Investigating the Roots and
Impact of Robert Molesworth’s
Account of

(Text of my PhD ‘defence’ at
Odense University 3rd May 2000.)

When I began investigating the roots and impact of Robert Molesworth’s Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692, I believed that I was faced with a small sized book and a relatively simple problem.

Put very briefly the Danish tradition about this book is that it is very much like the curate’s egg in the way it is good in parts: its author was not well educated, he was a complete failure as a diplomat, he was virtually thrown out of Denmark and he retired to a life of virtual ignominy in Britain. Very much in contrast, we have the description of him given by Caroline Robbins. She was an Anglo-american historian who investigated both him and his circle during the 1950s. For her, his publication of An Account marked the beginning of a current of political ideas which was later to include Adam Smith as well as several of the American Founding fathers.

What I wanted to do when I started was to understand where Molesworth got his ideas and inspiration from to write this book, which was very much a bestseller of its time.  In Britain I was expecting to find most of this to stem from the latter years of Charles II’s reign and especially from what has been called the Exclusion Crisis.  This was when the Whigs were trying to have Charles’ brother James excluded from the succession to the throne because of his Catholicism. In Denmark I hoped to be able to contrast, compare and verify Molesworth’s description of the period of early absolutism in Denmark with other contemporary descriptions as well as with later studies. Secondly I wanted to understand and detail the direct and indirect impact of his ideas – by that I include both the impact of the ideas he expressed in An Account as well as the various reactions both positive and negative which they induced.

Personally, as a migrant from the so-called dismal science of  economics, I was most interested in his possible impact on the thought of Adam Smith – through his influence on Smith’s teacher Francis Hutcheson.  In Denmark the reaction to his ideas has scarcely been positive. Yet here, I must admit, I was expecting to find some form of discontinuity in the reception of them coinciding with the ending of absolutism and the official introduction of democracy in the 19th century.

Far too many years later, the scope of the project has proved to be much larger than I could ever have dreamt.

First the roots of this book go back a long time. Some I believe go back to 1321, to a parliamentary manual and guide to parliamentary procedure called Modus Tenendi Parliamentum which was first published then. On this side of the North Sea, the myths and rosy interpretations of Danish history which opposed it when it was first published, I contend, are still very much alive and well today and detectable for example in the Danish prime ministers latest New Years speech. [i.e. Jan 1st 2000]

Previous approaches Over time there have been many approaches to studying Molesworth. The followers of writers like Sir Robert Filmer who have believed in the divine right of kings, the irredeemability of man and the unjustifiability of any form of resistance against virtually any authority have seen him as a dangerous figure to be opposed at all cost.There have also been Danish chauvinists (and those who felt personally attacked by him) who have felt that no riticism of their country, or indeed any description that is out of kilter with their own views, can ever be tolerated.Others, who may also have fitted into the previous categories, have opposed him for financial gain.In Britain at the time, many took it as he meant it – a warning – in the spirit of so many of the speeches which were made in this country nearly a year ago now about the constitution being something which has to be tended and cannot be taken for granted. [e.g. on the Danish Constitution Day 1999]Some of those who have studied him are interested in the history of parliaments and have seen him as a parliamentarian in the parliaments of Westminster and Dublin.

As Caroline Robbins labeled him as one of the very first of three generations of Commonwealthsmen, radical Whigs whose ideas were later to influence the outcome of American independence, many American historians have been interested in his ideas and their relevance in North America.

He was a leading member of the Irish Enlightenment, a friend of the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury and a source of inspiration for Francis Hutcheson (and others) and thus an influence on the Scottish Enlightenment

As an Irish patriot – a friend of William Molyneux and Jonathan Swift – who also influenced the development of a distinctive colonial thought.

As an influence on the development of agriculture, garden design and architecture

And last, but not least, in the history of the development of economics a possible link between the ideas of Sir William Petty and Adam Smith

The sensitivity and sensibilities of my subject Before I get much further – into deep water, onto thin ice or whatever – I feel I should say something about the sensitivity and sensibilities of my subject matter. Molesworth was brought up in Ireland and on his mission to Denmark he was the representative of the both reviled and glorified King William – King Billy. From the beginning I was well aware of the difficulties and dangers of trying to understand and express views on Irish history. However in my dealings with Danish history I have been astonished by the vehemence of some of the responses I have encountered.Of course like Molesworth I should have paid more heed to the warnings contained in the descriptions of Denmark dating back to the 16th century – (Molesworth expressed his disapproval of other aspects of their contents). They all described and warned their readers of the vanity of the Danes and their readiness to take offence at implied criticism. Of course all this is very unscientific – but so too are peoples’ reactions. Over the years I have been known to bore people with my conversations about Molesworth. This has often been part of an incredibly unscientific survey to ascertain the extent of the knowledge, attitudes and prejudices that people who have grown up here have about the origins and development of their society.A surprising number have heard about Molesworth – even though as I will contend most of their knowledge – like the young assistant in the antiquarian bookshop who told me that “he was the one who didn’t like us” – has a rather tenuous relationship with the truth.In general the collective knowledge of this period of history is interestingly selective. Everyone seems to know about the loss of Skåne and the other provinces to Sweden (I wonder how many English people know or care about the loss of Calais?) but virtually nothing is known about the treaty of Altona (which managed to forestall the eradication of Denmark by Swedish and Brunswick troops). It scarcely gets even a mention in most of the history books.

However an even more surprising number has never heard of one of Molesworth’s particular bêtes noir – Bishop Masius. Indeed,  I have yet to meet a single person outside the group of specialists in the early modern period of Danish history who has ever heard of him or of the strict, bigoted, intolerant religious orthodoxy which he promoted. And I have even questioned several priests of the Danish Folkekirke.

Masius was in Paris at the time of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the expulsion of the Huguenots – and was very much inspired by it. In his writings he expounded on the evils of Calvinism and Puritanism and he published the Latin text of the Oxford University Judgement and Decree . . . against certain pernicious Books and damnable doctrines from 1683 (the one that led to the burning of the books in Oxford). In short he provided a large part of the philosophical and religious foundations of the early period of absolutism in Denmark.

My approach to this investigation. Before I get too carried away I should perhaps explain something about my approach to this investigationIn the beginning I looked up everything I could find about all the explicit references mentioned in An Account. This didn’t get me all that far because of course Molesworth didn’t make too many of them. One major exception was his rather obscure reference to Sir William Petty’s writings – about the effects of smog from the burning of sea-coal in London. Well, I managed to find this and I also soon recognised the many parallels between their works – which no one seems to ever have noticed before.I also read all the (Danish) references to and descriptions of Molesworth that I could find. One gentleman – the author of one of the more recent ones (I can best describe him as a popular historian who lived in Aarhus) told me that writing about Molesworth was relatively easy because there was a book you could copy it all from! After that I decided it was best to head out on my own.There was one group of literature that I discovered had scarcely been investigated. These were all the English language descriptions of Denmark from the second half of the seventeenth century – the ones which Molesworth had been so dissatisfied with. Several had been written by authors who had or claimed to have been in Denmark. However the best perspective was from those which were written by authors who are known to have relied on the literature available in the libraries in Britain. By comparing their contents with those of the first group it was possible to see how little original material there really was and how phrases, whole sentences and paragraphs got repeated (sometimes with interesting small variations), in the various volumes.An associated group of literature were somewhat different in style. These were a series of English language descriptions of other countries which contain so many parallels that I would suggest they bear all the hallmarks of being his models for such writing:

Sir William Temple’s Observations on the United Provinces, as well as his other writings. Bishop Burnett’s Travels through France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland,  but especially to the writings of Sir William Petty – his  Treatise on Taxes, Graunt’s Observations and a short piece entitled  The Method of Enquiring into the State of Any Country.

Building a text base. Another approach I pursued was to find and transcribe as much of his original correspondence as possible. This was partly in an attempt to see if his letters could cast any additional light on the contents of his book but also to try to find out what actually happened to him during his stay in Denmark. All in all this amounted to more than 1½ megabytes of transcripts of relevant letters.Some are his and his secretary Hugh Greg’s reports to the office in London or to the camp in Flanders when William was on campaign there. However there are great gaps in this correspondence.There are also some of his and Gregs letters to his brother envoys in Bradenburg, Celle, Hanover, and Hamburg. These too are often incomplete but they are supplemented by the letter books of Sir Paul Rycaut writing from Hamburg. So although we have none of Molesworth’s letters to Rycaut, we have all of Rycaut’s replies, as well as Rycaut’s letters and comments (including some about Molesworth!) to the other envoys in the surrounding area.I also looked into the despatches of his predecessor Sir Gabriel de Sylvius and his secretary Fotherby to try to get a flavour of their relationship with the members of the Danish court – as well as those of Sir Peter Wyche, Rycaut’s predecessor in Hamburg, to get a perspective on events seen from there.In an attempt to look into “the official” British government view of Molesworth and Denmark, I looked into a fascinating correspondence between Blathwayt (in Flanders with the King) and Nottingham (in Whitehall) in which they updated each other with everything that was happening. To this I have added any references to Molesworth or Denmark from the published calendars of state papers.

In addition to all this I have most of the family correspondence in electronic form. Some of this is transcribed from the microfilm of the letters and the remainder from the published calendar where they are summarised. These include a few of his letters to his wife – both from the time before she joined him here and after he left when she stayed on for a time in Hamburg.

Having all this in electronic form a great help as it makes it possible
to search for words and phrases. Innocuous looking words to which I
would have paid little attention if I had relied on hand made notes,
(or worse still summaries!) have proved to be invaluable when
discovered to exist elsewhere in slightly different contexts.

Yet another group of volumes had been used by previous writers. Well, let us say that the information contained in them has been well exercised, but they have never really been examined in any detail. These were the replies that were written to An Account after it was published.

This was one of the aspects of this study which disappointed me most. I have been told so many times about the rigours of the scientific method of Danish historians – shades perhaps of the equality of under- standing [which] reigns among them. I was also confronted first with the remarkable piece of detective work by Bøggild-Andersen about where Molesworth must have got some of his information from. Unfortunately this was juxtaposed with his (and all others) acceptance of details of Molesworth’s life and stay in Denmark – from completely untried and untested sources!

However my use of the replies was not all negative. As most of them are chapter by chapter refutations, I found that a way to examine their biases was to compare the proportions of them that were devoted to each chapter. The most unexpected result of this was to discover how controversial Molesworth’s views about the Gothic Polity (the Gothic basis of the constitution) were to his contemporaries. This caused me to focus quite some attention on this aspect.

 Molesworth’s life Robert Molesworth was born in Dublin in 1656. His father, also
Robert Molesworth, was “a very eminent merchant.” He had died four days before and was buried two days after the birth. His wife Judith (who was born Bysse) and he had been married for 23 months. From his will, which was written weeks before he died, it is clear that his father-in-law, John Bysse, the then Recorder for Dublin, was intended to be a key person in the contingency plans for the future of the forthcoming family.Within a few years his mother Judith had married again. Her new husband, Sir William Tichborne, was a close neighbour of her parents. In 1661 Sir William was also elected to the Irish parliament as one of the two members for Swords in County Dublin. The significance of this is that while he had no lands at Swords, John Bysse wielded a strong interest there as he owned the estate of Breckenstown. Shortly afterwards, in 1662, Robert Molesworth’s half-brother Henry Tichborne was born in Dublin. Throughout their lives the two were close, they also appear to have had similar political views.Robert entered Trinity College Dublin as a Fellow Commoner “aged 17.” After receiving his BA three years later he spent a year at Lincoln’s Inn. His grandfather would appear to have played a role in this choice as he had entered Lincoln’s Inn in 1624. A single year at one of the London inns of court should presumably be seen more as a finishing school and he himself never considered it to have been a legal training, as he wrote years later, in notes which appear to have been made for a speech to the Irish House of Lords in 1719, “I have not studied our common laws, much less our statutes; so much the worse for me.”On returning to Ireland in 1676 he married Letitia Coote. She was one of the eight children of Richard 1st Baron Coote of Colooney who was one of his grandfather’s colleagues on the Irish Privy Council. However, the less than six month gap between their wedding and the birth of their first-born seems to suggest a degree of passion rather than just an arranged marriage. Later Molesworth reported that he had eight sons and three daughters. Six more had died in infancy. Most of his comments on the size of his family were made when referring to the expense involved in raising them, though in his more “theoretical” writings he certainly expressed a belief in encouraging “plenty, industry and population”.He inherited substantial areas of what is now central Dublin from his father, and from his grandfather he inherited even more properties in central Dublin, the estate of Breckenstown at Swords (now just north of Dublin airport), and an estate at Philipstown in what was then the King’s County, now County Offaly.In 1684 he undertook the first of his visits to the continent. We know about this from a piece he wrote in about 1712 to try to curry favour with the senior Whig hierarchy. He travelled every year from then on until 1688 and he always took Holland in his way. There are suggestions that he visited France, Italy and some of the German States on these visits. In Holland, at least on his later visits, he could visit his brother-in-law Richard Coote, who by 1687 was a captain of horse in the Dutch army. It is unclear exactly when Ld Coote arrived there but it seems likely that just as many other Protestants were dismissed from the public service in Ireland during Tyrconnell’s period of power, he had been discharged from the army there in 1685. In March 1688 Col. Ld. Coote was appointed Treasurer and Receiver-general to Princess Mary of Orange. He continued in this post until 1694, after Mary had moved to London and become Queen and after he had been created Earl of Bellamont in November 1692. While he was visiting Holland, Molesworth reports that he himself had the honoure to be well received & esteemd by y’ Pr of Orange and spoke with him on many occasions
 Appointment as envoy Danish sources have claimed that he was appointed envoy because of his links to Princess Anne and Prince Georges court (James II’s daughter Princess Anne, later Queen Anne had been married to the brother of the Danish king Christian V in 1684). However there appears to be no foundation for this at all. It has also been claimed that he was one of numerous suitors looking for a job after the revolution; he himself claimed that he had been advised not to accept such an appointment, but had done it out of a sense of duty.The real background for his being appointed envoy to Denmark must be founded in his visits to Holland. What appears most significant is that he seems to have undertaken a secret mission on William’s behalf to announce the forthcoming landing to the lords of the north of England six weeks before it was planned to take place in 1688. In a very interesting parallel, one of William’s more important secret agents – James Johnston (to whom Molesworth was clearly close and who was a friend to both him and his wife throughout the rest of his life), was appointed as envoy to Brandenburg.The the state of Anglo-Danish relations at the time forms a very important background for all the controversy there has been about his time in Denmark. One could argue that his character became used as a scape-goat in a larger controversy.The original reason for his mission was not at all as friendly as Danish writers have contended. He was to go to Copenhagen and threaten the Danish authorities with war if they did not withdraw from the territory of the Duke of Holstein Gottorp which they had occupied. This was part of William’s first coordinated diplomatic offensive which was to settle a regional sideshow which was threatening the success of his major strategy against France. A sideshow which was settled by the Danish submission to Treaty of Altona before Molesworth arrived in Copenhagen.The matter of recruiting Danish troops, for use in Scotland or Ireland, was not part of his original instructions but of his third set. And far from him being the supplicant to get these troops, the suggestion that William should hire them came originally from the Danes. Though it was delicately concealed and actually proposed by Brandenburg, it was a ploy to gain favour with William during the negotiations at Altona in an effort to at least appear to be changing horses from Louis to William.

William and the English authorities found the Danes tiresome and untrustworthy, especially while they themselves were attempting to concentrate on the main business of saving Christendom by defeating the French. James II was Prince George’s father-in-law, and the Danish court never really supported William. If one were to characterise Danish foreign policy at the time, it was francophile and Jacobite, always short-term, opportunist and aimed at maximising financial subsidies (especially bribes or business opportunities – for the governing clique) whilst minimising commitment. Their support for William was in direct proportion to how successful they felt he was in the war against France.

We have to remember that William had sacked virtually all of James II’s diplomats so that his service was filled with new boys. Quite unsurprisingly he relied heavily on his experienced Dutch diplomats and this too created quite some tensions, from which Molesworth was not the only sufferer.

Another problem was that parliament kept William short of money and with his estates in Ireland occupied, Molesworth had no private fortune to fall back on when William delayed his pay as he did to all his diplomats. The reactions to Molesworth’s reports and his other well intentioned but rather zealous suggestions were also coloured by the fact that he had no strong patron in London. He was somewhat of an outsider and his political background was clearly in Ireland. Molesworth himself claimed that the lack of support for him from London helped undermine his position at the Danish court.

He left Denmark in June 1692, temporarily to visit his estates in Ireland. An examination of the details shows that just about all the stories which have been told about the circumstances of his leaving are wrong. Deciding not to return, he then attempted to seek his recredentials by post, but the Danes refused and he thus received no present. After this dispute to use his own words he made them his own present which was:

An Account of Denmark as it was in the year 1692 the first edition of which appeared anonymously in December 1693.

top  The remainder of this ‘defence’ was based substantially upon my previous paper  The (Anglo) Irishness of Robert Molesworth’s Commonwealthman Views>.

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