Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Tory 1809 to 1812 )

Birth: 1 November 1762, Audley Square, London
Death: 11 May 1812, Lobby of the House of Commons
Political party: Tory
Dates in office: 1809 to 1812

Spencer Perceval was born in Audley Square, London on 1 November 1762, the second son of the second marriage of the second Earl of Egmont (and so a man of comparatively slender means).

Spencer Perceval

He attended Harrow School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he associated with others who shared the Anglican evangelicalism which later marked him out among his political peers.

Opposition to radicalism

Spencer Perceval (Tory 1809 to 1812  )
Spencer Perceval (Tory 1809 to 1812 )

Perceval was called to the bar in 1786. By the early 1790s his success and publications opposing the French Revolution and radicalism led to his appointment as junior counsel for the prosecution of the political radicals Thomas Paine and John Horne Tooke, and then in 1796 as King’s Counsel and a bencher at Lincoln’s Inn.

Perceval’s religious beliefs as an evangelical Anglican underpinned his interest in strict observance of Sunday as a day of devotion, explorations of the prospective date of Christ’s second coming, familial devotion (he married Jane Wilson in 1790, with whom he had twelve children), notable private philanthropy and support for the abolition of slavery. It also underpinned commitments to public order and stamping out ‘immorality’, and to the existing arrangements in church and state, both in support for a reformed Church of England and in opposition to and parliamentary reform.

Making his mark

In 1796 he was elected MP for Northampton, and in a notable speech defending the Government early in 1798, established himself as a contender for a place in William Pitt’s administration. In August he was appointed Solicitor to the Ordinance, and then in 1799 Solicitor-General to the Queen. From 1801 he served Prime Minister Henry Addington as Solicitor General and then Attorney General, and was then Pitt’s chief law officer in the Commons during a series of important political trials. For example, he prosecuted the revolutionary Colonel Edward Despard who was executed for high treason in 1803 after being accused of plotting both the seizure of the Tower of London and Bank of England and the assassination of George III.

From lawyer to Prime Minister

Having been a leader of the Pittite opposition to Grenville’s ministry, a somewhat reluctant Perceval gave up his lucrative legal practice to take office as Chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the Commons in the Duke of Portland’s ministry in March 1807 (as well as effectually house-sitting in 10 Downing Street by the end of the year). He was thus one of several cabinet members well-placed to be considered to succeed Portland when a stroke ended his ministry in August 1809. On 30 September 1809 it was Perceval’s name that the Cabinet recommended to the King as Prime Minister, though he continued as unpaid Chancellor of the Exchequer after six other candidates declined the post; some other Pittites (including George Canning) were not prepared to serve under Perceval.

The costs of war

Perceval’s ministry had shaky origins, coinciding with the military disaster of the Walcheren expedition to the Netherlands, in which over 4,000 British soldiers died, mostly from disease. Perceval overcame this to gather support, crucially including that of the Prince of Wales, despite the limitations on his authority Perceval had imposed during the Regency of 1810-11. Perceval successfully underwrote the costs of the war against Napoleon through a reasonably prudent mix of economies and loans, and maintained his firm stance against and radical politics; religious nonconformists too came to fear an establishment backlash at his hands. Any lasting effect on British politics, however, was prevented by a combination of Perceval’s political conservatism, shaped by the revolutionary alarms of the 1790s, his lack of political ambition, and his unhappy distinction as the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated while in office.

Assassination of Spencer Perceval

He was shot dead through the heart in the parliamentary lobby on 11 May 1812 by the merchant John Bellingham, in protest at what Bellingham saw as the unjust refusal of the government to assist him when he was wrongly imprisoned in Russia, or subsequently to pay him any compensation. Bellingham was hanged for murder on 18 May; Perceval received the accolade of a monument in Westminster Abbey.

William Wyndham Grenville, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Whig, 1806-1807)

Birth: 25 October 1759 , Buckinghamshire
Death: 12 January 1834, Buckinghamshire
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: 1806 to 1807

William Wyndham Grenville was born on 24 October 1759 in Buckinghamshire, the youngest son of an earlier Prime Minister, George Grenville, and cousin of a future one, William Pitt.

William Wyndham Grenville (Whig, 1806-1807)
William Wyndham Grenville (Whig, 1806-1807)

He studied at Eton, Christ Church Oxford and Lincoln’s Inn, but he abandoned plans for a legal career when he was elected MP for Buckingham in 1782 and then Buckinghamshire in 1784, through the influence of his elder brother George, Earl Temple. He served under his brother as Irish Chief Secretary in Dublin during Shelburne’s ministry of 1782-3, but when Temple was later forced to depart from the government he had formed with Pitt, the Younger, Grenville survived and became Paymaster of the Forces and a member of the Privy Council.

Ungainly manner and appearance

Grenville’s intelligence and application were now apparent beyond the ungainly manner and appearance (and questionable dress-sense) that won him the nickname ‘Bogey’. They made him one of Pitt’s closest advisers and a key member of both the Board of Trade and Board of Control, central agencies in Pittite reforms like the creation of the sinking fund, established in 1786 to abolish the national debt. In 1789 he took charge of the Home Office, and the following year was created Baron Grenville to lead for the government in the House of Lords. In 1791, aged only 31, he was appointed Foreign Secretary, an office he held for almost ten years during the long period of international crisis following the French Revolution.

Grenville played a key part in constructing the alliances necessary to sustain the policy of continental engagement and the encouragement of counter-revolution in France, which he preferred to the emphasis on naval power and colonial focus advocated by others in the government. He was beginning to entertain thoughts of a negotiated peace, however, by the time he resigned with Pitt over the King’s refusal to countenance Catholic emancipation in 1801, which he believed essential to the success of the Act of Union with Ireland that year.

The ‘Ministry of All the Talents’

Grenville’s opposition to the 1802 Peace of Amiens negotiated by the Addington ministry saw him become a focus for opposition and work with the Whig leader Charles James Fox, whom he came to regard as a necessary component in any government in which he could serve. Following Pitt’s death in 1806, it was to Grenville that the King turned to form a ministry embracing several political factions – dubbed (satirically) the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’. In a threatening international context, the government struggled to find an effective foreign and military policy, or indeed a domestic policy capable of sustaining the war effort. Its most lasting achievement was the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, in which Grenville, an abolitionist of long-standing, took the parliamentary lead. The government eventually fell in March 1807 when it clashed with George III over its proposal to allow Roman Catholics to serve in the army up to the rank of general, and the monarch demanded a pledge from his ministers not to raise the Catholic question in future.

Leader of the opposition

Out of office, Grenville became leader of a Whig opposition to his former Pittite colleagues, whose stance on the Catholic issue led him now to regard them unequivocally as ‘Tories’. Differences over policy with Foxite allies and the government’s successful prosecution of the war, however, limited his effectiveness, and in 1817 he retired from the role. A stroke in 1823 did not prevent his occasional and effective intervention in political debates before his death on 12 January 1834 on his estate at Dropmore, Buckinghamshire.

Henry Addington, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Tory, 1801 to 1804 )

Birth: 30 May 1757, Holborn, London
Death: 15 February 1844, London, buried Mortlake, Surrey
Political party: Tory
Dates in office: 1801 to 1804

Henry Addington, born on 30 May 1757, was eldest son of a successful London physician, Dr Anthony Addington. He passed through Winchester College and other schools on his path to Brasenose College, Oxford, and then Lincoln’s Inn, becoming a barrister in 1784, the same year in which he was returned as MP for Devizes.

He made little impact in the House of Commons before his election as Speaker in June 1789; a position he gained in part through the influence of Prime Minister William Pitt, whom he had known since childhood, and who he loyally supported. He held this office until 1801, and enhanced its reputation, being re-elected twice without opposition.

Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth
Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth

Pursuing peace

When Pitt resigned as Prime Minister in 1801 over the issue of Catholic Emancipation, both Pitt and George III identified Addington as the obvious successor.

In office he declared the pursuit of peace as his government’s priority, not least on the grounds that further military conflict was financially unaffordable, and his government negotiated the Peace of Amiens with France in March 1802. The peace allowed a period of coordinated administrative and financial reform along Pittite principles, with Addington in effect delivering the first budget speech to Parliament in April 1802. Abortive negotiations to strengthen the ministry politically, combined with a deteriorating international situation, weakened the government. Once war recommenced in May 1803 (Addington making the declaration in the Commons wearing military uniform!), the administration was attacked in Parliament by Pitt, who eventually declared open opposition to Addington’s ministry. On 10 May 1804 Addington resigned.

Repressive and reactionary?

Addington, now Viscount Sidmouth, briefly returned to government as Lord President of the Council in Pitt’s second administration, and then served in William Grenville’s ministry. His resignation in 1807 left him out of office until in 1812, when Lord Liverpool asked him to become Home Secretary. He continued in this office throughout the years of economic distress and radical political activity that marked the period after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, acquiring a popular reputation as an architect of repression and a ‘high tory’ reactionary. Such views were encouraged by his devout Anglicanism (at a time when legal disadvantages were imposed on non-Anglicans), his opposition to both parliamentary and tariff reform, and his stress on the constitutional role of the monarch.

A significant legacy

The growing prominence and influence of George Canning, often presented as the embodiment of a new liberal Toryism, was one factor in his retirement from politics in 1824, two years after he ceased to be Home Secretary and 20 years before his death on 15 February 1844. However, not only was Addington’s contribution to British politics more substantial than that of an unimaginative reactionary, but in achieving high office through his talents and despite his relatively modest origins, he marked a change in the social dynamics of British political life from which Canning and other more reformist figures would later benefit.

William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Whig/Tory 1783-1801, 1804-1806)

Birth: 28 May 1759, Hayes Place, near Hayes, Kent
Death: 23 January 1806, Putney Heath, London
Political party: Began as a Whig, regarded as a Tory by opponents at the time of his death
Dates in office: 1783 to 1801, 1804 to 1806

William Pitt (the younger) was born on 28 May 1759 at Hayes Place, Kent, the second son of William Pitt (the elder), later 1st Earl of Chatham and himself Prime Minister. He matriculated at Pembroke College, Cambridge at the age of 14, and later proceeded to Lincoln’s Inn to study law. Unable to afford the expense of standing for Parliament (his finances remained a source of insecurity throughout his life), he was only able to embark on a political career through the influence of Sir James Lowther, who secured his election as MP for Appleby in 1781.

Not a royal puppet

In 1782 he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer (then a relatively minor post) in Lord Shelburne’s administration. When, in December 1783, George III dismissed the Fox-North ministry that had succeeded Shelburne’s government, it was to the 24-year-old Pitt that the king turned to serve as both Prime Minister and Chancellor, endorsed by the outcome of a general election held early in 1784, which belied opponents’ characterisations of the youthful premier as a royal puppet. The election also buttressed Pitt’s preferred stance as an independent politician by freeing him from association with Lowther: Pitt won the University of Cambridge’s seat in the House of Commons.

A new model of leadership

William Pitt the Younger, Prime Minister of Great Britain

If Pitt’s political fortunes would be determined in part by the impact of events such as the French Revolution and Wars, and George III’s mental illness (the Regency Crisis of 1788-9 threatened to favour the Prince of Wales’ political associates at Pitt’s expense), his early years as premier evidenced a determined commitment to reform of the British state. He offered in some ways a new ‘reformist’ model of active, pragmatic prime ministerial leadership followed by many of the most significant political figures of the next half century of varying party allegiances (fittingly, since although often described posthumously as a Tory, Pitt would have understood himself as within a Whig tradition).

Many of his initiatives stalled or were only partial successes. An attempt at limited parliamentary reform was abandoned after a parliamentary defeat in 1785; he addressed the British governing relationship with both India and Ireland with mixed results. It was partly at Pitt’s prompting that William Wilberforce took up the issue of the slave trade. Among his most striking initiatives were financial and administrative reforms with an eye to efficiency and the elimination of corrupt practices, and a serious attempt to reduce the national debt through the creation of a sinking fund in 1786.

In the wake of the French Revolution

The second half of Pitt’s ministry, however, was dominated by the consequences of the French Revolution and the outbreak of war with France in 1793, after he expelled the French ambassador following the execution of Louis XVI. Although claims of a Pittite ‘reign of terror’ in response to domestic radicalism were exaggerations, Pitt offered a clear and unequivocal defence of the established order to those who rallied to him during the 1790s. This included a substantial section of the Whig party led by the Duke of Portland, leaving only a rump in opposition led by Pitt’s long-time opponent, Charles James Fox.

The wartime situation made it more difficult for Pitt to pursue his administrative reforms and also made significant financial retrenchment impossible: Pitt was forced into a series of expedients to raise the vast sums necessary to sustain the war effort, including in 1799 Britain’s first income tax. The international context also made a resolution of Irish issues more pressing. Following the rebellion of 1798,arose the Act of Union of 1800, a major triumph for Pitt, which saw the United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland come into being on 1 January 1801.

‘Oh my country! How I leave my country!’

Pitt believed the Act of Union required as a corollary the admission of Catholics to Parliament, but found himself opposed both by Cabinet colleagues and more importantly the King, who saw this as incompatible with his coronation oath. The impasse led to Pitt’s stepping down as Prime Minister on 14 March 1801.

He remained in partial political retirement until the war renewed with France in 1803, and in May 1804 though physically failing – exhausted, ill and possibly affected by excessive drinking – returned to head a second ministry, weaker in its basis than his first. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805 proved a welcome and rare moment of success in Pitt’s continental war strategy, but the exhausted premier had to witness Napoleon’s decisive victory at Austerlitz before he died on 23 January 1806 at his house on Putney Heath, reportedly exclaiming on his deathbed ‘Oh my country! How I leave my country!’

William Cavendish-Bentinck, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Whig 1807 to 1809, 1783 to 1783)

Birth: 14 April 1738
Death: 30 October 1809, Bulstrode, Buckinghamshire
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: 1807 to 1809, 1783 to 1783

William Bentinck was the youngest son of the second Duke of Portland, and was born on 14 April 1738. He attended Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford (where he informally added ‘Cavendish’ to his surname) before undertaking a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, during the latter stages of which he was elected MP for Weobley, Herefordshire, through his family’s interests. He had made no great impression in Parliament before he succeeded to the dukedom in 1762.

Disaffection and reward

During the 1760s Portland emerged as a member of the disaffected Whig faction critical of Lord Bute’s role in George III’s government, and was rewarded with the post of Lord Chamberlain in Rockingham’s ministry of 1765-6. Later in the decade he aligned himself clearly with the ‘Rockinghamite’ group of Whigs with whom he returned to office in 1782 as Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, resigning the following year when Shelburne took office on Rockingham’s death.

Royal resentment

Portland now became leader of the Whig party, and was one of the architects of the Fox-North coalition which took office in April 1783 with Portland as Prime Minister, though Charles James Fox provided crucial leadership in the Commons. Behind the scenes, however, George III resented and plotted against a Cabinet he believed had been illegitimately forced upon him, and in summer 1783 let it be known that he would welcome opposition to the ministry’s bill to reform the East India Company; its parliamentary defeat gave the King the excuse he sought to dismiss the government in December 1783.

A martyr for the cause

Now widely perceived as a martyr for the Whig cause, Portland continued as its leader, though was increasingly identified with the more conservative wing of the tradition, opposing parliamentary reform. This was particularly significant in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when he worried about Fox’s sympathy for radical ideas, and supported George III’s 1792 proclamation against seditious writings. In January 1794 Portland abandoned his efforts to maintain Whig unity and with some 60 supporters transferred allegiance to William Pitt the Younger’s ministry. A coalition was formed in July in which Portland became Home Secretary, directing a determined response to domestic radicalism and promoting the Act of Union with Ireland. His lack of enthusiasm for Catholic emancipation and belief in stable government saw him remain in government under Addington and then in Pitt’s second ministry, before assuming the leadership of former Pittites excluded from Grenville’s ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ in 1806. George III turned to Portland to lead a government when the ministry fell in March 1807, and despite suffering badly from gout and kidney stones the ageing Duke returned for a second spell as Prime Minister

Much work was left to Spencer Perceval, who even took up residence in No. 10 Downing Street. The lack of leadership from the Prime Minister and military setbacks in the war with Napoleon in Spain and Portugal encouraged serious ministerial rivalries to develop. The failing premier’s impolitic handling generated a final crisis, culminating in Portland’s resignation and a duel between two of his ministers, George Canning and Viscount Castlereagh in September 1809. By the end of the following month, and shortly after an operation to remove a kidney stone, Portland was dead.

William Petty, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Whig, 1782-1783)

Birth: Born 2 May 1737, Dublin, Ireland
Death: 7 May 1805, London
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: 1782 to 1783

William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, and from 1784 1st Marquess of Lansdowne, was born in Dublin on 2 May 1737 to a Kerry landed family, the Fitzmaurices (his father changed the family name to Petty in 1751 on inheriting estates in High Wycombe, shortly before being created Earl of Shelburne in 1753). An unhappy Irish childhood was followed by study at Christ Church, Oxford and then military service. By 1760, having seen action in the Seven Years War (1756-63), he had risen to aide-de-camp to George III. In the same year he became MP for Wycombe, and was elected to the Irish Parliament the following year.

William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (Whig, 1782-1783)
William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (Whig, 1782-1783)

Ambitious and combative

In May 1761 Petty was elevated to the House of Lords in London as 2nd Baron Wycombe (and in Dublin as 2nd Earl of Shelburne), initially aligning himself with Lord Bute. He was appointed First Lord at the Board of Trade in 1763, but ambition and policy differences with colleagues provoked his resignation after only four months. Shelburne now aligned himself with William Pitt the Elder, with whom he agreed on the question of Britain’s increasingly difficult relations with its American colonies, and in 1766 he was appointed as one of Pitt’s Secretaries of State. Again, however, he clashed with colleagues – notably on Chancellor of the Exchequer Charles Townshend’s confrontational approach to the colonists – and with the King. Shelburne followed Pitt into opposition in 1768, where he emerged as a prominent but independent figure alongside Rockingham, Grenville and during Lord North’s ministry. He continued to prefer conciliation to coercion in America, though his own oratory was often extremely combative (in 1780 he was wounded in a resulting duel with the MP William Fullarton). In domestic politics he found himself at odds with Rockingham’s Whig faction over his support for parliamentary reform and sympathy for the anti-Catholic Gordon riots of 1780.

A notable eight-month premiership

The fact that Shelburne still hoped to retain America as a colony, however, ensured that when North resigned the premiership in March 1782 he was George III’s preferred candidate, but it was Rockingham who emerged as Prime Minister with Shelburne once more a secretary of state.  A brief troubled ministry ended with Rockingham’s death, and Shelburne took over as Prime Minister for just eight months (for only three of which Parliament was in session). It was nonetheless notable: not only did it introduce William Pitt the Younger to high office as Chancellor of the Exchequer, but Shelburne oversaw peace negotiations with the Americans, conceding independence, and displayed an ongoing commitment to ‘economical’ reform of the state apparatus.

Diminishing the Crown’s influence

The famous parliamentary motion of 1780, that ‘the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished’, was the work of one of his protégés. Along with his support for freer trade and religious toleration, such reformist commitments marked him out among his near contemporary premiers, and paved the way for the Pittite tradition in British politics that shaped the next half century. However, Shelburne’s ministry swiftly disintegrated once Parliament met, and his characteristically clumsy dealings with colleagues accelerated a process which culminated in his resignation on 26 March 1783.

The 45-year-old ex-premier remained active in Parliament for more than two decades, but not even Pitt, formerly his protégé, wished (or could afford to) offer him major office, especially after Lord Lansdowne (as Shelburne became in November 1784) proved conciliatory to the French revolutionaries and to domestic extra-parliamentary opposition. Lansdowne died in London on 7 May 1805.

Lord Frederick North, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (Tory, 1770 to 1782)

Birth: 13 April 1732, Piccadilly, London
Death: 5 August 1792, London
Political party: Tory
Dates in office: 1770 to 1782

Lord North was born in London on 13 April 1732, the son of the future first earl of Guildford, Francis North, then 3rd baron, and the godson – some believed (probably erroneously) in fact the son – of the Prince of Wales. Educated at Eton and then Trinity College Oxford, in 1754 he was returned as MP for the family seat at Banbury.

A swift upward path
Despite a dull appearance, his urbanity, wit and good speaking voice, together with an attractive personal character and good connections, ensured a swift upward path to a Treasury post in 1759, an office he retained through three administrations. He took a leading role in the Grenville government’s controversial response to the radical MP and satirist John Wilkes in 1763, and his position as part of an emerging ‘right’ was confirmed when he resigned on Lord Rockingham’s appointment as Prime Minister in 1765. Perceived by George III as a safe pair of hands after serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Pitt the Elder and Grafton from 1767, it was to North that the King turned as his new premier when Grafton resigned as Prime Minister (a term North never used of himself) in January 1770.

Lord Frederick North

Exceptionally conscientious
North was an exceptionally conscientious first minister. Continuing simultaneously as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he helped establish budget day as a major date in the political calendar. He maintained his supremacy in the House of Commons against a divided opposition, and such was George III’s confidence in his minister that in 1772 North became the first commoner since Robert Walpole to receive the Order of the Garter; the King also paid off North’s personal debts (around £16,000) five years later. North himself reduced the National Debt by some £10 million by 1775; but the impact of the American War of Independence meant that it soon rose by £75 million.

Taxing issues overseas
Such talents, along with significant changes in the administration of India, Ireland and Canada, suggested that North would be recalled as a successful premier. That this was not to be was almost wholly the result of the developing crisis around taxation and constitutional issues in the American colonies that North inherited from his predecessors. North’s own instincts were for enforcement and confrontation rather than negotiation. When in 1775 he adopted a more conciliatory policy of allowing colonies to tax themselves to fund defence and administration, news did not reach America before war broke out. North was more responsible for the financing and defence of the war than for its unsuccessful conduct, but after the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777 his ministry was on the defensive against a reinvigorated opposition. After another British capitulation at Yorktown in 1781 he clung on only in the vain hope that George III would allow him to negotiate peace, but on 20 March 1782 he resigned shortly after a motion demanding an end to the war in America saw the ministry defeated in the Commons, and before peace was concluded.

An unlikely alliance
A final chapter came when North forged an unlikely alliance with his former opponent Charles James Fox to defeat Lord Shelburne’s government, the coalition effectively forcing itself on the King as an administration headed nominally by the Duke of Portland, with North as Home Secretary in April 1783. In December, however, the King dismissed his government, whose defeat in Parliament he had actively fomented. For a short period North was an effective critic of William Pitt the Younger’s administration from the opposition benches, but ill health encouraged a gradual withdrawal from public life, marked by some effective interventions in defence of the Anglican church and against the French Revolution. Shortly after succeeding his father as 2nd Earl of Guildford in 1790, North died in Grosvenor Square, London, on 5 August 1792.

Charles Watson-Wentworth, Prime Minister of Great Britain (1765 to 1766 and March to June 1782)

Birth: 13 May 1730, Wentworth Woodhouse, nr Rotherham
Death: 1 July 1782, Wimbledon
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: 1765 to 1766 and March to June 1782

Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquess of Rockingham, emerged as one of the leading opposition figures during George III’s reign but also managed to head two short administrations himself.

He was born in May 1730 at the family seat of Wentworth Woodhouse near Rotherham. His father, Thomas, had served as an MP, siding with the court Whigs, and had been raised to the peerage, ultimately becoming a Marquess in 1746. Charles entered Westminster School in 1738 and was colonel of a volunteer regiment during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745-6. He undertook an extended Grand Tour, with sojourns in Geneva and Italy, from 1746 to 1750. His father’s death in December 1750 made him a Marquess, and provided a substantial inheritance. In addition to estates in Yorkshire, Rockingham was also a major landowner in both Northamptonshire and Wicklow. He added further to this fortune with his marriage to Mary Bright in 1752.

Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham
Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham

Rockingham, like his father, was closely associated with the political grouping around the Duke of Newcastle, and his brother, Henry Pelham. His land holdings brought him electoral influence: he controlled a couple of rotten boroughs directly and gradually built up his influence in Yorkshire and elsewhere. During the 1750s, his direct involvement in national politics was limited. His interests, instead, were in improving his estates and horse racing.

Rockingham remained attached to Newcastle and thought of resigning his post in the royal household, following Newcastle’s own resignation as First Lord in 1756. Ultimately, this proved unnecessary and Rockingham became a Knight of the Garter in 1760. George II’s death instituted a period of political change. Rockingham, like most of Newcastle’s political associates, was deeply suspicious of the growing influence of John Stuart, third Earl of Bute . Rockingham feared that Bute and the new King, George III, proposed to undermine the political position of the major Whig aristocratic families. Following Newcastle’s second resignation in 1762, Rockingham left his post as Lord of the Bedchamber and was subsequently deprived of his Lord Lieutenancies of the North and West Riding in the purge of Newcastle’s supporters which followed. Rockingham encouraged parliamentary opposition to both Bute and George Grenville over the next three years.

When George III tired of Grenville, Rockingham was one of the opposition leaders who wanted to accept office in the summer of 1765. He was suggested as a possible candidate for various offices but ultimately became First Lord, his first national political office of any sort. Rockingham’s rapid rise was partly due to the absence of other plausible candidates –the Duke of Devonshire had died in 1764 and Newcastle was considered too old to take major office again. The administration, like most eighteenth-century governments, was a coalition. Its major political task was to deal with the emerging crisis in the North American colonies, following the imposition of stamp duties, bitterly resisted by the colonists. Rockingham, mindful of the disruption to Atlantic trade, was keen to repeal the Stamp Act that Grenville had imposed. Nevertheless, he also wanted to reassert the principle that Parliament had the right to tax the colonists, which he duly did with a Declaratory Act.

George III’s support for Rockingham was wavering. The King was unhappy with Rockingham’s refusal to admit some of Bute’s friends to office and determined to change his ministry again. William Pitt the Elder replaced Rockingham in July 1766. Rockingham was initially relieved to leave office. He was reluctant to form a permanent opposition party but his group’s ideological position was given a significant boost by the publication in 1770 of Edmund Burke’s Thoughts on the Present Discontents. Burke, who had been Rockingham’s private secretary, developed the view that the political turbulence and factionalism of the 1760s could all be attributed to the malign influence of Bute, whether in office, or from outside through ‘secret influence’.

Rockingham’s health made his opposition during the 1770s episodic. He spoke on many occasions against Lord North’s handling of American affairs, advocating conciliation and trade concessions before the war with America broke out and criticising its conduct once it had. He supported reducing the civil disabilities on Protestant dissenters (unsuccessfully) and Catholics (successfully), and wanted to curb ministerial excess through measures of economical reform. He was reluctant, however, to give full backing to parliamentary reform.

Following the British defeat at Yorktown, North resigned in March 1782. Rockingham was leader of the largest opposition grouping and became First Lord again. His second administration was also a coalition with the Earl of Shelburne, as Home Secretary, and Charles James Fox, as Foreign Secretary, taking leading roles. It was short-lived. Rockingham died in July 1782, precipitating a further period of ministerial instability and factional fighting. He had achieved elements of economical reform, as well as increased legislative independence for Ireland. In the long term, Rockingham’s career was important for the boost it gave to the legitimacy of formed opposition to a government. His achievements in office were more limited.

George Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain (Whig 1763-1765)

Birth: 14 October 1712, Wotton, Buckinghamshire
Death: 13 November 1770, Bolton Street, Piccadilly, London
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: 1763 to 1765

George Grenville came from a political family and ultimately emerged as an important political figure in his own right. He was born in October 1712 at Wotton, Buckinghamshire. His father, Richard, sat as an MP for Wendover and Buckingham but Grenville’s career was helped more by his mother’s brother, Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham of Stowe.

George Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain
George Grenville, Prime Minister of Great Britain

Grenville was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He did not graduate but entered the Inner Temple and qualified as a barrister in 1735. His elder brother, Richard, had entered Parliament through Cobham’s influence in 1734, joining the group of Walpole’s opponents known as ‘Cobham’s cubs’. William Pitt the Elder was another prominent member of this group which George Grenville also joined when he became MP for Buckingham in 1741, a seat he was to hold continuously until his death in 1770.

Early political office
Cobham’s followers remained staunch critics of the administration, even after Walpole’s fall in 1742. Following Carteret’s departure from the post of Secretary of State in 1744, they reached terms with the dominant Pelham faction and Grenville joined the Admiralty Board in late 1744. He spoke on naval matters in the Commons but hoped for further promotion. He joined the Treasury Board in 1747, further developing his financial and administrative skills.

Grenville married Elizabeth Wyndham in May 1749. Elizabeth’s father was Sir William Wyndham, a leading Tory politician of the Walpole era. Her grandfather, the Duke of Somerset, disapproved of the marriage and settled very little property on her. Elizabeth’s brother, Charles, second Earl of Egremont, was a firmer supporter and ally. The couple had four sons and five daughters. Their youngest son, William Wyndham Grenville , eventually became Prime Minister himself in 1806.

After Pelham’s death in 1754, Grenville was promoted to Treasurer of the Navy and joined the Privy Council. Grenville was aligned to the political faction led by William Pitt the elder in the Commons and Richard Grenville, now Earl Temple, in the Lords. Pitt was Paymaster of the Forces but had a difficult relationship with Newcastle, Pelham’s successor. Grenville followed his lead, acting as Pitt’s deputy in the Commons. The bonds between them were strengthened when Pitt married Grenville and Temple’s sister, Hester, in November 1754.

Grenville was dismissed in November 1755 but hoped for promotion when Pitt subsequently negotiated to form an administration with first the Duke of Devonshire in 1756 and then the Duke of Newcastle in 1757. His hopes of becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer were thwarted and he returned to being Treasurer of the Navy.

New reign, new opportunities
Grenville had grown close to the future king, George III, during the 1750s and George’s accession, combined with his frustrations with Pitt and Temple, led to a change of heart in 1761. Pitt and Temple resigned in October over disagreements about the conduct of the Seven Years War , but Grenville did not follow them. While he refused to take Pitt’s position as Secretary of State for the Southern Department, he proposed his other brother-in-law, Egremont, for the position and instead became leader of the House of Commons. He remained in government following Newcastle’s resignation, becoming Northern Secretary in Bute’s administration, but his tenure was unhappy. He disagreed with Bute and the King about how to achieve peace and found himself side-lined and, eventually, moved to the Admiralty. However, Bute’s resignation created a new opportunity.

First lord at last
The King, reluctant to bring either Newcastle or Pitt back into power, offered Grenville the positions of First Lord and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Grenville’s ministry was marked by two major parliamentary controversies. The first was over the legality of general warrants, an issue provoked by attempts to censor the political radical John Wilkes and his populist attacks on Bute. Grenville insisted that the courts, rather than Parliament, should decide on this. The second was over taxing the American colonies. The costs of the Seven Years War (1756-63) meant that Westminster was keen for the American colonists to shoulder more of the burden of imperial defence. Grenville wanted customs duties to be enforced strictly and proposed a new set of stamp duties to raise revenue. The colonists protested vociferously, and ultimately this sowed the seeds of the American Revolution. In Parliament, MPs backed the right of Westminster to raise taxes but some were less convinced of the practicalities.

George III had already lost patience with Grenville. Irritated by Grenville’s assertive attitude towards him and his desire to control all official appointments, George turned to the Marquess of Rockingham instead. Grenville continued to sit in the Commons until his death in November 1770 but he had made too many enemies, the King in particular, to return to office even in the ministerial merry-go-round of the 1760s.

John Stuart, Prime Minister of Great Britain (Whig 1762-1763)

Birth: 25 May 1713, Parliament Square, Edinburgh
Death: 10 March 1792, South Audley Street, London
Political party: Whig
Dates in office: in office 1762 to 1763

John Stuart, third Earl of Bute, was a Scottish aristocrat who rose, through his royal connections to a position of political pre-eminence. Bute was born in Edinburgh on 25 May 1713.

Bute’s grandfather had been an MP for Buteshire in the Scottish parliament and was created Earl of Bute in April 1703. Bute’s father died in 1723 and the family estates were placed under the guardianship of Bute’s uncles, the Duke of Argyll and the Earl of Ilay, the major political power brokers of early Hanoverian Scotland.

John Stuart – Earl of Bute

Bute was educated at Eton College and studied Civil Law in Leiden, graduating in 1732. In August 1736 Bute married Mary Wortley Montagu, only daughter and heiress of Edward and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. The match brought Bute eleven children and, eventually, a sizeable inheritance from his wife’s family.

His first real political experience came with election as one of the sixteen Scottish representative peers in the House of Lords in 1737. Bute was only an occasional attendee, however, and failed to secure re-election in 1741.

Royal connections

Having spent time improving his Scottish estates, Bute moved to London after the outbreak of the 1745 pro-Stuart Jacobite rebellion. He came into the circle of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and quickly achieved his confidence. He retained the trust of Frederick’s wife, Augusta, after the prince’s death in 1751 and he became tutor to their eldest son, the future George III. Bute’s relationship with Prince George was a close one – he was a father-like figure for the young prince.

Following George II’s death in October 1760, the new King promoted Bute quickly. He became a Privy Counsellor, Secretary of State for the Northern department and was created a British peer. Bute’s new colleagues, particularly William Pitt the Elder and the Duke of Newcastle, resented Bute’s rapid rise. With the country in the throes of the Seven Years War (1756-63), they feared that Bute would persuade the new King to bring the war to a swift close, despite Britain having achieved substantial victories across the globe, such as the conquest of Canada. Pitt eventually resigned in October 1761. Bute undoubtedly wanted to bring the war to a close. He was less attached to the Prussian alliance than either Pitt or Newcastle and his abandonment of Prussia caused Newcastle’s resignation in May 1762.

Bute under attack

This left the way clear for Bute to become First Lord of the Treasury. He pressed ahead with negotiations with France and he was able to steer a peace agreement through both Houses of Parliament. Pitt remained vehemently opposed to the terms of the peace and Bute was the subject of sustained personal attacks in the public sphere. His Scottishness and supposedly improper relations with George III’s mother, the Dowager Princess of Wales, were both satirised, including by the satirical journalist John Wilkes. His popularity was further damaged by the imposition of a new Cider Tax in 1763. The costs of the war meant that the government was keen both to cut expenditure and raise income but there were fears that the new tax would lead to an unacceptable degree of government intrusion into the lives of the population at large.

‘Secret influence’?

Shortly after the bill passed in April 1763, Bute tendered his resignation. George III reluctantly accepted. The King continued to consult Bute on major issues, although his continued influence was probably not as great as many of Bute’s detractors claimed. For the politically discontented oppositional groups of this period, the notion of Bute’s power via ‘secret influence’ became a catch-all explanation for the failure of their ministries and inability to maintain the King’s favour. Constitutional questions about the relative powers of the monarch and his ministers were hotly debated during George III’s reign. Bute’s relationship with George III cooled after Pitt returned to office in 1766. In his political retirement he devoted himself to scholarship and using his considerable wealth as a patron of literary and scientific endeavour. He died in London in March 1792 and was buried on his familial estates at Rothesay.