Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know: The misdeeds of past MPs
Commons Summoned to Upper House from Mr. Punch’s Parliamentary Portrait Gallery | Harry Furniss
If it feels as if today’s politicians are constantly mired in scandal, a glance at the history books shows they are positively vanilla compared to the lurid characters who populated Parliament in the past. Paul Seaward reports
It is customary these days to regard the House of Commons as peopled by grey career politicians with little experience of the real world. While I can think of plenty of counter-examples, it is perhaps the case that Members these days aren’t, on the whole, quite as colourful as they used to be. Which is not entirely a bad thing.
At the History of Parliament Trust we have been putting together accounts of all of those who have ever been elected to Parliament since its origins in the 13th century up to the Reform Act of 1867, and can testify that the ranks of the vicious, corrupt, and eccentric in the past are as full as those of the decent and bland (though both are probably outnumbered by those who either didn’t turn up or never said a word).
A man of exaggerated courtesy, quick temper and 'fantastical' dress, he was one of the last duellists in the Commons
One reason for the presence of the unsavoury is that the House of Commons was once a refuge for those involved in dodgy dealings: parliamentary privilege could be used until 1770 to prevent litigants from pursuing legal actions against Members during sessions. Before imprisonment for debt was abolished in 1869, it also enabled those heavily in debt to avoid debtors’ prison.
Plenty of the vicious are famous already. Richard II’s in-house lawyer and enforcer – and Speaker of the House of Commons – Sir John Bussy came to represent the worst aspects of his tyrannous rule, profiting from the goods and estates of its numerous victims. Bussy was summarily beheaded in the 1399 coup of Henry Bolingbroke that deposed the king, and ended up (with his parliamentary colleagues Sir William Bagot and Sir Henry Green) as one of the villains in Shakespeare’s play. (Bussy’s wife, Maud Neville, may have been in some respects even worse: she almost certainly murdered her first husband, Sir William Cantilupe, in one of the most celebrated murder mysteries of the Middle Ages.)
To be fair, Bussy’s notoriety was more to do with his service to a vicious master than his own viciousness. There are plenty of others – mostly far less famous – whose own violent or abusive conduct was notorious enough at the time. Few these days will have heard of John Griffith, who was elected MP for Caernarfonshire in December 1640, early in the Parliament that ultimately went to war with the king. Over the next 18 months or so, Griffith challenged Lord Herbert, son of the earl of Pembroke, to a duel; failed to obtain a court position and claimed (in revenge) that there was a conspiracy to smuggle the queen away to the continent; and attempted to rape Lady Sedley. Her complaint ensured his expulsion from the House; but he later ingratiated himself with Parliament by joining its armies and continued his vendetta against the Herbert family by claiming that Lord Herbert’s wife was carrying on an affair with the Elector Palatine. His life of scandal and violence continued with the sexual harassment of a gentleman’s wife in Cheshire and the killing of his servant. He is last heard of fighting a duel in the Netherlands and dying in Paris in 1650.
In some of these stories there is more than a hint of mental instability: Henry Clinton, for example, later earl of Lincoln, who served in the 1571 Parliament, was notorious for his violent temper: he picked quarrels with just about everyone and refused to abide by legal judgements, ensuring him several spells in prison. He threw daggers during rows with his wife, whom he incarcerated, putting in an Italian murderer to ensure she didn’t get away; and infuriated Queen Elizabeth I when she tried to visit him in Chelsea because he was in Lincolnshire hiding from his creditors.
In others, there is a sense of entitled impunity – literally being able to get away with murder. George Douglas, for example, son of a Scottish peer and an MP for a series of Scottish constituencies between 1708 and 1730, had in his youth escaped prosecution for killing a servant in an argument over a dog by claiming the man had ”run himself on the point” of his sword. He went on to an undistinguished military and political career. We can think of plenty of other examples.
It’s not all about violence and aristocratic entitlement of course: a crop of MPs in the 19th century owed their notoriety to business success built on shoddy foundations. Albert Grant (1830-1899), for example, is one of at least three MPs on whom Augustus Melmotte, the corrupt financier in Trollope’s 1875 classic The Way We Live Now, is said to have been based. He was born Abraham Gottheimer, the son of the owner of a fancy goods retail business in London. Having reinvented himself as a respectable banker, and then investor in railway schemes and property projects, he got into Parliament in 1865 despite questions being asked about the financial structure of his businesses. They unravelled amid a series of lawsuits and his political career collapsed with his eventual bankruptcy in 1897.
And yet there are plenty whose eccentricity took more engaging, even constructive, forms. One of the most colourful is the charming Irish oddity James Patrick Mahon, known as The O’Gorman Mahon. The Don Quixote of the Victorian Parliament, he was first elected in 1830 and was still there (though with several breaks in service) in 1891. Mahon invented for himself not only his supposedly hereditary title, but a whole CV including service in the bodyguard of the Tsar of Russia, general in the Uruguayan army, commander of a Chilean fleet, and even the offer of a Brazilian archbishopric. By the time of his last stint in the Commons he was a supporter of the Irish party of Charles Parnell. A man of exaggerated courtesy, quick temper and “fantastical” dress, he was one of the last duellists in the Commons. He was remembered some time towards the end of his life striding across the floor of the House to “present his card to one of the noisy Conservatives” who were barracking the Parnellites. The man concerned had no idea what he meant until his neighbours told him that it was meant to be a challenge – a habit that had gone out of fashion around 50 years before.
The O’Gorman Mahon was not the only Irish MP to be regarded with irritation or bemusement by English MPs. But men like Richard Martin, an MP for Galway over the first three decades of the 19th century, might seem to modern eyes a good deal more attractive than their English counterparts. Martin was a keen actor and like Mahon a renowned duellist (his duelling scars made him “not very pleasant to receive or to look at,” according to one journalist). But what made him seem eccentric to contemporaries was his universal kindness to people and a love of animals. He sponsored what is thought to be the first legislation against cruelty to animals, which reached the statute book in 1822. One of the promoters of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, he would personally prowl the streets of London to prosecute offenders against his legislation, while pleading for leniency for those convicted if they were genuinely contrite, even paying their fines if they couldn’t themselves. But even he made use of his parliamentary seat to avoid the consequences of reckless expenditure. Like many others, when he lost it in 1826 he had to decamp to France to escape arrest for debt.
Paul Seaward is director of the History of Parliament Trust and is writing a book which will have much more of this sort of thing in it. You can find more on the History of Parliament at www.historyofparliamentonline.org
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