David Magliocco, ‘Popularity, “popularity” and popularity: Pepys and popularity’

Dr Robin Eagles reports back from our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar…

The last Parliaments seminar returned to the middle years of the 17th century when David Magliocco, armed with an intriguing title, sought to delve into Samuel Pepys’ assessment of the period by examining the multi-faceted term ‘popularity’. The main thrust of his paper centred on the pivotal years 1666-7, which saw the development of the assault on Charles II’s lord chancellor and principal minister, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon. At the forefront of the attack was Charles’ old friend George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham, whose cult of ‘popularity’ helped him both in his campaign against Clarendon and in his efforts to promote himself. David considered how a fresh reading of Pepys offers some new insights into the period, which has already invited detailed discussion from a number of other scholars.

1666 and 1667 may have been momentous years for some of the great men at the Caroline court, but they were of great import for Pepys too. David noted that the diary contains proportionally more information for that period than the other years covered. Pepys was troubled by problems at the Navy Board, while the citizens of London were struck by the sight of large numbers of unemployed sailors roaming the streets. Ministers may have dreaded the forthcoming autumn session of Parliament; but for Pepys there was the very real prospect of losing his position.

It was into this very uncomfortable arena that Buckingham emerged as a key figure. Until this point, he had been relatively marginalized but he announced his arrival on the scene with a characteristically wild assault on, among others, Pepys’ patron, Edward Montagu, earl of Sandwich. The initial response to Buckingham’s motion to root out corruption was mirth, with Buckingham firmly put in his place by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Lord Ashley. But the ensuing quarrel between Buckingham and Thomas Butler, Lord Ossory, resulted in Buckingham being marched off to the Tower. It was here that he was able to draw upon his developing relationship with the crowd and what began as an embarrassing incident ended as a triumphal progress through the streets of London. Pepys noted down the affair and recorded tellingly that Buckingham had become very ‘popular’.

Such dangerous popularity unsurprisingly spurred on a backlash by Buckingham’s enemies and rivals. Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, was able to bring to bear damaging charges that Buckingham had consulted an astrologer to enquire about details of the king’s life. This treasonous action drove Buckingham into hiding and yet once again efforts to curb his excesses misfired. From just one among a number of critics of the administration he was transformed into the main one. Moreover, he acquired an increasingly ‘mythic’ status as a figure of popular interest. There were sightings of him in a number of improbable guises and implausible locations. Most important, the people appeared disinclined to view Buckingham’s crime as a serious one. Remarking on the episode, Pepys dismissed Buckingham as silly and vain, but conceded the extent of his popular appeal. The Dutch assault on the Medway and the subsequent hand-wringing over the disaster offered Buckingham a convenient opportunity to make his return.

By the late summer of 1667, Buckingham was back at court and making the most of his growing mob support, which was to prove a useful foundation for his renewed assault on Clarendon. Having said that, as Buckingham conceded himself, how could someone standing against men like Arlington and Clarendon but be popular?

Most of the audience were impressed with Magliocco’s extremely thoughtful paper, and questions afterwards further explored the notion of ‘popularity’ and its relationship to ‘publicity’, ‘celebrity’ and ‘display’. Comparisons were made between this period and earlier Stuart periods, as well as the role of popularity in today’s politics.


Our next ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar will be given by the History’s own Dr Simon Payling tonight, 25 June, on ‘The transformation of the Commons, 1386-1558‘. Come and join us!

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