Earl GreyCharles Grey, who served as Prime Minister from 22 November 1830 to 9 July 1834, held several titles during his life: he was the second Earl, but also was called Baron Grey between 1801 and 1806, and between 1806-07 was Viscount Howick. He was born on 13 March 1764 at Falloden in Northumberland, the second son (and second of nine children) born to Sir Charles, first Earl Grey, and his wife Elizabeth.

Grey had a typical aristocratic education: he attended Eton between 1773 and 178; he entered Trinity College Cambridge in 1781 but left in 1784 without taking a Degree. He spent most of the next three years travelling around Europe on his Grand Tour. When he was 22 he was elected as one of the Members of Parliament for Northumberland and soon gravitated towards the circle of Charles James Fox, the politician-playwright Richard Sheridan, and the Prince of Wales. His maiden speech, delivered on 27 February 1787, attacked the Vergennes Treaty with France. Shortly afterwards he was appointed to the Committee that oversaw the impeachment of Warren Hastings. Grey soon became prominent among the aristocratic Whig group that provided the political opposition to the government of William Pitt.

At the end of 1788 the Whigs were hopeful of achieving office when King George III became incapacitated, and it looked as though there would be a regency by the Prince of Wales. However, 'Prinny' had his hopes dashed when his father recovered; the Whigs in opposition not only lost hope of holding office but were divided internally. The main cause of the rift was the quarrel between Charles James Fox and Edmund Burke which led to a permanent split in 1791. Grey sided with the Foxites and became committed to a reform of parliament. He presented his first motion calling for this in May 1793: it was defeated, but Grey seems to have felt that he had to maintain his reforming stance henceforward.

In 1789 the French Revolution revived popular political agitation, and Grey was one of the young Whig aristocrats who formed the Society of the Friends of the People in 1792 to encourage demands for parliamentary reform. These activities were considered radical at the time but since they were followed by the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793, they split the Whig Party. Fox carried his pro-French sympathies to the extreme and turned his following into an impotent and discredited minority. On one occasion the entire opposition to Pitt's government went home in the same cab.

In 1794 Grey married Mary Elizabeth Ponsonby, a member of the Irish branch of the family. The Ponsonbys were Whigs to the core. Grey and his wife had six daughters and ten sons; he also had an illegitimate daughter by Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. In 1801 his bachelor uncle Sir Henry allowed Grey to use Howick Hall as his permanent residence. Grey's links with the Ponsonbys strengthened his sympathies with the cause of Catholic Emancipation; however, it weakened his zeal for politics.

Howick Hall near Alnwick, Northumberland. This was the home of Earl Grey for most of his life.

In 1797 Grey introduced a parliamentary Reform Bill which was defeated heavily. It became clear to the Foxite Whigs that they would not be able to make any progress towards reform during the French Wars so they virtually withdrew from parliamentary life for a number of years. Grey did not speak in parliament for two years, but when he did, it was to oppose the Act of Union with Ireland. He wanted to see a much more liberal policy towards Ireland and demanded that the discrimination against Catholics should be ended. Despite his efforts, the Act of Union was passed in 1800, to be implemented on 1 January 1801. By that time, Grey was attending parliament very rarely and spent his time in Northumberland. It took four days to travel from Howick to London, and Grey was reluctant to go south for the parliamentary sessions. Also, Grey had become much less politically extreme. His criticism of the government for resuming the war with France in 1803 was much milder than that of Fox.

When Lord Grenville formed the 'Ministry of All the Talents' in 1806, Grey became First Lord of the Admiralty. When Fox died the same year, Grey took his place as Foreign Secretary and leader of the Foxite Whigs. By this time, Grey's father had been created an Earl and Grey assumed the courtesy title of Lord Howick. However, technically he was still a commoner so he retained his seat in the Commons. In 1807 Grey was responsible for steering the Bill for the Abolition of the Slave Trade through the House of Commons; he also introduced a Bill that would have allowed Catholics to reach the highest ranks in the army and navy but the king insisted that it should be withdrawn. He then insisted that the government should promise not to introduce any further measures to help Catholics. The Whigs refused, causing the dismissal of the ministry. This left Grey with a distaste for office and he remained out of office for the next twenty-four years. His political "disinterestedness" was increased by the loss of his seat for Northumberland: the Duke of Northumberland had put up his son as an alternative candidate and since many of the people in the county depended on the Percys for their lands and livelihoods, Grey decided to withdraw. He stood for Appleby instead, then moved to become MP for Tavistock. In November 1807 his father died and Grey was elevated, reluctantly, to the House of Lords. The following year, Grey's uncle died, leaving all his property to Grey.

Alnwick Castle, home of the Dukes of Northumberland

On the resignation of the Duke of Portland in October 1809, Spencer Perceval became PM and offered positions in the Cabinet to Grey and Lord Grenville. Grey refused office because he thought that too few positions were offered to Whigs and also believed that it would be impolitic to pursue a policy of Catholic Emancipation given the King's absolute opposition to it. In 1811, the Prince of Wales became regent and initiated a series of political negotiations to replace the government. When Perceval was assassinated in May 1812, the Whigs had the chance of office but Grey and Grenville refused to accept anything less than complete power. Furthermore, Grey would not serve with George Canning, whom he never forgave for accepting the post of Foreign Secretary in Portland's ministry. Portland had promised the King that he would not bring in any pro-Catholic measures; Canning purported to be pro-Catholic but took office nevertheless.

Because the Whigs refused power, Lord Liverpool — a Tory — was appointed as Prime Minister in June 1812. The French Wars were concluded in 1815 but then Britain was struck by economic depression and manifestations of discontent and distress. Liverpool's government suspended Habeas Corpus in 1817; Grey spoke against the measure but Lord Grenville supported it. This disagreement brought the final split between the men, who abandoned further attempts at co-operation. When George IV demanded that Lord Liverpool should introduce a Bill of Pains and Penalties to secure the king's divorce from Queen Caroline in 1820, it was Grey who opposed the legislation vehemently. The Bill was dropped, but Grey had earned the undying enmity of the king and destroyed any hope of Grey holding office while George IV was alive. Between 1815 and 1830 Grey was patron, rather than leader, of the Whig opposition. He maintained that Catholic Emancipation was a condition of any Whig government but accepted the fact that parliamentary reform must wait until there was solid support for it in the country. His conclusion was that the task of a Whig ministry would be to produce a measure of reform large enough to satisfy respectable opinion and yet conservative enough to preserve the basic principles of the aristocratic constitution.

In 1830 George IV died, being succeeded by William IV who had no prejudice against Grey. Catholic Emancipation had been granted in 1829 but had destroyed the last cohesion of the Tory party and the collapse of Wellington's ministry brought Grey into office with popular backing to introduce parliamentary reform. The extent of the changes proposed in the Bill of 1831 staggered even his own supporters and it needed a general election and the coercion of the House of Lords before the Bill ultimately passed into law. Grey had misjudged the temper of both Houses of Parliament and came into conflict with William IV when he had to ask for enough new peers to be created to carry the Bill. Had Grey realised that it would take so much effort to bring in parliamentary reform, it is unlikely that he would have initiated the process, although he did feel obliged to do 'something' for the sake of maintaining his political consistency. A wave of popular enthusiasm sustained him during the long battle for reform and returned a vast Whig majority to the House of Commons in 1833. The Reform Act of 1832 was a major achievement for the Whig Party. However, the legislation that the Whigs saw as a conservative measure was regarded by many of his new supporters as a springboard for further extensive changes in church and state.

The start of Grey's ministry was marked by an outbreak of rural disturbances known as the 'Swing Riots' where agricultural labourers protested about their growing poverty by firing hay-ricks, maiming livestock and threatening the landowners. Though the local gentry were often sympathetic, the government's Special Commissions were savage: there were 1,976 trials in total. Of the men tried, sentencing was as follows:

Sentenced to death 252 (233 commuted to life transportation)
Executed 19
Transported 505
Imprisoned 644
Fined 7
Whipped 1
Acquitted/bound over 800

The other major pieces of work undertaken by Grey's government were introduced in 1833. They were:

Grey's ministry was also responsible for the implementation of Parliamentary Select Committees to investigate issues before the framing of legislation, a practise that has continued to the present day.

In May 1834, during a debate on the Irish Tithes Bill, Lord John Russell announced that the endowments of the Church of Ireland should be diverted into 'good works' since the Anglican Church had more money than it needed to carry out its pastoral and spiritual work in Ireland; the Cabinet's divisions were revealed over this issue and consequently Edward Stanley, Sir James Graham, the Duke of Richmond and the Earl of Ripon resigned their posts.

So far as foreign policy was concerned Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, had to formulate a policy for handling the Belgian revolt against Dutch rule in 1830. In 1831 the London Conference of the major powers in Europe agreed to the independence of Belgium from Holland provided the former was totally neutral. In 1832 Britain, France and Russia agreed to and became co-guarantors of Greek independence. In France in July 1830, Charles X was removed by an almost bloodless coup because of his tendency towards absolutism. Britain saw this revolution as a 'Glorious Revolution' because the French bourgeoisie set up a constitutional monarchy under the Orléanist line of the French royal family. Louis Philippe was asked to become King of the French; since he was put there by revolution he had to meet the demands of the bourgeoisie. The new constitution was nicknamed a 'limited liability company'.

On 8 July 1834 Grey went to William IV to ask for permission to resign his post as PM following a disagreement with Lord Wellesley over policy towards Ireland . The following day he announced his decision to the House of Lords. The Tories failed to form an administration but nevertheless, Grey refused to return to office. He was succeeded as PM by Lord Melbourne; Grey took no further part in politics although he was invited to return to government as either PM or Foreign Secretary in 1835. He died on 17 July 1845 at Howick.

Recommended Reading

Derry, J.W. Charles, Earl Grey: Aristocratic Reformer. Oxford, 1992.

Smith, E. Lord Grey, 1764-1845. Oxford 1990.

Last modified 11 October 2002