In this latest post for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley, senior research fellow in the House of Lords 1715-90 section, considers the career of one of the more sober members of the House in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
Dismal: adjective (dizmәl): ‘of a character or aspect that causes gloom and depression; depressingly dark, sombre, gloomy, dreary, or cheerless.’ [OED]
“Dismal” was the nickname given to Daniel Finch, 2nd earl of Nottingham. He was born on 2 July 1647, the eldest son of Heneage Finch, a lawyer and a future lord chancellor of England. He was educated at Westminster School, the Inner Temple and Christ Church, Oxford and it was while a student that his serious demeanour first became apparent: in 1663, his father cautioned him not to lose his hard-earned reputation for ‘diligence and sobriety’. Finch was first returned to the House of Commons for the Wiltshire borough of Great Bedwyn in a by-election in 1673, which he served until 1679. He was appointed to the Admiralty Board in 1679 and sat in two of the Exclusion Parliaments for Lichfield in Staffordshire.
By the time he succeeded his father as earl of Nottingham on 18 Dec. 1682, his reputation as man with a serious outlook was entrenched: in 1685, Doctor John Fell, bishop of Oxford, called him ‘grave’, and after the Revolution, Queen Mary also referred to his ‘formal, grave look’. During the early years of William and Mary Nottingham served as secretary of state (1689-1693), and was particularly influential as an advisor in ecclesiastical matters. Moving into opposition, his interventions in the House of Lords were often long set-piece speeches, full of legal precedent and classical erudition. Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury, described him as ‘a copious speaker. But too florid and tedious’, being full of ‘pompous and tragical declamations.’ The reign of Queen Anne saw Nottingham restored to his role and secretary of state, but he lost office again in 1704. In an age conspicuous by its hard-hitting journalism, Nottingham acquired the nickname “dismal”.
The MP and co-founder of The Tatler and Spectator, Richard Steele, may have popularized the nickname in The Tatler on 28 May 1709, when introducing the character ‘Don Diego Dismallo’, a formulation also used by John Arbuthnot in his John Bull pamphlets. When Nottingham changed sides in December 1711 and joined the Whigs in opposing a peace with France which did not include the acquisition of the Spanish crown by the Habsburg candidate, Thomas Wharton, earl of Wharton, was heard to say, at least as recorded by Jonathan Swift on 5 Dec. 1711, ‘it is “Dismal” (so they call him from his looks) will save England at last.’ It would seem from this that contemporaries took his nickname from a combination of his severe demeanour and the swarthy complexion which characterized the Finch family members (dubbed collectively the Funereal Finches).
Swift, indeed, used the nickname on several occasions when attacking Nottingham’s defection to the Whigs over the peace. An Excellent New Song, Being the Intended Speech of a Famous Orator against Peace, published on 6 Dec. 1711 began with the lines:
An orator dismal of Nottinghamshire
Who has forty years let out his conscience to hire.
The following year, Swift used it again in Toland’s Imitation to Dismal to Dine with the Calves-head Club, opening with the lines:
If dearest Dismal, you once can dine
Upon a single dish, and tavern wine.
Not that Nottingham took Swift’s criticisms lying down. In Parliament he denounced him as ‘a person who had wrote lewdly, nay even atheistically’, who might in the future ‘by having a false undeserved character given him, be promoted to a bishop.’
The controversy over the Peace with France might have ensured that Nottingham remained out of office and disliked by Queen Anne, but it cemented his favour with the Hanoverian Court. Upon the accession of George I, it was revealed on 1 Aug. 1714 that Nottingham was one of those named to govern the country as a lord justice, in the interval before the monarch’s arrival in his new realm. Once in England, the new king rewarded Nottingham with the office of Lord President of the Council, although as Charles Ford informed Swift shortly after the Queen’s death ‘Dismal begins to declare for his old friends and protests he was really afraid for the Protestant Succession which made him act in the manner he did.’ Nevertheless, Nottingham retained his post until his advocacy of clemency for some of the defeated Scottish Jacobite peers ensured his dismissal in 1716.
Thereafter, although he remained interested in politics, Nottingham retired to his house at Burley, Rutland, upon which he lavished much of the income he had gained from public office, and planned the marriages of his many daughters. In the final few months of his life, he succeeded to the peerage held by the elder branch of his family (as 7th earl of Winchilsea), although he refused to give up signing his name with the title for which he had been known for so long. He died on 1 Jan. 1730.
Further reading: Henry Horwitz, Revolution Politicks: the career of Daniel Finch second earl of Nottingham 1647-1730 (Cambridge, 1968)