The Triennial Act – passed in December 1694 despite earlier royal vetoes – decreed that no future parliament was to last longer than three years. Country MPs had clamoured for regular elections to deter ministers from ‘corrupting’ parliament by employing patronage, pensions or other inducements to build up reliable court support among MPs. Although the Act did little to stop ministerial influence over the House of Commons, it completely transformed the face of politics. Until its repeal in 1716, the holding of frequent elections greatly intensified the political divisions and acrimony that hallmarked the struggle in this period between Whig and Tory.
The first election to be fought under the terms of the Triennial Act was held in November 1695. It was a distinctly quieter affair than that of 1690 with 85 (31 per cent) of the 269 English and Welsh constituencies being contested, a fall of 18 on the previous figure. Local rivalries tended to predominate over national issues. At Bristol, for example, a recent party tussle within the corporation had resulted in the collapse of Tory support and victory was yielded to the Whig candidates after only one day of polling. In contested elections the Whigs made many gains, a feat particularly evident in the large ‘populous’ constituencies of a 1000 or more voters. The new House comprised 257 Whigs and 203 Tories, though with a larger number of 53 MPs unclassifiable due to changing allegiances. The result thus confirmed the Junto ministry with an overall, but narrow majority.
The 1695 Parliament saw the Junto maintain their hold on the reins of power, though in the Commons the strength of their position was frequently uncertain. No fewer than 174 MPs had not sat in the previous parliament, and of these only 30 had earlier parliamentary experience. The Junto organized its backbench support through meetings of the ‘Rose Club’ at the Rose Tavern in Russell Street. The club elected a chairman (or convenors), but it is unclear if it had a fixed membership.
In the 1695-6 session the government ran into particular difficulty in its effort to resolve the crisis over the coinage, and in the proposal to set up a ‘council of trade’. The ministry’s continuing financial problems were much exacerbated by the heavily ‘clipped’ condition at this time of England’s coinage, and major difficulties were occurring in paying the army in the Low Countries where the exchange against sterling had fallen perilously low in the summer of 1695. The debates on the recoinage had become ensnared on the question of fixing a suitable price for the value of guineas and produced an increasing diversity of opinion in the early weeks of 1696. The other issue, concerning the need for a ‘council of trade’, had arisen from merchants’ complaints of recent heavy loss through enemy action and capture, but whether such a body should be appointed by the King or by parliament became the subject of lengthy dispute between the Court and their Country opponents over the correctness of limiting the royal prerogative.
The stalemate over these issues was broken by the discovery in late February 1696 of a Jacobite conspiracy to assassinate the King backed by an invasion from France. Both Houses adopted the Whig proposal of a loyal ‘Association’ acknowledging William III as ‘rightful and lawful king’ and pledging support to his government. A counting of heads in the Commons on 25 Feb. 1696 revealed that of 453 MPs present, 89 Tories were not prepared to subscribe to this key assertion of William’s legitimacy. The episode did much to reunite the Whigs behind the Junto ministry, as well as to expose obvious divisions among the Tories in opposition. The ministry was quickly able to conclude the recoinage on its own preferred terms, and secured the appointment of a crown-appointed Board of Trade, rather than a council controlled by parliament.
The high point of the 1696-7 session was undoubtedly the attainder of the Jacobite conspirator Sir John Fenwick. The ministers did much to hasten the proceedings lest Fenwick fulfilled his threat to implicate leading Whigs – principally Russell and Lord Shrewsbury – in his treasonable correspondence with the Stuart court-in-exile. Amid lengthy debates during 13-25 Oct. 1696 the Commons passed the attainder bill by 189 votes to 156 despite the availability of only one prosecution witness, with many Whigs opposing as well as Tories. Fenwick was executed in January 1697.
Later in the session one of Charles Montagu’s money bills gave approval for an extension of the Bank of England’s privileges until 1710 in return for a new loan subscription of £5 million. But the ministry’s unexpected defeat in several divisions concerning proposals for new duties on wine and textiles underlined the urgent need for peace.
The conclusion of the Treaty of Ryswick in September 1697, shortly before parliament reassembled, promised major reductions in financial burdens. However, the King’s determination to maintain a substantial standing army in peacetime in anticipation of renewed conflict with France dominated the early part of the 1697-8 session. The Country opposition, reflecting the drift of public opinion, saw an unnecessarily large army as a threat to hallowed English liberties, and Harley was able to secure a huge reduction in the army to just 10,000 men.
In addition, trouble was stirred up against Montagu for financial mismanagements. Although this failed, the ministry experienced increasing difficulty in controlling the Commons. By the end of the session, however, the Junto seemed well-established in power, their position strengthened by the resignation in December 1697 of the King’s backstairs minister, Sunderland.
H. Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Politics in the reign of William III (Manchester, 1977)