The History and Proceedings of the House of Commons: Volume 8, 1733-1734. Originally published by Chandler, London, 1742.
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IN outward Appearance, they were all very civil; set me a Chair equal to the Table where they sat, and next to Secretary Stanhope, who had the Books and Papers of the Secretary's Office before him. Mr. Walpole the Chairman said little more than mere Compliment. Mr. Lechmere, with great Industry, hid from me, and often himself looked into Papers in Folio, unbound, and covered with a blue Sheet. I did not then know what they were, but during the Examination, I perceived it was the Report then printed, and in some few Days after published. He began with an affected Eloquence, that as I had served in a very high Employment, and with very great Applause, the Committee relied upon my Candour and Probity: That as what they asked me was for the King's Service, so what I answered would be for my own Honour. After this some of them began with several vague Questions: What I knew of the Negotiation? How long I had been acquainted with the Abbe Gaultier? If the Propositions came first from France, or if we sent them? And desired me to give them an Account of whatever I could of that whole Matter; which, it seems, they thought I was so ready to do, that some of them took their Pens and Paper, as if I were to begin a Sermon, and they to take short Notes.
I said, That as I had always acted abroad by the Authority of the Crown of England, and had, in Obedience to the King's Commands, given up all the Memorials and Papers which related to that Part of the Peace in which I had Share, I was desirous to answer the Honourable Committee (before whom I understood such Papers were) in every Thing that might help to explain them: That my Books were already before them; and, as I had already Written to Mr. Secretary Stanhope, those Books must even speak for themselves. The Committee seemed to acquiesce in my Answer. Lord Coningsby whispered the Chairman, and said, No, we will begin with the Money.
The Committee then desired to know what Money I drew from the Treasury in 1711, when I went into France. I answered, two hundred Pounds; and, as I remembered, that was the Sum. I had either Credit from Mr. Clifford, on his Correspondent, or from Monsieur Cantillon: I could not well remember which, it being now four Years since. Had you these Bills, some of them said, from my Lord Treasurer? I replied, No. They asked me, Was it by his Order? I said, I hoped there was no Occasion for a Reply to that Question. I presumed it would be found, as other Money expended on the like Occasion, by Direction of the Sovereign. I found they were not pleased with this Answer. Walpole said, Will you think a little of the Method in which this Examination is to proceed? And Mr. Prior will be pleased in the mean Time to retire a little.
When I was called in again, the same Question was asked me, and the same Answer returned. I added, That I well hoped those Sums, and several others of much greater Importance, were paid: That otherwise, for want of Knowledge in the Crown Laws, I should find myself a Beggar; and from an Hôtel at Paris, might spend the rest of my Days in the Counter: And here I addressed myself to Mr. Stanhope, as to what I had writ to him concerning my Debts. He said, That nothing of all this concerned me. Prior, I must apply myself to you upon another Head. I must own myself unexperienced in the Method of Parliament; I have no Papers by me; I have no Council; for want of Memory or Judgment I may err; and tho' Gentlemen, I am accused of nothing, I know not but that I may accuse myself through Inadvertency or Mistake.
Here Mr. Stanhope rose up, and told the Committee. That he had the King's particular Direction, that whatever I said to them, or they to the House of Commons, should not be of any Prejudice to myself. I took a Sheet of Paper, which lay before me, and wrote this down, as I did what they had already said to me. Here, after they had whispered, and some even separated themselves from the Table to confer in a Corner of the Room, the Chairman told me I might withdraw; which I did, leaving the Notes I had taken upon the Table.
When I was called in again, I found their Civility much abated, and the Battery quite changed. The most confused Questions were put to me, upon several Heads backward and forward, by Lechmere and Boscawen, and Coningsby, (the two first of whom I think understood not one Word of what they were saying). Coningsby at length prevailed. Mr. Prior, you were sent out that you might have Time to recollect more particularly upon whom you had Credit, when my Lord of Oxford sent you into France. Prior, I have great Respect to the Earl of Oxford; but he never sent me into France. And turning to Mr. Secretary Stanhope, who had the Books of the Office of 1711 in his Hand, I said, That as I had the Honour to be sent into France by the Queen's especial Appointment and immediate Direction, I presumed the Copy of my Powers were to be found in the Books before him. He turning to it, Mr. Prior, is this the Copy of your Instructions? Prior, I believe it is; but to give the Committee no further Trouble on this Head, I am ready either now, or any other Time, to produce the Original, as I think it may tend to my Service. Being asked of whom I received Money in France? I answered, Of Monsieur Cantillon. Boscawen, Was he not a Papist? Prior, Else, Sir, he could not have been a Banker at Paris, which he had been for several Years before I knew him. In one Word, he was the common Banker to whom the English addressed themselves, and I think Clifford of Amsterdam was his Correspondent. Stanhope and Walpole, I found frowning and nodding at each other, and extremely ashamed at this vile Stuff.
Being sent out, and called in again, I found the Thunder broke out. Walpole referred it to Stanhope to speak. Stanhope, The Committee are not satisfied with your Behaviour to them. I have already told you, that the Lords above, and the Committee here, have taken notice that they find a constant Correspondence on your Side to the Lord Treasurer, but no Answers from him; whereas all your Letters from Lord Bolingbroke are entire, and commonly in their right Order. Some of those indeed are missing. The whole Committee ecchoed the same Thing. Prior, I was told some Hours since, by this Honourable Committee, that I should be asked nothing that might prejudice myself. I am a good deal confused; I have no Council; and with great Respect, I look upon this to be a downright Accusation of myself, as if I should have held any Correspondence I was unwilling to declare. I must refer myself to you in this Point, Mr. Stanhope. The Letters that we receive, when abroad, from the Secretaries of State, we keep, copying our Answers to them, both which justify our acting according to our Orders sent us; and I presume it will be found that my Letters, which you have in your own Keeping, answer those written to me by the Secretaries of State under whose Departments I acted; which Letters you have likewise. You have also the Letters I have wrote to the Lord Treasurer in my Books, at least those of them that related to the public Affair, and consequently were worth keeping. I did not, nor could I expect a constant Correspondence from him. What I wrote was for his Information; what Use his Lordship made of that Information, I had reason to presume was for the Queen's Service; and the Answers and Directions to me were to come by the Secretary of State. Committee, It is very strange that not above two or three Letters should appear from my Lord Treasurer, Did he not write more to you? Prior, He writ to me several Times, and I obey'd his Commands intimated to me therein. Those Commands performed, the Letters were of no Use, and I no more kept them than I did Letters received from other Noblemen, the Duke of Buckingham, the Lord Halifax, Lord Harcourt, then Lord Chancellor, &c. They related no otherwise to the Negotiation, than in commending me, assuring me that he represented my Services to the Queen in a right Light, and wishing a speedy End to the Negotiation, that I might come home to him.
I was sent out again, and recalled; was asked how many Letters I might in all have received from my Lord Treasurer, and what was the Substance of any of them. Prior, As to the Number, I cannot particularly tell: I received a Letter from him sometimes of five, sometimes of ten or twelve Lines, ordering me to pay Sums of Money to Persons who had the Queen's Pension, and were then in France, or recommending some of his particular Friends to my Acquaintance, or, which I thought much better, telling me he had ordered the Payment of my Bills; but I might very safely affirm, that I had no Letter that could possibly concern the Committee, or any body else, I have one Letter that as Lord Treasurer he writ to me, which related to the Payment of the Dowry of King James's Queen Mary; a Thing publicly transacted, and known here in England: But as no Progress was made in that Affair during my Stay in France, and that it did not belong to the Negotiation of the Peace, I had not indeed given up that Letter, but, as I thought, I could find it, or the Copy of it, if it should have been thought of any Use. In the mean Time, I thought proper, in case any Thing had been done in that Matter, to keep that Letter for my own Justification; as indeed it would have been my Order. Boscawen, Sir, you say you do not know how many Letters you had; might you have ten? Prior, I believe I might. Boscawen, Might you have fourteen? Prior, I believe I might. Boscawen, Might you have sixteen? Prior, Indeed, Mr. Boscawen, I have told you that I cannot answer you to any indefinite Number. It was still urged with great Vehemence, that I kept a constant Correspondence with my Lord Treasurer. Prior, I am very far from denying it; but he did not keep a constant Correspondence with me. It was my Duty to write to him, and he was to make what Use he pleased of my Letters. I complained sometimes of the Objections I met with at the Court of France in the Execution of my Orders; and was very glad when, by the Letters from the Secretary of State, I found my Difficulty made easier: But, Gentlemen, since we are upon this Subject, throughout the whole Course of my Letters to my Lord Treasurer, and even in those I wrote to the Duke of Shrew sbury, after his Grace's Return both in England and Ireland, I still complained that my Lord Treasurer did not write to me. And here indeed, being very much teized and vexed, Lord Coningsby raving and threatening that these Letters must be produced; I said, If there be such Letters in the World, that contain the Secrets of the Negotiation written by my Lord Treasurer, it might be very well presumed his Lordship kept Copies of them, and he must produce them: For, said I, by the eternal God I know of no such Letters; and you know, my Lord, that your Countryman is no very exact Correspondent. This I said, having known that Lord Coningsby had troubled great Men, if not my Lord Treasurer particularly, with Letters, who had never taken Care to answer him. I grant this was very foolishly said; for one should never provoke a Hedge-Hog. Coningsby breaking out into a great Passion, This is imposing upon the Committee! Prior, Imposing. my Lord, is a very hard Word. He listed up his Voice in Anger, and was going on: But Stanhope, yet louder than he, swore, that he could produce every individual Scrip of Paper that had been written to him by any Man alive, or that he had written to any Man during his being a Minister abroad. Prior, Mr. Stanhope, I am sorry I cannot do the like; if it be so, you are the most careful Minister that ever yet was sent abroad. They proceeded in asking me to give an Account of what, they said, I must needs know of the Meeting of the Lords at my House with Mesnager and Gaultier. I had already heard, that they had consulted their Friends of the Law upon that Point, and had determined to fix upon that Meeting, wherein the Preliminaries were signed, as an Accusation of Treason. How justly I live to the Judgment of all disinterested and honest Men; since first, in the Nature of the Thing, it is impossible for any two Nations in War to come ever to an Accommodation, or begin any Plan, upon which a future Peace may be founded, without some Overture and Intervention of this Kind. All Treaties, from that of Vervens down to this Day, have been thus mediated. Calieres was in Holland, and discoursed and conferred privately with Monsieur Dyckvelt, on the Part of the States, above two Years before he took a public Character, and signed the Treaty of Ryswick. Monsieur de Torcy was publicly in Holland, 1709, conferred with the Pensioner, and the Deputies of the States; and our own Plenipotentiaries, the Duke of Marlborough and Lord Townsbend, reported from those Deputies to Her Majesty, what the French Minister either proposed or granted. Mesnager had as full Powers as France could give, had owned the Queen's Authority, and seen her Person; and had, by her Majesty's Directions, several Times conferred with the Lords of a Committee of Cabinet; all the World seeing the Man, and knowing the Fact: So that any Meeting after this could not be secret, dangerous, or treasonable. Mr. St. John's Letter on the 25th September, 1711, to Her Majesty informs her immediately of this Meeting, and Her Majesty approves of what is there done, by her especial Warrant for signing the Preliminaries, containing the Demands made by her Order (fn. 1).
"The Committee of Council met this Morning at the Cockpit, and directed the Earl of Dartmouth and myself to confer with Monsieur Mesnager: We saw him accordingly this Evening, at Mr. Prior's House, where my Lord Treasurer and Lord Chamberlain were likewise present.". The Treason therefore, if there were any, was committed in the Morning by the Committee of Council, and at the Cockpit, and not at Mr. Prior's House in the Evening. It may properly here be added, the Queen had signed a Warrant the 17th of September, 1711, to the Lord Keeper, for full Powers (fn. 2); in which my Lord Harcourt then Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Oxford Lord Treasurer, the Duke of Buckingham President of the Council, the Bishop of Bristol Lord Privy Seal, the Duke of Shrewsbury Lord Chamberlain, the Earl Poulett Lord Steward of the Houshold, and the Earl of Dartmouth and Mr. St. John Secretaries of State, and Matthew Prior, Esq; were nominated and empowered to meet with the Sieur Mesnager, provided with sufficient Authority to settle an eventual or conditional Convention between Her Majesty and the most Christian King; and that this Warrant was not made use of, for Reasons given, being very natural, because they were Offers only on the French Side, and did not oblige Her Majesty to any Thing: So they were only signed Mesnager, and Dartmouth and St. John are only Witnesses that these Articles are to be looked upon as Conditions which his most Christian Majesty agrees to grant, and which are afterwards to be reduced into Form, and explained to the common Satisfaction of Great Britain and France. Tho' this Procedure will, without doubt, hereafter appear consonant to common Sense, conducive to the Safety and Good of Great Britain, and justisiable by the universal Custom and Law of Nations, Nunc non erat his locus. I said, Monsieur Mesnager had often been at my House; that the Secretary of State had seen him there; that I had eat and drank, and been abroad with him several Times. They took great hold of this. Boscawen expressed himself with great Joy, This is more than we knew before! And from thence they ran wildly back, When I knew Gaultier? Where I had been with Mesnager? I answered to this in as general Terms as I could. The Chairman perceived that they would lose their Point in this Multiplicity of Questions, and, checking their Speed, restrained it to this one Demand. Chairman, What Lords were present at your House at the Meeting when the preliminary Articles were talked of or signed? I answer'd, The two Secretaries of State; for it is certain they were so, their Names appearing in the Instrument. Chairman, Was my Lord Oxford there? Prior; I cannot recollect it: One of the Lords were absent; whether the Duke of Shrewsbury, or the Earl of Oxford, I cannot tell. In all Sincerity and Honour this is Truth. They grew extremely anger'd upon it, and sent me out to recollect if both these Lords were not present.
I came in, and assured them again, That as well as I could remember a Transaction, of which I took no Notes, and which was now above three Years past, and of which I was so far from expecting to be called to any Account; that I thought it was an Honour to me, I could not determine which of the two were absent. I said again, That this was Fact, that I do not remember it: I have only an Idea that one of them was absent. The Answer indeed had this Effect, that it was the same Thing as if they were both absent, since they could not determine which of them was present. But upon this Meeting no less Accusation than an Article of High Treason was to be founded. Was any thing more difficult ever put upon a Man, than to endeavour to extort an Evidence from me, in order to bring those to the Scaffold who were Friends and Patrons, under whose Orders formerly, and with whom jointly now, I had the Honour to act, by the Queen's Directions, and in a Matter not only innocent; but laudable! Or could any thing be more absurd, or more inhuman, than to propose to me a Question, by the answering of which I might (according to them) prove myself a Traytor! Since, as I had heard, every Man who is a Partner, is a Principal in Treason: And notwithstanding their solemn Promise, that nothing which I could say should hurt myself, I had no Reason to trust them; for they vlolated that Promise about five Hours after (as I shall say anon.) However, I owned I was there present. Whether this was wisely done or no, I leave to my Friends to determine.
From my being taken up by Order of the House of Commons, this Examination was just a Week. They now, after I had been turned out, and returned again, interrogated me: If since my being taken into Custody, I had not seen my Lord of Oxford, or any of his Relations? I said, I had seen my Lord Oxford the last Sunday at Mr. Thomas Harley's House; and was going on to explain that Mr. Thomas Harley and I, who were taken up at the same Time, (living within three Doors of each other) commonly dined together at one or the other of our Houses, our respective Messengers guarding us. That on Sunday going to dine with Mr. Harley, I saw my Lord Oxford at the Stairs-head, going out; that I asked him if he dined with us: He told me, he was to dine in better Company: That this was all that passed between us; the Messenger at the Bottom of the Stairs heard every Word I said to him. As I was telling this, they answered it was sufficient, I had seen my Lord Oxford, and his near Relations; which was the Question asked.
I here was ordered to retire, and when I was called in again, the Chairman, from amongst many Books and Papers which he had before him, (and the Secretary of State had on the other Side as many; and I perceived many of them were my own) the Chairman, I say, abruptly enough drew out one Half-Sheet of the large Demy Paper, written very foul, and razed in several Places, which, indeed, when he gave into my Hand, I hardly knew what it was, so far as to give any reasonable Account of it, it being without Date or Title, and, as I say, very imperfect as to the very Words and Stile. He asked me drily, and without any other previous Word, If I knew that Hand? Prior, There are two Hands in it, one is very like the Hand I write when first I make any Brouillon. One or two of the Committee. Sir, What do you mean by a Brouillon? Prior, When I write any thing at first only for my own Memory, as to what I would draw up after in a more perfect Manner. I perused this Piece of Paper, and upon a little Reflection, directing myself to Mr. Stanhope, said, I believe this Paper contained some Notes upon a Letter I received from his Predecessor my Lord Bolingbroke. He was apprised of this before; for he readily turned to the Letter which was registred in the Office-Book. I added, that I thought there were some Notes I had taken in the Freneh Language, to enable me to speak more particularly to Monsieur de Torcy of the Matters mention'd in the said Secretary's Letter. As that Letter was written four Years before, and I was not in Possession of my own Letters, the Secretary himself and the Committee could best inform themselves of the Substance thereof. There was written, My Lord, Tr. ne doute point que la Cour de France n'y trouve de remode. Now whatever Lord that might mean, they had already printed it my Lord Treasurer (fn. 3); and in so doing had given that Sentence the wrongest Construction imaginable, as proving that my Lord Treasurer would give up Tournay to France; whereas the whole Hint was meant to renew to the Ministers at that Court, that Tournay was to be given to the Allies; and it was to keep the Court of France from endeavouring to hope the contrary. As what was in this Brouillon was sometimes an Abridgment, and somtimes a verbal Translation of my Lord Bolingbroke's Letter, which Mr. Stanhope still held close, and as I read the French into English, I asked him if the same Sense was in the Letter. He did not deny it. Coningsby grew extremely angry, and on a sudden broke out into some Expressions which neither he should have utterr'd, nor will I repeat; and so I was ordered to withdraw again; which was into the next Room, where not only a Messenger of the House of Commons, but a Door-Keeper of the Secretary's Office, waited all Day, and were still ready to receive me.
Being called in again, I was interrogated without Method or Connection, as any Member of the Committee pleased, and indeed with Confusion and Disorder enough among themselves; for they sometimes stopped each other's Question, and proposed new ones of their own. At last, it came to this. Chairman, Mr. Prior, we cannot doubt but that you are apprised of the whole Affair of Tournay. Did my Lord ever write about Tournay? Prior, I cannot readily answer, as not understanding the Force of the Question: I believe my Lord Treasurer may have writ to me concerning Tournay at the Beginning of the Negociation: I am sure he has spoke to me about Tournay: I may be mistaken as to the Time; but I think in 1711 the French insisted upon their having Tournay: But I very well remember, that the Queen's Instructions to Her Ambassadors for the general Peace, were positive that the Dutch should have it: I understood the Negotiation to continue always upon that Foot. I added, that as the Affair of the Barrier was transacted at Utrecht, I had nothing in my Instructions relating to that whole Matter, otherwise than as it might relate in general to the Peace. What I have of the whole Negotiation is before you. Here Walpole and Stanhope grew mightily perplexed; one in a sullen, and t'other in an unbounded Passion. Coningsby raved out-right. I may justly protest that I could not conceive the Cause of this Disorder; for I did not know that they had already founded their High Treason upon the Articles of Tournay, against my Lord Treasurer; nor can I since comprehend why they did. To shew the Justice, as well as the good Judgment of these Men, it must certainly appear not only extravagant, but ridiculous to all that think righter than the Committee, that is, to all Men living, that an Article of High Treason should be founded against an English Minister upon Tournay, which was not given up to the French, and no mention ever made of Lisle, which actually was given up. This by the way. It may be further observed, that at that Time not one third Part of the Committee themselves did know upon what Point the Accusations either against the Earl of Oxford, or any Man else, were to be grounded; several of them having since told me themselves, that they never either drew up or read the Report; but that those Things came to them, as they merrily expressed it, ready cut and dried.
But to return to my Journal; this various and incoherent Manner of Examination having now lasted above nine Hours, Two of my Masters (by the way) Sir Richard Onslow, and General Erle, had left the Committee almost at the Beginning of the Day; for to give them their Due; they asked me very few Questions while there, and by going away seemed ashamed of the Proceeding: And now Walpole himself grew weary of it, and was going, but hindered, and, as it were, kept in the Chair by Mr. Stanhope, who said openly, they could not go on without the Chairman. I was ordered to withdraw, and during about half an Hour's Recess into the next Room, or rather Passage, as the Door was by chance opened, I heard them extremely warm and loud with one another. Whilst I was in this little Room, in which the Messenger, under whose Custody I was, and a Door-Keeper of the Secretary's Office, as I have already said, were waiting, Coningsby, came out by a Back-Way, as Boscawen did by the Fore-Door. In this Room was a Trunk, and in it several Papers and Memorials, to which the Committee had Recourse during the Examination. The Trunk was open, and I could not but perceive by the Indorsements that many of the Papers were my own. Coningsby whispered the Officers to take care that I should not come nigh the Trunk, and really looked on me more like a Fury than a Man; tho' certainly I had all the Right imaginable to see every Paper that related to me in my Examination, which was pretended to be made upon no other Foot, than that the King should be informed of what I had done for his Service in the Negotiation of the Peace; and if the Committee themselves had had really a mind to be apprised of the Truth as to Fact, the hindering a Man whom they intended should become an Evidence from seeing his own Papers, was but an ill Methed towards his giving them a clearer Intelligence.
I was now called in for the last Time, and I found that they had collected several Heads of what they thought proper I should set my Hand to. I read them, and made some Objections thereunto, but to no Purpose. I said, that to many Questions I had not, nor could, answer in the positive Manner that was there set down: That as to divers Facts, I could not take Things upon my Memory: That as to others, I had indeed said I believed, I thought, I heard, or understood, they were so: That the Omission of these Words made me say positively, and as an Evidence, what I should not be able to maintain, having only answered them as my Memory served me, and as much as I knew of the Heads upon which I had been interrogated; knowing that they themselves had blamed my Answers, for being very imperfect; and I had more than once told them, I was sorry I could not answer them more fully. I objected against these Words: He confesses, that since his Confinement, he has conversed with the Earl of Oxford, and his nearest Relations. I did not, I said, confess. Confession supposes a Crime: I was told, I was accused of none: I said, I had seen the Earl of Oxford at Mr. Thomas Harley's; and as I was going to tell the Thing again, Jesus! said Coningsby, how perjured is this Man? Prior, My Lord, have a Care of —. Coningsby, No, Sir, 'tis you that must have a Care. Seeing now the Face of the Committee against me; knowing and presuming that if ever the Duke of Shrewsbury, the Earl of Oxford, or Lord Bolingbroke himself, should be brought to Trial, I must be sure before the Lords have an Opportunity of explaining what I had said, and declaring what Usage I had found from the Committee, I signed the Paper. I cannot here omit a ridiculous Instance of my Middlesex Justice's Skill in the Law: He was just going to set his Name on the left Hand of the Paper, where I was to have set mine; and, if he had not been timely cautioned by the Chairman, it would have been the Disposition of Hugh Boscawen, jurat, coram me, Matthew Prior.
When I had thus signed the Paper, the Chairman told me, that the Committee were not at all satisfied with my Behaviour, nor could give such an Account of it to the House that might merit their Favour in my Behalf: That at present they thought fit to lay me under a stricter Consinement than that of my own House. Here Boscawen play'd the Moralist, and Coningsby the Christian; but both very aukwardly. Boscawen said, that he had often heard Mr. Stepney, (who was a wise Man, and our old Friend) repeat this Proverb, Near is my Shirt, but nearer my Skin; and told me, if I had remembered that Saying, and acted according to it, it would have been better for me. And Coningsby said, he had known me a long Time, and was heartily sorry for my Condition; but all this proceeded from my own Fault. Now this kind Commiseration did not last above a Minute; for the Messenger, to whose House they intended to confine me, being called, Coningsby asked him, if his House was secured by Bolts and Bars. The Messenger, who is by Birth a Gentleman, and a very goodnatured Man, was astonished at the Question; and answered, that he never had any in his Custody but Parliament Prisoners, (as he expressed it,) and there were neither Bolts nor Bars in his House. At which Coningsby very angrily said, Sir, you must secure this Prisoner; it is for the Safety of the Nation, if he escapes, you shall answer for it. And now I met with another Hardship, which indeed I could not have expected, as I had all Day taken Notes of the Heads of their Examination, and my Answers, and particularly that Mr. Stanhope had, by his Majesty's Order, informed the Committee, that from whatever I should say in this Examination, nothing should or ought to redound to my Prejudice: Nor indeed could it be imagined I should answer upon any other Foot; for without the King's Consent, I doubt, if I ought at all to have answered to the Committee.