In this latest blog post from the Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles considers the instability of the early years of George I’s reign and the changing fortunes of former secretary of state, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke
The Hanoverian succession may have passed off peacefully in 1714, but within a year of George I ascending the throne the new regime was faced with rioting in a number of towns in England and threatened by rebellion in Scotland. At the same time the ascendant Whigs were intent on revenging themselves on their political enemies by bringing to book a number of former ministers from the previous reign. As early as September 1714 coffee house gossip suggested that certain individuals were likely to be impeached for treason. Among the men aimed at were the former lord treasurer, Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, and the flamboyant former secretary of state, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Also marked out were the duke of Ormond and earl of Strafford, though in the latter case the charges faced were the lesser ones of high crimes and misdemeanours.
Impeachment was a judicial mechanism first used in the late 14th century. It enabled the Commons to petition the Lords to consider charges against usually high profile individuals where a criminal trial was not appropriate. If the Lords concurred and convicted the subject on the articles presented, the Commons might then petition the Lords to proceed to judgement. In the case of treason this meant a sentence of death and as Thomas Bateman commented at the end of March 1715 it was expected that in this case heads were indeed ‘to be the sacrifice’ [BL, Add. MS 72502, f.40]. By June Jonathan Swift was able to suggest to a correspondent that he did not believe the Whigs intended ‘to cut off Lord Oxford’s head but that they will certainly attaint poor L[or]d Bolingbroke’. On 4 August Robert Walpole, the future prime minister, presented the Commons with six articles accusing Bolingbroke of treason and two days later Bolingbroke was formally impeached before the Lords. The articles detailing Bolingbroke’s alleged crimes accused him among other things of entering into ‘a most treacherous confederacy with the ministers and emissaries of France’ while engaged in negotiating the treaty of Utrecht (1713). After the six articles were read orders were given for the offending former minister to be arrested and brought before the House. Bolingbroke had, though, long anticipated this moment and towards the end of March that year had fled the country, disguising himself by blackening his eyebrows and adopting a different wig. Bateman condemned his behaviour as mean-spirited and likely to make things worse for those remaining to face the music. The Lords were well aware that Bolingbroke was no longer in the country, and as some peers quit the chamber they were heard waggishly wishing Black Rod, the officer responsible for securing his arrest, a good voyage.
Three days after exhibiting the articles against Bolingbroke the Commons demanded that he appear within a limited time to answer the charges. In default of this Bolingbroke would be subject to a bill of attainder – stripping him of his title, estates and common rights. On 14 September Black Rod informed the Lords that neither Bolingbroke nor the duke of Ormond (who had also fled the country) had appeared in answer to the summons opening the way for both men to be attainted. Orders were given for their titles to be razed from the list of peers and for each man to be formally degraded. Ormond was downgraded to the rank of a mere yeoman and his coat of arms on display in St George’s chapel Windsor was ordered to be taken down and broken up; Bolingbroke endured an even more humiliating descent as he was from thence to be referred to as Henry St John, labourer. The fact that as part of their punishment Ormond and Bolingbroke were both allocated new ranks in society – the one as a yeoman the other as a common labourer – reminds one that although England was largely unencumbered by sumptuary laws delineating a person’s position, this was still a highly stratified society and that rank mattered.
While socially humiliating, the real effect of his ceremonial degradation for the now exiled Bolingbroke was marginal. Although his property was forfeit to the crown, he had taken care before leaving the country to sell off some of his estates. And while he was no longer considered a peer in England, at the Jacobite court where he found refuge he was warmly welcomed and granted an earldom. Besides, as time passed the Whigs’ assault on the former ministers lost momentum as other matters came to predominate and the Whigs themselves became distracted by fighting between their own factions. In the summer of 1717 Oxford, imprisoned in the Tower since July 1715, took the opportunity of his opponents’ disarray to force the issue of his as yet unsettled trial, and was subsequently acquitted. By this point, Bolingbroke too was eager to be rehabilitated in England. His flirtation with the Jacobite court had not lasted long and mutual distrust between him and other Jacobite commanders quickly became apparent. Bolingbroke thus launched a campaign to secure his return home. In a letter to his disciple Sir William Wyndham, whom he urged to keep clear of Jacobite plotting, he published an essay expatiating on, among other things, the nature of the House of Commons, of which he had been a member until his elevation in 1712:
‘You know the nature of that assembly – they grow like hounds, fond of the man who shows them game, and by whose halloo they are used to be encouraged’.
What seemed increasingly plain was that by this point the game had moved on from pursuit of Bolingbroke and his colleagues as the Commons grappled with the split in the Whig ranks, divisions at court, and the more immediate threats posed by further Jacobite incursions. Besides, the fall of Walpole and his brother-in-law Viscount Townshend in the ‘Whig Split’ had removed from the ministry the most vehement of Bolingbroke’s critics. It was in this changed atmosphere that the following December reports circulated that Bolingbroke was set for a return and of his attainder being reversed.
In the event, politics intervened once again to stymie Bolingbroke’s immediate restoration. Early drafts of a bill restoring him to his titles in March 1721 failed to take effect and it was not until 1725 that he was at last given back his peerage. Walpole, however, by then once again in the ascendant, had no intention of allowing a man whom he considered ‘void of all faith and honour’ and – more to the point – a potentially significant rival back into Parliament. Thus, although restored to his title of viscount, Bolingbroke was stripped off his right of attending the House of Lords. It was thus a significantly diminished figure who was forced to carve out for himself an alternative role as philosopher-in-chief to a new opposition faction comprising an amalgam of old Tories and dissident Whigs. By 1742, nearly a decade before his eventual demise, he seems to have been a sorry figure indeed, apparently viewed by one commentator as ‘an object of pity’ and ‘the most miserable wretch in the world’ [BL, Add. MS 61478, ff.88-9].