Clarendon’s impeachment

Impeachment is a procedure rarely used in the British Parliament these days, but it is a procedure of historic importance, as discussed in our Director’s Blog here and in our post on its use in the early 17th century here. In today’s post our Director, Dr Paul Seaward, discusses the impeachment of the earl of Clarendon, 350 years ago…

The impeachment of the earl of Clarendon in 1667 is little remembered these days; but it was an enormously significant moment both in the history of impeachment, and in Restoration politics. Sacked from the lord chancellorship at the end of August in the aftermath of the naval debacle at Chatham and the hasty conclusion of a peace with the Dutch, Clarendon was clearly in danger of more serious retribution from political enemies who had waited a long time for their revenge, and from former colleagues for whom he could become a convenient scapegoat for military failure. Even the king, whose principal minister Clarendon had been for so long, and who had dithered over his dismissal, was now increasingly irritated by a man whose undoubted talents had always come with an enormous self-assurance bordering on arrogance. Clarendon may have been vulnerable, but he also possessed a still-powerful ally: the king’s brother and heir, James, duke of York, who, infatuated, had married Clarendon’s daughter secretly in 1660.

The events of the autumn of 1667 exemplified several themes that would become familiar in later Restoration politics. One of them was a widespread hostility to York and a desire to ensure that he would never succeed to the throne. It was early on rumoured that the moves against Clarendon were linked to a plan by the king to legitimise his bastard son, the duke of Monmouth, who would then become the heir apparent. Another was the French invasion of the Spanish-held territories in the Netherlands. Spanish and French ambassadors were involved in intrigues on the one side to seek English help in resisting the incursion; on the other to prevent it.

An impeachment had been widely talked of in advance of the opening of the parliamentary session on 10 October, though it was never clear whether it was ever intended to actually carry a prosecution through, or whether it was designed merely to frighten his allies, including York, into quiescence. An address to the king thanking him for Clarendon’s removal, voted by both Houses, was the first indication of action against the former chancellor. On 23 October there were motions in both Houses testing the ground: surprisingly, that in the Commons was unsuccessful, an early indication that Clarendon would not be unsupported. For some time the issue hung in the balance in the lower House. On the one hand, a group of powerful courtiers led a determined campaign to present a case for impeachment to the Lords, with a demand that Clarendon be arrested and imprisoned immediately. On the other, a coalition of defenders including York’s friends, pointed out that no evidence had been produced of an impeachable offence. The impasse developed into a crisis, as Clarendon’s opponents put increasing pressure on his allies, and the word grew that York was the man who was really targeted.

At this point, however, York was laid low with smallpox, a crucial blow to his capacity to fight Clarendon’s corner, and the king may have taken the opportunity to make his hostility to his former servant more explicit, encouraging MPs to support the prosecution. On 8 November the Commons resolved that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to examine a series of accusations, though they were still having trouble with making them appear to be treason. On the 9th, the earl’s supporters struck back, defeating the claim that his alleged advice that the rule of law be suspended during the crisis of the summer had amounted to treason. But on the following day, the House agreed that another claim – that he had betrayed secrets to the king’s enemies – was treason. The rather preposterous allegation– based on a hint from the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor, anxious to back the side that appeared, at the moment, to be anti-French – had yet to be proved.  But it was enough to enable an impeachment for ‘treasons and other high crimes and misdemeanours’ to proceed, and to be presented to the Lords.

The struggle moved to the upper House, where Clarendon had plenty of defenders. They were soon at loggerheads with the Commons, over the Lords’ refusal to send Clarendon to the Tower. The charges, the peers told MPs, were insufficiently specific to warrant immediate imprisonment.

The impeachment was rapidly developing into a political crisis, with deadlock and procedural wrangling between the two Houses, and the king becoming increasingly infuriated that Clarendon had not just disappeared. Broad hints were dropped that he should leave the country, a step that the earl was deeply unwilling to take, reluctant to appear to admit guilt. It may have been York himself who finally persuaded him to take a boat for France on the evening of Saturday 30th November, leaving behind him a ‘petition’ to the House of Lords which was more of a vindication of his conduct and which when read (though ‘admired for the style’) was regarded as a ‘almost as full of impudent lies as of lines’. Despite his attempt to justify himself, Clarendon’s departure was indeed seen as an admission of guilt, though it seemed at the time the only way to prevent the escalation of a nasty political crisis. Clarendon would never return to England, settling in southern France, most of the time in Montpellier (‘going to Montpellier’ would become a euphemism for the consequences of political failure). He died in 1674.

Clarendon’s fall and exile marked a new phase in Restoration politics, in which the concerns over the character and ideas of the king’s heir grew more explicit and increasingly destructive. 1667 had been the first serious skirmish in a political struggle that would become more serious with the realisation that the duke of York (as well as his wife, Clarendon’s daughter – to Clarendon’s own horror) had converted to Catholicism. It would climax first in the battles over the exclusion of the duke of York from the throne in 1678-81, and then in the crisis of James’s reign and toppling from power in the Revolution of 1688-9.


You can read more about Clarendon’s fall from grace in Paul Seaward’s earlier blogs: Chatham and the failure of English Politics and The Dismissal of Clarendon.

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