22 THE ADVOCATE
VOL. 76 PART 1 JANUARY 2018
Between Mompesson’s trial in 1620 and 1715, there occurred some fifty
cases of impeachment. Since that date there have been only four. The great
period of impeachments was the 17th and early 18th centuries.
The impeachment procedure had several benefits that served the cause
of constitutional government, notably the establishment of the doctrine of
ministerial responsibility to the law, its application to all ministers of the
Crown and the maintenance of supremacy of the law over every person.
Historically the two most important impeachments were that of the
Duke of Buckingham in the reign of Charles I and the impeachment of
Danby in that of Charles II. Buckingham’s case decisively negated the king’s
contention that not only was he personally above the law, but so were his
ministers acting under his orders. Danby’s case decided that the king could
not stop the impeachment process by granting a pardon.
The king chose his ministers and, unless they could be convicted of
crimes, there was no way of getting rid of them. Thus, in the latter half of
the 17th century, charges against unpopular ministers were often supported
by very weak evidence.
Sir William Holdsworth contends that impeachments tended to be
grounded on political resentment, rather than on legal wrongdoing. He
goes on say: “The Commons found that, if they wished to get rid of a minister,
they must proceed by way of impeachment. They were obliged therefore
to work their power of impeachment for all it was worth. Never were
impeachments so numerous as in the latter half of the seventeenth century;
never were the criminal acts with which the ministers were charged supported
by such slender evidence.”1
Impeachment fell into disuse once it became possible to remove a minister
by an adverse vote of the House of Commons.
The last four impeachment cases—those of Lord Macclesfield in 1724,
Lord Lovat in 1746, Warren Hastings in 1787 and Viscount Melville in 1805—
were not occasioned by the political conduct of the accused, but by accusations
of serious breaches of the criminal law. The trial of Warren Hastings
showed that the process was far too clumsy and dilatory in cases of any
complication. It was an accusation of corruption against the governor of the
East India Company, the de facto viceroy of India. His trial, prosecuted by
no less than Edmund Burke, lasted seven years and eventually resulted in
an acquittal. But by that time Hastings was a ruined man, having spent all
his money on his own defence.
Henry Dundas, first Viscount Melville, became a minister in the Pitt
administration during the Napoleonic wars and eventually the first secretary
of state for war. He had been first lord of the admiralty, and it was for