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  Charles Grey (1764–1845), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1828 Charles Grey (1764–1845), by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1828
Grey, Charles, second Earl Grey (1764–1845), prime minister, was born at Fallodon, Northumberland, on 13 March 1764, the second but eldest surviving son of and his wife, Elizabeth (1743/4–1822), daughter of George Grey of Southwick, co. Durham. He had four brothers and two sisters. His father became Baron Grey in 1801, Earl Grey in 1806, and died on 14 November 1807.

Personal and family life

The Greys were a Northumberland family of moderate estate, prominent in the county since the fourteenth century. Charles Grey's father, a distinguished soldier, was often away on duty, and Charles became attached to his bachelor uncle Sir Henry Grey at Howick, where he spent much time in his youth. Sir Henry made him his heir, and in 1801 he settled at Howick, which he inherited in 1808. It became his favourite and much loved home, Fallodon later passing to his brother George.

Little is known of Grey's childhood other than that he was sent to a private school in Marylebone, where he was unhappy, and then to Eton College. He was an able pupil, ‘reckoned clever’ (Farington Diary, ed. Greig, 1.179) by his peers, who included his later longstanding friends and political associates Samuel Whitbread, who married his sister, and William Henry Lambton, whose son married Grey's daughter. Grey proceeded to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a fellow-commoner in November 1781. There and at Eton he acquired a facility in Latin and in English composition and declamation that enabled him to become one of the foremost parliamentary orators of his generation. His speeches were described by the parliamentary reporter James Grant as thoughtful, logical in arrangement, and persuasive in argument, and were garnished according to contemporary taste with classical references and quotations. Thomas Creevey remarked in 1820 of his speech on the Queen Caroline affair that ‘There is nothing approaching this damned fellow in the kingdom, when he mounts his best horse’ (Creevey Papers, 1.336).

Grey spent three years at Cambridge, but after the fashion of the time he did not take a degree. He was admitted a student of the Middle Temple in May 1783, and in 1784 he accompanied Henry, duke of Cumberland, a brother of George III, on a continental tour, spending some time seeing the sights and visiting the galleries of Italy. He was not much attracted to art, and, though an avid reader, in his middle and later years his reading was largely confined to historical memoirs and contemporary novels. He was an admirer in particular of Scott and of Maria Edgeworth, and a discriminating reader of Byron's poetry, though his favourite was Spenser. When his children were growing up he read aloud to his family almost every evening, and his eldest son, in his biography of his father, remarked that these times were the most memorable and enjoyable of all family occasions (Grey, 404).

On 18 November 1794 Grey married Mary Elizabeth (1776–1861), daughter of of Imokilly and Bishop's Court, co. Kildare, later first Baron Ponsonby, an alliance that brought him firmly into the ‘whig cousinhood’ of which the Ponsonbys were a major element. The marriage was a happy and fruitful one; between 1797 and 1819 the couple had eleven sons, the eldest of whom, , became a politician like his father, and four daughters. The family atmosphere at Howick was informal—contemporaries noted that the children often addressed their parents by their Christian or nicknames—and though a strict father where his sons' education and careers were concerned, Grey was an affectionate companion to them all.

However, there was another side to Grey's character. Frequent childbearing often kept Mary at Howick, and during his absences in London or elsewhere Grey had a series of affairs with other women. The first, most notorious, and most significant, which antedated his engagement to his future wife, was with , whom he met at Devonshire House, the centre of whig society in London in the 1780s and 1790s, shortly after his arrival in the capital as a young recruit to the House of Commons. Impetuous and headstrong, Grey was, as Lady Holland remarked, ‘a fractious and exigeant lover’ (Vassall, 1.98), who pursued Georgiana with persistence until she gave in to his attentions. She became pregnant by Grey in 1791, but she refused to leave her husband and live with him when the duke threatened that if she did so she would never see their children again. She went abroad with her sister, and on 20 February 1792 at Aix-en-Provence she gave birth to a daughter, who was given the name Eliza Courtenay. After her return to England in September 1793 the child was taken to Fallodon and brought up by Grey's parents as if she was his sister.

Grey resented what he considered Georgiana's desertion of him, though he was considered to have treated her cruelly, and although they remained close friends their sexual relationship was probably not resumed after Grey's engagement. He made several other conquests, notoriously including Sheridan's second wife, ‘Hecca’, and even in his sixties Princess Lieven was numbered among his lovers. Mary nevertheless remained faithful to her errant husband and the marriage endured until his death.

Political career

Grey's affair with Georgiana was a significant step in the process by which he became a member of the whig party, led by Charles James Fox. When he was first elected to the Commons in 1786 he was still abroad on his travels, but he was nominated for a vacancy for the county of Northumberland by his uncle Sir Henry, and although he professed no political allegiance he was expected to follow the family tradition of back-bench toryism. On his arrival in London, however, he astonished the political world by devoting his maiden speech on 21 February 1787 to a powerful and intemperate attack on Pitt's commercial treaty with France and on Pitt himself. It made his reputation overnight, Henry Addington noting that it was received ‘with an éclat which has not been equalled within my recollection’. He assumed that the speech placed Grey firmly ‘in the ranks of opposition, from whence there is no chance of his being detached’ (Pellew, 1.45–6). This was premature. Grey had not yet thrown in his lot with the whigs. His speech reflected his headstrong temperament and overwhelming ambition: it was a means of drawing attention to himself rather than a political manifesto. It nevertheless attracted Fox's notice, and Grey, like many young men of his time, fell under his spell. The combination of the flattering attentions of Fox and the attractions of Devonshire House recruited Grey to the opposition benches for personal, not political, reasons.

Once established there, however, Grey characteristically threw himself wholeheartedly into whig politics, though, as always, with more energy than stamina. He was appointed to a place on the committee of managers for the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and on 25 February 1788 he seconded Fox in presenting the charge respecting Chet Singh and Benares in a rather theatrical speech, which again was highly praised. He quickly tired of the impeachment, however, and to Burke's distress he tried to persuade Fox to abandon the proceedings on the grounds that the business of the opposition was to defeat Pitt's government and not to engage in moral crusades of doubtful political value. This streak of realism was another characteristic of Grey's political activity. Though by no means devoid of principles, he valued short-term results and lacked the patience for a long campaign. This was again to be borne out in the 1790s over what Grey later described as ‘all the mess of the Friends of the People’ (Grey, 11).

Grey's position among the leaders of the opposition to Pitt was quickly assured. Grey himself was determined that he would be second only to Fox, and not to ‘those Norfolks, Windhams and Pelhams’ (Sichel, 2.406). In the Regency crisis of 1788–9 he gave unstinting support to Fox's attempt to secure the unrestricted power of the crown for the prince of Wales as regent, in the expectation that he would bring the whigs into office, but he was hurt by the prince's apparent ignorance of his claims to high office and the casual offer of a junior lordship of the Treasury, a lowly post usually given to a minor figure. The prince had been alienated by Grey's refusal to extricate him from his embarrassment over Fox's denial of his marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert in 1787, and this was a further step towards a breach between them. Some of Grey's senior colleagues also thought him too ambitious and pushing for so recent a recruit to the party. It was in this light that Grey's role in the foundation of the Society of the Friends of the People in 1792 was seen, appearing as further proof of his impetuous nature and his wish for self-advancement.

The issue of reform

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 at first aroused widespread enthusiasm in Britain, where it was believed that the French were seeking to imitate the country's ‘glorious constitution’, but ironically it soon proved to draw attention to the defects rather than the virtues of the British system. The House of Commons seemed to be too much dominated by aristocratic patronage and by the influence of the executive, and insufficiently representative of the people. By 1791 radical societies, inspired by events in France, were growing everywhere, and enthusiasm was fed by a diet of radical publications such as Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man, which declared that all citizens possessed equal political rights and that democracy was the only foundation of legitimate government. The spread of these doctrines among the ‘lower orders’, and of clubs and societies devoted to promoting them, alarmed the government and the propertied class, while the descent of the French into what seemed to be anarchy heightened their fears that the same might happen in Britain.

Grey's action in April 1792 in promoting with a few whig friends the foundation of a society to bring about parliamentary reform therefore caused consternation. Its title, the Society of the Friends of the People, seemed in the current climate to be provocative or even seditious. Grey had not consulted Fox before taking this step, wishing not to force him into any embarrassing commitment, but he later confessed that he wished he had done so, for Fox would have restrained him. As it was, the establishment of the society convinced the noble leaders of the party, men such as the duke of Portland and Earl Fitzwilliam, who saw Burke as the true prophet of aristocratic whiggery, that Grey and his young friends were encouraging revolution and, even worse, trying to usurp the leadership of the whig party for themselves and for their own purposes. Grey did not condone the excesses of the French and he did not approve of the ideas of Thomas Paine, but he argued that Britain should set its own house in order to forestall any extremism here, and that the leadership of respectable and moderate men would keep the reformers on a constitutional path. To the conservative element, however, his views seemed idealistic at best, disingenuous at worst.

Grey compounded the offence by giving notice in the Commons on 30 April 1792 that he would present a motion for parliamentary reform in the next session, and he did so on 6 May 1793, basing his proposals on the petition drawn up by the Friends of the People which highlighted the extent of electoral patronage and influence, the small number of voters in many constituencies, and the lack of representation for newer commercial and industrial towns. The motion was lost by 282 votes to 41, a result which showed that only a minority of Grey's own party was prepared to follow him. The days when, as recently as 1791, Grey had joined in a concerted whig attack on Pitt's policy towards Russia in the Ochakov crisis and forced the minister to change his approach were not to be repeated: when the Commons debated Grey's address to restore peace with France on 21 February 1793 he had little support from either side of the house and did not even force a division. The consequence was that the party split, only affection for Fox individually restraining Portland, Fitzwilliam, and the conservative element from immediately breaking away and joining Pitt. They eventually did so in July 1794.

For the next few years Fox, Grey, and a few remaining friends were left in opposition, where they vigorously opposed the measures introduced by Pitt to defend the monarchy and constitution against fancied subversion by radicals or French emissaries. Grey joined in the opposition to the suspension of habeas corpus in 1794, the traitorous correspondence and seditious meetings bills of 1795, and the Aliens Bill of 1799 as unjustified infringements of liberty designed to panic the public into uncritical support of the administration. Pitt, not Paine, was represented as the threat to the British constitution.

It was an arguable proposition, but in the prevailing mood of patriotic enthusiasm and anti-French xenophobia it failed to win much support. When Fox and Grey opposed the indictment and trial of reformers like Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke for treason in 1794 they merely seemed to confirm that they were in league with subversion. The acquittal of the accused safeguarded Grey's liberty, but when he proposed a second motion for reform on 26 May 1797 it was lost by 256 votes to 91, and he used the figures to persuade Fox that further resistance to Pitt's regime was pointless. To demonstrate that fact he argued that the opposition should secede from parliament for the remainder of the war. This quickly proved to be a miscalculation: it merely showed the opposition as unpatriotic, while the fact that it was incomplete—some members refusing to secede—demonstrated its disunity and allowed Pitt a free hand. Grey quickly realized his mistake, and almost as soon as the secession took place he tried to find a way to end it. Fox, however, was enjoying his release from the cares and struggles of parliamentary opposition, and took the opportunity to devote his time to literature and poetry, listening to the nightingales in his Chertsey garden. Grey could not return while Fox stayed away, or he would be accused of engineering Fox's retirement in order to take his place. The only issue he could not ignore was the Irish question after the suppression of the rising of 1798 and Pitt's introduction of a bill to abolish the Irish parliament in Dublin and bring Ireland under closer British control. Grey argued that the union would increase the influence of the executive over the British parliament by introducing at Westminster 100 extra MPs from Ireland who would be susceptible to bribery and patronage, and thus add to Pitt's majorities. This fitted in with his previous argument that the growth of royal and ministerial influence since 1689 was the major threat to the independence of parliament as the representative body of the people and the guardian of their liberties. Again, however, his contentions were rejected, and he retired once more to Northumberland.

Grey and the new opposition

The ending of the revolutionary war by the peace of Amiens in 1802 marked a new phase in Grey's career. He was now settled at Howick and his personal life was more stable, while the attractions of politics had diminished after the failures of the past ten years. He also found himself at variance with Fox, particularly on foreign affairs. Fox was even more dispirited and disillusioned with the events of the recent past. He declared that he expected the ‘euthanasia’ of the British constitution and confessed to Grey that:
I am gone something further in hate to the English government than perhaps you and the rest of my friends are. … The triumph of the French government over the English does in fact afford me a degree of pleasure which it is very difficult to disguise. (Memorials and Correspondence, 3.345–50)
Grey was shocked by Fox's attitude, and partly for that reason he resisted his leader's pleas to him to go to London to settle the whigs' policy towards the new government of Henry Addington, which had succeeded that of Pitt after the latter's resignation in 1801, when the king refused to agree to concessions towards the Irish Catholics after the passing of the union. Grey now found himself moving closer to the followers of Lord Grenville, formerly Pitt's foreign secretary, who had also resigned in 1801, particularly on foreign affairs. While Fox seemed Francophile, Grey was beginning to regard France under Bonaparte as a threat to British interests. If war were resumed, it would no longer be a war supporting tyrants against the people's liberties, but a war of national and imperial survival against French conquest. When Bonaparte became emperor, he seemed no longer to be a liberator of enslaved peoples but a potential conqueror aiming at European domination. Grey supported the British resumption of war in 1803 and he remained an advocate for its prosecution until 1815, though he frequently differed from the tory governments of the period on matters of strategy. When he succeeded Fox as foreign secretary in the short-lived ‘ministry of all the talents’ on 24 September 1806 he immediately terminated the peace negotiations which Fox had initiated a few weeks beforehand.

At home, Grey's political career remained stagnant after 1801. Desultory negotiations for a junction with Addington came to nothing, Grey not wishing to tie himself to what might be a falling star, and in addition being hurt by his father's support of Addington, and his solicitation and acceptance of a peerage from him in 1801 without consulting or informing his eldest son. When Pitt returned to displace Addington in 1804, Grey agreed with Grenville that a coalition of all parties to prosecute the war was desirable, but that to bring it about the king's veto on Fox must be lifted. When Pitt failed to persuade George III to do so, both Grey and Grenville refused to join the government. From this time dates the new alliance of the followers of Fox and of Grenville which formed the new whig party of 1804–17.

The new whig party

Pitt's death in January 1806 opened the way for a new ministry formed by the followers of Grenville, as prime minister, Fox, and Addington (now Viscount Sidmouth), the nearest attainable combination to the union of parties proposed in 1804, and nicknamed by Canning the ‘ministry of all the talents’. Grey entered the cabinet as first lord of the Admiralty (February 1806), despite his inexperience of naval affairs, in a vital post in wartime, especially in the year after Trafalgar, when British supremacy at sea presented her with opportunities to pursue the war. He carried out his duties with energy and spirit, perhaps bearing out Sir Francis Burdett's remark much later in his life that ‘he should not have been a patriot [in opposition]; he should have been a Minister, that was his line’ (Broughton, 3.79). Within nine months, however, Fox followed his old rival to the grave, and Grey manoeuvred himself into position as his successor as foreign secretary (September 1807), despite Fox's expressed preference for Holland. Again he devoted himself energetically to his office, but with little success. The cabinet lacked a coherent war strategy, and he failed to persuade his colleagues to concentrate on one theatre of war. The opportunity to intervene decisively on the Iberian peninsula lay in the future.

Foreign affairs soon took second place to the recurrent problem of Ireland. The Irish Catholics had been disappointed—some said betrayed—in 1801 when Pitt failed to follow the Act of Union with Catholic emancipation. Resumed Irish agitation and the needs of Irish manpower for the war effort impressed the ‘talents’ with the need for concessions, but George III, who had thwarted Pitt's proposals in 1801, remained resolutely opposed. The cabinet worked out a ramshackle scheme to allow Catholics to hold certain commissions in the armed services, in the hope that this would win the support of the Irish gentry and enable Catholic regiments to be raised. The details of the scheme were unclear, and when Grey and Grenville were separately interviewed by the king it became evident that the royal veto had not been lifted. The king forced the cabinet to withdraw their proposals, and demanded a pledge that they would not propose any measure of Catholic relief during his lifetime. Their refusal left them no option but to resign, on 15 March 1807.

During the ‘talents’ ministry, Fox secured an earldom for Grey's father, who had been given a barony by Addington in 1801 in recognition of his military services. Grey had been deeply distressed by his father's acceptance, without even consulting him, for his father's age meant that his own succession and departure from the Commons must follow within a short time. He now (April 1806) adopted the courtesy title Viscount Howick, which he used until his father died on 14 November 1807, when he inherited the earldom as second Earl Grey.

Between the collapse of the ‘talents’ and his father's death, there was a general election in which Howick lost his seat for Northumberland. Hitherto he had stood with the duke of Northumberland's support, but that support was withdrawn, without notice, because the duke wished his son, Lord Percy, who had just come of age, to have the seat. Howick could not afford a contest, and his father's age and health in any case made it pointless. He never forgave the duke, however, and in old age he encouraged his grandchildren to break the duke's gates and fences. After the election he was provided with a seat for Appleby by Lord Thanet, which enabled him to make a powerful attack on the change of administration on his last appearance there in June 1807.

Grey in the House of Lords

‘What a place to speak in! with just light enough to make darkness visible, it was like speaking in a vault by the glimmering light of a sepulchral lamp to the dead. It is impossible I should ever do anything there worth thinking of’ (Grey MSS), so Grey wrote to his wife after his first speech in the Lords on 27 January 1808. He had made his reputation as an orator in the lower house, and making a good speech was always a tonic to his often depressed spirits. In the Lords, the powerful oratory which suited a crowded House of Commons was liable to fall flat before a meagre gathering of their lordships.

It was also difficult to keep control of the party's hotheads in the Commons. A group of more radical whigs, led by Samuel Whitbread, now Grey's brother-in-law, wanted peace with Napoleon and to activate the party with a programme of parliamentary reform. However, Grenville and his followers were determined anti-reformers and advocates of war to the end with France. Grey had a lively sense of the need to keep the party together, for, besides Grenville, the former Portland whigs, including Fitzwilliam, had joined the coalition in 1804 and they shared Grenville's attitudes. Grey feared that Whitbread wanted to lead the party into alliance with the radicals, whose suspicions of Grey as a reformer had been aroused by his inaction on the subject when he was in office. For the next few years, as Grey played down the issue for the sake of party unity, his relations with the radicals outside parliament became increasingly antagonistic. His aristocratic instincts jibbed at the prospect of power being held by men like Alderman Robert Waithman, the leader of the city radicals, or Sir Francis Burdett, let alone Hunt or Cobbett. He refused to support the ‘mountain’, as Whitbread and his followers were called in imitation of the extremists in the French national assembly during the revolution, in attacking the duke of York, the commander-in-chief, in 1809, when he was accused of complicity in the corrupt activities of his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke, who was shown to have traded army commissions for money. Grey feared that the involvement of the royal family would endanger the monarchy and open the gates to republican agitation. He nevertheless rejected Perceval's offer to give the opposition places in the administration in 1809, being unwilling to associate with the men who had taken the places of the ‘talents’ in 1807 and rejected Catholic emancipation. He probably also disliked the prospect of giving up his domestic life at Howick to return to the cares of politics.

The next few years were accordingly barren of constructive achievement for Grey. He felt the frustrations of his position, and on at least two occasions he attempted to pass on the leadership of the whig group to others. He realized that opposition must be active, remembering the blunder of the secession of 1797, but he had no stomach for the fight himself. Tierney, Whitbread, and other colleagues urged him to exert his leadership and told him that no one could take his place, but to no effect.

One exception was the Catholic question, to which Grey and Grenville felt themselves committed after the débâcle of 1807. When the Irish Catholics formed a new organization and began to agitate again he felt obliged to take up the issue, and in 1810 he presented the petition of the English Catholics, who were moderates by comparison, to the House of Lords. However, as in the case of parliamentary reform, he tried to restrain extremism and to persuade the Irish leaders to accept some reserved powers for the crown, known as ‘securities’ for the Anglican establishment, in particular a veto on Catholic ecclesiastical appointments. This did not satisfy the Irish and no progress was made. As in their attitude to the conduct of the war, the whigs seemed disunited and ineffectual. It was no wonder that when the prince of Wales acquired the full power of the crown as prince regent in 1811 he decided not to change his ministers and appoint his erstwhile friends in their places. In any case, he had altered his opinions, and since Fox's death he no longer felt attached to them. He went through the motions, and offered a number of places to the whigs, and again in 1812 after Perceval's assassination he consulted Grey and Grenville about ministerial arrangements, but probably more to show his consistency towards them than seriously to intend to bring them into the government. The whig leaders destroyed their own prospects by behaving high-handedly towards him and giving the impression that they expected him to hand over his powers to them entirely. The prince was also alienated by their lukewarm attitude towards the war, while he wished to pursue it to a glorious conclusion in emulation of his father. In the end, Liverpool became prime minister with a virtually unchanged administration which was to last for fifteen years, and the whigs were left in the political wilderness until 1830.

The prince's dislike was intensified by Grey's role in the affairs of the estranged Princess Caroline and her daughter, Charlotte. When the latter appealed to Grey in 1813 to advise her about her father's attempt to marry her off to the prince of Orange, Grey gave her wise and statesmanlike advice not to precipitate matters by defying him but to wait until she came of age and could make up her own mind. A year later Charlotte fled from her virtual imprisonment next door to Carlton House to her mother's residence. Grey took no part in the ensuing drama but approved of Brougham's resolution of the affair by persuading her to return to her father and not to stir up a public crisis. Grey realized that the old opposition tactic of relying upon the ‘reversionary interest’, cultivating the favour of the heir to the throne to counterbalance the ministers' present dependence on the monarch, was no longer appropriate, and in this he again showed his sense of realism. In any case, the death of Charlotte in childbirth on 6 November 1817 settled the question for the future. The whigs would never look to the next heir, the autocratic tory duke of York.

Grey's involvement with the affairs of the royal family concluded with the so-called ‘trial’ of Queen Caroline, as she became, in 1820. George IV, who had succeeded his father in January, attempted to free himself from his detested and immoral wife by a parliamentary bill of divorce which was considered by the House of Lords between August and November. Grey attended conscientiously the hearings of the evidence against her and her defence, declaring at the outset that ‘He came to do his duty as a peer of parliament, without any earthly consideration to warp or bias his mind … but … with a strong desire and firm determination to do justice’ (Hansard 2, 2, 17 Aug 1820, 620). In his final speech, summing up his verdict, he again disavowed any party feeling and asserted that on the grounds of both justice and expediency, and in accordance with the evidence, ‘if I were to vote for this bill, I should never again lay my head down upon my pillow in peace’ (Hansard 2 3, 3 Nov 1820, 1574). The speech, Creevey wrote, was ‘beautiful—magnificent—all honour and right feeling’, and Holland told Lady Grey that it was ‘the most perfect speech I ever heard in Parliament’ (Creevey Papers, 1.336; Halifax MSS). The withdrawal of the proceedings against the queen was forced on the government by public opinion, but Grey's speech was generally agreed to have contributed substantially to the great reduction of the government's majority which made it impossible to carry on.

George IV's dislike of Grey was confirmed, and for ten years afterwards his admission to the government was blocked by the king's specific veto. It was a sterile period in Grey's career and he was frequently despondent. He attended the Lords less often, but though he called on Lansdowne to take up the leadership of the opposition he was still unwilling to give it up altogether. The alliance with the Grenvilles had broken up in 1817 over differences on the suspension of habeas corpus to deal with radical agitation, and though this removed one barrier to the revival of a reform programme the continued presence of the aristocratic element, notably in the person of Fitzwilliam, whose second marriage in 1823 made him Lady Grey's stepfather, prevented Grey from taking it up. In any case the fires of youth were damping down. Whitbread was dead, and though a group of younger members of the aristocratic wing, including Lambton, who became Lord Durham, Althorp, Russell, and Tavistock, all heirs to peerages, were anxious to regenerate the party as a liberal force, Grey remained cautious. He did not rule out reform, but he argued that the time was not ripe: he warned Lambton in 1820 that it might not come ‘in my life, or even during yours’ (S. J. Reid, Life and Letters of the First Earl of Durham, 1792–1840, 2 vols., 1906, 1.131).

The party was thrown into even greater disarray in 1827, when on the retirement of Liverpool Canning became prime minister, but was deserted by the right-wing tories in Liverpool's cabinet. To compensate for their defection, Canning offered places to several of the whigs, attempting to form a government of the centre. Several of Grey's closest colleagues agreed to take part, including Holland and Lansdowne, but Grey refused to join them to serve under a man whom he considered unfitted for the post of prime minister both on account of his ignoble birth—his mother had at one time been on the stage—and because Grey distrusted his sincerity on Catholic emancipation, which he had professed to support but which he had done nothing to achieve. Nor had he forgiven Canning for his part in the destruction of the ‘talents’ in 1807. Grey's speech in May 1827 attacking Canning was so powerful that it was supposed by some to have hastened Canning's early death, which put an end to the prospect of a new party alignment. Canning was succeeded by the weak and short-lived administration of Goderich, and then by Wellington, with a return to tory government.

Nevertheless, the Catholic question would not go away. Wellington attempted to revert to Liverpool's attitude of neutrality to protect George IV from being forced to accept emancipation, but O'Connell's election for County Clare in 1829 made it essential to deal with it. Wellington and Peel saw no alternative but to concede, and the king was forced to allow them to introduce a bill. Grey gave it wholehearted support, and the whigs enabled Wellington to counterbalance the opposition of the ‘ultra’ tories and secure the passage of the bill—in the House of Lords Grey ‘fights the whole battle for us’, Lord Ellenborough wrote. Even Mrs Arbuthnot, who had no liking for Grey, whom she considered ‘a strange mixture of great talent & gross vanity’, praised his speech as ‘a splendid oration … in a strain of the finest eloquence’ (Journal of Mrs Arbuthnot, 2.264). However, rumours that Grey would be offered the foreign secretaryship were premature. The royal veto still operated and Wellington drew back from making the offer. He confessed to Mrs Arbuthnot that ‘he was sure it w[oul]d never suit him to have Lord Grey in his Cabinet, even if the King did not object; that he is a very violent, arrogant & a very obstinate man’ (ibid., 2.291).

The Great Reform Act

By 1830 Grey's career seemed to be over. He was apparently marooned in opposition and he had come to regard himself as a political failure. The events of the next four years could hardly have been foreseen. The death of George IV in June 1830 removed the royal veto on his taking office, the Paris revolution in the summer aroused enthusiasm for reform again in Britain, and the younger whigs were impatient to take up the question. In his first speech in the new parliament elected in the summer Grey set out a manifesto for reform, provoking Wellington to his famous assertion that not only was reform not necessary, but that a better system than the present could hardly be conceived. The duke's government was defeated on the civil list on 15 November and forced to resign. On the 16th William IV appointed Grey as prime minister, at the age of sixty-six.

Grey formed his cabinet on the aristocratic principles on which he based his life, and with a view to the denial of ‘democracy and Jacobinism. … Given an equal merit’, he declared to Princess Lieven on 9 November, ‘I admit that I should select the aristocrat, for that class is a guarantee for the safety of the state and of the throne’ (Letters of Dorothea, 278–9). Nine of the thirteen members of the cabinet were members of the House of Lords, one was an Irish peer, one the heir to a peerage, and one a baronet. Only Lambton, now earl of Durham, held ‘radical’ views. The government included four former Canningites in the cabinet and one ‘ultra’ tory, the duke of Richmond, who was a relative of Holland. Grey was indeed accused of nepotism—the ‘Grey list’ published in the newspapers contained the names of a large number of his relatives who were given places or patronage. After a long exclusion from power there were many hungry mouths to feed, and Grey was driven to distraction by their competing claims.

The government's first task, following the severe measures taken to suppress the agricultural labourers' riots in the autumn and winter, was to produce a reform bill that would, as Grey laid down at the outset:
stand … upon the fixed and settled institutions of the country … doing as much as is necessary to secure to the people a due influence in that great council in which they are more particularly represented … guarding and limiting it, at the same time, by a prudent care not to disturb too violently, by any extensive changes, the established principles and practice of the constitution. (Mirror of Parliament, 22 Nov 1830, 310–11)
He appointed a subcommittee of Duncannon, Durham, Graham, and Lord John Russell to draw up a scheme. They worked swiftly, starting on 11 December 1830 and reporting to the prime minister on 14 January, following with the drafts of three bills, for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. Their aim, they declared, was ‘to effect such a permanent settlement of this great and important question’ as to put an end to future agitation by satisfying ‘all reasonable demands’ from ‘the intelligent and the independent portion of the community’ (Grey MSS). Grey thoroughly approved the report and secured the king's consent at a visit to Brighton on 30 January by stressing the exclusion of any proposal for a secret ballot and the need to put an end to public agitation while retaining the legitimate influence of property. It reflected very closely the programme of Grey's Friends of the People of nearly forty years ago, and formed the basis of the first Reform Bill, which Russell presented to an astonished, and on the opposition side incredulous, House of Commons on 1 March 1831.

The bill proposed the disfranchisement or partial disfranchisement of the smallest boroughs, the enfranchisement of about thirty of the largest or more important commercial and industrial towns, the institution of a uniform borough franchise—the £10 householders, the addition of a number of seats to the counties and county districts, and the addition of certain leaseholders and copyholders to the old county electorate of 40s. freeholders. The basis of the electoral franchise was still to be the occupation or possession of certain forms of property, and the electorate was to be by no means democratic, the previous total of approximately 370,000 (for England, Scotland, and Wales) being finally increased at the most by some 80 per cent (Cannon, 259). Nevertheless, the plan proved to be well judged. Any more extensive measure would probably not have been carried in view of the strength of vested and conservative interests in parliament: anything much less would not have satisfied the popular demand. As it was, the bill had to be fought through persistent opposition and initial defeat in both houses. The Commons passed the first bill by only one vote on 22 March after furious debate, the house having been elected during Wellington's premiership and still therefore predominantly disposed towards what was now the opposition. Grey's request for a dissolution to allow the election of a more favourable house was refused by the king, who wished for compromise and the modification of the more extreme features of the bill. When, however, the first opposition amendment in committee was passed by 299 to 291 votes on 20 April Grey, considering that the amendment would wreck the bill, threatened resignation if the dissolution was not granted, and the king reluctantly gave way, though he insisted that there must be some modification of the bill when it was reintroduced in the next parliament.

The general election was held during May 1831, and, as expected, the reformers swept the board in what was almost a popular referendum on a single issue. Strengthened by the popular mandate, the government introduced a second bill, which was very little different from the first, and it rapidly went through the Commons. The House of Lords would be a different proposition, for the peers were even more determined to resist dictation by the people, especially since they were aware that the king, and especially the queen and her household, were against the bill. They rejected the bill on the second reading on 8 October by forty-one votes, despite a powerful speech by Grey. The cabinet now made several alterations to the bill and reintroduced it into the Lords, but all would turn on whether Grey would be given permission to recommend the creation of a sufficient number of peers to overcome the tory resistance, a step which the king viewed with total revulsion, and one which Grey himself was most reluctant to take because it would destroy the principle of an equal balance between the two houses. Some others of the cabinet were also averse, especially when it appeared that an additional hundred or more creations might be necessary. Grey attempted negotiation with a group of moderate tory peers, known as ‘the waverers’, but failed to win them over, and had to face a second reading debate in the Lords on 9 April 1832 with nothing resolved. Despite one of his greatest speeches, on 14 April, the Lords passed the second reading by only nine votes, and with the committee stage to come the prospect was gloomy. On 7 May a wrecking amendment was carried by thirty-five votes, and on the following day the cabinet resolved to resign unless the king would agree to the creation of peers. William IV preferred to accept their resignations and called on Wellington to form an administration.

The crisis of reform had now arrived. While Wellington tried to form his administration the country took a hand, and London was placarded with the injunction ‘To stop the duke, go for gold!’ On the 18th the Morning Chronicle announced ‘the eve of the barricades’. The mood was orderly, but revolution was not far off. What defeated the duke, however, was Peel's refusal to join the government, as he was unwilling to repeat the volte-face he had committed over Catholic emancipation in 1829. On the 15th Wellington surrendered his commission and advised the king to recall Grey. The duke rendered a service to his king and country by then withdrawing his followers from the house to allow the Reform Bill to pass without recourse to additional peers. The royal assent was pronounced (in William's absence) on 7 June 1832.

Grey's role in the passing of the Great Reform Act, as it became known, was a crucial one. His steadfastness in face of difficulties, his refusal to compromise, which would have lost the support of the people, his strong control of a disunited cabinet—Durham would have liked a more radical measure, Melbourne, Palmerston, Grant, and Richmond a less extensive one—and above all his ability to manage the king and the court, the centre of hostility to the bill, were vital to success. The passing of the bill remains his supreme achievement.

Grey's ministry had other measures to its credit. The abolition of slavery in the British empire in June 1833 completed the work begun by the ‘talents’ in 1806 when Grey supported the abolition of the slave trade. With Palmerston at the Foreign Office French ambitions in the Low Countries were thwarted and Belgian independence was established without bloodshed, and eventually confirmed by international guarantee in 1839.

Ireland, however, proved the downfall of the ministry as it had in 1807. The cabinet was at sixes and sevens on the questions of Irish tithes and the appropriation of the surplus revenues of the established Irish church to secular purposes for the benefit of the Irish people, while the deeper question of the nature of the connection between the two countries and the maintenance or the repeal of the union was unresolved. Grey had been a friend of Catholic emancipation for Ireland, but he was not prepared to contemplate the dissolution of the union or to tolerate O'Connell's agrarian agitation among the peasantry, where hatred of tithes ran deep. The cabinet was not united on Irish questions, Stanley, the chief secretary, being a determined opponent of lay appropriation and an advocate of coercion to deal with popular disturbances, while Anglesey, the lord lieutenant, and several of the cabinet favoured a more liberal policy. Their disagreements so depressed Grey's spirits that his natural despondency, allied to his tiredness after the Reform Bill struggle, took over. ‘I feel wearied and oppressed’, he wrote, ‘from the moment I get up till I go to bed, and I think it will be impossible for me to go through the work of another session’ (Grey to Ellice, 3 Sept 1833, Ellice MSS). He told his wife ‘I really feel so depressed and totally deprived of all energy and power, both physical and mental’ (Grey MSS). The cabinet indeed was falling apart, and Grey was too dispirited to mend it. Their differences became public when Stanley, Graham, Ripon, and Richmond resigned over Irish policy, and Lord John Russell ‘upset the coach’ by declaring himself opposed to the government's line on lay appropriation. Althorp, the leader of the House of Commons and Grey's staunchest lieutenant, refused to continue and resigned on 8 July 1834, and Grey sent in his own resignation with his. ‘My political life is at an end’, he wrote (Grey to Holland, 8 July 1834, BL, Add. MS 51548, fol. 101).

Grey's resignation speech to the House of Lords on 9 July reviewed his four-year administration and declared that his government had ‘faithfully maintained’ the principles on which it set out, of reform, peace, and economy. ‘I leave the government’, he declared:
with the satisfaction, at least, that in having used my best endeavours to carry into effect those measures of reform that the country required, I have not shrunk from any obstacles, nor from meeting and grappling with the many difficulties that I have encountered in the performance of my duty. (Hansard 3, 16, 9 July 1834, 1313–15)
The speech was described as ‘most powerful and affecting’ (Broughton, 4.353) and was received with cheers and loud applause. ‘All agree’, wrote Creevey, ‘that it was the most beautiful speech ever delivered by man’ (Creevey Papers, 2.282–3).


Grey retired to Howick but he kept a close eye on the policies of the new cabinet under Melbourne, whom he, and especially his family, regarded as a mere understudy until he began to act in ways of which they disapproved. Grey became more critical as the decade went on, being particularly inclined to see the hand of O'Connell behind the scenes and blaming Melbourne for subservience to the radicals with whom he identified the Irish patriot. He made no allowances for Melbourne's need to keep the radicals on his side to preserve his shrinking majority in the Commons, and in particular he resented any slight on his own great achievement, the Reform Act, which he saw as a final solution of the question for the foreseeable future. He continually stressed its conservative nature. As he declared in his last great public speech, at the Grey Festival organized in his honour at Edinburgh in September 1834, its purpose was to strengthen and preserve the established constitution, to make it more acceptable to the people at large, and especially the middle classes, who had been the principal beneficiaries of the Reform Act, and to establish the principle that future changes would be gradual, ‘according to the increased intelligence of the people, and the necessities of the times’ (Edinburgh Weekly Journal, 17 Sept 1834). It was the speech of a conservative statesman.

Grey spent his last years in contented, if sometimes fretful, retirement at Howick, with his books, his family, and his dogs. He became physically feeble in his last years and died quietly in his bed on 17 July 1845, forty-four years to the day since going to live at Howick. He was buried in the church there on the 26th in the presence of his family, close friends, and the labourers on his estate.

Grey was an ambitious man who always wished to lead, but his overt ambition during his youth made him unpopular. He lacked the warmth of personality that made Fox revered by his followers. Grey was respected but rarely loved. His achievements were few, but they were significant. He helped to keep liberal principles alive during the years of conflict with revolutionary France, and in 1832 he safeguarded the continuity of the British constitution into an era of increasingly rapid social and political change. In character he was a man of contradictions, headstrong but easily discouraged by failure, imperious but indecisive, cautious and introspective. He was at his best when in office, for he sought fame and reputation: in opposition he often became despondent. He was a man of principle and integrity, though not always successful in execution. His bearing and attitudes were aristocratic, and his instincts were fundamentally conservative. He was a whig of the eighteenth-century school, most at home among his deferential clients, tenants, and labourers at Howick, and he never came to terms with the new industrial society which was coming into being during his later years. It is greatly to his credit that his Reform Act, whatever its conservative purpose, smoothed the path for that new society to establish its dominance without destroying the old.

E. A. Smith


E. A. Smith, Lord Grey, 1764–1845 (1990) · G. M. Trevelyan, Lord Grey of the Reform Bill (1920) · C. Grey, Some account of the life and opinions of Charles, second Earl Grey (1861) · H. P. Brougham, The life and times of Henry, Lord Brougham, ed. W. Brougham, 3 vols. (1871) · Memorials and correspondence of Charles James Fox, ed. J. Russell, 4 vols. (1853–7) · J. A. Roebuck, History of the whig ministry of 1830, 2 vols. (1852) · Correspondence of Princess Lieven and Earl Grey, ed. and trans. G. Le Strange, 3 vols. (1890) · H. R. Vassall, Lord Holland, Memoirs of the whig party during my time, ed. H. E. Vassall, Lord Holland, 2 vols. (1852–4) · The Creevey papers, ed. H. Maxwell, 2 vols. (1903) · Lord Holland [H. R. V. Fox] and J. Allen, The Holland House diaries, 1831–1840, ed. A. D. Kriegel (1977) · G. Pellew, The life and correspondence of … Henry Addington, first Viscount Sidmouth, 3 vols. (1847) · The journal of Mrs Arbuthnot, 1820–1832, ed. F. Bamford and the duke of Wellington [G. Wellesley], 2 vols. (1950) · Letters of Dorothea, Princess Lieven, during her residence in London, 1812–1834, ed. L. G. Robinson (1902) · The journal of Elizabeth, Lady Holland, 1791–1811, ed. earl of Ilchester [G. S. Holland Fox-Strangways], 2 vols. (1908) · W. S. Sichel, Sheridan, 2 vols. (1909) · Baron Broughton [J. C. Hobhouse], Recollections of a long life, ed. Lady Dorchester [C. Carleton], 6 vols. (1909–11) · J. Cannon, Parliamentary reform, 1640–1832 (1973) · U. Durham L., Grey of Howick collection · Borth. Inst., Halifax MSS · NL Scot., Ellice MSS · The Farington diary, ed. J. Greig, 8 vols. (1922–8)


U. Durham L., Grey of Howick collection, corresp. and papers; political and public corresp. and papers |  Beds. & Luton ARS, letters to Samuel Whitbread · BL, corresp. with first Baron Auckland and second Baron Auckland, Add. MSS 34456–34460 · BL, corresp. with Henry Dundas, Add. MSS 38353, 38377, 38735 · BL, corresp. with James Willoughby Gordon, Add. MSS 49477–49479 · BL, corresp. with Lord Grenville, Add. MSS 58946–58949 · BL, corresp. with Lord Holland and Lady Holland, Add. MSS 51544–51557 · BL, letters to W. Huskisson, Add. MSS 38735–38736 · BL, corresp. with Prince Lieven and Princess Lieven, Add. MSS 47295, 47360–47365 · BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MSS 40862–40863 · BL, letters to second Earl Spencer · BL, corresp. with Lord Wellesley, Add. MSS 37295–37312 · BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Wilson, Add. MSS 30108–30110, 30118–30124 · BL, corresp. with W. Windham, Add. MS 37847 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Francis Burdett · Borth. Inst., letters to daughter, Lady Georgiana Grey · CBS, corresp. with Sir Thomas Fremantle · Cumbria AS, Carlisle, corresp. with Sir Robert Wilson · Glamorgan RO, Cardiff, corresp. with Lord Lyndhurst · Glos. RO, Freeman-Mitford papers · Hants. RO, corresp. with George Tierney · Harrowby Manuscript Trust, Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, letters to Lord Harrowby · Hunt. L., letters to Grenville family · Lambton estate office, Lambton Park, Chester-le-Street, co. Durham, Lambton papers · Lpool RO, letters to Lord Stanley · N. Yorks. CRO, corresp. with Christopher Wyvill · NA Scot., letters to Sir John Dalrymple · NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Alexander Cochrane, MSS 2570–2572 · NL Scot., corresp. with Edward Ellice · Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to Thomas Creevey · Northumbd RO, Newcastle upon Tyne, letters to Lord Ridley · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Charles Grey and first earl of Durham · NRA, priv. coll., letters to duke of Hamilton · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Spencer Perceval · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Sir H. M. Wellwood · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Lord Rosebery · PRONI, corresp. with first marquess of Anglesey · Royal Arch., letters to George III · Sheff. Arch., corresp. with Lord Fitzwilliam · Sheff. Arch., corresp. with Lord Grenville · Staffs. RO, letters to first Baron Hatherton · Staffs. RO, corresp. with Princess Lieven and duke of Sutherland · TCD, letters to R. S. Carew · TNA: PRO, letters to Lord Granville, PRO 30/29 · U. Durham L., corresp. with Viscount Ponsonby · U. Southampton L., corresp. with Lord Palmerston · W. Sussex RO, letters to duke of Richmond


G. Romney, oils, 1784, Eton · J. Sayers, etching, pubd 1789 (after his earlier work), NPG · H. Bone, miniature, 1794 (after T. Lawrence), Audley End House, Essex · J. Nollekens, bust, 1803, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire · T. Phillips, oils, 1810, Althorp House, Northamptonshire · T. Hodgetts, mezzotint, pubd 1817 (after J. Northcote), NPG · G. Hayter, group portrait, oils, 1820 (The trial of Queen Caroline, 1820), NPG · attrib. T. Phillips, oils, c.1820, NPG · J. Jackson, oils, c.1826, V&A · oils, c.1826 (after T. Lawrence), NPG · T. Campbell, marble bust, 1827, Palace of Westminster, London · B. R. Haydon, oils, c.1828, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne · T. Lawrence, portrait, 1828, priv. coll. [see illus.] · F. Chantrey, pencil, c.1830, NPG · J. Knight, group portrait, lithograph, c.1832 (William IV holding a council), BM · S. W. Reynolds, group portrait, oils, 1832 (The Reform Bill receiving the king's assent; after drawing by J. Doyle), Palace of Westminster, London · G. Hayter, group portrait, oils, 1833 (The House of Commons, 1833), NPG · W. Ward, mezzotint, pubd 1833 (after J. Jackson), BM, NPG · B. R. Haydon, pencil study, 1834 (for his Reform Banquet, 1832), NPG · B. R. Haydon, three pencil studies, 1834 (for his Reform Banquet, 1832), Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne · F. Bromley, group portrait, etching, pubd 1835 (after group portrait by B. R. Haydon), NPG · J. Ramsay, oils, c.1837, Literary and Philosophical Society, Newcastle upon Tyne · D. Wilkie, group portrait, oils, 1837 (The first council of Queen Victoria), Royal Collection · E. H. Baily, statue, 1838, Grey Street, Newcastle upon Tyne · C. Moore, bust, 1853, Eton · I. Bruce, aquatint (after unknown silhouettist), BM, NPG · J. Doyle, caricatures, BM · J. Doyle, drawing, Palace of Westminster, London · J. Doyle, sketches, BM · H. Furniss, pen and ink, NPG · bronze bust, Wellington Museum, London · pencil and watercolour drawing, NPG