Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Milnes, Richard Monckton, first Baron Houghtonlocked

  • Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Monckton Milnes, first Baron Houghton (1809–1885)

by London Stereoscopic Co.

Milnes, Richard Monckton, first Baron Houghton (1809–1885), author and politician, was born on 19 June 1809, in Bolton Street, Mayfair, Westminster, the only son of Robert Pemberton Milnes. His grandfather Richard Slater Milnes (1759–1804), MP for York 1784–1802, was the elder son of a cloth merchant of Wakefield; he bought the Fryston Hall estate outside Wakefield after 1771 and took Effingham House in Piccadilly during the 1790s.

His father

Robert Pemberton Milnes (1784–1858) was born on 20 or 28 May 1784, and educated privately in Liverpool and Hackney, and at Trinity College, Cambridge (BA 1804). He was elected tory MP for Pontefract in 1806. A brilliant Commons maiden speech (15 April 1807) resulted in Spencer Perceval offering Milnes the post of chancellor of the exchequer or secretary of war in 1809. He refused, and sank into parliamentary obscurity. Unable to support the tories after they refused enfranchisement to large towns, he retired from the Commons in 1818. Milnes maintained his ancestors' dissenting views, disliked London society, and had the whimsies of a squire in Tristram Shandy. In 1817 he rented Thorne Hall near Doncaster and experimented in reclaiming waste land for agriculture. For many years his life was disturbed by the gambling of his brother Rodes, and he was obliged to retrench by living on the continent in 1829–35. In 1835 he inherited the Bawtry estate near Doncaster and £11,000 from the Dowager Viscountess Galway (who was both his cousin and stepmother-in-law), took possession of the Fryston estate on his mother's death, and was liberated from further troubles by the death of Rodes Milnes. Railway building on his property further revived his fortunes. He declined the offer of a barony in 1856. Milnes had married in 1808 Henrietta Maria Monckton (d. 1847), daughter of the fourth Viscount Galway, with whom he had a son, Richard Monckton, and daughter, Henrietta, who married the sixth Viscount Galway. His friend James Spencer Stanhope wrote:

Milnes was a wild, unstable creature, at one time devoting his days and nights to reading; at another giving them up to play; at another engrossed entirely with shooting; always agreeable, clever, sarcastic, he was everything by fits and nothing long, yet always dearly loved by his friends and companions, always a straightforward man, full of high feeling and honour.

Stirling, 1.119

Milnes died after a gentle decline on 9 November 1858 at Fryston Hall, and was buried at Ferry Fryston.

Youth and education

Richard Monckton Milnes was a delicate child. He was educated at home and at Hundhill Hall near Doncaster before matriculating from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1827. His undergraduate friendships and literary avocations showed his pleasure in the influence of great minds. He had an early interest in Keats and Shelley. After leaving Cambridge in 1830, he enrolled at the newly formed London University. He next studied at Bonn. Though he claimed a well-informed sympathy with German culture and political aspirations throughout his life, A. W. Kinglake mocked 'the half-German school of philosophy to which Mr Milnes, for the sake of variety, will now and then give his adhesion' (Kinglake, 101). Having been raised as a Unitarian, he was attracted by turns to the Irvingites and Roman Catholicism before evolving into a self-styled 'Puseyite sceptic'. Like his father, Milnes was spry, quirky, and versatile, but far more purposive. His provocative, paradoxical chatter was developed as a subtle armour against his father's biting wit and harsh logic. In his own self-description, he was:

a man of no common imaginative perceptions, who never gave his full conviction to anything but the closest reasoning; of acute sensibilities, who always distrusted the affections; of ideal aspirations and sensual habits; of the most cheerful manners and of the gloomiest philosophy. He hoped little and believed little, but he rarely despaired and never valued unbelief, except as leading to some larger truth.

Reid, 2.491

Solitude had 'at once an irreligious and an immoral effect' on him: 'it makes me set great store by sensual pleasures, and in exciting my critical faculty checks the sentimental instincts, and drives me to the acutest logical distinctions'. Despite a dilettante manner—'a most bland-smiling, semi-quizzical, affectionate, high-bred, Italianized little man, who has long olive-blonde hair, a dimple, next to no chin, and flings his arm around your neck', according to Carlyle in 1840 (Collected Letters, 12.9–10)—he was never a lounger. His energies were deployed as a traveller, poet, politician, patron, and host.

Poetry and prose

In the early 1830s Milnes travelled extensively. The opening line of a poem written at Rome in 1834: 'To search for lore in ancient libraries', alludes to one of his abiding delights. After visiting Italy and Greece he published Memorials of a Tour in some Parts of Greece, Chiefly Poetical (1834), Memorials of a Residence on the Continent, and Historical Poems (1838), and Memorials of many Scenes (1840). The poems in these volumes were mixed with prose narratives and antiquarian researches; they celebrated the historic sympathies and local associations aroused on his journeys. Having in 1842–3 revisited Greece and the Ottoman empire, he published Palm Leaves (1844). This ambitious attempt to write poetry in an oriental tone idealizing ‘Muhammadanism’ was not acclaimed. 'His poems want those flashing, cleaving, bolt-like passages, that earnestness and heart … with which only these Oriental notions would become living' judged one reviewer. 'All here is calm, equable and placid … it is all a dreamy vision' (The Athenaeum, 30 March 1844, 292–3). His friend A. W. Kinglake challenged Milnes's version of the harem system and teased the pretensions of Palm Leaves: 'he loses no opportunity for showing his omnicredulity. Like the Romans of old, he opens his facile Pantheon to all the stray gods he can catch' (Kinglake, 103). Overall, Milnes's poetry was thoughtful, cultivated, but uninspired; his minor poems and lyrics are usually more successful. His few late verses, such as the elegy on David Livingstone (1873), are poor.

The cleverest of Milnes's prose writings was One Tract More (1841); this calm, adroit plea for toleration of Anglo-Catholicism vexed his dissenting constituents, but was praised by J. H. Newman and W. E. Gladstone. He advocated the concurrent endowment of the protestant and Roman Catholic churches in The Real Union of England and Ireland (1845). Milnes's letter to Lord Lansdowne, The Events of 1848, Especially in their Relation to Great Britain offended tories by its zealous defence of Italy against Austria. The attack on this pamphlet by George Smythe, afterwards Viscount Strangford, as the work of a 'pantaloon' provoked Milnes to challenge him to a duel: fortunately their seconds arranged the matter without a fight. Milnes's most significant publication was the Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats (2 vols., 1848). The belated rescue of Keats from obscurity and from disparagement as a weak and unhealthy sensualist was chiefly due to Milnes. He was also a prolific contributor to reviews and magazines; his essays on Disraeli in Hood's Magazine (1844) and the Edinburgh Review (1847), and his account of Heine in the Edinburgh Review (1856), are representative of his critical faculties. In 1853 he was a founder of the Philobiblon Society. He wrote on Boswelliana for the society (1855) as also for the Grampian Club in 1874: Disraeli in 1869 called him 'another Boswell, but without a Johnson' (Vincent, 340). In a moderate way he served as the Boswell of such of his friends as Walter Savage Landor, Sydney Smith, and Cardinal Wiseman, all of whom he celebrated in Monographs, Personal and Social (1873).

Political career

Milnes was elected MP for Pontefract in 1837, holding this seat until his elevation to the peerage in 1863. He hoped to figure as more than a littérateur, and was encouraged by distinguished friends who expected great things of him. Initially he was a tory follower of Peel, with whom he voted to repeal the corn laws in 1846, but he developed an antipathy for the premier even deeper than for his policy. Soon afterwards he severed his old political connections, moving, like many of Peel's followers, but more ardently than most, into the Liberal Party. He had sought the under-secretaryship for foreign affairs as early as 1841, and was several times rebuffed; Peel's lofty rejection of his application in December 1845 confirmed his disaffection. Milnes supported the administration of Lord John Russell which took office in June 1846, and henceforth voted with the Liberals. In politics he was always the friend of religious and civil liberty. He supported factory education, mechanics' institutes, penny savings banks, public readings, and other progressive causes. In 1842 he was instrumental in the passage of the Copyright Act. He moved the Deceased Wife's Sister Marriage Bill in 1862 and worked for the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Few other landed gentlemen in the Commons supported, as he did, the North against the Confederacy, or shared his sympathies with republicanism. He was the most attractive type of ameliorative reformer who knew the corruption of humankind and had no zeal for purifying humanity or purging error; no one could have been less like De Maistre. His compassion was the counter-side to his candid interest in punishment and venality. He voted for the abolition of capital punishment in 1840 and yet collected the autographs of hangmen; his visit to the public execution of François Courvoisier is described in Thackeray's essay 'Going to See a Man Hanged'. Though he supported franchise extension to the working class and women's suffrage, his pamphlet Thoughts on Purity of Election (1842) argued that bribery was not only essential but beneficial in politics. In 1846 he introduced the bill establishing reformatory schools for juvenile criminals, and was afterwards president of Redhill Reformatory; yet he was fascinated by flogging and collected books on flagellation, which constituted part of his extensive collection of pornography.

Milnes's parliamentary speeches were 'a signal for emptying the House', Emerson noted in 1848. 'He makes bad speeches of exquisite infelicity, & joins in the laugh against himself' (Journals, 10.530–31). Milnes's elaborate oratory, however, suited formal parliamentary occasions such as the death of Cavour (7 June 1861). Politically he was cautious and disliked extremes. With friends in all camps he was incapable of acrimonious party feeling, which was one reason for his political failure. Abstract ideas and intellectual movements had little influence on him, but personal factors and emotional reactions counted for too much. He desired reconciliation of the church and the mundane, idealism and materialism, conservatism and liberalism, mystic contemplation and sensuality. Visiting Paris during the revolution of 1848 he characteristically fraternized with both sides. His poem 'Pleasure and Pain' shows his sense of the contradictoriness of things:

Vain the distinction our senses are teaching,For Pain has its Heaven, and Pleasure its Hell!

lines 19–20When Peel ignored Milnes's claims to an under-secretaryship, Carlyle consoled him: 'there is only one post fit for you, and that is the office of perpetual president of the Heaven and Hell Amalgamation Society' (Reid, 1.187).

Milnes, who was himself a sweet and graceful singer, reverenced creativity. He had an affinity with madly ungovernable men like Landor and Charles Algernon Swinburne. Harsh, refractory, or difficult individuals like Carlyle never deterred him. He was singularly free of literary resentment or envy, and had a generous respect for intelligence and genius. He was quick to appreciate young talent. He sympathized with literary rebels, and encouraged or financed struggling poets. For Alfred Tennyson he obtained a pension (1845), and for Coventry Patmore a job in the British Museum (1846). In 1860–61 he eased the circumstances of the dying consumptive poet David Gray, and afterwards fostered his reputation. He was a benevolent patron who enjoyed flattery. Milnes never pretended to be heroic, profound, or original, but had a versatile, graceful, and useful life. He was both self-indulgent and idealistic; he aspired to noble thoughts and constructive deeds.

Society host

In emulation of Samuel Rogers, Milnes was famous for holding breakfast parties in London at which all the geniuses and celebrities of the day assembled. These breakfasts, Connop Thirlwall wrote in 1867, 'were always among the pleasantest, partly from his knowing everybody, and partly from his fancy for bringing the apparently most incongruous people together' (Letters to a Friend, 97). Typically, when William Macready breakfasted with Milnes (1 July 1843) he 'met a captain from China, a Mr Rowley, from the borders of Abyssinia, Carlyle, Chevalier Bunsen, Lord Morpeth, and several other agreeable people' (Diaries, 2.215). Breakfast (12 June 1846) with Richard Cobden, Disraeli, Count d'Orsay, Kinglake, Louis Napoleon, and Suleiman Pasha, however, turned into a feast of antipathies. George Eliot's fellow breakfast guests (13 June 1865) included the bishop of Minnesota, Leopold von Ranke, Sir James Lacaita, and the Polish-born Louis Wolowski, a French economist and politician.

After 1836 Milnes entertained generously at Fryston Hall, which was easily accessible from London by coach and later railway. Fryston was described by Carlyle in 1841 as 'a large irregular pile, of various ages, rising up among ragged old wood, in a rough large park … chiefly beautiful because it does not set up for beauty' (Collected Letters, 13.80). The house is depicted as Dickiefield in Laurence Oliphant's satire Piccadilly (1870), with Milnes figuring as Lord Dickiefield. Fryston's eighteenth-century front, containing the drawing-room and long library, was gutted by fire in 1876. This ruined many of Milnes's books, which were a special feature of the place. There were many autograph letters, manuscripts, presentation volumes, rare editions, and fine bindings. He collected books on spiritual research, religious eccentricity, genealogies, criminology, and gastronomy, as well as French novels, German treatises, and Italian classics. He had a choice collection of erotica and other curiosities, including a lock of Keats's hair and the skin of a murderer inserted in the pages of a volume of criminal trials.

Emerson summarized Milnes in 1848: 'fat, easy, affable and obliging; a little careless and slovenly in his dress' (Journals, 10.530). John Lothrop Motley described him in 1867 as voracious for conversation and life: 'Hearty, jolly, paradoxical, genial' (Correspondence, 1.271). Milnes is brilliantly represented by Disraeli as Mr Vavasour in Tancred (1847):

a real poet, and a troubadour, as well as a member of Parliament; travelled, sweet-tempered, and good-hearted; amusing and clever. With catholic sympathies and an eclectic turn of mind, Mr Vavasour saw something good in everybody and everything, which is certainly amiable, and perhaps just, but disqualifies a man in some degree for the business of life, which requires for its conduct a certain degree of prejudice.

Disraeli, though, was one of his less grateful guests:

Individuals met at his hospitable house who had never met before, but who for years had been cherishing in solitude mutual detestation, with all the irritable exaggeration of the literary character. … He prided himself on figuring as the social medium by which rival reputations became acquainted, and paid each other in his presence the compliments which veiled their ineffable disgust.

Yet Disraeli admired his versatility and ubiquity: 'He was everywhere, and at everything; he had gone down in a diving-bell and up in a balloon. As for his acquaintances, he was welcomed in every land … emperor and king, jacobin and carbonaro, alike cherished him.' One sentence of Disraeli's encapsulated Milnes: 'His life was a gyration of energetic curiosity; an insatiable whirl of social celebrity' (Disraeli, chap. 14). Henry James met Milnes later in life. 'A battered and world-wrinkled old mortal, with a restless and fidgety vanity, but with an immense fund of real kindness and humane feeling', James reported in 1879. 'He is not personally fascinating, though as a general thing he talks very well, but I like his sociable, democratic, sympathetic, inquisitive old temperament' (Henry James: Letters, 2.208).

Family and finale

His friend Alexis de Tocqueville believed that Milnes in 1848 was infatuated with George Sand, for whom he gave a disastrous dinner to which he invited her former lover, Prosper Merimée. Milnes courted Florence Nightingale in 1849. He married in 1851, the Hon. Annabella Hungerford Crewe (1814–1874), daughter of the second Baron Crewe. They had two daughters and two sons, of whom the elder was stillborn and the younger, Robert Offley Ashburton Milnes, was later created marquess of Crewe. Milnes was supposedly called ‘a Miss Nancy’ by Thackeray (Pope-Hennessy, 1.133), but twentieth-century suppositions of his bisexuality are unproven. Suspicions of his libertinism originated during his travels in Muslim lands in the 1840s, and were more eloquent of British prurience and insularity than of the facts of his life; his responsibility for corrupting Swinburne has certainly been exaggerated.

Milnes was created Baron Houghton on 20 August 1863. He became DCL of Oxford (1855) and LLD of Edinburgh (1877). He was president of the Statistical Society (1865–7), FRS (1868), FSA (1876), secretary for foreign correspondence of the Royal Academy from 1878 until his death, trustee of the British Museum and of the Royal Geographic Society, and one of the earliest vice-presidents of the Society of Authors. He succeeded Carlyle as president of the London Library in 1881.

Lord Houghton died of angina pectoris on 10 August 1885 at a hotel in Vichy, France, and was buried on 20 August at St Andrew's Church, Ferry Fryston. 'Monckton Milnes was a social power in London, possibly greater than Londoners themselves quite understood, for in London society as elsewhere, the dull and the ignorant made a large majority, and dull men always laughed at Monckton Milnes', wrote Henry Adams.

Every bore was used to talk familiarly about ‘Dicky Milnes’ or the ‘cool of the evening’; and of course he himself affected social eccentricity, challenging ridicule with the indifference of one who knew himself to be the first wit in London, and a maker of men. … Behind his almost Falstaffian mask and laugh of Silenus, he carried a fine, broad and high intelligence which no one questioned … he was one of two or three men who went everywhere, knew everybody, talked of everything, and had the ear of Ministers. … He was a voracious reader, a strong critic, an art connoisseur in certain directions, a collector of books, but above all he was a man of the world by profession, and loved the contacts—perhaps the collisions—of society … Milnes was the good-nature of London; the Gargantuan type of its refinement and coarseness; the most universal figure of May Fair.

Adams, chap. 6


  • The Times (12 Aug 1885)
  • The Spectator (15 Aug 1885)
  • The Athenaeum (15 Aug 1885), 209
  • J. Pope-Hennessy, Monckton Milnes, 2 vols. (1949–51)
  • T. W. Reid, The life, letters, and friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, first Lord Houghton, 2 vols. (1890)
  • Lord Quinton, ‘Richard Monckton Milnes’, Founders and followers (1992), 23–46
  • A. M. W. Stirling, The letter-bag of Lady Elizabeth Spencer-Stanhope, 2 vols. (1913)
  • Disraeli, Derby and the conservative party: journals and memoirs of Edward Henry, Lord Stanley, 1849–1869, ed. J. R. Vincent (1978)
  • Letters to a friend by Connop Thirlwall, ed. A. P. Stanley (1881)
  • The diaries of William Charles Macready, 1833–1851, ed. W. Toynbee, 2 vols. (1912)
  • H. Adams, The education of Henry Adams (1907), chap. 6
  • B. Disraeli, Tancred (1847), chap. 14
  • The journals and miscellaneous notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. M. Sealts (1973), 10.530–33
  • The correspondence of John Lothrop Motley, ed. G. W. Curtis, 2 vols. (1889)
  • [A. W. Kinglake], review, QR, 75 (1844–5), 94–125
  • Henry James: letters, ed. L. Edel, 2: 1875–1883 (1978)
  • GEC, Peerage, new edn


  • Duke U., Perkins L., corresp. and papers
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., papers
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • NL Scot., letters
  • NRA, priv. coll., papers
  • Ransom HRC, papers
  • Sheff. Arch., corresp. and papers
  • Trinity Cam., corresp. and papers
  • U. Nott. L., corresp.
  • U. Reading L., letters
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Charles Dilke, Add. MSS 43898
  • BL, corresp. with W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44215–44786
  • BL, letters to Lord Holland and Lady Holland, Add. MSS 52064, 52126
  • BL, corresp. with Florence Nightingale, Add. MSS 45796–45805
  • BL, corresp. with Sir Robert Peel, Add. MSS 40426–40602
  • BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund, loan 96
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to W. D. Christie
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Arthur Clough
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Benjamin Disraeli
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir William Harcourt
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir William Harcourt, and typescripts of corresp.
  • Camden Public Library, London, corresp. with Dilke
  • CUL, letters to Lord Acton
  • CUL, letters to his son, Robert Milnes
  • Keats House, Hampstead, London, corresp. with Sir Charles Dilke relating to a biography of Keats
  • King's AC Cam., letters to Oscar Browning
  • Lincoln Central Library, letters to Hallam Tennyson
  • Mitchell L., Glas., Glasgow City Archives, letters to Sir William Stirling-Maxwell
  • NL Scot., letters to William Blackwood & Sons
  • NL Wales, letters to George Stovin Venables
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with fourth earl of Harrowby
  • Sandon Hall, Staffordshire, Harrowby Manuscript Trust, corresp. with fourth earl of Harrowby
  • Trinity Cam., letters to William Whewell
  • U. Southampton L., letters to Lord Palmerston
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp. with Lord Canning
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. with Frederick Locker and his wife


  • Count D'Orsay, pencil and crayon drawing, 1839
  • R. J. Lane, lithograph, pubd 1839 (after Count D'Orsay), BM, NPG
  • G. Richmond, chalk drawing, 1844, NPG
  • J. Severn, oils, 1847
  • G. Richmond, pastel drawing, 1851, NPG
  • J. & C. Watkins, carte-de-visite, 1870, NPG
  • R. Lehmann, drawing, 1871, BM
  • R. Lehmann, oils, 1883
  • W. W. Story, marble bust, 1886, Trinity Cam.
  • Ape [C. Pellegrini], watercolour study, NPG; repro. in VF (3 Sept 1870)
  • W. Holl, stipple (after G. Richmond), BM
  • London Stereoscopic Co., carte-de-visite, NPG [see illus.]
  • lithograph, NPG

Wealth at Death

£27,422 9s. 7d.: probate, 19 Dec 1885, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

under £35,000—Robert Milnes: probate, 9 Nov 1859, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)