We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Cobham's Cubs (act. 1734–1747) was one of the names given to the group of young politicians promoted by Richard Temple, first Viscount Cobham, following Cobham's breach with the ministry led by Sir Robert Walpole in 1733. At the 1734 general election Cobham brought his nephew Richard Grenville, later second Earl Temple, into parliament; another nephew, George Lyttelton, later first Baron Lyttelton, followed in a 1735 by-election. Lyttelton's brother-in-law Thomas Pitt (c.1705–1761) was also part of the group, as was Pitt's brother William Pitt (the elder). They were also known as the Boy Patriots, apparently dubbed as such by Walpole. To be a patriot in the politics of the 1730s expressed disgust with Walpole's alleged disregard for the national interest in his pursuit of peace in Europe at the expense of British trade, and his use of the executive power to intimidate the Commons. Patriots, broadly, supported vigorous defence of Britain's overseas interest, opposed the extension of the national debt, and also the expenditure of sums from the British Treasury on the armies of foreign powers, most notoriously Hanover. Cobham was a whig, but in the 1730s the cubs would come to include some tories who shared a patriot agenda.

Cobham's motives for opposing Walpole remain unclear; he had voted against the excise on imported wine and tobacco in 1733, the clamour against which had almost brought down Walpole's ministry, and then been one of a group of whig peers who had called for an inquiry into the use the government had made of the forfeited estates of South Sea directors. All the peers were dismissed from their government or army posts, among them the earl of Marchmont, whose son Hugh Hume Campbell, Lord Polwarth, later third earl of Marchmont, gravitated towards the cubs. Cobham's political beliefs were at variance with Walpole's trimming to the centre ground—he was an anti-clerical, critical of both high church Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism, and as a soldier potentially more sympathetic to an aggressive defence of Britain's European interests. None the less until the crisis of 1733 he had supported Walpole and had not been aligned with opposition whigs such as William Pulteney and Lord Carteret, probably because of his loyalty to the Hanoverian succession and the person of the king, whose minister Walpole was. However, Cobham may have been prompted to move into constructive opposition by the maturity and talents of his nephews and their friends.

From 1734 Cobham was a member of the Beefsteak Club, where he could confer with other opposition whig parliamentarians; but the geographical focus of Cobham's Cubs was Cobham's estate at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Cobham created an allegorical landscape garden there, described by his nephew Gilbert West in Stowe (1732), dedicated to Alexander Pope. The garden was begun before Cobham's breach with Walpole, but in the 1730s its imagery became explicitly hostile: where the Temple of Ancient Virtue was a solid structure respecting classical forms, the Temple of Modern Virtue was a ruin, besides which stood a crumbling statue of a headless Walpole. West's later contribution to Cobhamite propaganda was The Institution of the Order of the Garter (1742), but he never entered parliament and so never won the prominence of his fellow cubs. Pope was one of several literary figures attracted to the virtue-laden ideology of the cubs, who Pope thought looked ‘rather to the past age than the present, and therefore the future may have some hopes of them’ (Gerrard, 69).

Cobham's circle followed other opposition politicians in arguing their case and attacking the ministry through print as well as through parliament. In the early 1730s The Craftsman was the principal opposition newspaper, representing most shades of anti-ministerial opinion including Pulteney's opposition whigs and such tories as Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, as well as the cubs. Cobham's group was also supported between 1735 and 1738 by the Old Whig, which championed their claim to be the exclusive heirs of the whig tradition. Lyttelton's own works, most particularly his satire Letters from a Persian in England to his Friend at Ispahan (1735), were widely praised for their wit and depiction of Walpole's Britain as a country that had lost sight of its high ideals.

While Cobham provided leadership and patronage for the cubs, they had strong personalities of their own. Lyttelton was equerry to Frederick Lewis, prince of Wales, from 1735, which provided him with an alternative source of patronage and potentially a route through which he could be reconciled with the government. In the immediate term, though, Frederick was the most plausible figurehead for a united opposition, and Lyttelton's position of influence helped ensure the cubs a leading role. The cubs had proved their usefulness and loyalty to Frederick, first by claiming that his marriage in 1736 had been forced on George II and Walpole by the demands of the public, and then by voting for Pulteney's motion for a rise in the prince's allowance in February 1737. They were also of a similar age to Frederick, whose previous political advisers had all been older men such as Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth earl of Chesterfield, or George Bubb Dodington. When Frederick definitively broke with the ministry in September, Lyttelton formally became Frederick's secretary and, a few months later, William Pitt became his groom of the bedchamber, effectively part of a shadow administration. Francis Ayscough, from 1736 Frederick's chaplain, had been Lyttelton's tutor at Oxford and, as a former suitor of Pitt's sister Ann, had at least aspirations to be part of the Cobham circle.

With Frederick came other allies. To win Frederick's support the cubs had to work with the opportunistic Pulteney. They had also worked with the tory leader Sir William Wyndham, whose young cousin Henry Hyde, Viscount Cornbury, has been reckoned among the cubs of the mid-1730s despite his tory heritage. Another connection to tory circles, and to independent opposition whigs, sometimes numbered among the cubs, was William Murray, an ambitious young lawyer and much later first earl of Mansfield.

The cubs were prominent in the assault on Walpole's government in 1741 and 1742 that eventually led to Walpole's fall from office. New additions to their ranks were George Grenville and James Grenville (1715–1783), Richard's younger brothers, who came into the Commons in 1741 and 1742 respectively. However, the cubs were unsuccessful in their negotiations, led by Lyttelton, to join the coalition ministry chaired by the earl of Wilmington. In addition, their ranks were diminishing: Polwarth had succeeded to his father's earldom in 1740 and left the Commons; Cornbury had been voting with the government by the time of Walpole's fall; and during 1742 Murray attached himself to the duke of Newcastle, joint head with his brother Henry Pelham of the ‘old corps’ whigs who had loyally defended Walpole. Frederick was reconciled with his father and the new ministry, and the output of patriot literature, in which Lyttelton had participated, stopped. Following their unsuccessful scramble for power it was difficult for the cubs to present themselves as idealistic patriots, although once Walpole had been removed it would have been impractical for them to stand aloof from the project of building a united whig ministry. The cubs were divided as to strategy. Lyttelton favoured an early accord with the Pelhams while Pitt came to adopt a line strongly critical of the government's subsidy of Hanoverian forces in the War of the Austrian Succession. Consequently Lyttelton accepted minor office in 1744 while Pitt was excluded; both became estranged from the prince of Wales, while Thomas Pitt remained in the prince's service as his electoral manager.

Cobham's role deteriorated from leader of the group to manager of their interests; the Pelhams negotiated with him in 1746 as the person who could arrange terms to bring Pitt into the administration, rather than as the leader of an influential bloc of votes. That April the cubs, now veterans of the Commons, all voted for the Hanoverian subsidy they had once vehemently opposed as inimical to patriot values. The ministry was prosecuting a war which could be interpreted as fulfilling some of the demands of the 1730s, and in 1747 another of Cobham's nephews, Thomas Grenville (1719–1747), was killed in battle at sea, allowing him to be memorialized as a patriot hero in a monument at Stowe. When Frederick returned to opposition in 1747, he took only Thomas Pitt and Francis Ayscough with him from Cobham's circle; the majority continued in support of the ministry, though there were tensions between the Grenville brothers and William Pitt. Pitt managed to retain personal ties with the family, but Cobham distrusted him, perhaps for holding independent ambitions. Pitt was returned for Seaford in Newcastle's interest in the 1747 election, rather than in a seat connected with the cub families. With Frederick in opposition without them, any prospect of the revival of the Cobham group as tribunes of patriot dissidence from court whiggism was past.

The cubs had matured into the Grenville family connection, apparently depleted of their ideals and primarily interested in power for its own sake. However, patriot ideology lingered in the habits of some of the leading cubs. William Pitt, in power, always kept himself at a distance from the Treasury, seeking to lead through policy and example and not through the direct application of patronage; Richard Grenville, who succeeded his uncle Cobham at Stowe, returned to the allegorical content of the garden, celebrating the end of the Seven Years' War with the Temple of Concord and Victory. The rhetoric of opposition was thus reinvented, like the former cubs themselves, for the practicalities of government.

Matthew Kilburn

Sources  

C. Gerrard, The patriot opposition to Walpole: politics, poetry, and national myth, 1725–1742 (1994) · L. M. Wiggin, The faction of cousins: a political account of the Grenvilles, 1733–1763 (New Haven, CT, 1958) · J. V. Beckett, The rise and fall of the Grenvilles: dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, 1710 to 1921 (1994) · M. Bevington, Stowe: the garden and the park, 3rd edn (1996) · HoP, Commons, 1715–54 · J. B. Owen, The rise of the Pelhams (1957) · A. S. Foord, His majesty's opposition, 1714–1830 (1964) · B. Williams, Carteret and Newcastle: a contrast in contemporaries (1943)