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William Windham (1750-1810)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1900

William WindhamWilliam Windham , statesman, came of an old Norfolk family settled at Felbrigg, near Cromer, since the fifteenth century, whose name was the same originally as that of the town of Wymondham.

His father, Colonel William Windham (1717-1761), son of William Windham, M.P. for Sudbury 1722-7 and for Aldeburgh 1727 until his death in 1730, possessed distinguished military talent. Disputes with his father had caused him to live much on the continent. He travelled with Richard Pococke in Switzerland in 1741, and his ‘Letter from an English Gentleman to Mr. Arland, giving an Account of a Journey to the Glacieres or Ice Alps of Savoy’ (1744), is one of the earliest printed accounts of Chamonix and Mont Blanc. He also visited Hungary, and for some time was an officer in one of Queen Maria Theresa's hussar regiments. Returning to England, he vigoously supported Pitt's scheme for a national militia in 1756, and helped the Marquis Townshend to form the Norfolk militia regiment in 1757. He published in 1760 a ‘Plan of Discipline’ in quarto, with plates, which came into general use, and he sat in parliament for Aldeburgh in 1754. The statesman's father married Sarah Hicks, widow of Robert Lukin of Dunmow, Essex, and died of consumption on 30 October 1761 at the age of forty-four.

William, the only son, was born on 3 May (O. S.) 1750 at No. 6 Golden Square, Soho. From 1762 to 1766 he was at Eton, where he was a contemporary of Fox, and was then placed with Dr. Anderson, professor of natural philosophy in the university of Glasgow. He attended the lectures of Robert Simson, professor of mathematics, and pursued the study in later life, even composing three mathematical treatises, which, however, he never published. On 10 September 1767 he entered University College, Oxford, as a gentleman commoner, and became a pupil of Robert Chambers. He was created M.A. on 7 October 1782, and on 3 July 1793 he became an honorary D.C.L. Both at school and at college he was quick and industrious, but as a young man he was completely indifferent to public affairs, though distinguished both as a scholar and a man of fashion. Accordingly he refused Lord Townshend's offer of the secretaryship to the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, made while he was still at college, and left Oxford in 1771.

Two years later he started with Commodore Constantine John Phipps (afterwards second baron Mulgrave) upon a voyage of polar exploration, but was compelled by sea-sickness to land in Norway and make his way home. He afterwards spent some time with the Norfolk militia, in which he attained the rank of major, and passed a couple of years abroad, chiefly in Switzerland and Italy. He also became known to Johnson and Burke. He was Johnson's favoured friend, attended him assiduously in his last days, and was a pall-bearer at his funeral. His attachment to Burke was such that he became his political pupil. He joined the Literary Club and attended its meetings almost till he died, and was also a member of the Essex Head Club.

Meantime he was gradually drawing towards a public career. He made his first public speech on 28 January 1778 at a public meeting called to raise a subscription towards the cost of the American war, and opposed the project. He won some local repute by personal courage and promptitude in quelling a mutiny at Norwich, when the Norfolk militia refused to march into Suffolk, and in September 1780 he unsuccessfully contested Norwich. In 1781 he was a member of the Westminster committee, and came very near standing for Westminster in 1782. He, however, gradually drifted away from his earlier reforming opinions into a fixed antipathy to any constitutional change. In 1783 he became chief secretary to Northington, lord lieutenant of Ireland in the Portland administration, but resigned the post in August, nominally owing to ill-health, but in reality because he desired to give Irish posts to Irishmen, a policy not in favour with his superiors.

After the dissolution in March 1784 he was one of the few coalition candidates who were successful, and was elected at Norwich on 5 April. For some time he acted steadily with the opposition, and Burke chose him in June to second his motion on the state of the nation. He spoke in 1785 on the shop tax and the Westminster scrutiny; he strongly supported the right of the Prince of Wales to be regent without restrictions in 1788, and in 1790 killed Flood's reform bill by the happy phrase that ‘no one would select the hurricane season in which to begin repairing his house.’ He was also one of the members charged with the impeachment of Warren Hastings, and undertook that part of the case which dealt with the breach of the treaty of 1774 with Faizulla Khan.

He was re-elected at Norwich in 1790, and in February 1791 supported Mitford's catholic relief bill for England. Following Burke, by whom he continued to be largely guided, he took alarm at the French revolution, and in 1792 and 1793 was one of the most ardent supporters of the government's repressive legislation. He supported the proclamation against seditious meetings and the aliens bill, had a plan for raising a troop of cavalry in Norfolk, and on 11 July 1794, on Burke's advice, he somewhat reluctantly consented to take office under Pitt, with the Duke of Portland, Lord Fitzwilliam, and Lord Spencer. A secretaryship of state was at first suggested for him, but eventually he became secretary at war, with a seat in the cabinet. This was the first time that the cabinet was opened to the holder of the secretaryship at war. His change of front was somewhat resented at Norwich, but he secured re-election, and from August to October was with the Duke of York's army in Flanders. He held that the royalists in the west of France deserved assistance, and was the person most responsible for the Quiberon expedition in July 1795. Vigorously supporting the continuance of war, and steadily opposing projects of reform, he only after a sharp fight saved his seat at Norwich, 25 May 1796. He held office till February 1801, when he resigned with Pitt. To the Irish union he had been at first opposed altogether, but consented to it in consideration of the promise that catholic disabilities should be removed. He had by no means always approved of Pitt's war policy, and had held that, as the war was fought for the restoration of the Bourbons, more efforts should have been made to assist the royalists in France. Much was done under his administration to increase the comfort of the troops. Their pay was raised, pensions were established, and the Royal Military Asylum was founded.

Windham's chance in opposition soon came. He had a rooted distrust of Napoleon, and strongly opposed the peace of 1802. He assisted Cobbett, whom he greatly admired, to found the ‘Political Register,’ and thoroughly agreed with its attacks on Addington. He spoke against the peace preliminaries on 4 November 1801, and moved an address to the crown against the peace on 13 May 1802. As the peace was popular in the country, this attitude cost him his seat at Norwich in June 1802. He declined to contest the county, and accepted from the Grenville family the borough of St. Mawes in Cornwall, where he was elected on 7 July. This seat he held till November 1806, when he was elected for New Romney, and later in the same month for the county of Norfolk. This latter election was afterwards declared void, upon a petition alleging breaches of the Treating Act. Windham being thus ineligible for re-election for the same seat. Throughout these proceedings he retained his seat for New Romney till the dissolution of parliament 29 April 1807. At the general election in May he was returned for Higham Ferrers, and held that seat till his death.

Windham welcomed the renewal of hostilities with France. He had never supported a policy of fortifications or of large land forces, and when in office had considered the erection of martello towers a sufficient defence for the coast, his chief reliance being upon the fleet. He doubted too the value of volunteers, and made somewhat savage attacks upon them, but took part in the general movement in 1803, and raised a volunteer force at Felbrigg, and became its colonel. He now became leader of the Grenville party in the House of Commons, and engaged in the attack on Addington, but declined to join Pitt again in May 1804, owing to the king's objection to the admission of Fox to the ministry. He then found himself once more acting with Fox and opposing Pitt, and at the time of Pitt's death he incurred some hostility in consequence.

He accepted the war and colonial office in Lord Grenville's administration, and on 3 April 1806 introduced a plan for improving the condition of the military forces, and making the army an attractive profession. With this object he passed bills for reducing the term of service and for increasing the soldiers' pay. He had begun the arrangements for the South American expedition when, with the rest of the ministry, he was dismissed in March 1807. In the previous year he had refused the offer of a peerage, preferring a career in the House of Commons, and he continued to devote himself to the conduct of the war and to criticism of the policy of his successor Castlereagh. On general policy, however, he held aloof from debate, and, from growing dislike of London, lived much in the country. His only conspicuous speeches in the later years of his life on civil topics were (14 May 1805) in favour of the Roman catholic claims, to which subject he returned in 1810, and on Curwen's bill for preventing the sale of seats in May 1809. As Castlereagh's proposals with regard to the militia ran counter to his own plan of 1806, he opposed the local militia bill in 1808, and, as he was adverse to a policy of scattered and, as he thought, aimless expeditions, he spoke against the Copenhagen expedition in 1807, and the Scheldt expedition in January 1810. On the other hand, he was a very warm supporter of the Spanish cause, and even began to learn Spanish with a view to a personal visit to Spain. In his view, however, the objective of the English force should have been the passes of the Pyrenees, and not Portugal, so as to cut off the French from Spain, and he thought that Moore ought to have been sent with a much larger force to the north of Spain, and there could and should have held his ground.

The Peninsular war, once begun, was to be pressed with vigour, and such an expedition as that to Antwerp did not seem to Windham consistent with the successful prosecution of the Spanish war. He continued to express these views energetically, but, by supporting a proposal made early in 1810 for the exclusion of reporters from the House of Commons, he provoked the hostility of the press, which for some time refused to report his speeches.

Windham's last speech was made on 11 May 1810. In July of the previous year he had injured his hip by his efforts in removing the books of his friend the Hon. Frederick North (afterwards fifth Earl of Guilford) out of reach of a fire. On 17 May 1810 Cline operated upon him for the removal of a tumour, but he never recovered from the shock, and died at his house in Pall Mall on 4 June, and was buried at Felbrigg. He married, on 10 July 1798, Cecilia, third daughter of Commodore Arthur Forrest, but had no children.

Windham's personal advantages were many. He was rich, and had an income of £6,000 a year. He was tall and well built, graceful and dignified in manner, a thorough sportsman, and in his youth, like his father, was very athletic and a practised pugilist. He had a good memory, and was widely and well informed; he was an ardent Greek and Latin scholar, and fluent in French and Italian. Though his voice was defective and shrill, he was, when at his best, a most eloquent orator, and was always a clear speaker and a keen debater; but his speeches were marred by occasional indiscretions of temper and want of reticence. He was pious, chivalrous, and disinterested, and his brilliant social qualities made him one of the finest gentlemen as well as one of the soundest sportsmen of his time. His diary, published in 1866, shows him to have been vacillating and hypochondriacal in private, but he seems to have relieved his feelings by this habit of private confession; and in public, though somewhat changeable, he was not irresolute.

In an age of great men his character stood high, and although his conduct on two occasions in his political life led to charges of inconsistency, and earned for him the nickname of ‘Weathercock Windham,’ his personal integrity was unimpugned. The army undoubtedly owed much to his labours in improving its efficiency and condition. Panegyrics were pronounced upon him in the House of Lords by Lord Grey on 6 June 1810, and in the House of Commons by Lord Milton the following day, and Brougham paints him in laudatory terms in his ‘Historical Sketches of British Statesmen’.

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