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George William Frederick Villiers , fourth Earl of Clarendon and fourth Baron Hyde (1800-1870)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1899

ClarendonGeorge William Frederick Villiers was born in London on 12 January 1800. He was grandson of Thomas Villiers, first earl of Clarendon and eldest son of George Villiers, by his wife Theresa, only daughter of John Parker, first baron Boringdon, and sister of John Parker, second baron Boringdon and first earl of Morley. His younger brothers were Thomas Hyde Villiers, the second son; Charles Pelham Villiers their third son; and Henry Montagu Villiers their fifth son. While still little more than a boy he entered the diplomatic service, and in 1820 became attaché to the British embassy in St. Petersburg. In 1823 he was appointed a commissioner of customs, and from 1827 to 1829 was employed in Ireland arranging the details of the union of the English and the Irish excise boards. He became at this time intimate with Irish affairs, and was one of those frequently consulted in private by the lord lieutenant, the Marquis of Anglesey. In 1831 he was selected by Lord Althorp to go with John (afterwards Sir John) Bowring on a mission to France for the purpose (in which he was successful) of negotiating a commercial treaty. He was soon rewarded by being sent in August 1833 as envoy-extraordinary and minister-plenipotentiary to Madrid in succession to Henry Unwin Addington, a position exceptionally important and difficult because of the civil war then raging between the Christinos and the Carlists. He played his part with tact and impartiality, and to his efforts was largely due the conclusion in April 1834 of the treaty between England, Spain, France, and Portugal, called the quadruple alliance. The conduct of the French government was much suspected by the other allies, and Villiers's task of watching the course pursued by Louis-Philippe and of counselling the government of Spain was arduous. He succeeded in greatly mitigating the severity of the civil war, negotiated a treaty with the Spanish government with regard to the slave trade on 28 June 1835, and was so highly esteemed by the ministry at home that he received the formal approbation of Lord Palmerston on 19 April 1837, and on 19 October was made a G.C.B. by Lord Melbourne.

On the death on 22 December 1838 of his uncle John Charles, third earl of Clarendon, Villiers succeeded to the earldom. The governor-generalship of Canada was offered to him in March 1839, but he refused it, and he also surrendered his post at Madrid. Though he quitted Spain with much popular applause, the government even striking a gold medal in his honour, his Spanish policy was sharply attacked on 23 July 1839 by Lord Londonderry in the House of Lords. Greville records that the public already marked him out for the foreign office, and some even anticipated that he would become premier in the long run.

During the discussions that took place in the summer of 1839 as to the reconstitution of the whig ministry Clarendon's name was suggested for the board of trade, and Lord Melbourne actually offered him the mastership of the mint without any seat in the cabinet, but the offer was declined. Eventually in October, ‘not very willingly,’ he entered the ministry, succeeding Lord Duncannon as lord privy seal, and was sworn of the privy council. Owing to the reputation he had won in Spain, his accession to the ministry was deemed an important reinforcement. By September 1840, however, he was in conflict with his colleagues upon Palmerston's Syrian policy, and offered to resign. Melbourne urged him to hold on, but the death of Lord Holland, whom he succeeded as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, left him unsupported in his efforts to check Palmerston, and indeed, as he wrote to Greville, Holland was ‘the only one in the cabinet with whom I had any real sympathy’. He quitted office on the fall of the ministry in July 1841. Like his brother, Charles Pelham Villiers, Clarendon was a staunch free-trader. His views with regard to Ireland were liberal, and on most of the points mentioned in O'Connell's letter to Charles Buller in 1844 he thought concessions ought to be made. O'Connell knew him well, and considered him, as early as 1839, a desirable lord lieutenant for Ireland. He supported Peel's change of policy on the corn laws in the House of Lords, and was also in close general agreement with Lord Aberdeen on foreign policy, and, though his opponent, gave him much useful support.

Though Clarendon deprecated Russell's attempt to form a ministry in December 1845, when the whigs returned to office in 1846 he became president of the board of trade. Aberdeen told him that to him Queen Victoria and the prince consort especially looked for the preservation of peace, a fact which gave him great strength in the cabinet, though his office was not congenial to him. In 1847 he was nominated lord lieutenant of Ireland. The appointment was popular; but Clarendon almost at once found himself compelled to press the cabinet for further coercive powers, not all of which were conceded. During his term of office he had to cope with the famine, the Young Ireland agitation, the Smith O'Brien rising, the Orange disturbances, and the economic difficulties produced by the emigration of the peasantry and the bankruptcy of the landlords. It followed that he came into conflict with all parties in turn, and was abused impartially by all. At first he sought to conciliate the Roman catholic leaders and to gain the confidence of their bishops, but after about a year he came to the conclusion that he could not rely on them. With the extreme protestant party he had also great difficulty. His life was constantly threatened, and for a time he was almost a prisoner in Dublin Castle. His letters to Henry Reeve, with whom he constantly corresponded from 1846, show that he considered the position in Ireland so critical that a slight mistake on the part of government might involve grave disaster. Although his industry and philanthropy were conspicuous, his services to Ireland great, and his failures chiefly due to the circumstances of his time, he earned for himself more censure than thanks. Lord Derby attacked him in the House of Lords on 18 February 1850 for striking Lord Roden's name out of the commission of the peace in the previous October in consequence of the riot at Dolly's Brae on 12 July 1849, and Clarendon, who had come over from Ireland on purpose, replied with effect in a survey of his policy, which was afterwards published. The merits and achievements of his lord-lieutenancy are well tabulated and explained in the Edinburgh Review; the Orange side of the question is stated with vigour and even violence in the Quarterly Review and the Dublin University Magazine. The measure which he was most instrumental in passing through parliament, and most relied upon, was the Encumbered Estates Act, and this certainly proved no settlement of the agricultural question. Perhaps credit is due to Clarendon's administration rather for what he avoided than for what he achieved. In the crisis of the famine he successfully resisted the pressure of commercial empirics, who urged a general government importation of food and a general prohibition of its export. He carried Ireland through a period of conspiracy and revolution with little or no bloodshed, and by his personal influence and assistance he did what little at the time could be done to improve the methods of Irish agriculture. On 23 March 1849 he received the order of the Garter, and the queen, departing from the usual practice, desired him not to surrender the insignia of the Bath, as he had so fully merited both distinctions.

When Clarendon returned to England in 1852 he was clearly destined for very high employment. As early as 1848 the prince consort had expressed a wish that if Lord John Russell resigned, Clarendon should succeed him as premier, but to this Clarendon would not listen. In December 1851, on Palmerston's fall, the foreign office was offered to him, but was refused. In 1852, when Russell and Palmerston were in acute rivalry, a ministry under Clarendon was by many thought to be the solution of the difficulty. At length, in February 1853, he succeeded to the secretaryship for foreign affairs, just vacated by Lord John Russell.

Already the difficulties which eventually led to the Crimean war had begun; England was, in his own phrase, ‘drifting into war.’ Clarendon had the double task of endeavouring to keep the peace between Russia and Turkey and of harmonising the divergent policies and characters of his own colleagues. Within the cabinet he generally sided with Lord Aberdeen, and Lord John Russell and he were as a rule in substantial agreement. In Lord Stratford de Redcliffe,the English ambassador at Constantinople, however, he had little confidence. The principal responsibility for the policy that led to the war is certainly not Clarendon's, though a want of firmness and an undue reliance on the sincerity of the Emperor Napoleon may be charged against him. In his despatch of 31 May 1853 he vigorously supported the Turkish resistance to the Russian claim of a general protection of orthodox Christians throughout the Turkish empire, but he failed to make the czar realise, on the eve of his occupation of the principalities, how deeply the English people resented his policy of aggression. He was somewhat hasty in agreeing to the Vienna note in July 1853 without first being assured that the Porte would accept it as it stood. He has, too, been blamed for weakness in not insisting that Turkey must accept it without amendment. At any rate, the Porte's alterations led to the failure of the note. In September, on the representations of the French government, Clarendon ordered the advance of the allied fleets to Constantinople, though Lord Stratford de Redcliffe had neither desired nor reported on it. Though no action was taken, the matter became known, and was peculiarly provocative to Russia. From the time of the attack on the Turkish fleet at Sinope Clarendon considered war inevitable, and in February 1854 he despatched a summons to the czar to evacuate the principalities. Somewhat precipitately, however, he allowed it to be delivered before Austria, the power most gravely concerned, had definitely undertaken to join, if necessary, in war. On the other hand, his unwearied patience and temper and his personal influence with Napoleon were invaluable in maintaining co-operation between the allies. In March 1855 he visited the emperor at the camp at Boulogne, and succeeded in dissuading him from assuming command in the Crimea in person. The peace of Paris, which he negotiated on behalf of Great Britain, was generally considered to be the best settlement obtainable under the circumstances, though Lord Derby denounced it as ‘The Capitulation of Paris.’ It was at his instance that the conference assembled at Paris in order that personal reference to the emperor might be made when necessary, and, though very reluctantly — for he saw how gravely he might imperil his reputation — he suggested that the British representative ought to be himself.

He felt much dissatisfied with the necessity under which the French government's desire to end the war on any terms had placed him of accepting peace before a victorious campaign had thoroughly broken the power of Russia; but he considered that the harder terms which a prolongation of the war by England alone might have enabled her to impose would not be worth the bloodshed and outlay which further hostilities would involve. He went to Paris on 17 February 1856, and remained till peace was signed on 30 March. The British ministry left his hands free. Against the emperor, whose chief desire was to win personal credit by a ‘generous’ treatment of Russia, he held out, not without great difficulty, for the imposition of substantial sacrifices, especially in the surrender of part of Bessarabia. On the other hand, he preferred by frank and disinterested dealing to satisfy the Austrian and Turkish governments that England was their most trustworthy friend in Europe, and so to secure a powerful influence on the continent, rather than to hold out for individual advantages among the terms of peace. The declaration appended to the treaty respecting belligerent rights was especially his work, and was at the time thought to be a signal gain for Great Britain and a lasting service to the cause of peace. It is, however, now much doubted whether the renunciation of the right of seizure of neutral goods in hostile bottoms was not really the surrender of a weapon of defence with which the chief maritime and commercial power can ill afford to dispense.

Clarendon's personal weight and importance were signally shown during the ministerial crisis of January and February 1855. Lord Derby, when commissioned by the queen to form a ministry in succession to Lord Aberdeen's, applied to Lord Palmerston, who at first consented to join him, and to Clarendon, who refused. Palmerston then withdrew, and Lord Derby gave up the attempt. Lord John Russell, when summoned by the queen, considered the presence of Clarendon at the foreign office indispensable. Clarendon, however, thought Russell had not sufficient popular support to enable him to form a lasting administration, and refused to join. Queen Victoria then asked him to advise her what to do, and he urged that Palmerston alone could form a ministry. Palmerston was sent for and accepted the commission; he obtained Clarendon's adhesion, and the ministry was formed. By personal influence, both with the queen and with Palmerston, he did much to create a complete confidence between her and the prime minister, instead of the feeling of irritation and distrust which had prevailed in 1851 and 1852, and his own relations to the premier, which had been hostile down to 1850, were now of the most friendly kind.

Clarendon continued at the foreign office till the second Derby administration was formed in 1858. His attitude towards Brazil in 1856 was considered unfairly dictatorial and Palmerstonian. When the liberals returned to office in June 1859 Lord John Russell claimed to be foreign secretary, perhaps for the express purpose of excluding Clarendon. The latter waived his claims, but refused Palmerston's offer of his choice of other offices, nor did he consent to yield even to the queen's persuasion. He was selected in October 1861 to represent the queen at the coronation of the king of Prussia, and was offered, but refused, the order of the Prussian Black Eagle on the occasion. In 1863 he was present at Frankfurt to report unofficially to the British government the proceedings of the conference; and in 1864, on Palmerston's death, he took office again as chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster. He was second British plenipotentiary at the conference in London on the Danish question, and returned to the foreign office in the Russell government in 1865. He resigned with the rest of the liberal ministry in 1866, and Lord Derby, when first he attempted to form a coalition government, applied to him, but in vain.

When the liberals returned to office in 1868, Clarendon was the only possible foreign secretary. The principal event of this portion of his career was the conclusion of the convention, already negotiated by his predecessor, Lord Stanley, with the American representative, Mr. Reverdy Johnson, for the settlement of the Alabama and other outstanding claims. It was signed on 14 January 1869. The basis adopted was that the claims of injured individuals, whether British or American, should be presented separately, as in private litigation, and not collectively, as though proceeding from an aggrieved nation. On this ground the senate of the United States on 13 April refused to ratify the convention; but the negotiations continued, and prepared the way for the definitive settlement ultimately effected.

Clarendon died on 27 June 1870 suddenly at his house in Grosvenor Crescent, London. He was buried at Watford in Hertfordshire on 2 July. He married, on 4 June 1839, Katherine, eldest daughter of Walter James Grimston, first earl of Verulam, and widow of John Forster-Barham of Stockbridge, Hampshire, by whom he left three sons and three daughters. Of his sons, Edward Hyde succeeded him, while George Patrick Hyde and Francis Hyde entered the diplomatic service.

All his contemporaries agreed that by character, knowledge, and training, Clarendon was especially fitted to be a great minister of foreign affairs for Great Britain. He was at the same time an aristocrat and a liberal; he was industrious and laborious in the last degree, and yet had a quick and comprehensive grasp of affairs. He was a familiar master of most European languages, deeply learned in all European affairs, a man of the finest and most dignified manners, an acute judge of character, a clear and voluminous writer, an attractive and witty talker. He impressed other diplomatists with confidence in his frankness, and imbued his subordinates with zeal and devotion to himself and their work. On the other hand, he had neither Palmerston's vigour of manner nor his intense devotion to British interests. Clarendon was especially the guardian of peace and civilisation, rather cosmopolitan than patriotic. Personally he was very disinterested. Though of small private fortune, he twice refused the governor-generalship of India, and twice refused a marquisate. In 1856 Napoleon III pressed on him the Legion of Honour, but he steadily declined to accept it.

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