Parliament & World War I

In partnership with the Parliamentary Archives alongside their current exhibition on Parliament and the First World War, we recently held events in Parliament exploring the institution during the war years…

Parliament and the First World War exhibition, Westminster Hall

The Parliamentary Archives exhibition on Parliament and the First World War, still open in Westminster Hall, proved an excellent opportunity for us to gather together historians and discuss the impact of the First World War on Parliament.

Firstly, Dr Mari Takayanagi (Vote 100) spoke on ‘The Girl Porters and the Court Twins: Women Staff in Parliament in the First World War.’ Dr Takayanagi’s research had uncovered several women who had, because of the shortage of labour, had the opportunity to work in occupations within Parliament that had previously been closed to them because of their gender. She spoke of two examples: firstly the ‘girl porters’ who took messages around the estate, of which four – Elsie and Mabel Clark, Vera Goldsmith and Dorothy Hart – were employed between April 1917 and May 1919. Secondly, the women who joined the House of Lords accountancy department; one (May Court) eventually became head of the Accounts and Copying department in the Lords. Despite the difference in status in these positions they did share common experiences: firstly, the women involved appeared to get the job through family links, sometimes because their direct relations had left to fight in the war; and secondly, they were employed with great reluctance by parliament but proved themselves to their bosses, either keeping their positions after the war or earning excellent references.

Dr Kathryn Rix at Parliament’s WWI memorial

Secondly, our own Dr Kathryn Rix gave an overview of MPs who died fighting in the First World War, drawn from her excellent and very popular series on this blog. She noted that 40% of MPs served in some form during the First World War on many fronts, at home and abroad. Those who died were from across the political spectrum. In her talk she highlighted the youngest MP to die, Charles Thomas Mills at 28, and the oldest, Willie Redmond, brother of Irish nationalist leader John. She discussed two MP brothers to die – Harold Cawley at Gallipoli and his brother Oswald in 1918. Their father, Sir Frederick Cawley (1850-1937) who was also Liberal MP for Prestwich, sat on the Dardanelles commission. Dr Rix finished by focussing on Francis McLaren. McLaren was a close friend of Josiah Wedgwood, the founder of the History of Parliament and subject of a later talk, as well as the early wartime Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. You can read all of Dr Rix’s series about the MPs who died fighting in the First World War to date here.

Thirdly, Chloe Bowerbank spoke on her thesis research: ‘No Treating: the state management of public houses during world war one’. She described how, under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act [DORA], the government took a much greater interest in the drinking habits of the workforce and particularly the management of pubs. Whilst across the country this led to changes in opening hours and bans on buying rounds, in certain areas the government simply took over the pubs themselves. She focused on the largest area – Carlisle – where industrial workers from the town and its surroundings were known to indulge at the end of the day: 4-500 glasses of whisky were waiting in certain pubs at the end of shifts! Bowerbank discussed the motivations for this policy, which ranged from the practical (an attempt to increase production), moral (the Liberal agenda to reduce drinking) and financial (the pubs were extremely profitable, and they remained in public ownership until the 1970s). This was one of the lesser-known legacies of DORA.

Finally, our own Priscilla Baines discussed the History of Parliament’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood, and his ‘memorial for fallen parliamentarians’. A campaigning Liberal, and then Labour MP, Wedgwood had previous military experience in the Boer war and volunteered in 1914. He returned to Parliament at the end of 1916, and after the war he embarked on a dictionary of parliamentary biography that was to become the History of Parliament. This was, in his words, in part to record ‘how well parliament shone’ during the war years. Wedgwood invited members of the wartime parliament to respond to a questionnaire about their political experiences, and pestered the war office to gather the service records of all MPs who fought. However, these records contained little information about the war, and Baines concluded most of Wedgwood’s draft biographies that included war service must have been constructed from other sources. You can read more about Wedgwood’s questionnaires in these blogs written by Baines and of course see the ongoing results of Wedgwood’s project over on our website!


We hope a recording will be available on the parliamentary website shortly. If it is so we will add it here.

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When every vote counted: what minority government in the 1970s meant for MPs

With Parliament back and Theresa May’s government trying to pass controversial legislation, Emmeline Ledgerwood, one of our oral history project volunteers and PhD student at the British Library/University of Leicester, blogs on the periods of minority government during the 1970s, using excerpts from our oral history project archive…

As Westminster returns to work after the summer recess, MPs must become accustomed to an environment which few living parliamentarians have experienced—a House of Commons with a minority government.

There have been limited instances of minority government in the UK Parliament since WWII. When John Major lost his majority in 1997 he only had three months to survive until it was time to fight a general election.

It was during the period 1974-79 that the tensions and challenges posed by the lack of a governing majority became routine for those MPs who belonged to the House of Commons at that time.

Heath failed to form a coalition after the election in February 1974, leaving Labour to snatch their opportunity to take power, albeit by forming a minority government. Harold Wilson then called a second election in October 1974 which returned a majority of three.

However by April 1976—shortly after Callaghan had replaced Wilson as Labour party leader—any minimal advantage had slipped out of Labour’s grasp through a combination of by-election defeats and the defection of backbenchers to other parties.

Callaghan’s government survived due to the failure of opposition parties to unite against them, and the formation of a Lib-Lab pact in March 1977 that effectively saw off a vote of no confidence and lasted until speculation in mid-1978 suggested that a general election would soon be called.

A recent report from the Hansard Society outlines how our current Parliament may operate in the context of a minority government.

  • Bills may be presented in skeleton form, leaving the details to be filled in through delegated or secondary legislation which is barely scrutinised by Parliament.
  • The conduct and character of Select Committees in this situation is uncharted territory, as the system only developed after 1979.
  • The usual channels may come under increasing strain and the business managers—particularly the Chief Whip—will be key figures in the government, needing to take greater account of the needs and demands of the smaller parties upon whose votes they may need to rely.

That was exactly the case in 1974-79. When the margins are tight, every vote on every side counts and securing those votes is the job of the whips.

Ann Taylor by Emmeline Ledgerwood

MPs who served in the 1974-79 Parliament and have been interviewed for our oral history project remember it as a testing yet exciting period, giving an indication of what minority government could mean for our current crop of parliamentarians.

Ann Taylor (Labour) relished the challenges of her job at that time in the Government’s Whips’ Office, describing the atmosphere as tense, exhilarating and one of great camaraderie.

Fred Silvester by Emmeline Ledgerwood

Fred Silvester (Conservative) was an Opposition Whip and relates how his office kept track of information about MPs that they might need to use when persuading MPs to vote.

It was when the pairing system broke down in May 1976 that life became very difficult for the Whips and MPs. Helene Hayman (Labour) recalls what sparked the crisis.

The night before Whitsun recess was that much disputed vote when the Labour Whips were accused—this is all in This House—of fiddling the vote and Michael Heseltine was so enraged that he picked up the mace and swung it round and all hell broke out.

What it meant for MPs was that they were tied to the House unless there were exceptional circumstances such as when Hayman, six months pregnant at the time, was paired with Margaret Thatcher to the great displeasure of the whips (as reflected in the language used in this clip!)

Roger Sims (Conservative) recounts how as a new MP he was introduced to the whipping system by the Chief Whip and what happened when he missed a vote by a matter of seconds.

Robert Hughes (Labour) remembers staying ridiculously late into the early hours, at a time when all-night sittings were not unusual and tiredness made him operate on autopilot:

We lived in Hampstead, and I always had to take the dog for a walk when I came home, and I came home about half past three one morning, took the dog for a walk, got back and my wife said “Where the hell have you been?” I said, “walking the dog”. She said: “you walked the dog’s lead, you left the dog at home!”

MPs were also constrained from voting how they wished, as Labour’s Ken Weetch described:

When we won in October ‘74, I mean it was very, very thin indeed, I’ve forgot the actual number but I know we weren’t at all safe. We were very shaky […] you had to have tight discipline and there were things that I should have done which I didn’t do. For example we passed docks legislation and we gave the dockers’ trade unions a monopoly of dock work. I should have resisted that because it was a bad piece of legislation – but we were told we either supported it or we fell. You know I mean it was literally that.

Their role as an MP became reduced to their ability to pass through the division lobby, as Bruce Grocott (Labour) found.

Halfway through that Parliament I got peritonitis and was sort of whipped into hospital in the middle of the night and never has the media shown, prior or since, remotely comparable levels of interest in my health or my availability to turn up in Parliament. I mean that was the main thing, I mean I was a vote that couldn’t take place.

Frank White (Labour), an Opposition Whip, describes Callaghan’s decision in 1979 not to call the critically-ill Doc Broughton to Westminster, resulting in the loss of the vote of no confidence which forced the general election.

In the subsequent election defeat Frank Judd (Labour) lost his ministerial office and his constituency yet his immediate reaction among friends was one of joy. “They all looked at me with their jaws open [because] I started singing. And I sang and sang and sang. And what was this? It was somehow a feeling of relief that an impossible situation had gone.”


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“Hidden Gems”: Three Derby Museums and an unusual gift

In the latest blog from the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley considers a rare holding by the Derby Museum and Art Gallery. This coincides with the major Jacobite exhibition currently on display at the National Museums of Scotland.

Eighteenth-century Derby may be celebrated in each of the city’s three museums.  The Silk Mill (an early example of a purpose-built factory) designed by Sir Thomas Lombe to manufacture silk using the Italian techniques, knowledge of which was smuggled out of Italy by his half-brother, John Lombe (and now the city’s Industrial Museum); Pickford’s House, built in 1770 by the local-born architect Joseph Pickford (and now Pickford’s House Museum of Georgian Life and Costume); and the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, the home of an extensive collection of the works of the painter, Joseph Wright. This last institution also commemorates the role played by Derby in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The furthest point south reached by the Jacobite army is commemorated by a plaque and by a re-enactment of the skirmish between the Jacobite forces and some Hanoverian troops at Swarkestone Bridge which takes place each December. It was in Exeter House in Derby that Bonnie Prince Charlie held a council of war, which decided to turn back towards Scotland in December 1745 and led to the crushing defeat at Culloden in the following year.

A more surprising exhibit from the collections housed in Derby Museum was revealed during a temporary exhibition on the formation and development of the museum. Imagine my surprise on 13 Sept. 2015 when I wandered round this exhibition, to find a framed letter from Prince Charles to his father, the titular James III, presented to the museum by Queen Victoria. Presumably the letter was once part of the Royal Archives, Stuart papers, now located at Windsor.

Now, one might expect that the letter concerned Derby and the Rebellion, but strangely the letter is dated 22 October 1745 from Edinburgh, so it was written before the Prince began his march into England, and has no connection to Derby at all.

The frame of the letter reads: Donated to Derby Town and County Museum by Queen Victoria in 1873.

The text of the letter is as follows:

                                                                                    Edinburgg 22 Oc. O.S. 1745


I have charged Sir Gems Stuard to carry this as far as Paris, and to forward it immediately by courier to y[ou]r Majesty, as also to write you a distinct account of ye situation of affairs, he is an understanding capable man, and can be depended on, which has made me chuse him to send to ye Fr[ench] C[ourt] with proper compliments to the Fr[ench] K[ing] and to hasten them for succours.  I hope y[ou]r Majesty will be satisfied with his proceedings. I have nothing particular to add but what he can say makes it needless for me to say anymore at present.  I am thank God in perfect good health, but still in ye usual anctiety for want of letters to which there is no help but patience. I lay myself at y[ou]r Majesty’s feet moste humbly asking blessing, and remaining with the profoundest respect

Your moste

Dutifull son

Charles P

P.S. As I writ to you in my last I shall not fail to get rid of Stricland as soon as possible.  Your Majesty I hope will forgive the scrawl, not having time to write it over being so much hurrid with business.


Endorsed   The Prince Octr 22d 1745


To the King


For Jacobite scholars, the letter raises a number of questions. Who was Sir Gems Stewart? Was he the influential Orkneys laird, Sir James Stewart of Burray, arrested there by a party of marines led by Lieutenant Moodie [TNA, SP 6/104/1, f. 80], and who subsequently died in gaol in Southwark in 1746? And who was Strickland? Was he Francis Strickland, who landed on Barra with the Young Pretender at the beginning of his adventures? Strickland had been one of the prince’s companions for a number of years and was viewed with distrust by Charles’s father, but it seems that the decision about what to do with him was taken out of Charles’s hands. Strickland seems to have fallen ill on the march south and was left at Carlisle. By the time Culloden was fought and lost, he was dead. Ironically, then, neither of the men mentioned in the letter made it to Derby with the Young Pretender.


Further Reading:

Christopher Duffy, The ’45: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the untold story of the Jacobite rising, (2003)

Georgian lords 2

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The Dismissal of Clarendon

350 years ago this month, the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, was dismissed following the disaster on the Medway. Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, tells us more…

On the evening of 30th August 1667 one of the two secretaries of state, Sir William Morrice, was sent by the King to the lord chancellor, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon in his grand, newly-completed palace of Clarendon House off Piccadilly, to demand that Clarendon surrender to him his seal of office. Morrice, who Clarendon wrote ‘had no mind to the employment’, took the Great Seal, tucking it in its richly embroidered purse under his arm ‘like a bagpipe’, as the Scottish secretary the earl of Lauderdale gleefully wrote, and delivered it back to King Charles II in his private apartments in Whitehall. It was the end of the political career of one of the most diligent servants of the king and his father. Originally one of the parliamentary critics of the government of Charles I, the then Edward Hyde had moved towards the king’s camp as he was alienated by the drift to confrontation of the leadership in the Commons. He became one of the most important administrators of the royalist cause in Oxford during the Civil War, and then shared the poverty and frustration of Charles II’s pre-Restoration exile. Confirmed in his dominance of the king’s counsels after the Restoration, he had been heaped with honours and piled high with wealth. Despite his service, his success bred resentment.

The dismissal was the culmination of a series of events set off by the disastrous naval humiliation in June in the Medway, when the Dutch had delivered a tremendous rebuke to England’s absurdly unrealistic tactics in attempting to negotiate an end to the second Anglo-Dutch war. With immense daring, they sailed upriver to Chatham and burnt and captured some of the greatest ships of the English navy – laid up there because the government had simply run out of money. Clarendon wrote of the chaos and confusion that followed:

those who … were then present in the galleries and privy lodgings at Whitehall, whither all the world flocked with equal liberty, can easily call to mind many instances of such wild despair and even ridiculous apprehensions, that I am willing to forget, and would not that the least mention of them should remain.

A peace was, unsurprisingly, rapidly concluded. The attribution of blame preoccupied English politics for much longer.

Clarendon was an obvious target. He had, it was conceded, opposed the war in the first place, and the catastrophic failure to set out the fleet in early 1667 could not be directly attributed to him: its origins lay in the natural disasters of 1665 (Plague) and 1666 (the Fire of London), and in part in the role of the king’s close companion, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, in coordinating opposition to the government in the parliamentary session of 1666-7, although Clarendon’s insistence on protecting Irish interests from parliamentary complaints had probably not helped. But in a long career in which he was the dominant and rarely tactful voice in the royal counsels, Clarendon had made many enemies; and he was seen by some at court as an obstruction to more effective decision-making. And he could be his own worst enemy: having apparently hinted at a wish to retire from power following the death of his wife just before the Chatham disaster, he then hastily retracted when it seemed the suggestion might be enthusiastically taken up. The king took a long time to make up his mind to send away an adviser who must have seemed part of the furniture, if an infuriating one. Indeed, by the time it actually happened, most observers had assumed he had been dissuaded from the idea.

For many in the court it was a victory, for many of his greatest detractors were courtiers whose ambitions for honours, lands or cash had been thwarted by one who, they believed, had reaped considerable rewards himself. Clarendon himself told of how the king’s household servant, Baptist May (a man he regarded as odious), went to see the king, fell on his knees and kissed his hand, telling him ‘that he was now king, which he had never been before’. Lauderdale echoed the point in a letter to a political ally: ‘now the king is the king himself’.  The most famous account is a story written down by Pepys about a visit Clarendon made to the king at Whitehall a couple of days before he was dismissed – a visit which many thought would result in his sacking. The countess of Castlemaine, the king’s notoriously scheming mistress, who had still been in bed in her Whitehall apartments at noon, ‘ran out in her smock into her Aviary looking into Whitehall garden, and thither her woman brought her her nightgown and [she] stood joying herself at the old man’s going away. And several of the gallants of Whitehall (of which there was many staying to see the Chancellor return) did talk to her in her Bird Cage; among others, Blanckford, telling her she was the Bird of Paradise’. There is a famous nineteenth century picture of the scene:

The Disgrace of Lord Clarendon, after his Last Interview with the King – Scene at Whitehall Palace, in 1667 (replica) 1846 Edward Matthew Ward 1816-1879 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847, via TATE (CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported))

Clarendon would eventually be impeached by the House of Commons in a series of debates of high drama (of which more later), before eventually quitting the country for a second, and bitter, exile.


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‘A youth of radiant promise’: the Hon. Francis Walter Stafford McLaren (1886-1917)

Continuing our series on MPs killed in the First World War, Dr. Kathryn Rix marks the centenary of the death of Francis McLaren, who had a close connection with the History of Parliament’s founder, Josiah Wedgwood.

Francis McLaren, Illustrated London News, 8 September 1917, (via wikicommons)

On 30 August 1917, Francis McLaren, Liberal MP for Spalding, was killed in a flying accident while training with the Royal Flying Corps. His plane crashed into the sea a mile off the coast at Montrose, Scotland. He was rescued by a fishing boat, but did not regain consciousness and died of his injuries before reaching land. McLaren is the only MP among those killed during the First World War to have served in the Royal Flying Corps. Paying tribute to him in the House of Commons later that year, the former Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, whose son, Anthony, and daughter, Violet, had been a page and a bridesmaid at McLaren’s wedding in 1911, declared that,

we have lost one of our youngest and most loved of our members … who was cut off in a youth of radiant promise, still untarnished by disappointment, a man with clear and firm conviction, a faithful and loyal friend.

McLaren was first elected for the Spalding division of Lincolnshire in January 1910, when he became the youngest Liberal member of the Commons, aged 23. His entry to Parliament was undoubtedly aided by his family’s impressive political pedigree. In his first Parliament he served alongside his father, Sir Charles Benjamin Bright McLaren (1850-1934), Liberal MP for the Bosworth division of Leicestershire, who had first entered the Commons in 1880 as MP for Stafford, and was soon to be created Baron Aberconway. His older brother Henry (1879-1953), who had sat for West Staffordshire from 1906 until January 1910, joined him in the House in December 1910, when he replaced their father as Bosworth’s MP. Further political connections came through his brothers-in-law, Reginald McKenna (Home Secretary and then Chancellor of the Exchequer), and Henry Norman, another prominent Liberal MP.

Both McLaren’s grandfathers had also been MPs. His maternal grandfather, Henry Davis Pochin, had sat briefly for Stafford, 1868-9, while his paternal grandfather, Duncan McLaren, enjoyed a lengthier parliamentary career as Liberal MP for Edinburgh, 1865-81. Duncan McLaren’s wife, Priscilla Bright McLaren, was the sister of the noted Victorian Radical MP, John Bright, and of Jacob Bright, who as Liberal MP for Manchester secured the extension of the municipal franchise to women in 1869. She and McLaren’s maternal grandmother, Agnes Pochin, were both leading activists in the women’s suffrage campaign, as was McLaren’s mother, Laura.

One of the numerous meetings McLaren addressed during his election campaign at Spalding was a gathering of the Boston Women’s Liberal Association, at which a resolution in favour of women’s suffrage was carried. He did not rest on his family’s political laurels, working assiduously to win the seat. Adopted as candidate in July 1909, by December he had travelled 6,000 miles by car in order to visit every corner of the constituency. His efforts were rewarded with his victory over the Conservative candidate in January 1910, which was repeated in December. He served for five years as parliamentary private secretary to Lewis Harcourt, then Colonial Secretary.

Josiah Wedgwood

Although McLaren’s war service ended as a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, it began with the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was commissioned as a lieutenant in September 1914, and left for France in October. According to his fellow MP, Josiah Wedgwood, McLaren ‘had got overseas by offering his Rolls-Royce car to the General with himself as chauffeur’. A chance encounter between McLaren and Wedgwood at Ostend led McLaren to join Wedgwood in the Royal Naval Armoured Car Division. He assisted Wedgwood in recruiting and organising four new squadrons of armoured cars. They were initially based at Wormwood Scrubs, where, Wedgwood recollected, ‘each morning Francis drove me … never quite late, but always at 60 m.p.h.’ He also recorded that McLaren, who had ‘the manners and bearing of a Prince of the Blood’, would ‘vanish nightly for bridge with the Asquiths in Downing Street’. Despite these foibles, Wedgwood was close to McLaren, who ‘always behaved to me as a son to an indulgent father’.

After further training at Henley-on-Thames and in Norfolk, McLaren and Wedgwood’s lobbying of Asquith and Churchill persuaded the Admiralty to send armoured car squadrons to Gallipoli. They arrived on the island of Lemnos in April 1915. Concerned that the armoured cars might be left without a role, McLaren persuaded Wedgwood to let him transfer to HMS Doris as an observing officer, which meant that he missed the landing of the River Clyde at V beach, Gallipoli on 25 April. As operations continued, in early May Wedgwood was injured by shrapnel. He credited McLaren with saving his life after he searched for him on the hospital ship and insisted that he be operated on immediately. In Wedgwood’s absence, McLaren commanded the armoured cars in a futile attack on the Turkish defences at the third Battle of Krithia on 4 June, the only occasion on which they were deployed during this campaign.

Having contracted dysentery, McLaren recovered at home, and was then commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps on 1 January 1916. Ill health during his training at Brooklands meant that he was invalided out late that year, but he ‘besieged the War Office’ to protest against this decision, and was reappointed as a second lieutenant in June 1917. He had almost completed his advanced training when he was killed.

McLaren’s headboard. Photograh by Carcharoth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

McLaren was buried in Busbridge churchyard, Godalming, Surrey, where his grave is marked with a carved oak headboard designed by Edwin Lutyens, who had designed a Westminster townhouse for McLaren and his wife, Barbara. She was the niece of Gertrude Jekyll, the garden designer, who had worked closely with Lutyens. Barbara was also responsible for the selection of Lutyens as the designer of the Spalding War Memorial, where McLaren is commemorated. Their elder son, Martin John McLaren (1914-79), continued the family tradition of parliamentary service, sitting as Conservative MP for Bristol North West, 1959-66 and 1970-4.


Further reading:

  1. C. Wedgwood, Memoirs of a fighting life (1941)
  2. Snelling, The wooden horse of Gallipoli (2017)
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St Bartholomew and the Huguenots

On this day 1572 Europe was shocked by the anti-Protestant violence in Paris which came to be known as the St Bartholomew’s day massacre. In today’s blog and as a preview of her forthcoming volume of essays, Huguenot Networks, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Research Fellow in the Commons 1640-60 Section, discusses the impact of the massacre…  

This past week marked the seventieth anniversary of ‘Partition’, which saw the births of the separate nations of India and Pakistan. Commemorations of the end of the Raj and independence from imperial rule have been attended by some sadness. Eye-witness accounts of the experiences of thousands of refugees, and of the communal violence against religious minorities, which sometimes descended into horrific massacre, have been widely aired.

Inter-communal strife, refugees and massacres are all too familiar and recurrent. Sometimes they have arisen from attempted solutions to deep-seated differences which have gone awry. One of the darkest and most notorious episodes in early modern Europe was the massacre of St Bartholomew’s day in Paris on 24 August 1572.  In a context of religious civil war, some prominent French Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) came to what was largely a Catholic city to attend the wedding of King Charles IX’s sister Margaret to Protestant leader Henry of Navarre. But a marriage that was meant to heal divisions merely exacerbated them. When some of the Huguenot nobles were assassinated on royal orders, mobs, incited by preachers and other partisans, roamed the streets and searched homes, killing Protestants they found – estimates suggest at least 2,000. The horrific spectacle was witnessed first hand by foreign visitors like Philip Sidney, the shock reverberated round Europe and continued to have an impact for decades. Eighty years later, during the British civil wars and interregnum, political writer James Howell remembered ‘the horrid massacre upon St Bartholomew’s, at which time brother did butcher brother’, wondering how it were ‘possible that a race of peeple adoring one God, born in one Countrey, fellow subjects to one King … eating the same bread, breathing the same air, shold prove such tygers?’ [A German Diet, or The ballance of Europe (1653), 54]. When, following the Restoration of the monarchy, the Cavalier Parliament of Charles II passed an Act of Uniformity requiring English clergy to subscribe – on pain of losing their parish positions – to the doctrine and discipline set out in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, and stipulated 24 August 1662 as the deadline for compliance, for those ministers who had sought a more reformed and/or a more tolerant church it rubbed salt into a deep wound.

Meanwhile, in the few weeks following the St Bartholomew’s day massacre the violence had spread through France, causing several thousand further deaths. The civil wars continued until Henry of Navarre, who had escaped the massacre by the skin of his teeth, became king of France as Henry IV in 1589.  In order to secure his kingdom Henry converted to Catholicism. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes, which, along with complementary documents, permitted Protestants freedom of worship in places where they were already established, certain military strongholds to guarantee their safety, and other limited rights.  The Edict was unusual for its time in the extent to which it allowed a minority to practise publicly a faith different from that of the ruler.  Over succeeding decades insecurities periodically spilled over into further conflict and the Huguenots’ rights were eroded.  In 1685, after some years of organised pressure on their communities – for example, the billeting of troops on Protestant households (the dragonnades) – Louis XIV revoked the Edict and required his Calvinist subjects to renounce their faith (abjure) and embrace Catholicism.

The St Bartholomew’s massacre and the civil wars had encouraged waves of Protestant refugees and migrants to leave France for safer havens, in particular the United Provinces (now the Netherlands), the Swiss Confederation and England.  Partly because they were more susceptible to Protestantism (with its emphasis on individual conscience and the written Word of God), partly because they had the means to travel, those who fled were disproportionately nobles, the educated, and artisans and craftsmen with portable skills.  When the revocation of the Edict of Nantes provoked a much larger exodus, this is thought to have had far-reaching negative consequences on the French economy and considerable positive benefits for those of the Netherlands, Germany and Britain.  However, for individual refugees – the English word derives from the French refugiés – rebuilding lives in foreign countries was often difficult.

Huguenot Networks, a forthcoming collection of essays I have edited, explores how this religious minority not only gained a toehold in countries of exile, but also wove itself into their political, social, and religious fabric.  Contributors use correspondence, memoirs, parish registers, government records, and many other sources from across Europe to trace the refugees from provincial France to far-flung destinations, examining the familial, scholarly and business links which eased their path and the financial transactions which sustained them.  On arrival at their destination – or temporary staging-post – immigrants sought employment which matched their skill-sets; often this involved adaptation and compromise within a new set of economic, religious and political realities; sometimes it gave rise to significant and important contributions to the public life of the host nation.

A particular focus is London, the nucleus of many international Huguenot networks and a place where the impact of Huguenots was profound – on banking, charitable activity, and journalism, for example.  In future blogs based on the new volume I will talk about the interaction of the refugee French church established in Westminster in the 1640s with peers and MPs during the Civil War, and the implications of that for our understanding of the implementation of parliamentary legislation. Charles Littleton, another of our research fellows and also a contributor to the volume, will introduce the Huguenots who were at the forefront of early reporting on proceedings in Parliament, and who used this to promote a Huguenot political agenda.


For more information on Vivienne’s forthcoming volume, see here.

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Big Ben and the British

With Big Ben – possibly – due to fall silent next week, our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the history of the famous bell…

The reaction in some quarters to the news that Big Ben will cease to strike from noon on Monday 21 August until 2021 (the Daily Telegraph says there is a ‘backlash’; the Mail says it’s a ‘death knell for common sense’) is an index to the peculiar place of the bell, its clock and its tower in British national consciousness. The overused word ‘iconic’ seems for once appropriate in the case of something that has appeared on countless photographs, souvenirs and bottles of brown sauce, and whose sound has been heard just about every day from London to Lahore and beyond. The reasons for its status are obvious enough; but it is perhaps worth reflecting on what sort of nation the clock and the tower came to symbolise and just how it came to do so.

Initially, the clock must have seemed indicative of British power, confidence and technological knowhow. The largest bell ever cast in Britain, and perhaps beyond it, the tallest four-faced clock tower ever built, the most accurate clock, the whole construction was vauntingly ambitious, a masterpiece of engineering – at least once the initial problems were overcome and the clock was got to work properly. Its reliability, carefully adjusted with pennies, was almost proverbial. The mantelpiece clock for the ruling elite – it could and can be seen right down Whitehall – people around Westminster and even over the river measured out their lives by it. Clarissa Dalloway in Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel laid her green dress on her bed  just as Big Ben struck twelve, ‘whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London, blent with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke and died up there among the seagulls’. ‘She came to my room just as Big Ben was striking 8’, said a witness of the victim in a sad murder and suicide case in 1919 in Lambeth reported in The Times. In 1859 one medical practitioner in Southwark complained to the Medical Times of the depressing effects produced on his patients by the ‘morbific influence’ of the ‘sepulchral tones’ of the big bell.

It was possibly that ‘sepulchral’ sound – more than the clock’s accuracy or ubiquity – that was the reason why the bell seeped so deeply into the British mindset. It was first used to toll at the obsequies of a monarch in 1910: both at the procession to take Edward VII’s body to lie in state at Westminster Hall, when it was rung every 15 seconds, and again for the funeral itself, when it was rung every minute. Its authoritative and dominant sound was echoed by a 68-gun salute in Hyde Park, one for every year of the king’s age.  Lord Harcourt, who was in 1914 colonial secretary, remembered in a speech after the First World War hearing from Downing Street the chilling sound of the bell tolling 11 o’clock and marking the expiry of the ultimatum to Germany and the beginning of hostilities [The Times 20 November 1920]. When, after the war, an annual ceremony was instituted at the Cenotaph in remembrance of the war dead, the chime of Big Ben at 11 was the symbol for a two minute silence to begin. The clock was becoming associated with moments of reflection, remembrance and solemnity.

In the interwar years the sound of Big Ben would become familiar across Britain in a more mundane manner. From 1924 it was regularly broadcast by the BBC at home, and after the Empire Service (later the World Service) was begun in 1932, the chimes became a favourite with overseas listeners, projecting nostalgia to those far from home, and an idea of Britain as a source of order, authority, and time even to some who had never been there [see this article]. Some of those under German occupation during the Second World War would later regard it as a symbol of the common endeavour against Nazism, as suggested in a moving interview recorded in the 1950s with members of the French resistance (as well as an amusing, if not entirely relevant, anecdote from Nancy Mitford about her maid Gladys’s enjoyment of air raids). The symbolic meaning of Big Ben as a way of uniting the Empire – and ultimately all of those fighting Nazism – became the point of the ‘Big Ben Silent Minute’ movement. Founded by the spiritualist Wellesley Tudor Pole in 1940, the movement, which was intended to encourage all who heard them to take the chimes of Big Ben as the cue for a minute of prayer or reflection, attracted high-level political support, especially conservative support, overcoming Clement Attlee’s initial scepticism about a single moment that could unite a global empire. It was seen in some quarters as a real boost to the morale of allied populations, and the movement retains a legacy today.

It was perhaps the war, the association of Big Ben with the fight against Nazi tyranny, that did more to link the clock to the idea of democracy than its mere proximity to the Palace of Westminster, for it and the messy and divisive business of politics have led largely separate lives. The installation of a light in the tower signalling when the House of Commons was sitting – the so-called ‘Ayrton light’, put there initially in around 1871, was a reminder that the clock belonged to a Parliamentary building; but the clock and the attached Parliament have largely functioned independently except when MPs noticed a discrepancy between Big Ben’s chimes and either the clocks internal to the House of Commons or the chair’s timekeeping, or have used it to make mischievous points against their opponents.

Big Ben has stood for many as a synecdoche of national – even imperial – unity, one in which the idea of parliamentary democracy is bound up, but which rolls up much more history than that, including the monarchy and the highwater mark of the Victorian empire. As the reaction to the news of its silence shows, it’s still a tender part of the British psyche.


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