Who were the Whigs?

Geese on water with the Palladian Bridge in the background at Stowe

The Whigs, along with the Tories, were one of two major political forces in Britain from the late seventeenth-century through to the nineteenth century. They found their origins in an association of aristocratic men who in the 1670s demanded the exclusion of Charles II’s Catholic brother, James, from inheriting the British throne. They and their descendants supported the Protestant Succession through the invasion of William III and the establishment of the Hanoverian dynasty from 1714. In the 1700 and 1800s they consistently supported moderate progress and reform, and in the later 1800s most Whigs joined the Liberal party and were instrumental in its formation.

The Whig ethos

Quintessentially a consortium of aristocratic factions based upon opposition to the excesses of both monarchical and parliamentary power, Whigs never committed themselves to an ideology. Rather, they stood for an ethos of service to the nation, religious toleration, and protection of the people from institutional oppression.   

In contrast to the Tory party, whose members saw the Crown and Church as the guarantors of social and political order, Whigs believed that the nation was better served by polite commercialism and the preservation of civil liberties.  

Often accused of inconsistency, they nonetheless achieved political supremacy between 1688 and 1760. After that, they fell into various factions and did not recover power until the 1800s.   

Heroes and martyrs  

Because they so frequently rallied around a cause, from Exclusion to the Glorious Revolution to the American and French Revolutions to Reform, the Whigs regularly exalted the key figures of these events to the status of heroes and martyrs.

The mythology surrounding such figures was strong, and shaped later Whig political behaviour.

Despite having a reputation for lack of principle, they were responsible for legislation to promote religious toleration throughout the 1700 and 1800s, and for formulating the 1832 Reform Bill.

The Whigs were ultimately incorporated into the Liberal party under William Gladstone in 1859.   

The Whig view of the landscape

Although Whigs are often characterised as an urban party, the great Whig families were prominent landholders, committed to the notion that their lands were for both their own enrichment and in the service of progress and of the nation at large.

Whig gardens tended to express their owners’ political affiliations, with statuary of Whig heroes and landscapes cultivated to promote notions of freedom through open views and lack of formality. 

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