1701 (Dec.)

Alternative title

The 5th Parliament of William III


3 Nov. 1701


30 Dec. 1701


2 July 1702



30 Dec. 1701-25 May 1702

Long description

During the spring and summer of 1701 public opinion crystallized in favour of war against France.   The French King’s provocations made clear his expansionist aims in Europe and their threat to English interests.   The 1701-2 Parliament – which like its predecessor lasted for only a single session – was largely concerned with the preparations for war, and made rapid progress with necessary measures.   But the death of William III on 8 Mar. 1702 halted expectations of a return of the Junto lords to power to manage war as they had done in the 1690s.  The accession of his sister-in-law Princess Anne initiated instead a revival of Tory prospects.

At the general election in November and December 1701 contests took place in 91 (34 per cent) of the 269 English and Welsh constituencies.   Prolonged attack on the Tories had filled the press for months beforehand, much of it centring on a published ‘black list’ of MPs who had lately opposed the preparations for war.   The widely publicized discovery, too, of three Tory MPs ensconced in a Westminster tavern with the French charge d’affairs Poussin gave Whig propagandists a field day in denouncing as ‘Poussineers’ those Tories suspected of Jacobite sympathies.   But though the Whigs inflicted heavy blows in some constituencies, they did not achieve the overwhelming majority expected.   The new House consisted of 248 Whigs and 240 Tories, with a further 24 MPs unclassified.   Out of the 515 MPs who sat during this Parliament, 82 (16 per cent) had no previous parliamentary experience, while 91 more had sat in one earlier Parliament.  Among the latter were Sir Christopher Wren and Isaac Newton.  

When Parliament met on 30 Dec. 1701 Robert Harley was elected Speaker by a mere four votes over the Court candidate Sir Thomas Littleton, 3rd Bt., an indication of the close balance between the parties.  Over the following weeks the King constructed his new administration.   He refrained from including any Junto figure, preferring to install less important Whigs such as Lord Carlisle to succeed Godolphin at the Treasury, the Earl of Manchester as secretary of state (southern), and the Duke of Somerset as lord president.  

The King’s Speech, drafted by Somers, stressed the need for the war effort to be generously supported in order to be effective.   On 9 Jan. the text of the Grand Alliance between the King, the Emperor and the United Provinces was communicated to the Commons.  Whigs and Tories outdid each other in demonstrating their willingness to serve the King’s requests, and by the end of February the ways and means arrangements were almost complete.  

The Tories were anxious to avoid being isolated by unfolding events, and were as keen as the Whigs to show their resentment of Louis XIV’s declaration of  ‘James III’ as king of England following the death of his father, the ex-king James II, in September 1701.   In the Commons it was the Tories who moved to bring in a bill for the abjuration of the Pretender.   However, the parties soon fell into protracted dissensions over crucial features of the bill, especially whether the oath to be imposed should be voluntary or compulsory, the latter of which the Tories succeeded on carrying on 20 Jan. by 188 votes to 187.   

News that the King was dying reached both Houses on 7 Mar. and hurried arrangements were made to pass the abjuration bill and the last of the year’s supply measures by royal commission.   The Commons then adjourned to 9.00am the following day, a Sunday.   At the opening of business on the 8th messages to both Houses informed them that the King had died early that morning and was succeeded by Princess Anne.   Under an Act of 1696 Parliament continued to meet for the next two months or so enabling the new Queen and her ministers to continue work on essential measures for the war.   On 2 May the Queen communicated to the Commons the declaration of war by England and her allies on France and Spain.

Parliamentary proceedings and politics during the brief but turbulent period from 1698 to 1702 are vividly recorded in the diary of the Gloucestershire MP and pamphleteer Sir Richard Cocks, 2nd Bt.  


Further reading

H. Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Politics in the reign of William III (Manchester, 1977)

ed. D. W. Hayton, The Parliamentary Diary of Sir Richard Cocks, 1698-1702 (Oxford, 1996)

Ref Volumes: 1690-1715

End Notes