“The Severest Censure of this House”: a government is repeatedly defeated in the House of Commons, 1810

Current events in Parliament are very interesting to me as a political historian, although I admit I’d prefer to be watching from the safer distance of, say, a couple of centuries. Since I am a historian, however, and a Napoleonic-era one at that, yesterday’s triple defeat of Theresa May’s government reminded me strongly of the situation of the Perceval government over the winter of 1809–1810. Perceval’s government wasn’t exactly found to be in “contempt of Parliament”, like May’s, but it might as well have been. Here’s why.

The Perceval Government

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Spencer Perceval kissed hands as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer at the beginning of October 1809. He succeeded the Duke of Portland. At the beginning of September, it had been revealed that Foreign Secretary George Canning had been intriguing against the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, for some months. Portland had actually agreed to force Castlereagh out and reshuffle the cabinet to accommodate Canning’s friend Lord Wellesley. The outcome of all this was that Canning and Castlereagh both resigned (and then fought a duel), while Portland – who had recently suffered a stroke and was in poor health – gave way to Perceval.

Perceval thus started out under the shadow of Canning and Castlereagh’s disgrace. His position was not improved by the fact that the Portland government’s big military campaign of the year – the Walcheren expedition, involving 40,000 troops and over 600 naval vessels – was in its final disastrous throes. The expedition’s commander, Lord Chatham, had failed to take Antwerp (his ultimate goal), and sickness was tearing through the troops. By mid-September, nearly 10,000 men were on the sick list. Most of the army was recalled, but a garrison of 16,000 men under Sir Eyre Coote remained on Walcheren, pending further orders.

Matters were made even worse by the fact that Lord Chatham, the expedition’s commander, had also been a member of Portland’s cabinet as Master-General of the Ordnance. This was a huge millstone around Perceval’s neck; indeed, many cartoons depicted Chatham at this time with a large millstone inscribed “WALCHEREN”.

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(From here)

Perceval spent several weeks putting his government together. He approached the leaders of the opposition, Lord Grenville and Earl Grey; he approached former prime minister Lord Sidmouth, who had a reasonably sizeable political following. They all refused to join him. With Canning and Castlereagh both out of the question, Perceval found himself having to fall back largely on the same ministers who had served in the discredited Portland government. Even Chatham got to stay on at the Ordnance.

These attempts to shore up an already-tottering government took up most of Perceval’s attentions, and it was only in November that the cabinet finally got around to discussing what to do with Walcheren (meanwhile, half of Coote’s garrison there had fallen ill with fever). Walcheren was finally evacuated at the end of December.

Inquiry: political or military?

Perceval was aware he would face an immediate onslaught from the opposition in Parliament on Walcheren. He knew there was no way he would be able to avoid some sort of political scrutiny, particularly after the extremely influential London Common Council (representing London’s considerable mercantile interests) laid an Address before the King calling for an inquiry into the debacle. A year previously, the Portland government had managed to dodge a similar bullet over the dire military situation in the Peninsula by placing the responsible army commanders (including the future Duke of Wellington) before a military inquiry at Chelsea – despite calls from the City of London for a political investigation. Perceval knew he would not be so lucky now.

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Since an inquiry was inevitable, the only question was what form the inquiry should take. Perceval hoped he would be able to limit any damage to his government by restricting an inquiry to a select committee, which would only be obliged to publish its ultimate decision and not its full proceedings. Effectively, Perceval wanted to control the evidence that would be laid before Parliament (and the public).

Perceval managed to put the meeting of Parliament off over Christmas, but when Parliament met again on 23 January 1810, the opposition went straight to the attack. On 26 January, Lord Porchester led the opposition in its demand for a political inquiry – not a select committee, but a committee of the whole House of Commons (a format that had recently been used for assessing evidence that the Duke of York, as Commander in Chief, had been selling military commissions through his mistress, Mary-Anne Clarke).

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Lord Porchester

The opposition hoped this format would do two things – indict the government before the eyes of Parliament and the people, and force the government to produce and publish all the relevant paperwork, rather than cherry-picking their evidence. As Porchester argued, the nation at large had a right to know how the government was using its military resources:

I cannot consent to delegate the right of inquiry on this occasion to any select or secret Committee, by whom the course of investigation might be misdirected, or its bounds limited – before whom, possibly, garbled extracts, called documents, might be laid by ministers themselves, in order to produce a partial discussion … It is in a Committee of the whole House alone, we can have a fair case, because if necessary we can examine oral evidence at the Bar.[1]

In other words, Porchester and the opposition were putting the government on trial before the House of Commons – and, by extension, the people.

The government is defeated (repeatedly)

Perceval tried to deflect Porchester’s motion for an inquiry of the whole House by moving the previous question (effectively an attempt to dispose of the motion altogether), on the grounds that a select committee would be more suitable. He found himself deserted by a number of his supporters, including Lord Castlereagh, who (as former Secretary of State for War) welcomed an inquiry into the expedition he had planned, hoping it would clear him; and the Commons supporters of Lord Chatham, who hoped an inquiry would uncover the duplicity of his colleagues in sending him on the expedition with insufficient (and perhaps even false) information.

Perceval first tried to adjourn the debate until 5 February; he was defeated without a division. The previous question was then put, and the opposition carried the day 195 votes to 186. The government was now committed to a full inquiry of the sort they had been dreading. The inquiry began on 2 February 1810; all its proceedings were published, in the newspapers and in the official parliamentary debates (the future Hansard).

Despite the best hopes of the opposition, the government managed to weather the Walcheren storm and did not fall. After the government’s defeats on 26 January, nobody had really been expecting it to survive the inquiry. It nearly didn’t, particularly when it became clear that Lord Chatham had (apparently) submitted a private narrative defending his conduct at Walcheren to the King – an unconstitutional act.

At the end of February 1810, the government was again defeated in the lobbies and forced to produce more written evidence. On 23 February, oppositionist Samuel Whitbread moved that all papers in the Royal archives relating to Chatham’s narrative should be produced; his motion was narrowly passed by 178 to 171. Whitbread then moved two resolutions on 2 March censuring Chatham’s conduct. Perceval was once more unable to move the previous question and throw Whitbread’s censures out without a debate; he lost 221 to 188, with many supporters once again in the Noes lobby. Only an amendment by George Canning (then a backbencher) softened Whitbread’s language and passed without a division, but Perceval had been unable to protect a member of his own government. Only Chatham’s resignation from the cabinet on 7 March prevented the government falling with him.

George Canning

George Canning

The outcome

On 26 March, Lord Porchester moved eight resolutions censuring the ministers:

The expedition to the Scheldt was undertaken under circumstances which afforded no rational hope of adequate success. … The advisers of this ill-judged enterprise are, in the opinion of this House, deeply responsible for the heavy calamities with which its failure has been attended. … Such conduct of His Majesty’s advisers, deserves the severest censure of this House.[2]

The resolutions were discussed by the House of Commons over the course of four bitter days. The opposition had been expecting to force Perceval’s resignation; what actually happened was that Porchester’s resolutions were rejected 272 votes to 232 early in the morning of 31 March. The House of Commons then passed a resolution approving of the retention of Walcheren until December by 255 votes to 232.

What had gone wrong? Perceval’s most recent biographer, Denis Gray, thought Perceval’s unexpected triumph was evidence that his “courage and steadiness had pulled it [survival] off against the greatest imaginable difficulties and odds. After the Walcheren debates Pittites again new that they had a leader of resolution and character.”[3]

Historian Michael Roberts, however, gives a different answer: “The majority of independent members preferred to take the chance that Walcheren would be a salutary lesson to the Government, than to risk putting the country into the hands of a party that had neither policy, nor prospect of uniting upon one, nor ability to carry it out.” Later, Roberts reiterates the point: “The Walcheren vote was not so much in favour of the Tories as against the Whigs”.[4]

In other words, Perceval’s survival was due less to his own skill and more to the weakness of the opposition, which found it easier to criticise than to propose its own alternative agenda. Divided as it was over the issue of whether or not to commit more fully to the war in the Peninsula, and with nascent divisions between Lords Grenville and Grey, the opposition was, indeed, perhaps no more capable than the government to guide the war effort – as their brief stint in power in 1806–7 as the Ministry of All the Talents had shown.

Modern parallels?

Only time will tell of Theresa May’s government is able to hold its own, or whether Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition is capable of presenting a valid alternative political agenda. I suspect we will find out more about that over the coming week. But it struck me that the Walcheren inquiry does have some modern echoes. At any rate, it is certainly not the first time that a government has fought for its life in the face of public scrutiny.

References

[1] Parliamentary Debates volume XV (1812), col. 162

[2] Parliamentary Debates vol. XVI (1812), cols. 78–80

[3] Denis Gray, Spencer Perceval: The Evangelical Prime Minister (Manchester: University Press, 1963), p. 304

[4] Michael Roberts, The Whig Party, 1807–12 (London, 1939), pp. 147, 322–3)

Sheepgate 1809, or how a surfeit of sheep nearly led to a diplomatic incident

In the summer of 1809, Britain and Spain had been allies against France for just over a year. Sir Arthur Wellesley was currently in the Iberian Peninsula with an army of about 30,000 men. Diplomatic relations with Spain, however, remained a little fraught – the two countries had been at war for much of the last decade, memories of Trafalgar were still fresh, and there was the little outstanding matter of Gibraltar, which made the prospect of any large body of British troops on Spanish soil a bit difficult.

George III

King George III

Understandably, therefore, the Spanish decided it was time to offer an olive branch in the form of a gift to His Majesty King George III. Their ambassador, Don Pedro de Cevallos, arrived in London in February 1809, bringing the King the Collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. [1]

This the King refused, as it was his policy not to accept Orders from foreign governments (he felt it was improper for him to do so as the head of the Orders of his own kingdom). The Spanish, however, still wanted to make a statement of their gratitude for the way the Brits were helping them eject the French invaders from their country. They decided to think laterally, although they still kept to the fleecy theme.

merino sheep

Their thoughtful gift was an unspecified number of very valuable Merino sheep, much prized (then as now) for the quality of their wool, and this George III did accept.

Delighted by the success of their diplomatic coup, the Spanish decided to send him another gift. What do you get the King who’s got everything? Apparently, you get him more sheep, as a letter to the King from the Foreign Secretary, George Canning, dated 2 June 1809, makes clear:

“Mr Canning most humbly requests Your Majesty’s gracious Commands as to the answer to be returned to the Offer, by the Supreme Junta, of 4,000 Merino Sheep as a Present to Your Majesty.”[2]

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The King was very grateful, but the problem was he didn’t want any more sheep:

“The King desires Mr Canning will assure Don Pedro Cevallos that he is very sensible of the Attention of the Supreme Junta in offering a present of 4,000 Sheep, but that His Majesty has already so large a Stock as not to require further Supply for the Accommodation of which He has not indeed the Means of providing.”[3]

It seems the Spanish were so keen to send the sheep that they hadn’t thought about how to transport them. The transports they had sent last time had been “improperly crowded”. When the Spanish suggested the world’s foremost maritime power could just send more ships, the King pointed out that such “Ships must be sent which are required for other pressing Services.”[3]

“Other services” referred to the expedition to Walcheren, currently taking up all the spare time, ships, and transports belonging to the Admiralty, which was having a hard enough time making up the full complement of over 650 vessels for the campaign.

The Spanish were undeterred. Would the King like some lovely Spanish horses instead?

Erm, no:

“Upon the same Grounds the King thinks it would be advisable to decline equally the Offer of the Horses, at this moment.”[3]

George Canning

George Canning

Canning duly passed on the King’s message to Cevallos; and there the matter rested.

For ten days.

On 13 June 1809, as Canning reported to the King, Cevallos — who had clearly been instructed not to take no for an answer — tried again. Maybe not 4,000 sheep then: how about a smaller number?

“Mr Canning  … humbly requests to receive Your Majesty’s gracious Commands, whether he may encourage Don Pedro Cevallos to hope that Your Majesty at some future time might be graciously pleased to accept a limited number of Merino Sheep; and also a few of the Horses, when the means of transport can be conveniently afforded.”[4]

Apparently the Spanish insisted (“No, really, please — take our sheep”).

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Maybe they thought George III was just being coy. The King, however, was adamant:

“The King desires Mr Canning will persist in declining the Offer of the Merino Sheep conveyed in Don Pedro Cevallos’s note, His Majesty really not having Room for them & being actually under the Necessity of hiring Ground for those last received.”

One imagines the corridors and State Rooms at the Queen’s House full of roaming sheep, chewing on the furniture and making a tremendous mess.

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The horses, however, were not positively declined:

“In regard to the horses, Don Pedro Cevallos may be told that, at a future more convenient Opportunity His Majesty will accept a few.”[5]

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This was a mistake, as the Spanish seem to have interpreted it rather more broadly than the King presumably intended. It’s possible they genuinely couldn’t believe George didn’t actually want any more sheep.

So they decided he was just being polite, and sent them anyway.

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On 18 July 1809, as the preparations for Walcheren were really hotting up, a large, smelly, and very noisy package arrived in Portsmouth.

Canning was horrified:

“Mr Canning humbly reports to Your Majesty the intelligence received this day from the Admiralty of the arrival at Portsmouth of 1,500 Merino Sheep part of the present destined for Your Majesty by the Supreme Junta; which had been embarked before Your Majesty’s desire to decline that present was made known in Spain.”

Who was responsible for the mix-up? Canning didn’t know, but he did haste to assure the King he had given instructions, probably at a very high volume, to make sure such a mistake did not happen again:

“Mr Canning trusts that the notification has arrived there  in time to prevent any further embarkation.”[6]

The King’s reaction can best be summarised as “WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE QUADRUPEDS DOING HERE”:

“His Majesty is much embarrassed by the arrival of the Sheep from Cadiz, as He has not any Ground at present for them, and cannot make any Arrangements for bringing them up by Hand. The King therefore desires that Mr Canning will communicate to the Admiralty His wish that the Sheep should be sent from Portsmouth by Sea, up the River to Deptford, as the Transports will not be immediately required, the Embarkations being completed, and in the mean time His Majesty will endeavour to provide for their Disposal in those.”[7]

(Soooo … who knew the embarkation of the Walcheren expedition was in fact delayed by the need to move 1,500 unwanted merino sheep from Portsmouth to Deptford?)

The King’s secretary, Colonel Taylor, wrote to Canning to confirm final arrangements:

“My Dear Canning, The King having ordered the Bearer Mr Smart to make arrangements for landing the Sheep at Deptford &c I trouble you with this Letter at his Desire to request You will have the goodness to furnish him with the necessary authority if he should have occasion to apply to you.”[8]

Canning must have been extremely relieved to be able to make the sheep Someone Else’s Problem. The King’s letter is endorsed:

“Relative to Mr Smart & His Majesty’s Merino Sheep. July 20. Letter to Ld Mulgrave given to Mr Smart.”[8]

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I can just imagine Lord Mulgrave, up to his ears in Walcheren business, with the army yelling at him to provide more transports and the Transport Board yelling at him to provide more tonnage and the ships’ captains yelling at him to find out when they were supposed to be sailing, getting a visit from a gentleman smelling strongly of farmyard — said gentleman bearing a letter from the Foreign Secretary that probably said something along the lines of: “There are 1,500 sheep outside. Deal with it.”

I don’t suppose he found it very funny.

Postscript: what happened to the sheep?

I can’t be sure, although there was a letter from September 1809 referring to Spanish shepherds being placed under the control of a page in the Royal Household at the Queen’s House, so presumably some of them ended up in Green Park.

Aspinall suggests the rest of the sheep were distributed among the King’s courtiers. Canning himself didn’t get away without some (after initially declining them, but apparently his wife liked fluffy woolly ceatures more than he did, so he asked for a small flock of 50).[9]

References

[1] Arthur Aspinall (ed.), The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5 (Cambridge: University Press, 1970), pp. 214-5.

[2] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 2 June 1809. The correspondence is also printed in Aspinall.

[3] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 3 June 1809.

[4] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 13 June 1809.

[5] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 14 June 1809.

[6] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 18 July 1809.

[7] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 19 July 1809.

[8] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, Colonel Taylor to Canning, 19 July 1809.

[9] Aspinall, Later Correspondence, vol. 5, p. 315 n. 1.

Confession: a significant error of interpretation in “The Late Lord”

I’m sure it happens to most biographers, but I must confess to an important error of interpretation in The Late Lord.

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Mary, Countess of Chatham (ca 1800) by Charles Rosenburg of Bath; in the possession of Ron Mills

On pp. 181-2, I describe the death of Mary, Countess of Chatham, on 21 May 1821:

On Monday, 21 May 1821, Chatham, at home in Hill Street, received the visit of Sir William Bellingham [an old friend] … The two men sat down to dinner at 5 o’clock. Lady Chatham did not join them. She had been unwell with a liver complaint since Saturday … She greeted her husband’s guest, then took a glass of barley water and brandy laced with laudanum and retired early to bed. Her maid remained in the room with her as she drifted peacefully off. She was so peaceful, in fact, that it was some time before the maid realised Lady Chatham was no longer sleeping. … What exactly killed her is a mystery, although the signs point to an accidental laudanum overdose.

This passage came from two separate letters in private hands. I can’t reproduce either of them here, but one was written by J C Villiers, a close friend of Chatham’s who saw him on 22 May. The other was written by a third party, reporting a conversation with Sir William Bellingham.

I came across my transcripts of those two letters yesterday, and it immediately struck me that I had completely misinterpreted them. Eighteen months of not thinking too much about it allowed me to see new connections between the two accounts (which I had previously found somewhat contradictory).

Far from being a “mystery”, I think Mary’s death was due, not to any laudanum overdose in the barley water, but to the liver complaint from which she was suffering. It sounds like it was sudden but extremely virulent. According to Villiers’s letter, she was fine on the Friday and dead by the end of Monday. The crucial thing I’d missed is that Bellingham wasn’t there because he happened to be visiting: he had been called in because Lady Chatham’s death was imminently expected to happen, and Chatham didn’t want to be alone when it did.

Hyperacute liver failure it is, then. The only mystery is what might have caused Lady Chatham’s liver to fail so rapidly (under 72 hours).