A Short Note on High Politics


The ‘back stairs’ machinations of cabinet ministers fascinate us and the jockeying for power that goes on is rarely glimpsed through the eyes of the main actors.  We have emails and newspaper leaks but the hand-written letter says so much more. A note in the Hertfordshire Archives dating from the early eighteenth century make tells of the panic experienced when senior politicians lose their grip om power.  A note from one minister to another gives us a glimpse into the ruthlessness at the beginnings of the beginning of the eighteenth century.

First what does the note say and why it is significant.  It is from the Lord Somers[1] to Earl Cowper.  They are both Whigs and the subject of the letter is Lord Godolphin, the Whig Lord Treasurer, who has lost the favour of Queen Anne.

“Tuesday past 3 o’clock [8 August 1710][2]

My Lord

Your servant called upon me just as I came from my Lord Treasurer, who has given me an account that the Queen has this day by letter* directed him to break his white staff. There is a council ordered for tomorrow at 12 a clock. I know not the occasion but considering what has passed your lordship will conclude all your humble servants as well as the Lord I named before are extremely desirous of the honour of seeing you before the council meets. …

*Sent by a common groom”

The Whig cabinet wanted to meet before the Queen officially carried out her cabinet re-shuffle. This situation had been building for months.  The two party system was well established.  On one side were the Whigs, the party which welcomed all variety of Protestants into the fold and wanted to continue the war against France, spearheaded by the Duke of Marlborough. Their opposition was the Tories, supporters of the Anglican Church and opposed to allowing any others into any kind of officialdom, and also eager to finish what they considered an expensive and pointless war.

Queen Anne, naturally a Tory, by this time (1710) was tired of the power the Whigs held. Events moved swiftly and she replaced the Cabinet ministers who were not to her taste with Tories.   The letter which was dated 8th August from Somers shows the panic that was experienced by the senior Whigs as they realised their days were numbered.

The breaking of the white staff was the symbol of Godolphin’s dismissal from his place.  The note at the bottom saying that the delivery of this news was by a groom, added further insult to injury.  The Tories could not even be bothered to send someone of equal standing to tell the Lord Treasurer of his fall from grace.

This letter ties in with the letters from the Duchess of Marlborough also included in the Herts Memories which were written after her quarrel with the Queen and the collapse of the Whigs.

[1] Lord Somers lived in his estate at Brookman’s Park and is buried in St Mary’s, North Mymms. He had been a very senior politician until he had been unsuccessfully impeached for various political mistakes and was charged with corruption. He later became the President of the Royal Society but re-entered active political office, was instrumental in the union of Scotland and England and was Lord President of the Council.

[2] DE/P/F56/47

This page was added on 29/09/2017.

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