How Closely Related Were George I and Queen Anne?

Over on twitter this week we are marking the 300th anniversary of the death of Queen Anne and the Hanoverian succession with a series of daily ‘live tweets’ under the hashtag #Anne1714. In today’s accompanying guest blogpost, Professor William Gibson, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford Brookes, discusses the relationship between Anne and her successor, George I…

Queen Anne got some satisfaction at having outlived her heir, Sophia. The Electress had, even a few days before her death, agitated for a member of her family to come to England to secure the Hanoverian succession. It was an agitation that Anne found offensive and had repeatedly resisted for over a decade. Contemporaries gossiped about whether Anne would prefer to be succeeded by her half-brother, James Edward Stuart. According to John Wesley, Queen Anne told Archbishop John Sharp of York,

I love my brother well: but I never had the least thought or desire of resigning my crown in his favour. I would not, if I could: for it can never be good for England to have a Papist on the throne. And I could not place him upon it if I would: my people would not suffer it.

So for contemporaries the issue was whether and how the Hanoverians would succeed. Today assumptions are often made about how closely related Anne and George I were. Jacobites liked to emphasise how distant the Hanover family connection was, as well as George’s ‘alien’ German ways. Historians have often followed this, even suggesting that there were between thirty and fifty people more closely related to Anne disbarred from the succession by the Act of Settlement of 1701 because of their Catholicism. In fact the number who stood between Anne and George were very few. There were only six living people with a closer kinship to Anne than George. The reason for this is partly because of the extraordinary poor health of the Stuarts.

Anne herself, of course, was the end of a line of Stuart descent, her sister Mary having died childless in 1694 and her brother-in-law William, also a Stuart through his mother, in 1702. Anne’s father, James II had died in 1701 (leaving Francis Edward as his heir) and his brothers, Charles II and Henry Duke of Gloucester, had both died without legitimate issue. James II’s sister, Henrietta, had married Phillip d’Orleans and converted to Catholicism. Henrietta had four children, only one of whom was still alive in 1714, Anne Marie d’Orleans, who had married Victor Amadeus of Savoy. Anne Marie had two children, Charles Emmanuel and Victor Amadeus, both of whom were Catholics. But Henrietta’s descendants in 1714 represent three of the six cousins who stood between Anne and George of Hanover.

In the generation above James II, Charles II and Henrietta, the Stuart line had also been unlucky: James I and Anne of Denmark had eight children, six of whom died young or without issue. These included Henry Prince of Wales, who died of typhoid in 1612 and is often thought of as a great renaissance prince. This left Charles I and his sister Elizabeth, who married Frederick of the Palatine. Elizabeth and Frederick were, briefly, the elected King and Queen of Bohemia, reigning less than a year before they were ejected from their new kingdom by the Catholic Hapsburgs. Thereafter, Elizabeth, often called the ‘Winter Queen’, lived in Holland and for the last two years of her life in London following Charles II’s restoration. Elizabeth was hugely popular in England, having suffered for her Protestantism. Her portraits were some of the most widely copied and there can have been few English men and women in the period 1660-1714 who did not admire her. Elizabeth had thirteen children; of these only two had legitimate issue. The first was Edward, who became a Catholic and had two daughters, Anne Henrietta and Benedicta, both of whom were alive in 1714. These are the other two living cousins who were closer in kinship to Anne than George of Hanover. Elizabeth of Bohemia’s youngest daughter was Sophia, who married Ernest Augustus of Hanover in 1658.

Elizabeth, the Winter Queen, died in 1662, and was interred in Westminster Abbey. As the sister of the executed Charles I, and mother of the royalist heroes Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice, she had been briefly feted in England in the last two years of her life. Her daughter Sophia was also strong in her identity as a Stuart princess. When after 1701 some tried to portray her as a foreign princess she indignantly emphasised that she regarded herself as thoroughly English. She read the English newsletters, received visitors from England and had a number of English correspondents.

It is moreover to Sophia that a little-known feature of royal law is due: the Sophia Naturalisation Act of 1705. This confirmed that Sophia was a naturalised British citizen and inadvertently granted that right to all their heirs of her body, together with the style of prince or princess of Great Britain and Ireland. It is to this act, confirmed in a legal ruling in 1957, that the current princes of Hanover claim British citizenship and also the right to the title prince of Great Britain and Ireland.

When in May 1714 the eighty four year old Sophia of Hanover died, Queen Anne referred to the event as ‘chipping porridge’ –meaning it had no significance for her. This was not because Sophia was such a distant cousin, but because Anne wanted to disguise the annoyance she had felt from Sophia’s repeated requests for a family member to come to England ready to claim the throne on Anne’s death. It was, as Queen Elizabeth I had said, like having her own shroud laid out before her. However it would be a mistake to assume that George of Hanover was a remote kinsman, he was a close Stuart cousin.


Further reading:

- J. N. Duggan, Sophia of Hanover: From Winter Princess to Heiress of Great Britain, London, Peter Owen, 2010.

- Edward Gregg, Queen Anne London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1980.

- F. Holmes, The Sickly Stuarts, The Medical Downfall of a Dynasty, Stroud, Sutton Publishing, 2003.

- Rosalind K. Marshall, The Winter Queen, The Life of Elizabeth of Bohemia, 1596-1662, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1998.

- J. Wesley, Concise History of England, London, 1775-6, 4 vols.

- James Anderson Winn, Queen Anne, Oxford University Press, 2014.

Professor William Gibson is Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Oxford Brookes University and Director of the Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History.

To follow the events of 1714 ‘as they happened’, follow us on twitter @HistParl or #Anne1714.

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Scotland and the Jacobean Union of 1604-7

In the latest of our series on English-Scottish parliamentary relations throughout the centuries, guest blogger Dr Alan MacDonald (University of Dundee) discusses the Scottish parliament’s response to James VI and I’s attempt at union between England and Scotland in 1604-7

On 11 August 1604, a parliament at Perth passed the ‘Act anent the unioun of Scotland and England’, completing a process that began three years previously. In merely abolishing hostile laws, establishing cross-border legal arrangements and opening up commercial interaction between the two realms, it was a pale shadow of what the king had sought.

The nature of the Scottish parliamentary record makes it harder to discuss what the Scots thought of the union proposals than is possible for England. The official record is restricted to procedure and legislation, while narrative accounts are laconic and few. Yet it is clear that, while many Scottish politicians were keen supporters of union, they were not enthusiasts for James’s vision of a ‘perfect’ (i.e. complete) union. As with the debates 100 years later and even today, ‘union’ covered a spectrum of meanings from something akin to Henry VIII’s incorporation of Wales at one end, to little more than an acknowledgement of the need to agree to be good neighbours at the other. Some pamphleteers insisted that a union of laws was essential, while others insisted that it was indifferent or even problematic to the whole scheme, and the same could be said for ecclesiastical union.

Starting the process in the English parliament unsettled James’s Scottish subjects and, although he sent a reassuring letter to the Scottish parliament, they remained suspicious. Scottish parliamentarians and the wider political nation were principally concerned with the potential consequences for the institutions, laws and religion of Scotland and the first two acts of the parliament at Perth in July 1604 reflect those concerns.

The first piece of business was to pass the ‘Commissioun for the unioun’, appointing the Scots representatives. It insisted on the inviolability of the ‘fundamentall lawes, ancient privileges, offices, richtis, digniteis and liberteis of this kingdome’. That this phrase was inserted into the body of the act, as well as the preamble, is instructive. It ran counter to the king’s desire that the act should follow the English one ‘word by word’. It indicates considerable unease at the potential for the loss of dearly-held aspects of Scottish distinctiveness, as does the fact that parliament did not endorse all of the king’s nominees for the union commission. The Scots commissioners, led by the most significant member of the legal establishment, Alexander Seton, Lord Fyvie, were not going to countenance a union of laws when they travelled south.

The very next piece of legislation was the ‘Act in favouris of the kirk’, dealing with what was one of the most pressing issues for those in and around parliament, fears of ecclesiastical union on the English model. This act removed religion from the negotiating table before the process had even begun. Part of the background to this was the considerable anxiety in the church at large because, although a general assembly had been scheduled for the summer of 1604, it had been prorogued. Yet one of the conditions under which the recently-reintroduced episcopate operated was that they were to act in parliament on the instructions of the general assembly. The acceptance of this act by the crown was designed to neutralise that issue, although it is hard say what the king thought of it. It may be surprising to some that this key act was proposed, drafted, passed and ratified without his knowledge. This was possible because of the crown’s failure to amend parliamentary procedure to take into account the absence of the king. Acts were ratified by being touched with the sceptre by the chancellor at the end of parliament. This had previously been in the king’s presence but continued in his absence. Given that religion was the one area in which James continued to pursue Anglo-Scottish convergence long after his plans for legal, economic and parliamentary union had foundered, it is hard to believe that he would have been pleased.

Commercial interests, at least those with a voice in parliament, had their own concerns. As early as July 1603, the national assembly of representatives of the parliamentary towns, the convention of burghs, was troubled by the prospect of ‘the halding of ane parliament of baith the realmis’. When it became clear that the king was keen to press for closer union in 1604, the burghs took a close interest. In parliament, they were prominent in pushing for the guarantee that there would be no ecclesiastical union, and they appointed representatives from selected burghs to draw up specific instructions for their own members of the union commission. The maintenance of Scots law headed their list, followed by the privileges of the burghs and Scotland’s trading rights in France. They insisted on the retention of separate parliaments and, fearing the effects of the king’s absence, urged that the king should spend three months of every year in Scotland. All but the last of those were largely unaffected by union.

Perhaps because legal, ecclesiastical and institutional union were shelved from such an early stage in the process, there appears to have been little controversy over the union in the Scottish parliaments of 1605-6 and 1607. English self-confidence in these areas meant that they were more concerned with the economic effects of union with a poverty-ridden nation, fears which some expressed with such offensive strength that it risked the whole project. While the Scots may have feared being swamped economically, they welcomed the prospect of enhanced commercial access to their nearest neighbour.

The treaty that was agreed in 1607 was remarkably innocuous. It left the two countries’ laws, institutions and churches almost entirely unchanged. For James VI and I, it was a failure. For the Scottish parliament, however, it was a success. They had maintained Scotland’s fundamental laws, ancient privileges, offices, rights, dignities and liberties. There was a union but it did not run deep. In 1617, when James made his only return visit to Scotland, the draft minute of the parliament that met at Edinburgh styled him ‘dei gratia magne britannie, francie et hibernie regis’ (by the grace of God, king of Great Britain, France and Ireland). After he had returned to England, ‘magne britannie’ was scored out and replaced with ‘scotie, anglie’, and it was that form of words that ended up in the official register.


Alan MacDonald is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee, and is currently researching parliamentary elections, which a focus on the shires.

You can read (and listen to) our own Dr Andrew Thrush discussing English opposition to James’s attempt at union on our website.

You can read the other blogposts in our series here: Dr Andrew Spencer on ‘Parliament and BannockburnandMPs at the Battle of Flodden‘. More to follow soon!

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New website launched for ‘From the Grassroots’

Plymouth Devonport election, 1950. Winston Churchill sat by ballot box with dignitaries. © Plymouth Arts and Heritage Service

Plymouth Devonport election, 1950. Winston Churchill sat by ballot box with dignitaries. © Plymouth Arts and Heritage Service

Today, we are delighted to launch our new, interactive website for our HLF-funded project From the Grassroots: An Oral History of Community Politics in Devon. The project is creating a sound archive of people involved in local politics within the county from 1945 until the present day. The website will showcase our interviews and research, as well as being an excellent way to keep you to date with the project’s events and volunteering opportunities.

In our Research section, you can browse our interviews with local political activists, find out more about them, and listen to clips from their Interviews. You can also explore Devon’s political history in our Themes section, which includes articles on specific historical topics with audioclips and, excitingly, archive video footage (thanks to the South West Film and Television Archive).

We are especially happy with a new Community section, where you can share your memories and thoughts about politics in Devon. You can sign up to our Community here [link], and once a member you can contribute in two ways. Firstly you can start discussions and share photographs in the Your Memories section, why not tell us about your first political memory, or your involvement in an election? Secondly, we will highlight some issues that emerge from our research in Talking Point and we’d love you hear your thoughts on these controversial topics! Here’s our first one (again with some great archive film from SWFTA) on Enoch Powell’s controversial visit to Exeter University in 1968.

Following soon will be a set of Schools resources, but in the meantime we have links to other useful websites for teachers and students of modern political history. And of course you can keep up-to-date by reading our News, and find out how you can Get Involved in the project yourself.

We will add new content to the website throughout the project, so keep checking back for more material as we continue – and do please let us know what you think! We’d love to hear from you.


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Nolo episcopari

On Monday, the Church of England voted to allow women bishops for the first time. This prompted Matthew Kilburn, research assistant in the Lords 1660-1715 section, to consider those appointed to bishoprics in that period…

‘Nobody actually wants to be a bishop! They all just have their arms twisted until they have no choice.’ So said an Anglican clergywoman friend on Monday 14 July 2014 on being congratulated on the Church of England’s decision that day to allow women to become bishops. It’s a historical myth that a churchman, when offered a bishopric, would decline the office twice with the words ‘nolo episcopari’, and only if he communicated the phrase a third time was the refusal taken literally. In the period 1660 to 1715 however, where the History of Parliament’s first accounts of the careers of bishops who sat in the House of Lords are nearing completion, there were several cases where bishops seem genuinely to have accepted office reluctantly, and a few where they were among the last to hear of their appointments.

Communications in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries had obvious limitations. Before the telegraph, railway and telephone, let alone the internet, the monarch and their ministers in Westminster had to rely on fast post-horses and their ability to negotiate indifferent roads. Decisions at court could reach printed newspapers or handwritten newsletters before official notification was despatched to a potential office-holder. In April 1691 it was decided that the new bishop of Peterborough should be Richard Cumberland. According to a biography written by his son-in-law Squire Payne, published in 1720, the first Cumberland heard of it was when he read about his appointment in a newspaper he picked up in a coffee house in Stamford, where at the time he was vicar of the parish of All Saints.

Stamford, on the Great North Road, was not especially remote from London, but Carlisle, next to the border with Scotland, was the northernmost episcopal seat in England. In April 1702 the archdeacon of Carlisle, William Nicolson, wrote of his support for the promotion to the bishopric of the dean of Carlisle Cathedral, William Grahme. When Grahme refused the bishopric Nicolson mourned the disappearance of his chance of becoming dean of Carlisle himself. On 4 May 1702 he wrote to William Grahme’s brother, James, saying that he had just heard that John Robinson was to be the new bishop of Carlisle. However, the next day Queen Anne issued the formal direction to the clergy of Carlisle to elect Nicolson himself as their bishop. Nicolson’s name had been aired as a possible bishop of Carlisle the previous year, so though he seemed to have no intimations of advancement, perhaps he was deferring to James Grahme’s bias towards his brother’s prior claim.

The influence or reputation of a predecessor was a plausible deterrent to candidates for bishoprics, particularly if that predecessor was still living and had been removed for political reasons. It’s possible that Richard Cumberland was deliberately surprised by his appointment to Peterborough in 1691 as his predecessor, Thomas White, was still living but had been deprived for refusing to acknowledge William III and Mary II as sovereigns and break his oath to the deposed James II. This was definitely the case with Richard Kidder, who also in 1691 refused the bishopric of Bath and Wells because he did not want to challenge the popularity or authority of the deprived bishop, Thomas Ken. In the end he was ‘plainly bullied’ into accepting the bishopric when his refusals were ignored and his appointment was announced.

There were other reasons to refuse advancement. In 1681 John Tillotson, then dean of Canterbury, was offered the wealthy bishopric of Meath in Ireland by the lord-lieutenant, the duke of Ormond, but he declined to exchange his deanery of Canterbury and involvement in religious and political controversy in London for a ‘settled and easy station’ in a country of which he knew nothing. Making one’s desire for advancement known could make it impossible to turn a bishopric down. After years of feeling that he had unjustly been passed over for preferment, Laurence Womock was finally made a bishop in September 1683. Unfortunately the see, St David’s, incurred more costs than it brought him income and was remote and rugged compared to his comfortable old life as a canon of Ely. More expressions of grievance followed. The stress of dealing with a diocese where he did not speak the Welsh language of many of the inhabitants and which was remote from the centre of secular and church politics, London, did not prolong the already septuagenarian Womock’s life. He died in London in 1686. John Tillotson, though a devoted manager of the Church for William III and Mary II, postponed his acceptance of the role of archbishop of Canterbury for months in 1691 and it was accepted that the stress of the position led to his death in 1694. Even if no senior churchman in this period shared the fate of their pre-Civil War exemplar, the beheaded archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, it was apprehended that the work of being a bishop in this period could drastically shorten one’s life.


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The French Revolution, as seen from England

On Bastille day our director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses British views of the new regime in Paris…

Bastille day, the anniversary of the storming in 1789 of the brooding stronghold in Paris that represented for its inhabitants the arbitrary nature of the ancient regime, provides an opportunity to reflect on the impact of the advent of representative government in France on Britain and British observers. The French National Assembly had come into existence about a month before 14 July, when the Third Estate – the more popular element within the Estates General summoned to attempt to resolve the financial crisis of the French monarchy – declared itself the sole representative body of the nation and adopted its new title. The Assembly was in being until replaced by the Legislative Assembly in 1791 which was itself replaced by the Convention in 1792.

After the initial enthusiastic endorsements of the assertion of representative government, apparently à l’anglaise, British observers became progressively less impressed: and, in particular appalled by the way in which the Assembly conducted its business. Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France written in the first half of 1790 was famously splenetic about the febrile atmosphere in which the French National Assembly worked, among constant interruptions from members of the public:

The assembly, their organ, acts before them the farce of deliberation with as little decency as liberty. They act like the comedians of a fair before a riotous audience; they act amidst the tumultuous cries of a mixed mob of ferocious men, and of women lost to shame, who, according to their insolent fancies, direct, control, applaud, explode them; and sometimes mix and take their seats amongst them; domineering over them with a strange mixture of servile petulance and proud, presumptuous authority. As they have inverted order in all things, the gallery is in the place of the house. This assembly, which overthrows kings and kingdoms, has not even the physiognomy and aspect of a grave legislative body… Who is it that admires, and from the heart is attached to national representative assemblies, but must turn with horror and disgust from such a profane burlesque, and abominable perversion of that sacred institute?

It was a point echoed by many British commentators on events in France, including the agricultural improver Arthur Young, whose travels in the country from 1787 to 1790 are a key source for English attitudes to French politics. It was voiced by continental travellers to London as well, such as the Swiss, Henri Meister, who published his account of a stay in England in Switzerland in 1795: ‘Accustomed as I was to the tumult of our National Assembly, you may judge if I was not surprised to find in the House of Commons such decency, solemnity and stillness. … To be sure the people who filled the seats of this assembly are very unlike those who occupy with so much majesty the tribunes of our august Riding-house [the French Convention was housed in the indoor Riding Schoolin Paris at the time]. I did not observe one person who was not properly dressed, which is a proof how great an influence aristocracy has over this nation which calls itself a free people’. The contrast was equally drawn in Gillray’s print Patriotic Regeneration, published in March 1795. Behind Gillray’s frequently-made point about the revolutionary tendencies of the Foxite whig opposition to Pitt the younger and the dangers of parliamentary reform lies one about the debasement of political and parliamentary culture by a Frenchified idea of how a reformed parliamentary system might work.

Defenders of the National Assembly would counter attack by seizing on Meister’s ambiguously-put point about the influence of aristocracy. Thomas Paine in The Rights of Man contrasted its origin in popular election with the ‘vassal representatives’ of aristocratic pocket boroughs in the British system. The parliamentary language of its members, he claimed, ‘is free, bold, and manly’ (unlike the obsequious addresses to the king of their British counterparts); they debated ‘with the spirit of men, and the language of gentlemen’. They also made the obvious point that the British House of Commons could be just as badly behaved as those it criticised – as Mary Wollstonecraft said in her own acute and tart response to Burke, the House of Commons, despite its aristocratic pedigree, often resembled a bear garden.

Indeed, responses to the French Revolution and the split in the old Whig party made its debates take on a particularly edgy tone in the 1790s, though Burke’s own rebarbative temperament and rhetoric was often partly the cause of the problem. An opponent of his, the Foxite Whig Philip Francis, for example, enhanced his own reputation for acrimony in the ill-tempered debate at the opening of the new session on 15 December 1792 as he protested against the tone of the debate.

We are, or we pretend to be, a deliberative Assembly. We are debating upon a subject of the most grave, the most serious, the most solemn deliberation; that is, whether this nation shall, or shall not, be exposed to the hazards, and involved in the calamities of war. … [But] instead of discussing the great question of war and peace with temper, with a cool and careful consideration of arguments, without which there can be no wisdom either in the debate or the decision; instead of this, they in fact deprive themselves of all capacity to debate, of all faculty of judging; they listen with rapture to mere invectives, and echo them back again with shouts, with cries, and with clamours, renouncing and proscribing all liberty of opinion, all freedom of debate. Is this a British House of Commons, or am I suddenly transplanted by some enchantment into that Convention, against which the perpetual theme of reproach is, that they deliberate in passion and resolve by acclamation?


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MPs at the Battle of Flodden

In the run-up to September’s Scottish Independence referendum, we are publishing a series on the relationship between England and Scotland through the centuries. Our second blog takes a look at the parliamentarians who fought in another major battle: Flodden…

Between Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn and the union of the crowns under James VI & I there were a series of border confrontations between England and Scotland. The most devastating battle occurred in 1513, at Branxton Moor, known as the Battle of Flodden or Flodden field.

Henry VIII, eager for glory on the continent, had joined an alliance with Spain and Pope Julius II against France in 1511. Despite the marriage between Henry’s sister Margaret and the Scottish king, James IV, James upheld his obligations under the ‘auld alliance’ and in August 1513 invaded England to aid the French. Intending to divert English attention from the continent, James only advanced a few miles into Northumbria and set up a defensive camp at Flodden.

The English, under the regency of Catherine of Aragon whilst Henry VIII was away, had prepared for a Scottish invasion. Thomas Howard, the earl of Surrey, had been appointed Warden of the Northern Marches and responded by mustering an army. After Surrey arrived in Flodden and saw the impressive defences James had established, which unsurprisingly the Scottish king would not abandon, Surrey moved his army to Branxton Moor, north-east of Flodden and between the Scottish army and their supplies in Scotland.

James was forced to leave his commanding position, and the resulting battle on the moor during the afternoon of 9 September was a disaster for James and Scotland. Casualty members are still debated, but between 7,000 and 11,000 Scots died in the Battle (the English lost around 4,000). The defeat had greater political consequences however as the Scottish lost 13 barons, 5 heirs to titles, 3 bishops, 2 abbots, and, of course, James himself. Scotland was left with a 17-month-old monarch – James V – and there followed a period of political intrigue between the young king’s guardian and mother, Margaret, and the Scottish regent, John Stewart, 2nd duke of Albany.

On the English side the battle was a triumph, and the careers of many parliamentarians were furthered by their part in the victory. Many were knighted on the battlefield: for example Sir William Rous, who had been little known before Flodden but the following year helped escort Princess Mary to France to marry Louis XII, and the two sons of Sir Marmaduke Constable (Sir Marmaduke and Sir John). William Sabine, a ship owner, had helped to transport the royal army to France before heading north. He was quickly recruited into the army. His service helped his later career as a naval commander, merchant and official, sitting in the 1539 parliament through his connection with the Howard family.

Some had more difficult careers after the battle. Sir Christopher Dacre, brother to Thomas, 2nd lord Dacre, was also knighted after the battle thanks to the two brothers “marvels” against the Scots, despite losing 800 horses. The family were in serious trouble in 1534, however, when Sir Christopher and his nephew William, now 3rd Lord Dacre, were sent to the Tower accused of using their Scottish contacts to further their feuds with other English families. Dacre was later pardoned and probably sat in later parliaments.

For later English MPs, an ancestor who fought at Flodden was something to be proud of (such as George Buc and John Winchcombe , son of the renowned ‘Jack of Newbury’). Of course in the 18th century they were joined in the Commons by those, such as James Halyburton and Archibald Kennedy, who were equally proud of ancestors who had died on the opposite side.


You can read the first post in our England-Scotland series, on Parliament and Bannockburn here. The next in our series will discuss Scottish attitudes to James VI & I’s attempted union in the early 17th century, watch this space!

Posted in Early modern history, England and Scotland,, medieval history, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Finding latitude in longitude: Parliamentary funding of early modern science and technology

Three hundred years ago this month, Parliament passed the ‘Longitude Act’. In this guest blog post, Dr Alexi Baker, Cambridge post-doc from CRASSH and from the AHRC-funded project ‘The Board of Longitude 1714-1828: Science, innovation and empire in the Georgian world’ discusses the impact this had on efforts to solve the problem of finding a ship’s longitude at sea…

This year marks the tercentenary of the first British Longitude Act in 1714. That milestone is being commemorated with the digitisation of, and a major project on, the Board of Longitude archives; events and exhibitions including at Greenwich; and a new £10 million ‘longitude prize’. The Act of 1714 was momentous because it established the first government funding and rewards for a specific ‘scientific’ problem – how ships could more accurately and reliably estimate their longitude coordinate while at sea. This and ensuing longitude acts passed between 1714 and 1828 set a precedent for government funding and, within fifty years, also gave rise to a unique standing body that encouraged and help to define British science and technology at large.

The first British Longitude Act might not have been possible without the concerted public campaign begun in 1713 by William Whiston and Humphry Ditton for a Parliamentary reward. Whiston and Ditton and their supporters tapped into an ever-increasing national interest in maritime trade, exploration, and defence and thus in improving maritime safety and speed. They may have been the first (and perhaps only) to wrongly suggest that Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s loss of thousands of men to shipwreck in the Isles of Scilly in 1707 was caused by a poor knowledge of longitude.

After hearing testimony from learned individuals including Isaac Newton, Parliament passed ‘An Act for Providing a Publick Reward for such Person or Persons as shall Discover the Longitude at Sea’ in July 1714. The authors of the Act cited its importance for the ‘Safety and Quickness of Voyages, the Preservation of Ships and the Lives of Men’, the ‘Trade of Great Britain’ and ‘the Honour of Kingdom’. The Act constituted 24 Commissioners, either by name or office, as acceptable judges for the new funding and rewards. These were drawn from long-time longitude authorities, navigational interests, and other powerful individuals.

If five or more thought a longitude proposal promising, they could direct the Commissioners of the Navy to have their Treasurer issue up to £2000 in total to conduct trials. After experiments were made, the Commissioners of the Longitude or ‘the major part of them’ were to determine whether the tested proposal was ‘Practicable, and to what Degree of Exactness’. The Act set up a three-tiered reward system for methods which were deemed successful, with: £10,000 to be given to the inventor of a method which could find the longitude ‘to One Degree of a great Circle, or Sixty Geographical Miles’; £15,000 if the method could find the longitude to two-thirds of that distance; and £20,000 if it found the longitude to half of the same distance.

Half of a reward would be paid when the Commissioners agreed that the method could further secure ships within the dangerous 80 miles off shore, and the other half when the method had been successfully tried on a voyage to the important trading centre of the West Indies. The Commissioners could also direct that lesser rewards be given to individuals who could not meet one of the three specific demands for accuracy but developed methods ‘found of considerable Use to the Publick’.

Most of these tenets appear to have been closely patterned after previous endeavours, including: Charles II’s appointment of commissioners to examine a specific proposal in 1674; a longitude reward established by the will of the Somerset gentleman Thomas Axe in 1691; and the Parliamentary testimony. There had been a number of longitude rewards and trials in other European countries during the preceding centuries as well. The Act of 1714 dramatically rejuvenated British and European interest in solving the longitude problem. However, it also suffered from great vagueness about the Commissioners of Longitude – and later from the potentially conflicting wording of the aims of and requirements for the rewards.

The legislation did not describe the new officials as a communal body – the early modern term ‘Commissioner’ did not necessarily indicate membership in an institution – nor provide basic institutional resources. Individual Commissioners stated that they did not think it preferable nor possible to consider every longitude proposal, publications such as newspapers did not refer to them as a standing body, and comparatively few complaints on that count have survived from reward-seekers.In the resulting confusion about proper channels and procedures, most supplicants continued to approach the individuals and institutions who had long been deemed longitude authorities. These included (primarily) the Astronomer Royal, the Royal Society, the Admiralty, and sometimes professors and the trading companies. Early sea trials actually took place under the auspices of one or more of these, but without funding approved through the Commissioners.

The Commissioners of Longitude only began to meet together sporadically in 1737 in response to the great interest surrounding the clockmaker John Harrison and soon a small number of additional schemes. It was mainly from the 1760s on that they redefined themselves as a standing body, and one increasingly known as ‘the Board of Longitude’. During that decade, they hired their first Secretary, sought recompense for travelling to meetings, and welcomed the soon-indispensable Nevil Maskelyne to their number as Astronomer Royal. The slower speed and greater consideration wrought by such bureaucratization was partially responsible for souring the decades-long collaboration between these officials and Harrison.

It is the later conflict with John Harrison which now most characterizes the Board of Longitude, and Parliament’s longitude legislation, in the public mind. However, the bulk of the body’s institutional existence and of the corresponding Parliamentary legislation took place afterwards. The Board involved itself in wide-ranging scientific, technological, and maritime activities – such as the annual publication of the Nautical Almanac, the improvement of diverse technologies, the establishment of observatories abroad, and voyages including those of Captain Cook and of Arctic exploration. This involved frequent collaboration with other learned and influential bodies, both foreign and domestic. On the whole, the history of the Commissioners and of Parliamentary longitude legislation involved finding ever-greater latitude in the search for the longitude.


Dr Baker is now a Mellon/Newton Interdisciplinary Research Fellow at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at Cambridge. She is editing and co-authoring the project book: ‘The Board of Longitude 1714–1824: Science, Innovation and Empire’.

You can find out more about ‘The Board of Longitude’ project here and can view the digitized archives of the Board and related papers here.

To see what is happening to mark the anniversary at the Royal Museums Greenwich, visit their website.

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