ASTLEY, Sir Edward, 4th Bt. (1729-1802), of Melton Constable, Norf.
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Family and Education
bap. 26 Dec. 1729, 1st s. of Sir Jacob Astley, 3rd Bt., of Melton Constable by Lucy, da. of Sir Nicholas L’Estrange, 4th Bt., of Hunstanton, Norf. and coh. of Sir Henry L’Estrange, 6th Bt. educ. Pembroke, Camb. 1747. m. (1) 23 May 1751, Rhoda (d.22 Oct. 1757), da. of Sir Francis Blake Delaval, 3s.; (2) 24 Feb. 1759, Anne (d.23 July 1792), da. of Christopher Milles of Nackington, Kent, sis. of Richard Milles, 1s.; (3) 30 July 1793, Elizabeth Bullen. suc. fa. 5 Jan. 1760.
Sheriff, Norf. 1763-4.
Astley, who came of an old and well-connected Norfolk family, canvassed the county at the by-election of 1764, but withdrew before the election. In 1768 he was returned for Norfolk after a very expensive contest.
Though, according to Wraxall, ‘a man of no shining ability’, Astley ‘justly excited respect as an upright country gentleman’ and ‘was heard with much attention’ by the House.1 The English Chronicle, writing in 1780 or 1781, described him as
open and affable in his manner, unaffected in his conversation, and generous and liberal in his principles. He is fond of speaking in the House, for which, however, he is not exceedingly well calculated. His arguments are not indifferent, and his judgment is on all occasions above mediocrity, but he wants the easy copia of polished volubility.
Before his election Astley had privately expressed approval of the line taken by the Rockinghams.2 In Parliament he was closely associated with them; in May 1769 he presided at the Opposition dinner at the Thatched House Tavern, and he regularly voted against the Grafton and North Administrations. Nevertheless he always considered himself a completely independent country gentleman, and on 12 Dec. 1770 declared:3
I do not propose myself to be of any party, or any side. I stand independent. ... If every gentleman who stands up in this House to give a negative to Administration is to be termed a factious man, then, I say, a gentleman is intimidated from speaking his sentiments openly. I neither court the support of Administration, nor do I fear its favours, not of this, or any ... I come with a desire to support it. If I have not done so often, I am not to blame.
On 5 Apr. 1770 he moved for an examination by the House of ‘all pensions, additional salaries, and reversionary grants’4 given during this Parliament, and in several of his other speeches, which covered a wide range of subjects, urged the need for economy. On 25 Feb. 1774, to prevent the House reverting to the ‘very disagreeable and ... very shameful’ system of deciding election petitions, Astley moved to perpetuate Grenville’s Election Act; and carried it against the Government.5
At the general election of 1774, and at all his subsequent elections, Astley, who had been forced to sell part of his estate to pay for the contest of 1768, and almost certainly could not have faced another,6 was returned unopposed. He was hostile to the American war, and increasingly distrustful of North. On 5 Jan. 1781, after having complained of ‘the growing burdens of this country’, he asked ministers and placemen whether they would set an example of cheerful support by contributing to the public cause out of their ‘great pensions and salaries’, and on 12 June 1781, having lost one son in the war, he told the House he had ‘still three more sons in the King’s service’, and he wished to know if any more of his blood ‘was to be spilt in a war, which must end in our ruin, if pursued any longer?’7
After the fall of North, Astley supported the Rockingham Administration. He voted in favour of Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 18 Feb. 1783, and on 21 Feb. told the House that if the peace ‘was not so good as gentlemen might think it ought to have been, the noble Lord in the blue riband, and not the present ministers, were to blame ...’ He lamented exceedingly that the inquiries into the noble Lord’s conduct that were once talked of, ‘had not been pursued’. His dislike of North made him oppose the Coalition: he told the House on 21 May 1783 that he had ‘a great respect for several now in the Administration’. He had ‘often voted with the right honourable secretary ... [Fox]; his former Administration had done the country much service, and [he] should have been glad of continuing to support him, had he not coupled himself with others [he] could by no means approve’.8 He spoke and voted against Fox’s East India bill.9
Robinson, in his survey drawn up in December 1783, noted that Astley would ‘often be for and perhaps sometimes against’. Astley himself told the House on 24 Dec. 1783 that though he had read in the papers that Sir Edward Astley had gone over to the Opposition, he must drink deep indeed of the water of Lethe before he should do that; he cared not indeed who was minister, he would support no man from influence but would always be guided by his opinion of the measure.10 He was unable to be present at the meeting of country gentlemen at the St. Alban’s Tavern in January 1784, but in the debate on Grosvenor’s motion for a coalition, he said that he ‘certainly would not concur with them in the resolution now under consideration of the House’. The country had ‘already suffered greatly by the Coalition, the very name of which actually stank in the nation’.11
Astley consistently supported parliamentary reform; he voted for Pitt’s reform proposals on 7 May 1783 and again on 18 Apr. 1785, and regularly endorsed Sawbridge’s motion for annual Parliaments. Naturally concerned with agricultural interests, Astley on more than one occasion attempted to deflect taxes from them on to what he considered less desirable elements in the community. During the debate of 8 June 1785 on the tax on maid servants he owned he should
be very well pleased to see both dogs and attornies subject to a duty. He thought them both articles of luxury, and had coupled them in this manner, because most of those who employed them ought, in his opinion, to pay for such an indulgence which he deemed in many ways exceptionable: indeed he had long wished to see a tax imposed on hairdressers, men milliners, and all others who dealt in effeminate occupations.12
On 7 Mar. 1788 Astley voted against Pitt on the East India declaratory bill, declaring that he had voted for his previous India bill because he thought it was the reverse of Fox’s but now he found that ‘it was almost as bad as the other’.13 He went on to state that he had not withdrawn his confidence from Pitt, in fact he ‘liked the right honourable gentleman’, but wished he would keep better company; in other words he had ‘a distrust of his colleagues’. He voted against Pitt over the Regency, 1788-9. He did not stand at the general election of 1790.
Astley died 27 Mar. 1802.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Mary M. Drummond
This biography is based on a paper by Brian Hayes.
- 1. Mems. iii. 7; v. 74.
- 2. Rockingham to H. Harbord, 4 Oct. 1767, Suffield mss.
- 3. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 223, f. 168.
- 4. Fortescue, ii. 139.
- 5. Cavendish’s ‘Debates’, Egerton 252, ff. 113-16.
- 6. Lord Hastings, Astley of Melton Constable. See also E. Rolfe to T. W. Coke, 4 Apr. 1784, Leicester mss.
- 7. Debrett, i. 370; iii. 529.
- 8. Ibid. ix. 322; x. 62.
- 9. He does not appear in the division list for 27 Nov. but he told the House 7 Mar. 1788 (Stockdale, xiii. 333) that he had spoken and voted against.
- 10. Debrett, xii. 489.
- 11. Stockdale, xiii. 29.
- 12. Ibid. xviii. 491.
- 13. Ibid. xiii. 333.