The East End has long been a home for outsiders, radicals and dissenters. As a maritime gateway to the world, it was often the first port of call for new ideas, practices and philosophies brought from Europe and beyond.
And with its position just outside the City walls it was also a home for Englishmen and women whose views clashed with King and parliament.
Henry St John Bolingbroke, who made his home in Spital Square when it was a country retreat at the extreme north-east of London, was a font of ideas, political ambition and energy.
A mass of contradictions, he was a man of God and a philosopher, but also famed for his fondness for women and drink. A staunch supporter of the ruling monarchy of Queen Anne and her successor George I, he managed to sandwich his backing for the Old Pretender (James III of England and VIII of Scotland) in between.
Bolingbroke was born in 1678 and after his studies at Eton and Oxford – and the customary ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe which moneyed young men of the day used as their finishing school – he returned to London in 1700 with his mind set on women and politics.
He married the daughter of Sir Henry Winchcomb in 1700. But even by the double standards of the day, Bolingbroke’s infidelity was too much to ignore, and the couple soon separated.
Bolingbroke entered parliament in 1701, and soon he was becoming as renowned for his oratory as he had been for his high living. He joined the Tory Party and by 1704 was secretary of state for war.
At 30, his meteoric political career was suddenly halted. The Whigs came to power and Bolingbroke announced his intention to retire from the exhausting business of parliament and devote himself to study.
In truth, he was as active politically as ever, but now operating behind the scenes, using his enormous influence as Queen Anne’s favourite counsellor. The Whigs fell in 1710 and Bolingbroke was made foreign secretary, moving to the House of Lords in 1712 as Viscount Bolingbroke.
He was increasingly mistrusted despite – or, perhaps, because of – his brilliant way with words. He was a master of intrigue, not only whispering in the ear of Queen Anne, but using the London Tory clubs and writers such as the great satirist Jonathan Swift (author of Gulliver’s Travels) to swing public opinion in favour of his policies.
So skilful was his manipulation of parliament, though, that he managed to conclude the Peace of Utrecht in
1713 – the Anglo-French-Spanish treaty which established the first balance of power between the ever-warring nations – against enormous public opposition.
The opposing Whigs were furious. Bolingbroke had been chipping away at their power by pushing the Conformity and Schism acts through parliament, and they bitterly accused him of wheeling, dealing and intrigue.
In truth, the wheel of fortune was turning again for the great schemer. Henry foresaw a pro-Whig Hanoverian succeeding the now-ailing Anne and he began negotiations with the Old Pretender, replacing senior Whig army officers with Tories.
Events overtook him. Anne died suddenly in 1714, George I came to the throne and impeached Bolingbroke for treason, and Henry fled to France where he helped plan James’ Jacobite rebellion. At the same time, he augmented his fortune by marrying the rich widow of the Marquis de Vilette.
But whose side was he on? James dismissed him as an English spy and, in 1723, he slipped the new king a hefty bribe and bought himself a pardon.
Back in Spitalfields, Henry continued to influence from the shadows. He began a new political periodical, The Craftsman, from which he sniped at the government of Robert Walpole.
In later years, Bolingbroke accepted that his political influence was over, and his writings became increasingly preoccupied with religion. He argued strongly the existence of a god, and used philosophy and reasoning to prove it. But he was a furious opponent of organised religion and dismissive of the notion of God as a bearded heavenly figure.
As he had been mistrusted by the political establishment, now he was at odds with that of the Church. But the young dissolute died in comfortable and pious old age at his chateau in France in 1751.
Further reading: see Bolingbroke’s correspondence (ed by Gilbert Parke, 1798); biographies by Charles Petrie (1937) and H T Dickenson (1970);
J P Hart’s ‘Viscount Bolingbroke: Tory Humanist’ (1965);
I Kramnick’s ‘Bolingbroke
and His Circle’ (1968).