‘By God my Lord, if you can bear this you are the strongest man in England’: the appointment of ‘Harley’s Dozen’ new peers in the winter of 1711/12

Current rumours suggest that the government may be on the point of boosting the numbers of Conservative peers in the House of Lords. In the winter of 1711/12 the administration of the earl of Oxford also turned to bolstering its membership of the upper chamber by offering peerages to a number of prominent politicians to ensure it was able to get its business through Parliament. At this point the Lords was a more powerful chamber than the current House, peerages were hereditary and governments often relied on their numbers there to offset problems in the less predictable Commons. Dr Robin Eagles, Editor of the Lords 1715-90 section considers the reasons for the move and the characters promoted…

Robert Harley, earl of Oxford by Sir Godfrey Kneller, oil on canvas, 1714: National Portrait Gallery, London, © NPG 4011

In the winter of 1711 the administration of the earl of Oxford found itself under severe pressure. The ministry, broadly Tory in character, was faced by a resurgent Whig opposition battling hard to counter the ministry’s efforts to bring to an end Britain’s participation in the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-13). Through December 1711 Oxford suffered a series of reversals over the handling of the peace negotiations, not least over the opposition’s determination to ensure that the power of Bourbon France was severely limited by any treaty.

On 22 December Parliament was adjourned for the Christmas break, but pressure remained directed on the Lords as they voted to return to their places early on 2 January, ahead of the Commons, who intended to resume sitting on the 14th. During the adjournment Oxford worked to bolster his forces in the Upper House. He had found the Scots representative peers and the bishops unreliable and had struggled to encourage even needy ‘pensioner’ peers (poor Lords who received government pensions in return for their votes) to rally to the cause. Faced with disaster, he needed to find new allies to help improve his position. Reluctantly, Queen Anne gave way to his request to create a dozen new peers to add to his numbers in the Lords.

The creation of the dozen caused widespread unease. When they took their seats in the new year, the earl of Wharton queried sarcastically whether Oxford’s new ‘jury’ would speak singly or through a foreman. Others raised more serious constitutional points about the legitimacy of such a mass creation. Earlier in Anne’s reign there had been a ‘mass creation’ of half a dozen new peers, and coronations were normally the occasion for a number of Lords being created, or promoted to higher ranks as part of the celebrations (14 men received new peerages on 19 October 1714 to celebrate George I’s accession, but most of these were promotions). Nominating such a large cohort for ministerial convenience was, though, if not unique sufficiently out of the ordinary to generate considerable comment.

Aside from questions of constitutional propriety, questions were also raised about the men selected, though most were acknowledged to be deserving of their titles – in the sense that they were far from inappropriate candidates through wealth and noble connexions. In some cases they were heirs to peerages and merely accelerated to the Lords. Indeed, rather than a dozen there were in fact only ten new creations. Lord Bruce was heir to the earldom of Aylesbury, so was able to be summoned in his father’s barony of Bruce, and Lord Compton was heir to the earldom of Northampton so called up by the same mechanism as Baron Compton. Henry Paget, created Baron Burton, was heir to another barony (Paget) and Viscount Dupplin, created a British peer as Baron Hay, was heir to a Scots earldom (Kinnnoul): he was happened to be Oxford’s son-in-law. The man created Baron Mountjoy was already an Irish viscount (Windsor) and uncle to the earl of Plymouth. The remaining eight new peers were all men of wealth and status. Even Samuel Masham, husband of Queen Anne’s favourite, Abigail, and whose promotion was the most derided of all was, if poor, heir to a baronetcy. He had been something of an afterthought, only offered the peerage because another candidate turned one down. In spite of this, the greatest bar to his promotion was Anne’s dependence on his wife, who held a place in the queen’s bedchamber and was expected to perform fairly menial functions generally believed beneath the dignity of a peeress. Abigail’s willingness to remain in the queen’s service helped smooth the way for Masham’s promotion.

One further complication that needed attending to was the question of precedence. At a time when such matters were of particular importance in a Lords chamber where members sat according to precedence rather than grouped by party, this needed careful handling. Lord Hay’s patent of creation was dated 31 December 1711, so was clear enough, but the remaining nine new peers’ patents were all ushered in on New Year’s day 1712. To differentiate between them the documents were not just dated but also timed. First in honour, then, was the new Baron Mountjoy (Viscount Windsor) whose patent bore the time stamp of 7am. This was followed an hour later by Baron Burton with the process continuing down to 4pm, the time at which Allen Bathurst was formally raised to the peerage as a baron.

Each of the twelve then took their seats on 2 January, the first sitting day after the recess, and helped the ministry win its first significant victory: a further adjournment to sidestep the Whigs’ intention of stealing a march on the Commons’ investigation into the duke of Marlborough’s affairs. Oxford’s gamble had, at least in the short term, paid off. Whether he would be able to maintain the loyalty of his new allies was a question for the future.


Further reading:

  • Clyve Jones, ‘Lord Oxford’s Jury: the political and social context of the creation of the twelve peers, 1711-12’, Parliamentary History xxiv (2005)
  • Ruth Paley and Paul Seaward, eds., Honour Interest and Power: an illustrated history of the House of Lords, 1660-1715 (History of Parliament/Boydell, 2010)

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