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James Bertie, 1st Earl of Abingdon

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James Bertie, 1st Earl of Abingdon

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James Bertie was approaching just four years of age when he succeeded to the Norris barony upon the death of his mother in 1657. At the age of twenty he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire by Charles II. He was to hold the office for much of the remainder of the century. Tory in his inclinations, he was the dominant political force in the county. In recognition of his loyal service, he was created Earl of Abingdon by Charles in 1682. Yet despite his traditional support for the monarchy, he was one of the first peers to desert James II upon the Prince of Orange’s invasion of England in 1688.

James Bertie, born 10 May 1653, was the eldest son of Montague Bertie, 2nd Earl of Lindsey, and his second wife Bridget Wray, suo jure Baroness Norris (MS. Gough Oxon 31, fol. 196). He succeeded to the Norris barony on 24 March 1657 following the death of his mother (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 1, p. 45). Lord Norris married, on 1 February 1672, Eleanora, daughter of Sir Henry Lee of Ditchley (MS. Wood's diaries 16, fol. 12).

On 19 March 1674 Norris was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire by Charles II (CSP Dom. 1673-5, p. 205). A pillar of the Oxfordshire Tories, Norris spearheaded the court’s efforts to curtail Whig influence in the county during the exclusion crisis.

In recognition of his service to the crown, Norris was created Earl of Abingdon by the King on 23 November 1682 (CSP Dom. 1682, p. 50). The news was met with joy in Oxford, at least in Tory circles, where celebratory bonfires were lit.  At All Souls College “they brought out a barrell of beare out of the cellar and dranke it in healths on their knees to the K[ing], D[uke] of Y[ork] and E. of Abendon, out of the buckets that hung up in the hall” (MS. Wood's diaries 26, fol. 45v).

On 6 February 1685 Charles II died and was succeeded by his brother the Duke of York. Abingdon proclaimed the new King James II in Oxford (MS. Wood D. 19(3), fols. 62-6). He was retained as Lord Lieutenant with the assurance that “the King is very well inform’d of those who served his late Majesty as they ought to doe, and...intends to be served in Oxfordshire by no body but your Lordship” (MS. Clarendon 128, fol. 11). Later that year in June, Abingdon remained steadfast in his loyalty to the King when the Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son, instigated a rebellion. Abingdon was meticulous in his preparations to secure the Oxfordshire defences.

James II’s efforts to secure toleration for his Catholic subjects severely strained Abingdon’s loyalty to the crown. On 18 November 1687 he was summoned to a private meeting with the King at which he was asked to present three questions to the gentleman of Oxfordshire (Lindsey Mss., pp. 270-2). The first question was, if elected to Parliament would they support the repeal of the penal laws? The second, would they accept the election of MPs who would? And thirdly, would they accept the religious toleration stipulated by the King’s Declaration of Indulgence? (Harris, Revolution, p. 231). Abingdon refused on the basis that his own answer to each question was no. He considered the repeal of the penal laws a threat to the Church of England (Lindsey Mss., pp. 270-2). A few days later, James dismissed Abingdon from the lord lieutenancy of Oxfordshire (CSP Dom. 1687-9, p. 106).

On 14 November 1688 Abingdon deserted James II for William, Prince of Orange (Beddard, Kingdom without a King, p. 21). The Prince had landed an army in England with the declared purpose of securing the Protestant religion and the established laws and privileges of the people (Harris, Revolution, p. 274; Declaration of the Prince of Orange, p. 13). Despite his defection, Abingdon was wholly opposed to any settlement that would result in James’s removal from the throne (Lindsey Mss., pp. 270-2). His fears were realised when the Convention Parliament voted James to have abdicated upon his flight to France (JHL, vol. 14, p. 119). He voted against the act declaring William and his wife Mary joint monarchs (JHL, vol. 14, p. 455). Despite his opposition to the settlement, he was reinstalled as Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire on 12 March 1689 (CSP Dom. 1689-90, p. 21). He held the post until his dismissal in April 1697 (CSP Dom. 1697, p. 123).

Abingdon’s first wife Eleanora died on 31 May 1691 (MS. Rawl. 400f, fol. 51r). He married his second wife, Catherine, Dowager Viscountess Wenman, on 15 April 1698 (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 1, p. 46). Abingdon died of a fever on 22 May 1699 and was buried at Rycote (Cokayne, Peerage, vol. 1, p. 46). His eldest son Montagu succeeded him as 2nd Earl of Abingdon.

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