The Leicester House faction
Under the Hanoverian monarchs it became almost the norm for princes of Wales and their households to provide a focus of opposition to the king and his ministers. These situations arose from the deep-seated personal animosities that existed between each king and his heir. A ‘prince’s party’ was active in Parliament during 1717-20, 1737-42, 1747-51 and 1755-57. As the London residence of three successive princes, Leicester House also served as their political headquarters and approximated to a ‘shadow’ court rivaling the king’s official court at St James’s. Leicester House itself was an imposing residence, originally built in the 1630s, situated on the north side of Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square.
Both George II, when prince of Wales, and his son Frederick were obstructed and frustrated by their respective fathers’ refusal to increase their incomes or allow them any responsibility in running the country. There were dramatic moments of crisis when relations between father and son reached breaking point. The prince declared himself in opposition to the king and his ministers, severed all links with the king’s court, and ordered those of their household servants with seats in Parliament to vote against ministerial measures. Those who refused were promptly required to leave the prince’s employment, to be replaced by others who, with little prospect of office and preferment in the present reign, chose to capitalize on the hope of advancement in the next. By leading a set of politically discontented supporters, the prince sought to annoy and exert pressure on the king, and in this way to gain concessions. Historians have often referred to this feature of eighteenth-century politics as the ‘reversionary interest’.
The prince was an attractive source of patronage. It was a statutory requirement that MPs taking office under the crown vacated their parliamentary seats in order to seek re-election, a procedure that could be expensive as well as inconvenient. But this did not apply to MPs taking office under the prince of Wales. The prince could, in theory, create and appoint to as many offices as he wished, though in practice his financial resources limited the number of salaries he could offer. In addition to the range of positions within both his and the princess of Wales’ household, he could also appoint officials by virtue of his tenure of the duchy of Cornwall. He could, of course, also make promises of government office in the next reign, promises which he did not need to keep. Numerically, therefore, the prince could command the allegiance of an appreciable number of ‘servants’ in the House of Commons. At the time of Walpole’s downfall in 1742, Prince Frederick’s following numbered around twenty-five. But by the later 1740s, he controlled the votes of as many as 40 Members.
Leicester House was never able to function as a united faction. This was largely because the aims of those who grouped themselves around the prince were in many cases too diverse for them to act jointly for very long. Loyalty to the prince was difficult to maintain, and the uncertain game of waiting for the king to die required strong reserves of patience. Although there was always a small core of steady, coherent support, the more ambitious and abler politicians attached themselves in order to exploit their nuisance value, but usually expected to be bought off by the ministry sooner or later. It was never therefore possible to formulate policies and measures on which all could unite.
As heir to the throne, the prince of Wales’ potential as opposition patron and figurehead gave the aura of constitutional respectability to ‘formed opposition’ which had always carried implications of disloyalty, and even of treason. The Leicester House faction consequently had an exclusive significance in the complex business of sustaining connection and co-operation between the disparate opposition groups of Whigs and Tories. At various times the prince and his supporters courted, or was courted by, the Whig or Tory branches of opposition. During the ‘Whig Schism’ of 1717-20, the then prince of Wales (the future George II) actively welcomed both Tories and discontented Whigs to his Leicester House court. However, although Prince George may have acted as a general focus of opposition, the leading opponents at this time – notably Robert Walpole, William Pulteney and Lord Townshend – could not always count on him. There were certainly occasions when he caused irritation through his failure to vote against the ministry in the House of Lords, or to order his household officials to do so in the Commons. Although continuing to maintain his establishment at Leicester House after reconciling with his father in 1720, from then until his accession in 1727 he refrained from engaging openly with ministerial opponents.
George II’s son Frederick proved a much more active politician. In 1737 Frederick set himself up in opposition, initially over his father’s refusal to increase his income, and was soon in concert with leading whig opponents, such as Lord Carteret and Pulteney, and the tory leader Sir William Wyndham. He brought rising opposition stars, such as George Lyttelton and William Pitt, into his household, and ensured that his supporters co-operated in the united opposition effort that brought Walpole down in 1742.
Frederick’s opposition activity largely ceased until 1747 when his growing resentment at being barred from a more active part in government spurred him into taking action against the Pelham ministry. In his second phase of opposition, Frederick enjoyed an enhanced role as opposition figurehead, and succeeded in winning many allies among the tories as well as among dissident whigs. His right-hand man, John Perceval, 2nd earl of Egmont – earmarked as future chief minister – drew up extensive plans for inaugurating the new reign incorporating bright promises of ‘patriot’ measures. However, Frederick’s party lacked adequate leadership and as revealed by the diary of George Bubb Dodington, another of Frederick’s main advisers, it never overcame its internal divisions over policy and strategy.
When Frederick died suddenly in March 1751 his faction quickly faded away. His widow Princess Augusta briefly continued the Leicester House tradition during 1755-57 after their son George, the future George III, attained full age.