PERCEVAL, John, 2nd Earl of Egmont [I] (1711-70).
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Family and Education
b. 24 Feb. 1711, o. surv. s. of John, 1st Earl of Egmont [I], M.P., by Catherine, da. of Sir Edward Dering, 2nd Bt., M.P. m. (1) 15 Feb. 1737, Lady Catherine Cecil (d. 1752), da. of James, 5th Earl of Salisbury, 2s. 1da.; (2) 26 Jan. 1756, Catherine, da. of Hon. Charles Compton, 4s. 4da. suc. fa. as 2nd Earl 1 May 1748; cr. Baron Lovel and Holland [GB] 7 May 1762.
M.P. [I] 1731-48; ld. of the bedchamber to the Prince of Wales 1748-51; P.C. 9 Jan. 1755; jt. postmaster gen. Nov. 1762-Sept. 1763; first ld. of Admiralty Sept. 1763-Aug. 1766.
On Egmont’s death his political career was thus summed up by Horace Walpole: ‘a man always ambitious, almost always attached to a court, yet, from a singularity in his turn, scarce ever in place’.1 Repeatedly offered the post of secretary of state, he never held it; nor any other office under the Crown during his 20 years in the Commons. Before 1748, when he became the chief adviser of the Prince of Wales, he had several times changed sides, making a great many enemies; and at Leicester House he again made far more enemies than friends. He had attacked Robert Walpole and the Pelhams, the Duke of Cumberland and Henry Fox, and he hated Pitt with inordinate virulence. In private, writes Walpole,2 he was ‘as good-humoured as it was possible for a man to be who was never known to laugh; he was once indeed seen to smile, and that was at chess’.
There was also in him a ‘singularity’ of ideas. Walpole’s story that Egmont ‘was scarce a man before he had a scheme of assembling the Jews, and making himself their king’3 is not incredible; that he prepared to defend ‘with crossbows and arrows’ the medieval moated castle he built at Enmore,4 is an embellishment; but the scheme for settling the island of St. John on a feudal basis is recorded in several memorials presented to the King between 1763 and 1765 by Egmont, then first lord of the Admiralty;5 under him as lord paramount, 40 capital lords and 400 lords of manors were to hold 800,000 acres by military tenure, supplying 1,200 men for defence. He also calculated that the land acquired in America by the peace treaty (about 1,240 million acres), if similarly settled, would furnish a feudal levy of 724,000 men. And with Norman fancies about his family, ‘the House of Ivery’, went a craving for a British peerage.
Despite singularities of temper and mind, Egmont made a figure in the Commons. James, 2nd Earl Waldegrave wrote in his Memoirs (pp. 83-84), c.1757:
Egmont ... was a good speaker in Parliament, had an excellent character in private life, and was thought to have a spirit which would not be easily intimidated. Business and politics were his only amusements; and he had parts as well as application. But ... he respected himself rather more than the world respected him.
After the Prince’s death in 1751, Egmont, alone among his associates, did not join the Pelhams; and in 1754 at Bridgwater, supported by the corporation and Lord Poulett, defeated his late Leicester House rival, Bubb Dodington, supported by the Treasury.6 He was accordingly listed by Dupplin as an Opposition Whig; still, by the end of the year the Princess of Wales prevailed on him ‘to accept, and on the King to offer him an employment’.7 He was made a Privy Councillor, but no satisfactory post was found for him, which ‘was very mortifying to him’ though ‘he had prudence enough not to show it’.8
In July 1755 Newcastle obtained the King’s approval of a scheme for strengthening the Government in the Commons by making Egmont a vice-treasurer of Ireland, Sir George Lee chancellor of the Exchequer, and Pitt a Cabinet minister.9 Nothing came of it, and Egmont told Sir John Cust, 21 Oct. 1755,10 that he declined employment because by the advancement of Fox a decision was made opposite to the connexions in which he had long engaged, and distasteful and insulting to those ‘for whom I must have an eternal regard’; moreover, as he could not be against the subsidy treaties, he avoided a situation in which interested motives might be ascribed to him. Lastly, he did not trust Newcastle and Hardwicke—circumstances rendered it impossible
to know whether they were sincere or not ... What was not right ... in this transaction became extremely difficult to assign to any positive or certain cause ... As to the admission of Fox ... it remains even yet a doubt with me ... whether the events which led to his being placed where he now is [secretary of state], sprung from necessity, or secret choice.
The violence of ‘some of us’ over the subsidies may have been premature and excessive. Still—‘I should be mad to come in alone’.
A rather different account of these transactions, seen in perspective, was given by Egmont in a pamphlet which c.1757 he wrote on Pitt’s political career:11 Newcastle’s scheme would have succeeded but for ‘a very extraordinary event’ which happened at that very juncture.
From the time Fox had been advanced into the Cabinet [Dec. 1754] to become distinguished as one of the Regents [Apr. 1755], the resentments of Leicester House were greatly inflamed, and the temper, very favourable till that time to the two Lords [Newcastle and Hardwicke], was much altered ... In this interval the Earl of Bute ... without observation advanced in the confidence of the P[rincess] of Wales so far that the interest of her former servants was in a manner totally lost almost before they were sensible it had been impaired.
Next, Bute ‘entered into league with Pitt’ who, seeing that Newcastle’s scheme would advance Lee and Egmont and reduce his own pre-eminence, ‘resolved ... to enter upon a furious opposition’; while Egmont, who would not embark with Newcastle nor submit to Pitt, ‘determined to stand alone, without employment, but still in the support of Government’.
In short, Egmont found himself supplanted at Leicester House, but his reputed boldness was not equal to facing Pitt in the Commons. ‘I have for the present set up my rest in the innocent satisfaction of a private life’, he wrote to Cust on 6 Apr. 1756.
After Fox had resigned in October 1756 and the negotiation with Pitt had failed, offers were made to Egmont ‘so considerable ... that there was nothing left for me to ... desire’; but seeing no sufficient support, ‘I excused myself from taking the whole upon me in the House of Commons’.12 Here, however, is Waldegrave’s account of the transaction:
The Duke of Newcastle offered to make him secretary of state; but Egmont, whose object was an English peerage ... refused to engage unless he was immediately removed to the House of Lords, which was directly contrary to the Duke of Newcastle’s purposes: the House of Commons being the only place where he wanted assistance.13
In March 1757, Egmont was again thought of for secretary of state; but as ‘his object was a peerage’, he ‘pleaded bad health, which would not bear the fatigue of the House of Commons’.14 He once more refused in May 1757;15 and when on 12 June a meeting at Devonshire House considered whom to propose to the King for secretaries of state, against Egmont was placed the remark: ‘who would not accept it unless he is made a peer’.16
With Pitt firmly in the saddle Egmont faded out politically, and for nearly three years not one speech by him is recorded; he criticized Pitt’s conduct of the war only in an anonymous pamphlet, Things as they are (August 1758), extolling, as he always did, the old Austrian alliance, and inveighing against that with Prussia.17 It was not till Spring 1760 that Egmont again intervened in an important debate, opposing the qualification bill favoured by Pitt and the Tories.18
Pitt’s relations with Bute having deteriorated, George III’s accession raised Egmont’s hopes that his old attachments to Leicester House might bring him back to court.19 On 30 Oct. he recorded in his diary that his brother-in-law, Lord Northampton, said ‘he heard from two people that I was to be employed’. Next start entries about his peerage.
Saturday 1 November 1760. Dr Brocklesby [the physician] ... said he knew I was to be a peer. Ld. Northampton told me he heard I was to be an English peer. Lady Elizabeth Compton ... said she heard I was to be a peer. Selwyn ... told me he heard I was to be a peer.
During the next few days the same from Lord Waldegrave, Charles Townshend, etc. On 6 Nov.: ‘I still hear that I am to be a peer from all quarters but not any notice from the court as yet.’ 2 Dec.:
The newspapers are continually mentioning me to be made a peer. Everybody congratulating me ... yet hearing nothing of it myself.
Unable to bear it any longer, he turned to Bute ‘with whom I had stayed long upon terms hardly of speaking’, but who had recently ‘familiarly accosted me’: on 3 Dec. Egmont wrote to ask whether his services ‘can be rendered useful to the King’. According to Dodington, Bute told him on 27 Dec.,20
that very lately Lord Egmont had been with him, and begged earnestly to go into the House of Lords—that his election at Bridgwater was very uncertain—that he was very ill, and much dejected, etc.
Bute further said that ‘the King was very little disposed’ to make Egmont a peer; but that it seemed ‘hard he should be in neither House’.
And on 31 Dec. Dodington wrote to Bute:21
If want of interest to get into one House be a sufficient reason to get into the other, no man’s pretension to a peerage can be better grounded: but if his Majesty does not think it necessary to bring him into the House of Lords, Lord Bute may, if he pleases, still bring him ... into the House of Commons for Bridgwater, by signifying his commands [to Dodington.]
In 1761 Egmont was returned for Bridgwater and also for Ilchester, which seat he vacated, deferentially consulting Bute about the choice of successor.22 He was now at Bute’s command, and when in December 1761 the court, ‘to veil their eagerness for peace ... took great pains to prevent their creatures from openly attacking the German war’, Egmont ‘was persuaded to be absent from the House’;23 and no speech by him (except one lauding Cust on his election to the Chair) is recorded before he was created a British peer, 7 May 1762.
Appointed joint postmaster general in November 1762, and in Grenville’s Administration of April 1763, he was promoted to the Admiralty in that of September, although he apparently refused to concur to their anti-Butism.24 He was now in the Effective Cabinet, but as the King’s confidential correspondence for 1763-Apr. 1765 is missing, and in the Cabinet Egmont ‘used always to be silent’,25 the part played by him does not appear till the Government crisis of May-June 1765 when he emerges as a King’s man, and probably not of recent standing.26 Continued at the Admiralty under the Rockinghams, in their Cabinet he played the part of the King’s observer, and acted as his trusted adviser, especially in the crises of January and May 1766. Left at the Admiralty, he resigned on 12 Aug., feeling unable to serve in a Chatham Administration.27 He never re-entered office, and died 20 Dec. 1770.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Sir Lewis Namier
- 1. Mems. Geo. III, iv. 140, corrected from original in the Walpole mss of Earl Waldegrave.
- 2. Mems. Geo. II, i. 36.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Mems. Geo. III, i. 308.
- 5. E.g. CO217/20. He even printed this memorial apparently for private circulation; see copy in the British Museum, and Mems. Geo. III, i. 308.
- 6. Dodington, Diary, 251-4, 287; Add. 32995, ff. 138-41.
- 7. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, i. 418.
- 8. Add. 32737, ff. 477, 479; 35414, f. 251; 32857, f. 251.
- 9. Add. 32857, ff. 37, 256, 262; 32858, ff. 130, 193.
- 10. Recs. Cust Fam. iii. 157-8.
- 11. Unpublished, Add. 47097/8 (unbound).
- 12. Recs. Cust Fam. 159.
- 13. Mems. 83-84.
- 14. Waldegrave, 103, 105.
- 15. Walpole, Mems. Geo. II, iii. 23; Ilchester, Letters to Hen. Fox, 109.
- 16. Devonshire mss.
- 17. Recs. Cust Fam. 170-171.
- 18. Add. 32903, f. 94; 32905, ff. 16, 246.
- 19. Egmont’s diary, 25 Oct.-3 Dec. 1760, Add. 47097/8 (unbound).
- 20. Diary, 420-2.
- 21. Bute mss.
- 22. Egmont to Bute, 23 July 1761, Bute mss.
- 23. Walpole, Mems. Geo. III, i. 79-80.
- 24. Bute to Dr. John Campbell, 18 Nov. 1763, Bute mss.
- 25. Grenville diary, 12 June 1765, Grenville Pprs. iii. 195.
- 26. Fortescue, i. 107.
- 27. Recs. Cust Fam. 260.