The Leicester House faction

Under the Hanoverian monarchs it became almost the norm for princes of Wales and their households to provide a focus of opposition to the king and his ministers. These situations arose from the deep-seated personal animosities that existed between each king and his heir. A ‘prince’s party’ was active in Parliament during 1717-20, 1737-42, 1747-51 and 1755-57. As the London residence of three successive princes, Leicester House also served as their political headquarters and approximated to a ‘shadow’ court rivaling the king’s official court at St James’s. Leicester House itself was an imposing residence, originally built in the 1630s, situated on the north side of Leicester Fields, now Leicester Square.

Both George II, when prince of Wales, and his son Frederick were obstructed and frustrated by their respective fathers’ refusal to increase their incomes or allow them any responsibility in running the country. There were dramatic moments of crisis when relations between father and son reached breaking point. The prince declared himself in opposition to the king and his ministers, severed all links with the king’s court, and ordered those of their household servants with seats in Parliament to vote against ministerial measures. Those who refused were promptly required to leave the prince’s employment, to be replaced by others who, with little prospect of office and preferment in the present reign, chose to capitalize on the hope of advancement in the next. By leading a set of politically discontented supporters, the prince sought to annoy and exert pressure on the king, and in this way to gain concessions. Historians have often referred to this feature of eighteenth-century politics as the ‘reversionary interest’.

The prince was an attractive source of patronage. It was a statutory requirement that MPs taking office under the crown vacated their parliamentary seats in order to seek re-election, a procedure that could be expensive as well as inconvenient. But this did not apply to MPs taking office under the prince of Wales. The prince could, in theory, create and appoint to as many offices as he wished, though in practice his financial resources limited the number of salaries he could offer. In addition to the range of positions within both his and the princess of Wales’ household, he could also appoint officials by virtue of his tenure of the duchy of Cornwall. He could, of course, also make promises of government office in the next reign, promises which he did not need to keep. Numerically, therefore, the prince could command the allegiance of an appreciable number of ‘servants’ in the House of Commons. At the time of Walpole’s downfall in 1742, Prince Frederick’s following numbered around twenty-five. But by the later 1740s, he controlled the votes of as many as 40 Members.

Leicester House was never able to function as a united faction. This was largely because the aims of those who grouped themse