Monday, 23 January 2017

George III and the politicians (1): John Wilkes

The new king

George III in his coronation robes
by Allan Ramsay
Public domain

George III succeeded his grandfather, George II, on 25 October 1760, aged twenty-two. Politics immediately took a new turn. George had hated his grandfather and was determined to reverse his policies. His grandfather’s ministers were invited and the proscriptions on the Tories were lifted. In one of his first public announcements, he stated that ‘he gloried in the name of Briton’ (meaning wasn't a German!) and was determined to be a ‘Patriot King’.  By this he meant that he wished to govern above party - unlike his grandfather who (he believed) had been a prisoner of the Whigs.

Since 1714 the Tories had been the opposition party. Now that they had lost this role, they seemed to lack purpose. Furthermore, there was no adult heir to the throne to be the focus of opposition to the monarch and his ministers. Faced with these new circumstances, the Tory party disintegrated. Politics became factionalised and everything depended on the King’s choice of minister. This inevitably put a new emphasis on this aspect of the royal prerogative.

The old guard gone

George III succeeded to the throne during the Seven Years’ War with France. He saw the war as his grandfather's war, and he wished to end it as quickly as possible. In 1761 Pitt the Elder, the Secretary of State, resigned from the government. In May 1762 the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, was forced to resign. George had got rid of the administration that had seen the greatest series of victories in British history. He could now be his own man. Or could he?

The new Prime Minister

John Stuart 3rd Earl of Bute
by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Public domain

The old administration was replaced by one headed by the king’s Scottish favourite, the Earl of Bute. As Prince of Wales, George had become very dependant on Bute, and this dependance continued when Bute became Prime Minister. But Bute was extremely unpopular in the country and anti-Scottish press abuse reached fever pitch. In particular, he was accused of being the lover of the king's mother, the Princess Dowager.

Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, Princess Dowager
by Allan Ramsay
Public domain

The North Briton and the fall of Bute

At the end of 1762 the Bute ministry presented the Peace Preliminaries to Parliament. The terms were opposed by the Duke of Newcastle’s friends, who in the following months were purged from office in what was known as the ‘Massacre of the Pelhamite Innocents’.

On 29 May 1762 John Wilkes, Pittite MP for Aylesbury, began the publication of the North Briton. It came out every Saturday and soon achieved a circulation of nearly 2,000. Its attacks on Bute and on the alleged Scottish influence on English politics were, in effect attack on the kings, and (even more so) on his mother. The paper was opposed to the terms of the peace treaty, which was seen as too generous to the French and a desertion of Britain’s ally, Frederick the Great.

The peace treaty was signed in February, but on 9 April 1763, exhausted by the stream of attacks, Bute resigned. On his recommendation the king reluctantly sent for George Grenville to be Prime Minister. But the king retained his confidence in Bute and this led to a widespread belief that the former Prime Minister was exercising influence ‘behind the curtain’.

No. 45 North Briton

It was widely believed that it was Bute who had written the King’s speech on the opening of Parliament on 19 April. It described the peace, which many saw as disgraceful, as ‘honourable to my crown and beneficial to my people’. 

On 23 April Wilkes printed no. 45 of the North Briton. It attacked the government ministers, who were described as ‘tools of despotism and corruption’ and denounced the ‘ministerial effrontery’ of obliging George III ‘to give the sanction of his sacred name’ to such ‘odious’ measures.

The government consulted the law officers of the Crown as to whether it would be possible to proceed against the publishers and printers of the North Briton for seditious libel by way of a general warrant. When the answer was in the affirmative, the warrant was issued. On 29 April the publisher and printer were brought before the Secretaries of State. They acknowledged that Wilkes was the editor. 

The government then sought further advice from its law officers. Wilkes was an MP. Did this mean he was immune from arrest? The law officers replied that
‘the publication of a libel, being a breach of the peace, is not a case of privilege, and that Mr Wilkes might be committed to prison for the same’.
Wilkes was sent to the Tower, but on 6 May the Chief Justice of Common Pleas, Charles Pratt, later Lord Camden, ruled that
‘the person of a member ought to be sacred, even if he should commit a misdemeanour. … We are all of the opinion that Mr Wilkes is entitled to the privilege of Parliament, and therefore he must be discharged.’
This verdict was a great shock to the ministry. Thousands escorted Wilkes home and the new slogan of militant radicalism was ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ In July Wilkes successfully sued for damages for wrongful arrest and the seizure of papers. The jury ruled in his favour because of their doubts about the legality of general warrants.

Wilkes depicted by Hogarth with the cap of liberty
He disliked this representation intensely
because it depicted his squint.

Wilkes outlawed

But Wilkes's luck was about to run out. In October the foreman of Wilkes’s journeymen printers handed over to the Solicitor to the Treasury a proof copy of the first 94 lines of 'Essay on Woman', an extremely obscene parody of Alexander Pope's 'Essay on Man'. It was the best weapon the government could have had. On 15 November Parliament reassembled and Lord Sandwich, reputed to be. Wilkes’s old companion in debauchery, read out the printed text of the Essay to a horrified (and hypocritical?) House of Lords. 

Meanwhile in the Commons no. 45 was voted a seditious libel and ordered to be burned by the common hangman. On 25 December Wilkes  crossed to France and took up residence in Paris. On 19 January 1764 he was expelled from parliament, though the debates showed wide concern over the legality of general warrants. On 1 November the Court of Kings Bench formally pronounced him an outlaw because of his refusal to return to England to answer the charges. He was to remain abroad for four years.

General warrants illegal

But Wilkes had already won a victory. On 6 December 1763 Chief Justice Pratt had ruled in the court of Common Pleas that general warrants could not be used as search warrants of unspecified buildings. This verdict was reinforced by judgements of Chief Justice Mansfield in the Court of King’s Bench on 18 June and 8 November 1765 that ended the use of general warrants for the arrest of persons.

The Middlesex elections

1768 was a general election year. On 6 February Wilkes was back in London and on 16 March he presented himself as a candidate for the City of London. The polling took a week, but in spite of many enthusiastic demonstrations, he came bottom of the poll.

But this humiliation was promptly forgotten in the excitement caused by his declaration that he would stand for Middlesex, where the election was due in only five days. This was a serious challenge to the two sitting members, who had expected to be returned unopposed. The two men promptly sank their political differences to form a joint interest and to arrange the transport of voters to the poll.

Middlesex was the most urbanised of the English counties. Most of the electorate, which comprised about 2,5000 freeholders, lived in and around London. However polling took place in the county town of Brentford, ten miles to the west of the City. From 24 March Brentford was festooned in blue (Wilkes’s colour). The campaign was masterminded by an Election Committee that met regularly at the Kings Arms Tavern and the Mile End Assembly Rooms. 12,000 handbills were distributed, advertising where supporters of Wilkes could find 247 carriages provided for their transport to the poll.

The election took place on Monday 28 March. Coaches were sent off singly as soon as they were full; then blue cockades were distributed and cards printed ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ were handed out. On the journey to the polls, coaches from London conveying voters for Wilkes’s opponents often had their windows smashed and the slogan ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ painted on them. Voting took place for several hours during the afternoon. When the votes were counted next morning, it was clear that Wilkes had won easily.

On 19 April the cabinet met and the decision was taken to expel Wilkes as soon as Parliament should meet on 10 May; this was in the expectation that the Court of King’s Bench would decide against him. But on 20 April he was freed on a technicality. 

Wilkes was determined to be a martyr and in spite of the efforts of the mob to free him, he made his way in disguise to the King's Bench Prison in Southwark. He was to remain there for two years, a visible martyr to the cause of liberty.

On 10 May soldiers fired on a Wilkite crowd in Southward in what became known as the St George's Fields Massacre. Six people were killed and there were widespread riots. 

Wilkes re-elected

On 3 February 1769 the Commons voted 219/137 to expel Wilkes.
On 4 February the imprisoned Wilkes announced that he would stand again for Middlesex (one of the sitting members had died). On 16 February, he was returned unopposed. On 17 February  the Commons moved 228/89 that since Wilkes had been expelled earlier he was ‘incapable of being elected a member to serve in this present Parliament’.  On 16 March he was re-elected and on the following day he was again disqualified by the Commons.

He was readopted on 20 March, and on 13 April he defeated his opponent, Colonel Luttrell, by 1143 votes to 296.  On 15 April (Saturday) a very noisy House of Commons resolved 197/143 that Luttrell was the MP for Middlesex. 

'The Brentford Sweepstakes' from Town and Country Magazine
Wilkes's riderless horse is labelled 1143, the number of his votes
Public domain

From the disquiet at this overturning of the wishes of the electorate stemmed the beginnings of the parliamentary reform movement.

Wilkes's career was followed with great interest by the American colonists. There is a good summary of the Wilkes affair from an American perspective here.

Wilkes’s later career

Wilkes was released early in 1770, to considerable rejoicing. In 1771 he was elected Sheriff of the City of London and began a campaign to secure the reporting of parliamentary debates. Fearful of a stand-off with the printers and the powerful interests in the City of London, the government of Lord North tacitly conceded defeat and after this newspaper reporting of parliamentary debates was established.

Wilkes was elected Lord Mayor in 1774. In the same year he was elected to Parliament for Middlesex, where he supported the American colonists and defended the principle of ‘no taxation without representation’, championed the reform of Parliament and advocated greater toleration for Catholics and Dissenter. On 21 March 1776 he made the first ever motion for parliamentary reform, urging the transfer of seats from rotten boroughs to London, the more populous counties and the new industrial towns. The motion was defeated without a vote.

Later in life he became a pillar of the establishment! He helped put down the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in 1780 and in 1782 when the Whig Lord Rockingham became Prime Minister, the record of his expulsion was expunged from the records of the House. He left Parliament in 1790.


  1. Wilkes was a maverick and his private life horrified many respectable people.
  2. However he became the voice of those excluded from politics. The slogan 'Wilkes and Liberty' was about more than one man.
  3. He secured two important reforms: general warrants were declared illegal and parliamentary debates were now reported.

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