Age of Invention: Playing Favourites
You’re reading my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. It currently goes out to over 7,300 people.
As regular readers will know, the past few months of this newsletter have been exploring the lead-up to the Statute of Monopolies of 1624 — an important but widely misunderstood landmark in the history of the English patent system.
We have looked at how patents worked in the late sixteenth century, at how Parliament raised complaints about some abuses of patents in 1601, and the resulting court case — the also-widely-misunderstood “Case of Monopolies” — of 1602-3. We looked at how in 1603 the context suddenly changed thanks to the accession of King James I. We examined his money troubles, how in 1610 he failed to make a deal with Parliament that would have left him financially secure, and how he then, despite his huge debts, tried to rule without them anyway.
Going into the 1620s, James I was thus in an extremely precarious financial situation, his poverty forcing England to remain at peace. He was completely disillusioned with the House of Commons, which had a dominant faction — I referred to it in one post as a sort of “Common Law Party” — intent on containing his royal prerogative powers. And the king, by doing everything he could so as not to have to summon Parliament, was all the more reliant on funding himself with his unpopular prerogative powers — among them, the use of monopoly patents.
This style of absolutist rule, however, could be a bore. Although James’s ministers took care of much of the day-to-day administration of the country, courtiers knew that it was important to have access to the king, to ask him for favours. It could make for a lot of awkwardness; James seems to have found it difficult to deny people their petitions, or “suits”.
So he took various measures to shield himself from the petitioners, preferring to be able to go hunting in peace. In 1610 he published the rules for what kinds of petitions he would and would not accept: a document later known as the Book of Bounty. Given the year of its publication — we don’t seem to know the month — it may have had something to do with trying to appease Parliament, to show that he was serious about stopping abuses of his royal prerogative. The king announced that he would not, for example, delegate to anyone the power to enforce penal laws (which could include making financial deals with the lawbreakers, leading to the penal laws not being properly enforced). Patents for “dispensing penal laws”, the king declared, were quite simply “contrary to our laws”. Yet the first draft of the Book appears to have been drawn up a couple of years earlier, so may instead have been part of a plan by ministers to reduce the deficit by cutting expenditure — it also declared, for example, that the king would not grant any new pensions.
Regardless, the Book announced that the king would grant no monopolies. These, like the power to dispense penal rules, were illegal. The only exception, noted among the list of suits that would be allowed, was for “projects of new invention” — so long as they were not illegal, would not hurt trade, raise prices, reduce the Crown’s income, or be “otherwise inconvenient” to the public.
To meet these tests, the king referred the consideration of such projects to committees of ministers. The legal minds — typically the attorney-general, solicitor-general, and some judges — would check the proposed project’s legality. Was it something the king’s prerogative allowed him to do? Other ministers, based on their expertise, would then look into its desirability as a policy. What would be the impact of the project on trade, Crown revenue, and the country as a whole? The previously very ad hoc system of reviewing and granting petitions for patents thus became a little more bureaucratised, held more at arms-length from the king himself.
At the same time, James found a way to filter many of the petitions before they even reached him. This was something he already did in his original kingdom, Scotland, occasionally sending a noble “favourite” — like his kinsmen the duke of Lennox and the marquess of Hamilton — to dispense patronage and manage its parliament. Yet he increasingly, and even scandalously, relied on favourites in England too.
Using a favourite could make some sense from a political standpoint. Favourites often owed everything they had in terms of wealth, protection, titles and standing to the king personally. As creatures of the king, their loyalty was assured. They served an important practical function by dispensing patronage and absorbing pesky petitions, and could insulate the king himself from blame. Should the king make a mistake, his favourite was the obvious man to take the fall.
But for James, the use of favourites went beyond mere practicality, if they were ever practical at all. His interest could also be romantic.
Although James was married with kids, his favourite by 1607 was one Robert Kerr, the younger son of a minor Scottish laird. A mere groom of the bedchamber, about twenty years James’s junior, he had fallen from his horse in a jousting accident and broken his leg. The king helped nurse him back to health, and was soon besotted. Kerr — often anglicised to Carr — was very rapidly given money, titles, and lands. Within a year he had been knighted, after four years made a viscount, and in 1613 an earl.
But what had been so rapidly gained, could be just as rapidly lost. In 1614, a rival faction at court made sure that another, even younger and more attractive man would catch the king’s eye. This was George Villiers, the 22-year-old younger son of an obscure knight. With his “effeminate and curious” hands and face, as well as a remarkable physique — a clergyman, later a bishop, marvelled at his “well compacted” limbs — Villiers’s rise made Kerr’s seem slow. Every year brought him a new title: in 1615 Villiers was made a knight, 1616 a viscount, 1617 an earl, and 1618 a marquess — a very rare title in England, last given to an influential co-regent of Edward VI, and before that to Anne Boleyn so that she could marry king Henry VIII.
Eventually, incredibly, in 1623 James made Villiers a duke. This was a title that was typically reserved for members of the royal family, or else given by very powerful regents to themselves — Villiers was the first in neither of those categories to be made a duke in 140 years. And he hadn’t even been born into the nobility! The apparent lesson: working on your triceps can really, really pay off.
Yet Villiers had more than just an angelic face and muscles. He seems to have had a real talent for politics, very quickly asserting independence from the faction that had put him before the king. And he would somehow remain the favourite even after James died and was succeeded by his heterosexual son, Charles I. In the dangerous waters of courtly faction — Robert Kerr had meanwhile been found guilty of murder and was imprisoned in the Tower — Villiers knew how to keep himself afloat, and even to chart a course of his own.
And he was extraordinarily corrupt. Despite the stipulations of the Book of Bounty, Villiers ensured that the projects of his family and friends found the ear of the king, and would help shepherd them past the bureaucratic referees. Some of these were his own mentors and supporters, including Francis Bacon, who as solicitor-general, then attorney-general, then lord high chancellor, was a frequent referee on patents’ legality. Others, like the more obstructive attorney-general Henry Yelverton, seem to have found themselves disgraced and even imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The latter years of the 1610s saw some especially egregious patent monopolies passed.
Indeed, these abuses of the royal prerogative would probably have continued had it not been for events on the continent. The king’s son-in-law was Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine, who in 1619 sparked one of the most devastating conflicts in European history. The previous year, Protestant rebels in Bohemia had overthrown their own Catholic king, so they offered the throne to Frederick. Despite James’s explicit instructions, and in full knowledge that it could spark retaliation by the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor and every other European Catholic power, Frederick accepted. So began the Thirty Years’ War.
By the end of 1620, Frederick had been evicted from Bohemia and his own lands in the Rhine were being invaded, soon to be over-run. James faced the gigantic embarrassment of his daughter and her children all being dispossessed of their lands and titles, while the European Protestant cause looked set to suffer a devastating blow. His notional position as defender of the faith was at stake. After almost two decades of penury-enforced peacefulness, James had to act. So he gave in and did the very last thing he wanted: he summoned Parliament to raise the funds for war.
In 1621, as MPs began to assemble, James was about to reap what Villiers had sown. And Parliament itself would be transformed.
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