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Charles GreyCharles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, 1830-1834

Charles Grey was born at Fallodon, Northumberland, England, on March 13, 1764, the second son and second of nine children born to General Charles and Elizabeth Grey. His father was an important military commander who was later granted the titles of Viscount Howick and Earl Grey. He was educated at Eton, Trinity, Winchester, and King's colleges, but never earned a degree.

Grey's political career began in 1786, when he was elected a Member of Parliament for Northumberland. Although his father was a staunch Tory, the younger Grey became a follower of the Radical wing of the Whig Party, led by Charles Fox, and a very vocal critic of Prime Minister William Pitt. His maiden speech, delivered on February 27, 1787, attacked the Vergennes Treaty with France. Shortly afterwards he was appointed to the committee that oversaw the impeachment of Warren Hastings.

In April of 1792, Grey and several other pro-reform Whigs formed the Society of the Friends of the People, the main objective of which was to obtain "a more equal representation of the people in Parliament" and "to secure to the people a more frequent exercise of their right of electing their representatives." On April 30, 1792, Grey introduced a petition in favor of parliamentary reform, but it was defeated by the House of Commons by a vote of 256 to 91. He introduced another parliamentary reform bill, which included popular elections to the House of Commons, on May 6, 1793; it was defeated 282 to 41. The Society disbanded soon after this defeat.

Grey married Mary Elizabeth Ponsby in 1794. The couple eventually had six daughters and ten sons. Grey reportedly also had an illegitimate daughter with Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.

Grey withdrew from active participation in Parliament after his 1797 Reform Bill was defeated by a large majority. He returned long enough to speak against the Act of Union with Ireland, but withdrew again after it was passed in 1800. In 1801 he was given use of his uncle Sir Henry Grey's Howick Hall in Northumberland as a permanent residence, and its distance from London made it easier for him to stay out of active participation in Parliament. He refused a post in the coalition government of Henry Addington, but agreed to join Lord Grenville's cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty in January of 1806.

Grey became leader of the Whigs upon the death of Fox on September 13, 1806, as well as Foreign Secretary and leader of the House of Commons. In the latter capacity he was responsible for the act abolishing the African slave trade. He also introduced a bill that would have allowed Catholics to reach the highest ranks in the army and navy, but King George III insisted that it be withdrawn. In 1807, Lord Grenville's government, including Grey, resigned after the king ordered it to stop introducing measures designed to help Catholics. Grey lost his seat in the House of Commons later that same year, but gained a seat in the House of Lords upon the death of his father on November 16, 1807.

As a member of the House of Lords, Grey continued his campaign for parliamentary reform, but was just as unsuccessful as when he was in the House of Commons. He also opposed a renewal of the war with France in 1815, and was a vocal opponent of the Gagging Acts of 1817. When King George IV demanded that Prime Minister Lord Liverpool should introduce a Bill of Pains and Penalties to secure his divorce from Queen Caroline in 1820, it was Grey, as leader of the Whigs, who opposed the legislation vehemently. Although the bill was ultimately dropped from consideration, Grey's opposition to it all but destroyed any hope of the Whigs gaining power while George IV was alive, and Grey once again withdrew from active participation in Parliament.

Grey ended his political silence after the succession of King William IV to the throne on June 20, 1830, by once again speaking on the need for parliamentary reform. Prime Minister Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, refused to introduce any reform measures, however, and his government was defeated by vote in the House of Commons on November 15, 1830. King William IV asked Grey to form a new government, and he became Prime Minister on November 22, 1830.

As Prime Minister, Grey made parliamentary reform his primary focus. His first Reform Bill, presented on February 3, 1831, passed the House of Commons by a majority of 136 but was defeated in the House of Lords by 41 votes. That defeat led Grey to call a general election, in which the Whigs won an even greater majority. After a second Reform Bill was defeated in the House of Lords in 1832, King William IV agreed to Grey's request for creation of new Whig peers. Fearing a Whig majority, the House of Lords agreed to pass the Reform Act, which received Royal Assent on June 7.

Most of the other major pieces of work undertaken by Grey's government were introduced in 1833. They were: the Abolition of Slavery Act, the Factory Act, the ending of the monopoly of the East India Company in Britain's trade with China, a state grant of 20,000 for the building of schools, and the allowing of marriages to take place in Non-Conformist chapels. A Poor Law Amendment Act was introduced in 1834, but Grey resigned from office before the parliamentary process was completed. The only major foreign affairs issues dealt with during Grey's tenure were Belgian independence from the Netherlands, the Greek War of Independence, and the removal of King Charles X from the French throne.

On July 8, 1834, Grey went to King William IV to ask for permission to resign his post as Prime Minister following a disagreement with Lord Wellesley over policy towards Ireland. His request was granted, and he was succeeded by Lord Melbourne. Grey took no further part in politics, and died at Howick on July 17, 1845.

Note: Acording to tradition, Earl Grey was presented with a gift of tea flavored with bergamot oil. Grey liked the tea so much that he asked British tea merchants to recreate it, hence giving his name to Earl Grey Tea.

SEE ALSO
March 13
King George III
King William IV
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
East India Company
July 17

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The Robinson Library >> General and Old World History >> Great Britain >> England >> Later Hanoverians, 1820-1837

This page was last updated on July 16, 2017.