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date: 12 August 2020

Green Ribbon Clubfree

(act. c. 1674–c. 1683)
  • Tim Harris

Green Ribbon Club (act. c. 1674–c. 1683), was a London political club that met at the King's Head tavern in Chancery Lane (at the corner with Fleet Street), deriving its name from the green ribbons worn by members in their hats. It comprised lawyers, city politicians, and MPs alarmed by what they perceived to be a drift towards popery and arbitrary government under Charles II and the prospect of Charles's Roman Catholic brother, James, duke of York, inheriting the throne. The tavern's sign reputedly depicted Henry VIII, 'who ruffled the Pope, and banisht his Usurpations out of England' (Impartial Protestant Mercury, no. 77, 13 Jan 1682). However, the King's Head was probably chosen as the site of the club's meetings because of its central location, adjacent to Temple Bar (where the City of London adjoins Westminster), and in the heart of the capital's legal district. Although in Restoration England the word ‘club’ could be applied to any regular gathering or even a loose political association—those MPs who opposed Charles II's dissolution of the Cavalier Parliament in early 1679, for example, were referred to as a 'unanimous club of voters' (A List of One Unanimous Club of Voters in His Majesties Long Parliament, 1679)—the Green Ribbon Club was a formally organized society, with detailed rules, subscription dues, and duly recorded minutes. One of its rules stipulated that nothing 'but papers, wines, tobacco, bread, cheese, beer, ale, cards and fire' should be charged to the expenses of the society (Magd. Cam., Pepys Library, MS 2875, p. 466).

As one of the major whig political clubs active during the exclusion crisis the Green Ribbon Club naturally aroused the suspicions of the government, who tried to infiltrate it. In response, in December 1678 the club ordered that no member was to speak to any stranger in the room where the club held its meetings, while in October 1679 the society passed a rule stipulating that no new member should be admitted unless introduced by two existing members of three years' standing. The club's success in keeping its activities secret inevitably poses problems for the historian. Much of the information known about it and its supposed members comes from informants of dubious credibility or otherwise ill-informed hostile sources. Some reports grossly exaggerated the size of the club, and many individuals were wrongly suspected of membership purely because they were known to be politically disaffected. In July 1683, shortly after the revelations of the Rye House plot (the supposed conspiracy of radical whigs to assassinate Charles II and his brother), one spy made the wild allegation that '3,000 men … belonged to the club at the King's Head' (CSP dom., July–September 1683, 217). Thomas Dangerfield, the counterfeiter turned perjurer and ‘inventor’ of the Meal-Tub Plot (a supposed Presbyterian plot against the government), claimed to have infiltrated the club in 1679 and alleged that it consisted of 'at least 200 persons, all of good Estates and Substances', of whom he named forty-eight (Thomas Dangerfield's Particular Narrative, 1679, 31–2). The Monmouth rebel Nathaniel Wade, who had become a club member in June 1680, revealed the names of forty-four members to the government in October 1685 as he turned king's evidence in order to save his life (BL, Harley MS 6845). In both cases the question remains whether they simply told the government what it wanted to hear. The most reliable membership list for the club is that copied by Samuel Pepys in James II's reign, from an original lent to him by the king. Pepys also had access to the club's journal, from which he transcribed minutes of its meetings for the period from 14 November 1678 until 29 June 1681. The Pepys transcripts provide the names of 191 members (and a further seven people whom the club determined were not members), as well as information about when many of the members were admitted to the club, and some insight into the club's activities. In Pepys's opinion, 'In lieu of Saints 'twas a Club of Devils' (Pepys Library, MS 2875, p. 488).

According to Samuel Parker, bishop of Oxford under James II, the Green Ribbon Club began its meetings shortly after the fall of the first earl of Shaftesbury in 1673; Parker also maintained that most of its members were lawyers (Bishop Parker's History of His Own Time, trans. Thomas Newlin, 1727, 330–31). The surviving minutes confirm that many of the early members were disaffected London lawyers—men such as Sir Robert Peyton (Dangerfield called it Peyton's club), John Ayloffe, Slingsby Bethel, John Freke, Richard Goodenough, Edward Nosworthy (1637–1701), Aaron Smith, Henry Trenchard (c.1652–1694) and John Trenchard, and Robert West. None of those definitely known to be members before the end of 1676 was a sitting MP, though some were to gain election in 1679. Nevertheless, the lawyers were quick to build an alliance with the parliamentary opposition to Charles II. The minutes reveal that some time before the end of 1678 the club was paying for copies of the votes of the House of Commons and had extended membership to certain approved members of the Cavalier Parliament. The club's minutes do not identify these MPs, but those who sat in the Cavalier Parliament and who were Green Ribbon members before November 1678 include William Ashe (1647–1713), Sir John Austen (1640–1699), Colonel Robert Austen (1641–1696), Sir Hugh Bethel (1615–1679), Henry Booth, and Sir George Treby, and the peers Ford Grey, third Baron Grey of Warke, and William Howard, third Baron Howard of Escrick. The club subsequently agreed in March 1679 to admit approved members of the newly elected first Exclusion Parliament. Membership expanded dramatically during the exclusion crisis: seventy-eight new members were admitted in the years 1679–91 (47 of them in 1679 alone), twenty-six of whom were to sit in one or more of the exclusion parliaments. John Lovelace, third Baron Lovelace, John Arnold (the fanatical anti-Catholic Monmouthshire JP who was subsequently MP for Monmouth), Sir William Cowper (1639–1706), Thomas Freke senior (c.1638–1701), and George Speke all joined in 1679. In total, sixty-one Green Ribbon men sat in one or more of the parliaments of Charles II (three of them, Grey, Howard of Escrick, and Lovelace, in the Lords); a further two, Thomas Freke junior (1660–1721) and Sir John Thompson (c.1648–1701), were elected to parliament for the first time in 1685. An additional nine entered parliament for the first time only after the revolution of 1688. Sir William Whitelocke (1636–1717) sat in Richard Cromwell's parliament of 1659, but during the Restoration pursued a successful career as a barrister in London, and was not to become an MP again until December 1689.

Although the Green Ribbon Club held frequent meetings during the exclusion crisis, it was probably not the central co-ordinating body of the whig movement as was once thought. It was but one of twenty-nine whig clubs in the metropolis and neither the first earl of Shaftesbury nor the second duke of Buckingham (two of the leading whig peers at the time) was a member; both held their own clubs elsewhere. However, several known associates of Shaftesbury were Green Ribbon men, including Shaftesbury's right-hand man in Dorset, Thomas Freke senior; Shaftesbury's solicitor, John Hoskins; his accountant, Andrew Percival; his gentleman of the household, Anthony Shepheard; his steward, Sir Thomas Stringer (c.1629–1689); and his keen political ally in the Commons, Sir William Russell. The club is known to have played some role in co-ordinating whig collective agitation out of doors. It helped sponsor the famous pope-burning processions of 17 November in 1679 and 1680, which ended at Temple Bar, although it was not the only whig club to do so; moreover, neither Stephen College (who built the popes) nor Elkannah Settle (hired by Shaftesbury to design the pageants) was a Green Ribbon man. The club also sponsored a bonfire to celebrate 'the safe arrival of … the Duke of Monmouth (the Illustrious Protestant Peer of this Realm) from beyond the Seas' on 28 November 1679 and congratulated its members Thomas Dare and John Parsons in January 1680 for organizing a petition to the king 'from many thousands of Gentlemen freeholds of Somerset' calling for the sitting of parliament (Pepys Library, MS 2875, 478, 480).

The club further seems to have played a role in co-ordinating whig propaganda; not only did it include the lawyer–poet Ayloffe, the pamphleteer Charles Blount, and the playwright Thomas Shadwell among its members, but in October 1679 it also voted to pay 12d. a week to the whig publicist Henry Care while he was serving a prison sentence for publishing his Weekly Pacquet of Advice from Rome. Lord Keeper Guilford—who made a study of whig strategies and tactics and was a key figure behind the government's propaganda offensive against the whigs—alleged that in twenty-four hours the Green Ribbon Club 'could entirely possess the city with what reports they pleased and in less than a week spread it over the kingdom' (BL, Add. MS 32520, fol. 184), although this was doubtless an exaggeration. Nevertheless, the club did have strong provincial connections. In addition to London and the south-east, the club drew members from the north (Cheshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire, co. Durham, and Northumberland), East Anglia, the Welsh marches, the Thames valley, and particularly the west country, which provided thirty-six members, among them the Ashes, the Frekes, the Trenchards, the Bristol contingent of Wade, Thomas Day (c.1628–1709), John Row, and Joseph Tiley (c.1654–1708), and Thomas Dare from Taunton. In fact there was reciprocal membership between the Green Ribbon Club and the Horseshoe Tavern Club in Bristol, while any inhabitant of Taunton approved by John Trenchard was automatically admitted to membership of the Green Ribbon Club. There was a sister Green Ribbon Club in Oxford.

It has been suggested that the separate whig clubs in the capital reflected different factions within the whig movement, with republicans meeting at Buckingham's club and those who wanted a reformed monarchy gravitating towards Shaftesbury's clubs. Yet the Green Ribbon Club included republicans like Ayloffe, Bethel, Grey of Warke, Howard of Escrick, West, Richard Nelthorpe and Sir Edward Norton among its members, as well as supporters of mixed monarchy like Henry Booth (who in an address to the grand jury of Cheshire publicly denied that he was a commonwealthman), and those who, like William Russell, would have liked to have seen the crown settled on Monmouth. It is probably fair to suggest that the club reflected the broad diversity of the whig movement as a whole. Although many members were conformist Anglicans, at least forty-one were nonconformists or probable nonconformists, while many of the others were moderate Anglicans eager to see a relaxation of the penal laws against protestant dissent. However, the club had no time for anyone whose tolerationist views inclined them to be soft on Catholicism: in November 1678 the club resolved to exclude the great republican theorist Henry Neville, whose Plato redivivus of 1680 was to propose a drastically limited monarchy as an alternative to exclusion, on the grounds that he was a papist. Nor did it tolerate political backsliders: Peyton was suspended from the club in November 1679 following his temporary defection to the court, while Benjamin Rudyerd was expelled in June 1681 'for deserting English Principles & joining with Papists and Torys' in signing a loyal address from the Middle Temple to the king following the dissolution of the Oxford parliament (Pepys Library, MS 2875, 487). Although most members of the club did not engage in conspiratorial activity against the state after the defeat of the parliamentary exclusion movement in 1681, a significant minority did. Some forty were implicated in the Rye House plot of 1683, including such prominent figures as Booth, Grey, Howard of Escrick and Sir William Russell. Twenty-four were either involved or suspected of involvement in the Monmouth rebellion of 1685, among them Dare, Grey, Goodenough, Nelthorpe, and Wade, while Ayloffe joined the earl of Argyll's rebellion in Scotland. According to Roger North, the club continued in existence 'until the Rye Discovery … but, immediately upon that, it fell to Pieces' (R. North, Examen, 1740, 574).

Other members of the Green Ribbon Club included: Sir Henry Blount; Sir Thomas Pope Blount; Laurence Braddon; Sir John Houblon; John Cutts, Baron Cutts of Gowran; Francis Jenks; Sir John Pratt; John Scudamore, second Viscount Scudamore; John Smith; Hugh Speke; and Sir Walter Yonge.


  • Magd. Cam., MS 2875, pp. 465–91
  • G. R. Sitwell, The first whigs (1894)
  • J. R. Jones, ‘The Green Ribbon Club’, Durham University Journal, 18, new ser. (Dec 1956), 17–20
  • D. Allen, ‘Political clubs in Restoration London’, HJ, 19 (1976), 561–80
  • The entring book of Roger Morrice, 1677–1691, ed. M. Goldie, 6 vols., 1: Roger Morrice and the puritan whigs (2007), 535–41
  • T. Harris, London crowds in the reign of Charles II (1987)
  • T. Harris, Politics under the later Stuarts (1990)
  • M. Knights, Politics and opinion in crisis, 1678–1681 (1994)
  • G. S. De Krey, ‘London radicals and revolutionary politics, 1675–1683’, The politics of religion in Restoration England, ed. T. Harris, P. Seaward, and M. Goldie (1990), 133–62
  • R. L. Greaves, Secrets of the kingdom: British radicals from the Popish Plot to the revolution of 1688–89 (1992)
  • M. S. Zook, Radical whigs and conspiratorial politics in late Stuart England (1999)
  • Thomas Dangerfield's particular narrative (1679)
  • BL, Harley MS 6845
British Library, London
B. D. Henning, ed., , 3 vols. (1983)
Magdalene College, Pepys Library, Cambridge
Historical Journal