Marlborough, p.5Richard Holmes
William Cadogan, told that he was to be ennobled for his service against the Jacobites in 1715, at once wrote to Marlborough, his patron, to ‘beg leave to return my most humble thanks for your great goodness in being pleased to approve of the good success I have endeavoured to render here, and your Grace’s representing them so very favourably to his Majesty’. He hoped to style his barony after ‘Cadogan, near Wrexham on the borders of Wales’, and, reminding Marlborough that he had no son, hoped that the title would be allowed to pass sideways to his brother. ‘I humbly beg pardon for mentioning it,’ he concluded, ‘and entreat your Grace would consider it no more than if I had not.’67 He was next elevated to an earldom in 1716, after distinguished diplomatic service in Europe, as ‘Earl of Cadogan, in Denbighshire, Viscount of Caversham in Oxfordshire; and Baron Oakley, in Buckinghamshire’.68 The barony did indeed pass on to his brother Charles, and the earldom, with the new viscountcy of Chelsea added, was later revived for his descendants.
Interest was at its most viscid at election time. The House of Commons had 513 Members before union with Scotland in 1707 added forty-five Scots Members, bringing the total to 558, ‘knights of the shire’ for rural areas and burgesses for the boroughs. Throughout our period the franchise was limited, in the forty English counties, to ‘forty shilling freeholders’, and in the boroughs to men meeting the appropriate local qualification. For instance, there were ‘corporation boroughs’, where the corporation – maybe as few as thirteen men or as many as fifty-four – could vote; ‘freeman boroughs’ where all freemen – like London’s 8,000 liverymen – could vote; and ‘burgage boroughs’ where the franchise was attached to particular parcels of land, leaving Old Sarum in Wiltshire with just ten voters in 1705. Perhaps one man in seven had the vote. There was no secret ballot; most constituencies returned two Members, and many would-be MPs stood for several constituencies at once to allow a greater chance of success. It was to take the Industrial Revolution and the burgeoning of manufacturing centres to render the whole system palpably absurd, with great cities unrepresented while some tiny boroughs, villages then and now, glibly returned their two Members.
There were many ‘pocket boroughs’, where the electors were so dependent on a major landowner as to be effectively in his pocket, and ‘rotten boroughs’ where electors cheerfully sold themselves to the highest bidder. Although the high-minded occasionally inveighed against the system, there was no real pressure for change, certainly not from the electors themselves, who stood to gain good dinners and full pockets by its survival. In 1716 the electors of Marlborough sent a flowery petition to Parliament, attacking the Septennial Act and unsuccessfully arguing that triennial Parliaments were ‘the greatest security to the preservation of liberty’.
The Earl of Ailesbury’s family was Scots by origin and owned land in Bedfordshire, but it had a substantial interest in the Wiltshire constituencies of Marlborough, Great Bedwyn and Ludgershall. With the earl in exile in the Low Countries his son, Lord Bruce, presided over the family’s borough-mongering. In November 1701 the economist Charles Davenant, who had already represented the pocket borough of Great Bedwyn, told Bruce that seeking election at Ampthill, also within the family’s sphere of influence but less securely in its pocket, would require personal effort and financial outlay: it was therefore too risky for him.
I received the packet from Ampthill, and the letters from there have quite made me lay aside the thought of standing there. Besides, the electors are generally such a corrupt pack of rogues that it is a chance an honest gentleman should represent them. I hope I have done my country so much service that some friend or other will bring me into this Parliament.69
In April 1705 Bruce’s agent warned him that there was dirty work afoot at Great Bedwyn, where ‘three or four score of the voters have received £5 each and have engaged to serve Pollexfen whose agents gave £5 to the women under pretence of their spinning five pounds of wool at 20 shillings a pound’. The night before the election the Whig agents got sixteen of the electors blind drunk, and the candidates’ servants kept them under guard until they were frogmarched to the hustings to cast their ballots.
Seven months later the agent wrote to say that another of the Bruce family’s bastions was under attack:
I was yesterday at Marlborough and find the [Whig] Duke [of Somerset’s] agents very lavish in their expenses and offers. Williams is about paying £30 debts for Solomon Clarke, and almost as much for Flurry Bowshire, so they are wavering. Persons are at work to counterplot them.
When Lord Bruce asked who this Mr Bowshire might be, his agent answered: ‘Flurry Bowshire is he with one eye, and jealous, it is said, of his wife.’ Happily, Solomon Clarke, offered £20 and a job as porter by the duke’s agent, had turned him down, ‘and vowed he would not serve him if he would give him the castle and the barton farm’.70
Although candidates and their agents did what they could to make bribery less obvious, elections were regularly overturned when disappointed candidates petitioned the Commons, although, oddly enough, the outcome of the challenge often reflected the political balance of the House. Even ‘legitimate’ expenses might raise a modern eyebrow. The Tory magnate Sir Edward Seymour was a Member for the city of Exeter in 1688–89. Before the vote he gave the electors a good dinner of the roast beef of old England, ‘two pieces of rib-beef weighing 96lb at 3d per lb – £1 4s 6d’. After it he distributed ‘25 bottles of sherry … 11 bottles and one pint of canary … 11 bottles of claret …’ Of the total drinks bill of £3.8s.4d, a mere fourpence was spent on ale.71
There was much more to electioneering than simple bribery, for family influence and local allegiances ran strong. Edward Seymour was a prominent figure in the West Country, colonel of the Devon militia, and men spoke of his ‘Western Empire’. The Tories certainly had it their own way in Cornwall. The county’s sturdy gentry families like the Grenvilles, Slannings and Trevanions had raised some of the very best royalist infantry in the Civil War, and in William’s last Parliament only half a dozen of the county’s forty-four MPs were whiggish. In Devonshire, however, religious dissent was strong, and the Whigs enjoyed the support of the powerful Russell family.
But the Bishop of Exeter was Sir Jonathan Trelawney, baronet, a local magnate in his own right. He was one of the seven bishops tried for their opposition to James II, but one of the two of this number who were prepared to swear allegiance to William and Mary. He was a Tory by upbringing and conviction, and used his power-base to increase his interest. In 1703 he reminded the Tory Earl of Nottingham, one of the two secretaries of state, that he had secured the election of eleven Tory Members, but nothing had so far been done to relieve his ‘numerous family from the burdens of a poor bishopric’. Wondrous to relate, Trelawney soon found himself promoted to the rich see of Winchester, and appointed prelate to the Order of the Garter.
That ‘vigorous and attractive debauchee’, the Whig leader Thomas, Lord Wharton, had, in contrast, a puritan and parliamentarian background, ‘but he owed his scepticism, his engaging manners and his loose morals to the Restoration society in which he had been brought up’. Jonathan Swift, churchman and Tory pamphleteer, hated him ‘like a toad’, but could not help admiring the way in which Wharton, when vigorously assailed by yet another pamphlet, would tell Swift that he had been ‘damnably mauled’ by it, but then chat with him as if nothing really mattered. The Tories made repeated attempts to see him off in a duel, but he disarmed their swordsmen one after another, and always spared their lives.
A contemporary gives us a pen-picture of Wharton wielding interest just as deftly as he did his small sword. He recommended two candidates of his own persuasion for the borough of High Wycombe, only to find that:
Some of the staunch Churchmen invited two of their own party to oppose them and money was spent on both sides … They found my Lord Wharton was got there before them and was going up and down the town with his friends to secure votes on their side. The [Tory] gentleman with his two candidates and
It was all too much for the principal Tory, who ‘crossed over to his friends and cried: “E’en take your horse and begone; whoever has my Lord Wharton on his side has enough for this election.” ’72
Whig and Tory
Discussion of the importance of interest has already slid us deep into politics. Political parties as we understand them did not yet exist: there were no formally appointed party leaders, central offices, manifestos, whips or lists of approved candidates. Yet there were most certainly political groupings, and a rancour between them so intense that a Victorian editor of Sarah Marlborough’s papers warned his readers that ‘It is almost impossible to conceive the bitter hatred which they bear to each other, and the atrocious libels against their leaders which the press sent every day into the world.’73 I was taught history at a time when Sir Lewis Namier’s views on the politics of the age were very much current. He stressed the importance of connections – groupings based on family or interest – rather than party as we would now understand it. Recent research, especially the painstaking work carried out for the monumental History of Parliament project (whose House of Commons 1690–1715 has proved invaluable), now suggests that party was a good deal more important than Namier believed.
So what did Marlborough and his contemporaries understand by parties? As the historian Tim Harris has so brilliantly demonstrated, the political legacy of the Restoration was a complex one. For a start, it was different in England, Ireland and Scotland, for these three kingdoms were united only in the person of the monarch, and presented distinct problems of their own. In England, with whose politics Marlborough was most intimately concerned, there were two broad groups, each composed of men of similar political persuasions but subject to wide internal disagreement.
On the one hand the Whigs (dubbed ‘the party of movement’ by our Victorian editor, who saw them as the ancestors of the radicals of his own age) had welcomed the return of Charles II but emphasised that he had been called back by Parliament, and believed that the monarch should rule according to law. The Whigs were the least homogeneous of the parties, for they were an alliance of nonconformist churchmen at one end of the spectrum, and grandees at the other, their most notable figures known as the ‘Lords of the Junto’ in the first decade of the eighteenth century.* The more astute Whig leaders, like Lord Wharton, recognised that if they were to succeed it would be by a political organisation which their rivals lacked. On the other hand the Tories applauded the restoration of a monarch sanctified by God, and although most of them expected him to obey the law, they believed that there were times when he could use his royal prerogative to override it. Some High Tories went further, arguing that he held his throne by divine right and was accountable only to God, and not to man.
Supporters of the established Church, with its bishops and prayer book, tended to the Tory view. Presbyterians and the descendants of the Civil War puritans hoped to see the Church of England reformed before they could work within it. They agreed with the Anglicans in their dislike of separatist sects, but they were generally whiggish in sympathy. Both parties found their views easily misrepresented by opponents, and the pamphleteering of the age, unshackled by the removal of censorship in 1695, left no stone unhurled when it came to blackguarding opponents: the Tories were Popish and autocratic, seeking to turn England into Louis XIV’s France, while the Whigs were nonconformist republicans who would bring back the dark days of the interregnum.
In addition to declared Whigs and Tories, there were always some ‘Queen’s Servants’, who were inclined to support the government of the day. These were often numerous enough to swing the balance of the Commons, and Marlborough and Godolphin could scarcely have survived without the support of these gentlemen, most of whom were moderate Tories by persuasion. Service officers were often MPs: over the period 1660–1715 the Commons never had fewer than between 12 and 18 per cent of its members in the army or the navy. James II’s tendency to reward the political opposition of officers by removing their commissions meant that, in his reign and immediately after it, most officer MPs tended to be Tories. By 1702, though, most of them, like generals William Cadogan, George Macartney and Francis Palmes, were Whigs. John Webb, the victor of Wynendaele, was a Tory, and his fellow Tories made much of the fact that he had allegedly received scant recognition for his victory. In his private correspondence Marlborough professed disdain for party politics so often that one believes him. Given a choice, he would probably have been a moderate Tory, while Sarah, never one for half-measures, saw all Tories as closet Jacobites, and lost no opportunity to tell Queen Anne of the danger they posed. Whatever else united John and Sarah, it was certainly not politics.
There is no simple political map of the England of Marlborough’s day. Country squires like Sir Roger de Coverly were proverbially Tory, and the Spectator’s engaging sketches of the good-natured baronet show a man who behaved, in his own little kingdom, much as a benevolent monarch might act on a bigger stage. The parish clergy, whose comfortable liaison with the squirearchy produced the squarson, that hybrid of squire and parson who was more comfortable on his hunter than in his pulpit, were usually Tory, though Low Church bishops often tilted the political balance in the Lords in favour of the Whigs.
The City of London, so important to Parliament’s success during the Civil War, was firmly Whig. What Trevelyan called ‘the middling classes of society … rich merchants, small shopkeepers, freehold yeomen, artisans and craftsmen’ were whiggish, as were those, like younger sons and merchants trading overseas, who found ‘antique custom and privilege’ more hindrance than help.74 There were great noble houses on both sides, sometimes as much because of traditional rivalries and an eye for the main chance as because of genuine political conviction, and in terms of ‘wantonness, unbelief and faction’ there was little to choose between the High Tory Henry St John, champion of the bishops, and the Whig Lord Wharton, mainstay of the dissenters.75 Indeed, our earnest Victorian believed that it was all about interest: ‘The leading men of all parties aimed chiefly at getting into high places.’ Nor should we discount the way that the terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ became tribal markings, with the smoky little loyalties of club, coffee house and hunting field holding men together, like a covey of partridges in the same patch of stubble.
There was political movement too. During the last four years of his reign, in the early 1680s, Charles II managed to appeal to opinion in the wider political nation ‘out of doors’, reaching out past the Whigs in Parliament to find a solid majority of royalists in the country at large, encouraging meetings and addresses which undercut the Whigs’ claim to be speaking for the people. In contrast, Whig grandees like Wharton recognised that their own party, an essentially disparate alliance, could only hope to win if it emphasised its agreement on the key issues of the day: religious toleration for all Protestants; war with France; union with Scotland; and the Hanoverian succession. Although the Tories constituted a ‘solid phalanx’ based on the Church and landed interest, they were divided on all these issues.
The fact that the war was financed largely by a land tax of four shillings in the pound meant that however much Sir Roger and his cronies revelled in the spectacle of the French, widely regarded as England’s natural enemies, getting a good drubbing, th
Ruling the country actually involved a good deal more than securing a majority in Parliament, for what Tim Harris calls the ‘social history of politics’ reveals that, in order to make its writ run, any government needed to control
peers, gentry and merchants at the top level who served as Lord Lieutenants [of counties], deputy Lieutenants, grand jurors, JPs, mayors and common councilmen, down to the men of lesser social standing who served as petty jurors, militiamen, tax assessors, churchwardens, overseers, vestrymen, constables and other parish and ward officers.76
In this context Sir Roger’s neighbour, hacking into the county town with his spaniel at his side, was scarcely less important than the baronet himself. He was
a Yeoman of about an hundred Pounds a year, an honest man: He is just within the Game-Act, and qualified to kill an Hare or a Pheasant … He would be a good neighbour if he did not destroy so many partridges: in short, he is a very sensible man; shoots flying; and has been several Times Foreman of the Petty-Jury.77
Successive governments used their interest to try to ensure a favourable balance of power locally, in particular by removing those justices of the peace – in default of a paid bureaucracy the keystones of local administration – who were known to oppose their policy. This straightforward spoils system found supporters at both political extremes, but the majority, like Queen Anne herself, correctly feared that it caused local instability and increased political rancour. It is always as well to remember that while Marlborough’s England could be threatened, cajoled and bribed, it could not be coerced, and that solid and unremarkable truth, however elusive it might have seemed in Whitehall, underlies the febrile politics of the period.
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