John Wilkes

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John Wilkes
John Wilkes after Richard Houston.jpg
John Wilkes by Richard Houston (1769)
Literary movement Radicalism
Relatives Mary Hayley (sister)
Member of the British Parliament
for Middlesex
In office
1774   1790
In office
1768   1769
Personal details
Born(1725-10-17)17 October 1725
Clerkenwell, London, Great Britain
Died26 December 1797(1797-12-26) (aged 72)
Westminster, London, Great Britain
CitizenshipUnion flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg  Great Britain
Political party Radicals
Alma mater University of Leiden
Soldier (militia)

John Wilkes (17 October 1725 – 26 December 1797) was a British radical, journalist and politician. He was first elected a Member of Parliament in 1757. In the Middlesex election dispute, he fought for the right of his voters—rather than the House of Commons—to determine their representatives. In 1768, angry protests of his supporters were suppressed in the St George's Fields Massacre. In 1771, he was instrumental in obliging the government to concede the right of printers to publish verbatim accounts of parliamentary debates. In 1776, he introduced the first bill for parliamentary reform in the British Parliament.

The term "Radical" during the late 18th-century and early 19th-century identified proponents of democratic reform, in what subsequently became the parliamentary Radical Movement.

Middlesex is a former constituency. It was a constituency of the House of Commons of the Parliament of England, then of the Parliament of Great Britain from 1707 to 1800, and finally of the Parliament of the United Kingdom from 1801 to 1885. It returned two members by various voting systems including hustings.

Bill (law) proposed law

A bill is proposed legislation under consideration by a legislature. A bill does not become law until it is passed by the legislature and, in most cases, approved by the executive. Once a bill has been enacted into law, it is called an act of the legislature, or a statute. Bills are introduced in the legislature and are discussed, debated and voted upon.


During the American War of Independence, he was a supporter of the American rebels, adding further to his popularity with American Whigs. In 1780, however, he commanded militia forces which helped put down the Gordon Riots, damaging his popularity with many radicals. This marked a turning point, leading him to embrace increasingly conservative policies which caused dissatisfaction among the progressive-radical low-to-middle income landowners. This was instrumental in the loss of his Middlesex parliamentary seat in the 1790 general election. At the age of 65, Wilkes retired from politics and took no part in the social reforms following the French Revolution, such as Catholic Emancipation in the 1790s. During his life, he earned a reputation as a libertine.

American Revolutionary War War between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies, which won independence as the United States of America

The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence, was an 18th-century war between Great Britain and its Thirteen Colonies which declared independence as the United States of America.

Patriot (American Revolution) American colonist who rejected British rule in the American Revolution

Patriots were those colonists of the Thirteen Colonies who rejected British rule during the American Revolution and declared the United States of America as an independent nation in July 1776. Their decision was based on the political philosophy of republicanism as expressed by spokesmen such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine. They were opposed by the Loyalists who supported continued British rule.

Militia generally refers to an army or other fighting force that is composed of non-professional fighters

A militia is generally an army or some other fighting organization of non-professional soldiers, citizens of a nation, or subjects of a state, who can be called upon for military service during a time of need, as opposed to a professional force of regular, full-time military personnel, or historically, members of a warrior nobility class. Generally unable to hold ground against regular forces, it is common for militias to be used for aiding regular troops by skirmishing, holding fortifications, or irregular warfare, instead of being used in offensive campaigns by themselves. Militia are often limited by local civilian laws to serve only in their home region, and to serve only for a limited time; this further reduces their use in long military campaigns.

Early life and character

Born in the Clerkenwell neighborhood of central London, John Wilkes was the third child of distiller Israel Wilkes Jr. and Sarah Wilkes, née Heaton. His siblings included: eldest sister Sarah Wilkes, born 1721; elder brother Israel Wilkes III (1722–1805); younger brother Heaton Wilkes (9 February 1727–1803); younger sister Mary Hayley, née Wilkes (1728–1808); and youngest sister Ann Wilkes (1736–1750), who died from smallpox at the age of 14.

Clerkenwell area of inner north London in the London Borough of Islington

Clerkenwell is an area of central London, England. The area includes the sub-district of Finsbury.

London Capital of the United Kingdom

London is the capital and largest city of both England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south-east of England, at the head of its 50-mile (80 km) estuary leading to the North Sea, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. Londinium was founded by the Romans. The City of London, London's ancient core − an area of just 1.12 square miles (2.9 km2) and colloquially known as the Square Mile − retains boundaries that follow closely its medieval limits. The City of Westminster is also an Inner London borough holding city status. Greater London is governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

Mary Hayley English businesswoman

Mary Hayley née Wilkes was an English businesswoman. She parlayed an inheritance from her first husband into a sizeable estate with her second husband. Upon the latter's death, she took over the business and successfully operated a shipping firm from 1781 to 1792 before living out her life in Bath.

John Wilkes was educated initially at an academy in Hertford; this was followed by private tutoring and finally a stint at the University of Leiden in the Dutch Republic. There he met Andrew Baxter, a Presbyterian clergyman who greatly influenced Wilkes' views on religion. [1] [2] Although Wilkes remained in the Church of England throughout his life, he had a deep sympathy for non-conformist Protestants and was an advocate of religious tolerance from an early age. [3] [4] Wilkes was also beginning to develop a deep patriotism for his country. During the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, he rushed home to London to join a Loyal Association and readied to defend the capital. Once the rebellion had ended after the Battle of Culloden, Wilkes returned to the Netherlands to complete his studies.

Hertford county town of Hertfordshire, England

Hertford is the county town of Hertfordshire, England, and is also a civil parish in the East Hertfordshire district of the county. The town has a population of approximately 26,000, according to the 2011 census.

Dutch Republic Republican predecessor state of the Netherlands from 1581 to 1795

The Dutch Republic, or the United Provinces, was a confederal republic that existed from the formal creation of a confederacy in 1581 by several Dutch provinces—seceded from Spanish rule—until the Batavian Revolution of 1795. It was a predecessor state of the Netherlands and the first Dutch nation state.

Andrew Baxter was a Scottish metaphysician.

In 1747, he married Mary Meade (1715-1784) and came into possession of an estate and income in Buckinghamshire. [1] They had one child, Mary (known as Polly), to whom John was utterly devoted for the rest of his life. Wilkes and Mary, however, separated in 1756, a separation that became permanent. Wilkes never married again, but he gained a reputation as a rake. He was known to have fathered two other children, John Henry Smith and Harriet Wilkes. [5]

Buckinghamshire County of England

Buckinghamshire, abbreviated Bucks, is a ceremonial county in South East England which borders Greater London to the south east, Berkshire to the south, Oxfordshire to the west, Northamptonshire to the north, Bedfordshire to the north east and Hertfordshire to the east.

Wilkes was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1749 and appointed High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1754. He was an unsuccessful candidate for Berwick in the 1754 parliamentary elections but was elected for Aylesbury in 1757 and again in 1761. [6] Elections took place at St Mary the Virgin's Church, Aylesbury where he held a manorial pew. He lived at the Prebendal House, Parsons Fee, Aylesbury.

Fellow of the Royal Society Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, including Honorary, Foreign and Royal Fellows

Fellowship of the Royal Society is an award granted to individuals that the Royal Society of London judges to have made a 'substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science, and medical science'.

The High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire, in common with other counties, was originally the King's representative on taxation upholding the law in Saxon times. The word Sheriff evolved from 'shire-reeve'.

Berwick-upon-Tweed (UK Parliament constituency) Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom

Berwick-upon-Tweed is a constituency represented in the House of Commons of the UK parliament by an elected Member of Parliament (MP). Since 2015 this MP has been Anne-Marie Trevelyan of the Conservative Party who succeeded the longest serving Liberal Democrat MP Sir Alan Beith who stood down prior to the 2015 election.

He was a member of the Knights of St Francis of Wycombe, also known as the Hellfire Club or the Medmenham Monks, and was the instigator of a prank that may have hastened its dissolution. The Club had many distinguished members, including John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich and Sir Francis Dashwood. Wilkes reportedly brought a baboon dressed in a cape and horns into the rituals performed at the club, producing considerable mayhem among the inebriated initiates. [7]

Wilkes was notoriously ugly, being called the ugliest man in England at the time. He possessed an unsightly squint and protruding jaw, but he had a charm that carried all before it. He boasted that it "took him only half an hour to talk away his face", though the duration required changed on the several occasions Wilkes repeated the claim. He also declared that "a month's start of his rival on account of his face" would secure him the conquest in any love affair.

He was well known for his verbal wit and his snappy responses to insults. For instance, when told by a constituent that he would rather vote for the devil, Wilkes responded: "Naturally." He then added: "And if your friend decides against standing, can I count on your vote?" [8]

In an exchange with John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, where the latter exclaimed, "Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox," Wilkes is reported to have replied, "That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship's principles or your mistress." Fred R. Shapiro, in The Yale Book of Quotations (2006), disputes the attribution based on a claim that it first appeared in a book published in 1935, [9] but it is ascribed to Wilkes in Henry Brougham's Historical Sketches (1844), related from Bernard Howard, 12th Duke of Norfolk, who claims to have been present, [10] as well as in Charles Marsh's Clubs of London (1828). [11] Brougham notes the exchange had in France previously been ascribed to Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau and Cardinal Jean-Sifrein Maury. [10]

Radical journalism

Lord Bute, Prime Minister between 1762 and 1763, and a major target for Wilkes' paper The North Briton. It angered Wilkes that Bute had displaced Pitt the Elder, and he attacked the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763). JohnStuartBute.jpg
Lord Bute, Prime Minister between 1762 and 1763, and a major target for Wilkes' paper The North Briton . It angered Wilkes that Bute had displaced Pitt the Elder, and he attacked the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1763).
A satirical engraving of Wilkes by William Hogarth, who shows him with a demonic-looking wig, crossed eyes, and two editions of his The North Briton: Numbers 17 (in which he attacked, among others, Hogarth) and the famous 45 William Hogarth - John Wilkes, Esq.png
A satirical engraving of Wilkes by William Hogarth, who shows him with a demonic-looking wig, crossed eyes, and two editions of his The North Briton : Numbers 17 (in which he attacked, among others, Hogarth) and the famous 45

Wilkes began his parliamentary career as a follower of William Pitt the Elder and enthusiastically supported Britain's involvement in the Seven Years War of 1756-1763. When the Scottish John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, came to head the government in 1762, Wilkes started a radical weekly publication, The North Briton , to attack him, using an anti-Scots tone. Typical of Wilkes, the title made satirical reference to the pro-government newspaper, The Briton , with "North Briton" referring to Scotland. Wilkes became particularly incensed by what he regarded as Bute's betrayal in agreeing to overly generous peace terms with France to end the war. [7]

On 5 October 1762, Wilkes fought a duel with William Talbot, 1st Earl Talbot. Talbot was the Lord Steward and a follower of Bute; he challenged Wilkes to a pistol duel after being ridiculed in issue 12 of The North Briton. [12] The encounter took place at Bagshot - at night to avoid attracting judicial attention. At a range of eight yards, Talbot and Wilkes both fired their pistols but neither was hit. Somewhat reconciled, they then went to a nearby inn and shared a bottle of claret. When the affair later became widely known, some viewed it as comical, and a satirical print made fun of the duelists. Some commentators even denounced the duel as a stunt, stage-managed to enhance the reputations of both men. [13]

Wilkes faced a charge of seditious libel over attacks on George III's speech endorsing the Paris Peace Treaty of 1763 at the opening of Parliament on 23 April 1763. Wilkes was highly critical of the King's speech, which was recognised as having been written by Bute [ citation needed ]. He attacked it in an article of issue 45 of The North Briton. The issue number in which Wilkes published his critical editorial was appropriate because the number 45 was synonymous with the Jacobite Rising of 1745, commonly known as "The '45". Popular perception associated Bute – Scottish, and politically controversial as an adviser to the King – with Jacobitism, a perception which Wilkes played on.

The King felt personally insulted and ordered the issuing of general warrants for the arrest of Wilkes and the publishers on 30 April 1763. Forty-nine people, including Wilkes, were arrested, but general warrants were unpopular and Wilkes gained considerable popular support as he asserted their unconstitutionality. At his court hearing he claimed that parliamentary privilege protected him, as an MP, from arrest on a charge of libel. The Lord Chief Justice ruled that parliamentary privilege did indeed protect him and he was soon restored to his seat. Wilkes sued his arresters for trespass. As a result of this episode, people were chanting, "Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45", referring to the newspaper. [14] Parliament swiftly voted in a measure that removed protection of MPs from arrest for the writing and publishing of seditious libel. [15]

Bute had resigned (8 April 1763), but Wilkes opposed Bute's successor as chief advisor to the King, George Grenville, just as strenuously. On 16 November 1763, Samuel Martin, a supporter of George III, challenged Wilkes to a duel. Martin shot Wilkes in the belly.


"John Wilkes Esq; before the Court of King's Bench", engraving from The Gentleman's Magazine for May 1768 John Wilkes Esq before the Court of King's Bench.jpg
"John Wilkes Esq; before the Court of King's Bench", engraving from The Gentleman's Magazine for May 1768

Wilkes and Thomas Potter wrote a pornographic poem dedicated to the courtesan Fanny Murray entitled "An Essay on Woman" [16] as a parody of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man". [17]

Wilkes's political enemies, foremost among them John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who was also a member of the Hellfire Club, obtained the parody. Sandwich had a personal vendetta against Wilkes that stemmed in large part from embarrassment caused by a prank of Wilkes involving the Earl at one of the Hellfire Club's meetings; he was delighted at the chance for revenge. Wilkes had frightened Sandwich during a seance put on by the club. Sandwich read the poem to the House of Lords in an effort to denounce Wilkes's moral behaviour, despite the hypocrisy of his action. The Lords declared the poem obscene and blasphemous, and it caused a great scandal. The House of Lords moved to expel Wilkes again; he fled to Paris before any expulsion or trial. He was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764. [18]

Wilkes hoped for a change in power to remove the charges, but this did not come to pass. As his French creditors began to pressure him, in 1768 he had little choice but to return to England. He returned intending to stand as a Member of Parliament on an anti-government ticket; the government did not issue warrants for his immediate arrest as it did not want to inflame popular support. [19]

Wilkes stood in London and came in bottom of the poll of seven candidates, possibly due to his late entry into the race for the position. He was quickly elected as a Radical Member of Parliament for Middlesex, where most of his support was located. He surrendered himself to the King's Bench in April. On waiving his parliamentary privilege to immunity, he was sentenced by Judge Joseph Yates to two years and fined £1,000; the Lords' sentence of outlawry was overturned. [20]

When Wilkes was imprisoned in the King's Bench Prison on 10 May 1768, his supporters appeared before King's Bench, London, chanting "No liberty, no King." Troops opened fire on the unarmed men, killing seven and wounding fifteen, an incident that came to be known as the St George's Fields Massacre. The Irish playwright Hugh Kelly, a prominent supporter of the government, defended the right of the army to use force against rioters, which drew the anger of Wilkes' supporters and they began a riot at the Drury Lane Theatre during the performance of Kelly's new play A Word to the Wise , forcing it to be abandoned. [21]

Middlesex election dispute

The Brentford Sweepstakes, drawing from Town and Country Magazine (13 April 1769) satirising the election. Wilkes' riderless horse labelled "1143" indicating he got a majority of the vote, while his opponents founder. The Brentford Sweepstakes high.png
The Brentford Sweepstakes, drawing from Town and Country Magazine (13 April 1769) satirising the election. Wilkes' riderless horse labelled "1143" indicating he got a majority of the vote, while his opponents founder.

Parliament expelled Wilkes in February 1769, on the grounds that he was an outlaw when returned. His Middlesex constituents re-elected him in the same month with the support of John Wheble, editor of the Middlesex Journal, only to see him expelled again and re-elected in March. In April, after his expulsion and another re-election, Parliament declared his opponent, Henry Luttrell, the winner.

In defiance, Wilkes became an Alderman of London in 1769, using his supporters' group, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights, [22] for his campaign. Wilkes eventually succeeded in convincing Parliament to expunge the resolution barring him from sitting. While in Parliament, he condemned Government policy towards the American colonies during the American Revolution of 1775-1783. In addition, he introduced one of the earliest radical Bills to Parliament, although it failed to gain passage. On his release from prison in March 1770, Wilkes was appointed a sheriff in London, and in 1771 the law on publicity of the parliamentary discussions was voted in Parliament, of which Wilkes was a great defender and who authorized the literal reproduction of the interventions of the Parliament.

Later life

Wilkes' popularity with radicals declined after he led militia to protect the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots in 1780. Wilkes became a supporter of William Pitt the Younger who became Prime Minister in 1783, and severed most of his former radical connections. The Gordon Riots by John Seymour Lucas.jpg
Wilkes' popularity with radicals declined after he led militia to protect the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots in 1780. Wilkes became a supporter of William Pitt the Younger who became Prime Minister in 1783, and severed most of his former radical connections.

In 1774 he became Lord Mayor of London; [23] he was simultaneously Master of the Joiners' Company, where he changed the motto from "GOD GRANNTE US TO USE JUSTICE WITHE MERCYE" to "JOIN LOYALTY AND LIBERTY", a political slogan associated with Wilkes. [24] That year Wilkes was re-elected to Parliament, again representing Middlesex. He was one of those opposed to war with the American colonies. He was also a supporter of the Association Movement and of religious tolerance. His key success was to protect the freedom of the press by gaining passage of a bill to remove the power of general warrants and to end Parliament's ability to punish political reports of debates. [7] In 1779 he was elected to the position of Chamberlain of the City of London, a post of great responsibility which he was to hold until his death in 1797.

After 1780, his popularity declined as he was popularly perceived as less radical. During the uprising known as the Gordon Riots, Wilkes was in charge of the soldiers defending the Bank of England from the attacking mobs. It was under his orders that troops fired into the crowds of rioters. The working classes who had previously seen Wilkes as a "man of the people", then criticised him as a hypocrite; his middle-class support was scared off by the violent action. The Gordon Riots nearly extinguished his popularity.

While he was returned for the county seat of Middlesex in 1784, he found so little support that by 1790, he withdrew early in the election. The French Revolution of 1789 had proved extremely divisive in England, and Wilkes had been against it due to the violent murders in France. His position was different from that of many radicals of the time and was a view more associated with conservative figures, including expressed indifference as to Catholic Emancipation. Edmund Burke, who had also supported American Independence, made a similar switch.

Wilkes worked in his final years as a magistrate campaigning for more moderate punishment for disobedient household servants.

Between 1788 and 1797 he occupied a property named "Villakin" in Sandown, Isle of Wight. The site is marked by a blue plaque. [25]

Statue of John Wilkes (Fetter Lane, London) StatueOfJohnWilkes.jpg
Statue of John Wilkes (Fetter Lane, London)

He was a member of the Oddfellows [26] and today, a statue in his memory stands at Fetter Lane EC4.

Wilkes died at his home at 30 Grosvenor Square, Westminster, London on 26 December 1797. The cause of death was a wasting disease known at the time as marasmus. [27] His body was buried in a vault in Grosvenor Chapel, South Audley Street, London on 4 January 1798. [16]


A radical contemporary Irish politician Charles Lucas, who sat for Dublin City in the Irish Parliament, was known as the "Irish Wilkes". [28] The Dutch politician Joan van der Capellen tot den Pol (1741–1784), who advocated American independence and criticised the Stadtholder regime, was inspired by Wilkes.

British subjects in the American colonies closely followed Wilkes's career. His struggles convinced many colonists that the British constitution was being subverted by a corrupt ministry, an idea that contributed to the coming of the American Revolution. Wilkes was widely admired in the American colonies as a political journalist, a radical politician, and a fighter for liberty. He greatly influenced the revolutionaries who fought for American independence and played a role in establishing the right to freedom of the press in the United States. [29] In reaction, after the Revolution, representatives included provisions in the new American constitution to prevent Congress from rejecting any legally elected member and to proscribe general warrants for arrest.

John Wilkes's brother was the grandfather of U.S. Naval Admiral Charles Wilkes.


John Wilkes plaque in Grosvenor Church, London. The plaque beneath is to his daughter. John Wilkes Plaque Grosvenor.jpg
John Wilkes plaque in Grosvenor Church, London. The plaque beneath is to his daughter.

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  1. 1 2 Simkin 2011.
  2. Cash 2006, pp. 13–16.
  3. McCarthy 2006.
  4. Cash 2006, p. 9.
  5. Almon's Correspondence of John Wilkes. The Monthly Review. R. Griffiths. 1806. p. 47.
  6. Bloy 2011.
  7. 1 2 3 Lynch 2003.
  8. Cash 2006, p. 211.
  9. Shapiro 2006, pp. 281–2.
  10. 1 2 Brougham 1844, p. 146.
  11. Marsh 1828, p. 17.
  12. Sainsbury 2006, p. 71.
  13. Sainsbury 2006, p. 73.
  14. Rudbeck, Jens (2012). "Popular Sovereignty and the Historical Origin of the Social Movement". Theory & Society. 41: 588. doi:10.1007/s11186-012-9180-x . Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  15. Rounce, Adam (2005). "'Stuarts without End': Wilkes, Churchill, and Anti-Scottishness". Eighteenth-Century Life. 29 (3): 20. doi:10.1215/00982601-29-3-20 . Retrieved 11 October 2016.
  16. 1 2 An Essay On Woman In Three Epistles Gale Encyclopedia of Biography: John Wilkes entry. Accessed Feb 2014
  17. The definitive scholarly edition of the "Essay on Woman" is that of Arthur H. Cash, titled An Essay on Woman by John Wilkes and Thomas Potter: A Reconstruction of a Lost Book, with a Historical Essay on the Writing, Printing, and Suppressing of This "Blasphemous and Obscene" Work, (NY: AMS Press), 2001. It includes Pope's text of the original poem with the Wilkes-Potter parody juxtaposed on the facing pages.
  18. Cash 2006, pp. 151–79.
  19. Cash 2006, pp. 179–208.
  20. Cash 2006, pp. 204–26.
  21. Cash 2006, pp. 216–26.
  22. "The Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights (SSBR)".
  23. "History of the Mayoralty". City of London. Archived from the original on 20 October 2013.
  24. Joiners 2008.
  25. Allan 2011.
  26. Dennis 2008, p. 90.
  27. Peter D. G. Thomas, ‘Wilkes, John (1725–1797)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2008 accessed 19 Feb 2014
  28. Thomas 2002, p. 111.
  29. Mellen, Roger P. (2015). "John Wilkes and the Constitutional Right to a Free Press in the United States". Journalism History. 41 (1): 2. Retrieved 11 October 2016.


Further reading

Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by
Thomas Potter
John Willes
Member of Parliament for Aylesbury
With: John Willes 1757–1761
Welbore Ellis 1761–1764
Succeeded by
Welbore Ellis
Anthony Bacon
Preceded by
Sir William Beauchamp-Proctor, Bt
George Cooke
Member of Parliament for Middlesex
With: George Cooke 1768
John Glynn 1768–1769
Succeeded by
John Glynn
Henry Luttrell
Preceded by
John Glynn
Henry Luttrell
Member of Parliament for Middlesex
With: John Glynn 1774–1779
Thomas Wood 1779–1780
George Byng 1780–1784
William Mainwaring 1784–1790
Succeeded by
William Mainwaring
George Byng