In today’s ‘Reporting Parliament’ series for Parliament Week 2017, Dr Robin Eagles considers the value of manuscript news accounts of the impeachment of the earl of Oxford just over 300 years ago for providing a more detailed impression of the proceedings.
On 1 July 1717 Robert Harley, earl of Oxford, was acquitted of high treason. It was a process that had begun two years previously with his impeachment by the House of Commons, since which he had spent much of the intervening time imprisoned in the Tower of London. (For more on impeachment see the earlier post by Dr Andrew Thrush.)
The former lord high treasurer under Queen Anne, Oxford had been displaced shortly before Anne’s death and on the succession of George I in the summer of 1714 he had been made thoroughly aware that he remained persona non grata for the new regime as well. By the spring of 1715 moves were afoot to impeach Oxford and other former ministers, including Viscount Bolingbroke, for their involvement in negotiating the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) which brought Britain out of the War of the Spanish Succession, abandoning Hanover and other allies along the way.
Oxford’s case offers the historian a variety of ways of examining the debates of both Houses through the use of a number of sources: print and manuscript. While there were official printed versions of the proceedings – and some journalists such as Abel Boyer risked the ire of both Houses by publishing unofficial accounts – other journalists continued to communicate their news via manuscript newsletters, which were harder to regulate.
Such subscription services tended to be expensive and were thus for the most part the preserve of the wealthy. Their impact, however, was greater than this suggests as provincial papers often regurgitated their reports even though their reliability was sometimes questionable. The news service subscribed to by the Scots Jacobite peer, John Fleming, 6th earl of Wigtown, and now held in the Bodleian Library [Bod. Lib. MS Eng. hist. c1039-1042], seems to have prided itself on speed of delivery, thereby sometimes allowing accuracy to suffer. Nevertheless, in the days before printing of debates was permitted, the manuscript news services offer an additional glimpse into details of the process – how it was managed by Parliament – and the response of Oxford’s friends and foes to his acquittal.
On 7 July 1715 the newsletter recounted how Robert Walpole had reported to the Commons that day from committee with 16 articles to present to the Lords against Oxford, two of them amounting to high treason; of the remaining 14 one complained of the controversial decision to persuade Anne to create a dozen new peers at a stroke in the winter of 1711/12. Two days later the newsletter reported the proceedings in the Commons of 8 July when the Members read the articles against Oxford in detail. A clause was agreed saving to the Lower House the right to submit additional articles at a later date. It was also resolved that Oxford should be sequestered from Parliament and ‘committed to safe custody’. These three resolutions were tested in divisions during which ‘the Party for his L[or]dship were overpowered in number in every one of them.’
Reading the manuscript account offers one a sense of how hard-fought the issues were – even if Oxford lost out each time. The Commons sat from 11 in the morning until midnight and it was reported that a chair was to be brought in for Oxford to sit in as it took an hour simply to read through the charges against him (though this pales into insignificance when compared with the six hours it reputedly took to read through the 120-page report on the Atterbury Plot in March 1723). On 9 July the articles were presented to the Lords, who spent until three in the morning debating the issues before concluding in favour of committing Oxford to house arrest (initially) and thence to the Tower.
Over the next two years Oxford was not exactly left to rot. In the winter of 1715/16 preparations were made for his trial, even down to ordering scaffolding to be erected in Westminster Hall and chamber pots to be bought in for the convenience of the Lords when trying him. Despite this, the case was continually put off as both government and Parliament became distracted by dealing with the 1715 rebels and then by the fissures in the ministry that resulted in the ‘Whig Schism’. It was ultimately this that offered Oxford and his friends the opportunity to secure his release, though, and in the summer of 1717 when his trial was at last brought on, the numbers of those in favour of acquitting him (or at least willing to sit on their hands and let him walk free) had been swelled by former members of the ministry now glad of any opportunity of embarrassing the administration of Sunderland and Stanhope.
Even so, the proceedings in the chamber as related in the Wigtown newsletters proved another marathon session with the debates in both Houses lasting ‘from 11 in the forenoon till 11 at night’. Despite speeches in the Commons such as those by Thomas Miller citing the example of the Catalans, abandoned by Britain at Utrecht, and how Oxford had ‘been in Effect as well as L[or]d High Admiral & Archb[isho]p of Canterbury as L[or]d High Treasurer & Secretary of State’, the Commons were unable to concert their action before the Lords resolved to proceed to trial whether the MPs were ready or not. In Westminster Hall Oxford was acquitted unanimously, as those on the opposite side chose to withdraw rather than face defeat. The acquittal was greeted with ‘three huzzas’. Clearly not everyone was satisfied with the result, and the newsletter of 9 July reported how ‘people clamour mightily that since there is such an honest & just foundation to accuse [him] that he should Escape the Justice of the nation’. Oxford himself, having held a ‘Great Levy to felicitate him’ on his good fortune, retreated from the capital to the relative safety of his country seat.
Unlike many of the proceedings in Parliament of this period, the Oxford trial was well reported in the print media as well as in manuscript newsletters. However, it is by reference to both that a full picture of the events can be gleaned: a valuable reminder of the continuing importance of manuscript news in an age of print.