House of Lords 1660-1715… for Father’s Day

Next month the History of Parliament will publish our first set of volumes focussing on the House of Lords. Covering the period 1660-1715, this five-volume work is now available for pre-order at Cambridge University Press, at a special pre-publication price. This month we’re publishing a series of blogposts inspired by research from the volumes.

In the third of this series, and in advance of father’s day this weekend, Dr Charles Littleton takes a look at relationships between fathers and sons in the late Stuart House of Lords…

For an example of filial devotion to mark this Father’s Day, we can do little better than Thomas Bruce, 2nd earl of Ailesbury, who wrote of his father Robert, the first earl, that he was ‘the best subject, patriot, husband, father and master that ever lived’. Even more notable was Sir Dudley North who, according to his own son Roger, ‘never would put on his hat or sit down before his father [Dudley North, 3rd Baron North], unless enjoined to do it.’ Roger North, however, recalled this Baron North as a cantankerous old man, ‘the dregs of an old courtier’, while another noble grandson, Henry Booth, 2nd earl of Warrington, looking back on the life of his Restoration forebear George Booth, Baron Delamer, expressed amazement at his ‘unaccountable oddness of humour’ by which his children had to remain out of his sight and hearing at all times, ‘as though his natural affection like as in brute animals were confined to the act of generation’.

Relations between fathers and sons within the 17th- and 18th-century nobility were obviously not always harmonious, despite the prescriptions of moralists and the portrayal in Ailesbury’s memoirs. Indeed the Bruce family itself was not exempt from tensions, for the subject of Ailesbury’s eulogy, his father the royalist Robert Bruce, had to persuade Charles II in 1660 to postpone granting him an expected earldom until after the death of his parliamentarian father Thomas Bruce, Baron Bruce of Whorlton. Bruce of Whorlton, out of favour at court for his own chequered civil war career, evidently felt resentful towards his favoured son and was still in a position to withhold his inheritance. As the leading political actors of the realm noble families had more scope to fracture along the political and religious faultlines that ran through the 17th century. The civil war even caused Henry Carey, earl of Dover, and his heir John, Lord Hunsdon, to take up arms against each other on opposite sides in the battle of Edgehill in 1642, though later they had reconciled sufficiently to work together in the Restoration House of Lords to save their family estate.

The behaviour of William, Lord Cavendish, in running up huge debts and working against the royal court as a member of the parliamentary ‘country’ group of the 1670s caused great anxiety for both his loyalist father William Cavendish, 3rd earl of Devonshire, and his courtier father-in-law James Butler, duke of Ormond, who maintained a frequent correspondence about the young man’s troubles. ‘I am sure his ill behaviour towards me gives me greater grief and trouble than my infirmities can bear’, Devonshire concluded one letter in terms that could be familiar to many fathers. Cavendish was later one of those who invited William of Orange to invade England in 1688. Another heir, Edward, Lord Cornbury, also caused great distress to his loyalist father, Henry Hyde, 2nd earl of Clarendon, when he defected with his regiment to William shortly after the invasion. Clarendon lamented in his journal ‘O God, that my son should be a rebel! The Lord in his mercy look upon me, and enable me to support myself under this most grievous calamity’. Theophilus Hastings, 7th earl of Huntingdon, was opposed to the Williamite regime, while his heir George, Lord Hastings, sought to make his own way in it by turning to the Dutch earl of Portland as a new father figure who could promote his military career and perhaps offer him an advantageous marriage alliance. By 1696 the rejected Huntingdon had stopped all direct communication with his son, explaining curtly that ‘I like not dialogue’. Hastings gave the family discord a full public airing in the House of Lords when he petitioned in December 1696 that he be able to take his father to law over his maintenance. A committee of seven peers was assigned to reconcile father and son but they shortly had to report they had failed in this task.

This case centred on estates which Hastings claimed had been bequeathed to him by his mother but which Huntingdon was withholding from him. Certainly most of the family disputes that received an airing before the House of Lords involved issues of inheritance and land. The estrangement between the Catholic royalist John Paulet, 5th marquess of Winchester, and his Protestant heir Charles, Lord St John, who had been raised under parliamentarian authority, was clear for all their peers to see in the first decade of the Restoration through the battles they engaged in in Parliament (and the courts) over the disposition of the sequestered family estate. A bill of 1663 sought to legislate a reconciliation and through these years more than one parliamentary committee was called upon to bring father and son to an agreement, all ultimately unsuccessful before Winchester’s death in 1675.

The Hanoverian dynasty which came to the throne in 1714 is remarkable in this regard in that each of its first three kings had violent, and very public, conflicts with his eldest son, the presumptive heir to the throne. For many periods of the 18th century the most effective parliamentary opposition to the government acting in the king’s name was strongly associated with the Prince of Wales – whichever one it was at the time! But that is a family story that we hope will be told in more detail in planned future volumes of this series.


Click here for the rest of our series inspired by our upcoming House of Lords 1660-1715 volumes.

To pre-order your copy, visit Cambridge University Press.

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