WEBSTER, Sir Godfrey, 5th Bt. (1789-1836), of Battle Abbey, Suss.

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

Constituency

Dates

1812 - 1820

Family and Education

b. 6 Oct. 1789, 1st s. of Sir Godfrey Vassall* (afterwards Webster), 4th Bt., by Elizabeth, da. and h. of Richard Vassall of Jamaica, and Golden Square, Mdx. educ. Harrow 1798-1800; St. John’s, Camb. 1806. m. 22 Aug. 1814, Charlotte, da. of Robert Adamson of Westmeath, 5s. suc. fa. as 5th Bt. 3 June 1800.

Offices Held

Lt. 18 Drag. 1809, ret. 1812, lt.-col. commdt. Hastings regt. Suss. militia 1813.

Biography

Webster’s father divorced his mother (afterwards Lady Holland) when he was seven and committed suicide when he was ten. His mother, after a stolen visit just before the tragedy, found him ‘very affectionate. He seems clever but is not handsome. He is cold in his disposition, and taught by his father to be a boaster.’ At the age of 20 he preceded Lord Byron in the affections of Lady Caroline Lamb, who depicted him under the name of Buchanan in her novel Glenarvon, as arrogant, selfish, cold and preoccupied with horses and gambling. John Williams Ward described him, 5 Apr. 1810, as

one of the greatest blackguards in London. He is young, indeed, well-born and well-looking, but in every other respect a more complete contrast to [William Lamb*] cannot be imagined. I never remember to have heard of anybody more generally disliked, or more completely excluded from the pale of good company. He is quite confiscated to habits of low profligacy, and not deemed a sufficiently respectable associate even by the members of the Whig Club. At the Argyll Street rooms ... he acquainted us that for for the last fifteen mornings he had breakfasted punctually at 9 o’clock before going to bed.1

In 1812 Webster, who had aspired to it for a full year, replaced another unsuitable character, John Fuller, as county Member, being returned unopposed as representative for the eastern part of Sussex. Lord Sheffield wrote that he had not ‘a single well wisher or friend in Sussex’ and that he ‘most stupidly squandered between £2,000 and £3,000 on the precious mobbility of Brighton and Lewes’. He apparently comported himself well, so as to attain ‘a degree of character’, but Sheffield feared that ‘the episodes in his career will not be creditable to us’ (with particular reference to his pugilistic propensities). He was, nevertheless, an acquaintance of the Prince Regent, and the Duke of Richmond wrote, 1 Mar. 1813: ‘I always thought Sir Godfrey Webster against us till he wrote to the ministers to say he meant to support. He had better take care what he is about or he has no chance of coming in again for Sussex.’2

Despite his appearance on the Treasury list of supporters after his election, Webster joined opposition on the vice-chancellor bill, 11 Feb. 1813, and supported Burdett’s motion on the Regency, 23 Feb. He was in the majority for the sinecure regulation bill, 29 Mar. He voted against Catholic relief throughout in 1813 (again in 1817) and against Christian missions to India, 1 July 1813. On 28 Apr. 1815 he opposed the resumption of hostilities with Buonaparte. He voted with ministers on the Regent’s extraordinary expenditure, 31 May 1815, and on the Duke of Cumberland’s establishment bill, 29 June, 3 July. Later that year the Regent supported his pretensions to the command of the Sussex militia. He was in the opposition majority against the property tax, 18 Mar., and against excise prosecutions, 2 Apr., but voted with ministers on the civil list, 6 May 1816. On 20 May 1817 he voted for Burdett’s reform motion. He went on to oppose the suspension of habeas corpus and in his only reported speech, 27 June 1817, described it as ‘unnecessary’ and a prelude to arbitrary government. Brougham described it to Webster’s mother as ‘a short but most successful speech. It was really well done and with infinite spirit and effect.’3 On 11 Mar. 1818 he opposed the indemnity bill at the committee stage and on 14 May voted for preventative measures against bank-note forgeries.

Only poor management prevented a bid, acceptable to his former sponsors, to unseat Webster at the election of 1818. He voted with opposition for a committee on the Bank, 2 Feb. 1819; took his seat with opposition on 4 Feb.; voted against the Windsor establishment, 22 Feb.; for the reduction of the Admiralty board, 18 Mar.; for Lambton’s motion, 29 Mar.; for burgh reform, 6 May; for Tierney’s censure motion, 18 May; against the budget proposals, 7 and 8 June, and against the foreign enlistment bill, 10 June. In the ensuing session he voted against repressive measures until 6 Dec. and again on 22 and 23 Dec. 1819. He withdrew before an expensive contest in 1820. In 1823 he unsuccessfully contested Chichester. He failed to secure re-election for the county in 1826 and 1831, and simultaneous bids at Chichester and at Arundel on platforms of radical reform were swamped by scurrilous abuse of his character. According to his obituary, ‘his mode of life was characterized by very great expense and extravagance, which at length drove him into retirement’. Battle Abbey was his solace.4 He died 17 July 1836.

Ref Volumes: 1790-1820

Authors: Brian Murphy / R. G. Thorne

Notes

  • 1. Jnl. of Lady Holland, i. 237; Ld. David Cecil, The Young Melbourne, 144; Ward, Letters to ‘Ivy’, 162.
  • 2. NLI, Richmond mss