Gifts or bribes?

In 1621 Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon, the highest legal officer in the land, was accused of having taken bribes from those appearing in court before him. A process called impeachment, trial by parliament, was revived after a 150-year interval. Bacon was found guilty, dismissed from his job, fined and imprisoned in the Tower.


Rather unusually in corruption cases, Bacon admitted his guilt. Whilst he did not think he had a corrupt heart, he admitted that he might “be frail and partake of the abuse of the times”. Bacon referred to what he had received as “briberies and gifts”, reflecting the overlap between these two categories. Moreover, he was, to some degree, the victim of a political campaign against his patron, the far more obviously corrupt Duke of Buckingham (who was later assassinated); attacking Bacon was attacking the duke by proxy.

Buckingham had an element of revenge when, just three years later, Lord Treasurer Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex was also impeached. Cranfield had incurred Buckingham’s wrath largely because Middlesex’s reforms undermined the lucrative patronage system that the duke had developed. Like Bacon, Middlesex was accused of corruption and his trial similarly exposed the uncertain line between licit and illicit behaviour. An astute merchant and financier who sought to reform and retrench public finances, he nevertheless sought opportunities in government for his own enrichment. Middlesex appears to have thought the state owed him more than his relatively meagre salary for his services, though others saw this as corrupt self-interest.

Drawing the boundaries between private and public and between a licit gift and an illicit bribe proved particularly hard because gift-giving was an intrinsic part of pre-modern society and a common practice among friends.

Lord Chancellor Francis Bacon admitted his guilt which is rather unusual in corruption cases, says Mark Knights. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Samuel Pepys and “Lyons, Tygers and Beares”

Another famous figure accused of corruption for accepting gifts/bribes was 17th-century diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys. A 1679 pamphlet demanded that he and his crony Will Hewer “refund all the money they have unjustly taken for Permissions & Protections” from captains of ships and “Refund those before-hand Guinies or Broadpieces” they had accepted, along with countless exotic gifts (including “Lyons, Tygers, and Beares”).

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We know from Pepys’ diary entries that he himself felt uncomfortable accepting some of these sweeteners. In 1663, upon receiving one of his first bribes, Pepys did not open the package in which the money was contained until he returned home “and there I broke it open, not looking into it till all the money was out, that I might say I saw no money in the paper if ever I should be questioned about it”. Nevertheless, Pepys evaded any formal charge, though he had come close to being indicted in 1668 when an inquiry accused him and his colleagues of having “corruptly preferred and postponed payments” and he resolved “to declare plainly, and, once for all, the truth of the whole, and what my profit hath been”.

Two years later Pepys was again under attack but this time brazened it out, protesting that he never did “directly or indirectly… demand or express any expectation of fee, gratuity or reward from any person for any service” and deliberately underestimated the amount he was now worth by £6,000. Yet although he discerned corruption in others – using the word freely to condemn bad officials – he seems not to have seen his own behaviour in a similar light. His own advancement coincided with doing the state service and he declared: “that as I would not by anything be bribed to be unjust in my proceedings, so I was not so squeamish as not to take people’s acknowledgement where I have the good fortune by my pains to do them good and just offices.” For Pepys, what others saw as bribes he saw as voluntary “acknowledgements” and gifts for his extraordinary labours that he deemed would have been “squeamish” to refuse.


The sale of ‘jobs’

In 1725 another lord chancellor, the Earl of Macclesfield, was again impeached for corruption, this time for selling ‘jobs’ (the word had recently been coined to mean a public office that had been perverted for personal or political gain). The trial came just a few years after the first major stock market crash in British history, the South Sea Bubble, which was widely blamed on corrupt ‘stock-jobbers’. Indeed, the market crash had left a hole in the coffers of the Court of Chancery, whose fund was being used to pay the lord chancellor for lucrative offices at his disposal. Macclesfield was found guilty and fined £30,000, one of the stiffest penalties meted out in such cases.

Macclesfield’s defence was intriguing. Besides the familiar argument that he had accepted gifts not bribes, he also claimed that taking money for appointing someone to office was “no Act of immorality” and that the public offices he sold were his private property to dispose of as he saw fit. According to Macclesfield – but also to many of his contemporaries – public office was a piece of private property to be bought and sold; the only caveat was that whoever possessed the office should act well. Beyond that, the state didn’t really have a legitimate interest.


The case of Thomas Rumbold

Later 18th-century scandal revolved around the figure of the nabob, a British East India man who became as wealthy (through dubious means) as the Indian princes whose title was applied to him and who then returned to Britain to spread his corrupt ways. A good example was Thomas Rumbold.

Rumbold was an associate of Lord Clive, who made a spectacular fortune in India, and like him also sought to combine private interest with state and company service. Some of Rumbold’s trading was legitimate; but he constantly sought to use his official position to further or even create his private advantage. Thus as a collector of state revenue in the 1760s, he was able to amass a personal fortune. When he returned home in 1769 and bought himself a parliamentary seat, through corruption, at the borough of New Shoreham, he was worth between £200,000–£300,000 – rich enough to build a huge house at Woodhall Park (now a private school).

Returning to India as Governor of Madras in 1778, his administration became a by-word for corruption, not least because he had a direct conflict of interest since he held a substantial share of the debts of an Indian prince, the Nawab of Arcot, with whom he was dealing at a political level. Moreover, the ‘reforms’ Rumbold undertook in the name of anti-corruption were almost certainly also lining his own pocket.

Returning to England in 1781, Rumbold faced a parliamentary inquiry and a bill was drawn up that would have fined him for ‘breaches of public trust’. Rumbold denied the charges and alleged that the accusation of corruption was being used to cover over the fact that there was no real evidence against him. In the end the wily and self-advancing ex-governor evaded the punishment that many had expected – though it was widely believed that he had bribed those leading the proceedings against him. Scandal was not always enough to bring about a successful prosecution.


“The most odious species of corruption”

This was also the lesson of one of the longest trials in British history, another East India Company corruption case which was brought against Warren Hastings between 1787 and 1795. Hastings had been governor of the company which, by the late 18th century, ruled large parts of India. One of the charges against him was that he had received “considerable presents, for brokerage and bribes for the sale of office”, which Lord Chancellor Thurlow described as “the most odious and disgraceful species of corruption that could be charged”.

But Thurlow also objected to what he saw as a new doctrine introduced by Hastings’ prosecutors, that if a gift passed from an inferior to his superior in office, that was sufficient to be counted a bribe. Thurlow thought a corrupt motive still had to be shown and Hastings was acquitted. But his trial raised interesting questions about what Edmund Burke, Hastings’ chief prosecutor, called “geographical morality”: a morality that was place-specific rather than universal. Hastings had argued that “actions in Asia do not bear the same moral qualities which the same actions would bear in Europe”. He could not therefore be judged on the same moral standards. His acquittal thus left the idea of universal morality up in the air.


The dangers of publicising corruption

Corruption scandals such as those of Hastings were about large sums of money apparently creamed off by an elite; by the early 19th century, the idea that the elite was oppressing the nation and syphoning off large personal profits through the heavy taxation of the people had become widespread. And some were prepared to say so, openly and publicly.

William Hone was not the perpetrator of corruption; nor was he the direct victim, but, as a publisher and author, he sought to publicise what he saw as the systemic corruption of early 19th-century society. Hone thought the rich fed on the spoils of the poor, who had been fleeced of their money to pay for the Napoleonic Wars and then forced to suffer appalling conditions after their end. In 1817, Hone was put on trial three times over three gruelling days by the government, on charges of blasphemy for his satirical rewritings – parodies of the catechism, Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.

Hone conducted his own defence, showing not only that religious texts had frequently been parodied in the past but also that laughing at the government for its corruption was not an offence. The jury acquitted him on each occasion, making him a popular hero who had the last laugh. He went on to publish further biting satires on corruption, most notably an adaptation of a nursery rhyme, The Political House that Jack Built (1819). Superbly illustrated by George Cruickshank, this cheap pamphlet vilified the “vermin” – the lawyers, the clerics, the monarchy and the army – who plundered the national wealth and ended with a vehement call for reform, a cry that nevertheless took another generation to realise in any comprehensive way.

A page from William Hone’s parody of a nursery rhyme, championing the press as the thing that will bring down the corrupt system and its ‘corrupt vermin’.

These scandals (and many more) show how frequently the issue of corruption arose, how challenging it was to expose and combat, and how difficult it was to draw neat lines between personal and private interests. Clarification of the boundaries took a long time in Britain, as we can see from the practice of selling offices or taking money for patronage to put people in offices.

Legislation about the latter had first been introduced in 1389; it was bolstered in 1555 and in 1809 another law was passed after a scandal involving the royal family (Mary Clarke, the mistress of the ‘grand old Duke of York’, was found to have been taking money in return for commissions in the army), though it was not until 1871 that sale of army offices was finally ended.

Anti-corruption took a long time, even in countries now regarded as being relatively un-corrupt, and it could go backwards as well as forwards – a system of parliamentary accounting was abolished in the early 18th century for over 50 years, enabling what many saw as the corrupt administration of Sir Robert Walpole. The slow speed and uncertainty of anti-corruption was not just about changing administrative or institutional practices – though that was important – but also about changing the hearts and minds of officials and those with whom they interacted, as well as the culture in which they operated, and that was, and remains, a highly challenging task. Anti-corruption is always a process rather than a final destination.

Mark Knights is a professor of history at the University of Warwick and writes a blog about corruption scandals past and present which can be found here


He has also published a report about what history can tell us about corruption for Transparency International, available as a free download here