Welcome to the History of Parliament blog!

Here we share posts about our current research projects, wider parliamentary history, highlights from our events, seminars and conferences, and future publications.

The History of Parliament’s core work lies in researching and writing series of volumes depicting Parliamentary life and proceedings throughout the past 700 years. These academically rigorous works contain detailed biographies of parliamentarians, studies of constituencies and introductory surveys. The Sections currently underway are: Commons 1422-1504, Commons 1640-1660, Commons 1832-1868, Lords 1604-29 and Lords 1715-1790. Follow the links for further information about the History of Parliament and our latest research.

All current published Commons volumes can be found in the research section at historyofparliament.org

Currently four of our Sections post independently as well as  part of the main blog: the Victorian Commons is managed by the Commons 1832-68, the Georgian Lords is managed by the Lords 1715-1790, and James I to Restoration is managed by the Lords 1604-1629 and the Commons 1640-1660.

Find us on Twitter at @HistParl




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Peace at Last?

Earlier this autumn saw the 80th anniversary of the Munich agreement, marked by a Peace for our Time’ blog from our assistant director, Dr Emma Peplow.  As the first of a series from the House of Commons 1640-1660 section looking at events over the winter of 1648-1649, Dr Vivienne Larminie examines another occasion on which lasting peace seemed within the grasp of politicians at Westminster.  Subsequent posts will trace how the hopes of peace-makers were dashed, and how a monarchy became a republic…

On 15 November 1648, after 11 years of civil war – first in Scotland, then in Ireland, and finally also in England and Wales – and several rounds of abortive negotiations between the various parties involved, it seemed to many that there was at last a real prospect of an acceptable political settlement and lasting peace.


Carisbrooke Castle

That day the House of Commons passed a critical set of resolutions in response to the latest proposals from Charles I, sent from his prison at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight.  It was decided that

‘from and immediately after the King shall have consented unto the Desires of the Two Houses, upon the Treaty, and ratified the same by Act or Acts of Parliament, all his Houses, Honours, Manors and Lands, with the growing Rents and Profits thereof, and all other legal Revenues of the Crown, shall be restored unto him’.

The only proviso was that such garrisons and magazines as Parliament considered vital for ‘the necessary defence of the kingdom’ would be retained in its hands.  In return for foregoing these and other ‘profits’, to be mutually agreed, the king would be compensated.  Charles was to ‘be settled in a Condition of Honour, Freedom, and Safety, agreeable to the Laws of the Land’ and there was to be an Act of Oblivion and Indemnity which would draw a line under accusations and counter-accusations of rebellion and war damage, subject to agreed limitations and exceptions [Journal of the House of Commons, vi. 76-7].


This was a remarkable turn-around by a House which on 3 January 1648 had passed a ‘Vote of No [Further] Addresses’ to the king.  That such resolutions passed was owing to the fact that they received support not only from the Presbyterians, who had long constituted a ‘peace party’, but also from some Independents led by men like William Pierrepont, Nathaniel Fiennes and Sir John Evelyn of Wiltshire, who had convinced NPG D7971,William Fiennes, 1st Viscount Saye and Sele,by Wenceslaus Hollarthemselves that the beleaguered Charles I now had no choice but to concede hard terms and could be bound to keep his word.   Later on 15 November the House of Lords voted to endorse the Commons’ resolutions, not least thanks to the presence of peers like Nathaniel’s father, William Fiennes, 1st viscount Saye and Sele, who had been an important negotiator at Carisbrooke.  Even the radical Levellers seemed to be on board: meetings with Independents produced a proposal for a fresh Parliament to be called under a new franchise, subject to ratification by ‘the present Parliament and the army.



Furthermore, on 15 November there was also a hopeful signal from the headquarters of the New Model army at St Albans.  In The Remonstrance of the Army sent to the Citizens of London, rapidly published, its general council expressed its ‘resolution to comply’ with the treaty.  Royalist insurgents of the previous summer, it asserted, had cast a ‘dark and dismal cloud throughout all the Nation for the making of the Army odious in the sight and judgement of all men’.  To vindicate the New Model from such calumny, it declared that ‘our hearts are free from the least thought or action for the subversion of Authority or Government’ [The Remonstrance of the Army (1648), 1-2 (E.472.13)].  As to

‘the present Treaty in hand between King and Parliament, we do declare that we shall not obstruct the same, nor meddle therein; provided, that we may be assured of security for the future, our arrears paid, the great burthen of the Kingdom removed and taken off, Religion setled, and the Subject freed from all tyranny and oppression either from Prince or Representatives’ [The Remonstrance of the Army, 3].


Most of the newspapers which, since shortly after the wars began, had issued weekly bulletins on the political and military situation, trumpeted all this as ‘joyful news’.  But one or two more radical publications struck a decidedly dissonant tone.  Mercurius Militaris referred contemptuously to Charles’s propositions as ‘the king’s pack of wares’ and mocked the craven attitude of MPs and peers. The Commons’ resolution was worthless because the king was ‘uncapable of honor’; the writer hoped that ‘the sword of justice … which is honorable in every stroke, will before [the conclusion of the treaty] be upon him for his murders and oppressions’. Talk of restitution disgusted him: ‘what a pretty cheat is his Majesties rights … when such a pack of his Apes agreed to any oppression and robbery of his, then it became a legal right of the Crown’ [Mercurius Militaris no. 5 (14-21 Nov. 1648), ‘28’, ‘39’ (E.473.8)].  Another journalist demanded rhetorically,

Did we elect Parliaments to redresse our grievances, take off our burthens, hold out our native freedoms and liberties against all pretended, Arbitrary, Tyrannicall, and destructive Kingly powers, and for our safety and well being?  ’  [The Moderate no. 19 (14-21 Nov. 1648), 153 (E.473.1)]

The correct answer was evidently yes, but that had not been the result.  ‘Instead’, this Parliament had done the opposite.  It had increased grievances by imposing ‘arbitrary taxes’, by joining ‘with our enemies to destroy our freedoms and liberties (which our predecessors have bought dear by their blood’) and maintaining ‘the Monarchicall and Arbitrary power of the King’, by inviting ‘in a foraign enemy to destroy us’ [i.e. the Scots], and by acting ‘our enemies design in a Treaty, under a specious pretence of concluding a safe and well grounded Peace for the Nation’ [The Moderate no. 19, 153].


Among the political nation this was probably a minority view, but in the army it was otherwise.  The apparently conciliatory tone of the Remonstrance was at variance with ‘the desires of the army’ annexed to it, which were themselves the product of simmering discontent and a conviction that peace negotiations were futile.  Among other things, the army requested that ‘speedy and impartial Justice may be enacted on all fomentors, contrivers and actors’ in the civil wars [The Remonstrance of the Army, 4].  The process by which that view prevailed at Westminster over the winter of 1648-1649, silencing contrary opinions, bringing the chief ‘actor’ Charles Stuart to account, and turning a monarchy into a republic, will be the subject of subsequent blog posts in this series.




Biographies of William Pierrepont, Nathaniel Fiennes and Sir John Evelyn are being prepared for publication by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

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‘For our honour’s sake we dare not keep them out’: Josiah Wedgwood and the Jews in Nazi Europe



Col. Josiah Clement Wedgwood DSO MP, Mayor of Newcastle-under-Lyme, 1930; reproduced courtesy of the Brampton Museum and Art Gallery

Ahead of our conference and public lecture at Keele University on 22 November to mark the 75th anniversary of the death of History of Parliament founder, Josiah C. Wedgwood, and the 80th anniversary of the Kindertransport debate, we hear from Lesley Urbach of the Remembering Eleanor Rathbone Group about Wedgwood’s role in assisting Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe…


Twenty-two days after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Josiah Wedgwood, Labour Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme, observed in a question to the Home Secretary that


our ancestors allowed the Huguenots to come into this country … without any damage to our country or our reputation. Will he be prepared to give an equally felicitous asylum to the persecuted victims of Nazi terrorism in Germany? (Hansard, 21 Feb. 1933)

On this occasion he asked on behalf of the German socialists who were being persecuted under the Nazi regime. He was told what became a stock answer to such requests, ‘that aliens are only allowed to come in for residence if their settlement here is consonant with the interests of this country’. Wedgwood disagreed strongly with this response, telling the House in July 1933, ‘what we must always put first is a principle based upon humanity and justice. If you put the State first, you can justify any crime in the past and any crime in the future’.

German socialists were not the only persecuted group in Nazi Germany about which Wedgwood addressed Parliament. He first raised the issue of persecuted Jews in early April 1933. He asked the Colonial Secretary to relax the restrictions on emigration to Palestine to provide refuge to persecuted German Jews. For the next ten years, he continued to assert that Palestine was a very suitable place of refuge for Jews from Nazi-controlled Europe, as well as suggesting the colonies as a possible place of emigration. His first contribution on the matter of Jewish refugees being allowed to settle in Britain came during the adjournment debate on 13 April 1933,

Let English people see whether they, too, cannot receive these people into their family to make a home here, and to show that whatever the Prussian Aryan may feel about the Jews, or the peace-mongers or even the Socialists, we in this country realise the value of brains and the duty of hospitality to the oppressed.

On 22 May, he received no answer to his question to the Home Secretary,

is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the position of the Jews in Germany is daily getting worse, and are we to understand that the British Government is going to do nothing to help the people who are being persecuted in Germany to escape from that country?

Two years later Wedgwood asked the Foreign Secretary what action was being considered by the government to deal with the increasing hardships of Jews in Germany.

Joshua Stein comments on Wedgwood’s ceaseless nature in the face of adversity when it came to campaigning on the behalf of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, which he continued to do until his death in July 1943. The nature of his pleas, however, changed from general requests to help Jews (and socialists) to asking for visas on behalf of individuals as the war drew nearer. His last appeal before the start of the war, for a visa for Frau Lasmann, who was destitute in Poland after being expelled from Germany, was rejected.  During the early part of the war he was one of the leaders of the campaign against the internment of refugees from Germany and Austria.

Wedgwood was never likely to succeed in his efforts to persuade the government to allow Jews and socialists refuge in Britain. Britain’s immigration policy, established by the 1905 Aliens Act and the 1919 Aliens Restrictions Amendment Act, ruled out the entry of aliens for permanent settlement and there was no legal obligation for the government to admit refugees. Post-1933, there were several conditions for the granting of refuge including: the applicant’s ability to sustain themselves without recourse to public funds; prospects for re-emigration; and Home Office discretion. The only people allowed permanent entry were those whose presence offered some benefit to the country or people with strong personal or compassionate grounds.

Entry did not become easier as persecution grew in Germany and spread to Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938 and 1939. However, certain additional categories of people were allowed temporary asylum, such as unaccompanied children and those adults willing to be domestic servants. Britain’s national interests remained a priority ahead of humanitarianism. While Wedgwood believed that their principal duty … [was] to save Jews from the persecution in Germany’ (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 27 Mar. 1939), it was not, and never became, a central preoccupation of the Government, however passionate his speeches were. The tenacity of Wedgwood’s campaigning for Jewish refugees reflects a dogged determination that is evident in all of his campaigning during his exceptionally active political career. Stein suggests that his persistence helped to establish a climate whereby it became more acceptable to help the Jews.

A Foreign Office official described Wedgwood as being hopelessly unbalanced on the subject of supporting the Jews, while the United Jewry Fellowship referred to him as ‘one of their greatest non-Jewish friends in the British Parliament’ (‘Honoured by Jews’ Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 7 Mar. 1935). His niece C. V. Wedgwood described him in The Last of the Radicals as ‘the man who will take all risks, the man who will never consider any other aspects of the question save that of justice is essential to society. In an old and cautious society such men are rare and precious’. But perhaps the last word should be left with Wedgwood from a letter to his daughter at the end of the 1930s, ‘I shall remain intolerant of cruelty, injustice and error … If the individual “resists not evil”, bows down to power and authority … then only tyrants prosper while civilisation and humanity decay’.


Further Reading:

  • Joshua Stein, Our Great Solicitor (1992)
  • C. V. Wedgwood, The Last of the Radicals (1951)
  • Louise London, Whitehall and the Jews 1933-1948 (2000)
  • Josiah C. Wedgwood, Memoirs of a Fighting Life (1941)
  • Wedgwood’s papers can be found at Keele University Library

exhibition at Newcastle Library

Join us at Keele Hall, Keele University on 22 November at 18.45 for our free public lecture (click link for info and free tickets), reception and private viewing of our touring exhibition. 

Here you can see the exhibition (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and its players) at Newcastle-under-Lyme Library.




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Crucible of revolution: Parliament, Putney, and the politics of settlement in the Autumn of 1647

Ahead of tonight’s special edition of our IHR Parliaments, Politics and People Seminar in aid of UK Parliament Week (‘One person, multiple votes: university constituencies and the electoral system, 1868-1950’) we hear from Dr Sean Kelsey of the University of Buckingham who summarises his paper from our last meeting, which discussed the interplay between Parliament and the General Council of the army in 1647…

Whether by design or by default, events unfolding during the autumn of 1647 in the English Parliament at Westminster, and a few miles up-river, in the General Council of the army sitting at Putney, have generally been studied in more or less splendid isolation from one another. The aim of this paper is to trace key aspects of the interrelationship between them, and to posit some new ways of understanding the politics of the period.

The paper argues that The Heads of the Proposals were far more divisive of opinion amongst the soldiers of the parliamentarian army, far sooner than is usually recognised, creating a rapidly deepening conflict within the General Council over the post-war settlement of the kingdom of England – a conflict that then spilled over into Parliament. These developments reinforce the case for seeing the quest for a post-war settlement in England as a constitutional crisis in its own right, and a struggle, ultimately, over sovereignty.

The defining feature of this struggle, or at least what made this phase of it reasonably novel, from an English parliamentarian perspective, seems to me to be the forthright expression of an agenda for constitutional change characterised, in a word, by kinglessness, or an acting, at any rate, ‘as if there were no such thing in the world’ as the king of England, as MPs were urged, in September 1647, to do.

By then, a number of Englishmen, many of them soldiers, had embarked, or at least had understood themselves to be embarked upon a bid to separate key elements of the kingdom’s constitutional arrangements (principally, those concerning legislative sovereignty) from the institution of personal monarchy – in a process that one feels almost impelled to call ‘Rexit’. By November 1647, it had become possible to articulate this agenda in terms of ‘justice’. Whatever else it achieved  (or however little, perhaps), the principles underpinning the first Agreement of the People had at least opened a door marked ‘jurisdiction’ to the re-establishment of English sovereignty, in a form consistent with justice, by means of a trial of Charles I – as urged by Colonel Thomas Harrison and others at the close of the Putney debates. It appears that, for many, what this would entail was a prosecution that – in the terms expressed by one of its advocates,  Commissary Nicholas Cowling at the very close of the Putney debates – would destroy the constitutional standing of the king, but leave his person alone.

In all of this, there’s something very striking – and I think potentially very illuminating – about just how many of the things that happened, fifteen or so months after the events described in this paper, were things that had not happened, that had been urged for the first time, but rejected, refused or deliberately obstructed, fifteen or so months earlier: a military purge of Parliament, imprisonment or exclusion of its delinquent members, imposition of a loyalty test on the remainder, a constitutional revolution in the name of the sovereign people of England, conclusion of an Agreement of the People, and a prosecution of Charles I, intended first and foremost as a means to effect the forcible relocation of legitimate authority, in subjugation of the office of king, and its demotion to the status of a chief magistrate. It seems eminently arguable that, in seeking to understand what happened in the winter of 1648-9, there may be quite a lot to be said for remembering exactly what had not happened, in the Autumn of 1647, and working out why.


See the full programme for our IHR seminar here. 

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MPs and the First World War

Since 2014 Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1868 project, has been writing blogs to mark the centenary of the death of each of the 24 MPs and former MPs who died on military service during the First World War. This blog looks back over that series, reflecting on this group of men who went from Westminster to war, but did not return.

Within three months of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, 126 Members of Parliament had volunteered for service in the armed forces. By January 1915, five months into the war, 184 MPs were on active service. Overall, 264 MPs – or 40% of the total membership of the House of Commons – served in some military capacity during the war. Twenty of those MPs, together with four former Members (one of whom, Charles William Reginald Duncombe, 2nd Earl of Feversham, was in the Lords by the time of his death), died on military service between 1914 and 1918.


Hon. Arthur O’Neill, the first MP killed in action in the First World War

The first MP to die was the Hon. Arthur Edward Bruce O’Neill, Unionist MP for Mid Antrim, who was killed in action near Ypres on 6 November 1914. He was remembered by his colleagues when the Commons reassembled for the start of the new parliamentary session five days later. He was the only MP to die on military service that year. Seven MPs or former MPs died in 1915 and six in 1916 – five of these were killed in September 1916, at the height of the Battle of the Somme, including two on the same day. Four died in 1917 and six in 1918. The last of these came less than a month before the end of the war, when the Hon. Charles Henry Lyell, a former MP, died from pneumonia in the United States, where he was an assistant military attaché.

The MPs and former MPs who died on military service came from across the political spectrum. Of the 24, 14 were Conservatives and Unionists, 7 were Liberals and 3 were Irish Nationalists. The youngest MP to die was the Hon. Charles Thomas Mills, who was 28 years old when he was killed in action on 6 October 1915 during the Battle of Loos, an engagement which had already claimed the lives of two other MPs, the Hon. Thomas Agar-Robartes and Lord Ninian Crichton-Stuart. Mills had been the ‘Baby of the House’ when he was elected as Conservative MP for Uxbridge in January 1910.

The oldest MP to be killed in action was twice Mills’s age. William Hoey Kearney Redmond, younger brother of the leader of the Irish parliamentary party, was 56 years old when he died of wounds sustained during the Battle of Messines in Belgium. His age and poor health meant that he spent much of his time serving behind the front line, in staff jobs, but he persuaded his superiors to allow him to take part in the attack on Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917, when he died after being wounded by shell-fire.

Redmond was the longest serving MP to be killed, having sat in the Commons since 1883. In contrast with this 34 year parliamentary career, the shortest serving MP to be killed, Oswald Cawley, had been in the Commons for less than seven months when he was killed in action in France in August 1918. Tragically, also among this group of 24 MPs was Oswald’s older brother, Harold, who was killed in action at Gallipoli on 23 September 1915.

Although MPs served in all the major theatres of war, the majority of those killed died on the Western Front: 13 in France (which included one death in a car accident) and two in Belgium. Harold Cawley was the only MP to die at Gallipoli, but another was killed in Egypt and two in Palestine, while Charles Lyell’s death in Washington D.C. was the furthest from home. The remaining four in this group died on home soil, two – Duncan Campbell and the Hon. William Walrond – from injuries or illness sustained during service in France. The only MP who died who did not serve overseas at some point was John Esmonde, the Irish Nationalist MP for Tipperary North. The second oldest MP to die, aged 53, he was serving as a captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps in Tipperary when he died of pneumonia in April 1915.

The final MP to die at home was the Hon. Francis McLaren, killed in a flying accident off the Scottish coast on 30 August 1917 while training with the Royal Flying Corps. McLaren was the only one of these 24 parliamentarians to have served in the Royal Flying Corps, although his war service had begun in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Gerald Arbuthnot, who had served in the navy as a young man, also joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve at the start of the war, spending 15 months on mine-sweeping duties in the North Sea, but transferred in 1916 to the Grenadier Guards and was killed during the Battle of the Somme. All the other MPs who died served in the army.

Around two-thirds of these 24 MPs had military experience prior to 1914, whether in the regular forces, the militia, the volunteer yeomanry or the territorial forces. At least six of them had served during the Boer War, five in South Africa and one, Michael Hicks-Beach, on the island of St. Helena. One MP who had military experience before the war was Valentine Fleming. A banker by profession, he had joined the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars in 1904, where his fellow officers included Winston Churchill. A framed copy of Churchill’s obituary of Fleming in The Times was one of the most cherished possessions of Fleming’s son Ian, best known as the creator of James Bond, who was eight when his father died.


William Glynne Charles Gladstone

Several of those MPs who died came from families with strong traditions of political service. The Hon. Neil Primrose, Liberal MP for North Cambridgeshire, who died of his wounds while serving in Palestine on 15 November 1917, was the second son of the former Liberal Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. Another notable name among the Liberal MPs who died was that of William Glynne Charles Gladstone, grandson of another former Liberal Prime Minister. He was the second MP to be killed in action. After his death in France in April 1915, his family secured permission for his body to be returned home for burial at St. Deiniol’s church, Hawarden. His case prompted Major Fabian Ware (later the vice-chairman of the Imperial War Graves Commission) to secure an order from the Adjutant-General banning future repatriations, believing that all classes should be equal in death.

Gladstone is the only MP other than those who died on home soil to be buried in the British Isles. Most of the rest were buried in military or local cemeteries close to where they fell, although four have no known grave. With the recent addition of the name of Gerald Arbuthnot, these 24 men are remembered together in Parliament, on the memorial in Westminster Hall.


Parliamentary War Memorial, Westminster Hall


This marks the conclusion of this First World War blog series. The rest of the series can be found here.

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Gerald Arbuthnot MP and the Parliamentary War Memorial

Since 2014 Dr. Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of our House of Commons, 1832-1945 project, has been blogging about the 24 MPs and former MPs who died on military service during the First World War. We have published her posts to mark the centenary of the death of each of these parliamentarians, one of whom was in the Lords by the time of his death. We’re delighted to announce that her research has had an unexpected outcome, with the addition of a missing name to the recently renovated Parliamentary War Memorial in Westminster Hall, as she explains below.

On 25th September 1916 2nd Lieutenant Gerald Archibald Arbuthnot, of the Grenadier Guards, was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme, while making an attack on the village of Lesboeufs. The regimental history records that after the British artillery bombardment had failed to cut through the German wire, Arbuthnot and three other officers

gallantly advancing by themselves proceeded with the utmost coolness to cut gaps in the wire. Their one thought seems to have been that the attack must not be checked on any account, and as the task of cutting the wire meant almost certain death, they never thought of sending on any of their men, but decided to do it themselves.

Arbuthnot and two fellow officers were killed, and the fourth was wounded, although their efforts enabled the Grenadier Guards to achieve their objective.


Gerald Arbuthnot, MP for Burnley. Image (C) NPG. Used under Creative Commons licence.

Arbuthnot had served as Conservative MP for Burnley in 1910, winning the seat at the first general election of that year in January, but losing it at the December 1910 contest. Following his death, fulsome tributes were paid to him in his former constituency, with obituaries in the Burnley News and the Burnley Express and Advertiser. At a town council meeting, a former political opponent praised Arbuthnot for his skills in party organisation and his gentlemanly manners, with ‘a pleasant smile for all those who came into contact with him’. Well-attended memorial services were held in Burnley parish church and St. Margaret’s, Westminster. Arbuthnot is buried at Citadel New Military Cemetery, Fricourt, where his widow chose the inscription ‘Faithful Unto Death’ for his headstone.

However, one place where he has not been commemorated – up until now – is on the Parliamentary War Memorial in Westminster Hall. I first realised that his name did not appear when I gave a talk in 2017 about my research on the MPs and former MPs who died on military service. This was taking place in one of the rooms off Westminster Hall, which prompted me to look at the memorial in more detail.

So why was Arbuthnot forgotten? When the memorial was first constructed in 1921, only the names of sitting MPs who had fought and died during the war were included: 19 names of members of the House of Commons appear on the panel to the right of the Recording Angel in the centre of the memorial. One former MP, Charles William Reginald Duncombe, is listed with fellow peers in the panel to the left of the Recording Angel, since he had succeeded to the House of Lords as the second Earl of Feversham in January 1915. He was the only person who had been a member of both Houses to be killed in action during the First World War.

Arbuthnot’s omission in 1921 is therefore understandable, since aside from the Earl of Feversham, no former MP was listed. However, almost as soon as the memorial was completed, errors were discovered. The decision was taken to extend the memorial, rectifying various mistakes, and also adding the names of sons of MPs and of Officers of the House of Commons who had died. It therefore grew from two panels to eight, unveiled in November 1922.


Parliamentary War Memorial before 2018 restoration

One of these panels, headed ‘Members of the House of Commons killed’, added three new names. John Esmonde, a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, had been missed off the original House of Commons panel, despite being a sitting MP at the time of his death from pneumonia in April 1915. One of the oldest MPs to die, he was not killed in action, having been stationed in county Tipperary. The fact that he was not killed in action may in part explain his initial omission, although the original panel with 19 MPs included others who died due to illness or accidents. The two other names added – Charles Lyell and Thomas Kettle – were both former MPs. Lyell had retired from the Commons in May 1917, while Kettle had stepped down in December 1910.

With the inclusion of former MPs, Arbuthnot should also have been added in 1922, and we can only speculate as to why he was not. The shortness of his parliamentary career may be one reason he was overlooked. In contrast with the modern ability to search records and press reports digitally, the task of drawing up the list of names for the memorial was far less easy in the 1920s. Indeed so great were the difficulties that in October 1921 the committee in charge of extending the memorial made an appeal in the press for information about sons of MPs who died. They did not, however, announce that names of former MPs were to be added, which may explain why no-one lobbied on Arbuthnot’s behalf.

My own project to write about MPs and the First World War has benefitted from the excellent modern record-keeping of Stephen Lees, and I am grateful to him for sharing with me his list of MPs and former MPs who died on military service back in 2014. When I noticed in 2017 that Arbuthnot’s name was missing from the memorial, I raised it with the Curator’s Office in Parliament. James Ford, one of the assistant curators, took the matter forward, with the memorial’s renovation in time for the centenary of the armistice in November 2018 providing the ideal opportunity to rectify this omission.


After 2018 restoration, with Arbuthnot added

One of Arbuthnot’s former parliamentary colleagues, Sir William Bull, wrote in 1916 that ‘he leaves behind him a name that will be remembered for sincerity, high ideals, and devotion to duty’. That name has now been given its rightful place on the Parliamentary War Memorial.


For further details of Arbuthnot’s life, see our original blog on him. You can find the rest of the series here. For the history of the Parliamentary War Memorial, see here.

See also this BBC News feature on the addition of Arbuthnot to the memorial.


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From ‘my charming angel’ to ‘a fool and tool of a party’: The love letters of Mrs Sarah Sidney to Baron Ossulston

In this latest blog post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton, senior research fellow on the Lords 1715-1790 section, considers a surprise find among the personal papers of a Whig peer in the early years of the eighteenth century.

Historical gems can turn up in unexpected places and in initially unpromising sources. Charles Bennet, 2nd Baron Ossulston, is a case in point. In the first two decades of the eighteenth century he was a wealthy peer, with a widely-dispersed landed estate and an opulent townhouse in St James’s Square. George I created him earl of Tankerville in 1714, appointed him to his privy council, and gave him a government sinecure.


[J.Bowles, View of St James’s Square, source: Wikipedia]

We know a good deal about Tankerville because the papers of the Bennet family were deposited with the masters in Chancery for a number of disputes concerning Tankerville’s will after his death in 1722. There are close to 15 large boxes of miscellaneous papers concerning his financial affairs which were never reclaimed by the family and are now at the National Archives [TNA, C 104/81, 82, 83, 113, 114, 116, 147, 148, 149, 150].  Buried among them are five volumes of a diary spanning the period 1703 to 1712. This ‘diary’ is largely a bald, and illegibly scribbled, account of the many acquaintances the then Baron Ossulston dined with each day. It does not tell us about the inner man, but does reveal the political circles in which he travelled, and provides occasional glimpses of his involvement in the House of Lords.

There is also a bundle of papers containing about 107 love letters endorsed ‘Letters from Mrs Sidney to the late Lord Tankerville etc, about they knew what’. The letters are exclusively from a Mrs Sarah Sidney to Ossulston and extracts from one (with spelling and punctuation modernized) can give a sense of their content, tone and intensity:

I’m in prodigious good humour tonight from the hopes you gave me that you love me. To tell you my more than life, my soul with what passion I return it would be endless & impossible since it is not in the power of words to tell what my heart feels in favour of you my charming angel… If you will I’ll meet you in the walk as we did tonight & bring my sister. Or if you can’t, tell me where I may take you up I’ll go by myself and stop where you resolve to be.

This letter is dated merely ‘Monday or rather Tuesday morning’, and all of Mrs Sidney’s letters are undated. We can, however, get a sense of the timing of this relationship from Ossulston’s own diary where he recorded for 9 July 1710 that:

About 2 of the clock I take water in my barge, with Mrs Sydney. Only she & I went as far as beyond Greenwich; did not go ashore anywhere but bought 3 dozen of claret by the way. We returned about nine & came ashore & I came home.

Several of Sarah’s letters provide ‘external’ news by which the time-frame of the affair can be more accurately dated. In one she informed Ossulston that ‘I’m just now told Lord Sunderland is turned out but more of this I’ll know by tonight. Duke Beaufort has the small pox’. This letter was thus written on or around 14 June 1710, when Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland, was dismissed as secretary of state. The earliest letter that can be dated through the news provided is from 24 April 1710, a month before Ossulston’s wife died. The latest comes from 16 October 1710.

These letters illuminate the social life of the Augustan aristocracy in an area where they were packed closely together – St James’s Square. Sarah was a close neighbour of Ossulston. Confirmation comes from the opening sentence of the first letter quoted above: ‘I’m just come from looking out of the window and have seen Bug and my next neighbour come home and everybody but my dear that I watched for’. ‘Bug’ was Henry Grey, duke of Kent, given his nickname on account of his foul breath. He lived at no. 4 St James’s Square, two doors away from Ossulston House. Sarah lived close enough to Ossulston to tempt him with the offer ‘I’m going to dress in sight of your window…’ She was most likely connected, as a high-ranking servant or lady-in-wating, to the household of James Hamilton, 4th duke of Hamilton, who lived across the street from Ossulston House. This proximity can explain the frequency of her communications with Ossulston, both written and in person. The letters also show the late hours kept by some of the Square’s inhabitants, not least Sarah herself. In one letter she writes ‘It is now not eight a clock & I did not go from looking at the window where I knew you were till two o’clock’. She ended this letter by hoping ‘you heard music at your window this morning between one & two’, suggesting that she was not the only one to keep such hours on the Square.

All, however, did not run smoothly in this relationship. Mrs Sidney appears to have had a rival in an (as yet) unidentified ‘country neighbour’ of Ossulston’s in Middlesex. There are as many letters expressing jealous rage and forlorn resignation as there are effusions of love. But one other issue may have also come to divide the couple – politics. For some of the letters suggest clearly that Sarah was a Tory, which would not be surprising if she was in Hamilton’s household. When this issue first came between her and the Whig Ossulston she professed innocence:

I’m in the dark as to what you mean about being used like a fool & tool of a party … For my politics that part of your [letter] is soon answered for I don’t think there’s anybody in the world meddles so little in that as myself…

Later, as Whigs were in decline in the late summer, she was more confident in poking at Ossulston’s pretensions and doing a fair bit of gloating:

I’m mighty glad to know you are so much obliged to the whole party & since you stick so close to them in their adversity I hope they’ll acknowledge it if ever they should chance to have it once more in their power to be insolent in prosperity.

Finally, the last of her letters that can be confidently dated – to mid-October 1710 – is so precisely because she took the opportunity to dig at him with some of the final humiliations of the Whigs, while still trying to arrange another romantic assignation:

If I’m not exactly at the hour don’t wonder for I’m obliged to go to Kensington but will return as soon as I can that I may be as punctual as possible. ….. I have malice enough not [to] be able to end this without telling you with a great deal of pleasure, Lord Lincoln has lost his pension & poor Mr Steele his place of Gazzetteer [sic].

These over 100 letters add a human story to the summer of 1710, which is usually seen as a turning point in British political history, with the fall of the Junto-Whig ministry and Robert Harley’s construction of a Tory-leaning government. Mrs Sidney’s letters show the trials of two people trying to carry on a romantic liaison in the aristocratic hothouse of St James’s Square during this tumultuous summer when the political world was refashioned in the heat of party conflict – which may have come close to tearing this couple apart as well.


Further Reading:

  • Clyve Jones, ‘The Parliamentary Organization of the Whig Junto in the Reign of Queen Anne: The Evidence of Lord Ossulston’s Diary’, Parliamentary History, x (1991), 164-182.
  • Clyve Jones, ‘A Westminster Anglo-Scottish Dining Group, 1710-12: The Evidence of Lord Ossulston’s Diary’, Scottish Historical Review, lxxi (1992), 110-128.
  • Clyve Jones, ‘The London Life of a Peer in the Reign of Anne’, London Journal, xvi (1991), 140-155.
Posted in 18th Century history, Georgian Lords, House of Lords 1660-1715, Party splits, Politics, social history, Uncategorized, Women and Parliament | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Catholic peers and the Gunpowder Plot

Remember, remember the fifth of November… Today we hear from Dr Ben Coates of the House of Lords 1604-29 Section about the warning of Catholic Peers before the Gunpowder Plot…

William Parker, Lord Monteagle

Lord Monteagle by John De Critz

On 26 October 1605 the Catholic nobleman William Parker, 5th Lord Monteagle, received an anonymous letter urging him to absent himself from the forthcoming session of Parliament, due to open on 5th November. This missive, the first significant hint of the Gunpowder Plot, warned mysteriously that those attending ‘shall receive a terrible blow … and yet they shall not see who hurts them’. Monteagle took the letter to Court, where he showed it to the secretary of state, Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury. The earl was initially sceptical of the letter, in part because he thought it ‘very improbable that only one nobleman should be warned and no more’ (Winwood’s Memorials ed. E. Sawyer, ii. 171). At this date there were perhaps as many as 17 Catholic members of the House of Lords and, unlike the Commons, there was nothing to prevent them from taking their seats. Consequently, it was likely that had the conspirators succeeded, they would have blown up several of their most powerful coreligionists, at the very moment when they needed the support of the Catholic peerage for their intended new regime.

Unsurprisingly, the subsequent investigation into the plot revealed that preventing Catholic peers from attending Parliament on 5 November had been a lively issue of debate among the conspirators. Some of them, notably Robert Catesby and Thomas Winter, feared that warnings would compromise the security of the plot. Catesby said he would rather the Catholic nobility were blown up than that the plot should fail. Moreover he contemptuously dismissed these peers as ‘atheists, fools and cowards’, thereby expressing tensions within the Catholic community over the widespread tendency of its most prominent lay members to seek accommodation with the Protestant authorities rather than suffer for their beliefs. Nevertheless, he found it necessary to assure his colleagues that ‘tricks’ would be used to keep the Catholic peers safe – and such undertakings reinforced the authorities’ assumption that Monteagle was not the only lord who had been warned to stay away (D. Jardine, A Narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, 73-8).

Following the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the exposure of the plot, certain peers came under immediate scrutiny. Foremost among them was Anthony Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount Montagu, whom Catesby had definitely approached. During the previous session, on 25 June 1604, Montagu had made an outspoken defence of the Catholics in the upper House, for which he was briefly imprisoned. His reputation as a champion of his faith, together with the fact that he had been absent from Westminster on 5 November, quickly aroused the government’s suspicions, and he was taken into custody on the 7th. In addition the presence of Robert Keyes among the plotters undoubtedly brought Keyes’ employer, Henry, 4th Lord Mordaunt, to the attention of the authorities. Mordaunt had also been absent on 5 November and ten days later both he and Viscount Montagu were sent to the Tower. The following day Guy Fawkes revealed that Francis Tresham had been ‘exceeding earnest’ with Catesby and Winter to ensure that his brother-in-law, Monteagle, was forewarned. Ever since then, it has been generally assumed that it was Tresham who wrote the anonymous letter. According to Fawkes, the conspirators were also informed that Edward, 10th Lord Stourton, another of Tresham’s brothers-in-law, ‘by accident’ would not be attending the start of the session (TNA, SP 14/216/1, f. 150). This revelation brought Stourton to the attention of the authorities; he had indeed been absent on the 5th, and he was promptly dispatched to the Tower. However, such absences alone were apparently not enough to render a Catholic lord suspect. No action was taken against John, 1st Lord Petre, Thomas, 3rd Lord Darcy of Chiche, or several other Catholic peers, even though they were also missing from the Lords that day.

Mere knowledge of treason, without informing the authorities, is in itself a serious felony, termed misprision of treason. By late February 1606 the government had decided not to arraign Montagu, Mordaunt and Stourton for that offence, the king having concluded that they stayed away on 5 November because of ‘some general advises in respect of uncertain troubles’, rather than specific warnings (J. Hunter, Hallamshire ed. A. Gatty, 122; J. Hawarde, Les Reportes del Cases in Camera Stellata, 438). Nevertheless, the suspicions about their conduct lingered, and it was felt necessary to take some exemplary action against them. At the very least, all three were guilty of absenting themselves from Parliament without having first secured the king’s permission. Mordaunt and Stourton were duly put on trial in Star Chamber the following June, though Montagu was spared through the influence of the lord treasurer, his father-in-law Thomas Sackville, 1st earl of Dorset. Mordaunt and Stourton were heavily fined and sentenced to remain imprisoned during the king’s pleasure. In the event Mordaunt’s fine was never collected, while Stourton only paid a quarter of his. Even so, the former was probably still under some form of restraint when he died in 1609, and the latter did not fully regain his liberty until ten years later.


Biographies of all the peers mentioned will appear in the History of Parliament’s forthcoming volumes on the House of Lords 1604-1629.

Posted in 17th Century history, Early modern history, James I to Restoration | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment