The accession of Queen Anne on 8 Mar. 1702 necessitated a general election, though this was not held until after she had appointed a new ministry. Anne’s natural predilection towards the Tories and her commitment to the Church of England was apparent in her first speech from the throne when she expressed a heart that was ‘entirely English’, a sentiment that chimed well with Tory propaganda. The Queen’s friends Lord Godolphin and the Duke of Marlborough – who became known as the ‘duumvirs’ – led the new, mainly Tory ministry appointed over the next few months, and their leadership of the government was to last until 1710. The 1702 Parliament nevertheless proved difficult to manage, particularly in the Lower House, a situation that would be improved in 1704 by a restructuring of the ministry.
Although there were contests in only 89 constituencies in the general election of July 1702, the overall outcome was a huge alteration in the political structure of the House of Commons with the Tories gaining a landslide majority. This was even more remarkable given the Whigs’ success at the polls only eight months previously. The new House comprised 298 Tories and 184 Whigs, with 31 unclassified. After the hearing of election cases the Tory total increased still further, and at the time of the next dissolution in 1705 their figure stood at 304, the Whigs at 178. Of the total number of 556 MPs who sat during the 1702 Parliament, only 90 (16 per cent) had no previous parliamentary experience.
The new ministry was headed by the moderate Tories Godolphin at the Treasury and Marlborough, the commander of the army. Though not given a ministerial role, Robert Harley – who would be elected Speaker when Parliament reassembled – acted as Godolphin’s right hand in the management of the Commons. Inevitably, the ministry was dominated by leading High Church Tories: Lord Rochester (the Queen’s uncle), Lord Nottingham, Sir Edward Seymour, 4th Bt. and John Grobham Howe. It was not a recipe for harmony, however, as militant Tory backbenchers, goaded by their High Church leaders soon began to pull in difficult directions.
The revived commission of accounts immediately began seeking out examples of Whig villainy. An attempt was made at Lord Halifax (William III’s former Treasury chief, Charles Montagu), but the commissioners had more luck in bringing down the ex-paymaster-general Lord Ranelagh for embezzling public money. In December the High Tories, led by Seymour, succeeded in blocking the Queen’s proposal of a life grant to Marlborough. They also introduced a bill to prevent the practice of ‘occasional conformity’, a cornerstone of High Tory policy. Though it passed the Commons easily, it was mangled by the Whig majority in the Lords and dropped. By February 1703 disputes between Godolphin and Rochester forced the latter’s resignation from the Cabinet. But the continuing presence of other High Churchmen in the ministry, notably Lord Nottingham, confronted the ‘duumvirs’ and Harley with considerable difficulty in the Commons. Failures in war strategy forced the government to finance further increases in Marlborough’s army, provoking the Tories to question the wisdom of a vastly expensive land war and to advocate their preferred ‘blue water’ naval strategy.
These tribulations were further amplified during the 1703-4 session. Another bill against occasional conformity was introduced in the Commons but was again blocked in the Lords. Bad-tempered relations between the two Houses worsened when, in the appeal case of Ashby vs. White, the Lords refused to recognise the Commons’ sole right to decide on any issues bearing on its membership. Further, the Commons inquiry early in 1704 into the ‘Scotch Plot’ (of 1703) and the Whigs’ bungling attempt to accuse Nottingham of protecting Jacobite agents only served to make the Tories less manageable. The Tories were now openly blocking essential measures needed to press on with the war.
Soon after the session ended, the Queen dismissed Nottingham and his High Tory colleagues, angered at their arrogance and obstructiveness. Nottingham was replaced by Harley as secretary of state, and other moderate Tories – such as Henry St. John II and Thomas Mansel I – were also given office. Godolphin now aimed to make his ministry a coalition of moderates consisting largely of his own, Marlborough’s, and Harley’s followers together with the larger body of ‘Queen’s servants’.
Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim in August 1704 considerably lifted the ministry’s confidence as it prepared for the next parliamentary session. In accordance with their earlier threats, the High Tories attempted a third occasional conformity bill soon after Parliament reassembled in October. However, their efforts to ‘tack’ the bill to the land tax measure (in order to make it impossible for the Lords to amend) were trounced by the Court through effective lobbying organized by Harley. The crucial division on 28 Nov. 17