Lord William Russell - Encyclopedia

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LORD WILLIAM RUSSELL (1639-1683), English politician, was the third son of the 1st duke of Bedford and was born on the 29th of September 1639. About 1654 he was sent to Cambridge with his elder brother Francis (on whose death in 1678 he obtained the courtesy title of Lord Russell). On leaving the university, the two brothers travelled abroad, visiting Lyons and Geneva, and residing for some while at Augsburg. William's account of his impressions is spirited and interesting. He was at Paris in 1658, but had returned to Woburn in December 1659. At the Restoration he was elected for the family borough of Tavistock. For a long time he appears to have taken no part in public affairs, but rather to have indulged in the follies of court life and intrigue; for both in 1663 and 1664 he was engaged in duels, in the latter of which he was wounded. In 1669 he married Rachel (1636-1723), second daughter of the 4th earl of Southampton, and widow of Lord Vaughan, thus becoming connected with Shaftesbury, who had married Southampton's niece. With his wife Russell always lived on terms of the greatest affection and confidence. She corresponded with Tillotson and other distinguished men, and a collection of her admirable letters was published in 1773.

It was not until the formation of the "country party," in opposition to the policy of the Cabal and Charles's FrenchCatholic plots, that Russell began to take an active part in affairs. He then joined Cavendish, Birch, Hampden, Powell, Lyttleton and others in vehement antagonism to the court. With a passionate hatred and distrust of the Catholics, and an intense love of political liberty, he united the desire for ease to Protestant Dissenters. His first speech appears to have been on the 22nd of January 1673, in which he inveighed against the stop of the exchequer, the attack on the Smyrna fleet, the corruption of courtiers with French money, and "the ill ministers about the king." He also supported the proceedings against the duke of Buckingham. In 1675 he moved an address to the king for the removal of Danby (see Leeds, Duke Of) from the royal councils, and for his impeachment. On the r5th of February 1677, in the debate on the fifteen months' prorogation, he moved the dissolution of parliament; and in March 1678 he seconded the address praying the king to declare war against France. The enmity of the country party against Danby and James, and their desire for a dissolution and the disbanding of the army, were greater than their enmity to Louis. The French king therefore found it easy to form a temporary alliance with Russell, Hollis and the opposition leaders, by which they engaged to cripple the king's power of hurting France and to compel him to seek Louis's friendship, - that friendship, however, to be given only on the condition that they in their turn should have Louis's support for their cherished objects. Russell in particular entered into close communication with the marquis de Ruvigny (Lady Russell's maternal uncle), who came over with money for distribution among members of parliament. By the testimony of Barillon, however, it is clear that Russell himself utterly refused to take any part in the intended corruption.

By the wild alarms which culminated in the Popish Terror Russell appears to have been affected more completely than his otherwise sober character would have led people to expect. He threw himself into the party which looked to Monmouth as the representative of Protestant interests, a grave political blunder, though he afterwards was in confidential communication with Orange. On the 4th of November 1678 he moved an address to the king to remove the duke of York from his person and councils. At the dissolution of the pensionary parliament, he was, in the new elections, returned for Bedfordshire. Danby was at once overthrown, and in April 1679 Russell was one of the new privy council formed by Charles on the advice of Temple. Only six days after this we find him moving for a committee to draw up a bill to secure religion and property in case of a popish successor. He does not, however, appear to have taken part in the exclusion debates at this time. In June, on the occasion of the Covenanters' rising in Scotland, he attacked Lauderdale personally in full council.

In January 1680 Russell, along with Cavendish, Capell, Powell, Essex and Lyttleton, tendered his resignation to the king, which was received by Charles "with all my heart." On the 6th of June he accompanied Shaftesbury, when the latter indicted James at Westminster as a popish recusant; and on the 26th of October he took the extreme step of moving "how to suppress popery and prevent a popish successor"; while on the 2nd of November, now at the height of his influence, he went still further by seconding the motion for exclusion in its most emphatic shape, and on the 19th carried the bill to the House of Lords for their concurrence. The limitation scheme he opposed, on the ground that monarchy under the conditions expressed in it would be an absurdity. The statement, made by Echard alone (Hist. of England, ii.), that he joined in opposing the indulgence shown to Lord Strafford by Charles in dispensing with the more horrible parts of the sentence of death - an indulgence afterwards shown to Russell himself - is entirely unworthy of credence. On December 18 he moved to refuse supplies until the king passed the Exclusion Bill. The prince of Orange having come over at this time, there was a tendency on the part of the opposition leaders to accept his endeavours to secure a compromise on the exclusion question. Russell, however, refused to give way a hair's-breadth.

On the 26th of March 1681, in the parliament held at Oxford, Russell again seconded the Exclusion Bill. Upon the dissolution he retired into privacy at his country seat of Stratton in Hampshire. It was, however, no doubt at his wish that his chaplain wrote the Life of Julian the Apostate, in reply to Dr Hickes's sermons, in which the lawfulness of resistance in extreme cases was defended. In the wild schemes of Shaftesbury after the election of Tory sheriffs for London in 1682 he had no share; upon the violation of the charters, however, in 1683, he began seriously to consider as to the best means of resisting the government, and on one occasion attended a meeting at which treason, or what might be construed as treason, was talked. Monmouth, Essex, Hampden, Sidney and Howard of Escrick were the principal of those who met to consult. On the breaking out of the Rye House Plot, of which neither he, Essex, nor Sidney had the slightest knowledge, he was accused by informers of promising his assistance to raise an insurrection and compass the death of the king. Refusing to attempt to escape, he was brought before the council, when his attendance at the meeting referred to was charged against him. He was sent on the 26th of June 1683 to the Tower, and, looking upon himself as a dying man, betook himself wholly to preparation for death. Monmouth offered to appear to take his trial, if thereby he could help Russell, and Essex refused to abscond for fear of injuring his friend's chance of escape. Before a committee of the council Russell, on the 28th of June, acknowledged his presence at the meeting, but denied all knowledge of the proposed insurrection. He reserved his defence, however, until his trial. He would probably have saved his life but for the perjury of Lord Howard. The suicide of Essex, the news of which was brought into court during the trial, was quoted as additional evidence against him, as pointing to the certainty of Essex's guilt. On July 1 9 he was tried at the Old Bailey, his wife assisting him in his defence. Evidence was given by an informer that, while at Shaftesbury's hiding-place in Wapping, Russell had joined in the proposal to seize the king's guard, a charge indignantly denied by him in his farewell paper, and that he was one of a committee of six appointed to prepare the scheme for an insurrection. Howard, too, expressly declared that Russell had urged the entering into communications with Argyll in Scotland. Howard's perjury is clear from other witnesses, but the evidence was accepted. Russell spoke with spirit and dignity in his own defence, and, in especial, vehemently denied that he had ever been party to a design so wicked and so foolish as those of the murder of the king and of rebellion. It will be observed that the legality of the trial, in so far as the jurors were not properly qualified and the law of treason was shamefully strained, was denied in the act of William & Mary which annulled the attainder. Hallam maintains that the only overt act of treason proved against Russell was his concurrence in the project of a rising at Taunton, which he denied, and which, Ramsay being the only witness, was not sufficient to warrant a conviction.

Russell was sentenced to die. Many attempts were made to save his life. The old earl of Bedford offered £50,000 or £10o,000, and Monmouth, Legge, Lady Ranelagh, and Rochester added their intercessions. Russell himself, in petitions to Charles and James, offered to live abroad if his life were spared, and never again to meddle in the affairs of England. He refused, however, to yield to the influence of Burnet and Tillotson, who endeavoured to make him grant the unlawfulness of resistance, although it is more than probable that compliance in this would have saved his life. He drew up, with Burnet's assistance, a paper containing his apology, and he wrote to the king a letter, to be delivered after his death, in which he asked Charles's pardon for any wrong he had done him. A suggestion of escape from Lord Cavendish he refused. He behaved with his usual quiet cheerfulness during his stay in the Tower, spending his last day on earth as he had intended to spend the following Sunday if he had reached it. He received the sacrament from Tillotson, and Burnet twice preached to him. Having supped with his wife, the parting from whom was his only great trial, he slept peacefully, and spent the last morning in devotion with Burnet. He went to the place of execution in Lincoln's Inn Fields with perfect calmness, which was preserved to the last. He died on the 21st of July 1683, in the forty-fourth year of his age. His attainder was reversed in 1689, and his son Wriothesley (1680-1711) succeeded his grandfather as 2nd duke of Bedford in 1700.

A true and moderatesumming-up of his character will be found in his Life, by Lord John Russell (1820). (0. A.)

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