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Robinson, Thomas, first Baron Grantham (1695–1770), diplomatist and politician, born on 24 April 1695, was the fourth son of Sir William Robinson, first baronet (1654?–1736), of Newby, near Ripon in Yorkshire, and Mary, eldest daughter of George Aislabie, of nearby Studley Royal. The family came to prominence in the time of William Robinson (1534–1616), a leading Hamburg merchant, who was twice MP for York and lord mayor of that city in the reign of Elizabeth. His great-grandson, Sir Metcalfe Robinson (d. 1689), who had also represented York in parliament, left his estates to his nephew, Thomas Robinson's father, William, who was created a baronet soon afterwards, on 13 February 1690. Sir William was MP for Northallerton from 1689 to 1695, and then represented York from 1698 to 1722, in which year he stood down. In 1721 his brother-in-law John Aislabie, chancellor of the exchequer, had been dismissed over the South Sea Bubble. However, neither Sir William's retirement nor the open resentment of Aislabie himself harmed the political career of Thomas.

In 1708, aged thirteen, Thomas Robinson entered Westminster School, where Thomas Pelham, later duke of Newcastle, and Robinson's lifelong patron and superior, was two years his senior. Robinson became a loyal friend of Thomas and Henry Pelham and also Robert and Horace Walpole. He was a steady rather than a brilliant diplomat, who learned his trade with care and became during his long years in the Vienna embassy more German than English, a fact which endeared him to George II and eventually gained him promotion to secretary of state beyond both his wishes and abilities.

Apprenticeship in Paris

Thomas Robinson was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner on 12 January 1712, was elected scholar in April 1714, and took his BA degree in 1716. He was elected a minor fellow in October 1718 and major fellow in July 1719, the year when he took his MA degree. On 4 February 1723 he was admitted to the Middle Temple, but Horace Walpole had already promised him assistance in a diplomatic career, and on 20 October 1724 he became secretary to Walpole's embassy in Paris. This was a useful apprenticeship for Robinson, who within months of his arrival in post was chargé d'affaires when Horace was absent. He had frequent discussions with the French foreign minister, André Hercule de Fleury, bishop of Fréjus, and was an observant reporter of events in the French court and capital city. He was uncomfortably aware that he was a better reporter than he was an interpreter. Self-critical of his way of making a ‘brouillon of a despatch’, he bemoaned his ‘rude and imperfect attempts’ and their excessive use of numeral cipher: ‘I must learn either to have something to send that deserves the pain better, or else alter my manner of relating, and reduce certain little circumstances that happen in discourse to bare matters of fact’ (BL, Add. MS 38502, fols. 32, 40, 53). A particular concern of the Paris embassy was to counter the designs and influence of the Jacobite court, and in this Robinson was zealous in his second period of service as chargé in 1727, securing the approval of George I. Having been elected MP for Thirsk in 1727, he continued serving abroad and was one of three English representatives at the congress of Soissons from June 1728 to July 1729.

Mission to Vienna

At the end of April 1730 Robinson was ordered to set out for Vienna, to act for the ambassador, Lord Waldegrave, who had been given leave to return to England on private business. His gratitude to Newcastle was lively, though both his duties and expenses proved heavy. Having arrived in Vienna on 17 June 1730 NS, Robinson continued to write with candour of his own shortcomings and endeavoured to be useful without aiming to shine. He had to confess regarding one diplomatic scheme that he ‘was dull enough not to comprehend’ the nub of it, but hoped that the conversation had been ‘related so circumstantially in my despatch, that what escaped me will easily have occurred to others’ (BL, Add. MS 32768, fol. 451).

Robinson's immediate task was to recover good relations with the empire, and promote understanding between the empire and Spain. He had to get the imperialists to suppress the Ostend company and recognize the elector of Hanover's rights in Bremen and Verden, while in return he was authorized to offer a British guarantee of the ‘pragmatic sanction’. Following the enforced resignation of Viscount Townshend, Robinson succeeded in persuading the imperial court of the sincerity of Sir Robert Walpole's more pacific and compromising policy. Horace Walpole promptly reminded him of ‘the intimacy & confidence wth wch you lived wth me for so many years at Paris’ and assured him ‘that the present ministry is but one hand & heart’ in foreign policy (BL, Add. MS 23781, fol. 212). The signing of the pragmatic sanction treaty placed Robinson under enormous pressure. His orders from the king were not to sign until the electoral interests had been secured. After waiting for some time, cajoling both imperial and Hanoverian negotiators, Robinson signed the treaty before the Hanoverian minister did so. To preserve Hanoverian interests, he told the earl of Chesterfield: ‘I boldly, out of honour and duty, suspended the affairs of all Europe. When afterwards I found myself more at large under my instructions, I as boldly suspended his majesty's electoral affairs for the sake of Europe’ (W. Coxe, Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford, 3 vols., 1798, 3.114). Having signed on 16 March 1731, before the electoral interests were secure, Robinson was fearful of how the king might react to his unpardonable boldness, even though, he averred, ‘they all complain here that I have sucked them to the very blood’ (ibid., 3.100). His fears vanished as congratulations poured in from England: ‘both the King and his servants think it woud have been impossible for an angel from heaven to have acted better than you have done throughout this whole affair’ (BL, Add. MS 23781, fol. 345). George II showed his appreciation in a present of £1000, with an increase in Robinson's pay to £8 a day.

Robinson remained at Vienna, where he soon found that the treaty did not guarantee good relations between the emperor and George II, and that the need to preserve British assent to the pragmatic sanction ‘is a cord, which will wear very thin, if too often stretched’ (BL, Add. MS 32777, fol. 35). Elated by the privilege of his first personal letter to the duke of Newcastle, he painted a vivid picture of his need for patronage, and his sad condition in Vienna:
Something impaired in my Constitution, of a melancholy Complexion, little turned for the necessary arts of a publick life, thrown unwillingly, and as it were by accident into numberless affairs, which surpass the strength of both my mind and body, and stretching my income to the utmost, as cannot be otherwise in this Vainglorious Court.
He begged for something to guarantee him ‘ease and tranquility’ for the rest of his days (ibid., fol. 40).

Robinson's problem of balancing the demands of Britain and Hanover at the imperial court continued in Vienna. In the second half of 1734 Walpole strove to effect a marriage between the younger Austrian archduchess and Don Carlos, in order to resolve hostilities between the empire and Spain over Italy. Robinson, however, was sent secret instructions by George II not to press the marriage negotiations. Long afterwards Walpole would still say to Lord Hervey: ‘This matter had long ago been perfected, had it not been for Mr. Robinson, who deserved hanging for his conduct in that affair’ (J. Hervey, Some Materials towards Memoirs of the Reign of George II, ed. R. S. Sedgwick, 3 vols., 1931, 2.394).

While Robinson laboured in distant Vienna, his bride was chosen just 25 miles from his Yorkshire family home. Having been allowed home on leave in January 1737, he was married on 13 July to Frances (1716–1750), third daughter of Thomas Worsley of Hovingham. They had two sons and six daughters, including . He returned to Vienna in May 1738, though he was soon begging to be recalled, if it could possibly be done while still preserving the king's favour:
I am much mistaken if every Thing is not running into the last Confusion and ruin, where there are visible Marks of folly & madness as ever were inflicted upon People whom Heaven is determined to destroy no less by Domestick Divisions and Corruptions than by the more publick Calamities of repeated Defeats, Defencelessness, Poverty and Plague. (BL, Add. MS 15946, fols. 30–31)
His predictions soon came true with the death of the emperor and the calamities which befell his daughter Maria Theresa, on whose behalf Robinson repeatedly attempted an accommodation with Prussia. On the resignation of Robert Walpole in February 1742, Robinson hastened to reaffirm his devotion to both the brothers: ‘It is just in such doubtful moments, that men of my temper choose to make the warmest professions of friendship, service, and devotion’. He assured Horace ‘of those sentiments which you supposed in me when you called me to Paris; and which you have found, I hope, confirmed, by a continual experience of 20 years’ (W. Coxe, Memoirs of the Life and Administration of Sir Robert Walpole, Earl of Oxford, 3 vols., 1798, 3.596–7). He was knighted on 26 June of that year.

The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle

Late in the War of the Austrian Succession, Robinson was working energetically to promote an accommodation between the empire and Spain, and to secure a general peace. He was opposed at home by the prince of Wales and his supporters, one of whom, Sir Luke Schaub, an informed veteran diplomat and ally of Carteret, said Robinson ‘was incapable, and had his head as confused as his master Horace Walpole’ (G. H. Rose, ed., A Selection from the Papers of the Earls of Marchmont, 3 vols., 1881, 1.216). He claimed that Robinson had begun by being a slavish admirer of Maria Theresa, but after many stern injunctions from home ‘he now went even to invectives’ in his audiences, from which the queen of Hungary came out dissolving in tears (ibid., 216–17). Robinson's writing style seems at least not to have changed: ‘voluminous despatches’, and none of the clearest, had long been expected of him (Weston MSS, vol. 2, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University). He was pleased, in June 1748, to see that Lord Harrington was one of the lords regent: ‘He at least will know my style, and turns, and hints, and meanings’ (ibid., vol. 4). Robinson received his full powers as a plenipotentiary at Aix in July 1748. At this time the duke of Newcastle was with the king in Hanover, uncontrolled by the cabinet and pluming himself on thinking and acting decisively. On 7 July 1748 Newcastle sent Robinson a peremptory dispatch saying he should demand from Maria Theresa a confirmation of the barrier treaty, and her acquiescence in the general pacification. Failing that, within forty-eight hours, he was to tell her that the maritime powers would conclude a separate agreement with France. Accordingly, on 26 July, with no response from the Austrian ministers, Robinson left for Hanover and was well received by the king. On 13 August he left to join the young earl of Sandwich, who was pushing to end the negotiations successfully before his fellow minister arrived. Robinson's real job was to slow down the negotiations of Sandwich until the Austrians were willing to come into the peace.

Politics and office in England

Having returned to England, where he was MP for Christchurch from December 1748 to March 1761, Robinson was appointed one of the lords of trade, which Horace Walpole called ‘a scurvy reward after making the peace’ (Walpole, Corr., 20.17). Soon afterwards he was made instead master of the great wardrobe, at £2000 a year. One of the inner circle of diplomatic experts, and favoured by the king, Robinson was sure to be considered when offices were redistributed. As early as 1750 he was considered by Newcastle for the post of secretary of state:
You know very well, if I was to chuse for the king, the public, and myself, I would prefer Sir Thomas Robinson to any man living. I know he knows more, and would be more useful to his country and me, than any other can be. (W. Coxe, Memoirs of the Administration of the Right Honourable Henry Pelham, 2 vols., 1829, 2.387)
A more retired life, though, appears to have been Robinson's aim: his family (which included the diplomatist ) was begun rather late in life and appears to have been important to him. A rare personal reference in 1750 concerns smallpox inoculation:
I have been venturing the experiment of inoculation upon my whole little flock at once. My two boys and three of the girls took it and are now as well as ever they were in their lives. It did not take place with the eldest daughter upon the first tryal, but she has been reinoculated, and there are already all the favourable Symptoms one can desire of its having its effect. (Weston MSS, vol. 4, Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University)
His wife, Frances, died towards the end of that year, and was buried on 6 November.

The death of Henry Pelham on 6 March 1754 led Newcastle to take the Treasury, Lord Holdernesse replacing him as secretary of state for the north. On 28 March 1754 Robinson was persuaded to take the southern secretaryship, which Henry Fox had first refused. His judgement of foreign affairs and his capacity for business were undoubted, but his public manner and powers of oratory by no means fitted him for the post. Horace Walpole the younger's hostile summary echoed private admissions by Robinson himself: ‘Sir Thomas had been bred in German courts … he had German honour, loved German politics, and could explain himself as little as if he spoke only German’ (J. Hervey, Some Materials towards Memoirs of the Reign of George II, ed. R. S. Sedgwick, 3 vols., 1931, 2.10). He was out of his depth in the Commons:
when he play'd the Orator, which he too frequently attempted it was so exceedingly ridiculous, that those who loved and esteem'd him, could not always preserve a friendly composure of Countenance … and tho the Administration had in every Division, a very great Majority, many of their steadiest Voters were laughers at least, if not Encouragers on the other side of the question. (J. C. D. Clark, ed., The Memoirs and Speeches of James, Second Earl Waldegrave, 1742–63, 1988, 160–61)
In this high office Robinson's correspondence still struck, after so many years, the same diffident note about his unaided abilities: ‘I shall be turning my thoughts as well as I can upon these subjects tomorrow after sleeping upon them, but shall not know what to do with him tomorrow for want of advice and instruction’ (BL, Add. MS 32853, fol. 438). However, his papers show him to be assured and capable, confident in the face of some serious challenges, including the prospect of a major war with France. He was calm and shrewd in facing French threats: ‘we go on at our own Pace; take all the proper measures against all Events, and as to their Politeness, pay them in their own kind’ (BL, Egerton MS 3432, fol. 240). When hostilities began he was resolute in countering French ambitions: ‘we have our all to defend and preserve … The French are the hornets and the English the Bees of America’ (ibid., fol. 293). In early November 1755 Robinson with relief handed over the seals to Fox and resumed his former employment as master of the wardrobe. At the end of March 1757 Earl Waldegrave was commissioned by the king to offer Robinson the seals again, but he refused; ‘he had never been an Orator, was too Old to learn, neither would his Health suffer him to undergo the fatigue of Business’ (J. C. D. Clark, ed., The Memoirs and Speeches of James, Second Earl Waldegrave, 1742–63, 1988, 196). George II did not forgive Fox for ousting a minister after his own heart: ‘Sir Thomas was diligent in his office, did as he was directed, understood foreign affairs, and pretended to nothing farther’ (ibid., 171).

Robinson was not put aside in the new reign, and on 7 April 1761 was created Baron Grantham. The following year he was involved in discussing the preliminaries of the treaty of Paris. In July 1765 he was made joint postmaster-general, with the earl of Bessborough, in Rockingham's administration. In late September 1766, on the fall of that ministry, he was removed from the Post Office, and ‘partly indemnified by his son Robinson being made a Lord of Trade’ (H. Walpole, Memoirs of the Reign of King George III, ed. D. Jarrett, 4 vols., 2000, 3.66). He died at Chiswick, Middlesex, on 30 September 1770, and was buried there on 6 October. His eldest son, , succeeded him as second Baron Grantham.

Philip Woodfine

Sources  

DNB · BL, Add. MSS 23781, fol. 396; 32749, fols. 105–6, 122; 32767, fols. 111, 125, 275; 32768, fol. 451; 32813, fols. 71, 135; 36121, fols. 197, 201; 38502, fols. 18–36; 46856, fol. 23 · BL, Stowe MS 256, fols. 220–25 · R. R. Sedgwick, ‘Robinson, Thomas’, HoP, Commons, 1715–54 · D. B. Horn, ed., British diplomatic representatives, 1689–1789, CS, 3rd ser., 46 (1932) · Venn, Alum. Cant.

Archives  

Beds. & Luton ARS, papers, DDL L29/122 · BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 22529, 23780–23877 · W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp. · W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp. and papers, 5710–5732, 6001–6044 |  BL, corresp. with earl of Chichester, Add. MS 33099 · BL, corresp. with Lord Holdernesse, Egerton MS 3432 · BL, corresp. with Sir B. Keene, Add. MSS 43412–43417, 43431–43436 · BL, corresp. with duke of Newcastle, Lord Harrington, etc., Add. MSS 32687–33099, passim · BL, letters to Lord Stair, R. Keith, Lord Hardwicke, etc., Add. MSS 35409–36125, passim · BL, letters to G. Tilson, Add. MS 46856 · BL, letters to Lord Townshend and G. Tilson, Add. MSS 38502–38504 · BL, Add. MSS 32749, 32767, 32768, 32777, 35409, 35463, 35464, 38502 · Castle Howard, Yorkshire, letters to Lord Carlisle · Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, letters to duke of Devonshire · NMM, corresp. with Lord Chesterfield, V/35, 38 · NMM, letters to Lord Sandwich, MS 91/018 · NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Earl Waldegrave


Likenesses  

chalk drawing, 1740–44, NPG · N. Dance, group portrait, oils, c.1760, Yale U. CBA, Paul Mellon collection; see illus. in Grant, Sir James, of Grant, eighth baronet (1738–1811) · E. Harding, stipple, pubd 1802, BM, NPG