EDEN, Hon. Robert Henley (1789-1841), of 19 Whitehall Place, Mdx.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press

Constituency

Dates

1826 - 5 Feb. 1830

Family and Education

b. 3 Sept. 1789, at Dresden, 3rd but 1st surv. s. of Morton Eden, 1st Bar. Henley [I], and Lady Elizabeth Henley, da. of Robert Henley†, 1st earl of Northington. educ. Eton 1802-7; Christ Church, Oxf. 1807; L. Inn 1811, called 1814. m. 11 Mar. 1824, Harriet Eleanora, da. of Sir Robert Peel†, 1st bt., of Drayton Manor, Staffs., 4s. (2 d.v.p.). suc. fa. as 2nd Bar. Henley [I] 6 Dec. 1830; took name of Henley by royal lic. 4 Apr. 1831. d. 3 Feb. 1841.

Offices Held

Commr. of bankrupts 1817-26; KC, duchy of Lancaster 1819-25, sjt.-at-law 1825-6; master in chancery 1826-40; commr. on cts. of co. palatine of Lancaster 1829.

Biography

Eden’s father, the brother of William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland, served with distinction in a succession of diplomatic postings before retiring as ambassador to Austria in 1799, with an Irish peerage and a pension of £2,000 per annum.1 After being called to the bar in 1814 Eden practised as an equity draftsman and attended the Oxford and Brecon sessions. He was ambitious and, with the support of his Christ Church contemporary Robert Peel*, a rising member of Lord Liverpool’s ministry, he soon accumulated a commissionership of bankrupts and a duchy of Lancaster counsellorship.2 In 1818 he published Reports in Cases in Chancery, 1755-66 (which were largely the principal judgments of his maternal grandfather Lord Northington as lord chancellor); the following year he produced an updated edition of Brown’s Reports and in 1821 he delivered himself of a monumental Treatise on the Law of Injunctions. His main professional interest was in reform of the bankruptcy laws, and in 1823 and 1824 he published explanatory comments on the bills introduced by William Courtenay to amend and consolidate them. His magnum opus appeared in 1825, in the form of A Practical Treatise on the Bankrupt Law, which he dedicated to lord chancellor Eldon; a revised and expanded edition was published the next year. On his brother Frederick’s death in November 1823 Henry Brougham* commented that it was ‘a very great loss to ... Henley, who had as fair prospects as any young chancery lawyer could have, of very early promotion, and now of course he must look to a barren title in Irish peerage without fortune’.3 He did himself no harm soon afterwards by marrying Peel’s sister. When he sought a vacant mastership in chancery his brother-in-law, as home secretary, strongly supported his application, which was crowned with success in March 1826.4 The previous month he had revealed his parliamentary ambitions by canvassing Oxford on the prospect of a vacancy, which did not materialize.5 It was thought that he might come in there at the general election that summer, but in the event he stood for Fowey on the Austen interest and was returned, as he told Peel, ‘after three days very arduous contest’; he survived a subsequent petition.6

One leading Tory found Eden to be ‘an agreeable man’, but Peel’s professed ‘conviction that a new avenue of distinction’ had been opened to him proved unfounded, as he made little mark in the House.7 He divided against Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and the spring guns bill, 23 Mar. 1827. In the disputes arising from the collapse of Liverpool’s ministry and Canning’s accession to power he naturally sided with his brother-in-law, concluding, on a review of the evidence, that Canning had been guilty of blatant ‘duplicity’.8 He moved for an account of recent sittings of the bankruptcy commissioners, 15 May.9 He introduced a Bankruptcy Acts amendment bill, 30 May, but it did not progress beyond the second reading. He voted in the minority against the Coventry magistracy bill, 18 June 1827. In late August he relayed to Peel news of the turmoil in cabinet, observing that the new premier Lord Goderich’s ‘whole conduct ... appears to have been as pusillanimous in manner as it is in substance’.10 He divided against repeal of the Test Acts, 26 Feb., and Catholic relief, 12 May 1828. He introduced another Bankruptcy Acts amendment bill, 1 May, but it foundered in the Lords. He presented a Fowey petition for removal of the restrictions on small banknotes, 5 June. Next day he spoke in defence of the officers of Millbank prison, particularly the chaplain. He voted with the duke of Wellington’s ministry on the ordnance estimates, 4 July 1828. In February 1829 Planta, the patronage secretary, who had earlier included Eden on his list of possible movers and seconders of the address, predicted that he would side ‘with government’ for Catholic emancipation. In the House, 18 Feb., he declared that he ‘viewed with the greatest dismay the efforts that were making to grant further concessions of political power to the Roman Catholics’, and warned that ‘the measure now contemplated would bring great misery on the country’. However, this was mere bluster, and he voted for emancipation, 6, 30 Mar. 1829. That autumn the Ultra Tory leader, Sir Richard Vyvyan*, listed him among those ‘present government connections who will be hostile to a new one’. He vacated his seat, for reasons which have not been ascertained, at the start of the 1830 session.

In December 1830 Eden succeeded his father to the Irish peerage and the main family property at Watford, near Daventry, Northamptonshire.11 He was determined to retain his mastership in chancery, notwithstanding a widespread feeling that by doing so he would degrade the nobility, since one of his duties was to act as a messenger from the Lords to the Commons. He assured Brougham, now lord chancellor, that the other masters were willing to relieve him of the necessity of such attendance, and he invoked the views of Lords Eldon and Tenterden in his support.12 In 1831 Henley (as he was now styled in both name and title) published a Memoir of Lord Northington, partly, it seems, to enhance his claim, as Northington’s heir at law, to a United Kingdom peerage. Applying directly (but unsuccessfully) for this object to the prime minister Lord Grey, he acknowledged that

my fortune and pretensions are not such as to justify a claim to the full extent of the honours of my grandfather and uncle. But the inheritance which I have received from them through my mother, with my private fortune derived from other sources, are such as to entitle me to affirm that they are sufficient to support both in my own person and in that of my descendants the rank of a baron.13

In 1832 he made a considerable impact with his Plan of Church Reform, which called for ‘a timely and judicious correction of abuses’ and went quickly to eight editions. He wished to eradicate pluralism, non-residence and sinecures, redistribute church revenues and create new sees. Most controversially, he suggested the establishment of a commission, partly salaried, to manage episcopal property. The scheme infuriated many churchmen and provoked a lively response. Henley, for his part, repeatedly pressed Brougham to persuade ministers of the need for action, and in September 1832 he formed the Church Reformation Society, of whose provisional committee he became chairman. His ideas were in close accord with those of Peel, whose ecclesiastical commission of 1835 proceeded on broadly similar lines.14 Church reform was part of the platform on which Henley, professing to be ‘connected with no party’, canvassed Middlesex at the general election of 1832. He denounced the agitation by the political unions, advocated the speediest end to colonial slavery as was consistent with safety and fairness, but declined to commit himself on free trade in corn and silk. However, his vulnerability on a number of issues exposed him to incessant popular abuse: he was accused, unfairly, of belonging to a family of pensioners, while his hostility to parliamentary reform and repeal of the Test Acts (which he now publicly repented), and his insistence on the inalienability of church property, were seized on by his opponents. At length his nerve broke and he withdrew shortly before the poll. Brougham’s private secretary noted that

Henley had by no means a bad chance of success ... [but his] want of spirit saved his adversary. He is not qualified for a popular election. He is very gentlemanly and by no means without talent, and he has a fine person - tall and well-proportioned - but he is entirely without the art of public speaking, and he is singularly indecisive ... He is best adapted to private life. An excellent husband and father, and a kind friend, he has effaced the recollections of a very irregular youth by years of active benevolence and virtue.15

During 1840 it became apparent that Henley was insane, and he was relieved of his duties as a master in chancery. He died in February 1841 and was succeeded by his elder son Anthony Henley (1825-98), Liberal Member for Northampton, 1859-74, who received a United Kingdom peerage as Baron Northington in 1885; his personalty was sworn under £30,000.16

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: David R. Fisher

Notes

  • 1. Oxford DNB.
  • 2. Add. 40269, f. 313; 40277, f. 86.
  • 3. Add. 51564, Brougham to Lady Holland [6 Nov. 1823].
  • 4. Add. 40385, ff. 155, 280; 40386, f. 48.
  • 5. Add. 40342, f. 311; 40385, ff. 114, 168.
  • 6. Add. 40387, f. 174; West Briton, 9 June 1826.
  • 7. Surr. Hist. Cent. Goulburn mss 304/66A, Goulburn to wife, 25 Feb. 1827; Add. 40387, f. 175.
  • 8. Add. 40393, f. 248.