Reporting George I’s parliaments: a Prussian diplomat’s view

In the latest blog from The Georgian Lords, Dr Charles Littleton continues his examination of foreign reporters of Parliamentary events – a theme that will also feature in our forthcoming coverage for Parliament Week.

A recent entry in the History of Parliament’s blog series, emphasized the important role of Huguenots such as Paul Rapin de Thoyras and Abel Boyer in shaping our knowledge of the early eighteenth-century British Parliament. An article by Dr Michael Schaich of the German Historical Institute, London, in the recently-published Huguenot Networks, 1560–1780 The Interactions and Impact of a Protestant Minority in Europe, edited by Dr Vivienne Larminie, further reveals the large number of Huguenot exiles employed by German courts to act as diplomatic agents in England, who regularly reported on parliamentary affairs. This other group should also be remembered, even if their work was intended to be seen by a more select audience.

Among the most prominent of these diplomatic residents in London were the Bonet brothers,  Frédéric and Louis-Frédéric, originally from Geneva, who in turn served the Brandenburg-Prussian court at Berlin from 1685 to 1720. Louis-Frédéric, the younger of the two, became quite prominent by the end of his time in London, as from at least 1717, if not earlier, he acted as the official envoy for Friedrich Wilhelm I Prussia, who was also George I’s son-in-law. It was such German connections which eventually led to trouble for Bonet, for his association with George I’s principal foreign advisers made him a target for the British statesmen trying to assert their own influence with the king. In early 1720 he left the English capital to return to his native Geneva.

During his official posting in London from 1694 to 1720 Bonet prepared twice-weekly reports, dispatched usually on Tuesdays and Fridays, which consisted on average of about five pages of closely-written and literate French. They covered developments in Britain in all areas that would be of interest to his masters in Berlin – court news, diplomacy, trade and economy. However, the most striking feature of Bonet’s dispatches is their concern with British partisan politics and especially their extensive coverage of parliamentary proceedings. They give not only an intricate explanation of the main arguments in debate during sessions, but also convey the atmosphere in both Houses, record the numbers of those voting in divisions, and frequently summarize the motives and speeches of individual speakers.

How does Bonet compare as a ‘parliamentary reporter’ with a commercial journalist like Abel Boyer? A useful case study is provided by the debates surrounding the passage of the Septennial Act in April 1716, the controversial measure which extended the length of a Parliament from three to seven years. Boyer in his Political State of Great Britain for April 1716 devoted a large amount of space to the proceedings on this bill – 56 pages in octavo. His account of the debate on the second reading of the bill in the Lords on 14 April 1716, derived from his presence in the chamber as one of the many ‘strangers’ permitted to attend, stretches to 19 pages. He did not reproduce individual speeches verbatim but did provide detailed summaries of their content. He also makes clear who delivered them, although he does not provide the explicit titles of the speakers, merely identifying them through obvious descriptions.

By contrast, Bonet starts his dispatch of 17 April 1716, sent three days after the debate which so preoccupied Boyer, not with any mention of the Septennial Bill at all, but with the diplomatic manoeuvrings of the envoy of the Grand Duke of Tuscany at the British court. Nevertheless, Bonet was very certain of the importance of this bill and is far from impartial in his account of it, a stance which Boyer had at least to affect in his published writings– even if his Whig leanings are usually quite obvious. Bonet strongly approved of the measure and set out to his Prussian readers why it was a good thing for the stability of the British state. He is more concerned with conveying the long-term, and perhaps diplomatic, consequences of the legislation than actually recounting its laborious progress through the houses. Like Boyer he was present at the debate on 14 April, but whereas Boyer was concerned with providing the content of each of the major speeches, with little commentary, Bonet concentrated on trying to explain the wider ramifications of some of the examples of unexpected voting behaviour he saw. He described how eight peers – the dukes of Somerset, Rutland, and Shrewsbury; the earls of Burlington, Orrery, Pembroke, and Bristol; and Baron Carleton – had all recently received tokens of favour from the king, yet were nevertheless among those opposed to this court measure. He attributed this to small personal ‘piques’ (the French word used) they still felt against the king. He singled out the earl of Bristol as one particularly resentful, because the earl felt he had been unjustly passed over in the king’s choice of lord privy seal, which would have given him a place on the cabinet council (Bristol’s heir, Lord Hervey later was made lord privy seal). Bonet provided his personal view that Bristol was unfit for such affairs of state as up to now he had only ever immersed himself in cards and dice and racehorses. Intriguingly, the duke of Shrewsbury is the only overlap between Boyer’s list of 22 peers speaking in the debate and Bonet’s shorter list of eight surprising rebels against the court. These two observers of the same parliamentary debate had different priorities, interests and audiences which shaped their reporting.

Together the writings of Bonet and Boyer raise the question of what constitutes ‘parliamentary reporting’. Boyer sought to provide readers with as close to a blow-by-blow account of what went on each day in the chambers as he could manage. Bonet was less concerned with such detail but concentrated more on the political machinations behind these legislative measures and their larger implications for the British state. Through these contrasting styles and priorities in reporting the same events, Boyer and Bonet (and the many contemporary journalists and diplomats) ensured that the British parliament under George I was in fact very well reported, despite the many restrictions both houses tried to put on their proceedings being observed.



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