Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey

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The Earl Grey

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey after Sir Thomas Lawrence copy.jpg
Portrait painting by an unknown artist
after Sir Thomas Lawrence c.1828
Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
In office
22 November 1830 9 July 1834
Monarch William IV
Preceded by The Duke of Wellington
Succeeded by The Viscount Melbourne
Leader of the House of Lords
In office
22 November 1830 9 July 1834
Preceded byThe Duke of Wellington
Succeeded byThe Viscount Melbourne
Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
In office
24 September 1806 25 March 1807
Prime Minister The Lord Grenville
Preceded by Charles James Fox
Succeeded by George Canning
Leader of the House of Commons
In office
24 September 1806 31 March 1807
Prime MinisterThe Lord Grenville
Preceded byCharles James Fox
Succeeded by Spencer Perceval
First Lord of the Admiralty
In office
11 February 1806 24 September 1806
Prime MinisterThe Lord Grenville
Preceded by The Lord Barham
Succeeded by Thomas Grenville
Personal details
Born(1764-03-13)13 March 1764
Fallodon, Northumberland, England
Died17 July 1845(1845-07-17) (aged 81)
Howick, Northumberland, England
Political party Whig
Mary Ponsonby (m. 1794)
Children16, including Henry, Charles, Frederick, and Eliza Courtney (illegitimate)
Parents Charles Grey, 1st Earl Grey
Elizabeth Grey
Alma mater Trinity College, Cambridge
Signature Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey Signature.svg
Shield of arms of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey Arms of Grey, Earl Grey.svg
Shield of arms of Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey

Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, KG , PC (13 March 1764 – 17 July 1845), known as Viscount Howick between 1806 and 1807, was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from November 1830 to July 1834.


A member of the Whig Party, he was a long-time leader of multiple reform movements, most famously the Reform Act 1832. His government also saw the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, in which the government purchased slaves from their owners in 1833. Grey was a strong opponent of the foreign and domestic policies of William Pitt the Younger in the 1790s. In 1807, he resigned as foreign secretary to protest the King's uncompromising rejection of Catholic Emancipation. Grey finally resigned in 1834 over disagreements in his cabinet regarding Ireland, and retired from politics. His biographer G. M. Trevelyan argues:

in our domestic history 1832 is the next great landmark after 1688  ... [It] saved the land from revolution and civil strife and made possible the quiet progress of the Victorian era. [1]

Scholars rank him highly among all British prime ministers. [2] Earl Grey tea is named after him. [3]

Early life

Descended from a long-established Northumbrian family seated at Howick Hall, Grey was the second but eldest surviving son of General Charles Grey KB (1729–1807) and his wife, Elizabeth (1743/4–1822), daughter of George Grey of Southwick, co. Durham. He had four brothers and two sisters. He was educated at Richmond School, [4] followed by Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, [5] acquiring a facility in Latin and in English composition and declamation that enabled him to become one of the foremost parliamentary orators of his generation.


He became the second Earl Grey, Viscount Howick and Baron Grey of Howick on 14 November 1807 upon the death of his father. Upon the death of his uncle on 30 March 1808 he became the third Baronet Grey of Howick.

Government career

Elected to Parliament, 1786

Grey was elected to Parliament for the Northumberland constituency on 14 September 1786, aged just 22. He became a part of the Whig circle of Charles James Fox, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and the Prince of Wales, and soon became one of the major leaders of the Whig party. He was the youngest manager on the committee for prosecuting Warren Hastings. The Whig historian T. B. Macaulay wrote in 1841:

At an age when most of those who distinguish themselves in life are still contending for prizes and fellowships at college, he had won for himself a conspicuous place in Parliament. No advantage of fortune or connection was wanting that could set off to the height his splendid talents and his unblemished honour. At twenty-three he had been thought worthy to be ranked with the veteran statesmen who appeared as the delegates of the British Commons, at the bar of the British nobility. All who stood at that bar, save him alone, are gone, culprit, advocates, accusers. To the generation which is now in the vigour of life, he is the sole representative of a great age which has passed away. But those who, within the last ten years, have listened with delight, till the morning sun shone on the tapestries of the House of Lords, to the lofty and animated eloquence of Charles Earl Grey, are able to form some estimate of the powers of a race of men among whom he was not the foremost. [6]

Grey in a blue coat, white waistcoat and tied cravat, and powdered hair, by Henry Bone (after Thomas Lawrence), August 1794. Charles Grey (1764-1845), by Henry Bone.jpg
Grey in a blue coat, white waistcoat and tied cravat, and powdered hair, by Henry Bone (after Thomas Lawrence), August 1794.

Grey was also noted for advocating Parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation. His affair with the Duchess of Devonshire, herself an active political campaigner, did him little harm although it nearly caused her to be divorced by her husband.

Foreign Secretary, 1806–07

In 1806, Grey, by then Lord Howick owing to his father's elevation to the peerage as Earl Grey, became a part of the Ministry of All the Talents (a coalition of Foxite Whigs, Grenvillites, and Addingtonites) as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Following Fox's death later that year, Howick took over both as Foreign Secretary and as leader of the Whigs. The ministry broke up in 1807 when George III blocked Catholic Emancipation legislation and required that all ministers individually sign a pledge, which Howick refused to do, that they would not, "propose any further concessions to the Catholics." [7]

Years in Opposition, 1807–30

In Charon's Boat (1807), James Gillray caricatured the fall of the Whig administration, with Howick taking the role of Charon rowing the boat. Charon's Boat.jpg
In Charon's Boat (1807), James Gillray caricatured the fall of the Whig administration, with Howick taking the role of Charon rowing the boat.

The government fell from power the next year, and, after a brief period as a member of parliament for Appleby from May to July 1807, Howick went to the Lords, succeeding his father as Earl Grey. He continued in opposition for the next 23 years. There were times during this period when Grey came close to joining the Government. In 1811, the Prince Regent tried to court Grey and his ally William Grenville to join the Spencer Perceval ministry following the resignation of Lord Wellesley. Grey and Grenville declined because the Prince Regent refused to make concessions regarding Catholic Emancipation. [8] Grey's relationship with the Prince was strained further when his estranged daughter and heiress, Princess Charlotte, turned to him for advice on how to avoid her father's choice of husband for her. [9]

On the Napoleonic Wars, Grey took the standard Whig party line. After being initially enthused by the Spanish uprising against Napoleon, Grey became convinced of the French emperor's invincibility following the defeat and death of Sir John Moore, the leader of the British forces in the Peninsular War. [10] Grey was then slow to recognise the military successes of Moore's successor, the Duke of Wellington. [11] When Napoleon first abdicated in 1814, Grey objected to the restoration of the Bourbons, an authoritarian monarchy and when Napoleon was reinstalled the following year, he said that that was an internal French matter. [12]

Grey c. 1820 Grey2.jpg
Grey c.1820

In 1826, believing that the Whig party no longer paid any attention to his opinions, Grey stood down as leader in favour of Lord Lansdowne. [13] The following year, when Canning succeeded Lord Liverpool as Prime Minister, it was therefore Lansdowne and not Grey who was asked to join the Government which needed strengthening following the resignations of Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington. [14] When Wellington became Prime Minister in 1828, George IV (as the Prince Regent had become) singled out Grey as the one person he could not appoint to the Government. [15]

Prime Minister (1830–34) and Great Reform Act 1832

In 1830, following the death of George IV and when the Duke of Wellington resigned on the question of Parliamentary reform, the Whigs finally returned to power, with Grey as Prime Minister. In 1831, he was made a member of the Order of the Garter. His term was a notable one, seeing passage of the Reform Act 1832, which finally saw the reform of the House of Commons, and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. As the years had passed, however, Grey had become more conservative, and he was cautious about initiating more far-reaching reforms, particularly since he knew that the King was at best only a reluctant supporter of reform.

Grey contributed to a plan to found a new colony in South Australia: in 1831 a "Proposal to His Majesty's Government for founding a colony on the Southern Coast of Australia" was prepared under the auspices of Robert Gouger, Anthony Bacon, Jeremy Bentham and Grey, but its ideas were considered too radical, and it was unable to attract the required investment. [16]

It was the issue of Ireland which precipitated the end of Grey's premiership in 1834. Lord Anglesey, the Viceroy of Ireland, preferred conciliatory reform including the partial redistribution of the income from the church tithe to the Catholic church and away from the established Protestant one, a policy known as “appropriation”. [17] The Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Stanley, however, preferred coercive measures. [18] The cabinet was divided and when Lord John Russell drew attention in the House of Commons to their differences over "appropriation", Stanley and others resigned. [19] This triggered Grey to retire from public life, leaving Lord Melbourne as his successor. Unlike most politicians, he seems to have genuinely preferred a private life; colleagues remarked caustically that he threatened to resign at every setback.

Grey returned to Howick but kept a close eye on the policies of the new cabinet under Melbourne, whom he, and especially his family, regarded as a mere understudy until he began to act in ways of which they disapproved. Grey became more critical as the decade went on, being particularly inclined to see the hand of Daniel O'Connell behind the scenes and blaming Melbourne for subservience to the Radicals with whom he identified the Irish patriot. He made no allowances for Melbourne's need to keep the radicals on his side to preserve his shrinking majority in the Commons, and in particular he resented any slight on his own great achievement, the Reform Act, which he saw as a final solution of the question for the foreseeable future. He continually stressed its conservative nature. As he declared in his last great public speech, at the Grey Festival organised in his honour at Edinburgh in September 1834, its purpose was to strengthen and preserve the established constitution, to make it more acceptable to the people at large, and especially the middle classes, who had been the principal beneficiaries of the Reform Act, and to establish the principle that future changes would be gradual, "according to the increased intelligence of the people, and the necessities of the times". [20] It was the speech of a conservative statesman. [21]

Lord Grey's Ministry, November 1830 – July 1834

Lord Grey atop Grey's Monument, looking down Grey Street in Newcastle upon Tyne Charles Grey - 2nd Earl Grey - atop the Grey Momument - Newcastle upon Tyne - England - 140804.jpg
Lord Grey atop Grey's Monument, looking down Grey Street in Newcastle upon Tyne


Personal life

On 18 November 1794, Grey married Hon. Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby (1776–1861), only daughter of William Ponsonby, 1st Baron Ponsonby of Imokilly and Hon. Louisa Molesworth. The marriage was a fruitful one; between 1796 and 1819 the couple had ten sons and six daughters:

He also had an illegitimate daughter with Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire:

Inscription on Grey's Monument Inscription Grey Monument.jpg
Inscription on Grey's Monument

Relationship with Georgiana Cavendish

While Mary was frequently pregnant during their marriage and remained at home, Grey travelled alone and had affairs with other women. Before he married Mary, his engagement to her nearly suffered because of his affair with Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire. The young Grey met Georgiana sometime in the late 1780s to early 1790s while attending a Whig society meeting in Devonshire House. Grey and Georgiana became lovers, and in 1791 she became pregnant. Grey wanted Georgiana to leave her husband the duke and live with him, but the duke told Georgiana if she did, she would never see her children again. Georgiana was sent to France where, on 20 February 1792 in Aix-en-Provence, she gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Eliza Courtney. She returned to England with the child in September 1793, and entrusted her to Grey's parents, who raised her as though she were his sister.

Georgiana and Charles spent time with their daughter, who was informed of her true parentage some time after Georgiana's death in 1806. She married General Robert Ellice. Her maternal aunt, Henrietta Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, visited the Greys in 1808 (without knowing she was Eliza's aunt) and later wrote of her strange observations in which she stated "he (Charles) seems very fond of her". Eliza later named her youngest child Charles and named her eldest daughter Georgiana.

Later years

Grave at Howick Hall in Howick, Northumberland The Grave of Earl Grey - - 385392.jpg
Grave at Howick Hall in Howick, Northumberland

Grey spent his last years in contented, if sometimes fretful, retirement at Howick with his books, his family, and his dogs. The one great personal blow he suffered in old age was the death of his favourite grandson, Charles, at the age of 13. Grey became physically feeble in his last years and died quietly in his bed on 17 July 1845, forty-four years to the day since going to live at Howick. [22] He was buried in the Church of St Michael and All Angels there on the 26th in the presence of his family, close friends, and the labourers on his estate. [21]

Charles Grey is portrayed by Dominic Cooper in the 2008 film The Duchess , directed by Saul Dibb and starring Keira Knightley and Ralph Fiennes. The film is based on Amanda Foreman's biography of Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire.

Commemoration and tea

Earl Grey tea is named after Grey Cup of Earl Gray.jpg
Earl Grey tea is named after Grey

Earl Grey tea, a blend which uses bergamot oil to flavour the brew, is named after Grey. [23]

Grey is commemorated by Grey's Monument in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, which consists of a statue of Lord Grey standing atop a 40 m (130 ft) high column.[ citation needed ] The monument was once struck by lightning and Earl Grey's head was seen lying in the gutter in Grey Street.[ citation needed ] The monument lends its name to Monument Metro station on the Tyne and Wear Metro (at that point effectively Newcastle's 'underground' system), located directly underneath.[ citation needed ] Grey Street in Newcastle upon Tyne and Grey College, Durham are also named after Grey.[ citation needed ]

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  1. Peter Brett, "Grey, Charles, 2nd Earl Grey" in D. M. Loades, ed. (2003). Reader's guide to British history. p. 1:586. ISBN   9781579584269.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  2. Paul Strangio; Paul 't Hart; James Walter (2013). Understanding Prime-Ministerial Performance: Comparative Perspectives. Oxford UP. p. 225.
  3. Kramer, Ione. All the Tea in China. China Books, 1990. ISBN   0-8351-2194-1. Pages 180–181.
  4. "Info" (PDF).
  5. "Grey, Charles (GRY781C)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. Thomas Babington Macaulay, ‘Warren Hastings’, Edinburgh Review LXXIV (October 1841), pp. 160–255.
  7. Smith paperback 1996 p125
  8. Smith, E.A. (1996). Lord Grey 1764–1845. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited. pp. 198–9. ISBN   978-0750911276.
  9. Smith paperback 1996 pp 222–6
  10. Smith paperback 1996 pp 169–71
  11. Smith paperback 1996 pp 172–4
  12. Smith paperback 1996 pp 176–8
  13. Smith paperback 1996 pp 240–1
  14. Smith paperback 1996 pp 241–2
  15. Smith paperback 1996 pp245-6
  16. "Foundation of the Province". SA Memory. State Library of South Australia. 5 February 2015. Retrieved 19 November 2019.
  17. Smith paperback 1996 pp 288–93
  18. Smith paperback 1996 p301
  19. Smith paperback pp 304–5
  20. Edinburgh Weekly Journal, 17 September 1834.
  21. 1 2 E. A. Smith, 'Grey, Charles, second Earl Grey (1764–1845)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, September 2004; online edn, May 2009, accessed 13 February 2010.
  22. GRO Register of Deaths: SEP 1845 XXV 130 ALNWICK
  23. Wallop, Harry (28 March 2011). "Lady Grey tea: fact file" . Retrieved 18 October 2012.

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Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
22 November 1830 – 9 July 1834
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Succeeded by
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Oldest living Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
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Peerage of the United Kingdom
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Charles Grey
Earl Grey
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