Reporting the House of Lords 1660-1832

The latest blog from the Georgian Lords reports back from last month’s conference of the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies in Oxford, which members of the section attended to speak about the project.

A month has now passed since members of the House of Lords 1715-90 project, in company with Dr Paul Seaward, attended the annual conference of the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (BSECS) at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. Members of the History had last attended BSECS in 2013 to receive the Society’s Digital Resources award and we were delighted to return to what is always a marvellously busy conference marked by large numbers of parallel sessions covering all manner of subjects pertinent to the world of the ‘Long Eighteenth Century’.

What could be more appropriate, then, as a venue for reporting the progress made into Part Two of the Lords project, which will ultimately produce over 900 articles on peers and bishops in the eighteenth-century House of Lords, among them Robert Walpole, earl of Orford, the duke of Newcastle, 2nd marquess of Rockingham and Bishop Benjamin Hoadly?

Paul Seaward kicked off the proceedings with an overview of the Lords project to date and introduced Dr Robin Eagles as the newly appointed editor of the section and Dr Charles Littleton, who, with Dr Stuart Handley, will be taking the project forward.

The section thus far has, he noted been ‘a very big task’. While there are considerably fewer peers and bishops than MPs, researching and writing the 716 articles that made up Part One (1660-1715), which was published in 2016, had raised a number of challenges. In part this is because of who these characters were: great legislators, military commanders and courtiers of the likes of Clarendon, Marlborough and Godolphin who, once granted a seat in the House, continued to participate for the remainder of their careers unimpeded by the little matter of elections that interrupted those of any number of members of the Commons. To match their significance, many left large archives which had necessitated members of the section spending considerable time sifting for evidence of their lives and the matters with which they were concerned. There were problems to be surmounted about whom to include (and exclude) and about just how much of a peer or bishop’s career to detail in each piece. These were men (and they were of course all men) with significant public lives as a result of their roles as Lords and this needed to be reflected in some way.

Paul concluded by touching on the potential uses of the pieces we had produced so far. Far from being merely sources for the minutiae of parliamentary proceedings, they offered to historians of social and cultural studies a wealth of detail which would be of value in a variety of ways. Indeed, one of the challenges for the History of Parliament in general, but for this section in particular, is how best to alert scholars of disciplines other than parliamentary history to such riches. Considering ways in which Parliament is deeply embedded in British culture, for example, is one of the themes Paul is investigating for his British Academy/Wolfson Foundation professorial research project.

As an example of the broader way in which research into the Lords might relate to other disciplines, Robin Eagles and Charles Littleton then followed with papers setting out research the section had been engaged with in-between finishing Part One and the formal commissioning of Part Two. Both had been working in the field of manuscript news, uncovering the rather underused sources compiled by both professional newsmongers (in the case of the examples presented by Robin) and diplomats (in those detailed by Charles). Each offered additional insights into parliamentary procedure often lacking in print publications at a time when publishing such material was deemed an infringement of privilege.

Robin offered an overview of previous studies of manuscript news but emphasized that there was much still to be researched about the survival of such forms into the middle part of the century, noting that far from being ousted by the onset of the printed press in the early eighteenth century, manuscript newspapers continued to circulate, subscribed to by a variety of types of customer, some of whom it is clear were not very good at paying their bills.

Bodleian Library, MS Rawlinson C151

Indeed, the continuing influence of such manuscript productions is indicated by the fact that printed newspapers such as The Flying Post of 30 July-2 August 1715 complained about the ‘fake news’ being spread by ‘factious newsletters’.  Far from being a story, then, of manuscript steadily giving way to print, Robin argued for a period of co-existence of print and manuscript and that recent research has indicated ways in which the manuscript newsletter continued to evolve well into the century.

Charles Littleton then turned to the role of the Bonet brothers, who had operated as residents for the Prussian Court from the late seventeenth through to the second decade of the eighteenth centuries. As diplomatic representatives, they were often granted privileged access to Parliament, and were thus able to offer insights missing from the print media. Their papers thus constitute a further invaluable resource for those seeking to uncover parliamentary developments in the period. The particular value of their contributions was precisely that they were able to augment what was otherwise available in printed gazettes in order to keep their political masters on top of the affairs in Britain.

What both Robin and Charles’s papers sought to emphasize was the value to be placed on re-examining manuscript sources for news in conjunction with the increasingly available print media of the day as a way of producing a more full understanding of what transpired in Parliament, but also how news of parliamentary proceedings came to be transmitted to a wider public. Their papers attempted to show how the Lords section aimed to contribute to such areas of research, which then led neatly onto discussion into the way the new Lords project might be able to work with other research projects, helping to develop a broad platform on which study of the Long Eighteenth Century might be based.



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