Biography

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John Russell, fourth Duke of Bedford (1710-1771)

This document was written by William Hunt; it was published in 1897


Bedford was born on 30 September 1710. He was second son of Wriothesley Russell, second duke (1680-1711), by his wife Elizabeth, daughter and heir of John Howland of Streatham, Surrey. After receiving education at home, Lord John Russell (as the fourth duke was known in youth) went, when nineteen, a tour on the continent in the charge of a tutor. As soon as he was of age, on 11 October 1731, he married Lady Diana Spencer, daughter of Charles, third earl of Sunderland, and sister of Charles, third duke of Marlborough. Arrangements were made for him to enter the House of Commons when, on 23 October 1732, he succeeded his elder brother Wriothesley, who died childless, as Duke of Bedford and in his other honours. He joined the opposition to Sir Robert Walpole headed by Carteret, was disliked by George II, and was held to be proud, violent, and over-assured. In opposition to the court he moved a resolution in 1734 against corrupt practices in the election of Scottish peers, and, being defeated, renewed his attempt in 1735, and signed three protests on the subject. He supported Carteret's motion of February 1737 that the Prince of Wales had a right to £100,000 a year from the civil list, signed the protest against the vote, and joined in the attack on Walpole made in February 1741. When Carteret was in power, Bedford acted with the party opposed to the minister's Hanoverian policy, and in February 1743 spoke strongly against taking sixteen thousand Hanoverian troops into British pay. In April 1744 he vigorously opposed the extension of the law of treason.

On Carteret's retirement he took office in Pelham's administration as first lord of the admiralty on 25 December, and was sworn a privy councillor. He was a lord justice of Great Britain in 1745, as also in 1748 and 1750. During the rebellion of 1745 he raised a regiment of foot for the king, was appointed colonel, commanded it in person, was prevented by a bad attack of gout from marching northward with it, and on his recovery joined it at Edinburgh after the battle of Culloden. In that year he was appointed lord-lieutenant of Bedfordshire, and was made an elder brother and the master of the Trinity House. He was active and successful at the admiralty office, causing ships to be fitted out for service, and making reforms in the dockyards and in the promotion of officers. The capture of Louisbourg, the dismissal of Admiral Vernon, and Anson's victory of 3 May 1747 were the chief events of his administration, during the greater part of which the executive was wholly under the control of Anson. He was appointed warden of the New Forest in 1746.

On Lord Chesterfield's resignation of the seals in February 1748, Bedford became secretary for the southern department on the 12th, after the king had refused to appoint his friend, Lord Sandwich. In 1749 he was made a knight of the Garter, and in 1751 lord-lieutenant of Devonshire. Newcastle was jealous of him, and Pelham complained of his idleness, saying that with him it was ‘all jollity, boyishness, and vanity,’ and that he was almost always at his seat at Woburn, Bedfordshire. He seems to have cared more for sport, and specially for cricket, than for politics. The ministry was at once divided into the Newcastle and Bedford factions, and Bedford connected himself with the Duke of Cumberland, who had broken entirely with the Pelhams. In spite of this connection he honourably maintained the claim of the Princess of Wales to the regency, should the next king be under age at his accession. After much bickering with Newcastle he resigned the seals on 13 June 1751. The king offered him the post of president of the council, which he declined on the ground that it was impossible for him to work with the Pelhams.

After his resignation Bedford, though not personally inclined to enter on active opposition, was led by his friends to attack the government in January 1752; he resisted the scheme for a new subsidiary treaty with Saxony, and in March spoke against the bill for purchasing and colonising the Scottish forfeited estates. In conjunction with Beckford he started an anti-ministerial paper called The Protestor edited by James Ralph, which first appeared in June 1753, and seems to have come to an end in the following November. A reconciliation with the court was urged upon him by his duchess, his second wife, and in 1754 he received some overtures from Newcastle, then prime minister, which he peremptorily rejected. At that time he was in alliance with Henry Fox, who, on becoming secretary of state in the autumn of 1755, persuaded him against his own judgment to support the Russian and Hessian subsidiary treaties, and vainly tried to prevail on him to accept the privy seal. Nevertheless he accepted offices for his party, for Sandwich, Gower, Richard Rigby, his secretary and intimate friend, and others. On Newcastle's resignation soon after, Bedford tried to effect a conjunction between Fox and Pitt, and, failing in this, accepted, at the instigation of his relatives and Fox, the office of lord-lieutenant of Ireland in the administration of the Duke of Devonshire.

He entered warmly into the abortive scheme for a new government under Lord Waldegrave with Fox as chancellor of the exchequer, but did not resign when Newcastle and Pitt returned to office. During the riots caused by the militia bill in June his house at Woburn was threatened, and the blues were sent down to defend it. He acted with much spirit in preventing riots in other parts of Bedfordshire.

Bedford went to Ireland in September and opened parliament on 11 October. Entering on his government with excellent intentions, he declared that he would observe strict neutrality between the rival factions, and would discourage pensions and compel absentee officials to return to their duties. Owing, however, to the influence of Rigby and others, he did not fully act up to his resolves; he obtained a pension on the Irish establishment for his sister-in-law, Lady Elizabeth Waldegrave, and yielded to other and larger demands of a like kind. Moreover he favoured the faction of Lord Kildare, and the primate Stone, the head of a rival party, worked against the castle. Bedford refused to transmit to England without an expression of his dissent some strong resolutions of the Irish House of Commons on absentees and other grievances, and a quarrel with the parliament ensued. Pitt, then secretary of state, approved his conduct, and recommended him to conciliate and unite the Kildare and Ponsonby factions, which he declared himself willing to attempt. His duchess delighted the Irish by her gracious conduct and the splendour of the castle festivities in which Bedford's cordial manners gained him popularity. He provided a fund for the relief of the poor who were suffering from the failure of the potato crop, showed himself strongly in favour of a relaxation of the penal laws against Roman Catholics, and he conciliated the primate. Considering the difficulty of his situation, his government was, on the whole, by no means discreditable. He returned to England in May 1758, and, according to custom, spent the second year of his viceroyalty there. In the autumn Newcastle, who was becoming jealous of Pitt, made some overtures towards a connection with him; they were supported by Fox and Bedford's following, and were in the end successful. He went back to Ireland early in October 1759. A rumour that a legislative union was contemplated led to serious riots in Dublin, and Bedford and the council were forced to call out a troop of horse to quell them. In February 1760 a French expedition, under Thurot, surprised Carrickfergus. The invaders soon found it expedient to sail away, and their frigates were captured by the English frigates that Bedford sent to pursue them. Pitt is said to have reproached Bedford for neglecting warnings of a possible invasion, but in a letter to him of 13 April he speaks of him and his administration in complimentary terms. Bedford left Ireland in May, and resigned his viceroyalty in March 1761.

At the coronation of George III on 22 September he officiated as lord high constable. Early in the reign he attached himself to Bute, and was urgent for the conclusion of the war. From time to time he was summoned to the council by the peace party as the only man who dared to speak firmly in opposition to Pitt and Temple. When at a council in August Pitt adopted a dictatorial tone, he retired, declaring that he would attend no more ‘if the rest were not to be permitted to alter an iota’. Pitt having resigned office, Bedford accepted the privy seal on 25 November. Equally with Bute he was responsible for deceiving Frederick II of Prussia by keeping secret from him the first preliminaries for peace. On 5 February 1762 he made a motion against the continuance of the war in Germany. Bute thought it expedient to oppose the motion, which was defeated, and Bedford signed a protest against the vote. Bute having become prime minister, Bedford was appointed ambassador to treat for peace with France. He set out on his embassy in September, and was hissed as he passed through the streets of London. It is said that the chief magistrate of Calais, believing that he was a descendant of John, duke of Bedford (1389-1435), brother of Henry V, complimented him on his coming with far different intentions than those of his great ancestor. He conducted his negotiations with the Duc de Choiseul and M. de Grimaldi, the Spanish ambassador at Paris. Immediately on his arrival his powers were limited by an order that the preliminaries were to be sent home for approbation before being signed. The reason of this order was that Lord Egremont had entered into a discussion with the Duc de Nivernois, the French ambassador in London, on the ‘projet’ of the treaty. Bedford was deeply annoyed, and sent Bute a strong remonstrance. When the news of the taking of the Havannah arrived, a supplementary ‘projet’ was sent him, and this settled the difficulty between the duke and the ministers. Nevertheless Bedford had further cause of complaint that the ministers meddled in the negotiations by indirect communications with Nivernois. The preliminaries were signed by the duke on 3 November. In these he departed from his instructions by admitting the French to a share in the fisheries in North America. He signed the definitive treaty at Paris on 10 February 1763. During his residence in Paris he suffered much from gout.

In April, while still residing there, he received a letter from Bute announcing his resignation and urging him to return to England and accept the office of president of the council. He had an interview with Bute, complained of the many marks of ill-will received during his embassy, which had endangered its success, recommended the admission into the government of certain great whig lords, refused to take office, and returned to Paris, which he did not leave finally until June. His displeasure with Bute and Egremont was strengthened by his duchess, who had been offended by Bute and the Princess of Wales. On the death of Egremont in August he was again pressed to accede to the ministry. He advised the king to send for Pitt, and made overtures to him on his own account, being prepared to accept office under Pitt, and on an undertaking from the king that Bute should be excluded. These overtures failed, and he afterwards accused his envoy, John Calcraft (1726-1772), of having deceived him. The negotiations between the king and Pitt also failed. Sandwich and others of his party represented to Bedford that, in the course of them, Pitt had ‘proscribed’ him; the duke, in a fit of resentment, accepted the presidency of the council in an administration formed by him, and thence called ‘the Bedford ministry,’ though George Grenville remained first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer. He took office on 9 September on the condition that Bute should retire from the king's councils.

In the debate on the address in November, Bedford spoke in defence of the peace, which was censured by Temple, and on 6 December made a violent attack on the lord mayor and other magistrates of the city with reference to the Wilkes riot of three days before. In the summer of 1764 he had a short quarrel with Grenville, and retired to Woburn. With the object of doing mischief to the ministry, Horace Walpole published a statement that the abolition of vails to servants had been set on foot by Bedford and opposed or not complied with by the house of Cavendish. In the debate on the Regency Bill in April 1765 Bedford maintained in opposition to the lord chancellor that the term ‘royal family’ did not include the princess dowager of Wales, and finally the princess was excluded from the regency; his action in this matter proceeded from jealousy of Bute, whom he and his colleagues suspected of having secret influence over the king. In May he opposed a bill for imposing high duties on Italian silks with the object of shutting foreign silks out of England altogether, and was considered to have spoken with ‘uncommon harshness’ of the Spitalfields weavers. On the 15th the duke was hissed and pelted with stones, one of which wounded him, as he drove from the House of Lords, by a mob of weavers. He showed much firmness and self-command, and on reaching his house admitted two of the ringleaders to an interview. On Friday, the 17th, he received intelligence that an attack would be made on his residence, Bedford House, on the north side of Bloomsbury Square. A troop of horse was sent to defend it, and a large party of his friends also garrisoned the house. A determined attack was made upon it in the evening, two or three soldiers were wounded, and the rioters were not finally dispersed until the arrival of a reinforcement. Both the duke and duchess declared that the mob had been set on by Bute.

The king was determined to get rid of his ministers, and specially of Bedford, whose action on the Regency Bill had offended him. When Bedford and his fellow-ministers heard that George III was in communication with Pitt on the subject of a new ministry, they told him that unless one was formed at once they would resign. Bedford, believing that the king still acted by Bute's advice, flatly accused him of a breach of his word. The Duke of Cumberland's negotiations with Pitt having failed, the king was forced to keep his ministers, and on the 23rd Bedford and the rest compelled him to assent to various hard and insulting demands as conditions of their retaining office. On 12 June Bedford, in an audience, made a long address to the king from notes previously prepared, in the course of which he presumed to ask whether the king had kept his word as to Bute, and treated him, probably without designing to do so, with insult. The king dismissed his ministers, and Bedford went out of office on 12 July. He paid a short visit to France, and on his return went to Bath, where on 5 November he wrote a notice to Woodfall, the publisher of the Morning Advertizer, complaining of insults to himself in the paper, and threatening prosecution. On the 11th he was informed of his election as chancellor of the university of Dublin. He was installed in person on 9 September 1768, an ode in his honour being sung to music composed by Lord Mornington.

The Rockingham ministry having taken office, Bedford on 17 December seconded Lord Suffolk's amendment to the lords' address calling on the government to enforce the obedience of the American colonies, and in the early part of 1766 opposed the policy of the ministers with regard to the colonies, and signed the protest against the repeal of the Stamp Act. During the course of these transactions he and Grenville had an interview with Bute, arranged by the Duke of York, in which the two late ministers appear to have sought for an exercise of the influence that they believed Bute had over the king, to suggest to him that they were ready to take office again to help him against the Rockingham party. The negotiation failed, and Bute seems to have made his two former enemies feel the humiliation of their position. When Pitt was forming an administration in July, the duke intimated through his son, Lord Tavistock, that he would be willing to support him without taking office, if he would find places for some of his party. Pitt, however, at the time slighted this overture. Nevertheless, while both Chatham (Pitt) and the duke were at Bath in the autumn, some communications passed between them. In November Chatham opened formal negotiations with Bedford with a view to obtaining the support of his party. Bedford's demands for offices and honours for his friends were high. The king, who was still deeply displeased with him, pronounced them extravagant, and put an end to the treaty, and Bedford went off to Woburn full of wrath. On 22 March 1767 he lost his only son, Tavistock, who died from the effects of a fall while hunting. His grief was for a time so violent that his life was believed to be in danger, but public business, to which he returned very soon, helped him to recover himself, and his enemies unjustly reproached him with callousness. Chatham having ceased to give help to the ministry, the Duke of Grafton, with the hope of strengthening it, opened negotiations in July with the Bedford and Rockingham parties. Bedford was willing that Rockingham should form an administration on a comprehensive basis, but they failed to agree with reference to the American colonies, and Bedford refused to assent to the demand of the marquis that Conway should be secretary of state and leader of the House of Commons. Accordingly the negotiations fell through. In December Grafton again negotiated with him, and this time successfully. Bedford brought his political connection with Grenville to an end. He refused to accept office for himself; his eyesight was bad. But he accepted Grafton's offers for his friends, who were styled ‘the Bloomsbury gang;’ some of them received office, and the party gave its adhesion to the ministry. It was this arrangement that drew from ‘Junius’ his ‘Letter to the Duke of Bedford,’ perhaps the most malignant of the whole series of his letters.

On the 20th Bedford underwent an operation for cataract, attended apparently with only partial success. From that time he took comparatively little part in public affairs. His health was not strong, but he did not allow it to seclude him either from business or amusement; he attended the House of Lords, the council, and the court, went to the opera, of which he was fond, and to public and private entertainments, and was active, as he had always been, in the management of his estates. While visiting Devonshire, where he was lord-lieutenant and had large estates, in July 1769, he was set upon by a Wilkite mob at Honiton, and pelted with stones, having a narrow escape from serious injury. In the spring of 1770 he had a severe illness, and appears to have become partially paralysed, but retained his mental faculties; he visited Bath later in the year, and returned thence to Woburn in December in a very enfeebled state. He died on 15 Jan. 1771, and was buried at Chenies.

In private life Bedford was affectionate and warm-hearted, fond of sport, and the ordinary avocations of a landed proprietor. The accusations of parsimony brought against him appear to have been unfair; though prudent in business and not given to extravagance, he was not deficient in liberality, nor even in magnificence when occasion demanded, as during his residence in Ireland. Hot-tempered, proud, and with an inordinately high opinion of himself, he sometimes spoke without regard for the feelings of others. He was thoroughly honest, high-spirited, and courageous. His intellect was good, and he had plenty of common-sense. His speeches, so far as they are extant, though seldom eloquent and often wrongheaded, show knowledge and apprehension of the subjects under debate. But he owed his influence in politics rather to his rank and vast wealth than to any personal qualities. In several of the political negotiations into which he entered he appears as offering his support at the price of places and honours. This was characteristic of the time and of the great whig families, among whom politics were matters of party and connection rather than of principle. His demands were on behalf of his party, who urged their claims upon him. Obstinate and ungovernable as his temper was, he was constantly governed by others, by his wife, his friends, and his followers, and, unfortunately for his reputation, he chose his friends badly, and was surrounded by a group of greedy and unscrupulous political adherents.

By his first wife, Lady Diana Spencer, who died on 27 September 1735, he had one son, who died on the day of his birth. He married his second wife, Gertrude Leveson-Gower, eldest daughter of John, earl Gower, in April 1737; she died on 1 July 1794. By her the duke had two sons and a daughter. The younger son died in infancy, and the daughter, Caroline, born on 6 January 1743, married, on 23 August 1762, George Spencer, duke of Marlborough. The elder son, Francis, styled Marquis of Tavistock, born 26 September 1739, married, in 1764, Elizabeth, youngest daughter of William Keppel, second earl of Albemarle, and died 22 March 1767, leaving issue, of whom the eldest son, Francis, succeeded his grandfather as fifth Duke of Bedford.


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