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).

Wentworth, Charles Watson-, second marquess of Rockinghamlocked

  • S. M. Farrell

Charles Watson- Wentworth, second marquess of Rockingham (1730–1782)

by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1766–8

St Osyth's Priory, Essex; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Wentworth, Charles Watson-, second marquess of Rockingham (1730–1782), prime minister, was born on 13 May 1730 at Wentworth Woodhouse, near Rotherham, Yorkshire, the fifth but only surviving son (and eighth but third surviving child) of Thomas Watson-Wentworth, first marquess of Rockingham (1693–1750), politician, and his wife, Mary (1701–1761), the daughter of Daniel Finch, second earl of Nottingham and seventh earl of Winchilsea, politician, and his second wife, Anne, the daughter of Christopher, first Viscount Hatton. On his father's side he was descended from Edward Watson, second Baron Rockingham (1630–1689), of Rockingham Castle, Northamptonshire, who married Anne, the daughter of the royalist politician Thomas Wentworth, first earl of Strafford, of Wentworth Woodhouse. Their second son, Thomas (1665–1723), assumed the additional name of Wentworth on succeeding to the West Riding estates of his uncle, the second earl of Strafford, in 1695. His only son was Charles Watson-Wentworth's father, who married on 22 September 1716. He was MP for Malton (1715–27) and Yorkshire (1727–8) and lord lieutenant of the West Riding (from 1733); a staunch ally of the court whigs, he was created a knight of the Bath (27 May 1725), Baron Malton (28 May 1728), and earl of Malton (19 November 1734), and, having succeeded his kinsman as sixth Baron Rockingham (26 February 1746), was awarded a marquessate (19 April 1746).

Childhood and Yorkshire inheritance

Charles Watson-Wentworth, who entered Westminster School in April 1738, was styled Viscount Higham from 1739 to 1746 and earl of Malton from 1746. In October 1745, aged fifteen, he was appointed colonel of a regiment of volunteers raised against Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender. That winter he slipped away under a false name and, having reached Carlisle, offered his services to the commander-in-chief, William, duke of Cumberland, a gesture for which he received the congratulations of an amused court. From 1746 to 1748 he pursued a desultory course of study under George Quarme in Geneva, and for the next two years he lived in Italy under Major James Forrester; he returned to England, via Austria, Prussia, Hanover, and Brunswick, in 1750. Although he had had several childhood illnesses, it may also have been in Italy, through at least one sexual liaison, that he contracted what was probably a persistent problem in his urogenitary system. His 'old complaint', as he called it, caused him frequently recurring bouts of debilitating sickness and may have made him impotent, though some contemporaries regarded him as a hypochondriac.

Watson-Wentworth was created earl of Malton in the Irish peerage on 17 September 1750, and succeeded his father as second marquess of Rockingham on 14 December that year, becoming one of the wealthiest peers in Britain. In addition to extensive properties in Northamptonshire and co. Wicklow, and a London town house at 4 Grosvenor Square, he inherited the princely estates centred on the palatial family home of Wentworth House (as it was then known). He is estimated to have received an annual income of over £20,000 in 1751, which probably at least doubled over the following thirty years. On 26 February 1752 he married his childhood fiancée, Mary Bright (bap. 1735, d. 1804) [see Wentworth, Mary Watson-], at the house of her stepfather, Sir John Ramsden, third baronet, in Golden Square, St James's, Piccadilly. She was the daughter and heir, with a fortune of £60,000, of Thomas Bright of Badsworth, near Pontefract, the son of John Bright, formerly Liddell, MP for Pontefract (1698–1701), and his wife, Margaret, the daughter of William Norton of Sawley, near Ripon. Rockingham's social prestige was enhanced by the fact that for many years he was the only nobleman to hold the rank of a British marquessate as his principal title, so that, to his friends, he was simply ‘the Marquess’.

Offices, electoral patronage, and leisure pursuits

Like his father before him, Rockingham was highly esteemed by Thomas Pelham-Holles, duke of Newcastle, the northern secretary of state, and his early political connections were naturally with Henry Pelham's court whig ministry. On 18 July 1751 he was appointed lord lieutenant and custos rotulorum of the West Riding of Yorkshire and of the county of the city of York, and custos rotulorum of the North Riding, and on the same day he became a lord of the bedchamber to George II. He took his seat in the House of Lords on 21 May 1751, and made his maiden speech on 17 March 1752, in defence of the government's bill to confiscate the lands of Scottish Jacobite rebels, but he declined to move the address in late 1753, and for a long time he was inactive in parliament. He took a close interest in the fortunes of the Yorkshire woollen manufacturers, on which subject a pamphlet was addressed to him in 1752. He largely baulked at the programme of political education prepared for him by his uncle William Murray, later Lord Mansfield, the solicitor-general, and in the early 1750s displayed a youthful naïvety and an occasionally headstrong element—which he never entirely lost—in what was otherwise a placid temperament.

Rockingham made a precipitate attempt to promote the candidacy of his friend Sir George Savile, an archetypal independent country gentleman, for the representation of Yorkshire at a county meeting in York on 16 July 1753, but withdrew without trying his strength. His embarrassment arose from having dared to oppose the two sitting ministerialist whig MPs and at finding that his appeal to the freeholders had raised their hackles against overt aristocratic interference. Nevertheless, although the representation was unchanged at the general election of 1754, Savile was elected unopposed on a vacancy in January 1759, and thereafter Rockingham, who had learned the necessity of endeavouring to lead public opinion by appearing to follow it, had the most important influence in county affairs. At the large freeman borough of York, where in December 1753 the Whig Club was renamed after him, he gained control of one seat in 1754 and of the other by 1768. He was patron of the rotten boroughs of Malton and Higham Ferrers, disposed of a seat at Hull from 1766, when he became its high steward (7 April), and had influence at Beverley, Hedon, and Scarborough. He also had an interest in co. Wicklow elections to the Irish parliament.

Rockingham was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1751 and of the Society of Antiquaries in 1752; he became a member of White's, the Jockey Club, and the Society of Dilettanti in the 1750s; and in 1763 he was appointed a trustee of Westminster School and a governor of Charterhouse. He applied himself to the improvement of his estates, which included the encouragement of mining and canal developments, and was praised for his efforts by the agriculturist Arthur Young. He also completed the work begun by his father on Wentworth House, erected several monuments in the grounds, and built a lavish stable block. This reflected his predominating interests in racing and gambling, and he was one of the foremost patrons of the turf, being responsible, for example, for naming the St Leger at Doncaster after his friend Colonel Anthony St Leger. An art collector, one of his commissions was Stubbs's magnificent canvas of his horse Whistlejacket (now in the National Gallery). He was knowledgeable on the coins of the Roman empire.

Early political career, 1756–1765

Rockingham, who was appointed vice-admiral of Yorkshire on 27 February 1755, gained a reputation for acting with initiative and moderation in county matters. He restored peace after the food riots in Sheffield in 1756 without resorting to the use of force, and, despite local disturbances, successfully raised three militia regiments the following year. Remaining loyal to Newcastle, he declined the offer of becoming master of horse to the prince of Wales in late 1756, and showed a determination to resign his household office, which did not in the end prove necessary, during the ministerial crisis in June 1757, when George II had to appoint a court whig ministry led by Newcastle and William Pitt. In recognition of his potential political influence, he was nominated a knight of the Garter on 4 February 1760, and was installed on 6 May. He continued to hold the office of lord of the bedchamber on the accession of George III that year, and assisted at the coronation on 26 September 1761.

Rockingham showed an early distaste for the complexion of the new court and disliked the appointment of the king's favourite, John Stuart, third earl of Bute, as northern secretary of state in March 1761. His aversion was increased by the ministerialist opposition he experienced in Yorkshire at the general election that year and by the growing disrespect with which Newcastle was treated in matters of patronage and policy. He began to believe that the new reign would mark a displacement of the old whig families who had created the Hanoverian settlement, and on 9 May 1762 wrote to Newcastle: 'I must look and ever shall upon you and your connections as the solid foundations on which every good, which has happened to this country since the Revolution, have been erected' (BL, Add. MS 32938, fol. 123). He therefore supported his chief's resignation that month, and, although, like him, he initially eschewed the idea of formal opposition, he was involved in organizing what proved to be a disastrous attack on the popular peace preliminaries at the opening of parliament (9 December 1762). After the king's petulant dismissal of William Cavendish, fourth duke of Devonshire, the lord chamberlain, Rockingham took a lead in resigning from the bedchamber on 3 November, and, punished along with other ‘Pelhamite innocents’, he was removed from his lord lieutenancies in December 1762.

Not alone in thinking that circumstances would soon provide the opening for humiliating the king into taking back a strengthened court whig ministry, Rockingham divided steadily but silently with the opposition whigs and began to play an increasingly prominent part in their activities over the following three years. He maintained close relations with Newcastle and Devonshire, as well as Cumberland, the king's uncle, who provided a royal focus for the connection. He had an important role in liaising with Pitt, a difficult but almost indispensable ally, so that, while he had no sympathy with the licentiousness of John Wilkes, he supported the campaign against general warrants. To encourage opposition whig MPs, he helped organize their conduct in the Commons, urging them, for example, to attack the cider tax in March 1763 and countenancing the establishment in February 1764 of an opposition club, Wildman's. He bridged the age gap between the enthusiastic ‘young friends’ of Newcastle and the elderly grandees, but sometimes despaired of achieving power with an unorganized and ineffectual faction. However, by mid-1765 George III was determined to replace George Grenville as prime minister. At a meeting of opposition leaders at Newcastle's house on 30 June, Rockingham concurred in his friends' decision to accept office and voted in the majority of twelve to six to do so without Pitt.

First ministry, 1765–1766

Rockingham, who, during former negotiations, had been suggested as a possible first lord of the Admiralty, lord chamberlain, or lord lieutenant of Ireland, had held no ministerial office of any rank before he was sworn of the privy council (10 July 1765) and became first lord of the Treasury (13 July). The following month he was reappointed to his lord lieutenancies. That he should have been promoted to the nominal headship of the ministry was a reflection of his enhanced status within the recent opposition, but it was also due partly to the absence of other candidates—Devonshire having died in 1764 and Newcastle, who instead became lord privy seal, too old and, in any case, unacceptable to Pitt. Rockingham's administration was a coalition, in which some of the king's former ministers were retained, such as Robert Henley, first earl of Northington, the lord chancellor, and John Perceval, second earl of Egmont, first lord of the Admiralty. Although they could not all be accommodated, several of his and Newcastle's supporters were given junior offices, and Augustus Henry Fitzroy, duke of Grafton, and Henry Seymour Conway were made secretaries of state. The old tory William Dowdeswell was appointed chancellor of the exchequer, and the young Edmund Burke became Rockingham's private secretary. As the administration had been formed under Cumberland's auspices, his death on 31 October further elevated the role of Rockingham, who quickly assumed the authority of prime minister.

The ministry was dominated by the American Stamp Act crisis, and Rockingham, whose initial concern to enforce the act soon gave way to a spirit of compromise, nevertheless always maintained that the imperial parliament had the power to tax the colonies. Since he was closely connected with a number of leading merchants whose affairs were endangered by the American embargo, his was one of the voices in a divided cabinet in favour of repealing the act on the grounds of commercial necessity. He was anxious to restore the peace of mind of the Americans by acting with moderation and integrity, thus to win the grateful obedience of the colonies by the benevolence of the ‘mother country’. Although the ministry was plagued by internal instability, the way was paved for the Stamp Act Repeal Bill by Pitt's declaration in its favour, and, partly to please the hardliners, a Declaratory Act was also introduced to assert Britain's parliamentary supremacy. The passage of the repeal bill was, however, disrupted by the opposition of the Bedfords and Grenvilles, and by several of the ‘king's friends’, office-holders who were not disciplined by the king for their hostile votes. Such misunderstandings diminished Rockingham's limited credit with George III, so that, for example, when Lord Strange announced that the king would prefer modification of the Stamp Act (10 February 1766), Rockingham had to extract an embarrassing reiteration of his former statement supporting repeal.

Among the essentially backward-looking and self-justificatory measures passed by the government, however, were the liberalization of commercial relations with the West Indian colonies, the repeal of the cider tax, and the condemnation of general warrants. But Rockingham showed his administrative inexperience, and his parliamentary management was poor. In the Lords, where he spoke only once or twice, his performance was abysmal, leading Granville Leveson-Gower, second Earl Gower, jokingly to reprove John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich: 'how could you worry the poor dumb creature so!' (Walpole, Memoirs of … George III, 2.317). Relations with George III, who treated Rockingham honestly, if not loyally, continued to deteriorate, notably over Rockingham's refusal to accept the admission of Buteites to office, the appointment in May 1766 of Charles Lennox, third duke of Richmond, as Grafton's replacement, and his ineptness in failing to make parliamentary provision for the princes. Having decided to turn to Pitt, the king used a disagreement over the government of Canada as a pretext to remove Rockingham, who was surprised, but greatly relieved, to leave office on 30 July 1766.

Formation of the Rockingham whig party, 1766–1770

Rockingham, who was at first supportive of the new ministry, in which many of his friends remained under the earl of Chatham (as Pitt had become), received several congratulatory addresses on returning to Yorkshire in August 1766. His premiership had given him a strong claim to the leadership, and Newcastle complained to William Henry Cavendish Cavendish-Bentinck, third duke of Portland, on 1 October that Rockingham, 'who takes upon himself to be the head of the party, is full as dry, as uncommunicative to me, out of power, as he was, when he was in it' (Portland MS PwF 7516). The dismissal of Lord Edgcumbe, the treasurer of the household, later that year, an alarm which signalled the resignation of a few close supporters, enhanced his role as leader of a small but distinct group in opposition. He co-operated with John Russell, fourth duke of Bedford, and George Grenville in harrying the ministry during the spring and summer of 1767, advocating a more conciliatory policy towards America and defending the chartered rights of the East India Company. He was doubtful about the merits of factious opportunism, as when the Rockinghams, as they were increasingly known, forced a reduction in the land tax in the Commons on 27 February 1767.

Through his private connections and personal charm, Rockingham began to set a tone of moral resolution, consistency, and self-righteousness for his party's conduct, which precluded opposition for its own sake. Rebuffing an approach from another parliamentary group, he recorded on 8 January 1767:

I acknowledged that I thought the state of us and our friends viewed through political glasses would appear a forlorn hope and that no immediate success could be expected, but that on the other hand we were not in an uncomfortable situation, because every dictate of honour and principle encouraged us to persevere on the same plan which we had done for years.Rockingham MS R1-743; Albemarle, 2.32

He broke up the promising negotiations with the Bedfords on 20 July 1767 over his wish to retain Conway and suspicions that the hardline views on America of Bedford's ally Grenville might come to prevail. He presumably endorsed Dowdeswell's 'memorandum' (Rockingham MS R1-842), which defended the virtuous exclusiveness of his party, and stressed the need for it to take the directing role in any future administration. Though a court whig in origin, he was by temperament much more of a country whig, and he brought to his party such attributes as distrust of the executive and the desire to protect individual liberties.

Rockingham could count on the loyalty of a number of mainly northern magnates and their electoral followings, and on a group of diverse independents, so that, after the general election of 1768, there were about sixty MPs and thirty peers in the Rockingham whig party. Although his following shrank over the next decade and was largely ineffectual in parliament, it remained a distinct element in both houses and claimed the occasional success, as in the passage of the Nullum Tempus Bill in 1769, a response to Portland's recent electoral struggles. It was in defence of the rights of electors, though with no wish to agitate the wider issues of radical participatory politics with which the affair was enmeshed, that Rockingham added his support to the cause of Wilkes, MP for Middlesex, who had been unseated by the Commons. At a conciliabulum, or meeting of party leaders, at Wentworth in September 1769, he reluctantly agreed to sanction a Yorkshire county meeting, which he chose not to attend, provided it was confined to addressing the king for a dissolution. In parliament he went further, personally advocating measures of 'economical reform', such as alteration of the civil list in March 1769. In his own thinking, personal resentment of Bute—who was blamed for his friends' dismissals in 1762—had by now been transformed into a coherent, albeit warped, theory of 'secret influence', an ideology encapsulated by Edmund Burke in his party manifesto The Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770). Indeed, Burke played a crucial role in the development of Rockingham's political character, for not only was he a capable 'man of business' who constantly cajoled Rockingham into greater activity, but he expounded a generalized understanding of the political ills of the state and vindicated virtuous party opposition as the instrument for its rehabilitation. Furthermore, no doubt because he was frustrated by his leader's usual lack of urgency, the insistent and compelling tone of his letters had the effect of drawing forth from Rockingham just the sort of innate sense of aristocratic responsibility which Burke most sought to inculcate in him.

Speaking ability, leadership, and the limitations of opposition, 1770–1774

It was nervousness that made Rockingham such a poor public speaker. Of one debate, he reported to Portland on 3 March 1769:

I was from beginning to end, in a most violent agitation and was obliged to speak notwithstanding, three times. I got a good draft of Madeira before I went to the House, and had a comfortable breathing of a vein, by Mr Adair's lancet afterwards.

Portland MS PwF 9016

He made his first major recorded speech on 22 January 1770, when, moving for an inquiry into the state of the nation, he demonstrated how the 'principle of prerogative' lay behind each incident and issue which had arisen since George III's accession. From then onwards he not only voted frequently, but also spoke often enough and sufficiently well to explain his party's position in parliament.

Prey to illness, idleness, or country distractions, and being a lazy correspondent, Rockingham was not always an active politician, but he made periodic attempts to organize the party. Pamphlets were issued intermittently, and, though little use was made of newspapers, he encouraged the composition and publication of Lords' protests, most of which he signed. He called pre-sessional meetings, compiled lists of party members in both houses, held proxies for friends in the Lords, sometimes attended debates in the Commons, and usually summoned his supporters and informally co-ordinated their parliamentary tactics. The extent and importance of his authority was revealed by the problems experienced in his absence during the winter of 1770–71, with his sick wife at Bath, and of 1772–3, when he was ill himself. As his deputy, Richmond, wrote to him on 16 February 1771:

the want of you to keep people together, particularly the House of Commons gentlemen, is too apparent. There are many of them who will upon most occasions vote with us, but want to be spoke to … and the thing that influences them is the personal regard they have for you, which will make them do for your speaking what they will not do for another man's.

Rockingham MS R1-1363

In 1769 and 1770 Rockingham worked warily with the more radically inclined Chatham in a 'united opposition' that centred on the Middlesex election, about which he introduced a motion of censure on 2 February 1770. On 18 May he made a significant intervention in the Lords in favour of moderation towards America. He used the Falkland Islands crisis to exploit the lack of ministerial preparations on 22 November, and protested against the exclusion of strangers from both houses for bogus reasons of national security on 10 December. He gained credit in the City by ostentatiously visiting in the Tower on 30 March 1771 the magistrates Crosby and Oliver, who had been imprisoned by the Commons for upholding the freedom of the press. In 1772 and 1773 he lent support to measures for extending toleration to dissenters. He spoke against the Royal Marriages Bill on 20 February and 2 March 1772, and in mid-1773 he again defended the East India Company, in which he was a proprietor, in both cases opposing the surreptitious extension of the influence of the crown. In the autumn of 1773 he led a successful non-partisan but self-interested lobby against the imposition of a tax on Irish absentee landowners.

The American War of Independence, 1774–1778

Rockingham, who blamed the North government for provoking American resistance, nevertheless condemned the Boston Tea Party and other outrages, and in this respect did not differ from the rest of the British establishment in his attitude to the colonies. Moreover, he was hampered by his commitment to his own Declaratory Act, and was accused of having worsened the situation by his capitulation to American pressure in 1766, which was said to have taught the colonies to use violence to attain their ends. Yet, influenced by a number of American correspondents, he still believed that moderation and trade concessions, such as abolition of the tea duty, would restore peace and prosperity, and he persisted in leading the Rockinghamite opposition during a period of exceptional difficulty. He presented an American petition against government legislation to reform the administration of Massachusetts (11 May 1774), advocated conciliation (18 May), and opposed the Quebec Bill (17 June). He gave some support to Chatham's imperial proposals on 20 January 1775. On 7 February he rose at the same time as the colonial secretary, William Legge, second earl of Dartmouth, but failed in his attempt to bring up an American merchants' petition before the main business of addressing the king to enforce British legislative authority was considered. He presented other petitions on the dire commercial implications of antagonizing America on 15 March, and the following day pointed out the arbitrary nature of the proposed measures. He moved an amendment to the address of thanks to re-establish peaceful relations on 26 November 1775, and four days later, with widespread support, defeated a bill to indemnify the employment of foreign troops.

At the time of the general election of 1774 Rockingham had expressed his dismay at the state of politics, and although in late 1775 he could write of the 'conscientious satisfaction' (Rockingham MS R1-1610) of maintaining a principled opposition to the popular war with America, he recognized that his position would be hopeless as long as he was seen as appeasing or aiding the enemy's cause. After the poor party showing in early 1776, he supported the idea of a remonstrance against the whole conduct of the government, but this did not materialize. The planned secession of his parliamentary supporters, during the 1776–7 session, failed to make a great impression because it was too often broken, not least by Rockingham himself, who moved an amendment to the address (31 October 1776) and attacked the use of the civil list to promote secret influence (16 April 1777). Beguiled, as he was most summers, by the pleasures of life away from politics, he was forced by his despair at the eclipse of the nation's guiding constitutional principles to continue his efforts. He wrote to Portland, on 5 November 1777, that he felt:

most strongly that there is a duty which I perhaps most particularly owe to the persons of those, who not only encouraged and incited me, but also, whose principles deserve a better fate, than to be buried in the ruins of their country. I confess I feel a solicitude even for myself, I could wish to have it to say, and I could wish to have it remembered and recorded, that to the last moment we struggled in behalf of this poor infatuated country.

Portland MS PwF 9117

He was active in the united opposition campaign of early 1778, making interventions on 6 February and 23 and 30 March, and he was present at Chatham's last fatal appearance in the Lords on 7 April. Critical of the management of the war, he was by now reluctantly prepared to concede independence to America, especially given the additional security dangers posed by the outbreak of war against France. He made a major speech in condemnation of the peace commissioners on 7 December 1778, declaring that their threat to desolate the colonies was 'repugnant to the principles of Christianity' (Rockingham MS R81-105).

Domestic, colonial, and constitutional affairs, 1778–1782

Rockingham sponsored Savile's Catholic Relief Bill, reporting from the Lords committee on it on 25 May 1778. He was active in the defence of the whig admiral Augustus Keppel, whose court martial at Portsmouth he attended, and after the latter's acquittal he moved a vote of thanks to him in the Lords on 16 February 1779. On 5 May he had an audience with the king to appraise him of the dangerous situation of Ireland, and in parliament, on 11 May, he moved an address for the relief of distress there and the liberalization of trade. He criticized Sandwich's handling of the navy on 25 June, in a speech in which he justified the course of his own career. Later that year Rockingham, who had been reappointed to the office of vice-admiral of Yorkshire in December 1776, acted decisively to defend Hull from the pirate John Paul Jones. He was thanked by the king, though his conduct was a part of the patriotic reaction of the governing élite at a time of national emergency.

Yet, at the same time, Rockingham continued to hope that the delusions of the people would be shattered, and that the declining ministry would be brought down. He called for the dismissal of ministers on 25 November, condemned the lack of measures to pacify Ireland on 1 December, and advocated alteration of the civil list on 7 December. The reduction of public expenditure and the abolition of places and pensions served both financial and constitutional purposes, which were at the heart of his attitude to the crown. However, he objected to the ideas of parliamentary reform which were promoted by Christopher Wyvill's association movement that winter. Although he attended a Yorkshire county meeting on 30 December 1779, he was relieved that the petition avoided such 'crude propositions' as increased county representation or tests for parliamentary candidates. He declined to attend another meeting in 1780, and the only concession he made was to agree with the reduction of the duration of parliament to three years, that being the period fixed after the revolution of 1688. In a detailed speech on the public accounts on 8 February, he linked developments in America, India, and Ireland with the undue weight of monarchical influence, and he criticized ministers on 21 February and 1 and 6 March 1780.

While support was accruing to the opposition, internal divisions were becoming more marked, so that Rockingham's refusal to countenance parliamentary reform risked alienating Chatham's just as independently minded successor, William Petty, second earl of Shelburne. The two men differed, too, in their reactions to the Gordon riots, after which Rockingham attended the privy council to approve measures to restore law and order (7 June 1780). Later that month Rockingham was approached with a proposal to strengthen the ministry, but he set three unacceptable preconditions: that the king would not veto American independence, but would allow certain items of economical reform, and would appoint leading Rockinghamites to office. Caught by surprise at the dissolution of parliament that year, he managed to preserve his electoral influence, saving face in Yorkshire by countenancing the unopposed return, with Savile, of Henry Duncombe, a member of Wyvill's association. In the Lords he objected to the extension of hostilities against the Dutch states (25 January 1781), made a statistical speech against the burdensome nature of the loan (21 March), opposed the address (27 November), and presented a comprehensive account of the calamitous state of the nation (19 December). Although he led the largest portion of the opposition, when, in March 1782, the defeat of the British forces at Yorktown finally destroyed Lord North's administration, it was Shelburne who took the initiative in negotiating for the appointment of a new ministry.

Second ministry and death, 1782

Rockingham returned to the Treasury on 30 March 1782 without the full trust of George III and in such a poor state of health that he had little authority or strength to settle the quarrels over patronage and policy which beset his second ministry. The offices of the two (reduced from three) secretaryships of state were shared between the two sides of the former opposition. Charles James Fox, who was a leading proponent of American independence, became foreign secretary, but disagreed frequently with Shelburne, whose responsibilities covered home and colonial affairs, and who favoured holding back the offer of independence as a bargaining counter. Not only the peace negotiations, but also the demands for parliamentary reform made by Richmond, who went to the Ordnance as master-general, threatened to split the cabinet, which again had the appearance of an uneasy coalition. The lord chancellor, Lord Thurlow, was retained, and the former Chathamites were represented by Lord Camden, the lord president, and Grafton, the privy seal. Of the other Rockinghamites, Keppel (now a viscount) was made first lord of the Admiralty and Lord John Cavendish was appointed chancellor of the exchequer.

The first government to implement in office the programme which it had formulated in opposition, the second Rockingham administration made some striking short-term changes, which, however, were of little long-term significance. The war was brought to an end, but virtually no progress was made in securing what could be salvaged of Britain's imperial possessions and naval supremacy. Portland, the lord lieutenant of Ireland, oversaw the hurried implementation of legislative independence, but the repeal of the Declaratory Act and the modification of Poynings' law failed to resolve the problem of how Ireland was to be governed. Though considerably watered down, unprecedented economical reforms were none the less made, by the exclusion from the Commons of revenue officers ( Crewe's Act) and government contractors ( Clerke's Act), and by the controls on state expenditure introduced by Burke, the paymaster of the forces, in his Civil Establishment Act. Yet little was done to gain the confidence of the king, who was already secretly negotiating to replace Rockingham, when Rockingham's death, on 1 July 1782 at his home in Wimbledon, Surrey, brought the ministry to an end. Shelburne became prime minister, and a few days later the Rockingham whigs split, with Fox leading a band of supporters back into opposition.

Rockingham, whose death, although attributed to influenza, was almost certainly due to his lifelong illness, was buried in York Minster on 20 July 1782. He and his wife had no children, and all his titles became extinct. By his will, dated 4 September 1764, and several codicils, for which administration was granted in London on 5 June 1784, he made bequests to members of his family, including the children of his sister Henrietta Alicia and her Irish groom, William Sturgeon. Rockingham's affectionate and drily humorous wife, who acted as a political secretary and was a source of moral support, received £5000 and lived at Hillingdon House, near Uxbridge, Middlesex, until her death, on 19 December 1804. The estates, and about half the personalty of £84,400, were inherited by Rockingham's nephew, his sister Anne's son, William Fitzwilliam, second Earl Fitzwilliam (the fourth Earl Fitzwilliam in the Irish peerage). It was Fitzwilliam who, in 1826, as its patron, had the local Swinton pottery works renamed after his uncle, who is therefore commemorated in the china known as Rockingham ware.

Character and posthumous reputation

Rockingham, a tall and dignified man, was almost universally admired for his unimpeachable private virtue, his immense personal charm, and his calm and temperate manner. He was most likeable when at ease at Wentworth, and once admitted to Richmond (in June 1769):

I often think, that I could set down here, attend and watch on the wants and necessities of those who are near to me, be of use and assistance to many, and finally secure to myself the comfort of thinking, that I have done some good.

Rockingham MS R1-1199

Yet unfulfilled personal ambition, a quietly stubborn streak, and an all-pervading sense of duty to the public ceaselessly drew him back to the unrewarding field of politics. In a sense he personified a form of suffering nobility, and the notion of an aristocratic trusteeship over the true constitutional virtues of Britain, at a time when an ill-advised king presided over a diseased body politic, suffused the whole of his public conduct.

As a statesman, however, Rockingham was wholly inadequate, and it was his rank and fortune alone, combined with luck, that propelled him to prominence. Horace Walpole, a severe critic, was only doing him justice when he wrote, on the day of his death:

his parts were by no means great; he was nervous, and mere necessity alone made him at all a speaker in Parliament, where, though he spoke good sense, neither flattery nor partiality could admire or applaud. He was rather trifling and dilatory in business than indolent. Virtues and amiability he must have possessed, for his party esteemed him highly, and his friends loved him with an unalterable attachment. In the excess of faction that we have seen, he was never abused, and no man in public life, I believe, had ever fewer enemies.

Walpole, Corr., 25.288

Rockingham's ministries achieved little, and, at least in national politics, he was rarely successful in the causes he espoused, while to a certain extent his connection itself, like his electoral interest, barely outlived him. His guiding principle, that there was a powerful system of secret influence, controlled first by Bute and later by others, was essentially false. It provided an explanation of failure and a motivation for continued opposition, but was otherwise barren—although it may have had a significance in the contribution it made to the revolutionary American misunderstanding of monarchical tyranny in Britain.

But, if Rockingham was palpably unfitted for the career of a politician, his close friendships, consistently held principles, and steady political stance were the means of binding together the party which bore his name. As he showed from the early 1760s, his personal charm enabled him to mediate between the conflicting personalities and competing opinions of his colleagues and working partners, and by the 1770s his higher public profile and improved organizational abilities ensured that he led what was effectively the only political party in existence. Throughout the period of his leadership he attempted to advance the same principles: at home, the defence of individual liberties, chartered rights, and private property; and abroad, the promotion of commerce, just colonial relations, and peace in Europe. Above all, he sought to restore the purity of the revolution constitution, not only by implementing a programme of economical reform, but by insisting, in the course of several abortive negotiations for entering office, on the creation of a stable and independent government, in which his most trusted friends would hold the dominant positions. Although he did not live long enough to benefit from it, the very emphasis that he placed on virtue, principle, and consistency itself gave a momentum to the fortunes of the Rockingham whig party, whose coherence was in a sense strengthened by its limited size and exclusive nature. His untimely death, therefore, immediately secured him a place in the pantheon of whig heroes, which was confirmed by Fitzwilliam's erection at Wentworth of a classical mausoleum designed by John Carr. Its grandiloquent inscription, written by Burke, commended him for his establishment of a permanent means of safeguarding the constitution:

for it was his aim through life to convert party connection and personal friendship (which others had rendered subservient only to temporary views and the purposes of ambition) into a lasting depository of his principles, that their energy should not depend upon his life, nor fluctuate with the intrigues of a court, or with the capricious fashions amongst the people.

Albemarle, 2.486–7

Rockingham was never an unequivocal 'friend of America'. Neither were his principles the foundation of nineteenth-century liberalism or his party the precursor of a system of alternating two-party politics, as whig historians of the Victorian era imagined. Recent scholarship, assisted by the opening of the Wentworth Woodhouse muniments to public access in the 1950s, has rightly delineated the personal and political failings of Rockingham and his friends. Yet he can nevertheless be credited with the leadership of a unique, albeit small and rudimentary, parliamentary party, which in the mid- to late eighteenth century claimed back the label ‘whig’, and which therefore earned its place in the broad continuum of whiggery from Walpole to Grey.


  • Rockingham MSS, Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse muniments
  • Fitzwilliam papers, Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse muniments
  • Burke papers, Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse muniments
  • Wentworth Woodhouse manuscripts handlist and index, List and Index Society Special Series, 19 (1984)
  • G. Thomas, earl of Albemarle [G. T. Keppel], Memoirs of the marquis of Rockingham and his contemporaries, 2 vols. (1852)
  • Northants. RO, Fitzwilliam (Milton) papers
  • BL, Newcastle MSS, Add. MSS 32723–33083
  • U. Nott. L., Portland MSS
  • The correspondence of Edmund Burke, ed. T. W. Copeland and others, 10 vols. (1958–78)
  • E. Burke, The thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770)
  • The correspondence of King George the Third from 1760 to December 1783, ed. J. Fortescue, 6 vols. (1927–8)
  • The Grenville papers: being the correspondence of Richard Grenville … and … George Grenville, ed. W. J. Smith, 4 vols. (1852–3)
  • Correspondence of John, fourth duke of Bedford, ed. J. Russell, 3 vols. (1842–6)
  • Correspondence of William Pitt, earl of Chatham, ed. W. S. Taylor and J. H. Pringle, 4 vols. (1838–40)
  • Memorials and correspondence of Charles James Fox, ed. J. Russell, 4 vols. (1853–7)
  • H. Walpole, Memoirs of King George II, ed. J. Brooke, 3 vols. (1985)
  • H. Walpole, Memoirs of the reign of King George the Third, ed. G. F. R. Barker, 4 vols. (1894)
  • The historical and the posthumous memoirs of Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, 1772–1784, ed. H. B. Wheatley, 5 vols. (1884)
  • Cobbett, Parl. hist., vols. 16–23
  • J. E. T. Rogers, ed., Protests of the Lords, 3 vols. (1875)
  • G. H. Guttridge, The early career of Lord Rockingham, 1730–1765, University of California Publications in History, 44 (1952)
  • R. J. S. Hoffman, The marquis: a study of Lord Rockingham, 1730–1782 (1973)
  • M. Bloy, ‘Rockingham and Yorkshire: the political, economic and social role of Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second marquis of Rockingham’, PhD diss., University of Sheffield, 1986
  • M. Bloy, ‘In spite of medical help: the puzzle of an eighteenth-century prime minister's illness’, Medical History, 34 (1990), 178–84
  • F. O'Gorman, The rise of party in England: the Rockingham whigs, 1760–1782 (1975)
  • P. Langford, The first Rockingham administration, 1765–1766 (1973)
  • J. Brooke, The Chatham administration, 1766–1768 (1956)
  • W. M. Elofson, The Rockingham connection and the second founding of the whig party, 1768–1773 (1996)
  • S. M. Farrell, ‘Divisions, debates and “dis-ease”: the Rockingham whig party and the House of Lords, 1760–1785’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 1993
  • H. Butterfield, George III and the historians, rev. edn (1959)
  • GM, 1st ser., 52 (1782), 358
  • Annual Register (1782)
  • Morning Chronicle (2 July 1782)
  • Leeds Mercury (9 July 1782)
  • A. Young, A six months tour through the north of England, 4 vols. (1770)
  • R. B. Wragg, ‘The Rockingham mausoleum (1784–1793)’, Yorkshire Archaeological Journal, 52 (1980), 157–66
  • R. J. Hopper, ‘The second marquis of Rockingham, coin collector’, Antiquaries Journal, 62 (1982), 316–46
  • A. Cox and A. Cox, Rockingham pottery and porcelain, 1745–1842 (1983)


  • Sheff. Arch., corresp. and papers
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, corresp.; corresp. and papers
  • BL, corresp. with James Adair, Add. MSS 53800–53815
  • BL, corresp. with Lord Holdernesse
  • BL, corresp. with duke of Newcastle, Add. MSS 32723–33083
  • BL, letters to Charles Yorke, Add. MS 35430
  • Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, letters to fourth duke of Devonshire
  • Durham RO, letters to John Lee
  • Northants. RO, Fitzwilliam (Milton) MSS, corresp. with Edmund Burke
  • Notts. Arch., corresp. mainly with Sir George Savile
  • NRA, priv. coll., corresp. with Lord Hopetoun
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Shelburne
  • PRONI, letters to earl of Abercorn
  • Sheff. Arch., Fitzwilliam MSS
  • Sheff. Arch., Burke MSS
  • Sheff. Arch., Wentworth Woodhouse muniments
  • Suffolk RO, Bury St Edmunds, letters to duke of Grafton
  • U. Nott. L., corresp. with duke of Portland
  • W. Yorks. AS, Leeds, Ramsden MSS
  • letters to first earl of Chatham, PRO 30/8


  • J. Reynolds, double portrait, oils, 1766–8 (with Edmund Burke), FM Cam.
  • J. Reynolds, oils, 1766–8, St Osyth's Priory, Essex [see illus.]
  • J. Singleton-Copley, group portrait, oils, 1779–81 (The collapse of the earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, 7 July 1778), Tate Collection
  • J. Reynolds, oils, 1781–3 (studio replicas of single portrait, 1766–8), Mansion House, York, Royal Collection
  • J. Sayers, caricature, etching, pubd 1782, NPG
  • J. Nollekens, bust, Palace of Westminster
  • J. Nollekens, marble bust, Althorp House, Northamptonshire
  • J. Nollekens, marble bust, Goodwood House, West Sussex
  • J. Nollekens, statue, Rockingham mausoleum, Rotherham, South Yorkshire
  • after J. Reynolds, oils (after portrait, 1766–8), NPG; repro. in W. M. Ormrod, ed., The lord lieutenants and high sheriffs of Yorkshire, 1066–2000 (2000), frontispiece
  • J. Tassie, paste medallion, Scot. NPG
  • J. Tassie, sculpture, Ickworth House, Suffolk
  • Wilson, portrait, Royal Collection

Wealth at Death

£84,400 personal wealth: Northants. RO, Fitzwilliam (Milton) MSS, misc. vol. 83

University of Nottingham Library
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)
H. Walpole, ed. W. S. Lewis & others, 48 vols. (1937–83)
W. Cobbett & J. Wright, eds., , 36 vols. (1806–20)
Northamptonshire Record Office, Northampton
Sheffield Archives
Gentleman's Magazine