Saturday, 17 February 2018

James II (1)

James II and VII, by Peter Lely
Public domain


James's aims

In the Whig histories of the nineteenth century James II was vilified as a potential absolutist who wanted to rule without Parliament and to force Catholicism on the nation. However, most historians now believe that his aim was not to force Catholicism on the nation or to rule without Parliament. He was especially sensitive to the charge that he was a client of Louis XIV and was eager to assert England’s independence. His aim was to establish the rights of Catholics to worship without persecution and to take full part in the political life of the country: but 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 completely misunderstood the nature of English anti-Catholicism, failed to empathize with 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 the association of ‘popery’ and ‘arbitrary power’ was taken for granted. His naturally authoritarian temperament did not help.


James: Duke of York

James was fifty-two at the time of his accession. His childhood had been uncertain and frightening. The Civil War started when he was nine; at thirteen he was handed over to the parliamentary forces and imprisoned in London, and two years later he escaped in disguise. The happiest years of his life were those in which he was a professional soldier, serving with the French and then the Spaniards. After the Restoration he became Lord High Admiral. In spite of his devout Catholicism (probably post 1669) he had as many mistresses as his brother. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

The last years of Charles II

Rye House, painted by J. M. W. Turner in 1793
Scene of an alleged plot to assassinate the king
Public domain


A potential for absolutism?

After the dissolution of the Oxford Parliament in March 1681 the monarchy was in a strong position and during the 1680s it grew even stronger and England seemed to be following the continental trend towards strong, centralised authoritarian government. 

Historians are divided on how far Charles had the potential to make himself an absolutist monarch on the lines of Louis XIV.  Some argue that the king lacked the energy and single-mindedness needed to build an absolutist state. Rather than turn himself into an abslute monarch,  he embraced the principles of his natural supporters, the Tory-Anglicans. This meant defending the established Church and abandoning his earlier attempts to secure religious toleration.

Charles had several advantages in his battle with the Whigs.
(1) Fear of civil war
(2) the royal prerogative, which could be exercised because the crown had at last become financially solvent.

Charles was eager to press home his advantages against the Whigs. In April 1682 the duke of York felt strong enough to return to England after his eighteen-month absence in Scotland and he was greeted by enthusiastic Tory demonstrations. In May 1683 there was a new lord chief justice, the notorious Sir George Jeffreys. From 1676 judges had been appointed durante bene placito (as long as they gave satisfaction) rather than quamdiu se bene gesserint (as long as they behaved themselves). Between this date and his death Charles unilaterally removed eleven judges. 

Saturday, 3 February 2018

The Exclusion Crisis

Engraving showing a mock-burning of the pope
17 November 1680
Public domain


The first Exclusion Parliamen
t (March-July 1679)

Having dissolved the Cavalier Parliament, Charles had to summon a new parliament because he needed money - Louis XIV was refusing a subsidy. The general election of February 1679 swept away Danby’s supporters and much of the older generation. Half the MPs had never sat before. They were comparatively young and many of them had a high level of political consciousness. The Exclusion Crisis was about to begin.

Parliament met on 6 March and sat to 27 May. This parliament, the first new House of Commons for eighteen years, has achieved fame as the first Exclusion Parliament, sometimes known as the Habeas Corpus Parliament. In its initial sessions it secured the impeachment of Danby. The debates were as virulent as those on the impeachment of Strafford in 1641, and Danby had good reason to fear for his life. Charles advised him to leave the country, but, fearing Clarendon’s fate (he had died in exile), Danby refused. Though the articles of impeachment and the bill of attainder failed, he spent five years in the Tower.

Charles further tried to conciliate his opponents by bringing his former lord chancellor, the earl of Shaftesbury and the Opposition MP William, Lord Russell (now MP for Bedfordshire), into the Privy Council and to agree to disband the standing army (but would he do it?). In May Parliament secured the Habeas Corpus Amendment Act, requiring judges to bring a prisoner to trial within a specific period of time (usually three days). Retrospectively this was a great step forward in human rights, though at the time its motive was more narrowly partisan: an attempt to tie the hands of a Catholic monarch. Charles further conciliated parliament by the delivery of the plot victims to execution.

What galvanized the opposition in this parliament was the public disclosure on 27 April 1679 of parts of the recently executed Edward Coleman’s correspondence which seemed to indicate that the duke of York was in negotiation with both France and Rome - and therefore by implication in the Popish Plot as well. On 27 April 1679 Russell addressed the Commons, declaring that if the succession were not changed
‘we must resolve when we have a Prince of the Popish Religion to be Papists, or burn ... and I will do neither’ (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)


William, Lord Russell
Public domain

On 11 May Thomas Pilkington moved that James be impeached for high treason. On 15 May the Commons passed a resolution that a bill be brought in 'to disable the Duke of York to inherit the Imperial Crown of this Realm’. On 27 May Charles prorogued (and on 10 July dissolved) the parliament. In August an election was held for a new parliament but when it met it was prorogued until October 1680. (In the meantime Shaftesbury was dismissed in October 1679.)

Friday, 26 January 2018

The Popish Plot

Titus Oates, delusional paranoic
and conspiracy theorist
Public domain


This post, which follows on from the earlier post about growing opposition to Charles II,  is greatly indebted to J. P. Kenyon, The Popish Plot (Penguin, 1972).


The Popish Plot

The ‘plot’ was the brainchild of Titus Oates (1649-1705), a delusional paranoiac, and one of the most spectacular liars in history. He was the son of a Baptist-turned-Anglican parson. He was expelled from two Cambridge colleges and though he went down without taking a degree, he nevertheless took holy orders. He was ejected from the living of Bobbing in Kent for drunkenness. He then had a spell as a chaplain at the garrison at Tangier, which ended when he was accused of sodomy. In 1676 he fell in with Israel Tonge, a clergyman with a  persecution complex focused on the Jesuits. In March 1677 Oates was received into the Roman Catholic Church. After this, at the instigation of the provincial of the English Jesuits he served briefly as a novice at Valladolid, an experience which enabled him to claim that he was a doctor of the University of Salamanca.

The 'plot' began on 13 August 1678 when the king was introduced to Israel Tonge, who presented him with a document which made known details of a ‘conspiracy’ masterminded (of course!) by the Jesuits: they would first send priests disguised as Presbyterian ministers into Scotland to incite rebellion and then stir up a Catholic uprising in Ireland. Having caused a revolt in two kingdoms they would then assassinate the king. The allegations were passed on to Danby for further investigation. Even if Charles did not believe in the plot, he could hardly ignore the allegation – neither could Danby. In the following days Oates and Tonge added more details and on 6 September Oates swore a deposition forty-three articles long before a Middlesex justice of the peace, Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey.


Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey
Public domain

On 28 September the matter was brought before the privy council when Tonge produced a new version of their allegations, now eighty-one articles long. They claimed that the intention was to shoot the king, but that if that failed, the queen’s physician, George Wakeman, was to poison him. Tonge also produced five incriminating letters written by Jesuits and received by Thomas Bedingfield, James’s confessor. On the following day, Tongue produced Oates as his informant. During the privy council’s investigations, Charles was able to expose Oates as a liar on points of detail. But though the king was unconvinced the privy council were impressed.

To those who believed Oates his story was convincing because it confirmed what they already believed about Catholics. Two coincidences seemed to dispel all doubts about the conspiracy.

Danby and the beginnings of opposition

William, Lord Russell
soon to head the opposition to Charles II
Public domain


The beginnings of an opposition party

Shaftesbury is reported to have said on his dismissal,
‘It is only laying down my gown, and putting on my sword’
The parliamentary session of early 1674 was the stormiest so far, arousing historical memories of the Long Parliament. Among the bills passed was a habeas corpus bill (though it did not become law until 1679). Buckingham was attacked for corruption and removed from all his offices. And articles of impeachment were brought against Arlington. He escaped a petition for his dismissal by a narrow majority, but he resigned his Secretaryship in September.

In the face of hardening opposition Charles made peace with the Dutch in the Treaty of Westminster, 9 February 1674). On 24 February he prorogued Parliament. He had now acquired a new minister: Thomas Osborne, earl of Danby, who had succeeded Clifford as Lord Treasurer.


Thomas Osborne, 1st earl of Danby
later duke of Leeds
Government collection
Public domain

By this time something resembling an opposition party had come into existence, comprising men such as William Russell (afterwards Lord Russell). In 1673 an MP, Sir Thomas Meres, was able to speak of ‘this side of the house and that side’. A hard core of ‘country’ MPs were deeply exercised by the apparent spread of popery in high circles and opposed to anything that smacked of royal absolutism. In 1674 the Green Ribbon Club was founded at the King’s Head Tavern in Chancery Lane. The opposition was growing and its leaders included the former ministers, Buckingham and Shaftesbury. In May 1674 Shaftesbury was expelled from the privy council and the lord lieutenancy of Dorset, and from this date he worked to secure the dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament and the exclusion of the Duke of York from the throne.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Charles II: Catholic or Cavalier policies?

The secret Treaty of Dover
British Library
Public domain

After the downfall of Clarendon, two distinct courses of action were open to Charles II. Historians have labelled these ‘Cavalier’ and ‘Catholic’.
(a) 'Cavalier': a recognition that the king’s power base lay in the Church of England; therefore unqualified support for the restored Church and the suppression of nonconformity by the enforcement of the Clarendon Code; a ‘Protestant’ foreign policy.
(b) 'Catholic': toleration for Catholics and Protestant nonconformists; a French alliance.
Charles’s own inclinations supported (b) but he was hampered by parliamentary opinion. He was a prisoner of his parliaments and increasingly resenting this fact.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that from the late 1660s the heir to the throne, James, duke of York, and his wife, Anne Hyde, were moving towards conversion to Rome. As Charles had no legitimate heir, this fact was hugely significant.


The Cabal

After the fall of Clarendon, Charles made his own policy, and never again allowed himself to be controlled by a chief minister. However a group of influential men around him were important in policy-making. Five of them have been (exaggeratedly) seen as key and because of their initials the period 1667-1674 has been known as the Cabal.
• Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, from 1672 (Secretary of State),  probably the most influential of the five. 
• Thomas, Baron Clifford (Lord Treasurer from 1672)
• George Villiers, 2nd duke of Buckingham, Master of the Horse, a notorious debauchee.
• Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Chancellor from 1672)
• John Maitland, duke of Lauderdale (Lord High Commissioner from 1669).

It is mistaken to see them as a group that acted together. Apart from a dislike of the narrow intolerance of the restored Church of England, they had little in common and vied with each other for power.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Plague, fire and war

By the mid-1660s Charles II's honeymoon period was over and the situation worsened when two natural disasters seriously weakened crown finances, and dented national self-confidence: bubonic plague and the Great Fire. These calamities were compounded by an avoidable disaster, the humiliation at the hands of the Dutch navy, which seriously undermined the prestige of the monarchy.


Collecting the dead for burial
Public domain


The plague of 1665

The effects of the plague, which seems to have arrived at Yarmouth in 1663 and reached its height in the summer and early autumn of 1665, can perhaps be exaggerated. The mortality was high (70,000 deaths) but plague was a common phenomenon and it probably had more effect on the poor than on the trading and governing classes (Pepys’s life was not disrupted). It is known as the Great Plague because it was the last major incident of bubonic plague to hit England.


A plague doctor, from a
contemporary Italian print


The Great Fire of London

The effects of the Fire (3-6 September) were more serious. Contemporaries estimated that it gutted most of the City and destroyed 13,200 houses, 89 churches and goods valued at £3.5 million. The overall damage is estimated to have been £10 million. London’s commerce was brought to a standstill for six months. Pepys gives the classic account.


A painting of the fire, probably from the
seventeenth century.
Public domain



The Second Dutch War

Throughout the early 1660s relations with the United Provinces (the Dutch Republic) steadily declined. The fundamental causes of the war that England were economic, but the war also sprang from Cavalier Anglican dislike of the Calvinist republic. While Charles II admired France, he snobbishly viewed the Dutch as a society of low-born merchants. He also wanted to promote the interests of the future Stadtholder, his nephew William, Prince of Orange, against the States-General.