A portrait of Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, 2nd Marquess of Northampton (1790-1851) by Sir Henry Raeburn was exhibited at the Royal Academy London in 1821. It is full of concentrated energy, its intensity suggesting that while we are in the presence of a quieter hero, he is nevertheless acquainted with the reality of drama as the red lining of his cloak suggests.
The subject is a man western history may not have celebrated very much, but one who contributed much to its growth, intellectually, socially and practically. He was a man of power and perception.
Born in 1790 by the 1820’s, having completed his obligatory grand tour of Italy, Compton was a respected connoisseur of the arts and literature, particularly poetry and he championed science though his own interest in geology, always regarding himself as an amateur.
He was president of the Geological Society of London, the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and the Royal Society, holding the latter tenure for 1o years. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated M.A. 1810, and was created Doctor of Law in 1835.
The Member of Parliament for Northampton 1812-20, he involved himself in both politics and cultural life. Compton sat in the House of Commons where he held an ‘honest independence, and was often called impracticable and crotchety’ by his colleagues.
Connected with Sir James Mackintosh a criminal law reformer, he also supported his parliamentary colleague William Wilberforce in his great struggle to achieve the abolition of the slave trade.
During his lifetime Compton campaigned vigorously for law reform, because he believed in the ideal of liberty and justice for all.
London during the second half of the eighteenth century was a place where extremes met. It was full of things to do and see, of people, of excitement and, it was at the heart of affairs both great and small.
By 1800 the population had passed the million mark, and provincial industrial cities, although growing fast, were all under a 100,000 people.
The British Navy controlled the seaways; industry was flourishing; the new manufacturing class was prospering; in London sensibility was flourishing, politeness was valued and there was a distinct elevation of interior sentiment, feelings of the heart and a value of intimacy.
The city’s environment was being reshaped, new streets, new squares with open vistas and clear classical lines that were pleasing to the eye. As well there was a great variety of both public and private gardens.
England, Europe and America in the early years of the nineteenth century was entering a period of extraordinary political change, of reform and revolution, scientific and botanical discovery, dazzling artistry, literary excellence, military milestones and political and social scandal.
London was now the largest city in western Europe. Not only more populous, it offered a different quality of life. Nowhere else in Britain was so urban; no other city so exciting or so shocking!
This was an era dominated by men of power and perception and also an age of paradox, one in which serious government reforms were achieved. This included the abolition of black slavery, with amazing grace, through the extraordinary efforts of brilliant British politician William Wilberforce (1759 – 1833).
For centuries Continental monarchs had ruled absolutely, whereas in England for both good, and not so good reasons, the King’s council had always attempted to circumscribe monarchical power by parliamentary institution.
Visiting Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure wrote of his experience at the court of St James’s early in the century where he found the first of the Hanoverian sovereigns, George 1 (1714 – 1727), was only acknowledged at his morning celebration the gentleman’s ‘levée’ by the inclination of the head rather than the sort of grovelling, which went on at the French King’s morning rising ceremony.
The London Saussure encountered on his visit was one of great contrasts. With a population bordering on ¾ million he also found that many an English merchant was richer than the sovereign princes of Europe.
…malice, rapine, accident conspire.
And now a rabble rages, now a fire;
Their ambush here relentless ruffians lay,
And here a fell attorney prowls for prey;
Here falling houses thunder on your head,
And here a female Atheist talks you dead.
London was at this stage of its cultural development not a place to be ambushed by thugs or diddled by lawyers.
French author Francois Marie Arouet de Voltaire (1694 – 1778) after a short spell in the Bastille for daring to challenge a French nobleman, lived in England from 1726 to 1729 where he was totally astonished by its people and their many freedoms.
He found it completely amazing Englishmen were able to virtually say and publish what they liked without fear of prison or exile. He was further astounded there was no torture or arbitrary imprisonment and that noblemen and priests were not exempt from certain taxes.
In England he discovered it was the poor who enjoyed exemption from taxation whereas at the same time in France it was the rich. On top of all of that he discovered that different religious sects were allowed to flourish.
In France Louis IV in 1685 had revoked the Edict of Nantes, a document put in place by his predecessor Henry IV The Great (1553-1610) that granted religious toleration to Protestants living in Roman Catholic France.
Meanwhile in England the Toleration Act of 1689 allowed Protestant non-conformists their own places for worship and teachers etc. They were subject to swearing certain oaths and declarations that ensured they would not act against the crown or Parliament.
Any further restrictions in place for Roman Catholics were finally removed in England in 1829.
The so-called Enlightenment is one of those rare historical movements that managed to name itself. Certain thinkers and writers, primarily in London and Paris, believed they were far more enlightened than their compatriots.
So armed with only self-confidence they set out to enlighten everyone else.
They believed that human reason, the power of intelligent and dispassionate thought, or of conduct influenced by such thought, should be used to combat ignorance, superstition, and tyranny in order to build a better world. Debate, to deliberate about differences and consider someone else’s point of view was honed in the parliament.
In the main they were very successful. Their principal targets were religion, embodied in France in the Roman Catholic Church, and the domination of society by a hereditary aristocracy in both Europe and England.
The wider expertise and experience that Voltaire gained while he was in England meant that his works and ideas became the embodiment of European ‘enlightenment’. Although he died some time before it was established, he irrevocably laid the foundations for the French revolution in the minds of his peers. He wrote in his Travel Notes about England that it was ‘the freest country in the world’. He made no exception and called it free because the sovereign, whose person is controlled and limited was therefore unable to inflict harm on anyone.
During the reign of George III (1738-1820) in England the reign of the monarch was altered dramatically. In the second half of the seventeenth century the Whig junto, a self-appointed committee with political aims whose members constantly surrounded and supported the King.
They had gradually assumed positions of power distributing the resources of the crown in the form of places, pensions and perquisites and further circumscribing the power of the monarch.
Ultimately the monarchy became about being skillful in managing delicate political and social situations, the embodiment of national morality and a role model for the people.
By the second half of the eighteenth century the King at London was being treated as a human being.
Once that had happened something quite unique began to take place, high culture, an integral aspect of the court began to move out of its narrow confines to become an attribute of its people.
During Spencer Joshua Alwyne Compton, 2nd Marquess of Northampton’s lifetime England’s so-called Westminster system of government was refined by debate and experience.
By the end of the nineteenth century it would become the envy and admiration of both European and American people, philosophers and thinkers.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle 2012
* Heraclitus, Greek philosopher (540 BC – 480 BC)