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  Edward Grey (1862–1933), by H. Walter Barnett Edward Grey (1862–1933), by H. Walter Barnett
Grey, Edward, Viscount Grey of Fallodon (1862–1933), politician, countryman, and author, was born in London on 25 April 1862, the eldest of the seven children, four sons and three daughters, of Colonel George Henry Grey (1835–1874) and his wife, Harriet Jane (1839–1905), youngest daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Pearson.

A family inheritance

Grey came from a north-eastern English political and naval/military dynasty. His great-grandfather was the younger brother of Charles, second Earl Grey, prime minister from 1830 to 1834. Their ennobled father had been a general with an illustrious career. Grey's grandfather was , who served as home secretary on three occasions. Grey's father served in the rifle brigade in the Crimea and the Indian mutiny. He then became an equerry to the prince of Wales, with the injunction that his responsibilities should extend beyond the amusement of the prince. When not required by his royal master, however, he spent most of his time on the home farm at Fallodon, on the Northumberland coastal belt, which house and estate Sir George Grey had inherited. Grey's mother came from a family with a mixed clerical, professional, and minor gentry background settled in counties bordering on Wales. It had no national pretensions or political ambitions. She laid no claim to intellectual distinction or particular artistic refinement, and was much occupied with childbearing in a marriage which lasted only fourteen years. In December 1874, when in attendance on the prince of Wales, Colonel Grey suddenly died. At the age of twelve, therefore, Grey faced life without a father.

It was at this point, however, that Grey's grandfather, retired from politics and living at Fallodon, exercised a strong guiding influence. Sir George's parents had adopted evangelical convictions, which he himself also shared. His grandfather had married Anna Sophia, daughter of Henry Ryder, an evangelical bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, and herself later an active village Sunday school teacher. The household at Fallodon therefore combined evangelical seriousness, national political experience, pride in the management of a modest estate (some 2000 acres), and pleasure in country living. Sir George's politics may be described as moderate whig in a county in which the great landowners were tory. In his latter years he referred sceptically to the ‘so called Liberal Party’ and doubted whether it any longer possessed a sufficient common basis. Untroubled in his Morpeth constituency by the appearance of an opponent, he considered public service a matter of duty and best not complicated by disputatious elections.

School and university

A notion of duty was therefore instilled in Grey both at home and at school. Before his father died he had been sent away to preparatory school, firstly near Northallerton (1871–3) and then, more significantly, at Temple Grove (1873–6), a great mansion near East Sheen. Much store was placed there upon regular marking and ‘placing’ of pupils. Grey thrived, reaching the top class with apparent ease. His skill at cricket and football was also evident, and he left in 1876 as head of the school. Yet he later wondered whether this apparent success derived not from any intrinsic interest in the subjects he studied but simply from a desire to excel in competition. He was then sent to Winchester College (1876–80), admitted in the highest class of scholars, and initially he moved rapidly up the divisions. Then, apparently under a sense of injustice that on one occasion he had been kept back from a merited promotion, the competitive instinct wilted. It was supposed by contemporaries that Grey could excel at whatever he had a mind to. For the moment, however, it was less the conventional academic or other aspects of formal schooling that appealed to him than the solitary pleasures to be derived from dry-fly fishing on the nearby River Itchen. The supposition, therefore, that he was the ablest boy in the school rested on no solid record of achievement. It was a reputation, however, which he carried with him to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1880.

Benjamin Jowett had been master for a decade and had to some extent converted Balliol into the model institution of which he had dreamed. About fifty young men were admitted each year from the great public schools and some grammar schools of England. The college's influence was spreading across the world—Siamese and Japanese students matriculated—as it converted itself from being part of the clerical establishment to part of a new professional one. There is no evidence, however, that Grey relished enrolment in the school for statesmen. He read classics in an undistinguished way and passed moderations in 1881 with second-class honours. In vacations spent at Fallodon, however, he received additional tuition from the local vicar, Mandell Creighton, subsequently Dixie professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge and bishop in succession of Peterborough and London. When Sir George died in 1882, Creighton to some extent took over the management of the twenty-year-old Sir Edward, though it was apparent that the undergraduate was not academically ambitious. It also seemed that he resisted Jowett's attempts to make him understand the responsibilities which his name carried. Indeed, Grey did so with such success that it seemed certain that his final classical examinations, to be taken in 1884, would be a disaster. The law school, identified by Grey as an easier option, failed to stimulate. He was sent down from Balliol for idleness and ignorance, though allowed to return in the summer of 1884 to be examined. He graduated with a third-class degree in jurisprudence. Studying the ducks at Fallodon, interspersed with desultory reading of history, biography, and poetry, was more congenial than Oxford. It could not be said that Grey had displayed either that serious-minded diligence or, alternatively, that effortless superiority which allegedly characterized Balliol men of his era.

Political initiation

Nevertheless, public life did call. Through Lord Northbrook, a cousin of his late father, Grey became private secretary to Sir Evelyn Baring (July 1884) and afterwards (October 1884) to the then chancellor of the exchequer, H. C. E. Childers. While living and working in London he believed himself to have acquired business habits and to be developing ideas on politics, social problems, and moral philosophy. Back in Northumberland, Creighton remained his mentor and urged him to read political economy. There was the prospect that he might be adopted, as proved to be the case, as Liberal candidate for Northumberland (Berwick upon Tweed). His opponent would be Earl Percy, scion of the ducal house of Northumberland. There were rumours, too, that the young man was ‘radical’ on the land question. Certainly, he expressed anger that local men who had the resources to buy land were prevented from doing so by the owners of large estates, though he declined to support compulsory sale. His radicalism did not extend, however, to ‘drivelling on’, as he put it, about disestablishment or the Sunday opening of museums. In the event, under the new franchise the young baronet successfully contested the seat. ‘Like all the Greys’, he was a Liberal, though the precise meaning of that allegiance was immediately to be tested.

Grey had halted his election campaign for a fortnight in the middle of October 1885 in order to marry. His bride was (Frances) Dorothy Widdrington, eldest daughter of Shalcross FitzHerbert Widdrington of Newton Hall, Newton on the Moor, whom he married on 20 October. Creighton knew both families, but it was in London rather than Northumberland that courtship had proceeded. Even so, there was no doubt that Dorothy, who was twenty-one, pined for the Northumberland countryside and found London horrid. There was some family suspicion that Edward had married too young and could have ‘done better’.

The year 1886 was not the easiest political year for the youngest member of the House of Commons to find his feet. The question of home rule for Ireland strained Liberal loyalties. Young Grey could not but admire Gladstone, yet friends and patrons told him that the adoption of home rule was hasty and ill-judged. Creighton wrote from Cambridge concerned that the coming democracy, as he called it, was turning parliament into a large vestry. The democracy had to understand that ‘England’ was in difficulties in every part of the empire and isolated in Europe. Reforming the House of Lords would not save the Indian empire. Grey saw the point but stayed loyal to Gladstone, unlike approximately one-third of those Liberal MPs who had been elected in 1885. Grey came to the conclusion, probably swayed by articles written by John Morley, that it was not possible to govern Ireland permanently by a system of coercion. In speeches and correspondence he declined to support coercive measures in Ireland unless coupled with large concessions in the nature of home rule. It was a stance which brought him a reduced majority in 1886 when he fought a Liberal Unionist opponent in the general election. He continued in this vein over subsequent years during the period of Conservative government. His maiden speech, not made until February 1887, condemned what he termed the bankruptcy of the government's Irish policy. At the same time, however, he realized that if the Liberals were thought of simply as the party of home rule they might forfeit the possibility of regaining office.

The Liberals scarcely presented a picture of unity in the years of opposition from 1886 to 1892. The figure of Gladstone still hovered on high, both inspiration and irritant. Young Grey could not aspire to the innermost councils of the party. It was difficult, in these circumstances, to know how seriously to take politics. Sir William Harcourt, for example, complained that Grey could speak on behalf of the party in the Commons but would not do so. Grey, loosely associated at this time with H. H. Asquith and Richard Haldane, thought Harcourt impossible to deal with. He found Lord Rosebery a much more attractive figure, and became increasingly interested in imperial issues. Yet he was not obsessed by politics, and ruminated on the options before him. The appeal of the countryside and the ‘simple life’ was at times overwhelming. It was apparent that his wife hated public affairs. The couple had purchased a cottage of their own on the Itchen in Hampshire, and the weekends they spent there could be distinctly protracted. Railways, committees, and parliaments seemed to them somewhat trivial when compared with the deep elemental forces that shaped human destiny and with the pleasure to be derived from contemplating the ducks on the ponds at Fallodon.

It was easy, therefore, for some contemporaries and subsequent writers to conclude that Grey had no political ambition. Certainly, while he knew that he was not conventionally clever, he believed he saw certain things clearly. Though still to some extent doubting whether he could be really effective in public life, he came during these opposition years to an increasing ‘consciousness of power’ which he had never felt before. That maturing judgement and increasing self-confidence led him in the late 1880s and early 1890s to seek more speaking engagements on his party's behalf. At the meeting of the National Liberal Federation in Newcastle in October 1891 it was Grey who moved the motion on Ireland. The Liberal Party, he declared, would pass a measure which would fully satisfy the just demands of Ireland and leave the imperial parliament free to attend to reform in Great Britain. Elsewhere, however, he spoke on English land issues, and took the view that the wage-earners of the country were entitled to first attention. When he retained his seat in the 1892 general election, which returned a Liberal majority, the thirty-year-old Grey had come to the end of his political initiation.

Junior office

Having finally persuaded Lord Rosebery to become foreign secretary in his new administration, Gladstone turned to Grey to represent the Foreign Office in the Commons as parliamentary under-secretary (August 1892). There was no very obvious reason why he should have done so. Grey had displayed no conspicuous interest in foreign affairs and was emphatically not a traveller. On his own admission, he would have to learn and apply himself quickly. It was not his task to make policy but rather to be his master's voice in the Commons. It was not an easy responsibility. Rosebery was not given to consultation, as his cabinet colleagues soon realized. Grey had to speak with authority in circumstances in which it was apparent that, in imperial matters at least, prime minister and foreign secretary disagreed. The extent to which Britain should become involved in Uganda was a case in point. Grey showed skill in coping with these disagreements and generally impressed parliamentarians. He stood out not merely because he was clean-shaven, but because he spoke firmly and calmly. From the opposition benches he appeared to Arthur Balfour as the most striking figure among the younger men in the government. There was talk in 1893 that he might be made the next viceroy of India. Rosebery resisted the notion on the grounds that such an appointment would sidetrack Grey away from the great future he had in the Commons. He had qualifications, it was supposed, which might fit him one day for promotion to the secretaryship of state (although he had the handicap of being a commoner).

Some supposed that when Rosebery became prime minister in March 1894 Grey might have received accelerated promotion to the cabinet, but that was always unlikely. Serving under Lord Kimberley as foreign secretary, Grey was now more confident and experienced. He liked the Foreign Office, and the quarrels among his senior colleagues in the cabinet over foreign policy gave him a certain scope for expressing his own views. African issues predominated and Grey was drawn into making various contentious statements. The fate of the upper Nile became the centre of attention. In March 1895 he made in parliament what became known as the ‘Grey declaration’. The British and Egyptian spheres of influence, he asserted, together covered the whole of the Nile waterway. The advance of a French expedition from the other side of Africa into the area would therefore constitute ‘an unfriendly act’. It was a statement which caused a furore in diplomatic circles, the cabinet, and the Commons. Liberal critics deprecated the ‘menacing tone’ adopted. Grey denied that he had spoken hysterically or inappropriately. He had not envisaged war, but a strong statement of British interests had been necessary to clear the air. Rosebery refused to countenance Grey's resignation. The furore subsided and, in the event, a couple of months later, the Rosebery government came to an end and Grey was out of office.

Even though Grey's official duties may explain his relatively poor performance in the national real tennis amateur championship—he was runner-up rather than champion between 1892 and 1894—there seems little doubt that he found them engrossing. Contemporaries noted that if he stayed in politics he would be sure to make his mark. But that was the point. Among London society it was common knowledge that Dorothy was miserable in the capital. Lady Monkswell, for example, noted after a dinner at which they had both been present that Dorothy looked as displeased as anyone she knew. To her husband, Dorothy was even more frank. She fulminated against town life and the general devilishness which prevailed there. To her brother-in-law she complained that the people with whom she had to associate were all horrid and there was no health in them. Such sentiments did not provide a comforting background for an aspiring politician, even though they also struck a chord with Grey himself: the public expectations of future eminence contrasted strongly with private doubt. Hence, junior office might turn out to have been the height of his career. He told Rosebery that he wished his public position to be as little emphasized as possible so that he could leave it when an honourable opportunity came.

Ambivalent expectations

Nevertheless, Grey fought the 1895 election vigorously and, against the tide which returned a Conservative government, increased his own majority. He conceded privately that this success made it more difficult to get free from politics, though he still claimed that this was his objective. Although in office he had concentrated on foreign affairs, he had nevertheless also spoken on some domestic issues. He advocated reform rather than abolition of the House of Lords. He still favoured home rule for Ireland, though it should not dominate the Liberal agenda. The potential significance of the formation in 1893 of the Independent Labour Party had not escaped him. Social and labour issues had been neglected by the party. There was a need for broad measures of social reform, although he was not very explicit about what they should be. The leadership arrangements of the Liberals in opposition seemed to confirm that there was little agreement about political direction. Rosebery still led the party, but listlessly. His wish to jettison Mr Gladstone's ‘general policy’ since 1880 naturally offended Gladstonians. Grey, however, continued to support Rosebery and the ‘concentration’ which he enigmatically advocated.

Insofar as Grey had an identified role in a fractious party, it was inevitably in relation to foreign affairs. His experience had not led him to formulate detailed opinions on all aspects of world politics. It had been in relation to their conflicting aspirations in Africa, and to some extent Asia, that he had considered the policies of the European powers. Europe, which he did not know at first hand, presented a disheartening spectacle of rivalry, but he did not seek alignment with one side or the other in the alliance systems of the period. There was almost an element of absurdity in the way in which France and Germany claimed large slices of Africa almost on the ground that if they did not some other country would. In such a context, Grey saw no alternative to British participation in the game. He shared Rosebery's perspective that it might be necessary to advance merely to secure existing territory.

Such a perspective had immediate relevance. Grey found the abortive invasion of the Transvaal by Dr Jameson in 1895–6 a reckless affair, but he was no admirer of the Afrikaner government of Paul Kruger. Two of his cousins who took part were wounded. His own brother George had taken part in fighting in Matabeleland in 1893 and was to do so again in 1896. Grey recognized that the work of colonization and subjection had to go forward, though he saw that it could not altogether be done without some compromise of principle. Cecil Rhodes, he realized, was not exactly a liberal. After meeting him, Grey suggested that Rhodes adhered to a new version of ‘one man, one vote’ in South Africa: Rhodes should have a vote but nobody else should. His observations on imperial matters put him firmly in Rosebery's camp, but when the latter resigned the party leadership in 1896 Grey was disconsolate.

It was in these circumstances that Grey accepted an invitation from Joseph Chamberlain to join a royal commission inquiring into social and economic problems in the British West Indies, particularly in relation to sugar. Some scented the possibility that Grey might consent to a tampering with free-trade principles. Morley was one who felt it would be a mistake for a ‘youngster’ with Grey's prospects to entangle himself. Nevertheless, accompanied by Dorothy, he spent some investigative months in the Caribbean in the first half of 1897. On his return he found the Liberal Party still in disarray. He bided his time. Given his earlier comments on the upper Nile, his observations on the 1897–8 crisis carried weight. He did not dissent from the robust attitude taken by the Salisbury government. His imperialism caused dismay in some Liberal circles, but there was a widespread belief that he was the ‘young hope’ of the party. However, when Harcourt resigned as Liberal leader in the Commons Grey suggested that Asquith was the obvious successor. In the event, the leadership went to Campbell-Bannerman. Immersed as he was in writing a book on fly-fishing, Grey was content to sit on the bank and wait patiently. He had a directorship of the North Eastern Railway to occupy other hours and provide a salary. Dorothy continued to hate London. The expectation was that they would live quietly away from the capital and avoid the smell of its streets festering in the sun.

South African War

War broke out in South Africa in October 1899. It did not come as a surprise to Grey. When in the West Indies in 1897, he had written to the newly appointed high commissioner, Sir Alfred Milner, suggesting that at some stage the use of force could not be avoided. Grey had discussed South Africa with Milner in 1898 when he was on leave in England and was in regular correspondence with him in the months leading to the final crisis. When war came, Grey admitted its necessity but counselled against jingoism. Kruger, he believed, had never intended negotiations with Britain to lead to any real redress or reform. It soon became apparent that the Liberal Party was deeply split on the issue. In stating in the Commons that the Boers had committed an aggression which it was the plain duty of the government to resist, Grey went further than many colleagues. Campbell-Bannerman struggled to keep a united party, but it divided three ways: ‘pro-Boers’ spoke against the war; Campbell-Bannerman and his faithful entourage reluctantly supported it, but in doing so criticized the conduct of British diplomacy; ‘imperialists’ supported the war without serious reservation. For Grey, there was no half-way house. Either the war was necessary (as he believed), or it was not. If the former, it should be supported. If the latter, it should be denounced. He associated with Asquith and Haldane in making leadership at this time virtually impossible for Campbell-Bannerman. There was still the possibility that Rosebery might be tempted to resume his career.

In the event Sir Henry did not resign, but the government capitalized on Liberal disarray and apparent success in the war to call a general election in 1900. Grey campaigned nationally more prominently than ever before but sensed that his party was disintegrating. The government was confirmed in office. The war in the Liberal Party continued, as indeed did the war itself in South Africa, where talk of victory proved premature. Rosebery remained in the background. Grey, in association with Asquith and Haldane, adhered to his early position. However, the actual conduct of the war now complicated matters. Campbell-Bannerman famously denounced ‘methods of barbarism’ and the pro-Boers became more critical. Grey conceded that conditions in the camps in South Africa required improvement but it was not right to speak of ‘barbarism’. In their private correspondence each wing of the party thought that it was time for the others to be more restrained. In Grey's view, Sir Henry was a good old fellow but real leadership was needed and a policy to go with it.

It was at this point that Rosebery re-entered the public scene, though he still left his acolytes speculating about his real intentions. Grey wrote despairingly of the faint hope that the genius of Rosebery might redeem a party which was past redemption. As time passed, however, it became apparent that Rosebery was a reluctant redeemer. Grey was increasingly frustrated. He had more energetically ‘politicked’ than ever before—his wife spoke of him in consequence as being raspingly difficult to manage—but to no avail. The Liberal League, of which he was a vice-president, did not make the progress he expected. When the South African War ended in May 1902, old men and old policies were still entrenched. The divisions opened up by the war were still apparent and would not easily disappear, since they were deep-seated and not simply occasioned by the war itself.

Liberal revival

In May 1902 there seemed little reason to suppose that in December 1905 Sir Edward Grey would be foreign secretary. Some acerbity was disappearing from Liberal politics but there appeared no firm prospect of office. In any case, Grey continued to wonder whether he could wait for it indefinitely. In December 1904, when offered the chairmanship of the North Eastern Railway Company, he accepted, though he knew that it would make a hole in his time. However, he had done nearly two decades of political work, mostly opposition. He was not prepared to spend the next twenty years doing the same sort of thing. The railway was useful and definite work. Moreover, the salary was quite handsome. It would no longer be necessary to let Fallodon during the summer months. Only an invitation to join the cabinet would deflect him.

Initially, such a prospect seemed unlikely. Grey, Haldane, and Asquith constantly expressed their dissatisfaction to each other and wondered when their time would come. The Liberal Party, they believed, could not do without them. Grey travelled regularly up and down his railway and dined in London. He fell into discussion on occasion with his London neighbours the Webbs. Beatrice reluctantly found him a man of exquisite flavour: high-minded, simple, kindly, and wise. He would do well in a cabinet driven by a mastermind. It seemed to her that Grey had no original ideas—beyond foreign and colonial policy. She had no idea what that might mean. Others who thought that it might indeed be possible to have expertise in this sphere invited Grey to address their dining clubs. There was little suggestion, however, that he was formally foreign secretary in waiting.

It is generally agreed that it was division in the government ranks which provided the possibility of Liberal revival. Until mid-1903, when Joseph Chamberlain launched his campaign for the abandonment of free trade and resigned from the government six months later, Liberal revival had been hard to detect. Grey had dutifully criticized Balfour's 1902 Education Act, but he was not a nonconformist and did not believe that the issue was of sufficient general interest to improve Liberal chances. In 1903 Grey suspected that within a year or two the Conservative government would flicker out, but it would be replaced by a Chamberlain ministry. He could see no prospect of the Liberals coming in before 1910. He had a certain admiration for Chamberlain, though he remained in the free-trade camp. Defence of free trade brought some semblance of unity back to the Liberals, although leadership issues still troubled them. Grey, Haldane, and Asquith plotted somewhat ineffectually. Grey asserted that he would not take office under Campbell-Bannerman in any government in which Sir Henry continued as leader in the House of Commons.

More generally, Grey's experience broadened. Although vulnerable to the charge that he was a country gentleman, his railway role had brought him an increasing awareness of labour developments. He thought it idle to talk of smashing trade unions. It was better to deal with organized rather than unorganized labour. In 1903 he publicly took the election of Will Crooks as MP for Woolwich as a sign that the wage-earning classes were gaining in power and strength and in political purpose. That was exactly what should happen. On another important matter, Grey recognized that the issue of Irish home rule remained an incubus. It would be wrong to take office if a Liberal government depended for its survival upon Irish support, and the English electorate should not be allowed to think that it would. He had come to the conclusion that it would be a mistake to try to solve the Irish question by one big Gladstonian step. Ireland should get much more local self-government, though by degrees. He was determined that a new Liberal government should not come to grief again on this rock.

As the Balfour government tottered and then resigned in late 1905 so Liberal jockeying for position intensified. Pistols were pointed at Campbell-Bannerman's head but, in the event, were not fired. Asquith revealed that he would accept the chancellorship of the exchequer even if Sir Henry remained in the Commons as prime minister. He did, however, strongly urge upon Sir Henry that Grey was the only man for the Foreign Office. Campbell-Bannerman took his time and initially looked elsewhere. He did not take kindly to Grey's suggestion that he should go to the Lords. He was well aware of the fact that Grey had spent a large part of the previous six years trying to unseat him. After further manoeuvring on both sides, however, the offer of the Foreign Office was made, and Grey accepted on 7 December 1905.

Foreign secretary under Campbell-Bannerman

Grey's appointment was exceptional in certain respects. At forty-three he was unusually young. He lacked completely that first-hand knowledge of European capitals and politicians which at least some of his predecessors had possessed. His appointment also broke decisively with the normal convention that the foreign secretary sat in the House of Lords, insulated from the tiresome necessity to fight elections and be of service to a constituency. That made him more ‘democratic’. It also meant, however, that he was directly open to criticism from Liberal MPs already apprehensive about his imperialism. He seemed frequently abroad to epitomize the virtues and values embodied in the notion of an English gentleman. What he lacked in knowledge he more than compensated for by soundness of judgement. He did not flap. Although some personnel in the Foreign Office and the diplomatic service had necessarily changed, Grey knew sufficient of official ways to take his place with confidence. He was not arrogant, but he had cultivated a certain obstinacy when he thought he was right. He was very conscious both of the central importance of his office and that he was assuming it at a critical juncture in world affairs. Notions of Britain's capacity to remain detached or ‘isolated’ were under urgent review, and Grey could not escape them.

The immediately preceding years had seen substantial changes in British foreign policy. In 1902 the Anglo-Japanese alliance had been concluded, providing for British neutrality in the event of a war between Japan and one other power (Russia?) or for British belligerency if Japan went to war with two hostile powers (Russia and France?). At the time Grey had spoken warmly in the Commons of Japan becoming Britain's ‘partner’. In relation to other ideas that were floating around, Grey considered Chamberlain's notion of a triple alliance between Britain, the United States, and Germany as an absurdity. German public opinion was strongly anti-British. In private letters in 1903 and 1904 he expressed the view that Germany was Britain's worst enemy and greatest danger, notwithstanding the fact that a minority of Germans were well disposed towards Britain. He wanted Britain to have closer relations with France and Russia. It is not surprising, therefore, that he welcomed Lansdowne's conclusion of an entente with France in April 1904. Frankness and friendliness with France were essential. Writing in August 1905 he expressed his disagreement with Rosebery and argued against any policy which might drag Britain back into the German net, as he put it. At the same time, he did not rule out the possibility of improving relations with Germany and would brave the ‘Jingo press’ if that seemed feasible.

The main lines of Grey's approach were therefore already apparent. Moreover, he had publicly emphasized the need for continuity and the desirability of assuring other countries that Britain's agreements were not at the mercy of a fickle democracy. Neither statement altogether commended Grey to those of his colleagues who wished to see a more distinctively Liberal foreign policy and one more conspicuously responsive to parliamentary pressure. A good many such MPs were to be found in the Commons in the aftermath of the sweeping Liberal victory in the January 1906 general election.

Grey was faced with an immediate crisis. The Anglo-French entente was being put to the test by Berlin with regard to Morocco. Grey assured the French ambassador that if Germany attacked France because of Morocco, British public opinion might be such as to compel the British government to go to war. Nevertheless, he could not offer a pledge which would be operative regardless of circumstances. He did, however, permit the continuance of ‘military conversations’ between French and British soldiers which his predecessor had authorized. They were, however, not supposed to be binding. It was a decision agreed to by the prime minister but not communicated to the full cabinet. This reticence was afterwards taken as a sign of Grey's secrecy, if not his duplicity. Yet Grey himself did not want either a formal military or political commitment. In fact, in these very early weeks, Grey was already embarking on a course which may be held to have lasted substantially until 1914 itself. It was essential that France should be sustained, but not in such a manner that Paris took liberties. There had always to be an element of doubt about what Britain might or might not do. Yet that doubt should not be so great as to lead French opinion to feel that that there was no option other than to make the best terms possible with Germany. Likewise, Berlin should not be made to feel that Britain's relationship with France was so intimate as to preclude the possibility of an understanding. The Moroccan crisis had in the event been resolved by diplomacy, but that might not always be possible. If it was necessary to check Germany that could be done by an entente between Russia, France, and Britain—France and Russia were allies.

An Anglo-Russian convention was indeed signed in August 1907, but not without opposition in Britain. It went against the grain for some Liberals that their government should conclude a treaty with a government which had suppressed the parliamentary Duma in Russia. In the Lords, Curzon denounced a treaty which was nothing less than an act of imperial abdication. He was referring particularly to the division of spheres of influence in Persia. Grey himself claimed that a frequent source of friction and possible cause of war had been removed. His critics suggested that he too readily accepted Russian assurances. Taken as a whole, however, the Russian agreement was a further recognition that in the twentieth century the British empire was not in a position to take on simultaneously all powers that might be thought to challenge its pre-eminence. Some feared Germany more, some feared Russia more. Either way, Grey supposed that in his first years of office he had steered a course which retained for Britain freedom of decision while removing a prospect of total isolation.

Towards 1914

During Grey's tenure of the Foreign Office the possibility of European war was never entirely absent. He saw no fundamental reason, however, to shift from the basic presuppositions and arrangements that have been outlined. The crises which were seemingly endemic in the international system had all thus far proved capable of resolution by diplomacy—until 1914 itself. Failure in the summer of 1914, with all the catastrophic consequences that ensued, naturally meant that Grey's conduct of British foreign policy would be subjected to detailed and continuing scrutiny both immediately and thereafter. Grey would have preferred a general publication of British documents immediately after the war, even one supervised by an ‘impartial tribunal’. He took the innovative step—aided by J. A. Spender—of publishing his own account of his years in handling foreign policy, Twenty-Five Years, 1892–1916 (1925). The failure of 1914, for so he regarded it, sometimes kept him awake in after years. He wondered whether he could and should have acted differently. So have both his contemporaries and subsequent historians, as the massive documentation of the pre-1914 European crisis is explored from every angle.

Opponents of British entry into the war, both then and later, fastened on various facets of Grey's diplomacy both in the immediate crisis and over the antecedent years. He had been too secretive in the conduct of affairs and did not respond adequately to the need for a foreign policy which was in some sense democratic. If he had done so, public opinion would have exercised a meaningful and moderating role. It was further argued that his continued adherence to ‘secret diplomacy’ of a traditional kind also entailed the endorsement of the ‘balance of power’ and the ultimately disastrous entanglement in alliances and alignments which had certainly not prevented war and could possibly have made it inevitable. Grey still claimed that he had freedom of choice, but in reality he had forfeited it by his own actions. In the summer of 1914 he admitted as much by referring to ‘obligations of honour’ which Britain had towards France. Throughout the previous half a dozen years, when he had obdurately claimed that Britain had no commitments, he was either deceiving himself or deliberately deceiving colleagues and the country.

Grey himself denied any deception and found a ready champion in 1914 in Gilbert Murray, the Oxford classical scholar. He had stayed close to the path he had charted in January 1906. It had not been without risk, but neither total aloofness from the politics of Europe nor full participation (in terms of binding and explicit alliances) was either desirable or politically possible given the assumptions that prevailed in Britain at the time. The fact that in 1911 another major crisis over Morocco had been ended by diplomacy gave grounds for supposing that the overall diplomatic strategy was sound. Germany looked for ample compensation elsewhere in Africa in exchange for giving up a claim to interest in Morocco. It was deemed excessive in London, and it was Lloyd George rather than Grey himself who stated publicly that Britain would not look on indifferently. It was believed that firmness had played its part in bringing about the eventual settlement. Such brinkmanship, however, disturbed a good number of Liberal back-benchers and some cabinet colleagues. Grey found himself subjected to more criticism than he had ever endured before, and for a time had nominally to be more informative about his actions. The suspicion engendered by the events of 1911, however, never completely died away. Although Grey's old friend Haldane went on a mission to Germany in 1912, with his agreement, to seek a naval agreement it proved a failure. Some suggested that he should have tried harder and been more sympathetic to German aspirations. Grey, on the other hand, thought that he had gone far enough.

As to the actual pattern of events after the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, its complexity defies any simple summary. The British cabinet was divided, a fact that added to the foreign secretary's difficulties. It has sometimes been argued that if only Grey had warned Germany of the point at which Britain would declare war the issue would have been very different—but it was on that very point that there was no consensus. His performance overall in July has been variously assessed. Churchill wrote that he watched Grey's cool skill with admiration, but Lloyd George, at least in his memoirs, was sharply critical. Grey seems initially to have supposed, as had happened before, that the powers would ‘recoil from the abyss’. On 27 July he proposed an international conference—an initiative which not only displays his general commitment to diplomacy but which was also in line with the course he had successfully employed in previous years to resolve Balkan disputes. This time, however, by 29 July, it was clear that the proposal had come to nothing.

The possibility of German violation of Belgian neutrality changed the picture, though it did not bring cabinet unanimity: resignation letters were drafted, though only a couple were sent in the event. It was becoming clear by 2 August that what was in prospect was no longer simply another ‘Balkan quarrel’ but a war in which France might be crushed. On 3 August Grey spoke in the Commons, one of the most important speeches ever made by a British foreign secretary. He repeated that Britain still had freedom to decide and was not committed by treaty, and, as has already been noted, referred to ‘obligations of honour and interest’ which were at stake and which would compel Britain to take a stand. He claimed that the government would be supported by the determination, the resolution, the courage, and the endurance of the whole country in doing so. The speech convinced many waverers in his own party and produced near unity in the country. An ultimatum was sent to Berlin, though it was not supposed that Germany would, in fact, abandon plans to overrun the whole of Belgium. There was no answer. Britain had abandoned peaceful neutrality and was about to go to war, the dimensions of which few grasped: except, perhaps, puzzlingly, Grey himself. He looked out of his office window in the evening, after helping draft the ultimatum, and saw the lamplighter turning up the gas lamps in the courtyard below. He remarked, according to an (unidentified) friend, ‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life-time’ (Grey, 2.20). It was his only memorable saying, widely quoted and anthologized subsequently, though it was indeed perfect for the occasion. The puzzle, as has been noted (N. Davies, Europe: a History, 1996, 879), is that, according to Grey's own account, it was the sight of lamps being lit which led to a metaphor about lamps being extinguished!

Foreign secretary at war

Grey was not of a military disposition. Indeed, it is arguable that before 1914 he had taken too narrowly a ‘political’ conception of his office. He had indeed taken part in rumbustious cabinet debates about naval building and had been briefed on military strategy, yet he had never become excited by such matters or ardently sought to integrate defence considerations into foreign policy. He rather self-consciously distanced himself from the implications of the military conversations with France which he had authorized—on the supposition that the more involved he himself became the more difficult it would be to maintain noncommitment.

So it was when war actually started. Before 1914, speaking generally, Grey had operated as though ‘foreign policy’ held the upper hand. After 1914 he was perhaps too ready to concede that the Foreign Office took second place behind the War Office. It was events on the battlefield or at sea which determined the course of war. Diplomacy had little space in which to operate independently. Such an outlook was a reflection of the foreign secretary's own state of mind. He had known much personal tragedy. Dorothy, his first wife, had died in an accident in February 1906. His brother George had been mauled to death by a lion in Africa. He had no children. He was having increasing difficulty with his eyes. Later, in 1917, Fallodon was substantially destroyed in a fire. Alongside these and other personal losses came the engulfing tragedy of war. It was not that he was a pacifist in an absolutist sense or had doubt about the necessity of victory. It was rather, as colleagues noted, that he seemed to lose confidence in his capacity to make a major contribution. The dynamism that drove a Churchill or a Lloyd George was missing. On the other hand, his sober realism was not without longer-term benefit. He was, for example, anxious to maintain good relations with the (neutral) United States at a time when some were prepared to jeopardize them by pushing the British interpretation of the ‘freedom of the seas’ to its limit. He was less successful in his Balkan diplomacy. In short, he was now out of place, though it was still politically expedient that he should remain in office. Asquith arranged that in July 1916 he should be raised to the peerage as Viscount Grey of Fallodon, but he had no place in the Lloyd George coalition, and in December 1916 he resigned.

Elder statesman

Although Grey was only fifty-four at this juncture, overwork, increasing blindness, and personal disappointments combined to make him seem prematurely aged. He could now return, however, without political impediment, to the realm of nature from which he had allowed himself to be excluded, though he could no longer see it as clearly as he had hoped. It was time to try to restore some balance to his life. His yearning for Dorothy remained strong, though it seems that their love had lacked physical expression. He began a correspondence with Pamela Genevieve Adelaide Tennant, Lady Glenconner (d. 1928). Daughter of Percy Scawen Wyndham, of Clouds, near Salisbury, and sister of George Wyndham, she was the widow of Edward Priaulx Tennant, first Baron Glenconner, who died in 1920. The couple shared a love of poetry and birds, and were married on 4 June 1922. In 1923 Grey unsuccessfully tried to pilot a bill through the House of Lords to give for the first time a proper legal framework for bird sanctuaries. Pamela not only encouraged Twenty-Five Years but also The Charm of Birds (1927), a volume into which he poured his lifelong knowledge and enjoyment. It sold widely, as did Fallodon Papers (1926). In the same year as Pamela died, Grey's brother Charles was killed by a buffalo in Africa. The weight of his afflictions told, though he contrived a certain serenity which impressed visitors. On 7 September 1933 he died at Fallodon, where his ashes were deposited, and the peerage became extinct. Fallodon was inherited by Captain Cecil Graves, son of his eldest sister. Public honours had naturally come his way. He was a fellow of Winchester College. He had been appointed KG in 1912 and was elected FRS in 1914. In 1928 he was elected chancellor of Oxford University.

It is tempting to see an absolute discontinuity between Grey's life after 1916 and the pattern of the three previous decades. Certainly, he had now more time for introspection, personal reflection, and country life. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that his involvement in politics at the highest level simply slipped away without trace. He did agree to visit Washington as a special ambassador in September 1919 in what proved an abortive attempt to persuade President Wilson to compromise with the senate so as to bring the United States into the League of Nations. Before the end of the war he came to believe that a League of Nations would establish a new and better framework for the conduct of international relations. He wrote a pamphlet on the subject (The League of Nations, 1918) and actively involved himself, as president, in the affairs of the League of Nations Union from November 1918 onwards. At a time of optimism, his role in shaping opinion in favour of the league was substantial. There were those, too, who wanted him to resume an active role in mainstream politics—he was Liberal leader in the House of Lords during 1923–4. Some urged that he might be the leader of a centre party which could emerge from the Liberal quarrels and attract some Conservatives. Grey did not altogether discount the possibility, but blindness and health argued against.

Grey stood in a somewhat detached position as an elder statesman in these latter years. Indeed, surveying his entire career, he had oscillated between detachment and involvement, being never entirely happy with either mode. For decades after his death political historians were faintly distressed by Grey's lifelong interest in birds and fishes. A really great politician should have better things to do, they supposed. Nature lovers, on the other hand, could not really believe that Grey had enjoyed wasting so much time with dispatch boxes. Both sides believed that they understood the ‘real’ Grey. However, a different perspective is now possible. Both sides of his nature should be given due weight. Grey unusually saw a need both to devote his life to ‘worldly’ politics and to the understanding of the ‘real’ natural world. It is this intriguing ambivalence which keeps him in certain but also awkward eminence among the major British statesmen of his age.

Keith Robbins


K. Robbins, Sir Edward Grey: a biography of Lord Grey of Fallodon (1971) · G. M. Trevelyan, Grey of Fallodon (1937) · J. Karpinski, Capital of happiness: Lord Grey of Fallodon and the charm of birds (1984) · H. S. Gordon, Edward Grey of Fallodon and his birds (1937) · G. Murray, The foreign policy of Sir Edward Grey, 1906–1915 (1915) · Z. S. Steiner, The Foreign Office and foreign policy, 1898–1914 (1969) · K. M. Wilson, Empire and continent: studies in British foreign policy from the 1880s to the First World War (1987) · K. Wilson, ed., Decision for war, 1914 (1995) · F. H. Hinsley, ed., British foreign policy under Sir Edward Grey (1977) · M. Bentley, ‘Liberal politics and the Grey conspiracy of 1921’, HJ, 20 (1977), 461–78 · Viscount Grey of Fallodon [E. Grey], Twenty-five years, 1892–1916, 2 vols. (1925) · GEC, Peerage


NL Scot., corresp. · TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, FO 800/35–113 · U. Birm. L., letters · U. Oxf., Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, ornithological notes |  BL, corresp. with Arthur James Balfour, Add. MS 49731 · BL, corresp. with Sir Francis Bertie, Add. MSS 63018–63043 · BL, corresp. with Sir Henry Campbell–Bannerman, Add. MSS 41218, 52514 · BL, corresp. with Lord Cecil, Add. MS 51073 · BL, corresp. with Lord Gladstone, Add. MSS 45992, 46476–46478 · BL, corresp. with Lord Northcliffe, Add. MS 62155 · BL, corresp. with Sir Ralph Paget, Add. MS 51252 · BL, corresp. with Lord Ripon, Add. MS 43640 · BL, corresp. with J. A. Spender, Add. MS 46389 · BL OIOC, letters to Lord Reading, MS Eur. E 238, F 118 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Herbert Asquith · Bodl. Oxf., letters to James Bryce · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Louise Creighton · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. L. Fisher · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with H. A. Gwynne · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir William Harcourt and Lewis Harcourt · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Kimberley · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Donald Maclean · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Sir Louis Mallot · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. J. Newbolt · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Lady Selborne · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Lord Selborne · CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge · CUL, letters to Siegfried Sassoon · Cumbria AS, Carlisle, letters to Lord Howard of Penrith · JRL, corresp. with C. P. Scott · L. Cong., corresp. with Moreton Frewen · LMA, corresp. with Sir Willoughby Maycock · Lpool RO, letters to Sir Richard Evans · NA Canada, corresp. with James Bryce · NL Ire., letters to John Redmond · NL Scot., letters to Seton Gordon · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Haldane · NL Scot., corresp. with Lord Rosebery · NRA, letters to C. H. Lyell · NRA Scotland, priv. coll., corresp. with Tennant family · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Emmott · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Mottistone · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Andrew Bonar Law · Parl. Arch., corresp. with David Lloyd George · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Herbert Samuel · Parl. Arch., corresp. with John St Loe Strachey · Queen Mary College, London, letters to Lady Lyttelton · TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Kitchener, PRO 30/57; WO 159 · Trinity Cam., corresp. with Sir Henry Babington Smith · U. Newcastle, Robinson L., corresp. with Walter Runciman · Yale U., Sterling Memorial Library, corresp. with Edward House  



BFINA, news footage · BFINA, propaganda film footage · BFINA, record footage


H. Furniss, pen-and-ink caricature, c.1900, NPG · J. S. Sargent, chalk drawing, 1913, NPG · G. Fiddes Watt, oils, c.1915–1917, Gov. Art Coll. · W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1918–31, NPG · J. Guthrie, oils, c.1919–1921, Scot. NPG · J. Guthrie, oils, c.1919–1921 (study for Statesmen of World War I), NPG · J. Guthrie, oils, c.1919–1921, NPG · W. Rothenstein, chalk drawing, 1920, NPG · J. Guthrie, group portrait, oils, c.1924–1930 (Statesmen of World War I), NPG · W. Orpen, oils, 1925, National Liberal Club · H. Speed, oils, c.1927, Oxford and Cambridge Club, London · H. Speed, oils, c.1927–1933, NPG · J. Guthrie, oils, 1928, Balliol Oxf. · H. W. Barnett, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · I. S. B., pencil, pen, and ink drawing, NPG · Owl, caricature (as ‘Secretary Bird’), NPG; repro. in VF (2 March 1913) · B. Partridge, pen-and-ink caricature (with President Roosevelt), NPG; repro. in Punch (29 March 1911) · Spy [L. Ward], caricature, lithograph, NPG; repro. in VF (5 Feb 1903)

Wealth at death  

£123,791 0s. 1d.: probate, 7 Dec 1933, CGPLA Eng. & Wales