MONTAGU, Hon. Ralph (1638-1709), of Montagu House, Bloomsbury, Mdx. and Boughton, Northants.
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Family and Education
bap. 24 Dec. 1638, end but o. surv. s. of Edward Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Boughton, and bro. of Hon. Edward Montagu. educ. Westminster 1648; travelled abroad 1655. m. (1) 24 Aug. 1673, Lady Elizabeth Wriothesley (d. 18 Sept. 1690), da. and coh. of Thomas, 4th Earl of Southampton, ld. treas. 1660-7, wid. of Jocelyn, 4th Earl of Northumberland, 3s. (2 d.v.p.) 1da.; (2) 8 Sept. 1692, Lady Elizabeth Cavendish (d. 28 Aug. 1734), da. and coh. of Henry Cavendish, 2nd Duke of Newcastle, wid. of Christopher Monck, 2nd Duke of Albemarle, s.p. suc. fa. as 3rd Baron Montagu 10 Jan. 1684, uncle Richard Winwood in Bucks. estate 1688; cr. Earl of Montagu 9 Apr. 1689, Duke of Montagu 14 Apr. 1705.1
Equerry to the Duchess of York by 1662-5; master of the horse to Queen Catherine of Braganza 1665-78; ambassador to France 1669-72, 1676-8; master of the great wardrobe 1671-8, 1689-d.; PC 2 Jan. 1672-12 July 1678, 14 Feb. 1689-d.; gov. tapestry co. 1692; commr. for Greenwich hospital 1695.2
Jt. keeper of Hartleton Walk, Richmond Park, 1661-d.; commr. for assessment, Hunts. and Northants. 1679-80; j.p. Northants. 1689-d., ld. lt. 1697-?1701.3
Montagu served aboard the fleet as a volunteer in the second Dutch war, and at the Queen’s special request succeeded his brother in her household. Although ambassador to France at the time of the Treaty of Dover and regarded as a creature of Arlington’s, he was ignorant of its secret clauses. On the other hand he was on the worst of terms with the Duke of Buckingham, his opposite number in the King’s household. In 1671 he bought the mastership of the great wardrobe (valued at £3,000 p.a.) from his cousin the Earl of Sandwich (Edward Montagu I) for £14,000. A private income of £2,000 p.a. was settled on him on his marriage in 1673. He had a strong claim to succeed Arlington as secretary of state in 1674, but the post was sold to (Sir) Joseph Williamson, and in 1676 he returned to Paris, where he was entrusted with negotiating Charles II’s demands for a French subsidy, in return for benevolent neutrality and the prorogation of Parliament. ‘You may be confident of my secrecy about this whole affair’, he wrote to Danby on 12 Aug. 1677, ‘both for the King’s, your lordship’s and my own sake, for it would be no popular or creditable thing if it were known.’ In the following January he warned the Government of Ruvigny’s intrigues with the Hon. William Russell, who had earned his enmity by trying to prevent his marriage to Lady Northumberland. Although a byword for ugliness from his youth, Montagu was irresistible to women, and in the spring of 1678 his leisure was abundantly occupied in satisfying the demands of his wife, the ravenous Duchess of Cleveland, and her teen-age daughter Lady Sussex. Charles II was outraged both as father and lover, and Montagu’s recall was only a matter of time. He arranged to buy a secretaryship of state from Henry Coventry for £10,000, but Danby was unwilling that the office should be held by a major territorial and family interest, and prevented the transaction. Thus King and minister must share the responsibility for Montagu’s return to England with a grudge, and the means of satisfying it. He left his post without permission, and on arrival in London undertook to the French embassy to ruin Danby for 100,000 crowns, part of it to be used ‘to gain votes and to make sure of seven or eight of the principal persons of the Lower House’. Montagu had first to secure a seat in Parliament himself, partly for the immunity it conferred, but chiefly as a platform for his attack on Danby. He had hopes of East Grinstead, but his agent was rebuffed. A vacancy occurred at Northampton, however, in his native county, and he obtained a clear majority on the poll, though ‘they say it hath cost him £1,000 in ale’. The sheriff, under court influence, declared his opponent elected, but Montagu’s petition, heard at the bar of the House to expedite proceedings, was upheld.4
In Parliament, Montagu confined himself to matters of high policy. He served on the committees to secure the better punishment of recusants and to draw up instructions for disbanding the army. On 28 Nov. he was sent to desire the Lords to continue sitting till Bedloe had finished his information. Meanwhile Danby had decided to forestall Montagu’s impending attack by accusing him of illegal dealings with the Papal nuncio at Paris, which would provide an excuse for seizing his papers. But the vital instructions signed by Danby were well concealed, and on 19 Dec. Montagu read them to the House. The lord treasurer’s impeachment was at once moved, and Montagu was appointed to the committee to draw it up. Danby counter-attacked by sending to the Speaker Montagu’s letter about Russell, but the ex-ambassador’s embarrassed explanations that he had regarded Ruvigny’s mission as a good joke were accepted by the House, though Roger North noted that he received no vote of thanks for his services.5
Montagu’s position again became vulnerable when Parliament was dissolved, especially when he was arrested at Dover, horribly seasick and in disguise. Both now and later, he was the most deeply committed of the leading politicians to the Monmouth solution of the exclusion problem, and, by his own later account, he was on his way to obtain the consent of Louis XIV. Released on his own security by the mayor (William Stokes) and pursued by a messenger from the Council, he set out as if to take part in the Northamptonshire election, where a warm contest was expected. But on the road he turned aside to Huntingdon, where he ‘was chosen without trouble with one night’s stay’, no doubt by arrangement with his cousin the 3rd Earl of Manchester (Robert Montagu). Secured by parliamentary immunity from any further attempts to apprehend him, he was marked ‘worthy’ by Shaftesbury. In the first Exclusion Parliament, his only committees were concerned with Danby, one to consider pamphlets published on his behalf, and the other to draw up the summons to him to surrender himself. He made three speeches, of which the most important was to second the motion for the dismissal of Lauderdale.6
At the next election, Montagu was returned for Northampton ‘without difficulty or opposition, and indeed without any considerable expense’. He might easily have been chosen elsewhere, it was said, and his chief motive was to keep Sir Hugh Cholmley out of the House. Before the second Exclusion Parliament met, Montagu had begun intriguing for office. He won over the Duchess of Portsmouth to exclusion, and undertook to secure a supply if the King would accept this as a basis of policy. He broke away from Shaftesbury’s leadership, and was followed by a group of more or less unprincipled and ambitious opportunists, the most prominent of whom were William Harbord, Silius Titus and the two lawyers, Sir William Jones and Sir Francis Winnington. This did not prevent him from being ‘the most extreme and outspoken opponent of the Court’ in this Parliament, in which he was named to eight committees and made 11 speeches. On 10 Nov. 1680 he moved for consideration of the King’s message rejecting exclusion, and helped to draw up the Commons’ reply. To Shaftesbury’s disgust, he was the chief promoter of the attack on Halifax, scarcely troubling to conceal that the real offence was speaking against exclusion in the House of Lords.
It has always been the privilege of the House of Commons to use common fame as an information of things. The best of Parliaments have done it, and the best of kings have granted it. Common fame says that Lord Halifax advised—and since, he has owned—the dissolution of the last Parliament. I think, therefore, that in justice you can do no less than vote him an enemy to the King and kingdom, and address his Majesty that he will be pleased to remove George, Earl of Halifax from his councils.
He acted as teller against adjourning the debate and took part in drafting the address. On 25 Nov. he moved for the withdrawal of Edward Seymour from the House, and was appointed to the committee for his impeachment. Montagu had at last received from the French embassy half the money promised him, and on 5 Dec. Barrillon wrote to Louis XIV:
Mr Montagu has been in your Majesty’s interests a long time, and the sum of which he expects the payment is alone sufficient to prevent his taking any contrary step. He wishes that I would enter further into the Duke of Monmouth’s affair. ... All I said did not persuade Mr Montagu, but the money I paid him by your Majesty’s order makes his mind very easy.
On 18 Dec. Montagu was one of the members instructed to draft an address on foreign policy. With Harbord, he intended a confrontation with the King at Lord St. Alban’s lodgings a day or two after Christmas; but Charles wisely did not appear. Inevitably rumours began to circulate of a sell-out by the opposition leaders, and the House passed a resolution forbidding Members to accept places without its permission. On 7 Jan. 1681 Montagu called on Laurence Hyde to resign his offices or face impeachment, and made a last appeal to the King:
I believe there was never more loyalty to a King of England from his subjects, but not to have one bill pass, nor a kind answer to our addresses! ... Both Tangier and Flanders are in danger of being lost, but I had rather see the Moors in Tangier and the French in Flanders than the Pope in England, and I would give no money till the bill of exclusion be passed as the only security we have.
His disappointment was expressed after his unopposed re-election in his only known contribution to the Oxford Parliament, apart from membership of the committee of elections and privileges:
I am sorry to hear of the King’s giving us expedients to preserve our Protestant religion; I am sorry to hear that language. This is not to be used as an English Parliament, but a French, to be told in the King’s speech what we are to do, and what not.7
It is to Montagu’s credit that, despite his recent differences with Shaftesbury, he remained loyal to the opposition leader till he left England, visiting him in the Tower and offering to stand bail for him. He tried to improve his interest at Northampton by laying out £500 to have his father elected recorder in November 1681, but the appointment was vetoed by the King. Although he had no connexion with the Rye House Plot, he was one of the Northamptonshire Whigs presented as disaffected by the grand jury in July 1683, and he obtained a pass to France in the following month. Even before his father’s death, he was alleged to enjoy an income of £8,500 p.a. ‘besides his place’. On the accession of James II, he applied to kiss the new King’s hand, but was refused permission, and deprived of the mastership of the great wardrobe. Nevertheless, if Montagu failed to become a Whig collaborator in the new reign it was not for want of trying, but rather because his price was too high; he was still aiming at a secretaryship of state. He took credit to himself for persuading Schomberg to accompany William of Orange to England in 1688. In the House of Lords in 1689 he spoke against a regency, and—again by his own account—won over three peers to vote for the transfer of the crown. He was restored to his offices and made an Earl, but never again employed in a position of trust. He occupied his time with building and litigation, both enormously expensive and spectacular. Under Queen Anne, he secured promotion to the highest rank in the peerage by a family alliance with the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill II). He died of pleurisy on 9 Mar. 1709, and was buried at Warkton. Montagu has been described as the most unscrupulous politician of the day; he was also, in respect of personal objectives, one of the most successful, though it is notable that the three kings under whom he served were in accord in denying him the high office for which he was in many respects well qualified. His only surviving son, the last of the family, never sat in the Commons.8
Ref Volumes: 1660-1690
Author: E. R. Edwards
- 1. HMC Montagu, 161-4; CSP Dom. 1655, p. 581.
- 2. CSP Dom. 1661-2, p. 40; HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1 (1881), 279; Sel. Charters (Selden Soc. xxviii), 226.
- 3. CSP Dom. 1678, pp. 287, 359; 1700-2, p. 248.
- 4. Burnet, i. 391; Williamson Letters (Cam. Soc. n.s. viii), 179; CSP Dom. 1673-5, p. 43; HMC 9th Rep. pt. 2, pp. 452, 455; HMC Finch, ii. 38; HMC Bath, ii. 166-7; Dalrymple, Mems. i. 249-52; HMC Egmont, ii. 76-77; Browning, Danby, ii. 376.