KEENE, Benjamin (c.1697-1757).
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Family and Education
b. c.1697, 1st s. of Charles Keene, mercer, alderman and mayor of King’s Lynn, Norf., by Susan, da. of Edmund Rolfe of Heacham, Norf. educ. Lynn g.s.; Pembroke, Camb. 1713; Leyden. K.B. 1754.
Consul, Madrid 1724; minister, Madrid 1727-39; ld. of Trade 1741-4; paymaster of pensions Jan.-Aug. 1745; envoy, Lisbon 1745-50; ambassador, Madrid 1749-d.
According to the second Lord Hardwicke, ‘Keene’s father and mother were of families which had exercised the principal magistracies of Lynn, and were strongly attached to the Walpole interest ... Lord Townshend, secretary of state, took early notice of his talents’.1 Under these auspices he was sent to Madrid, first as agent for the South Sea Company and then as consul and minister, remaining there till the outbreak of the war with Spain in 1739. On his return he was brought into Parliament and made a commissioner of Trade. Walpole, who had the highest opinion of his abilities, wrote shortly before his fall to the Duke of Devonshire: ‘Mr. Keene is truly so deserving a man, of so precarious a future, and so liable to be made a sacrifice for the sake of his friends upon any change, that I know nothing that I wish more than to see him in some way established’.2 One of his last official acts was to provide for Keene by giving him and Henry Legge for their joint lives equal shares in a reversion of a place in the customs worth £1,200 p.a. Eventually Keene bought out Legge’s interest for £3,500, Legge retaining the reversion.
After Walpole’s fall there was some talk of impeaching Keene for his share in the negotiations for the Spanish convention of 1739. In the event he retained his place till the beginning of 1745 when he was made paymaster of pensions. But as he wrote to his life-long friend, Abraham Castres, the consul-general at Lisbon: ‘While [the House] is sitting agreeable thoughts never enter into my imagination. If this country were quiet and friendly no spot upon earth would please me so much, but I was not formed for party squabbles’. He was therefore delighted to exchange appointments with the British minister in Lisbon, leaving to take up his post in 1746.
Keene never returned to England, although he remained a Member of Parliament until 1747. In 1749 he was appointed ambassador to Spain, where he remained for the rest of his life. He died at Madrid on 15 Dec. 1757, leaving behind him so high a reputation as a diplomat that it was said that ‘being compared with him carries along with it the éloge of any public minister’.