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  George William Frederick Villiers (1800–1870), by Sir Francis Grant, 1843 George William Frederick Villiers (1800–1870), by Sir Francis Grant, 1843
Villiers, George William Frederick, fourth earl of Clarendon (1800–1870), politician, was born in Upper Grosvenor Street, London, on 26 January 1800, the eldest son of George Villiers (1759–1827), third son of the first earl, and his wife, Theresa (1775–1856), daughter of John Parker, first Lord Boringdon. and , politicians, and , bishop, were his younger brothers. His father, Pittite MP for Warwick from 1792 to 1801, supported a numerous family on the income from a string of sinecures bestowed in the classical eighteenth-century fashion on the cadet of a house whose wealth was not equal to its rank. His mother was the dominant influence on her children; her strength of character, understanding of the world, and ready wit compensated for the weakness and misfortunes of her husband as a gentleman farmer. The younger George Villiers was educated at Christ's Hospital, probably as the private pupil of a master and not on the foundation, and at St John's College, Cambridge, matriculating in Michaelmas 1816 and graduating MA in 1820.

Necessity and ambition, 1820–1833

‘… the learning of languages is the only thing I have any turn for’, wrote the undergraduate Villiers to his only sister, Theresa [see ], who, after the death of her first husband, Thomas Henry Lister, a minor literary figure, married her brother's future cabinet colleague, George Cornewall Lewis (Maxwell, 1.17). She was the sibling closest to him, the recipient of a stream of affectionate, revealing letters. A subvention from his uncle John, the third earl, enabled Villiers to enter diplomacy as an unpaid attaché at St Petersburg; but anxiety to provide for himself and assist his family led him to describe his otherwise agreeable years in Russia (1820–23) as ‘wasted … I [am] … unable to make or improve acquaintances that may be useful to one’ (ibid., 34). The warm friendship of his ambassador, Sir Charles Bagot, the patronage of George Canning, his father's friend, parental links with the court, and George IV's pleasure when shown one of his amusing, apparently well informed letters, combined to raise Villiers to a commissionership of customs—a dramatic change of fortune still possible in the last years of the unreformed parliament. Financially secure for life, he shouldered his dead father's responsibilities and his debts. Over nearly ten years (1824–33) he proved an able administrator with a talent for pleasing his political masters. Sent to Ireland in 1827–9 to effect a departmental reorganization, he became close to the cautious liberalizing viceroy of the day, Lord Anglesey. This experience on the eve of Catholic emancipation confirmed the Canningite toryism that made him a supporter of parliamentary reform and Lord Grey's ministry, in which his brother Hyde (d. 1832), to whose heavy election expenses he contributed, held minor office. Like many other reformers, he was alarmed by the spread of what he regarded as subversive ideas and by the violence of the popular agitation. Together with his friend Charles Greville, the diarist, he attempted to start a newspaper which they thought of calling the Anti-Radical, but failed to raise the money for the venture (Greville Memoirs, 2.94–5). His partisanship, and a successful commercial mission to France (1831) undertaken jointly with the Benthamite John Bowring, commended Villiers to Palmerston, another Canningite, who appointed him minister to Spain (August 1833). Although they were not always on the best of terms, Villiers never ceased to feel grateful to Palmerston: ‘when I was a commissioner of customs and miserable at so passing my life but too poor to resign, he made me minister at Madrid … and from that moment I got on’ (Kennedy, 135). He had put security first: now he was free to pursue ambition.

Minister plenipotentiary to Spain, 1833–1839

Villiers was young for his important post. He replaced a tory, recalled as unsympathetic to Spanish liberalism. Palmerston set great store by his policy of integrating Spain and Portugal with the western entente of Britain and Louis Philippe's France; Villiers was his instrument in circumstances considerably more difficult than the British foreign secretary realized. Palmerston's success in concluding the Quadruple Alliance of 1834 did not, as Villiers hoped, overawe the reactionary Carlist rebels against the succession of the infant Isabella II and the regency of her mother, Queen Maria Cristina, Ferdinand VII's widow identified with the Spanish liberals. The First Carlist War (1833–40) involved Villiers in an incessant struggle to save the liberal regime from collapse under the strain of military defeat, factional strife, and disordered finances. His task was the harder because direct British assistance was limited to the deployment of warships and the landing of a few marines. The British Legion of volunteers paid in arrears by the Spanish government and commanded by the radical soldier and MP de Lacy Evans was a doubtful military asset. ‘The affairs of the Legion almost drive me mad’, confessed Villiers as he wrestled with its problems, which included, at times, a reluctance to face the enemy (Palmerston: Private Correspondence, 631). Anglo-French co-operation in Spain, of which much had been expected, quickly gave way to rivalry for influence. In his private letters to Palmerston, Villiers raged against the ‘selfish and inhuman policy’ he ascribed to the French king (ibid., 758). The British minister played a significant, and occasionally crucial, part in ensuring the survival of the regime. He saw quite clearly that the Spanish people were indifferent or hostile to liberal institutions which he believed essential to their well-being. He would have preferred to administer his political medicines ‘in small doses and well disguised or they will all be brought up’, but the pressures of the time were too great (ibid., 227).

Villiers backed Juan Mendizabal, recalled from exile in London, the one politician with the intelligence and the will to make the liberal revolution succeed. Villiers persuaded the regent to make him prime minister in January 1836, although well aware of his weaknesses—‘good intentions enough to lay down the whole of Hell with new pavement’ (Palmerston: Private Correspondence, 363). The nationalization of monastic property that followed was a turning point, giving purchasers a vested interest in defeating the Carlists. In Palmerstonian mode, Villiers had no qualms about interfering in Spain's internal affairs. The liberals' eventual victory in the civil war owed something to his relentless badgering of the politicians in Madrid, who neglected to pay and equip their armies.

Spain was the making of Villiers. While the fruits of his commercial and financial diplomacy were disappointing for British exporters and investors in Spanish bonds, he had acquired a considerable reputation at home, where whigs and radicals took a proprietary interest in Spanish liberalism. His published letters from Madrid reflect the personal charm, restless energy, and talent for intrigue characteristic of him. Soon fluent in Spanish, the handsome British minister was a popular figure in the society of the Spanish capital, especially with the ladies. His Edwardian biographer records that when the countess de Montijo was asked whether her daughter Eugénie, the future empress of the French, was really Villiers's child, she replied, after a pause for thought, ‘Les dates ne correspondent pas’ (Maxwell, 2.91).

The cabinet and whig politics, 1839–1847

‘… an independent income—that's the only wish I have’, wrote Villiers in 1837, a wish granted when he succeeded his uncle as the fourth earl of Clarendon (22 December 1838) and the owner of some 2000 acres in Hertfordshire and Warwickshire (Maxwell, 1.139). He was then about to propose, through his sister Theresa, to Lady Catherine Barham (d. 1874), the wealthy widow of John Foster Barham and daughter of Walter James Grimston, first earl of Verulam, whom he married on 4 June 1839. Not a love match on either side, it was nevertheless a happy marriage from which six children were born. Lady Clarendon was neither beautiful nor brilliant, but she understood her clever husband and supported his political career. He craved ‘the interest of business and the excitement of responsibility … indispensable to me’ (ibid., 157). Before he left Madrid he was offered first the post of governor-in-chief of British North America in succession to Lord Durham (February 1839) and on his return political office outside the cabinet, as master of the Royal Mint. Urged on by Charles Greville, he held out for a seat in the cabinet, which he secured as lord privy seal (privy council, 3 January 1840). Tory as well as Liberal newspapers approved of the appointment. Clarendon said of himself in later years that ‘allegiance to party is the only strong political feeling I have’, but Lord John Russell, the guardian of the whig tradition, sometimes questioned his loyalty to it (ibid., 2.319; Mandler, 101). The new recruit had, and retained, a Canningite fondness for the idea of coalition. He soon came into conflict with his old patron, Palmerston, over the latter's policy in the Near East. Clarendon, and others, objected to Britain's combination with the conservative powers in defence of the Ottoman empire against France and her protégé, Mehmet Ali, the ruler of Egypt. Lacking Palmerston's nerve, he protested at the risk of war in the midst of an economic recession: ‘it would almost amount to national ruin’ (Maxwell, 1.190). Palmerston got his way by threatening resignation, and was triumphantly vindicated by the outcome of his diplomacy in the Straits convention (1841). Behind a confident exterior, Clarendon was a cautious politician at home and abroad. Largely for that reason, he was not as reactionary as he often seemed in private. On the formation of the next whig government (1846), led by Russell, in which Clarendon was president of the Board of Trade, he pressed his colleagues to adopt ‘a middle class policy’ and to reconstruct a party he described as ‘nearly effete’ by taking in selected Peelites and Cobden, to whom overtures were made. The plebeian electorate cared about nothing except ‘taxes, trade and peace’, a Cobdenite formula (ibid., 1.265, 267, 273).

Viceroy of Ireland, 1847–1852

When he followed Lord Bessborough as viceroy in May 1847, Clarendon spoke of the ‘sacrifice and … misfortune’ which the post involved for him personally; but he was really ‘in a great fright’ that it would go to someone else (Greville Memoirs, 5.449). A member of the Political Economy Club (elected 1833) in his days as a commissioner of customs, he was eager to distinguish himself in the tremendous crisis of the great famine in Ireland; an immense task of social reconstruction faced her rulers. Beset by a host of problems, he struggled to do more than maintain order and let economic forces do their work. His efforts to extract additional funds for relief operations from the Treasury ran up against ‘that harsh Trevelyanism’, the doctrine of Sir Charles Trevelyan, the department's assistant secretary, that Irish expenditure should as far as possible fall upon Irish property-owners. ‘Ireland cannot be left to her own resources’, argued Clarendon in one letter after another on that theme (MSS Clarendon, Irish letter-books, 31 Dec 1849, 23 Oct 1847). His remonstrances met with limited success: he was even less successful with plans for land banks on the Prussian model and a rather stronger government bill to compensate tenants for the little capital and intensive labour sunk in their holdings. He pointed in vain to advice from some of the Catholic hierarchy that this modicum of legal security for peasant occupiers would ‘do more than anything else to … knock Repeal [of the Union] on the head’ (ibid., 26 Oct 1847).

Want, starvation, and disease acting on endemic nationalist and agrarian unrest quickly drove Clarendon into repressive measures which he knew to be ‘essentially bad’. The savagery of rural violence, compared with the weakness of political agitation by Old and Young Ireland, convinced him that ‘whether the pretext be repeal of the union or separation from England … war against property is the object both of priest and peasant’ (MSS Clarendon, box 81, 5 Nov 1847; Irish letter-books, 26 Nov 1847). With Russell, he devised a scheme for detaching the Catholic clergy from their popular sympathies by means of a state endowment; the probable outcry in protestant Britain ruled it out. The cabinet killed off their proposals for resettling Irish emigrants in the colonies. Clarendon was left to hope that the massive unaided emigration and the forced sale of landed property under the Encumbered Estates Act (1849) would somehow effect the regeneration of the economy and society. The viceroyalty enhanced Clarendon's reputation. It confirmed him and his countrymen in the reassuring belief that Ireland's ills, social and political, were, at bottom, due to the character of the people: ‘The real Celt is … almost incapable … of foreseeing the consequences of his own acts … He will … rather plot than work … sooner starve … than prosper by industry’ (ibid., Irish letter-books, 10 June 1848). His name is not kept in benediction by the descendants, in Ireland and the Irish diaspora, of those whom he so described.

Foreign secretary, 1852–1858, and candid friend, 1858–1864

Clarendon's ill-concealed ambition was to step into Palmerston's shoes at the Foreign Office. Throughout the life of the ministry to which they belonged, he complained of his old patron's diplomacy as ‘mischievous and disgraceful’, setting all Europe against Britain (Maxwell, 1.330). When Russell finally dismissed his too independent foreign secretary in December 1851, Clarendon was the cabinet's preferred successor but Russell chose to take his protestations at face value—‘Heaven knows I never coveted any office, and much less his’—and appointed Lord Granville (ibid., 336). Charles Greville thought his friend was afraid of Palmerston, easily the most popular politician of the day.

After Palmerston had brought down Russell in February 1852, Clarendon reached the Foreign Office in Lord Aberdeen's coalition of Peelites and whigs formed at the end of 1852. Regarded as a safe choice, because he was not Palmerston, who consented to go to the Home Office, Clarendon came down on Palmerston's side against Aberdeen when Britain and France moved towards war with Russia in defence of the Ottoman empire. At his suggestion Palmerston was invited to join the inner cabinet that endeavoured to frame policy. Inevitably, the former foreign secretary dominated the small group of ministers and handled Clarendon with skill and unfailing good humour. Palmerston had public opinion, increasingly warlike, behind him, while Clarendon lamented that ‘the newspapers now render the business of government almost impossible’ (Maxwell, 2.30). Palmerston always insisted that more resolute diplomacy could have averted the Crimean War. Clarendon's letters show that he was ‘in a state of muddle and hesitation’ (Taylor, 53, n. 4). His heart was not in the ensuing conflict (March 1854–April 1856); he anticipated a ‘monster catastrophe’ (Maxwell, 2.50). On the collapse of Aberdeen's ministry in January 1855, he was mentioned as a possible premier, but Queen Victoria and her husband, with whom he was a favourite, nevertheless observed that he lacked the necessary courage (Letters of Queen Victoria, 1st ser., 3.86).

Retained at the Foreign Office in Palmerston's first administration, Clarendon made a better foreign secretary under a prime minister who decided policy for him. He was genuinely fearful of revolution in the violent, if passing, storm of criticism that assailed aristocratic government after the administrative and military failures of the first Crimean winter. Defeatist until the fall of Sevastopol—‘our prospects at home and abroad are as little cheering as our worst enemy could desire’ (Steele, ‘Palmerston's foreign policy’, 66)—he was frightened by Palmerston's effective tactic to prevent the French, tired of war, from diluting the terms of peace: the intimation that Britain would fight on alone, if need be. ‘… we should have had all Europe against us at once, and the United States … soon’, Clarendon told his brother-in-law Cornewall Lewis, conjuring up an improbable combination. He was uneasy when the British fleet was deployed in the Black Sea to enforce the peace: ‘Palmerston is for acting rather more strongly than I am, but not much’ (ibid.). Yet if he lacked the nerve that is a requisite of statesmanship, he was an accomplished diplomat, and won high praise for his technical performance at the congress of Paris (February–April 1856). Palmerston's oversight of the execution of policy, as distinct from its formulation, was galling: ‘it was nonsense to write to me what Russia should be told and what Russia ought to do, &c’ (ibid., 67).

Clarendon's caution where powerful countries were concerned did not prevent him from frequently denouncing the pusillanimity and turpitude of others. He was scathing about ‘our cowardly public’ for its indifference to the encroachments of the United States upon British interests in Central America. In the Far East he was bellicose: the restraints of international law did not apply, he contended, to dealings with ‘barbarous states’ like the Chinese and Japanese empires (Steele, ‘Palmerston's foreign policy’, 69; Steele, Palmerston and Liberalism, 58). The Indian mutiny, which broke out during the second (1856–8) of the wars to open China more widely to Western trade, made him sharply critical of Palmerston for underestimating the magnitude of the revolt, and its implications for Britain's position among the great powers. Mismanagement of the Indian crisis was his ostensible reason for turning against Palmerston after his ministry was overthrown in February 1858 on the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, a legislative gesture of appeasement to the French emperor, following a British-based attempt upon his life. Clarendon had fully supported the bill, but he believed, like many others, in Palmerston's political extinction on the sudden end of his government.

Clarendon had long been uncomfortable with Palmerstonian hostility to Austria in Italy and friendship for Sardinia, although he was strongly anti-papal and had censured misrule in the pope's dominions and Naples at the Paris congress. Clarendon grew less liberal with age, telling Palmerston that Britain would be unwise in the light of the Indian uprising to encourage Napoleon III in his plans for an Italian federation once Austria had been beaten: ‘if we are to engage in a crusade for oppressed nationalities, it is a comparison we should make privately to ourselves … the Austrians cannot be more hated than we are’ (Steele, ‘Palmerston's foreign policy’, 68). These sentiments, and Russell's wish to take that department for himself, cost Clarendon the Foreign Office on the formation of Palmerston's second administration in June 1859; ‘we would have felt so sure with Lord Clarendon’, wrote the queen regretfully (ibid.). He declined to fill any other post, and cast himself in the role of the ministry's candid friend until in April 1864 he entered the cabinet as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. Always an influential figure in whig circles and now close to the tories, especially after his daughter Constance married Lord Derby's younger son in 1863, he was undoubtedly useful to a government with a small majority, and it was the stronger for his return.

Last years at the Foreign Office, 1865–1866, 1868–1870, and domestic politics

As chancellor of the duchy, Clarendon was enlisted to help Palmerston and Russell in the last stages of the struggle over Schleswig-Holstein, in which Britain's diplomatic support failed to save for Denmark even a part of the territories she had disputed with the German powers. On Palmerston's death in October 1865, he succeeded to the Foreign Office under Russell's premiership. From the start of the new administration he was nervous of his leader's long-standing commitment to another instalment of parliamentary reform: ‘I dread the advance of democracy’, he had written in 1850 (MSS Clarendon, box 81, 27 February). Acquiescing in the Reform Bill of 1866, which he thought went too far, he was in politicians' minds as prime minister at the head of a ministry of tories and conservative Liberals when the bill was the undoing of Russell. Though he disliked and feared the coming man among the Liberals, Gladstone, as ‘a far more sincere Republican than Bright’ (Greville Memoirs, 7.459), his party allegiance was too strong to be broken, and he refused to continue at the Foreign Office in Derby's minority government (June 1866). He viewed with dismay the tory Reform Bill that conceded household suffrage in the boroughs, calling Disraeli's tactics ‘Hebrew thimble-rigging’ (Maxwell, 2.333). Gladstone rewarded his reluctant loyalty to a changing Liberalism with his third, and final, spell as foreign secretary.

This time, the widowed Queen Victoria strongly objected to Clarendon at the Foreign Office, saying that he was the only minister who had ever been impertinent to her. The old court favourite had forfeited her esteem by openly contemptuous references to Germany's princes and peoples over the years leading up to national unification. By his own account, Victoria ‘gave it him pretty sharply, telling him he forgot the stock she came of’ (Maxwell, 2.353, 282). Perhaps more importantly, he had also amused himself by gossiping about her relations with John Brown. Gladstone was, however, pledged to reappointing Clarendon, and pointed out that by then he was the only candidate whose name carried some weight in the chancelleries of Europe (Selection, ed. Vincent, 64; Gladstone, Diaries, 6.641–2, 645). Clarendon took an Erastian view of the Vatican Council in 1870, but his hostility to infallibility was cautious (too much so for Gladstone). He was believed to have a significant influence with Napoleon III, which he used in 1869–70 to resist the drift to war between France and Prussia. While he lacked the element of idealism in Gladstone's thinking on foreign policy, he was quite as convinced of the need for peace and for European co-operation to that end which stopped short of adding to existing treaty obligations. Without optimism he worked, unsuccessfully, to secure a measure of Franco-Prussian disarmament. He did succeed in lowering the tension between the two powers: Bismarck later remarked that, had he lived, Clarendon might have averted the war that destroyed Napoleon III's France and completed German unity (Maxwell, 366).

A want of popular fibre

Gladstone described Clarendon as the pleasantest colleague he had ever had. The first of Gladstone's Irish Land Acts in 1870, thoroughly distasteful to the former viceroy in its unprecedented invasion of landlord rights, did not lead to the resignation of which he freely talked. ‘He is always a tall talker’, wrote Granville; ‘His normal state is a passion for office’ (Ramm, 1.6). These weaknesses were well known to his contemporaries. Never an MP or a parliamentary candidate, he was not hardened to the rough and tumble of political life, remaining the talented, hard-working official of his formative years. His alarm about the Irish Land Bill as the precursor of a general attack on his class in the United Kingdom tends to confirm what a Times editorial (4 July 1870) said of him after his death. It spoke of his want of ‘popular fibre’, and suggested that he probably understood foreign rulers and ministers better than his own countrymen.

A cultured man, Clarendon broke Spanish law, when minister at Madrid, in exporting paintings by the country's masters for his private collection (Palmerston: Private Correspondence, 676). Out of office in the early 1860s, he chaired the eponymous royal commission on the ancient public schools, and showed himself, in that context, a judicious modernizer. But his principal recreation was gossip, the stuff of an enormous correspondence with colleagues, family, and friends; he was one of Charles Greville's best sources. As a letter-writer and conversationalist, he was exceptionally lively and amusing, though prone to considerable exaggeration. If he often excited the disapproval of the serious-minded, he was the kindest of men, a devoted father and brother. His wife tolerated an amitié amoureuse with Queen Sophia, wife of William III of the Netherlands and a frequent visitor to England (Selection, ed. Vincent, 63, 27, 406). Two great ladies in London society—Mary, marchioness of Salisbury, later countess of Derby, and the young duchess of Manchester, wife of the seventh duke—were among his other correspondents. There are very few allusions to personal religious beliefs in all his letters. He professed to detest evangelicals, but his brother Montagu was a noted evangelical prelate. Clarendon was ‘no sceptic … [I] believe in the resurrection of man and his admission to paradise’ (Maxwell, 2.362). The worldliness fought with a Victorian ethic. His working habits at the Foreign Office depict the man: accustomed to spending the day in talk, he compensated by toiling over his papers far into the night, one of the first recorded chain-smokers of the cigarettes he had learned to like in Spain.

Clarendon died suddenly on 27 June 1870 at his London house, 1 Grosvenor Crescent, just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, and was buried in a cemetery near his country house, The Grove, on the outskirts of Watford on 2 July. His honours included the Garter (23 March 1849); he refused a marquessate after the congress of Paris, pleading insufficient means to support the dignity. The earldom passed to his second and eldest surviving son, Edward, Lord Hyde (d. 1905), lord chamberlain in unionist governments (1900–05).

David Steele


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F. Grant, portrait, 1843, priv. coll. [see illus.] · W. Walker, mezzotint, pubd 1847 (after F. Grant), BM, NPG · J. Bell, marble statue, 1874, Gov. Art Coll. · E. Desmaisons, lithograph, BM · A. E. Dyer, oils (after S. C. Smith, 1861), Shire Hall, Hertford · J. Gilbert, group portrait, pencil and wash (The coalition ministry, 1854), NPG · W. Holl, stipple (after G. Richmond), BM · C. Hutchins, lithograph (after E. Hayes), BM · G. Sanders, two mezzotints (after C. Smith), BM · J. Sant, oils, Gov. Art Coll. · C. Silvy, carte-de-visite, NPG · W. Walker & Sons, carte-de-visite, NPG · J. Watkins, carte-de-visite, NPG

Wealth at death  

under £250,000: probate, 3 Aug 1870, CGPLA Eng. & Wales