Royal Academy of Arts, London

King William IV; portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee, 1833

It is more than forty years since Antonia Fraser revealed a formidable talent for writing serious and well-researched books on history for a wide audience. Her Mary Queen of Scots, published in 1969, won the James Tait Black for biography; since then she has written prize-winning and best-selling accounts of a wide range of historical figures from Marie Antoinette to Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, and the six wives of Henry VIII. She has a particular gift for creating telling portraits of historical figures, often but not invariably aristocrats and royalty, embroiled in high politics with sometimes lethal consequences to themselves or others. She is an equally prolific and successful author of detective fiction. Her female sleuth, Jemima Shore, is a reporter with a knack for discovering political skullduggery in high places. Shore starred in a television series, but it was Fraser’s The Gunpowder Plot that won a Gold Dagger for detective nonfiction.

Perilous Question is a new departure only in the sense that Fraser has not tackled the politics of nineteenth-century Britain before. All her familiar virtues are on display, and if readers know the dénouement before they open the book—Britain did not experience a revolution in 1832—the story contains enough plot twists to satisfy the most avid mystery reader. The ruling class of the day managed to avert the revolution that many of them feared, with very little bloodshed and with few of the lasting hatreds that undermined French politics for nearly two centuries; but it was a close-run thing.1

The cast of characters is headed by the elderly King William IV, or “sailor Bill” to his loyal but skeptical subjects, and his much younger wife, Queen Adelaide, a minor German princess from Saxe-Meiningen, and an obstinate Tory in her allegiances. The liberal—strictly speaking Whig—hero is Earl Grey, known to posterity as “Grey of the Reform Bill.” The Duke of Wellington appears as quite other than a hero, obstinately resisting modest measures of reform, incapable of seeing that relatively minor changes in the archaic system of parliamentary representation were a defense against revolution, not the beginning of a process that would end with the violent destruction of monarchy and aristocracy alike. He was politically inept, unable to formulate a strategy or to marshal his troops behind such ideas as he had.

Perilous Question begins at three in the morning of June 26, 1830, with the death of King George IV and the accession of William IV, which at that time required a general election to provide the new king with a new House of Commons. Except for a short coda it ends on June 7, 1832, when William grudgingly signified the royal assent to the Great Reform Bill, which, among other things, swept away ancient abuses of parliamentary representation and substantially increased the size of the electorate. Fraser provides just enough background for the uninitiated to make sense of the demand for parliamentary reform and the fear of social and political upheaval felt by the respectable classes, before she plunges into the parliamentary maneuvering, the twisting of royal arms, and the pressure applied by well-organized and novel political entities such as the Birmingham Political Union, and in a much less orderly fashion by the hayrick-burning followers of “Captain Swing” and rioters in Bristol and Nottingham.

The British Parliament of the early nineteenth century was a very strange body. The upper house was hereditary and nonelective, with about four hundred members; two centuries later, it is nearly twice as large, and still almost wholly nonelective. It is now only very partially hereditary: ninety hereditary peers are entitled to take their seats as legislators. Oddly, they are the only elected members—elected by their fellow hereditary peers. Aside from the twenty-six bishops of the Church of England who sit as “Lords Spiritual”—as they did in 1830—the remaining members have been appointed by successive governments. How far an upper house installed by the patronage of Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher is an improvement on one installed by the accident of birth is debatable. In 1830, it was more important that many members of the House of Lords were large landowners, exerting enormous influence both directly as landlords and indirectly through their power over the membership of the House of Commons.

The House of Commons was elective, but all similarity to a modern legislature ends there. It had 658 members, most of them members for English constituencies. Some were members for places that hardly existed even physically: Dunwich was a village on the east coast, once a thriving port but by the 1820s lying almost entirely beneath the waters of the North Sea. Old Sarum consisted of empty fields a few miles north of the town of Salisbury, with no inhabitants but the capacity to create an electorate of a dozen or so voters who returned two members to Parliament.


Among the many pleasures of Perilous Question are the illustrations: among them, John Constable’s evocative landscape of the “green mound” that was all that remained of the medieval town of Old Sarum is quite enough to make the reformers’ case. Their indignation was directed at “rotten boroughs” such as these, where a tiny electorate continued to return two members of Parliament, and at “pocket boroughs” where a well-off patron could install whomever he chose as the member.

Large landowners might control as many as twenty constituencies. They regarded them as their property, for which they had often paid good money. The Duke of Newcastle asked indignantly why he couldn’t do what he liked with his own; to him reform was just another name for an assault on property. The right to vote in general elections was distributed almost as oddly as seats in Parliament. Like many writers, Fraser is much taken with possession of the franchise by “potwallopers,” although her explanation that someone who “boiled a pot” in the district was entitled to vote is cryptic; the crucial point was that the voter had to boil a pot “on his own hearth.” That qualified him as a householder; someone who rented a room in another person’s house but cooked his own meals could qualify, as long as he was not in receipt of alms. The so-called “scot and lot” franchise, where the right to vote depended on being a local taxpayer, is here misprinted as a “soc and lot” franchise, although the quantities of drink lavished on the voters might make one think “sot and lot” was more appropriate.2

The Reverend Sydney Smith, clergyman, wit, and contributor to the Edinburgh Review, thought that twenty great landowners controlled the House of Commons. Many members of Parliament were in any case the sons, sons-in-law, or brothers-in-law of members of the House of Lords, as they were throughout the nineteenth century. Members of Parliament were unpaid until 1911, and apart from the legal profession and banking, few ways of making a living were compatible with the life an MP. It was an occupation for a gentleman of independent means. The maldistribution of representation naturally aroused indignation among reformers.

During the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution had taken off. Manchester and Birmingham epitomized the new industrial world: cities blanketed by the smoke of steam-driven machinery and coal-fired iron furnaces, and connected by the first railroads as early as 1830. Both cities were growing at a prodigious rate, and the 310,000 inhabitants of the one and the 145,000 inhabitants of the other were without a single representative in Parliament, while sparsely populated Cornwall sent forty-four. It was unsurprising that some of the most politically adept pressure for reform came from the Birmingham Political Union, the creation of Thomas Attwood, a banker with eccentric ideas about currency reform but one of Fraser’s heroes.

The Whig government that eventually passed the Great Reform Bill desperately needed such pressure from “out of doors” that was determined enough to make the Tory opponents of reform afraid of what might happen if they continued to resist changes; but the pressure had to be peaceful, respectable, and unswervingly loyal to the existing constitutional order, so that the conservatives would neither be panicked into turning a political conflict into an armed struggle nor given an excuse for repression as a prophylactic against demands for democracy. Attwood and the Birmingham Union provided much of what was needed.

Demands for parliamentary reform had been heard on and off for forty years, but the long domination of British politics by Tory administrations prevented them from making much headway. The Whig Earl Grey had, as he told his colleagues, urged reform all his career. He had entered politics as a very young man, and only now at the age of sixty-seven was he heading a Whig administration that could hope to reform a system both archaic and corrupt. Events had been running against the reformers. From the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, and on through the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had been defending the existing order against one threat after another.

Even in 1830, as Fraser observes, the situation was unpropitious. Across the Channel, the French were engaged in the July Revolution that evicted the last Bourbon king and installed Louis-Philippe as “King of the French.” Charles X took temporary refuge in the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh, a reminder of the dangers to which kings who mishandled Parliament might be exposed. One could, and observers did, draw different lessons from the fate of Charles X: reformers urged William IV to accept moderate reform to preserve the loyalty of his people; conservatives urged him to stand fast against any weakening of royal and aristocratic authority.


Meanwhile, there was a high level of economic discontent. Britain was rapidly industrializing but was still a country where most workers earned their living on the land. As everywhere in Europe, bad harvests spelled a risk that working people would go hungry. Not until the opening of the American prairies and the building of the grain clippers was the threat of famine wholly lifted. The situation was exacerbated by other factors. The introduction of agricultural machinery threatened the employment of farm laborers; landlords sought to make up for falling incomes after a string of bad harvests by raising their tenants’ rents; and import duties on grain—the “Corn Laws,” repealed only in 1846—kept bread prices high.

The chaotic system of poor relief inherited from the Tudor period did little to help matters; some enlightened landowners and their stewards reduced rents and ensured that their tenants did not go hungry, but many did not. Unhappy and unemployed agricultural workers resorted to hayrick burning; their activities were barely half-organized, but were often attributed to a mysterious “Captain Swing.” “The campaign took its name from its leader, Captain Swing—was he a man or a myth?” asks Fraser. Landowners were alarmed by doggerel threats: “Revenge for thee is on the Wing/From thy determined Captain Swing,” but intelligent observers like William Cobbett and the politician, diplomat, and writer Edward Gibbon Wakefield knew that this was not rural insurrection but a reflex protest at the misery caused, as Wakefield said, by bad corn laws, bad poor laws, and bad education.3


Bristol Record Office

Fires in the city of Bristol during three days of riots protesting the defeat of the Great Reform Act in the House of Lords, October 1831. The bill finally became law in June 1832.

Against the background of smoke-grimed industrial cities and a countryside lit by the glow of burning crops, Antonia Fraser takes us into the equally smoky and much more claustrophobic atmosphere of the unreformed Parliament as well as 10 Downing Street and St. James’s Palace. The story in outline is simple; sixty years ago, we learned it by rote at school. It was assumed that the general election held over four weeks from the end of July 1830 would produce a Tory government with the Duke of Wellington as prime minister. In the absence of modern party organization, calculating the outcome was an imprecise business, but it looked as though the prime minister’s “friends” outnumbered their opponents by about forty-two. As Fraser puts it, “There seemed no particular reason to suppose that this Parliament would not continue like a docile carthorse to plod on under the direction of the Duke of Wellington.”

But the duke committed political suicide. Stating the government’s position on the reform of Parliament, he declared himself wholly and unequivocally hostile to any change whatever:

He was not only not prepared to bring forward any measure of this nature, but he would at once declare that as far as he was concerned, as long as he held any station in the government of the country, he would always feel it his duty to resist such measures when proposed by others.

Wellington’s “friends” deserted him; moderates thought some measure of reform was needed and did not think Lord Grey and the Whigs would do anything drastic; others saw a chance to take their revenge for Wellington’s support of Catholic Emancipation in 1829. He had no inkling of what was about to happen, and was stunned when the government was defeated on a motion to consider the representation of the people.

Apart from a brief interlude in 1806, there had been no Whig administration for sixty years. Now there was one committed to the reform of Parliament. Still, it was a Whig government facing a largely Tory House of Commons, and whatever happened in the Commons, there was an overwhelmingly Tory House of Lords standing in the way of new legislation. Astonishingly, the government’s proposals squeaked through the House of Commons in late March 1831, although they included the wholesale redistribution of seats (a uniform—property-based—franchise that would approximately double the size of the electorate) and the reduction of the number of constituencies by around a third. This last proposal disappeared before the final passage of the Great Reform Bill; it has been proposed from time to time ever since, most recently by David Cameron, but has never got very far. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas and MPs do not vote to eliminate their seats.

Opponents of reform succeeded in defeating the government soon afterward; they had a scheme up their sleeves to prevent Grey and his colleagues from calling a general election—which he had planned to call ever since the Tories had blocked the reduction of seats—by voting to forbid a dissolution of Parliament. A general election required the dissolution of Parliament by the king, and nobody knew in 1831 whether the king could dissolve Parliament against the wishes of Parliament itself; the king was in no mood to see the royal prerogative challenged, even by Tory allies of his wife. He preempted the maneuver by attending the House of Lords in order to dissolve Parliament amid scenes more appropriate to a zoo than the Mother of Parliaments.

The election that followed returned a solid majority for reform; both contemporaries and later historians reckon it at 130 to 140. The Great Reform Bill was introduced once again in late June, passed all its stages in the Commons, and was introduced in the Lords in October. There it was defeated by a majority of forty-one, and the country erupted at this plain defiance of popular will.

The most dramatic events occurred in Bristol. Rioters stormed the city’s Mansion House where the Tory politician Charles Wetherell was supposed to be dining in state with the Lord Mayor. The cellars were looted, a fire was started, and an unknown number of rioters perished in the blazing building. The official death toll was a dozen, but Fraser thinks, plausibly, that “the number of rioters who died was probably more like 400, including those burnt to death drunk, even if it could not be accurately estimated.” Parliament went into recess. The bill was reintroduced in the Commons in December, with some modifications to the number of seats to be suppressed. It secured a majority of 162.

There were rocks ahead. If the Lords again voted the bill down, what was to be done? Lord Brougham was sure the answer was that the king must create enough peers to provide a majority for the bill; William IV loathed the idea, but feared it might have to be done; his wife and the ladies of the royal household, “the royal tabbies” as they were unkindly called, conspired behind the scenes to bring back the Duke of Wellington. Grey pressed on courteously, gently, steadily, undeterred by the hysterics of Tory peers and Tory bishops, twenty-one of whom had voted against reform. Encouraged by “the royal tabbies” to believe that the king would not create new peers to give Grey his legislation, the House of Lords again voted down the bill.

Grey and the Whig ministry resigned. Wellington braced himself to serve his king by introducing a very diluted reform bill. After all, he had reversed himself over Catholic Emancipation, so why not now? The answer was that he could not get a majority in the House of Commons; worse yet, the Tory he needed as leader of the House, Sir Robert Peel, refused to serve. Peel had betrayed his principles over Catholic Emancipation and was mocked for it. He would not do it again. Wellington was forced to hand back his commission as prime minister. Now it was not only hysterical conservatives who thought that the country was on the brink of revolution. Wellington might say, as he often did, that one of his regiments was enough to cow the whole of London, but even he had wit enough to see that it was uncertain that an English army—anyway few in numbers—would be willing to fire on their own countrymen. Muskets were no use if soldiers would not fire them.

In the event, the Whigs returned, the king let it be known that he would create enough peers to pass the reform bill, but hoped that it would not be necessary; Wellington made one last lugubrious prophecy of disaster, and indicated that he would abstain; the diehards and the bishops were persuaded to stay away from the final vote. The king signified his assent, not in person, but by appointed commissioners, ensuring, as Macaulay observed, that all the goodwill he had gained by supporting a reforming government was dissipated by a pointless piece of sulking. “What madness!—to give more to his subjects than any King ever gave, and yet to give in such a manner as to get no thanks.”

It has always been called the Great Reform Act. One might wonder whether it was. The one complaint one might level at Perilous Question is that it barely glances, not so much at the slow advance of democracy in Britain, as at the wider changes of which the Reform Act was a part. Fraser rightly points out that universal suffrage only arrived in 1928 when women got the vote on the same terms as men; and she notes that the increase in the size of the electorate in 1832 was unimpressive: from around 6 percent of adult males to around 9 percent. By 1830, the United States was close to universal (white) male suffrage. But in Britain, the best one can say about the Reform Act is that rotten boroughs were swept away and the suffrage put on a uniform basis, if still one resting on property. It took the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 to get close to uniform male suffrage, and the Ballot Act of 1872 to introduce the secret ballot, something indispensable to a serious attack on bribery and intimidation.

The Great Reform Act belongs with what is better described as a sustained process of tidying up rather than “democratization.” In 1828, the year before Catholic Emancipation, the Test and Corporation Acts that excluded Dissenters from public office had been repealed. In 1832, immediately after the Reform Act had passed, the government embarked on an inquiry into the finances of the Church of England that broadened out into the wholesale reform of endowed institutions, eventually including Oxford and Cambridge and the public schools. In 1833, the East India Company’s management of India was reconstructed, and in the same year slavery in the West Indies was abolished. In 1834, the Poor Law was entirely rewritten. During the 1820s, Robert Peel had created a modern police force for London, radically simplified the criminal law, and dramatically reduced the number of capital crimes. During the 1840s, he was responsible for bringing the first of a series of Factory Acts onto the statute books. He did so just before wrecking the Conservative Party by pushing through the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. No institution was left untouched.

The process of modernization entailed a shift in the balance of authority between the Crown, the Lords, and the Commons; in 1832, it mattered very much what William IV was willing to accept and the peers he was willing to create; but by 1867, Walter Bagehot was writing in The English Constitution that if Parliament sent the queen a warrant for her own execution, properly made out, she would have no option but to sign it. The monarchy, he argued, belonged to the “dignified” rather than the “efficient” part of the British political system, valuable in promoting loyalty, but irrelevant to the management of everyday matters.

The erosion of the power of the House of Lords took longer, but after 1911, in the aftermath of the House of Lords’ resistance to Lloyd George’s radical budgets, it lost all but a delaying power; the supremacy of the House of Commons was formalized. Wellington was right about the eventual result, if not about its speed or violence; the old regime of Crown, Lords, and Commons was replaced by the rule of professional politicians.

Whatever Perilous Question lacks by way of analysis it more than makes up in high spirits and literary verve. Fraser’s account of the Reverend Sydney Smith mocking the Duke of Wellington during a political speech in Taunton in the fall of 1831 by playing Dame Partington vainly trying to hold back the Atlantic with a mop is only one of the many passages that leave an indelible image. And for those who want the image reinforced, the illustrations include John Doyle’s delightful picture of the Duke of Wellington in a housewife’s gown and bonnet, the waves of reform about to crash upon his head.