“A foreigner is therefore the most likely man to give an impartial account”?: French observers of the early eighteenth-century British Parliament

Published this week and edited by our own Dr Vivienne Larminie, Huguenot Networks, 1560–1780 The Interactions and Impact of a Protestant Minority in Europe includes new research on the Huguenot community and Parliament. In today’s blog, Dr Charles Littleton discusses the phenomenon of the Huguenot Parliamentary reporter…

Three hundred years ago a short political pamphlet was published in London with a French title, Dissertation sur les Whigs et les Torys. Under its English sub-title of An Historical Dissertation upon Whig and Tory, this was a translation of a work originally published at The Hague by Paul de Rapin de Thoyras. Rapin was a French Protestant, a Huguenot, who had fled his homeland shortly after Louis XIV’s Revocation of Edict of Nantes in 1685. He was with William of Orange’s army at in England and Ireland throughout 1688-92, and it was during this time that Rapin set himself the task of writing the history of England, perhaps so that he himself could understand this country with which he was now so closely bound.

Rapin lived abroad, first in The Hague and then in Cleves, for the more than twenty years that he worked on his studies, which only added to the sense that he was an external, ‘impartial’ (as his translator claimed), observer trying to make sense of this strange polity. In both the work which first shot him to fame as an interpreter of English affairs to a European audience, the Dissertation, and his later ten-volume Histoire d’Angleterre, he emphasised the importance of Parliament. Rapin gave the first authoritative Whig version of English history to a foreign audience, stressing the antiquity of Parliament, formed as he saw it “in the forests” of pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon England, and its long struggle against arbitrary monarchy, first supposedly brought in by the Normans and revived intermittently throughout the country’s history. This account of English parliamentary history also struck a chord in England itself. Rapin’s Whiggish slant became the most popular view of English history.

Rapin, however, was not the first or the only Huguenot observer of the British Parliament. As a number of articles in the recently-published volume on Huguenot Networks make clear, much of our knowledge of the daily workings of Parliament from the early eighteenth century comes directly from the writings of Huguenot immigrants living in England.

Abel Boyer came from the same area of France, Castres, as Rapin and even studied in the same Protestant academy, Puylaurens, before the Revocation. Roughly contemporary, they took different routes in their exile, Boyer going first to the Netherlands before making his way to England in the summer of 1689 after William of Orange was had been proclaimed king. Boyer also turned to writing, but as a journalist and pamphleteer. His writing shows a special interest in Parliament, as is evident from his first major serial The History of the Reign of Queen Anne Digested into Annals, a summary of each year’s political events published annually between 1703 and 1713. From January 1711 to just shortly before his death in November 1729 he also compiled a monthly periodical, The Political State of Great Britain. This provided a register of occurrences across Britain and Europe, abstracted pamphlets and books, offered observations on trade and public finance, and carried, as the first publication in England to do so, reports of parliamentary debates made public while Parliament was actually sitting.

This last point is especially significant because in this era Parliament still rigorously enforced its privilege of secrecy which ensured that its proceedings should not be known to ‘strangers’ during the session. Consequently in most cases Boyer was restricted in the material for his accounts, which are generally summaries culled from the official sources produced by Parliament itself. These were the printed Votes published by the Commons, which provided a bare summary of that chamber’s resolutions, and the Journal of the House of Lords, which was still only kept in manuscript, though copies would have been easily available in the environs of Westminster. Through these sources Boyer provided minimal information on just about every address or vote or piece of legislation which was passing through the houses, often with copious transcriptions.

Occasionally, though, Boyer was able to give details of the actual content and speakers in a debate, such as that in the Lords on 9-12 January 1711, in which the previous Whig ministry was attacked for its disastrous mismanagement of the Iberian campaign in the War of the Spanish Succession. On this occasion the House unusually allowed ‘strangers’ to sit in the gallery in the north end of the Lords’ chamber during the debate. Boyer charitably supposed that “one of the Reasons why the Lords admitted so many Strangers into their House, was, that all the World might know with what Candour they proceeded in so important an Affair”.

In that he was wrong, as the Lords quickly regretted their latitude once they saw that Boyer had made public the details of speeches in the House. On 5 March 1711 the House ordered that Boyer be taken into custody and that the lord chamberlain oversee the destruction of the gallery which had caused so much trouble. Similarly on 18 March 1714 Boyer was presumably one of those targeted when the Commons, about to debate whether the Whig polemicist and MP Sir Richard Steele should be expelled from the chamber, ordered the Serjeant-at-Arms to take into custody all strangers who refused to withdraw from the Commons’ own galleries or from the Speaker’s Chamber. Deprived of access in both chambers, in subsequent years Boyer frequently made a point of condemning in his writing both houses’ continued secrecy and privilege.

Significantly the monthly issues of The Political State are couched in the form of a newsletter explaining British affairs to a curious reader on the continent. Much of what we know about Parliament in this important period thus comes from foreigners like the journalist Boyer and the historian Rapin. Part of their impetus to write so much about this institution may have been to make sense of it for their many Protestant co-religionists in the extensive Huguenot diaspora. Nor does this begin to exhaust the number of Huguenot observers of the post-1688 Parliament. An article by Michael Schaich in the same volume on Huguenot Networks reveals the impressive number of Huguenot exiles employed by German courts to act as diplomatic agents in England, who regularly reported copiously on parliamentary affairs.

On this note, perhaps the last word should go to a Frenchman living in England who was not a Protestant. Explaining the impetus for his own work, Boyer quoted approvingly the celebrated, and largely areligious, French émigré soldier and writer Charles de St Evremond, who apparently advised him early in his career “that he who sets about to write the History of England, must write the History of Parliaments”.

CL

You can buy Huguenot Networks, 1560–1780 The Interactions and Impact of a Protestant Minority in Europe from Routledge here.

You can read more about the Huguenots and Parliament here in Vivienne Larminie’s earlier blogpost.

About The History of Parliament

Blogging on parliament, politics and people, from the History of Parliament
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