Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The British monarchy in the twentieth century

This post does not claim to be comprehensive - simply to pick out some of the major trends in the development of the monarchy. I am indebted to the following books:
Sarah Bradford, George VI (Penguin, 2011)
Ben Pimlott, The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II (HarperCollins, 1996)
William Shawcross, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother: The Official Biography (London: Macmillan, 2009)

The twentieth century saw the British monarchy rebrand itself so that its German roots became obliterated. It also saw a further diminution in the powers of the Crown.

Ireland in the early twentieth century

The partition of Ireland after 1920
I have been indebted for this post to Roy Foster's Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (Penguin, 1989). 

Foster writes that 
'The First World War should be seen as one of the most decisive events in modern Irish history.’ 

By April 1916 about 150,000 Irishmen were in active service in the war. The Unionist community was deeply committed to the war effort and John Redmond, the parliamentary leader of the constitutional nationalists also gave strong support to the war, trying to demonstrate that Home Rule was not incompatible with loyalty to the British state. However, the Irish radicals, represented by Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Brotherhood took the view that this was a British imperial war. The Irish Volunteers, previously united, were now split over the question of whether to support the war.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

The Liberals and Ireland 1912-14

The re-emergence of Home Rule

Following the two disappointing elections of 1910, the Liberals were increasingly dependent on the Home Rulers for votes. But Home Rule had never been approved by the British electorate, and it involved coercing a quarter of the population of the island of Ireland into (as they saw it) giving up their British allegiance.

In the early twentieth century many Irish Catholics become increasingly radical, and impatient with the more modest agenda of the Home Rulers.  In 1905 Arthur Griffith began the process of bringing the various nationalist factions and societies together as Sinn Féin

One pressing problem was over how Irish Home Rule would affect the rest of the United Kingdom. Churchill advocated the division of the UK into ten or twelve separate ‘provinces’, each of which would have its own assembly, but his proposition was greeted with derision: why should Britain be dismembered just to please the ‘disloyal’ Irish. However, Asquith continued to home that Home Rule would be a first step towards a wider devolution.

The Liberal government 1906-14

David Lloyd George (1863-1945)
radical chancellor

The Unionists in turmoil

By 1905 the Conservative (Unionist) party was in a state of civil war over the question of free tradeIn December their leader, A. J. Balfour resigned and the King sent for Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman, who formed a minority Liberal government. Balfour was the last Prime Minister to resign to an opposition leader without first being defeated in a general election.

The election of 1906: Liberal landslide

The general election of 1906 gave the Liberals an absolute majority of 130 seats (and nearly 50% of the vote). With their allies they had a majority of over 350.

The sensation of the election was the return of 53 Labour MPs. 24 were closely allied to the Liberals and the other 29 were elected under the independent auspices of the LRC (now renamed the Labour Party). 

The government was to be plagued with three great constitutional issues:

  1. The relationship between the Lords and Commons
  2. Whether women should be given the vote
  3. Whether Ireland should be granted Home Rule.

Friday, 27 February 2015

The Peterloo Massacre

Here is a very interesting article on the Peterloo Massacre, which is especially interesting because it gives prominence to female reformers. Do read!

The Peterloo Massacre
print published 1 October 1819
Manchester Library Services

This print, published by the Radical bookseller, Richard Carlile, is a coloured engraving. All the poles from which banners are flying have Phrygian caps or liberty caps on top. Not all the details strictly accord with contemporary descriptions; the banner the woman is holding should read: Female Reformers of Roynton -- 'Let us die like men and not be sold like slaves'. 

The print is inscribed: 'To Henry Hunt, Esq., as chairman of the meeting assembled in St. Peter's Field, Manchester, sixteenth day of August, 1819, and to the female Reformers of Manchester and the adjacent towns who were exposed to and suffered from the wanton and fiendish attack made on them by that brutal armed force, the Manchester and Cheshire Yeomanry Cavalry, this plate is dedicated by their fellow labourer, Richard Carlile.' 

Monday, 23 February 2015

Victorian politics: an overview

The following two posts on Victorian politics attempt to pick out the major themes rather than follow a strict chronology.

Victorian politics (1)

The dominance of the aristocracy

The enfranchisement of the great industrial centres was clearly a hugely important potential change, but in the short term the Reform Act did not transform politics. In particular, the aristocracy continued to play a dominant role and did so until the growth of mass politics at the end of the century. Although the three best-known Victorian prime ministers, Sir Robert Peel, Benjamin Disraeli, and William Ewart Gladstone were of middle class backgrounds, most of the others were aristocratics and sat in the Lords. (Disraeli was created Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 by his admirer, Queen Victoria, and therefore sat in the Lords at the end of his premiership.) 

The political parties

However, neither political party could ignore the implications of the Great Reform Act, and in the 1830s they reinvented themselves. The Victorian political division of Liberals and Conservatives came into being.

Victorian politics (2)

Gladstone in old age

The later Victorian period saw further parliamentary reform, the split of the Liberal party over Ireland, and the rise of the labour movement.

Parliamentary reform

The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 restricted ‘treating’ at elections, and could be seen as the prelude to further reform.

The Third Reform Bill was introduced in February 1884.  It essentially created a uniform householder and lodger franchise based on that introduced for the English boroughs in 1867. 

This ended the distinction between urban and rural voters.

The Redistribution Act in the following year engineered the most extensive reform of the constituencies since 1832. The majority of seats were now single-member and of roughly equal size though the largest cities received between three and six new MPs apiece.  

Because this disaggregated city constituencies into smaller units, many of them suburban, the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries. 

Following these reforms the United Kingdom electorate increased from 2.53 million in 1871 to 5.68 million at the end of 1884. By 1891 61% of adult males had the vote. However by this time both France and Germany had manhood suffrage.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The age of reform

The three posts below detail the challenges to the British constitution and the changes that took place between the 1790s and 1832.  

The growth of radicalism

The pressure for reform

John Wilkes, unflatteringly
portrayed by Hogarth
Public Domain
From the second half of the eighteen century there was growing pressure for reform of the political system. For example, the radical journalist, John Wilkes, managed to secure two important reforms: the principle that general warrants (warrants for arrest that did not name specific individuals) were declared illegal, and the reports of parliamentary debates could be published. 

The importance of the French Revolution

With the coming of the French Revolution in 1789 it became more difficult to maintain the belief that Britain had a perfect constitution. The system had too many anomalies. Only about three per cent of the population had the right to vote. Settlements that were almost non-existent such as Old Sarum and Dunwich returned two members of Parliament, while Manchester, Sheffield, and Birmingham had none.  

Ireland at a time of revolution

Wolfe Tone 1763-98
The first Irish nationalist
Public Domain

The United Irishmen

The French Revolution had a profound effect in Ireland, causing radicals, many of them from the rising Catholic middle class, to campaign for the abolition of the penal laws.

On 18 October 1791 the Belfast Society of United Irishmen was founded. Among the founders was Theobald Wolfe Tone, a young Protestant lawyer from Dublin.  For Tone radical political reform and nationalist identity went hand in hand, with no place for sectarian divisions. The first resolutions of the United Irishmen asserted

That the weight of English influence in the Government in this country is so great, as to require a cordial union, among ALL THE PEOPLE OF IRELAND. ... No reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which does not include Irishmen or every religious persuasion.
In his posthumously published autobiography Tone described his aim as
To subvert the tyranny of our execrable Government, to break the connexion with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country - these were my objects. To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions and to substitute the common name of Irishmen in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter - these were my means.

The coming of reform

With Britain's victory over France at Waterloo in 1815 radicalism revived. The post-war slump created huge hardships, to which the government of Lord Liverpool seemed largely unresponsive, and as the working classes grew in number they increasingly demanded the right to vote and the reform of Parliament.

The Peterloo Massacre
Public Domain
The government's clumsy response to working-class agitation was repression, most notoriously in the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester on 16 August 1819, in which about eleven people were killed and hundreds injured. 

The Yeomanry charge into the crowd
at St Peter's Fields

Public Domain

Friday, 6 February 2015

How Londoners voted

My friend, Professor Penelope J. Corfield of Royal Holloway, University of London, and her colleagues, have just launched this fantastic new website on the electoral history of London in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The digitisation of poll books and other electoral data will allow scholars to investigate how individuals voted.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The eighteenth century: an overview

Hogarth, 'Polling: The Humours
of an election, 1755'
Note the absence of a secret ballot
Public Domain

There are many excellent books on this subject. I have relied particularly, though by no means exclusively, on the relevant volumes of the New Oxford History of England.

Historians write about a ‘long eighteenth century’, meaning the (relatively stable) period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 and the Great Reform Act of 1832. The start of the premiership of William Pitt the Younger at the end of 1783 is often seen as a ‘half-way mark’ in this long century.

For all the differences of historical interpretation, the period possesses a certain unity and witnessed some hugely important developments.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The king and his prime minister

George I
reigned 1714-27
Public Domain

George I

George Louis, Elector of Hanover, owed his accession not to divine hereditary right, but to the Act of Settlement of 1701. He was the son of the Electress Sophia, the most direct Protestant descendant of James I.

He finally arrived at Greenwich on 18 September, having been delayed by contrary winds and by his own lack of urgency. Although he had known since 1701 that he was likely to be king, he had not troubled to learn to speak English with any proficiency.

The limits of George’s power were defined by the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement. He had to be a Protestant, he was forbidden to give office, title or estate to a foreigner without Parliament’s consent, he could appoint but could not dismiss a judge, he could appoint and dismiss ministers and dictate foreign policy. He controlled a vast amount of patronage. But he needed Parliament (a) for money and (b) because no minister could survive long without its support.

The Whig supremacy

On 10 April 1716 the Whigs passed the Septennial Act, on the grounds that the Triennial Act of 1694 had fomented feuds and party strife and occasioned ruinous expense. But the Scottish Whig, Lord Islay, gave the game away: frequent elections rendered ‘government dependent on the caprice of the multitude and very precarious’. The Whigs had moved a long way from their radical origins in the reign of Charles II and were now firmly oligarchical.

Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole
prime minister 1721-42
Public Domain
The financial collapse occasioned by the South Sea Bubble led to the appointment of the Norfolk squire Robert Walpole as First Lord of the Treasury. This was not seen at the time as a particularly momentous move. The king disliked Walpole, as did most politicians, who resented his obvious love of power and lack of scruple. He came to be unofficially referred to as Prime Minister – a term of abuse. In 1735 he moved into 10 Downing Street (then no 5), the residence of a Mr Chicken, and he secured the property as a residence for all future First Lords of the Treasury.
George II, r. 1727-60
When he became king, 

he kept on Walpole
as prime minister.

Public Domain
After twenty-one years in power, Walpole lost office, not because he had lost an election, or because he had lost the favour of the king (George II from 1727) but because he had lost the support of the Commons. This was therefore an event of great constitutional significance. To survive, an eighteenth-century prime minister needed both the support of the monarch and a majority in the Commons.

The Act of Settlement and the Union of Parliaments

The Treaty of Union, March 1707
Public Domain
The Princess Anne’s only surviving child, the duke of Gloucester died of smallpox on 30 July 1700. This raised the question of the Protestant succession, which was resolved by the Act of Settlement in May 1701, which established the succession, on Anne’s death, on the Electress Sophia of Hanover and her heirs.

Because the Act of Settlement had been passed by the English Parliament, there were concerns that Scotland might chose a different monarch from England.  Between April and July 1706 Union Commissioners convened in London. 25 articles were drawn up, which were ratified by the Scots Parliament in January 1707 and by Westminster on 6 March. The Act of Union was passed in March.

Key features were the establishing of:
  1. A single kingdom of ‘Great Britain’ with the succession vested in the Hanoverians. This state comprised c. 1 million Scots and some 5 m. English.
  2. A single Parliament at Westminster by expanding the Commons and Lords to include 45 MPs from Scottish constituencies to join 513 English MPs (a 12:1 ration compared with England) and 16 elected Scots peers to join the 45 English peers. This low representation flattered the country’s economic strength (38:1) but grossly under-represented the population ratio (5:1) between the two kingdoms.
  3. A British free trade area and the use of English standards of coins, weights and measures within it.
  4. An equality of Scots and English in colonial trade.
  5. A unified fiscal system based upon that already in place in England.
But the Scottish privy council continued, no change was made to Scotland’s legal system,  the Presbyterian settlement, the universities, burghs or hereditable jurisdictions. Scotland therefore remained a distinct country.

Scotland’s last Parliament was dissolved in April and the Union came into effect on 1 May 1707. The flags of St George and St Andrew were merged.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Glorious Revolution: Scotland and Ireland


John Graham of Claverhouse
Viscount Dundee

Public Domain
Scottish politicians found themselves reacting to events in England. In December 1688 James’s ministers fled Edinburgh in the wake of anti-Catholic rioting, leaving the control of the city to radical Presbyterians.

In January 1689 William summoned a Convention of Estates to meet in Edinburgh on 14 March. Scottish Jacobites (supporters of James) refused to attend and on 4 April members voted, with only five against, that James had attempted ‘the subversion of the Protestant religion, and the violation of the laws and liberties of the kingdom.’ The Claim of Right, the Scottish equivalent of the Bill of Rights, was accepted on 11 April. 

It was also a Presbyterian revolution. On 22 July William reluctantly agreed to an act abolishing bishops.  664 ministers were dismissed in the following decades and many Episcopalians, who still held to divine right monarchy, looked to the restoration of the Stuarts to secure their rights.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Glorious Revolution

William III
by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Public domain
There is a useful account and analysis on the History of Parliament site.

The decision to invade

When did William decide to invade England? By April 1688, that is, before the birth of the Prince of Wales, William told Admiral Edward Russell, then visiting his palace at Het Loo, that he was considering an English invasion. He had come to believe that James’s actions were threatening the monarchy. He believed that an English republic would be a disaster for Holland; another Cromwell, bent on colonial expansion and commercial enterprise, would have ruined his whole European strategy, which was to protect the United Provinces (the Netherlands) from the ambitions of Louis XIV.
Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud .
William's life was devoted
to resisting his territorial
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

In June, William sent an emissary to England on the pretext of a congratulatory message on the birth of the prince. The real purpose was to procure the letter of invitation from ‘the immortal seven’. But the invitation was vaguely worded and there is no evidence that the signatories were inviting William to seize the throne.

James II

James II and VII
Sir Godfrey Kneller
Public domain

A Catholic accession

James came to the throne with a clear aim: to establish the rights of Catholics to worship without persecution and to take full part in the political life of the country. However, to do this,  he would have to persuade Parliament to repeal the penal laws -  the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678. He believed that once this was done, Catholicism would triumph without any compulsion from the state. However, this belief shows his political naivety. He failed to understand the profound anti-popery of the majority of his subjects, and was unable to realize that his actions were likely to be misinterpreted. In his attempts to alleviate the rigours of religious discrimination, he had to fall back on the royal prerogative at a time when, thanks in part to the policies of Louis XIV in France, the association of ‘popery’ and ‘arbitrary power’ was taken for granted. His naturally authoritarian temperament did not help.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Charles II: The Restoration

'Charles II of England in Coronation robes'
by John Michael Wright -
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

The clock turned back?

Historians used to argue that the Restoration marked a decisive shift. The events of 1649 had permanently weakened the monarchy and the country was irrevocably on the road that led to a constitutional monarchy; religion was no longer central in political and social life. In support of this argument it can be noted that the Restoration settlement consciously sought to turn the clock back to 1641 rather than 1640. The constitutional reforms of 1641 – the destruction of the prerogative courts, the abolition of the Crown’s feudal revenue and prerogative taxes such as Ship Money – all stayed in place. So Parliament had won?

Or had it? It can also be argued that the reverse was the case. The English could not execute another king! The monarchy was strengthened as a result of the Interregnum, and the king’s prerogative remained largely untouched. In particular, the Militia Acts of 1661 and 1662 stipulated that the king retained ‘sole right of command’ over the militia, though day-to-day control was delegated to the lords lieutenants. This means that the issue which in 1641 and 1642 had tipped the country into civil war had apparently been settled - in favour of the king. It was he, not Parliament, who commanded the nation's armed forces.

The British Republic: II The Protectorate (1653-60)

The statue of Cromwell, erected in 1899,
 the three hundredth
anniversary of his birth. 

Note that he is
outside the Houses of Parliament, not inside!
The key theme of this period is the unsuccessful search for a lasting political settlement to replace the government of the king. The failure of this search made the restoration of the monarchy inevitable. However, if Cromwell had lived longer, or been succeeded by a son of equal ability, perhaps the story would have been different!

Barebone's Parliament

In July 1653 an assembly was summoned known as the Nominated Parliament, or more colloquially as Barebone’s ParliamentThis was a surrogate (and temporary) British assembly of 138 men ‘of approved fidelity and honesty’ (121 from England, 6 from Wales, 5 from Scotland, 6 from Ireland) with supreme authority to make a constitution.

However, one of the first acts of the Assembly was to vote itself a Parliament, to sit in the traditional Commons Chamber, and to elect a traditional Speaker. Far from being the mad assembly of religious fanatics of royalist propaganda it spent most of its brief life discussing much-needed reforms in the law and taxation. But it could not overcome the fact that it was not an elected Parliament, and although religious radicals such as Fifth Monarchists were in the minority, they were well-organised and aroused the fierce hatred of traditionalists.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The British republic: I The Commonwealth (1649-53)

The putting to death of an anointed king was a shocking event. What was to happen next? The king had been executed by the orders of a minority of parliamentarians against the wishes of the great majority of the people. To its enemies the new republic was a betrayal and a military tyranny. To its supporters such as the poet John Milton, it was a commonwealth liberating, its supporters for achievements which would rival those of Greece and Rome. To others it was the beginning of true godly reformation. 

On 6 February the Commons abolished the House of Lords. In March two acts of Parliament gave statutory force to the abolition of the monarchy and the Lords (this latter was against Cromwell’s wishes). In May an Act of Parliament declared England a Republic or Commonwealth 
‘governed by the representatives of the people in parliament … without any king or House of Lords’. 
From 7 February the government was in the hands of a Council of State of 41 members. It was to elect a new chairman every month and Cromwell acted as the first of these. Socially, the Council was conservative. It included five peers, three judges and two senior lawyers. It was under the overall control of the ‘Rump Parliament’, which consisted of 200 MPs, many of whom were readmitted after their expulsion in December 1648.

Radicalism and regicide

Holdenby Hall, where Charles 
was imprisoned
until seized by the Army
In January 1647, the Scots delivered the king to parliamentary custody. He was imprisoned at Holdenby (Holmby) House in Northamptonshire.  The Scots then returned home.

With the king in prison and the Scots departed, divisions opened up between Parliament and the Army. Parliament was dominated by Presbyterians, who wanted to disband the Army and open up negotiations with the king, who had indicated that he was prepared to accept a Presbyterian settlement. However, the Army was dominated by Independents (Congregationalists), who believed that each congregation should be self-governing, and they were resolutely opposed to a settlement with the king. There was now considerable hostility in Parliament to the New Model Army, which was seen as a hotbed of religious sedition and subversively radical political beliefs. 

The Civil War

Among the books I have consulted, the following have been especially useful: 
Barry Coward, The Stuart Age. England 1603-1714 (Longman, 2nd edition, 1994)
David L. Smith, A History of the Modern British Isles 1603-1707. The Double Crown (Blackwell, 1998)
Austin Woolrych, Britain in Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2002)
John Wroughton, The Longman Companion to the Stuart Age 1603-1714 (Longman, 1997)

The period between 1640 and 1660 is the most momentous in British history. It saw a series of dramatic events, all of them with major constitutional implications:

  1. The creation of the New Model Army and the rise of religious and political radicalism within the Army
  2. The trial and execution of the king and the setting up of a republic (the Commonwealth)
  3. The brutal conquest of Ireland
  4. A series of parliamentary experiments that saw the dissolution of the Long Parliament and the establishment of Cromwell as Lord Protector
  5. The growth of religious dissent in the 1650s.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Long Parliament

The Long Parliament in session,
Speaker Lenthall
in the chair

The Short Parliament

The First Bishops' War had concluded with humiliation for Charles's army, forcing him to summon Parliament and end the Personal Rule. This Parliament, known as the Short Parliament, assembled on 13 April 1640. Contrary to Strafford’s optimistic predictions, the Commons had been elected on an anti-court programme, with Ship-money a major issue. Parliament refused to grant the subsidies Charles demanded in spite of his major concession - the repeal of Ship-money - until their religious and political grievances received a hearing. On the advice of Strafford, who promised him an Irish army of 8,000, Charles dissolved Parliament on 5 May - this was his fourth Parliament and the last he would be able to dissolve.

The Second Bishops’ War

In August the Scots, galvanized by their new radical agenda, seized the initiative when the veteran soldier, Alexander Leslie led an army of about 18,000 across the Tweed. On 28 August they routed a hastily assembled English army at Newburn.  Then, while the English reinforced the fortifications of Berwick, they by-passed the town and went on to take Newcastle.  While they advanced without opposition, the king arrived in York.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Charles I: the Personal Rule (1629-40)

In April 1629 Charles made peace with France, and in November 1630 with Spain, calculating that if he avoided war, he would be able to rule without Parliament. 


The Personal Rule has also been called the ‘eleven years’ tyranny’, though, after the horrors of the Civil War, many came to see it as a golden age. The period is significant constitutionally because it saw a clash between two views of kingship:

  1. the king subject to the common law; 
  2. the king able to rule through the sole exercise of his prerogative. 

These conflicts had already come to the fore in Charles’s parliaments. 

Some consensus is emerging among historians about the personal rule.

  1. The Crown was genuinely attempting to reform the machinery of government and make it more efficient. Similar policies were being pursued by other monarchs in western Europe.
  2. Charles and his court became increasingly isolated from the mainstream of contemporary religious, intellectual, and cultural life, and did not bother to explain their policies. This shows the political disadvantage of ruling without Parliament. By 1640 Charles had created a climate of distrust that was to prove a disaster for him.