MPs and brawls

Following the fracas in the Strangers’ Bar in the House of Commons last week, the Financial Times referred to a number of other incidents of violence among MPs. The handful described all come from the period after 1970, with the sole exception of the celebrated (and non-fatal) duel between ministers George Canning and Viscount Castlereagh in 1809. The History of Parliament Online, though, can supply many more instances across several centuries.

The life of James Clifford, MP for Gloucestershire in 1404, was punctuated by brawling (as well as by extortion and bullying), including an incident in 1396 which took place in a courtroom. Thomas Waltham, who had served as Mayor and MP for Hull, is said to have confronted the Archbishop of York in 1382 during a protracted battle over the development of part of the port, and wrested the crozier from the prelate’s hands, sparking a full-scale fight. The the participants were apparently summoned to London to answer charges, although there’s no evidence of Waltham getting into serious trouble over the affair. Sir Henry Pierrepoint‘s feud with the Foljambe family in Chesterfield produced one of the most dramatic encounters. Irritated in 1433 by Pierrepont’s obtaining the right to put on a fair in the town, Thomas Foljambe rode into the town with a band of armed men, disrupted the fair, and terrorized Sir Henry’s agents; when legal proceedings were begun against him, Foljambe on New Year’s Day 1434 marched with a body of supporters into Chesterfield parish church, where they cut off the thumb and fingers of Sir Henry’s right hand and murdered two of his companions, one of whom was his kinsman, Henry Longford. Another MP, Richard Brown, subsequently acted to help Foljambe escape from legal retribution over the case.

Lord Henry Paulet, who was returned to the 1626 Parliament for Andover, seven miles from the family property of Nether Wallop, was seriously injured in a brawl with Sir William Stourton, a few days after attending Charles I’s Coronation. The affair, which may have been occasioned by rumours that Paulet was keeping a mistress, was hushed up, but Paulet may never have taken his seat in Parliament or left Hampshire again. Seventeenth century cases often involved alcohol. Thomas Danby, an MP briefly in 1661, was killed in a brawl in a London pub in 1667. Walter Vincent, a barrister who served for St Ives in 1689 and Grampound in the 1690s, killed the son of another MP, Sir Peter Killigrew, in Penryn in 1688. Probably the worst case ever involving MPs was the fight which followed the acquittal of one MP, Edward Nosworthy II in a politically inspired trial in 1684.Henry St. John, MP for Wootton Bassett and Wiltshire on various occasions in the 1670s, 1680s and 1690s, was the principal figure. The jury repaired to the Globe Inn in Fleet Street; an altercation broke out between St. John and another former Wiltshire MP,  Francis Stonehouse, apparently following ‘a discourse arose about leaping horses’. The fight resulted in the death of the foreman of the jury, a third MP, Sir William Estcourt, who was run through by both St. John and a fourth MP, Edmund Webb. Both men were found guilty of murder, and condemned to death. The record of the trial can be read at Old Bailey Online. Both men were pardoned, though. St. John’s mother obtained a pardon for him at the reported price of £16,000. Webb may have been helped by his good political record — the infamous Judge Jeffreys, in passing sentence, passed comment on Webb’s signal loyalty ‘in turbulent and staggering times’ — and by his position as a member of the household of Prince George (recently married to the younger daughter of James, duke of York, the later James II), ‘who could ask [for Webb’s pardon] the boldlier as it being the first request he ever had made unto his Majesty’.


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