CLARKE, George (1661-1736), of All Souls, Oxford

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1690-1715, ed. D. Hayton, E. Cruickshanks, S. Handley, 2002
Available from Boydell and Brewer



23 Nov. 1685 - 1687
1702 - 1705
1705 - 1708
29 May 1711 - 1713
4 Dec. 1717 - 22 Oct. 1736

Family and Education

b. 7 May 1661, o. s. of Sir William Clarke, sec. at war, of Pall Mall, Westminster by Dorothy, da. and coh. of Thomas Hilyard alias Hall of Hebburn, co. Dur. educ. Jermyn Street academy (Mr Gordon) to 1672; Brasenose, Oxf. 1675, BA 1679, MA 1683, BCL 1686, DCL 1708; I. Temple 1676. unmsuc. fa. 1662.1

Offices Held

Fellow of All Souls, Oxford 1680–d.

Judge-advocate-gen. 1682–1705; sec. at war [I] 1690–Mar. 1692; chief sec. [I] 1690–Mar. 1692; jt. sec. at war Mar. 1692–Mar. 1702; jt. sec. of Admiralty May 1702–5; sec. to Prince George of Denmark May 1702–5; ld. of Admiralty 1710–14.2

Gov. and freeman, R. Fishery Co. [I] 1692; commr. building 50 new churches 1712–15.3

Freeman, Winchelsea 1702.4


Clarke has been described as one of the ‘virtuosi’ of his age. An urbane and congenial personality, he was a man of versatile ability and interests who was equally at home in the company of scholars and men of letters as with administrators and politicians. As a young man his intellectual prowess earned him a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford, but he was unable to resist the greater attractions and stimulus of a governmental career. Clarke entered the public arena soon after coming of age, succeeding his stepfather, Dr Samuel Barrow, as judge-advocate of the army in 1682. He soon found himself having to resist attempts by the then secretary at war, William Blathwayt*, to absorb the functions of judge-advocate into his own department, and went so far as to put his case before the King. Clarke won his point, and subsequently earned the King’s approbation for his astute conduct of court martial proceedings. Soon after the accession of King James he applied for, and obtained, an increase in his judge- advocate’s salary on the grounds that the recent augmentation of forces had swelled the volume of business. In November 1685 he was returned for Oxford University at a by-election, but Parliament was prorogued before he could take his seat. An ardent opponent of the King’s religious policies, he managed to avoid the three questions (‘my mind was well known upon these points’, he recalled) and preserved his office, serving the King until he could see it was no longer practicable to do so. In November 1688 he and Dr John Radcliffe* joined the King briefly on his journey from Salisbury to Andover but, finding the court in ‘confusion’ as the desertion became general, they made their departure, Clarke returning to Oxford.5

Clarke’s commission was renewed following the declaration of William and Mary as King and Queen, and in the summer of 1689 he accompanied the commissioners for the regulation of the army in a tour of inspection which took him as far as Edinburgh. Early in 1690 the King appointed Clarke to attend him as secretary at war in Ireland. Having heard that Blathwayt had excused himself from going on the expedition, Clarke assumed he was to succeed Blathwayt, his bête noire, in the more senior role of secretary at war in England. The King subsequently led Clarke to believe that he would have the English post once he had fulfilled his purpose in Ireland. On taking up his position in Dublin, Clarke also performed the office of chief secretary, which he claimed was his by right of being secretary at war, and established his lodgings at Dublin Castle. He remained in Ireland until early December 1691, following the conclusion of the Treaty of Limerick, when he sought his recall to England. As the King prepared to go on campaign in Flanders in February 1692, Clarke’s expectations of becoming sole secretary at war in place of Blathwayt were thwarted as instead he was asked to serve only as a deputy secretary ‘in the King’s absence’. He remonstrated, first with Lord Athlone, the former commander of forces in Ireland, and then with the King himself, that ‘this was not what I had reason to expect’. Determined to be ‘no man’s deputy’, he insisted he would only serve if given a proper commission, whereupon one was immediately issued. Clarke remained in what was only intended as a temporary position until the King’s death in 1702, a situation which he later reflected upon with bitterness: it ‘was all the King did for me as long as he lived’. In July 1694 he asked the Duke of Ormond and Lord Athlone to intercede on his behalf for the wardenship of the Mint on hearing that the then incumbent, Benjamin Overton*, was close to death. ‘I don’t know’, he wrote to Athlone, ‘if the King may have altered the intention he had once of giving me some settled employment, but humbly hope he will not think this too great a recompense for one of three times the value, if ever he designs to do anything for me.’ Overton survived his illness, however. Looking back on these years Clarke was apt to hold Blathwayt, and the ‘methods’ Blathwayt used with Lord Portland, primarily responsible for barring his advancement.6

Clarke was spoken of in October 1695 as a possible successor to Sir Thomas Clarges* as Member for Oxford University, but it is unlikely that he had any intention of standing, having himself broken the news of Clarges’ imminent demise to Secretary Trumbull* (Sir William), a more obvious favourite for the seat. Though for so long disappointed of promotion, Clarke nevertheless proved himself an able and shrewd army administrator. Despite his resentment towards Blathwayt, and their political differences, the two men seem to have enjoyed an effective working relationship in the running of the war office during the 1690s. When Blathwayt was re-elected for Bath in December 1701 Clarke could warmly congratulate him, ‘the only means to prevent foreboding miseries, being placed in the breasts of men of so much honour and zeal for their country’s good as yours’. One of Clarke’s letters to Blathwayt in 1699 shows him as a typical government servant, concerned to avoid the inquisitorial tactics of MPs and prevent the Commons starving the army of necessary funds: ‘the paymaster has given out accounts to the first regiment of guards and has charged £8,000 for the regiments. I am afraid if the House of Commons finds this to be so much less than the account given them, they will save the money.’ To this end he found his acquaintanceship among the Members useful in enabling him to detect possible lines of parliamentary attack.7

Although he was asking Blathwayt at the end of 1701 ‘to think of some other place for me’, he was, according to his memoir, resolved by this stage to retire altogether from public business, and had made arrangements to sell his judge-advocate’s place. However, his career suddenly took a new turn with the accession of Queen Anne in March 1702, and, after some persuasion by his friends, he accepted in May the post of secretary to Prince George of Denmark, the lord high admiral. Clarke had become well acquainted with the Prince during the Irish war and may well have been George’s personal choice. He assisted the Prince not only in Admiralty business but in all other official and private affairs: one particular area which Clarke specifically mentioned in his memoir as ‘having under my care’ was ‘the business of the Cinque Ports, whereof his royal highness was warden’. Although he was also appointed joint secretary to the Admiralty council with a salary of £800, regular attendance on the Prince, often requiring his absence from London, prevented him from serving the council as fully as did his colleague, Josiah Burchett*. In the general election held in the summer Clarke was elected for the Cinque Port of Winchelsea. His impeccable Tory credentials, strong Oxford background and friendship with the High Church leaders Lords Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) and Rochester (Laurence Hyde†) and other prominent Tory figures would certainly have endeared him to the new administration. He was not, however, a man in whom political emotion ran high. Rarely did he find the need to air his views in the extensive correspondence he kept up with friends and acquaintances, a sign, perhaps, of the fixity of his convictions. In the Commons he was never more than a passive observer of proceedings, and the presence of others of his surname in the chamber makes it impossible to assign to him with any certainty actions recorded in the Journals. At first Clarke was a loyal Harleyite, adopting the same path of moderation as taken by his other Tory friends now in office such as (Sir) Simon Harcourt I*. Nottingham had marked him as a possible supporter over the ‘Scotch Plot’, and although his support for the Tack was considered ‘doubtful’ in October the following year, he did not vote for it in the division of 28 Nov. 1704.8

With the approach of the general election of 1705 Clarke accepted the offer of a seat at East Looe from his great friend Bishop Trelawny of Exeter, one of the lord treasurer’s (Sidney Godolphin†) chief electoral managers in the west. He had also been in the running for one of the Oxford University seats until shortly before the election, when he withdrew. In the weeks which followed, however, as the ministry was refashioned along Whig lines, friction arose between Clarke and his political masters over the proposed removal of the Tory admiral Sir George Rooke* from the Prince’s council. Clarke, clearly anxious to protect Tory brethren, and in a sense following the Queen’s known dislike of the new Whig appointments being forced upon her, surreptitiously obtained the Prince’s signature to a new commission in which Rooke was retained. Having inquired of her husband as to how Rooke’s name had come to be included, the Queen apprised Godolphin on 6 June that

when it was brought to him to sign, Mr Clarke told him it was the same as the old one, only with the name of Mr Walpole (Robert II*) in instead of Mr Brydges (Hon. James*), which the Prince says he did not then reflect upon, always looking upon Sir G. Rooke to be entirely out of service, but remembering since he signed the commission what Mr Clarke had said, he intended if I had not spoke to him to have inquired into this matter and ordered a new commission to be drawn, leaving out Sir G. Rooke.

In conclusion the Queen promised Godolphin that she would use her ‘utmost endeavours’ to induce the Prince to dismiss Clarke. The Rooke affair was apparently not the only reason for royal and ministerial dissatisfaction with Clarke’s conduct in office. A few days later the Duke of Marlborough (John Churchill†) wrote to his wife indicating there were other sources of irritation: ‘If [Clarke] commits so many unreasonable things, why is not [the Queen] acquainted with them, for she told [Godolphin] and myself that she would take the first occasion of putting him out.’ In the preparations for the election Clarke had tried to urge the Prince to dissuade the Whig deputy lord warden from displacing three Tory MPs from their Cinque Port constituencies. Similarly, his own recent candidacy at Oxford University, apparently without the ministry’s blessing, may have suggested that he was aligning himself more overtly with the forces of High Toryism with whom he was known to have some sympathy. Clarke remained in office, though it was clear he was by now a depreciating asset. Recrimination against him continued. Marlborough wrote to his Duchess on 20 Aug. denying any responsibility for Clarke’s appointment as the Prince’s secretary and adding, ‘I always though[t] him a dangerous man’. Ill-feeling between Clarke and the Duke surfaced in the early summer months of 1704 when Clarke sought permission to sell the judge-advocate’s place. A combination of procrastination and mislaid correspondence had stretched Clarke’s patience to the point where he had written testily to the Duke in a way that reflected against the ministers: ‘I am unfortunate enough to be denied what is granted every day to others who have not been longer in the service of the crown, nor served it with more faithfulness and diligence.’ Towards the end of September 1705, as the lines were drawn for the contest over the Speakership, Anthony Hammond* heard that Clarke ‘will quit his place, some say that he may be free in his vote upon that question, but I have not any certain grounds that this is the motive’. As the new session drew near, Clarke made no secret of his intention to oppose the Court and support William Bromley II*. Nothing, it seems, could induce him to follow the Harleyites. Five days before the opening of Parliament he wrote to his old friend and drinking companion, Colonel (Sidney) Godolphin*: ‘I am afraid whoever is here will meet with uneasiness enough to make them wish themselves away, though perhaps one would be vexed as much to be absent when one could contribute to the helping a friend out of difficulty.’ A day or two later, when approached by the Prince for his vote, Clarke refused to promise it. It was generally assumed that his dismissal from the Prince’s service came swiftly after his vote against the Court on 25 Oct. But according to his own account, and one or two contemporary reports, he had actually received the first intimation of his dismissal that morning, beforehand, in the lobby of the House from the Prince’s treasurer, Edward Nicholas*, another Tory friend. The drama was complicated by the arrival of a second, countermanding, message just as Clarke was being acquainted with the first. However, when urged by Nicholas soon afterwards to confirm the rescission, the Prince merely ‘sat silent for some time, and then said since it was done it could not be helped’. It can be seen in retrospect that Clarke had been deliberately distancing himself from the Godolphin ministry as increasingly it looked to the Whigs for support. Whether Godolphin had wished to appease the Prince in retaining a faithful servant is uncertain, but Clarke’s opposition to the Court over the Speakership was the last straw for the lord treasurer, whose intention was clearly to use Clarke, currently the most conspicuous of Tory dissidents, as a scapegoat while other errant office-holders were proceeded against more cautiously.9

Thereafter, Clarke always refused to wait upon the Prince, and in fact they never saw each other again. It was not until 1710 that he resumed his attendances at court on reappointment to office. During the intervening years he was able to settle more permanently in the house he had had built for himself in the grounds of All Souls. Having also sold his post as judge-advocate, he now enjoyed being ‘entirely my own master’. Greater leisure did not encourage his more active participation in parliamentary affairs, however. In the summer and autumn of 1706 he undertook an extensive tour of the Low Countries, arriving in the midst of celebrations of Marlborough’s recent victory at Ramillies. He resumed his studies in civil law, obtaining the degree of DCL in 1708. His estrangement from the Godolphin ministry effectively precluded Bishop Trelawny from nominating him again to the East Looe seat in the 1708 general election, and he made no attempt to secure re-election elsewhere. In the next election, he was again widely tipped as a suitable successor to the aged Sir William Whitelocke* at Oxford University. But as was observed by Dr Gardiner, the warden of All Souls, it was Clarke’s ‘modesty’, his unwillingness to be the cause of electoral strife between the colleges, that kept Whitlock in place.10

An experienced administrator and a much respected Tory figure who had been a martyr to his principles, Clarke was assured of a place in Robert Harley’s* new ministry. In December 1710 he was brought back into office as a lord of the Admiralty, the appointment being made, as he recalled, ‘without my asking or knowing of it till it was done’. It seems that he had been earmarked by Harley for the post some time before, and reports had circulated prior to the dissolution that Clarke was to be included in a newly constituted Admiralty board. When the appointment was announced, his old friend Harcourt, the new lord keeper, declared, ‘I rejoice that Dr Clarke is made one of the Admiralty. I wish all other offices were filled with as good men.’ Abel Boyer later noted that in view of the circumstances of Clarke’s ejection from office by Godolphin, ‘his preferment was now thought to be a piece of justice’. Clarke remained without a seat in Parliament until the death of his old patron and friend Lord Rochester in May 1711 allowed him to succeed Rochester’s heir, Lord Hyde (Henry*), at Launceston. His regard for the Earl had been strong, and in his memoir he observed that, had Rochester lived, the last years of the Queen’s reign ‘would have passed more to her satisfaction and her people’s than they did’. At the Admiralty he shouldered much of the burden of work owing to the absenteeism of the other commissioners. He saw a simple irony in the current political difficulties of ending the war and obtaining a satisfactory peace, remarking to Colonel Godolphin in October: ‘we have a great many people who can’t bear the mention of a peace, and yet are endeavouring to make it impossible for us to carry on the war’. Involved as he was in these larger concerns, the unseemly manoeuvrings begun at Oxford at the end of 1712 to ensure that the lord keeper’s son, young Simon Harcourt III*, was chosen at the next election did not win his approval. He trenchantly stated his position to Dr Charlett, the master of University College:

I am not much concerned at anybody’s mortification when a worthy man is chosen; I rather congratulate my friends, that they will neither suffer themselves to be driven, nor led, but follow their own judgments and inclinations. I have all my lifetime hated a trick and think nothing worth playing one, which makes me a stranger to the practices which you say begin very early. I wish the peace of Europe, the peace of my country, and of the university in particular, and can never bring myself to be fond of those who would disturb any of them.

In Parliament he voted on 18 June 1713 in favour of the French commerce bill.11

For reasons which are unclear Clarke was not re-elected for Launceston in 1713, and seems to have shown no interest in pursuing alternative seats. He gave only fleeting attention in his memoir to the heady party clashes of the last years of the reign, and scarcely mentioned the change of dynasty. Perhaps, on looking back, his dismissal from the Admiralty soon after George I’s accession assumed an inevitability amid the sweeping reversal of party fortune inaugurated in the autumn of 1714, and as such hardly worth comment. Although his intentions were ‘to live quietly and out of public business’, his description of himself in December as an ‘exile’ hinted at regret at no longer having a place at the centre of events. Apart from a two- or three-month spell in France in the summer of 1715, when he frequently visited Lord Bolingbroke (Henry St. John II*), he spent the next two or so years mostly at Oxford. There he found more time for involvement in various projects for the restoration and architectural enrichment of his college. Even while at the Admiralty he had taken the opportunity to acquire marble from Genoa for the adornment of the college chapel. But his most significant long-term work for the university was undertaken as an executor, along with Sir George Beaumont, 4th Bt.*, and Bromley, of Dr John Radcliffe’s* will, which provided for a new library and other buildings.12

In December 1717 Clarke was finally elected for the University at a by-election following the death of Whitlock. Confinement at Oxford had become ‘less agreeable’ to him, and his new duties were a welcome respite. As a moderate Tory he was a consistent, if quiescent, opponent of the Whig regime. In these later years he was afflicted by the deaths of many of his old friends: ‘it is a taking away of comfort and assistance when one most needs them’. In July 1727 he mourned the passing of Lord Harcourt (Simon I), ‘one of the oldest acquaintances I had in the world’. He and Clarke had intended later that year to dine together in celebration of their 50 years’ acquaintanceship, ‘but it pleased God to order it otherwise’. Clarke died on 22 Oct. 1736 and was buried in the chapel of All Souls. He left a large part of his fortune and collections to Worcester College, with generous bequests to All Souls and Stone’s Hospital.13

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. HMC Popham, 259–60.
  • 2. Ibid. 262, 278, 282–3, 285; CSP Dom. 1690–1, p. 20; 1691–2, p. 165; Bull. IHR, xiv. 183; Luttrell, Brief Relation, vi. 666.
  • 3. CSP Dom. 1691–2, pp. 112–13; E. G. W. Bill, Q. Anne Churches, p. xxiii.
  • 4. E. Suss. RO, Winchelsea ct. bk. WIN 60, p. 81.
  • 5. HMC Popham, 261–8; Cal. Treas. Bks. viii. 289.
  • 6. HMC Popham, 268–82; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/053/1, James Vernon I* to Alexander Stanhope, 1 Apr., 27 May 1690; Trinity, Dublin, Clarke mss 749/2/194, Thomas Coningsby* to Clarke, 23 Sept. 1690; CSP Dom. 1691–2, p. 165; Boston Pub. Lib. Mass. ms K. 5. 4, Clarke to Athlone, 3 July 1694.
  • 7. Bodl. Carte 79, f. 663; HMC Downshire, i. 559; Add. 9732, ff. 238, 262.
  • 8. Add. 9732, f. 262; HMC Popham, 282–3; Bull. IHR, xiv. 169; Cal. Treas. Bks. xvii. 86; Luttrell, v. 176; Ranke, v. 325.
  • 9. Egerton 2618, f. 191; ‘Collectanea Trelawniana’, p. 283, Atterbury to Bp. Trelawny, 21 Apr. 1705 (Speck trans.); Add. 28052, f. 110; 28070, f. 8; 61285, ff. 56–62; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 447, 481; E. Gregg, Q. Anne, 200; HMC Cowper, iii. 64; HMC Popham, 283; Bodl. Ballard 17, f. 86; Luttrell, v. 605; HMC Portland, iv. 268; Univ. Kansas Spencer Research Lib. Simpson–Methuen corresp. C163, John Methuen* to Sir William Simpson, 30 Oct. 1705; BL, Trumbull Add. mss 98, John Bridges to Trumbull, 31 Oct. 1705; Bull. IHR, xxxvii. 29–30.
  • 10. HMC Popham, 283–4; Add. 28052, ff. 133–4; Ballard 20, f. 22.
  • 11. Luttrell, vi. 633, 666; Add. 28052, f. 146; 70421, newsletters 19 Aug., 16 Dec. 1710; HMC Popham, 283, 285; Ballard 10, f. 123; 20, f. 78; Boyer, Anne Annals, ix. 279; Bull. IHR, xvii. 17.
  • 12. HMC Popham, 285–6; DNB; VCH Oxon. iii. 180, 184, 190; I. Guest, Dr John Radcliffe and His Trust, 132–4, 136.
  • 13. HMC Popham, 286–9; Egerton 2540, ff. 568, 610; E. Craster, MIs All Souls’, Oxford, 21.