‘None can sit here but a natural liegeman’: Scots at Westminster in the Jacobean era

As a prelude to this month’s spotlight on politics in Scotland to mark St Andrew’s Day, Dr Paul Hunneyball, assistant editor of the House of Lords 1558-1603 project, examines one of the most sensitive questions in early 17th century politics – should Scots be allowed to sit in English parliaments?… 

Historical perceptions can be deceptive. The year 1603 is now primarily remembered as the moment when James VI of Scotland peacefully succeeded Elizabeth I on the English throne, reigning south of the border as James I. This was indeed a remarkable event, given the centuries of Anglo-Scottish warfare which preceded it, but as the king himself quickly discovered, his accession didn’t instantly dispel that deeply engrained tradition of inter-racial hostility and suspicion. James was embraced as the only convincing Protestant candidate for the crown of England. However, that warm welcome most definitely did not extend to his fellow Scots, many of whom flocked south in the hope of capitalizing on the king’s good fortune. To make matters worse, it quickly became clear that James wanted to see a ‘perfect union’ of the two countries, creating a single kingdom of ‘Great Britain’. As a first step towards that objective, he largely surrounded himself with Scots at court, and even appointed some to senior positions in the English government. As the proposed national merger began to look more like a takeover, and the king’s lavish generosity towards his countrymen depleted the English treasury, tensions rose both at court and around the country. 

Latent opposition to James’s policies finally found voice in Parliament, particularly during the king’s unsuccessful bid to push through the Anglo-Scottish union in 1604-7. The mood in the House of Commons was illustrated in February 1607, when Sir Christopher Pigott, the Speaker’s brother-in-law, launched into ‘invective against the Scots and the Scottish nation, using many words of scandal and obloquy’ [Journals of the House of Commons, i. 333]. In the Lords, the peers were a great deal more diplomatic, but almost equally uncooperative. Anxious not to alienate the Upper House completely, James finally compromised. In June 1606, he took the momentous step of granting an English barony to his leading Scottish favourite, James Hay, but the patent specifically excluded him from sitting in the Lords. This conciliatory gesture no doubt mollified the peers, but it did nothing to stem the Commons’ hostility towards the union, and this ambitious project was all but abandoned in the following year.

That failure seems to have hardened James’s resolve to bring his kingdoms together by other means. In 1610 the king once again found himself in dispute with Parliament, this time over money. On 23 November the Hereford MP John Hoskins delivered a coded attack on Scots at court, whom he accused of emptying the royal purse. One of the principal targets was James’ current Scottish favourite, Robert Carr, and the king’s response made his feelings clear. In March 1611, shortly after Parliament was dissolved, Carr was created Viscount Rochester in the English peerage, this time with the customary privilege of a seat in the Lords, despite fierce opposition at court. A precedent had now been set, and although James moved cautiously, five other Scots received English peerages with full rights during the next decade, including Hay, who secured a second barony in 1615. The fact that three of these men, James Hamilton, Ludovic Stuart and the latter’s brother Esmé, were the king’s closest Scottish relatives, underlined James’s determination to entrench his dynasty within the English establishment, including Parliament.

Ludovic Stuart, duke of Richmond and 2nd duke of Lennox
Unknown artist

The focus now moved to the House of Commons. No one seriously questioned the king’s right to award peerages as he saw fit. However, the Lower House was empowered to define its own rules of membership, and made full use of that privilege. For MPs, there was a very simple rationale. The laws governing England and Wales should be made by full subjects of the English crown. In other words, all candidates for the Commons must either be native Englishmen or Welshmen, or they must have been naturalized if born elsewhere. There was no room for divided allegiances, as became clear in 1621.

Shortly before the elections for the third Jacobean Parliament, Sir Henry Carey, comptroller of the king’s household, was created Viscount Falkland in the Scottish peerage. Carey had twice before served in the Commons as a Member for Hertfordshire, and was again returned for the county in December 1620, his election indenture making no reference to his peerage. However, he was too well-known for this ‘oversight’ to go unnoticed, and his case was referred to the committee for privileges, and then the full House. There was no precedent for a Scots peer sitting in the Commons, but Carey had clearly stood for election as an English commoner, so was that a valid distinction? Opinions were divided, but on 7 February Sir Edward Montagu swung the debate against Carey, arguing that upholding his return would ‘open a way to all noblemen of Scotland, naturalized [in England], to sit here and thrust us out’ [Journals of the House of Commons, i. 512-13]. Carey was not formally expelled from the Commons – a gesture liable to provoke the king – but neither was he permitted to take his seat.

James VI and I
John de Critz c. 1605

The turning point came in 1624. Two decades had now passed since James’s accession and his current favourite was an Englishman, the 1st duke of Buckingham. With war looming against Catholic Spain it was increasingly difficult to maintain that Protestant Scots posed a serious threat. That year a Scottish gentleman of the king’s privy chamber, Walter Steward, was elected for Monmouth Boroughs. He was already an English denizen, but had not yet been naturalized, though there was a bill going through Parliament. There can be little doubt that James was once again testing the water. Steward’s electoral patron was almost certainly a major courtier, the 4th earl of Worcester, while Steward pointedly refrained from taking his seat pending a verdict from the Commons. Members initially prevaricated over what to do. As Steward was not naturalized at the time of his election, his return was invalid, but might he be allowed to sit once his status was settled (assuming that his bill proved successful)? Sir Edward Coke, a famous lawyer, objected that the key issue was Steward’s status when elected: ‘none can sit here but a natural liegeman’ [TNA, SP14/166, f. 63v]. This time the Commons compromised. The matter was shelved until the naturalization bill completed its passage, leaving Steward in the clear to try his luck again. A fresh election was then called at Monmouth, though in the short term nothing seems to have happened. 

In January 1625, another Scottish courtier, Sir Robert Kerr, keeper of the privy purse to Prince Charles, stood successfully in a by-election at Aylesbury. Kerr was already naturalized, and therefore qualified for the Commons under the precedent established by Steward. However, before he could take his seat the final Jacobean Parliament was cut short by the king’s death. Thus another few months passed before the Scottish question was definitively settled. In the elections for the first Caroline Parliament Kerr and Steward were again returned, along with a third prominent Scot, Sir James Fullerton, who had been naturalized back in 1610. No further objections were raised, and from that point onwards, Scots with English nationality were free to serve in the Commons. The prejudice that fuelled the earlier protests had dissipated … at least for the next few years. 

PMH 

Further reading: 

Survey: II. Membership, The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1604-1629, ed. Andrew Thrush and John P. Ferris, 2010

Neil Cuddy, ‘The revival of the entourage: the Bedchamber of James I, 1603-1625’, The English Court from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War ed. David Starkey (1987) 

Our forthcoming volumes on the ‘House of Lords 1604-1629’ ed. Andrew Thrush include biographies of the following: James Hay, Lord Hay (later 1st earl of Carlisle); Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester (later earl of Somerset); James Hamilton, 1st earl of Cambridge and 2nd marquis of Hamilton; Ludovic Stuart, earl (later duke) of Richmond and 2nd duke of Lennox; Esmé Stuart, 1st earl of March and 3rd duke of Lennox; George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham; Edward Somerset, 4th earl of Worcester; and Charles Stuart, prince of Wales (later Charles I). 

One thought on “‘None can sit here but a natural liegeman’: Scots at Westminster in the Jacobean era

  1. Could you comment on the practice that began in James’s reign – of conferring Scottish peerages on Englishmen? I think Carey, mentioned above, was the first. Another was Fairfax, father of the Civil War general. Presumably the idea was to honour them but keep them out of the House of Lords. Was it meant to be a way to bring over those who might have been seen as disloyal hitherto?

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