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Lord John Somers of Brookmans (1651-1716)

Baron Somers by Sir Godfrey Kneller Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, released via Wikimedia Commons
Baron Somers by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, released via Wikimedia Commons

John Somers, one of the two Lord Chancellors who lived in North Mymms, has had a mixed press. In fact, according to local historian, Dr Ruth Herman, he was an early victim of political propaganda 18th century style.

To some he had a great reputation as a lawyer, was fair and gentle, and had a patient temperament. But to others he was an obnoxious sycophant with a “licentious” lifestyle and prone to “sexual excesses”.

Dr Herman has researched and written the following account of John Somers for the North Mymms History Project.



Lord John Somers of Brookmans (1651-1716)

by Dr Ruth Herman


Drawing of Brookmans House by Buckler, 1840 Image courtesy of Hertfordshire County Records Office (HCRO)
Drawing of Brookmans House by Buckler, 1840
Image courtesy of Hertfordshire County Records Office (HCRO)

John Somers, who lived in the manor house of Brookmans in North Mymms, was a statesman who attracted both private disparagement and public praise. He was the target for simultaneous character assassinations and lavish encomiums. This eighteenth century Whig statesman enjoyed descriptions which ranged from disgust to sycophancy.

While the Tories accused him of “adultery and Socinianism[1], [2] the Whigs regarded him as having a...

Great reputation … learned in his own Profession, with … Learning in Divinity, Philosophy, and History. He had a great capacity for business, with an extraordinary temper: for he was fair and gentle... So that he had on all the patience and softness, as well as the justice and equity, becoming a great Magistrate. [3]
Somers was a major figure in the late Stuart monarchy, and to help explain this wide range of opinions a short introduction might be useful. [4]

John Somers was a lawyer by profession. He began his life at the bar in Worcester and was recognised as a talented Whig advocate in his early career.

As a result of this early promise he joined the team working for the seven bishops who defied the religious policies of James II. He was elected as MP for Worcester in 1689.

For his admirers he was the complete package; a fair and more than competent man of the law but also a great intellectual and collector of books and manuscripts.

He had 9,000 books in his library at Brookmans alongside 4,000 drawings and a collection of manuscripts. He was a patron of the arts and encouraged writers including the great essayist Joseph Addison. He was a president of the Royal Society and was closely connected with the Whig literati of the day at the Kit-Kat Club, where politicians and writers met, discussed party politics and drank far too much.

He was a Whig through and through. He spoke in the House of Commons on James II’s “desertion”, and worked on what was to become the Bill of Rights, the document which defines the British constitutional monarchy.  

His progress up the political ladder was rapid, working his way through the posts of solicitor-general to become attorney general by 1692.

He was also one of the Lords justices appointed to run the country when William III went off to fight abroad. Eventually he was appointed to the position of Lord Chancellor and was given his peerage in 1697.

The inexorable rise had to stop eventually and his mistake was to invest in Captain Kidd who went from gamekeeper to poacher. Kidd, who had been commissioned to sort out piracy against English shipping decided that joining the pirates would be more lucrative. Somers’ support of Kidd did not go down well and he had blotted his copy book too many times to escape some kind of reaction. The Tories were out for blood.

He faced charges of using his position to line his own and his cronies’ pockets. He had also upset his Tory counterparts by agreeing to a Partition Treaty without involving them in its formulation. It was a treaty which led to the later war with France. Unsuccessful impeachment proceedings were launched. He fell out of favour with the King, and in 1700 he was dismissed. Somers was out of elected political office but he had a seat in the Lords. His supporters were delighted.

Somers has quitted with a fair Applause
Without a Crime, and few Assign the Cause;
And sure 'tis Glory, since he did Retreat,
That none reproach the Actions of his Seat. [5]

Queen Anne, William’s successor, was not over keen on him at first. It didn’t help his career prospects that before her accession he had disputed her income as a princess. According to the Duchess of Marlborough, Sarah Churchill, the monarch thought Somers was “obnoxious.” [6] And Sarah herself claimed that he was sycophantic when she was the Queen’s favourite but ignored her as soon as she had lost her place.

As a Whig, Somers was naturally at odds with the Tories. If nothing else his consistent support of the interminable and expensive War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1713) [7] put him in their bad books.

Somers, along with four other MPs formed the Whig team known collectively as the Junto which held sway in the Commons. They had begun in the lower house but slowly they were raised to the peerage. This was the time when the relationship between the two parliamentary houses became a struggle for supremacy. The Commons ultimately won but the fight was acrimonious and the recently elevated members of the Junto found their power-base was being eroded. As the leader of the Whigs in the House of Lords, Somers was in the thick of the action, and by virtue of his position he was an obvious target for the Tory propaganda machine.

And what well-oiled machines both the Tories and the Whigs ran. We have now entered the age of political faction with some of the finest writers in the English language engaged in the dirtiest of wars with words.

Despite the government’s best efforts to suppress the press which included physical violence, imprisonment, crippling fines and destruction of the actual presses, the words rolled out of the nooks and crannies of Grub Street. [8]

For the Tories the major targets were the Marlboroughs (the Duke and particularly the Duchess) and the senior Whigs. The Duke of Marlborough’s son-in-law, the Earl of Sunderland, was particularly in the firing line. These were the front runners, but the Tories of Queen Anne’s reign regarded any Whig as fair game for innuendos on their sexual, familial or financial activities.

With writers of the calibre of Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe the Tories had real fire power in their printing houses. But they were matched with equally stylish if less well known essayists such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

Following close on these literary stars were others of contemporary notoriety but whose names are no longer current except in academic circles. But fuelling all of this fevered activity was the extraordinary interest in politics from all ranks.

Vicars bemoaned the replacement of spiritual with political concerns despite a severely limited franchise. Sir Richard Steele remarked that even at the theatre he had noticed partisan face decoration. He reported that “two parties of very fine women … drawn up in a kind of battle array one against another … their patches were placed … as party - signals to distinguish friends from foes … Upon inquiry I found that the Amazons on my right hand, were Whigs, and those on my left, Torie” [9].

So this was the background against which to look at how Somers fared in these propaganda battles. Compared to the abuse aimed at his Junto colleagues the usually hostile press was often unexpectedly tame, although there is a continuum of opinion which ranges from over-the-top praise to disgust at his private life.

Starting at the top, thanks to John Macky, a known Whig spy and acknowledged self-serving and enthusiastic propagandist, a picture of Somers emerges which could have qualified him for sainthood.[10]

In the copy used for this research there is cynical marginalia which points out what the contemporary reader may have recognised as inaccuracies. While in the text Macky writes that the noble lord came from a “creditable family”, the handwriting says it is “a very [inaccurate] note. His father was a noted Rogue.” At the end of the pen portrait Somers is declared to have a “reputation for Honesty with the Majority of the People of England … very few Ministers in any Reign ever had so many Friends in the House of Commons … He is believed to be the best Lord Chancellor that ever sat in the Chair”.

A handwritten note points out that Somers “possessed all excellent qualifications except virtue. He had violent passions and hardly subdued them by his great prudence.” But even the enthusiastic Macky was forced to admit, if reluctantly, that “the passing of Grants in his own Favour” was his downfall and that Somers was a “disgraced Minister.”

Early on in his story, however, one of Somers’ first biographers shows a less attractive side to the rising star with specific reference to his attitude to women. The biographer explains: “He had some Thoughts of Marrying, and made his Addresses to a young Lady, … he went so far in it, as to deliver a Rental of his Estate, towards making a Settlement, and had several Meetings with the young Lady's Friends to treat of it; but the Treaty broke off, on Account of a Difference about the Marriage Portion and Settlement, to the great Regret of the young lady.” [11]

So Somers’ abiding sin was his love life. And it was indeed a scandal. Having failed to marry as a young man over the disputed dowry, it was rumoured that he had no relationships with women until he reached the grand age of forty. If this is the case then he made up for his celibacy in his middle age, gaining a reputation for licentiousness and “sexual excesses”, apparently contracting syphilis. His household at Brookmans raised a few eyebrows and his lifestyle was remarked upon in private correspondence between some of his aristocratic Whig friends.

Living with the unmarried senior politician was his niece, who ran the household, and his mistress Elizabeth Blount. This was a time when Somers was in declining health so the cover of a nursing role for Mrs Blount was possible. Adding to the scandal, Mr Blount was conveniently in prison, said to have been put there by Somers. This charge of adultery crops up everywhere. The Duchess of Marlborough notes that “there was one thing that appeared to be a great blemish to a Lord Chancellor that he lived as publicly with another man’s wife as if she had been his own”. [12]

It could be said that the sexual excesses of Somers were gleefully contrasted with his sober good sense with his lawyer’s wig on. Jonathon Swift’s attitude to Somers says a great deal about how a party affiliation will alter the satirist’s treatment of his victim.

In 1704 Swift published A Tale of a Tub anonymously, which was written in 1690 when he was working as a secretary for Sir William Temple, a supporter of William III and therefore leaning towards the Whigs. So perhaps it would be understandable that a young man eager to make his way in the world would dedicate this attack on the broad church to a known and successful Whig, John Somers.

That he actually dedicated the piece to Somers when the statesman had been removed from office when it was published in 1704 is puzzling. Somers was not a favourite of the new Queen so there would be little to gain for Swift who hankered after promotion in the Anglican Church. But on the surface at least there is a great deal of bowing to Somers in the usual sycophantic manner of impoverished 18th century hacks.

I would recommend that a closer look be taken at how Swift structured the dedication which he ascribes to the bookseller. He was insistent that the piece should be published anonymously. So his claim that he wants nothing from Somers, at least on the surface, is credible. In fact the dedication is tongue in cheek if we read the list of attributes that Swift will not allow.

He is not going to admire him for his “Bravery, at the head of an army, of your undaunted Courage, in mounting a Breach or scaling a wall; or to have had your pedigree trac’d in a lineal descent from the House of Austria, or your wonderful talent at dress and dancing; or your profound knowledge in Algebra, Metaphysics and the oriental tongues”. In fact there is to be no acknowledgement of Somers’ wit, eloquence, learning, wisdom, justice, politeness, candour or evenness of temper. Swift is not even going to praise his lordship’s virtues, and a contemporary reader might think that is a wise move as the noble lord’s virtue was indeed questionable.

What this “Bookseller” does mention is Somers’ “patience”. [13] It is difficult at this point to work out exactly what Swift felt about Somers as an individual. [14] Somers was still a Whig, but Swift was leaning towards the Tories. Somers does not come in for the same excoriation as say Lord Wharton [15] (whose immorality and bad behaviour far exceeded Somers’) or the Marlboroughs. However, in The Examiner [16] Swift cleverly avoids any consequences by praising the then Lord Keeper, Lord Cowper and pointing out that he had never imprisoned the husband “in order to keep the wife without Disturbance”.

The irony of this is that Lord Cowper was also a Whig and had his own double standards having kept a mistress in the next village to his estate. However he had honourably acknowledged his second family and on the death of the mother took the children on as dependents.

Swift was not a particularly vicious scandal monger. That aspect of propaganda was left to others who would improve the stories to make them every bit as scandalous as any 21st century tabloid worth its salt. Some Tory satirists were ready to use verse. Here is a particularly unpleasant example

Here in polluted Robes just Reeking, draw
Th’adultrous Moderator of the Law;
Whose wrinkled cheeks and sallow looks proclaim
The ill effects of his distemper’d frame
If more you’d know consult his friend Tom Hobbs
Who vamps him up with his mercurial Jobs [17]

But the writer who took scandal to its extreme was Swift’s Tory colleague Delarivier Manley (who took over The Examiner from Swift). She was so good at it that she found herself in the Tower of London on charges of seditious libel which stemmed from her best-selling “novel”, [18]Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis (known popularly as New Atalantis).

However, despite her arrest and attacks on several Whig notables, her treatment of Somers in this volume was mild. All she says of Somers is that he is a “renow’d politician” talking to his colleague Lord Halifax. The rest of this short account of Somers is very tame. The two peers are writers but they have not “been afraid to applaud and reward the Performances of others; free from that Emulation which has stung even some of the great Emperors of old, who would be thought Poets”. It has to be admitted that they have rewarded themselves, but they have used their good fortune to help others. And then after a page of slightly lukewarm praise there is a very restrained sting in the tail. Manley points out that neither of these two would have done anything which would not have worked out to their advantage. The Whigs of whom they are leading lights are still in power so good things flow towards them. [19]

The next time Somers appears in Manley’s prose his description is far and away less agreeable. New Atalantis was published in 1709. The Whigs were in power and it may well have occurred to Manley that it was not in her best interests to go after the whole Whig ministry. It was bad enough she had been arrested for seditious libel and incarcerated in the Tower for two weeks. The charges had been dropped but she was wary. However a year later a Tory landslide victory in the 1710 elections meant that it was less dangerous to attack the movers and shakers in what were now the opposition. And Somers unfortunately was directly in the firing line. [20] Under a very thin disguise as “Cicero” Manley made good use of the well known irregularity of Somers’ household. The menage a trois was hardly a secret so the language had to be heightened to make an impression on the reader. What we are presented with is moral outrage in the strongest terms. So Somers is “Whirl’d about by his lusts at the Pleasure of a fantastick worn-out Mistress.” And...

He prostituted his inimitable Sense, Reason, and good Nature, either to Revenge, or Reward,as her Caprice dire├ęted; and what made this Commerce more detestable, this Mistress of his was a Wife Impious. Excess Abominable Adultery.

The principal characters in this story are Christopher Blount (the Pope Blounts owned the nearby Tyttenhanger Manor but there may have been little connection between the two households) and his wife, Elizabeth Blount. [21] The excuse for this very unusual setup is that his “mistress’s” husband is in prison for debt and Somers has taken Mrs Blount in to act as a nurse for the ageing statesmen. This scenario, so seemingly innocent, is turned by Manley into a steamy hotbed of vice where the “mistress” concerns herself with recruiting and instructing beautiful young virgins in techniques to rouse the practically impotent Somers. [22] And yet if we look closely at the wording it is Mrs Blount who is in control and there is little to indicate that Somers is required to do more than enjoy these sensual pleasures.

Compared to Manley’s outrageous description of Somers taking a bath surrounded by an erotic bevy of young girls, Swift’s reprimand to Somers in his very sober Examiner issue No. 27 dated 8 February 1710 is a slight slap on the wrist.

The Examiner is written anonymously by “Mr Examiner” and it is probably the case that few people knew that Swift was responsible for many of the issues. In number 26 however, he is quite indirect with Somers and his sleeping arrangements.

Was any Man more eminent in his Profession than the present Lord Keeper, or more distinguished by his Eloquence and great Abilities in the House of Commons? But then it must be granted, that he is wholly ignorant in the Speculative as well as practical Part of Polygamy.

What do these comments tell us about the propaganda surrounding John, Baron Somers, with his interesting household arrangements? The first thing we should acknowledge is that he was absolutely open about them. And secondly although his contemporaries disapproved in their private correspondence they seem to have accepted the situation.

He was after all a bachelor and the absence of Mr Blount on the scene could easily be explained that his debts were such that imprisonment was inevitable. Mrs Blount needed a home and the ageing Somers needed someone to look after him. And while Manley makes a meal out of the alleged stream of maidens introduced by Mrs Blount she holds back until she is safe in the knowledge that there is a Tory ministry.

Swift, as we have seen, was even more circumspect in his judgements of Somers. When he was writing The Examiner in the beginning of 1710 Somers was quite poorly. But there was something else which may have caused Swift to be a little more generous. A cleric, Dr Henry Sacheverell, preached a particularly incendiary sermon in 1709 more or less claiming that the Whig ministry was destroying the Church of England. The Whigs supported a broader church which allowed for a more relaxed view of those who wished to attend non-conformist services. The Whigs viewed this criticism of their government very seriously and demanded Sacheverell’s arrest and impeachment. Somers was not particularly in favour of this tough treatment and this may have influenced Swift, now firmly in the Tory camp.

So apart from private correspondence or commentary, much of what is written about Somers is complimentary. There are too many examples to give them all but he is described in one contemporary publication as having a good temper and “serv'd the King, and the Interests of the Publick with the same Zeal he had usually done; and was not wanting, when time forc'd , to vindicate his Majesty's Memory.” [23]

When he died the obituaries competed to give him the very best of printed send offs. One example says it all: “In short, the Lord Somers was an universal Scholar, one of the ablest Lawyers, greatest Statesmen, and truest Patriots that the Age has produc'd. He undauntedly adher'd to the Interest of his Country, and the Protestant Religion.” [24]

His interesting home life was clearly airbrushed out of his past: “His Life was in every Part of it set off with that graceful Modesty and Reserve, which made his Vertues more beautiful, the more they were cast in such agreeable Shades His Religion was sincere, not ostentatious.” [25]

Meanwhile in correspondence and privately expressed opinion his fellow Whigs were not so sure about him. The Duchess of Marlborough commented on his moral character and as an unmarried man she considered that he “shared in the general contamination of the age” and thought that even “as he sat on the woolsack he offended the laws of society.” [26]

In conclusion, if you read the propaganda and private opinion, Somers’ reputation was that of an ageing, lascivious and impotent old man with an eye to personal advantage and pretensions to learning, or alternatively, he was one of the brightest stars in the political firmament, loyal, honest, generous and sophisticated. As always one suspects that the true John Somers was somewhere in between.

References

[1] Sociniasm was a Christian theology which denied the Holy Trinity and was considered disreputable by members of the Anglican Church.
[2] Letters Illustrative of the Reign of William III, from 1696 to 1708, Addressed to the Duke of Shrewsbury, by James Vernon p.156
[3] Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Time p;p.108
[4] The notes on Somers’ biography are taken from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
[5] Daniel Defoe, The English Gentleman Justified, Dublin 1701, p. 5.
[6] Correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough p. 149.
[7] This war was a power struggle over the inheritance of the Spanish throne. It was deeply unpopular with the Tories principally because of its expense. The French king Louis XIV fought with their allies in France and what is now Belgium over the French King’s ambitions to run Europe and re-convert the English back to Catholicism.
[8] For a much longer and more detailed account this see my book Grub Street, the Origins of the British Press Amberley Press.
[9] Richard Steele The Spectator No 81 2nd June 1711.
[10] Memoirs of the Secret Services of John Macky, Esq (London 1733)
[11] John Oldmixon, Memoirs of the life of John Lord Somers (London 1716)
[12] Private Correspondence of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough vol. II, (Henry Coburn London 1838) p .148
[13] The quotes are taken from Jonathon Swift, A Tale of a Tub (11th edition London 1747)
[14] See Eugene Hammond, Jonathan Swift: Irish Blow in (Rowland and Littefield, 2016)
[15] Thomas Wharton, Marquess of Wharton(1648-1715) Whig politician, amoral and an easy target for Tory scandal mongers.
[16] Jonathon Swift, The Examiner No 26, February 1st , 1710. The Examiner was a Tory sponsored bi-weekly written at this time, anonymously by Swift.
[17] William Sachse, Lord Somers A Political Portrait (Manchester University Press 1975) p. 68
[18] For more information about Delarivier Manley’s part in the political propaganda scene of the 1700s see Ruth Herman The Business of a Woman: The Political Writings of Delarivier Manley (Associated University Presses 2003). See also The Selected Works of Delarivier Manley ed. Ruth Herman and Rachel Carnell 5 volumes, (Pickerng and Chatto 2005)
[19] Delarivier Manley, Secret Memoirs and Manners of Several Persons of Quality of Both Sexes from the New Atalantis, (London 1709)
[20] The sequel to The New Atalantis has the short title of Memoirs of Europe.
[21] Elizabeth Blount was the daughter of Sir Richard Fanshawe a gentleman who had faithfully served the royal family during the interregnum. His estate was at Ware Park just outside Hertford.
[22] Delarivier Manley Memoirs of Europe ed. Ruth Herman (Pickering and Chatto 2005) p.217
[23] A Collins Historical and Genealogical Account of the Present Nobility (London 1709) p. 454
[24] Flying Post April 28, 1716 - May 1, 1716 No.3795 London
[25] Free Holder Friday, May 4, 1716 (London) No 39
[26] Memoirs of Sarah Duchess of Marlborough and the Court of Queen Anne (ed A.T. Thompson, London 1849)

About the author

After a career in public relations Ruth Herman took a mature degree in English with History. She was then awarded a studentship at the Open University and her resulting thesis on 18th century political propaganda was published by American University Press. She taught at the University of Hertfordshire until she retired in 2014. Since retiring she has enjoyed writing about history and published a book on early newspapers last year.


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