Lord Chatham’s “unfortunate Narrative”

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“Secret Influence, or a Peep Behind the Screen” (Charles Williams, March 1810) (from here)

In July 1809 nearly 40,000 troops and 200 sail were sent out under the joint commands of Lieutenant-General the Earl of Chatham and Admiral Sir Richard Strachan. Their ultimate object was to destroy the French navy and dockyards at Antwerp, but first they had to secure the entrance to the Scheldt River. For this purpose the British forces occupied the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, but this process took nearly a month, by which time the French had brought in considerable reinforcements, strengthened the defences of Antwerp, and withdrawn their fleet upriver. Meanwhile, the British Army had begun succumbing to an illness that swept through the ranks at an alarming, and thoroughly devastating, pace. On 27 August 1809 Chatham, in accordance with his lieutenant-generals, agreed to call off the campaign.

Fast-forward six months to Friday, 16 February 1810. The House of Commons was in the midst of a full House Committee appointed to look into the planning, execution and outcome of the Walcheren expedition. Admiral Sir Richard Strachan had been called up the previous day to give his evidence to the Committee, and George Tierney moved to call Lord Chatham to the Bar on Thursday the 22nd. When Tierney sat down, General William Loftus rose to move: “That an humble Address be presented to HM, that he be graciously pleased to order to be laid before the House a Copy of the Memorial presented to HM by Earl Chatham, explaining the proceedings of the late Expedition to the Scheldt”.

This innocuous motion, which was not even significant enough to warrant a mention in the official Parliamentary Debates, sparked off a massive political and constitutional controversy which came perilously close to bringing down Spencer Perceval’s new and tottering ministry. For there were several very irregular features to Chatham’s Narrative. The contents were bad enough: Chatham laid the blame for the delays in undertaking the expedition squarely at Strachan’s door. But this assault on the nation’s darling, the Royal Navy, paled before the way in which the Narrative had found its way to the public. Written on 15 October 1809, Chatham had not submitted it until 14 February: and instead of submitting his explanatory narrative to the Secretary of State for War, Chatham had submitted it directly to the King, without communicating it either to the Cabinet or to Sir Richard Strachan himself.

The opposition, already scenting Perceval’s blood, fell on Chatham’s memorandum with glee. Lord Folkestone led the attack on the 19th February. The Narrative “was such a document as that House ought not to receive or allow to remain on the table”: it was a potentially unconstitutional document, since it purported to be an official document submitted without the seal of ministerial responsibility. Within minutes the word “impeachment” was being flung about the House with much enthusiasm. Folkestone spoke of the Narrative as though it were something dirty that needed to be pushed out of the Commons on the end of a stick: “He really did not know how the House should proceed to get rid of such a paper; but it seemed highly desirable that it should do so”.[1]

Worse was to come. When Chatham was cross-examined on the 22nd, the Narrative inevitably came up. Chatham was asked if he had drawn it up on 15 October, which he confirmed: in answering the question of why he had not submitted the paper prior to the 14 February, however, Chatham — who was ill the day of his examination — let slip with “I thought it was better to presere the date at which it was in fact drawn up; there were after that time none but verbal or critical alterations”.[2]

“Is this the only Narrative or Memorial, or paper of any description, which has been delivered to His Majesty by your lordship on the subject of the Expedition?” was the obvious immediate response, which Chatham refused to answer — five times. When pressed as to whether he refused on the grounds of being a Privy Counsellor, he replied brusquely, “I refuse generally. I decline answering the question.”[3]

The fuss that greeted Chatham’s paper was immense. The Times (an oppositionist paper) considered that the Narrative “will be read, under all its circumstances, with more astonishment and suspicion than any thing that we ever recollect to have come before the public as an authentic document”.[4] According to the Morning Chronicle, the Narrative gave “rise to reflections by no means favourable to his Lordship”.[5] Even the Morning Post, a government paper, believed that “certainly nothing could be more irregular or improper” than the way in which Chatham had submitted his Narrative. “His Lordship cannot otherwise be considered than as standing convicted of a serious constitutional offence”.[6]

Clearly Chatham had had no idea what reaction his paper would provoke when he had requested Loftus to submit it to the Commons. These newspaper snippets, however, particularly that from the government paper, would have given him a good idea of the way the wind was blowing. The sequel was inevitable. On 23 February Samuel Whitbread — ominously, the man who had led the campaign to impeach Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, the First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1805 — passed a motion requesting the King to lay before the House “copies of all reports, memoranda, narratives or papers submitted at any time to his Majesty by the Earl of Chatham, relative to the late Expedition”. There followed what was probably the most awkward cabinet meeting ever, in which Chatham (who was, after all, still Master General of the Ordnance) was pressed by his disgruntled colleagues to explain himself.

Chatham’s reasoning was that he had in fact submitted the same memorandum to the King prior to 14 February, on 15 January: he had then requested it to be returned on the 10th, to remove a few passages, and had resubmitted it on the 14th. The King corroborated this fact, and Perceval was able to use it to stave off an immediate assault on 2 March by Whitbread, who moved two Resolutions, one of which stated

that the Earl of Chatham … did unconstitutionally abuse the privilege of access to his Sovereign, and thereby afford an example most pernicious in its tendency to his Majesty’s service, and to the general service of the State.[7]

Perceval had given Chatham the weekend to resign and save his colleagues. There are a number of reasons why Chatham did not do so, which I will discuss at greater length in the biography, but on Sunday 4th March Perceval wrote a long, cold letter to Chatham pretty much informing him that if he did not resign, the government would likely fall with him.He finished on an ominous note, in which he made it quite clear that as far as the Narrative was concerned, Chatham was on his own: “I cannot conclude this note without assuring you how deeply I lament all the untoward circumstances which this unfortunate narrative has brought upon us all, and more particularly upon you.”[8]

Chatham ignored the letter. The next day, 5th March, George Canning saved the situation by proposing an amendment to Whitbread’s original motion, removing any imputation of unconstitutionality and dropping the buck squarely into Chatham’s lap as opposed to that of his colleagues:

That the House saw, with regret, that any such communication as the Narrative of lord Chatham should have been made to His Majesty, without any knowledge of the other ministers; that such conduct is highly reprehensible, and deserves the censure of this House.[9]

One by one Chatham’s colleagues got up to disassociate themselves from him. They had not known of the memorandum; they considered it a grave error; they could not defend him.  The ministry could not make its disinclination to defend Chatham any clearer. Chatham had been a liability to the government ever since he had returned from Walcheren: his colleagues were not prepared to defend him now he had attracted even more criticism. With the Walcheren inquiry still proceeding, Chatham had no choice but to resign. He did so at the King’s levee on 7 March.

Perceval wrote to him immediately:

I do most sincerely regret that any Circumstances should have occurred, what should have rendered this Step expedient either with a view to Yourself or to His Majesty’s Service … I am sensible that his Maj[esty]’s Service will experience great loss by your retirement; but in the temper of the House, upon the Subject of the late discussions, nothing could be well more embarrassing than the repeated revival of them with which we should unquestionably have been harassed.[10]

Chatham was not deceived by Perceval’s expressions of regret, which, after all the peremptory letters that had been written over the past fortnight designed to force Chatham to resign, did not ring true.

So ended the affair of Chatham’s Narrative. Obviously Chatham had had no idea it would cause such a stink or he would never have made it public. Why did he do it? Why did he draw up the memorandum in the first place? Both seem such a crassly stupid decisions for Chatham to have made, and contemporaries were shocked. “I confess, of all men alive, I shoud not have suspected Lord C of such a treacherous conduct,” the Duke of Northumberland wrote.[11]

Chatham did, of course, have his reasons for acting the way he did. Certainly there was a healthy dose of panic and short-sightedness in the way he submitted his Memorandum, and human nature needs to be factored into the equation. Still, Chatham had a justification to make for his actions. What that justification was, and why it was never made more public, will be examined in my forthcoming biography. For now, it’s perhaps enough to note how easily Perceval’s government was nearly overturned by what was, essentially, a question of formal cabinet procedure.

References

[1] Parliamentary Debates XV,482, 485

[2] Parliamentary Debates XV, Appendix, ccclxvii

[3] Parliamentary Debates XV, Appendix, ccclxxiii

[4] Times, 21 February 1810

[5] Morning Chronicle, 22 February 1810

[6] Morning Post, 6 March 1810, 8 March 1810

[7] Parliamentary Debates XVI, 7*

[8] Spencer Perceval to Lord Chatham, 4 March 1810, National Archives Chatham MSS PRO 30/8/368 f 145

[9] Parliamentary Debates XVI, 16

[10] Spencer Perceval to Lord Chatham, 7 March 1810, National Archives Hoare MSS PRO 30/70/283

[11] Duke of Northumberland to Colonel McMahon, 26 February 1810, quoted in A. Aspinall (ed), Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 1770-1812 (London, 1970), VII, 13-4

Another letter from Spencer Perceval

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I’m guessing the moment John read this letter was the moment he saw the end of his 22-year cabinet career rushing towards him at great speed.

This letter was written by the prime minister, Spencer Perceval during the enquiries in Parliament in early 1810 over the failure of the expedition to Walcheren, which Lord Chatham commanded. Perhaps the most embarrassing detail for Perceval’s government was the fact that Chatham submitted a memorandum of defence to the King, privately, on 15 October 1809 after returning from campaign. He later resubmitted the memorandum in accordance with protocol to the King via the Privy Council, on 15 February 1810, but it was too late. The opposition, led by Sir Samuel Whitbread, accused Chatham and, through him, the government of unconstitutional behaviour. Chatham was Master General of the Ordnance with a seat in the cabinet at the time.

The government had only been in power a few months and was already half-crippled with weakness. Whitbread’s attack was a disaster, and it is clear from the letters Perceval sent to Chatham that he was utterly incandescent with rage at Chatham’s foolishness. During the debate to which Perceval refers in the following letter Whitbread made a direct accusation of unconstitutionality against Chatham. Perceval managed to get the debate adjourned till Monday. His defence of Chatham was lukewarm at best. After saying he would not merely sacrifice a cabinet colleague because the opposition had made unfounded accusations against him, he went on:

“He begged, however, not to be misunderstood: he did not mean to say if a colleague was wrong he should, under any circumstances, be supported. But in a ballanced [sic] case, where a colleague was merely in error, he thought by deserting his cause, he should be exposed to more merited reprobation than could otherwise fall to his share, justice, decency, and propriety alike called on them to postpone coming to a decision on the resolutions that night”.

(Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates volume 16, p. 1**, here)

In public Perceval and his colleagues focused on the rather weak argument that Chatham had made a “mistake”. In private, Perceval was much more brusque. He had already written to Chatham informing him that Whitbread would pounce if Chatham did not resign his cabinet post. Perceval did not outright demand Chatham’s resignation now, but his letter was clearly designed to tell him: “There’s only so much my government can now do. I’m not going to destroy the ministry for you. Weigh the consequences of your actions well.”

I can hardly read this letter without wincing, and I imagine John, too, had a bad moment or six when he opened Perceval’s packet to read the following.

Spencer Perceval to John, Earl of Chatham, 4 March 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f 145

“My Dear Lord

I was in expectation of seeing you to day at the Cabinet, or I should have endeavoured to pursue a meeting with you by appointment.

You are aware of the Line which I took in the Ho of Co on Friday last [the debate of the 2nd, in which Perceval labelled Chatham’s early submission of his memorandum to the King an “error” and postponed the vote]; it succeeded to the extent of putting off the discussion, and gave me the opportunity of making known to our Friends, that while on the one hand I did not mean to Satisfy you in delivering your Narrative to the King with the request that it should not be communicated for the present, so on the other I could not consent to ascribe to that delivery any of that Motive or Character which our adversaries endeavour to impute to it [ie, that it was unconstitutional]; and therefore that I should recommend it to the House to pass it by with the previous Question. With this Impression known to be felt by me, we shall meet the Question in the Ho of Commons tomorrow, and I believe that this is the most advantageous manner in which this Question can be met.

I wish it may succeed; but I have too much reason to fear that we shall be beat [in fact Whitbread’s motion was not passed, but only by a slim margin of 33 votes]. I have heard to day and yesterday of several who will keep away, and not suffer us. Lascelles, & the Master of the Robes are two, who think the House of Commons cannot pass over the subject by the previous Question. These are authorities of great weight. Still I feel most strongly that, if the Ho of Co should pronounce any judgment against this proceeding of yours [note: “of yours” ~ If John didn’t feel his hair standing on end at that phrase then he was excessively dim], more especially if they characterize it as unconstitutional, it will be impossible that the King’s Service can go on, particularly in our State of Weakness, with the Weight of such a vote against any one of His Servants; and therefore it is absolutely necessary to endeavour to resist it.

This I shall do to the best of my power. But I should not think I acted fairly by you if I did not thus fully apprize you of the view which I take of this unfortunate Business [John’s hair, already standing on end, probably started to turn white at this point].

[And then the last paragraph, in which Spencer Perceval, deeply religious as he is, doesn’t swear but clearly wants to say something stronger than “unfortunate”:]

I cannot conclude this note without assuring you how deeply I lament all the untoward circumstances which this unfortunate narrative has brought upon us all, and more particularly upon you.

[Ouch!]

I am My Dr Lord

Yrs most truly

Sp Perceval”