Women and Parliament in the Fifteenth Century

2018 is the centennial anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 under the terms of which, for the first time in the history of the British Politics, some women were permitted to vote in Parliamentary elections. In order to mark this step in the progression of equality for women in our country’s political system we will be publishing a series of blogs about women’s engagement with Parliament and parliamentary politics. In the first of which our own Dr Simon Payling, Senior Research Fellow in the Commons 1422-1504 section, discusses fifteenth-century women’s relationship with Parliament…

It is one of the peculiarities of parliamentary history that the right of women to stand for election to the Commons predated the admission of hereditary female peers to the Lords by 45 years (1918 against 1963). From a fifteenth-century perspective, the second would have appeared closer than the first: the first was inconceivable, but the second was partly anticipated in the right of the heiress of a peer to transmit to her husband or son the right to a seat in the Lords. Yet, if a female member of the Lords was at least conceptually possible (one thinks here of the creation of Edward I’s granddaughter, Margaret of Brotherton, as a duchess in her own right in the Parliament of 1397), such membership did not lie within the realm of practical politics. This, however, is not to say that female engagement with the parliamentary proceedings was entirely lacking.

A study of those who turned to Parliament for help and redress provides numerous examples of women petitioning not jointly with their husbands but in their own right. Some of these petitioners, as one might expect, were the widows of great men, generally seeking some act of royal favour or protection for their rights against the claims of others. For such women Parliament was an obvious resort, not simply because they had kin in the Lords but because they might also have adherents in the Commons. When, for example, Anne Stafford, widow of Edmund Mortimer, earl of March, petitioned the Parliament of 1425 for an adequate provision for her widowhood out of the debt-burdened Mortimer estate, she could rely on the support of the Commons’ Speaker, Sir Thomas Waweton, a highly-paid Mortimer retainer. Other well-born women turned to Parliament in less advantageous circumstances. A petition presented in the Parliament of 1406 provides a vivid example: Elizabeth, widow of William, Lord Zouche, claimed that her stepson, the new Lord Zouche, had organised a campaign of oppression against her during which one of her servants had had an arm cut off and her daughter had been frightened into a premature birth. If her stepson attempted his place in the Lords to thwart her complaint, he failed, and he was summoned to answer before the royal council. Her petition, and others like it, reflect the disadvantageous position of women in family disputes, and Parliament could sometimes offer them better hope of remedy than litigation at common law. The same applies where the complaint related to sexual violence. To cite one of several examples, in the Parliament of 1439 Margaret, widow of Sir Thomas Malefaunt, complained that she had been raped and forced into marriage by a Welshmen, a former servant of her husband.

These three petitioners were all members of the social elite, as indeed were, to a greater or lesser degree, most of women who successfully brought petitions into Parliament. Yet there were the enough exceptions to form a significant sub-category. One such was Elizabeth Reynald, a recluse living in the cemetery of the church of St. Margaret, Westminster, who sought the help of the Commons in the 1422 Parliament to secure the restoration of the annuity her long-dead husband had once enjoyed as a royal serjeant-at-arms. Other women sought to overcome a lack of individual influence by coming together to advance a group cause. In the Parliament of 1394 the ‘widows of London’ complained that the city authorities had sought to tax them despite the customary exemption they enjoyed in respect of all taxes (save those imposed by parliamentary authority); and later the silkwomen of the city protected their monopoly of worked silk by successfully petitioning, between 1455 and 1504, for a series of temporary embargoes against imports. The routine presence of Parliament at Westminster no doubt gave the women of London both opportunity and incentive to organise themselves, and a curious reference in the chronicle of the abbey of St. Albans provides a striking incidence. The chronicler describes how a group of them, ‘respectfully attired’ (‘reverenter ornatis’), came ‘openly’ (‘palam’) into the Parliament of 1427 bringing letters to the Lords condemning Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, for abandoning his first wife, Jacqueline of Hainault, ‘as his love for her had gone cold’  (‘amore refrigerato’) in favour of one of her household servants, Eleanor Cobham, ‘to the ruin of himself, of the realm and of the strength of the institution of marriage’.

These examples may not be enough to show that, beyond the obvious fact of disqualification from membership, fifteenth-century women existed in a different relationship to Parliament than men, although the chronicler’s curious story is perhaps suggestive in this regard. They do, however, show that Parliament offered a potential source of aid for women outside the high aristocracy.


In September this year we are co-organising ‘A Century of Women MPs‘ with UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project and the University of Westminster, a conference which will explore the experiences, contributions and achievements of women MPs since 1918. The Call for Papers is out now and closes on 31st January. Full details on how to submit your paper are available here.

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‘By God my Lord, if you can bear this you are the strongest man in England’: the appointment of ‘Harley’s Dozen’ new peers in the winter of 1711/12

Current rumours suggest that the government may be on the point of boosting the numbers of Conservative peers in the House of Lords. In the winter of 1711/12 the administration of the earl of Oxford also turned to bolstering its membership of the upper chamber by offering peerages to a number of prominent politicians to ensure it was able to get its business through Parliament. At this point the Lords was a more powerful chamber than the current House, peerages were hereditary and governments often relied on their numbers there to offset problems in the less predictable Commons. Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-90 section considers the reasons for the move and the characters promoted…

Robert Harley, earl of Oxford by Sir Godfrey Kneller, oil on canvas, 1714: National Portrait Gallery, London, © NPG 4011

In the winter of 1711 the administration of the earl of Oxford found itself under severe pressure. The ministry, broadly Tory in character, was faced by a resurgent Whig opposition battling hard to counter the ministry’s efforts to bring to an end Britain’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13). Through December 1711 Oxford suffered a series of reversals over the handling of the peace negotiations, not least over the opposition’s determination to ensure that the power of Bourbon France was severely limited by any treaty.

On 22 December Parliament was adjourned for the Christmas break, but pressure remained directed on the Lords as they voted to return to their places early on 2 January, ahead of the Commons, who intended to resume sitting on the 14th. During the adjournment Oxford worked to bolster his forces in the Upper House. He had found the Scots representative peers and the bishops unreliable and had struggled to encourage even needy ‘pensioner’ peers (poor Lords who received government pensions in return for their votes) to rally to the cause. Faced with disaster, he needed to find new allies to help improve his position. Reluctantly, Queen Anne gave way to his request to create a dozen new peers to add to his numbers in the Lords.

The creation of the dozen caused widespread unease. When they took their seats in the new year, the earl of Wharton queried sarcastically whether Oxford’s new ‘jury’ would speak singly or through a foreman. Others raised more serious constitutional points about the legitimacy of such a mass creation. Earlier in Anne’s reign there had been a ‘mass creation’ of half a dozen new peers, and coronations were normally the occasion for a number of Lords being created, or promoted to higher ranks as part of the celebrations (14 men received new peerages on 19 October 1714 to celebrate George I’s accession, but most of these were promotions). Nominating such a large cohort for ministerial convenience was, though, if not unique sufficiently out of the ordinary to generate considerable comment.

Aside from questions of constitutional propriety, questions were also raised about the men selected, though most were acknowledged to be deserving of their titles – in the sense that they were far from inappropriate candidates through wealth and noble connexions. In some cases they were heirs to peerages and merely accelerated to the Lords. Indeed, rather than a dozen there were in fact only ten new creations. Lord Bruce was heir to the earldom of Aylesbury, so was able to be summoned in his father’s barony of Bruce, and Lord Compton was heir to the earldom of Northampton so called up by the same mechanism as Baron Compton. Henry Paget, created Baron Burton, was heir to another barony (Paget) and Viscount Dupplin, created a British peer as Baron Hay, was heir to a Scots earldom (Kinnnoul): he was happened to be Oxford’s son-in-law. The man created Baron Mountjoy was already an Irish viscount (Windsor) and uncle to the earl of Plymouth. The remaining eight new peers were all men of wealth and status. Even Samuel Masham, husband of Queen Anne’s favourite, Abigail, and whose promotion was the most derided of all was, if poor, heir to a baronetcy. He had been something of an afterthought, only offered the peerage because another candidate turned one down. In spite of this, the greatest bar to his promotion was Anne’s dependence on his wife, who held a place in the queen’s bedchamber and was expected to perform fairly menial functions generally believed beneath the dignity of a peeress. Abigail’s willingness to remain in the queen’s service helped smooth the way for Masham’s promotion.

One further complication that needed attending to was the question of precedence. At a time when such matters were of particular importance in a Lords chamber where members sat according to precedence rather than grouped by party, this needed careful handling. Lord Hay’s patent of creation was dated 31 December 1711, so was clear enough, but the remaining nine new peers’ patents were all ushered in on New Year’s day 1712. To differentiate between them the documents were not just dated but also timed. First in honour, then, was the new Baron Mountjoy (Viscount Windsor) whose patent bore the time stamp of 7am. This was followed an hour later by Baron Burton with the process continuing down to 4pm, the time at which Allen Bathurst was formally raised to the peerage as a baron.

Each of the twelve then took their seats on 2 January, the first sitting day after the recess, and helped the ministry win its first significant victory: a further adjournment to sidestep the Whigs’ intention of stealing a march on the Commons’ investigation into the duke of Marlborough’s affairs. Oxford’s gamble had, at least in the short term, paid off. Whether he would be able to maintain the loyalty of his new allies was a question for the future.


Further reading:

  • Clyve Jones, ‘Lord Oxford’s Jury: the political and social context of the creation of the twelve peers, 1711-12’, Parliamentary History xxiv (2005)
  • Ruth Paley and Paul Seaward, eds., Honour Interest and Power: an illustrated history of the House of Lords, 1660-1715 (History of Parliament/Boydell, 2010)
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Introducing…our new Director

Today’s blog is the first from Stephen Roberts in his new position as Director of the History of Parliament…

It is a privilege to be taking over as Director of the History of Parliament, which has for many decades now been one of the UK’s leading historical research organisations, and which is currently engaged in a range of projects, some of long standing and others new.

My own historical specialism is that of Britain in the mid-seventeenth century, a turbulent period in the life of the country. It was also a period when Parliament played the widest range of parts in the life of the nation: some Parliaments met only for weeks and others were purged of Members, including by force, but one, the Parliament of the Commonwealth, wielded executive power and ran the country as supreme authority. The period provides an interesting vantage point from which to look retrospectively at earlier Parliaments before 1640 and forwards to those which followed a return to a measure of political stability after 1660.

Before I came to the History of Parliament in 1997 as editor of the House of Commons 1640-1660 volumes, I worked for many years as a tutor and organiser for the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), the country’s largest voluntary adult education body, and have played a part in the governance of a number of historical societies, including the Worcestershire Historical Society and the Dugdale Society. I am president of the Devon and Cornwall Record Society and a vice-president of the Cromwell Association. I am proud of my roots and heritage in South Wales, and have authored or edited a number of publications on Welsh history.

This is a busy and exciting time here at the History of Parliament. We have some major academic projects coming to fruition over the next few years: our volumes on the House of Commons 1422-61 and on the House of Lords 1604-29. The House of Commons 1640-60 will follow closely on these. We are developing our programme of events and activities aimed at the public at large, and this year these include a series of events with Parliament as the venue. Among these are a debate on the 1867 ‘Second Reform Act’, a flavour from our recent conference on popular sovereignty and, with our partners at UK Parliament Vote 100, events around the legislation extending the vote to women a hundred years ago.

Preparatory spadework has been in progress for a while now on a new project which will add to our series of volumes: on the House of Lords 1715-90. We begin 2018 with the appointment of an editor for this Section, which marks the shift up into another gear into what becomes our third major project on the history of the House of Lords.

Meanwhile, we have also been strengthening our team involved in reaching the widest possible public. We now have an Assistant Director responsible for Communications and Publications, and have recently appointed to the team a Public Engagement Officer, in recognition of our obligations to the taxpayers who fund our work. We hope to be opening up some new ventures in social media, and we look forward to keeping those who follow our activities, whether in traditional print or online, posted with future developments.



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Review of the year 2017

It’s been another hectic, but excellent year here at the History of Parliament. We have been making many organisational changes after our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, won a prestigious Wolfson/British Academy scholarship. Paul will leave us for three years to undertake his new research project: ‘Reformation to Referendum: A new history of Parliament’. Paul has blogged about it here.

Whilst Paul is away researching, Dr Stephen Roberts, the current editor of the Commons, 1640-60 section, will become Director – you’ll be hearing from Stephen soon about his plans for the HPT. We’ve had some corresponding changes of personnel around the building: Dr Vivienne Larminie will become Assistant Editor of Commons 1640-60 project, and Dr Robin Eagles Editor of the Lords, 1715-90 project. Behind the scenes, we’re appointing a new Assistant Director and Public Engagement Officer: so expect to hear more from them in 2018!

Mr Speaker introducing our first panel discussing the impact of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act in July

We’ve had a very busy year in terms of events, despite our plans being upset slightly by the snap election! In February we introduced our recently-published Lords 1660-1715 volumes to current peers; in July a prestigious panel of Parliamentarians looked back on the 1967 Sexual Offences Act; September saw collaborations with the Parliamentary Archives on Parliament and WWI; October a celebration of the life of the first Indian MP, Dr Dadabhai Naoroji. We held two collaborative events for Parliament Week: at one Dr Philip Salmon explored the 1867 Reform Act; another Dr Robin Eagles discussed the reporting of trials and impeachments in the early years of George I 1715-1717 in Oxford’s Bodleian library. Thanks also to the Speaker for hosting another schools prize-giving for us back in July, and we look forward to awarding our dissertation competition winner early in the New Year.

Dr Philip Salmon and Dr Martin Spychal at our ‘Parliaments & Popular Sovereignty’ conference in November

On the academic front, in November we made our way to Manchester to the People’s History Museum for an excellent conference in collaboration with Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller at Durham: ‘Parliaments & Popular Sovereignty: Political Representation in the British World, 1640-1886’. Blogs from speakers we hope will feature here in the New Year. We were also pleased to see Alistair Hawkyard’s publication, earlier this year, of ‘The House of Commons 1509-1558: Personnel, Procedure, Precedent and Change’ based closely on the research in the 1509-1558 volumes of the History of Parliament.

Our researchers have had a busy year: some away in archives, others revising texts ready for upcoming publications. We’ve still been able to keep you up-to-date on social media. Our Lords 1715-90 section have launched their own ‘Georgian Lords’ blog and twitter feed, sharing insights such as the background to the 1772 Royal Marriages Act following Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s recent engagement. The Victorian Commons are going strong: this year’s most popular post told the story of Lily Maxwell, the woman who managed to cast her vote in a November 1867 by-election. Over on his Director’s blog, Paul Seaward has been exploring the A-Z of Parliament, amongst other things helping everyone understand Henry VIII clauses.


On this blog, the Victorian Commons’ Kathryn Rix has continued her series on MPs who died in the First World War. We’ve also been keeping up with another interesting year in current politics, with a series on the General Election; perspectives on modern day Brexit dilemmas from viewpoints as varied as relations between medieval Commons and Lords to Gladstone; and a look into ‘Fake News’ for this year’s Parliament Week blog series.

There’s been good news as well for our oral history project, as the British Library have begun to put our 150-plus interviews online in full for anyone to access. More will follow in the New Year, with, we hope, a special release of our interviews with former women MPs to help mark the centenary of women getting the right to vote. A big thank you to all at the Sound Archive for getting them online, and to our wonderful volunteers who keep the interviews coming! Special mention for the completion of our longest interview to date: Jonathan Aitken, who our volunteer (Alex Lock) began interviewing back in October 2015.

There’s a lot already planned for 2018: our first event a debate on the 1867 Reform Act, and a conference with Parliament’s Vote 100 project and the University of Westminster on A Century of Women MPs in September – you have until the end of January to get your paper proposals in!

A very Happy New Year to you all, and here’s to another great year in 2018.


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Georgian Christmas Recesses

For Parliamentarians in the early Georgian period, Christmas was not infrequently interrupted by the business of politics. Dr Charles Littleton and Dr Robin Eagles of the Georgian Lords consider some of the ways the festivities might be upset.

The parliamentary calendar has long marked the period between the festivals of Christmas on 25 December and Epiphany on 6 January with a recess, a time for politicians to remove themselves from the cares of public life to relax, socialize and even make merry.

Political crises, though, do not observe such religious festivals. December 1720, for example, was hardly a time of merriment for members of Parliament as they spent their Christmas frantically trying to determine how to bring the public finances into order after the precipitous fall in the value of the stock in the South Sea Company. This company, which had over-promoted and oversold its stock, saw its value plummet from £1,000 at its height in the late summer down to £100 by the end of the year. Parliament, prorogued since June, was hurriedly recalled in the face of this financial crisis for 8 December, and the Commons immediately made clear their intention to punish those within the Company deemed guilty of having swindled the public and bankrupted the country. Some MPs delighted in describing the bloodcurdling punishments in wait for them. The mood was ugly. Just two days before Christmas there was a meeting of the Company’s General Court, where one of the principal speakers lashing out at the Directors was Henry Howard, Viscount Morpeth, Member for the borough of Morpeth, who later, in 1738, succeeded as 4th earl of Carlisle. According to his sister, Morpeth ‘spoke with great applause and I believe did considerable service’. She also noted that participants at this meeting had been warned not to sit near the Directors ‘for fear of accidents’. This fear was well-grounded, for ‘several people went with pocket pistols and resolved to use them’. [HMC Carlisle, 26] Another account of this singularly unfestive meeting noted that it was several times interrupted by ‘opprobrious exclamations against the Directors’, who beat a surprisingly hasty retreat from the room as soon as they could. [Boyer, Political State of Great Britain xx, 593, 598].

Having called for the papers of the South Sea Company, the Commons adjourned that same day on 23 December, ‘by reason of the Christmas holidays’. They remained formally adjourned until 9 January, but feelings were running so high that they broke into their holidays to reassemble on 29 December to take a first look at these incriminating papers. [HMC Carlisle, 26] The Lords were of a similar sentiment; led by the fiery (and somewhat unstable) duke of Wharton, they too called for copies of all the Company’s papers, which were not ready until Parliament officially resumed on 9 January.

One group which certainly did not have a restful Christmas were the many copyists who had to prepare copies of the Company’s paperwork for both houses in time for their reconvening in early January. The early months of 1721 were spent discussing ways to reinstate confidence among government investors and to find easy scapegoats among the former Directors of the Company. The principal actor in seeing through measures for both was Sir Robert Walpole, who had only recently joined the ministry as Paymaster-General after he had helped to resolve the schism among the Whigs. The South Sea Bubble crisis was the making of him – aided it must be said by the unexpected deaths in rapid succession of some of his principal rivals. He was to emerge from it as the ‘prime minister’, generally considered the first of that office, about to embark on a ministry which lasted almost 21 years.

Milk and water-gruel and a ha’penny roll

It was not just crises of the scale of the South Sea Bubble that sometimes made Christmas less than relaxing for Georgian parliamentarians. Frequently it proved less a holiday season with opportunities for merry-making than a busy time dominated by fêting voters in the hopes of shoring up influence in the boroughs and shires. Just two days before Christmas 1731, the acerbic wit Lord Hervey noted in a letter to his close friend, Stephen Fox, that the earl of Essex had left that morning ‘to be kissed and stuffed at Freeholders’ Christmas feastings by his Grace the duke of Newcastle in Sussex’. Two years later, Newcastle was again in campaigning mode and was thanked by his Sussex neighbour, the duke of Richmond,’ for all your polite entertainment at Bishopstone; If every freeholder in the County was as well pleased with it as myself, Sir Cecyl Bishop & Esqr Fuller might whistle for a vote…’ [Richmond Newcastle correspondence, 9] The effort clearly proved successful and when the following year Sir Cecil Bishopp of nearby Parham House and John Fuller (possibly the same as the former Member for Plympton Erle) stood for Sussex against the sitting candidates, James Butler and Newcastle’s brother, Henry Pelham, neither were successful – though both achieved rather more votes than Richmond’s dismissive remark suggested was likely.

Christmas Day itself was no bar to Newcastle’s determined marshalling of his support. In 1740, making no reference to the import of the day itself, he again sought Richmond’s participation in his efforts to shore up his interest in the area in advance of the poll the coming May. Richmond was normally willing to oblige, as far as he was able, but by December 1748 he was beginning to sound jaded, worn down by his responsibilities on the bench:

… Surely I may be allowed to stay here [Goodwood] dureing the Holydays when no mortall will be in town, & that really I have been employ’d severall hours most days & severall whole days, & shall be so for ten days longer, in makeing enquirys into these horrid murders, & preparing evidences for the Tryalls… [Richmond Newcastle correspondence, 281]

Newcastle may have been particularly insistent on the opportunities the festive period offered for courting votes, but he was far from the only peer to do so. In 1733 Hervey remarked to Fox that ‘your friend, Lord Lovel’ [the former Thomas Coke] who had gone to Norfolk:

to make votes by his hospitality for his brother… entertains all the freeholders with cursing English blockheads, descanting on the impossibility of living like a gentleman if one is served by them, telling them the progress he has made in garbling his family of the uncouth, awkward dogs, and that in another year he hopes not to have one of them under his roof. [Lord Hervey and his Friends, 184]

Hervey wondered at Lovel’s approach. While he may have ‘proved himself perfectly free from being a John-Trot in his taste, one cannot but own, that on this occasion… the being so very French is being a little Irish too.’ As for Hervey himself, he declared himself tired of politics: ‘I look with more horror on the meeting of the Parliament, than my little son does on Monday sennight, when the holidays determine and he is to go to school again’. Christmas can have meant little cheer for him as well. Notoriously sickly (and peculiar in his habits) Hervey’s Christmas Eve dinner consisted of a pint of milk and pint of water gruel mixed together, accompanied with a halfpenny bread roll.

A Merry Christmas from all at the Georgian Lords



Further Reading:

John Carswell, The South Sea Bubble (rev. edn, 1993)

The Correspondence of the Dukes of Richmond and Newcastle, ed. Timothy McCann (1984)

Lord Hervey and his Friends, ed. Ilchester (1950)


Georgian lords 2



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Now available online: full interviews with former MPs from our oral history project

Since 2011, in partnership with the British Library, we have been interviewing as many former MPs as we can about their lives and careers in parliament. 155 of our completed interviews have now been deposited at the British Library. Our growing archive contains a wide variety of experiences and views of parliament: from ‘big names’ (Denis Healey, Michael Heseltine, David Owen, David Steel, Jonathan Aitken, Ann Taylor) to those who sat for just a few years (Denis Coe); from old political families (Hilary Armstrong, Douglas Hurd, Olga Maitland) to those who felt themselves outsiders (Maria Fyfe and Mildred Gordon).

Most of our interviews are open, but until recently those who wanted to listen to them would have to make the trip to St Pancras to do so. Now, the wonderful team at the Sound Archive in the British Library are making our interviews available online, available for anyone to listen to wherever they are in the world.

So far 28 of our interviews are available here, in the British Library Sound Archive. Over the course of 2018 more will be made available, including a special release of some our interviews with former women MPs to mark the anniversary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act (for more on some of our interviews with female MPs now, see ‘Women in Democracy during the 1970s and 1980s‘)

Edward du Cann, portrait by Michael Waller-Bridge (C) Michael Waller-Bridge

As the British Library add our interviews online, we’re also adding new short biographies on our website of some of our interviewees, including short extracts from their interviews. These include reflections from Sir Edward du Cann (Taunton, 1956-87), longstanding Chair of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, on its involvement in Margaret Thatcher’s election to Conservative party leader in 1975:

The Labour MP Ronald Murray (Leith, 1970-79) described his opposition to Britain’s entrance into the Common Market during the 1970s, despite his opinions on Europe changing later:

[For more from our oral history project on the debates on entering the Common Market in the 1970s, see ‘The Parties and Europe 1: Labour and the 1975 Referendum’]

And Liberal/Liberal Democrat Eric Lubbock, 4th Baron Lubbock (Orpington, 1962-70) remembered his successful Private Members Bill, the Caravan Sites Act 1968, which mandated local authorities to find sites for gypsies and travellers:

You can see all of our current interviewee pages, and hear extracts from their interviews, here.

Stay tuned in the New Year for more from our oral history project: both on our website and in the British Library Sound Archive.


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‘Anxious for the welfare of his people’: the passage of the Royal Marriages Act (1772)

Last week we welcomed the news of the forthcoming marriage of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle. This is notable as the first royal engagement since changes were made to the rules governing royal marriages. Prior to 2013 and the passing of a new Royal Succession Act, descendants of George II (reigned 1727-1760) – with some exceptions – required the sovereign’s permission to marry under the rules of the Royal Marriages Act (1772). The new Act repealed the 1772 measure (it also ended the discrimination against Catholics). Now only the six people nearest in line to the throne require the monarch’s permission to marry. As fifth in line to the throne, this includes Prince Harry. Dr Robin Eagles considers the motivations behind the passage of the 1772 Act and some of the accompanying responses.


On 20 February 1772 a message from the king was conveyed to both Houses requesting Parliament to take into consideration the question of royal marriages:

His Majesty being desirous, from paternal Affection to His own Family, and anxious Concern for the future Welfare of His People, and the Honour and Dignity of His Crown, that the Right of approving all Marriages in the Royal Family (which ever has belonged to the Kings of this Realm as a Matter of public Concern) may be made effectual… and, by some new Provision, more effectually to guard the Descendants of His late Majesty King George the Second… from marrying without the Approbation of His Majesty, His Heirs, or Successors, first had and obtained G.R. [LJ xxxiii. 258]

The catalyst for this new initiative stemmed from the occasionally troubled inter-familial politics of the mid-eighteenth century royal family.

On 1 November 1771 George III had received a surprise visit from his younger brother, Henry, duke of Cumberland. A serial womanizer, Cumberland had cost his brother £13,000 the year before to satisfy costs and damages awarded against him in a case of ‘criminal conversation’ brought against him by Lord Grosvenor. Now, he had even more difficult news to impart. While they strolled together, Cumberland handed over a paper to the king explaining his recent marriage to Anne Horton, widowed daughter of the notorious libertine, Lord Irnham. The king was flabbergasted and informed his brother that it would be best for all if the new couple quit the country. On 3 November Cumberland and his new duchess duly left for France. The king subsequently let it be known that he would not receive at court anyone who waited on the Duke and Duchess after Cumberland refused a final offer of the king’s continued friendship if he would agree not to appear in public with ‘Mrs Horton’.

The king’s consternation was in part driven by the fact that the new duchess came from what was considered to be a remarkably unsuitable background. Irnham was satirized in popular prints as the ‘King of Hell’; Anne’s brother, Henry Lawes Luttrell, was the ambitious but extremely unpopular man the administration had backed against John Wilkes in the recent Middlesex election. Anne’s own reputation was hardly decorous. Yet the king’s ostensible objections were less about these and more about dynastic concerns:

In any country a prince marrying a subject is looked upon as dishonourable, nay in Germany the children of such a marriage cannot succeed to any territories; but here, where the Crown is but too little respected, it must be big with the greatest mischiefs. Civil Wars would by such measures be again coming in this country, those of the Yorks and Lancasters were greatly owing to intermarriages with the nobility… [John Brooke, King George III, 274]

Intent on ensuring that he would not be faced with such a dilemma again, George insisted on the introduction of a new Act, requiring members of the extended royal family to seek his permission before marrying. If they did not, their marriages would be void. George discussed this with his (favoured) brother, the duke of Gloucester, who found himself in the awkward position of having to confess to the king that he too had been married without the king’s knowledge some years earlier. Gloucester was presented with the same ultimatum as Cumberland: not to acknowledge his wife publicly, or face exile from court. Like Cumberland, Gloucester chose the latter.

Nothing daunted, the king pressed on with his plan. The experienced lawyer, Lord Mansfield, was called in to draft the measure, which was then presented to the cabinet. No one much cared for it, but the king was determined and reminded the Prime Minister, Lord North, that he would ‘remember defaulters’. One of those willing to risk the king’s displeasure was the young Charles James Fox, who chose to resign his office rather than back the measure (he even acted as one of the tellers for the minority in the final vote on 24 March). His father, Henry, Lord Holland, had married clandestinely a daughter of the duke of Richmond – and thus a cadet member of the royal family – and the passage of the act now ‘was taken by the Fox family as a personal slight’ [L.G. Mitchell, Charles James Fox, 20] As it happened, Fox seems to have been seeking an excuse to throw in the towel for some time, and may have been only too pleased by the opportunity to quit.

On 21 February 1772 the bill was presented to the Lords. It passed on 3 March in spite of spirited opposition regimented by the marquess of Rockingham, for whose grouping the cause had proved an unexpected bonus at a time when they were otherwise in the doldrums. The next day, the bill made its way to the Commons, who examined it in detail in a series of lengthy sessions – one lasting till 2.30 in the morning. Despite this, the administration’s grasp on the business remained secure and on 24 March the Commons voted to pass the bill by 168 votes to 115. It received the royal assent on 1 April (one of 65 acts passed on that day alone).

Popular response both to the Cumberlands’ match and the new Act was lively, and at times distasteful. Historical precedents were much quoted, with the example of the Wars of the Roses cited by several writers. One anecdote told how George II had considered such a measure when he was concerned that his heir, Prince Frederick, was demonstrating too much interest in a lady of the court but that he had been talked out of it by Walpole. Another suggested the matter was the other way around: that the king’s ministers had wished to bring in such a bill but George II had been against it. At least one commentator made abusive racist comments about Cumberland’s wife, who was described as ‘an African Slave’s Bastard by a Scotchman, with an Irish Cross upon the Breed’. Irnham’s wife, Judith Maria Lawes, was the daughter of Sir Nicholas Lawes, former governor of Jamaica, and his fifth wife, Elizabeth Lawley. It is possible, then, that the family did indeed have some black heritage. They were certainly slave owners, and continued to maintain plantations for several generations to come.

In the long term, though, as John Brooke has pointed out, for all his ‘what-what-ing’ the king was not fierce in enforcing his rule preventing courtiers from visiting his brothers and their wives and Cumberland’s marriage, which had been the catalyst for the brouhaha, proved remarkably successful. Duchess Anne proved ‘a good wife to the Duke of Cumberland. She kept him straight… and she did her best to prevent him making a fool of himself in politics…’ [Brooke, George III, 279]

The greatest irony of all this, was that George had been seeking above all to avoid problems in the future with his own children. The Royal Marriages Act did not, however, prevent his heir, George, Prince of Wales, from marrying Maria Fitzherbert illegally (with the support of the Cumberlands). It did, though, make it easy for the king to insist on the voiding of the marriage, thus enabling the Prince of Wales to be forced into a thoroughly disastrous dynastic match with Caroline of Brunswick.



Further reading:

P.D.G. Thomas, ‘Parliament and the Royal Marriages Act, 1772’, Parliamentary History xxvi: pt 2 (2007)

John Brooke, King George III (1974)

W.M. Elofson, The Rockingham Connection and the Second Founding of the Whig Party (1996)


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