WHITELOCKE, Sir William (1636-1717), of Phylis Court, Henley, Oxon. and of the Middle Temple

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



14 Dec. 1689 - 1695
22 Nov. 1703 - 22 Nov. 1717

Family and Education

b. 27 Dec. 1636, 2nd s. of Bulstrode Whitlock† (d. 1675), of Fawley Court, Bucks. and Chilton, Wilts., being 1st s. by his 2nd w. Frances, da. of William, 3rd Baron Willoughby of Parham; half-bro. of James Whitlock†.  educ. M. Temple 1647, called 1655, bencher 1671, reader 1676, treasurer 1680.  m. 19 May 1659 (with £2,000), Mary (d. 1711), da. of Sir Giles Overbury of Bourton on the Hill, Glos., 5s. d.v.p. 8da.  Kntd. 10 Apr. 1689.1

Offices Held

KC 1689–96, QC 1703–14.2


Whitelocke is remembered as one of the more colourful Tories of the age. His eccentricities, particularly his outmoded attire, for which he was known as ‘old shoe-strings’, his pedantry and the element of unpredictability in his conduct were taken by some as signs of dotage and he was not always taken seriously. For one eventually elected to represent Oxford University – during its heyday as the bastion of High Toryism – his background was distinctly unorthodox. His father was the regicide Bulstrode Whitelocke, a respected, though far from uncritical, servant of the Cromwellian regime, a man who preferred a peaceful, middle course in politics and whose opinions were subject to a deep respect for common law and freedom of conscience. William Whitelocke inherited a good deal of his father’s thinking. In the early 1690s, after he had turned Tory, his views were shot through with a concern for the protection of rights and liberties and the careful containment of monarchical power. There was thus a certain reticence about his Tory views which worried senior members of the academic community he represented. His former Whiggery and the dry, habitual legalism of his mind seem to have inhibited the kind of high-flying zeal expected of him, and there were vital moments when he failed to perform convincingly his expected role as a standard-bearer for High Anglicanism. By the last years of Anne’s reign, however, as concern over the succession intensified, caution was much less a part of his Toryism, and in giving full rein to his dislike of the Hanoverian solution he gained the reputation of a Jacobite, seeming to atone, as the Tory chronicler Thomas Hearne noted at the time of his death, ‘for what he had done before’.3

Before entering Parliament, Whitelocke enjoyed a successful career as a barrister, specializing in Chancery work and appellate cases in the Lords. His early Whiggish views are apparent, for instance, from his membership of the Green Ribbon Club during the Exclusion crisis. Having entertained William of Orange in December 1688, he was appointed King’s Counsel early the following year, received a knighthood in April and then, in May, a place in the Oxfordshire lieutenancy. At a by-election in December 1689 he was brought into Parliament by his patron, the leading Whig activist Lord Lovelace (John Lovelace†), for Great Marlow, his father’s old seat. But in March 1690, just after his re-election, Whitelocke was reported by Roger Morrice to have ‘turned absolute Tory’, a political shift as sudden as it was inexplicable. Rumours of this change of political heart had evidently reached Lord Carmarthen (Sir Thomas Osborne†) who on the eve of the new Parliament could do no better than note Whitelocke’s party affiliation as ‘doubtful’, while indicating that he might be counted on as a Court supporter. The clearest exhibition of his conversion to Toryism came on 26 Apr., when he voted for the rejection of the abjuration bill, at which Lord Lovelace was reported to be ‘incensed’. Whitelocke was in fact already proving a reluctant Court supporter and appeared to have much more in common with its Country opponents. On 19 Apr. he ‘spoke earnestly’ and secured much support for a rider he had proposed to the government’s poll bill, a measure designed to meet the cost of the reconquest of Ireland. Moreover, from the early weeks of the session he had been active in advocating the establishment of a commission of public accounts. He presented a bill for this purpose on 23 Apr. and reported its committee stage on 6 May. He vehemently disapproved of proposals for a temporary suspension of the habeas corpus laws, and his impassioned speech on 24 Apr. caused such offence that he was summoned to the bar for reprimand. The House reconsidered, however, when the Act’s progenitor, Sir Thomas Clarges*, interposed his own objections to repealing the legislation. Four days later Whitelocke took grave exception to Secretary Williamson’s (Sir Joseph) motion that powers be vested in the crown ‘for some months’ to commit without bail persons engaged in treasonable correspondence with King James. In a clipped but withering response he told the House, ‘I never thought of such a motion to be made as came from Williamson, and I hope that no Englishman will give his consent to it . . . It is strange that the government of England should be brought to that pass, to be inconsistent with the safety of the people.’ His ingrained distrust of royal advisers was also paraded in this speech: ‘I will not trust the government with six privy councillors, nor six score.’ He made similar objections in another debate on the preservation of internal stability on 13 May, when Sir Henry Goodricke suggested rounding up disturbers of the peace: ‘that persons should be secured, seems to me a retrenching the Habeas Corpus Act. If an angel came from heaven that was a privy councillor, I would not trust my liberty with him one moment.’ When the regency bill was debated on 5 May Whitelocke opposed the suggested appointment of a body of advisers to oversee royal business in the King’s absence. The crux of his argument was that ‘the King may by Act of Parliament exercise regal power in Ireland, and the Queen in England; and when the King returns, he returns to the former administration. If he die, there is an end of the whole.’ Since Whitelocke’s conversion to Toryism post-dated the Revolution, his conscience, as his speeches suggest, seems in no way to have been troubled about the circumstances of William III’s accession. Instead, his attentions were fixed upon ensuring that royal authority was properly exercised within the framework of the law.4

The next session saw the beginnings of Whitelocke’s personal crusade to bring about the reform of procedure in trials for treason. As an experienced lawyer, he had been concerned for some time about the way existing procedures in treason cases allowed for acts of judicial murder by politicians, an important focus of his concern being the trial and execution of the Whig martyrs Lord Russell (Hon. William) and Sir Thomas Armstrong in 1683. He had spoken regarding the latter case in the House in 1689, while in September 1690 he acted as defence lawyer for a Southwark gentleman, Edward Bellamy, who had accused Sir Peter Rich of not having been duly elected sheriff of the City at the time he had empanelled the juries responsible for condemning Russell and his supposed accomplices. Whitelocke presented his first treason trials bill on 10 Oct., just a few days into the session, but after its second reading the following day it made no further progress. This may have been due to Whitelocke’s preoccupation with a bill of more immediate importance, a new attempt to establish a commission of accounts. Moving on 9 Oct. for its introduction, he presented this bill on the 27th, chaired the committee of the whole House on 20 Dec., reported on the 22nd, and carried the bill to the Lords on the 26th, where it eventually passed. Though never elected a commissioner himself, Whitelocke helped pave the way for what quickly became a vital instrument of opposition in the hands of the Country party.5

Robert Harley identified Whitelocke in April 1691 as a supporter of the Country interest, but although a regular and forceful speaker in 1690, he appears to have spoken hardly at all in subsequent sessions. In Narcissus Luttrell’s* full diary account of the two sessions of 1691–3, Whitelocke is mentioned on only a handful of occasions, invariably in connexion with subsequent attempts to legislate on trials for treason. He obtained leave to reintroduce the measure on 31 Oct., and this time succeeded in carrying it through the Commons, delivering it to the Lords on 18 Nov. However, the Lords’ amendment, which removed the crown’s discretionary power in the selection of juries in the lord steward’s court (the venue for the trial of peers when Parliament was not in session), presented a major stumbling-block. A series of conferences between the two Houses, culminating in a debate in the Commons on 13 Jan. 1692, failed to resolve the matter. Whitelocke himself, as he made clear on this occasion, had no aversion to the lord steward’s power of appointing juries, provided the number of peers summoned was a fixed, ‘competent number’ and not made discretionary, thus allowing proceedings to be manipulated. The stalemate remained, however, and the bill was lost for a second time. He presented it a third time on 11 Nov., and attempted to speed proceedings by moving, unsuccessfully, on the 18th to dispense with the committee stage on the grounds that the bill’s intentions had already been approved in the committee of the whole. Once more, the bill was heavily disputed by the Lords, who finally threw it out in February 1693. He made his fourth and final attempt with the measure during the 1693–4 session, presenting it on 14 Nov. 1693. After weeks of neglect, the measure was suddenly spurred on in February 1694 apparently as a symptom of MPs’ annoyance with the King’s veto of the place bill, but it is less clear, however, whether Whitelocke himself was involved in these later proceedings.6

On other business Whitelocke’s services were not in very great demand. He was not seen as an avid committee-man and was thus included on very few of the more prominent investigating bodies appointed during the 1690 Parliament. The amount of time he could give the House was probably circumscribed by his preoccupations as a lawyer. It is clear, however, that he occasionally spoke on other topics of concern, as on 27 Nov. 1693 when he criticized the Admiralty over naval miscarriages. On 3 Jan. 1694 he was appointed to a committee to manage a conference with the Lords on the same subject. Although he seems to have relinquished any responsibility for the treason trials bill when it reappeared in the final session before the dissolution, his earlier close association with the bill guaranteed him a place on the conference committee appointed on 8 Feb. 1695 to discuss amendments with the Lords.7

In 1695 Whitelocke took no steps to retain his seat for Great Marlow, or to seek re-election elsewhere. He suffered for his refusal to give his immediate signature to the Association, being deprived of his status as King’s Counsel and his places in the Oxfordshire lieutenancy and magistracy. Within a matter of months, however, he was seeking re-entry to Parliament and, briefly, in February 1697, was thought to have the best chance of securing the vacancy at Orford, and was mentioned as a possibility for the same seat again in 1698. No further opportunities came his way, however, until a by-election at Oxford University in March 1701. Whitelocke evidently had the benefit of some connexions within the university, and when told that he had been mentioned as a possible candidate, immediately wrote to Dr Arthur Charlett, the influential master of University College, offering to stand. The extent to which he was likely to attract support, however, remained uncertain, as was made clear by the university vice-chancellor, Dr Roger Mander: ‘what encouragement he may have I know not, nor yet how well he deserves any, people here [in London] giving a different character of him’. Moreover, Charlett, taking the lead in fixing the election, had already decided in favour of William Bromley II*, a Tory whose credentials were better known. At the by-election of 1703 Whitelocke was in a stronger position, since no more acceptable figure could be persuaded to stand. Largely through Charlett’s efforts he obtained backing from an influential cohort of college heads and aristocratic patrons such as Lords Weymouth (Thomas Thynne†) and Guernsey (Hon. Heneage Finch I*), and from the other sitting Member, Bromley. Charlett this time commended Whitelocke without reservation as one ‘whose integrity and warm zeal for the true interest of the nation and Church, as also against all opposers, has long made him very dear to our friends of the highest rank’. However, there remained much antipathy towards him, and at the election in November some support was given to an alternative Tory choice, though insufficient to defeat him. Now in his late 60s, Whitelocke thus found himself back in the parliamentary arena, this time in a somewhat more exalted and exposed position. He was also during the year reinstated as a Queen’s Counsel, and payment of his QC’s fee of £40 p.a. was generously backdated to 1689, thus disregarding his removal.8

In mid-March 1704 Whitelocke was noted by Lord Nottingham (Daniel Finch†) as a likely supporter in relation to the Scotch Plot, and in October he was forecast as a probable supporter of the proposed Tack. It is interesting to note, however, that Robert Harley felt there was some possibility that he might be open to persuasion to oppose the measure and included him among those who were to be lobbied. In the event, Whitelocke supported the Tack, but his silent and noticeably unenthusiastic support for it in the debate on 28 Nov. aroused widespread criticism and comment among High Tories. The University Ballad, published at the 1705 election, unflatteringly dubbed him

                                                  . . . Occasional Bill
          Who hung down his head, sat silent and still,
          Since his silence do’s better than his speaking will.
          But when debate it was over, and the bill was brought in,
          And to say nothing for it was thought a great sin,
          He resolved to speak next time, tho’ not worth a pin.

There had already been some talk of replacing Whitelocke, and his failure to add his own vocal support to his colleague Bromley’s tacking motion carried the speculation further. Notifying Charlett on 16 Dec. of the Lords’ rejection of the Tack, Whitelocke tried to recover some of his lost credibility by indicating that his own line on the measure had at least been unequivocal:

The Queen stayed all the while in the House where she heard that said (which one would think) should make her trust her real, true friends and not her occasional ones. Now those deluded friends do see their error and folly in not continuing with us for the Tack, which was the only way to have had the bill passed into a law.

By February 1705 Whitelocke was confronted by a serious electoral rival in the person of Sir Humphrey Mackworth*, a high-flying Tory, popular with many university voters, who attempted to claim Whitelocke’s patrons, Lords Nottingham, Rochester and Guernsey, as his own. But perhaps outweighing any concern on this account was the gratitude he had earned from the university in January for procuring a clause protecting the university’s interests in an unidentified bill, possibly concerned with taxation.9

In fact Whitelocke succeeded in defeating Mackworth at the general election, slightly increasing his share of votes cast. His well-publicized reticence on the Tack did not deter an analyst of the new Parliament from identifying him as ‘True Church’. At the opening of business on 25 Oct. 1705 he voted against the Court Whig candidate for the Speakership. In the December and January debates on the regency bill he displayed his old aversion to ministers acting in the role of regents; on 4 Dec. he declared his preference for the Tories’ alternative ‘Hanover motion’, and during committee proceedings on 10 Jan. 1706 he objected that a regency would ‘lessen the crown in the esteem of the people’. Earlier, on 19 Dec., he had spoken against censuring Charles Caesar* for insinuating that Lord Treasurer Godolphin (Sidney†) had secretly corresponded with the Pretender. Such instances of opposition gave rise to speculation in June that he was about to lose his status as Queen’s Counsel. Although this did not happen, the minimal part Whitelocke seems to have played in proceedings over the next four sessions would suggest that he maintained a low profile in the House so as not to offend the ministry and risk losing this rank.10

Re-elected without opposition in 1708, Whitelocke was listed as a Tory in an analysis of the House. His defence of Dr Sacheverell at the end of 1709 was less than wholehearted: memories of the campaign Sacheverell and other fellows of Magdalen had waged in favour of Mackworth in the 1705 election were still fresh. Although Hearne records that Whitelocke was one of the small number who spoke on the doctor’s side during the preliminary proceedings in December, it is evident from another account that Whitelocke confined himself to ridiculing the manner in which Sacheverell’s accusers nit-picked over his sermons, saying that ‘at the rate the House proceeded, they might pick sentences here and there out of the Bible to censure’, but avoided making any direct reference to Sacheverell himself. He did, however, vote with his party against the impeachment proceedings in February and March 1710. On 21 Feb. he moved an invitation to Dr Philip Bisse, a High Church divine, soon to be appointed bishop of St. Davids, to preach before the House. As the election drew near, he showed no inclination to satisfy the ‘great dons’ who hoped he would stand down on account of his advanced years and ‘the compliments already paid him by the university’. His repute in some Tory circles was pitifully low: he was described to Sir William Trumbull*, a former Member for the university, as ‘that worthless knight’. But far from having thoughts of retirement, Whitelocke penned an effusive letter to Robert Harley in October on the eve of his own re-election in which he identified himself unequivocally with the new ministry, and may even have have been touting for preferment:

I cannot but with gratitude acknowledge your constant friendship to me, but also to the whole kingdom, in their relievance from that enchantment they so long lay under. All your friends here were for a long time under great fears, with small hopes, till at last the welcome proclamation revived them; and, seeing the conjuror and his jugglers are brought down, all men now hope that England and Englishmen will be fairly dealt by.11

Under the new Tory administration, Whitelocke became more active and more politically prominent in the House than he had been at any time previously. Noted as a Tory in the ‘Hanover list’ of the new Parliament, he featured as a ‘Tory patriot’ opposed to the continuance of war during 1711, and as a ‘worthy patriot’ who in the 1710–11 session assisted in exposing the mismanagements of the old administration. Indeed, his participation was at this time sought on several of the committees established to probe aspects of the alleged misgovernance of Lord Godolphin’s (Sidney†) ministry. In March 1711, he chaired and reported the second-reading committee of a bill confirming the purchase of advowsons by Brasenose College. His admission to the October Club late in April, in the wake of the expulsion from it of (Sir) Thomas Hanmer (II)*, points to a growing extremism in his Tory views, and before long he was regarded as one of the club’s leaders. It may well have been from this point that his support for the Harley administration began to weaken.12

Whitelocke was even busier during the 1711–12 session. Apart from various committee appointments, he was involved in the management of several bills, one of them confirming endowment arrangements for the regius chairs of divinity at Oxford and Cambridge universities. During the 1713 session he is known to have addressed the House on a number of occasions. Objecting to the Court’s motion on 23 Apr. for a land tax at 3s., he proposed that the rate be set at a shilling less, which won unanimous endorsement, and he was immediately afterwards named as one of the drafters of the land tax bill. On 2 May, despite his earlier feelings towards Dr Sacheverell, he seconded a motion by Sir John Pakington, 4th Bt., inviting the doctor to preach to the House on 29 May, the anniversary of Charles II’s restoration. He spoke (and voted) on 18 June in support of the French commerce bill, but his most noteworthy intervention in the session was made on 1 July in response to General Stanhope’s (James*) motion to address the Queen to take measures to secure the Pretender’s expulsion from Lorraine. Whitelocke stood alone in opposing the motion, and in a much-reported speech came close to threatening the government and the Whigs with retribution for their severity against the Pretender; he ‘remembered in Oliver Cromwell’s time, when he [Cromwell] obliged France to banish the person Charles Stuart, it hastened on his glorious restoration which followed in a year and a half afterward’. In spite of this, however, he was still included in the committee appointed to draw up the address.13

By the end of 1712, with the approach of another election, there was renewed feeling among senior dons that Whitelocke was ‘past service’ and should retire. But, although elderly, he was still in legal practice, and caused some exasperation when towards the summer of 1713 he showed no indication of standing down. No one was more embittered than Lord Harcourt (Simon I*) whose ambition of seeing his son, young ‘Simkin’ (Simon Harcourt III*), take over the seat appeared to be thwarted. Harcourt found an opportunity of venting his wrath indirectly at Whitelocke and the Tory authorities at the university during a Chancery hearing in July: when Whitelocke made some complaint about ‘laying men by the heels’, Harcourt replied, ‘“Sir William, I know not whom you mean, but if you mean your client the vice-chancellor [of Oxford University], there is no man in England whom I would sooner lay by the heels.”’ At the beginning of August there was a report to the Jacobite court that Whitelocke, among others, was prepared to support Sir John Pakington in setting up a Jacobite pressure-group in the Commons to attack the legal basis of the Hanoverian succession.14

It was apparent, however, at the beginning of the next session, in March 1714, that no such preparations had as yet been made. Indeed, at the debate on the succession on 15 Apr. Whitelocke spoke on the Court side. Political matters were not his only concern during these weeks. It was probably on the university’s behalf that he questioned the need for continuing the impositions on imported books and prints, moving on 23 Apr. for an account of the yield from these duties, presumably to illustrate his point that they should be removed. He initiated a bill for this purpose late in May which he subsequently managed through all its stages. At the end of April he was again beginning to rattle his sabre over the succession. He backed Pakington’s recommendation to the October Club that they attack the succession by insisting on parliamentary examination of the list of regents agreed upon by the Hanoverian court. Although this was not followed up, Whitelocke’s sympathies with the Jacobite court were clear for all to see in a speech on 12 May on the arrears owing to Hanoverian troops which the Scottish Jacobite stalwart George Lockhart* recounted at great length.

Honest old Sir William Whitelocke expressed himself . . . that he admired to see gentlemen so mealy-mouthed in a matter of such importance; if these troops, said he, were not in her Majesty’s service and under the command of her general, there was no reason to demand their pay; but if they were hired by her, and in her actual service, and afterwards refused to obey her general, they in truth were nothing less or more than a parcel of deserters, and their proper reward was the gallows. If they pretended their Duke’s orders, it might, perhaps, serve as an excuse for the poor fellows, they being more immediately bound to obey him; but it would not however afford them a title to demand their pay, and their Duke was to answer for what was done. Old England, continued he, hath sent their Kings a-packing for deserting and giving up the honour and interest of the nation; and what did one deserve who used them so, while he only expected the crown, and what might they look for from such a prince when he was possessed of it! If he had any regard or love for Britain, it would appear as much now, when such occasions offered, as afterwards; and if he now preferred his German interest and dominions to the interest and honour of Britain, he’d do the same when he was king and had it more in his power to do them good offices at Britain’s expense. He concluded that King William’s extravagance to his Dutch favourites had cast him a fair copy, and lest he should come to the crown, which he hoped he should never do, it was necessary to check him in the bud. Some of the most violent Whigs, having challenged this last sentence, and calling out that Sir William should be brought to the bar, he stood up in his own defence, and told them he would go back in nothing he had said; for, as the Queen was younger in years, he hoped she would outlive that prince; and he would be so bold as to say that in comparison with her he did not value all the princes of Germany a farthing.

According to L’Hermitage, the Dutch resident, the tenor of Whitelocke’s speech caused no surprise owing to his reputation as a Jacobite. The same day he was named to the drafting committee on the schism bill. When this measure failed at the end of June, Whitelocke carried through its latter stages a bill for the enforcement of laws against papists.15

During his last few years in Parliament, Whitelocke remained an obdurate critic of the Hanoverian dynasty and of the new Whig regime. He was one of the few Tories who early in the new reign continued to play an active part in debates. His health finally broke in the summer of 1717, and he died at his Henley seat on 22 Nov.16

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

Author: Andrew A. Hanham


  • 1. J. S. Burn, Henley, 248; Le Neve’s Knights (Harl. Soc. viii), 421–2; R. Spalding, Contemporaries of Bulstrode Whitelocke (Recs. Soc. and Econ. Hist. n.s. xiv), 444, 451; The Gen. i. 272.
  • 2. Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 27; v. 362.
  • 3. Hearne Colls. vi. 109.
  • 4. D. Lemmings, Gents. and Barristers, 288; CSP Dom. 1689–90, p. 125; Morrice ent’ring bk. 3, p. 126; Bodl. Ballard 22, f. 51; Add. 29578, f. 318; 42952, f. 96; Grey, x. 73, 88–9, 114, 141.
  • 5. Morrice ent’ring bk. 3, pp. 202–3.
  • 6. H. Horwitz, Parl. and Pol. Wm. III, 74, 127; Grey, x. 237–8, 249; Bodl. Carte 130, ff. 347–8.
  • 7. Grey, x. 329.
  • 8. Add. 70081, newsletter 7 Mar. 1695–6; Luttrell, Brief Relation, iv. 27; Carte 79, f. 702; W. Suss. RO, Shillinglee mss Ac.454, no. 1019, [John Hooke] to Sir Edward Turnor*, 13 Feb. 1696–7; Ballard 21, f. 103; Bodl. Rawl. lett. 92, ff. 153, 192; Hist. Oxf. Univ. ed. Sutherland and Mitchell, 71–72; Atterbury Epistolary Corresp. iii. 139; Cal. Treas. Bks. xix. 171; xx. 528.
  • 9. Bagford Ballads, ed. Ebsworth, ii. 828–9; Atterbury Epistolary Corresp. iii. 184; Rawl. lett. 92, ff. 292, 300; Ballard 21, f. 41.
  • 10. Cam. Misc. xxiii. 43, 54, 58; DZA, Bonet despatch 20 Dec. 1705/1 Jan. 1706; Staffs. RO, Paget mss D603/K/3/6, R. Acherley to Ld. Paget, 13 [?June] 1706.
  • 11. BL, Trumbull Alphab. mss 53, Ralph Bridges to Sir William Trumbull, 12 Apr. 1709; Hearne Colls. ii. 327–9; HMC Egmont, ii. 243–4; Ballard 20, f. 22; Add. 70278, Whitelocke to Harley, 1 Oct. 1710.
  • 12. Trumbull Alphab. mss 54, Bridges to Trumbull, 9 May 1711.
  • 13. NSA, Kreienberg despatches 24 Apr., 5 May 1713; Wentworth Pprs. 341; Hearne Colls. iv. 208.
  • 14. HMC Portland, vii. 121, 151; D. Szechi, Jacobitism and Tory Pol. 125–6.
  • 15. NLS, Advocates’ mss, Wodrow letters Quarto 8, f. 95; Szechi, 159; Lockhart Pprs. i. 468–9; Add. 17677 HHH, f. 220.
  • 16. Hearne Colls. vi. 67; HMC Portland vii. 231; Boyer, Pol. State, xiv. 88.