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

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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

More memories from Westminster: New oral history material added to

Our national oral history project has now interviewed more than 100 former MPs, and to celebrate we have added some more webpages dedicated to our interviewees. These pages include brief biographies, full interview summaries and extracts from the interviews themselves. The six new MPs added – Kenneth Baker, Patrick Jenkin, John Osborn, Christopher Price, James Prior and Sir Teddy Taylor – were also photographed by Michael Waller-Bridge, now you can see all of his wonderful portraits, commissioned by Dods for this project, on our website.

One of our oral history project’s strengths is in documenting the personal experiences and emotions of the interviewee – feelings that rarely show up in Hansard! Some of our new audioclips really highlight the MPs’ lives and lifestyles. For example, the former Scottish Conservative MP Sir Teddy Taylor remembered that hardly anyone spoke to him on his first day at Westminster, and recalls his impressions on first encountering the strict divisions in place in the tea and dining rooms:

Two other former MPs reflected on the personal impact of losing political support (and their quite different responses). Patrick Jenkin, MP for Wanstead and Woodford, remembered losing his Ministerial post when Heath’s government fell in 1974 – but it wasn’t just the job he missed, but the personal trappings that went with it!

For John Osborn, MP for Sheffield Hallam, his retirement from politics was prompted after his constituency association had “had enough” of him – but he was able to enjoy a more leisurely lifestyle:

Our other new clips explore selection processes, internal Labour party politics and the increased amount of lobbying entering politics in the later part of the 20th century. Of course you can listen to many of our interviews in full in the British Library, but we’ll be adding more to our website as soon as we can.


For more on our national oral history project, and to hear extracts from some of our interviewees, visit:

If you would like to get involved in our oral history project we would love to hear from you – this doesn’t have to be as an interviewers! Please contact if you are interested.

For more on our ‘From the Grassroots’ oral history project in Devon, visit:

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The battle of Bosworth: consequences for winners and losers

The battle of Bosworth took place on this day in 1485. Dr Charles Moreton, senior research fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 project, discusses the contrasting consequences for parliamentarians on both sides of the battle…

At the battle of Bosworth the last Plantagenet King, Richard III, met his death. For some leading parliamentarians who had taken up arms on his behalf it also marked the end, either immediately through death on the field, or in the days and months that followed Henry Tudor’s victory. For others, it proved a very serious setback from which recovery was nevertheless possible. For others who took the field for Tudor and survived, Bosworth saved or made their careers.

Apart from Richard himself, the foremost victim of Bosworth was his leading supporter among the nobility, John Howard, duke of Norfolk. Created duke by Richard in 1483, Howard had previously sat as an MP and attended the Lords after his elevation to the peerage in 1470. A lesser lord who fell fighting for Richard was Walter Devereux, Lords Ferrers of Chartley, a long-term supporter of the House of York. One of the knights of the shire for Herefordshire in the Parliament of 1460, he had the rare distinction of having also fought at Towton, the bloody battle by which the first Yorkist King, Edward IV, secured his newly-won throne. Like Howard, he suffered a posthumous loss of lands and title in the first Parliament of Henry VII’s reign. Fortunately for his family, his son John Devereux had known Henry since boyhood and was willing to accept the new King. Summoned to the Lords in 1487, John secured the reversal of his father’s attainder in the following Parliament of 1489.

Among those taken prisoner at Bosworth were the duke of Norfolk’s son, Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey, and William Catesby. Before becoming earl, Thomas had twice sat in the Commons. Wounded at the battle, he spent three years in the Tower of London and forfeited his lands and title in Henry VII’s first Parliament. The recovery of the Howards was a good deal more tortuous than that of Devereux but Thomas was the ultimate survivor and, upon his release, dedicated himself to regaining lands and status through loyal service to the Tudors. Henry VIII made him duke of Norfolk – a new creation – following his famous defeat of the Scots at the battle of Flodden in 1513. His fellow prisoner, Catesby, the Speaker in Richard III’s only Parliament (1484), was not so fortunate. The only important figure to suffer death among those captured at Bosworth, he was beheaded three days later at Leicester and was attainted in the following Parliament. His son and heir George had managed to recover most of the Catesby estates by his own death in 1505, although the far greater prospects that his family might have hoped for had Richard III kept this throne were gone for ever.

Among Richard’s supporters who escaped the field was the diehard Humphrey Stafford, an MP for Worcestershire on several occasions in the mid-fifteenth century.. Stafford fled Bosworth with the chamberlain of Richard’s household, Francis, Viscount Lovell, with whom he found sanctuary in Colchester abbey. Eight months later, they broke out of sanctuary to raise rebellion against the Tudor monarch. Following the failure of this uprising, Stafford again managed to find sanctuary, this time in the abbot of Abingdon’s liberty at Culham, Oxfordshire. Here his luck ran out. Just two days later, on the night of 13 May 1486, a pursuing force dragged from his refuge and, in due course, he suffered death on the scaffold at Tyburn. Like the Howards, Devereux and Catesby, Stafford was attainted in Henry VII’s first Parliament, and his manors of Grafton and Upton Warren in Worcestershire were granted away to Sir Gilbert Talbot, one of their adversaries at Bosworth.

A younger son of the 2nd earl of Shrewsbury, Talbot had commanded Tudor’s right wing at Bosworth. He sat in three of Henry’s Parliaments before becoming the King’s lieutenant of Calais. He died possessed of a substantial landed estate in 1517. Among Talbot’s comrades in arms at Bosworth were Sir James Blount, Walter Hungerford and Humphrey Stanley. A former member of the Yorkist Household, Blount had already sat in the Commons for Derbyshire over a decade before the battle. Attainted in the Parliament of 1484 after deserting Richard III, he fled to France to join Tudor, who knighted him at Milford Haven when they returned in the following year. Like Talbot, he later sat in Henry’s Parliament of 1491.

The story of Hungerford, the youngest son of Robert, 3rd Lord Hungerford, and a member of a firmly Lancastrian family, is as dramatic as Stafford’s. Lord Robert was among those diehards who held out against Edward IV in northern England until his capture and execution in 1464, and Walter’s elder brother, Sir Thomas Hungerford, suffered death at the scaffold for treason in 1469. Notwithstanding these events, Walter subsequently entered the Commons while Edward was on the throne, although he found it necessary to obtain a general pardon at the accession of Richard III, who later ordered his arrest. Yet he managed to escape and make his way to Tudor. At Bosworth, he killed Sir Robert Brackenbury, lieutenant of the Tower of London, receiving a knighthood on field from Henry for his exploits. He returned to the Commons, again as an MP for Wiltshire, and served the first two Tudor monarchs as a councillor and diplomat.

Stanley, a younger son of a Staffordshire landowner, was likewise knighted at Bosworth by Tudor. Thereafter he joined the King’s household and, like his father before him, he was elected as a knight of the shire for Staffordshire in at least two Parliaments. No paragon of virtue, he gained election in 1495 even though he had procured the murder of his neighbour and fellow household man, William Chetwynd, in the previous year. In spite of such behaviour, he was awarded the honour of burial in Westminster Abbey following his death in 1505.



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Jonathan Swift and the Union with Scotland

In the latest in our series on Anglo-Scottish relations throughout the centuries, Dr Ruth Paley, editor of the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the satirist Jonathan Swift’s provocative attack on the Scots during the early days of union and the political consequences that followed…

The winter of 1713-14 was fraught with political tension. The queen’s health, never good, was visibly deteriorating, sparking fears of a contested succession. Her ministry, led by Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, was grappling with the fall out from the peace of Utrecht which ended the war that had wasted the revenue and cost countless lives since before the queen came to the throne in the spring of 1702. The previous summer had seen an attempt to dissolve the as yet fledgling Union of England and Scotland led by Scots upset at what they perceived to be infringements of the articles of Union. The ministry itself faced problems controlling its more extreme Tory supporters and was riven by factional infighting between supporters of Oxford and his disgruntled secretary of state, Viscount Bolingbroke. Furthermore the ministry had a very shaky grasp on Parliament, and was particularly weak in the House of Lords. Oxford’s problems were further compounded by his own increasing reliance on alcohol. Not surprisingly all these factors provided considerable scope for exploitation by opposition Whigs hoping to destabilise the ministry and return to power.

Early in 1714 the Whig propagandist and MP for Stockbridge, Richard Steele, published The Crisis – a pamphlet that amounted to a panegyric on the previous (Whig) ministry and attacked all those who were suspected of opposition to the Hanoverian succession (i.e. Tories in general and the Oxford ministry in particular). He also included an anti-Catholic diatribe. Without the Hanoverian succession Britain stood in danger of becoming a province of France or of being ruled by a ‘train of popish princes’ intent on ‘the extirpation of our religion, laws and liberties’. Steele’s recital of events leading up to and following the Revolution of 1688 included a brief reference to the Union with Scotland – the Union had after all been pushed through to ensure that there would be no chance of Scotland choosing to opt out of the Hanoverian succession.

So successful – and so extensively dispersed – was Steele’s pamphlet that it demanded a Tory response. Fortunately the Tories had their own skilled propagandist in the person of Jonathan Swift. Swift quickly set to work, producing The Public Spirit of the Whigs by the end of February. Designed to counter ‘the malice and falsehood of every line’ of The Crisis, Swift overstepped the mark by including an extraordinarily provocative and vitriolic attack on the Union, on the leading Scots peers, Argyle and Islay, and describing Scotland and the Scots as an economic drain on English resources. The Whigs were quick to pounce. The Scots peers complained to the queen and on 2 March the Junto leader Wharton made a formal complaint in the House of Lords. The House resolved

that the said Pamphlet is a false, malicious, and factious Libel, highly dishonourable and scandalous to the Scotch Nation, tending to the Destruction of the Constitution, and most injurious to Her Majesty, who has often declared from the Throne, That the Union of the Two Kingdoms of England and Scotland was the peculiar Happiness of Her Reign.

Although Swift’s authorship was widely suspected, the pamphlet had been published anonymously and so the only targets available for censure were the printers. Given the known connections between the printers, Swift and the ministry, the Whigs must have been confident that they would be able to out Swift and pin responsibility for the pamphlet firmly on Oxford, but Oxford out-manoeuvred them. On 6 March, Lord Mar, the secretary of state for Scotland, rose to inform the House that he had ordered the printers to be prosecuted for seditious libel, thus stifling the Lords’ enquiry and wresting a degree of control back to the ministry. The Whigs did not give up. They used their strength in the House of Lords to secure a vote to petition the queen for a proclamation offering a reward for the discovery of the author. The proclamation was issued but the reward was deliberately low and Oxford had already bought off the only people who could have identified Swift – the printers. He disguised his handwriting and sent an anonymous letter to Swift enclosing £100 purportedly sent by ‘an obscure person but charitable’ desirous of assisting the printers. He made it clear that this was but a down payment and that the printers could expect to receive more.

Even before the complaint in the Lords, Swift and the ministry were conducting a damage limitation exercise; the printers recovered all the unsold copies and prepared a new edition in which the most inflammatory sentences were removed; all the offensive paragraphs were removed from yet another edition published in mid-March. The Tories were also preparing to go onto the offensive. In the Commons, where they were more assured of a majority, they began a concerted attack on Steele. As a result of a complaint made by Thomas Foley, Steele was ordered to attend the Commons on 13 March when several paragraphs from The Crisis and another publication The Englishman were lambasted as seditious. Steele spoke for three hours in his defence on the 18th. The Whigs were convinced that they had won the argument, but the House nevertheless found by an overwhelming majority that Steele’s writings were ‘scandalous and seditious libels’ and expelled him.


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

More to follow soon!


Posted in 18th Century history, England and Scotland | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The Battle of Blenheim and British Politics

In August 1704 the duke of Marlborough led allied forces to a great victory at Blenheim. Dr Charles Littleton, Senior Research Fellow in our Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the effect the news of victory had on British politics…

In these days of the internet, of Facebook and Twitter, and of 24-hour rolling coverage of news, we can take it for granted that information of what ‘is going on’, even on the other side of the world, is only an apparently instantaneous ‘click’ away. That was certainly not the case in the eighteenth century when long distances often had to be covered to convey the news of events far away. This lag in communication could often play havoc with the calculations and judgements of contemporaries.

Today marks the 310th anniversary – according to the Gregorian calendar which was then in use on the European continent, but which was only adopted in Britain in 1752 – of the Battle of Blenheim, the stunning victory in the War of the Spanish Succession for the Allied forces commanded by their captain-general the duke of Marlborough, by which the threat of a combined French and Bavarian occupation of Vienna and the Holy Roman Empire was stopped in its tracks. (The English of the time, still using the old Julian calendar, would have considered it 2 August, as it often appears in history books). Having won this decisive battle, Marlborough scribbled a hasty note on the back of a tavern bill to his wife Sarah, duchess of Marlborough announcing to her that the queen’s army ‘has had a glorious victory’. He entrusted this message to Col. Daniel Parke who set off with this note across continental Europe. It took him eight days to journey from the banks of the Danube deep in Bavaria to the English capital.

Those days while Col. Parke was making his way across Europe were uncomfortable for Marlborough’s fellow minister, the lord treasurer Baron Godolphin. The war had not been going well for the Allies for the previous two campaigns and there was no evidence so far that it would be any more successful this summer. Disgruntlement over the war and the way it was being waged had already led to the dismissal or resignation the previous April of numerous ‘High’ Tory members of the ministry and the formation of a new and inexperienced ministry. Furthermore the Scottish Parliament was aggrieved that the Hanoverian Succession ensured by the Act of Settlement of 1701, had been decided on by the English Parliament with little, if any, consultation with the Scots. Taking advantage of the perceived weakness of the Allied war effort, the Scottish parliament in spring 1704 had threatened not to raise money for the maintenance of Scottish troops in Marlborough’s army until the queen gave her royal assent to their Act of Security, which provided that upon the death of the childless queen, the Scottish Parliament would chose its own successor to the Scottish throne. This threatened the union of crowns of England and Scotland which had existed since 1603 and Godolphin had to use all his diplomatic and persuasive powers to convince the reluctant queen to give her royal assent to the measure on 16 August 1704, 5 August by the contemporary English reckoning.

The situation was transformed after Col. Parkes finally delivered Marlborough’s brief exultant message to the queen on 21/ 10 August. She immediately wrote back to Marlborough, overjoyed that the victory ‘will not only humble our enemies abroad but contribute very much to the putting a stop to the ill designs of those at home’. The earl of Peterborough similarly expressed himself to Marlborough shortly after the battle, asserting that its success would make Godolphin’s ‘winter campaign’ in the forthcoming session of parliament ‘easy’. Indeed the new ministry of moderate Tories was able to go into the next session of Parliament in late October with renewed confidence and purpose, justified in the earlier decision to jettison those most obstructive to Marlborough’s continental land war strategy. The ministry was also now on a stronger footing with regard to Scotland. Marlborough’s resounding military success made quite a difference in the calculations of those on both sides of the border. The ministry quickly retaliated against the earlier humiliation of the Act of Security by passing, with the vital assistance of the Whigs, who were to become the linchpin to the ministry’s parliamentary majority from this time, the Alien Act. This measure declared that, unless the Scottish Parliament appointed commissioners to negotiate a union of the two kingdoms, the Scots would after Christmas Day 1704 be considered ‘aliens’ in England, with all the severe travel and trade restrictions that entailed. Many Scottish statesmen, looking upon the result of Blenheim, must have felt it was wiser to side with the militarily resurgent Protestant country to the south which could produce a victory– in which, it is important to emphasize, the Scottish regiments played a large and important role – to a Catholic continental power harbouring the Jacobite Pretender which now appeared to be on the back foot. These pro-union Scots were able to push through legislation in Edinburgh, though often in the midst of turbulent scenes in the chamber and with razor-thin majorities, which appointed commissioners to negotiate the Treaty of Union, completed in 1706 and ratified by the Parliaments in both Edinburgh and Westminster in 1707.

Not only did the battle of Blenheim transform the course of the war, but it changed the balance of forces in English domestic politics, with the queen’s government turning away from her ‘natural’ supporters the High Church Tories to the Whigs in order to help prosecute the war. The events far away on the banks of the Danube furthermore helped form and shape the Anglo-Scottish Union, whose ultimate fate is now on the verge of being decided, three centuries on and in a very different European context.


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