The State Opening of Parliament: When dissident acts become established acts

Today, the new Parliament will be officially opened. In his guest blog Steven Franklin (Royal Holloway, University of London) discusses the origins and development of the pageantry involved…

In 1863 Queen Victoria refused to open parliament, citing her ‘total inability…to perform these functions of her high position which are accompanied by state ceremonials, and which necessitate the appearance in full dress in public’.  Fortunately, the only comparison that can be made with today’s State Opening was the absence of the Imperial Crown and its associated regalia – the ‘full dress’ to which Victoria referred. Today’s ‘dressed down’ ceremony will lack much of the grandeur of previous state openings, a result of the snap election. This is the first time in 43 years that the normal ceremonial programme will be altered, the last, ironically, also a result of an unexpected general election. For, as wonderful as it is to witness the spectacle and splendour of a full State Opening, the event is a well-oiled machine: reliant on the seamless interaction of all those involved, managed only through meticulous planning and relentless rehearsals. With the State Opening falling days after Trooping the Colour it was deemed logistically impossible to accommodate both ceremonies of state.

Today’s ceremony was delayed further, after it emerged on the 12th June that the Queen’s Speech, printed on goatskin paper, would take days to dry, thus pushing the original date of the 19th back to the 21st June. It made for a great story, sadly, the image of a piece of paper more akin to medieval velum than our more common A4 plain white sheet, was wrong. The name instead referring to a special archival paper, said to last 500 years, which due to its thickness does take longer for print to dry. Whilst it captured the public’s imagination, it merely served as a cover for the broader issue: a Queen’s Speech hadn’t been written because the terms of the confidence and supply agreement, between the Conservatives and the DUP, were unconfirmed.

The State Opening of Parliament – an occasion steeped in tradition, ritual and ceremony, but sadly lacking in any paper made from goatskin – is one of the only occasions within the political calendar where the three parts of the parliamentary Trinity (Queen, Lords and Commons) come together, and for this reason, it remains a unique occasion. The pomp and circumstance accompanies the day often obscures the event’s main purpose: to hear the Queen’s Speech and hear the Government’s aspirations for this parliamentary term.

Parliaments have, broadly speaking, been opened in the same way since 1852, when the new Palace of Westminster was completed. The choreographed manner in which history, ceremony, ritual, and drama are seamlessly blended is, therefore, an invention of the Victorians. At a time when the future of the monarchy was uncertain a systematic programme of rejuvenating the ceremonial of state was undertaken in order to increase the broader appeal of royalty (expertly explored in David Cannadine’s essay listed below). Victoria, it is said, felt uncomfortable with the performative elements of monarchy that were being thrust upon her. Prominent ministers, such as Gladstone, realised the greater social importance for both the wellbeing of the country and stability of the throne. When possible, he would remind her of the ‘vast importance’ of the ‘social and visible functions of the monarchy’. In many ways, the ceremonial duties that the monarch undertakes today fulfil the same social function. State occasions serve as moments that induce patriotic fervour, uniting members of the public whilst, at the same time, confirming the hierarchal foundations of the establishment.

The current composition of the state opening can be dated back to 1852, but many of its elements have much older origins. Acts of pageantry and state theatre predate the Victorians. Charles Farris has traced the robes worn by peers, along with the robes of the monarch, back to the medieval period. The involvement of Black Rod dates back to the Civil War and the famous five members’ case. Lastly, Jason Peacey has demonstrated that the act of royal procession, in the context of The State Opening of Parliament, has seventeenth-century roots.

The State Opening of Parliament, therefore, serves as a good example of the manner in which history can be appropriated and repurposed within a ceremonial context. Acts of ritual do not need to draw from the same historical moments. In fact, it could be argued that this is one of their virtues: the ability to piece unconnected moments of history together in such a way to engender a sense of patriotic nostalgia. However, within this context, the history that the State Opening of Parliament evokes and re-enacts, is less of the establishment, but rather of dissidence and protest.

Much of the parliamentary proceedings of the State Opening revolve around Black Rod making his way from the Lord’s chamber to the Commons. As he approaches the Commons’ chamber, he is greeted by having its doors firmly slammed in his face. Using the rod, he deliberately knocks three times on the door (a physical indentation is left from this tradition), before it is opened. The office of Black Rod dates back to medieval times. However, the important ceremonial function that Black Rod undertakes during the state opening of parliament, dates back to January, 1642, and the attempted arrest of the Five Members. Set within the context of the Long Parliament and wider parliamentary struggles – that would ultimately lead to Civil War – Charles I, accompanied by armed soldiers, burst into the House of Commons and attempted to arrest five MPs. The King was ultimately unsuccessful. Realising his error Charles fled to Oxford. His actions were considered to be an abuse of his monarchical authority and proved to be the catalyst for the first Civil War.

The act of slamming the door in Black Rod’s face is used to signify the independence of the House of Commons from that of the Lords and Crown. Black Rod, in this context the monarch’s representative, can only enter the Commons’ chamber because they have been granted access. The Five Members case, and the tradition of Black Rod that has emerged from it, is, in its simplest form, an act of dissidence. The Commons visibly demonstrate both their independence from, and rejection of, the authority of the monarch within their chamber.

Once Black Rod has invited the Commons to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s speech, its members are in no rush to get to the other side of the palace. Although not widely talked about or acknowledged, members of the Commons take as long as possible to make their way to the Lords, sharing in jokes with each other along the way. This is once again an action of dissent. They do not hurry because they would like to demonstrate they are not members of the inferior house. This is an unspoken truth, mainly because of its potential political ramifications and a broader lack of respect towards the monarch. However, unspoken as it might be, it nonetheless forms an integral part of the ceremony.

It is easy to assume that state ceremonies merely support and reinforce the establishment. In many ways this is exactly what they are, and indeed do. As has been briefly demonstrated traditions and ceremonies of state, by very virtue of their invented and choreographed nature, can fold historical moments of dissent and protest into much broader narratives of the establishment. Magna Carta, and its sealing in 1215, serves as another poignant reminder of the state’s ability to appropriate an act of dissent to its advantage. In both instances these moments of dissent have been valued because ultimately they have been viewed as morally triumphant. Unspoken or not, moments such as these serve to remind us of an often uncomfortable relationship that exists between our democratic heritage and the institution of the monarchy.


Further Reading:

  • Peacey, J., ‘The Street Theatre of State: The Ceremonial Opening of Parliament, 1603-60’, Parliamentary History, 34: 1 (2015), pp. 155-172
  • Cannadine, David, ‘The Context, Performance and Meaning of Ritual: The British Monarchy and the “Invention of Tradition”’, c.1820-1977) in Hobsbawm and Ranger, The Invention of Tradition
  • BBC clip, ‘Black Rod’, available here
Posted in 19th Century history, 20th century history, Early modern history, Election 2017 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Chatham and the failure of English Politics

400 years ago this week the British navy suffered a disaster after the Dutch Raid on the Medway. In this blog our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the parliamentary background to one of the worst defeats in British naval history… 

On 12 June 1667, the leading ships of a Dutch fleet forced their way through the chain barring access to the Medway at Gillingham, and captured the Royal Charles, one of the greatest capital ships in the Royal Navy; on the following day the Dutch pushed further up river, burning more major ships,  before retreating triumphantly with the Royal Charles and another smaller vessel as prizes. The Dutch raid on the Medway is usually treated in England as a naval disaster. But it was even more a political disaster – a sorry tale of political overreach and mismanagement that ended with what was probably the most humiliating defeat inflicted on the navy.

The Raid on the Medway, by Dutch artist Willem van der Stoop, via Wikimedia Commons

The second Anglo-Dutch war was one of a series of conflicts between the English state and a Dutch republic which had emerged in 1648 from years of war with the Spanish crown, from whose control it had revolted in the sixteenth century, as an unlikely sea and colonial power: a collection of city states – dominated by Amsterdam – whose great trading companies were feeding the growing luxury markets of Europe with goods from the East Indies, Africa and the Americas. English attempts to protect its own fishing fleets and merchant shipping from Dutch competition had already been the main reason behind the first conflict between the two countries’ navies, under the English republic in 1652-4. But commerce was always complicated by politics. Though formally a republic, the Dutch state had its own aspirant royal family – the Princes of Orange, closely allied by marriage to the English and Scottish Stuarts. English conflict with the Dutch in the 1650s had a political edge as the English republic fought in part at least to combat the Orange interest in the Dutch republic. After 1660, the sweeping away of the English republic, and the Restoration of the monarchy, the English state had changed its colours, and was now a firm protector of the infant Prince of Orange against those in Dutch politics who wanted to keep monarchy firmly at bay.

The monarchical question introduced fresh tensions into the post-1660 Anglo-Dutch relationship. English royalists had imbibed a strong suspicion of the Dutch republic over the previous twenty years. Any republic, from a royalist point of view, was to be treated with extreme caution; moreover, though both states were Protestant, the Dutch willingness to tolerate just about any Protestant sect, including some of the radical groupings that had flourished during the civil war that royalists regarded as ‘fanatics’ and a threat to their own stability, eroded Protestant solidarity and poisoned  a series of negotiations between the two countries for a commercial treaty in the early 1660s. But were these issues, or the commercial rivalry – increasingly visible as it was across the world – enough, in themselves, to spark war?

The House of Commons’ resolution of April 21, 1664 appeared, on the face of it, to indicate determined parliamentary backing for a vigorous confrontation with the Dutch. Supposedly based on evidence from various economic interest groups about the economic problems facing the country, it declared that

‘the wrongs, dishonours, and indignities, done to his Majesty by the subjects of the United Provinces, by invading of his rights in India, Africa, and elsewhere, and the damages, affronts and injuries done by them to our merchants, are the greatest obstruction of our Foreign Trade: And that the same be humbly and speedily presented to his Majesty: And that he be most humbly moved to take some speedy and effectual Course for Redress thereof, and all other of the like Nature, and for the Prevention of the like in future: And, in prosecution thereof, they will, with their Lives and Fortunes, assist his Majesty against all Oppositions whatsoever’.

It was greeted universally as a sign of general enthusiasm for war with a country that was aggressively seeking to hoover up the world’s trade and to become a hegemonic power. But the truth was more complicated. There is plenty to indicate that the ground for the resolution had been assiduously prepared by the government itself, and that those who spoke for a new company, The Company of Royal Adventurers trading into Africa, were given undue prominence. Voices that might have emphasised the harm that war might do to the economy were not heard. There are perhaps two ways of looking at the government’s evident attempt to secure the April 1664 resolution. One is that it was intended as a tactic in a difficult series of bilateral negotiation: an attempt to show the Dutch that the English state was very capable of going to war if negotiations on a treaty broke down. Certainly the English ambassador in the republic, Sir George Downing, had urged such a course of action. The other is that it was a deliberate attempt by some within the government to create the background that might justify a war, with the most belligerent figure James, Duke of York, the king’s brother, and the future James II. James was certainly aggressive, keen on military action and national glory. He was actively and deeply involved in the affairs of the Royal Adventurers’, and encouraged global challenges to Dutch trading interests.

Whichever of these is more true, it’s undeniable that the 1664 resolution helped to ensure that there would be a war, surprising those sceptical of parliamentary backing for the war with the vehemence of its support, and acting as the platform from which the government, that autumn, made an argument for a grant of £2.5 million pounds – a huge and unprecedented sum – in order to prepare the navy for conflict with a formidable opponent. Financial and political backing for the war would continue throughout 1665 and into 1666, but after two years’ gruelling campaigning, in which the fleets slugged it out in a series of bloody but ultimately indecisive battles, interest in and support for it were probably already failing. The plague that broke out in the summer of 1665 had some impact, but the fire of London in September 1666 probably had the more devastating effect in terms of England’s ability to fight the war.

Parliament’s session of 1666-7 was summoned to obtain finance for a third year of fighting against the Dutch. Although the House of Commons quickly voted another huge sum of money – £1.8 million – to sustain the war effort, the question of how the money should be raised proved vastly more controversial. It is difficult to disentangle the reasons for this. It may have been because the government overreached itself in a bid to secure the money through the unpopular device of an extension to excise taxation (the struggle against this proposal was immortalised by Andrew Marvell in his Last Instructions to a Painter, possibly the only verse about a parliamentary debate ever written by a known poet). It was possibly because members had very real concerns over the state of the economy in the wake of two years’ of war – though their economic concerns in this session were largely concerned with the cattle trade with Ireland, which had rather little to do with the war. It may have been because while members were unwilling to be seen directly opposing the grant of money, they were less reluctant to be seen protecting the interests of their constituents by wrangling over how it should be raised. Or it could have been because the Duke of Buckingham, a favourite of Charles II, but an erratic politician increasingly hostile to the Duke of York, was active stirring up trouble among members of Parliament on various issues throughout the session.

The government got their grant of money by the end of the session. But it seems to have been little help in preparing for war. It isn’t completely clear why, but it is likely that the government was used to raising credit on the basis of parliamentary supply – the money could take years to actually be collected – and there was simply no credit to be had. The government had little choice but to cross fingers and hope that peace (negotiations were already well under way) would be agreed before the beginning of the summer campaigning season, and that no fleet would be required. The hope proved misplaced.

The 1664-7 war was a completely unnecessary one, and there is more than a suspicion that it was inspired by the imperial and military ambitions of the king’s brother, and the manipulation of Parliament to achieve his ends. The failure to raise money in 1667 to combat the Dutch for a third year was perhaps as much a financial, as a political, failure;  but undoubtedly, the political management that made it possible to secure the April 1664 resolution was severely lacking by 1666-7. Having tried so hard to engineer Parliament’s backing for a misconceived war in 1664, the government found it impossible to ensure it was still behind it when the going became really tough in 1666.


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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Kathryn Rix, The professionalisation of electoral politics: the Liberal and Conservative party agents, 1880-1910

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar, Dr. Kathryn Rix, assistant editor of our Victorian Commons project, spoke on ‘The professionalisation of electoral politics: the Liberal and Conservative party agents, 1880-1910’. The professional party agents are the subject of her recent book, Parties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910, recently published by Boydell and Brewer in the Royal Historical Society’s Studies in History series. Here she shares some of the key themes of her work…

BookcoverParties, agents and electoral culture in England, 1880-1910 is the first major study of the professional constituency agents during a key transitional period in British politics. Following the electoral reforms of 1883-5 – which extended the franchise, redrew the electoral map and introduced more stringent corrupt practices legislation – the Liberal and Conservative parties faced the challenge of harnessing the support of a mass electorate. The expansion of local government, with county councils from 1888 and parish and district councils from 1894, created another potential arena for partisan effort. The solicitor agents who had typically undertaken the work of registration and electioneering on a part-time basis prior to 1880 were increasingly replaced by a new breed of full-time professional organisers, who handled the work of registration, electioneering and the day-to-day political, educational and social activities of local parties in the constituencies. These professional agents performed a vital role as intermediaries between politics at Westminster and at grass-roots level, bridging the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ politics, and between politicians and those they sought to represent. The relationship between central party organisation and the localities is one of the underlying themes of this book.


James Henry Linforth, Liberal agent

My research considers the agents not only as political figures, but also as men (and occasionally women) determined to establish their status as professionals, placing them within the broader socio-economic context of late nineteenth-century professionalisation. It analyses the agents’ social and occupational backgrounds, drawing on a collective biographical study of almost 200 agents. Significantly for a group who often served as local figureheads for their party, agents came to a surprising extent from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. My seminar paper looked in particular at two of these working-class agents, James Linforth, a former joiner and cabinet-maker, who served in turn as Liberal agent for Lichfield, Nottingham and Leeds, and James Bottomley, a former factory worker and bank clerk from Oldham, who became Conservative agent for Doncaster and Lancaster.


James Henry Bottomley, Conservative agent

In exploring the agents’ efforts to improve their position by means of professional associations (established on a national basis by the Liberal agents in 1882 and 1893, and by the Conservatives in 1891), I am particularly interested in the impact which this had on political culture. In particular, my book analyses how far the professionalisation of party organisation can be equated with the ‘modernisation’ or ‘nationalisation’ of politics. It argues that while the agents’ professional networks and their high levels of geographical mobility contributed to a growing uniformity in certain aspects of party organisation, such as registration and canvassing, local forces continued to play a vital role in British political life. The balance of local, regional and national factors is explored particularly in relation to three key aspects of the election campaign: the selection of candidates; the ‘platform’ campaign of speeches by leading party figures, MPs, candidates and other activists; and the vast provision of election literature by local, regional and central party bodies.

One of the major questions which has occupied historians in assessing Liberal and Conservative party activity in the later Victorian period is how the ideals and beliefs espoused by each party’s members were reflected not only in the policies they presented to the electorate, but also in the organisational structures and methods through which they sought to cultivate their political appeal. The Liberal approach to politics has been characterised as a more rational, sober and serious-minded one, while the Conservatives have been seen as more proficient at creating a social appeal and defending the ‘pleasures of the people’, such as sport and the public house. Viewing these issues from the agents’ perspective sheds new light on these important debates about party identity and suggests that the cultural differences between the parties were less clear-cut than might be supposed. Many Liberal agents, for example, were keen to overcome the impression that Liberalism was the creed of dull, temperance-abiding killjoys, and made efforts to develop the social side of party organisation in their constituencies. Although the main focus of my research is the two established political parties, the role of professional organisation within the embryonic Labour party is also considered.

Overall, my work highlights the transformation of the function and standing of the political agent between 1880 and 1910, and the impact which the presence in the constituencies of this professional cadre of party organisers had on political and electoral culture.


And join us tonight for the last Parliaments, politics and people seminar of the academic year. Elliot Vernon will speak on ‘Religious policy and faction in the Second Protectorate Parliament, 1656-8.’ Full details here.

For more on Kathryn’s new book, Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910, read her Victorian Commons blogpost here.

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MPs in World War I: William Hoey Kearney Redmond (1861-1917)

In the latest of our blogs on MPs killed in the First World War, Dr Kathryn Rix marks the centenary of the death of the Irish nationalist Willie Redmond…

Major Willie Redmond (1861-1917), MP, Illustrated London News, 16 June 1917, via Wikimedia Commons

On 7 June 1917, William Hoey Kearney Redmond, the Irish Nationalist MP for East Clare, died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. Aged 56, he was the oldest MP to be killed in action. He was also the one with the longest parliamentary service, having first been returned to the Commons in 1883 as MP for the borough of Wexford. The younger brother of the leader of the Irish parliamentary party, John Redmond, he was well known among Irish emigrant communities in America and Australia, where he had campaigned on behalf of the nationalist cause, and his biographer suggests that his death had a greater international impact than that of any other British soldier in the First World War.

Redmond, usually known as Willie, came from a family long connected with Wexford, although he was himself born in Liverpool. His great-uncle, John Edward Redmond (1806-65), was the first family member to represent the borough in Parliament, sitting from 1859 until his defeat at the 1865 general election. Redmond’s father, William Archer Redmond (1825-80), sat for Wexford as a member of Isaac Butt’s Home Rule party from 1872 until his death in 1880. In July 1883 Redmond became the third generation of his family to represent Wexford when he was elected in his absence at a by-election. At the time of his election he was in Australia, where he and his older brother John – who had been elected as MP for the borough of New Ross in 1881 – were campaigning and fund-raising for the Irish National League. Both men met their wives in Australia, where John married in September 1883. Redmond and his wife Eleanor Mary Dalton held their wedding in London in 1886. Their only son died in 1891.

Redmond only represented Wexford for two years before the borough lost its separate representation under the Third Reform Act. In 1885 he was elected instead for North Fermanagh, which he represented for seven years. His Parnellite sympathies meant that he had to find a different seat in 1892, as the majority of local party activists in North Fermanagh were anti-Parnellites. He was defeated at Cork City, but also stood for East Clare, where he was victorious. He saw off an anti-Parnellite challenge at the 1895 general election, and was returned unopposed in 1900, 1906 and at both elections in 1910. (He was also a reluctant and unsuccessful candidate for Cork City in December 1910.) He sat in the Commons alongside his brother John, who represented New Ross, 1881-5, North Wexford, 1885-91, and Waterford, 1891-1918.

While they shared their political sympathies, Redmond and his brother had very different personalities. A contemporary wrote in 1910 that ‘I have never seen two men more absolutely dissimilar’. John Redmond was ‘silent, reserved, calculating and consistent’, whereas Willie was ‘conversational, spontaneous and impulsive in policy’. Described by his biographer as ‘the enfant terrible of Irish politics’ in the 1880s and 1890s, Redmond was imprisoned three times – in 1882, 1888 and 1902 – for his activities in support of the Land League and the United Irish League.

Shortly after the First World War broke out, John Redmond encouraged those involved in the Irish Volunteers to enlist with the British army. Loyally supporting his brother’s stance, Redmond made a notable recruiting speech at Cork in November 1914. He cited his long-standing support for the Irish nationalist cause, including his imprisonment alongside Parnell in Kilmainham gaol, and declared that he was ‘personally convinced that the battle of Ireland is to be fought where many Irishmen now are – in Flanders and France’. He concluded therefore that ‘old as I am, and grey as are my hairs, I will say, “Don’t go, but come with me”.’ As his biographer records, it was Redmond’s hope that

service in the war would unite Irish Protestants and Catholics against a common enemy in defence of the rights of other ‘small nations’ and contribute powerfully to a peaceful settlement in Ireland when the war ended (T. Denman, A lonely grave. The life and death of William Redmond (1995), pg. 9).

Redmond was commissioned as a captain in the 6th battalion of the Royal Irish regiment in February 1915. He had previously served with the Wexford militia battalion from 1879 until 1882, when he had abandoned his idea of pursuing a military career. In December 1915 he arrived with his regiment at Le Havre, en route to the trenches in Belgium. His age and poor health meant that he spent much of his time in staff jobs rather than fighting in the front line, although he was mentioned in dispatches late in 1916, by which time he had been promoted to the rank of major.

Major Redmond’s grave, Locre Hospice Cemetery, Belgium. By Osioni (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Having been ‘absolutely miserable at the prospect of being left behind’, Redmond succeeded in persuading his superiors to give him permission to take part in the attack on 7 June 1917 on Messines Ridge. He was wounded in the arm and leg by shell fire shortly after leaving the trenches at around 3:30 a.m. and died of his wounds that evening at Dranoutre, near Locre. He was buried in the garden of the convent at Locre Hospice. Despite pressure from the Imperial War Graves Commission, his widow refused to allow his body to be moved to a larger war cemetery nearby. Alongside his British war medals, Redmond was posthumously awarded the Légion d’Honneur.


Further reading:

  • T. Denman, A lonely grave. The life and death of William Redmond (1995)
  • W. H. K. Redmond, Trench pictures from France (1917)

You can read the other posts in our series marking the lives of MPs who died fighting WWI here.

Posted in 19th Century history, 20th century history, military history, World War I MPs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Of the utmost weight for the safety and tranquillity of the kingdom’: the snap election of 1747

The latest in our General Election 2017 series and launching our new blog series on The Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow of the Lords 1715-90 Section, describes the Pelham ministry’s snap decision to call an election and catch the opposition off-balance…

On 17 June 1747 George II attended the House of Lords to grant his assent to some 59 new pieces of legislation. Having done so, he made a brief speech thanking both Houses for their service before leaving it to the Lord Chancellor (Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke) to prorogue the session. The next day, Parliament was dissolved. The decision to bring about an early termination was supposed to have been a secret, but as the duke of Richmond revealed to the duke of Newcastle earlier in the month, it was one everyone knew about: ‘I beg to know when the dissolution of the Parliament is no longer a secret, for every soul I meet with has it, & I look like a fool when I lye [sic], which I am not used to…’ [Richmond -Newcastle Correspondence, 246]. Like many peers in the period, Richmond was eager to play his part in the ensuing elections in a variety of constituencies where he was able to command interest.

Under the terms of the Septennial Act, the Parliament, elected in the summer of 1741, ought to have had another year to run, but the early dissolution had been resolved on, according to Dudley Ryder, ‘to disappoint the Prince [of Wales], who is beginning to intermeddle in most of the boroughs against the next Parliament in order to set up a violent opposition.’ The Westminster Journal of 6 June had a different take on it, suggesting that ‘the Reasons given for the sudden Dissolution of this Parliament, are of the utmost Weight for the Safety and Tranquillity of the kingdom, in order to prevent the pernicious intrigues of France at this critical juncture’.  Both were plausible reasons for the ministry to wish to go to the country early. Britain’s involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession had resulted in gains in America, but the country had been invaded by Jacobite forces backed by a resurgent France in 1745 and only days before the 1747 poll the army under the duke of Cumberland suffered a significant defeat at Lauffeldt. The beginning of peace negotiations the previous year had been widely criticized. A desire to strengthen the ministry’s hand in the pourparlers that would ultimately result in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) was undoubtedly a signal reason for wanting to get the election out of the way early.

As Ryder suggested, though, the ministry was also eager to counter the substantial effort being made by Frederick and his allies to build up an opposition movement founded on a coalition of dissident Whigs, Tories and the prince’s own household retainers. Newcastle and his brother, Henry Pelham (the prime minister) had every reason to be wary of Prince Frederick’s new alliance. It had been, after all, just such a grouping that had played a significant role in destabilizing and ultimately toppling Sir Robert Walpole early in 1742. In the early months of 1747 the prince had announced his intention of returning to opposition for as long as he remained Prince of Wales and on 4 June his movement released their non-partisan programme in the Carlton House Declaration. Heading the opposition, it should be stressed, was not something he expected to be confined to for much longer. George II was by now into his 60s and as the king’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather had all failed to make it past 70, there was every reason to expect Prince Frederick’s accession as king to be only a few years away. In the event, this was to be Frederick’s last general election at the head of the opposition, but only because it was to be him rather than his father who would die first.

By the early months of 1747 Frederick’s grouping had begun to make detailed preparations for the election they anticipated to be still 18 months away. Then, as now, the west country was considered a key battleground. There the prince expected to be able to draw on the resources of the duchy of Cornwall. In Scotland, it was hoped that Frederick’s ally, the duke of Argyll, would capitalize on gains made in 1741, and there were other areas of the country, including in the Pelhams’ own heartlands of Sussex, where the opposition aimed to mount a significant effort. In each of these the prince and his lieutenants had begun to lay the groundwork for the next election, but the ministry’s decision to bring the poll forward meant that few seats were adequately prepared for the contest.

The government commenced its campaign, quietly confident of success, but cautious about overstating their strength: ‘We despise the Opposition extreamly. I hope we are not mistaken’. [Richmond-Newcastle Correspondence, 247] The opposition, meanwhile, struggled to rally their unprepared forces. In the west Frederick was hobbled by the loss to the ministry’s ranks of Hugh Boscawen, 2nd Viscount Falmouth, who was able to bring to bear considerable electoral interest in a number of Cornish constituencies from his seat at Tregothnan. According to one of Frederick’s backers at Truro, one of the places where the Boscawens were particularly strong, ‘The majority of the electors here are so attached to the Tregothnan family… that the attempt you advise me to make in this place would I am persuaded, prove fruitless…’ [HMC Fortescue, i. 109] The sheer cost of attempting to ‘buy support’ (technically, of course, a crime even then) was also a problem for the prince’s grouping. The always outspoken Thomas Pitt, for whom the words ‘villain’ and ‘rascal’ were staples of his personal lexicon, expostulated on the state of affairs in Grampound:

I think we can carry it, but it must cost damnably dear. The villains had got a-head to that degree, and rise in their demands so extravagantly, that I have been very near damning them and kicking them to the devil at once. The dirty rascals dispise [sic] 20 guineas as much as a King’s Sergeant does a half guinea fee… [HMC Fortescue, i. 111]

Horace Walpole, who reported a rumour that Frederick had put aside £200,000 to fight the election, considered the money ill-spent, commenting cynically that ‘he had much better have saved it to buy the parliament after it is chosen’. [Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. C.B Lucas, 66]. He may have had a point. The election at Grampound resulted in a compromise with Thomas Hawkins securing one seat in the prince’s interest (with Pitt’s grudging support), while the other went to the ministry supporter, Lord George Bentinck. Elsewhere, the ministry demonstrated supremely assured management. At Seaford, where Newcastle held sway, the duke even sat at the returning officer’s desk to ensure that his preferred candidates were elected. Unsurprisingly, both seats went to his nominees and a subsequent petition complaining against Newcastle’s behaviour was thrown out in the Commons.

The overall result, albeit of an election that saw only 62 contests across the country, was a decisive victory for the government. Some 351 seats went to candidates in the ministry’s interest, with just 92 going to dissident Whigs and 115 to Tories. By the second week of July the opposition had descended into mutual recrimination and the launching of an investigation into how they had failed to carry the seats of which they had had such high hopes. The prince, meanwhile, whose personal grouping had been particularly badly mauled, attempted to play down the size of his defeat and to comfort his supporters. One seat at Grampound, he insisted, was more than he had hoped for; and as Francis Ayscough put it to the inconsolable Thomas Pitt:

Thank God, we have a master who values his friends and servants, not according to their success, but to their zeal and sincerity in his service; and, as no one can have shown more of this than you have done in the late troubles and fatigues you have undergone, so no one can be more in his favour and esteem. [HMC Fortescue, i. 121]


Further Reading:

  • The Correspondence of the dukes of Richmond and Newcastle 1724-1750, ed. T. McCann (Sussex Record Society lxxiii, 1984)
  • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford, 1989)
  • Reed Browning, The Duke of Newcastle (Yale, 1975)

Georgian lords 2

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‘Not another one!’: going to the polls in historical perspective

With UK electors heading off to the national polls for the third time in as many years and as part of our Election 2017 series, Dr Philip Salmon, editor of the Victorian Commons, looks for similar levels of electioneering activity in earlier periods…

By June the UK will have clocked up its fifth general election this century – an average of one every 3.4 years. Although this is slightly higher than the 19th century average (one every 3.8 years) and the 20th century (one every 4), it is remarkably similar in terms of each century’s first two decades: five elections had taken place by 1818 and five by 1918, an average of one every 3.6 years. Add in last year’s referendum, however, and modern voters will have experienced two general elections separated by a gap of just two years, and three national polls in a row. Both these scenarios are far more unusual.

Since 1800 there have only been five comparable occasions when a pair of general elections has followed this timing, starting with 1818 and 1820. Moreover, two of these five examples – 1818/20 and 1835/37 – were triggered not by political events, but by the death of a monarch, George III in 1820 and William IV in 1837. (This practice – the cause of three elections in the 19th century – stopped with the 1867 Reform Act.) A monarch also prompted the completely unexpected 1835 election. Upset at the Whig ministry’s plans to reform the Anglican Church in Ireland, William IV controversially dismissed his government in late 1834 and installed a minority Conservative administration, led by Sir Robert Peel, who immediately called an election. The new government’s bid to win a majority at the polls, however, failed, although it did kick-start the rise of the Conservatives after their rock-bottom performance in 1832. General elections held either side of a ‘gap-year’, for political reasons, are certainly unusual.

It is the holding of a national poll in three successive years, however, which really stands out. This has only happened twice since 1800, with the earliest example again taking place in the 1830s. The parallels between today and the trio of general elections held in 1830, 1831 and 1832 go further too, since the middle poll, held after the defeat of the Whig government’s reform bill, was effectively a ‘referendum’ about whether or not to reform the UK’s representative system. Even some of the 1831 slogans, about ‘restoring’ the constitution and championing  the ‘rights of the people’, have a familiar modern ring.

The third poll in this trio, held after the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, was mainly about public approval for the Whig ministry’s handling of the reform issue, which had sparked a major constitutional crisis. The whole question of reform had not only seriously divided the nation – prompting everything from family feuds to full-scale riots – but had also pitted the Commons against the Lords, before the unelected peers were forced to give way. Bolstered by nearly a third of a million extra voters and newly enfranchised industrial towns like Manchester, the Whig ministry led by Lord Grey won a famous landslide victory in 1832, which remains the largest in British political history. Within 18 months, however, Grey’s ministry had collapsed, torn apart by internal divisions.

While voters in 1910 and 1974 faced two general elections within the same year, the only other example of a national poll occurring in three successive years comes from the early 1920s, when the traditional parties and the growing Labour party vied for support from a newly expanded electorate, following the breakup of the wartime coalition. The Conservatives won the 1922 election, but Stanley Baldwin’s decision to seek an electoral mandate for major tariff reforms in 1923, giving trading ‘preference’ to the colonies, seriously backfired, allowing Labour to form its first government under Ramsey MacDonald, initially with tacit support from the Liberals. Conservative and Liberal opposition to Labour’s handling of relations with communist Russia, however, forced the ministry to resign after just 10 months in office, prompting the 1924 election. Aided by the Zinoviev Letter in the Daily Mail, an early example of ‘fake news’ alleging a communist conspiracy in Britain, the Conservatives were able to secure a major victory.

Both these examples of three consecutive national polls – from the 1830s and 1920s – have modern resonances, with the middle poll in both cases amounting to a form of referendum, whether on electoral reform or a new foreign trade policy. The outcome of the third election in each case, however, obviously turned out very differently. The first awarded the government of the day a landslide victory; the second brought about a dramatic shift in political opinion and a change of ministry. We will soon discover which model today’s trio of national polls – only the third since 1800 – will most closely resemble.


See our ongoing series for more posts inspired by the 2017 General Election – more to follow soon!

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Parliaments, Politics & People Seminar: Charlotte Young, John Bradshaw’s forgotten role: the Committee for Sequestration’s legal advisers in the 1640s

At our last ‘Parliaments, Politics & People’ seminar, Charlotte Young (Royal Holloway University of London) spoke on ‘John Bradshaw’s forgotten role: the Committee for Sequestration’s legal advisers in the 1640s’. Here she gives an overview of her paper…

John Bradshaw’s name is unfortunately and irrevocably associated with the words traitor, murderer, and rogue. His reputation was destroyed by the Royalist press due to his role as Lord President of the Trial of Charles I, which ended with Bradshaw uttering the sentence of execution upon the monarch. Contemporary accounts and modern historiography alike have condemned him as a disreputable non-entity who had made no contribution to the Commonwealth before the trial.

However, the reality is that John Bradshaw was heavily involved in Parliamentary affairs during the Civil War, and had made a significant contribution to the business of government. A part of his career which has been largely overlooked is his role as a legal adviser to the Committee of Lords and Commons for Sequestrations, based in Westminster. The Committee, initially comprised of 22 members of the House of Commons and 14 members of the House of Lords, was established in early 1643 to allow Parliament to confiscate the goods and estates of the King’s supporters, to prevent them supplying the monarch with financial or material assistance. Unsurprisingly, people began appealing against sequestration almost as soon as the first cases were enforced. Initially the committee decided what to do in each case themselves, but within a few weeks it became clear that they’d bitten off more than they could chew. Simply seizing property from delinquents didn’t take into account issues such as disputes over ownership, tenancy agreements, or provisions for jointure.

By June 1643 the Committee began referring cases to lawyers, asking them to untangle the evidence presented in appeals, and work out whose side they should agree with. Sequestration was legally dubious to say the least, so tapping into the pre-existing respected legal networks of London gave it a façade of legitimacy, and allowed appellants the chance to have their cases analysed by experienced lawyers. John Bradshaw began receiving cases regularly in October 1644. He was one of a team of legal advisers employed by the Committee during the war; others included Serjeant John Wilde, Henry Pelham, and William Ellis.

However, Bradshaw was undoubtedly the Committee’s favourite. He worked for them until 3rd January 1649, their last meeting before the execution of Charles I. In this period of just over 4 years, he was involved in well over 1,000 cases. The other legal advisers combined handled just 77. Bradshaw was paid just under £4 a week, and his responsibilities included reading through all the documentation relating to each appeal, producing a written report with a judgement for each case, and examining witnesses in person if necessary. On 7th July 1647 the House of Commons noted that he had ‘done very great Service to the Parliament’ through his work.

This project will be developed further over the next few years to build up a clearer picture of Bradshaw’s involvement with the Committee, but even in the early stages it is clear that this is not a man who was unknown in Westminster before the trial. This is not a man who had contributed nothing to the affairs of the Commonwealth. Unfortunately there is an approximate survival rating of 5-10% for the reports he produced, but those still held at the National Archives paint a picture of a thorough, just, and dedicated lawyer who was respected and trusted by both Parliament and the people during the 1640s.


Join us tonight for our latest seminar. Our own Dr Kathryn Rix ,of the Victorian Commons, will speak on ‘The professionalization of electoral politics: the Liberal and Conservative party agents, 1880-1910’. Full details available here.

Afterwards Kathryn will hold an informal launch for her new book, Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910. More on the book here.


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