In the latest blog for the Georgian Lords, Dr Stuart Handley reassesses the impeachment, and later career, of Thomas Parker, earl of Macclesfield, the last victim of a political impeachment prior to that of Warren Hastings.
Corruption and impeachment are terms that have been much in the news, especially with regard to former President Donald Trump, who was impeached, and former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who was threatened with it. But what happened to those found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours?
Here we follow the aftermath of the last impeachment of a political figure in the eighteenth century, before the process was revived for Warren Hastings in 1787. After a ten-day trial in May 1725, Thomas Parker, earl of Macclesfield, at various times MP for Derby, lord chief justice and lord chancellor, was found guilty of corruption during his tenure as lord chancellor, a post from which he had resigned on 4 January. This case has recently proved popular with historians interested in corruption, such as Mark Knights (see his book, Trust and Distrust (2021).
Following the guilty verdict, Macclesfield survived several votes adopting more severe penalties, but was fined £30,000 and sent to the Tower until he paid it. Fortunately, Macclesfield had wealthy friends, not least the dowager duchess of Marlborough, who were able to facilitate the transfer of such a sum, so that he was released two months later. The day after his release, he visited the duchess of Marlborough at her house in St. James’s Park. He then removed to Shirburn Castle, his Oxfordshire seat.
Many commentators have followed Arthur Onslow (the future Speaker of the House of Commons) in describing Macclesfield as retiring from public life after his release from the Tower. This is only true in so far as Macclesfield remained at Shirburn Castle in 1726, a wise move considering that Parliament continued to debate issues arising from the Chancery scandal. Indeed, there were some attempts during the passage of such bills as the Act for the relief of suitors in Chancery and the Act for better securing the monies and effects of the suitors in Chancery, to exact further punishment on him. However, in general, further attacks on Macclesfield were discounted by MPs on the grounds that the Lords had already set his punishment.
Since Macclesfield had escaped permanent expulsion from the Lords, he remained eligible to sit. He duly made his return at the opening of the session in January 1727 and thereafter retained a significant presence in the chamber. He was regularly summoned to the ministry’s pre-sessional meetings (convened to discuss upcoming business) and had his pension from the Crown restored in 1729. He spoke on the ministerial side in several debates in the House of Lords in 1730-1731.
Macclesfield did not limit his public appearances to Parliament. In April 1727, he joined a number of prominent grandees in carrying the pall at the funeral of Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey. Like Newton, a member of the Royal Society, Macclesfield attended its meetings, sometimes in company with his son (a future President). He also attended at Court, where his recital of some poetry before Queen Caroline in September 1730 ensured a wider audience for the ‘thresher’ poet, Stephen Duck. This royal entree may seem surprising when one considers Macclesfield’s former role, as lord chief justice, in drawing up the opinion that George I had had the right to oversee the upbringing of George and Caroline’s children when Prince and Princess of Wales. However, by this time they were the reigning monarchs and, no doubt, more appreciative of such a ruling, not least given their fractious relationship with Prince Frederick.
Macclesfield was widely perceived as avaricious. Indeed he was thought to have had ‘a constitutional weakness’ for amassing vast sums of money. This facet of his character has the ring of truth about it and is understandable in the light of the struggles borne by his father in financing his education. A series of letters exist from his father to his father-in-law in the 1680s in which the future Macclesfield’s father sought funds to enable the young Parker to study at Cambridge. In turn, Macclesfield was intent upon providing his son, George, with financial security. During the negotiations surrounding his appointment as lord chancellor in 1718, Macclesfield negotiated the reversion of the first vacancy among the four tellers of the Exchequer for his son (with a pension of £1,200 in the interim). As a strategy for financial security this was a masterstroke, for George Parker became a teller in 1719 and only relinquished the post upon his death in 1764.
Macclesfield died on 28 April 1732, at his house in Soho Square, a mere 11 days after his last appearance in the House of Lords. He was buried at Shirburn Castle, the residence he had purchased in 1716, and which housed a magnificent library, only recently dispersed by auction at Sotheby’s.
Mark Knights, Trust and Distrust: Corruption in office in Britain and its Empire 1600-1850 (Oxford, 2021)