1902 Encyclopedia > Lord William Russell

Lord William Russell
English Whig politician
(1639-83)




LORD WILLIAM RUSSELL (1639-1683), the third son of Lord Russell, afterwards fifth earl and still later first duke of Bedford, and Lady Anne Carr, daughter of the infamous countess of Somerset, was born September 29, 1639. Nothing is known of his early youth, except that about 1654 he was sent to Cambridge with his elder brother Francis. On leaving the university, the two brothers travelled abroad, visiting Lyons and Geneva, and residing for some while at Augsburg. His account of his impressions is spirited and interesting. He was at Paris in 1658, but had .returned to Woburn in December 1659. At the Restoration he was elected for the family borough of Tavistock. For a long while he appears to have taken no part in public affairs, but rather to have indulged in the follies of court life and intrigue; for both in 1663 and 1664 he was engaged in duels, in the latter of which he was wounded. In 1669 he married the second daughter of the earl of Southampton, the widow of Lord Vaughan, thus becoming connected with Shaftesbury, who had mar-ried Southampton's niece. With his wife Russell always lived on terms of the greatest affection and confidence.

It was not until the formation of the " country party," in opposition to the policy of the Cabal and Charles's French-Catholic plots, that Russell began to take an active part in affairs. He then joined Cavendish, Birch, Hampden, Powell, Lyttleton, and others in vehement antagonism to the court. With a passionate hatred and distrust of the Catholics, and an intense love of political liberty, he united the desire for ease to Protestant Dissenters. His first speech appears to have been on January 22, 1673, in which he inveighed against the stop of the exchequer, the attack on the Smyrna fleet, the corruption of courtiers with French money, and "the ill ministers about the king."

He also supported the proceedings against the duke of Buckingham. In 1675 he moved an address to the king for the removal of Danby from the royal councils, and for his impeachment. On February 15, 1677, in the debate on the fifteen months' prorogation, he moved the dissolu-tion of parliament; and in March 1678 he seconded the address praying the king to declare war against France. The enmity of the country party against Danby and James, and their desire for a dissolution and the disbanding of the army, were greater than their enmity to Louis. The French king therefore found it easy to form a temporary alliance with Russell, Hollis, and the opposition leaders, by which they engaged to cripple the king's power of hurting France, and to compel him to seek Louis's friendship,— that friendship, however, to be given only on the condition that they in their turn should have Louis's support for their cherished objects. Russell in particular entered into close communication with Rouvigny, who came over with money for distribution among members of parliament. By the testimony of Barillon, however, it is clear that Russell himself utterly refused to take any part in the intended corruption.

By the wild alarms which culminated in the Popish Terror Russell appears to have been affected more com-pletely than his otherwise sober character would have led people to expect. He threw himself into the party which looked to Monmouth as the representative of Protestant interests, a grave political blunder, though he afterwards was in confidential communication with Orange. On November 4, 1678, he moved an address to the4king to re-move the duke of York from his person and councils. At the dissolution of the pensionary parliament, he was, in the new elections, returned for Bedfordshire. Danby was at once overthrown, and in April 1679 Russell was one of the new privy council formed by Charles on the advice of Temple. Only six days after this we find him moving for a committee to draw up a bill to secure religion and pro-perty in case of a Popish successor. He does not, how-ever, appear to have taken part in the exclusion debates at this time. In June, on the occasion of the Covenanters' rising in Scotland, he attacked Lauderdale personally in full council.




In January 1680 Russell, along with Cavendish, Capell, Powell, Essex, and Lyttleton, tendered his resignation to the king, which was received by Charles "with all my heart." On June 16 he accompanied Shaftesbury, when the latter indicted James at Westminster as a Popish re-cusant ; and on October 26 he took the extreme step of moving " how to suppress Popery, and prevent a Popish successor "; while on November 2, now at the height of his influence, he went still further by seconding the motion for exclusion in its most emphatic shape, and on the 19th carried the bill to the House of Lords for their concurrence. The limitation scheme he opposed, on the ground that monarchy under the conditions expressed in it would be an absurdity. The statement, made by Echard alone, that he joined in opposing the indulgence shown to Lord Straf-ford by Charles in dispensing with the more horrible parts of the sentence of death—an indulgence afterwards shown to Russell himself—is entirely unworthy of credence. On December 18 he moved to refuse supplies until the king passed the Exclusion Bill. The Prince of Orange having come over at this time, there was a tendency on the part of the opposition leaders to accept his endeavours to secure a compromise on the exclusion question. Russell, however, refused to give way a hair's breadth.

On March 26, 1681, in the parliament held at Oxford, Russell again seconded the Exclusion Bill. Upon the dissolution he retired into privacy at his country seat of Stratton in Hampshire. It was, however, no doubt at his wish that his chaplain wrote the Life of Julian the Apostate, in reply to Dr Hickes's sermons, in which the lawful-ness of resistance in extreme cases was defended. In the wild schemes of Shaftesbury after the election of Tory sheriffs for London in 1682 he had no share; upon the viola-tion of the charters, however, in 1683, he began seriously to consider as to the best means of resisting the Government, and on one occasion attended a meeting at which treason, or what might be construed as treason, was talked. Mon-mouth, Essex, Hampden, Sidney, and Howard of Escrick were the principal of those who met to consult. On the breaking out of the Eye Plot, of which neither he, Essex, nor Sidney had the slightest knowledge, he was accused by informers of promising his assistance to raise an insurrection and compass the death of the king. Refusing to attempt to escape, he was brought before the council, when his attendance at the meeting referred to was charged against him. He was sent on June 26, 1683, to the Tower, and, looking upon himself as a dying man, betook himself wholly to preparation for death. Monmouth offered to appear to take his trial, if thereby he could help Russell, and Essex refused to abscond for fear of injuring his friend's chance of escape. Before a committee of the council Russell, on June 28, acknowledged his presence at the meeting, but denied all knowledge of the proposed insurrection. He reserved his defence, however, until his trial. He would probably have saved his life but for the perjury of Lord Howard. The suicide of Essex, the news of which was brought into court during the trial, was quoted as additional evidence against him, as pointing to the cer-tainty of Essex's guilt. On July 19 he was tried at the Old Bailey, his wife assisting him in his defence. Evidence was given by an informer that, while at Shaftesbury's hiding-place in Wapping, Russell had joined in the pro-posal to seize the king's guard, a charge indignantly denied by him in his farewell paper, and that he was one of a committee of six appointed to prepare the scheme for an insurrection. Howard, too, expressly declared that Russell had urged the entering into communications with Argyll in Scotland. Howard's perjury is clear from other wit-nesses, but the evidence was accepted. Russell spoke with spirit and dignity in his own defence, and, in especial, vehemently denied that he had ever been party to a design so wicked and so foolish as those of the murder of the king and of rebellion. It will be observed that the legality of the trial, in so far as the jurors were not properly quali-fied and the law of treason was shamefully strained, was denied in the Act of 1 William and Mary which annulled the attainder. Hallam maintains that the only overt act of treason proved against Russell was his concurrence in the project of a rising at Taunton, which he denied, and which, Ramsay being the only witness, was not sufficient to warrant a conviction.

Russell was sentenced to die. Many attempts were made to save his life. The old earl of Bedford offered £50,000 or £100,000, and Monmouth, Legge, Lady Ranelagh, and Rochester added their intercessions. Russell himself, in petitions to Charles and James, offered to live abroad if his life were spared, and never again to meddle in the affairs of England. He refused, however, to yield to the influence of Burnet and Tillotson, who endeavoured to make him grant the unlawfulness of resistance, although it is more than probable that compliance in this would have saved his life. He drew up, with Burnet's assist-ance, a paper containing his apology, and he wrote to the king a letter, to be delivered after his death, in which he asked Charles's pardon for any wrong he had done him. A suggestion of escape from Lord Cavendish he refused. He behaved with his usual quiet cheerfulness during his stay in the Tower, spending his last day on earth as he had intended to spend the following Sunday if he had reached it. He received the sacrament from Tillotson, and Burnet twice preached to him. Having supped with his wife, the parting from whom was his only great trial, he slept peacefully, and spent the last morning in devotion with Burnet. He went to the place of execution in Lincoln's Inn Fields with perfect calmness, which was preserved to the last. He died on July 21, 1683, in the forty-fourth year of his age.

A true and moderate summing up of his character will be found in his Life, by Lord John Russell. (O. A.)






The above article was written by: Osmund Airy, editor of The Laurerdale Papers.



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