Engraved portrait of Sir John Gell (1593-1671), Hopton Hall, Hopton, nr Wirksworth, c 1800?
About this image
The text beneath the image reads:
"To Philip Gell of Hopton Esq. This portrait engraved from the original painting in his possession is gratefully and respectfully inscribed by his obliged and obedient servant, Thomas Blore."
Sir John Gell was born at Hopton Hall, near Wirksworth in Derbyshire in 1593, to Thomas Gell and Millicent Sacheverell. His father owned a large estate in the Wirksworth area, largely based on extensive interest in the lead industry, which included possession of the lead tithes in the mines of Bakewell, Hope and Tideswell. His father died shortly before the birth of a second son in 1594 and his mother married John Curzon, of Kedleston Hall, soon afterwards.
Until his return to Hopton in 1620, Gell lived with his mother and step-father at Kedleston. This proved significant to his later political career as he formed a close relationship with his step-brother, John Curzon, who became an influential MP.
Gell was married in 1611, at the precocious age of 15, to Elizabeth Willoughby, daughter of Sir Percival Willoughby of Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire. In 1624 Gell was appointed captain of foot in the trained bands, or militia, in the hundreds (administrative areas) of High Peak and Scarsdale. During a decade or more as a militia captain Gell learned how the military was organised in Derbyshire. He became familiar with the rank and file and their officers and with the minutiae of training and command. This knowledge and expertise was soon to be put to use. Gell's next public appointment was shared with his brother, Thomas, who was a well-connected barrister in London. This was the office of Receiver and Supervisor of the Honour of Tutbury, granted in 1632 successively, for life, to Thomas, and to John and his son, John Gell the younger.
The Honour of Tutbury was the name given to the Derbyshire and Staffordshire estates of the Duchy of Lancaster, a royal possession, and Thomas was responsible for collecting Duchy rents and dues, including fees payable whenever a Duchy tenancy was transferred by sale or inheritance. Armed with a schedule of property on which inheritance fees were outstanding, Thomas Gell ordered that defaulters' property should be seized in lieu of unpaid Duchy rents. At a time when the king, Charles I, was governing without a Parliament, and was desperately short of money, the Gells' revenue raising earned them Royal favour. John Gell was rewarded by appointment to the post of High Sheriff of Derbyshire for the year 1635.
Gell's year as High Sheriff was politically important because one of his duties was to raise the tax known as Ship Money, levied for the first time in 1635. Ship Money had previously been levied on coastal towns and its extension to inland areas caused resentment which contributed toward the gathering estrangement between Charles I and Parliament. In Derbyshire Gell set about raising the tax with a thoroughness which made him many personal enemies, especially among those of his own class, who paid the highest rates. Gell was ruthless in using 'distraint' - confiscation of assets - against non-payers, and succeeded in raising more for the king than subsequent sheriffs.
Gell's record of service to the crown was rewarded by the grant of a baronetcy in 1642. The honour may have been designed to secure Gell's loyalty to the Crown in the conflict with Parliament which by then seemed inevitable. However Gell, a Presbyterian, was opposed to the king's attempts to reform the church on High Church lines and to his political absolutism, and chose Parliament.
He was commissioned as Colonel to raise a regiment in Derbyshire and throughout the First Civil War, between 1642 and 1646, managed to maintain the county's allegiance to Parliament. Units of his regiment fought engagements in the neighbouring counties of Staffordshire and Nottinghamshire and took part in the siege of Chester. Among the more important engagements in which the Derbshire troops were involved were the siege of Lichfield and the battle of Hopton Heath, in which the royalists suffered the loss of the Earl of Northampton.
Gell was appointed Governor of Derby in 1643. Gell had an irascible nature and a dictatorial way with both his regiment and his colleagues in the county administration which made enemies and provoked complaints to Parliament. He also became disaffected with the Parliamentary commanders in the Northern and East Midlands regions and was out of sympathy with the political direction taken by the regime which emerged after the king's surrender in 1646.
A further cause of disillusionment for Gell was Parliament's reluctance to compensate him for losses he incurred in fighting the war. In 1646 his regiment was disbanded and he was relieved of all appointments; two years later he moved permanently to London, having previously transferred his estate to his son John. In London he made contact with the king, asking pardon for his part in the war and making a gift of £300.
In 1650 he was tried and found guilty of 'misprision' of treason, ie of knowing of a royalist plot and not revealing it to the authorities. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and confiscation of his estates. The authorities were thwarted in their attempt to confiscate the Hopton estate since John Gell the younger was able to prove its transfer to himself.
Gell was imprisoned in the Tower of London but released in 1653 on grounds of ill health; he took no further part in politics during the Commonwealth period. He was pardoned by Charles II at the Restoration in 1660 and given an appointment at the royal court.
Gell's wife Elizabeth had died in 1644 and in December 1647 Gell had remarried. His second wife was Mary Stanhope, widow of one of his Derbyshire enemies, Sir John Stanhope of Elvaston. Gell had harried Stanhope for payment of Ship Money and, according to another of his enemies, had defaced the Stanhope monument in Elvaston church and had wrecked Mary Stanhope's garden under a pretext of searching for arms. This unlikely alliance lasted less than a year and the couple separated in late 1648. Mary died in 1653. Gell died on 26th October 1671; his body was carried in procession back to Wirksworth where he was buried in the church there.
This image is one of a collection by the famous local antiquarian, Thomas Bateman, of Middleton by Youlgreave. (1821-1861). Bateman organized his collection by inserting them into a 4 volume copy of Lysons Magna Britannia, Derbyshire, creating a fascinating and unique illustrated record of the county. The purchase of the collection for Derbyshire Libraries was made possible by the generous bequest of Miss Frances Webb of Whaley Bridge, well known local historian, who died in December 2006.