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Jacob Tillemans: the House of Commons c. 1710 (detail)
(c) Palace of Westminster Collection
Published in 2002
These 1,982 biographies cover all of the men who sat in the Hosue of Commons between the general election of February 1690 and the dissolution of Queen Anne's last Parliament in January 1715. The conventions used are described in detail in the 'Method' section of David Hayton's Introductory Survey. In a section on the Members, the Survey analyses the information contained in the biographies, in particular reviewing their background, age, education, occupation, religion, and their parliamentary experience. As the introduction shows, althought the House of Commons was to some degree representative of the rising professional and business classes of later 17th century England, with lawyers, soldiers, sailors and civil servants, merchants, manufactureres and financiers, it was still overwhelmingly an assembly of landed proprietors. Upward social mobility was possible, but still relatively slow, for men of low birth, except for those very exceptional creatures who rose to the heights of the legal profession,a nd who in a single lifetime could travel as far as Lord Chancellor Peter King, from the obscurity of the provincial bourgeoisie to a peerage. Businessmen, however wealthy, even the financiers to whom the government kow-towed in order to safeguard public creidt, would have to wait for their sons and grandsons to ascend the highest ranks of the social order.
A series of appendices provide lists of, among other things, Members who were under-age; Protestant Dissenters; 'Civil servants'; Army officers; Naval officers; professional lawyers; merchants and financiers; men of science and letters, moral reformers and philanthropists, and those involved in scandal, either of a financial or sexual kind.
The period covers what is sometimes labelled the 'rage of party'. Another section of the introductory survey deals with the politics of the House, and the political identity and affiliations of the Members within it. The biographies have made it possible to investigate in detail the question of whether Members' political actions were guided more closely by their allegiance to Whiggism or Toryism, or to their affiliation to various kinship and patronage groups, and the extent to which the ideas of 'Court' and 'country' parties provided an alternative 'polarity' to the Whig and Tory ideologies.
As always, the biographies provide accounts of a rich collection of individuals. Sir Ralph Dutton, whose main hobby – apart from greyhound racing – was attempting to gain the premier position among Gloucestershire gentry, encumbered his estate with huge debts largely through his campaign to win the county seat; Andrew Archer's efforts (including a fact-finding mission) to uncover abuses in provisioning the army in Italy, Spain and Portugal helped to ensure he never got the government job he craved. The biographies include smooth and effective executive politicians like Thomas Coningsby, cordially loathed by Tories – and by many of his fellow Whigs, and obsessive anti-Jacobites like Sir Henry Dutton Colt – of whom one Secretary of State sighed ‘I think we are never to have done with Sir Harry Colt’. There are the many men thought to be more interested in holding on to government jobs than holding consistently to their principles, such as Richard Ferrier – ‘The posts he enjoyed/Though quite varied in kind,/Could not be more varied/than was his own mind’ – but just as many whose dedication to party interest overrode all other considerations, such as Ralph Freeman, who threw himself into efforts in the Commons to challenge the legality of elections won by the other side.