The modern histories of the Conservative Party do not provide a full account of how it first came into being as the Tory Party in the early 1680s. This essay attempts to fill the gap. It describes the events from which the Party emerged and how it got its name. Grateful thanks are due to Dr Paul Seaward, the recently retired Director of the History of Parliament Trust and a leading authority on the period, for reading and commenting on the piece.
The Tory Party, a late-seventeenth century creation rebranded some 150 years later with the name Conservative, was not brought into existence one fine day by a bunch of like-minded, right-wing politicians who felt that their happy collaboration should be perpetuated by a permanent organisation. The first Tories emerged unexpectedly, rather to their own surprise, devoid of any very clear leadership in the early stages and with a name supplied by their opponents, amidst quite extraordinary political events.
Until it actually happened in 1678, no one could have imagined that the entire political world would be convulsed by a pack of lies, devised almost entirely by one man, Titus Oates, a homosexual former Anglican priest who had been unfrocked and sacked as a naval chaplain because of his unsurprising improprieties (which did not stop him denouncing others for sodomy). He then converted to Catholicism and started training as a Jesuit priest, but failed his Latin exam which put paid to his hopes of a second clerical career. Later, after spells in prison and other punishments when his lies were found out, he became a Baptist preacher.
“Dr” Titus Oates (he loved parading a non-existent Catholic divinity doctorate) is undoubtedly one of the greatest and most repellent scoundrels in British history. Though only 29 when he began naming various fellow Catholics as traitors, he was richly endowed with the indestructible self-confidence that all successful liars must possess. He denounced everyone who dared dispute his amazing claims. He never wilted under cross-examination even in the presence of his monarch, the merry King Charles II, who gave him a rough time when he was brought before the PrIvy Council, exposing errors in his testimony. The King was convinced that Oates was a fraud. That bold liar remained unabashed, gathering support from other crooks and liars who claimed to corroborate his fantasies.
Jesuit priests and Catholic members of the nobility had, Oates insisted, united to form a terrifying conspiracy against Britain’s proudly Protestant state. London would be burnt down and its inhabitants massacred; a Catholic French army would invade and the King would be assassinated. This fantastic, imaginary threat to the state is known in history as the popish plot. “All England broke into unreasoning panic”, as one nervous observer said.
For two and a half years, from September 1678 to March 1681, no one was safe. Men in public life went in fear of sudden arrest, imprisonment and execution. They included Samuel Pepys, the great diarist who was famous in his lifetime for his superb administrative work as Chief Secretary to the Admiralty. To Pepys it seemed that “everybody suspected everybody and good men and their wives went armed in the streets in expectation of a massacre.”
In May 1679 Pepys was accused of “piracy, popery and treachery”, and sent to the Tower of London. The charges (such as they were) were finally dropped in July 1680 after fourteen months of “unbroken persecution and suspense.” The cause of Pepys’s misfortune was his close association with the Catholic heir to the throne, James, Duke of York, then head of the navy and seen by his many opponents and detractors as the man who would reign tyrannically over a Catholic England if the popish plot, in which so many believed, was not defeated. Pepys was one of the lucky ones. At least 22 innocent men, including a number of respected and learned Jesuit priests, were executed because of Oates’s lies.
“The unreasoning panic” engulfed Parliament, with which Charles II had acute difficulty throughout his reign after a brief honeymoon following the Restoration in 1660. His wise hand could not restrain its members now. In October 1678 the Commons declared that “there hath been and still is a damnable and hellish plot contrived and carried out by the popish recusants for assigning and murdering the King”, even though the King himself did not believe it.
MPs demanded drastic action to suppress the plot. In order to get it, they overthrew the political ascendancy enjoyed since 1673 by the Charles’s very able First Minister, the Earl of Danby, a “comely gentleman” according to Pepys, who started out with a mere (inherited) baronetcy and ended his political career in 1699 at the highest rank of honour as Duke of Leeds, a remarkable achievement unequalled by any other parliamentarian over the centuries (George Curzon, born an Honourable, hoped for a dukedom in the early 1920s but had to be content with a marquessate). Remarkably, no recent biography of this hugely significant figure has been written to supersede the ponderous life in three volumes published over seventy years ago .
Danby’s control over the Commons, exercised through what was widely referred to as a Court Party, had been secured in large part by the astute use of patronage and corruption, in which he excelled in much the same way as Robert Walpole was to do over forty years later. One of his many enemies denounced him as “greedy of wealth and honours, corrupt himself and a corrupter of others.” His opponents rejoiced that he was unable to sustain his grip on the Commons in the face of the political uproar and turmoil unleashed by Oates, who accused Danby of making light of the popish plot. Power seeped away rapidly from him. Pepys wrote in November 1678 of “ the whole government seeming at this day in such a state of distraction and fear, as no History I believe can parallel.”
The turmoil was a gift to the most accomplished and versatile politician of his day, Anthony Ashley Cooper, first Earl of Shaftesbury. He was notorious in his time as the prince of opportunists, sometimes serving governments and sometimes opposing them, as suited his interests—a kind of highly talented Vicar of Bray turned politician. He was thought to be capable of any devious or sordid deed. A line in the poet John Dryden’s famous political satire Absolom and Achitophel (1681) has haunted his reputation: “A Name to all succeeding Ages Curst.” Modern historians, however, have been disinclined to curse, finding in his various twists and turns a consistent hatred of arbitrary government and a firm commitment both to the rights of Parliament and to a high degree of religious liberty, which would diminish the privileged position enjoyed in law by the Anglican Church.
Thanks to Titus Oates and his lies, Danby went to the Tower of London for nearly five years in 1679, and Shaftesbury became for a time the man around whom events chiefly revolved, though not quite so fully as he would have liked. What was essentially a struggle for power took place between him and his allies on the one side, and the King, weakened by the loss of Danby, on the other. The monarch dissolved Parliament three times between January 1679 and January 1681, in the hope of securing through fresh elections( which involved some 2.6 per cent of the population) a majority of MPs who would not try to impose on him a fundamental constitutional change to which he was totally opposed.
That change was the exclusion of the King’s Catholic brother, James, Duke of York—Samuel Pepys’s patron—from the line of succession to ensure that another Protestant monarch followed Charles II. Some toyed with arrangements that would allow James to succeed, but circumscribe his power; and there were other schemes to prevent Catholic control of the institutions of state. But an Exclusion Bill, passed into law by Parliament, was the course that attracted by far the widest support .
Shaftesbury was its most prominent and effective proponent. The three Exclusion Parliaments, as they came to be known (though some historians have taken issue with that designation because exclusion was not their sole preoccupation), refused to abide by the King’s wishes, and the Commons strongly supported the policy with which Shaftesbury was firmly identified. So bitter was the struggle between monarch and the exclusionists that many feared another civil war. One of Pepys’s correspondents wrote to him in January 1681, when passions were at their height, saying: “I cannot but pray to God to preserve us from the tumult, confusions and rebellions of 1641 and ‘42 which seem to threaten us… I fear God hath a controversy still with the land.” As always at this time, politics and religion were indissolubly connected.
Instead of leading to another civil war, the passions unleashed by the popish plot were held in check in the end by parliamentary politicians who were keen on unrestrained mutual abuse where they differed over fundamental constitutional and religious issues (and were happy to send a few of their number to the Tower or the block), but were not seriously tempted to raise armies against each other. Shaftesbury, it has long been held, showed the way to organised political warfare by other means. Much credit has been given to him for assembling the first Whigs, seen by historians as the earliest recognisable British political party, during the years 1679-81.
As so often happens, academic research has modified this long-held, simple truth. Shaftesbury tends now to be regarded as a major figure in the emergence of the Whigs, but not as the all-powerful architect of the first political party. “ His stature does need to be put in proper perspective”, writes Dr Mark Knights, one of the leading revisionists today .Knights adds that “1679-81 was not so much of a watershed in the development of parliamentary parties as was once thought”, though without going so far as to suggest that “ we must abandon the concept of the birth of party altogether”.
A birth certainly took place, but the emerging Whigs did not achieve a high degree of internal self-discipline or work out a collection of coherent policies to help carry them forward in this first phase of their existence. It would perhaps have been rather surprising if they had done so in their earliest days. But they campaigned vigorously through petitions and addresses to Parliament , though press propaganda and urban political clubs.
Charles II defeated these Whigs with their intolerable demands. In March 1681 he sent the third Exclusion Parliament packing ; even though it was held in Oxford, away from the radical London mob which intimidated Westminster, it proved no less truculent than its predecessors. The dissolution was widely applauded by public opinion, which had grown tired of acute parliamentary strife.
Parliament would never meet again under the merry monarch. In the last four years of his reign, Charles II carried out a ferocious purge of his Whig opponents, turning them out of office at national, county and municipal level. The King’s loyal supporters, who replaced them in every part of the country, were naturally reviled by the victims of this royal campaign. The Whig losers cast around in the extensive lexicon of contemporary abuse. In the course of 1681 those who approved of what the King had done got used to being called Tories, a term that had never been heard in English politics before. It was meant to be intensely insulting. Those on the receiving end were being likened to lawless Irish brigands, whose random violence in their own country was very familiar to Englishmen of the time. A tract published in 1683 referred in horrified terms to Irish Tories as “ popishly affected, outlaws, robbers, such as our law saith have Caput Lupinem ,fit and ready to be destroyed and knocked on the head by any one that could meet with them.”
Those who were thus mocked showed their indifference to such insult and scorn by adopting the very rude term as their official name. In this, they followed the example set by their opponents. Whigs or Whiggamaires (an earlier variant) were, it seems, originally Scottish horse thieves. By the 1640s, the unappealing term was being used to describe bands of armed rebels who roamed lowland Scotland. When this fearful word was applied to them, Lord Shaftesbury and his friends responded by stitching the term proudly on their banners.
The two names, and the sharp party divisions they signified, passed quickly into everyday use in the course of 1681. Dryden’s Absolom and Achitophel , the greatest party pamphlet of the era, published in November 1681, had a prologue which stated: “ He who draws his pen for one party must expect to make enemies of the other, for wit and fool are consequents of Whig and Tory, and every man is a knave or an ass to the contrary side.” The previous month news of the two names had reached Derbyshire. “ Ms. H. of Chesterfield told me a gentleman was at their house and had a red Ribband in his hat, she askt. him what it meant, he said it signifyed that he was a Tory, whats that sd she, he ans. an Irish Rebel, --- oh dreadful that any in England dare espouse that interest. I hear further since that this is the distinction they make instead of Cavalier and Roundhead, now they are called Torys and Wiggs, the former wearing a red Ribband, and the other a violet…and the Torys will Hector down and abuse those they have named Wigs.” ( People in Derbyshire would not have been alone in finding it hard to understand how the “dreadful” word Tory could have suddenly acquired a very different new meaning.)
Charles II has the clearest claim to the credit for the rapid and unexpected emergence of the Tory Party in 1681. His supporters were thrust together with a much greater sense of common identity as the beneficiaries of the royal campaign against the Whigs after the end of the parliamentary battle over the exclusion of James, Duke of York from the line of succession in March 1681—a battle which the Whigs could never have won since the House of Lords stood staunchly by the King.
Loyal supporters of the Crown throughout the country seem to have adopted their opponents’ insulting name for them with remarkable speed in 1681. Their slogan “Church and King” defined their purpose as bastions of Anglicanism and monarchy . No one felt the need to go further and develop a political programme or establish a national organisation . Candidates would stand under the Tory banner in their constituencies at general elections, and then, on arrival at Westminster, establish how the King wished them to vote (most of them would never make a speech) in the Commons, often turning to influential ministers for instructions about what the King wanted.
When elections resumed after 1685 (under the disastrous James II), Tory MPs found ministers at Westminster who now called themselves Tories too. They included Lord Danby who had been released from the Tower to resume his ascent to his dukedom. He found himself alongside younger men who had served Charles II successfully during the last phase of his reign, such as Laurence Hyde, Earl of Rochester, who kept the King afloat financially . No single party leader emerged. All prominent Tories at Westminster held themselves ready to serve the monarch in the way that he wished. He decided who would be the chief among them as his First Minister in a Tory government.
Titus Oates set out in 1678 to create political mayhem through his bogus popish plot. For two and a half years he had considerable success. Then stability returned, thanks to a determined monarch whose resolution ended Oates’s crisis, and brought the Tories into existence. But would there ever have been a Tory Party –or a Whig Party either-- without Oates, the gay liar?
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Arthur Bryant, Samuel Pepys: The Years of Peril (Fontana paperback, 1961). Tim Harris, “Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury” in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). B. D. Henning, History of Parliament: The House of Commons 1660-1690, Vol.1 ( Secker & Warburg, 1983). J.R. Jones, Court and Country: England 1658-1714 (Edward Arnold, 1978) and The First Whigs: The Politics of the Exclusion Crisis 1678-1683 (Oxford University Press,1961). Mark Knights, Politics and Opinion in Crisis, 1678-81 (Cambridge University Press,1994). Sidney Lee, “Sir Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby” in the Dictionary of National Biography (1908). Robert Pickavance, “ The English Boroughs and the King’s Government: A Study of Tory Reaction,1681-85” (unpublished Oxford PhD thesis, 1976). Paul Seaward, “Charles II“ in theOxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) and “ The Exclusion Parliaments”, History of Parliament Trust blog (2019). Robert Willman, “ The Origins of ‘ Whig’ and ‘ Tory’ in English Political Language” in The Historical Journal, Vol.17(2)(1974)