Following the 1708 election the fortunes of the Whigs seemed at last to be rising. During the summer, news of Marlborough’s victory at Oudenarde brought the ministry a fresh burst of popularity. In November the senior Junto politicians were given office in the Cabinet, the first time since William III’s reign. Yet in less than two years their political world was collapsing around them, culminating in a crushing election defeat in 1710. Very rapidly, the ministry succumbed to growing opposition in the Commons on account of the war and the belief that the Whigs were attempting to undermine the Church of England.
At the election in May 1708 there were contests in 95 (35 per cent) of the 269 English and Welsh constituencies. It was the first election in which the Scots elected representatives to the Westminster Parliament, with contests occurring in 26 (58 per cent) of the 45 Scottish constituencies. Not since 1695 had an election been held under a Whig administration. The result was a clear majority for the Whigs, marking a significant improvement of their position in the Commons. The new House, insofar as the English and Welsh constituencies were concerned, comprised 268 Whigs and 225 Tories, with a further 20 MPs unclassified (the Scottish contingent was dominated by 28 MPs who might be labeled as ministerial supporters). Of the 549 MPs who sat during the course of this Parliament, 129 (23 per cent) had no previous parliamentary experience.
The Queen’s long-standing resolve against the senior Junto lords gave way in the weeks following the death of her consort Prince George in October 1708, and in November Somers and Wharton were admitted to the Cabinet, while Halifax’s brother Sir James Montagu became attorney-general.
During February-March 1709 the Whigs achieved their goal of passing legislation for the naturalization of foreign Protestants, thus enabling Protestants escaping religious persecution abroad to settle in England. A bill to introduce English treason laws into Scotland – there having been little effort to prosecute Scots involved in the failed Jacobite invasion of 1708 – had to be dropped when vigorously opposed by Scottish MPs as a breach of the Union. The ministry obtained parliamentary approval of peace terms to be negotiated with the French, though insistence on ‘no peace without Spain’, entailing the Bourbon handover of Spain to the Habsburg claimant, proved too much for the French king, and the talks broke down.
The failure of these negotiations brought home the massive and unending financial burden of the war, and Marlborough’s pyrrhic victory at Oudenarde in August 1709 only added to the public desire for peace. The Queen, too, began to tire of the war and strains appeared in her relationship with the Marlboroughs. Increasingly, she turned away from Duchess Sarah, ignored the Duke’s nominees to military offices, and sought counsel from one of her bedchamber women, Abigail Masham, a cousin of Harley. Her growing reliance on Robert Harley indicated a lessening of confidence in Godolphin.
On 5 Nov. 1709, ten days before the new session was due to begin, the High Church clergyman Dr Henry Sacheverell preached a devastating sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral against ‘false brethren in Church and state’. It was nothing less than a full-blooded attack on the Queen’s ministers, the bishops and their pro-Dissenter policies as well as questioning ‘Revolution principles’. Urged by the Junto lords, the Cabinet agreed that Sacheverell be impeached, a move that began the ministry’s slide towards eventual collapse. The matter was taken up in the Commons on 13 Dec., and impeachment proceedings were commenced the following day. The trial took place against a backdrop of rioting and destruction directed against the ministry. The House of Lords found Sacheverell guilty in March 1710, but his light sentence plunged the Whigs into dismay.
The Godolphin-Junto ministry struggled over the next few months to preserve themselves in power, but Harley’s intrigues against them coupled with the Queen’s disillusionment suggested that their days were numbered. The Duchess of Marlborough parted from Court on 6 Apr., the day after the parliamentary session ended. Shortly afterwards, the Queen appointed the Duke of Shrewsbury, an ally of Harley, as her new lord chamberlain.
In June the Queen’s surprise dismissal of Marlborough’s son-in-law Sunderland from the southern secretaryship of state and replacement by a Tory (Lord Dartmouth) endangered the ministry’s position still further by precipitating a credit crisis. The directors of the Bank of England pleaded with the Queen to make no more ministerial changes or dissolve Parliament, arguing that only Godolphin enjoyed the confidence of the City interest. It also halted any progress in the peace negotiations as the French saw ground to hope for improved terms. Harley’s wish to hold on to the notion of a ministry of moderates of both parties fell through when he failed to persuade the Whigs to ditch Godolphin and other Junto men.
On 8 Aug., a few days after openly rebuking the Queen at a council meeting, Godolphin was dismissed as lord treasurer. Later that day a new Treasury board was appointed with Harley at its head as chancellor of the Exchequer. The announcement of the dissolution of Parliament on 21 Sept. drove many remaining Whigs to resign their Cabinet offices, exasperated at not being consulted.
G. Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne (London, 1967)
R. A. Sundstrom, Sidney Godolphin: Servant of the State (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992)