BETHELL CODRINGTON, Christopher (1764-1843), of Dodington, nr. Chipping Sodbury, Glos.
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Family and Education
b. Oct. 1764, 1st s. of Edward Codrington, merchant, of Broad Street, London by w. Rebecca Le Sturgeon of Mortlake, Surr. educ. Harrow 1775-80. m. 15 Aug. 1796, Hon. Caroline Georgiana Harriet Foley, da. of Thomas Foley†, 2nd Baron Foley, 3s. 12da. suc. fa 1775; uncle Sir William Codington*, 2nd Bt., to Dodington and W.I. property 1792; uncle Christopher Bethell (formerly Codrington) 1797 and took name of Bethell before Codrington 17 Nov. 1797.
Sheriff, Glos. 1793-4.
Capt. commdt. Tewkesbury vols. 1803.
Codrington’s father was a West India merchant in partnership with one John Miller and presumably handled the produce of the plantations in Antigua which belonged to his eldest brother Sir William Codrington, Whig Member for Tewkesbury from 1761-1792. He had property of his own there and in his will, dated 17 Dec. 1774, he left equal shares in it to his five children. He died shortly afterwards in France. In 1789 Sir William Codrington disinherited his only son, William, payment of whose debts had cost him dear, and devised the Antigua plantations and his estate in south Gloucestershire to Christopher Codrington, his nephew. He cancelled a debt of almost £18,000 owed by his late brother’s estate and stipulated that his heir must ‘reside for six months after my decease on my estate in the West Indies to learn planting’. He died in 1792 and Codrington, now a wealthy man, evidently complied with this condition. He agreed to pay his cousin, the 3rd Baronet, who spent most of his life in France, an annuity of £2,000. A further inheritance came his way on the death in 1797 of his uncle Christopher Bethell, who had changed his name on inheriting the West Indian and Yorkshire property of his maternal uncle Slingsby Bethell in 1758. Codrington kept the Caribbean property and took the name of Bethell before his patronymic, in accordance with the proviso in Slingsby Bethell’s will, but conveyed the Yorkshire estate to his younger brother William John.1
Shortly afterwards a vacancy occurred at Tewkesbury when his cousin William Dowdeswell, Sir William Codrington’s successor in the seat, on whose family interest Sir William had first been returned for the borough, was appointed governor of the Bahamas. Codrington stood and was returned after a token contest, promising to act in the House ‘with honour and independence’.2 He was elected without opposition in 1802.
According to his obituary, he renounced the Whig and ‘latitudinarian’ principles in which he had been educated and supported Pitt, who visited him at Dodington in November 1802, though ‘more than once did he vote in opposition to the leader of his party’.3 No record has been found of his having done so during Pitt’s periods in power, but he did follow Canning, who listed him as one of the ‘stragglers’, rather than Pitt in voting for Patten’s motion of censure on the Addington ministry, 3 June 1803. He had earlier been among ‘the most marked persons whose votes, having been counted on by government, were given to opposition’ in the division on the adjournment pending news of war, 6 May 1803, when Lord Redesdale described him as ‘an untried man’ with ‘obligations to the late ministers’.4 Listed ‘Pitt’ in March 1804, he voted against Addington on the 11th and 15th and again in the decisive divisions of 23 and 25 Apr. He supported Pitt’s second ministry without drawing attention to himself.
Codrington voted against the Grenville ministry’s repeal of Pitt’s Additional Force Act, 30 Apr. 1806, but in August he wrote to Grenville and asked to be made a peer,
finding my health by no means equal to the late hours of the House of Commons, and feeling that, with an anxiety to support his Majesty’s government under your lordship’s administration, I cannot act with those persons in the House of Commons however respectable whom, during Mr Pitt’s administration (or I might say your lordship’s when formerly united with him) I have invariably and conscientiously opposed.
Grenville returned a flat refusal and at the general election encouraged Lord Berkeley to put up his nephew for Tewkesbury against Codrington, who wrote peevishly to the minister:
Having ... [always] most conscientiously opposed the gentlemen ... now forming the administration in the House of Commons, I am anxious it should not be considered from pique or party motives that I consistently adhere to the same line of conduct ... I may assert that my re-election is secured. If, through the indulgence of your lordship, I could have seen my brother in the seat ... he would not have had similar cause of not acting with his Majesty’s present government in the House of Commons, and I should have felt myself under the greatest obligations to your lordship in the other House.5
Nothing came of the threat from Berkeley.
In March 1806 Codrington had rejected the request of a group of his constituents, mainly dissenters, Quakers and professional men, that he should support abolition of the slave trade, a cause passionately supported by his fellow Member, James Martin. He insisted on his right to exercise his personal judgment on the issue and denied the charge that his consistent opposition to abolition was motivated by self-interest:
The opinions I hold have been formed in the midst of those slaves, and I will assert, that if the inhumanity so profusely heaped upon the planter, or the supposed horrors of the negroes in the West Indies can ever have existence, they will be the fruit of the bill in question.6
In the ministerial analysis of the attitudes of Members returned in 1806 to the issue, he was initially marked ‘doubtful’ and later ‘adverse’; but he did not vote with the diehard opponents of abolition, 23 Feb. or 6 Mar. 1807.
Codrington, who presumably welcomed the fall of the ‘Talents’, was re-elected for Tewkesbury after a contest at the subsequent general election. In 1808 he was assumed to be ‘friendly’ to the Portland ministry.7 He voted against their successors on the Walcheren expedition, 26 Jan. 1810, was marked ‘doubtful’ by the Whigs in mid March and rallied to ministers in the crucial division on Walcheren on the 30th. No other trace of activity in the 1807 Parliament has been found and he is not known to have spoken in the House.
Codrington had been confidently expecting to succeed to the baronetcy, on the assumption that his cousin, a much older man, was a bachelor. (He had in fact buried one, possibly two, wives by 1789, but had no issue by them.) In 1812 he received a letter from his cousin informing him that he had married in France a few years ago and had children, including a son, by the marriage, which had been to his deceased wife’s niece. The 3rd Baronet, possibly afraid of losing his annuity by offending one whom he had probably led to suppose would succeed him on his death, added that he ‘had been married before the Church and not before the municipality, such marriage, not having been according to the laws of France, could not be looked upon as valid in England’. In September 1812 Codrington wrote to Lord Liverpool announcing his decision to retire from the Commons at the impending dissolution, stating, without mentioning the possible invalidity of his cousin’s marriage, that his hopes of succeeding to the baronetcy had been dashed and soliciting a peerage. Liverpool, who expressed ‘sincere regret’ at Codrington’s decision to retire, wrongly assumed that his object was a baronetcy, for which he promised to recommend him as soon as the large backlog of prior engagements had been cleared. Codrington was forced to try a different approach: as he had reason to believe that his cousin’s marriage was invalid, he would claim the baronetcy on his death and it would ‘remain for his son to dispute my right’; but such unpleasantness could be avoided by raising him to the peerage:
Your lordship is pleased to express regret at my retiring from Parliament; but with a family of eleven children, with every comfort and enjoyment of private life, the House of Commons could have no allurement to me beyond a hope of being elevated to ... the Upper House ... I have invariably for 16 years supported what may be called the present administration; I could never look for favour from any other; and if I had been thought worthy of a seat in that House, I should have endeavoured to have shown the sense I had of the honour conferred upon me.
This ploy also failed. On the death, 5 Sept. 1816, of the 3rd Baronet, Codrington assumed the baronetcy on the ground that his cousin’s son, Sir William Raimond Codrington, 4th Baronet, was illegitimate. He continued so to style himself until his death, 4 Feb. 1843, even though an investigation by the College of Arms in 1827 produced strong evidence of the validity of his cousin’s marriage. His son, Sir Christopher William Codrington (1805-64) did likewise. In 1876 a fresh baronetcy was conferred on his grandson, Sir Gerald William Henry Codrington.8
Codrington’s purchase of the Hill estates at Wapley for £45,000 in 1817 made his Gloucestershire property ‘extend upwards of 15 miles in one continued line’. In 1821 he bought the Sherrett plantation in Antigua. Philipp von Neumann visited Dodington and inspected the pictures there in 1819, when he noted that ‘the woman who showed them did not know the artists’ names, and ingenuously remarked that her master didn’t either’.9