Props in Parliament

In today’s blogpost, Martin Spychal of the Victorian Commons discusses his recent work on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Prime Ministers’ Props’ (the next episode is broadcast today at 9.30am). Here he discusses how these props were received within Parliament itself…

In addition to my usual post at the Victorian Commons, I’ve been working with Professor Sir David Cannadine (until recently a member of the History of Parliament’s editorial board) on his new BBC Radio 4 series about Prime Ministers and their props.  Each episode examines how a Prime Minister became associated with a certain object or prop in the popular mind, and how that prop, inadvertently or otherwise, came to define the public image of the premier in question.  The series considers Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella, Stanley Baldwin and his iron gates, Anthony Eden’s Homburg hat, Alec Douglas-Home and his matchsticks and Harold Wilson’s pipe and Gannex coat.  Unsurprisingly, the occasionally peculiar public association of Prime Ministers with certain inanimate objects did not escape their contemporaries in parliament. Furthermore, parliamentarians have played a crucial role in disseminating the association of our political leaders with their props.

The subject of our first episode, Neville Chamberlain, became widely associated with his umbrella after signing the Munich agreement in September 1938, and returning to England, brolly aloft, to deliver his ill-fated ‘peace in our time’ speech.  For a few brief months, the umbrella and Chamberlain became widely lauded icons of world peace.  However, within a year, war had been declared, and Chamberlain and his umbrella were quickly transformed into symbols of weakness and misguided optimism over the threat posed by Nazi Germany.  Although Westminster was quick to disassociate itself with Chamberlain and his umbrella, many MPs were taken aback by how a prop had transformed a previously unknown politician into a household name.  Accordingly, when MPs were discussing propaganda strategies in October 1939, MP for Lancashire, Hamilton Kerr, saw the identification of a prop as a key media technique for familiarising the public with its war leaders.  Props such as Chamberlain’s umbrella, he informed the Commons, had the power to transform politicians and military chiefs ‘from aloof and little-known personalities to human beings of flesh and blood’, who might help to keep ‘alive our faith in the dark days’ of war – a call to props that was answered by a certain Mr Churchill and his cigar.

Debate in parliament and during elections also provided one of the key means through which Prime Ministers became associated with props in the public mind.  Alec Douglas-Home, who became known as the ‘matchsticks premier’, after he unwittingly informed a journalist in 1962 (a year before he became Conservative Prime Minister) that he required a ‘box of matches’ to ‘simplify and illustrate’ economic documents, is the subject of our fourth episode.  His popular association with matchsticks was thanks in part to the efforts of the Labour Party, who under the leadership of Harold Wilson were intent on establishing themselves as the modernising force in British politics during the long election year of 1964. Key to this strategy was establishing that the Conservative party offered an out-dated approach to government, and Douglas-Home’s matchsticks provided the perfect rhetorical means of establishing Labour as the only party that was not just willing, but able to embrace the ‘white heat’ of technology.  At various points during 1964, Labour MPs and peers castigated Conservative economic, education and housing policy as the outmoded and ill-judged products of the ‘monarch of the matchstick’, and during that year’s election, Harold Wilson informed electors that a vote for the Conservatives was a vote for ‘matchbox economics in a computer age’.

By Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

Harold Wilson (1986) by Allan warren (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Harold Wilson’s Labour party won the ensuing election, but Wilson’s pipe and Gannex, the subject of our final episode, proved as damaging to his own reputation as matchsticks did for Douglas-Home. In fact, Wilson’s pipe provides an excellent example of how political opponents actively challenged the wider legitimacy of a Prime Minister by questioning the authenticity of his prop.   On Wilson’s death in 1995, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton and current Father of the House, Gerald Kauffman, stood up in the Commons to take aim at Wilson’s critics, who throughout his life had suggested that in private Wilson actually preferred smoking cigars to pipes.  The insinuation was that Wilson’s pipe smoking had been a disingenuous attempt at appearing at one with the common man, much in keeping with the wider charges that as a politician Wilson was all smoke and mirrors. While it is true that Wilson had quickly realised the utility of the pipe as both a media aide and as a means of shaking off his early image among cartoonists as the pyjama-clad baby of Atlee’s 1945 ministry, our work for the show has revealed that Wilson’s passion for, and addiction to, pipe smoking was indeed genuine.  Indeed, as the series illustrates, decoding these five Prime Ministers and their props provides a fruitful strategy for unpicking their wider historical significance and re-assessing their popular legacy.


You can catch the remaining episodes of this series on BBC Radio 4 at 9:30am Wednesdays. All episodes will be available through BBC iPlayer after their initial broadcast.

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Party splits and political change in the 19th century

This summer, following the internal wrangling that occurred in most parties following the Brexit referendum, we’ve been taking a look at historic cases of party division. In today’s blog, Dr Philip Salmon, Editor of the Victorian Commons, discusses the impact of two major splits within the Tory and Conservative parties during the 19th century…

In modern Britain we are not used to political parties splitting apart. There are always ongoing rifts and schisms, but the idea of our parties completely breaking up is alien to most of us. This has not always been the case. In the 19th century, the division of parties and the wholesale realignment of politicians were regular and essential parts of political life. Indeed without them, many of the developments associated with the emergence of Britain’s modern parliamentary system would simply not have taken place.

Take the 1832 Reform Act. Long regarded as the first key step on Britain’s ‘road to democracy’, the Act’s successful passage through Parliament actually owed a great deal to the political fall-out from one of the most acrimonious party splits of the early 19th century. Giving Catholics the right to hold civic office and become MPs (Catholic emancipation) had been on the political agenda since the abolition of the Irish Parliament and the inclusion of Irish MPs at Westminster under the 1800 Act of Union. It is difficult for the modern mind to fully appreciate the religious and doctrinal issues that made emancipation so repugnant to large swathes of Protestant Britain. For years it was effectively blocked by the monarchy, the Tory government and above all popular opinion. By the late 1820s, however, Ireland’s political situation had become critical, not least owing to the Catholic Association’s highly effective strategy of getting Catholic MPs elected (who were barred from sitting at Westminster). Putting their religious scruples aside, the Tory government, led by the Duke of Wellington, passed Catholic emancipation in 1829 on the grounds of political expediency. They were supported by many liberal-minded Whigs, but a large section of the traditional Tory party remained vehemently opposed to the change on principle. This group, who came to be known as the Ultras, split from the main party, withdrawing their support from Wellington and the Tory leader in the Commons, Robert Peel, whom they charged with constitutional sabotage.

Peel and Wellington suffocating 'Mrs Constitution' while a Catholic priest looks on. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Coloured etching 1829 by William Heath

Peel and Wellington suffocating ‘Mrs Constitution’ while a Catholic priest looks on.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Coloured etching, 1829 by William Heath

The rift was bitter. Many Ultras, believing that this attack on Protestantism lacked popular support, began to think the unthinkable – that the electoral system should be made more representative. One, the Marquis of Blandford, even proposed his own sweeping scheme to remove all the ‘rotten borough’ MPs on whom the government had relied for support. Hopelessly divided, and with their electoral powerbase in disarray, the Tory party suffered significant losses in the 1830 general election. Within a few months the Whig party, out of power for almost a quarter of century, had assumed office under Earl Grey and started to draw up its plans for parliamentary reform. Crucially, many disaffected Tory Ultras not only refused to rejoin Peel and oppose the reform bill, but also actively supported the Whigs. Some leading Ultras, most conspicuously the Duke of Richmond, even joined Grey’s cabinet. The successful passage of the ‘Great’ Reform Act is often attributed to the influence of liberal and radical forces. However, the role of the disaffected right-wing Ultras, whose Protestant faith and constitutional idealism had forced them to quit their party and rethink the issue of reform, was also critical. Without the Tory party split of 1829 the 1832 Reform Act would not have possible.

A better known party split, with even longer-term political consequences, was the complete rupture of the Conservatives that occurred over Peel’s decision to repeal the corn laws in 1846. Discontent on the backbenches with Peel’s 1841 ministry had been growing steadily since he became PM, with growing numbers opposing him over issues such as tariff changes (1842), the sugar duties (1844) and funding for the Irish Catholic seminary at Maynooth (1845). His leadership style and apparent disdain for the views of traditional ‘church and field’ Tories – those who ‘spend their time hunting and shooting and eating and drinking’ and don’t ‘have access to the best information’ as he put it – had also begun to make him unpopular. Peel’s 1846 decision on economic grounds to remove the duties on imported corn, widely viewed as an essential protection for farmers from foreign competition, split his party for two reasons. First, many Tory MPs had actually won their seats in 1841 promising to support the corn laws, especially in rural constituencies. They simply could not betray their constituents. Secondly, however, Peel’s adoption of free trade appeared to reward the controversial tactics adopted by the Anti-Corn Law League, an extra-parliamentary organisation, whose ‘outdoors’ campaign was seen by many as a direct threat to the authority and supremacy of Parliament.

The split of the Conservative party over corn law repeal and its ejection from government in 1846 proved fundamental in restructuring British party politics. Most of the ‘free trade’ Peelites ended up giving their support to Whig ministries before formally joining a rebranded Liberal party in 1859. Peel’s former foreign secretary Lord Aberdeen led a ‘coalition’ ministry of Whigs and Peelites from 1852-55. Another Peelite minister, W. E. Gladstone, once referred to as the ‘rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories’, eventually came personify the late Victorian Liberal party, serving as a Liberal PM on four separate occasions between 1868 and 1894.

It was not just the Tories, however, who suffered major party splits. The Liberals became seriously divided over the Russell ministry’s plans for parliamentary reform in 1866, allowing the Conservatives to take office and implement what would eventually become the 1867 Reform Act, another significant milestone in Britain’s move towards democracy. Twenty years later Gladstone, as Liberal PM, prompted a complete rupture of his party with his fervent commitment to the cause of Irish Home Rule. The Liberal Unionists, as they became known, joined with the Conservatives in opposing Home Rule, and the two eventually merged their party organisations in 1912.


For the rest of the post in this series on internal party wrangling, click here. Watch this space for more!

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Medieval clerks of the parliament – part 2

Last week Dr Hannes Kleineke blogged on medieval parliamentary clerks. In his companion piece, guest blogger Dr Euan Roger, Royal Holloway University of London, looks at the clerks’ lives outside parliament…

If in the life of the more or less permanent modern parliaments the recesses provide a rare opportunity for the clerical staff of the two Houses to pursue other interests, the more occasional parliaments of the middle ages absorbed only a fraction of the time of the clerks’ medieval precursors, who had extensive careers and commitments elsewhere

In their majority, the clerks of the period of the Wars of the Roses were secular clerics (men in holy orders who had not sworn monastic oaths and were thus able to engage with secular life, although unable to marry), and who could aspire to a career within the politics of the day alongside their religious duties. By custom, they gained some of their rewards from the King in the form of ecclesiastical preferment, particularly to canonries at one or other of the collegiate churches subject to the monarch’s patronage. In particular, there was a strong connection between the clerks of the parliaments and the colleges of St George’s, Windsor, and St Stephen’s, Westminster, both of which had been established in 1348 by Edward III. Both colleges were royal peculiars, and ranked among the most senior of the institutions subject to the king’s patronage. While with the benefit of hindsight we might expect a close link between St Stephen’s and the clerks of the parliament (Westminster was increasingly the normal meeting place of parliament, and after the Dissolution the Commons would adopt the college chapel as their chamber), it might seem surprising that a close affinity also came to exist with St George’s. Of the six clerks of the parliament who served between 1447 and 1509, two held the deanery of St George’s, and two held canonries.

When parliament was sitting, the medieval clerks of the parliaments had to divide their time between their official duties, and their responsibilities to their institutions, and they might exploit this state of affairs for the benefit of the latter. But at other times, also, these able administrators were kept busy.

John Faukes (dean of St George’s 1461-1471) had been appointed clerk of the parliaments in 1447, and held his positions concurrently until 1469. The first Yorkist dean, he replaced the attainted Lancastrian dean, Thomas Manning, after Edward IV’s accession, and during his tenure St George’s saw significant royal patronage from the new king. Moveable assets and treasures (including jewels, bells and furniture) were seized from the Lancastrian foundations at Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, and St George’s went to great efforts to secure their own Magna Carta, confirming their rights, privileges and possessions under the new regime. Faukes, as clerk of the parliaments, and also a Master in Chancery, was well placed to promote the college’s interests. He was committed to the college (unlike some of his colleagues in chapter) and regularly attended chapel until his death on 5 February 1471, by which time he had already secured the appointment of a fellow Windsor canon, Baldwin Hyde, as his successor in the clerkship of the parliaments.

Hyde, who served as clerk during the short-lived Readeption parliament of 1470-71, thus found himself at the heart of the affairs of state during the political crisis that might well have threatened everything that St George’s had gained during Faukes’s tenure. A rare surviving document found in the college’s archives sheds light on his activities during the dramatic parliament. The document in question is an attendance register, which recorded periods of absence and attendance at Windsor on a day-to-day basis, as well as times when a member of chapter was absent on official college business. The entries (marked by a dot) show that throughout Hyde’s time at parliament he was deemed to be acting on the college’s behalf, looking after its interests at Westminster.

If Faukes and Hyde served as clerk of the parliaments in times of dynastic upheaval, the same can certainly be said of John Morgan, a Welsh protégé of Henry VII, who replaced the short-lived Yorkist clerk Thomas Hutton (also a canon of Windsor). Appointed as clerk of the parliaments and dean of St George’s in October 1485, Morgan held both positions concurrently until his elevation to the see of St David’s in 1496. As his predecessors had done, Morgan was careful to utilise his privileged position at Westminster to secure the college’s interests in parliament. Almost immediately after his installation, in Henry VII’s first parliament of 1485, he was actively working on the college’s behalf in Westminster, in this case to protect the chapter from a petition seeking to saddle it with the maintenance costs of several retired royal servants. Morgan may well have regretted his support for the College, however, when he returned home from fighting its case in parliament. The grand new St George’s Chapel, begun in 1475 by Edward IV, had become somewhat neglected under Richard III, and it would be some years before financial support was forthcoming from the king. Thus, Morgan found himself with a chapel where pigeons were wont to roost, where the roof leaked (directly above a statue of the Virgin Mary), and where it was deemed prudent to appoint a night watchman to protect the fabric. No doubt, Morgan’s time spent in parliament was something of a relief from the ongoing repair works!

During periods of dynastic uncertainty and upheaval, the fifteenth-century clerks of the parliaments had privileged access to a wide network. Parliament itself only took up a fraction of the clerks’ lives, however, and concerns over the collegiate institutions in which the clerks of the parliaments lived and worked (whether a leaky ceiling, repair works, or the preservation of ancient privileges), could overlap with their work within the chambers of Westminster. Institutions such as St George’s were keen to utilise these concerns and parliamentary networks to protect their own interests, proving that the old adage of ‘It’s not what you know, but who you know’ certainly held true in the murky world of fifteenth-century politics. If the present parliaments allow little time for clerical staff outside of Westminster – in comparison to their medieval counterparts – it is hoped that the present clerk will find the time to pursue his own interests during the parliamentary recess, perhaps even finding the time to do some DIY of his own!

Dr Roger has recently completed his doctoral studies on St George’s Chapel and College, Windsor Castle, in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, and is currently reworking his thesis for publication as a monograph.

Click here to read part one of this blog.

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Medieval clerks of the parliament – part 1

The summer recess in parliament is not just a chance for MPs to take a break, but some peace and quiet for the clerical staff as well! In a series of two blogs, beginning today with one from Dr Hannes Kleineke, Senior Research Fellow on the Commons 1422-1504 section, we’ll look at some of the later medieval predecessors to today’s parliamentary staff…

It is a peculiar feature of the offices of the various members of the clerical staff of the British parliament that they find themselves at the heart of the political events of their day, without normally becoming protagonists in them. This state of affairs has a long tradition: even in the middle ages successive clerks avoided being drawn into the sometime stormy politics of their day – at no time more so than during the Wars of the Roses of the mid-15th century. Many of the clerks were nevertheless men of some wealth, as well as of considerable education and culture.

The office of a specific clerk assigned to serve Parliament can be traced back to at least the early 14th century. Responsible for all the writing work associated with the assembly, above all the compilation of Parliament’s main record, the Parliament roll, the clerk’s work expanded as parliament evolved, and by the 15th century there were also at least two other clerks, the under-clerk of the Parliaments (later the Clerk of the Commons), and the clerk of the Crown in Chancery, who took on much of the preparatory work for the meeting of the Lords and Commons, such as the issue of the writs of summons. By the 15th century, some of the clerks routinely carried out their duties by deputies, indeed, in about 1438 the under-clerk of the day, Thomas Haseley, admitted that he had ‘nevere come in the Parlement’ since 1425.

The first of the clerks of the period of the Wars of the Roses was John Faukes. Appointed in time for the dramatic assembly at Bury St Edmunds that saw the arrest and death of the King’s uncle, Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, Faukes was to hold the post for an impressive 23 years. It fell to him to record not only the stormy proceedings against the duke of Suffolk in 1450, but also the proceedings during Henry VI’s repeated mental incapacity in 1453-55, the highly partisan measures against the duke of York and his adherents in the Coventry ‘Parliament of Devils’ in 1459, and the parliamentary accord of 1460, which settled the succession in favour of the Yorkist line. He continued in office after Edward IV’s accession, and kept the record of the settlement required by the change of dynasty, and it was only old age that final saw him retire at the end of the 1460s. Faukes’s burden was much increased by the additional work contingent arising from the numerous bills of proviso that exempted individuals and institutions from the provisions of successive acts of resumption, but he may also be credited with some degree of innovation, not least perhaps the compilation of the first journals of the proceedings of the lords.

Faukes’s eventual retirement left Parliament bereft of an experienced clerk (although his long-serving under-clerk, Thomas Bayon, continued in post) just as Edward IV’s temporary deposition and Henry VI’s restoration by the earl of Warwick created fresh political uncertainty. It was thus perhaps at Faukes’s recommendation that Baldwin Hyde, a Chancery administrator of some years’ standing, replaced him for the assembly of 1470-1. Although Hyde’s appointment was by no means a political one, he was nevertheless removed from office on Edward IV’s return, and replaced by John Gunthorpe, the King’s former almoner. Gunthorpe, who remained in post for the remainder of Edward IV’s reign, not only kept the record of the unusually protracted Parliament of 1472-75 with its large number of legislative measures, but was also present for the state trial of the monarch’s brother, the duke of Clarence, in 1478. During the long gaps that intervened between Parliaments in the 1470s and early 1480s, he was regularly employed on diplomatic missions by his royal master.

He evidently became acquainted with Edward IV’s surviving brother, the duke of Gloucester, and on the latter’s accession as Richard III was promoted to the keepership of the privy seal. Although it was clear that Richard’s usurpation would require parliamentary sanction, and that the Lords and Commons would thus have to meet before long, it was not until the eve of Parliament’s actual assembly in early 1484 that Thomas Hutton was appointed as the new clerk of the Parliaments, perhaps on the recommendation of the chancellor, Bishop John Russell. Hutton, like Gunthorpe before him, found extensive employment as a diplomat, while his parliamentary activities remained limited to the single assembly of Richard III’s short reign, but he may perhaps nevertheless be credited with collaborating with his predecessor Gunthorpe in instituting the practice of the sessional printing of statutes.

Hutton’s relationship with Henry VII is so obscure as to arouse curiosity: he had on several occasions acted as King Richard’s emissary to the Breton court, and there can be little doubt that the subject of the pretender Henry Tudor sheltering there was raised. There is nevertheless no suggestion that Hutton fell victim to major reprisals after Bosworth, and in the second half of the 1490s Henry VII even admitted him to his council. He was, all the same, stripped of the clerkship in favour of John Morgan, a distant relative of the new King. Morgan, it seems, threw himself into his task with some vigour, as indeed he needed to, for the requests for exemption from the fresh act of Resumption passed in 1485 were unusually numerous. Morgan remained in post until 1496, and it thus fell to him to record the proceedings of the important Parliament of 1495, perhaps the assembly most active in legislation during the entire second half of the 15th century. Morgan’s eventual successor, Richard Hatton, the final clerk of the parliaments of the middle ages, followed a long tradition in his personal connexions with the predecessors, not least John Gunthorpe. His parliamentary work was to remain limited, for just two Parliaments met in the thirteen years of his clerkship.


Further reading:

  • A.F. Pollard, ‘Fifteenth-Century Clerks of Parliament’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 15 (1938), pp. 137-61.
  • Michael Hicks, ‘King in Lords and Commons: three insights into late-fifteenth-century parliaments 1461-85’, in People, Places and Perspectives ed. Keith Dockray and Peter Fleming (Stroud 2005).
  • Hannes Kleineke and Euan Roger, ‘Baldwin Hyde, Clerk of the Parliaments in the Readeption Parliament of 1470–1’, Parliamentary History 33 (2014), pp. 501-10.
  • Hannes Kleineke, ‘Thomas Hutton, clerk of the parliaments to Richard III’, The Ricardian 26 (2016), pp. 19-30.

Part two to follow next week!

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‘At whose door must this resentment be laid?’ The Whig Schism of 1717

The fall-out from Brexit has caused considerable disarray in the British party system, and over the course of this summer four parties either have new leaders or are holding leadership contests. Over the summer we’ll take a look at some past examples of party tensions, and the dramatic splits that they can lead to. First in this series, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the Whig Schism of 1717…

In the spring of 1717 the Whig party, which had held sway since the Hanoverian accession, was riven following a series of disagreements. The event has come to be known as the ‘Whig Split’ and endured until reconciliation was achieved three years later. Two features lay at the heart of the division; one, disagreements over policy (in particular foreign policy), the other, personality clashes. Added to these was a fissure within the royal family, where tensions between the king and prince of Wales looked set to provoke a still more spectacular falling out, and divisions over responses to Jacobitism (in particular the fallout from the ‘Gyllenborg Plot’ – see our website for more).

The Whigs had never been a united party in the modern sense, despite the efforts of the Junto Whigs during the 1690s and after to forge a more united front, and there had long been causes which had provoked opposition from within the ranks of the various Whig factions. Some tensions dated back to the reign of Anne, when some ‘moderate Whigs’ had been content to accept office in the ministry of Robert Harley, earl of Oxford. Following the Hanoverian succession new causes of disagreement emerged. One example in policy terms was the passage of the Septennial Act (by which general elections were confined to once every seven years), which was viewed by many Whigs as a betrayal of the principles enshrined in the Triennial Act, which had ensured regular elections every three years and had been secured in the teeth of monarchical opposition.

The divisions of 1716 and 1717 spoke to fundamental issues relating to national sovereignty as well as to more practical concerns driven by rivalries between the Whig leaders. By then several of the great Junto figureheads of the past 20 years (Wharton, Somers, Halifax) had died, leaving a new generation to battle it out for the spoils. Chief among these were two pairs of prominent ministers: Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland allied to James Stanhope (future Earl Stanhope), and Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, linked to his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Walpole. As a soldier of distinction, notable diplomat and one of the secretaries of state, Stanhope was able to forge close relations with the new king and in the summer of 1716 he travelled with George I to Hanover, where he was joined by Sunderland (lord privy seal), who was ostensibly on the continent for his health. Left at home were Townshend (the other secretary) and Walpole, who had by then coupled the posts of chancellor of the exchequer to that of first lord of the treasury.

As had occurred during William III’s reign, the succession of a foreign prince with interests of his own overseas had quickly led to tensions within the British polity. According to the Act of Settlement George I could not employ British forces to further Hanoverian interests. However, George’s efforts to intervene in the Great Northern War (involving Russia, Denmark, Saxony-Poland and Sweden as well as various German principalities) and secure territorial gains for Hanover in the form of Bremen and Verden at Sweden’s expense, meant that this is precisely what he sought to do by employing the Royal Navy against Sweden and in support of his Hanoverian troops. The broader aims, it was argued, were also in Britain’s interests as the result would be an improvement in prospects for Britain’s mercantile fleet operating in the Baltic, but many politicians resolutely opposed Britain’s involvement.

At the very top of the ministry there was disagreement. Stanhope (and Sunderland) came round to backing the king’s plans for involvement in the Great Northern War, while Townshend, in particular, spoke out against. Townshend’s behaviour coupled with both his and Walpole’s perceived closeness to the prince of Wales unsurprisingly irritated the king and led to his dismissal from the post of secretary of state. Instead, he was offered the technically grand but in reality marginal lord lieutenancy of Ireland. Townshend at first demurred, eventually gave way and accepted, only to be put out the following spring for fomenting rebellion against the government in the House of Lords.

Correspondence between Walpole and Stanhope at this time reveals much about the tensions evident between the two sets of ministers, with each side eager to blame the other for ratcheting up the pressure. On 15 December 1716 Stanhope wrote to Walpole from Hanover on the subject of Townshend’s removal insisting, ‘I do in my conscience believe, this was the only measure which could secure the continuance of a whigg [sic] administration with any ease to the king’. His efforts at placating Walpole, though, were unsuccessful, and in response Walpole accused Stanhope of stabbing Townshend in the back. At the beginning of 1717 Stanhope turned his guns on Walpole, warning him of the consequences of failing to help reunite the factions.

No one man in the world can do so much good as yourself; and give me leave to say, no one man will, I think, have more to answer for to his country, if you do not heartily endeavour to make up these breaches. [Coxe, Walpole Mems. i. 307, 310].

By the spring of 1717 the split was all but irreparable and in key divisions in both Houses in April Townshend in the Lords and a number of Walpole’s allies in the Commons voted against the ministry’s demands for supply (even though Walpole himself voted with the ministry on the matter). The result was Townshend’s summary dismissal from the lieutenancy of Ireland, followed soon after by Walpole’s resignation. Out too whether through resignation or sacking went a number of their adherents, many closely allied through family ties. Among them were several treasury ministers, including Walpole’s brother, Horatio. The earl of Orford left his place at the admiralty as did Sir Charles Turner (Walpole’s brother-in-law). William Pulteney resigned as secretary at war, while the duke of Devonshire (a close associate of Orford and Walpole) quit his office of lord president. A solitary (significant) casualty in the royal household was Conyers Darcy, brother of the 3rd earl of Holdernesse, who departed from his post as commissioner for the office of executing the mastership of the horse. As a sign of how confused the times were, the papers seem to have struggled to keep up with the flow of dismissals and resignations. The Weekly Packet of 6-13 April 1717 announced that John Smith and John Aislabie were also to be removed from their places, but in fact both endured with Aislabie actually promoted in the resulting reshuffle.

Perhaps the most significant result of this ministerial carnage was the emergence of the prince of Wales and his court at Leicester House as a serious alternative to the ministry offering to both dissident Whigs and a number of Tories a convenient rallying point from which they were able to coalesce in opposition to the government. It was also to prove a significant opportunity for Walpole to develop his relations with the prince and (maybe more significantly) the princess of Wales, whose later support was to prove of crucial importance in his later emergence as ‘prime minister’.


Further reading:

  • Jeremy Black, ‘Parliament and the political and diplomatic crisis of 1717-18’, Parliamentary History 3 (1984)
  • J. Murray, George I, the Baltic, and the Whig Split of 1717: a study in diplomacy and propaganda (University of Chicago Press, 1969)
  • See also Andrew Hanham’s ‘Explore’ articles on our website: ‘The Whig Schism of 1719-20’ and ‘The Leicester House Faction

Title quotation comes from Mems. of the life and administration of Sir Robert Walpole, ed. W. Coxe, (1816), i. 314.

Watch out this summer for more tales of party intrigue!

Posted in 18th Century history, diplomatic history, military history, Party splits, Politics | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

European diplomacy: the ‘double monarchy’ of England and France envisaged in the treaty of Troyes of 1420

Today, the new Prime Minister Theresa May makes her first diplomatic trip to meet her counterparts in Germany and France.  Here Dr Simon Payling, Senior Fellow of the Commons 1422-1504 section, blogs about parliament’s reaction to another major realignment in European relations, although in very different circumstances, Henry V’s attempt to unify the crowns of England and France in 1420…

On 21 May 1420 Henry V’s great victories in France, and the divisions in the French kingdom that had allowed them, culminated in the treaty of Troyes. Charles VI of France, incapacitated by recurrent bouts of madness over nearly 30 years, agreed that, on his death, the kingdom of France would not be inherited by his son and heir, the Dauphin, Charles (the future Charles VII), but would pass instead to Henry V, who would take as his wife the Dauphin’s sister, Katherine. In the meantime, the English king would rule France as Charles VI’s regent.

The unification of the crowns of England and France, almost unimaginable at the outset of Henry V’s reign in 1413, had become a reality, at least in so far as realities are manifest in treaties. In truth, of course, there were obstacles, ultimately insurmountable ones, in the way of that unification. The Dauphin still controlled more than half of France and had neither incentive nor inclination to accept his disinheritance. Thus, in the summer and autumn following the treaty, Henry V continued to campaign as he had done since 1417, reducing to obedience Dauphinist strongholds to the south and east of Paris, most notably Melun. He was thus absent from Westminster when Parliament gathered there on 2 December 1420.

One might have expected this Parliament to have assembled in celebratory mood. The king had vindicated his dynasty’s claim to the French throne, albeit not entirely on the terms Edward III had claimed it in 1340 (the treaty of Troyes did not precisely address the grounds on which Henry was to assume the French throne: was it because he had the superior hereditary right over the line he was to supplant, or was he doing so as the adopted heir of the rightful king?). There was also the promise that the financial burden of maintaining the French war would be lifted from the taxpayers of England: the conflict was now not a war between two nations but a civil war in the kingdom of France between Henry V, as regent of Charles VI and heir-apparent to the French crown, and the Dauphinists, as rebels against their king, and so the burden of maintaining the war should thus fall exclusively on French taxpayers.

Yet there was another side to this optimistic picture. The siege of Melun, which had lasted four months, had demonstrated that the war would not come to a swift conclusion, and many must have shared the opinion of one modern historian that the treaty was ‘not so much a guarantee of peace as the prime cause of continued war’. [Curry, ‘Parliament of December 1421’, in Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ix. 246.]  In such circumstances, whatever the theoretical arguments against further taxation, any relief from war taxation might be a very temporary expedient. It was also possible to see the treaty in terms of loss rather than profit from the English point of view. For many among the Commons and the Lords, particularly perhaps those who had campaigned in France, the treaty had supplanted an outcome that was far more desirable than the unions of the two crowns, namely that Normandy, the conquest of which was then complete, should be re-annexed to the English crown to be held in full sovereignty. Yet, under the terms of the treaty, Normandy, the most valuable province of the kingdom of France, was once more to be part of the realm of France and to become subject to Henry V not as king of England but as king of France.

These concerns explain why the Parliament following the treaty proved the most difficult of the reign. The Commons in their petitions presented a surly and xenophobic face. Many of them must have listened doubtfully to the opening speech of Chancellor Langley, extolling the treaty as ‘the welcome conclusion of peace [to] the undoubted advantage and perpetual happiness of all this kingdom of England’. Even setting aside the consideration that the treaty of Troyes was no peace, the Commons were sensitive to its other potential disadvantages. It promised a future in which the king of England would be routinely absent from England, not only on campaign but also as the ruler of another and larger kingdom. They thus successful petitioned that, if Parliament should be in session during one of those absences (as, indeed, the present assembly, was), the king’s return should not result in a dissolution. Another of their petitions addressed a much more central issue. They asked for the confirmation of an undertaking made by Edward III when he had laid claim to the French throne in 1340, namely that Englishmen ‘should never be nor ought to be in subjection or obedience to the kings of France … or to the kingdom of France’, in other words England was to retain its sovereignty even though its king was also king of France.

In some ways, the fears expressed by this Parliament set the tone for the Parliaments of the remainder of the 1420s. No direct taxation was either asked or granted during this assembly, and the last two Parliaments of the reign granted between them only one full subsidy (about £37,000). No further subsidy was granted until the Parliament of December 1429. By then the military situation – the failure of the siege of Orleans and the defeat at the battle of Patay – had turned decidedly if not decisively against the English, and all realistic hope of establishing a dual monarchy in the hands of Henry V’s young son, Henry VI, had been lost. The Commons may have viewed the loss with indifference, for they had certainly done nothing to make it a reality. Had Henry V not died in August 1422 leaving a baby as his heir, his force of character may have shaken the Commons out of their indifference, but that is a doubtful surmise. By the end of his reign the euphoria of the victory at Agincourt had given way to war-weariness and a conviction, on the part of the Commons, that the defeat of the Dauphin would not be bought with English money.


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A tribute to Harry Cobb

The History of Parliament staff were sad to hear about the recent death of Harry Cobb, Clerk of the Records at the House of Lords Record Office 1981-1991. A major contributor to the study of parliamentary history, he will be greatly missed. In this blog David Prior, Head of Public Services and Outreach at the Parliamentary Archives, pays tribute…

The death of Harry Cobb on 27 June 2016 at the age of 89 has severed a connection between the Parliamentary Archives of today and the original members of staff who worked with Maurice Bond in the 1950s and early 1960s to transform the Victoria Tower into a record repository compliant with professional standards and with collections readily accessible by researchers.

Harry Cobb, 1957 © Parliamentary Archives

Harry Cobb, 1957 © Parliamentary Archives

When Harry joined what was then known as the House of Lords Record Office in 1953 it was only 7 years since Bond had been appointed to the post of Clerk of the Records following the decision of the House of Lords to establish an office with responsibility for the accumulation of records in the Victoria Tower which dated back to 1497. In the years that followed Harry played a significant part in the refurbishment of the Tower which was reopened in 1963. This picture from 1957 shows him at work in the repository, surrounded by various records including files of House of Lords Main papers – papers which had been laid on the table of the House and which remain an important source for historians.

In the preface to the Guide to the Records of Parliament, published in 1971, Bond wrote that Harry’s ‘comprehensive knowledge of the records and their historical background’  had contributed ‘richly’ to that publication.

Harry was eventually able to take his place at Bond’s desk in 1981, serving as Clerk until 1991. Even after he retired he returned every Monday afternoon, having had what increasingly became a very late lunch, to work on records which staff faithfully kept out for him on one of our trollies.

Harry has left us at a point when we are about to mark the 70th anniversary of the Parliamentary Archives and are consequently very conscious of the achievements of our predecessors. I for one am proud to have known him and to have thereby had a link with the work of those who laid the foundations for the work we do in the Archives today.


You can find out more about the Parliamentary Archives here.

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