Parliaments, politics and people seminar: Paul Seaward, Mr Marvell goes to Westminster: the poet as parliament-man

At our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar, our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, spoke on ‘Mr Marvell goes to Westminster: the poet as parliament-man.’ Here he gives an overview of his paper…

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, it comes as a surprise how many acknowledged poets have been proper legislators. In the seventeenth century, John Donne, Edmund Waller, Sir John Denham and Andrew Marvell all served in the English Parliament, and of them, both Waller and Marvell were figures of some political significance. It’s difficult to reconcile the imagination and inspiration we assume poets possess with the dark arts of politics, and it’s tempting to suppose that poets who became politicians must have been either mediocre poets or ineffective MPs. It is arguable, however, that the real political role and identity of Andrew Marvell, who served as one of the two burgesses for Kingston-upon-Hull in the Parliaments of 1659, 1660 and 1661, has been obscured by that assumption. It’s true that the formal record of his parliamentary career – a handful of tongue-tied speeches – suggest a political diffidence and ineptitude entirely at odds with the bite of his written poetry and prose. With his denunciations of the corruption of government and of parliament’s ‘quintessence of arbitrary malice’ towards dissent, posterity has remembered his political contribution as a satirist, rather than as a front rank politician.

Yet the most striking thing about Marvell’s political career is his apparent dedication to the principle of representation. We’ve long known about Marvell’s 294 letters to his constituency, the corporation of Hull, and a further 69 letters to Trinity House in Hull, who were responsible for navigation in the Humber. The letters report on parliamentary business, and provide advice and reports on the handling of Hull’s affairs in London both inside and outside Parliament: legislation to levy port fees to build a lighthouse, to split Hull away from the neighbouring parish of Hessle, to raise funds for the maintenance of the port; the town’s relationship with its military garrison; issues surrounding the collection of taxes. It is a highly unusual collection, and it suggests that Hull was a very demanding constituency; but the letters also show Marvell to have been not only a diligent representative for Hull, but also an expert and effective one.

Marvell was plainly up to far more than this in Parliament, even if the evidence is difficult to pin down. For the bishop, Samuel Parker, whom Marvell skewered in his Rehearsal Transpros’d of 1672, Marvell was a central figure in the small band of ‘conspirators’, those who had been the king’s enemies, who sought to throw obstacles in the path of the restored royal government. ‘If he was not their Secretary’, Parker wrote, he ‘was yet admitted into their inmost counsels, for the sake of his ancient friendship with them’. How close he was to the major politicians of the late 1660s and 1670s – men like Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury, or George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, is uncertain; but it is clear that he was friendly with Philip Wharton, 4th Baron Wharton, one of the secondary figures in the developing ‘country party’, and one of its active organisers. And though he may have been relatively silent in the chamber, Marvell was probably highly active behind the scenes – busy in the partisan hand-to-hand fighting that was the Committee of Privileges and Elections, and quietly influential among other members.

Marvell’s greatest influence, of course, came as a satirist: but in some of his satire Marvell was doing parliamentary politics too. His Last Instructions to a Painter, written in 1667, contains a long passage describing a debate in the House, telling in mock-heroic style how the court’s efforts to secure new excise duties were desperately resisted by a rag-tag and bobtail army of ‘country’ – or anti-court – MPs. Marvell’s point was to show how effectively the court had marshalled its forces by corrupt means – bribing members through office, or with gifts and grants, and suggests considerable experience of the processes of parliament. It’s a remarkable piece, whose listing of some of the leading pro-court MPs suggests that it might have been used as part of an effort to put popular pressure on them; in its theme of the organisation of the court and the disorganisation of the country it also hints at the frustration Marvell may have felt in trying to fight back against government demands.

Marvell’s final satire, the Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England, returns to that theme of parliamentary corruption, showing how the court under the lord treasurer, the earl of Danby, had systematically undermined the freedom and representativeness of the House of Commons through awarding jobs and pensions. It’s the argument of someone who had an intimate knowledge of how the House and its factions worked: of how the Speaker, Danby’s ally, Edward Seymour, could easily manipulate proceedings; of how the court could direct and control all proceedings through its lieutenants. Marvell’s letters to Hull show him as dedicated to the principle of representation. For him, by 1678, the year of the Account and the year of his own death, the House of Commons was neither representative nor legitimate.


Join us tonight for the last Parliaments, politics and people seminar of the year. Gary Rivett will speak on ‘Information regimes and governance in the English Revolution: Parliament and the case of the Committee for Plundered Ministers.’ Full details here.

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