‘leaping and creeping’: Honours in the early 18th century

Ahead of the Queen’s official birthday this weekend and its accompanying honours list, in today’s blog Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our Lords 1715-1790 project, looks at the ways that parliamentarians were rewarded in the 18th century…

In the 18th century newspapers frequently contained reports on honours that were expected to be conferred on leading parliamentarians. Sometimes the reports were accurate, sometimes not, and occasionally appear to have been based on little more than wishful thinking. However, what they all underlined was the importance of such marks of distinction to prominent politicians and how they were used as a valuable tool by administrations eager to secure the support of allies and rivals alike. The process was satirized by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, in which courtiers competed for blue, green or red ribbons by leaping over or creeping under a stick:

Whoever performs his part with most agility, and holds out longest in leaping and creeping, is rewarded with the blue-coloured silk; the red is given to the next, and the green to the third…

The most prestigious of all honours, then as now, was appointment to the order of the Garter (the blue ribbon), originally founded by Edward III in 1348, and which comprised members of the royal family, foreign royals and representatives from the most influential aristocratic families. The future George I was admitted to the order on 18 June 1701, thus becoming the 509th Garter Knight since its institution. Prior to later reforms under George III, membership was frozen at 24 (in addition to the sovereign and Prince of Wales) so would-be Garter knights were made to wait for current ones to die before places became available. On very rare occasions, places opened up when serving members of the order were degraded, such as James, duke of Monmouth, who was formally stripped of his membership in June 1685, around a month before his execution on 15 July. In 1716 the 2nd duke of Ormond was another to be publicly shamed after he was outlawed for his Jacobite activities. As part of his degradation, his coat of arms, displayed in the chapel of St George’s Windsor, was taken down and ripped to pieces.

Queen Anne and the Knights of the Garter, Peter Angelis, National Portrait Gallery via Art UK

Nominations to the Garter were always highly political and in 1724 Richard Lumley, 2nd earl of Scarbrough, was elected to a vacant stall over the heads of several other senior courtiers who might otherwise have expected their claims to take precedence. Scarbrough’s good fortune was seen as part of Walpole and Townsend’s efforts to court the Prince of Wales (the future George II) following the healing of the Whig schism, as Scarbrough was a particular favourite of his.

Sir Robert Walpole in Garter Robes, Jonathan Richardson the elder, King’s Lynn Town Hall via Art UK

Aware that the small number of Garter knights limited severely opportunities for rewarding (or encouraging) loyalty, in May 1725 a new institution, the order of the Bath (red ribbon), was created. Often thought to have been an initiative of Robert Walpole, recent research has highlighted the importance of John Montagu, 2nd duke of Montagu, in bringing it about [Hanham, Politics of Chivalry]. Advertised as the re-foundation of an older entity, the effect was to give a further 36 prominent politicians and their kin a visible sign of inclusion. At first, there was some suspicion of the new order and some peers seem to have been unwilling to allow family members to accept nomination to something they thought of as suitable only for arrivistes. The duchess of Marlborough, for one, advised members of her family not to accept. Others were only too willing, with Scarbrough one of those to use his interest to ensure his younger brother, Thomas Lumley Saunderson, was selected. Another of the new knights of the Bath was Robert Walpole himself, who exchanged his place for a Garter stall only a year later, replacing one of Charles II’s sons, the duke of St Albans; Walpole’s heir, also Robert, was another of the founder members, emphasizing the family commitment to the new institution.

Of course, one of the most visible ways of rewarding allies was by promotion to the House of Lords, though by the 1730s some appear to have regarded this as tantamount to retirement from front line politics. In 1733 Lord Hervey (still just 36) chose to accept a summons to the Lords by writ of acceleration (a device enabling heirs to peerages to take up their places while their fathers were still living), in spite of his father, the earl of Bristol‘s evident disapproval of him being ‘kicked upstairs’. Hervey claimed that he was needed in the Lords where Walpole lacked substantial numbers of talented speakers but his own correspondence suggested that he was looking forward to being freed from being pestered by his constituents and expected a quieter life in the upper chamber:

you must allow the difference of actors makes a great difference in every farce, and that the same drama and characters that entertain and keep up one’s spirits in Drury Lane might lay one to sleep acted by strollers in a country fair.

Hervey may have anticipated life in the Lords to be a more soporific affair, but this did not make it any less crucial for the ministry to maintain a strong presence there. It was, after all, in the Lords where the opposition to Walpole had many of its most talented speakers, among them Lord Carteret, the earl of Chesterfield, duke of Argyll and, towards the end of his life, the earl of Scarbrough. That said, the year after his own elevation, Hervey was confident that the ministry had a firm majority in the Lords and announced as a result:

There are no new Peers to be made; and if I can guess at the way of thinking of those where the power of creation lies, it is one that will be long dormant and very sparingly used. Our strength now in the House of Lords will leave the natural reluctance to the exercise of that power undisturbed.

Swift’s satire emphasized the risks taken by those who indulged in high politics in the period, observing ‘there is hardly one of them who hath not received a fall, and some of them two or three’. The king’s minister Flimnap, a barely disguised Robert Walpole, had been saved one year by falling onto ‘one of the King’s cushions’. In the winter of 1741-2 Walpole needed rescuing once more and in February 1742 accepted elevation to the Lords as earl of Orford. It was a reward for long service, but also an indication that his days of leaping and creeping were done.


Further reading:

Andrew Hanham, ‘The Politics of Chivalry: Sir Robert Walpole, the Duke of Montagu and the Order of the Bath, Parliamentary History, xxxv (2016), 262-97.

Lord Hervey and his Friends, 1726-38, ed. Earl of Ilchester (1950)

The Knights of England, ed. W.A. Shaw (2 vols., 1906)

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