The 1698 Parliament was to last only two sessions, witnessing the gradual collapse of the Junto ministry and its piecemeal replacement by men of Tory stamp. As politics adjusted to peacetime conditions a serious clash of wills emerged between King and Parliament over issues directly concerning the interests and prerogative of the monarch. These issues were brought to a head by a resurgent Country opposition as Whigs who had supported the Junto during the war, but now found common purpose with the Tories. Moreover, the events of these sessions wore down William’s resolve not to be dictated to by Parliament over who his ministers should be.
At the general election held in July and August 1698 there were contests in 104 of the 269 (38 per cent) English and Welsh constituencies. Some contests were fought between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ interests with the standing army as the main issue. But the overall results nevertheless showed some revival of Tory fortunes, with gains from the Whigs in the counties and smaller boroughs (of less than 500 voters), though not in the large populous constituencies (of at least 1000 voters). Recent legislation against treating in elections was flagrantly ignored by candidates in some contests, such as in Buckinghamshire. The Norfolk contest was rounded off a few days after its conclusion with a duel in which one of the losing candidates, Sir Henry Hobart, 4th Bt., was killed. The new House comprised 246 Whigs and 208 Tories, with 59 more unclassified. Out of the 545 MPs who sat during the Parliament, as many as 156 (29 per cent) had no previous parliamentary experience.
The general impression was that the Court had managed to hold its ground against a divided opposition. This was underlined by the relative ease in securing the election of its Whig candidate for the Speakership, Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt., rather than Paul Foley I, who had held the Chair since 1695. However, early signs that the session would be troubled occurred after the King’s Speech on 14 Dec. 1698 when MPs, reverting to pre-war practice, refused to consider the motion for a supply until they had considered the state of the nation. Building on its success the previous session, the opponents reopened the standing army question, ignoring the King’s request that it be maintained at its wartime strength. On the 16th Robert Harley moved, and the House accepted, that the number of troops on the English establishment be halved to 7,000 ‘natural born’ troops (with a further 12,000 on the Irish establishment).
Despite King William’s bitterness and protests, his ministers did little to hinder the disbanding bill to enforce these cuts (together with a clause for the King’s Dutch regiments to be returned to Holland) which passed by 221 to 154 on 18 Jan. 1699. For a time the King talked of abdicating. Pushing further, the opposition then initiated inquiries into mismanagements and corruption by the Admiralty in February which widened into a general ‘temper’ against ‘men in employments’ leading to the expulsion of several office-holding MPs. Of the Junto ministers, Edward Russell (now Lord Orford) came under attack for embezzling provisions money when in command of the Mediterranean fleet, but escaped censure. There was also a successful move on 19 Apr. to tack to the land tax bill a clause appointing commissioners to investigate the King’s grants of land in Ireland to his Dutch and other favourites.
By the time Parliament was prorogued in May 1699 the Junto ministers had begun to weary under the weight of opposition attack and their endless struggle over supply with Harley and other Country politicians. Before the next session Orford had resigned from the Admiralty and Montagu from the Treasury. These and others were replaced by a miscellany of Tory and Whig courtiers headed by Lord Jersey, a nominal Tory, as joint secretary of state alongside the Whig James Vernon. Though critical of the Junto lords, William did his utmost to prevent their exit from government, his sense of vulnerability compounded by the departure also of his confidant Lord Portland. A further session proved necessary, however, to drive the Junto completely from power.
Soon after the Commons reassembled on 16 Nov. 1699, the renewal of the attack on corruption targeted Lord Chancellor Somers, the remaining Junto lord in high office, for commissioning Captain William Kidd in a scheme to capture pirates and their booty in the Indian Ocean, but which itself had degenerated into piracy. Somers, Montagu and the former secretary of state the Duke of Shrewsbury were all implicated but escaped charges after a nine-hour debate on 6 Dec.
Proceedings on supply were dominated by Harley who proposed and carried a whole series of cuts to the estimates including a reduction of the navy to only 7,000 seamen. Backed by a sizeable majority of MPs, Harley was also active in pressing for the King’s grants of Irish forfeited estates – which the commissioners calculated at £1,600,000 – to be resumed to public use for the payment of debt. A bill for this purpose was subsequently ‘tacked’ to the land tax bill to prevent Court interference and amendment by the Upper House.
After a stormy passage through the Commons, the bill finally reached the Lords early in April, littered with additional clauses including a ‘place clause’ excluding excise officials from the Commons. When the Court lords’ deleted this, MPs were roused to fury against the ministers, particularly Somers (who was thought to have advised the lords against the bill), and the King’s foreign servants. Crisis was averted, however, when the King ordered the Lords on 10 Apr. to allow the bill to pass. William gave his royal assent the next day and prorogued what he described as ‘the most dismal session I have ever had’.1
The King dismissed Somers at the end of April. During the autumn, as new national and international problems began to unfold, he constructed a new ministry along Tory lines and on 19 Dec. dissolved Parliament.
H. Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Politics in the reign of William III (Manchester, 1977)
ed. D. W. Hayton, The Parliamentary Diary of Sir Richard Cocks, 1698-1702 (Oxford, 1996)