Sidney 1st earl of Godolphin

Sidney Godolphin
Sidney 1st Earl of Godolphin
Sidney Godolphin, 1st earl of Godolphin
by Godfrey Kneller
Born:15 June 1645
Died:15 Sep. 1712

1 Godolphin's background and family

1.1 The medieval Godolphins

In Cornwall a rising powerful family called Godolgun acquired Godolphin hill around the 12th century. Around 1400 they built a defendable house on the land. In the late 1530 John Leland spoke of the principal habitation of the ‘Godolcans’. It was at this time that the family name changed from Godolghan to Godolphin. Meanwhile mining intensified in the Great Work area as the tin lodes became exploited, leading to a great increase in the Godolphin family's wealth1).

1.2 The Godolphins as Landed Gentry

The Godolphins were a family belonging to the Landed Gentry. They were not nobility, but were so rich that they did not have to work, and were often members of parliament. In stead of their castle, they later build Godolphin Hall, which is still standing.

1.3 Sir Francis Godolphin

Sir Francis Godolphin (1605-1667) was quite prominent, and was governor of Isles of Scilly. He sided with Charles II in the Civil War and raised a regiment to be commanded by his brother. After Charles II was defeated, Francis escaped prosecution by handing over the Scilly Islands by negotiation. Francis had Hobbes' Leviathan dedicated to him.

1.4 Younger son Sidney Godolphin

Francis would be succeeded by his eldest son William Godolphin 1st Baronet (1640-1710). After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Francis was knighted and William made a baronet. Sidney Godolphin (b. 1645) was made a page at the court of Charles II.

In order to understand Sidney's life, it's extremely important to understand that a younger son inherited nothing in England. All the family wealth would go to William, and Sidney would get nothing. Therefore Sidney would have to create his own fortune out of being at court.

2 Godolphin's early career

2.1 A favorite of Charles II

Godolphin would later become great friends with Marlborough, and would stay in power because of his (financial) expertise, but took the first steps of his political career all by himself. At court he was useful and diplomatic, and perhaps charismatic. I now cite directly from an electronic version of Macaulay that can be found here:

'Godolphin had been bred a page at Whitehall, and had early acquired all the flexibility and the self-possession of a veteran courtier. He was laborious, clearheaded, and profoundly versed in the details of finance. Every government, therefore, found him a useful servant; and there was nothing in his opinions or in his character which could prevent him from serving any government. "Sidney Godolphin," said Charles, "is never in the way, and never out of the way." This pointed remark goes far to explain Godolphin's extraordinary success in life.
He acted at different times with both the great political parties: but he never shared in the passions of either. Like most men of cautious tempers and prosperous fortunes, he had a strong disposition to support whatever existed. He disliked revolutions; and, for the same reason for which he disliked revolutions, he disliked counter-revolutions. His deportment was remarkably grave and reserved: but his personal tastes were low and frivolous; and most of the time which he could save from public business was spent in racing, card playing, and cockfighting. He now sate below Rochester at the Board of Treasury, and distinguished himself there by assiduity and intelligence.'

2.2 A favorite of Charles II

In 1668 Godolphin played a role in the negotiations that would lead to England figthing the Dutch in the Franco-Dutch war. From 24 March 1670 till 22 April 1670 he was on a diplomatic mission to France 2). He was to escort the Duchess of Orleans to Dover for the secret treaty against the Dutch in 16703). He was rewarded with an appointment as groom of the bedchamber, and with a pension of £500 for life.

2.3 Godolphin in the 1672 campaign

On 2 April 1672 Godolphin left England as Envoy Extraordinary to accompany the King of France during the campaign season. He took leave of the king on 13 August, but illness made that he only returned to England in early November4).

3 Godolphin's early career

3.1 Godolphin's marriage'

Sidney's future now looked kind of stable. He succeeded in winning the hand of Margaret Blagge, daughter of Thomas Blagge, and on 16 May 1675 they were married. The life of Margaret Blagge was described by John Evelyn (1620-1706) in his book The Life of Mrs Godolphin. Margaret died of puerperal fever in September 1678, but their son Francis survived. Sidney Godolphin never remarried.

3.2 Godolphin to the Low Countries

In 1678 Sidney had been on a diplomatic mission to William of Orange that kept him away from Westminster for most of the earlier sessions of 1678. That same year he became master of the robes, with a personal allowance of £500 p.a.

3.3 Starts a career in the Commons

From 1668 Sidney was a more or less regular M.P. for Helston and St. Mawes.

In February 1679 Sidney was chosen as senior member for St. Maws for the Habeas Corpus Parliament that sat from 6 March to 26 May 1679. It carried the Habeas Corpus Act, and prepared the Exclusion Bill againt the Duke of York. For fear that this bill would succeed the parliament was dissolved while on reces.

3.4 Starts a career at the Treasury

On 26 March 1679 Godolphin became a Lord of the Treasury, i.e. a member of the Commission of the Treasury. This was first headed by the Earl of Essex, and after his resignation by Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester till September 1684. Godolphin sat till 9 July 1684.

3.5 The Exclusion Bill

On 9 September 1679 Godolphin was elected for the Godolphin's traditional borough of Helston, and so Sidney sat in the Exclusion Bill Parliament. Before the bill was brought up, he advised the King to send the Duke of York away and not to obstruct the bill. The parliament first met much later, on 21 October 1680. Godolphin is not known to have done anything as the Commons quickly passed the Exclusion Bill. The king then wanted Godolphin to carry a message to the Commons expressing his determination to dismiss it, but Godolphin refused. The bill was defeated in the House of Lords, but this made that the Commons determined to block any further taxes.

On 15 February Sidney was again elected in Helston for the Oxford parliament, that sat from 21 March 1681 - 28 March 1681. After that that Charles II had no more parliaments.

4 Godolphin's becomes a peer

4.1 Baron Godolphin of Rialton

Godolphin was Secretary of State for the Northern Department from 17 April 1684 till 24 August 1684. In September 1684 Sidney was elevated to the peerage as Baron Godolphin of Rialton. This meant he had to leave his seat as M.P. for Helston, where his cousin and namesake succeeded him.

4.2 First Lord of the Commssion of the Treasury

On 9 September 1684 Godolphin was made First Lord of the Commssion of the Treasury.

5 Godolphin under King James II

5.1 Continues with James II

On 6 February 1685 Charles II died. He was succeeded by James II, who strated his reign with the illegal act of continuing to collect the customs that had been granted 'for life' to Charles II. Godolphin did not oppose, and acquired James' confidence.

5.2 Replaced as Lord Treasurer

On 16 February 1685 the Commission of the Treasury was replaced by the Earl of Rochester as Lord Treasurer. For refusing to become a Catholic, Rochester was dismissed on 4 January 1687, and a new commission was formed. On 4 January 1687 Godolphin became a Lord of the Treasury under the Catholic First Lord John Belasyse.

5.3 Negotiates on behalf of James II

The Prince of Orange landed in England in November 1688 and marched towards London. James II maded a commission of Halifax, Nottingham and Godolphin to negotiate with the prince. On 8 December these met the invading army at Hungerford. William would not give the commissioners a private audience, but negotiations did start. Meanwhile James II fled 5).

5.4 Financial Expertise?

By 1688 Godolphin had been a Lord of the Treasury and even Lord Treasurer for almost 10 years. He was often said to have been an expert in public finance. By 1688 this might have been true on account of his experience at the treasury alone. Another source for his expertise would have been the family's (including his own) interest in the tin mines. These mines were (very) big business, and also required knowledge of large scale financial operations.

Besides having expertise Godolphin was probably incorruptable. At a time when public office was the way to enrich oneself this was a rare characteristic.

6 Godolphin under King William III

6.1 Continues under King William III

Godolphin would continue as a Lord of the Treasury under William III. Because he was so closely associated with the governments of Charles II and James II this came as a bit of a surprise. Indeed his financial expertise probably played a role in this, as all other members of the commission were replaced. In March 1690 a new commission did not include Godolphin, but did include the experienced Sir Stephen Fox.

6.2 First lord under King William III

On 15 November 1690 a new commission saw Godolphin as First Lord of the Commission of the Treasury, which was a definite sign of favor. In October 1696 he resigned because of the trial of John Fenwick, which would be more dangerous for him if he was in government.

6.3 Jacobite Correspondene

Godolphin started a secret correspondence with James II in 1691. He is said to have revealed the plans for the Brest expedition to France in May 1694. The correspondence with the pretenders is said to have continued till the end of Godolphin's career.

6.4 Francis marries Henrietta Churchill

Sidney Godolphin cemented his alliance with the Earl of Marlborough by marrying his son to Marlborough's daughter in spring 1698.

6.5 Godolphin returns to power

After the Tories returned to power near the end of William's reign, Godolphin again became First Lord on 9 December 1700. He resigned again on 30 December 1701.

7 Godolphin under Queen Anne

7.1 Godolphin becomes Lord Treasurer again

When Queen accede to the throne, Godolphin's influence gained an enormous because of the high favour of his friend John Churchill, who would soon become Duke of Marlborough. Godolphin was made Lord Treasurer again on 8 May 1702, and would not quit this post till 11 August 1710.

8 Godolphin's Career

Godolphin's Career
1668Member of parliament starting out as a Whig
1679A lord of the treasury
1684-1685Head of the treasury under Charles II
1684Made a baron by Charles II
1685Stays on when James II becomes king
1689Reappointed by William III
1690-1696First commissioner of the treasury
1700-1701First commissioner of the treasury
1702-1710Lord Treasurer

Besides being remembered as an English Prime-minister, Godolphin is also remembered for his activities in horse-breeding

When looking at this career path one might be tempted to think that being Lord Treasurer is more important than being First Lord of the commission of the treasury. It is, but the office of Lord Treasurer was often vacant, meaning that a powerful First Lord of the Commission could also control the treasury.

9 Sources

The History of parliament has a nice biography of Godolphin.

The Dictionary of National Biography has an article about Godolphin.

The list of Treasurers and Commissioners of the Treasury 1660-1870 that can be found at British History Online is extremely useful to get a grip on Godolphin's appointments at the treasury.

The Life of Mrs Godolphin by John Evelyn was kept secret for a long time, and published for the first time in the nineteenth century.

10 Notes

1) About the early history of the Godolphins The Rise of the Godolphin Estate
2) For Sidney Godolphin's first diplomatic mission A Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives: 1509-1688 p. 119
3) For Sidney Godolphin to Dover: History of parliament
4) For Sidney Godolphin in the 1672 campaign Handlist p. 120
5) Godolphin negotiating for James II in Charles Knight's Popular History of England, Volume 4 page 440.