WRAXALL, Nathaniel William (1751-1831), of Laleham, nr. Staines, Mdx.
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Family and Education
b. 8 Apr. 1751, o.s. of Nathaniel Wraxall, merchant, of Bristol, Glos. by Anne, da. of William Thornhill of Bristol. educ. Bristol. m. 30 Mar. 1789, Jane, da. of Peter Lascelles of Knights House, Herts., 2s. cr. Bt. 21 Dec. 1813.
Writer, E.I. Co. 1769; judge-adv. and paymaster of the forces in the Gujarat expedition 1771; ret. 1772.
Lt. 3 Drag. Gds. 1777 (an honorary commission for presentation at foreign courts).
Agent for the nawab of Arcot 1783.
In 1836 Lord Wellesley, invited by Croker to defend Pitt’s private character against the aspersions cast by Wraxall in his recently published Posthumous Memoirs, recalled that the author had been ‘held in no estimation’ by serious politicians of Pitt’s circle in the 1780s and 1790s: ‘we certainly knew him only by name, and by his very ridiculous exhibitions in the House of Commons’. The latter evidently ceased in 1784, but Wraxall, returned as his colleague and paying guest (at £3,500) for Wallingford by Sir Francis Sykes* in 1790, continued to make a nuisance of himself to Pitt in his search for recognition and reward for his political support. This was the outcome of the termination in 1790 of his services for three years as agent to Paul Benfield*, during whose absence abroad he managed his financial and boroughmongering affairs, together with Sir John Call*. It was the last straw when Benfield tried to prise Wraxall out of his berth for Wallingford. He was, nevertheless, prepared to vacate the seat for Benfield’s convenience, once elected.1
Six days after his election in 1790 he requested diplomatic employment ‘in preference to any other, because I may, without presumption, say that from the species of knowledge which I may be supposed to possess, I know myself qualified to fill such a post’. Ignored but unabashed, he bombarded Pitt during the Nootka Sound crisis with detailed advice on how Spain could be defeated in the event of war. On 3 Dec. 1790 it was Burke’s turn. Wraxall took him ‘behind the Chair’ to volunteer a suggestion concerning further proceedings on the Hastings impeachment, but Burke peremptorily ‘declined to receive it’.2 In 1791 Wraxall was listed among opponents of repeal of the Test Act in Scotland. In August 1792 he asked Pitt to appoint him minister to Venice, reminding him that ‘next November, I [will] have supported your government nine years complete’ and that he had twice executed confidential political missions for him. There was unconscious irony in his concluding appeal:
If you give it to another ... you [will] injure yourself, as a minister, since you will hold out in my person a lesson and an example, that no adherence or services can secure from you a reward. I know ... that I have no friends to recommend me to you, nor any personal favour to aid me. But ... I have always thought and still think that you act on higher and better principles in your choice of men, than private predilection or recommendation. The consideration of what I owe to an increasing family has induced [me] to make this strong appeal to you.3
It was made in vain, but in July 1793 his wife was granted a pension of £400.
In December 1793 he claimed that the 3rd Duke of Dorset, lord steward of the Household and nephew of his former patron, Lord Sackville, intended to recommend him to Pitt as master of the Household in succession to Sir Francis Drake, who was dying. Three days after Drake’s death on 19 Feb. 1794 Wraxall told Pitt that if he were appointed he would surrender his wife’s annuity and ‘make such an arrangement with Sir Francis Sykes, relative to my seat in Parliament, as shall liberate you from any further importunity on that point’.4 About a week later he took the Chiltern Hundreds, but if he did so in anticipation of being appointed to the Household he was disappointed, for the post went to Henry Strachey*.
Wraxall was never again in the House, but he surfaced from time to time in search of employment. In November 1794 he advised Pitt that the moment had come to make peace with France and, observing that ‘the times demand talents’, offered his services as negotiator. In 1796 he sent Pitt a narrative (on what subject is not known) to be submitted to the King. It lay ignored for five weeks before being returned unopened, after repeated importunities from Wraxall. He dogged Pitt to the end, suggesting in December 1805 the creation of a new Treasury department to deal with geography, modern history and foreign languages, over which he himself was uniquely qualified to preside as ‘geographical secretary and translator of French papers’. Not surprisingly, the charge of financial corruption which Wraxall levelled against Pitt in his Posthumous Memoirs was attributed to his bitterness ‘at not having been noticed’.5
Wraxall did manage to ingratiate himself at Carlton House in the late 1790s, but there too his loftier ambitions were regarded as preposterous by the men who mattered. In March 1806 he applied through Thomas Tyrwhitt for the Prince’s endorsement of his claims to a diplomatic appointment which, he said, had been or were about to be ‘strongly recommended’ to Fox. Tyrwhitt asked the Prince’s secretary to supply a letter to the effect that ‘the P. has applied to Fox’, from which ‘it does not at all follow that Mr Wraxall must succeed a bit more’, for ‘he is as fit for a foreign minister as he is to command the fleet but this he will not see’. If Wraxall’s own boast is to be believed, however, he owed his baronetcy in 1813 ‘solely’ to the Regent’s personal intervention on his behalf.6
Though derided and slighted by his contemporaries, Wraxall can be said to have had the last laugh, for his Historical Memoirs and Posthumous Memoirs, covering political events between 1772 and 1789, have ensured that he is still remembered. Lord St Helens recollected meeting him soon after the appearance of Historical Memoirs in 1815, unabashed by the storm of protest he had aroused and ‘exhibiting a certain air of triumph; like a monkey, grinning and chattering over the havoc which he has been committing in a china closet’.7 Both works were savagely attacked in print by the cognoscenti of the day, but, for all their undeniable faults, their value has since been recognized. Wraxall died 7 Nov. 1831.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: David R. Fisher
- 1. Croker Pprs. ed. Jennings, ii. 294-5; India Office Lib. mss. Eur. C. 307/4, passim.
- 2. PRO 30/8/192, ff. 1, 7, 9-116; Burke Corresp. v. 188-9.
- 3. PRO 30/8/192, f. 119.
- 4. Ibid. ff. 121, 123.
- 5. Ibid. ff. 125, 129, 133; 195, ff. 133, 135; 30/70/4, ff. 200-1; Lonsdale mss, Farnborough to Lonsdale, 21 Dec. .
- 6. Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2150; Wraxall Mems. ed. Wheatley, v. 352-3.
- 7. Croker Pprs. ii. 297.