William Bentinck, Duke of Portland, twice served as Prime Minister: from 2 April to 18 December 1783 and from 31 March 1807 to 4 October 1809. He was born on 14 April 1738, the eldest son and third of six children born to the second Duke of Portland and his wife Margaret Cavendishe Harley. Portland's mother was the heir of the second Earl of Oxford. Portland was educated at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford. He was awarded an MA in 1757.
In 1764 Portland had a brief affair with Maria Waldegrave who went on to marry the Duke of Gloucester, precipitating the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. The following year, Portland embarked on an affair with Anne Liddell, the wife of the Duke of Grafton. It has been suggested that the Portland/Lady Grafton affair was the cause of the antagonism between the Dukes of Portland and Grafton in later years. Portland marked the end of the affair in March 1766 by announcing his engagement to the sixteen-year-old Lady Dorothy Cavendish, the daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, with whom he had three daughters and four sons, all of whom were named William (William Henry; William Edward; William Charles Augustus; William Frederick).
Portland entered the House of Commons as MP for Weobley, Hertfordshire in 1761 but succeeded to the peerage on the death of his father the following year and was elevated to the House of Lords. He gave up his seat in the Commons without making his maiden speech: Portland's claim to fame is that he rarely spoke in parliament.
In July 1765, Portland was appointed as Lord Chamberlain of the Household in Rockingham's first ministry; after Rockingham's resignation in July 1766 Portland continued in office in Chatham's ministry, which was headed by the Duke of Grafton. By December 1766, Portland decided that his position was untenable. When the Rockinghamites met, it was decided that Portland should be allowed to resign, along with other Rockinghamite members of Chatham's ministry, in an attempt to force Chatham to change his dictatorial ways or to resign. The plan failed and Portland spent the next eighteen years in parliamentary opposition.
Welbeck Abbey, Nottinghamshire: the stately home of the Dukes of Portland. It is now an army college
Portland was involved in a prolonged legal battle with Sir James Lowther over lands in Carlisle that they both claimed. The case began in August 1767 and continued sporadically until a final judgement in August 1776, by which time Portland was virtually bankrupt as a result of legal costs. However, the case was decided in Portland's favour. To add to his financial difficulties, in the same year Portland agreed to pay his mother a lease of £16,000 a year so he could continue to live at Bulstrode, his mother's property. Meanwhile, his mother continued to live at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire. This was the family seat of the Portlands. Eventually, Portland had to sell the Cumbrian lands to save himself from bankruptcy.
In 1782 Rockingham formed his second ministry and Portland became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, arriving in Dublin on 14 April 1782. Rockingham died on 1 July and Portland resigned his post but became the leader of the Rockinghamite Whigs through election. The Earl of Shelburne formed the ministry that succeeded Rockingham. On 24 February 1783 Shelburne resigned following a series of defeats and the Fox-North coalition took office under the nominal premiership of Portland. George III was less than pleased with the coalition and awaited his opportunity to cause its failure. This came in December 1783 when the king dismissed the ministry over the India Bill. George III sent out messengers to collect the seals of office rather than sending for the PM, as was customary. The Duke remained in opposition until 1794.
Portland was appointed as Chancellor of Oxford University in September 1792 but refused the Order of the Garter because it was also offered to Pitt. Portland began to distance himself from the Foxite Whigs and was urged to join the government, led by Pitt the Younger. In 1794 Portland accepted the post of Home Secretary in Pitt the Younger's government. The same year, there were food riots throughout England because of grain shortages and Portland took part in the movement that refused to eat bread made of more than a determined fineness of wheat in order to save grain. In 1795 he arranged for substantial numbers of troops to be quartered on the outskirts of London in order to prevent civil unrest.
As Home Secretary, responsibility for Ireland fell within his remit: Portland appointed his friend Earl Fitzwilliam, who was the nephew of Rockingham, as Lord Lieutenant in 1795. One of the first things that Fitzwilliam did was to announce, as government policy, that Catholics would be given full equality of rights. Portland refused to acknowledge the policy and recalled the Earl in January 1795; one major result was the Irish Rising of 1798 because the Irish felt betrayed by Portland. In 1800 Portland authorised Lord Lieutenant Cornwallis to use whatever means were necessary to pass the Act of Union. The king's refusal to countenance Catholic Emancipation led to Pitt's resignation in March 1801.
Portland remained in office during Addington's ministry but moved to the post of Lord President of the Council so that Pelham could become Home Secretary although the loss of income caused serious problems for the Duke . Portland continued in office when Pitt again became PM in 1804 but retired to Bulstrode after Pitt's death in 1806. In March of the same year he underwent major abdominal surgery to have kidney stones removed - this was in an age without anaesthetics.
The Grenville-Fox coalition and then Lord Grenville's ministry lasted only until March 1807 when George III asked Portland to become PM. He accepted, insisting that he was still a Whig despite the fact that he was heading a Tory government. He called and won a general election but then left his ministers to do what they wanted. Portland did not speak in parliament during his second ministry, which started life under a cloud of military failure during the French Wars: Napoleon dominated most of western Europe and went on to conquer the Iberian peninsula. George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, accused his colleagues of incompetence in the prosecution of the war; it was obvious that Canning was referring to Castlereagh, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, whom Canning wanted to be removed. Although Portland did nothing, other Cabinet members took sides - for or against Castlereagh; the Cabinet virtually ceased to function. When Castlereagh discovered what had been going on, he demanded 'satisfaction' and the pair fought their celebrated duel on 21 September 1809. Both resigned soon afterwards. In August 1809 Portland had had an apoplectic seizure, resigned on 4 October, and died on the 30th of that month at the age of 71. He was succeeded by Spencer Perceval.
Turberville, A.S. A History of Welbeck Abbey and its Owners. 2 vols. London, 1934.
Last modified 15 February 2002