MONTAGU, Matthew (1762-1831), of Sandleford Priory, nr. Newbury, Berks. and Montagu House, Portman Square, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 23 Nov. 1762, 2nd s. of Morris Robinson of the six clerks’ office, Chancery Lane, London by Jane, da. of John Greenland of Lovelace Manor, Kent; bro. of Morris Robinson*. educ. Harrow 1775-80; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1780; to France 1776. m. 9 July 1785, Elizabeth, da. and h. of Francis Charlton of Kent, 6s. 7da. Took name of Montagu at the wish of his aunt Elizabeth, wid. of Edward Montagu of Allerthorpe, Yorks. 3 June 1776; suc. her to estates in Yorks. and Northumb. 1800; bro. as 4th Baron Rokeby [I] 21 May 1829.
Maj. commdt. Newbury vol. inf. 1803, lt.-col. commdt. 1803.
Montagu owed his name and substance to his aunt, the celebrated Mrs Montagu: according to Wraxall, ‘At her feet he was brought up, a school more adapted to form a man of taste and improvement than a statesman or a man of the world’. He was mocked for it: he was said to have been ‘only fit to darn his aunt’s blue stockings’, and William Beckford, prejudiced against him by Montagu’s opposition to slavery, called him a driveller ‘who represents in Parliament the interest of the Blue Stocking Society’.1 Montagu’s hero worship of Pitt was also misunderstood; Wraxall allowed only one interpretation of Montagu’s panegyric on the minister2 when he seconded the address in 1787:
no bad foundation for an English peerage. Yet though Mr Montagu has been a Member of various Parliaments, and has represented many Cornish boroughs ... never apparently losing sight of his object, and occasionally directing his eloquence to its attainment, his efforts have hitherto failed of success. Whether this fact is to be explained by his want of ability, of address, or of perseverance, it is certain that the doors of the British house of peers seem to be closed against him. He still remains a commoner.
Wraxall seems to have thought it ludicrous that one on whom fortune had so shone (he was also heir presumptive to an Irish peerage), should have made any effort at all, but Montagu was clearly ambitious to cut a figure in public life. He was a friend of Wilberforce, who described him as being ‘of most upright and pure intentions’, and favoured the abolition of the slave trade. In 1789, but for the advent of the revolution in France, he would have gone there with Wilberforce to plead the cause, with which he identified himself all the more readily because his hero Pitt favoured it.3 He frequently held forth in debates on the subject between 1790 and 1796, notably on 2 Apr. 1792, when he explained at length why he thought abolition of the trade preferable to regulation of it. It was the only subject on which his name appeared in the minority lists in that Parliament. On all other subjects he gave his approbation to Pitt’s measures, particularly on foreign policy, 7, 14 Dec. 1790, 25 May 1791, and on the war against France, 10 Feb., 8 and 14 Apr. 1794, 7 Jan. 1795, also castigating the opposition for seeking an untimely and insecure peace, 26 Jan., 6 Feb. 1795, 10 Mar. 1796. In April 1791 he was listed hostile to the repeal of the Test Act in Scotland, and he was chosen a member of the select committee on public expenditure that month. The regulation of the Prince of Wales’s debts, according to Pitt’s scheme, also had his approval: it was ‘highly fit that Parliament should regard itself as a tutor to his Royal Highness the Prince, because speaking politically, he conceived his Royal Highness to be the son of the people’ (1 June 1795).
Montagu, who had already taken over the management of the properties he was to inherit on his aunt’s death, was a keen supporter of the seditious assemblies bill, 10 Nov., 3 Dec. 1795. He had himself helped to suppress riots among keelmen at his Denton collieries, writing to his wife, ‘it is time to work off our dross, and to prove ourselves true to the touch, and of a genuine quality’. Despite some talk of his offering for Northumberland, he was out of Parliament for ten years from 1796, visiting Paris in 1802, but continued to move in Pittite circles. As he was, to quote Canning, ‘a frequent and tolerably good speaker in Parliament’, it is curious that no seat was found for him: he did not contest Tregony on the Barwell interest which had returned him in 1790. Nor did being out of Parliament seem to have agreed with him: his friend Charles Abbot* found him reminiscing (19 Nov. 1796) about the time he took down Pitt’s ‘celebrated speech upon the budget of 1792’ in shorthand, ‘at the desire of Lord Grenville and Lord Mornington, and corrected afterwards by Mr Pitt himself for the press’; and Lord Glenbervie reported after a visit to the Montagus, 13 Apr. 1801, ‘there was much music and a good deal of melancholy. The gentleman and lady of the house are not very merry.’ Yet on 12 July 1802 his wife informed him, ‘I only rejoice that you have nothing to do with [elections]’.4
In 1806 Montagu was returned for St. Germans on Lord Eliot’s interest. Although he did not usually vote against the Grenville ministry he was critical of them and on 5 Jan. 1807 deplored the peace negotiations, in which he saw ‘the complete success of the machinations of France’, and invoked Pitt’s memory with a quotation from Virgil, which caused laughter, he being unable to recollect it in full, after he had recited ten lines. Doubting the adequacy of Lord Yarmouth as a negotiator, he warned ministers that ‘he thought it right to keep them alert by admonition and castigation’, despite his ‘particular esteem’ for Lord Howick. He favoured the printing and scrutiny of the army estimates, 17 Jan. On 27 Feb. he made a last speech in favour of the abolition of the slave trade,
to which he had, from his earliest years, devoted himself with a zeal and attention inferior only to those of his hon. friend Mr Wilberforce. He would ask one of the opposers of the bill, who was a member of the board of aldermen of London, whether he would think it a happy change to be snatched away from one of the city banquets and crammed into a ship as the blacks were.
Montagu was, however, a keen critic of Catholic relief and opposed the commissioning of Catholics in the army and navy, 5 Mar.: on a ship in the charge of a Catholic officer, he surmised, amid interruptions and laughter, priests would be introduced and ‘instead of preparing to beat the common enemy, they turn against each other, and fall to controversial preaching’.
Montagu supported the succeeding administrations of Portland and of Perceval, whose confidant he became:5 he had been friendly with him since their Harrow days and warmly defended him, 25 Mar. 1807, when objections were raised to his holding the duchy of Lancaster office. Montagu was again interrupted and it is difficult to resist the conclusion, in view of similar incidents whenever he tried to speak at length later, that he was not taken seriously after his gaffe of 5 Jan. At any rate, he protested that he ‘never would solicit a place’ for himself, ‘though he had been so long in habits of the strictest intimacy with a great and leading statesman [Pitt]’. On 6 July he opposed Whitbread’s censure motion. He defended the government’s foreign policy 22 Jan. 1808, 1 Feb., 9 Mar. 1810, and also their Regency proposals, 31 Dec. 1810. He was opposed to the abolition of sinecures, 9 Jan. 1812, and voted steadily against it. The levity with which opposition treated his friend when Perceval became prime minister distressed him, but his habit of springing to his defence on every occasion did nothing to enhance his reputation. On 27 Feb. 1812, in ‘a long and not very temperate speech’ to which Romilly thought it a ‘shame for grown men to be forced to listen’, he turned on opposition and reproached them for refusing a coalition government on party grounds, adding that they were in any case too divided to form a government and had no leader he could respect.6 He continued to support ministers after Perceval’s death, voting against a new arrangement, 21 May 1812, though ‘unacquainted’ with them, 11 June. He regretted that they had softened towards the Catholics (he voted against Catholic relief), but said he would support them ‘where not contrary to his fixed principles ... from opposition to party spirit’. On the subject of Catholic relief, 22 June, he said ‘it required more strength to keep the door half open, than close shut. If the principles of innovation were once given way to, we should see the scenes renewed which had been witnessed in the French revolution.’ In the same speech he made clear his hostility to parliamentary reform, against which he had voted on 21 May 1810.
Montagu, whose interest in politics was diminished by Perceval’s death, was not in Parliament after 1812. Dudley Ryder*, a former schoolfellow, recalled:
He had many excellent qualities, and more knowledge of all kinds than is often met with, but I rather think that he had more than he was able to manage. In Parliament he made occasionally a good set speech, but wanted readiness and clearness to become a useful debater, and in private his ample stores were sometimes too profusely poured out, and the channel was obstructed by an elocution rather hesitating and confused.7
He had edited his aunt’s correspondence in four volumes in 1809.8 He went to Italy in 1814, where he was discovered at Florence ‘waiting to see what will be the fate of Murat at the Congress’.9 He died 1 Sept. 1831.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: R. G. Thorne
- 1. Wraxall Mems. ed. Wheatley, iv. 377-9; Mrs Montagu ed. Blunt, ii. 10; Beckford mss, Beckford to Wildman, 17 Apr. 1796.
- 2. For another, Debrett, xxxviii. 74 (8 Apr. 1794).
- 3. Life of Wilberforce (1838), i. 236; Mrs Montagu, ii. 214, 234, 236.
- 4. Portland mss PwF7713; Harewood mss, Canning jnl. 15 Apr. 1794; Colchester, i. 75; Glenbervie Diaries, i. 219; Berks. RO, D/ENm 2 CZ.
- 5. Glenbervie Diaries, ii. 40; Colchester, ii. 386.
- 6. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 438.
- 7. Autobiog. of 1st Earl of Harrowby, 9.
- 8. This may help to account for his silence in Parliament in that year.
- 9. Horner mss 6, f. 139.