Parliaments Politics and People seminar: Jennifer Wells, Crafting empire: republican imperialism and parliamentary policy 1647-60’

Our ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ seminar is back for a new term. Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section reports back from Jennifer Wells’ opening paper…

Jennifer Wells’ paper opened with an image of the frontispiece to Sir Anthony Weldon’s tract ‘A Cat May Look Upon a King’ (published in 1652 after Weldon’s death), which detailed the careers of several kings of England, and in particular concentrated on the perceived scandalous shortcomings of James I. By exposing the folly of kingship Weldon’s tract argued in favour of the establishment of a republic. The result, so the tract suggested, would be a marked increase in shipping and trade. During the 1650s various other authors, notably James Harrington in Oceana, also considered the theme of empire, monarchy and the benefits and problems associated with republics. What Wells’ paper proposed was that at the heart of the imperial expansion of the period following the death of Charles I was a programme closely mapped onto the precedent of the republican Roman past. She thus set out to consider how such classical republicanism served to justify English expansion in Ireland and Scotland and how the Roman model offered the new English state a template for managing their new colonies and subjugated territories.

In the course of the paper Wells employed the examples of Sallust, Tacitus and other classical authors to demonstrate how their conceptions of the Roman state were re-employed by the state-builders of the English republic. In so doing, they also followed the example of Machiavelli who in his Discourses, having rejected the models of the ancient Etruscans, and Spartans and Athenians, turned to the Roman model as the most suitable analogy for modern imperial expansionism. For the English of the 1650s the Roman republican state, built in the aftermath of the overthrow of a tyrant monarch (Tarquinius Superbus), also served as a template for their new experiment.

Wells considered how the Roman example was apposite not just in terms of the English need to acquire new territories but also in its management of subjugated areas. Thus the programme of transportation of elite families, colonization in Ireland, and imposition of a lingua franca (in this case English rather than Latin) on Scots Highlanders and Irish speakers whose first languages were differing forms of Gaelic, might also point to an emulation of the way in which the Romans sought to suppress and homogenize those within the imperial bounds.

Wells closed with a brief consideration of some of the central personalities of the period: George Monck (the future duke of Albemarle), Sir Henry Vane, Algernon Sidney and Bulstrode Whitelocke. All in differing ways exercised their influence towards the establishment of English trading or colonial ventures that also drew on classical precedents.

This was a thought-provoking opening to the term and the question and answer session was consequently both lively and lengthy. At the outset Wells had particularly invited comments on her thesis and there were a number of observations made about some of the conceptual problems she had raised; for example, the difficulties of proving that there was any particularly ‘Roman’ model in evidence, beyond the frequent employment of classical rhetoric that was all too common in a classically educated elite. It was also difficult to disentangle to what extent employment of classical models served merely to legitimize an unplanned and ad hoc series of developments rather than being the template for a particular programme. The role of Cromwell himself was raised and the all too complex realities of political society between the fall of Charles I and collapse of the regime. Many of those initially influential (like Algernon Sidney) had after all fallen from grace by the time that Cromwell had taken on the quasi-monarchical position of his later years. Perhaps most of all the various contributions pointed to the difficulties of attempting to observe in the 1650s a concept of empire distinct from both earlier (for example Tudor political rhetoric) and later (the experience of the 1670s and beyond) interpretations of state and imperial developments. The session closed with a warm invitation to the speaker to return at the end of her research and present her eventual conclusions.


Join us next week for a rather different ‘Parliaments, politics and people’ topic. Harm Kaal (Nijmegen) will speak on ‘Popular politics: the friendly match between sport and politics in the Netherlands, c.1960-1980s’.  Full details here.

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Defection, by-elections and Europe…in the 1970s.

In tomorrow’s by-election in Clacton, former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell will contest his previous seat after defection to UKIP. Carswell’s strong difference of opinion with his party over the issue of Europe has echoes of a different by-election – Lincoln in 1973 – but the parties and positions were reversed.

When Britain was applying to join the then European Economic Community (EEC) in the 1960s and 1970s it was the Labour party who were divided on the issue and had a significant minority opposed to membership. In 1971 the Conservative leader Ted Heath put the question of entry to the EEC to the Commons, and Labour MPs were instructed to vote against. This caused real issues for a number of Labour MPs, mostly on the right of the party, who were pro-European. Amongst these were some of the MPs who later formed to the Social Democrat Party in the 1980s.

Dick Taverne, MP for Lincoln, would later join the SDP, but he left the Labour party much earlier. As a committed pro-European he rebelled against the party leadership and voted for joining the EEC, and in doing so lost the support of his constituency party. In his recent interview for our oral history project, he discussed how he left the Labour party and forced a by-election, standing as an independent social democrat candidate:

And my local party was absolutely clear about it and they said: ‘If you vote for entry against the three line whip we will withdraw support’. So I did. And they did. A big battle ensued, in fact it became a national battle, because there was a Granada World in Action programme which televised a debate in which I confronted the leader of my local party, Leo Beckett, and some of his followers. In which they said ‘Didn’t we support you? Weren’t we on the door step with you?’ and I said ‘Yes you were and of course I take note of your opinions but I am not a puppet. I don’t vote as I am instructed by my party masters and I am going to vote for entry’. (You can listen to this clip, and more, on our website)

The 1973 Lincoln by-election put both local party activists and Taverne’s fellow-MPs who sympathised with his stand, but did not want to force the issue with the party, in a difficult position. He remembered that “one third of my local party joined me, which was very brave because they worked for the party all their lives, they were due to be expelled.” However, support from fellow-MPs, even quietly, was very difficult: “I got nudges of support, they’d hope I do well. I mean Roy was absolutely delighted when I won – Roy Jenkins – but he couldn’t possibly.”

Despite winning the by-election, Taverne continued to face difficulties on his return to the House of Commons. In the following extract, he remembers being viewed as a ‘traitor’ to his party, and losing that support:

Taverne won the following general election but lost his seat in October 1974. He wrote a book calling for a third, centrist party in British politics and when the SDP was formed in the 1980s he joined, now sitting in the Lords as a Liberal Democrat peer. Whilst the Clacton by-election is in very different circumstances, the vexed issue of British membership of Europe remains.


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Putting aside party controversy: party organisers and the First World War

One hundred years ago this month, the main British political parties decided to prioritise war in Europe over electoral battles. Dr Kathryn Rix, of the Victorian Commons, tells us more…

In October 1914 the Conservative Agents’ Journal urged party organisers in the constituencies that the outbreak of war made it necessary to put aside ‘party controversy and acrimony’, and ‘Keep the Flag Flying’. A similarly patriotic note was struck by the editor of the Liberal Agent, who wrote that

the complete cessation of Party strife, conceived at Westminster and loyally observed in the constituencies throughout the length and breadth of the land, receives the assent of every Liberal Agent, for in this life and death struggle, all must be for the State.

At the end of August 1914, the Chief Whips of the Liberal, Conservative and Labour parties had signed an electoral truce, agreeing that any by-elections held before January 1915 (or the end of the war, should that come sooner) would not be contested, allowing the party which previously held the seat to retain it. This agreement was subsequently extended, and greatly diminished the number of contested by-elections held between 1914 and 1918. It did not, however, eradicate electoral warfare completely. There was, for example, a contest at Merthyr Tydfil in November 1915 between rival Labour candidates. Moreover, as Martin Pugh points out, this formal truce between the parties masked their continued antagonism: when matters such as the shape of the post-war electoral franchise were raised, the rival parties still ‘manoeuvred for advantage’.

The political ceasefire prompted by the outbreak of war had other effects, such as the granting of an amnesty to suffragettes who had been imprisoned, and the suspension of militant activity by the Women’s Social and Political Union. The curtailing of party hostilities extended to municipal level also. The Conservative Agents’ Journal reported in October 1914 that in several towns, including Manchester, Rochdale, Salford and Bury, the three main parties had agreed to discourage contests for local council seats.

For constituency agents, September and October were usually busy months, when the annual registration courts took place. These revised the lists of voters drawn up by the local overseers. The political parties played an important part in this process, collecting information to ensure that as many of their supporters were registered as possible, and objecting to the claims of political opponents. Much of the preparatory work was done over the summer, and in many constituencies, agents carried out their duties in the registration courts in autumn 1914 as before, working on the assumption that a general election would take place in 1915 as planned. In some constituencies, a more conciliatory note was struck, and rival agents made agreements not to lodge objections to political opponents, ‘as evidence of patriotic feeling’.

The danger that men who were fighting for their country might lose their votes (the franchise being based in part on twelve months’ residence) had already prompted the government to act swiftly to pass the Electoral Disabilities (Removal) Act soon after the outbreak of war. Based on a similar measure passed in 1900 during the Boer War, it provided that ‘members of the Reserve, Militia, Yeomanry, and Territorial Forces’ should not be excluded from the electoral register ‘by reason of absence on the Naval or Military service of the Crown’.

In July 1915 the situation changed significantly for party organisers when a measure was passed to postpone the next general election and suspend work on the parliamentary electoral registers. Speaking in favour of this bill, the Glasgow MP Thomas McKinnon Wood informed the Commons that Scottish Liberal agents had told him that ‘We are all engaged in recruiting work or thrift work, and we do not want to make a useless register this year’. However, although registration work was curtailed, party organisers were keen that political activity in the constituencies should not cease entirely. The professional party agents were naturally concerned to prevent the winding down of party organisation and the consequent loss of their salaries. Later that year, the Liberal Whips sent a circular to the chairmen of local Liberal associations urging them

as far as possible to keep the organisation alive by the retention of your Agent, who has many duties in the working of the constituency beyond registration, and who, during war time, is called upon to undertake much unpaid public work.

From the very beginning of the war, agents had set aside their political duties to help the war effort. The Liberal Agent in January 1915 printed a ‘Roll of Honour’ of agents who had enlisted. Among those who saw active service were Major Charles Tippett, formerly Conservative agent for Sudbury in Suffolk, who was killed at Gallipoli in August 1915. Major Thomas Bagley, another Conservative agent, who had been secretary to the Tariff Reform League, died of dysentery on his way home from Salonika, and was buried in Greece in November 1915. Serving at Ypres, Sergeant-Major J.C. Nicholson, a former bank clerk who was Conservative agent for Doncaster, 1904-8, and then for North-West Staffordshire, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in March 1916,

For conspicuous gallantry on all occasions, especially when in charge of wire parties. He has also performed excellent work in repairing parapets under heavy fire, and has invariably shown a marked devotion to duty.

Other agents contributed through work for bodies such as the Red Cross and in the recruiting campaign. The chief Liberal agent, Sir Robert Hudson, led the way, overseeing the collection and administration of almost £17 million for the British Red Cross Society. In July 1915, Sir Harry Samuel praised the ‘splendid’ endeavours of Liberal, Conservative and Labour agents in the recruiting campaign, for which their organisational skills and local knowledge of their constituencies were clearly useful. At national level, the chief professional organisers of the parties became joint secretaries of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, deploying the machinery of party organisation, such as offices, clerical staff and canvassers, to undertake this crucial work. While the party truce may have curtailed the need for the usual work of electioneering and registration, party organisation was by no means redundant. And with the appointment in 1916 of the Speaker’s Conference to discuss post-war registration and electoral reform, party organisers began to think about a new political landscape in which their electoral battles, in abeyance for the duration of the war, would resume.


Recommended reading:

Martin Pugh, Electoral reform in war and peace, 1906-18 (1978)

John Ramsden, The Age of Balfour and Baldwin 1902-1940 (1978)


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Magna Carta in Coventry

The wonderful Public Catalogue Foundation website discussion strand, Art Detective, has been hosting a discussion about this picture at St Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry. There’s documentary evidence about when the picture was painted, though it is rather confusing: an entry in the city’s accounts for 1626 says ‘Payd for making of the pictures of King James & King Charles for the hall £6.’ There is also a reference to a picture of the (or a) king in the city’s accounts in 1661:

Laid out for the city in London, for the kings arms in oil and gold, and the frame £3; for ditto., in water colours, eight feet large25s; for the two kings’ pictures with the frames £5 10s; for three cases to bring them all down in, 12s 10d.

This is confusing, as it may or may not refer to the same two pictures as the 1626 entry, and may refer to a new picture or an old one being restored (and framed).

The discussion contains much speculation about what the picture is based on. It doesn’t seem to me much to resemble the usual Van Dyck portraits of Charles I, in fact. It seems more closely to resemble this print, though there are plenty of differences too:

Portrait of Charles I enthroned, engraving © Trustees of the British Museum

Portrait of Charles I enthroned, engraving © Trustees of the British Museum

But the really interesting thing is the existence of the Magna Carta scroll. Given that Sir Edward Coke, the great popularizer of Magna Carta, was recorder of Coventry from 1614 until his death in 1634 and also the town’s MP in 1624 and 1625 (though in the latter year he finally sat for Norfolk) this seems very significant. It may well be linked to arguments surrounding the Petition of Right in 1628, and to the king’s more emollient answer to the Petition on 7 June than on previous occasions. But it’s also possible that it is linked to the complex dispute over Coventry’s parliamentary election in March 1628, which is heard in the House of Commons on 9 April, with Coke, as the town’s recorder, supporting the case of the opponents of the corporation (who were also opponents of the Forced Loan of 1626, a key element of the dispute which led to the Petition of Right and much citation of Magna Carta). Full details and discussion of this dispute can be found in our article on Coventry in this period.


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Back to the future: Scottish parliaments in context

In the last of our series of blogposts on Anglo-Scottish relations, Dr Alastair Mann, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, describes the Scottish Parliament project…

As we approach the momentousness of the 2014 referendum for Scottish independence the past seems to collide with the future in the oddest of ways. Seven years ago, in 2007/8, the Scottish Parliament Project, based at St Andrews University, launched the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, (RPS)  a vast online resource that traces the records of Scotland’s old parliament from before Wallace and Bruce to the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. A great watershed in the History of Scotland and the British Isles, the merging of two sovereign parliaments such that the states of Scotland and England ceased to exist and embraced a marriage of political, economic and religious convenience, was now marked by a digitised edifice. This monument to the past, of 500 years and of 16 million words of surviving legislation and minutes, is a vital source for students and researchers; it is free to use. It is the most detailed cross-section of the lives and concerns of medieval and early modern people of Scotland. The National Records of Scotland (Edinburgh) now host the website.

2007 saw RPS launched at the end of a ten year project which began when Michael Forsyth, Conservative Secretary of State for Scotland, agreed to fund the research following an approach made by the project director, Professor Keith Brown, in June 1996. Only four weeks later John Major, then Prime Minster, announced in the House of Commons that the project would be funded. The context was that the Labour opposition, under Tony Blair’s leadership, was committed to establishing a devolved parliament in Edinburgh if they won the election the following year, and Conservative ministers, opposed to devolution, were keener to support Scottish cultural initiatives. Indeed, the announcement to support the project was made the day after it was also announced that the ancient Stone of Scone, the inauguration stone of the kings of Scots, would be returned to Scotland from its then resting place in London’s Westminster Abbey. When Tony Blair won his landslide victory in 1997 it was with the promise to hold referendums for a Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, theorising at the time that devolution would be the weapon to defeat nationalism. In the Scottish referendum that followed in September that year, 75% of those who voted approved the creation of the new Scottish parliament, and the first elections and first session took place in 1999. So, to invert what the last Chancellor of Scotland, James Ogilvy, earl of Seafield, said when he adjourned the old parliament in March 1707 – it was the beginning of a new, not ‘the end of an auld song’. Subsequently, in cultural and also some political unanimity, MSPs from all political parties, and presiding officers David Steel (Liberal Democrat), George Reid (Scottish National Party) and Alex Fergusson (Conservative), offered support, and additional funding was forthcoming through three first ministers (all Labour) and the then (all-party) Scottish Executive.

RPS is a record worth studying: made in Scotland and made for everyone. Easy to use with its parallel translation of all the entries and acts (from old Scots and Latin to computer searchable English), carefully checked against the old registers written out by early scribes; it brings the past to the eyes of the present. Place and personal names are easily located along with countless themes from hunting, witchcraft, football and environment, to taxation, warfare, marriages and family law. As much as any modern assembly, the old parliament was a microcosm of the nation. Through its judicial, economic, social, security, foreign and (so central to pre-modern life) religious policy, it was everywhere or more accurately where it sought to go. Clearly, though, the political system before 1707 was not about indirect rule sanctioned by the majority of a universal electorate, but on the other hand it was not entirely unrepresentative. Nobles and clergy attended the single-chamber parliament by right of summons and officers of state as crown nominees. The burgh (town) and shire (county) commissioners (MPs) were elected, and there was much competition for seats. The members in the Scottish Parliament ‘represented’ their localities, shires, burghs, regional earldoms and landed estates. The link with parliament was always land or property, certainly. Land was in a ‘best worst’ position to represent the interests of the tenant farmers, craftsmen, fishermen and general populace. When a Fifeshire laird sought to use parliament to protect his interests in coal and salt he indirectly represented the interests of his coal and salt workers. This was no democracy and yet it was a system attuned to the needs of pre-modern society.

Parliaments and kings govern people as well as territory and so before 1707 they became involved in the social fabric: education at school and university, morality private and public, policies over the poor and idle, and legislation that protected minors, inherited wealth, rights of way and supported town authorities in a variety of initiatives to re-build urban areas, harbours and bridges after war, fire and flood, came on thick and fast. More generally, however, this also confirms the existence of a proud parliamentary culture and one that is as old as that of England.

Today the ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ referendum campaigns both claim they are acting as ‘Scottish patriots’, and why not. Over the Anglo-Scottish parliamentary Union of 1707 this label could have been given to those who voted for and against the union, with both sides looking for the best means to secure Scotland’s economy, security and national religion. Some on both sides sold out but many others were men of principle. The choices in 1706/7 before the over 200 members of parliament who voted on the treaty of union were just as troubling, contradictory and divisive as those before us in 2014. The final vote that took place in January 1707 was also closer than it appears: while 110 members voted for union and 67 voted against it, some 46 abstained or absented themselves: thus 110 were in favour while 113 were not in favour. Well might modern pollsters have had fun with such a close race, and a fascinating one at that. If the roots of a divorce are found in the courtship and marriage that came before it, let me recommend the Records of the Parliament of Scotland as a means to understand the long history of England and Scotland – brothers, rivals, enemies, comrades, friends and neighbours.


Alastair Mann is co-editor of the Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707 and they can be found at

For a longer summary and comparisons between the old and new Scottish parliaments see his article ‘A Brief History of an Ancient Institution: The Scottish Parliament’.

See here for the other blogposts in our series on Anglo-Scottish relations

Posted in diplomatic history, Early modern history, England and Scotland, medieval history, Politics, social history | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Agincourt, Dick Whittington and trials with Latin: a summer placement at the History of Parliament

From time to time student volunteers join sections of the History for short placements. This summer, the 1422-1504 section played host to David Whitehorn, a second-year history undergraduate from Royal Holloway, University of London. David writes of his experience:

I have to admit I didn’t really know anything about the History of Parliament before I applied for the placement, but over my time here I have come to realise what a valuable resource it is for both historians and the general public. One thing that struck was the amount of time and effort that goes into producing the series: the section I’ve been working on (1422-1504) has been in production since before I was born. It is only with this expenditure of time that such detailed and meticulously researched work can be produced. An office full of boxes of envelopes of research notes was testament to the depth and scale of the series as well as the fact that it started before the use of computers had really taken off. It is with that in mind that I write my reflections on the brief period that I have spent with the History of Parliament.

One of my tasks while I have been here has been to look at the role of customs officials, some of whom went on to become MPs. One of these customs officials was none other than Richard Whityngton, the man who inspired the well-known story of Dick Whittington. In between several stints as mayor of London, Whityngton also served as a customs official collecting customs on ‘wools, hides and woolfells’ in the ports of London. There was, however, no mention of a cat. Another highlight of my time here was traveling to the National Archives at Kew to work with some original documents. I photographed some documents that had been written by the very customs officials that I had been researching in the days before. The old parchment documents stretch for several metres and are packed with almost indecipherable writing. Thankfully, I was only photographing the documents, rather than having to understand them as my Latin is less than fantastic and medieval handwriting is very different from modern writing. However, I would concede that I think fifteenth-century writers would have similar trouble dealing with my scrawl. I also spent some time doing some research into the MPs who fought at the Battle of Agincourt, for which the 600-year anniversary is coming up next year. I was surprised by how many there were who had fought at Agincourt, demonstrating how the composition of Parliament has changed over the years, as I can’t imagine many of their modern day counterparts doing likewise.

All in all, it has been an interesting insight into what it is like to work on a major historical research project and I have learnt a lot about how much work goes into projects like this as well as learning some interesting facts about Parliament in the fifteenth century.


For more on Parliament and Agincourt, see our blogpost ‘The legend of Agincourt in Parliament

Posted in, medieval history, military history, social history | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Eglinton Tournament 1839: A Victorian take on the Anglo-Scottish Rivalry

As the Scottish independence referendum draws nearer, Dr Gordon Pentland, of Edinburgh University, guestblogs for us in the latest of our series on Anglo-Scottish relations throughout the centuries. After a Scottish summer of medieval battle re-enactments, festivals and politics, he examines an event from 1839, which combined all three…

175 years ago, Archibald Montgomerie, the Earl of Eglinton (1812-61) resolved to provide what might now be called a ‘re-enactment’ of a medieval tournament on his estates in Ayrshire. A great fan of the turf (his jockeys rode in tartan) and of champagne (by some accounts he drank nothing else), Eglinton planned an event to complement a race meeting. It quickly snowballed in line with the overwhelming public response to the idea and thousands of people, many dressed in medieval fashions in accordance with Eglinton’s instructions, arrived at his estate via railways and specially-commissioned steamers in late August 1839.

As we might expect, MPs and their families featured prominently in an event whose main aim was to provide models of proper behaviour for political and social elites. The Queen of Beauty was Lady Seymour, wife of the Whig minister and MP for Totnes, Lord Seymour. Large numbers of MPs and local political elites featured in both the house party that stayed at Eglinton Castle and the large crowd in the pavilions, which witnessed the action over the following days.

All did not go as planned, especially with heavy rain forcing the continual postponement of the banquet and ball. The Times reported on the Thursday that: ‘The lists in the park of Eglinton Castle at this time exhibit the appearance of a pond.’ Perhaps partly because of the inclement weather, many found the jousting a grave disappointment as well. For one commentator, this was down to an insufficiency of violence: ‘there was all the appearance of danger, while there was none in reality.’

Some MPs were even more intimately involved in the action and partially redeemed this lack of genuine violence. Viscount Alford, the MP for Bedfordshire appeared in the guise of the Knight of the Black Lion with azure and argent colours. Eglinton himself, a future member of the Earl of Derby’s government, took part in the action as the Lord of the Tournament. Both were prominent in the ‘grand equestrian melée’, which ended the sports on Friday 30 August. This pitted the ‘Scotch and Irish Knights’ (including both Eglinton and the Marquis of Waterford) against the ‘English Knights’ (including both Alford and the former MP for Pontefract, Henry Stafford Jerningham). Whether because of some personal animus underlying the confrontation, or from frustration with the weather, it was widely reported that a battle between Alford and Waterford (the latter’s Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry describes his career as ‘Reprobate and Landowner’) moved beyond the realms of re-enactment. As they ‘struck each other oftener than the rules permitted’ they had to be pulled apart.

Was there any more to this gathering than an effort to provide entertainment and spectacle? The original idea for the tournament had an expressly party political purpose. In 1838 the Whig government had dispensed with some of the formal ceremonial trappings for Queen Victoria’s coronation. Eglinton’s tournament was partly a jibe at Whig parsimony and a reassertion of Tory claims to be the party of tradition. A further context was provided by the so-called ‘Bedchamber crisis’ of 1839, which had seen Sir Robert Peel’s refusal to form a Tory ministry in the face of the young Queen’s unwillingness to part with some of her (Whig) ladies of the bedchamber. It is at least suggestive that comments were made on the appearance at the tournament of the Countess of Dunmore (wearing ‘a rich costume of the early part of the fifteenth century’) who would become one of Victoria’s ladies when Peel formed a ministry in 1841.

While Eglinton was ridiculed by some contemporaries and subsequent historians, his tournament was much more than a grand and expensive aristocratic folly. In its widest sense, it attempted to tap into a growing fascination with the medieval past, something amply demonstrated by the phenomenal success of Walter Scott’s writings. To Eglinton, as to Disraeli and the ‘Young Englanders’, the medieval past was not only a source of romantic and picturesque tales, but also stood as a model of gentlemanly behaviour and of political and social harmony to contrast with the nineteenth-century’s ‘increasing tendency to utilitarian dullness’. Similar currents informed the exterior and interior of Barry and Pugin’s reconstructed Palace of Westminster.

Indeed, as an article by Alex Tyrell has argued, the tournament was the making of Eglinton’s political career. After a troubled and dissipated youth, it established him as one of Scotland’s leading Tory cultural nationalists. He went on to organize a large-scale commemoration of Robert Burns and played a prominent role in what has been seen as Scotland’s first ‘nationalist’ organization, the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights. When he came into power with Derby in 1858 and was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, neither Punch nor Karl Marx would let him forget his earlier projects, the latter describing him as ‘the Don Quixote who wanted to resuscitate the tournaments of chivalry’. But in their conscious embrace of the medieval past and their mining of it for political and social models for the present, both Eglinton and those MPs who joined or watched his tournament were more ‘of’ than ‘behind’ the times.


Dr Pentland is Reader in History at the University of Edinburgh, whose major research interest is in British political history since the French Revolution. He is currently working as part of a team to produce the Oxford Handbook of Modern British Political History, 1800-2000 and researching aspects of contemporary Scottish political history and assassination and assassination attempts in the nineteenth century.

You can read the other blogposts in our Anglo-Scottish series here:

Dr Andrew Spencer on ‘Parliament and Bannockburn’,

MPs at the Battle of Flodden’,

Dr Alan MacDonald onScotland and the Jacobean Union of 1604-7’,

Dr Patrick Little on Union with Scotland: Cromwellian style’,

Dr Ruth Paley onJonathan Swift and the Union with Scotland

More to follow soon!

Posted in 19th Century history, England and Scotland, social history | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment