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Reference group
Grenvillites (act. 1801–1829) were a floating group of about fifty politicians in the houses of Lords and Commons who were involved in the great political issues of the early nineteenth century: Catholic relief, the conduct of the Napoleonic wars, and reform of British political institutions.

Leadership was provided by the two branches of the Grenville family. From the senior branch of the family came the group's resemblance to the unideological factions that dominated British politics of the period before the French Revolution. This branch's representatives were the first marquess of Buckingham [see Grenville, George Nugent-Temple-], eldest son of the first Grenville prime minister, George Grenville, and his son the second marquess, who became first duke of Buckingham and Chandos [see Grenville, Richard Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-]. The Buckinghams were the inheritors of the Temple, Grenville, and, eventually, Chandos properties, whose annual rental value by the early 1820s was over £64,000; their capital mansion was Stowe in Buckinghamshire.

Both these senior Grenvilles were widely distrusted by their contemporaries of all political complexions. By his incessant demand for patronage and honours, and his extreme susceptibility to perceived personal slights, the first marquess of Buckingham irritated to the point of exasperation all the prime ministers whom he supported, including his first cousin, William Pitt the younger, and his own brother William Wyndham Grenville. His tenure of one of the tellerships of the exchequer, a sinecure he held from 1764 to 1812 that was especially lucrative in times of war (in 1808 its value was £23,000), occasioned much jealousy. In addition, with six parliamentary seats under his control, he was one of the leading borough-mongers in the United Kingdom. His eldest son, the first duke, picked up a seventh. The first duke of Buckingham replicated in spades the vices of his father, and was likewise loathed by the political community.

Permanent membership of the Grenville family connection entwined the surviving children of the first Grenville prime minister: his sons George (the first marquess of Buckingham), Thomas Grenville, and William Wyndham Grenville; and his daughters, Charlotte, Elizabeth, Hester, and Catherine. None of the sons, save George, had legitimate issue but the marriages of the Grenville daughters drew into the family party Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, Sir Henry Watkin Williams Wynn, Hugh Fortescue (Lord Ebrington), the first earl of Carysfort [see Proby, John Joshua], the second Baron Braybrooke [see Griffin, Richard], and the third Baron Braybrooke [see Griffin, Richard]. These would often be rewarded for political support with peerages or promotions within the peerage, diplomatic postings, domestic government jobs, and seats in the Commons.

Despite the place-seeking aspect of their politics, the Grenvillite faction could never be viewed as entirely under the sway of Stowe values. Indeed the antithesis of that style of politician was the party's parliamentary leader until 1817, William Wyndham Grenville, created first Baron Grenville in 1790. He was from the junior branch of the family, and his country seat at Dropmore, Buckinghamshire, was on a more modest scale than his elder brother's at Stowe. Lord Grenville followed a cursus honorum from chief secretary of Ireland to president of the Board of Control, to speaker of the House of Commons, to the home and foreign offices and, finally, to the premiership as the second Grenville prime minister (1806–07). Like his father a good man of business, with an especially prescient knowledge of that emerging political economy which would so captivate nineteenth-century liberalism, Lord Grenville lacked the bonhomie of a popular party leader.

The Grenvillites proper, as an entity greater than the traditional family faction, was born in 1801. Along with Pitt and the bulk of his government they resigned from office over Catholic emancipation, a cause that all Grenvillites vigorously supported. In the same year the Grenvillites split from the Pittites over the peace preliminaries with France, which culminated in the peace of Amiens, whose terms the Grenville party thought conceded too much. Strenuously against peace with Napoleon, the Grenvillites were often termed the ‘new opposition’ to distinguish them from Charles James Fox's older whig variant. This new party included, in addition to the Stowe family connection, such disciples of Edmund Burke as the second Earl Fitzwilliam, French Laurence, and William Windham; Fitzwilliam's friend Henry Herbert, first earl of Carnarvon (1741–1811); Thomas Grenville's closest friend, the second Earl Spencer, and, eventually, his son Viscount Althorp [see Spencer, John Charles]; the first earl of Minto [see Kynynmound, Gilbert Elliot Murray]; the fifth earl of Carlisle [see Howard, Frederick]; and his son Viscount Morpeth, later sixth earl of Carlisle [see Howard, George]; and the second marquess of Stafford, later first duke of Sutherland [see Gower, George Granville Leveson-].

During 1803 and 1804 the two branches of the opposition, new and old, Grenvillite and Foxite, joined together in a union that lasted until (roughly) 1817. It was bound together above all by a common desire to allow the Roman Catholics of the new United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland to sit in parliament. The Grenvillites, the party on the far right of the political spectrum as regards the French wars, caught the Foxites at a moment when many of their leading figures were reconciling themselves to a more or less energetic war against Napoleonic pretensions. The Grenvillites thus, although themselves Pittite in origin, provided a way to lead many of the Burkeians, Portland whigs and other discontented and anti-French revolutionary opposition figures of the early 1790s—Carlisle, Carnarvon, Fitzwilliam, Minto, Spencer, Windham, Laurence, and Thomas Grenville himself—back into mother whiggery.

By 1808 the Grenvillite party included a group of between twenty and twenty-five individuals in each house. In that year, or during the decade thereafter, it included such luminaries as the economist Francis Horner; the banker the first Baron Carrington [see Smith, Robert]; Sir Thomas Frankland Lewis; Sir (Simon) John Newport; and William Conyngham Plunket. None the less, as Lord Grenville became more and more attached to privacy and his rhododendrons, and less and less eager to take office, the party gradually melted away. A well-mannered quarrel with the more libertarian Foxite whigs over such measures as the suspension of habeas corpus, which the Grenvillites supported, to curb post-war radicalism led to Lord Grenville's formal retirement in 1817 from an active political life.

Buttressed by ample wealth and parliamentary seats, the second marquess of Buckingham (who had succeeded his father in 1813) maintained his family faction, including his cousins, Charles Watkin Williams Wynn and Sir George Nugent, his son Earl Temple, later the second duke of Buckingham [see Grenville, Richard Plantagenet Temple-Nugent-Chandos-], the courtier Sir William Henry Fremantle, and Joseph Phillimore. In 1822 Lord Liverpool managed to draw the bulk of the Grenvillite connection into alignment with his government, effecting a ‘Pittite reunion’ by bringing Wynn into the cabinet as president of the Board of Control, giving places to others, and by promoting the second marquess of Buckingham to a dukedom. Buckingham's blatant quest for promotions, and political jobs for himself and his cronies, resulted however in a striking loss of respect for the Grenvillites from all sides of the political divide, and even some of his relatives ceased to follow his lead. Under his leadership the Grenvillites became perhaps the most universally despised political group in post-1714 Britain. By 1829 the ageing Sir George Nugent, who rarely attended the Commons, was appointed leader of the dwindling Grenvillite band in that house, and with Buckingham himself resident abroad the group effectively ceased to exist.

The dissolution of the Grenvillites marks the demise of the last of the traditional family parties described by the historian Lewis Namier in his seminal accounts of British politics in the eighteenth century. Namier's view that politics revolved around family and personal connections, fuelled less by ideology than by materialistic concerns for offices, sinecures, pensions, and places, has been tempered by the writings of later historians, who have reinstated both radical and conservative values into the concerns of party politics. Nevertheless, the history of the Grenvillites suggests that at least some of the central tenets of Namier's interpretation remain valid for the first three decades of the nineteenth century.

James J. Sack


J. V. Beckett, The rise and fall of the Grenvilles: dukes of Buckingham and Chandos, 1710 to 1921 (1994) · J. Brewer, Party ideology and popular politics at the accession of George III (1976) · J. C. D. Clark, English society, 1688–1832: ideology, social structure and political practice during the ancien régime (1985) · L. Colley, Britons: forging the nation, 1707–1837 (1992) · R. W. Davis, Political change and continuity, 1760–1885: a Buckinghamshire study (1972) · W. A. Hay, The Whig revival, 1808–1830 (2005) · P. Jupp, Lord Grenville, 1759–1834 (1985) · M. Roberts, The whig party, 1807–1812 (1939) · J. J. Sack, The Grenvillites, 1801–1829 (1979)