ARBUTHNOT, Charles (1767-1850), of Woodford, Northants.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820, ed. R. Thorne, 1986
Available from Boydell and Brewer



27 Mar. 1795 - 1796
18 Apr. 1809 - 1812
1812 - 1818
1818 - June 1827
10 June 1828 - 1830
1830 - Feb. 1831

Family and Education

b. 14 Mar. 1767, 3rd s. of John Arbuthnot, inspector gen. of the linen board, of Rockfleet, co. Mayo by 3rd w. Anne, da. of Richard Stone, London banker. educ. private sch. at Richmond 1774-9; Westminster 1779-84; Christ Church, Oxf. 1784-8; Grand Tour 1788-9. m. (1) 23 Feb. 1799, Marcia Mary Anne (d. 24 May 1806), da. and coh. of William Clapcott Lisle of Upway, Dorset, 2s. 2da.; (2) 31 Jan. 1814, Harriet, da. of Hon. Henry Fane* of Fulbeck, Lincs., s.p.

Offices Held

Précis writer, Foreign Office Sept. 1793-Mar. 1795; sec. of legation, Stockholm 1795-9, chargé d’affaires 1795-7; envoy to Württemberg Feb.-May 1798; consul at Lisbon, Feb. 1799, chargé d’affaires 1800-1; envoy extraordinary to Sweden 1802-3; under-sec. of state for Foreign affairs Nov. 1803-June 1804; envoy extraordinary to the Porte 1804-7; PC 27 June 1804; jt. sec. to Treasury Apr. 1809-Feb. 1823; first commr. of woods, forests and land revenues Feb. 1823-Apr. 1827; Feb.-June 1828; chancellor of duchy of Lancaster June 1828-Nov. 1830.


Arbuthnot was brought up by his great-uncle Andrew Stone, the former confidant of the Duke of Newcastle of whom Horace Walpole remarked that ‘during thirty or forty years no man was more completely behind the scenes of the political stage’. He later reflected that his adoption by Stone was the cause of all his subsequent success and imperceptibly slipped into a similar role in public life. He never knew his parents, his father having settled in Ireland after his mother’s death, and his own good fortune enabled him to be of service to his brothers in the army and the Church. Thanks to his great-uncle’s generosity, he was not obliged to take the idea of a legal career seriously: at Oxford he passed his time ‘in idleness and amusements ... with a most agreeable set’. He was a man about town and about to take up an ensignship in his friend Lord Paget’s regiment in 1793 when at the instigation of another friend, John King*, he accepted a new appointment at the Foreign Office, that of précis writer, worth £300 p.a. It opened up to him ‘a great fund of information’ which would render him fit for ‘higher situations’ and, as he subsequently believed, providentially saved him from ‘the high road to ruin’. According to Canning, who knew him at Christ Church, Arbuthnot was soon ‘in great favour with Lord Grenville’: no wonder, for he was ‘pleasant, quick, gentlemanly and universally a favourite’. He was, however, ‘too good-natured’ to ‘awe people’ and rejoiced in the nickname of ‘Gosh’.1

Arbuthnot wished to support Pitt’s administration ‘with more than my wishes’, so he informed his chief, addressing him as ‘my patron and my friend’, 2 Jan. 1795. He had accordingly obtained from Pitt the promise, ‘if not otherwise engaged’, of the seat in Parliament about to be vacated by William Wellesley Pole. As his post at the Foreign Office disqualified him, he asked permission to continue its duties without a salary and in March 1795 duly came in for East Looe on the Buller interest, placed at the disposal of government. The Sun, reporting his coming into Parliament, described him as private secretary to Lord Grenville. Before he could make any mark in the House, however, he was sent to Stockholm as secretary of the legation and chargé d’affaires and for the next 12 years was employed chiefly as a diplomat. He gave general satisfaction at Stockholm, Stuttgart and Lisbon. The latter appointment, again urged on Grenville by John King, was a necessary prerequisite to his marriage to a niece of Lord Cholmondeley’s whose mother was a lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Wales, but it did not lead to his becoming a plenipotentiary. In 1803 Hawkesbury made Arbuthnot his under-secretary at the Foreign Office in succession to Lord Hervey, thinking him well qualified for it by his experience in the forms of the office, his good temper and his good manners.2

On Pitt’s return to power he was sent to Constantinople, thought ‘likely to become a very important post’, and to add to his weight he was made a privy councillor. The mission proved an unhappy one; in 1806 he lost his wife after seven years of perfect happiness and contemplated resignation, but was induced by Lord Howick to remain. In March 1807 he came to grief over his unsuccessful bid, in uneasy collaboration with Admiral John Thomas Duckworth* to force the Porte by a show of naval force to agree to the dismissal of their French envoy and to come to terms with Russia. Not conscious of any fault, Arbuthnot, who had fallen ill at sea during the operation, returned home and was pensioned off with £2,000 p.a. The operation was the subject of a censure motion in the House on 20 May 1808. Arbuthnot, always prepared to justify his role, though loath to do so publicly, particularly resented allegations that he had disobeyed his instructions.3

In April 1809 Arbuthnot began a fresh career as joint secretary to the Treasury in succession to his friend Henry Wellesley, who recommended him to the other secretary, William Huskisson, as ideally suited, though unknown to Perceval, then chancellor of the Exchequer: ‘his good temper and gentlemanlike and conciliating manners could not fail to render him popular with Members of Parliament’.4 Arbuthnot was brought in, after over 13 years’ absence, on the Cornwallis interest for Eye, again in succession to Henry Wellesley. From the start, he appears to have been primarily responsible for patronage and parliamentary management, while his colleague Huskisson devoted himself to financial business; this differentiation of secretarial functions, so well adapted to their distinct temperaments, was already becoming the rule.5

Although he was powerless to prevent the collapse of the Portland government in the autumn of 1809, Arbuthnot was already playing the mediatory role in government circles in which he subsequently shone. He was known to Portland and kept Perceval informed, when he was commissioned to form a government, of the duke’s feelings. He also tried to prevent Canning’s friend, his own Treasury colleague Huskisson, from leaving the government. Disappointed in his wish to have Huskisson replaced by John Charles Herries as his colleague, he obtained Huskisson’s house in Downing Street for his residence and became a ‘warm partisan’ of Perceval, who had ‘the best regulated ambition’ he ever witnessed. He conveyed to Canning through Huskisson a denial of government trickery in securing the services of Lord Wellesley and of his own alleged role in fostering abuse of Canning in the pro-government newspapers, and held out hopes of ‘a general reunion’.6 Writing to Perceval on 9 Jan. 1810 to assure him that the minister’s treatment of him merited his ‘most zealous assistance’, he regretted only that his nervous headaches ‘and other disagreeable symptoms’ had impeded his attention to business.7 In 1810 he was one of 12 Members listed by the Whigs as friends of Perceval and that session opposed criminal law, parliamentary and sinecure reform by his vote.

Arbuthnot’s ability to muster support for a hard-pressed government in the crucial divisions on the Scheldt inquiry in the spring of 1810 was called into question. Viscount Lowther informed his father:

we lose a vast number of votes by having no one who can collect them. Arbuthnot is perfectly useless; he is not acquainted with one-third of the House and sits perfectly idle, although no exertions could have gained a majority for ministers on Lord Chatham’s question, as every Member came voluntarily to the House.

The main problem was not so much lack of attendance as dwindling majorities caused by Members on the government side leaving before the divisions. Later that year Arbuthnot contrived to be shut out of a division himself and, as his colleague Wharton had gout, neither secretary of the Treasury supported government in the lobby, a rare occurrence.8 Again, Arbuthnot’s proverbial tact was lost on persons he hoped most to conciliate, like Canning, who waxed sarcastic at Arbuthnot’s inability to keep a confidence to himself and his impertinence in sending him an attendance circular.9 He did, however, secure the good opinion of the Prince Regent, and although he disliked taking part in debate he was well received when he entered into a detailed defence of his reimbursement for extraordinary expenses while at Constantinople, 10 Feb. 1812. This was the only subject on which he ever spoke at length and its candour was thought ominous, his other interventions being nearly all on Treasury business in the absence of his colleagues.10

Arbuthnot remained in concert with Perceval’s colleagues after the minister’s death, which quite overwhelmed him, voting against Stuart Wortley’s motion 21 May 1812. Like them he refused to serve an administration including the Whigs headed by Wellesley, though he favoured the Regent’s commission to Moira to form a government ‘to save his Royal Highness from the worst of opposition’: he hoped that it would enable ‘old friends’ like Canning and Wellesley to act together again and would have accepted the Irish secretaryship under Moira, a post that had been suggested for him while Perceval lived, provided Richmond remained lord lieutenant.11 When Liverpool remained at the helm, Arbuthnot tried to be of essential service to the new government by his endeavours through Huskisson to promote an understanding between Castlereagh and Canning, intended to bring in the latter, whose services he regarded as indispensable in debate. On 27 July 1812, he left Lord Liverpool thinking that everything was settled; next morning he heard that all was over. He suffered the mortification of the failure being in some quarters, notably by the disappointed Wellesley Pole, attributed to a note sent by himself to Huskisson with a view to conciliating Canning to a compromise with Castlereagh, which was not shown to Canning before he settled matters with Liverpool, but prompted a conversation with him afterwards that was supposed to have started the doubts in Canning’s mind that culminated in his refusal to join government. A letter of Huskisson to Arbuthnot exonerated him from any such blame; but an embittered Canning was not averse to conveying the impression that Arbuthnot was a meddling busybody, particularly when Arbuthnot continued to make efforts through Huskisson, John Charles Villiers and the Prince Regent to bring him back into the fold: ‘if it succeeds’, Arbuthnot wrote, ‘I must have a crown of gold’. It failed and he commented glumly, 17 Aug., ‘we may have victories without end, but they will not improve our Treasury bench speakers’. Canning remarked: ‘Nothing can be kinder than Arbuthnot’s intentions but I am afraid he bothers things by cross communications’.12

Arbuthnot’s management of the general election of 1812 was criticized: Goulburn wrote to Peel, 14 Nov., with reference to the latter’s achievement in Ireland:

You have gained honour, and I only wish that Arbuthnot had done half as well in England. Entre nous it has been most infamously mismanaged, and there have been no candidates found for places the most devoted to our interests, which are consequently now filled by opposition men.

Liverpool’s half-brother complained to him that Arbuthnot was ‘most grossly inattentive to everybody and has given offence to some of your best friends’.13 Arbuthnot himself came in for Orford on Lord Hertford’s interest, a mark of the Prince Regent’s approbation: he made himself useful to the Prince by parrying attacks on him in the press, on which he kept a close eye.14 He disconcerted some members of government, particularly Richmond in Ireland, by voting for consideration of the Catholic claims: he had done so on Canning’s motion in 1812 and did so again on 2 Mar. 1813, though Richmond reported that he had been ashamed of his vote of the previous year. Peel tackled Arbuthnot, who insisted that he could ‘explain it satisfactorily’. In any case, he remained pro-Catholic on 13 and 24 May 1813, 21 May 1816 (by pairing) and 9 May 1817, though he gave silent votes and was subsequently unsympathetic until 1829.15 He also voted in favour of Christian missions to India in 1813.

Arbuthnot’s second marriage in 1814 to a lady less than half his age was an extremely happy one and the partiality of the Duke of Wellington, when he met her in Paris that year, to Mrs Arbuthnot made them a unique political ménage à trois for 20 years. Arbuthnot continued to cut a sad figure as parliamentary recruiting sergeant. When government were pressed for Members, Viscount Lowther reported: ‘I believe Arbuthnot’s six months’ absence in France caused a sad want of attention and little civilities to the friends of government who now purposely absent themselves, when most wanted’. When government were defeated on the property tax in March 1816, he had calculated a majority for them of 40.16 The business of the provision for the royal dukes on their marriages in which he became involved in 1818 tried him sorely, and finding the House hard to manage he was exasperated enough to wish to ‘abandon the marriages altogether’. In the absence of his colleague Lushington and George Harrison, their permanent assistant, in the summer of 1818 he found the business of military reduction which fell to him equally uncongenial.17

The general election of 1818 was not conspicuously better managed by Arbuthnot than that of 1812, though he disagreed with opposition estimates of the gains they had made. He again changed his seat, coming in on Lord St. Germans’ interest, though he was also returned for Rye. In March 1819 he was in despair about non-attendance, particularly by official men:

Those who stayed, complained, as I have heard, that I don’t keep good Houses— those who went away equally complain that I require attendance needlessly. Worn out with bodily fatigue and vexation I twice during the week wrote at night to Lord Liverpool that our office men would not attend, and that the independent Members declared to me that they would not try to support those in office who would not take the trouble of trying to support themselves. After passing a long night of worry and alarm lest we should be in a minority, the evil of non-attendance was thought so serious that Long and Huskisson went with me to Fife House, and joined with me in declaring that the government would be broken down in a fortnight’s time unless those in office would, throughout the evening, without pairing off, devote themselves to the House.

It was settled that Liverpool and Castlereagh should bring official men to book. Arbuthnot went on to inform Castlereagh:

but I do assure you that I shall not be equal to the task imposed upon me unless I am supported, and indeed I must add that the odiousness of my House of Commons duties is become so hateful to me that were I but tolerably independent in my circumstances I would not hold my present office one session longer. I don’t think that the sacrifice could be required of me which I would not make to serve you; but in the easiest times it would require the buoyancy of youthful spirits not to be affected by my parliamentary work, and now it has become nearly insupportable. I find from well wishers and friends of mine that at the clubs the country gentlemen talk loudly of my presuming to ask them to stay when the office men were not there; and here it is to be remembered that with all our sweeping reductions of patronage, I have not the tie I once had upon the independent Members.

He added:

I may be fuller of my own grievances than may be right, but it does indeed dwell upon my mind and spirits that on account of my still having a heavy debt I dare not be free agent, and either go out of office altogether, or ask whether, after so many years of hard servitude, I might not look up to some other situation, and be thus liberated from the misery of offending everyone whilst I am slaving to preserve the government from disgrace.

Vansittart’s unpopularity as chancellor of the Exchequer was another source of dismay to Arbuthnot, and to make matters worse he felt unable to tell Liverpool freely ‘all that is daily said to me’, because it would ‘agitate a most nervous mind just in the very midst of our parliamentary difficulties’. A government reshuffle which would ‘reorganise and strengthen the whole machine’ seemed to him the only answer. He was encouraged by the response to his recruitment for Ridley’s motion on 18 Mar. 1819, not having exerted himself so much ‘since the Walcheren expedition’: government carried the day by 245 to 164. But according to one of the clerks of the House, he was himself

quite enough to overset any administration. Equal in small things as in great, having moved an Irish writ a day too soon, he forgot it for a fortnight, and, I think, has not moved any writ this session without some blunder; once in the place.18

After 1819 Arbuthnot’s thoughts were concentrated on giving up his office, though he remained, in deference to Liverpool’s and Castlereagh’s wishes, until 1823. A civil list pension for Mrs Arbuthnot and a gift from the Prince Regent allayed his financial anxieties and a less onerous office improved his health. Looking back on his career as patronage secretary, he observed that Liverpool

never made any appointment, great or small, without first talking it over with me. [He said] that unless I continued in office as long as he was a minister, he should have no confidential friend to aid him. But, with the exception of recommending for preferment a brother in the church, and of asking for a clerkship in the Treasury for a nephew, I never endeavoured to obtain one single favour for myself, or for my family, during the many years that the whole patronage of the Treasury ... passed ... through my hands. ... My career ... is entirely of my own making. I had no family interests to press me forward. As well as I could, I have worked laboriously through a long life ... I never betrayed the unlimited confidence which was placed in me.19

After an undistinguished later career, Arbuthnot gave up Parliament in 1831 and died at Apsley House 18 Aug. 1850, under the aegis of the Duke of Wellington. Greville the diarist reflected:

Arbuthnot’s career has been remarkable. He had no shining parts, and never could have been conspicuous in public life, but in a subordinate and unostentatious character he was more largely mixed up with the principal people and events of his time than any other man. He might have written very curious and interesting memoirs if he had only noted down all that passed under his observation, and the results of his political information and connexions, for few men ever enjoyed so entirely the intimacy and unreserved confidence of so many statesmen and ministers, and therefore few have been so well acquainted with the details of secret history. He was successively the trusted adherent and intimate friend of Lord Liverpool, Lord Castlereagh, and the Duke of Wellington, and more or less of almost all their colleagues, besides being on very good terms with many others with whom he had no political opinions in common. He had in fact a somewhat singular and exceptional position; much liked, much trusted, continually consulted and employed, with no enemies and innumerable friends. This was owing to his character, which was exactly calculated to win this position for him. Without brilliant talents, he had a good sound understanding and dispassionate judgement, liberality in his ideas, and no violent prejudices. He was mild, modest, and sincere; he was single-minded, zealous, serviceable, and sympathetic (simpatico), and he was moreover both honourable and discreet. The consequence was that everybody relied upon him and trusted him, and he passed his whole life in an atmosphere of political transactions and secrets.20

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Author: R. G. Thorne


  • 1. DNB (Stone, Andrew); A. J. Arbuthnot, Mems. Arbuthnots of Kincardineshire and Aberdeenshire, 181 citing an autobiographical memoir since lost, 226 citing a memo of 14 Dec. 1830; Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 3 Dec. 1793, 21 Apr. 1794; Canning and his Friends, i. 6.
  • 2. PRO 30/8/140, f. 81; Sun, 3 Mar. 1795; Geo. III Corresp. iii. 1728; iv. 2778; HMC Fortescue, iv. 425, 430; vi. 294.
  • 3. Malmesbury Diaries, iv. 325; Geo. III Corresp. iv. 2870, 2901, 3330-2; Arbuthnot, 185, 210; Castlereagh Corresp. vi. 151; Grey mss, Arbuthnot to Fox, 17 Oct. 1806, to Howick, 8, 14 June, 6 July, Howick to Arbuthnot, 13 Jan., Markham to Howick, 11 June 1807; Parl. Deb. xi. 475.
  • 4. Add. 38737, f. 303.
  • 5. Arbuthnot Corresp. (Cam. Soc. ser. 3, lxv), intro.; HMC Bathurst, 538; D. Gray, Perceval, 125n, 320.
  • 6. Perceval (Holland) mss 2, ff. 17, 22; Add. 38737, ff. 331, 338, 356, 379, 383, 386, 389, 395; 38738, f. 8; 48222, f. 196; 57418, f. 21; Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, i. 16.
  • 7. Perceval (Holland) mss 21, f. 24.
  • 8. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, Sat. [10 Mar.], Long to same, 5 Dec. [1810].
  • 9. Canning and his Friends, i. 352, 362; Harewood mss, Canning to his wife, 10 Nov. 1810.
  • 10. Prince of Wales Corresp. vii. 2902; viii. 3424; Jnl. of Mrs Arbuthnot, ii. 331; Buckingham, Regency, i. 223.
  • 11. Gray, 458; Lonsdale mss, Wharton to Lonsdale, 18 May 1812; Add. 38738, f. 241; Geo. IV Letters, i. 75, 94, 99, 109; NLI, Richmond mss 74/1900.
  • 12. Add. 38738, ff. 277, 279, 285, 287, 291, 299, 301, 310, 320; Richmond mss 74/1898; Arbuthnot Corresp. 7-8; Lonsdale mss, Ward to Lonsdale, 1 Oct. 1812.
  • 13. Add. 40223, f. 47; NLW, Pitchford mss, Jenkinson letter bks. Jenkinson to Liverpool, 5 Oct. 1812.
  • 14. Geo. IV Letters, i. 142, 152, 153, 208; ii. 525; A. Aspinall, Politics and the Press 1780-1850, pp. 81, 86, 90, 92-93, 98, 188, 207-9, 215, 429.
  • 15. Add. 40185, f. 198; 40281, f. 144.
  • 16. Lonsdale mss, Lowther to Lonsdale, 24 Mar. 1815(?); Horner Mems. ii. 318.
  • 17. HMC Bathurst, 447; Add. 38741, f. 253.
  • 18. HMC Fortescue, x. 441; Add. 38578, f. 78; Arbuthnot Corresp. 15-18; Colchester, iii. 72.
  • 19. HMC Bathurst, 538; Arbuthnot Corresp. intro., 226; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1065, 1116, 1120, 1124.
  • 20. Greville Mems. ed. Strachey and Fulford, vi. 254.