William III’s new ministry was predominantly Tory, consisting of such senior Tory figures as Lords Godolphin and Rochester, and Sir Charles Hedges. Robert Harley’s involvement in the negotiation made it clear that he, too, would play a vital role in the House of Commons, though he refused a post in the new ministry. By the time of the dissolution in December 1700, it was clear that two issues would demand the particular attention of the new Parliament: the need to settle the line of succession, following the death in July of Princess Anne’s only surviving child, the Duke of Gloucester; and the increasing likelihood of renewed war with France.
The general election held in January 1701 saw contests in 92 (34 per cent) of the English and Welsh constituencies. The rival East India Companies were notably active in campaigning to secure representatives in the Commons as part of their struggle to gain control of the trade. Their participation is known in 86 contests, the new Company gaining as many as 67 sympathisers. In some cases, however, their success backfired as at Malmesbury, Wiltshire, for example, when their MP, Samuel Shepheard, was subsequently expelled for electoral bribery. The new House consisted of 249 Tories and 219 Whigs, with a further 45 MPs unclassified. The Tory lead over the Whigs reflected to some extent the recent post-war decline in Whig popularity, though not the sweeping victory many had predicted.
In accordance with the King’s wishes, the Court-Tory majority elected Robert Harley as Speaker. Initially, there was the appearance of general consensus in proceedings on the ratification of the second Partition Treaty (the agreement between Britain and other powers for the peaceful division of the Spanish kingdom and Empire upon the expiry of its heirless king, Carlos II), and on a ‘bill of settlement’ to vest the future succession to the British crown in the Protestant House of Hanover. There soon appeared, however, a strong current of restlessness among both rank-and-file Tories and their leaders – former opposition politicians such as John Grobham Howe – who though now in office, remained plainly discontented with many aspects of Williamite rule and were reluctant to accept the financial burdens of a new war.
Against this background, the bill of settlement proceeded slowly during March-May 1701 and became hedged about with many new restrictions on the royal prerogative, some clearly directed at William (for example, imposing parliamentary permission for absences abroad, the prohibition of foreign advisers, and preventing the waging of war to aid foreign possessions). ‘Jacobites’ and ‘republicans’, it was observed, made common cause in obstructing the bill in the Commons at every turn. The Lords were less concerned about the restrictions to be imposed on a future Hanoverian monarch, believing that these could be revised later, and passed the bill on 22 May.
At first Parliament moved in unison with the King’s wishes in relation to preparations for a possible new war with France, and the likely need to send forces to the Low Countries. But consideration by the Commons of the second Partition Treaty of 1700 uncovered the fact that the King’s favourite Lord Portland had concluded the treaty without reference to Parliament. Portland was impeached on 28 Mar., although once again this was a thinly disguised attack on the King’s uncounselled conduct of foreign affairs. In the process, MPs had also discovered the existence of the first Treaty concluded secretly in 1698, though Harley, in what seems to have been a clever diversionary tactic, directed Tory anger towards the Whig Junto lords for their alleged part in it. The impeachment of Montagu, Orford and Somers thus followed on 14 Apr., though only the latter two were tried, and both were acquitted by the House of Lords in June.
On 8 May the Tory majority gave vivid demonstration of their reluctance to support a new war when they ordered the arrest of five Kentish gentlemen who appeared in person to petition the House urging quicker financial measures in aid of the King’s foreign policy. In the final weeks of the session, however, the Tories nevertheless adopted a more vigorous financial line in the House in support of the anti-French cause.
The prorogation in June was followed by a long period of contest for power between the parties. Though the Whigs campaigned enthusiastically for war, the King avoided summoning the Junto lords and their supporters back to office. By September, however, he was being counselled by Lord Sunderland to negotiate with Lord Somers. Both men pressed the case for an election – the second in one year – in which the Whigs, judging from public expressions of support, could expect to do well. William relented, but refused to contemplate reconstruction of his ministry until after a new Parliament had been elected.
The issue of the royal prerogative had featured prominently in the session. Ministerial action against the Junto lords had demonstrated that foreign policy could no longer be regarded as a purely monarchical concern outside of parliamentary supervision. Greater openness by the executive towards Parliament would in future be necessary in this area, particularly where issues of supply were concerned. The Tory MP and pamphleteer Sir Humphrey Mackworth, in his Vindication of the Rights of the Commons of England, argued with this particular session in mind that ministers ought not justify their actions simply by reference to the sovereign’s command, but should act in full ‘responsibility’ towards Parliament.
H. Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Politics in the reign of William III (Manchester, 1977)
ed. D. W. Hayton, The Parliamentary Diary of Sir Richard Cocks, 1698-1702 (Oxford, 1996)