- Unnatural Allies?The Oxfordshire Élite from the Exclusion Crisis to the Overthrow of James II*
Overshadowed by the greater national upset of the winter of 1688 was an apparently minor event that goes some way towards explaining the rapidity with which James II was displaced from his throne. Towards the end of November, Captain Henry Bertie marched into Gloucester at the head a troop of renegade Oxfordshire militia, and to the rescue of the notorious 'hot whig' John, 3rd Lord Lovelace, who had been imprisoned in the city gaol following his capture at Cirencester.1 Lovelace and the Berties had long been rivals for political authority in Oxfordshire, and the coming together at this juncture of the largely royalist Berties with men of Lovelace's stamp signifies the extent to which James II had alienated those on whom he should have been able to rely implicitly. As another member of the Bertie clan, Robert, Lord Willoughby de Eresby (later 1st duke of Ancaster) explained, it 'was the first time any Bertie was engaged against the crown . . . but there was a necessity either to part with our religion and properties or do it'.2 Released from his captivity, on 5 December Lovelace led a ragtag and bobtail back into Oxford, securing the city for the revolution without a shot being fired.3
This paper will attempt to analyze the broader implications of this unholy alliance within the political élite of Oxfordshire, but with particular reference to Lovelace and the head of the Oxfordshire Berties, James, Lord Norreys (later 1st earl of Abingdon). While it is not a particularly controversial thesis to suggest that James II alienated too many differing interest groups, and by his policies encouraged alliances that would otherwise previously have been thought unconscionable, local studies of the events leading up to his overthrow remain relatively few and far between.4 By [End Page 346] examining these figures within Oxfordshire, a county densely populated by significant political brokers from the period of the Exclusion crisis to James's fall, it is hoped to arrive at a clearer understanding of the mechanics by which James II destabilized local administration to the extent that when invasion was upon him, the local élites failed him both through apathy and active opposition. It will also be seen that in his assumption that Oxfordshire was a county that would hold firm for him automatically, James miscalculated dreadfully. Throughout the late 1670s and 1680s, the county was the focus of a series of potentially explosive contests, and by dabbling with the lieutenancy, and the independence of the university, James upset the very fragile foundation upon which royal control in the county was grounded.
Oxfordshire had long been divided in its political loyalties. During the civil war, the north of the county, dominated by peers such as William Fiennes, 1st Viscount Saye and Sele at Broughton Castle (known to generations as 'Old Subtlety' for his slippery political canniness), had been largely parliamentarian in its sympathies, while the south was broadly royalist. Oxford itself, of course, both as university city, and as the king's capital for much of the conflict bore the heavy stamp of royalism upon it. But conflicts between 'town' and 'gown', between colleges of differing traditions, and the elections at the time of the Exclusion crisis and beyond demonstrate only too clearly the stark divisions here too. One need only consider the sheer numbers of parliamentary candidates to stand for the city to understand the intensity of political debate within Oxford itself. The election of February 1679 attracted six parliamentary hopefuls, that of August the same year eight, while the poll in February 1681 witnessed no less than nine candidates standing for election, making Oxford one of the most hotly contested seats in the country during the exclusion years.5 Only Shaftesbury in Dorset attracted more, with 11 candidates for the February poll of 1679 and seven in September.6 Elsewhere, six hopefuls contested Westminster in September 1679,7 with New Romney also witnessing a field of six the following month,8 but no other constituency came close to Oxford's dense population of would-be members of parliament. The poll...