Marlborough, p.4Richard Holmes
Sarah Marlborough often repeated that her cousin Abigail Hill, who was to supplant her in the queen’s affections, had been raised from nothing by her deployment of interest. Abigail was the daughter of a City merchant ‘by a sister of my father’, and as soon as Sarah heard that she was in want she sent her ten guineas. When the Duke of Gloucester died Sarah got her £200 a year out of the queen’s privy purse, and secured a place in the customs for her son. She recommended Abigail’s brother Jack – ‘a tall boy, whom I clothed … and put to school at St Albans’ – to the Duke of Marlborough.
And although my Lord always said that Jack Hill was good for nothing yet to oblige me he made him his aide de camp, and afterwards gave him a regiment. But it was his sister’s interest that raised him to be a general, and to command in that memorable [Sarahese for deeply unsuccessful] expedition to Quebec: I had no share in doing him these honours.44
As Sarah’s interest waned, Abigail’s waxed. In 1710 Lord Raby told his brother Peter that ‘Lord Powlett has complemented Brigadier Masham [Abigail’s husband] by having him chose a member in a borough he controls.’ It seems likely that Sam Masham sensibly chose himself, for he became MP for Ilchester at about this time, though the grateful Tories soon ensured that he had the peerage that his wife’s new interest demanded.
With Sarah deprived of all her offices she had no interest, and she always respected the few who stood by her in these chilly times. Lady Scarborough wrote to her on 5 November 1711, after Sarah had been succeeded as keeper of the queen’s privy purse by the Duchess of Somerset. Sarah annotated the missive: ‘A very kind letter when I had lost my interest. This is a very great deal for her to say, for she had a great friendship with the Duchess of Somerset …’45 Lady Hervey, ‘who has been a slave to the Duchess of Marlborough’, was roundly told by the Duchess of Montagu that she was a fool to waste her time on someone who had no interest.
Lady Hervey in return in a whole company of ladies told her that might be, but she was honest and had lain with nobody but her own Lord. Her Grace had lain with the Duke of Grafton, and the marshal, so they call Lord Villars … The Duchess of Montagu made no reply, but O Lord my Lady is in a passion … 46
Those with interest, however small, were besieged by those who sought favours. In the army, colonels of regiments were essentially proprietors who ran their regiments at a profit, receiving a grant from the government for arms, clothing and equipment and generally spending rather less than the allowance for these items and pocketing the difference. Like many other offices, military and civil, colonelcies were sold by private treaty or bestowed by a grateful government or a commander-in-chief anxious to line his pocket or reinforce his own interest. In September 1700 Lord Raby reported that: ‘Lord Portmore has done one good thing for himself, he has sold his regiment for £6000 to Kirk his lieutenant colonel, of a stranger he could have had £7000, as Lord Trelawney told me.’47
In 1710 the three disgraced officers Meredith, Honeywood and Macartney were allowed to sell their regiments for half their market value, and Lord Orrery, a political ally of the Duke of Argyll’s, was to have Meredith’s at a knockdown price, having first sold his own for its full value. Honeywood came close to being let off ‘as a young man that might be drawn in … He and Macartney are to sell for £2500 and Meredith for £3500 which he can well afford as he can sell his own [regiment] for more money.’48
In 1711 Lord Raby decided to seek an ensign’s commission (in the ungrammatical idiom of the age, ‘to ask a colours’) for his schoolboy son George from Colonel Bellew.
I did design before he went into Ireland to ask a colours for him [George]. He very kindly told me he was to have a regiment, and that when I asked that he would put the Duke of Ormonde [then captain general, who had to ratify the agreement] in mind and desire it might be in his regiment, which was a great favour, for he might be set down for a colonel that would make interest against him … If the regiment is broke [disbanded] the year after it is raised, the half pay will keep the boy at school and save me the charge I am now at.49
The monarch was the fountain of all interest, and those who could sipped direct from the fountainhead. Thomas Bruce, Earl of Ailesbury, was a well-placed courtier under the later Stuarts and a well-connected exile in the Low Countries after 1688. He recalled that Charles II rarely had time to himself in the jumbled hothouse of Whitehall, but after getting ready for bed,
according to custom he went to ease himself, and he stayed long generally, he being there free from company, and loved to discourse, nobody having entrance but the lord and the groom of the bedchamber in waiting, and I desired him to bestow a colours in the Guards on a relative of mine.
‘Trouble me not with trifles,’ said the king. ‘The Colonel will be glad to oblige you therein.’50 Ailesbury later seems to have repeated the request on behalf of another relative, this time asking ‘a colours for him in the Royal Scottish Regiment of Dumbarton’.51 The earl was very fond of Charles, who ‘knew men better than any that hath reigned over us, and when he gave himself time to think, no man ever judged better of men and things’.52 But being lord of the bedchamber had its disadvantages, for he and the duty groom slept on truckle beds by the king’s door, and the monarch’s affection for the little spaniels that now bear his name meant that ‘a dozen dogs came into our beds’.53
On 16–19 July 1693 the London Gazette, a news-sheet with official information on its front page and announcements and advertisements on the back, told its readers of
a small liver coloured Spanish bitch lost from the King’s lodgings, on the 11th instant, with a little white on her breast and a little white on the tops of her hind feet. Whoever brings her to Mr Chiffinch’s lodgings at the King’s Back Stairs, or to the King’s Dog-Keeper in Whitehall, shall be well rewarded for their pains.
William Chiffinch had succeeded his brother Thomas as one of the pages of the king’s bedchamber and keeper of the king’s closet. The page posts were worth about £80 a year in pay and board, with another £47 for livery, fees worth £17 a year and an assortment of tips (‘vails’) worth perhaps another £120. These lucrative appointments were wholly in the interest of the groom of the stole, and they themselves brought interest of their own.
Will Chiffinch was the only man allowed to enter the king’s closet unbidden. His wife received £1,200 a year for showing selected ladies up to the king’s quarters, and Will acted as royal informer, organising drinking parties for those who sought access to the king, recording their conversation while himself remaining studiously sober thanks to a concoction called ‘Dr Goddard’s drops’. He also became surveyor of the king’s pictures, had a fine art collection of his own, and sat to the painter John Riley, whose portrait shows a hard, canny face, with smile and frown folded away for easy interchange. Chiffinch’s daughter Barbara married the Earl of Jersey, and is nine times removed great-grandmother to Princes William and Harry: interest indeed.
As groom of the king’s bedchamber from 1662, Baptist May – always Bab May to his friends – was one step up the court ladder from Will Chiffinch, and no less indispensable. Son of an influential royalist gentleman, he had been in exile with the Duke of York in the Low Countries during the interregnum, and received lucrative offices after the Restoration. May entertained the king and his close friends in his lodgings in Whitehall and St James’s, and was allowed more liberties with Charles than most men. In November 1667 the lord chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon, was unseated by a court conspiracy. Samuel Pepys tells us that: ‘As soon as Secretary Morrice brought the great seal from my Lord Chancellor, Bab May fell upon his knees and ketched the king about the legs and joyed him, and said that this was the first time he could call him king of England, being freed from this great man.’54 May was on very good terms with Barbara Villiers, the most powerful of Charles II’s mistresses, and in 1665 it was probably her influence that secured him the post of keeper of the privy purse, upon which she immediately made substantial demands. He received ‘several p
On James II’s last hurried visit to Whitehall before he fled to France in 1688, the Earl of Mulgrave, lord chamberlain, rightly fearing that this particular fountain would shortly be shut off, asked the king to make him a marquess. ‘Good God! What a time you take to ask a thing of that nature,’ said James. ‘I am just arrived and am all in disorder.’ He added that he did not have a secretary to hand, but the ever-helpful earl replied that he had already made out the warrant himself, and a simple signature would do the business. It was, though, too much for the harassed monarch.56 When Queen Mary died in 1694 her sister Princess Anne, James II’s younger daughter, seemed assured of the succession, and Sarah Marlborough saw how her popularity rocketed overnight. Suddenly ‘clouds of people’ came to pay their respects. This
sudden alteration … occasioned the half-witted Lord Carnarvon to say one night to the princess, as he stood close by her, in the hall, I hope your Highness will remember that I came to visit you, when none of this company did; which caused a great deal of mirth.57
The Stuarts created peers as they chose, and had three distinct peerages – of England, Ireland and Scotland – to pick from.58 James I ennobled a number of good-looking young men, and Charles II usually had a peerage to hand for his mistresses and their offspring. Although Nell Gwyn (‘pretty, witty Nell’ to the admiring Mr Pepys) was never ennobled, it was said that she held Charles Beauclerk, the elder of her two sons by the king, out of the window when the monarch visited her, lamenting that the infant had no peerage. ‘God save the Earl of Burford!’ shouted the happy father. James FitzJames, James II’s son by Marlborough’s sister Arabella, was created Duke of Berwick at the age of seventeen in 1687, and, already a major general in Emperor Leopold’s service, was given his own regiment of infantry and in February 1688 was made colonel of the Blues, replacing Aubrey de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who as lord lieutenant of his county had refused James’s order to appoint Roman Catholics to public offices, saying: ‘I will stand by Your Majesty against all enemies to the last drop of my blood. But this is a matter of conscience and I cannot comply.’59
Louis de Duras, marquis de Blanquefort in the French peerage, came to England in the retinue of James, Duke of York, and was given an English peerage as Baron Duras in 1693. He inherited his father-in-law’s earldom by special remainder, becoming Earl of Feversham. He was colonel of the King’s Troop of Life Guards, and commander-in-chief for the campaigns of 1685 and 1688. He was a nephew of the great Marshal Turenne, and fought under his command in the Dutch War. William gave many of his Dutch followers English or Irish peerages, leading Ailesbury to complain that: ‘Dutch Lords come in so thick, and the crown not being limited, it is a melancholy prospect for us English peers.’60 To avoid creating irritation amongst English peers, monarchs created Irish peerages to reward those for whom an English peerage might have been considered more than they merited. ‘In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,’ write Mark Bence-Jones and Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, ‘Irish peerages were frequently conferred on English, Welsh or Scots magnates who were not considered to have merited peerages of England or Great Britain; even though they may have had no family connection with Ireland at all.’61
The redoubtable John ‘Salamander’ Cutts, so called because he loved to be where the enemy’s fire was hottest, was created Baron Cutts of Gowran in the peerage of Ireland in 1690, and the Huguenot general Henri de Massue, marquis de Ruvigny, was made Viscount Galway in the Irish peerage in 1696. He had the misfortune to be badly beaten by Berwick at the battle of Almanza in 1707, and the mismatch between his name and his title has induced one writer to surmise that there were in fact two generals in command, the marquis de Ruvigny and his colleague Viscount Galway.62 Summoned to the bar of the English House of Lords to explain his defeat, Galway argued that his halting English and physical infirmities (he had lost a hand in one battle and been cut across the head in another) meant that he could not really explain himself, and the House allowed him to reply in writing.
Some men reached the House of Lords by sheer merit. John Somers was an Oxford-educated lawyer who was one of the counsel for the seven bishops tried before the King’s Bench in 1688 for petitioning James II against his Declaration of Indulgence, helped draft the Declaration of Rights, and rose through the ranks of the government’s law officers to become lord chancellor as Baron Somers in 1697. Charles Montagu was a Cambridge man who produced a little light poetry before establishing himself as the financial wizard of his age, initiating the national debt, setting up the Bank of England and overseeing a wholesale recoinage in 1695, though he had to raise window tax to pay for it. He was shoved upstairs into the Lords as Baron Halifax when the Tories came to power in 1699, and became an earl, and effectively prime minister, after the accession of George I.
Others rose without visible trace (it is good to note some continuity between this age and our own), often because there was interest to be repaid. Sarah Marlborough maintained that she had only personally asked Anne to create one peer, the result of a long personal obligation, but that she had failed in a subsequent attempt to get Lord Hervey promoted to an earldom. In January 1712 the queen was persuaded to create peers to overcome the Whigs in the Lords. The Tories enjoyed a comfortable majority in the Commons but were defeated in the Lords, and it seemed likely that the government would fall. But the lord treasurer, Robert Harley (whose audibly Welsh background had not prevented him from becoming Earl of Oxford and Mortimer in 1711), and the queen had agreed to create a dozen peers, amongst them the husband of the queen’s favourite (and Harley’s cousin) Abigail Masham, as well as Harley’s son-in-law and another of his cousins. One of the secretaries of state told the queen that although the creation was certainly legal, he ‘very much doubted the expediency, for I feared it would have a very ill effect in the House of Lords and no good one in the kingdom’.
Lord Wharton waspishly asked the new peers, when they took their seats, whether, like a jury, they voted by their foreman. Most had adopted grand territorial titles, apparently confusing the Italian-born Duchess of Shrewsbury. ‘Madam,’ she said to the pious Lady Oxford, ‘I and my Lord are so weary of talking politics. What are you and your Lord?’ Lady Oxford dourly replied that ‘she knew no Lord but the Lord Jehovah’. ‘O dear! Madam, who is that?’ enquired the duchess innocently. ‘I believe ’tis one of the new titles, for I never heard of him before.’63
We should not be surprised that the House of Lords grew steadily in size. In 1687 there were twenty-six lords spiritual (archbishops and bishops) and 154 lords temporal at Westminster. By 1714 this had risen to 171 lords temporal and sixteen representative Scots lords, elected by their peers. There was a substantial inflation at the upper end of the peerage, with the record number of forty-four dukedoms in 1726. Degrees in the peerage were a matter of very real concern. The Tory leader Henry St John, ennobled as Viscount Bolingbroke in 1712, regarded the appointment as a slap in the face, for he believed himself entitled to an earldom, like his ally Robert Harley. Earls usually had one or two subsidiary titles, the senior of which was borne as a courtesy title by their eldest son, and their daughters were styled ‘Lady’. Sidney Godolphin’s granddaughter, who became Duchess of Leeds, cheerfully signed a letter with all her family titles: ‘I am, dear sister, affectionately yours, M Leeds, Carmarthen, Danby, Latimer, Dumblin, Osborne.’64
My Lord the post is going this minute so I have no time to write to Willie Primrose’s brother [Viscount Primrose] but I beg that your Lordship will be so kind as to tell him that his brother is wounded and without money.
He moved on to become a major in Hepburn’s Regiment in the Dutch service, and survived both ‘a very critical time’ at Ramillies and ‘cruel work’ at the siege of Lille, but eventually complained that promotion was too slow: ‘There is no man of my quality in the island of Britain that hath served so long as captain and major (which is now fourteen years) as I have.’
John Campbell’s luck ran out at Malplaquet. His elder brother James, who commanded the Scots Greys with great distinction that day, wrote to tell their brother that:
Colonel Hepburn’s [Regiment] is all cut to pieces the colonel and lieutenant colonel is killed our brother John is shot through the arm I have seen him this day, his surgeons have very good hopes of him and he is very hearty …
Despite the rush of claims on his interest produced by heavy casualties amongst senior officers, Marlborough ensured that John received the colonelcy of Tullibardine’s Regiment, left vacant by Tullibardine’s death at Malplaquet, but he died of his wound. James saw him buried in the Capuchin cloister in Brussels: seventy grenadiers with blazing torches followed him to the grave. ‘It is such a great loss that we cannot enough regret,’ wrote James. ‘This is a prodigious loss to your lordship and me to lose such a brother and comrade I do assure you that he is regretted by every one that knew him.’66
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