“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


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”.


(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.


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).


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.


[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)


“Name that Member!”: weird (but wonderful) British parliamentary customs

Today, something a little different, to celebrate the 4th anniversary of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and the publication of their second anthology of articles: Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, volume II. For further information and links, including how to link to other posts in the CCK Blog Hop, see the bottom of this post!

My background is in political history. I love British politics, current and not so current. I wrote my high school dissertation on an the 1784 general election (think “Blackadder the Third” … startlingly accurate), chose political options as an undergraduate whenever possible, and studied 18th century political discourse for my PhD. Unsurprisingly, my career path has also taken me close to politics. Although I am a librarian by training, I spent a year working in a government department, and one of my duties was to compile daily lists of parliamentary debates.


Hansard, from here

Ah, Hansard… Hansard, since 1803(ish) the official record of British parliamentary goings-on. If it’s not in Hansard, it didn’t happen. Modern Hansard comes in densely-typed A4 packets, sewn together to form a booklet from about a centimetre to a centimetre and a half in thickness (depending on how verbose members are feeling on any particular day). Dull, you say? Anything but. My Hansard perusals were the highlight of my day.

You see, Britain’s Parliament has been around for a good long while — its history goes all the way back to Magna Carta (if you’ve been living in a cave for the past year of 800th-anniversary celebrations, that was signed in 1215) and the 13th century. Simon de Montfort summoned the first “proper” parliament in 1265, incuding representatives from all around England. That’s 750 years of (sort of) regular parliaments, and 750 years’ worth of weird and wonderful customs and traditions. Because if there’s one thing we Brits love, it’s a weird and wonderful custom.

So, ever wondered why poor old Black Rod gets a door slammed in his face every time Parliament is opened? Or why the Lord Chancellor sits on a woolsack? Or all this fancy politeness of only referring to other members as “the honourable Member for [insert random constituency here]”? Wonder no more….

1. That Black Rod thing

… is really quite simple. It’s a statement of the Commons’ independence from the Crown. It goes back to the 17th century, when Charles I came into the House of Commons in 1642 to arrest five MPs. They had been forewarned and escaped, but it was the last time a monarch was allowed to enter the Lower Chamber. After all, if the Civil War proved one thing, it was that even the monarch was not above British law.

Nowadays Black Rod (the person in charge of Westminster security — so named because he carries a black staff as a symbol of his office) summons the House of Commons to come to the House of Lords to hear the Queen’s speech whenever she opens Parliament. Because he represents the royal authority, the door of the House of Commons is slammed in his face as he arrives, and he has to knock three times to gain admittance.

Yes, that is the political equivalent of “We’re the kings of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal”.[1]


2. Why does the Lord Chancellor sit on a Woolsack?

This one is also quite simple: because wool was one of England’s most important products and exports. Edward III made it compulsory for his Lord Chancellor to preside over the Grand Council on a bale of wool. The current Woolsack is stuffed with wool from around the Commonwealth.[2]

The Woolsack, from here

The Woolsack, from here

3. “Naming” a member

I’ve actually come across a few examples of this occurring in my research. “Naming a Member” is a disciplinary procedure in the House of Commons. Using an MP’s name is forbidden: only the Speaker can do it, when he /she calls on a member to speak in debate. Otherwise, it’s all “the honourable Member for” whichever borough elected them in the first place. Thus David Cameron (if he weren’t prime minister) would be “The honourable member for Witney”, and George Osborne (if he weren’t Chancellor of the Exchequer) “the honourable member for Tatton”, etc.

However, if an MP is especially naughty — maybe they might accuse another member of telling a direct lie[*] — the Speaker might “name” them, by saying “I name the Honourable Member for Mouldy-in-the-Hills, Ms Winterbottle, for disregarding the authority of the Chair”. Big deal? Maybe, but the named MP is then suspended for five days. If Ms Winterbottle is named again during the same session, she is suspended for twenty days. If she does it a third time, she might not sit again for the remainder of the session.[3]

[*] See below

4. … Speaking of lying in the House…

Accusing another MP of lying is an example of “unparliamentary language”. (Euphemisms are allowed: Winston Churchill once accused another member of “terminological inexactitude”). Swearing and general insults are also not allowed. According to a House of Commons Factsheet on traditions of the House, “Among the words to which Speakers have objected over the years have been blackguard, coward, git, guttersnipe, hoolian, rat, swine, stoolpigeon and traitor”.[4]

MPs can apologise for unparliamentary language by “withdrawing” it. Otherwise, if the language is not withdrawn, then the Speaker may order the MP to withdraw instead.

Occasionally, refusals to withdraw “unparliamentary language” have led to arguments been taken, as it were, outside. In 1798, the prime minister, Pitt the Younger, accused an opponent, George Tierney, of deliberately obstructing a government measure. When Pitt refused to withdraw his comments, Tierney challenged him to a duel. Both escaped unhurt.

5. Dragging the Speaker

The Speaker [or chairperson] of the House of Commons is elected each session by the MPs. Traditionally, the Speaker Elect is not supposed to be happy at all with the honour. On the contrary, they should be physically dragged to the chair. (Extra points are, presumably, given for kicking and screaming on the way.)

Why? Because in centuries past, the Speaker would lay the advice of the Commons before the monarch. If the monarch didn’t like it… the Speaker could be imprisoned, or even executed. It doesn’t happen any more, of course, but still![5]


6. … And some other examples of weird and wonderful customs

  • The Mace: sits on a table in front of the Speaker in the House of Commons, and is carried in and out in procession each day. It represents the Royal authority and, unless it is present, Commons decisions are not binding. It is occasionally a focus for parliamentary protests, therefore: any MPs who so much as touch it are “named” and suspended for five days. John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington, was suspended in January 2009 for trying to carry it off in protest during a debate on Heathrow Airport.[6]


  • Hats: MPs used to be required to wear them, unless speaking in debate. Until 1998 they were still required to wear one while raising a Point of Order (i.e., challenging whether a breach of House rules has occurred). Two top hats were kept in the Commons for precisely this purpose (although some MPs, to save time, put their copies of Hansard on their heads instead). The rule was (unfortunately) abolished in 1998. Male MPs are still forbidden from addressing the House in a hat. (Women are allowed.)
  • Swords: MPs used to wear them, and in the 18th century government members were still required to wear Court dress — which included a dress sword. Nowadays, as a Commons Factsheet puts it, “It is not now permitted to carry arms of any kind into debate”. There are still sword hangers in the cloakroom, though, and the Treasury and Opposition benches are still two sword lengths apart …… just in case.
  • Armour: Also not allowed: since 30 October 1313, it seems. If you were wondering, yes, it’s specifically forbidden.
  • Snuff: Smoking, obviously, is forbidden, and has been since 1693. Snuff on the other hand, would you believe, is provided at public expense for MPs, and still kept in the doorkeepers’ box. “Very few Members take snuff nowadays,” reports a Commons factsheet. Which implies that some do……[4]

There are, of course, many more British parliamentary customs: this is but a flavour. It’s worth checking out the House of Commons factsheet on the subject, and also the following sources:

  • An article from the Daily Telegraph on the subject
  • A Listverse article entitled “10 Oddities of the British Parliament”
  • The UK Parliament website page on traditions
  • A History Today article on the 750th anniversary of Parliament


[1] For more on Black Rod’s duties, see this site

[2] For the Woolsack, see the online UK Parliament glossary

[3] See here

[4] UK Parliament guidance on unparliamentary language; House of Commons Information Office Factsheet G7, “Some Traditions and Customs of the House”: found here

[5] See here

[6] BBC article on McDonnell’s suspension


New Release!

CC&KII Cover

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, Volume 2
Edited by Debra Brown and Sue Millard

An anthology of essays from the second year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, this book transports the reader across the centuries from prehistoric to twentieth century Britain. Nearly fifty different authors share the stories, incidents, and insights discovered while doing research for their own historical novels.

From medieval law and literature to Tudor queens and courtiers, from Stuart royals and rebels to Regency soldiers and social calls, experience the panorama of Britain’s yesteryear. Explore the history behind the fiction, and discover the true tales surrounding Britain’s castles, customs, and kings.

Purchase links:

Amazon US http://www.amazon.com/Castles-Customs-Kings-English-Historical/dp/0996264817
Amazon UK http://www.amazon.co.uk/Castles-Customs-Kings-English-Historical/dp/0996264817


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Click here to view the other posts in the CC&K Volume II Blog Hop!

Pitt the Younger was not a Tory

“Oh! It makes me sick to think that … they [Lord Liverpool and George Canning] must even bring discredit to his [Pitt’s] memory by attributing to him a line of conduct he never pursued. To think of Canning’s going about and saying, ‘This is the glorious system of Pitt’; and the papers echoing his words—‘This is the glorious system of Pitt!’”

(Charles Meryon, Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope (London, 1845), III, 168)

Lady Hester, I salute you. You may have been barmy as a sackful of squirrels but you saw something that many of your contemporaries had lost sight of, and most historians too.

I have been recently getting quite hot under the collar about this topic (always sure to raise my blood pressure), so much so that I am contemplating getting a huge flashing neon sign pinned up on every single social network platform I frequent reading “PITT THE YOUNGER WAS NOT A TORY”.

Can I say that again? PITT THE YOUNGER WAS NOT A TORY. (Yes, I am shouting. So shoot me.)

I’m not just talking about his self-identification as an “Independent Whig” — something he declared publicly only once to my knowledge, and which was less a statement of his Whiggery (which he would have taken for granted, much as, say, I take for granted the fact that I am female) than a declaration that he was attached to no other political leader available at the time.

Perhaps historiography has moved on a little in the past ten years since I studied this academically, and I would be very grateful if anyone could pass any more recent references my way, but to my mind Jennifer Mori in William Pitt and the French Revolution, J.J. Sack in From Jacobite to Conservative and his super article “The memory of Burke and the memory of Pitt” (Historical Journal 30(3) 1987), and Michael Duffy’s biography Pitt the Younger have it covered. In sum, Pitt’s ideologies were drawn from very traditional Whig sources (unsurprisingly). Conservative (with a small “c”), yes, undoubtedly; rooted in tradition, absolutely; not very creative perhaps either—but Tory? Big T Tory? “Founder of the modern-day Conservative Party” (……..and at this point I would like to bitch-slap William Hague) Tory? No.

Even Pitt’s immediate followers struggled to fit him into the strait-jacket of party political ideals. Even in his own lifetime Pitt (during the short time he spent in opposition to Henry Addington between 1803 and 1804) drove Canning half-mental by refusing to shackle himself to a particular line of conduct, going out of his way to stay aloof to such an extent that he managed to drive off half his old political following by the time he ended up back in office. (Incidentally John Ehrman deals with this confusing period excellently in his chapter of The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle entitled “The pursuit of ‘Character’”). When the old “Pittite” following was splintering and reforming itself in the 1820s Pitt’s stance on parliamentary reform, abolition of the slave trade and Catholic Emancipation (to name only the most important) allowed men who identified with him to invoke his name in support of all sorts of diametrically opposed political positions. At the annual Pitt Club dinner Pitt was toasted as the opponent of religious toleration, which I find especially ironic as Pitt’s support of the issue led to his resignation in 1801. True enough the modern-day Conservative Party traces its ancestry back to Pitt, but not directly by any means, and to say “But modern Tories come from Pitt” is like saying Gladstone was a Liberal Democrat.

So what was Pitt? The question would have astounded him. Why, he was a Whig, of course. And it wasn’t his fault that Fox’s followers were much more ideologically organised than his own were, and able to lay claim to that label far more successfully.

(And incidentally, WHY is Lord Grenville described as a “Whig” when he was MUCH more ideologically conservative than Pitt was? Is it because he was in government coalesced with the Foxites? Give me strength!)

So, are we clear? 🙂


By the way I welcome any discussion of the above points. I’m sure many of you have a very different opinion. 🙂