JOHNSTON, James (1655-1737), of Orleans House, Twickenham, Mdx.

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



1708 - 1710
2 Dec. 1710 - 1713

Family and Education

bap. 9 Sept. 1655, 4th but 2nd surv. s. of Sir Archibald Johnston of Wariston, Edinburgh, Ld. Wariston SCJ and in Cromwellian Parl., by 2nd w. Helen, da. of Alexander Hay, Lord Fosterseat.  educ. Utrecht; travelled abroad.  m. (1) bef. 1693, 1s. d.v.p. (2) 18 June 1696 (with £20,000), Catherine, da. of John, 2nd Baron Poulett s.p. (3) by Oct. 1716, Lucy, 1s. 1da., 3 other ch. (d.v.p.).1

Offices Held

Envoy extraordinary to Prussia, 1690–2; sec. of state [S] 1692–6; commr. of exchequer [S], 1692–6, 1704–7; PC [S], 1692, 1704; ld. clerk register [S] 1704–5.2

Burgess, Edinburgh 1692; freeman, Bath 1693.3


Johnston’s father, son of a wealthy Edinburgh merchant, established himself during the mid-17th century as one of Scotland’s leading lawyers, and during the later 1630s came to prominence in Scottish politics as a staunch defender of Presbyterian church government. This loyalty to the Kirk characterized his actions throughout the 1640s and 1650s, and in 1658 he was called to the House of Peers by Oliver Cromwell†. Following the Restoration Johnston fled abroad but in 1662 was captured in France, and, having been returned to Scotland to face trial, he was executed in 1663, at which time his family sought safety in Holland. James Johnston remained there to train for the law, according to Macky gaining ‘the character of the greatest proficient that ever was in Utrecht’, and after travelling the Continent was appointed in 1687 as secretary to Hon. Henry Sidney†. Johnston’s cousin, Bishop Burnet, later claimed to have secured this post for him. In the autumn of 1687 Johnston travelled to England and assumed a prominent role assisting Sidney in the Orangist conspiracy. Having played a full part in these machinations, particularly in the circulation of Orangist propaganda, Johnston left England in August 1688, returning in November with William of Orange’s expedition. Johnston’s reward was his appointment in 1690 as envoy to Prussia. He was recalled in February 1692 to take up the post of joint secretary of state for Scotland, it being noted that he would combine the abilities of a man of business with a staunch Presbyterianism that would negate criticisms levelled at the previous Scottish ministry. Almost from the beginning of his tenure, however, he was engaged in a struggle for control of the ministry with the Dalrymples, Sir John Dalrymple being Johnston’s colleague in the secretaryship. The appointment of Dalrymple and Johnston had been intended to establish a greater degree of stability in Scottish politics, but instead, in the words of one modern historian, ‘the animosity between the two secretaries became the pivot for all the existing rivalries in Scotland’. In opposition to the episcopalian interest of the Dalrymples, Johnston built up a large body of support among both religious and political Presbyterians, but though he was an effective parliamentary manager and efficient administrator his rivalry with Dalrymple paralysed the Scottish ministry and eventually led to the removal of both men. After his dismissal in January 1696 Johnston moved to England, marrying the daughter of an English peer, and skirted round the edges of the court ‘in search of gossip and opportunity’. Macky recorded that Johnston’s dismissal had ‘soured him so as never to be reconciled all the King’s reign, though much esteemed’, but this claim seems to be inaccurate since in 1697 Johnston was granted £4,000 out of the tithes appropriated by the crown from the Scottish episcopate. An obituary of Johnston also claimed that in 1698 he was employed by the King to write a tract defending both the Revolution and the Treaty of Ryswick. In the latter part of his tenure as Scottish secretary Johnston had developed close political links with the 1st Marquess of Tweeddale, and following Tweeddale’s death became associated with the 2nd Marquess. Consequently, Johnston’s return to the front rank of Scottish politics came with the ‘New Party’ experiment of 1704, when he entered office along with Tweeddale. Johnston was appointed lord clerk of the register, a post worth £3,000 p.a., in the hope that his experience as a parliamentary manager would aid the new Scottish ministry, but he proved to be more of a liability than an asset. His time in England had led him to an inadequate appreciation of developments in Scottish politics and created the perception that he was little more than ‘an Anglicized expatriate sent from London to manage a Scottish parliament’. The contempt in which he was held by the Scottish parliament, and the popular hostility evident in the hurling of stones through his bedroom window, forced him to seek leave to return to England, and in 1705 he was removed from his post. In the following two years Johnston, not surprisingly given his association with Tweeddale and residence in London, acted as occasional supplier of intelligence to the Squadrone concerning the ministry’s attitude to Scotland. He was also used as an intermediary in the attempts of Lord Godolphin (Sidney†) and Lord Marlborough (John Churchill†) to persuade the Squadrone to acquiesce in the Union. In the course of these negotiations Marlborough confided to Godolphin his belief that Johnston himself ‘has no opinion of the Union, nor will meddle so far as to be of any use’. Godolphin was less dismissive, however, writing after the Squadrone began to support the Union of how he was now ‘fond’ of Johnston, though Godolphin also noted that Johnston ‘does not seem to like them [the Squadrone] any better’ for their decision.4

Johnston owed his Commons career to the interest of his wife’s family. In 1708 he was elected for Ilchester on the Tory interest of his wife’s nephew Lord Poulett, though a list of the Commons dating from early 1708 classed Johnston as a Whig. An election petition against his return occupied much of Johnston’s attention during the 1708–9 session. At the beginning of December he wrote of his belief that ‘the Whigs would not allow the petition against his return to be dropped and that ‘they tell me that I must vote in all elections for the Tories and then at least I shall have near a third part of the House for me, and if I do not I shall have none for me’. By the end of the month he was convinced that ‘those behind the curtain’ would not allow the petition to be withdrawn. Such thoughts proved incorrect, however, for on 10 Jan. 1709 the petition was withdrawn, despite the hostility shown towards him by the Junto Whigs Lord Wharton (Hon. Thomas*) and (Sir) Peter King*. Johnston attributed his success to the interest of Poulett and the Somerset gentry, but his essential ambivalence towards party was evident in his correspondence with Sir William Trumbull*. Johnston stated that given the party identities of the opponents and supporters of his election at Ilchester, ‘I must now be Church whether I will or no[t]’, but his lack of Tory fervour was clear in his further comment that ‘if I must be of a party, that which is undermost is best, but there appears neither concert nor judgment among them’. Though it seems that Johnston may have taken some interest in Court and ministerial developments, noting in January that he had been visited by ‘three Dukes’ to discuss such matters as the rivalry of the Squadrone and the Duke of Queensbury, he was an inactive Member. The partiality of the Commons in the hearing of election cases was much to his distaste, particularly the defeat upon petition of (Sir) Simon Harcourt I*. Harcourt’s expulsion prompted Johnston to write to Trumbull that ‘I could never have been of the Church at a better time for they’re purely militant or under and therefore generally in the right, but I see enough to perceive that we shall part whenever they become triumphant’. This lack of strong Tory convictions is also suggested by his actions in March during the Tory attack upon the ministry’s handling of the abortive Jacobite invasion of 1708 when, as Johnston informed Trumbull, he left the Commons as ‘I’ll neither be tool nor bubble if I can help it’. Johnston may have been an unenthusiastic Tory, but his only recorded act of significance in this Parliament was to vote in 1710 against the impeachment of Dr Sacheverell.5

A sympathy with the desire of Robert Harley* to prevent the ministerial changes of 1710 producing a zealously Tory administration, as well as the close political relationship between Lord Poulett and Harley, is suggested by the report of August 1710 that ‘Secretary Johnston is in mightily with Harley, and both of them are against dissolving the Parliament’. Once a new Parliament had been decided upon Johnston entered the lists upon the Tory interest at Calne. A contested election led to a double return, following which Johnston was classed as a Tory on the ‘Hanover list’. On 22 Dec. the Commons resolved that Johnston had been duly elected, but he continued to make little impact upon the records of the House. Despite no significant activity of his being recorded for the 1710–11 session, Johnston was listed as a ‘worthy patriot’ who had helped detect the mismanagements of the previous ministry. Johnston was also marked as a member of the October Club, a classification confirmed by Boyer. The only other noteworthy aspect of Johnston’s contribution to this Parliament was his encounter with the Scottish Tory George Lockhart* during the passage of one of the crown grants resumption bills, in the spring of either 1711 or 1712. Lockhart recorded that having told Johnston that the bill would apply to his grant of the tithes of the Scottish bishops appropriated by the crown, Johnston replied that he was confident of convincing the Commons to exempt his grant, and that to do so he would be forced to ‘discover some things . . . to which none except the late King William and Lord Portland were privy, and which would appear so amazing that people’s hair would stand on end on their heads on hearing them’. When challenged to reveal the substance of his allegations, Johnston was ‘exceedingly uneasy’ and declined to reveal any more until the bill had progressed further. As neither bill passed, Johnston was spared further need to protect his grant. Illness prevented Johnston from playing any part in the 1713 session, for in July that year his nephew George Baillie* reported that Johnston ‘recovers slowly’. Despite the lack of information regarding Johnston’s activity in this Parliament, an undated, anonymous letter written between 1711 and 1713 makes it clear that he allied himself closely to the ministry, a loyalty which rested on two props: hostility to the Junto and his desire to obtain some government post.6

Johnston’s concern to secure some type of financial assistance from the government was clear in the years following his retirement from the Commons in 1713. His efforts, however, focused upon securing government grants rather than a place. This was evident in his attempts from 1714 onwards to wrest from Hon. George Cholmondeley* the grant of the forfeited estates of the Jacobite exile Sir Roger Strickland†, but a more longstanding concern was to obtain payment of the remainder of the £4,000 granted him in 1697 from the appropriated tithes of the Scottish bishops. Johnston had been lobbying the Treasury since 1708 for payment of the sum outstanding, and in 1710 Lord Treasurer Godolphin had ordered a payment of £2,266 in settlement of the grant. Full payment was not forthcoming, however, and, though in January 1715 a new privy seal was issued ordering settlement of his claim, over £1,400 was still outstanding to him in March 1716. In his later years Johnston frequently attended the courts of George I and then George II, reportedly becoming a ‘great favourite’ of Queen Caroline. The popularity of this veteran of the Revolution with both the Hanoverian court and the Whig ministry is clearly suggested by the report of Isaac Watts in 1725 that though ‘cracked in the head’, Johnston ‘frequently has Mr Walpole [Robert II*] and the greatest courtiers with him at dinner in his country house near London, and the King sometimes does him the honour to dine with him’. Johnston continued to reside at Orleans House until his death on 3 May 1737 while visiting Bath. In his will, he left his wife and daughter £5,000 each, with the remainder of his estate going to his son.7

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Richard Harrison


  • 1. DNB; Wariston Diary (Scot. Hist. Soc. ser. 1, xxvi), 9; Hist. Parl. Scot. 382–3; Boyer, Pol. State, liii. 540, 544; Carstares, State Pprs. 155–6; Misc. Gen. et Her. ser. 5, iii. 92–95; IGI, Wilts.; Collins, Peerage, iv. 12; Centre Kentish Stud. Stanhope mss U1590/059/5, Robert Yard* to Alexander Stanhope, 16 June 1696; HMC Polwarth, i. 112; PCC 110 Wake.
  • 2. DNB.
  • 3. Scot. Rec. Soc. lix. 277; Bath AO, Bath bor. recs., council bk. 3, p. 169.
  • 4. DNB (Johnston, Sir Archibald); DNB; Wariston Diary, 4; Burnet, iii. 278, 284; J. Carswell, Old Cause, 113, 130–3, 145–6, 160; J. R. Jones, Revolution of 1688, 225–8, 234; P. W. J. Riley, King Wm. and Scot. Politicians, 25, 75, 81–106, 124–5, 134–5; Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 441; Boyer, 542; P. W. J. Riley, Union, 78–80, 96, 143, 261–2, 301–2; Luttrell, Brief Relation, v. 433; Lockhart Mems. ed. Szechi, 68; Add. 61136, ff. 53, 65; Marlborough–Godolphin Corresp. 703, 709, 715, 717, 721.
  • 5. Bagot mss at Levens Hall, [Ld. Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†)] to James Grahme*, 17 May 1708; BL, Trumbull Misc. mss?53, Johnston to Trumbull, 1, 24 Dec. 1708, 10, 17 Jan. 1708–9, 4 [Feb. 1709], 18 Mar. 1709.
  • 6. Wodrow, Analecta, i. 288; SRO, Mar and Kellie mss GD124/15/1024/4, Sir James Dunbar, 1st Bt.*, to Ld. Grange (Hon. James Erskine†), 19 Dec. 1710; Lockhart Pprs. i. 367–8; HMC Polwarth, 13; Add. 70299, [–] to [?Ld. Oxford], n.d.
  • 7. Cal. Treas. Bks. xxii. 66, 441; xxiv. 313, 389; xxviii. 64, 322–3; xxix. 345–6; xxi. 145, 151–2, 156, 549; Cal. Treas. Pprs. 1707–14, p. 603; HMC Portland, v. 539; Carstares, 92–93; DNB; Wodrow, iii. 206; Boyer, 539–44; PCC 110 Wake.