BENNET, William (d. 1729), of Grubbet, Roxburgh.
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Family and Education
1st s. of Sir William Bennet, 1st Bt., of Grubbet by Christian, da. of Alexander Morison of Prestongrange, Haddington. educ. ?Edinburgh, MA 1685. m. (1) Jean, da. of Sir John Kerr of Lochtour, Roxburgh. ?1s. (2) contract 18 Mar. 1692 (with 40,000 merks), Margaret (d. by 17 Aug. 1694) da. and h. of John Scougall of Whitekirk, Haddington. s.p. (3) Elizabeth, da. of Sir David Hay, MD, of Auchquhairney, ?1s. suc. fa. as 2nd Bt. 1710.1
Capt. own tp. of horse 1689–94, R. Scots drag. 1693; maj. Ld. Jedburgh’s tp. of horse bef. 1697; half-pay 1698; muster master gen. [S] 1704–8; commr. excise 1714–25; ensign R. coy. Archers 1715.2
Burgess, Edinburgh 1691, Linlithgow 1693.3
MP [S], Roxburghshire 1693–1707.
From a solidly Presbyterian background, his grandfather a minister and his father suffering ‘many hardships for conscience sake’, Bennet was an enthusiastic supporter of the Revolution. He accompanied the Prince of Orange from Holland and ‘made an offer to levy upon his own charge a troop of horse’. The Scottish parliament subsequently took responsibility for funding this force, but neglected to fulfil this engagement completely, leaving Bennet still claiming arrears after the Union. His military career, which included service abroad, continued until 1698, but was gradually superseded by his political activities. Having been returned to the Scottish parliament in 1693 for his native Roxburghshire, Bennet was initially associated with the Tweeddale–Johnston Court interest, but moved towards opposition as government came to be dominated by Queensberry and Argyll. The dismissal of Tullibardine in 1698 marked a turning point together with the failure of the Company of Scotland, in which Bennet had invested £300. He joined the Country party and by 1700 had become a leading activist, not only signing the opposition address calling for a meeting of parliament, but also travelling to London to present it. In the Scottish parliament he was appointed to the committee of security, presented the Roxburghshire petition on Darien, and voted in favour of an act to declare Caledonia a lawful colony. In addition to opposing the standing army, he was an advocate of extreme Presbyterian measures in order to sow divisions within the Court party. His religious beliefs were in fact moderate: he resisted any increase in the Kirk’s supervision of individual morality, declaring that ‘to be enslaved to the clergy’ was a retrograde step from the liberty achieved by the Revolution (a viewpoint that was perhaps coloured by his own youthful experience of Kirk discipline on account of drunkenness).4
Bennet entered fully into the Country party’s electoral campaign in 1702, closely observing national developments and playing a leading role in Roxburghshire, where he made clear that he favoured both written instructions from the constituency and the inauguration of a local committee to monitor the commissioners’ conduct. During the 1703 parliament he continued active in the Country cause, being convinced that the components of the current ministry were ‘so hard screwed up that some strings must crack and disorder the harmony of the present concert’. He was privately disillusioned, however, at the prospects of any fundamental change, since in his view all politicians behaved selfishly once in office and submitted to the dictates of their English overlords. Moreover, when opportunity offered, he was willing to take office, being appointed muster master as a consequence of the ‘New Party’ experiment of 1704. The failure of this coalition in 1705, and the return to opposition of those who formed an enduring political connexion as the Squadrone, marked another crisis in Bennet’s political career. Although events were to transform him into a loyal member of the Squadrone, his permanent attachment was by no means a foregone conclusion. Under pressure from both sides he abstained on an important vote on 1 Aug. 1705 and proceeded to court both Queensberry and the 2nd Duke of Argyll. Unlike many of his Squadrone colleagues, he had avoided immediate dismissal and therefore found himself in an equivocal position until the Union, with private as well as public motives for supporting the government. In January 1706 he had received assurances from Queensberry that his place was secure, but rumours continued that Argyll might grant it instead to Sir Alexander Cumming, 1st Bt.* It was not until April 1706 that Bennet wrote to Queensberry, acknowledging that ‘it is to your friendship that I owe the continuance in my post, and my gratitude shall ever attend my patron’. There is no reason to doubt Bennet’s genuine conviction of the necessity of Union, but it is clear that the collective decision of the Squadrone to support this measure averted a political breach. Saved from the embarrassment of a complete separation, Bennet nevertheless took care to vote consistently with the Court, rather than following the Squadrone line of qualified approval. He was rewarded with a seat at Westminster as one of the Scottish representatives to the first Parliament of Great Britain.5
Following his arrival in London, Bennet was introduced to the Queen on 27 Oct. 1707, making her a short complimentary speech. Privately he was not impressed, having expected ‘to have seen a splendid court at Kensington, but it had all the silence and solitude of a cloister’. The House itself was likewise a disappointment, Bennet having imagined it ‘to be an auguster assembly’ than it proved in reality. He soon came to realize, however, that ‘a Member of the Commons is a person of respect during the session of Parliament’. Clearly a sociable individual, he kept company with fellow Scots and new-found English acquaintances, in particular establishing a close friendship with Grey Neville*. Shortly after the session opened, Bennet reported on 30 Oct. that Parliament had been adjourned for another week
without any speech from her Majesty who cannot make her demand of supply until Marlborough [John Churchill†] show his conclusions with the allies as to the state of the war. The spirit of mutiny is predominant among the people of trade who seem to have a just pretence to grumble, from the intolerable losses they have sustained at sea . . . The English are extremely courteous and civil and caress us on all occasions, and if the devil of division don’t possess us we have it in our hands to cast the balance in conjunction with the northern counties which seem heartily to court our friendship as bound by the same interests.6
On 15 Nov. 1707 Bennet reported that parliamentary affairs ‘now begin to be heartily in earnest, after having trifled away a great deal of time since we came here’. He was pleased that the Court was ‘heartily alarmed at what has passed in both Houses, of calling to a severe account the bad conduct and mismanagement of the fleet’. This investigation was likely ‘to run very deep’, with ‘scrutiny into all places, pensions, gifts, when, how and for what given’. Bennet hoped that unity among the Scottish Members would allow them to ‘cast the balance, as we please’, but doubted whether the adherents of the old Scottish Court party would be prepared to play such a game, ‘having no free will’. No trace remained of recent professions of attachment to Queensberry. Bennet fully reverted to his allegiance to the Squadrone magnate, the Duke of Roxburghe, whom he described as ‘our head and ears in the politics’. Bennet was extremely disdainful of the old Scottish Court party:
Our sometime ministers of state make a very ordinary figure, and are quite out of countenance; people make it a jest here, that they who had the despotic government of a kingdom should so foolishly divest themselves of it, by advancing that [i.e. the Union] which was the only thing that could ruin them.
Bennet therefore endorsed one of the key aims of the Squadrone, namely breaking down the differences between English and Scottish administrations as a means of destroying the power of the Scottish Court party. The Queen’s Speech had mentioned that Parliament should consider ‘several matters’ arising from the articles of Union, together with others which might ‘reasonably produce those advantages that, with due care, must certainly arise from that treaty’. The formula was deliberately vague, designed to permit the ministry to set the agenda, but this strategy backfired when the Squadrone proposed the abolition of the Scottish privy council. This had not formed part of the ministerial plan, for the council was both a valuable executive branch of government and a means of maintaining the influence of the Court over elections. According to Bennet’s account of events, a ‘confederacy’ was formed at Roxburghe’s instigation which included Argyll and Montrose ‘with all their friends and the whole Squadrone’. Bennet, motivated by the ‘impulses of reason’ and the desire to serve his patron, joined with this scheme, brushing aside the inevitable ‘threatenings and promises’ from the Court. Having participated in proceedings on this question in early December, he gave a detailed account of the debate of the 11th, upon the resolutions reported from the committee of the whole. After the passage of the motion for abolishing the Scottish privy council, Bennet spoke during a ‘very intricate’ debate on another resolution that j.p.s should have the same power in Scotland as in England. A number of lawyers who had formerly ‘appeared for us in committee’ now ‘recanted their opinions in plain House’, a betrayal which Bennet attributed to the efforts of Queensberry and Robert Harley*. With the initiative apparently slipping from the Squadrone, Roxburghe, who was observing proceedings from the gallery, decided to intervene.
My Lord Duke beckoned me to the gallery, and told with great concern that he thought we had lost it, and his opinion was, we should make a fair retreat, by yielding to the clause they proposed . . . for preserving the heritable jurisdictions. As I was returning with this advice to our friends . . . the heads of the Tories, observing our conversation, and guessing what it meant, told me [that] . . . if we would stand our ground they would give us a turn immediately, and that when we thought the House warmed for the question, that my speaking should be the signal for them to press it . . . Bromley [William II] spoke like an angel, and after him six more of that kidney, which turned the tide extremely, the solicitor-general [James Montagu I] summed up the whole argument . . . which made us think the House in good humour for the question, which I proposed to be put, and was seconded with such a shout, that it was not in the Speaker’s power to delay it.
The question was carried and the remaining resolutions passed without a division. Bennet was naturally appointed to the resultant drafting committee for a bill to complete the Union. He had earned respect from his colleagues for his role, albeit largely a fortuitous one, in co-ordinating this victory over the Court. At about this time Roxburghe’s brother, Hon. William Kerr*, reported to his mother that Bennet had spoken in the House ‘several times with great applause’, whereas the Duke himself chose to celebrate Christmas with him, reporting that he ‘behaved like himself . . . and I think forgot no friend either in East Lothian or Teviotdale’.7
By now Bennet had learned that he would not be returned for Roxburghshire at the next election. It was decided that Kerr would stand instead, partly to ensure some parliamentary presence for the family should Roxburghe fail to secure a place as a representative peer. Bennet accepted this reverse with equanimity, the blow perhaps softened by his reported homesickness for Scotland. Somewhat surprisingly, given his impending retirement, Bennet actually increased his level of activity in the remainder of this Parliament.8
Having cast off the mask during the debates on the Scottish privy council, Bennet may have considered his dismissal from office to be inevitable unless there was a change of government. He apparently received assurances from Harley and Henry St. John II* that if he were to lose his place for opposing the ministry, he would be reinstated when their own plans for reconstructing it came to fruition. There is no doubt that Bennet was being pressurized by the Court and that his refusal to conform resulted in his removal. His crime was cumulative rather than a single transgression, certainly involving his attitude to the Scottish privy council and possibly to the government’s proposals for a reform of the recruiting system. On 16 Jan. 1708 Bennet seconded Hon. James Brydges’ proposal that the troops immediately required for Spain should be raised by some other means than the current recruiting acts. Although nominally supporting government, Bennet’s speech created an unfortunate impression:
Mr Bennet . . . added that the men should be raised proportionably in all parts of the United Kingdom. He being called upon to explain . . . he said they might take what rule they thought fittest, as the cess or any other. The cess being named by a Scotchman could not fail of being excepted against, for, that being the rate, they would raise but one man to our 40. He explained himself, that he did not mean that should be the measure between England and Scotland, but they would be willing to raise their proportion, according to the numbers of men that may be reasonably computed for each kingdom. The explanation did not take away the ill-impression of the first undigested proposition.
That Bennet, as muster master for Scotland, should have played a leading role in introducing the question is not in itself surprising, but the counter-productive effect of his speech is suggestive. On 22 Jan. the issue of the Scottish privy council was revived by a Court amendment for the deferral of abolition till after the next election. The Squadrone opposed and defeated this manoeuvre, allegedly with the assistance of Harley. Bennet may have played a part in securing Harley’s support, in return contributing to the attack upon the Court. Certainly, when Harley finally achieved power in 1710, Bennet’s Squadrone colleagues believed that he had a legitimate claim upon the new ministry, having surrendered ‘a very good milch cow’ in the service of Harley and St. John, who ought to feel ‘obliged to restore you again’.9
Little is known of Bennet’s parliamentary activities after Harley’s fall in February 1708, or how frequently he opposed the Court in the remainder of the session. He joined his Squadrone colleagues John Cockburn and Hon. Sir Andrew Hume in an unsuccessful attempt on 26 Feb. to ‘invert the classes of those to be paid out of the Equivalent’, speaking ‘most reflectingly and scurvily of the parliament of Scotland’; and on 17 Mar. told against a Tory amendment to the bill to secure American trade. After the session ended, Lord Seafield reported to Lord Godolphin (Sidney†) on 25 June that ‘the Queen is resolved that Mr Bennet’s commission of muster master shall cease now from this time’. The office was divided between two holders, which gave Bennet some small satisfaction that his enemies had gained ‘but half a victory when the thing is split’. Meanwhile in London, Roxburghe was intent on making political capital out of the affair and sent word to Bennet that ‘there’s no fear but justice will be done him before long’. Prior to receiving word of his dismissal, Bennet had appealed to Sunderland (Charles, Lord Spencer*) for the ‘blow to be staved off till the Parliament meets’ and afterwards noted that the Junto were ‘very hot on this business . . . assuring a certain great man [Godolphin] that he should wish it undone ere he eat his Christmas goose’.10
In the 1708 election Bennet gave full support to Kerr’s unsuccessful candidacy for Roxburghshire. Otherwise he retreated from political life. Roxburghe made sure that Bennet was not completely neglected, taking care to consult him on such questions as the county’s commission of the peace. He continued to receive protestations of support for his reinstatement from a variety of figures, including Montrose and Sutherland. It was also reported in August 1709 that Sunderland was not only ‘well disposed’, but after speaking several times to Godolphin now had ‘his promise for it’. Under-secretary Robert Pringle, the channel of this communication, himself believed that Bennet would never receive redress until the management of Scotland was placed in other hands. Roxburghe continued to press Bennet’s case and in December 1709 sent a message via George Baillie’s* wife that he had personally approached Seafield and Godolphin: the former having ‘been as good as his promise’ and the latter now conceding that if Bennet was not reinstated by the end of the session he ‘should certainly have something else’. Nothing came of this, nor was likely to while Bennet remained outside Parliament. As one of his supporters had pointed out at the time of his dismissal, if he were ‘to be a Parliament-man . . . there would be no question of keeping your post’. A return to Westminster appeared possible in 1710, when Kerr decided to stand elsewhere, but Bennet was defeated in a closely fought contest. He did not petition against the return, despite being convinced of the strength of his case, leaving the decision to Roxburghe and describing himself as perfectly willing to ‘bask here in quiet and silence waiting the sunshine of a better day, which must come’.11
Bennet was forced to await the Hanoverian succession before receiving any mark of favour. His brother-in-law William Nisbet* was convinced that his former services would now be recognized, since ‘most people know your share of the hazard and expense at the first Revolution and if that had not happened I think the present King would not have been so near the throne at this day’. He was not restored to his former office, which fell to another of Roxburghe’s nominees. The Duke forewarned him of this turn of events in October 1714:
I cannot . . . tell you in a letter how this has happened, but you may depend upon it if the Duke of Montrose or I have any interest you will have a better place, for this was really not worth your having, being but about £150 a year, so that when some of your neighbours sneer upon your being baulked, as they think, pray let them sneer and don’t say a word, for if you mention my having writ to you . . . I will truly take it ill . . . I have no doubt of procuring for you, and that very soon, a place in the customs or excise which is £500 a year. If you mention this to anyone you’ll do me wrong and possibly yourself harm.
Appointment as a commissioner of excise duly followed, being confirmed after some complications in December. This place being incompatible with a seat in Parliament, Bennet had clearly abandoned any intention of reviving his parliamentary career.12
During the Fifteen, Bennet was active in countering the Jacobite threat in Roxburghshire, though his initiative in placing artillery at Kelso proved unwise when this fell into rebel hands before his scheme of fortification could be implemented. He spent the remainder of his life chiefly on his estates, devoting himself to agricultural improvements and to the composition of pastoral verse. In 1725 Bennet was removed from his excise post as part of the attack by Walpole (Robert II*) upon Roxburghe’s influence in Scotland. Bennet was convinced that ‘this cloud will blow over, who lives to see it’. He died on 23 Dec. 1729, being succeeded in turn by his sons, William and David, the baronetcy thereafter passing from the direct line and becoming extinct by mid-century. The estates passed to the Nisbet family, who subsequently sold them to the Marquess of Tweeddale.13
Ref Volumes: 1690-1715
Author: David Wilkinson
- 1. Hist. Scot. Parl. 49; Edinburgh Graduates, 127; SRO, Biel mss GD6/1389/1–3, contract and discharge; APS, xi. app. 130–1; SRO, Cromartie mss GD305 addit./bdle. 14, Ld. Royston to [Cromarty], 6 Apr. 1710.
- 2. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxix. 198; SRO, Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/38/8, ensign’s commn.
- 3. Scot. Rec. Soc. lix. 55; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/38/8, burgess tickets.
- 4. A. Jeffrey, Hist. Roxburgh. iii. 337–40; info. from Dr P. W. J. Riley on members of Scot. parl.; P. W. J. Riley, Wm. III and Scot. Politicians, 170; Scot. Hist. Soc. ser. 3, xlvi. 52; APS, ix. 26, 59; x. 11, 193, 195, 207, 246, 269; Reg. PC Scotland 1686–9, pp. 489–91, 498; 1689, pp. 86, 156, 256, 381, 476, 767; 1690, pp. 195, 391, 429–30, 657; Fraser, Melvilles, ii. 121; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 117, 145; Darien Pprs. (Bannatyne Club, xc), 402; Crossrigg Diary, 15–16, 25–26.
- 5. Roxburghe mss at Floors Castle, bdle. 726, Bennet to Countess of Roxburghe, 8 Oct. 1702; info. from Dr Riley; APS, xi. 72, 102; Crossrigg Diary, 139; Boyer, Anne Annals, iii. app. 43; Orig. Pprs. ed. Macpherson, ii. 10–11; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 45–46, 95, 118, 264–5, 334; Intimate Soc. Letters of 18th Cent. ed. J. D. S. Campbell, i. 29–30; Buccleuch mss at Drumlanrig Castle, bdle. 1152, no.30, Bennet to Queensberry, 12 Apr. 1706; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/33/3/10/24, William Jamisone to Bennet, 29 Jan. 1705–6.
- 6. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1069, Hon. William Kerr to Countess of Roxburghe, 28 Oct. 1707; bdle. 1079, Bennet to same, 30 Oct. 1707; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/36/6, Neville to Bennet, 30 Dec. 1707, 4 Jan., 11 July, 14 Sept. 1708, 19 Mar., 19 May 1709; SHR, lxxi. 114.
- 7. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 795, Bennet to Countess of Roxburghe, 15 Nov. 1707; bdle. 739, same to same, 16 Dec. 1707; bdle. 1067, Kerr to same, n.d. [Dec. 1707]; bdle. 755, Roxburghe to same, 25 Dec. 1707.
- 8. Roxburghe mss, bdle. 739, Jamisone to Countess of Roxburghe, 15 Jan. 1707–8; bdle. 755, Roxburghe to same, 24 Jan. 1708.
- 9. P. W. J. Riley, Eng. Ministers and Scotland, 87–96; EHR, lxxx. 58; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/36/6, St. John to Bennet, 12 Jan. 1707–8, J. Edmonstone to same, 6 Nov. 1710; Vernon–Shrewsbury Letters, iii. 309–10; Add. 61631, f. 63; 61632, f. 28; Cunningham, Hist. GB, ii. 138–40; DZA, Bonet despatch 13/24 Feb. 1708.
- 10. HMC Mar and Kellie, i. 429; SRO, Seafield mss GD248/572/7/21, Seafield to Godolphin, 25 June 1708; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/38/8, Bennet to Nisbet, 9 Aug. 1708; GD205/33/3/2/7, Baillie to Bennet, 29 July 1708; Baillie Corresp. 193–6.
- 11. Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/33/3/10/39, Jamisone to Bennet, 29 Oct. 1708; GD205/34/4, Charles Oliphant* to same, 11 Dec. 1708; GD205/36/6, Neville to same, 11 July, 14 Sept. 1708, 19 Mar. 1708–9, William Elliot to same, 8 June 1708, Robert Pringle to same, 11 Aug. 1709; GD205/31/1/1/13, Montrose to same, 15 Feb. 1709; GD205/33/3/2/7, Grisell Baillie to same, 4 Jan. 1710; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 1067, Kerr to Countess of Roxburghe, 18 Sept. 1710; bdle. 739, Bennet to same, 13 Dec. 1710.
- 12. Mss sold at Sothebys 14 Dec. 1976, lot 20, Nisbet to Bennet, 19 Aug. 1714; Ogilvy of Inverquharity mss GD205/31/1/17, Roxburghe to same, 12 Oct. 1714; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxix. 198; Roxburghe mss, bdle. 756, Roxburghe to mother, 9 Dec. 1714.
- 13. Jeffrey, 337–40; Jeffrey, Historical and Descriptive Acct. Roxburgh. 397–8; [P. Rae], Hist. Late Rebellion (1718), 185, 255, 269; Hawick Arch. Soc. Trans. (1911), 61; HMC 14th Rep. III, 53–55; Works of Allan Ramsay (1819), 18; G. Tancred, Annals of a Border Club, 251; Riley, Eng. Ministers, 258, 274; Boyer, Pol. State, xxxix. 166; Services of Heirs, i. 1730–9, p. 4.