Hands up who REALLY wants an inquiry?

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about Robert Waithman’s City of London Address to the King calling for an inquiry into the failure of the Walcheren Expedition. At the end of the post, I quoted Richard Ryder’s letter to his brother Lord Harrowby explaining that the City Address marked the moment when Walcheren’s military commander, Lord Chatham, realised an inquiry of some sort into his conduct was more or less guaranteed.[1]

Chatham knew many people thought his inactivity and incompetence were mostly to blame for the failure of the expedition. He also suspected there was a conspiracy among his cabinet colleagues — he was still Master-General of the Ordnance — to make sure he ended up carrying the can for everyone. He wanted to make it entirely clear he had nothing to hide. The result, two days after the City of London presented their Address to the Throne, was the following defiant and completely unsolicited letter to the Secretary of State for War, Lord Liverpool:

22 December 1809

My Lord,

Having perused the Address of the City of London, presented to His Majesty on Wednesday last, together with the answer which His Majesty was advised to return thereto, I feel it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am as perfectly ready to submit every part of my Conduct to any Military Investigation which His Majesty may be pleased to order, as I am, and ever have professed myself to be, most earnestly and anxiously desirous, that, whenever Parliament shall assemble, … the whole of my Conduct and of the Expedition to ye Scheld [sic], shou’d undergo the fullest and strictest enquiry, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and fidelity, the trust which His Majesty was graciously pleased to confide to me, and feeling that all that is necessary to vindicate my conduct from ye secret Attacks which have been with so much industry made upon it, is that it shou’d be fully known and fairly understood. I have the honor to be, etc etc.

Chatham.[2]

robert_banks_jenkinson

Lord Liverpool

Liverpool duly passed the letter on to the King on the 23rd, as Chatham had requested, and on the 24th received the King’s permission to lay Chatham’s letter before the rest of the cabinet.[3] It was at this point that someone actually read Chatham’s letter, whereupon the proverbial excrement hit the proverbial fan.

Possibly what happened was this:

Liverpool: And here’s the letter Lord Chatham wrote to me expressing his willingness to lay his conduct before an inquiry, which I forwarded on to the King.

Perceval:

Liverpool: What?

Perceval: Have you even read this?

Liverpool: Yes, why?

Perceval: The answer His Majesty was advised to return? “Secret attacks” on his conduct? HE’S EARNESTLY AND ANXIOUSLY DESIROUS FOR AN INQUIRY?

Liverpool: ….. Ah.

Obviously this letter, whether submitted to the King or not, could not possibly be allowed to go down in the record as Chatham’s official sentiments. Not only did he imply his distrust in his own colleagues and their motives, but he was also expressing pretty openly his desire for an inquiry, something the King had just informed the City of London would be a matter for Parliament to decide.

Chatham was well within his rights expressing his wish for an inquiry, and he was right that putting that wish down in an official document was the only thing to do at this stage of the game. But prime minister Perceval couldn’t let this document into the public eye, or there would be some very uncomfortable questions to answer. Liverpool, therefore, was sent away with strict instructions to get more information out of Chatham.

On 30 December, Liverpool wrote, somewhat circuitously:

My Lord,

According to Your Lordship’s Desire, I have laid your Letter of the 22d Inst before the King, and I have since communicated it with His Majesty’s Permission, to those of HM’s Confidential Servants, who were in Town.

After having made this Communication, I am desirous, in answering your Letter, to say, that if Your Lordship means, that in the Event of an Enquiry either Military, or Parliamentary, being judged expedient, respecting the Expedition to the Scheldt, on Publick Grounds, you were anxious that no Consideration of a Nature, Personal to yourself, should enduce His Majesty’s Govt to resist it, but that in such case you were ready to submit your Conduct, to the fullest, and strictest Investigation, It is nothing more than what we have always understood to be Your Lordship’s Feelings, and indeed what We might be assured, must, under all the Circumstances, have been that feeling.

But if Your Lordship’s Meaning is, (whether on Publick or Private Considerations) that it would be the Duty of His Majesty’s Government to assent to any Motion, which may be made in Parliament for enquiry, or that you would feel it your own Duty, to express by yourself in the House of Lords, or through some Person authorised for that Purpose in the House of Commons, your Desire that such Enquiry should take place, I am confident Your Lordship will see, how important it is, that His Majesty’s Government should not be acting, under any Uncertainty or Misapprehension, of Your Lordship’s views, and Intentions upon this Subject.

… I have the honor to be etc etc

Liverpool.[4]

On receiving this Chatham clearly thought “Eh?” His reply, dated 31 December, can be summarised as “Unless you are replying on the King’s behalf, you can drop off the edge of a cliff”, but in its fullest form it made it quite clear that he felt it his duty to speak up on the subject of an inquiry. He began with an entirely Chatham-typical swipe at Liverpool’s lapse in official form, replying as an individual rather than as Secretary of State for War:

You must excuse me, if I can not admit, any letter from you as an Official answer to mine, unless written by the King’s Command. I certainly did not expect to receive any, unless it shou’d have been His Majesty’s Pleasure, that a Military Investigation shou’d take place into my conduct.

Chatham’s response clearly showed his idea of how an inquiry should be handled differed markedly from the prime minister’s, which was not surprising, as up till now Perceval had been putting off the idea of an inquiry rather than facing it head-on:

You will I think … agree with me, that as the King’s Answer did not confine itself to the Enquiry asked for by ye Address of the City of London, but went further and directly pointed to a Proceeding in Parliament, it was not unnatural, that I shou’d not be wholly silent on that Point. With regard to the line which it may be proper for His Majesty’s Government to take in Parliament on the subject of the Expedition to the Scheld [sic], it must as I conceive, somewhat depend on circumstances, but whenever that question is brought under the consideration of the King’s Servants, I shall be happy to discuss it with my Colleagues at the Cabinet, or individually with any of them who may be so disposed.[5]

Liverpool was aghast. He promptly showed the letter to his cabinet colleagues, who were equally horrified. The meeting of Parliament was only three weeks away: what with the difficulties the government was under already, it was a very bad time for the Master-General of the Ordnance to go off half-cocked. “It seems to me to make it necessary to have a Cabinet soon to take this most important point into consideration, and to learn his real sentiments,” Richard Ryder wrote to Lord Harrowby.[6] Chatham, meanwhile, continued being intractable. When Liverpool wrote to him suggesting a cabinet meeting to discuss the matter further, Chatham bluntly informed him “for the sake of correctness on a point which seems to require it … that when the purport of my letter and the caracter [sic] in which I addressed you are considered, any answer to me … must have been to signify to me, not what you term the determination of Government, but His Majesty’s Pleasure”.[7]

spencer_perceval

Spencer Perceval

Perceval now stepped in, conscious that this was about to become really silly. A cabinet was called on 5 January to discuss the matter, but Chatham claimed he was too ill to attend. Guessing that he probably didn’t want to discuss his grievances in full before colleagues whose good opinion he suspected, Perceval and Liverpool agreed to meet him privately. The meeting was inconclusive: Chatham agreed his words had been too strong, but did not agree to write another.[8]

The problem was that Chatham and Perceval both wanted different things. Chatham wanted an inquiry that would clear him: Perceval wanted an inquiry he could control, and had no intention of helping Chatham clear his name until he was sure doing so would not backfire. On 9 January Perceval and Chatham met again, this time one on one. Chatham at last agreed to rewrite his letter, but still clung to the phrase “anxiously desirous”.

Perceval knew he had to be firm and stop Chatham committing the government to a course it did not want to pursue. He wrote back on the 10th, gently but firmly trying to persuade Chatham that he hadn’t actually meant what he had really said:

I enter fully into all your feelings upon this occasion, and it is with great reluctance that I lean against any expression by which you would prefer to convey these feelings.

But I think the expression ‘anxiously desirous’ would compel you & your Friends, in consistency with that Expression to urge & press for Enquiry; not to talk of it as of a proceeding which you were ready to meet, if others on any ground thought it necessary or expedient, but as one which you thought the occasion required, either with a view to the protection of your own Character, or for the satisfaction of the Public. It is because I think that Expression conveys or at least implies such an Opinion on your part that I wish you to avoid it. … There are no words which I should object to, however strong, if they only express your readiness, to meet enquiry, when stirred by others, provided they do not express or imply a desire to stir it yourself, or an opinion, that it should be instituted.[9]

To Perceval’s relief, Chatham caved in. The offensive phrases were all dropped, and the final version printed in the official Papers laid before the Walcheren Inquiry was as follows. The edited bits are in bold:

Having perused the Address of the City of London, presented to His Majesty on Wednesday last, together with His Majesty’s Answer thereto, I feel it my duty to represent to Your Lordship, as One of His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, in order to its being laid before His Majesty, that I am most entirely ready to submit every Part of my Conduct to any such Military Investigation as His Majesty may be pleased to direct, and that I shall not be less so, whenever Parliament may assemble, to meet any Enquiry, which in their wisdom they may judge it fit to institute into my Conduct, being perfectly conscious of having discharged with zeal and with fidelity the important trust which HM was graciously pleased to confide to me.[10]

Which was a lot of paper to produce one tiny — but significant — paragraph.

 

References

[1] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 5 January 1810, quoted in A. Aspinall, The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5, p. 480 n. 1

[2] Chatham to Lord Liverpool (draft), 22 December 1809, PRO 30/8/364 f. 30

[3] Liverpool to the King, 23 December 1809; the King to Liverpool, 24 December 1809, quoted in Aspinall V, pp. 477-8

[4] Liverpool to Chatham, 30 December 1809, PRO 30/8/368 f. 7

[5] Chatham to Liverpool (draft), 31 December 1809, PRO 30/8/364 f. 32

[6] Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 1 January 1810, quoted in Aspinall V, pp. 478-9 n. 1

[7] Liverpool to Chatham, 2 January 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f. 9; Chatham to Liverpool (draft), 2 January 1810, PRO 30/8/364 f. 34

[8] This is inferred from letters from Richard Ryder to Lord Harrowby, 4-5 January 1810, quoted in Aspinall V, p. 480 n. 1

[9] Chatham to Perceval, [9 January 1810], Cambridge University Library Add.8713/VII/B/5; Perceval to Chatham, 10 January 1810, PRO 30/8/368 f. 125

[10] A Collection of papers relating to the expedition to the Scheldt, presented to Parliament in 1810 (London, 1811), pp. 126-7

“Mr Perceval is shot”

Monday, 11 May 1812.

An ordinary day of business for the British political world, at least at first.

The Houses of Parliament meet to discuss the Orders in Council of 1807-9. These restrict trade with European countries under Napoleon’s control, impose blockades on enemy ports, and attempt to control neutral trade with the enemy. It is a form of economic warfare that has damaged British manufactures and antagonised the United States to the point of war. Spencer Perceval’s government is now considering their repeal.

Microcosm_of_London_Plate_052_-_House_of_Lords_(tone)

Nearly sixty peers have made their appearance in the House of Lords for the occasion. Members who have not shown their face for months, or even years, have made a reappearance. Among them, not incidentally for the purposes of this blog, is the Earl of Chatham, who has only appeared four times since his resignation from Perceval’s cabinet in March 1810. He reserves his rare appearances for the first and last sessions of the year, and important occasions for which his vote is needed — such as the question due to be discussed today.

The House of Lords settles down to business. First are the Orders of the Day. The peers hear an Appeal case in their capacity as the nation’s highest legal authority. They then discuss several private and local Bills, on naturalisation of citizens, enclosures, and schools, among other topics. All is business as usual, for a while.

Shortly after five o’clock in the evening, “a bustling noise, as of a number of people in confusion” interrupts proceedings. “A few moments of silence” ensue: the peers turn their heads, “looking towards the doors”.

As they watch, the doors fly open. One of the Westminster Messengers rushes in, “in the utmost agitation and alarm”. “Mr Perceval is shot!” he cries. “Mr Perceval is shot!”

NPG 4,Spencer Perceval,by George Francis Joseph

Spencer Perceval

At the news that the Prime Minister has been attacked, the House is filled with confusion and noise. Peers leap from the benches and approach the Bar to question the Messenger. Everyone speaks at once, asking the same question over and over: “What has happened?”

“Mr Perceval was coming out of the Lobby of the House of Commons,” the man burbles. “A pistol was fired at him. He staggered two or three paces, fell on his side, then rolled on his face.”

“What happened to him?”

“I do not know, for I came here immediately. I believe Mr Perceval to be dead.”

A murmur of horror. Most of the lords leave the room at a run to find out whether the man’s account is correct. Only the Lord Chancellor and three Bishops remain behind.

Assassination_of_Spencer_Perceval

They find the House of Commons in uproar. A few questions quickly establish the facts. Perceval had been coming into the House of Commons when a gentleman, John Bellingham, approached him and fired a pistol point-blank into his chest. Bellingham was a former merchant whose business in Russia had gone bankrupt; he had claimed restitution from the government, been ignored, and had become convinced Perceval was responsible for his troubles. Perceval could not have survived a blow at such close quarters: he died more or less instantly. Bellingham gave himself up and is now in the custody of the Serjeant at Arms.

The peers return to their House. “The eyes of those who remained were rivetted on the countenance of him who first approached, and hope vanished”.

Was Bellingham acting alone? Are there other assassins waiting in the dark corridors of the medieval Palace of Westminster? The Lord Chancellor proposes locking the doors of Parliament to prevent anyone leaving until they have been searched for weapons. Anyone might be the next target.

Chaos continues. Peers move about the House of Lords, sending messengers, clustering together for whispered conversations. News arrives that the Commons has adjourned: “it was suggested that this might be the most proper course for their Lordships”.

“Seats, seats,” cry the clerks. The peers bustle back to their places, pale with shock.

The Duke of Cumberland rises and testifies that he has seen the Prime Minister’s body, “wounded and dead”, in the Speaker’s private rooms, surrounded by a surgeon and several other people. An Address to the Prince Regent expressing “the sentiments of the House on the melancholy and horrid occurrence” is suggested, but Lord Ellenborough is in doubt as to whether this ought to be done until the fact of assassination has been ascertained.

One of the House of Commons Doorkeepers, Richard Taylor, is called to the Bar and sworn in as a witness. The Lord Chancellor leaves his Woolsack to question him.

“You are an officer belonging to the House of Commons, are you not?”

“I am, my lord.”

“State to the House what you know in relation to Mr Perceval.”

“My lords,” Taylor explains, “I was at the Door of the House of Commons. I saw Mr Perceval in the Lobby. I saw the pistol, I saw the fire, and I saw Mr Perceval fall.”

“Did you hear the pistol go off?”

“Yes.”

“You saw Mr Perceval fall?”

“Yes — directly after the firing.”

This seems clear enough. No more witnesses are examined.

Lord Radnor moves an Address expressing the House of Lords’ “horror” at the attack on Perceval, “and praying that his Royal Highness would be graciously pleased to direct such steps to be taken as he should deem expedient for the apprehension of the offender”. It passes unanimously.

Lord Radnor is instructed to carry it to the Prince Regent, at the head of a deputation of nineteen other lords including all six of the Prince’s brothers, and Lords Grey, Holland, Liverpool, Bathurst, and Chatham.

The House then follows the example of the Commons, and adjourns.

Perceval is buried in Westminster Abbey five days after his assassination. Parliament votes a subscription to his widow and twelve children.

John_Bellingham_portrait

His murderer is tried in the Old Bailey and attempts to plead insanity. His plea is not accepted: he is found guilty and hanged on 18 May. Popular dislike of the government is, however, at its height, thanks to economic problems and the high price of bread. In a bizarre, ironic twist, a public subscription is also raised for the widowed Mrs Bellingham.

Perceval remains the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.

__________

References

Quotations above come from Cobbett’s Parliamentary Debates XXIII, 161-7 and Journals of the House of Lords XLVIII, 825-8

There are further details about Perceval’s murder in the transcript of Bellingham’s trial, which can be read here

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

chatham1 chatham2 chatham3 chatham4 chatham5

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”

Oh dear John, part the zillionth

“There is to be a meeting at my house tomorrow Evening at 9 OClock precisely, and I hope your Lordship will be able to attend it”

(Spencer Perceval to John, Earl of Chatham, undated [January 1810], PRO 30/8/368 f 137)

From the emphasis on “precisely” I draw further confirmation that John’s reputation as the “Late” Lord Chatham was not entirely undeserved. 😉