The Age of George III

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The ministry of Augustus Henry Fitzroy, third Duke of Grafton October 1768 - January 1770

Grafton became PM in his own right after Chatham's resignation, having acted as caretaker Prime Minister and First Lord of the Treasury in Chatham's ministry (1766-68). Grafton's appointment made little difference to government because he was a political light-weight who took office from a sense of loyalty and duty. He had a number of problems to deal with and from November 1768 the 'Junius' letters in the Public Advertiser made Grafton and his administration the butt of fierce political satire. 'Junius' sided with Wilkes and attacked government inefficiency and its apparent disregard for law. 'Junius' held up George III and Grafton for popular hatred. Other problems were perhaps more serious:

  • The ministry was attacked by Chatham who recovered in summer 1769
  • Grafton had to deal with Petitioning Movement and was unable to decide what to do with petitions that had been signed by about a quarter of the electorate
  • Ireland was causing problems. Henry Grattan and Patriot Party were increasing in power and in 1768 Grafton was obliged to pass the Octennial Act
  • There were problems in passing the 'Money Bill' (the budget). For a ministry, this was a sign of weakness
  • There was a threat of war with France and Spain over the Falkland islands
  • Grafton had just divorced his wife
  • There were more problems with America, including riots and a non-importation agreement
  • There was the likelihood of Hillsborough (Secretary for American Affairs) leaving government and going into opposition.
  • Grafton found it all too much and resigned on 21st January 1770, just two weeks into new session of parliament.

    This article was published in A Biographical Dictionary of British Prime Ministers, ed. Robert Eccleshall (1998).

    Augustus Henry Fitzroy, third Duke of Grafton

    Born 9 October 1735; educated at Hackney School and Peterhouse. Married 1756 to Anne Liddell, daughter of Lord Ravensworth; they separated in 1764 and were divorced in 1769 whereupon he married Elizabeth Wrottesley. MP for Bury St Edmunds in 1756; Lord of the Bedchamber to Prince George 1756-7; Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk 1757-63. Succeeded to dukedom in 1757 on the death of his grandfather. Secretary of State for the Northern Department 1765-6. First Lord of the Treasury in Chatham's ministry in 1766; de facto PM 1767--8 and PM in his own right 1768--70. KG 1769. Lord Privy Seal 1771-5 and 1782. Died 1811.

    Grafton's political career centred around his admiration of the elder Pitt which coloured many of the duke's actions. Grafton appeared to be indecisive and he allowed others to assume responsibilities which should have been his own. He had little interest in aspiring to political supremacy; he presided over deteriorating relations with America. His involvement in the 1768 Middlesex election fiasco resulted in demands for his resignation. He was the butt of the Junius Letters and was a political lightweight.

    Grafton was descended from Charles II and Barbara Villiers and seems to have inherited Charles II's looks - Grafton was known as 'Black Harry' - and his enthusiasm for horses and women. Grafton's first noticeable entry into politics came in 1762 when the Duke of Newcastle's 'young friends' met at Grafton's London home to organize a formal opposition against Bute's peace preliminaries to end the Seven Years' War. Consequently Grafton became a victim of the 'massacre of the Pelhamite innocents', being deprived of his Lord Lieutenancy of Suffolk.

    By 1764 Grafton's political career was overshadowed by his private life. He had left his wife to live with Anne Parsons, alias Mrs. Houghton. The keeping of a mistress was not particularly scandalous but Grafton outraged his contemporaries by taking her openly into high society. He also felt publicly shamed by his wife's elopement with the Earl of Upper Ossory, whom she married in 1769. Early in 1769 Grafton's divorce was granted; at the end of the year he married Elizabeth Wrottesley. It is perhaps somewhat unfortunate that personal difficulties distracted the duke from his public duties.

    After lengthy discussions with Pitt, Grafton accepted office as Secretary of State for the Northern Department under Rockingham in 1765 on what Grafton thought was an understanding that negotiations would take place for Pitt to enter the ministry. When this did not materialize, mainly because Rockingham saw no need to include Pitt, Grafton resigned and played no part in the remainder of Rockingham's government. He subsequently accepted the post of First Lord of the Treasury in Pitt's — now the Earl of Chatham's — ministry.

    Chatham, who had lost his reputation as the 'Great Commoner' on accepting his peerage, proved to be a dictatorial and secretive master and Grafton became an almost silent minister, soon giving up all pretence of knowing what Chatham's policies might be. Chatham then withdrew from parliament on the grounds of ill-health, leaving Grafton as de facto PM, an office for which he was ill-prepared and inexperienced. In May 1767 Grafton was unable to prevent Townshend from proposing the American Duties Bill in the Commons. Townshend died shortly after this legislation had been passed and Grafton was bequeathed a legacy of colonial discontent. Following only a three-vote victory on American affairs in the Lords Grafton threatened to resign since he felt unable to continue with such a small majority. However, Chatham graciously granted Grafton an interview for the first time in weeks and persuaded the duke to stay in office.

    The Townshend Duties led to riots and violence in America and in 1768 to a second non-importation agreement which again adversely affected the British economy. By this time the colonists also were questioning their relationship with Britain, but Grafton's ministry did not take any decision which might have alleviated the situation. He must, therefore, shoulder some of the responsibility for the eventual loss of the American colonies.

    In 1767 the king hoped to broaden parliamentary support for Chatham's increasingly unstable government and commissioned Grafton to negotiate with Rockingham, Bedford and Grenville for them to join the ministry. The duke did not clarify the exact nature of the negotiations and the proposed reorganization disintegrated over the differing views on America held by these peers, with the exception that the Bedfords accepted some offices. The ministry continued under the nominal leadership of Chatham although Grafton was the mainstay of the government.

    He then had to deal with the French annexation of Corsica. From Britain's viewpoint any extension of Bourbon power in the Mediterranean was dangerous but nothing was done by Secretary of State Weymouth to prevent the transfer of Corsican sovereignty from Genoa to France in 1768 although the despatch of a naval squadron would have deterred the French. Ironically, through government inactivity the most famous Corsican was, by a whisker, a French citizen: Napoleon was born on 15 August 1769.

    In 1768 a general election was required by law. This marked the reappearance of John Wilkes and the beginning of the Middlesex election crisis. The whole affair was mishandled and Wilkes's election was declared void four times. Ultimately Luttrell was proclaimed victorious despite receiving 847 fewer votes than Wilkes. This allowed Wilkes to become the hero of the reformers under the slogan 'Wilkes and Liberty'. At this point Chatham recovered sufficiently to appear in parliament and denounce the activities of his own ministers; he then resigned and Grafton became PM in his own right, primarily from a sense of duty to the king.

    The duke had to deal with a number of difficulties in his two-year ministry. His decision on the Middlesex election led to the 1769 Petitioning Movement, so-called because it produced petitions for the dissolution of parliament which were signed by a quarter of the electorate in the hope that the government would resign. Grafton chose to disregard the petitions as irrelevant to the conduct of government. The Wilkes affair also led to Horne-Tooke's establishment of the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights whose main object was to support Wilkes financially but also proved to be an important development in the methods used by subsequent extra-parliamentary pressure groups. The SSBR campaigned for the extension of the franchise and shorter parliaments by paying travelling speakers, holding public meetings and using the press to publicize its demands.

    In an attempt to pacify Ireland which was experiencing economic and political difficulties, the Lord Lieutenant was ordered hereafter to reside in Dublin which was a positive step, and Grafton also passed the Octennial Act: until then there had been general elections in Ireland only on the death of the monarch. Now the Irish had more control over their parliament and Grattan's Patriot Party began to break free from the control of the 'Undertakers', setting the stage for future conflict. The Act was Grafton's reciprocation for Ireland's increased military contribution in raising troops to deal with the escalating tensions in America.

    1768 saw poor harvests with consequent food shortages and inflated prices. High unemployment and a severe winter provoked riots among the Spitalfields silk weavers and east end coal-heavers. Merchant seamen in Hull, Tyneside and London went on strike for increased wages which consequently reduced the essential trade of the country. These problems only added to Grafton's burdens.

    From November 1768 the Junius letters in the Public Advertiser made Grafton the target of fierce political satire and held up the PM for popular hatred. To add insult to injury Chatham suddenly recovered from his current illness, returned to parliament and attacked the new ministry, formed mainly because of his own resignation. Grafton had difficulty in passing a money bill through parliament and then faced the threatened resignation of Hillsborough, Secretary for American Affairs, who was determined to join the Rockinghamites.

    The ministry continued until the beginning of the new session in January 1770 when further troubles afflicted Grafton. Chatham opposed the government's address to the Crown; lord chancellor Camden attacked his own colleagues and was dismissed; Granby resigned in protest and Yorke committed suicide. This all proved to be too much for the duke who retired from high politics although he did accept the office of Lord Privy Seal under both North and Rockingham.

    Grafton's later years were spent in opposing domestic repression during the French wars, seeking peace with France and in pursuing religious enlightenment which ultimately took him into the ranks of the Unitarians. He died at the age of seventy-six in relative obscurity.


    Anson, Sir W. R. (1898) Autobiography and Political Correspondence of Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Third Duke of Grafton, London, John Murray. This appears to be the only full-scale work on Grafton. As an edited autobiography it is perhaps not surprising that it is almost totally complimentary.

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    Last modified 12 January, 2016

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