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What Was the 'Whig' Party and Where Can You Find Them Today?

Temple of British Worthies
Stowe Landscape Gardens, Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Listed: 1951
Grade: I
NHLE entry: Listing details for the Temple of British Worthies

The formation of the coalition government in 2010 was said by some to challenge the two-party system of traditional British politics. But where did that two-party system originate? Intriguing clues to the answer can be found in the 'Temple of British Worthies', a structure in the gardens of Stowe House in Buckinghamshire that commemorates the famous English political faction, the 'Whig' party.

Temple of Worthies, Stowe Gardens

A legacy of conflict

The events of the English Civil Wars of 1642-51 transformed the institution of Parliament from an ad hoc council of royal advisers into the locus of state power. The 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688 made this transformation permanent: the new monarchs King William III and Queen Mary agreed to a Bill of Rights confirming Parliament's liberties and prerogatives and they were obliged to abide by its statutes.

The revolution's outcome - the overthrow of the Catholic James II - was engineered by a faction within the Lords and Commons. This small but influential group was dubbed the 'Whigs', a name deriving from the Scottish term 'whiggamor' ("cattle driver") originally applied to radical Scottish factions against the King. It entered English political discourse - often derogatorily - to describe those dedicated to curbing royal influence at Westminster, defending Nonconformist rights and ensuring a Protestant succession to the English throne.

They were opposed by 'the Tories', a loose alliance of Catholics, High Churchmen, Jacobites and Royalists (originally a term describing Irish bandits, but by the 17th century representing monarchist politicians who favoured the traditional political system).

Neither of these groups was a political party in the modern sense. Nevertheless, the division between the Whigs and the Tories, and their alternating control of government through the course of the 18th century, set the stage for two-party politics as we know them today.

A manifesto in stone

The landscape gardens surrounding Stowe House can be interpreted as, among other things, a Whig manifesto written on the face of the Buckinghamshire countryside. The estate belonged to the Temple family, a prominent Whig dynasty, who over a period of a hundred years transformed the house and gardens into a grand allegory of constitutional government, civil liberty and secular national pride.

They had the landscape remodelled in the new informal manner by William Kent and his pupil Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. They embellished it with a remarkable array of symbolic buildings intended to evoke specific moral, political and historical associations in those wandering the gardens.

‘Wealth, Security, and Respect to England’

One particularly symbolic structure was the 'Temple of Worthies'. Built in 1735 to William Kent's designs in the newly fashionable Palladian style (and Grade 1 listed in 1951), it comprises a crescent-shaped screen wall with a pyramidal centrepiece. The stone is embellished with a series of pedimented niches, containing busts of selected figures from British history.

The choice of subjects who could be considered 'British Worthies' - including the arch-republican poet John Milton, the Parliamentarian leader John Hampden and William III himself - is a testament to the Temple family's political loyalties. The chosen individuals fall into two groups: worthies known for their actions and worthies celebrated for their thoughts and ideas. The Temples' political leanings are made explicit by the accompanying inscriptions. The words below the bust of Elizabeth I offer a particularly neat summary of Whig ideals:

[She] confounded the Projects, and destroy'd the Power
that threaten'd to oppress the Liberties of Europe;
took off the Yoke of Ecclesiastical Tyranny;
restor'd Religion from the Corruptions of Popery;
and by a wise, moderate, and a popular Government,
gave Wealth, Security, and Respect to England.

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