Characters like John Wilkes make history compelling to read about.
John Wilkes: Arrogant, Radical and Angry
A prominent member of the Buckinghamshire gentry named John Wilkes (1725-1797) was an unrelenting critic of King George III and his parliament despite being a member of parliament himself. He was a slippery charmer, a patriot and radical with a discarded wife, a beloved legitimate daughter and a few more illegitimate children dotted around the south of England. He was determined to exercise free speech whatever the penalty and during his lifetime he was called a libertine, a rake and the ugliest man in the land.
George III’s mentor John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute was the Secretary of State for the Northern Department (generally regarded as today’s Home Office) in 1761. He commissioned a pro-government newspaper called The Briton. Wilkes hastily established a rival publication which he named the North Briton to denounce and ridicule politicians, the king and the royal family.
The Controversial North Briton Publication
In the early issues of the North Briton Wilkes wrote that George III’s widowed mother Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales and Bute were lovers and he called on his readers to support the political opposition. When Lord Bute became the Prime Minister he urged them to bring about his downfall and Bute’s tenure was brief at just over 10 troubled months. An attack on Lord Bute was an attack on the king and Wilkes knew that his words were powerful weapons so he wouldn’t have been surprised by the establishment's backlash.
George III was incensed by the attack on his mother’s honour and Samuel Martin, a fellow politician and a former treasurer to Princess Augusta decided to challenge Wilkes to a duel in Hyde Park, London in November 1763. Wilkes was shot in the stomach but he survived. When Martin died in 1788 he was still remembered for his loyalty to the crown.
The Infamous Issue 45 of the North Briton
On the 23rd April 1763 issue number 45 of the North Briton was published anonymously but it was well known that it was John Wilkes’ publication. It carried a blistering attack on Bute’s replacement, Prime Minister Lord Grenville, the government’s plans and the generosity extended to enemy France during peace negotiations at the end of the Seven Years War. The latter was a shot aimed at the king who had praised the peace talks at the State Opening of Parliament. George III was branded a liar in issue 45 too. Wilkes’ words amounted to the crime of sedition.
The king and parliament prepared a warrant and he was arrested with forty-eight other detractors of the king and his ministers but Wilkes was released from the Tower of London after just one week. The judge and civil rights advocate Judge Charles Pratt, 1st Earl of Camden ruled that the arrest of Wilkes, a member of parliament, had been a misuse of parliamentary powers.
"Spirit of Discord": Wilkes the Outlaw
Wilkes sued parliament successfully for damages and he solidified his place as a hero of the common British people. Wilkes announced that “The government have sent the spirit of discord through the land, and I will prophesy, that it will never be extinguished, but by the extinction of their power.”
John Wilkes fled to Paris and, in his absence, he was expelled from parliament. In early 1764 he was declared an outlaw for creating and publishing the North Briton, particularly issue 45, and for his libellous poem “Essay on Women” which was a parody of Alexander Pope’s “An Essay of Man.” Wilkes did not challenge the expulsion, nor did he have any intention of returning to his homeland to face whatever punishment George III and parliament might be planning for him.
For three years the North Briton's issues 47 to 218 were published by William Bingley. He too found himself arrested, for issues 50 and 51.
Inmate of the King's Bench Prison
Wilkes was forced to return to England in 1768 when his resources dwindled. As a public hero, he succeeded in being elected as the Member of Parliament for Middlesex. Incredibly, he fully expected that he would be pardoned for his past actions so he handed himself in to the authorities hoping to ensure that the matter of the sedition was closed forever. He was out of luck. His expulsion from parliament was reiterated and he faced his trial for sedition at the King’s Bench for issue 45 and the Essay on Women.
In the memoirs of statesman Horace Walpole, Volume III of IV, he recorded that:
“He did not avow himself for author of the North Briton, though he owned he had written the forty-fifth number, and approved every word of it. When he recollected the "Essay on Woman" he confessed he blushed; yet pleaded that it would not have been published unless stolen from him.”
Elected Lord Mayor of London
Wilkes was fined £500 for each offence and imprisoned for ten months for issue 45 of the North Briton and twelve months for the Essay on Woman. He had to find surety for his good behaviour for seven years. His supporters formed The Society for the Defence of the Bill of Rights to fund the surety and to protect his right to sit in parliament after his release. Despite his loyal followers' protests, he served his jail terms at the King’s Bench Prison and he paid his substantial fines.
Undeterred by his incarceration, he continued to cultivate the masses against the establishment. By 1774 John Wilkes was in the prestigious role of Lord Mayor of London and he was again elected as the M.P. for Middlesex.
He was an advocate of American independence which made him popular in the U.S. but as ever, brought criticism from the British establishment.
The Peoples Hero Shunned
His lack of application to the parliamentary role, his readiness to lead the militia to protect the Bank of England in London during the 1780 Gordon Riots, seen as compliance with the establishment, and whispers that he spoke against parliament just to maintain public support left his followers disillusioned. Finally, his integrity was in question in the streets and his charms were failing.
He decided not to stand in the 1790 election. He died seven years later. His positive legacy, largely forgotten now, was the progress that he made in securing press freedom when reporting parliamentary business.
- John Wilkes Expelled from the House of Commons | History Today
- Human Rights: 1760-1815 - Background
- The North Briton: John Wilkes and The North Briton
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Joanne Hayle