Henry St John viscount of Bolingbroke

Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke
Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke
by Charles Jervas
Died:12 Dec. 1751

1 St John's family and education

Henry St John was the only child of Henry St John and Lady Mary Rich. Because his mother died early his grandmother, who had Presbyterian inclinations, might have influenced his convictions in this direction. It was for a long time said that he received his secondary education at Eton, but this is now in doubt (Biddle). In 1698 and 1699 his education was concluded by travels on the continent, where he spent much time on sex and alcohol. In 1700 he then married the rich Frances Winchcomb, a marriage which made his fortune.

2 First part of St John's political career

2.1 M.P. for Wootton Bassett

In 1701 he was elected to parliament for Wootton Bassett. He joined the Tory party, and soon became known for extraordinary oratory skills, giving him great influence in parliament. In order to advance himself he was smart enough to ally himself with Robert Harley, who was then speaker of the Commons. As regards action he made himself known by taking part in the prosecution of the Whigs that had concluded the partition treaties, and opposed the bill requiring officials to forswear the pretender. The best known action of this early part of his career is leading the move to promote the first bill against occasional conformity.

2.2 St John becomes secretary at War

When in 1704 his close ally Harley joined the government, St John became secretary at war. He now became associated with Marlborough, and was supported by him too. This may be because Marlborough thought highly of him, but might also have to do with the qualities he showed as secretary in organizing and supporting the war effort. His extreme Tory comrades would remember him for voting against bundling the second occasional conformity to the budget. His quick march to the top would however be broken by party-political events that were partly out of his control. The 'ministry' St John had joined consisted primarily of moderate Tories, but was by 1707 leaning on Whig support in Parliament. It was steadily forced to make more concessions to the Whig party.

The weak support of the government gave Harley a chance to plot its overthrow. Harley convinced Queen Anne to sack Godolphin, and this would have brought St John to the second place in power. The other members of government however opposed serving without Godolphin, and both houses opposed vehemently. The consequence of this was that Harley was sacked on 11 February 1708, and that with him St John, Harcourt and Mansell stepped down. This decision can be explained as an act of solidarity, but it probably wasn't. Had St John stayed he would have abandoned his party and practically join the Malborough-Godolphin league that was slowly turning Whig.

2.3 St John Temporarily retires

For St John all this could have been a very short setback, but for the Scotland Raid of spring 1708. The raid gave the Whigs a boost and the May 1708 elections returned only Harley, not St John. He had quarreled with his father, who was chosen for Wootton Basset, and therefore St John stood in Cornwall. There he was soundly defeated, leaving him no option but to retire till 1710.

3 Second part of St John's political career

3.1 St John joins the cabinet as Secretary of State

'At least since the winter of 1709' (Biddle) St John had been involved in Harley's scheme to set up a moderate government. As a reward Harley offered him the post of secretary to the Duke of Marlborough in March 1710, and later probably to resume as secretary at war. He refused these meager posts however, and in September he became Secretary of State for the Northern Department in the government Harley formed in August 1710. In the subsequent October 1710 elections St John got elected for Berkshire.

Harley's government was quite moderate and refused to sweep all Whigs out of office, but in the new parliament that met on 25 October 1710 there where twice as many Tories as Whigs. Seeing that the government did not want to execute their program, about 100-150 of the High Tories formed the October Club, voting en bloc to get their way. This club and Tories feeling likewise looked to St John for leadership. He soon provided that by sponsoring the landed qualification bill, demanding that in order to get elected one needed to own a certain amount of land.

3.2 St John's rivalry with Harley over Quebec

On 8 March 1711 St John had his old buddy Guiscard arrested for high treason. He was brought to St John's office and there interrogated by the Privy Council. Confronted with the evidence of his treason Guiscard then stabbed Harley with a knife. Harley subsequently lay ill of his wounds and could not attend to government for a while. St John profited from Harley's inactivity to launch the Quebec expedition. It was heavily opposed by Harley and would lead to a first major clash with him.

The plan had originally been proposed by Godolphin's administration, and was probably inspired by the success of a small expedition in 1710 that had conquered Acadia and Nova Scotia. Taking Quebec would have been very beneficial for the United Kingdom, and in itself sending it was a logical decision. While Harley lay wounded following the attempt on his life, St John then executed it with prime regard for his own benefices. He initiated it without Harley's consent and thereby sort of established his independence of Harley in the cabinet. It is also likely that he enriched himself and some friends by 21,000 pounds when buying the provisions. His main goals however were showing how Tories waged war overseas, and raising his influence with Queen Anne. The latter he did by appointing Abigail Hill's brother to command the landing forces. This John Hill had no qualifications to lead such a great and important expedition, but St John had no doubt that he would in this way win Abigail's favor. The appointment of rear-admiral Hovenden Walker was likewise a political appointment, based more on his high-Toryism than on competence. The failure of the expedition can be ascribed to the choice of Walker as naval commander and to shoddy preparation in not bringing enough supplies and pilots. This meant that the expedition was not able to safely sail up the St Lawrence, and thus returned without even landing. This as well as the fact that Hill's command would probably have prevented any success in case the forces had landed, makes it doubtful that the expedition had any chance of success.

I think it would be illogical to suppose that St John did not care whether the expedition succeeded or not, as its outcome would reflect on his prestige. It is also clear that he did not properly grasp the prerequisites for making it a success. Though he had experience at military matters as secretary at war his whole concept of the expedition seems to have been to get an overwhelming force of ships and men together, choose commanders, and then expect that force to conquer. Most commentaries agree that St John was quite adept at his work. His decision to have the expedition led by men not qualified for the task points to a deep contempt of the marine as well as the military profession. Commentaries agree he was highly intelligent and talented, and thus this attitude is explainable. This attitude of not thinking too much about most other people can probably also be linked to his deism which points to him not accepting advice in matters of religion as well.

3.3 St John is topped

The state of affairs that so far had looked so favorable to St John ultimately winning power over Harley, had however changed. Not for the last time in his life fortune was a bit adverse to St John. It proved that the March 1711 stabbing of Harley by a French traitor completely restored Harley's prestige in the public eye as well as in parliament. Meaning that whereas Harley at the beginning of his reign had only a very tiny following in Parliament he now saw a substantial part of Parliament range behind him, and he could continue in power independent of the High Tories.

In April 1711 the next clash between Harley and St John erupted over Godolphin's financial management. Harley had his brother bring forward accusations about the expenditure of the last ministries not having been checked. It was not uncommon to attack the financial integrity of previous governments. The accusations however implicated John Brydges, still acting Paymaster General of the forces abroad, and would therefore also hit at St John who had worked with him as Secretary at War. Harley thus cleverly forced St John to defend Brydges against his High Tory allies. Though the investigation came to nothing, St John's popularity with the High Tories had been significantly reduced.

On 26 April 1711 Harley returned to the Commons. The next friction saw the effects of Harley's increased strength. When Lord President Rochester died on 2 May 1711 and Lord Privy Seal Newcastle died in July, St John wanted to see them replaced by High Tories of his faction. Harley however succeeded in having the moderate (Churchill) (High Tory according to Biddle) Duke of Buckingham replace Rochester, and having Bishop Robinson of Bristol replace Newcastle. In the meantime Harley became earl of Oxford on 23 May/3 June and Lord Treasurer on 29 May/9June. Though this meant that Harley increased his power in government by becoming prime minister, it also meant that he left the commons, and St John got free reign there. All was set for the next round.

3.4 The negotiations for the Utrecht Peace

The peace negotiations that would finally lead to the treaty of Utrecht were initiated in secret by Harley and Shrewsbury. To start them they had in the end of 1710 brought the French priest, abbé Gaultier into their plans. He arrived at Versailles on 7/18 January 1711 and there spoke with Torcy and Berwick. After exchanging some letters, a formal French proposal to negotiate was brought into the Privy Council on 26 April 1711. This was the moment St John got wind of them and started to play his role. The primary difference between him and Harley was that while Harley wanted to engage the allies in some way, St John was all for making a separate peace, enriching England and duping the allies.

The 7/18 December 1711 Lords motion 'no peace without Spain' saw the creation of twelve new peers as a reaction on 1 January 1712. St John was probably quite sad not to have been included. Other actions retaliating against the Whigs went much more to his liking as most of the last Whigs in office were now sacked. After Marlborough was sacked 31 December 1711 and Somerset was dismissed, Marlborough was charged in parliament for corruption in January 1712, and Walpole was accused on 17 January 1711, and even locked in the tower for five months. St John now stepped up his propaganda campaign to direct public opinion to concluding peace his way. The campaign consisted of accusing the allies of not performing anything while England bore the whole burden of the war. His attacks against the Dutch and the Barrier Treaty were particularly heavy. This choice of target is logical because the Whigs were by some in England considered as 'their' (i.e. the Dutch) party, while the Barrier treaty had been concluded by the Whigs with the Dutch. From the point of view of contributing to the war-effort or reaping the fruits of war the attack on the Dutch was however utter nonsense (see Churchil 122,458 Dutch vs. 65,197 English soldiers in Flanders in 1711), as the Dutch had been doing more than their fair share, while certainly England was profiting from the manner in which the burdens were shared.

In handling the negotiations that had started in Utrecht on 29 January 1712 both men continued to differ. In the field they had sent the Jacobite Duke of Ormonde to replace Marlborough, a man that worked together with them to betray the army as it was on campaign, corresponding with St John and Villars without the allies knowing of it. In June St John then asked Queen Anne for an earldom, but only became Viscount Bolingbroke in July 1712, which he appreciated as an insult. Whether or not Harley had to do with the lower grade, St John held him responsible and now broke with him completely, though staying on in government.

St John then went to Paris in August, officially to handle the interests of Savoy, but soon exceeding his instructions and working towards a separate peace, as well as probably meeting the pretender. Harley reacted by switching the negotiations to the earl of Dartmouth, the other secretary of State. In a meeting on 28 September 1712 (Biddle) a major cabinet clash erupted over the peace, St John wanted to make a separate peace immediately, but Harley insisted on having Tournai for the Dutch and thus getting them on board. Harley got his way again, and St John withdrew, only to take up the negotiations again a few months later.

3.5 The cabinet continues divided

Harley getting the garter and St John being passed over ensured that the cabinet continued to be split. When England had left the alliance by marching of the field in July 1712 and when Villars had (by this treason) conquered at Denain, Louis did not have that much haste anymore to sign a peace. In the end of February 1713 however St John lost his patience and sent Louis an ultimatum. This lead to the signing of the Utrecht Peace Treaty at 31 March/11 April 1713.

4 Third part of St John's political career

4.1 After the Utrecht Peace

Because the peace in itself was popular in England, the future seemed bright for St John. Harley however was still master over him in the cabinet. In August 1713 Harley's relations with Queen Anne then soured. It seems that Abigail's allegiance had shifted from Harley to St John by the end of 1713.

4.2 The succession of Queen Anne

When Queen Anne's health started to fail badly in the winter of 1713/1714 her succession became an issue. Both Harley and St John contemplated the restoration of the pretender, but while Harley's actions were probably 'pour amuser' (Berwick) the pretender, St John went further. Those Tories that perceived the government as being in league with the pretender now started to drift away from the government and seek communication with the Whigs.

4.3 Bolingbroke in the Pretender's interest

The alarm over the succession became even clearer when the new parliament met in February 1714 and these 'Hannoverian Tories' broke with the rest of the Tory party. Harley had for some time neglected almost all business. Somewhere in March he decided to step out of the government while he could still retreat honorably, but was not permitted to do so for the moment. Bolingbroke went on with measures that could only be explained as being in the pretender's interest (Churchill), chief amongst which was sacking Whig officers in the army and replacing them with Tories or more or less overt Jacobites. Though not getting a majority, the Whigs and the Hanoverian Tories reacted by voting that the Protestant succession was in danger.

4.4 Bolingbroke topples Harley

During spring 1714 the ministry was paralyzed by open hostility between Harley and St John, plotting and scheming against each other by bringing bills and investigations into parliament for the purpose of hurting each other's reputation. St John now waited for parliament's session to end on 9 July, and then Harley was sacked 27 July 1714. As it was obvious that St John for his character would not be named Lord Treasurer, it appeared now that St John would become the de facto leader of the cabinet. The first problem St John now had to face was reorganizing the ministry by appointing lords of the treasury (the in Commission). In this he failed as no persons suitable to him and the rest could be agreed upon. On the 28th he then gave a dinner party for the Whig lords to see how they stood. It soon became apparent that they thought him so in league with the pretender that they were only prepared to do business if Bolingbroke handed the army and navy over to them, and this Bolingbroke was not prepared to do.

4.5 Bolingbroke toppled by Shrewsbury

On Friday 30th it became clear that the Queen's condition was very serious indeed. The Privy Council meeting that day was then surprised (because they never attended) by the dukes of Argyll and Somerset walking in on this cabinet meeting. If he had wanted to further his schemes St John should now have acted to turn them out, but Shrewsbury (who probably orchestrated the affair Churchill) welcomed the Whig dukes and made them part of the cabinet. The council then decided to ask the queen to make Shrewsbury Lord Treasurer, a move signaling that they had taken matters in hand. The council went to the palace were the Lord Chancellor, Shrewsbury, Argyll and Somerset were let in by the Duchess of Somerset. Here the Queen gave Shrewsbury the white staff marking him as Lord Treasurer, and ending the hopes of St John. A council was now formed with the major Whigs joining in, and took measures to ensure the succession of Hannover, a frightened St John supporting it in fear of the new regime.

4.6 Bolingbroke prosecuted

A council of regency was then formed awaiting George III's arrival. St John was sacked 16 August and soon his papers were seized. St John then retired to his manor awaiting events. These came when a new very whiggish parliament started prosecuting him, Harley and Ormonde. St John, fearing the worst, fled to France on 28 March 1715, and at least in the public eye, this action confirmed all suspicions about his scheming with the pretender and the French. He shortly after became secretary of the pretender but soon made himself impossible there too. Years later (1723) he was allowed to return to England, but was forever barred from parliament and was reinstated to only part of his possessions. He then started a life of studying and writing, while unsuccessfully trying to return to politics, his only good chance at it ruined by the king's death in 1727.

5 Bolingbroke's character

Bolingbroke is said to have been gifted with intellect, charm and eloquence. His intellect and eloquence standing far out from the average M.P.'s, a fact proven by the many works he publicized later on. He could work hard, but was also famous for drinking and whoring. Drinking should not be understood as getting drunk now and then, but as getting drunk very often. It could perhaps be supposed that his unstable character was influenced by this.

After his death his philosophical works were published. In them he shows himself to have been a deist. (deism = theory that claims there is a god but men cannot know him, also a plausible theory in answering the question by whom the big bang was started) For this internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It is no wonder that such ideas were published posthumously at the time.

Bolingbroke's Career
1701: M.P. for Wootton Bassett
1702: Promotes the first bill against Occassional Conformity
1704-1708Secretary at war
1708: May fails to get a seat in parliament at the elections
1710: October M.P. for Berkshire
1710: Secretary of State for the Northern Department
1712: July Viscount Bolingbroke
1714: July succeeds in ousting Oxford from the ministry, but fails to head his own.
1714: 28 August deposed after the accession of George I
1715: March flees to France
1715: August attainder procedure started against him

6 Sources

As regards internet sources the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica has a rather long article about Bolingbroke

Bolingbroke & Harley by Sheila Biddle, 1974 is a more modern and double portrait of rivals Harley and Bolingbroke.