350 years ago this month, the Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, was dismissed following the disaster on the Medway. Our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, tells us more…
On the evening of 30th August 1667 one of the two secretaries of state, Sir William Morrice, was sent by the King to the lord chancellor, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon in his grand, newly-completed palace of Clarendon House off Piccadilly, to demand that Clarendon surrender to him his seal of office. Morrice, who Clarendon wrote ‘had no mind to the employment’, took the Great Seal, tucking it in its richly embroidered purse under his arm ‘like a bagpipe’, as the Scottish secretary the earl of Lauderdale gleefully wrote, and delivered it back to King Charles II in his private apartments in Whitehall. It was the end of the political career of one of the most diligent servants of the king and his father. Originally one of the parliamentary critics of the government of Charles I, the then Edward Hyde had moved towards the king’s camp as he was alienated by the drift to confrontation of the leadership in the Commons. He became one of the most important administrators of the royalist cause in Oxford during the Civil War, and then shared the poverty and frustration of Charles II’s pre-Restoration exile. Confirmed in his dominance of the king’s counsels after the Restoration, he had been heaped with honours and piled high with wealth. Despite his service, his success bred resentment.
The dismissal was the culmination of a series of events set off by the disastrous naval humiliation in June in the Medway, when the Dutch had delivered a tremendous rebuke to England’s absurdly unrealistic tactics in attempting to negotiate an end to the second Anglo-Dutch war. With immense daring, they sailed upriver to Chatham and burnt and captured some of the greatest ships of the English navy – laid up there because the government had simply run out of money. Clarendon wrote of the chaos and confusion that followed:
those who … were then present in the galleries and privy lodgings at Whitehall, whither all the world flocked with equal liberty, can easily call to mind many instances of such wild despair and even ridiculous apprehensions, that I am willing to forget, and would not that the least mention of them should remain.
A peace was, unsurprisingly, rapidly concluded. The attribution of blame preoccupied English politics for much longer.
Clarendon was an obvious target. He had, it was conceded, opposed the war in the first place, and the catastrophic failure to set out the fleet in early 1667 could not be directly attributed to him: its origins lay in the natural disasters of 1665 (Plague) and 1666 (the Fire of London), and in part in the role of the king’s close companion, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, in coordinating opposition to the government in the parliamentary session of 1666-7, although Clarendon’s insistence on protecting Irish interests from parliamentary complaints had probably not helped. But in a long career in which he was the dominant and rarely tactful voice in the royal counsels, Clarendon had made many enemies; and he was seen by some at court as an obstruction to more effective decision-making. And he could be his own worst enemy: having apparently hinted at a wish to retire from power following the death of his wife just before the Chatham disaster, he then hastily retracted when it seemed the suggestion might be enthusiastically taken up. The king took a long time to make up his mind to send away an adviser who must have seemed part of the furniture, if an infuriating one. Indeed, by the time it actually happened, most observers had assumed he had been dissuaded from the idea.
For many in the court it was a victory, for many of his greatest detractors were courtiers whose ambitions for honours, lands or cash had been thwarted by one who, they believed, had reaped considerable rewards himself. Clarendon himself told of how the king’s household servant, Baptist May (a man he regarded as odious), went to see the king, fell on his knees and kissed his hand, telling him ‘that he was now king, which he had never been before’. Lauderdale echoed the point in a letter to a political ally: ‘now the king is the king himself’. The most famous account is a story written down by Pepys about a visit Clarendon made to the king at Whitehall a couple of days before he was dismissed – a visit which many thought would result in his sacking. The countess of Castlemaine, the king’s notoriously scheming mistress, who had still been in bed in her Whitehall apartments at noon, ‘ran out in her smock into her Aviary looking into Whitehall garden, and thither her woman brought her her nightgown and [she] stood joying herself at the old man’s going away. And several of the gallants of Whitehall (of which there was many staying to see the Chancellor return) did talk to her in her Bird Cage; among others, Blanckford, telling her she was the Bird of Paradise’. There is a famous nineteenth century picture of the scene: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ward-the-disgrace-of-lord-clarendon-after-his-last-interview-with-the-king-scene-at-n00431
Clarendon would eventually be impeached by the House of Commons in a series of debates of high drama (of which more later), before eventually quitting the country for a second, and bitter, exile.