Our final ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar of the year took place last week, as Sarah Ward of Oxford University, gave a paper on ‘I am nothing discuraged to present you with the Parliament newse’: parliamentary news, personal interest and political action in north-east Wales, 1640-88. Here Sarah reports back on her paper…
This paper delivered the preliminary findings of an examination of the news and political culture of North-East Wales. This paper aimed to build on the work of historians such as Jason Peacey in exploring the political impact of news, and the importance of news media in shaping opinion. Lloyd Bowen’s recent Past & Present article provided an extremely valuable starting point for those exploring Welsh news and communications more generally, but this paper particularly focused on the impact of parliamentary news. This is a new direction in Welsh historical study, and provides the beginnings of an important regional case study of the consumption and impact of news. While it was not claimed that such a news culture was specifically Welsh, it was argued that parliamentary news confirmed or hardened political opinions amongst the gentry of North-East Wales, and that it prompted those gentlemen to make political decisions. Private correspondence was of particular importance as it allowed recipients to evaluate the stream of news which they received. As Lindsay O’Neill has argued, there were relationships of trust and honour involved in the provision of private letters of news, and correspondents had much at stake in terms of their reputation should they provide ‘false news’. This made such letters particularly useful for an assessment of the reliability of the information provided. Furthermore, it allowed for the expression of more forthright opinion and the personalisation of information.
The Welsh gentry participated fully in news networks of a kind explored in depth in England. In North-East Wales, even the smallest collections show evidence of a deep interest in news. Some families demonstrate that news truly was an obsession, obtaining all different forms of news, whether printed, scribal copies, or letters of news. Individuals such as Captain Thomas Davies, Thomas Mostyn, and Sir Richard Wynn acted as conduits for news, using their superior connections or spending power to funnel information into North-East Wales. Political news was at the core of such collections, and out of the sampled letters written while Parliament sat, nearly eighty per cent contained Parliament news. Core themes within those letters included the treatment of the King’s servants, religion, and local affairs in Parliament.
Letters reveal, perhaps unsurprisingly, a conservative attitude towards contemporary events. In the Long Parliament correspondents wrote with concern that the Earl of Strafford was unlikely to ‘save himselfe’, and expressed anxiety about the treatment of Archbishop Laud and the episcopacy in general. They described opponents of the bishops as that ‘Anty Bushops faction’. While discussions of Catholicism were remarkably pragmatic, post-Restoration nonconformists were responded to in a much less complex way, portrayed as ‘phanaticks’, and a danger to the state. Local affairs in Parliament were frequently discussed. The Irish Cattle Bill, for example, was viewed as a boost for the Welsh economy, and the participation of Welsh MPs as demonstrating love for their country.
The preliminary findings within this survey show that political actions could result from news consumption. These included the promotion of the political interests of particular families, via electioneering, focusing especially on the actions of the Mostyns from 1676 onwards. News was used to boost the status and authority of individual gentlemen, enabling them to present themselves as ‘a man of intelligence’, worthy of representing their region in Parliament. Finally, news consumption could lead to significant decisions, such as Sir Thomas Salusbury’s resolution to go to York to declare for the King in June 1642. He compared the recent ‘inconveniences’ to events in the Low Countries and Germany, predicting that war against the King would bring long-lasting war and distemper. He ascribed the ‘multitude of schismes’ and political disagreements within the kingdom to the actions of Parliament. This tallies perfectly with the content and tone of the private letters sent to him, and the news from London, therefore, was instrumental in shaping his decision to join the King. Any further ideas, comments, or queries about the paper would be welcome.
‘Parliaments, politics and people’ will return next term, watch this space for the programme.