derived from Clarendon, and containing many words and expressions not in use in the seventeenth century. The last words attributed to Hampden (‘O Lord, save my country’) are probably copied from the somewhat similar utterance ascribed to the younger Pitt.’

As noted above, Clough’s narrative appeared in 1815 but it was not until 1832 that a new and extensive biography of Hampden appeared. Written by Lord George Greville Nugent, and using Clarendon extensively as a source – as well as Clough – it was called Some memorials of John Hampden, his party and his times. His description of Hampden’s death, as is always case due to the paucity of sources, is brief,

‘Hampden put himself at the head of the attack; but in the first charge, he received his death. He was struck in the shoulder with two carabine balls, which breaking the bone, entered his body, and his arm hung powerless and shattered by his side.’

Finally, returning to Firth. In his biography of Hampden in the National Dictionary of Biography first published in 1885, he recounts both theories without drawing any conclusions.

‘Round Hampden’s last days a number of legends have gathered and animated controversies have taken place. The precise nature of the wound which caused his death has been much discussed (e.g. Notes and Queries, 1st ser. viii. 495 646, xii. 271)… All contemporary accounts agree in ascribing his death to the consequences of a bullet-wound in the shoulder, but in the next century a report spread that it was due to the explosion of an overloaded pistol which shattered his hand. This story, said to have been related by his son-in-law, Sir Robert Pye, found its way into Echard’s ‘History’ (App. 1720) and Seward’s ‘Anecdotes’ (i. 235, ed. 1795). Its original source seems to have been a memorandum drawn up by Harley, Earl of Oxford (now in the possession of Captain Loder-Symonds of Hinton Manor, Faringdon).’

As Firth highlighted, the story of the exploding pistols first appeared in Laurence Echard’s History of England in 1720, within an Appendix to the volumes that had been published earlier. (The purpose of the Appendix was to add amendments, make apologies, corrections, and to include new items.)

In this instance he wished to add an amendment to what he had written on Page 415 Volume 2. ‘Delete the last period of the first paragraph and add these words’:

‘As his Death was a great surprise, so the manner of it was very uncommon, and

generally unknown, as I am assur’d by a great man, who says his death’s Wound proceeded from the Breaking of one of his Pistols, which happened to be more than doubly charg’d. This was one of a choice Case presented to him by his Son-in-law Sir Robert Pye, to carry on the War and at the first sight of him in his illness he cry’d out to him ‘ Ah Robin, your unhappy Present has been my ruin.’

This ‘great man’ was most likely Harley, the Earl of Oxford as Firth notes but this conclusion also reflects that of the Historical Manuscripts Commission. (They’re now part of the National Archive.)

At Hinton Waldrist Manor is kept a small collection of papers of the regicide Col. Henry Marten (1602 – 1680), two of which have been identified as coming from the house of the Harley family at Eywood in Berkshire. (The Harley’s being the Earls of Oxford.) The first is a narrative of Hampden’s death in which the wound is attributed to the bursting of his own pistol.

HMC concluded that the paper is a copy made, not with perfect accuracy but in a very legible hand, from some other paper, or, it may be, from dictation, and is probably of a date about 1720. They also believed, as already noted, that the ‘great man’ referred to in Echard’s account was the Earl of Oxford and that the Earl had sent Echard the story as a manuscript.

When the story first appeared there is no record of the Pye or Harley family or indeed anyone else objecting to it. It should be remembered that the History, quickly became the standard reference book and was certainly not an obscure volume.

The story further appeared in books and journals later in the 18 century. It is known for example that it appeared in the St James Chronicle (a newspaper) in 1761 with the embellishment that the pistol in question had been overloaded with charges due to the negligence of a hapless servant.

In this instance, its appearance in the Chronicle was recorded in Henry Pye’s Commonplace book. Henry was the great-grandson of John Pye but he also makes the note that his father, having read the piece, doubted its authenticity for the reason that the publisher of the Chronicle said he had found the story among papers belong to Lord Harley and that his father had not heard it previously. (This begs the question were the family unaware that the story had already been published forty years earlier?) There is also no extant copy of the book or Henry’s annotation.

A second appearance came in the The Memoirs of the Protectoral-house of Cromwell: Deduced from an Early Period, and Continued Down to the Present Time. Mark Noble, 1787. Noble concludes that the story is true.

William Seward in his Anecdotes Chiefly of the Present and two preceding Centuries and published in 1798 decides,

‘So little is known respecting this [Hampden] illustrious character that even the manner of his death has never been ascertained; for some persons supposing that he was wounded in the shoulder by the shot of the enemy, and other supposing that he was killed by the bursting of one of his own pistols, with which his son-in-law had presented him.’

We don’t know when Pye told his story to Harley other than he was having dinner with the Earl of Oxford and near his neighbour.

It is easy to understand why Pye had decided not to make this story public and it should also be remembered that Pye’s father – another Sir John Pye – had let Hampden down by being a reluctant Parliamentarian and had tried to reach some form of accommodation with the King. To have two black marks in the immediate decades after Hampden’s death would not have helped the reputation of the Pye family.

The two theories by the end of the 18 century were now well established and when it came to writing a new biography of Hampden, in order to settle this important question Lord Nugent, and a select party of friends, broke open what they believed to be Hampden’s grave to exhume the body and examine it.

In fact in an article complied by or under the direction of Nugent in The Gentleman Magazine August 1828, he lays out the two theories stating that the story of the exploding pistols came from the papers of Lord Oxford and gives a description of the exhumation. It is generally thought that initially Nugent wanted to disprove the story by showing that the injury on Hampden’s body was on the shoulder and not the hand. In fact by the end of the article the distinct impression is left that he has now leaning towards the exploding pistol narrative. And it is he himself who writes in reviewing the evidence gathered during his research, ‘what reliance can we place on historians when we see such contradictory statements?’

The exhumation had taken place on 21 July 1828. Whatever its purpose, the desecration of a hero’s grave was an extraordinary and gruesome undertaking. None the less this did not stop The Times being the first to recount the events, published some days later on 28 July 1828. This was an extensive and rather embellished account clearly made more sensational for the readers of the newspapers.

Besides the graphic account given in The Times others can be read across a number of journals in the 19 century but one to highlight can be found in Frederick George Lee’s, The History, description and antiquities of the Prebendal Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Thame in the county and diocese of Oxford. (Published in 1883) as it would appear to be the most objective.

“I am indebted to the late Mr WJ Bernhard-Smith barrister-at-law for the following:

On Saturday, 19 June 1828, I left London with Lord Nugent and Mr Denman, then Common Sgt of London afterwards Lord Denman. We halted at Chalfont to see the church and house where Milton had for a time resided, hence to Amersham and Aylesbury where we visited the county jail and upon that occasion I made my first and, I hope, my last appearance on the treadmill in company with the future Lord Chief Justice of England. We arrived in the evening at Lilies, Lord Nugent’s residence and on the following Monday morning started early for Great Hampden where, at the church door, we were met by the Rev Mr Brooks, the rector, Mr Grace, Lord Buckingham’s land steward, Mr C More, the eminent sculptor, Mr Coventry, and one or two other gentlemen.
After the inscriptions on several coffins had been examined, one was found about 4 feet from the surface on the right-hand south side of the communion table on which no letters were legible. It was cut open and the lead rolled back. The body was laid in a wooden shell and, upon removing the sawdust, was found to be enveloped in very numerous folds of cerecloth, which would perhaps account for its remarkable preservation. The flesh was white and firm but with no other odour than that of the surrounding earth; the features were much compressed by the weight of the bandages; the eyes were covered with white film; the beard had been shaven but that appeared a growth of about the 16th of an inch; the hair was long and flowing as the represented in the portraits of Hampden. It had been collected and tied with black ribbon at the back of the head. In colour it corresponds with the description given by Mrs Grote. I cut off a lock, which is still in my possession. As there was no surgeon present, Lord Nugent descended into the grave and endeavoured to ascertain whether there was any wound upon or near the left shoulder but it being found impossible thus to make a satisfactory examination the coffin was a raise and set upon trestles in the middle of the chancel.
The body was placed in a sitting posture with a shovel to support the head. The shoulders and arms were then carefully inspected and the result proved that Lord Nugent’s foregone conclusion that Hampden’s death was occasioned by a gunshot wound in the shoulder was at once dissipated. There did not appear any discolouration or the slightest injury to the shoulders or arms but in order to be perfectly satisfied, Nord Nugent himself with a small pocket knife borrowed from me made several incisions in the parts adjacent to the shoulder joint without finding any fracture or displacement of the bones. Lord Nugent was evidently disappointed. He did not care to establish the fact that Hampden’s death was occasioned in any other manner than by a shot from the King’s troops.
My own opinion rather leaned to the tradition related by Sir Robert Pye – Hampden’s son-in-law – that his right hand was shattered by the bursting of his pistol, and death probably ensued from lockjaw arising out of extensive injury to the nervous system.
When I took up the right hand, it was contained in a sort of funeral-glove like pocket. On a raising it, I found it was entirely detached from the arm; the bones of the wrist of the hand were much displaced and had been evidently splintered by some violent concussion. Only the ends of the fingers were held together by the ligaments. The two bones for about three inches above the wrist were without skin and flesh but there were no marks of amputation; both the bones perfect. The left hand was in a similar glove but it was firmly attached to the arm and remained so when the glove was drawn away. There were slight portions of the flesh upon the hand, the bones were complete and still held in their places by the ligaments which supported them. This remarkable difference in the condition of the hands sufficiently proves the truth of Sir Robert Pye’s relation of the causes of Hampden’s death.
The following is Sir Robert Pye’s account of Hampden’s death:

That in the action of Chalgrove Field, his pistol burst and shattered his hand in a terrible manner. He, however, rode off and got to his quarters but finding the wound mortal he sent for Sir Robert Pye then a colonel in the Parliamentary army – and who had married his eldest daughter – and told him that he looked on him in some degree accessory to his death as the pistols were present from him. Sir Robert assured him that he bought them in Paris from an eminent maker and proved them himself. It appeared on examining the other pistol that it was loaded to the muzzle with several supernumerary charges, owning to the carelessness of a servant. He was ordered to see that the pistols were loaded every morning which he did but without drawing the former charge.

Between 1828 and 1832 there was an extraordinary about turn. Nugent who believed that he had found John Hampden’s coffin does not include the story in the biography. And from being initially a convert to the exploding pistols narrative, he now refutes it. The story of the exploding pistols is ‘groundless’, he writes. Instead he merely repeats what Clarendon had written, the letter from Clough and some other incidental observations. The reason for this change of heart was not explained. And as noted earlier, he claimed to have found the commonplace book from the Pye family and the annotation that Henry Pye had discounted the story. It has to be said, that it is only Nugent who has made this discovery. Perhaps he looked back on the exhumation and was deeply embarrassed by his actions and therefore decided never to mention it again. That said, there is no indication of any outrage among the public or his friends. However when returning his support to the original hypothesis, he did not attempt to offer any new evidence or reasoning for choosing this and, has already been mentioned only wrote the briefest of descriptions culled from Clarendon.

Arguments have sallied back and forth with some claiming that this exhumation proves nothing, that the corpse was misidentified as being Hampden’s and therefore proves the story of the exploding pistols was a myth. This defies logic of course:

  1. It is perfectly possible that the corpse was not Hampden’s. If so, the exhumation proves nothing either way: it neither confirms nor negates any theory. In other words to attribute an argument either way is meritless and we are left with drawing conclusions from the earlier evidence.


  1. If the corpse was Hampden’s then it comes down to interpretation of the evidence. Doubter’s might point to The Time’s article and the supposed flaws it contains. The account in truth is clearly a dramatization of the events. Far more reliable is the account by the barrister Barhnard Smith as it has none of the fanciful content printed by The Times, and is clearly a far more considered and factual piece. In fact what you would expect from a barrister


Where are we now?

Mr R Gibbs wrote in the Record of Buckinghamshire Vol 3 printed in 1870 by the Architectural and Archaeological Society for the County of Buckingham in a chapter called the Cause of death of John Hampden covers all the above but concludes. ‘It is easy to understand that in the heat of a cavalry charge with exchange of pistol shots those engaged would not observe the precise nature of the wounds inflicted, and that his comrades seeing Hampden ‘ride away with his arm hanging by his side’ would attribute his injury to a shot fired by a Royalist…it is however probably impossible now to ascertain the cause of Hampden’s death with undoubted accuracy.’

‘The narrative, however, is so circumstantial in its details, and as an invention so purposeless, that it appears to deserve more consideration than it has hitherto received, and which it may have partly missed from no direct source for it having been hitherto distinctly traced.

Historical Manuscripts Commission, ‘The manuscripts of Capt. F.C. Loder-Symonds’, in The Manuscripts of Rye and Hereford Corporations, Etc. Thirteenth Report, Appendix: Part IV (London, 1892), pp. 378-404’

The most recent biography of Hampden was written by Professor John Adair. He wrote a separate paper in 2016 where he comes to the conclusion, for many reasons, that the story of the pistols is most likely true.

If it is true then there is an irony here. Prior to the skirmish, Hampden had hardly participated directly in any of the fighting. He played more the role of a strategist but here he was charging towards the enemy. We don’t know if he was at the head of the charge but at some point he raises his pistol to fire one of the first shots and it exploded sending shrapnel into his body very possibly into his upper arm and shoulder as well as causing severe damage to his hand. It might well have dislocated his shoulder. In other words, this story does not contradict in anyway the earlier descriptions of the mortal wound.

It also explains why he died so soon. His injuries were severe and multiple. While a single carbine shot to the shoulder might well have led to death it would have been an unfortunate and rare occurrence.

In addition, it is a story that would not offer any benefit to others. As others have concluded, Pye himself would not want it to be known. The Royalists clearly had no idea of their own on how Hampden died, although their account of Hampden’s last days was the most accurate for the simple reason that both camps were riddled with spies. For Essex, if everyone was satisfied with the simple statement he was wounded in the shoulder then he too would be happy. It was probably not a lie but it was economical with the truth, which was Essex’s way. None of the doctors either then or subsequently decided to describe their experiences but then this was not a time for making independent statements.

Bringing objectivity back to the discussion none of the early accounts tell us a lot other than:

– the wound was received in the shoulder or arm

– his body was bruised and bones broken

-possibly more than one bullet was responsible

– and it happened at the beginning of the skirmish.

We should make an underlined note that not one of the accounts tells us who was responsible for firing the shot(s) – whether those accounts were written by those faithful to the Parliamentary cause or those who were Royalists. Interestingly no one from the Royalist side came forth subsequently to make such a claim. In fact the way his death is described is brief and banal compared to the descriptions of others who fell in the skirmish.

This leaves us with the three possibilities:

– it was ‘enemy’ fire

– friendly fire (not uncommon at the time)

– self-inflicted

Our conclusion is that the mortal wound was accidentally self-inflicted by the explosion of his pistol.

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