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Reference group
King's friends (act. 1760–c.1786) were a group of some thirty members of the House of Commons and peers, who, at the accession of George III in 1760, pledged their duty directly to the king, and looked for leadership to John Stuart, third earl of Bute. They could expect support from a much larger number, from the ‘court party’ of members of parliament who habitually voted with the ministry of the day as long as it had royal support, and particularly from former tories who, in 1760, were keen to exploit the possibilities of the new reign, shrug off the old taint of Jacobitism, and emerge from the darkness of political proscription. Bute, the young king's former tutor, became secretary of state in March 1761 and first lord of the Treasury (and thus head of the ministry) in May 1762. Since one of his most cherished objectives was to eradicate party, his followers could have no formal organization, though they corresponded with each other and met occasionally to concert plans. They included some useful men of business, and the fragmented nature of the political scene, with the Newcastle–Rockingham whigs, Bedford whigs, Grenvilles, and followers of William Pitt (earl of Chatham from 1766) contending for power, meant that they could well hold the balance, or provide valuable assistance, although their weakness would prove to be leadership.

In the House of Commons the leading king's friend was Charles Jenkinson, who served as private secretary to Bute. He was brought into parliament in 1761 for Cockermouth, one of the boroughs under the control of Sir James Lowther, son-in-law to Bute, and was joined in 1764 by John Robinson, sitting for Westmorland as another Lowther nominee. The two men remained close colleagues until Robinson died in 1802, still in harness. Other friends included James Stuart Mackenzie, Bute's younger brother, who looked after Scottish patronage; Gilbert Elliot, an office-holder continuously from 1756 until his death in 1777; Sir Francis Dashwood; Samuel Martin (1714–1788), who fought a duel with John Wilkes; James Oswald and Jeremiah Dyson, valuable lieutenants; Fletcher Norton, sitting for another of Lowther's boroughs, and a future speaker of the House of Commons; Alexander Wedderburn, a promising lawyer, brought into parliament on Bute's interest at Ayr, and his brother-in-law Sir Henry Erskine; James Smith Stanley, Lord Strange (1716–1771), heir to the Derby earldom; George Rice and John Morton (c.1715–1780), another lawyer; and Lord George Sackville [see Germain, George Sackville], working his way back from disgrace following the battle of Minden in 1759. In the Lords were Hugh Percy, second earl of Northumberland (created a duke in 1766), whose heir Lord Warkworth married Bute's daughter in 1764; James Hamilton, eighth earl of Abercorn, and Alexander Montgomerie, tenth earl of Eglinton, both Scottish representative peers; Basil Feilding, sixth earl of Denbigh (1719–1800); George Montagu Dunk, second earl of Halifax; Simon Harcourt, first Earl Harcourt; Wills Hill, first earl of Hillsborough; George Henry Lee, third earl of Lichfield; Henry Howard, twelfth earl of Suffolk and fifth earl of Berkshire; and William Talbot, first Earl Talbot (1710–1782). In 1763 Dashwood entered the Lords as eleventh Baron Le Despencer. A number of them proved fair-weather friends to Lord Bute, but their priority was to serve the king rather than his minister. Bute found the strain of high office unbearable and resigned in 1763 after less than a year at the head of the administration. Consequently, his friends were entitled to believe that he had deserted them, rather than vice versa.

The name ‘king's friends’ was used mainly by their political opponents as a term of abuse, but they occasionally used it among themselves. In 1765 Mackenzie, after a visit to Lord Northumberland's seat at Alnwick, reported that Northumberland ‘approves greatly of the king's friends connecting themselves together closely, and acting in a body as occurrences should happen. This seems to be the opinion of every body who really loves the K[ing]’ (The Jenkinson papers, 380). Jenkinson himself used the term in a letter to Lowther in December 1765. But the friends were too few to form a government without allies, who were apt to become suspicious of a group within a group, and George Grenville, the marquess of Rockingham, and the earl of Chatham, first ministers in turn, complained bitterly that they had been betrayed by ‘secret influence’. As royalists, the king's friends favoured firm government, having little sympathy for either the cause of Wilkes and liberty or for the grievances of the American colonists.

For a few months in the spring of 1766 the king's friends played a prominent role. The king had soon tired of the Rockingham ministry, which had released him from Grenville's loquacity, but stood in awe of William Pitt. In January 1766 he enquired whether the king's friends could form a ministry. A meeting, reported by Jenkinson, believed they could do so, if only a suitable leader could be found. But ‘this defect’ implied that they would be obliged to find allies, and all they could suggest was a holding operation until the other factions ‘returned to their senses’ (The Jenkinson papers, 406). The anomaly of their position as a non-party party was apparent. The Rockinghams therefore soldiered on, resolved to repeal the Stamp Act, passed by the previous government in 1764, but accompanying repeal by a Declaratory Act, reasserting Britain's sovereignty over its colonies. Grenville and his supporters saw this as truckling to the systematic deployment of terror by the colonies; others thought that so immediate a volte face must suggest irresolution. The king tried to steer a middle course, preferring modification rather than downright repeal. Rockingham insisted on repeal and, anxious that place-holders might vote against it, obtained from the king a public avowal that he too favoured it. Nevertheless, a number of friends, including many who held government office, voted against repeal and those who supported it did so with ‘bad grace’ (Autobiography … of … Grafton, 69). In the Commons, repeal passed comfortably by 275 votes to 161, but in the Lords it was a close thing by 73 votes to 61, raised to 105 to 71 with the proxies. According to a list deposited among the Newcastle papers in the British Library (Add. MS 33001), 52 office-holders voted against repeal in the Commons, including 19 Scots likely to be sympathetic to Bute; in the Lords, 19 office-holders rebelled, among whom were 6 Scots. The Rockingham ministry did not long survive its victory.

The events of that year demonstrated not the power of the king's friends but their weakness. By definition they had no parliamentary leadership, since their first allegiance was to the king. The king could encourage but not lead, and neither Bute's principles nor inclinations lay in that direction. In fact, the end of his close friendship with the king was heralded in 1766 when George offended him by suggesting that his friends were much like any other party. Persistent rumours that he continued to decide policy behind the scenes obliged him first to distance himself from the king, then to spend the years 1768–71 in Italy, leaving his erstwhile friends to shift for themselves. They could have little quarrel with Chatham, who took over from Rockingham. Whatever their misgivings about his overbearing character, his professions coincided with theirs—total devotion to the king's service and a determination to ‘dissolve all factions and to see the best of all parties in employment’ (Correspondence of King George the Third, 1.43; Namier, Additions and corrections, 39) . After Chatham's retirement in 1768 the friends were generally supportive of his successor, the duke of Grafton, and they were comfortable with Lord North, who took office in 1770 and remained there until 1782. North was a capable parliamentarian and on good terms with the king. Jenkinson remained in the king's confidence but his efforts were directed, not at undermining North, but at propping him up. Suspicion of secret influence continued to dog him and in 1784 he was not invited to join the ministry of William Pitt the younger, despite having voted against the India Bill of the Fox–North coalition like other king's friends, which had brought down the ministry and helped Pitt to office. His friend John Robinson wrote mysteriously that ‘fears and doubts makes difficulties to your having office at this moment’ (J. Brooke, ‘Jenkinson, Charles’, HoP, Commons 1754–90, 678). But Jenkinson was too useful to be ignored, was recalled in 1786, and was eventually created first earl of Liverpool. By this time the notion of the king's friends as a faction that could undermine ministries had faded in the glow of the king's support for the younger Pitt.

The king's friends gained a new lease of life as a constitutional and historiographical problem. At an early stage opposition realized that the accusation of secret influence was a valuable card to play. In July 1762 the duke of Devonshire asked the duke of Newcastle what they should say if Bute retired but continued to govern from the wings: ‘that is the notion that we must endeavour to propagate and keep alive’ (O'Gorman, 62). In April 1770 Edmund Burke, spokesman for the Rockinghams, published his pamphlet Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. He faced a difficulty that Bute was in Italy and no longer active politically. He could not therefore be blamed for the secret influence that kept the Rockinghams out of power. Burke turned the difficulty to his advantage by asserting that influence had become a system, not dependent upon one man. The theme had been given trial runs previously. Burke's Short Account of a Late Short Administration (4 Aug 1766) advanced the view that Rockingham's government had been overthrown by ‘an Opposition of a new and singular Character; an Opposition of Place-men and Pensioners’ (p. 56). In February 1769 in Observations on a Late State of the Nation (a retort to William Knox, an admirer of Grenville), Burke claimed that the Rockinghams had been undermined by ‘court intrigue’ (p. 190). In the fully-fledged version of the Thoughts, he argued that there was a deliberate and settled aim of establishing two ministries, an ostensible and public one as a front, and a second and secret one where real power resided—a ‘new system … of forming a regular party for that purpose, under the name of King's men’ (p. 265). ‘The power of the crown, almost dead and rotten as Prerogative, has grown up anew … under the name of Influence’ (p. 258). Consequently, Burke wrote, it was not necessary to say much about Lord Bute: ‘Where there is a regular scheme of operation carried on, it is the system, and not any individual person who acts in it, that is truly dangerous’ (p. 275). The remedy, which only the Rockinghams could provide, was for honest men to band together in party solidarity to fight the monster.

Burke was wise enough not to name names or to explain how such a complicated mechanism could work in practice. Indeed, the Thoughts were received by many with incredulity and derision. One commentator, among several who expressed similar opinions, thought the double ministry perceived by Burke the product of ‘the troubled brains of a few disappointed Politicians’ (Public Advertiser, 14 June 1770; Brewer, 497) . But Burke's pamphlets served to establish George III as a monarch not to be trusted and when Lord Shelburne's ministry ended in disaster in 1783, Shelburne took the opportunity to declare that George had proved a false friend. It required only the publication in 1845 of Horace Walpole's Memoirs of the Reign of King George III to persuade generations of historians that the king's friends had been George's secret weapon in a plot to re-establish royal absolutism. With his taste for gothick melodrama, Walpole revealed the sinister story of Bute's scheme to govern without responsibility, hatched with the help of his wicked paramour, the widowed Princess Augusta, George's mother. Jenkinson and his friends Walpole named as ‘the cabinet that governed the cabinet’ (Walpole, 4.75).

Disinfecting the poisoned wells of history proved to be a protracted and not uncontroversial business. Lewis Namier saw the king's friends mainly as quasi civil servants; Herbert Butterfield replied that modern civil servants were not members of parliament—indeed were deliberately excluded from parliament—and that the comparison was inapt. Ian Christie used his inaugural lecture to argue that the king's friends were a myth, a figment of Burke's excitable mind; Frank O'Gorman replied that the existence of the group was real enough and that consideration of their political role was valid. While the monarch remained an active participant in the political scene, his views and his influence on courtiers was bound to become, at times, the subject of speculation. In 1839 even the opinions of Queen Victoria's bedchamber ladies proved to be of consequence. But, over the decades, the supremacy of the prime minister and the growth of party discipline rendered the issue no longer of serious political concern.

John Cannon


Letters from George III to Lord Bute, 1756–1766, ed. R. Sedgwick (1939) · The Jenkinson papers, 1760–1766, ed. N. S. Jucker (1949), 380, 402, 404–8 · Autobiography and political correspondence of Augustus Henry, third duke of Grafton, ed. W. R. Anson (1898) · D. A. Winstanley, Personal and party government: a chapter in the political history of the early years of the reign of George III, 1760–1766 (1910) · The correspondence of King George the Third from 1760 to December 1783, ed. J. Fortescue, 6 vols. (1927–8) · L. B. Namier, Additions and corrections to Sir J. Fortescue's edition of the correspondence of King George the Third, 1 (1937) · HoP, Commons, 1754–90 · F. O'Gorman, ‘The myth of Lord Bute's secret influence’, Lord Bute: essays in re-interpretation, ed. K. W. Schweizer (1988), 57–81 · J. Brewer, ‘Party and the double cabinet: two facets of Burke's Thoughts’, HJ, 14 (1971), 479–501 · H. Walpole, Memoirs of the reign of King George the Third, ed. G. F. R. Barker, 4 vols. (1894) · L. B. Namier, ‘Monarchy and the party system’, Personalities and powers (1955), 13–38 · H. Butterfield, George III and the historians (1957) · I. R. Christie, Myth and reality in late-eighteenth-century British politics, and other papers (1970)