Sir Isaac Wake and the case for war

With the crisis in Syria deepening, this week the Foreign Secretary and Speaker of the Commons have both promised that MPs will have their say before the UK arms anyone in the conflict, yet the Prime Minister has insisted the Government will reserve the right to act without a Commons vote. Dr Vivienne Larminie tells us how the Government in the early 17th Century was careful to ensure that debates in Parliament on questions of military intervention abroad were handled by a safe pair of hands…

Putting the case for going to war has been a regular feature of interaction between executive government and Parliament over the centuries.  In the early seventeenth century, when the conduct of foreign policy was accepted to be the preserve of the king, MPs still had to be convinced of the necessity to vote the taxation required to pay for campaigning.  Without the framework of Prime Minister’s questions or ministerial reporting, and with the monarch and privy councillors taking decisions without reference to constituents or to manifestoes, it was important to prime someone in the Commons and someone in the Lords to argue the government’s corner.  One such person was Sir Isaac Wake.

Wake was returned to Parliament for the first and only time in 1624 expressly to win over hearts and minds for a military challenge to the Spanish armies advancing from their territories in the Southern Netherlands (now Belgium) and northern Italy to crush resistance to Habsburg domination of central Europe – part of a continental-wide conflict known to history as the Thirty Years’ War.  He owed his election as member for Oxford University to its chancellor, William Herbert, 3rd earl of Pembroke, a longstanding advocate of anti-Spanish policy, and to others encouraged by a long-term patron, Charles, Prince of Wales (later Charles I), who was a recent convert to the cause following the failure of his extraordinary expedition to Madrid to seek the hand of the king of Spain’s daughter, the Infanta.  Wake was in the Commons for less than three months, from 19 February to (at the very latest) 10 May 1624.  During that time, however, he attended regularly.  He spoke to expose the alleged treacheries of the Spanish and to amplify what others revealed of the machinations of their ally the Pope.  He was on committees conferring with the Lords over breaking existing Anglo-Spanish treaties and making preparations for war.  Only when satisfied that his task was done and all was in hand did he depart from London to resume his normal – and intimately connected – employment as a diplomat representing British interests in Italy.

Wake was an effective operator.  Before commencing his diplomatic career he had been Oxford University’s public orator, and once launched on it he honed his skills of evocative language and persuasive rhetoric.  The Venetian ambassador in London observed that, ‘in Parliament he attacked the Spaniards vigorously, and earned no small hatred from them’, while another Venetian who was a particular friend of Wake described him as, ‘a man of great capacity in business, and of great learning and piety’.  He had already established his credentials by negotiating a peace between the Swiss Confederation (a polity whose decision-making processes he characterized as ‘labyrinthine’ but whose preservation he tirelessly promoted) and Savoy (whose duke he cultivated in an attempt to thwart expansionist ambitions).

Despite royal patronage, Wake was in fact no mere party tool, and certainly no opportunist espouser of the position he was placed in Parliament to advance.  He was one of a phalanx of educated protestant Englishmen at this period – many of them at one time or another MPs – who habitually placed domestic politics firmly within a European context, and whose position was underpinned by the regular newsletters on continental affairs.  Outcry in the nascent ‘popular’ press at the sufferings of James I’s daughter Elizabeth and son-in-law Frederick, Elector of the Rhine Palatinate, who after a few glorious months in Prague as rulers of Bohemia had been reduced to the state of refugees in The Hague, was only one aspect of widespread anti-Spanish sentiment.  The international situation – Wake and others claimed – resembled a finely-balanced edifice of cards: if Spain was allowed to control the passes of the Alps and the upper Rhine, then Switzerland, Germany, the northern Netherlands (coterminous with the modern state) and even England would progressively topple and fall under its sway.  In a world dominated by Spain, Catholicism and its associated absolutist political institutions would prevail; protestantism, parliaments and liberties would be extinguished.  That successive Parliaments of the 1620s did not, in the end, propel James I and Charles I into well-conceived and sustained action to protect protestant Europe, or trust them with sufficient money for the purpose, was a profound and disquieting failure that Wake took to the grave in 1632.


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