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Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall (1751-1831)

This article was written by Thomas Seccombe and was published in 1900

Sir Nathaniel William Wraxall, baronet, the author of historical memoirs, was the only son of Nathaniel Wraxall (1725-1781), who married in 1749 Anne (d. 1800), daughter of William Thornhill of Bristol, and great-niece of Sir James Thornhill, was born in Queen's Square, Bristol, on 8 April 1751, and ‘was educated in his native city.’ His grandfather, Nathaniel Wraxall (1687-1731), merchant, was sheriff of Bristol in 1723, eight years previous to his death on 24 March 1731. The historian subsequently claimed to be a representative of the ancient family which derived its name from the parish of Wraxall, six miles west of Bristol, but this connection it would be impossible to trace.

Nathaniel, whose love of travel was persistent from an early age, went out to Bombay in 1769, having obtained employment in the civil service of the East India Company, and he was appointed judge-advocate and paymaster of the forces in the Guzerat expedition, and that against Baroche in 1771. He left the service of the East India Company in 1772, and, having returned to England, visited Portugal and then the northern courts of Europe. In September 1774 he had an interview with Caroline Matilda, sister of George III, at Zell (Celle). He proceeded from Zell to Altona, where he seems to have given frank expression to his sympathy for the banished queen. At Hamburg, hard by, there resided a group of noble Danish exiles. Two of their leaders, Barons Schimmelman and Bulow, recognised in Wraxall a fitting agent of communication between the queen whom they sought to replace upon the throne of Denmark and George III, whose concurrence in the movement they felt it indispensable to obtain.

As accredited intermediary in this affair Wraxall made several arduous journeys, the incidents of which lose nothing by his reporting in the pages of his Posthumous Memoirs. He had private interviews with the queen in the library and Jardin Anglais at Zell, and conveyed to her on 15 February 1775 a paper containing George III's qualified sanction of the scheme devised by her partisans. He returned to England in April, in the hope of obtaining a personal interview with the king, and a more definite assurance that he would countenance such action as might prove necessary at Copenhagen. But while he was anxiously waiting in Jermyn Street, London, for a favourable answer, the news reached him on 19 May of the sudden death of Caroline Matilda.

He appears to have been living in London in 1776, and he mentions meeting Dr. Dodd in this year, together with Wilkes, Sir William Jones, and De Lolme, at the house of Dilly the bookseller. Dodd invited the company to dine with him at his house in Argyll Street, and the invitation was accepted. In the following year Dodd, while lying in Newgate, made an urgent appeal to Wraxall to exert himself to procure a pardon through Lord Nugent. In the summer of 1777 Wraxall made some stay at The Hague, where he was presented to the Prince of Orange. Before leaving England he had received from George III a lieutenant's commission, granted upon the application of Lord Robert Manners, who then commanded the third regiment of dragoon guards.

In the uniform of this regiment Wraxall visited the theatre at Florence in 1779 and saw Prince Charles Edward. The chevalier was semi-intoxicated; but when ‘he approached near enough to distinguish the English regimental, he instantly stopped, gently shook off the two servants who supported him, one on each side, and, taking off his hat, politely saluted us.’ He visited Dresden in 1778 and Naples in 1779. There he met Sir William and Lady Hamilton. Upon her authority he introduces into his ‘Memoirs’ some curious anecdotes of private executions, which have been frequently cited.

In 1780 he returned to England, and was elected M.P. for the borough of Hindon in Wiltshire. In 1781 he was appointed on a committee to inquire into the causes of war in the Carnatic. Lord North was a member of this committee, and in June 1781 he unexpectedly asked Wraxall to spend the day with him at Bushey Park. The minister there told him that the king was most anxious to acknowledge in a proper manner his important services to the late queen of Denmark. Before entering parliament his persistent applications for recompense had been unanswered. The sum of a thousand guineas for his expenses was now awarded him and paid with alacrity, while he also obtained a promise (unfulfilled, owing to North's retirement) of a post in the administration. Early in this same year (1781) Horace Walpole, whose antipathy to rival memoir writers was instinctive, wrote to Mason of Wraxall as ‘popping into every spot where he can make himself talked of, by talking of himself; but I hear he will come to an untimely beginning in the House of Commons’.

This kind anticipation was not realised. In 1783 Wraxall obtained some credit for having despatched an extraordinary gazette to India containing the news of the peace of 1783, which reached Madras six weeks before the official intelligence. In the same year he ceased to be a follower of Lord North, and, when the division was taken on Fox's ‘India Bill,’ he joined the minority that followed Pitt. Re-elected for Ludgershall in the general election of 1784, he settled down in the new parliament into a pretty steady follower of Pitt. As such he came under the lash of one of the wittiest writers in the ‘Rolliad,’ his claims to encylopedism, inferred from his ‘Northern Tour’ (1775), and his fondness for interspersing his speeches with geographical information being satirised in the ninth of the ‘Probationary Odes for the Laureateship.’ Appended is a burlesque testimonial from Lord Monboddo, affirming his opinion that Wraxall is ‘the purest ourang-outang in Great Britain.’

In January 1787 Wraxall published anonymously a pamphlet entitled A Short Review of the Political State of Great Britain, six editions of which, an estimated total of seventeen thousand copies, were rapidly circulated in England, while a French version (‘Coup d'eil sur l'état politique de la Grande-Bretagne’) appeared on 23 February. It is chiefly noteworthy for its frank delineation of the Prince of Wales, who is said to have menaced the publisher, Debrett, with a prosecution for libel, and as marking Wraxall's divergence from his leaders on the subject of the Warren Hastings trial; the authorship was actually ascribed to Hastings himself, and his agent, Major Scott, took the trouble to deny this presumption from his seat in the commons. Of the replies issued, one was attributed to Lord Erskine and another to Sir Philip Francis. The deduction one naturally draws from this success, even though it were anonymous, is that Wraxall's capacity and insight into politics were by no means so insignificant as his critics in the quarterlies subsequently assumed.

He was re-elected for Wallingford in 1790, but he had to accede to the wishes of the proprietor of this borough (Sir Francis Sykes) by resigning his seat in 1794. He had lost valuable friends in Lords Nugent and Sackville, and being a novus homo, without sufficient influence either in the country or in the best clubs, his parliamentary career was closed. For some years previous to his retirement from the House of Commons he acted as vakeel or agent for the nabob of Arcot, and was one of the small party of retired Indian officials known as the ‘Bengal squad.’

Upon leaving parliament and his house in Clarges Street, Wraxall seems to have devoted himself mainly to compiling his historical memoirs. The secret of his 1787 pamphlet must have been fairly well kept; for he managed to establish himself in favour at Carlton House, where in 1799 the regent ‘was pleased to designate him under official seal his future historiographer.’ His striking ‘Reminiscences’ of the regent, first published in 1884, form a curious commentary upon this announcement. At Whitehall on 25 September 1813, upon the express nomination of the prince regent, Wraxall was created a baronet, as ‘of Wraxall, Somerset.’ Two years later were published his ‘Historical Memoirs,’ the first edition of which entertaining work was sold in the course of a month. Unfortunately for the author the sale was arrested by an action for libel, maintained in the court of king's bench before Lord Ellenborough by Count Woronzow, whom Wraxall had made responsible for the imputation that the Empress Catherine of Russia had caused the Princess of Würtemberg to be put to death. Wraxall was sentenced to pay a fine of £500 and to go to the king's bench prison for six months — remitted to three by the regent at the instance of Woronzow himself. In the meantime the ‘Memoirs’ had been attacked with the utmost ferocity in the ‘Quarterly’ (vol. xiii.), the ‘Edinburgh’ (vol. xxv.), and the ‘British Critic,’ and the book has the rare distinction of having brought Croker, Mackintosh, and Macaulay into substantial agreement upon the merits, or rather demerits, of a literary performance. The ‘Edinburgh’ cited an epigram, said to have been composed by George Colman, which has been widely misquoted —

Men, measures, scenes, and facts all
Misquoting, misstating,
Misplacing, misdating,
Here lies Sir Nathaniel Wraxall.

Wraxall replied with success to some of the specific charges of garbling and deliberate unveracity in ‘An Answer to the Calumnious Misrepresentation of the “Quarterly Review,” the “British Critic,” and the “Edinburgh Review”’ (1815, 8vo), and he found disinterested supporters in Sir George Osborn — for fifty years equerry to George III, who wrote, ‘I pledge my name that I personally know nine parts out of ten of your anecdotes to be perfectly correct’ — and in Sir Archibald Alison, who wrote in ‘Blackwood’ (lvii. 361) that nothing but truth could produce so portentous an alliance as that between the ‘Edinburgh’ and the ‘Quarterly.’ The contempt expressed by Croker and the other critics was, in fact, largely that of quidnuncs of St. James's Street for gossip collected from sources north of Piccadilly. It would be difficult indeed to distinguish the degrees of authenticity between the anecdotes of Wraxall and those edited by Croker himself (in the ‘Hervey’ and ‘Suffolk’ memoirs), and except in one or two instances, such as those of Whitworth, Alvanley, and Rumbold, where Wraxall was swayed by an easily explicable personal bias, Macaulay's Mendacium Wraxallianum can no longer be held to be fairly applicable. His portraits of the minor actors on the political stage between 1772 and 1784 are of real historical value; and, although there must be many blemishes upon the surface of a canvas so vast, his book has signally falsified the prediction of the critics that it would be rapidly forgotten. Wraxall's wide reading in history afforded him a fertile field of illustration; this circumstance and his weakness for ‘travell'd learning’ render him a very discursive writer; but, though diffuse, he is nearly always entertaining.

Practically nothing is known of Wraxall's declining years. He died at Dover on 7 November 1831, ‘on his way to Naples, aged 80’. He was buried in St. James's Church, Dover. He married, on 30 March 1789, Jane, eldest daughter of Peter Lascelles of Knights in Hertfordshire and left two sons, Lieutenant-colonel William Lascelles, second baronet (b. 5 September 1791, d. 2 May 1863), and Charles Edward (1792-1854), lieutenant royal artillery, and father of Sir Frederic Charles Lascelles Wraxall.

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