Pride of place: chief ministers and their houses in early modern England

Following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent convalescence at Chequers, his official rural retreat, Dr Paul Hunneyball of the Lords 1558-1603 project considers a time when senior government figures were expected to possess their own country houses…

It’s almost a hundred years since Arthur Lee, Viscount Lee presented Chequers, his Buckinghamshire country seat, to the nation for the use of future prime ministers. This Tudor mansion, built around 1565 by William Hawtrey, had already been home to at least eight MPs down the centuries, including Henry Croke, John Thurbarne and Sir Robert Frankland-Russell, though only Lee himself (MP for Fareham from 1900 to 1918) achieved real distinction in politics, serving as minister for agriculture and fisheries, and then as first lord of the Admiralty. The motivation behind Lee’s gift was spelt out in the 1917 Act of Parliament (7 & 8 George V, c.55) which paved the way for the formal transfer four years later:

It is not possible to foresee or foretell from what classes or conditions of life the future wielders of power in this country will be drawn. Some may be as in the past men of wealth and famous descent; some may belong to the world of trade and business; others may spring from the ranks of the manual toilers.

Nevertheless, Lee felt certain that subsequent prime ministers of whatever background would benefit from possessing a country retreat, and wanted to ensure that the option remained available to each of them – ‘even though his income should be limited to his salary’.

Lee correctly recognised that in social terms the nature of British politics was changing fast.  However, his philanthropic response would have been greeted with incomprehension three centuries earlier, when Chequers was still a relatively new building. While it was possible in the early modern era for men of humble birth to reach the summit of government (Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII being a notable example), it was taken for granted that such parvenus would, in the course of their careers, acquire the wealth and possessions normally associated with the exercise of power. And one of the principal assets required by all leading ministers of the crown was a substantial country house, both for personal display and the provision of hospitality for powerful guests, potentially even the monarch. Two further Acts of Parliament for the transfer of property will serve to illustrate attitudes in the early seventeenth century.

One piece of Jacobean legislation which has long puzzled historians is the 1607 Act to confirm a property deal between the queen consort, Anne of Denmark, and Robert Cecil, 1st earl of Salisbury (4 James I, c.14). The bill delineated a complex exchange whereby Salisbury handed the queen his principal country residence, the palatial Hertfordshire mansion of Theobalds, in return for assorted crown lands of an equivalent value. There was subsequently much speculation that Salisbury had devised some cunning scheme to boost his own finances at the royal family’s expense, Theobalds being very costly to maintain. However, the house was also of enormous symbolic value for the earl, having been constructed by his famous father, William Cecil, 1st Lord Burghley, and then assigned to Salisbury (a younger son) as confirmation that the latter was Burghley’s political heir. The loss of Theobalds also deprived Salisbury of his principal means of entertaining James I, who had become a regular visitor and was indeed known to covet the property.

Recent research by Andrew Thrush for the History of Parliament has confirmed that this development was in fact forced on the earl. At the start of that year, Salisbury found himself in disgrace with the king and, fearful for his position as James’s principal advisor, he sacrificed Theobalds in order to save his career. This painful gamble, echoing Cardinal Wolsey’s gift to Henry VIII of Hampton Court Palace, paid off. Once restored to favour, Salisbury negotiated the deal laid out in the Act, ensuring that he was well-compensated. He also drew a veil over the real circumstances, and his personal embarrassment, by transferring the mansion to Anne rather than directly to James. Nevertheless, the social drawbacks of losing Theobalds couldn’t be ignored, and by the time the legislation was introduced in Parliament, Salisbury had already selected the location for its replacement, the more compact but equally magnificent Hatfield House. Once he became lord treasurer in 1608, and his financial position improved, he significantly increased the scale of this project, mindful of the need to impress his fellow courtiers. Indeed, one visitor to the building site that year, Gilbert Talbot, 7th earl of Shrewsbury, had dismissed the original design as ‘but a petty poor pile for a lord treasurer of England to build’ (TNA, SP14/37/27). In the final reckoning, it cost Salisbury around £39,000 to replace Theobalds, a vast sum at the time, and his premature death in 1612, just as Hatfield was nearing completion, meant that he never got to enjoy the new house.

Hatfield House – the original entrance front

Twelve years later, the final Jacobean Parliament processed another bill for transferring crown lands, but this time of a rather different nature. The ‘Act for the assuring of a messuage called York House … to the king’s majesty, and of … other lands … to Toby, archbishop of York’ (21 James I, c.30) ostensibly authorised a simple property exchange between the king and the Anglican Church, a comparatively common transaction at this date, when monarchs routinely cherry-picked ecclesiastical assets. York House had at one time been the London home of the northern archbishops, but in recent decades it had served as the official residence of the lord chancellors and lord keepers. Indeed the legislation noted that James I was in effect compensating the Church for land which it had already lost to the state. However, there was more to this gesture of royal benevolence than met the eye. Two years earlier, York House had been leased to James’s notorious favourite, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, and the king now wanted the archbishop to convey the property to the duke outright, in return for a grant of crown lands. The bill, which studiously avoided any mention of Buckingham, was intended to finalise this deal.

‘Buckingham’s York House watergate © P.M. Hunneyball

Why the secrecy? James was of course not obliged to explain where he planned to bestow York House, but his intentions were an open secret at Westminster, and this obfuscation actually fuelled opposition to the bill in Parliament. Buckingham’s spectacular rise from country gentleman to England’s premier peer, and his equally dramatic increase in wealth, stemmed entirely from the king’s infatuation with him. Consequently, his pre-eminent position in government was widely resented, and seen as distorting the normal patterns of power and status. Even though the duke was currently more popular, due to his support for war with Spain, the York House bill was a fresh reminder of his anomalous relationship with the crown. In the House of Lords, normally pliable bishops obstructed the bill until Buckingham himself intervened with assurances that the Church would not lose out financially. Resistance in the Commons was even fiercer. There the bill passed by just 25 votes after a rowdy three hour debate, one anonymous MP observing darkly: ‘An Athenian said, “I rule the Athenians; my wife rules me, and my son rules my wife”. I will not apply it to the archbishop.’ This allusion to Buckingham’s influence over the king was neither subtle nor flattering. Despite that disquiet, the duke got York House – but not for long. Barely four years later, now widely blamed for the policy failures of the young Charles I, he was murdered by an aggrieved soldier who believed that he was freeing the country of a tyrant.


Further reading:

J. Lubbock, The Tyranny of Taste: the Politics of Architecture and Design in Britain 1550-1960 (1995)

P.M. Hunneyball, Architecture and Image-building in Seventeenth-Century Hertfordshire (2004)

M. Howard, The Building of Elizabethan and Jacobean England (2007)

Biographies of the 1st earl of Salisbury, 7th earl of Shrewsbury, 1st duke of Buckingham, Charles I (as prince of Wales) and Archbishop Tobie Matthew will appear in our forthcoming volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29.

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