Charles Grey 2d Earl Grey

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Grey, Charles, 2nd Earl Grey (1764–1845). Prime minister. Son of General Sir Charles Grey of Fallodon, Northumberland, Grey entered Parliament in 1786 as a member for Northumberland through the efforts of his uncle Sir Henry Grey of Howick. Grey inherited Howick in 1808 and made it his beloved home from which he could rarely be tempted to attend to his duties as leader of the Whig Party after Fox's death.

A headstrong young man, Grey was attracted to Fox and his circle of drinking and gambling cronies and joined the opposition to Pitt almost immediately on entering the Commons. He had a notorious affair with Georgiana, duchess of Devonshire, by whom he had a daughter in 1792. In 1794 he married Mary Ponsonby, by whom he had fifteen children.

Grey distinguished himself from the outset as a brilliant orator in the House of Commons, and quickly formed the ambition to be the next leader of the Whig Party after Fox, but in 1792 he committed himself to parliamentary reform, helping to found the Association of the Friends of the People. He hoped to use the reform movement to advance his career but the step split the Whigs, aristocratic grandees like the duke of Portland and Earl Fitzwilliam being frightened by the prospect of the spread of the French Revolution. They joined Pitt in 1794, while Fox and Grey led the rump of the party in opposition. In 1798 they seceded from the Commons in protest against Pitt's repressive measures.

After the peace of Amiens and the subsequent resumption of war against Napoleon the Whigs formed a coalition with the group led by Lord Grenville, but their conservatism meant that Grey had to give up active support of reform. In the ‘Ministry of all the Talents’ (1806–7) Grey served as 1st lord of the Admiralty and after Fox's death succeeded him as foreign secretary. He abandoned Fox's attempt to make peace with France, believing that the war was now a defensive one against Napoleonic aggression, but he was heavily criticized by some of Fox's followers as well as by the London radicals, who accused him of abandoning the cause of reform. After the fall of the ‘Talents’, Grey tried to steer a middle course between radicalism and conservatism but with little practical success.

In 1807 Grey inherited the peerage which, to his dismay, Addington had conferred on his father in 1802. For the remainder of his life he sat in the House of Lords, where his oratorical gifts were less effective. Though he never quite abandoned the position of leader of the Whig opposition, the party suffered from a lack of positive direction. He consistently advocated catholic emancipation and gave important assistance to Wellington in achieving it in 1829. He was widely expected to join Wellington's cabinet as foreign secretary, but George IV refused to allow an offer to be made. His dislike of Grey dated back to the time when Grey had refused to help him, when prince of Wales, in the affair of his illegal marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert, and Grey had also supported Queen Caroline against the king's attempt to divorce her in 1820.

In 1830 George IV's death removed the royal veto on Grey and at the same time the demand for parliamentary reform revived in the country. Wellington's refusal to consider it broke up his administration and William IV sent for Grey, at the age of 66, to form the ministry which was to pass the Great Reform Act.

The Reform Act was Grey's major achievement. He proposed it on the same principles which he had professed in 1792, the need to settle the disturbed state of the country by satisfying the demand of the respectable classes for greater representation. while denying power to the mass of the people. He saw the Act as a means of preserving the essential elements of the existing constitution by removing abuses but perpetuating aristocratic leadership. He was able to persuade William IV to maintain a reluctant support for the measure and, finally, to promise to create enough new peers, if necessary, to force the bill through the House of Lords. The Reform Act bears the stamp of Grey's character—pragmatic, moderate, and fundamentally conservative—and its ultimate passage owes much to his ability to manage the king and his divided colleagues. His cabinet was a coalition of interests rather than a united party, and in 1834 when its divisions over the Irish church question became public Grey resigned, with relief at ending his burdensome duties. He spent the rest of his life in retirement at Howick.

Grey's early ambition was overt and headstrong, and gained him few friends, though Fox admired his talents. Later in life he became more circumspect, but his lack of personal warmth hindered his effectiveness as a party leader. His genuine belief in the necessity of political reform was tempered by his conservative instincts and aristocratic outlook. He was not a charismatic leader like Fox and he was never idolized by his followers or the public, but his achievement in piloting the Reform Bill through Parliament helped to preserve the traditional institutions of the country and to set the pattern for future peaceful development.

E. A. Smith


Derry, J. W. , Charles Grey, Aristocratic Reformer (Oxford, 1992);
Smith, E. A. , Lord Grey, 1764–1845 (Oxford, 1990).

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Charles Grey Grey, 2d Earl, 1764–1845, British statesman. Elected to Parliament in 1786, he was one of those appointed to manage the impeachment of Warren Hastings. From 1792 he was a leader of the movement for parliamentary reform and opposed the repressive policies of Sir William Pitt. He succeeded (1806) Charles James Fox as foreign secretary in the "ministry of all talents" and Whig leader of the House of Commons, putting through the measure to abolish the African slave trade (1807). As prime minister (1830–34) he secured the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 (see under Reform Acts) by threatening to force William IV to create enough Whig peers to carry it in the House of Lords.

See biography by G. M. Trevelyan (1929, repr. 1971).

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